I am typing in my very own sitting room verandah in this small city’s only fancy hotel, the Orion Tabora. Outside are the intermingling sounds of people speaking Swahili at their bar, Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” (for the third time in the last hour), a man singing prayer at the nearest mosque, frogs, crickets, turtles munching on plumeria flowers, rain, and the crazy whooping and whistling of African gray mimic birds.
above: turtle munching plumeria flowers outside my front door
There are few barriers to life here: other peoples’ lives, nature, community. This is so unlike the isolated enclaves of the Coral Beach Hotel in Dar es Salaam and a world away from the bubbles in which most of us live in the US.
** a couple days later…
The Tabora Sound Band
The Tabora Sound Band has been rocking the Orion Hotel for the last three hours. They will likely play for three more hours – it’s midnight. My room is directly in back of their stage, so you can imagine that with their new ten-speaker system, it’s a bit loud. It’s a good thing they’re good musicians, and I like their style: lots of smooth Swahili singing and intricate guitar picking over a danceable bass. Very African, very fun.
Royce and I have cut a few tracks on their nice wooden parquet dance floor. Tanzanians dance very conservatively (at least among the older set): men dance with other men, women dance with other women, men and women don’t touch each other. It’s an interesting traditional-conservative + slightly homoerotic gathering. One night, a man grabbed Royce’s hand to come up to dance. I eventually joined them on my own (it would be scandalous for a man to invite me), along with four other of the men’s drunk friends. They are generally very respectful of me, keeping distance, until one mildly drunken moment of holding onto each others shoulders and singing together. I’m pretty sensitive to strangers’ touches, and only then did I feel a slight violation of personal space. On the whole, it’s a very tame scene.
Amazingly, I’ve been able to fall asleep while the Tabora Sound Band is still playing. I’ve been exhausted from my daily forays into the world of kitenge (colorful, patterned East African cloth) and tailor-made sewing projects. It’s a bit dangerous to put beautiful fabric and affordable tailoring into my hands. I’ve gotten the idea to make all sorts of craft-sewn items of my design; since I’ve always been limited by my lack of sewing machine skills, I can now hire tailors to make my designs for me. What luxury!
Arts ‘n’ crafts in rural Tanzania
a Tanzanian family’s home
Part of the fun is hunting for kitenge in the street market and bargaining in my recovering Kiswahili. The following comprises most of the Kiswahili I’ve regained so far besides “maji biridi” (water, cold):
Jambo, habari yako?
Ni bei gani?
Elfu tano mia tano? Ni gali sana!
Nitakupa shilingi elfu nne.
[Hello, how’s it going?
Do you have kitenge?
How much is it?
5,500? That’s too much!
I’ll give you 4,000 shillings.]
Yes, the vocabulary of a cheap market shopper. In the end, I don’t bargain hard (at least not like I do in China). They are a really good deal for me: 2 meters of gorgeous unique fabric for about 4 bucks. I have a sense of how much most folks pay on these fabrics, so I just ask for the general going rate.
above: detail from two kitenge fabrics and one kanga
So now a young woman named Petty is making a tunic dress and a skirt out of some funky purple and black fabric and an older man (whom Valerie knows as “the father of Omari”) is making a market bag (so I can accrue more fabrics, naturally) out of a deep turquoise and brown butterfly kitenge. Man, these kitenge and kanga designers are artistic geniuses!
Today I went to their homes in the national housing district by bicycle taxi.
above: Father of Omari with the butterfly kitenge and antique sewing machine from China!!
Now you may ask:
How in the world did I know whose houses to wander into?
And what is national housing?
National housing is apparently government-provided homes for Tanzanians who have served in the military or in public office at some point in their lives. I don’t know this for sure, but national housing might be a vestige of Nyerere’s socialist principles in ensuring that people have shelter, especially if they’ve served the country in some way. It seems to be very much a working class black African district: very basic, dirt roads, but still with permanent concrete dwellings, electricity and limited running water.
I spent the afternoon there with Valerie, her family, and her neighbors who happen to be tailors.
Valerie is a young woman who works at the small snack shop and internet café at the Orion Tabora Hotel. She was wearing a gorgeous dress made out of a kitenge this morning. I initially walked up to her to ask her about the internet access at the shop (which hasn’t been working for the last week) and then noticed her awesome dress. Petty had made it for her. When I enquired about good tailors she could recommend, she instructed me to purchase the kitenge I wanted to use, then meet her back at the hotel at 2 pm. I ran into town, found my kitenge, and went on a national housing safari (journey) with Valerie.
We took bicycle taxis along these crazy pot-holed dirt roads. Now these are not the suped-up boda boda bicycle taxis of Kenya. Tanzania’s per capita annual GDP is $100 less than Kenya’s, mind you. It shows. Tanzania’s bicycle taxis lack the butt cushion on the back bike rack and the little extra-rider foot rests. The combination of my boney ass + the naked wire bike rack + potholed roads + aggressive bike riding = very sore sophy bum right now.
By far the most memorable part of the trip was having lunch with Valerie’s family. Unexpectedly, she invited me to her family home after we dropped off the fabric and projects at Petty’s house.
“Come, let’s have lunch at my home,” she said.
“Sasawa,” I said. OK!
So we went into an alley next to Petty’s house, past a bunch of chickens and a group of children playing in the dirt patch and thinking of clever things to say to me in English.
“Hello, how are you?”
“Good day, Madam!”
“My name is Mfana!”
Valerie’s house is humble and friendly: concrete floors and walls, plain wooden doors, windows with hand-crocheted lace curtains and simple furniture adorned with crocheted doilies and hand-knitted stuffed animals. They have a tiny television and were watching some local beauty pageant on it when I entered the main family and dining room. Valerie’s uncle, older brother, two younger brothers, mother, grandmother and grandfather were all there. They were patiently waiting for Valerie to return home for lunch. They didn’t eat until we came in, and everyone made proper introductions with me. I bowed and said a shikamoo (respectful greeting to elders) to Valerie’s grandparents. Her babu (grandfather) gave a hearty belly laugh and held my hand warmly. Karibu sana. You’re very welcome.
We ate ugali with stewed greens and red beans. It was a perfect meal for me: fresh, vegan, hearty. And I liked their ugali. I guess that I haven’t liked it in the past because I’ve just had bad, soggy or cold ugali. Ugali is white corn meal mash, kinda like a super bland, super fine polenta. Eating this local food with my fingers and sharing it among people who so warmly invited a stranger into their home represented all things good in the world.
Afterwards, Valerie asked me if I enjoyed the meal. I told her that it is one of the best meals I’ve had. She laughed and told me that it can’t be true. But it is.