The Mango Rains: Conversations and Cultural Exchanges in the Tropics

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There is nothing like rain in the tropics. It is one of my favourite things. Here in Dar we have two wet seasons. The delightfully named Mango Rains, which occur November to late December and the main wet season March to May. Don’t ask me the meteorological explanation behind it, but the response my colleague got when she asked her teaching assistant why it was raining so much was simply “because the mangos need it” and I for one am happy with that.

With my stay in Africa coming to an end, I have been reflecting on my time here. Everyday has been a new adventure. I will leave in July a different person to the one who arrived here in August 2010. I have loved the experience and learned a lot about the Dark Continent, Tanzania, human nature (the good and the bad), and not least of all myself. It has been a steep and often entertaining learning curve.

This blog is a collection of conversations and memories from my time in Dar. Mostly snippets of exchanges I have had with Tanzanians who have taught me more than I ever could have learnt on my own. I have been saving this blog for a rainy day and now with so many of them I have no excuse but to write it.

What Africa Has Taught Me:

LESSON NUMBER 1: Never underestimate an African woman

African women are STRONG!!! Emotionally tough, physically capable and often strikingly beautiful, they are the backbone of Africa, carrying the continent forward in more ways than one. I remember sitting in the crowded ferry terminal one Saturday, my friend and I the only mzungus (white people) amongst the crowd of colourfully garbed locals, completely oblivious to the multitude of activity taking place all around. Whilst absorbed in our own conversation, the woman sitting beside me politely interrupted us, with a request to help her lift a bucket on to her head. The mamma was an attractive lady, with a beautiful baby strapped to her side in a sarong. In her hand she held a thin piece of material no thicker than a cotton scarf, which she coiled around her head in preparation for the load. Using both hands and considerable effort I struggled to lift the plastic bucket with mysterious contents up over both of our heads and place it on top of hers. Not wanting to miss her ferry, she promptly thanked me before running off at a steady pace, baby jiggling at her side, hands full with bags and leaving me to marvel. She didn’t even need to hold the bucket in place; it just balanced there, as if it were an extension of her own body. Wanting to give her a standing ovation for her efforts, I looked around to see if others in the crowd were as impressed as I was with this superhuman feat. Why weren’t we giving her a round of applause? Not only had no one else noticed, but many others were doing the exact same thing. This encounter has come to epitomise so many of the African woman I have met and see every day. Capable, strong, hard working, loving competent mothers, wonderfully dressed, and totally unassuming. Standing tall and regal as they walk down the street, rarely seen without a load of some description- water, children, fruit, firewood. They are my idols. A woman who can evoke glamour and elegance while transporting a baby on her back and a plastic bucket on her head, now that’s what I call a supermodel. They make Kate Moss look like a complete amateur. While those of us who consult women’s magazines for the latest hair styles, cosmetics, beauty plans, diet methods and Hollywood celebrity tips, should admit that we are no wiser than pre-adolescent teenagers, still with so much to learn about what it means to be a real woman. Mamma Africa or a Kardashian? I know who I aspire to be more like.

One of my favourite women here in Dar is a lady named Kiisa. A few years younger than me, and a self-employed mother of three, Kiisa may never have left Tanzania but she is one of the worldliest women I know. She runs a successful business offering home waxing. As convenient as her service seemed, I initially found the concept a little unsettling. Call me a prude, but when you require another person to rip hair from your private parts using hot wax, then give me the anonymity of a beauty salon (or at least a bottle of hard liquor) any day!

That was however before I got to know Kiisa and realised that ‘waxing specialist’ was a relatively tame title compared to the previous experience she could list on her resume.

One evening she stood in my kitchen, mixing her concoction of wax- she makes it herself from sugar, water and lemon juice- on the stove. The day before at late notice she had called to cancel her original appointment. In the most nonchalant manner imaginable, as if she was recounting how she had spent her morning doing the washing, she explained why she had had to reschedule. The conversation went something like this:

Kiisa: (Complete deadpan) “Sorry I didn’t come yesterday. My friend came over to my house and had a baby. How have you been?”

Me: “Whoa…Kiisa. Back up. YOU delivered a baby last night??? WOW!!! How? WHAT? How did you know what to do?”

Kiisa: “Sure. I have done it before. This was the second time. It was my neighbour, she couldn’t make it to the hospital in time and she knew I had delivered a baby before, so she came to my house”.

Me: (Spoken with absolute admiration) “You mean you have delivered TWO babies?”

Such an exchange has the effect of putting everything else in to perspective rather quickly. Here I was worried about being waxed, meanwhile Kiisa, like the superwoman that she is, spends her free time delivering babies. In that context, I decided, she was the only one who was entitled to a stiff drink.

As she told me more, it transpired that the first time she had delivered a baby her friend had given birth two months prematurely. Given the size of the baby, the birth had been relatively easy; but without so much as even a sharp object of any kind the biggest problem proved to be how to cut the umbilical cord. Ever resourceful, Kiisa had thought to rip a piece of her kanga (sarong) off to tie it, before running home to get her husband’s razer. She then bundled the baby and mother up and took them to a hospital.

Only all too intimate with both life and death for a woman of her age, she has since told me other stories when I have asked. How she once gave comfort to a dying lady by singing to her and holding her hand as she passed away. How she prepared her mother’s dead body for burial.

When you find yourself lying on the floor of your bathroom, under fluorescent tube lighting, listening to such stories, it does make your own reality seem rather pathetic. Little else I imagine, could make a person who is having their bodily hair ripped out at the roots, feel so thankful about their situation. Kiisa is my hero!

LESSON NUMBER 2: How to talk your way out of a bribe

Sadly it seems in many parts of the developing world where temptation meets desperation, corruption and bribery have become part and parcel of daily life. I remember when my British colleague acquired a Tanzanian Driver’s License, despite never owning a license in any other country and without so much as even sitting a test of any kind in Tanzania. “Who did you have to bribe”, I enquired. “Oh, just the police and the Government” she had replied sardonically.

As often as I hear people tell me “it is just the way things operate here”, I dislike and resent it immensely. You only have to visit a country where it is not tolerated (for example, Rwanda) to see the damaging effects corruption at any level can have on society. It starts and ends with every individual. So while living here, although not always possible, most people I know try to avoid it. At the most visible level, traffic police will pull you over and attempt to ‘fine’ you for the most creative of offences. Some of my favourites include: not having a reflective triangle, not having all manner of paper work in its original format, not having a first aid kit, not having a fire extinguisher. It is not surprising then, given the ridiculous nature of some of these offences that the strategies people use to avoid paying them are almost as inventive.

The most successful attempts I have seen:

The Racism Card: Many expats I know in their anger and frustration, turn to the racism card. “You are only pulling me over because I am a MZUNGU, this is racist, just because you think I have money, you want to fine me!!!!

Concede Defeat and Attempt to Negotiate: Some will talk them down and attempt to negotiate the amount. “Ok, ok so I am not carrying a first aid kit, you’ve got me. You want TSH 60,000 ($40)? How about I give you TSH 5,000 ($4)?

Ask For A Receipt: Others will insist that they go to the local police station themselves to pay the fine and get a receipt. This is a preferred method, especially when the fine is for a legitimate offence. The problem however, is that quite often the officer who has charged you will want to accompany you to the Police Station and on account of not having a car themselves, this means they will want to catch a ride in yours.

Charm Them With Your Best Swahili: Although I don’t drive here, I have been a passenger in many cars that have been pulled over, and have on occasion felt the need to intervene. Losing your cool with an officer of the law, especially a crooked one, is never a good move. My preferred approach is to speak with them in my best Swahili. As much as I dislike policemen in this country, it is difficult not to like a Tanzanian. They are reasonable, deeply religious and mostly jovial people. If you can point out an injustice they are susceptible to being ashamed of such behaviour. Of course, there are a few things, I have learnt which help your cause, namely, speaking Swahili and telling them that you’re a teacher.

When my friend was pulled over recently, she had already had a bad day and was feeling too frustrated to try her usual tactics. When the Police Officer asked to see her License she refused to put her window down or give it to him, but instead held it up to the glass.

Not at all satisfied, he requested again that she give it to him, whereupon she adamantly refused.

Enter Stage Left: Natalie (aka: Natalia, if you are Tanzanian or Natasha, if you are one of my colleagues!)

“She is scared, last time this happened the Policeman stole her license and asked her for money to get it back” I told him in my not so good Swahili.

“Ah!” He scoffed, offended. “They were not Policemen then, they were roadside bandits”, declaring in disgust.

“Funny”, interjected my friend sarcastically, through the tiny 1inch gap in the window, which was all she was affording him. “they had your exact uniform on”

“Sorry, sir, but she is very afraid of Policeman now” I exaggerated.

