how do you spell Misungwi?

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

My last week in Misungwi

Note: the last week has been incredibly boring, but only because it’s early January and most of the time I’ve been spent in a car or on the couch. This post reflects my thoughts, feelings, and describes the flurry of activity that was my last week in Misungwi.

Addendum to note: It is fantastic writing this at home, where electricity is NOT an inhibiting factor. I spoke with a few friends from Misungwi on new years day, and got a report that the electricity rationing has somehow lessened in severity. My last week in Misungwi was plagued both by the ongoing electricity issue, in combination with the fact that several transformers were dead as a result of people stealing the oil. As a result, I fell asleep at about 9pm on several occasions. Power out = me passed out on couch. Though I did usually manage to wake up around 1am, when the lights came back on.

Wednesday at the Market with Sam
A week before my departure date, I went to the nearby town of Misasi with my friend Sam to go to the largest weekly market in my district. I had meant to go over the past two years, but had still not gotten around to it.


That was a recurring theme of my last week. ‘Well I meant to …. but time just ran out.’ I can’t count how many times I said that. And I knew that my last week would be insanely busy, with lots of things to do, and were I not organized I would not finish. Thus, I wrote a list of everyone that I wanted to say goodbye to and trade contact information with. And though I have doubts that I will be in touch with many of them, I did manage to say so long, farewell, and thanks to the people that mattered to me the most in Misungwi.

GO again.

The Misasi market. Here’s a written walk through. You enter gates off the main road, passing hoe sticks [pieces of wood on which the hoe blade goes]. Then you encounter hundreds of cows and goats. And stands selling cow and goat meat, soup, bbq. Beyond the meat stands is the stand where the cars pull up to, piles of various grains continually covered and uncovered depending on the rain. Knife sharpeners are upside-down bicycles with a blade hooked up by cable to the pedals in order to turn the sharpening wheel. Despite this, most knives used in Tanzania are dull, including, by all indicators, the ones I saw used to kill the goat we ate. Beyond knives are piles and piles of used clothing, several tailors ready to alter purchased clothes or create new ones out of plentiful fabric, piles and piles of cheap Chinese plastic shit, and my friend Sam’s fellow traditional medicine healers. And a small little table for really sketchy gambling, gambling that allows OTHER people to take the money that I bet and play it on a different number [1-6 is written on the table, you bet on a number and die are rolled]. When I called them out on how this was wrong, they clearly realized that I had figured out their scheme and quickly gave me my money back and told me to go away.

When the day was done, Sam and I bought a goat and named him Brian.

I am a fantastic person
My last week was filled with lots of ego-boosting compliments, though I accepted them with modesty and credit due to all those who helped me. I got lots of praise for my Swahili and Sukuma language skills – thanks to Dominic, my neighbors, and all the other stubborn Sukuma people for basically refusing to speak to me in any other language. I got praise from my carpenter friend in regards to my new pants – ‘you used to dress like shit, but now you’re looking a little better. I didn’t want to say anything before but really…’ He’s a good guy though, and his openness wasn’t mean-spirited [read observations regarding physical appearance below]. After two years of practice, I was deemed an expert at peeling mangoes by my old Arab Bibi [grandma]. The first time she saw me peel a mango, she laughed and ridiculed me, but now I’m an expert. I’ve grown up. I was congratulated, somehow, for being late all the time – I’m a ‘real Tanzanian’ in regards to my tardiness. I continued to bring joy with my camera, though I can claim little credit for it. It will be nice to have so many pictures of my friends. I made people’s days in ways that I can never repeat again: 1) I called a woman FAT [she has HIV, started using ARV drugs but was worried that she hadn’t gained much weight like others she knew, and I comforted her by telling her not everyone has to gain weight and that she looked pretty chunky to me] and 2) I received God’s blessings from a woman because I included my sheets and pillowcases when I sold her my bed and 3) I gave my two favorite mamas at the market a bowl, a plate, and a spoon apiece. Small gestures, but it meant a lot to them, and to me.
Finally, I cannot count how many times people complimented me by saying ‘hey, you can’t go, we’re USED to you!’ I don’t care about being a good person, about doing good work, about giving people gifts, being a language whiz, being the ‘mzungu from misungwi’, etc etc. The biggest compliment I could ever get is that I am just a normal part of life in Misungwi, that they are used to me and I’m used to them, and that my leaving will disrupt the status quo. That was one of my few main goals when I arrived, to just live and fit in and be a part of the community, and I succeeded. It felt fantastic to hear.

Two years is a long time
I saw a young man recently, as shown in picture, that works as a bike taxi driver. I distinctly remember hiring him shortly after arriving in Misungwi, to take me to my office. Well, my office is uphill, and he couldn’t make it way back when – I had to get off the bike and we both walked up to the top of the hill. Instead of getting mad, I gave him twice the going rate [about 50 cents] and told him to go eat a big meal to gain weight and strength. Fast forward almost 2 years, I had rarely seen him in the meantime and had never gotten on his bicycle, but after all this time I hired him to take me once again to the office – and we made it. I gave him a compliment, he gave me a smile, and I realized how time flies.

I also saw a young child that, 2 years ago, I dragged home to his mother for a beating. He had been bugging me relentlessly at my house, climbing on my gate and demanding money – so I chased him and when he fell down, scooped him up and took him home. My last day in Misungwi, I ran into him at his new house – he is two years older, and was the most respectful and courteous little boy I’ve ever met in Tanzania! If only he had been that way when I first got there – guess he’s started growing up.

More final observations
Most, 90%, of Tanzanian men have really skinny chicken legs. No judgment behind that, just fact. Though maybe it explains why they almost all like women with big booty.

