I’m home, as the heading probably tipped you off. In fact, I returned to the US two weeks ago to prepare for summer school should I not be accepted (last check put me 6th on the alternate list for medical school at Iowa) (fyi, canceled the internship in the bush as well). Being home early also let me surprise my Pops for his 80th birthday, thanks to a couple of friends who generously escorted me across the US during a week-long road trip. A bit strange to go from public transportation in Dar es Salaam, where one can be inside a van, look down and see the road between their feet, to cruising south down smooth roads through the US in a 2007 red Mustang convertible. And strange also to walk through stores and see all the products, down medicine aisles and see all the creams for any medical ailment imaginable, but each day gets progressively less shocking.
The birthday surprise actually was not all that great partly because I forgot how much my dad hated surprises – and additionally because my family panicked with last minute rearrangements. And then I had an accent that through folks for a loop. They were a bit cautious at first – gauging who I was, why I spoke as I did, and trying to guess a statement this speech was supposed to make, but have since become more open to simply welcoming and accepting me. It is wearing off though, the accent, and hopefully within a few weeks will no longer be a source of confusion for me or them, or random employees in check out lines at grocery stores.
In the mean time, I’m still plugging away trying to make sense of all I have experienced. In particular of late, I think a lot about the bus trip from Dar to Arusha and back. Each way was 9 hours, and at each town through which the bus passed, slews of people of all ages crowded along the sides hoping to sell food stuffs and small items for next to nothing prices. Women arduously carried big buckets of tomatoes, and from an elevated position within the bus, anyone could look below and have their pick. Taller men simply locked their elbows and held heavy barrels above their heads. Kids bore wooden sticks with nails protruding from the top on which they pierced cobs of cooked maize. They steadily held their sticks at window level while competing for proximity on the ground with the older, stronger sellers. One little boy raised three pieces of burnt corn, and that was his living – that dusty old town, lifting what Americans use as cow feed to passerby’s day in, day out. I bought a piece of corn from him for 8 cents, the asking price, and picked the kernels off one by one. I ate it in silence, looking out the window, taking what I saw and holding it against where I’d soon be. My fingers were sore when the corn ran out. I looked down and found blisters where I had been plucking kernels. That was the one of the most subtle but obvious signs of my wealth and therefore privilege and fortune – the food that kid eats every day gave me blisters.
There are other people I think about too, like the boys outside my house who played soccer in the street. Most played barefoot, but some shared a pair of shoes so that one had a left shoe on his left foot and another had the right on his right. How could it be I have accumulated so many shoes back home that I have my own storage box in the basement for the ones I don’t use that often? As is usually the case when traveling, I brought my fair share of junk that I never used; before returning home I gave a lot of my stuff away. When I tossed chap stick to my friend, she studied it carefully then asked what it was. “Oh,” I said, “it’s, uh, chap stick. You know, we put it on our lips to make them soft when they feel dry. Want it?”
She wrinkled her brow and furled up her nose. Slightly puzzled and still unsure of what this thing was, "sure," came her reply. Her voice, however, belied the honest answer, which was, “no, not really, but because it’s a gift, thanks”. I felt silly with this special wax tube, and never realized how luxurious chap stick was until I tried to explain its use to a Tanzanian.
This journey continually forces me to confront difficult questions about life, humanity, purpose, myself, what is right and wrong, and where the criteria for this dichotomy is derived. It challenges me to grapple not just the difference between good and evil, but also the differences between good and right, good and helpful, and good and productive. What is the value of sincere generosity if it is naïve, not having assessed or fully understood the context in which it is being received? Can a doctor who devotes his life to underserved, underprivileged, people groups, rightfully eliciting respect and admiration for his or her noble character, contribute good to the world through his or her intentions and yet leave having not actually helped the people he or she served? Can you alleviate pain in a manner that allows you to feel good about your contribution and yet in a way that fails to bring your patients and their subsequent generations any closer to a sustainable escape from the trap of poverty? These are all open questions, but ones whose answers bear heavily on the future I pursue.
Post-note insert: Here's a clip from a recent email that balances the last paragraph, which I appreciated, and which is a good reminder to anyone regardless of where their passions lay -
"If your return to Africa is dependent upon convincing yourself that it will be worth it, you may never go back. Millions, and I mean millions, of people have tried to fix Africa in one way or another. In some respect, you are fighting a forest fire with a garden hose. But that doesn't mean that you can't try, or that you shouldn't try.
It's the trying that has to be worth it. It's the journey, not the destination. Because if it was the destination then we would all be terribly depressed at the fact that we will end up 6 ft under (baring the afterlife, of course). But we don't just hole up and wait to die, because the journey is worth it.
Your contribution to this world is done. It's a forgone conclusion. It doesn't depend on what you do from here on out, but rather who you are from here on out (which doesn't seem to significantly change). This trip, as I see it, is a symptom of your condition. Your wonderful human condition that will spark progress regardless to what you devote your life. The difference between going to Africa and making an impact and going to Topeka, Kansas and making a difference is a mere formality. You will make unfathomable impacts that cannot be weighed or compared lest you spoil God's curriculum.
When your brain, your heart, and your passion all point in the same direction, you've hit the trifecta. Be sure to run with it."
