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Little bits and bobs of my life, my thoughts and my experiences in the place that has - I guess - become my home

From Pen

Monday, November 23, 2009

An African Marriage - 26 June 2009

Rafiki: time has passed us by. As I write, the BBC World Service brings news of Wimbledon and I sit on my bed in Dar es Salaam thinking with great nostalgia of freshly mowed lawns, pick-your-own strawberry fields, glasses of wine at dusk (which, I remind you, is far later for you right now than it is for me!) Homesickness swamps me at times, but especially now. The bug that has knocked flat so many of my colleagues and friends somehow hunted me down last week, and it has rendered me listless, exhausted, yellow! It is when I am ill and weak (on average once every other month, almost as predictable as sunset) that I feel the furthest from home. Far from such comforts as a family member at whom to grumble nasally; far from Ribena and Lucozade and other revolting but comforting sickness drinks; far from endless hours of Radio 4 smiled at from under a duvet, surrounded by quality newspapers bemoaning the state of the world. Ah, to ill in Blighty!

It is Winter in Tanzania. I use this seasonal descriptor with caution, lest you somehow imagine an East Africa buried in snow, decorated with icicles, shivering in the crisp night air. Rather, we have some cloudier days, a teasing breeze rattling the trees, a slight `chill` in the sea. At night, it may be deemed almost necessary at times to don a light cardigan and I have friends who swear it is too cold to swim (!) but, honestly, Winter is a misnomer for this period. It remains hot, dry, and mostly sunny. The intensity of the Summer sun is certainly being stored for later months, but even now that fiercesome orb exercises her might. This leads me to consider the ways in which the Tanzanian Winter might resemble the British and my conclusion is as follows: people get bugs. Sickness abounds. How this catching of colds occurs here, I have no idea but, my friends, rest assured that Winter flu is alive and kicking in these parts.

In a wonderful display of Mother Nature’s generosity of spirit, it is citrus season. I like to think that there is more than coincidence in this happy concurrence of colds and oranges. Vitamin C is bountiful on every street corner, roadside and hole-in-the-wall, as well as tumbling almost freely from the baskets of bicycles that wheel by in anticipation of a customer. Leaving work yesterday, walking the mere five hundred metres to the bus stand, I can truthfully state that I passed at least ten such citrus sellers, differentiated only by the fact that some are laden with oranges, skin but not pith meticulously removed, whilst others bear juicily sweet tangerines, the like of which I have never seen nor tasted.

Here, on the streets of Tanzania, sucking the juice from halved oranges, before disposing of the dehydrated fibres held within the pith, is a social activity driven by need and supported by plenitude. Oranges are everywhere, in apparently endless quantity, and provide instant refreshment and health to lagging bodies and dry mouths. Orange skeletons lie discarded everywhere, and it is to the amusement of fellow Orange Men that I often choose to remove the pith and eat the damn things, as I would at home. Tangerines are another fruit, eaten in their entirety by locals and me alike, bought en masse and often without thought of how exactly so many will be consumed.

This is the danger. At present, a citric mountain exists not far from my home, and it is monstrously challenging to fight the temptation to buy a few from the charming creator of this fruity peak. Orange-skinned beauties flout their round bodies shamelessly, falling about in their hundreds, thousands even. At 50 TZ shillings (two and a half pence), they fairly prostitute themselves, demanding to be consumed. I rarely make it home without eating at least one in the street, and without stuffing a few into a bag which is usually already groaning with some other seasonal prizes (think soft fleshed papaya, tiny black grapes, fists of thumb sized bananas).

Time for a fruit break.

The man who sells deep pink slices of watermelon on the street opposite the biggest mosque in Dar asked me to marry him the other day. I haven’t seen him for a while, having been somehow limited to the other side of town for a few weeks. But, last week, I had a couple of hours in town at my disposal and decided to stroll through the back streets to my favourite local market (Kisutu), returning via the street with the mosque. Kisutu pleases me on many levels. I have created my own space there, my own identity, being the only Muzungu (foreign) woman to shop there. The chaps there know me, letting me try things I don’t recognise, offering me an alleged special price for a kilo of this or that.

