travel

Karibu sana, karibu. Just you not worry. Karibu.

Kawe seemed smaller and calmer than I remembered.

I don’t know if it changed or I did.

They tell me that Kawe has grown in people and expanded geographically, but everything seemed to have shrunk. I remembered an insane flurry of color stuck in a deep mud pit, straining to hold the people in – and we drove into a sedate, seemingly organized, relatively broad street that was as much dust as mud.

It took us a few hours to get from the airport to Kawe – between a tire blowing out and the Dar traffic (there are, supposedly, a handful of traffic lights in the entire city; I think that their existence is an urban legend) – but it was a nice slow drive along broad lanes, women floating along in their long tight skirts with impossible budrens on their heads, and young men on bicycles, with even more impossible burdens balanced on their backs.Bapu was sitting in his store front, on the porch – exactly where he’d been three years ago when I left. From the shop, which is sort of the porch of the house, you turn down the side, ducking under the neighbors’ laundry lines, stepping over a few chickens, and dodging the crowd of neighborhood children. The outside walls are white plaster, flaking off, and the gate blue corrugated-metal, opening into an L-shaped courtyard. Bibi was there, looking exactly as I remembered (I told her so, she shook her head and said that she was getting old), and even more of the family. Janet and Julie came out shyly to say hello – I almost didn’t recognize them – they got so big! (The shyness didn’t last long – a few days later, Janet started running out to meet me when I got home, grabbing me in a flying hug.) Their father Justin is Bapu and Bibi’s eldest; they’ve moved down from Dodoma and are living in Dar in an adjoining house. The Mkinis had a full house when I got there. Irene, another daughter, was down visiting from Iringa, where she teaches Gender and Development issues at the university, with her four children (two-year-old twins, a four year-old terror, and a very mature nine-year-old boy). The girl who helps Bapu and Bibi lives with them (she might be named Pamela, depending on my accuracy of hearing, and my memory of names, neither of which are to be trusted), they’d taken in a young boy whose mother had just died, and another mzungu girl, a Canadian-American-British pre-med student who was volunteering at a local hospital, was staying there as well.

“Just you not worry,” they kept telling me, forcing me into the nicest seats in the home and being made to relax. And so I tried to follow Tanzania’s apparent motto – akuna matata – while benefitting from the hospitality of being so very, very welcomed. Instead of frantically studying Swahili or making plans for the rest of the trip or trying to, somehow, research and get ready for the dig, I spent a few days with the Mkinis, being climbed on by all the children, eating mangoes, wandering around the streets, and bemusedly watching the Philippino novellas on TV with the family. Freddie, one of the grandchildren, had been taught about Kilwa Kisiwani and Songo Mnara in school and when he heard that I would be going there to study the history, he began – in a very soft, often inaudible voice – telling me everything he knew about Tanzanian history – from the legendary past of folk tales to the slave trade and colonial occupation to independence. It went on for days; it was wonderful. He’d tap my arm or come up while we were walking, head down shyly, and say that he’d remembered something more he wanted to tell me.

We went to the beach one day. Amani, Grace, Cyril (who’d taught me Swahili the first time I was there and had arranged for Grace, the volunteer who was currently staying with the Mkinis (he runs his own travel and volunteer agency now – http://www.cyrilventures.co.tz ) and I had planned to go, and Freddie came up the night before and politely begged to come with us. (He didn’t mention that it was his birthday – we didn’t realize until we got home in the evening.) After trying to sort out if it was fair, how we could take him and not the others, whether the age-gaps would justify it, we finally gave up and asked the Mamas – “Of course, if you want to,” and then ended up with Gordo, his four year old brother, along for the trip as well. (It was “Gordo’s big day out”; his mother didn’t realize that he meant to go along with us, but he got himself up early, brushed his teeth, cleaned his shoes, and sat waiting. She asked where he thought he was going and he shrugged her off and said he just wanted to follow us to the road. “Gordo, go home!” didn’t work. He just shook his head and got on the dalla dalla with us. Having him at the bech was great – although he turned out to be terrified of the water – latched onto Grace or I and tried to climb up us, from ankles to the top of our heads, screeching and clattering, laughing himself nearly to tears.)

I pretended to be a pre-med student and went to the hospital with the girl volunteering there – we didn’t manage to watch a surgery as none were on that day, but I wandered in and out. I think that I’ve been slightly travel-jaded, since I wasn’t exactly apalled by the state of the back rooms, but the pre-med volunteer students stories about tonsils being burnt out of children, smoke coming out their mouths for several minutes after and rusty forceps flinging the bits of flesh into metal trashcans – and the sounds of pain coming from the ob-gyn ward – and the lack of anything more than flippantly, potentially, superficially sanitary in the blood labs – made me glad that all of my visits to hospitals in developing nations have been for purely diagnostic reasons.

Coming back from the hospital, Bapu caught us at the shop front. He asked us to “bless” his shop by accepting sodas and sitting to rest. He thanked us, again, for being there.

“You have come to the heart of Africa. Where there are no hotels and no large shops and nothing for tourists. You are seeing how we people live. How we really live. This will bless us. And so we bless you.”

He went on to talk about having bought the land to build his house, pointing to others on the street and saying that “there were houses here before there was cement”, telling us about his work and his family. (It was difficult to fight the desire to take notes. I need to get him to talk again when I have paper near.) He’s entirely right – it sounds cliche, repeating it, but we were at the heart of Africa – in my opinion, Kawe represents a more basic heart of human lifestyle – perhaps its also part of being somewhat travel-jaded, how much it reminds me of tiny towns in South East Asia, but the majority of the world lives in Kawe, or something similar. Kawe is the heart of a very timeless lifestyle, a very unseen lifestyle; small cement or daub/adobe houses with the plaster, if there is any, flaking off; electricy and running water only a few hours a day, a few hours a week, on no sort of schedule that anyone (from electrician to astrologist) could hope to predict; candles here and there, singing coming from all directions, churches and mosques, in the evenings; a pile of shoes at the entryways.