Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Africa slipping away

I was twenty, swimming in questions and doubts and grieving broken friendships and a lost relationship, when I arrived in Tanzania the first time. I woke up early to climb up to the roof, to gaze at palm trees and women wearing colorful clothes and carrying bright red and yellow buckets of water on their heads, to take in this new brightness in the world and in myself. Late at night, I sat on a stool in the tiny, smoky kitchen with my friend Monika, the cook, learning Swahili and empathy through her stories of ambition and heartbreak. In between university classes I read big words in the Bible, words like “there is now no condemnation in Christ” and “there is no fear in love,” and I began to discover the openness of my heart, the vastness of God.

It was two months in before I realized I hadn’t cried in this country, which was remarkable considering that I’d cried nearly every day the year before. Here in Africa, I didn’t have to answer the questions or muddle guiltily through messy relationships or be good. I had only to see, to partake, to love.

I partook, one day, after enduring constant teasing from my friends for the fact that I’d never in my life skipped a class. We left Swahili behind, hopped on a minibus early one Thursday morning, bottled water and inaccurate map in hand, and set out to find a fishing village noted in the guidebook. Smushed into a crowded minibus, the three of us miraculously found our way and two hours later, we were walking out on a reedy beach south of the city, following a young boy to the nearest fries-and-eggs stand for the cheap, greasy local food we were craving. I stretched out my arms as wide as I could and felt the wind on my face and the last drop of tension draining from my bones and I wanted to sing for joy.

A few days before it was time to return to the US, I lay on a red couch with a lump in my throat, because in returning, I would be leaving this place of vast open spaces. I knew that in the US, I would revert back to the self that had to work and fight and say and do the right things, in order to be good enough.

I preemptively mourned the loss of this expansive self.


I was a little homesick my second time in Tanzania. But in the evenings, when my English students and I gathered in the cafeteria, their thirteen-year-old hearts and my twenty-two-year-old hearts melded together and we poured out our loneliness until it disappeared. They taught me their songs (“God created us skinny, God created us fat”) and I taught them mine, and we crooned together against the darkness, “We all need someone to be there and someone to be there for.”

Together we were dancing, together we were celebrating the wideness and love of God and community, together we were making it through the nights away from home. When Zawadi couldn’t get through class without crying for homesickness, I longed to make her smile. When Nambayo got healthy enough to concentrate better, I put smiley faces on her quizzes with pride. When Napoki got pregnant and had to leave, I wanted to cry. I loved those girls with as deep an affection as I have known. They were, for a while, home.

When I returned to the US this time (for good?) I wore four beaded bracelets—their gifts to me—until they fell off one by one over the next year. I grieved the loss of a love and a song across cultures, borne out of loneliness and a need to belong, bringing the kind of deep gladness that is usually a long time in coming.


The year I got married was 2012, the year I had promised I would go back to Tanzania to see my students graduate. The wedding conflicted. I didn’t go. I haven’t been now, for six years.

When I think of Tanzania now, I confess I don’t think of the colors or the openness of my heart or the songs. I don’t think of the plates of food I shared with friends like Communion, or of brushing my teeth under the stars, or of the gift of acceptance the people gave to me, or of the adventurous, open person I became in that place.

Instead, I think of the obligations. The need to measure up and be good enough. I think of the phone calls to friends I don’t want to make, because they will tell me my Swahili is slipping, and though it is silly banter to them, it is a reminder to me of a part of myself that is slipping. They will mean well when they ask “When are you coming back?” but I will feel guilty in my inability to answer, my shifted priorities, my complicated living out of some American (un)dream that no longer gives me the freedom to visit them.

And they won’t be objectifying or using me when they most certainly ask for money for the latest education plan for themselves and their children, because to share money means to be a part of a family; yet even though they treated me with nothing but acceptance and an open hand when I lived among them, I will feel now objectified and used for my connections and my relative wealth. My heart will sink as I realize that even were I to offend or insult them, they would stay in touch with me if only for the hope of money, and I will feel angry and resentful maybe most of all at myself for no longer loving them as people.

So I don’t call back, and the relationship rift grows, and the open-hearted Tanzanian inside me drifts further away. I grieve the loss.

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