On a lighter note, I will miss 10-cent avocados, 8-cent tortillas, and 4-cent savory bread rolls.
As for the final take on missions work - gosh, I believe there is freedom in the church, but I've seen it so twisted that I don't know whether or not I could be a bonafide career missionary. At the moment I'd like to return and work as a doctor, hold my own Christian faith (not sent by a mission agency) and let the interactions I have with others and the respect/love I give them be the catalyst for personal change. Maybe in treating people with dignity, those interactions 2000 years down the road will manifest themselves into positive change and a different world.
Before leaving, I picked up The Shackled Continent by Robert Guest, a journalist for the magazine The Economist. In his book he tries to answer why Africa is so screwed up, addressing its past, present and future. It’s brilliant writing and I highly recommend it to anyone wanting to understand African politics. But I bring it up because he closes with these paragraphs that resonated with me:
“I will always be an outsider in Africa. I have never been poor or oppressed, and I grew up in a country where African-style poverty has been unknown for generations. When I wander around Africa, I do so wrapped in the armour that money provides. Where there is violence, I can afford to stay in a hotel with security guards. Where there is sickness, I can buy medicine. Where there is hunger, I can always find something to eat.
“Africa constantly reminds me how lucky I am to have grown up in a rich, peaceful country. If I’d been born in Africa, there’s a good chance that I’d be dead by now, and almost no chance that I’d be racking up so many frequent-flyer miles. I’m a foreigner, so this is an outsider’s perspective, for what it is worth.” – Robert Guest, The Shackled Continent
And so that’s it, the end of the blog. Thanks for reading. And thank you to the ones who have supported me financially and emotionally, and for those of you who prayed throughout these months. I have learned a lot and hope that through this weblog you have also picked up more about these parts of the world and the thoughts, challenges and lessons they hold.
Thank you and sincerely, Benjamin Huntley, Sojourner, Friend
Saturday 5 May, 2007 – 08:03 – Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
The laptop beneath my fingers seems to have slowly taken on a strange feel, having not written much since coming to Tanzania. There are many stories, but at the end they all come down to the same fundamental links: the depth of poverty, the vast and widening expanse between haves and have-nots and the signs of grotesque inhumanity. From the standpoint of shock value, these are awfully fascinating to discover at first. Then they become fascinatingly awful as understanding sets in. Newness wears out and intrigue decays until one looks at reality and sees it as just plain awful. When you get to that point, you don’t feel like writing.
I caught a lift into town a few weeks ago from a lovely older woman who turned out to be Tanzania’s only female oncologist. In a short period of time we covered a lot of ground and suddenly the day’s shakedown switched around so as to first accommodate a walk through the hospital before continuing on with my already made plans.
Her office is a crumbling cubicle, and on the wall hangs what looks like an engine block – a light box to read X-rays. Coming from fancy American clinics, however, one would never believe its functionality until seeing the ancient beast in action. Dispersed throughout the long hallway outside her office lay approximately 70 patients, all hers, all to be seen that day. This is the African waiting room. No chairs, no Dixie cups or water jugs, no secretary to complain to. There are no queues, meaning no apparent order, and yet there is no disorder. Patients just wait. Some stand, leaning against pillars. Others spread their grass-woven mats out along the floor, wrap themselves up in an assortment of colorful blankets, and sleep for hours. And still others sit in the middle of the walkway, all with straight backs and right angles at their waists, sort of as if they were leaning against a wall – except that they are not, and not at all as if they were leaning against a wall as you might imagine. When Westerners lean against walls, our backs still curve; we don’t actually put our butts snug to the corner but rather sit a few inches away and lean back to rest on our shoulders. Africans are all about the right angle, and because they’re comfortable without a wall to lean against, the distribution of bodies in the “waiting room” is pretty homogenous. So when you picture this hallway, don’t just put bodies on the sides, imagining there is a straight, narrow width that runs down the middle of the hallway where you could walk – because it’s not there. But also when you imagine what this place must be like, don’t add noise – don’t add complaining and don’t even add crying babies, because although they are dying, these people wait patiently. Time is elastic in Africa and few keep it, because few have reason to keep it.
That was the outpatient wing. The inpatient section was much like the other hospital I described a few months ago in Rwanda – more patients than beds, some sleeping on the floor. My friend introduced me to a woman from the Comoros Islands. How she got to the mainland nobody knows because she is too poor to cross the ocean by herself. The doctor found her dying in the streets, already a bilateral mastectomy patient – although maybe patient is not the right word, because that implies some sort of continuity of care. When she undraped her bed sheet I nearly gasped. Of course I could not be emotional in front of her, because that would be unprofessional, and she needed every ounce of hope that could possibly be fused in her mutilated body. Her breasts were previously removed, Lord knows where, but it looked like this was done in more of a butcher shop and less of a clinic. Most sadly, not all the cancer had been removed. When she returned to the street the disease spread – everywhere, and that’s when the doctor who gave me a lift found her.
Moving on. It started to rain heavily, and the lesser-sick patients ran outdoors with large 30-gallon plastic jugs to collect drinking water from the roofs. If you have not already done so, pause for a moment and picture what that looks like.
