Sunday, October 10, 2010

Anonymity and cream puffs

After an exceptionally sedentary Saturday spent staring at my Kiswahili books and reading a 372-page novel in its entirety, I decided it was time to start my long procrastinated plan of getting in shape by going for a run through the township. I dug out my long neglected running shoes and shorts, stretched my lower extremities, and started out at a pathetic beginner’s pace in the opposite direction of my daily route to school, excited to explore the unknown corners of the neighborhood. I ran past clusters of rickety shacks where wanawake (women) were selling vegetables, past a CCM political rally with speakers blaring musical praises of President Kikwete, past  vinyozi (hair salons) where women were having polyester hair extensions painfully braided into their real hair, past a cemetery/community garden where people can buy small plots of land for EITHER burial the burial of a loved one or for planting vegetables (maybe for one until you need the other?), past a small “grocery store” (that sells only booze) where a group of men was passing the afternoon with beer and WWE…  

And past and endless chorus of hundreds of children screaming “Mzungu! Mzungu!”

While I realize that most people, especially children, don’t mean anything malicious when they scream “white person” as I walk past their house every day or run past them on the street or sit next to them in a dala-dala (mini-bus), after two and a half years of being constantly reminded of my skin color I’m REALLY tired of it.

As an ex-pat (and white woman) living in Africa, one thing that’s taken a lot of getting used to is the amount of attention I receive. Constantly. Every morning walking to school and every afternoon walking back home, I tell the same 150 curious people that I’m “nzuri” (good) because they always ask. When I buy vegetables at the market, everyone around me stops and whispers to their friends about what I’m buying and what I’m wearing and about my strange yellow hair. School children beside me on the dala-dala surreptitiously touch my hair and giggle. When I’m walking in town, people constantly stop me to ask where I’m coming from, where I’m going, where I’m from, what I’m doing, if I have a boyfriend, where my family lives, if I will pay for their kids to go to school, etc. If I walk into a shop and ask, in flawless Kiswahili, for two rolls of toilet paper, the cashier laughs and then repeats my request to everyone else in the shop as if it’s the funniest thing that’s happened all day.  

The attention I receive from men is even MORE ridiculous. If I sit down in the Iringa town park with a book on a warm afternoon, I immediately become a magnet for men begging for money, jobs, or a wife (or, most commonly, all three). Men sit down next to me in the internet café and ask me incredibly personal questions while I try my best to ignore them and focus on the pay-by-the-minute internet in front of me. They slow down in their cars or on their motorcycles to a walking pace so they can pester me for the entirety of my 20 minute walk back to my house in the evening (which I then have to turn into a 40 minute walk as I try to lose them so they don’t know where I live). If at any time any man approaches me in a restaurant, in the market, or in the internet café, 98% of the time this is the conversation that ensues: 

Him: “Where are you from?”

Me: (obviously annoyed) “America, but I live in Frelimo.”

Him: “You are beautiful. Do you have a boyfriend?”

Me: “I don’t want one.”

Him: “I will help you by being your boyfriend/Look how nice my body is./How do you control your sexual urges?”

Me: (firm, but polite) “You are rude, please go away.”

Him: “Give me your phone number so I can call you and we can get to know each other.”

Me: “No.” (usually I have to say this MANY times)

Him: “Well then give me money/find me a sponsor in America to pay for my schooling/give me a job.”

Me: “Go away” (in a less polite way, roughly the Kiswahili equivalent of “go screw yourself”)

It’s enough to make me long for the anonymity of being just another white girl in Kansas, or to make me fantasize about public transport in DC where nobody cares where you’re going or where you came from or what you’re doing. I dream of being able to walk down the street and not having a single person ask me for money, try to sell me something, and of going to shops where things have prices not determined by my skin color. 

Modest dreams that will be realized in just 89 days. 

That’s right, after two and a half years abroad, I have FINALLY bought a return ticket to the US! I’ll be leaving Tanzania on December 20 and returning to Swaziland to spend 2 more weeks with my friends and host family before beginning the 24-hour flight back to the US of A on January 6. I’ll arrive in DC on the morning of January 7 and will spend a day with Jess, Brittney, and any other friends who still remember me after 2 long years, and then return to Kansas the following morning (January 8) to be reacquainted with long-lost grandparents, parents, and siblings. 

To recap, I’ll be in…

Tanzania: now to December 19

Swaziland: December 20 to January 6

DC: January 7

Topeka, KS: January 8 to August 

When I get back to the US, I plan to spend at least a week eating all the things I’ve missed in Africa (cream puffs from Sam’s Club, margaritas, Guapo’s chips and salsa, strawberry-kiwi Snapple, gourmet cheeses, all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet, Dulce de Leche cheesecake from The Cheesecake Factory, Papa Murphy’s Pizza, chocolate silk pie from Perkin’s, etc.) and making up for 6 missed Christmas/Thanksgiving feasts and lots of missed birthday celebrations with family. Then, after getting a new driver’s license and a cell phone and finding a gym so I can lose all the weight I gain from eating half of Topeka, I’ll ideally find some sort of menial but magically high-paying job to occupy my time until I move to New Orleans in August. Woohoo!

Until then, I’ve decided that every time someone yells “Mzungu” at me I’ll stop, look confusedly around, and ask “wapi?” (where?). This makes kids laugh and run away, which gives me a chance to escape. As for fending off the men, I think I’ll ask my Kiswahili teacher to teach me some more offensive phrases on Monday.

The view of the township of Frelimo from atop the ridge by my house. Most of the houses are made of mud bricks or cinder blocks and have corrugated iron roofs which, after a year, become red with rust. All the streets are dirt, which makes it fun when running or walking because every passing car makes it impossible to breathe for a solid 20 seconds. Can’t wait for the rainy season in November, when the streets will be made of mud that I will, undoubtedly, fall face-first into!

The beautiful, allergy-inducing Jacaranda tree-lined streets of the town of Iringa. This is the main street (Uhuru Street) in town, and those vehicles in the picture are dala-dalas.

All around the Iringa municipal vegetable market there are billboards like these with health- or sanitation-focused message, which is something I definitely identify with and appreciate. This particular one makes me laugh. It’s a message about the importance of putting your rubbish in a dumpster to keep the town clean because if you don’t, kids will go through it and play with what they find. If you notice in the foreground of the center panel, a child is blowing up a used condom like a balloon. Yum.

Every morning on my way to school I walk through a big community garden area where people grow vegetables and keep banana orchards. There’s also a brick yard where a man makes and sells mud bricks to people who are in the market for bricks. I think it’s an interesting point of comparison between Swaziland, where the brick yards sell cinder blocks made of cement, and Tanzania, where the bricks are made with dirt and water and are beat into shape with a piece of wood. Welcome to the ‘hood.

This is the “butcher shop” closest to my house…the one my Kiswahili teacher recommends buying my meat from. (No thanks.) Butcher shops here that sell pork say “kiti moto” on them, which literally means “hot chair.” It took me a while to figure out why all the warm furniture stores sold pork. 

No comments: