Friday, December 15, 2006

Pope Valley, 11th August

My young nephew says, “You’ll never guess what’s in the freezer!” and everyone laughs. We had just been discussing the birth of eight Irish Wolfhound puppies, my mum and dad proud and exhausted parents, up at three in the morning to the whimper and scuffle of little paws as they make sure that the canine mother does not inadvertently squish a puppy beneath her enormous frame. I wonder about that and, if I had eight puppies hanging off my teats, whether I wouldn’t inadvertently roll over on top of one or two.

“What’s in the freezer?” I don’t want to ask the question or hear the answer but my nephew is so excited about it, he’s bouncing on his skinny knees next to me on the couch, grinning. I have helped weigh the puppies and am aware that we only weighed seven little bundles of joy. So I think I know what is in the freezer.

I have come home for two weeks to Pope Valley California from Tanzania for a holiday, but specifically to be part of the rare event that all my family members are in the same place at once. It took me three days to get here and I am unsure if people should be allowed to travel so far in such a short space of time, without transport, without any process to account for time and space changing so drastically. Not to mention my bowels’ adverse reaction to additives, preservatives and e numbers.

I knew it would be a sort of circus. My mum fore-warned me that, ‘things will just be crazy’ and ‘ you’ll just have to bear with us’. Family circus aside, the shock and awe of America never softens no matter how many times you return. Culture shock manifests itself in many different ways, conscious and sub-conscious, external (large shopping malls and thousands of TV channels) and internal (longing to talk to someone who understands the meaning of hali halisi or why I went to Africa in the first place).

So, somewhere in the freezer, wrapped up and sitting snug in a ziplock bag, is the small frozen body of the eighth puppy. My parents are amused by the look of disgust on my face and the shock in my voice, “Are you serious?” My nephew, bouncing and grinning, nods his head frantically. “So, if I dig around in the back of the freezer looking for frozen peas, I might actually come across a frozen puppy?” My mum says, “No, no. He’s right at the front, just under the ice cube tray.” She finds this hilarious. I find it disturbing. I wonder if my parents are considering cryogenics.

There are many times on trips back to England or America from Tanzania, when I find myself asking, perhaps unfairly, “What would Tanzanians think?” At my parents house it is no different. I find myself wondering what Tanzanians would think of our massive American fridge, well stocked with all sorts of foods, drinks and condiments. But it is not a fair comparison. Some people have a picture in their heads that Africans live in ascetic simplicity in mud huts, that they are somehow nobler because of their lack of fridges and drinks and condiments. But Tanzanians are just like the rest of us – they like TV, big cars, money. What is noble about the Tanzanians I know, is that they do not give up their sense of humour about the absurdity of life, even when everything is shit and the Big Potatoes remain Big Potatoes despite rampant corruption and impotent politics.

And yet, as I watch my nephew go to open the freezer, I do feel fairly justified in asking myself, What would Tanzanians think about keeping a frozen puppy in the freezer?

The Wahehe, the local tribe, are reknowned for their ferocity (they successfully battled the Germans’ canons and guns back in the day, before being slaughtered), their tendency to commit suicide (Chief Mkwawa killed himself before the Germans could get to him) and the rumour that they eat dogs.

Some people say that the Hehe word for beans “dogi” was misunderstood by colonials. Others, say it is just a myth. I once came across a band of street kids trying to kill a scabby dog. Almost all the dogs here are mangy and quite often dangerous, rarely cute and cuddly, probably because people do not treat them as pets. Most dogs are locked up in small wooden ‘bandas’ during the day and let out at night when they become ferocious guards. The kids had tied ropes to the dog’s legs and were banging it against the pavement. I wondered how kids can be so cruel to animals. I wanted them to stop. But when I asked them what they were doing, the kids looked up at me and said, We are hungry.

I think about the frozen puppy in the freezer at my parents’ house. I think about the litter of puppies that were born near the rubbish hole in our garden here, under the papaya tree. One died of something mysterious and awful and I remember coming upon him in early morning, his body hard and taught, eyes open, vacant. I was heartbroken. And besides, what do you do with a dead dog?

