Sunday, November 9, 2008

Little Hamida

After waiting in the empty classroom for over two hours, I glimpsed Semayna strolling in with her signature amble through the gateless entrance of the sand-floored courtyard.

One of the student-teachers, the handsome and talkative Jacob, had kept me company meanwhile.
Yesterday Semayna and the Pastor had made much show of starting off the trek to the village promplty at 10am, the pastor clapping his hands in excited anticipation of fresh starts and new things, and of perhaps the possibility that his HIV outreach program would finally kick off, and some new numbers, pie charts, graphs and such would appear on the almost bare white sheet of foreign-quality paper that hung on his office wall. Semayna had nodded and smiled all the while at the Pastor's slightly grand goals for the HIV education endeavour, at the plan to cover at least 10 families today, recording new births, and starting a census.
We had shuffled around this for an hour in his office before he told me to take the day off.

However when I reached the school this morning Semayna was nowhere to be found and the Pastors office was padlocked. In an attempt to locate Semayna (who had her own cell phone to my surprise), Amina made a phone call from my cell phone, the cheap plastic thing we had been given on our arrival.
The reply was "she will be hee-ya in ten minutes, dont woarry." An hour later I made her text Semayna again - Amina texts like a Tokyo native - and the reply was "She is on ha way, she doesnt live very fah". As I found out later, Semayna who had no real day employment, did indeed live less than a ten minute walk away from the school, in a squatter settlement with electricity.

I call Jacob the student-teacher because he had just completed his high school courses, received his diploma at twenty-one and was 'taking' computer classes so he could become an engineer one day. The 'taking' as meant by Jacob is actually future tense, the realization of this hope hinging on luck and finance. Meanwhile he 'taught' computer classes in the afternoons at the school, sessions which had been suspended for 2 weeks because the school had not paid its electricity bill.
He couldn't afford to go to University so was learning on his own - something I have seen him do little of because of the lack of books or instructor. The summer before, an American youth from Arizona had spent 6 weeks here and had taught Jacob some basics about programming.
That time remained like a bright and wonderous spot of light in Jacobs life, he talked about it as if it were yesterday, as if the honor of being taught by an American had somehow hinted at coming favors from God, and altered his future in some unseen manner.

The three-legged wooden board, standing in the middle of nowhere near the tap adjacent to the courtyard entrance displayed about forty coloured photographs, one with its corners wilted from the humidity accumulated behind the cracked glass cover, of a young blonde man with his arm around the beaming Jacob.

He had come to the classroom, dragging a wooden chair, his tall and lean body bending springingly at the knees, and had sat down next to me. I was facing the door so I could catch the unusual breeze blowing today, the sky a dark blotchy gray, an electric smell in the air, both scaring and exciting me. Rain was torrential here. Streets flooded, electric poles fell, people died. So Agnes had told me calmly in her even tone, her eyes half closed while chewing slowly on her spinach and rice.

"So", said he grinning from ear to ear, and held out his hand.
"My name is Jacob, and what is yours please?"

I introduce myself.
"I am very happy to welcome you to Africa, Tanzania. Is this your first time?"


"Which country do you come from?"

"The United States" I said, feeling like a liar for some reason.

"The United States!" he exclaimed. "From Arizona?"

"No from California"

"Kaalifornia" he enuciated it slowly, taking delight.

"You do not look American."

He nodded thoughtfuly at the disclosure that I was Pakistani, and later as it inevitably came up, that I was a Muslim. It seemed to be no big deal apparently, my being Muslim. But for several reasons which would later become clear to me, I felt like I should have been very blonde and definitely Christian.

He told me he was the oldest of eight children, his mother lay on her bed for most of the day in the smokey-walled 2 bedroom house, since her stroke.

"Is it true that Aspirin will cure my mother?"

A Western nurse had told him as he seemed to have understood her, that Asprin would fix her paralysed arm and leg. Apparently his mother had or maybe she had not taken an Asprin about 3 weeks after her symptoms started. It could have been the medicine the witch doctor had given her, or maybe it was the medicine from the huge government hospital, Jacob wasnt even sure, as he tried to recall.

I explained it's role in the immediate aftermath of a stroke and in the importance of taking it daily.

He suddenly looked rueful, "She is not taking Asprin every day."

As soon as he had dipped, he perked up and asked me about "Soccah", when I offered nothing, he told me how much he loved Miami.

"How many in your family?"


"All brothers?"

"No, mom dad and two sisters."

"Oh so it is two,"
he laughed, "not four".

Then he stopped "Only two?"

Jacob would later explain as I made that error several times, that family meant siblings.

"Will you be my friend?" I said sure, and he formally took my hand shook it extensively, the sealing in of long negotated formal treaty.

"You are my new friend, I am so happy I cannot tell you."

Semayna on seeing me, waved and threw her black scarf across her shoulder as she climbed two steps upto the classroom.
H small frame snug in a well fitting cherry-coloured moonshine dress that fell rather gracefully to her ankles, so formal, and bright it was absurd, yet reassuring. It was party time. We could pretend.

She hugged me, "Salamalaikum", and I caught a whiff of perfumed oil that took me back to Medina and the Prophets Mosque. Semayna was immaculately clean, not a speck of dirt under her clipped toenails even when she worse open toed plastic slippers, her hair a shiny black nest of curls placed on the crown of her head, her skin shiny and moisturized.
I noticed this relative cleanliness amongst several Muslim families later that day in the village. Thats also when I realized Semayna's hair was a wig.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The ride home

The sun beat down on my back like a heating pad scorching through my cotton t-shirt. I walked over to stand under the tree, close enough to the main road to make a run for the dala-dala when it came.
Farhad turned to catch a glimpse of the front of one that screeched to a halt, recklessly tilting off the road onto the sand where we were standing, sending clouds of dust into our faces and choking the four chickens in a cage sitting on a wooden table. The crowd stepped back and to the side in concert, without even looking at the dala-dala, some schoolchildren inches from the bus, quickly repositioning themselves for the next one. G'Mboto in green it read on the left side of bus face, Mwenge on the right in red.

What was it that the Pastor had said? Two horizontal lines across the side of the dala-dala signify the two cities it runs from? Which was the starting point - the top or the bottom?
Nevermind, it didnt read Muenge. Wasnt going home. The battery operated loudspeaker in the chicken cage went off again, a man's voice singing what was probably a call to buy the birds, followed by recorded chicken cluckings. The chickens themselves seemed quiet and pissed, resigned to a cramped existence until slaughter. A man in a polyester shirt sitting in the shade of the tin-roofed shops several yards behind us ambled up to the cage, assuming an interest on my part in purchasing a bird, but I had gone off into deep thought and upon realizing, quickly turned away and moved closer to Farhad and a teenager in school uniform. The man spat on the ground and walked back to the shop.
Farhad called out as another dala-dala came speeding at about 40 miles an hour and halted after a making a U-turn on the two lane road forcing a man pulling a cart of bananas to the side. The school children ran, the girls in blue skirts and white headscarves on the outer rim of the jostling crowd being shorter than the boys. The conductor hit the boys, and pushed one who tried to get a foot on the step.
Farhad grabbed my backpack and pushed me infront, the conductor seeing us, 2 adult tickets (not half fare like the school children), pushed the scrambling boys aside, one by shoving his entire hand on the boy's face and jerking him back. I grabbed the railing inside and pulled myself up, assisted by the conductor, arms and elbows grabbing and tearing at me unintentionally as the kids tried to jump on with me.
I tripped on the metal lining but caught myself in time to slide into one of the 2 seaters on the other side. Good, there was an open window and no wheel on the floor forcing me to sit with my knees crunched up for the next one and half hour. The conductor held on firmly, blocking the door and let 2 more men and Farhad on under his arm.
The bus jerked forward a couple of feet, deliberately to shake off the crowd. More adults were allowed on board, 350 shillings each way. The government allowed students to pay only 50 shillings, that wouldnt even buy a boiled egg.

Twenty eight seats, plus two on the engine and gear box next to the driver. By the time we left there were 46 people or perhaps even a few more because I couldn't see past bodies crammed into the center, a girl with her knees poking into Farhads sides, leaning forward as the mass of bodies swayed behind her, holding onto the back of the seat infront of us.
As the breeze blew into my face, my anxiety ebbed. I looked out and took a deep breath, the rolling hills and straw huts slowly disappearing to be replaced by urban shacks. The old burning plastic stench of perspiraton no longer detectable for a few seconds.
Only 2 hours to find a ride today. The man infront fell asleep immediately, head lolling side to side. The school girl must have been around 13 or 14, dressed in half sleeved cotton shirt an ivory white, nylon navy blue skirt that was knee lenght and frayed at the edges. Her purple black skin was shiny from sweat, the triangled scarf had pulled back exposing a little of her short afro. Throughout the ride, she carried a stoic expression, bloodshot eyes fixed on the corner of the torn yellow plastic seat. I couldnt spot a hint of sadness in her eyes, even though I was sure she was.
Quite strangely, her uncovered arms rested on the naked arm of the man infront, typical of the physical intimacy people displayed even off dala-dalas even when there was no lack of space. The men and women behind her were touching, chest to back, shoulder to face, arms and legs bent and twisted, to find room, just enough to stand.

California Video and games passed by, in a series of cement shops lining the street leading to the stop where we would get off. Next to it was Texas tyres, a shop the dimensions of a phone booth carrying bicycle tyres. Young men played pool on table laid out under trees.
Big Momma boutiqueu it said in curvy red, with a gigantic woman in traditional african garb, leaning in the front of the doorway. I quickly nudge Farhad to look, we laughed. It was too comical to be real.
"Five minutes more to go after our tyre shop" said Farhad, referring to the landmark booth.

