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.