Crossing Paths with a Chameleon


I’ve been in Tanzania for just over nine months now, and I’ve finished my first quarter of teaching for this school year. The air had been still since December, but the wind is starting to pick up again and the mornings are chillier. By chillier, I mean I wake up to sixty degrees and the days creep into the high seventies. In the past couple of months, I’ve experienced my first school graduation, funeral, and Tanzanian football game. Graduation was for the Advanced-level students, all of whom are female at Ismani Secondary. I’ve become close friends with some of these young women and it will be bittersweet to see them leave with university on the horizon. They don’t technically finish until May when they take their final exams, but for some reason the celebration comes before then. The ceremony featured speeches from local government representatives, a fashion show with student models (every look from traditional Tanzanian and modern western to athletic and studious wear), skits and songs performed by the graduates, and certificates. Not including the downpour that drove everyone to huddle under shelter for a good while, it lasted about four hours and concluded with a fantastic meal—rice, pilau, cooked bananas, tangy meat, stewed peas, duck, and watermelon. Cake followed, which is a whole ordeal that involves feeding and being fed. The graduates managed to simultaneously be fed cake while posing attractively for photos. I felt clumsy trying to smile while opening my mouth wide enough to avoid frosting smear. 

The funeral was for the Bee Officer of Ismani, a small older man who I’d met a couple months previously. In the village everyone knows everyone, but this man, especially having held a government-appointed position, drew crowds and crowds. School ended early on that Thursday and all teachers attended, as did student representatives from each class. Students escorted me to the house where everyone was gathered and I met up with my fellow female teachers. I’d shown up in a regular teaching outfit, but was given someone’s extra kanga, a printed cloth wrap, to wear. Every woman was wearing at least one kanga over their clothes, but most wore two: around the waist and the torso. In the village matching is unnecessary, and it seems that mismatching is actually in vogue. The women, sitting together in the grass, chatting, were so vibrant in their clash of colors and patterns. The teachers and I made bows out of wide purple and pink ribbon and bound branches to make wreathes for decoration. Once the body arrived at the house, the whole village migrated by foot and crammed-full vehicles to the Catholic church. I rode in the back of a truck as the women sang call and response hymns, full of mystery and almost haunting. The non-Catholics waited outside during mass, and when the people streamed from the doors, I joined them in walking to the church cemetery. The coffin was lowered into the ground, and after some words, men began to move the massive pile of earth, raising clouds of red dust. All stood by to see the burial to its end, and then joined again back at the house for a meal. The older female students served rice, ugali, beans, and cabbage to the masses and gospel music blared from speakers. It was chaos and community, and a celebration of a life lived.

The Yanga/Simba football rivalry is heated, and I’d been torn over which club to support. I decided on Yanga based on their popularity with some of my favorite co-workers, and when I heard they were playing in Iringa town I picked out a jersey to really commit. They were playing Iringa’s local team at the stadium, which was much like a high school track field. Vendors sold noisemakers and trading cards, and a man walked around on stilts. Instead of beer and hot dogs, the staple concession item was yogurt. My friends and I got our tickets and made our way to the far end of the field where a mass of green and yellow was writhing, waving a huge flag. The passionate sea of Yanga fans swallowed us immediately with cheers that should have been reserved for match time. I let myself be swept away and at one point thought I was about to crowd surf. We were in countless photos and danced with excited fans, and this was all before the players had begun to warm up. Unfortunately for our fan friends the cheering didn’t last long. Iringa’s team, the underdog, scored first and ended up taking the win. Counterintuitive to me, and perhaps to the psyche of American sports fans, in Tanzania you are not allowed to cheer when your team is down. We tried starting a chant, hoping to boost the morale, but were quickly shut down. Thus, the rest of the game was fairly quiet from our side of the field. As the stadium began to clear we tried to be as inconspicuous as possible, hoping we wouldn’t be blamed for the unlucky outcome. I thought I felt some scowls and heard some utterances of “Wazungu” (white people), but of course the latter isn’t out of the ordinary. It was an experience to remember, despite the loss. Post-match, the streets were swarming with excited maroon-clad supporters of the home team, who surely weren’t expecting a win. We ditched our Yanga jerseys and got Indian food.

On the sunny Saturday after school closed for break, I crossed paths with a tiny chameleon. I’ve always been fascinated with these Old World lizards and I’d been hoping to see one in the wild. It was making its way across my path, moving with a slow purposeful gait and a little wobble back and forth with each step. I picked it up, its Muppet mouth gaping in display, and it crawled over my arm. It was so intricate in all of its unlikely features: a marvel of evolution. Its knobby lime green scales were dotted and patterned with black, and baby teeth ridges lined its back and underbelly. Its prehensile tail was furled in a perfect spiral, and its eyes, with fused lids, rolled like marbles in their sockets. My favorite features were the five toes, split like a fork in a road. The front toes are split so that two point outward and three inward, and the back toes are situated vice versa with three out and two in. Ages and ages and the forces of nature have molded this minute detail, and I’m dizzied by the thought of it. After a minute I set the chameleon free and watched it climb a corn stalk; I continued on my way to the market feeling grateful for that little wink from the cosmos.

#Tanzania

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