As we left, the oncologist softly spoke some understanding words, “I think you have seen a lot today. You will have a lot to write about”. I nodded, still trying to process it all. Yeah it is a lot to write about, but it is poison that I’ve already choked down. And there are lots of these poisons everyday – kids without shoes, piles of burning trash in ditches, flood waters from the African rains that wreak havoc everywhere. So the next question is what can I do about these bludgeoning realities? I don’t have any answers yet, other than to say I’m hungrier now than ever before to get back to the classroom and continue my education. Einstein claimed he was not inherently different from anyone else and that he had no intellectual super powers that were not also available to the rest of the world. What set him apart, he said, was that he never quit. He never stopped thinking about how to get answers – and could even sit in a chair for two or three days, staring at a problem until he made headway. Perhaps the next few years of education, through the lens of these experiences, will be that chair for me.
One of the most shocking truths I’ve discovered in my return trip to Africa is the universality of ignorance. Recall that last year I spent some months in rural Kenya where the warriors my age wore feathers in their hair, and a noticeable percentage of the patients were nomads who had walked upwards of 80km through the desert for health care. It was the fantasy - everything we romanticize about Africa. But it left me with an unbalanced understanding of the region. In the bush, by necessity of survival, people knew each other and wealth was fairly evenly shared. Maybe the chief owned four times as many cows as the average man, which seems like a big deal when you live within the parameters of that life – but step back to look at it from the standpoint of urban wealth and that is merely splitting hairs.
In urban regions there is a disgusting discrepancy between rich and poor. People neither understand each other nor care to understand each other. Previously I believed that only the West cared so little about the present state of pain and suffering of other humans in the world – but it is every bit as present in Africa as well. Many here have no idea what life is like for the majority, nor do they care to ever let their children step foot down the muddy places people in the Swahili parts calls streets. They live in fancy houses behind big fences and pay much less than they can afford to a handful who tend their gardens and guard their houses. And these are Africans I’m talking about, not just expatriates. How could there be Africans who didn’t know Africa? Growing up, I remember whenever food was left on a plate inevitably someone would say, “There are people starving in Africa and you aren’t going to finish your food!?”. The snotty response every vegetable-wary child rattled back was an order to box their leftovers up and ship them over. This extravagant life is indeed hard to swallow, but what pains me about humanity even more is that people are not starving because of any shortage of food – they are starving because all the food is at their neighbor’s, who unfortunately don’t give a damn.
But just because I’ve made this analysis does not mean I am immune from the same ignorance. Over my weeks in Tanzania I have become good friends with a white Zimbabwean who wants to know how I can be so curious about Africans and know so little about Native Americans. I don’t have any good answers to give him and must settle for realizing my own ignorance.
There are loads of beautiful things here: shimmering sunsets, sparkling children, and wonderful landscapes – and I could write pages of analogies, using brilliant adjectives to paint fantastic pictures for your minds to visit, but I don’t see the point in getting all romantic about them. Here are some things I have enjoyed, however.
To greet someone who is of an older age set, one says shikamoo, meaning “accept my blessing”. The response is marhaba: “blessing accepted”. When children use Shikamoo, adults stoop down so the young ones, who have already eagerly raised their hands, can touch their elder’s forehead, a physical gesture of blessings being passed.
The word for bird, ndege, is the same word for airplane. Imagine how that came to be.
And speaking of language, rangi means color. Example: rangi nyekundu is red, or literally the ‘color red’. Now hang with me for a little bit. The suffix adjective –zee means old, and putting an m in front implies it belongs to a person, so mzee is an elder. Alright, one more step before putting it all together – damu is the word for blood. I already told you how to say ‘red’, but now comes ‘maroon’ – rangi ya damu ya mzee – or literally, the color of an old man’s blood. That’s pretty sweet.
As bumpy and painfully uncomfortable as un-graded dirt roads outside the city are, there is something nice about imperfection – something that causes you to appreciate other things in life that might otherwise be taken for granted, and something which I will miss when I am home.
Each night I fall asleep to the sound of waves from the Indian Ocean that lap against the shore – nothing quite like that in Iowa.
Although they can be incredibly uncompassionate toward each other, people here cannot be faulted for any lack of hospitality. Having a guest is more than an honor, and there is no concept of over-staying one’s welcome. It is, however, possible to under-stay your time, which becomes obvious if you try to leave after only staying in someone’s house for a week.
See you in a few weeks- BJFH
Ps. Something of potential interest. Whereas pregnant women in the West tend to crave chocolate, pregnant women in Tanzania crave Udungo – which is dirt, caked together and rolled into a rod-like shape. It is fine, not too course, and tastes like a dusty road.
Last Saturday in Dar es Salaam a thief rendered me deflated, stealing my phone and a good chunk of money. The lady I live with urged me to continue on with my travel plans or, as she so adamantly believed, the thief would win – walking away with more than just what was in my pocket. For me it’s not about winning or losing, but taking an adventure with the momentum of eagerness, curiosity and ambition riding behind me. Although these were snuffed out prematurely when I lost my naïve trust in humanity, after some pouting I took my fear to the bus station and set off to Moshi, 7.5 hours north, with neither plans nor even so much as a place to stay.