“You speak Swahili? What do you do here?” he changed the subject, walking around to my side of the car.

“We are teachers” I replied

“Ahh, you are teachers? Good job. Thank you and welcome to my country. Have a good day” he beamed and waved us on.

That Old, “I Have a Prosthetic Limb” Trick:  Nothing stops my dear friend Jennifer, except of course, Tanzanian Traffic Police. No matter what the charge, she would simply explain to them with a well-rehearsed crestfallen face, “I am sorry officer, I only have one arm”. So surprised, embarrassed or maybe sympathetic they would be, that they would never think to question how that had in fact anything at all to do with the actual charge they had pulled her over for, and would usually let her go no questions asked.

 

Having Friends in High Places: But it is my friend Natasha who had the most fun and repeated success with her unique strategy. At one point she had made the acquaintance of the President’s nephew (in fact, we both had, on account of her trying to set me up with him, but that is a story for another time!). Having given her his number, he had assured her that should she ever run into any sort of trouble in Tanzania, she should not hesitate to call him. I don’t think he quite anticipated just how seriously she would take his offer and I am sure he certainly did not have traffic offences in mind when he referred to ‘trouble’. Nonetheless, Tash would call him up and pass the phone to the officer, every time she was pulled over. Sure enough, it worked like a charm. Eventually, perhaps bolstered by having friends in high places, not to mention her penchant for theatrical performances (she is a drama teacher after all) she took this strategy a little further. I was in the car with her one day, when she reached for her phone and confidently declared “Fine, I will just have to call my friend…….(suspenseful pause) …President Kikwete”. It was a big leap from President’s nephew, to the big man himself, but as I attempted to suppress a smile, I watched as the naive young cop began to shuffle nervously. Clearly unable to decide what to make of this obnoxious young mzungu before him, he shifted anxiously around the vehicle, before deciding it wasn’t worth the risk to chance that she was bluffing, and he quickly waved us on without another word. Bursting in to laughter as we were out of sight, I asked her whose number she had dialled. “Yours” she replied, “I hoped he wouldn’t hear it ringing in your bag”.

 

Of course it is not only expats who are the target of these entrepreneurial cops. Tanzanians detest their tactics as much as I do. Although it seems the police do not often put on quite the same level of pretence when pulling locals over. On Zanzibar, my taxi driver Hashem was once pulled over 4 times by the police between the airport and my hotel. He managed to avoid paying the fines on all occasions by laughing and joking with the officers and declaring that he had no money. One officer didn’t even try to pretend that an offence had been committed, he simply asked him for money stating that his family needed it. Sometimes, they are happy to accept pens or food in place of money. At one stop, Hasheem and the officer enjoyed an uproarious laugh together as the officer let us pass. Knowing that I spoke a little Swahili, Hasheem asked me if I had understood. “No you were speaking too fast”, I said. “What was that one asking for?” Hasheem was still chuckling to himself as he spoke, “when I told the policemen I had no money, he said that that was OK, because I had a beautiful woman in the car, so I could just leave you behind”. “Typical” I thought, insulted by the complement.

LESSON NUMBER 3: Plastic Cling Wrap Can Be Reused! – And other lessons I should have learnt from my Grandmother

As if to prepare me for the lesson that I was about to learn here, on the merits of living simply, my shipment from Vietnam, which was scheduled to arrive in August 2010, managed to embark on a 9-month expedition to a range of exotic places. I am told, that it was an amusing phone conversation that transpired between the shipping agents in each respective port, when my shipment finally turned up in Benin (West Africa) instead of its intended location, Tanzania. The agent in Vietnam instructed the agent in Benin to simply have the goods taken by truck to Dar. “Ahh, so you don’t know Africa very well do you? There are no roads from Benin to Tanzania and even if there were there are 2 civil wars taking place in between”, he had replied dryly. Eventually, the shipment was reloaded and taken north through the Mediterranean, before heading south along the Pirate Coast to complete its circumnavigation of Africa. Arriving at my apartment in April 2011, just short of 12 months since leaving Saigon. No doubt my belongings were trying to keep up with me in the travel stakes. When you live without your worldly possessions for such a length of time, you begin to develop a healthy respect and appreciation for the modern conveniences of domestic living. It was a true luxury to finally be reunited with my kettle and toaster, no longer would I boil water on the stove in a pot or burn toast in the oven.