This particular visit saw me with a handful of freshly podded peas, munching on the starchy spheres as I gazed at towers of rambutan, mangoes, passion fruit. Ah: passion fruit. The fruit of passion. If they are an aphrodisiac, I really should stop eating them..... but it’s hard when you discover new varieties and just have to buy a few. This time, the Passion Man cut into a pale skinned fruit to reveal a passion of white flesh and the usual black seeds. We companionably sucked the seeds from a half, and I was hooked. A kilo came home with me: brilliant, I discovered, mixed with chunks of papaya and lifted with a squeeze of lime. Oh, simple things.

It was shortly after this revelation that I stopped to revive myself with watermelon. I knew where to find my man, for his cart is always in the same spot. He welcomed me like such an old friend and chastised me for my recent absence. Then, just as I handed over twelve pence for a slice or two, posing a question about the watermelon harvest...... his hand rested on mine and he asked, rather casually, `We can marry now. OK. ` A question or a statement, I am not certain, but what I do know is that this one of the many wonders of Africa. This directness, simplicity, frankness. It may seem damn silly to you, the idea of just getting married without knowing each other, sharing some living space, meeting the parents. I am prone to agree..... but, then again, look where that got ME!

As I walked away, watermelon-sated, I reflected on the benefits of being married to this smiling, warm faced, sincere, honest-living man who spends his days keeping his customers happy on fruit. It was not so hard to find some rationale. Though there is a limit to how much watermelon even this girl can consume.

This morning, as I opened the gate to wheel my bike onto the rough road for a dose of do-my-flu-ridden-legs-still-function exercise, a stunning brown horse cantered by. No rider, no reins, no apparent home. Just a horse. In a residential street. In a city of 4 million souls.

Moments later, a vision on a bike wobbled by. A man concentrating so very hard on not succumbing to the unbalancing qualities of a giant basket of live and vocal chickens somehow strapped to the back of his two wheel vehicle..... that he overlooked the pothole just beyond my home and, almost in slow motion, lost his valiant attempt at remaining upright and keeled sideways, trying hard not to allow any of his precious brood to hit the ground too hard. Chicken panic ensued, the birds flapping wildly, clucking manically, complaining noisily of their fate.

I helped the man to set his bike upright, agreed in rough Kiswahili that all was well, and watched him wobble off again, his determination to deliver those birds safely, evident.

Later that day, I found myself cycling behind a bread monster: a moving mass of plastic bags stuffed with soft white loaves, rolls, buns. Of course, it was in reality a bread seller cycling with his wares tied just about anywhere you can imagine and some places you would not even dream of!

These daily experiences of African street life maketh my days.

In the past few months, I have witnessed the poorest of the poor and the richest of the rich living out their days in this beautiful, complex country. In a display of contradictions unlike any others I have ever seen, this is a place in which some walk the streets collecting anything that might be of value, from bottle tops to used mobile phone top up vouchers, whilst others enjoy ten star luxury behind barbed wire-topped walls and cruise the streets in oversized four wheel drives. Very often, and curiously, the latter are those who purport to be here in aid of the former, and yet they barely seem to exist in the same domain, let alone reside as neighbours in this city of mixed blessings.

Cycling offers a unique insight into the vagaries of day to day life. I usually opt to take a back road, some bumpy, unpaved dust track where local Dar residents roast cobs of corn, sell bananas for next to nothing, clean shoes at small wooden tables, carve amazing furniture using nothing but simple tools and a lot of sweaty skill. I am usually a source of amusement, the target of what I could take to be ridicule but instead regard as gentle, warm mockery. The journey is always punctuated by cries of Mambo! Habari! Muzunguuuuuuuuu! Last week, I was trailed by a Masai on his bike, enjoying a race of sorts along a stretch of dirt road. I see bare footed children in their grotty dresses, and they are wide eyed at my presence. This is not surprising: there are so few of us white guys cycling about in Dar.

Moments after I have passed through such areas, I can be on a tarmac road, pedalling past the most Disneyland-like properties you can imagine. Palatial residences, largely hidden from view by eight foot high walls: gated and guarded and impossible to penetrate without invitation. Swimming pools grace many compounds, numerous 4x4s come and go, apparently unaware of cyclists, pedestrians, the vast majority of Dar residents per se! There go the diplomats, businessmen, UN workers, NGO heads. There go the very people who should be getting their hands dirty but, instead, focus almost exclusively on keeping their manicured fingers clean.