About halfway up I squirmed a little when I realized what I was doing was crazy, then sent a barrage of text messages to the only four numbers in the directory of my replacement phone. To my great fortune, a woman who gave me a lift a few days earlier had family in the area, and wrote back saying her father would pick me from the station, adopt me as a temporary son and take me home.
As Africa goes, we arrived late. The lot was full of hustlers and hawkers, packed with pushing people and helplessly overwhelmed police - all causing a great bout of anxiety to well up within me. I called the father-figure as the bus parked, who eased my worries with a few syllables: Ninakuona – I see you! There were a trillion people on the other side of the window, but with a click glance I spotted him as well - the same way we pick out the main character as a movie opens; something quirky about the way he or she is dressed tips us off. Although to me the man I’d soon call Baba was a stranger, he could not have been anyone else in the crowd - a stout, pot-bellied old fellow, cloaked in a sky-blue blazer who carried an umbrella that functioned as a cane. Mustered beneath his hand-me-down feathered hat were some scraggly white hairs of a rather mellow beard. We became instant friends, quickly whisking away to his home.
Iabout wet my pants when a tiny window in the smothering clouds opened to reveal a corner of Kilimanjaro. Baba was clearly honored to have hosted my first glimpse but embarrassed that, in his eyes, I received a measly introduction to his mountain. He insisted we somewhere to get a better view – from his father’s house. Never would I ever have imagined we’d actually live on the mountain for the next few days.
It was a quick ride in a daladala (or matatu, as it’s called elsewhere – again, these are the overcrowded public transport vans of Tanzania) to the base of the mountain. The next leg was equally crammed, but taken standing up in the back of a pick up truck, encircled with metal bars to keep everyone in – and it went up the mountain, bouncing back and forth between rivets until the path ended. The rest we crossed on foot, hiking alongside and over crisscrossing open irrigation streams that cut through the rainforest, eventually making their way to maize fields below. I never wondered where water came from before. At home it comes out the faucet – piped from somewhere, but I never think of the pipes. But there it was, flowing through thin, age-old trenches that have been passed down from generation to generation for longer than anyone can remember. When streams need to cross paths, one is dug down a bit while the other passes via a hollowed-out tree-trunk-bridge. This way no farmer steals from another’s rightful supply.
We took some locally brewed banana beer, caught our breath, then continued on our way. One more stop to give condolences to a family grieving the death of a grandma before finally reaching home. Babu (his father, my grandfather) is an equally pleasant man, although has been set back with a mysteriously and incredibly swollen leg. He is happy to be in the village, though – because everything he needs is there.
Life in the rainforest was a splendid discovery. The mountain was exactly how I have always pictured the garden of Eden to look – food is just, well, there. And in abundance. Who ever knew that bananas grew like packets of food on trees? Certainly not I, who always thought they came from the grocery store. There are many varieties too – bananas for eating and those for beer – and within the eating subgroup are sweet bananas, like we eat, and starchy bananas, like potatoes. The forest is also donned in a plethora of trees, bushes and shrubs that produce avocados, cherries, mangoes, raspberries, tea leaves and coffee beans. To top off their food choices, locals also raise chickens, cows and pigs.
But back to the fruit: please allow me to be your mental tour-guide through perhaps my most interesting food discovery. It is called Finesi in Swahili, but more popularly referred to as the most bizarre fruit known to man. Picture yourself, arm out, holding a pear in your hand. Pick a color somewhere between green and yellow and feel the pear’s weight as it rests in your palm. Here comes the fun part. Hold the pear’s shape, but now imagine it to be the size of one’s abdomen. Replace its smooth skin with something more prickly, like the dodecagon you constructed out of a zillion pieces of paper folded into triangles half way through Junior High math. It’s green, heavy, pokey enough to leave indents in your skin but not so much that it hurts. Now cut it in half lengthwise. Peel the halves apart to find what looks like a pineapple-esque interior. But what look like the grains of a piece of pineapple are actually pods of fleshy fruit packed together, each impregnated with its own seed. Remove one of these meaty casings, the fruit, and notice that now held up it looks like Rigatoni pasta, except that inside is a sort of amniotic sack that nourishes the growing nut. You can even spin the nut round and round by gently squeezing your fingertips on the outside. The nut is edible, and anything that might be left over is fed to the animals so as waste nothing. The limp, macaroni fruit smells awful, but is darn sweet and great finger food. Grossed out? Intrigued? It is called Jackfruit in English – feel free to pause for a moment to run a google search if you need to see it to believe it; I won’t go anywhere.
The following morning a local fellow and I went for a 45-minute hike through a valley and back up the mountain on the other side. We crisscrossed the same stream half a dozen times but at different altitudes, cut through hand-me-down plots and their respective grass huts, and finally ended up at the butcher’s shop where he bought a couple kilos of beef, hacked off from a dangling carcass. We did stop twice for his asthmatic relief – which turned out to be a small glass of locally brewed whisky at each break. I took a sip, not knowing it wasn’t water… about died. He drank whole glass. Ironically enough in spite of the alcohol, I tripped and stumbled, up and down the mountain, a whole lot more frequently than he did… but then again, he was born on the mountain, and I come from a place where people now get to and fro on Segways so they don’t have to walk.
