I have not seen Africa. There are few gross generalizations as odious as the Western simplification, amalgamation, of an entire continent’s cultural plurality, socio-political diversity, ethnic multiplicity and historical discrepancy to a single noun. I have not been to Africa; no one has; there is no Africa.
Three years ago, however, I spent six weeks in Tanzania. Tanzania has not let go of me, nor has its promise of a window – an entry to the mythic Africa – let go of my dreams.
I am returning. In a month’s time, I will land in Dar es Salaam.
I am going back because I must; I wish I could explain why. I wish I knew why. I am a travel-junkie. I am an addict. Ask me where I want to go and I will spin a globe; everywhere, eventually, should there be enough money and time. I do not want to go so much as I want to be – I am a travel-junkie and a back-packer snob. I am an anthropology student. I don’t go unless I can stay; weekend jaunts and postcard sprees have no appeal beside immersion.
I will go to Tanzania for three months; I will go to Tanzania and hopefully prepare to to spend a year there, in a year’s time. I know that my experiences have not let go. I know that I am going to keep promises, I am returning to a place that, undeniably excruciatingly foreign, I felt released, and to a place that has more to teach me. I am going to be shown.
I am going back to a small square room in which I slept on a perfectly square bed, inside of an exactly square window, outside of which the women beat the dirt streets at dawn with inefficient straw brooms. I am going back to a stone room with a few scraggly desks at which we pawed through the single volume of an old encyclopaedia and traded words for cups of tea-like milk. I am going back to the prayer in the mornings and the songs in the evenings. I am going back to the saturation that American and Britain could not begin to imagine, much less paint with daily carelessness.
I am going back when I should be staying, here, in a grey stiff land of brilliant dry wit and cutting camaraderie, of nostalgic pride and wounded joy, to build a future. I am going back to Tanzania when I should be returning home to a beige stretch of parking lots and centre dividers, U-turns prohibited, in which I could refill an empty bank account and rekindle friendships and family bonds.
I am going back – to wake up.
I will be, hopefully, putting trowel to earth and digging at a sixteenth century trading settlement on the southern coast at which the language was constructed in the conjoining of traditions and cooking.
I will be trying to find the warm mothers and seeing grandmothers, proud fathers and wise grandfathers, who gave and would not take thanks; to find to the expectant friends and demanding children, who laughed and sobbed in the same breath.
I am going back because I have not forgotten.