The campaign for candid conversation
My last entry was rather personal. A rather public display of laundry. Well, maybe. But my laundry was not so dirty and I didn’t hang it all out on the line: I left rather a lot in the basket, from where it will go directly into the washing machine with a hefty glug of bleach.
Yes. I did write from the heart. If writing does not come from the heart then it is merely words on a page – like a manual, or instructions on a foil pack of antibiotics, or a Pot Noodle guide to preparation. Sometimes, the heart is not only the energy behind the flow of words, but is indeed the words themselves. The words are the heart and the heart is the words, so in some ways it is not words that you are reading but a big splat of bloody crimson heart seeping across what was once a clean sheet.
No apologies for that. It has struck me of late that we humans are so damn scared of reality that we exist in a constant state of semi-truth. We enquire about another’s wellbeing, but never expect any other response than ‘I’m fine.’ We fear exposing ourselves as the messy, muddled frauds that humans – by the very dint of our being – are. We are all responsible for perpetuating the myth that everyone else is doing so much better than we are, because we all tell each other (even our nearest and dearest) that we are OK when we are not – thus engendering in each other a morbid fear of our failures with the mistaken conviction that all around us are happy, healthy, successful, stable, fulfilled and solid.
Yet this fear of revealing ourselves to others, our fellows on this earth, really does no one any favours whatsoever. Who do we think we are protecting when we lie behind a smile and say that everything is great? It feels that, by doing this, we avoid being a pain or making a fuss or causing worry. But maybe we cause more worry. I know that I feel terribly inadequate at times when it seems that all of my friends are having the time of their lives, in strong trouble-free relationships and with glistening, peachy skinned babies.
It makes me think: ‘Shit…. Where the hell did I go wrong?”
But I know…. I know….. (because some of my friends are brave enough to tell me)…. That lives which seem to be made of solid gold are more often than not simply gold-plated and that what lies beneath is much less pretty. Because, you see, life is not that pretty. I resent the pressure to say that things are alright when they are not; to act happy when I am weeping inside; to jig about like a wind-up toy when all I want to do is slump in a corner, suck my thumb and sleep.
If, oh if only we were all free from whatever social mores force us to be so bloody dishonest about our feelings and the mucky bits of our lives and the times we have, basically, screwed up, I really believe that we’d all be so much less stressed about the jumble of life. We would soon all realise that every single one of us is a jerk, an idiot, inept and stunted and damaged and broken and struggling. It would even be quite funny – to call each other a moron for making such a pig’s ear of it. And then, ah, we could all breathe out and relax and see that we are all in the same rocky boat and we could all start to bail each other out with just a little more compassion and, vitally, humour.
So, yeah, that’s why I write how I write at times. If anyone else wants to join my mini crusade to be a bit more sincere – karibuni!
Back to blog
Heaving open the black metal gates outside my apartment block, the first thing I noticed was that my beloved, imperfect bike was not in its rightful place. The askari (guard) has taken to parking it between plant pots by the side of the house and is fiercesome in his protection of it. He knows what that old bit of metal means to me, and is even now able (goodness only knows how) to either hear or sense my approach – usually beating me to the gate and dragging it open before I disembark. The whole street, for heaven’s sake, knows that the girl dodging the too-many-to-mention hazards on her two-wheeled friend is Penina. It’s my trademark.
So, when I finally reached home after my Moshi jaunt, seeing a space where my bike should be stirred a disproportionate flurry of anxiety. I dropped my bags and found the askari, his green station master uniform (complete with hat) visible across the street, where he has taken to perching on a stool at a newly opened snack bar. He greeted me warmly, beaming as though I had brought with me a far greater bounty than simply my own safe return, but I was tired after a long day in the field and a delayed flight. I only wanted to know the whereabouts of my bike. Bas.
A while back, Kari’s bike disappeared for a week or so. Following some minor investigation, we managed to glean that one of the askaris had ‘borrowed’ it to do a bit of a road trip. Kari was not amused. She pretty much had the hump with that particular guard for the remainder of her stay. I was concerned that my bike had been hijacked for a similar mystery voyage and was ready to defend my irritation.
To discover, then, that it had been noticed that I had a front wheel puncture, and that my bike had been taken for repairs quite without prompting and out of sheer concern for my mobility and safety, was an absolute blessed relief. Strange as it may seem, this was one of the most reassuring things to happen to me in a long time. I felt, for the first time perhaps, a sense that I am somewhat cared about by those around me here and there are people watching out for me.