After a few days left the village, walked down the mountain and into town. There I caught a bus from Moshi to Arusha, and stayed the week with Baba’s son. He and his wife were a lovely couple, in their late 20’s or early 30’s, and shared a small living space, made significantly smaller when it accommodated a third person. But it was a real home – a place with character, somewhere one walks in and feels warm – and they love having guests. In fact, for them it is an honor. Although for all intents and purposes, I came a stranger, from the first day they loved me as nothing less than family – and when I left they nearly cried. They begged me to stay, and put on the guilt trip for returning early (it had only been five days). We were friends, cooking together, sharing everything, laughing with one another and even traveling to see some animals a close to their home. Late into the evening of the night before I departed, well after the lights were out, she came into my room, checked that I was still awake, and presented me fabric – a gift they wished to send my sister when I return home. And this I found to be characteristic of most everywhere I went within the country. Tanzanians, at least those with whom I interacted, are in incredibly hospitable and welcoming people.
Today was an all around pretty rotten day, mostly because bad things happened to me and I failed to choose a positive reaction. It started off well – a phone call from home and an hour-long conversation with my mom. We did not talk about anything serious, but it was nice to hear her voice and be cared about from so far away. She convinced me to carve out time to see animals and check out Kilimanjaro before returning home. I do not normally choose to spend money on myself for luxuries, but it seemed like a nice idea - a treat to myself after all these months - so I went into town to withdraw money from the ATM.
There is a machine just opposite of the main bus stage that I have always sworn I’d never use. The glass doors and the ATM’s proximity to such a busy area practically invite pick-pocketing. But today was hot, I was tired, and it was only going to be once. Like lions picking out a meal, they must have been sitting back, watching people, looking for targets – otherwise they would never have picked me with my dirt-stained shirt and holed shoes, carrying a grass-woven basket and some wooden spoons from the market; I did not look like the wazungu with money who take taxis and wear ties. But they watched everything I did – analyzed my moves, calculated their chances, and determined I was it.
The money was in my front pocket, zipped closed, along with my other valuables – phone, camera, et cetera. Just like every other day, a zillion people were trying to get in and out of the matatu simultaneously. I was somewhere near the back of the bulge trying to squeeze in when the commotion kicked off. I’m not sure how I knew I was being robbed – perhaps it was the slight shift in weight, or maybe a sixth sense? Somehow I knew. The rest happened really fast. I turned around and immediately picked him out of the crowd, then lunged and had him in my arms, screaming so as to draw everyone’s attention. But good thieves work in teams, and already the first handoff, half my money, had been made. He threw his half on the ground and all eyes followed, creating a distraction for his partner to slip away. When I bent down to pick it up, my phone was there too. Quickly, though, the guy next to me (probably the one who was about to take the next hand off) told me it was his, so, confused, I handed it to him – then he was gone. By this time onlookers had gotten involved – younger Tanzanians were holding the thief while outraged elders slapped him across the face. They were all ashamed of their countryman.
People wanted to report him to the police, so half the mob went together. We got there in a hurry, but I realized my phone was gone, as was the other cut of money. Neither were recoverable, and seeking just punishment was not going to change the situation – nor would it have changed his behavior. So, deciding to save time and energy on the follow-up work, I cut my losses, declined the report and let him go. We spontaneously shook hands – twice, actually, one after another - which was kind of odd. The first was to convey that what was done was done, in the past, and that we should move on. The second had a more intentional feel, more knowing, less settling – something closer to forgiveness. I was not fully there yet, but could not stay in an angry state much longer without suffocating in my own evil – hatred, pride, and self-centeredness. You know how it goes – before attempting forgiveness all one can do is dwell in victimization and wallow in self-pity – and what useful purposes do those serve?
But I’m no saint. Like a float toy at the base of a dam, my mind cycled through tension, confusion and anger the rest of the day. Things happen for a reason, yes – but trying to figure out what that is, is a waste of time because I’ll never know. At best I might stumble across a reason that is good enough to appease my angst, but who knows if that will be right? So I relinquished control of the reason thing as well and just tried to move on. What I do know is that at least I walked away from being robbed without any bullets or knives – and I still have four working appendages, ease with breathing and an intact mind, and that’s more than enough to be grateful for.
Friday 13 April, 2007 – 06:01 – Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
Although one month’s time has long since passed without any new entries from Bongo (east African slang for Dar es Salaam), there is certainly no shortage of stories to relay. It is a shame, though, that so many tales have amassed – because it seems now they are being reported out of a sense of duty rather than told out of a sense of joy. But I’ll do my best to recreate the colors these experiences first came to me in.
Let us start at the airport. Whereas in the West passengers file through a gauntlet of security check points before being funneled through an enormous metal sock leading directly from the gate to the door of the aircraft, in Africa they walk out to the airplane, greeting it on the runway, and they deplane in the same manner. It was late into the evening when my flight landed, but when stepping into darkness I was immediately aware of the ocean’s proximity. The air was humid, smelling like salt and slowing all movement, but I waded through its weight, picked up my bags and carried on to find my ride.
But in Africa, little ever goes as planned. So at 10:30PM I was alone in a new country, stranded at an airport, without communication, I did not know my host and there was nobody to meet me. As kindly ladies always seem to show in these situations, an African sister took both notice and pity, letting me place a call from her cell phone. However, my host was so ill and hoarse te into the evening when my flight landed, but when stepping into darkness I was immediately aware of the ocean’s proximity. The air was humid, smelling like salt and slowing all movement, but I waded through its weight, picked up my bags and carried on to finshe could not speak – and after a long-winded introduction of who I was, how she knew me and a question about how to get to her house, all I heard in response were a few groans of unrecognizable instructions before she hung up. Without warning I was back in Africa, alone, with no clue as to what was going on. Pretty typical, though, and not cause for panic by any means. Through a series of SMS messages and calls from friends of hers, I reached my new home by taxi safe and sound enough.
She lives in a beautiful house – both by the Rwandese standards I had come to adopt and by American standards I once thought were, well, standard. We are two in a large home, with the exception of the garden boy and his wife who live in a smaller structure in the corner of the property. And on that note, the whole property is a garden – palm trees, cactuses, and an array of colored flowers of all shapes and sizes carefully hedged, clipped, trimmed and sculpted to perfection. The interior is also lovely.
Those who know say the best Swahili in the world is spoken in Tanzania. So to TZ I went, with the sole objective to learn – because in the future I want to return as a doctor who is not isolated from his patients by a language barrier. Within two days classes began – and three weeks later yours truly graduated from beginner level and started life in the big world of intermediate Kiswahili.
Each morning I walk, run or bike to class 5km on the beach along the Indian Ocean. The other day the tide was out and two fishermen had carried a defunct boat to the flat of the sand where the water previously sat. They propped it on stilts and set it ablaze – the boat fully engulfed in flames. Because the sun was rising behind them, everything was silhouetted except for the intensely red and orange fire. The heat billowing from the boat cause the colors form the flame to mix with the silhouette of the fishermen as if they were painted with oil pastels. And of course the pockets of water sprinkled across the flat sand where the tide had receded shimmered with the morning sun. As always, it was a beautiful morning in Africa.
I love the beach for its unpredictability. Some days I see boats burning, other days I find incredible sea shells, stop to help fishermen pull their nets in, or pass youth and elders alike practicing kung fu – totally crazy, but oddly totally normal. And on the best days I get to do all of these and more. When I’m home before the sun sets, sometimes I catch pick up soccer games with the Maasai. We all run around together – me with shorts and a watch around my wrist, them with robes and billyclubs and sometimes machetes around their waist.
At the end of three weeks of beginner classes I composed the following letter. If you find languages interesting, have fun reading the Swahili (a mix of Bantu, Arabic and English), but if not then jump down a bit and I’ll translate it to English.
Habari Zenu Rafiki Na Familia Yangu-
Hamjambo? Maisha hapa ni mazuri sana. Sasa niko Tanzania, lakini kabla ya kuja Dar es Salaam nilikaa Rwanda. Huko, kama mnajua, nilikuwa mwalimu chuo kikuu na nilifanya kazi hospitalini na rafiki zangu wanyarwanda.
Lakini, kama nilivyosema mwanzao wa hii barua, nimekuja karibu na bahari kusoma Kiswahili. Kila siku huenda shuleni. Ndani ya darasa mwalimu wangu na mimi tunajaribu kufundishana. Nataka kujifunza harakaharaka lakini siwezi – kujifunza lugha mtu anahitaji muda – hivyo (kwa sababu sijifunzi haraka) sina furaha kila siku. Lakini hakuna matata, nitajua – kila wiki ninajifunza polepole. Oneni – sasa hivi ninawaandikia hii barua! Nimejifunza!
Nimekaa Mbezi Bich, karibu sana na bahari ya hindi, ndani ya nyumba ya rafiki wa mama mdogo doto yangu. Jina lake ni Sue, na yeye ni mwema kabisa. Ninampenda sana, na mimi napenda kulala ndani ya nyumba kubwa na nzuri (tunakaa peke yetu kwenye nyumba moja) lakini tunaongea kiingereza pamoja. Nilipolala huko sikujifunza kiswahili haraka. Hivyo mara kwa mara nimeamua kulala na rafiki yangu John uswahlini kwa watu maskini. Hapa ninajifunza mishemishe – kula chapati kwenye takataka na matope sana, kwenda choo kichafu, kulala bila umeme – sisi ni watu watatu kwenye kitanda kimoja – kuamka kwenye kelele za watoto wafrika – kuwa na furaha bila hela. Nitakaporudi Marekani, nitataka kurudi hapa Afrika kukaa, kuishi, na kupenda. Lakini ninaelewa lazima niendelee kusomo shule ya dawa hivyo nitakuwa daktari, hivyo nitaweza kuwasaidia watu na matatizo yao, hivyo nitaitambuusha dawa kwa romtakatifu, na kuaombea wagonjwa na sisi wote tutakuwa karibu na yesu kristo. Hiki ndicho ninachotaka – basi.
