Monday, March 17, 2014

Pressed but not crushed, part 1

I visited Paulina my first week back to Tanzania. I hadn’t seen her for a year. She carried her six-month-old daughter on her back as she bent over her kerosene stove to fry potatoes and plantains. She swung her new-mother hips as she walked proudly to the refrigerator to retrieve the orange-papaya juice she had squeezed and blended for me that morning.

Juice in hand, I sat on the red plush sofa in a bare concrete room and stared at badly-translated, hokey photos on the wall (“house is where the heart is”) while I dutifully ate the plantains and meat she brought me. Paulina insisted I relax while she cooked porridge for her daughter Edwiggy, fed her, fretted about her lack of appetite, bathed her, dressed her. “I’ve been so busy rushing around, I ran into the door,” she giggled, touching a bruise on her head.

After a quick afternoon trip to meet her old grandmother and run by the market, we returned with baskets full of onions, tomatoes, papaya and watermelon. Paulina’s boyfriend was watching TV, irked that we’d returned late and dinner wasn’t ready. Paulina cooked dinner, fed Edwiggy again, put her to bed, made more juice. She brought out the food for me and Moses, and served his plate. She turned up the American hip-hop louder and heated bathwater for Moses as we ate. She washed the dishes.

By ten I was exhausted from merely watching her. Paulina flashed me her smile again.

“Katherine, sit,” she commanded in Swahili. “Let’s tell stories.”

She moved her shoulders to the music and sang along in English as I explained the meaning of songs to her. She asked me six times what I thought of her baby daughter.

BeyoncĂ© danced across the screen. “In America, do people walk down the street naked like they do in the music videos?” Paulina asked. She helped me review Swahili words for all the body parts, including the ones seen in the music videos. She giggled. She asked me when I was going to make enough money to buy her a plane ticket to America.

As I was leaving the next morning for Arusha—eight hours away by bus, where I’d be living for the next year—she touched her forehead. “I didn’t really run into a door,” she told me as we arrived at the bus stop. “Moses beats me.”

I shook my head and tried to listen, but the ranting Swahili was too fast for me. My bus pulled up. I hugged her goodbye.


Three months later on a Christmastime visit to the city, I sat in her neighbor’s extra bedroom, sweating from the heat, as Paulina made the bed for me. She pulled her khanga up to her hips, exposing her legs. Baseball-sized bruises, blue and green and purple, adorned her thighs. “Moses got drunk,” she said. “He is a horrible person.”

“Leave him!” I exclaimed.

Her reasoning was practical. Moses, in his job with the national police, brought home money for food. He brought home money for Edwiggy. Paulina didn’t love him anymore, but where would she go without income? What kind of work could she do with a nine-month-old baby? Who would take her in? She figured she would endure it until Edwiggy was old enough to walk. Then at least, she wouldn’t be burdening her family too much.

I hesitated, knowing I should think this through, but the words burst from my mouth: “What if I give you some money?”

How many times had she begged me for money for a plane ticket, for a trip to America? She was always asking for help.

Now I tried to meet her deep brown eyes. “If you had a little money, could you leave?”

She refused. Maybe she didn’t want the charity, or maybe she thought I needed the money, or maybe her no was a cultural way of being polite. “You are a student. You are a volunteer. Keep your money.” She turned on the fan, tucked me into my mosquito net, and told me to sleep well. I ached for her. But I was twenty-two and she was twenty-one, and we saw no solutions.


Three weeks later, when I had returned to Arusha, Moses came home drunk with another woman.

Paulina walked out with her baby daughter and took with her enough of his money to buy the bus ticket back home to her mother, in a small town close to Arusha.

I read her text message while I lay on the lavish bed in the Kudu Lodge after the second day of safari with my parents, who were visiting from the U.S. It had been a day of elephants, cheetahs, soup and salad and steak. The dissonance made me uncomfortable.

A few minutes later, another text appeared. Will you help me with some money to start a business here?

The second half of Paulina's story is up here.

This post is a part of my Women’s History Month project, “Honoring Women’s Stories.” You can read more about the project and see other women’s stories here.

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