It also countered the typical assumption that everyone here is after something purely for themselves, and that as a white person I will forever be preyed upon. Following my bag-snatch incident, it’s tempting to think so. But this small gesture – my bike being taken to a fundi for fixing without so much as an utterance from me, served to confirm my faith.
Small acts of thoughtfulness and kindness have a boundless ability to make an impact. I will not have that belief rocked. Crucially, it is not the monetary cost of the act that lifts the spirit, rather the inspiration behind it. Just yesterday, the same askari handed me a small black plastic bag of the type found at every tiny dukka or stall in the city. In it, two quarters of pear – peeled and the right side of ripe.
Last week, I gave him a few thousand shillings for some chakula (food) and to demonstrate some appreciation of his watchfulness and here it was being repaid. Like a fine karmic balancing action, our mutual deeds of care produced in each of us delight and pleasure of a simple, basic kind. His handing to me of this fruit was neither flashy nor grandiose. This was not a diamond necklace moment! No. Indeed, it was more tender than anything of that ilk. It was an affectionate, open gesture that signalled our shared place in this universe and our shared humanness. Apparently worlds apart in too many ways to mention, we are both living, breathing, laughing, crying, searching, dreaming mortals: my askari and me.
Why, oh why, can’t everyone come to realise and live out this irrefutable truth?
OK: to Moshi
Sitting in a mud and brick house, perhaps three by two metres, I conversed with Asiana. The land owned by her family is high in the hills outside of Moshi, where bananas are so plentiful that I wonder what kind of demand can ever take on the bountiful supply. In the nearest town of Mwika, market day should have been renamed ‘banana day’ because the street was choking, absolutely choking, with locals selling stem upon stem of as yet unripe bananas. I have never before and, I’m pretty certain, will never again see such a mountain of one fruit in my life and I really cannot fathom where all these bananas will end up. Apparently, people travel far to buy their bananas from Mwika and quite honestly they would have to because the local population surely has its fill?
When buckets of ready-peeled bananas came past, balanced gracefully on the heads of local mamas, I enquired as to their destiny. ‘Ah. Banana wine,’ grinned my CCBRT colleague. I imagined, then, a diet comprising solely banana-based products and wondered what the effects of this might be. ‘Yellow fever’, I joked… before remembering that, sometimes, there is no amount of engineering that can bridge the sense of humour gap which, alas, can divide cultures in insurmountable ways!
Sorry, another one of my diversions. Where was I? Yes: I was in Asiana’s hut, sipping a Fanta whilst finding out about her life. She shared with me the effects of the severe malaria that she suffered as an eight year old: notably, that it rendered her completely deaf. Thinking she had become insolent and moody, her parents, teachers and peers shouted at her when she ‘ignored’ them and her father left the home in fury. Disability is little understood here, especially in rural areas, and the ‘shame’ of a child with some form of impairment very often drives families apart.
It was only thanks to an uncle that she was actually diagnosed as deaf, and she found a local school for deaf children where she received some early education. Her secondary education was less successful – the regular school she attended was simply unable to deal with her needs and she left school with few qualifications.
Perhaps I should point out that what made this interaction so interesting was that it was conducted through a third party who not only had to translate my English questions into Kiswahili., but who also then translated the spoken into the signed language. For, yes, obviously Asiana was communicating in sign language, making for an experience entirely new to me and, I have to say, curiously touching.
To reassure you, Asiana, pretty in her head scarf and a little shy in front of the camera, has recently been trained by my NGO to provide information about HIV/AIDS and the services available to other deaf people – because, as you can imagine, many of the messages about the virus are unheard by those who cannot hear. She is thrilled by her new role and I could feel the pride in both her and her mother.
Incidentally, her mother prepared a two steaming pots of lunch for us – as well as offering sodas which, unusually, I accepted with gratitude as I was sweating buckets on that tremendously hot day in the fug of the hut. One pot overflowed with plump grains of steaming sticky white rice, the other with matoke (cooked bananas in a stew like sauce).
After washing our hands in the customary manner, we dug in under the vivid green parasol shade of banana trees with nothing but the universally heart-melting chirps of day old chicks and the occasional testosterone-pumped crow of a cockerel to break the silence.