Hii imekuwa safari nzuri, lakini sasa nikotayari kuwa pamoja na familia yangu. Nimejifunza vitu vingi vingine pia, lakini tunaweza kuongea nitakaporudi nyumbani Marekani. Asanteni kwa kusoma mpaka hapa na tutaonana mwezi kesho kutwa.
Awapendaye, Ni mimi rafiki, kaka na kijana wenu, Benjamin Huntley
How are you all, my friends and family –
Are you doing well? Life here is very good. Currently I am in Tanzania, but before arriving in Dar es Salaam I was staying in Rwanda. There, as you all know, I was a university teacher and worked in a hospital with my Rwandan friends.
But, as I said to begin this letter, I came close to the ocean to study Swahili. Every day I go to school. In class my teacher and I are trying to learn together. I want to learn quickly but cannot – to learn a language one needs time – so (because I am not learning quickly) I am not happy every day. But no worries, I will learn – every week I am learning slowly. Look – I am now writing you this letter! I am learning!
I stay in Mbezi Beach, very close to the Indian Ocean, in the home of a friend of my aunt’s. Her name is Sue and she is very nice. I like her a great deal and love sleeping in a nice, big home (we are the only ones for the single house) but we speak to each other in English. When I sleep there I do not learn Swahili quickly. So from time to time I have decided to spend the night with my friend John in the slum with the poor people. Here I am learning the ways of the people – to eat local food in the midst of garbage and tons of mud, to use dirty bathrooms, to sleep without electricity – we are three people in one bed – to wake up to the noise of African children – to be happy without money. When I return to the US I am going to want to return here to Africa to stay, to live and to love. But I understand I must continue my medical studies so I can become a doctor, so I can help people with their problems, so I can introduce medicine with the Holy Spirit, pray for the sick and all draw closer to Christ together. That is all I want.
This has been a good trip, but now I am ready to be with my family. I have learned many other things as well, but we can discuss these when I return home. Thank you all for reading to this point and we’ll see each other the month after next.
With love, It’s me, your friend, brother and son- Benjamin Huntley
The slum is a wild and electrifying place, packed with people, movement, and business – buying and selling, eating and drinking, loud music, rhythmic life, mamas, babas, and aunties, baba’s babies and baba’s babies from baba’s babies’ other mama, laughing children, crying children, kids with clothes and those without, vegetable stands - ripe and rotten… I am tempted to describe it as unity in chaos, but this is only accurate according to the lens of the life I know, not according to their norms. My perceptions are not their perceptions, nor can I say they are better or worse – just different. It is dirty, though. The streets are narrow passages of mud, crowded with markets and shacks on either side. But it’s not mud like you and I might picture mud – it is blackened from oil, garbage, gasoline, trash, vomit, fish guts – waste of all sorts that turns walking through the slum into a game of hopscotch, only you don’t dare reach down to pick anything up – that is, unless you’re a kid, in which case everything becomes a potential chew toy.
This is an abused land, dating back a couple of hundred years to the beginning of the slave trade in the 16th century. Half hour up the road by car is a town called Bagamoyo, the former mainland slave-trading hub of eastern Africa. Here were brought peoples from what are the present day countries Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Kenya, Mozambique and Tanzania. Let me break down the town’s telling name. In Swahili, moyo means heart – and bagamoyo, coming from the Bantu verb kubwaga – to lay down - means to lay one’s heart down. This was the last Africa slaves touched, aside from a layover in Zanzibar, before being shackled and hauled to India, Oman, and other northern slave-importing countries. In spite of David Livingstone’s contribution and the Christian church’s fight to abolish slavery in east Africa, the Arab-Islamic influence remains much stronger than that of the Christian church (I specify Arab because there are many Arab Tanzanians, and much of the culture, even the artwork, has been filtered through an Arab lens). On the island of Zanzibar, for example, the population is estimated to be 80% Islamic – and both black and Arab Africans worship in mosques harmoniously.
I was to Zanzibar last week for a mini-vacation (By the way, interesting fact – the mainland was formerly called Tanganyika but when it merged with Zanzibar as one country the two names put together became Tanzania. Strangely enough, although Tanzania is one country it has two presidents – one for Zanzibar and the internationally recognized one for the mainland Tanzania). The island is a photographer’s near-paradise. Although by ferry it is only 2 hours (or about 15 miles) off the coast, it certainly has its own feel. Stone Town, the largest city, strongly reminded me of Damascene alleyways – fruit stands, mosques, children sitting three wide in an open doorway, old buildings, Koran recitations and friendly people – half of whom are Arab. The island is best known for its doors, though. Zanzibari doors are carefully, delicately and beautifully carved masterpieces that in older days told a family’s genealogy. In Stone Town is a large church, the pulpit of which stands intentionally and directly on the former slave stage. As I said, Africans were taken from the inland to Zanzibar. At that point, they were then chained and starved for two days in a tiny underground pit. A trench ran through the middle of the pit (see picture) that filled with sea water at high tide, washing the feces away. After two days detainment, the men were taken to the whipping post – those who screamed, a sign of weakness, earned less money. Under pressure from the British Navy, the former Sultan of Zanzibar abolished slave-trading in the late 1800’s, but it continued as an underground practice (literally, the slaves were kept in caves and shuttled out 50 at a time to touch and go slave ships) until 1907. But like the rest of Africa, there is more to this place than gut-wrenching stories of weakness, abuse and horror. Traveling around the island, I discovered plenty to do. One afternoon my host ordered grilled shrimp and a bottle of wine to go, and we set off by boat with local fishermen to swim with dolphins. What beautiful creatures they are, the dolphins – massive yet incredibly caring. They seemed to effortlessly swim against the current while I kicked as hard as I could to keep up. Imagine me neck and neck with a school of dolphins. From the boat you might see my head, a constant above the water, and then fins of dolphins curve in and out of view. They swam beneath me, behind me and to either side. But unfortunately just when it seemed I was having a beautiful moment with nature, the one in front shat in my face mask. So if you ever tell me you swam with dolphins, don’t be surprised when I bitterly ask if you were close enough to see them poop.
