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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

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The drift back to Dar - November 2009

Two months it has been since I landed back in Dar es Salaam, on a humid, dusty night. Sometimes, my emotions are running such riot that I cannot even access what I am feeling: there is little precision from one minute to the next and, often, I experience a host of conflicting ups, downs and upside downs within a short space of time here in Tanzania. That day, the first in October, this was particularly acute.

I enjoyed such a special time during my three and a half week break in the UK. Admittedly, it took about two of those weeks to feel vaguely grounded again, to regain my bearings, but even as I did so I felt closer to my family than I have in years and a great tide of warmth swelled within me. It helped, too, that I was a more relaxed Pen – a brighter, more positive person than the one they said goodbye to last year. Never in my life have I had such a wonderful time with Mum and Dad – a product, I’m sure, of my being away from day to day life. But also, maybe, a product of where I’ve moved on from and what I’ve experienced in the last 12 months.

All was oiled by stunning September weather – some of the finest sunshine to kiss the UK all year. It lasted almost exactly from the day of my arrival to that of my departure, resulting in lunches on the patio, strolls by the Thames, pints in pub gardens, and birthday celebrations in the garden. I could not have wished for much more – only the improved health of Dad, which I’m sure time will bring.

So – let’s just say that leaving the warm belly of the family to embark on yet another chapter was extremely tough. Ouch. Dad and I had, to say the least, an emotional farewell at Heathrow and my flight back was punctuated by hard-to-control sobbing. The soulless, limbo-like, sleep deprived vacuum of air travel didn’t exactly soothe, and at one point I came to the decision to simply hide in the overhead cabin at Dar, and wait for the plane’s return leg to Amsterdam. I am never sure whether it is bravery or cowardice which keeps me going.
But here I am, at my table in my third floor flat in dusty Msasani, the balcony door open, the netted external door closed to stop unwanted flying creatures from invading the place. I can hear thumping music from the bar up the road, children shrieking, the cries of a maji salesman. The fan is humming overhead, offering some respite from what is now the quite repressive heat of late November.

It gets worse from here for another couple of months – the sun more and more intense; the humidity higher and higher; the temperature fiercesome. Even I, sun worshipper extraordinaire, have been drained of late, nudged over into moments of real fatigue where the prospect of yet another scorching day seems too much. Energy levels drop massively during the day, and without air conditioning in the office I have lost concentration from time to time. Still, I seem to recover at dusk, when the sky shocks with orangey red hues and a breeze drifts in from the Indian Ocean. A couple of Savannahs later, and I’m somehow restored. Indeed, it would be easier working at night that during the day. Lately, I seem to be awake during both.
The lady in the small dukka across the street sells the most wonderfully sweet watermelons. I wonder if they are addictive. Our regular conversation commences with polite enquiries about each other’s health, and progresses towards the size of melon I’m looking for. I’m an elfu moja kind of girl, as the elfu mbili option is a bit much for my fridge to bear. That’s 50p to you, if you’re wondering. I sometimes hang around for a sweet menthol, too; a fairly strong local cigarette which I get a craving for at night time. It takes something fairly radical to get me puffing by day, but once darkness falls and the stars are above me, and I get the African butterflies which flit about my stomach most evenings for no apparent reason, there is something just so soothing about that first evening drag. Ahhhhhhhhhh.

It took about three and a half weeks for me to stop waking up imagining that I was about to head downstairs to share tea and morning grumbles with Mum. Funny – she is the first person in my life to ever comment on my complete uselessness in the mornings. I never noticed it before, but maybe she’s right. Yup – I tend to warm up around evening time, when most others are winding down. Still, I developed a real fondness for seeing my folk around the house every day: part of my life again, I part of theirs. Getting used to be far away from those who know me and love me (warts and all) was extremely tough – much tougher than I ever imagined it would be.
Africa, too, came into starker contrast. The streets of Dar seemed somehow more challenging, more brutal even, than I had noticed before, and I felt fragile, vulnerable for a while. None of this strange, delayed culture shock was helped by the fact that I was hit by something fairly hefty in my second week (and I don’t mean a local bus!). Not sure what, but there is plenty going around, and whatever it was had my world spinning, rocking, and causing me to feel pathetically sorry for myself! It has crept up behind me and caught me out again since, but at least as I write I am feeling as good as it gets in the heat of a sun-burnt city.

I have a new job, and it’s taking time to adjust from teacher mode to NGO mode. Yesterday, someone whose opinion I value called me bossy. Ouch. I guess that’s the teacher in me then?? Oh well, yeah – hell I’m bossy. But, in my new role, I don’t know nearly enough to be bossy and it’s a daily challenge. My NGO is a disability organisation and a hospital and, as such, there is plenty to get to grips with that is totally new to me: medical terms and surgical procedures which are a whole other world from the one in which I have sat comfortably for much of my life. I have always been a passionate teacher but, at CCBRT where I now work, the emotions which drive my commitment are different.

