I don’t really want to write this blog post.
I was going to write a different post. One about how much I enjoyed the city of Nampula, a necessary stopover on the way to and from Mozambique Island. The Lonely Planet rejects Nampula as a “crowded city with a hard edge” and I had planned to write about how the guidebook is wrong.
I like Nampula. The hotel where I was staying was welcoming, with adorable kittens and strawberry tarts and good espresso (good coffee has been so rare on this trip that I immediately fall in love with anywhere that has an espresso machine). The architecture is interesting. There is an excellent restaurant behind the museum. The people are friendly.
The people are overwhelmingly friendly, in fact. I couldn’t find the hotel when I first arrived. It had only recently opened, so it wasn’t in any of the guidebooks and nobody had heard of it. I stopped many times to ask for directions. Finally, a manager at an upscale hotel called around and managed to locate it. When I told her I was going to walk rather than take a taxi, she insisted on driving me herself. “Don’t be silly”, she said. “You don’t want to walk all around town with that big backpack”.
A crowded city with a kind edge, I thought.
And then. It happened the next afternoon. I was walking on a crowded street, looking to buy some snacks for a long bus ride the next day. I didn’t hear him behind me. I didn’t know he was there until I felt his hands around my neck. I fought back. He pushed me around and tried to kiss me. I kicked him and yelled and he ran away.
The attack bothered me, of course. It was terrifying. But it was over almost before it began and I was never in any real danger. The streets were crowded and there were people there to help. What bothered me more was the reaction of the European owner of the hotel where I was staying. When I told him I had been assaulted, he looked at me with concern. I explained what had happened and he laughed dismissively. “Oh,” he said. “I know him. He’s mad. Mentally ill. He does that to all the female tourists. He’s harmless”. Harmless. I seethed. “Have you ever felt someone’s hands tightening around your neck? It doesn’t feel harmless.”
It could have happened anywhere. It could have happened in Edmonton or Vancouver or Dar. But it happened in Nampula. And, now, when I think of Nampula, I think of the kittens and the strawberry tarts and the good espresso, but also of the angry man with the strong hands.
I didn’t want to write this blog post. It could have happened anywhere, but my instinct was to pretend that it had never happened. The incident doesn’t change the way I feel about Africa or Mozambique. And I don’t want to perpetuate the myth that Africa is a violent and lawless place. I feel safe here. The people are, for the most part, kind and generous and willing to go out of their way to help a stranger.
But, too often, I think, women remain silent about acts of violence. Sometimes they have no choice but to remain silent. But I have a choice and I don’t want to be the kind of woman who is silent about anything that is upsetting. Especially when there are still people in the world that think violence against women is harmless.
So, I’m writing about the good and the bad. In the crowded city of Nampula.
It is difficult to find affordable accommodation in Mozambique – dorm beds in the city of Nampula, for example, cost upwards of $30 CAD. Dirty, cockroach infested rooms start at $60.
Friends RT and GJ, who traveled to Ihla de Moçambique in March, recommended that I contact a person by the name of Harry Potter, who works in the tourist industry on the island, and ask him to find me lodging with a local family. “When you get to the island, just ask around for Harry Potter”, they said. “Everyone knows who he is”.
It’s true. Everyone does know Harry Potter. When I stepped off the bus from Nampula, the first person I asked was able to lead me right to Harry Potter’s house. Unfortunately, Harry Potter wasn’t home and didn’t answer his phone. Rather than wait around all day, I checked into the island’s only backpacker hostel.
I spent the afternoon wandering around the island, mesmerized by the fading colours. When I got back to the hostel in the early evening I discovered that all of my belongings had been removed from my room without my consent and placed in the common area. The staff told me, rather rudely, that I had been given the room by mistake and that it had been reserved by someone else. I protested. The owner was called and rather than apologize for the mistake he insinuated that I had misled the staff by telling them that I had a reservation.
It was dark and I had no place to stay.
I called Harry Potter. This time he answered.