But all joking aside, there are lovely moments on the island. There is the beauty in watching a fisherman catch squid, casting a throw of line that is tide around his waist off the side of a cliff and pulling it back in hand over hand in a fluid motion for the evening’s meal. The white man needs his gear – the nice shoes, a fancy belt to hold his new rod, tension-tested nylon string – and he is either disappointed when the hook comes back empty or overly elated when it comes back full. The African man is free – poor with ragged clothes, but rich in spirit – free from contrived emotions. I have wondered a lot this week if, given the opportunity, I would choose his life or mine. Perhaps the ignorance of the island is not ignorance at all, but knowledge and the ability to be spiritual. And perhaps – if materialism comes at the cost of spirituality – my cultural upbringing put me more further back than it did further forward. At one point I decided I would have still selected my life, because I at least have choice in how and where to live – but then I realized that although I can choose to visit him (whereas he cannot choose to visit me), knowing where I come from, I could never mentally live as he lives. Even with money and privilege, I cannot access his world just as without money and privilege he cannot access mine. I am still trying to figure out who has the upper hand.
I carried a sketchpad with me to jot down my thoughts. Originally I hoped to expand them into full stories, but this is getting to be quite lengthy as is, so here they are in short (take me out for coffee or something when I return and I’ll tell you all about them):
One day we were in the middle of the Indian Ocean, off coast of Zanzibar, and kicked off a smaller island.
Another day I went snorkeling with an mzee (old man) and found a giant clam on the ocean floor. We wanted to take it ashore, but it was stuck and had to be pried loose. We alternated turns - banging on, wiggling, twisting, and pulling, trying to get it out. As a young, fit early-twenties kid, I could only hold my breath for thirty seconds by the time I swam down there before racing back up for air. He was old and frail, but had spent his life chasing octopus underwater, and each time gently glided down to the clam, staying for a minute or two, before coming back up. Lovely to watch.
On Easter Sunday I sat around a communal bowl with seven local fishermen and shared dinner by the ocean as the sun set. We had a large mound of rice, and one of the men was in charge of placing a new fish (eyes, tail and all) on top when the old one ran out. We ate with our right hands, as is customary, scooping a fistful of rice, squeezing it a few times between fingers and palm, then reaching forward and pinching some meat off the fish skeleton with our handy opposable thumbs. It was not anything I would order, and yet you could never pay for the company.
When I was in Zanzibar I got up early one more to go for a walk along the ocean. As the sun was rising a guy in a boat passed close-by. With his permission, I waded out to the boat, hopped in and off we went to the middle of the bay to go octopus hunting. He jumped in the water with snorkel and fins, swam off and was gone for a long time – so eventually I followed suit, only jumping in to swim a great distance back ashore.
Oh, and one last story from before Zanzibar. As I wrote, I had been staying in the slum, walking around at night through streets lit by the flicker of candles from the occasional octopus stand, or by the kerosene lamp of a mama selling tortillas. In Swahili they use a word mishemishe to mean the ways of the people, and I had started to understand the life that meant. One night, however, I decided to go back to the mzungu house to use the internet to communicate with the States. But my key broke and I was locked out (my mzungu host friend had left the country). She lives on the outskirts of town, about an hour’s walk to what you could start to consider city, and it was dark, which meant it was dangerous to be white and alone on the street. So like anyone might do, I went to the neighbor across the way, rang the bell and sweet-talked my way into spending the night. Bear in mind that I smell, having been sleeping on a mildewy mattress, I’m covered in a combination of dirt, sweat and mud from having just played barefoot soccer out front, and I have bloody feet for the same reason. Not a big deal – my neighbor just turned out to be the sister of Joseph Kabila, current president of the Democratic Republic of Congo – and their father, Laurent, before his assassination, was Congo’s former president. I ate a piece of her son’s birthday cake before going to bed – because, you know, they have fancy things like cake. The next day I was back in the slum, hunched over in a dirty corner with four mamas, cooking food together, laughing and continuing to learn mishemishe.
On a short note, I am going to have an overnite layover in London on my return trip to the United States and was wondering if anybody knew anyone in the city that would like to host me for an evening. Please email me, or have them email me, if you can help me out in that respect.
Out of respect for my host families, and for their privacy, I'm not going to post mailing addresses online. But if you ever want to send a letter through the postal service, shoot me an email and I'll get you secret passwords to reach me. Pretty much my stance on international mail is that I like to get it.