I used to muse that my grandmother’s generation had learnt an important lesson from growing up as children of the Great Depression (and she was one of 12 I might add). It may not be cutting edge or fashionable, but to this day, she gives greater priority to practicality and functionality than what looks good or what marketers or others tell us we need. Waste and over consumption are not terms she has ever been familiar with. Left overs could be transformed into a second meal the next day and despite our grumbling, food, which was out of date, could still be consumed (‘it’s all right, what’s wrong with you, it won’t kill you’ she would say when we turned our noses up at the prospects of drinking day old milk). I will have to ask her, but as far as I can recall, she has only ever owned two cars her whole life, and in her 92 years has bought two lounge suites, only replacing the first when it wore out. I am sure she still has the original dining room table and bed from when she was married. Even when she could afford to update them, she never saw the need. You have to admit, there is something wholesome about that.

Without being conscious of it, Africa has made me into a version of my grandmother. I often catch myself reusing glad wrap, pulling envelopes, which have only been used once, out of the bin for a second use, washing out plastic sandwich bags so they can live to see another day. Nothing is ever thrown away in my apartment until it is broken or cannot be used anymore. If I don’t want something, I give it away and that includes food. Nothing is wasted. Even then, many Tanzanians would find my consumption frivolous. My out of date diary from 2011 I noticed only this week, having thrown it away back in January, is now being used by my housekeeper, who was no doubt disgusted that I could throw away a book which still had a few blank pages left to write on.

Chances are if you have lived in relative comfort your whole life, you will have heard that clichéd and somewhat patronising line “eat your food there are people in Africa starving”. In fact the over-consumption that consumes us in the developed world has become difficult for me to stomach. There is a great passage in the book, The Poisonwood Bible, which only now resonates with me after my time in Tanzania. It recounts the shock of returning home to 1960’s America, after living in the Congo. In particular the rows and rows of choices available in the supermarket and the starkly surreal notion that someone had actually bothered to not only construct a sealed road, but had made sidewalks and painted lines on the roads. I remember when I was in Sydney last Christmas, and found myself staring in disgust at the excessive packaging that was on my newly purchased hair band. It had 3 plastic tags attached to it, none of them from what I could see serving any particular purpose, and all perhaps requiring more energy to construct than the product itself. Imagine, this reaction from a girl who never even recycled. Perhaps we should all have a stint in Africa? I just hope when I do leave, I don’t get sucked back in to my former ways. Old habits die-hard, although I am about to move to one of the most expensive locations in the world, so that alone may successfully curb my consumption if nothing else.

LESSON NUMBER 4: Kama Mungu Akipenda (Translation: RELAX, it is out of your control)

Perhaps the Christian-Swahili version of the Islamic “Inshallah”. The literal translation is if God likes it! Which effectively implies, “relax, if it happens it happens”. Initially this commonly spoken saying seemed so frustrating to me. I think the first time I heard it was after meeting a barjaj driver, who had driven me home one day. When I told him I may need to use him again, instead of giving me his phone number as I expected, he simply replied, “Kama Mungu Akipenda”. “REALLY?” I remember thinking. “Let’s be honest, I suspect God has got bigger things to worry about than how I get home from work? Why don’t we just cut out the middleman and that way when I need a barjaj, I can just call you?” I felt like saying. Yet sure enough, a week later, when I needed a ride home from school, who should I run into but the same barjaj driver. I am not sure if it was God who had made it possible, or even whether he was happy for us to meet again, but he certainly saved me a phone call.

As much as I like to think that we are in control of our own destiny, there is something comforting in the notion that some things are out of our hands or more to the point, we don’t have to be in control of everything. It also happens to be a great deflector for those awkward questions Tanzanians often ask me. “Will you come back to live in Tanzania again one day?” “Why are you leaving Africa Natalia?” “You should be married, don’t you want to get married?” “Why don’t you have babies yet?” “Where is your husband?” “You are too thin, why aren’t you fatter?” and “Will you come back one day to visit Tanzania?” All of which I have found are best answered with one simple response, Kama Mungu Akipenda! Which upon hearing prompts no further questions. Thank God for that!

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Comments
One Response to “The Mango Rains: Conversations and Cultural Exchanges in the Tropics”
  1. Tamara says:

    Your recording of memories reminds me of all I need to get back to! Gracias chica =]. Tam

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