Monday, March 15, 2010
The death of a chicken and other losses
Sprawled across my bed one night, shortly before my Monday night jaunt to the pub for quiz night, I listened to the final, pleading, hopeless calls of a chicken resigned to the fate of having its neck rung. I guess it was around dinner time! What struck me, lying with a book in one hand and a bowl of spicy peas in the other, was not so much the horror of the last, throaty breaths of a living creature. Nor was it a sense of mortality, a primordial fear of death. No. Much as I felt the panic in the poor poultry’s cries, and much as I shared its anguish and the terrible inevitability of its end, extending my full sympathy to it…… what really hit me was the reality of feeding a family: the everydayness of this minor, bloodless passing.
There was nothing grim about it at all, save the noise (which was a little chilling). As the sounds pierced through the net shutter, which allows for doors to be open without nasties coming in, I called out to my housemate, suppressed laughter in my voice. ‘Can you hear that chicken being killed?’ I enquired. Of course, she could: and there was nothing remarkable about it whatsoever. It was just another street noise: a chicken being killed; Bongo flavour beats pounding through loudspeakers; the high-pitched kissing of a bottled water seller; screeching tyres and heated ripostes.
What is, at first, unacceptable or outside of one’s own sphere of understanding and experience, silently, imperceptibly creeps into the space occupied by the norms and normalities of day to day life. With no apparent fanfare, no particular event to mark the change, there is a gradual shift in expectations and cultural mores so that, one day, things that used to shock, annoy, disturb, disgust, fluster or invoke fear no longer do so. This modification is subtle. You simply realise one day that you have ceased to be an observer of a scene quite external to yourself, and have become part of it. Albeit a spare part.
This is how I feel as I cycle along Kimweri Avenue – somehow an integral part of the day to day life of my neighbourhood, understanding its routines, sounds, smells and peculiarities and yet somehow never quite absorbed fully into it. Nevertheless, this small corner of the world has become my small corner and, when I consider the oceans of difference between this and my parallel life and home in England, I am occasionally floored. It’s still the same old me, I hope, but in such a staggeringly other world that I am at times simply spinning.
Kimweri is the road that leads from the area known as Nmanga towards the peninsula (where the scene becomes less intense, the streets greener, and the houses more expensive). It is a long, paved street lined with dukkas (shops), stalls, food stands, workshops, second hand clothes on crooked wire hangers, fruit carts, bars, mobile phone card kiosks, walking salesmen bearing sunglasses, hard-boiled eggs, hair accessories, bras, DVDs, dishcloths, soap, foot files, knives, nuts .
To be frank, you can pretty much buy anything you might want along Kimweri: from a peeled orange to a cheap beach dress; from a Polaroid passport picture to a laundry basket; from a loaf of bread to a catapult. It’s not easy to explain the sheer density of small commercial enterprises that positively stuff the streets of urban Tanzania. Everything is a shop, a chance to spend a few shillings, a chance to make a living. Denominations are small, and exchanges of coins for roasted corn-cobs or bottles of alarmingly orange sweet drinks can barely generate an income. But this is trading, Africa-style, and I have grown completely accustomed to its almost twenty four hour, open, casual, impulsive rhythm. So unlike the Western world’s controlled, formalised, set-price, pay-at-the-counter-and-keep-your-receipt style of consumerism, here it is an ongoing process of barter, banter, buying; eating, drinking, carrying. It is not shopping as defined activity. It is shopping as lifestyle, as way of life.
My apartment is situated just off Kimweri, let’s say 100 metres up a dirt road which is also home to various dukkas and workshops. When I differentiate between paved and unpaved roads, please understand that even most of the paved roads are rough as hell. Kimweri is pot-hole heaven: the place where pot-holes congregate, retire to, or party when they are fed up with being the solitary pot-hole in some otherwise smooth tarmac drive. The road is in a bad way in many parts, and is rendered even more challenging to negotiate by the speed bumps that rise along some stretches.
I am not certain of the value of these. Having travelled Kimweri so often that I can practically cycle down it blind folded (and I frequently do, in effect, when darkness falls), I have concluded that neither of the hapless bumps do anything to stop the dala dala drivers from careering along as though on a race track. Neither do they pose a problem to four-wheel drive road hogs who apparently have no need to slow down for such trifles. Admittedly, the bajaji drivers seem to struggle somewhat as they veer towards the bumps but most people here drive whatever they are driving with absolute disregard for hazards, logic, rules, etiquette and others.
This includes bicycle riders, naturally. Please do not be unduly perturbed, but in the last three weeks I have had a couple of incidents involving me, my bike and bajajis which shook even me up a little. Let’s just say that my right foot is almost entirely healed and my finger was not actually broken at all. For a moment I grew paranoid, wondering if someone had a contract on my life. I felt like the old woman in A Fish Called Wanda. But, touch baobab wood, I’ve kept in one piece.
Tiny apples have been appearing on the carts and in the greengrocers which is practically a daily destination for me. Along with them, small hard pears with a rough skin and an inoffensive but not very exciting taste. I’m aware that many people miss out on the seasons here, thinking that they do not exist but, as I have written before, I very much feel them with the subtly shifting availability of different fruits. The apples and pears are from Morogoro or Lushoto, the latter being an up-country mountainous area renowned for the richness of its produce.
