There are times in life, especially during periods of huge transition and challenge, when seconds, minutes, hours, days and then weeks somehow roll together in a way that leaves you feeling misplaced, somewhat dazed and certainly befuddled. That’s how I’m feeling this achingly hot, blue-skied Uchira afternoon. No doubt that a glance at Kili as I wander back up the hill to the Muzungu’s (white man) house later will place me firmly back in the world in an altogether earthy fashion, but right now at 4pm in my office, my recurring thought is ‘how did I get here?’
As I prepared to leave the UK (woefully inadequately – I barely confronted my huge life changes and instead chose to concentrate on each day and the special people in my life), I often wondered why I was feeling so angst-ridden and moody. I snapped in ways I haven’t for months and I lost my rag a few too many times. Only when a very close pal pointed out that I was undertaking most of the major upheavals possible in life all at the same time did I realise that maybe I was under a fair amount of stress and could do with a hand. It’s my Achilles Heel to be a stubborn mule, however, so the relationship breakdown, house sale, job change, move from my dearest friends, au revoir to family and eventual touch down on Tanzanian soil were challenges that I approached with a focus that precluded considering the impact on my head!
Well…. my head is actually OK, two weeks into my African odyssey, and the blips, which creep upon me like so many African ants….. huge and lightning fast…………….return to their dark lairs almost as quickly after a little cry, whinge or time alone. Like clouds blowing across the Moon at night, they are merely making their way across the skies of my mind and it is better to allow them their rite of passage than to fight them. They soon pass on.
Two things I find especially comforting here. The first is the silent but stately and protective presence of Mount Kilimanjaro, whose snowy peak graces us on a clear morning and evening. Catching me unaware, perhaps as I start the ascent up the red, rocky road to the house after a day at the office, the sight of Kili somehow lets me breathe freely and touches a part of me that so profoundly believes in the divinity of Mother Nature and the wonder of the circle of life. Kili, proudly yet humbly at my side, is incredibly calming.
I gain similar succour from the Moon, and have done since the numbing distance between myself and loved ones struck me in New Zealand. The Moon this week is full and so astoundingly vibrant that she lit the entire house throughout last night. When missing people, I get an incredible sense of closeness by gazing at the Moon and knowing that all those I love are under it with me. I have no such feeling for the Sun, which merely scorches and has no wisdom in its glare, but the Moon is a real source of peace. Edward and Eleanor, Jo and Paul, Mum and Dad, Jack and GPa, Tim and all my dear friends are under its watchful care by night and that gives me peace.
This week I have mostly been eating a wide variety of bananas, mangoes and pineapples; boiled eggs; honey; some rather grim yoghurt; sweet corn (5p a cob); beans and maize; ugali; rice; veggie stew; tomatoes; baobab seeds. A trip into Moshi is an amazing chance to get a piece of cake (yes, it was my first mission!) and a decent sandwich. There is even a bakery in Moshi with passable bread and donuts (Northern Tanzania is NOT the place if you value your patisserie…. Which I do!!). I also drink amazing coffee (Kili grown) and chai. Alcohol, I am observing, is a huge problem here but a very sensitive issue to address. All I will ask is this: how can poverty and development and disease really be tackled when people are drinking what amounts to metholated spirits at all times of day? This depresses me….. I need a Tusker Beer to calm me down!
Chocolate (oh my, one day I am going to spend soooooo much on Montezumas/ Green and Blacks/ Hotel Chocolat!!) is Cadbury’s but made in Egypt and really not the same!! A Crunchie was nearly a Crunchie but a Fudge was grim!!
Oh, for the sound of silence. It is incredible how quickly one adjusts to constant noise. As I wrote that, a cockerel crowed outside my window and a baby started howling. There is music coming from somewhere but I have no idea from where. Night time is wind, birds, insects, a cacophony of sound. By 2am, the cockerels join in the choir, followed by dogs. By day, children scream, music drifts, animals moo, crow, oink, baa (is that what goats do??). My first few nights I barely slept under the cover of my mozzy net, but now I find the sounds almost lull me to sleep. As sun sets at 7pm, and I get up early, I tend to be reading and drifting from 8.30pm and will sometimes break the calls of nature with a bit of IPod or BBC World Service (when I can get it.) This feels rude but is tantamount to therapy.
Despite having my own mini identity crisis (who are we when removed from job, friends, family, home, contexts, familiarity?), I am finding my way and am profoundly lucky to be with such lovely people. It’s very hard to remember all the locals, time will cure this, but everyone here is welcoming, warm and generous hearted. Of course, I am pursued by children shouting ‘Muzungu’ wherever I go, and end up with sticky/ wet/ dirty hands when they grab on for the ride, but this is just a part of being a white woman in a black place. I’m a novelty.
Paul (Kenyan), Gerald (Tanzanian), Ernest (Tanzanian), Darran (Muzungu!!), Nicola (Uk volunteer), Babu (grandfather, really called Fred or Soap), Beatrice (our cook and altogether amazing lady)…. Everyone is lovely. This doesn’t scratch the surface of how the people are generally. Only one or two bad experiences, like my attempt to observe a group of men playing a game on a chequerboard with coke bottle tops which resulted in being shooed away! – no women allowed - but otherwise this is a place of hellos, greetings, much hand shaking and holding, and hospitality.
