Students are singing, rehearsing for the graduation ceremony that will take place on Thursday. There’s a lighthearted atmosphere as the end of the term is creeping up. It’s lighthearted despite terminal exams that will be difficult—in some cases ending studenthood for those Form Two and Four students who will not pass national exams. Having graduation prior to exams is a bittersweet gesture, somehow acknowledging the flaws in the school system that pose such a challenge for students, allowing them to celebrate the lighter aspects of secondary school culture.
The mornings are crisp, reminiscent of early autumn in Ohio, and at times the skies are moody—teasing with dark clouds that won’t yield rain for another month or so. It’s a relief after the thick sticking heat of Dar es Salaam that I just returned from. Mid-service training crept up on me. For a while it was a week penned in my planner, distant; and now it’s a week past. My cohort gathered to recognize the midway point in our service—a year in our villages, teaching, and one year to go. There were dentist appointments, catered lunches, and workshops on approaching the new school year with intention. I spent my free time swimming at the beach, shopping for yards of waxy batik, roaming the supermarket, and crafting big leafy salads at the Airbnb (with ingredients and counter space I hadn’t had in what felt like ages). Like a holiday, I was equally relieved and reluctant to return to normal life. The streets of Iringa Town felt quaint and I appreciated the faces I recognized in the market and the ease of walking around. Back in my village I relished the solitude and took my time unpacking and sweeping up the dust that had blown in under my door and through the spaces in the window frames.
Back in April I visited my host family in Korogwe after being away for seven months. Emmanuel, the eldest son, was getting married and I’d been invited to the wedding. The house felt familiar, but was filled with new faces. The faces were not unfamiliar—sharing characteristics with Mama and Baba that I knew well. Mama’s older brother spoke in perfect English about his career as a prison guard, and requested that I serve him at mealtimes. Out of respect, I served him big helpings ugali and the best pieces of meat. Baba’s sisters seemed stoic at times, but embraced me with curiosity and warmth. I enjoyed watching the siblings catch up and laugh after who-knows-how-long since they’d all been together. I’d expected my family to dote on me, but found it refreshing to be treated like every other family member: someone to be assigned tasks and put to work. It felt like belonging. I sat on a mat in the courtyard with the other women, peeling knobs of garlic, quartering endless potatoes, and sorting through kilos and kilos of rice. Music blared throughout the day of preparation, and every time a relative arrived there was an eruption of sound as the women fluttered their tongues in excitement. The men slaughtered a white cow and I watched, captivated, from afar. The gender roles were separate and apparent throughout the wedding preparation, but I enjoyed the chopping and grating and found a primordial allure in the sisterhood. Mama’s eldest sister was a force to be reckoned with, wordlessly demanding respect. She observed my vegetable-prepping techniques with stony eyes and assigned me new tasks when she thought I was endanger of slicing open my fingers. Under the no-nonsense layer, she was kind and fun-loving.
On the day of harusi there were three stages of the celebration: the casual courtyard gathering, the church ceremony, and the reception. Neighbors and friends were the stars of the first stage, dancing and providing monetary contribution. There was a short blessing for the groom, followed by a big meal. Meanwhile, the bride stayed in retreat at a friend’s house. The ceremony took place in town at the Tanzania Assembly of God. Beforehand, I sat in a cousin’s air-conditioned car with Salome, Agnes, and Bright, and their two friends Gideon and Tina. Music blasted and we car-danced; it was my favorite moment from the wedding day. I found a seat in the church among Emmanuel’s side of the family, and my host siblings and their friends danced in, choreographed. With sleek ponytails and sharp bowties, respectively, they made a spectacular entrance. The bride wore a white gown and veil and long lacy gloves that looked straight out of a bridal catalogue. The marriage ritual was much like weddings I’d attended in The States, except for the bride kneeled before her husband-to-be throughout most of it. I couldn’t help but see this as a subordinate gesture, making me squirm in my seat; but considering that bride price is a still-thriving concept, I wasn’t too surprised. The reception hall twinkled with lights and each table had a mini cake to be shared among its guests. I sat with Mama’s siblings and we fed each other bites of cake and toasted with flutes of sparkling juice. Gift-giving was heavily emphasised, and gifts were presented to both the newlyweds and Mama and Baba (as parents of the groom) in showy fashion. Khanga and yards of kitenge were paraded through the hall and draped over their recipients; crisp shillings were waved around for everyone to see. I approached the front of the hall in a group of relatives to present the kitenge I’d picked out, then we danced together—moving with shuffling steps in circular motion. The reception concluded close to midnight after a feast of chicken, gingery pilau, and cooked bananas. The whole visit was a rush, and I started my journey back to Iringa the next morning, very early.
Seeing my mom and sister over June break was exactly what I needed to buff my spirit. Alison jumped out from the crowd at Charles de Gaulle Arrivals and we embraced; onlookers smiled. Mom was teary-eyed and I tried to keep my rush of emotions in check. We made it to our train and settled in for a five-hour ride towards Perpignan via Lyon, Nîmes, Montpellier… We passed pockets of centuries-old towns and grazing cattle and saw the snowy French Alps peeking from the East. Linda was waiting on the platform in Narbonne and drove us to her stone house in the sleepy town of Homps along the Canal du Midi. We spent a week and a half visiting Roman ruins and the sea, and by the end of it I was full of Mediterranean sun and good wine. I said goodbye to Mom and Alison after a couple days in Paris, and then visited Bruges on my own. Traveling solo for a few days was a lovely way to ease back into my solitary life in Tanzania while reflecting on the time I’d spent with family. I felt satisfied—as if the space in my body longing for them had been filled, reset. I wished only that my dad had been able to join, but, alas, he’d stayed home to care for the chickens and the family dog Farrah.
In a physical sense I realize that home is far away, across a continent and an ocean. When I think about familiar places, though, I see them so clearly that I’m almost afraid that once I return, my time in Tanzania will seem like just a dream. For me, going back to The States before my twenty-seven months are through would feel like breaking a spell. Meeting loved ones in the middle was a solid compromise.
U.S. Independence Day was spent at Matema Beach on what is Lake Malawi to Malawians and Lake Nyasa to Tanzanians. As the tide fluctuated and my friends and I skirted the shores and swam, we found ourselves teetering between country borders. The meeting of the Livingstone Mountains and the third-largest lake in Africa makes Matema Beach an enchanting place. We swam at night under thick stars and in the morning hiked to a waterfall tucked away high in the mountains. We hopped rocks, crossed the stream countless times, and rappelled until we reached the fall and swam in the icy pool. Magenta, yellow and green cacao pods, daytime swimming with massive waves, glow sticks, and chicken curry filled the rest of the holiday.
July ended with an impossibly huge pink setting sun, and with August came my first taste of Tanzanian kiti moto. Kiti moto is pork, often eaten with a mound of ugali and pili pili sauce; it literally means “hot seat,” referring to pork’s forbidden nature to practicing Muslims. August also brought ample time spent with Tom, in and around Iringa. We visited a friend’s property on Nane-Nane, the national farming holiday, and were greeted on the lane by a mongoose and a purple-crested turaco. The house was swathed in flowering vines and sunbirds dipped in and out; the garden buzzed. We galavanted all over the place, driving around in the vintage Land Rover, swimming in a clear chilly dam, Frisbee-tossing endlessly, checking camera traps, and finally bouldering up to a rocky perch for
sunset. It was a day I’ll remember in vivd detail. The next morning, while admiring a huge rosemary bush, I saw a flap-necked chameleon peeping out at me. The moment my eyes distinguished it from the fronds and needles was magic. She perched sweetly on Tom’s finger, eyes pivoting like tiny globes, and seemed to presage good days to come.
On Eid my neighbor came to my house with a goat leg—hoof and all. I learned that it’s tradition on this holiday for the Muslim teachers to share meat with neighbors and colleagues, and this was my piece. I proceeded to make a goat curry, feeling part of the community and thankful for the gesture.
On my birthday I went with Mama Chris to a remote village to meet her parents. We took roads I’d never been on, and students returning home from school were thrilled and curious to see me in their neck of the woods. Cattle chewed cud in a tidy corral and chickens roamed the courtyard. Mama Chris’s parents welcomed me into their sitting room and I listened as the three of them conversed in the tribal language Kihehe. I felt content. Just before leaving I was given five perfect cream colored eggs—a very sweet, very practical, life-symbolizing birthday gift. It was dark and chilly when we arrived back at Mama Chris’s house and I was ushered in to sit by the charcoal stove. Mama Chris’s step-daughter is a student of mine, and she gave me a pod from the baobab tree. We cracked open the leathery pod, revealing a stringy network that reminded me of the dried-up guts of a pumpkin. Chalky ubuyu nested within, and we sucked on the seeds until they were smooth. Commercial ubuyu are coated in glucose powder and colored bright pink; I was glad to learn how they look and taste naturally. I sat and watched as Mama Chris prepared mlenda. She added the powdered leafy green to sautéed tomatoes and onions then used a special tool, a stick with two prongs, to work the magic. The mixture thickened and gurgled as she twirled the tool between her palms; water was added, and it turned into slippery gloop. It was salty and earthy and I liked it.
A few days into my twenty-eighth year I saw a pair of spotted eagle owls. It was early morning and I was walking through a sandy riverbed with a teenage friend from the village and his dogs. We flushed the pair from their roost, but after a couple minutes of careful walking Jack pointed out one of them perched in perfect view: massive talons, yellow eyes, and pointed ear tufts. In Tanzania the bundi is an ominous creature in traditional folklore. One person I talked with expressed unease with their catlike appearance, and my teacher friend Madam Glory told me, laughing, that some claim they’re wizards. The owl territory is wild and beckoning and I return often for morning walks. Every time, I’ve seen the owls.
During mid-term break in September I finally made it to Isimila Stone Age site with Rahma. We hiked around under the mid-day sun and marvelled over the weathered sandstone pillars, a landscape that reminded me of the Southwest U.S. Isimila is an archeological site where significant Stone Age tools were unearthed in the 1950s. I hadn’t imagined a place like this in East Africa, and Rahma was blown away—surprised she hadn’t been before. Tucked away just 25 kilometers from her home in Iringa Town, she was eager to return with her family and friends.
I finished off break with my first visit to Ruaha National Park, driving around with three Finns. The landscape was even dreamier than I had imagined and there was no shortage of elephants. A herd gathered and drank downstream from where we sat on the bank of the Ruaha River, calves in tow. We saw four sleepy lions (two males and two females), herds of greater kudu with elegantly spiralled horns, and a bat-eared fox.
A group of buffalo stared from the side of the road with flinty eyes, wet noses dripping with snot. A lone giraffe munched on red flowers. A pile of hippos lazed in an inky pool, and, in the middle, a calf propped up its little blocky head.
My near future holds biology review with my Form One students—and hopefully plenty more trips to Ruaha.