I knew that you and I would get along as soon as I stepped off the plane that Thursday morning in September. A bright sun, a crowd of people, and a dizzying taxi ride past rows and rows of pink government buildings.
There are some parts of you that are easy to love. Deserted beaches, uninhabited tropical islands, white sand, blue ocean. The best Indian food I have ever tasted. Weekend trips to Stone Town. Coconut, pineapple, and mango for sale on the street corner.
But, Dar-city, you also have a hearbeat. I hear it in the first light of the morning when the call to prayer from the neighbourhood mosque rings through the neighbourhood. And again and again when my downstairs neighbour blasts Enrique Iglesias all day, when my favourite bajaj driver greets me on the way home from work, when the sound of frogs drowns out human conversation.
And a soul with a capacity to dream that is bigger than mine. An IT guy who visits every morning to fix my computer even though we both know it will break down again tomorrow and a street vendor that calls out to me every day even though I resolutely continue to ignore him. A billboard that advertises the site of the soon-to-be largest mall in Dar, complete with a coffee shop, grocery store, restaurant, and apartments. “Grand opening soon!”, the sign proclaims. Underneath the billboard, there is a still empty field.
Thank you, too, for letting me keep my laptop and camera. My colleagues in Kenya and South Africa have long since been robbed of their valuable possessions and, when those were gone, the muggers came back for soap, coconut milk, and a flashlight.
I wouldn’t be caught dead in a hockey arena in Canada, but I let you take me to a soccer game. Your two teams, Yanga vs. Simba. Yellow and green against red. Yyou warned me not to wear the wrong colours or sit on the wrong side of the arena. You were right – I had fun until the end when I was punched by an overenthusiastic fan.
It hasn’t always been easy. I love your street food, but I spent nearly all of October doubled over in pain. And I love the wind-through-my-hair-freedom of riding around in a bajaj, but not the accident that resulted when one of your drivers decided to take a short cut down the wrong side of the road.
Most of all, I’ll miss your people. People I would be friends with if we had met in Dar or China or Texas, but who I fear wouldn’t recognize me if I wasn’t sunburned and sweating. I’ll miss Sunday brunches, Crazy Kitenge shopping, and book club meetings at Saverios. I’ll miss the friend who wrote this lovely poem and all the other wonderful people I met in Dar.
I turned in the key to my apartment last Saturday and I’m leaving Tanzania tomorrow morning. Goodbye Dar, for now.
The past few days have been intolerably hot. One last heat wave before I leave Dar. Is this the city’s way of saying goodbye?
On Sunday morning I lost myself in the maze of downtown for one last time. Sweating, dehydrated, and cursing the heat, I stopped to buy a coconut from a vendor on the street corner. For 500 Tsh, he lopped off the top with a machete, gave me a straw, waited for me to drink the coconut milk, and then scraped out the flesh for me to eat.
Coconuts on the street corner. One of the many things that I will miss about this sweet, sweaty city.
My parents are going to move out of the house that I grew up in. It’s a strange thing to watch from a distance as they spend their weekends packing and selling and giving away. My dance costumes, childhood toys, and old clothes all must go, I’ve been told.
They have agreed to keep my books until I get home. I think this was before they realized exactly how many I have. A preliminary inventory revealed hundreds of books in dozens of boxes, tucked away upstairs in the attic. Too many books for one person, I know, and yet I can’t bring myself to get rid of any of them. These books that have followed me from childhood to adulthood, around the world and back again.
Last weekend I came across this article, which tries to convince book lovers to liberate themselves from the dead weight of the printed word.
I remain unconvinced.
Books are not just glue and macerated tree. They cannot be given away and replaced with a Kindle. I disagree. They are memories and fingerprints and dog-eared pages. They are characters I used to know and people I love and moments both remembered and forgotten. They remind me of the person I used to be and the places I want to go and they are a window into what I will become. Pieced together, these thousands of pages and millions of words are a map of my heart.
When I was a child my grandfather used to bring me dolls he had collected from his travels around the world. For many years I had figurines from Switzerland, Japan, and China on big white shelves on the wall above my bed. So many dolls from so many places with so many stories. The shelves sagged under the weight of it all.
And then we both grew older, my grandfather and I. He stopped traveling and I stopped playing with dolls. So he started buying me books. Every year for Christmas the winner of the Governor General’s Award. Also, best sellers, non-fiction, and a two-volume edition of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights with a gold-embossed spine. And then, best of all, my own copy of a book that a biographer had written about my grandfather’s life. The inscription to me, in his messy cursive writing, reads “from your partner in adventures”. These are the books that are in the boxes in the attic of the house where I grew up.
I have an anthology of the collected works of Chaucer. A giant tome of a book written in Middle English. It weighs about ten pounds and can be slammed into the table with emphasis to win an argument. It reminds me of the fight I had with my professor, the one who tried unsuccessfully to discourage me from writing my term paper about the role of women in The Canterbury Tales. “Chaucer wasn’t a feminist and neither am I”, he told me disdainfully, “pick another topic”. I refused. I won the prize for the highest mark in The Study of Chaucer that year.
The Collected Works of Beatrix Potter is there too. These stories that I still love. I bought a second copy for my friend when she had her first baby.
