Hi from me

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

From Pen

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Season's Greetings - 16 December 2008

The vista has changed, perceptibly, over the last few weeks. It is dry here. Dry, dusty and oppressive. It is the hottest time of year, and we desperately need rain. It fell in Moshi at the weekend, the warning sign being an unforgiving storm of dust from which I emerged, chimney-sweep like, crawling with dust which had settled everywhere from my scalp to the gaps between my toes. Raindrops on a dust-coated Pennie do not a pretty sight make: I acquired zebra streaks and became the source of much amusement in the maze of the market. Returning to Uchira, I found that the village had not been kissed by a single drop. It remains bone dry, the searing heat of four o’clock a reminder of the cruel power of the Sun. The same Sun we worship for its ephemeral appearances ‘back home’.

I digress. I was seeking to explain the shifting vista. It is curious that, at this arid time, there is such an abundance of green. Maybe the trees are drawing from some deep, secret reserve. Not only are there so many nameless shades of green, but there are vivid, vibrant variations of pink, purple and yellow adorning the landscape like Nature’s own Christmas decorations. What strikes most, however, is the ‘Christmas Tree’. This low-slung, sturdy tree can be seen at intervals in every which direction. It is staggeringly beautiful, unashamedly photogenic, and a Sub Saharan reminder that this is December, for the tree bursts into life right now: just in time for Christmas. It is simply unmistakable....why? Because it sings out across the plains with the most staggering red flowers I have ever seen, brilliant by day and absurdly, movingly stunning in the fading light of evening. They are redder than Father Christmas’ suit; redder that a holly berry. The bloom is, somehow, the essence of Christmas colour, yet so far removed from all that I usually associate with the season. I attach a photograph. Season’s Greetings, everyone.

Beneath this glorious canopy, darkness creeps. Yesterday, I was diverted by a small, silent boy sitting in the dirt near the office. I should be accustomed to the rags so many children wear, the too-big dresses and too-small shoes. But this boy was somehow exceptionally sorry looking. Most are, at least, playful, cheeky, even rude. Most exhibit a curiosity about this Muzungu. Some even ask for money, a huge source of despair. Not this slight child, surely hot in his pyjamas and filthy from the dust. He was listless, wordless, tearless, laughterless: completely expressionless. I enquired as to his family, and both his mother and father are dead. He is a true orphan, living with others yet not socialising, not being educated due to the cost of attending school. I am hardened in so many ways, often failing to notice oddities which have now attained the status of normality. Yet this, this under developed child playing quite alone in the dust: this struck so deep that I myself was rendered redundant in word and deed. I requested that he be fed. I touched his face. I tickled his feet. He did not react. My own reaction, numb and uncertain of if and how to help, was equally dumb.

Children may be the same the world over, at some deep, primordial level, but the way they are raised, the things to which they are exposed, shape their burgeoning imaginations irrevocably. Last week in English Class, one of the young girls was wielding a thin cane: the sort bandied about by Tanzanian teachers who find that discipline is best achieved through force. Yes, corporal punishment is accepted and widely practised here. Seeing the child waving this stick, I approached and gently removed it from her hand. As I did so, every single child in that room flinched, cried out and ran for the door. The room was soon empty, but for me and Erin (the American volunteer mentioned in the last mumbling who is every inch as fantastic a girl as I hoped). I was stunned, and stood motionless, stick still in hand, until I realised the implications of this white woman in possession of the weapon of power in schools here.

I was mortified: at the fear I had unwittingly engendered; at the sight of these tiny innocents fleeing from me, of all people (!!); at the thought that, were I a native teacher, I would be quite a dab hand at this caning lark. Sometimes, I lose patience with ‘cultural sensitivity’, and the question of ‘who am I to judge?’. Sometimes, there is a ‘right’ and, in the matter of caning children who talk in class/ forget their homework/ do not pay their fees on time, my tolerance cracks.

Woe betide the child; woe betide the homosexual. Men linking fingers with men, walking along the street in a symbolic embrace, is a common sight here. The Western eye requires some adjustment to this public display of affection, tending to assume a level of attraction beyond mere kinship. If this were the case, there would be an inordinate proportion of homosexuals in Tanzania. No: this entwining of fingers and hands is just part of everyday friendship. If, indeed, it indicated anymore than this I am sorry to reveal that the hand-holders would be lynched, maybe thrown in jail, probably beaten senseless by the community. It is astounding to me how, in a country rocked by HIVAIDS, needing to address the realities of human nature, keen to progress, that homosexuality is so deeply, unanimously, vehemently reviled. Even the most highly educated, those who have travelled, those with more of a ‘world view’, share such loathing. It is illegal to be homosexual and, indeed, it is dismissed as a filthy corruption. This is another area into which I plunge with trepidation with my Kenyan and Tanzanian colleagues, but an area in which I remain resolute, open and honest in my thoughts. I cannot endorse the hatred, and I will not. There is a world of difference between sensitivity and desensitisation and I will not be desensitised.