Darran’s birthday this week entailed an endless stream of speeches and repetitions of those same speeches, it was quite a feat of patience. Most focused on the wish that he live for more than 100 years and were quite profound. A far cry from ‘Happy Birthday, you old bugger’. I must confess, though, that it bordered on the maddening – can we please just eat the damn cake?
Romance? My heart isn’t looking and it’s not on my agenda. Despite the very handsome Foreign Office Kenyan I met at Nairobi airport, I’m staying firmly in love with myself, my friends and my family for now.
A few musings
If you wish to join me out here, please bring your sense of humour. My Mungu (God), there has to be humour. Without this, how can I survive another trip on a daladala (the local transport, which squeezes up to 20 people into a 10 seater minibus); another near death ‘oh hell, the brakes have failed on the Land rover AGAIN’ experience; another accosting by the local mildly violent nut bar (Julius, who can’t appreciate the difference between holding your arm and a Chinese burn/ patting your back and winding you with a mighty whack); another swarm of children singing ‘Muzungu’ and searching my pockets for sweets/ money/ anything chewable; another visit to Uchira Village market where, as the only white, I am ritualistically but rather warmly ridiculed for being… well… so damn white (despite being brown!!); another dinner by candlelight, for our generator was stolen some while back; another fight with a mosquito which has managed to get under my net; another giant ant in my rice. (?) Humour is all.
Things can certainly seem crazy here. Yesterday, I visited a local secondary school and attended a Civics class. There are no books to facilitate teaching, inadequate chairs and desks for the students, and the poor teachers rely on a blackboard to write down the information which he wishes the students to retain. A handful of clearly keen and motivated students took notes, others wandered in and out, many simply fell asleep, head on desks, right there in class. The school takes some boarders and, at present, the boys’ dorm sleeps over 100 in a room the size of a classroom at Leeds University Language Centre. Some boys share beds. The social and health problems associated with this are manifold.
There is an area for playing volleyball at the school, but the balls are deflated and the net is broken. They would like a tennis table and equipment. The library is full of well meaning but ill-chosen books sent from the UK, which are not relevant to the curriculum or are outdated and useless. Like the computers, which are a very old model and barely functioning, there is a tendency for richer countries to send, frankly, rubbish to developing countries with the notion that it will be gratefully received. I leave you to draw your own conclusions.
English club is a whole other issue. We undertake to improve English in what is fundamentally a room where would feel cruel to shelter animals in the UK, with kids coming and going, no materials or resources but those we cobble together ourselves and nothing of colour, vibrancy or stimulation. The teaching itself is basically about getting the children to repeat words….. I cannot even begin to compare attempting to teach English here with the joyous environment to which I have become accustomed in Leeds.
As I write, the people who live in the place next to the office have set light to their household waste. The smell is noxious, the smoke is toxic, the effect on my senses is wholly repellent. Litter is such a terrible problem in Africa. Years back, before the arrival of plastic packaging and bags, tins and cans, excessive paper etc…. most food and other essentials were either unwrapped or wrapped in natural, organic materials. Waste collection and disposal was not an issue that needed addressing. Today, the villages and towns are choking on rubbish and this is no metaphor – I have seen livestock dying as a result of plastic consumption and I have witnessed little children searching in the embers of a fire and finding half melted plastic containers to chew on, cartons to lick, lollipop sticks to suck (minus the lolly)…. One of my biggest challenges here with V2V is to sort out this issue but the complexities are mind blowing, even at this micro level. Watch this space for support from the Village Chief and his Council; funding; community commitment. Take nothing for granted!
I need your money, by the way. I’m serious!
Please do not take for granted
Electricity; water supply; internet connectivity; good bread; decent milk; great chocolate; tarmac roads; cool weather; people turning up to meetings on time; getting a reply within 24 hours; teaching resources; tables and chairs; an office without giant ants, enormous crickets, chickens in it; NHS; baked beans (Heinz of course); the BBC; Ready Steady Cook; steamed sponge puddings; Sunday night curled up with TV after a bath; glass of red; toasters; buses where you get a whole seat to yourself; trains that don’t crash all the time; Cliff Richard tunes in shops 8 weeks before Christmas (hahaaaaaaaaaaaaa. Spot the odd one out).
Badae (or byeeeeeeeeeeee)
I am determined to learn Swahili here. Why? Firstly, it’s just so damn rude not to be able to communicate properly with such chatty people. Secondly, it’ll be a great skill for me to have when I come back to the UK and realise I’ve caught some kind of Africa bug which means I have to return to do some work in DRC/ some other outpost. Finally, I hate people laughing and talking about me without the foggiest idea of what’s so funny. It goes against my nosy nature. Going to stamp that out.
I send love to you all and miss you all so very much. Sorry for my ramblings and hope you get something from them. I will write more profoundly or lightly soon, depending on my mood and how events transpire! I may also actually manage to get some photos out to you, though I have yet to work out how.
Always, wherever I am, simply Pen