Also returning to the streets is my absolute favourite snack: the hard, dense, crunchy cucumbers that enjoy but a short season and are peeled and quartered lengthwise on the street for ten pence a go. Eaten with chili-laced salt they have an addictive quality and seem innocuous enough as a vice. I don’t see many Wazungu hanging around to nibble peeled cucumbers on street corners, but I suppose it might be time to admit that I am prone to being a wee bit different. Just sometimes.
Yesterday I was robbed. In the street. Just like that. One moment, my handbag was there. The next, it was gone. Poof. Snatched out of the basket on my handlebars and whizzed off down some winding alley by a quick-fingered fiend who I shall never see again. At the time, I was cycling slowly (along the road about which I wrote with such fondness before, by the way – Kimweri) whilst my house mate walked besides me, talking about men or some other equally trivial and irksome topic. The guy came between us, had a micro-second glance into my basket, and pulled the bag out with such speed that we could only stand there like fish gasping for breath. No one did a thing. So much for my neighbours!
The dress fetish continues. It is hardly surprising, when so many second hand clothes flap along the roadsides and whisper such obscenities as ‘buy me….. I fit you…. and will be perfect for the beach/ BBQ/ work/ party’. My house mate and dear dear friend, Kari, teases me that it is simply impossible for me to pass safely from any particular A to B without parting with 10,000 shillings and returning with a dress of some description. At times I have felt like an alcoholic, smuggling my latest purchase into my own flat and into my own room somehow knowing that I might be doing something a little bit naughty.
I never wore dresses before. They did not interest me. I guess that the weather in the UK is not exactly conducive to flapping skirts and exposed knees, and I also confess that being in a relationship for as long as I was probably resulted in a terrible torpor in the field of fashion! There was my wedding dress of course (I do wonder where it is….) but aside from that I was very much a jeans and jumpers girl. In this heat, however, and with the apparently endless rows of passed-on frocks from around the world, it would be churlish not to indulge.
On the street, the most I would pay for any kind of dress is the equivalent of £6, so we are not talking a bank-breaking addiction. Golly, now I’m making excuses…like a true addict.
‘Hi. My name is Pennie and I sneak dresses into the house.’
Anyway, to give you a flavour: last week I bought a slinky black backless number, a khaki shirt dress and a slip-of-a-thing to pull over bikinis on the beach. I need wardrobe space.
We have had a few electricity issues of late. I came home, ready to crash, one evening last week to find that the circuit which controls my bedroom had failed. Having no light is inconvenient, but being fan-less during these clammy, airless nights is close to unbearable. I felt every pore of my body open up and spill liquid salt, beads of saline sweat sitting on my upper lips. Someone remarked to me recently that the humidity is brilliant for one’s skin (I suppose I should think about my skin these days, being old and whatnot), but in the middle of the night, unable to sleep for the sheer density of the air, this is small comfort.
Power failings of this kind are so commonplace that they no longer surprise and barely grate unless they mean, as in this case, no hope of relief from the heat. A few nights back, I was enjoying a sit-down shower, hair foaming with shampoo, when I found myself suddenly in the dark: the shower reduced to a trickle. As the power cut, my phone rang… persistently. I stumbled out of the shower, grabbed the phone with soapy fingers, squawked that right now was not a good time to talk, and heard the generator kick in (we are allowed to use it sometimes). Abruptly bathed in light once again, I caught myself in the mirror frothy-headed, soaking wet, naked (hilarious just now with my tan lines), clutching my phone under my chin.
Yes, I had a giggle.
There have been some stunning children in the hospital lately. Children whose stories have touched me again just as I feared I had been rendered immune by so many encounters with tragedy and loss. I met a boy and his father, an oyster fisherman, who had travelled to so many different hospitals with no explanation of why the boy, aged 12, had lost so quickly and absolutely all muscle and power in his legs. This sudden collapse of his mobility had caused the family so much expense, so much time and so much sheer effort that the boy, despite his father’s patent adoration and dedication, whispered that he wanted to die when I went to speak with the family. This, he said, would make life much better for the rest of the family.
I pulled my sunglasses over my eyes at this juncture. Devastated.
Of course, there are plenty of stories like this one. It’s just that sometimes there is a look in a child’s eyes, or a tireless commitment in a parent, that particularly resonates. Some of the most shocking cases I see are children who are the victim of the open flame, of which there are so many in Tanzania. Burning rubbish in the streets, gas lamps that explode, boiling pots over fires inside houses. These things create an environment in which burns can be so severe that limbs and digits are destroyed. There are little faces in the rehabilitation department that are scarred and misshapen so badly by burns that they can hardly raise a smile. This does not stop them trying, though, these tiny people whose lives are already indelibly marked by disfigurement.
When I popped home this lunchtime, a sparrow had managed to fly through the door and up the stairwell, and was resting on the bar above my third floor front door. As I approached the door, he (definitely a boy!) chirped a little but stayed just where he was. It filled me with plain delight, this little life at my door. I don’t know why, but it reminded me of my family and friends and everyone I love who I miss more than even my words can ever explain.
I like to think the bird had flown all the way from my parents garden to invoke a memory of home and reassure me that it was still there and still supporting me, even here in Tanzania. My wish is that my own writings give similar comfort, and that all who read them are peaceful and safe and know that I carry all of them in my thoughts.
15 March 2010.