It’s kind of amazing to think about the fact that we are standing on the surface of a ball that’s hurtling through space. We can get into an airplane and fly over the surface of that ball, and when we get out, we’re standing on another part. It’s the same ball, but things are so different. People speak a different language. Many of the plants are different. The food is different. And yet, so much is the same. It is the same big ball, after all.
Before I got on a plane last week, when I was planning this trip or thinking about it on the horizon of time, I had some idea in my head about what it would be like to be here. My ideas were based on stories that other people had told of their travels, of the way that the places felt, and about how they felt about Africa in general or Tanzania in particular. I expected the spirit of this place to be unfamiliar, strange and new. What has surprised me more than anything is that this place feels so familiar.
I haven’t yet parsed everything about what makes makes Tanzania, or at least Dar Es Salaam, feel so familiar but there are some obvious pieces. I can compare it to learning a new language and finding cognate words and familiar syntactical patterns. This place is different from any other I’ve been to, but it has many pieces of things I know from elsewhere.
The humid heat feels like many other coastal locations I have been to before. The smell of the air is not unlike urban Guatemala. The traffic on the main roads is definitely that in other less developed countries I’ve visited. The best roads are not well paved and are particularly bumpy right now after a couple of weeks of deadly floods, but this pattern is familiar to me, too.
There are things which are very different here, too. The Masai men who have come to Dar to work and send money home to their families seem to be everywhere here, working as security guards or as parking lot control in their traditional dress. (I was told that people like to hire them for security because they have a reputation for being fierce!) The local food is different, too. Today I ate ugali, kachumbali, and goat meat for lunch. Ugali was the only thing that was completely unfamiliar. You eat it with your hands, rolling it into a ball in just your right hand, then use your thumb and fingers to grab some meat and/or kachumbali alongside it before putting the bite into your mouth.
Oh! But the handwashing at the table before the meal was familiar. It’s just like Jewish ritual handwashing with a water cup and a bowl, only without the “one, two, three” pours per hand.
So, I get why I feel pretty comfortable here already, just a few days after arrival. I’ve traveled a lot and that makes learning how to navigate a new place easier. But I haven’t quite figured out what it is about the spirit of this place that seems so comfortable.
In the last few days I have met many birds, lizards, geckos, centipedes and snails. I’ve met two cats who have adopted a human. One blind male who successfully protects his territory against neighboring cats and one skinny, sleek female who looks like a kitten though she’s more than 2 years old already. I’ve sat outside in the evenings, late at night, and at dawn just listening to the voice of the land. What I’ve found is a friendly spirit, patient and understanding of my curiosity.
I sense that the spirits of this land are holding back a bit for me, giving me space to learn how to walk on the land properly. It seems that the city knows that I’m not quite a tourist, but neither am I here to move in. I greet the land with interest, and it shares stories with me slowly and kindly, as if to a child. My host has been surprised at the number of creatures that I’ve found that she had not seen before or that she had rarely seen around here. It’s as if they are as interested in showing themselves to me as I am in seeing them.
But the relationship is not all sweetness and light. I have some dark prejudices to overcome. I have notions in my head that I didn’t even realize where there until I started to study Swahili a few weeks ago or even until I arrived on these shores.
I am terrified, utterly and completely paranoid, of bugs of all sorts that might want to be in the same space where I am. It’s fine for them to be on the wall “over there”, or in the garden, or on someone else’s chair, but the minute I think that there is a bug in my bed I freak out completely. More than once I have woken up in the middle of the night to see the patterns on my pillow case and brush away the imagined insect in a minor panic. I count my mosquito bites and wonder how many of them I can get before I succumb to malaria, even though I’m taking Artemisia annua every day prophylactically. It doesn’t help that my colleague from the World Bank kindly described exactly how I probably already had malarial parasites in my blood and that it’s just a question of getting a certain number of them before you get sick. Oh, yeah, and those floods mean that the mosquitoes are carrying more parasites than normal. Last night, as I reached for the door handle of my bedroom in the dark, I felt the key between my fingers and was certain that it was some giant beetle I’d just touched.
Why the fear? It’s not so hard to unpack where that comes from. I don’t like it, and I am determined to overcome it as fast as I can.
I have so much more to learn here. This place has a lot to teach me. This trip is so short, but the next one will be much longer. I commit to open myself up to the lessons, to the stories, the people — both two legged and otherwise — and to the spirits of the land. It’s always a bit scary to learn new things, but the rewards are great.