I still have the travel book about North India that I carried with me the first time I went out traveling on my own, that strange summer before law school, right before I moved out of my parents’ house. It’s traveled by plane and train and bus, been to the home of the Dalai Lama, was almost stolen by monkeys in Shimla. The pages are stained and the spine is creased. I don’t care that the information is outdated.
My favourite bed time story was Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. My father used to read it to my brother and I every night. The best story is a simple one, he used to tell us. These pages were turned by my father’s hands, these corners folded by him to mark the spots where we fell asleep and he stopped reading aloud.
I have books by Michel Foucault and Judith Butler and Wendy Brown. By theorists with names that I can no longer remember. With titles like Sexing the Body. Books accumulated during a time in my life when every day was a discussion about politics, an argument about gender roles, a social justice campaign. They remind me of my three best friends, the ones I met in my introduction to women’s studies class, of the protest signs that we hand-painted in my garage one cold winter day, of the marches that we attended. These books and these women are part of who I am.
Last year, before I moved to Tanzania, I sold all of my belongings except for my mattress and my books. These are the only two things I will need when I come back home, I thought.
My collection of books isn’t shrinking, it’s growing. I’m not leaving Dar without a book called Street Level, which is set in my adopted city and has drawings of buildings I’ve visited and streets I’ve explored, side by side with my new friends. And this coming Thursday, at a celebration for International Women’s Day, I’m going to buy a collection of short stories written by Tanzanian women, the proceeds of which will be donated to the only women’s shelter in Tanzania. I will bring these two books home with me and they will remind me of the piece of my heart that still lives in Dar.
If, at the end of my life, I have boxes and boxes of books and nothing else, then I will consider that a sign of a life well lived.
So, no, I don’t want to give my books away. Not even one.
One of the unexpected joys of writing this blog has been the ability to connect with people from all over the world. On Monday night I had dinner with the wonderful KN, who wrote to me in December because she had moved to a small town about an hour outside of Dar and had no idea where to buy contact lenses in Tanzania. I don’t know where to buy contact lenses either, but I was able to hook her up with some great Ethiopian food. I am looking forward to visiting KN in Bagamoyo.
This evening I met up with Maia, who is in Dar for a few days as part of her year-long tour of Africa (seriously, Maia, how do I get your job?). I took her to Mamboz, which is one of my favourite restaurants in Dar. This joint sets up at sundown on a sidewalk at Libya and Morogoro and serves amazing grilled chicken and garlic naan. We bonded over the joys and frustrations of traveling alone as a woman, watched two little boys share a set of rollerblades (each had a rollerblade on one foot and used his free leg to propel himself down the street), met a family from Toronto, and drank kungu (nutmeg) juice for desert.
“There is a saying”, Jane Goodall says, “about how we don’t inherit the earth from our parents but rather borrow it from our children.” “But we haven’t borrowed it at all,” she continues in her thunderous voice, “we’ve stolen it from our children”.
Last night we all packed into the Little Theatre to meet this seemingly fearless woman who set out for Africa by herself on a ship in 1960, who doesn’t know how to turn a blind eye to the mess we have created of this planet, and who, at the age of 77, still speaks to audiences 300 days of the year, trying to inspire us all to do something, anything to make the world a better place.
After screening her documentary, Jane’s Journey, Dr. Goodall took a few questions. My favourites were from the wide-eyed children in the audience, who asked her whether she is ever scared, whether chimpanzees really like vegetables, and where she calls home.
Towards the end, a small boy of about eight gripped the microphone and said, with shocking eloquence, “I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say thank you for everything you have done”. We all laughed, surprised at the open sentiment of his words.
I hope that small boy does speak for all of us, but sometimes I have my doubts.
Someone asked me recently, somewhat facetiously, if there is ever a dull moment in Dar. In between weekend trips to Rwanda, riding whale sharks, climbing the highest mountain, and getting hit by a bus on my way to work.
There are no dull moments in Dar. Not yet. Not for me. I’m still turned upside down by the beauty of this place, by the bright blue ocean, the flashes of colour on the street, the pineapple season that never ends. And lost in the crush of the heat, the electricity that doesn’t work, the pipes in my apartment that are bone dry.
My life in Dar is punctuated by the extremes. All at once I am happy infuriated thrilled angry upset. There is beauty in the familiar, but that is not the beauty of my life in Dar. There are no moments in between.
I have yet to settle into the rhythm of the seasons. When I arrived in September, the temperatures were starting to climb into the upper range of stifling. There were months of unbroken heat. And then, two days ago, perhaps in response to a signal I am not yet able to hear, my neighbours started preparing for the rainy season, sweating under the midday sun to clear summer weeds and a season of garbage from the gutters that line the streets.
It rained last night. This morning the sky was iodine blue and the air smelled like water.
I haven’t seen what comes next. After the oppressive heat rolls away and the sky changes colour. Maybe if I was here next year this scene would unfold again, the blue of the sea would no longer be a surprise, and I would learn to navigate the maze of things that don’t work. Maybe my life here would become a pattern rather than a series of Staccato notes, with the dull and the predictable alternating between the joyful and the frustrating.
But I won’t be in Dar next year. I have one month left here, which is not enough time to watch the rains fade back into the heat and to be able to know what comes next.
My internship officially ends at the beginning of April and I’m planning on spending the next five months working remotely and traveling around Africa. On my own.
My first stop is Uganda. The second is Madagascar. I don’t know what comes after that. But I don’t think it will be dull.