I have spent an inordinate amount of time questioning the concept of ‘development’ since I arrived. I have many issues with the Western model, and feel strongly that do not have a grand podium from which to speak, particularly as our economies crumble around us. Last week, I was in Arusha for a conference and had the great pleasure of meeting a local lady, Gladness Pallagyo, who has, through her own efforts and entrepreneurial spirit, instigated a tourist initiative which directly benefits her local community by funding projects. She was an inspiration to me, and our connection was such that we were hugging and kissing and I was being addressed as ‘daughter’ within a day. I found myself welcomed into her home, staying for the weekend and learning of her work. Here was a native, not some white man in the guise of a ‘saviour’, using her own knowledge and wit to raise money without heading to the big donor agencies, as NGOs are wont to do, but running a cultural tourism scheme which brings money directly from tourists to the community. Her home, a stunningly lush place set in a banana and coffee plantation, takes the dung from three cattle and transforms it into heat (biogas), runs organically, and serves as a centre for the scheme. She welcomes orphans into her home and educates them locally; she is building a local library; she is opening a comp0uer centre; there is an HIVAIDS scheme and a sustainable agriculture project. All this from her own labours. Slowly, slowly it happens, over time. But it is real, sustainable development from a truly grassroots level. It is not imposed, rushed, white-man development without capacity building. It is not development ‘our way’. It is development the only way it can truly come: from those for whom it is intended. Who am I to step in, with my one-world vision, and stick a plaster on a wound that maybe isn’t even bleeding? What should be happening is the encouragement, the facilitation of work such as that of Gladness. People are already dealing with their own challenges in their own ways. Why am I even here?

Consider this. As I walk up and down the hill, I pass many people. The boys who herd their four cattle and twenty goats up and down the road each day; the family who sit under the large tree with a small table bearing a few bananas, some tomatoes and cucumbers, sometimes a mango; the women bearing trunks of plantains on their heads, chatting to each other about the day as though they were merely wearing hats. Men hack at the rocks in the road, attempting to render it more passable. Young boys and girls ferry buckets about atop their small crowns. Sometimes, a bike will come juddering down the hill, heavens knows how, loaded with pipes or bricks or a mattress! Undoubtedly, this is hard work. It is hot, physical and arduous at times. Yet never, never do I pass another human who does not call ‘Mambo!’, ‘Habari?’, ‘Poa!’. Rarely do I pass without acknowledgment and not once have I seen someone who looks miserable. Hot and bothered, maybe. Even tired. But not unhappy. I have seen so little raw unhappiness here. This has provoked much thought.

Last week, I tried to explain the concept of a ‘nervous breakdown’ to a bright, English speaking Tanzanian. I talked about the diseases endemic here, and then explained that the West has more illness of the soul and mind. A poverty of different sorts. He could not grasp the idea of depression as we know it, of stress and angst. For, you see, life here is lived in the present. It is about getting from A to B, ensuring there is food on the table today, toiling as necessary to send children to school tomorrow. It is not about acquisition, bigger and better possessions, cars, TVs, fashion. It is not about saving for holidays, and certainly not about planning for retirement from the day you are born. It is about now, and there is a value in that. Again, I ask: who am I to change that?

This is not to say that evolution is not needed. But, in my mind, the transformation must come at government and international policy levels. Trade rules, debt, aid, corruption. These are the things that are holding the average African head under water. It is policy that needs to shift. People do not need Western aspirations; they need the opportunity to have real influence on the world stage and a voice in the machinations of the international bodies. In terms of day to day life, we need to be more respectful and ask the question: who has got their priorities right? Certainly, there are issues to address. Education must be improved; child and human rights generally must be promoted; medical facilities must be accessible to all. Yes, there must be advancement. But let people be as they are. Look around you as you walk the streets of your local town. Is that the kind of model we want to replicate? I hope not.

Last weekend, I visited a man who has transformed his land into an incredible, organic plot. It boasts coffee, which is no longer profitable because of the Vietnamese coffee mountain, tobacco and bananas. Twenty two varieties of banana, in fact. Who ever knew that such richness existed within one species? (and this number does not even exhaust Nature’s banana bounty). He spoke of changing rainfall patterns, whose former predictability has gone. Irrigation is now a critical issue, and his hand-dug system was a work of art. I thought of my Father, and knew how much the two men would have to share. I wished I could transport Dad to meet this man of the soil. They are kindred spirits.

Recently, I danced with a Masai, his limbs moving in ways I embarrassed myself trying to replicate. He wore traditional dress and had a beautiful face. I wanted to run away to the Masai Mara. If I don’t come back after Christmas, maybe you will locate me there.

I have come full circle back to Christmas. I have, in the past, referred to it as the ‘C Word’. This year, I go to two National Parks and, my friends, to Zanzibar. Don’t say I didn’t invite you. I will write when I have festive stories to share. Until then, I think of you all very much indeed and send peace to you and your families and friends this Christmas. May 2009 be a gentle year for us all. 2008 was a challenge and all I ask is that, for everyone, the New Year brings love and joy.

Happy Christmas!

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