Visiting the supermarkets, designed with the rich ex pat in mind, I am reminded of the discrepancies which drive into the heart of this city about which I feel so much. Even fruit, readily available as you will have gathered almost everywhere on the street, is overpriced in the chilled fresh section. Imported biscuits are inflated by 500%, imported yogurt likewise. What is wrong with the local stuff, made within this fine country.... and who is buying a bag of Maltesers for one pound fifty? Somebody obviously is.

This is why, living here in Dar as I do at the moment, I simply insist on buying from the local guys when I can. Stopping on the street for the woman who carries a washing up tub full of papaya on her head. Peeling a tangerine whilst exchanging thoughts on the day with someone who was born and raised here. Yes, I admit that I go to the occasional party and I appreciate the fact that I can sometimes buy reduced price Foxes biscuits (chocolate creams last week at just fifty pence my friends!!) but I believe that there is a way of being here, a balanced way, which neither puts me at risk of some probably imagined danger, nor places me in an ivory tower far from the realities of daily life.

This morning, as always, I caught a daladala to work. The vehicle started moving away before I was fully on board, and the man guarding the door and collecting 250 shillingi from the passengers pushed me in. He was wearing trousers which were falling from his hips, the zip undone, and his t-shirt was on inside-out. I have asked before about this inside-out thing, and the rationale is actually robust. It is such a sweaty job, being the doorman on the daladalas, and wearing one’s t-shirt like this means that, at the end of the day when a Kilimanjaro is called for, the guys can transform their look and change into their evening gear with a quick t-shirt turn. Clever, eh?

There were no seats, as usual, so I squeezed into a space that would represent a challenge to Houdini, and found my face in the armpit of a lady I can only describe as ‘all woman’, my leg entwined with the legs of my fellow travellers, and one hand clinging onto the metal bar on the ceiling. Understand, if you can, that this is not a society in which men sacrifice their seats when a woman boards the bus. It is, neither, a culture which demands quality in its services. This is a straight forward, black and white, plain speaking place where polite, nuanced behaviour has no place and, whilst it takes some getting used to….. I almost like it.

This, my friends, is my average start to the day. It is at times like this that a voice I try so hard to suppress starts taunting me with questions such as ‘Why the hell are you here?’ ‘When will you give up, sell out and buy a 4X4?’ ‘Why don’t you have a rich husband who works for the United Nations and drives one of the new fleet you saw being delivered last week?’

Tough questions: much easier to ignore than to answer. Though I can say this much. There is a reality to this daily squeeze into the spaces between human bodies. There is a simple joy in receiving looks from the all-Tanzanian crew and passengers of the buses I take – surprised by this white girl who battles with the rest of them to hop on transport; who often perches on the corner of a seat or on the hot bit of metal at the front of the bus under which the engine grumbles. I love it when a seated passenger offers to hold my bag on his lap, so that I might be free to focus on the not inconsiderable feat of remaining upright as we whizz into town. I am hit by a disproportionate sense of relief if a seat is vacated and I manage to leap into it before anyone else.

In short, and at risk of sounding insincere, I am truly reminded of my humanity. This commute is one of the most equalising experiences I can imagine.

As for my African Marriage. Well. I am frequently asked if I like living in Tanzania, and have always found it an incredibly difficult question to answer. There is a hesitation, an uncertainty in my voice which I cannot disguise. Only recently did I succeed in finding the precise response that explains the relationship I have with this land.

It is like a marriage. There are moments when I bask in the sunshine, watching local life take its course, still wide eyed at some of the things I observe the way people behave, the beauty of my second homeland. These are my honeymoon moments, tender and precious. There are moments, on the other hand, when I truly hate this place: a culture I will never fully embrace; a people I can never truly comprehend; a transport system designed to reduce the average human being to rubble before the day has even started; inequalities and injustices which are institutionalised and accepted on so many levels. These are my ‘I am leaving you’ moments. The critical junctures that occur in any passionate relationship: the heart-stop seconds that can make or break a partnership. They are intense, real and merciless.

Yet, as you can see, they are somehow overcome. The reason? I am somehow married to this place and, for all that I loathe and would change, the underpinning love I feel….. the compelling sense of commitment….. seems to win over time and time again. So this is my African Marriage: a love affair with Tanzania which challenges, stretches, bends and enrages me as much as it nurtures, improves, tends and comforts me. For better or for worse, in sickness and in health, I’m in this marriage for now and, deep within me, I know it is one fiery relationship that will be very hard to walk away from.

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