Men sleep everywhere. In cards, under cars, in stores, outside of stores, in parks, everywhere. Men also PEE everywhere too. So, one can thus conclude that men potentially sleep in their own piss. Or pee in their beds.

Often storeowners are sleeping in their stores when I arrive. Or they went out for an errand and left the store unguarded. But that’s not a big deal, because everyone knows each other and no one even thinks that there is a potential for theft. I will confess that I only stole once, a 1-cent piece of candy from a guy who sold me expired powdered milk. Jerk deserved it.

I am getting older – young people, TOO young, are talking about sex when I pass them on the street. Hell, the boys’ voices are cracking while telling dirty jokes!! I was shocked to hear stories, as I was just hanging out with a few of my friends, about a young boy that walked by us. They told me ‘hey, you see that guy, he is famous for sleeping with lots of girls.’ I asked, ‘who, that guys father?’ Nope, it was the young man. He comes from a rich family, and $ = power = women. All that = recipe for HIV pandemic.

I went to a soccer game. The Misungwi team lost, and the game wasn’t incredibly interesting. That is, until a goat got stuck in the goal net, and bleated pathetically for about 5 minutes until being pried out by a group of no less than 5 men. I appreciated that the visiting team had jerseys which stated ‘mikasi noma’, street language for ‘unsafe sex isn’t cool yo.’

Tanzanians are far less sensitive about physical appearance than people in the states, and also more INsensitive, well at least uninhibited, in pointing out flaws in others. I recently took a trip to the shores of Lake Victoria to ride in a tiny boat. Well, a few outcomes of that ‘visit’ were a sunburnt nose and an infection on my ankle. Another sign that many people in Misungwi know me, and are used to me – upon seeing my nose, I got a lot of ‘what the hell happened to you, why is your nose so freakin red?!’ Way to be subtle, guys. At the same time, there is no shame or sense of insecurity about that! When I was talking to my tailor friend, a larger woman came in to be measured for a dress. And, in front of a store full of people waiting and working and chatting, another tailor announced with little hesitation the full measurements of this woman – and I heard a couple of 40s in there. But that was no big deal. I imagine this is what facilitates the bizarre sight of people selling, and buying, underwear and bras [and mens underwear too] at the bus station.

Healthcare is ‘free’ in Tanzania [except for bribes to get services, which hopefully are in decline] but it is a different world. Relatives are responsible for providing food for patients, who are often 20-30 in small beds in one common room, and occasionally more than 1 to a bed.

And final goodbyes
I said goodbye to my friend Jumanne [Tuesday], who always wears a manskirt similar to the one I own, by having my last cup of rice porridge with him. At first I couldn’t figure out where the mama who sold the porridge was – turns out she was wearing pants, and I mistook her for one of the men who was a regular [only men spend their evenings out for roasted maize or porridge – the women are home cooking].

I said goodbye to my neighbor Mzee [left in picture], which means ‘old guy’ but he’s actually about 20. He works as a conductor on the daladala buses, and so I sat down with him recently to teach him about condoms, as I am well aware of the risky behavior his peer group engages in. I bought him a wife-beater, and one for myself.

I said goodbye to the other daladala conductors by, well, giving them condoms and joking around as always. Given their demographic and high-risk environments, I became rather close to these guys and invested in seeing them protect themselves. One spent a few years in Yemen, and thus understood my outsiders experience like few others could. Another a card shark to trade strategies with. One a 6’5" bouncer-built young man nicknamed ‘bad bug’ who was the most soft-spoken and gentle of them all. Of everyone I know, this was the most final ‘goodbye’ I exchanged – they are all young men, in a difficult and dangerous job, with risky behavior and high mobility. I will probably never see or correspond with any of them again, and that is life.

I said goodbye to my coworkers at the district government in the canteen, over a huge breakfast of beef soup, chapatti, and fruit salad. We also, as is typical, had one last discussion about differences between Tanzania and the USA, and why I was looking forward and NOT looking forward to returning.

I said goodbye to one of my neighbors who has lots of chickens by, well, saying goodbye, and then graciously accepting 2 eggs.

I said goodbye to two of my best friends, the electrician Alex and his brother Godi, by doing what we always do – hanging out and cracking jokes. When I visited them at their store to say farewell, they were talking about the ‘stuff’ and ‘goods’ and ‘cash.’ So I asked if they had started selling cocaine – turns out they were referring to donuts. I also had a good chuckle watching them get excited about the combination lock that I had given them. We must have opened it and relocked like 10 times.

I said goodbye to Babuu, Juma, Hamisi [first picture], Mayunga, Dullah, Adolph, Sato [second picture], Selestini, Singsbert literally – ‘goodbye zachayo’ or ‘goodbye ndebile’ – just because I know it’s the last time I’ll get to say most of these names ever again.

Without fail, goodbyes were said both verbally and physically. Physically often involved hugging, and ALWAYS involved a final, 5-minute handshake. It is difficult to describe a Tanzanian handshake. It starts off like a typical handshake, then moves to more of a hands clasping, then back to handshake, then back into hand clasping, and so on and so forth, until after a few minutes you move into thumb-war position and start thumb-snapping each other for a good minute or so until final disengagement.

I said goodbye to Misungwi – the women fetching water from the wells, the old men and women walking to the farm with a hoe over one shoulder and a radio over the other, young children with bike-loads of sweet potato plantings, young girls setting wet laundry out to dry, young men sweeping dirt in the yard and gambling in the corner of an abandoned building, the young children playing and pelting each other with balls made of plastic bags and stealing fruit from the trees – from the front seat of my favorite daladala, escorted by my best friends.


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