I had expected someone with glasses, perhaps bearing a certain resemblance to Daniel Radcliffe. Not so. This Harry Potter was a 20-year-old Mozambican, with dreadlocks and board shorts. Somewhere along the line he had adopted an exaggerated English accent. “Sure”, he said, with affected British cheerfulness. “I can take you to the house where RT and GJ stayed. It’s 300 Mtc a night”. I was skeptical. 300 Mtc is about $11. This is far cheaper than any other accommodation on the island, even the dorm rooms.
On the way to the guesthouse, Harry Potter stopped several times to try to sell jewelry and other knick knacks to tourists on the street. Someone stopped him and asked him to repay the 200 Mtc they had loaned him the previous night at the bar. My skepticism grew.
Harry Potter asked me whether I thought he was from England. “I’ve worked hard on my accent”, he explained. “Most people think I went to school in the UK”.
Eventually, we stopped in front of a bright pink house on the ocean. Outside, the paint was peeling but inside the house had been restored beautifully. My room had a balcony which looked out onto the busy street below. The dining room table overlooked the Indian Ocean. The family – a single mother and her two daughters – was friendly and welcoming. I couldn’t believe the room was only 300 Mtc and confirmed the price several times. “Including breakfast”, they said.
I spent the next few days reading, writing, wandering the streets, and watching the dhows pass outside my window.
On the third morning, I walked onto the balcony for breakfast and found another foreigner there. He looked surprised to see me.
“Are you staying here?” he asked.
“Yep. Are you?”
“Well, no. I’m the owner”. P introduced himself and explained that he is from the United States but living in Maputo. He and his wife are in the process of restoring the entire block to turn it into a luxury hotel. The family stays there rent-free in exchange for taking care of the building. P was on the island to meet the architect to discuss the ongoing renovations.
“But…how did you even find this place?” P asked. He looked baffled.
“Umm, have you heard of Harry Potter?”
“Only from the books.” P grinned. He had a good sense of humour. “I don’t know half of what goes on in my absence, I guess, but I’m happy for the family to rent out the rooms if it helps them out”.
So, in the end, I have Harry Potter to thank for my stay in a luxury resort. That is a sentence I never thought I would write.
Dawn. Four hours by the side of the road. How do you say ‘bathroom’ in Portuguese? The back of a truck. Crowds. Portuguese buns. Another few hours by the side of the road. The midday sun. No, really, how do you say ‘bathroom’ in Portuguese? Another truck, this time a seat up front. Dirt roads. A whisky-drinking driver. Imprecise calculations. Safer to get out or stay in? Dirt in my hair. Someone stepped on my toe. Someone stepped on my hand. 3 and 4 am departure times. Why doesn’t my guidebook have the portuguese translation for ‘bathroom’? Women with babies. Chickens and rice in my lap. More imprecise calculations. Are there more chickens or babies on this truck? Darkness sets. Repeat. Repeat again.
This is public transport in Mozambique.
In Tanzania, under Local Customary Law (Declaration No. 4) of 1963, widows are prohibited from inheriting property from their deceased husbands, which is instead transferred to male children and other surviving male relatives. After the death of their husbands, women often have to contend with property grabbing, eviction from their homes, and sometimes even the loss of their children by abusive relatives. Deprived not only of a place to live, but also of collateral and a potential source of income, widows are often rendered economically destitute. There are an estimated 4.98 million widows in Tanzania.
In Tanzania, the Law of Marriage Act requires women who want to obtain a divorce to attempt to reconcile with their husbands before the Marriage Conciliatory Board. The petition for divorce will be denied unless the Board certifies that there is no possibility of reconciliation. This has obvious and acute consequences for victims of domestic violence, of which there are many in Tanzania. A study conducted by the World Health Organization in 2001 / 2002 found that 41% of women in Dar es Salaam and 87% of women in the Mbeya District had experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of a partner at some point in their lives.
In Tanzania, the Law of Marriage Act sets the minimum age of marriage at 14 for girls and at 18 for boys. There is a strong link between child marriage and low levels of education or non-education. Girls who are forced into child marriage are more likely to withdraw from school or to decide not to pursue a higher education. Perpetuating the cycle of poverty, women who have little education tend to start childbearing at younger ages, have more children too close together, and have prolonged childbearing years. The children of young, uneducated mothers in Tanzania are less likely to stay in school.
In Tanzania, whether they are related or not, women affectionately call each other dada, or sister. Men are called kaka, or brother. I like this idea that we are all sisters and brothers, connected by something greater than blood. I don’t know, though, how we can sit back and watch as 87% (87%!) of our sisters in Mbeya are beaten, as our 14 year old sisters are forced into marriage and deprived of an education, as land is stolen from our widows.
This situation is not unique to Tanzania. Yesterday was International Women’s Day. Let’s do something to help our sisters in Tanzania and around the world the other 364 days of the year.
I applied to nearly every law school in Canada, was accepted to more than one, and then struggled to decide where to go. Halifax or Vancouver? Toronto or Victoria? East or West? Snow or rain?
In the midst of this self-inflicted agony, someone turned to me and said, nothing is better than this, this moment where there is only possibility and you get to choose where to go and what to be. Next year, you could be living in any corner of this country, in any apartment, on any street. There is beauty in this choice.
Last night, I spread my travel books on the kitchen table and thought, that’s how I feel right now. Like a woman with a handful of acceptance letters. A few tomorrows from now, I could be in Harare or Lilongwe or Maputo or anywhere in between.
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.
“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.
I haven’t learned any real Swahili swear words yet. Unsurprisingly, my Swahili teacher has been less than forthcoming with this information, choosing instead to concentrate on the eighteen different noun classes and their associated grammatical rules. So I’ve made up my own: umeme.
Umeme means electricity in Swahili and, given the frequent blackouts in Dar, it is a word that I’ve come to associate with frustration, anger, and despair. And it rolls off the tongue in a satisfying kind of way to convey irritation in a variety of different contexts.
Umeme it’s hot today!
Or, shouted loudly to the guy who follows me around Mwenge Market, asking repeatedly if I am married. Umeme!
And, to the taxi driver who speeds up to kill me when I try to cross the road – umeme umeme umeme!
Yesterday was hot. Unbearably hot. The kind of hot that makes you want to take a shower every three minutes, plan a trip to the North Pole, and climb into the freezer. All at once.
So its not surprising that at about 4 pm, just as I was trying to decide whether I still had the will to live, the electricity went out and my ceiling fan squeaked to a stop.
The temperatures in my apartment quickly ascended from uncomfortable to intolerable. I began to hunt for the generator key.
I have a small generator that I use very infrequently. I think I’ve only spent about $6 on petrol in the last five months. This is because turning the generator on is usually more effort that it is worth, and the machine is not big enough to power a fridge or even all the lights in my apartment. It can, however, keep my fan rotating if I turn off my lights and unplug all of my appliances.
At 11 pm last night the temperature was still well over 30 degrees Celsius and I knew any attempt to sleep without the fan would be futile. So I coaxed the generator on and fell asleep to its steady hum.
It ran out of petrol at 1 am. I woke up as soon as the fan stopped spinning, immediately covered in a thick layer of sweat.
It was a long and sleepless night. I passed the time by counting down the days until the rainy season and by researching the temperatures in Madagascar, where I plan to travel in April. At one point, I tried to sleep on the floor, where the tiles are cool, but it was too uncomfortable. And I was worried about a nighttime encounter with a cockroach. I turned on my shower, drenched my bed sheet in cold water, and wrapped myself up in it.
This morning I staggered around the apartment and wondered if I was dizzy from the heat or the lack of sleep. I cursed TANESCO, the generator, and the empty petrol container.
The electricity was still out when I got home from work. Not wanting to endure another hot and sleepless night, I decided that I would brave the rush hour and catch a bajaj to the nearest gas station so that I could buy some petrol. As often happens in Dar, what should have been a simple trip to the corner gas station became an exhausting odyssey.
When I got to the BP station, all the lights were off and the workers were sitting in a circle, laughing and playing Tanzanian checkers. They explained to me that they were all out of petrol, and suggested that I try another gas station a bit further down the road. They were out of petrol too. So was the next gas station I visited.
An hour and a small fortune in cab fare later, I was hot, sweaty, and irritated. But I had a small plastic container with enough petrol to last the night. I felt mildly victorious.
The electricity came back on as soon as I opened the front door to my apartment.
Umeme umeme umeme!