Our Tanzanian freezer is tiny and anyway it never crossed my mind to put him in the freezer, even if there was a ziplock baggie big enough. Luckily for us, we have a night guard who helps us with the things that we didn’t grow up with – dead dogs, big rats, massive cockroaches, robbers. Valentino, an old and cheeky Hehe man, laughs bronchially every time we shout for him to throw out the body of a poisoned rat or tackle the black wasps that sting your eyes and temporarily paralyse you. He chuckles when he sees me, near to tears, as I show him the puppy corpse. He loves the fact that we need him. He says we are like his grandchildren.

My eight year old nephew is back to bouncing on the couch next to me, cackling. He wants me to look in the freezer, he wants me to look at the frozen puppy. He has all the enthusiasm for gore that his age demands. My brother is reading a book but I can see him smiling out of the corner of my eye. Everyone is vaguely amused by my repulsion and I know Valentino would be laughing, too, though perhaps for different reasons.

I disappoint my nephew and start pulling ingredients out of the cupboards for lunch. I would rather spend my time in California enjoying the family circus and appreciating the easy comfort, the kitchen appliances and the beauty of the oak speckled valley where my parents live.

Several months later, I am back in Tanzania, and it occurs to me to ask my parents why they were keeping the eighth puppy in the freezer. I am used to their eccentricities now, though it still disturbs me to think that I have been replaced by four Irish Wolfhounds, or that the cost of feeding such mammoth dogs is inappropriate if you plug it into my worldview. It seems somehow wrong to me when there is so much need elsewhere.

I have never directly said this to my parents for fear of upsetting them but also because it sounds unbelievably self-righteous. They have built their lives around their dogs and they love them without apology or embarrassment. So I am learning to do the same, to accept my parents for who they are and realise that long before dog shows and irish wolfhound paraphernalia, my parents devoted their entire lives to the two little blobs that became myself and my brother. They made us and then helped make us who we are and for that I am only just starting to be grateful.

My dad tells me the reason the eighth puppy was in the freezer. The ground was too hard to dig a grave deep enough to stop the coyotes from exhuming and munching on the body. Fair enough, I think.

“It should not be physically possible to get from the banks of the Pepani river to Wyoming in less than two days, because mentally and emotionally it is impossible. The shock is too much, the contrast too raw. We should sail or swim or walk from Africa, letting bits of her drop out of us, and gradually, in this way assimilate the excesses and liberties of the States in tiny incremental sips, maybe touring through South America and Mexico before trying to stomach the land of the Free and the Brave.”
– Alexandra Fuller, Scribbling the Cat

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Beer Bottle Legs

I have been away for no longer than a week, in the lowlands stretching towards the Mozambicque border, in Songea a southern regional town with red dirt and hot sun. I was attending a conference for the organisation I work for and we were put up in a crumbling government hotel attached to the football stadium, which also doubled as the Coka Cola depot. We woke every morning to the rhythmic crashing of crates of empty bottles thrown from truck to depot, from depot to truck.

The MajiMaji Complex smelled alternatively of urine and beer. My colleague warned me of cockroaches ‘the size of cats’ and I did see some the size of a small mobile phones scurry from the light as I walked into my room. The mosquito net seemed intact and yet still in the middle of the night, half awake, I sensed the little mozzies buzzing and in feverish half-sleep scratching bites. I woke up to red and raised bumps on suprising parts of my body. When I tried to inspect every corner of the net for stray mosquitoes I found a tag in the corner revealing it came from UNICEF.

On returning to Iringa, I feel like I am coming home. The mountains, scattered with boulders like God’s marbles, rise up behind the town.

As I walk into the office, Fatuma greets me with her massive smile and black beehive hair and I am happy to be back. Our office is based at the Municipal youth centre, which is little more than a massive hall and some rooms. There are some cool things, like a library with youth magazines and sexual health information and some funky half-finished wall murals depicting the issues that confront young people in Tanzania. But there is a long way to go before you might call it a youth centre as we know it.

Fatuma says, Karibu! And, Mbona umenenepa? Immediately I am irritated. I had forgotten that any time you go away and return, there are two things that will inevitably come up.

One, What have you brought me? Each region has its own speciality. If you go to Mbeya, you will be expected to return with lovely purple beans. If you go to Songea, they say, Bring us some sweet potatoes! If you go to Ilula, it is tomatoes, Tukuyu, green bananas, Dar-es-Salaam, anything.

Two, But why have you gotten so fat? What have you been eating there? You have been eating life, eh? Sweet life over there, eh? I try to explain to my Tanzania colleagues and, in fact, anyone who greets me with the rhetorical fat question, that In Our Culture, it is not a Good Thing to be fat. The question used to make me wonder whether I had in fact put on a few pounds or if I was wearing particularly unflattering outfit or if I’d eaten too many greasy omelettes on the road.

Fortunately, I enjoy food and drink just enough to want to stick with it, no matter how many people talk about my massive hips and bottom. No matter how big my hips and bottom truly are. Within reason. I am not into obesity.

After a few years of this, I have undertaken informal but continuous research every time I return from a trip. Often it has more to do with what clothes I am wearing (I’ve learned skirts are better than trousers) and just as often it seems completely random. Someone might exclaim, with characteristic mock surprise, how much weight I have put on and later the same day, someone else wonders at my slim figure. Someone else might say, Oh you were really fat back then, you are thin now.

If you actually listen to these remarks, you start to look at yourself through a wonky mirror, like trying to imagine how other people truly perceive you. It is impossible to judge. I turn around and around in front of the long mirror in our livingroom, like a dog getting ready to sleep. I look at my bum. Wiggle it. Is it really bigger? I try to gauge the snugness of my clothes. It’s true I would like to be slim and svelte and fit inside someone’s pocket. Everyone wants something impossible. But for the most part, for 99% of my waking life, I do not give it another thought. Until the next time I return from a trip and Faraja asks, “But why…”.

I force a little laughter, the culture of thin is not that easily cast off. I realise that there is no answer to this question. It is asked simply to remark that you have been away, living it up somewhere else and now you’re back. It is asked in the same way we might say, You look great or, You’re really tanned to someone returning from holiday. It is a way to answer the question of seeing someone again.

So I answer the question – though Faraja wasn’t looking for an answer in particular – with a list of foods that I have consumed in the past forty-eight hours. They all laugh and look me up and down, pinch my underarm just where the flab is. But you have a nice shape, a figure of 8. Not like those English figures. You have an African figure.

Great. English figure is what many of us have been striving to find underneath our flesh and bones (some less maniacally than others), the perfect slimline shape. African figure looks much better on Africans, I think.

As I walk out of the office, I shout over my shoulder, Tomorrow Jamani! And they shout back, Kesho! I can feel them watching me and I hear Faraja say, Cheki miguu, chupa za bia hizo! I know she is teasing me on purpose. She has told me before I have beer bottle legs. As opposed to what? I asked. Oh, we have legs like… soda bottles, maybe. It was if she had never thought about it. How do my legs look like beer bottles? She made a motion with her hand to show an upside-down beer bottle. I think of the thick brown Kilimanjaro bottles. Ah, the bulge of the calf.

Yesterday I was walking down the street, past the madness of the daladala stand – banana-sellers, colourful flipflops jumbled on tarpaulin, the pigadebe shouting at passengers, selling seats on the minibuses for small change, their eyes bloodshot, their breath boozy. Two young women walked past me and one said to the other, Wow, did you see those hips? I smile to myself and turn around long enough to catch their eyes and laugh, long enough for them to realise I understand.

Sunday, December 10, 2006


Yesterday it was Uhuru Day. Tanzania turned fortyfive year old and there was an impressive show at the national grounds in Dar-es-Salaam with heads of state from all over East Africa, looking like large cartoon caricatures of themselves, on a big raised platform. I was hungover and mesmerized by the lines of colourful uniforms goosestepping (yes!) to the tune of a parping brass band. I sat in the coffee shop near my house for over an hour watching it all unfold on TV (the coffee shop is patronised by the ruling political party and never have their power cut).

