The loneliness was beginning to press in hard. I was twenty-two; I’d been in
a few months teaching English, and local friends were hard to come by.
Esther was nineteen, and living with her brother. The second time we met, I spent the weekend at her house. We hauled well-water and cooked on charcoal and cleaned the floor and slept under the same mosquito net. On Saturday afternoon when the chores were done, she connected the cassette player to an old car battery—the only electricity in the tiny concrete house—and cranked up the volume on the Tanzanian gospel music. Neighboring children heard the call and came running onto the newly mopped floor. We shoved the chairs and table aside and turned the living room/dining room/kitchen/guest room into a dance studio. I watched her and moved my hips, my arms, my head.
In the middle of the third song, I stepped back to take a breath and wipe away the sweat. I was laughing harder than I had in months. As I sipped my water bottle and watched, what I saw was a friend; what I saw an invitation to belong.
A week later, I haltingly told her, “I need a new place to stay next month. Can I live with you?”
I was lucky for the code Tanzanian hospitality, which I think consists of one rule: never say no.
In exchange, I said I would pay for her to go back to school, which was her dream.
What was hard was that she (along with her brother, sister-in-law, sister, niece, and nephew) shared with me everything she had, and I couldn’t give back in proportion. I could buy flour at the market, bring home a treat of fruit every day, even help with school fees and business capital when it seemed appropriate. But even then I was always holding something back: something of myself and the stories that had shaped me, which she couldn’t understand, something of my resources and education and social capital, which were infinitely greater than she could imagine.
What was lovely were the trips to the market together, the pilgrimage to her village home, the way she took care of me when I got malaria, the sisterhood. We told stories by kerosene lantern at night, brushed our teeth under the stars, woke at six a.m. for the womanly duty of making the morning chai.
I lived there four months, and I loved her.
The first time I felt cheated was not her fault. In my American naiveté, I had paid the whole years’ worth tuition for Esther’s school, and we soon discovered they had no teachers, just someone who came in the morning to write some notes on the board for the students to copy. It was a money-making scheme and the headmaster refused to refund my money. “We are getting more teachers,” he assured me. Months later when the school year ended and I was gone, it turned out that since Esther had already failed the ninth-grade national exam twice, she couldn’t sit for it again.
The second time I felt cheated was near the end of my stay. I can hardly remember the details, filtered as the story was through the animated Swahili of Esther’s sister and sister-in-law, who sat me down one afternoon and told me that Esther had been two-timing all of us. In addition to her fiancé John, she was dating another man who had been giving her money and jewelry and nice things, paying for lunches I thought I had been paying for.
I confronted Esther and she assured me it was not as they said. She had an explanation for all of it, which I didn’t fully understand or believe. But she was like a sister to me. I forgave her.
The last few days, before I was to leave for
and I took nostalgic walks. We walked to the store, to the well, to the market,
if only for a place to stand in the late-afternoon sun and look at each other
and realize there was no way to put into words our sentiments.
I had mixed feelings, of course. I was ready for sandwiches and close friends and my own space, ready to be free of the constant trapped feeling, ready for some distance from a sister I loved so much but couldn’t fully trust.
On those walks, she gave me the kindest farewell I have ever received. She wished me the best in every dream I had ever told her. She gave me specific greetings and messages for every friend and family member I had ever mentioned. She shared what she loved about me and said that we should pray for each other always.
five years ago now. My Swahili got rustier, and my phone calls with Esther sparser.
I promised to help her get licensed as a nursery school teacher, and for a
while our calls were mostly at the beginning of the school year, regarding Western Union transfers.
She married John, and according to the Tanzanian tradition I sent money to help with the cost of the wedding, only to hear from her brother later that there was no wedding. Maybe they got married but hosted no fancy wedding. It is never clear. They are certainly married now.
A few months ago, John lost his job. The calls for help started coming more frequently then. I found out Esther is pregnant. She is due this week, and lately the texts say they are three months behind on their rent and about to be evicted. The dollar amount she claims she needs to cover the rent is almost certainly a lie.
I could give her the exaggerated figure, which is less than $200. But I can’t keep paying her rent forever. I don’t want to be her social safety net, though in
that is maybe not so different than to be her sister.
I sent her a message saying that I can’t help, mainly because I didn't think a few months’ rent is going to solve her problems, and I want her and John to find their own way out. Regardless of her past manipulations, could it be right to deny rent to a nine-months-pregnant Tanzanian woman whose husband is out of work? So a few days later, we reverse course and send more than they asked for, hopefully for a down payment to build a house, or start a business.
This is what it means to me to say Esther. To say
love and freedom so deep and the greatest sense of welcome I've ever known. The hazy confusion of
stories filtered through a half-known language and culture. The desperate sense
that I am never quite doing the right thing, or maybe that there is no right
I would not trade my Tanzanian experience, my Tanzanian family, for a million nights of guiltless sleep. It is right that I should wrestle with the inequality and sorrow of the world. It is right that this wrestling should be with real, broken people whom I dearly love and forgive. It is right that because of them, I can never be complacent. It is right that I can’t find a way to end this story, because it is not simple, and it is not resolved, and love is never tidy in this wild world.