We jumped over muddy puddles, missing half, and walked on the shady side of the road until the school.
"Thats a really good painting of Halle Berry " I said pointing to the sign above a women's hair salon.
"How come I never noticed?" asked Farhad and stopped to take out his camera, then paused, looking at me.
I shook my head, "Not a good idea, even though its still light."
A few people milled around infront of a juice shack, some walking home with briefcases or baskets on their heads.
I glanced towards 3 men idiling on a cement bench infront of the school where the young girl had been hit by a car yesterday, machetes swinging carelessly from their hands.
Farhad followed my gaze, quickly zipped his bag and we continued home, crossing the road before we passed them.

The guard clumisly unlocked the door in the white metal gate, and we stepped over the threshold to find Emu crawling towards us, under the clothesline on which hung my khakis and Mamma V's shirts.
"Cariboooooneeee" drawled Thomas. Must have been a boring morning if he had already started drinking, I thought, spotting his tin flask lying on ground next to his thin mattress.

"What do you think we're having for lunch?"

"Not wine I hope" said Farhad sarcastically.

Anything will do after the 3 inch banana I had for breakfast.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Watching the sunrise

It didnt seem like a good plan to wake up at 5:45 am the next day, considering I had only been sleeping 3-4 hours a night for a week since arriving in Africa; my brain had become sluggish and even Mamma V noticed I wasnt making sense the night before. We only had 3 days to enjoy the island, certainly wouldn't be as fun going to see the monkeys in the forest if I was fatigued, but I knew I would regret not catching the sunrise. It was getting light outside as I stepped out. The narrow roads were empty except for a few pedestrians. I walked past the library with the giant clock, the small shops which were shuttered; stepped aside for a dala dala passing by - it zipped past about a foot and a half from me, only half full. They didnt sardine people as was customary in Dar.

As the Africa hotel approached, I made a left and gasped inside at the sudden blueness of the ocean. There were no tourists, no vendors, for a second I wondered if it was safe for me to be alone.

As I approached the 2 foot hight wall, the beach spread out below, perfectly white. There were a few fisherman bobbing in their boats which were still anchored at shore. I sat down on the edge of the wall with my feet dangling. Gradually they started to push their boats out, some turned to look at me, the only other person apart from them.

The Africa hotel's patio was quiet, chairs turned upside down. Last night it was packed with tourists. The sky started getting lighter as the sun rose, but I couldnt see it properly because Iwas facing West. A man came up the beach with a tray of sunglasses, he saw me looking and I pointedly turned away, hoping he wouldnt harrass me. A white couple appeared - from the hotel I presumed and he followed them past the Italian Ice cream shop with rickety stairs leading up.

After half an hour I got up and started walking back. A familiar sound caught my attention, and grew louder - it was a recitation of the Qur'an. I stopped infront of a moderately dilapitated dirty white four storyed building and listened, it was surah fateha. "Malikayoumudeen iya ka na budu wa iya ka nastaeen...." Very soulful, brought back memories of the Jidda and Makkah. Voice was thin, he could have been a boy, or I pictured a skinny fellow in his early 20's. A hafiz, who had denounced the West...

I was startled at my own thoughts. Was he a suicide bomber?

The door was right above the road, double heavy type that was typical of the area. There was a dark foyer with a sign "Restaurant" and an arrow to the left. The door was closed. To the right was another entryway where a man in a thobe was pulling a scooter over the threshold. He came out and placed a wooden ramp at the main entrance, he glanced at me and turned back. He brought the scooter and since I was still standing there, on the empty road looking up at one of the windows.

"Salamualaikum" I offered and he turned towards me a little surprised. He had a trimmed beard , and could have been anywhere from later 40's to later 50's. "Walaikumasalam" and smiled.

Then I asked "is that the Qur'an being recited upstairs" asking the obvious but really wanting to ask if someone was reciting it and explaining my odd presence. He said "Yes, are you Muslim?"

I replied in the affirmative. "where are you from". I knew what he wanted toknow so I replied "I live in the States, but I am Pakistani".

A look of recognition passed his face then I said " i stopped here because I wanted to listen to that.." pointing up.

"Its a tape playing in my house".

Ok I said and smiled.

Why dont you cover? he asked, surprising me, quickly glancing at my arm (I was wearing half sleeved kurta), but not in a perverted way. I couldnt help but smile, and paused searching for the right words. "I uh, choose not to."

"Yes but you cannot choose in Islam."

"I agree, one cannot choose, but I choose not to..."

He smiled "It is obligatory, you cannot change it like this , it is a commandment".

"I totally agree, it is written in the Qu'ran, and we cannot change it, but I am just not doing what is prescribed...its me..." I said pointing to myself.

His face seemed to register a lighthearted pity for me, I figured he blamed the Devil (Marikana - America) for my moral state, laughed and started his scooter, "are you here to visit?"


"Caribou, welcome"

"Shukran (thanks), asante sana"

He looked surprised at my few words of swahili and took off on his red scooter leaving a little dusty trail.

I walked back, as the little island town started to wake up, my stomach started rumbling.