The president got up and made appropriate jokes about his older fellow heads of state. Jakaya Kikwete is like a Tanzanian JFK - young and charismatic. I ordered a fanta orange, wrapped my omlete in a chapati and listened as he made a prosaic speech about how the Colonials left nothing behind when they buggered off (true). He said, before independence, Tanzanians were not allowed to drink beer! If you were caught drinking beer, you could be fined or thrown in jail. You were told to drink pombe ya kinyeji (local brew) instead. But now it is a measure of how far Tanzania has come that everyone can drink as much beer as they want.

I munched on the egg chapati wrap and sipped sugary chai, and thought it was an interesting point for the independence day celebrations. Beer, local brew, oppression. Everyone likes beer.

Kikwete went on. People My Age, he said, remember the days of collecting water from the bomba. People my age only studied to the fourth year of primary school. And look how far we have come. We now have thousands of primary schools and millions of students; we have 22 universities; we have a national grid; we have plumbing.

After the military displays, the four thousand blue tracksuited school students, the aeronautical flyby, the national anthem, the speech about the Colonials and Beer and what it was like ‘back in the day’, Kikwete stood silent at the podium. The national stadium is massive and the commentator remarked that thousands of people stood outside, refused entry. All waited in silence. It started to spit but the thousands of blue tracksuited students sat still on the field. We were all mesmerized.

An old man sitting close to the TV screen shouted to the woman in the kitchen without taking his eyes from the screen, Oi! Where are my gizzards! I am very hungry!

Then Kikwete broke the silence by leading the crowd in singing the ‘popular birthday wish song’ Happy Birthday To You into the microphone. His voice cracked at the high note, his sweet accented english was perfect. He paused then went straight on to the second verse, How Old Are You Now?. In the coffee shop, the old man sitting close to the screen laughed abruptly.

What? I looked around the coffee shop. There was the old man in front of the TV, the woman with the dodgy leg sat behind the counter looking unsurprised and some kids played with empty coke bottles by the door.

Did noone find this amusing or vaguely absurd? Kikwete’s entire speech was made in Kiswahili and most of the Heads of State had nodded along, seeming to understand the linguafranca of East Africa. The colonials had left us nothing: no piped water, no electrical grid, no university, few medical facilities. The things they built were for their own benefit. Surely, he would sing in Kiswahili, not the language of the Colonials. Surely there was another way to celebrate independence from the oppressors than to sing an English birthday ditty? The kids spun the empty bottle and the woman behind the counter shouted to the girl in the kitchen about the gizzards.

It was over and I was glad that Kikwete did not go on to sing the final verse, You Look Like a Monkey. The blue tracksuits marched out of the stadium waving little Tanzanian flags on sticks. The old man’s gizzards had still not arrived. The Heads of State walked down the red-carpeted stairway one by one looking grand and stately. Then, one by one, they clambered into a posh curtained minibus, reminding us that they were only people after all.

I thought about how much money was spent on the UHURU Day celebrations. All those blue tracksuits, all those Heads of State, the aeroplanes, the little flags on sticks, the military, the brass band. And I wondered why all the pomp and circumstance is so important when there are far more pressing issues to deal with. There has been no regular electricity in Tanzania since July. There is not enough water to power the hydroelectric dams. Poverty, HIV, TB, Malaria, drought, gender-based violence, child labour, corruption.

And at the same time I found myself mesmerized by the rows of men and women in colourful uniforms, moving in unison, not a leg out of place, oddly comforted by the guns they clutched and their disciplined and precise movements, respectful of the ridiculous goosestepping. As I finished my tea, I found myself smiling at the formation of blue tracksuited students, spelling out 45 Years of Independence (Miaka 45 ya Uhuru), across the stadium field. I laughed with the old man when Kikwete’s voice cracked on the high note.

Because after all Tanzania is massive and poor and corrupt but it is peaceful. And how can I possibly imagine how important it is to mark your independence when I have never been dependent, when the small island where I was born has not been occupied since the Normans invaded in 1066.

I still think that they could have found another song – would Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, the first leader of an independent United Republic of Tanzania and one of the few African leaders of his time to have stepped down in favour of a semi-democratic process, have sung Happy Birthday To You?