Out of Dar, I feel ultra free. I assume the air of a school girl playing truant: a childlike quality floods through my veins and endows me with an infinite capacity for laughter, marvel, wonder and curiosity. On top of this, a wave of serenity washes away my tensions, fears and doubts about being in Tanzania. They completely evapourate whenever I escape the city and, much as I love Dar and its quirks and nooks and crannies, it is the bush, the highlands, the tree-spiked plains that remind me of all that is to be loved about Africa. This is what sets my soul to rest and pulls me back to the soil and to the core of what I am.
Clinging on to the nearest fixed feature, howling with mixed mirth and discomfort, I am completely at one in the back of the land rover as it rumbles and tumbles its way up a track so dusty that we imagine ourselves to be driving inside a giant vacuum cleaner bag.
Damn it – I love it: this bashing about against the windows; this holding my breath to avoid swallowing a small desert of dust; this amazing, frustrating country. Damn it – I love it.
Hiding out in the shelter of the banana trees reminded me of my time in Cambodia in 2005. This provokes questions about my marriage and my relationships in general and incites an overwhelming urge to bring all those I love into this stunning, secret sanctuary. In particular, I wish to hold the hands of the men in my life who I know to be struggling just now and bring them into this calming place. My loyalties prevent me from naming them, but maybe if they are reading this they will know I am referring to them and will simply understand that that I wish for nothing more or less than the end of their battles and the quieting of their demons.
Here, the riddles of the universe are no longer so puzzling or demanding of resolution. Here, the web of human experience seems not so much a lethal trap but rather a wondrous, unfathomable labyrinth. Here, the pain we have all in some way suffered dissipates in a burst of sunlight piercing through the canopy onto the red earth. Here, the sheer generosity of a family with little to give – demonstrated without fanfare by the presentation of a simple meal – realigns thought about what it means to give and live well in a world so caught up in acquisition and material betterment.
There I am – back to my ‘small acts’ rant.
UFO (Unidentified Flulike Ouch)
I am ill and it’s taking its toll on my spirit. I don’t know why, but it’s widely accepted that being ill here – even with only a cold – is so strangely depressing. It started a couple of weeks back, when I started to feel mighty tired, and spiralled beyond my tolerance last week. Finally seeing a doctor on Friday was so relieving that I burst into tears and felt like the most pathetic insect on the surface of the planet. Several vials of blood later, and one weekend of wobbling about on legs that feel on the verge of snapping, and no diagnosis beyond that I’m clearly in need of acres of sleep. (Yes, I know that sleep is not measured in acres but I really feel it should be).
He came to me today, the doctor, as I just could not haul my burning body to the clinic. We peered together at a bite-gone-wrong and watched yet another malaria test turn negative. No fever, no massive changes in temperature, but an exhaustion and ache and scorching sensation that has kept me away from work at a time when I have so much to do and so much to prove.
I feel as if I am rocking on a boat, as if the world is swimming and moving away from me. It’s grim. I hate to sound like a hypochondriac, but not one part of my body feels right. I need a hug!
Raining in buckets
The weather has changed of late, maybe a cause of my malaise. Yesterday, it rained with such vigour and might that I expected the water table to rise up to my third floor home. I peered out at my neighbours’ yard and watched them wading through half a metre of brown water. Drainage in Dar is a problem in that there is none. Still, we very much need this rain and have to contend with the obstacles. It is unnerving not to see the sun in all her glory for a few days. It has been overcast for three days and I feel robbed of vitamin D. Oh, hell, how will I ever manage when I decide to return to Europe? A few days without sun and I’m disorientated and tetchy…. I may end up in a sanatorium if I go back to Leeds!
I am looking forward to the future. It may seem odd not to write ‘I’m looking forward to ….’ and then to name a particular event. But I cannot. All I can say now is that, despite feeling like a pounded up piece of flabby meat today, I am terribly eager to see what the future has in store for me. Two years back, I had never stepped foot in Sub Saharan Africa, and I had not met some of the people who have tinted my life with magical shades of myriad colours. So, bugger, I am sick today and will need a few days of rest and juice and honey and bananas, but my goodness I cannot wait to resume my place bobbing along with the brilliant momentum of this world.
I never know who reads this, but whoever you are I trust that the same momentum is carrying you forth in positive ways and that you trust in its ability to stand you on your feet. Listening to the sound of children playing and the distant beat of African music hailing from a bar down the road, I am pretty certain that whatever life force exists is ultimately reliable. It may take you on some rough rides, down cul de sacs and the wrong way along a one way street, but somehow we end up where we should.