My office is sited precisely opposite the hospital and, on a daily basis, patients come and queue and wait in their hundreds. I see the elderly; mothers with children or babies in their arms; middle aged men and women. I see babies or children with clubfeet; the blind; children with cleft lip or palate; women with fistula; amputees waiting to have a prosthetic limb fitted; people who have suffered burns. I see people who really have no means of paying for treatment, dressed in kangas to protect them against the harsh sun of the season.

Indeed, I see much which could depress the hell out of me. Not only the poorest of the poor – but also the most dependent, needy of all - for disability in this country is not managed in the way it would be in the West: it is a socio-economic barrier; a hard-to-escape spoke on the wheel of poverty; a ticket to nowhere much unless you happen to be one of the rare few who realises that a disability can be treated, cured, or managed in order to allow for a fulfilling, productive life.

Our organisation is like Robin Hood, and we boast about it! The poorest patients, those who really cannot pay, simply do not have to. Patients pay what they can so that, ultimately, the richest patients are subsidizing the poorest. This is a unique system, and one which means that we really are able to help those who need it most. Of that, I am proud.

Whilst I joke with a close friend of mine that the weather here is merely degrees of different ‘hotness’, I like to spot the seasonality which creeps subtly into the tropics. Late November, and a pleasant surprise appears on the street corners: something which I have missed these past six months. Pineapples, large, conical, plump and radiating the warmth of the southern hemisphere sun, have taken up residence on wooden carts along the roadsides. It is a wonderful time, then, for the men who grow and sell these perfect fruity symbols of tropical climes. Next to each stand, a plastic bucket in which sit carefully carved slices of the fruit, whose sweetness here delivers a sugar rush unmatched by the sad, imported pineapple wannabes that we see back home.

Mangoes are also making a showy comeback. In the past two weeks, the carts which were laden with oranges have taken on a new, headier passenger. Mangoes, of different size, shape, colour, texture, moisture content and sweetness, have taken Dar by storm. It could easily rain mangoes for a week or two and there would still be enough to wrap around the globe several times with a few left for breakfast.

Today, I found a clutch of red plums at the back of my grocery store, where the men pop secret surprises into my bag after a particularly large shop (sometimes an apple and, once, a custard apple!). They were small and sweet and yielding, and I ate most of them from the bag as I rode home with my goodies hanging from the handle bars.

It is a little hot to cycle, and I arrive at every destination glistening with sweat, which drips down my back and forever tricks me into thinking that I have a parade of ants marching across my skin. Cycling at night is little better: it is dangerous for a start, at least until the dala dalas have stopped careering down the roads and the rush hour traffic has eased off. It is also a little tricky on roads which require high levels of concentration to navigate even during the day. Potholes are unforgiving in the dark – indeed; they seem to breed magically at dusk. Then, there is the dust……

Still, I love my bike and I guess that there is something rather ‘Pen’ about arriving by bike for a night at the pub from time to time. The Masaai last night seemed disappointed that I was going home in a taxi: but, sometimes, a girl needs a treat.

Africa seems to have made more of a girl of me. I have no idea how, when, or why it happened, but some time in the last six months I felt an urge to start wearing dresses. Maybe it is the sight of African women, usually immaculately presented, albeit if only in kangas, or maybe it is the warmth of the climate by day and by night, but I have developed a potentially expensive love of dresses….. My tailor, who lives a couple of doors down from my apartment, is getting sore fingers from all the work I am giving him. I, in the meantime, am constantly seeking reasons for dressing up. My friends, many a few years younger than me, are very kind to humour me.

One problem: dresses and bikes are not exactly the best of friends.

The Indian Ocean is crackling across the rocks as it makes its way towards the shore. It is 4pm, and the tide is turning. Skinny-legged, long-beaked sea birds tread with caution between the stones and coral, pecking in the holes where small ghost crabs scuttle to escape the heat of the sun. There are local men wading just knee deep; others pushing boats without much urgency a little further out. Perhaps they hope to catch a fish for dinner.

Wooden fishing boats, some with sails, sit on the glistening water so invitingly that I imagine myself to be a great mariner, so tempted am I to stride into the sea and claim an oar or a sail. Across the bay, the white sands of Kawe beach lull me away from the city and give perspective to my day. I will sit here until sunset, writing, checking e-mails, adding to an important proposal that I have to write in order to secure funding for a significant number of child eye surgeries in the coming 18 months.

No doubt, others will join me. They start to drift in. Sometimes, it is hard to leave this spot and, two nights ago, I was here from 4 – 11pm, wondering at the contradictions which riddle the heart of this continent and finally reckoning that every ugly, threatening, disturbing, alienating feature must surely have its counterpart – a feature as magnificent and wonderful in measure. It is that thought which keeps me going.

Like my moods and my feelings for Tanzania, it is neither one thing nor the other. I cannot love this place unless I also hate it. For all the negativity that I am often exposed to; for all of the pessimism about the future of the country and, indeed, the continent, I remain the eternally driven, motivated and die-hard protagonist.

Just now, as a barely perceptible breeze starts to lift from the sea and valiantly endeavour to soothe me, I actually feel ok.

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