On leaving Tanzania

A few weeks ago, Diane asked me to write a post about what I miss about home. At the time, it was a short list, but the longer I’ve been away, the longer it’s grown.

At the top, of course, are Diane and my two beautiful children, followed by my brother and sister and their spouses and my two nieces. I miss my neighbors and my friends, the ones on Facebook who may read this, and the ones who aren’t and probably won’t.

I miss my animals, who warm and complicate my days, and I miss my home, our land in Bogus Brook Township. I miss the trails around fields and through woods and along the river. I miss the landscape of America, the amber waves of grain and the purple mountains and the Great Lakes. I miss the Twin Cities, where I sometimes go to get away from it all on the bike trails or at the bars.

I miss my guitar, even though I don’t play it much. I miss my job, and the people I’ve met working for the Mille Lacs Band.

The list of things I don’t miss is much longer. I don’t miss the cars, or driving, or the urban and suburban and rural sprawl that makes it impossible to walk anywhere for so many people. I don’t miss the looniness of American politics, or the gun culture, or the blind eye we turn to the most important things. I don’t miss the selfishness of Americans, who prefer military spending to foreign aid.

I don’t miss the media, the sax and violins, the 24-hour news cycle, the talking heads, the celebrity worship, the fretting and frittering. I don’t miss Netflix, although I do miss sitting on the couch with Diane watching a European crime series. I don’t miss KFAN, which I listen to way too much while driving way too far, but I do miss KBEK. I don’t miss school, but I miss some of my classmates.

I don’t miss the busy-ness, or the noose-paper (Jim Larson’s contributions to my vocabulary). I don’t miss materialism, or billboards, or the made-up and exaggerated problems that obsess and debilitate us. I don’t miss the food, not one packaged or processed or promoted bite.

There are many things I will miss about Tanzania: the weather, of course, the cheap food and drinks, and the wonderful staff at my local hangout, Woodlands. I’ll miss the nyama choma, the kachumbali, and the fresh chips. I’ll miss running into the friends I’ve made all over town. I’ll miss the students and staff and International School Moshi. I’ll miss seeing goats everywhere, and hornbills. I’ll miss the call to prayer from the mosque, and the roosters. Mostly I’ll miss the warm and welcoming attitude of the Tanzanian people as a whole. I can honestly say I’ve never been anyplace where the vibe (for lack of a better word) is as positive as here. In spite of the poverty and the hard work, people are happy and pleasant almost all the time.

I have a few regrets about my time here. I didn’t climb Kilimanjaro, but if I had I would’ve missed out on the Usambara Mountains and the coast and Zanzibar. I didn’t ride in one of those three-wheel taxis that always remind me of my year in Thailand as a kid. I didn’t maintain my trajectory with Swahili after the third week, although I continued to learn and end up satisfied with what I accomplished. I didn’t reconnect with some of the people I met. I didn’t sing karaoke or jam with my musician friend. I should’ve walked in the rain to his concert that night.

In spite of all that, I can’t wait to come home. The good outweighs the bad, in quality if not quantity. Tomorrow I leave. I’m ready.

The stripped-down life

It’s been quoted so often that it’s practically a cliché, this old saw by Henry David:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”

And yet it’s a cliché because it’s so true. Because it’s what we want and can’t seem to find, we Americans. Because it’s a pearl of great price, a lost coin, a rich vein.

So you can substitute “went to the woods” (which I tried a few times) for “moved to a farm” or “spent a year in New Zealand” or “decided to do my student teaching in Africa.”

And that’s why thinking of home is complicated. As much as I love the U.S.A., (foremost family and friends, secondly purple mountains, deer and antelope etc.) and as out of place as I feel in Tanzania, I fear that the rubbish heap of American culture — from stupid smartphones to omnipresent advertising to church ladies running the government to comedy so unfunny they have to tell us when to laugh — will lure me not with a siren song but a jingling earworm into a life that is the antithesis of Spartan, however simple I’ve tried to make it over the years.

The marrow is hidden in bone as hard as diamond, wrapped in layers of fat and thick skin, clothed in poly-something-or-other and logos and slogans and snark, riding in the back seat of a Cadillac with fake chrome fake spoked wheels parked in a five-car garage beside an ATV and a speedboat and a Harley and a Prius beside a McMansion in a subdivision named for something that doesn’t live there anymore in a suburb with another stupid name in a sprawling megalopolis of labyrinthine roads to nowhere but strip malls selling fake food that pretends to come from real countries and the newest of everything designed by the greatest minds of our generation to distract us from the dear and deep and to fuse enamel to rock-hard bone to keep us from the marrow.

The other day I made a list called “Things I Hate about America”:

  • How unreflective we are
  • Anti-intellectualism
  • Anti-science
  • Obsession with bad religion
  • Racism
  • Smartphones
  • Militarism
  • Inequality
  • Advertising
  • The American Dream
  • Materialism
  • Celebrity worship
  • Strutting

At the top I should add “The inability to find much less eat the marrow.”

In New Zealand, I spent several months without a car, although Diane had one she drove to work and that we used for travels. I walked to the shop, bought my groceries, and carried them home. We heated the house with a coal fire and lived out of suitcases. Every day I said to myself “I’m on the other side of the world” and felt happy about it. I never did get a cellphone.

Here in Africa, I live without a car and walk to the shop and spend much of my days outdoors. My smartphone doesn’t work, and I don’t have a TV. No one has said an unkind word to me.

This is what I’ve enjoyed about a brief time in Africa, not only my own stripped-down life out of a suitcase with no car and no significant worries, but witnessing and admiring the marrow in what we used to call “the third world” but now call “developing countries” (whether they are or aren’t).

Food grows in every vacant lot, because people need it because they have no money to buy it. When they’re finished working at their jobs, they go to their farms and whack the hard dirt with heavy hoes that to me are the ultimate symbol of Tanzania. They need the rain, and when it doesn’t come, it’s all they talk about. They grow corn and dry it and grind it and cook it into something called ugali, which looks like a lump of white dough and tastes like what you dip it in, and they love it. My friend Samwel said ugali is man’s food, while chips (fries) are women’s food.

It wasn’t that long ago — 100 years — that America was like this. Today I saw 10 men with picks in a line digging a trench for a power cable. Down by the river, they pound rocks with other rocks to make smaller rocks. They make bricks from dirt and bake them in ovens and build houses from them, or for want of bricks they build a frame of sticks and pack mud for walls and roof it with palm fronds. They’re strong as hell, and the women even stronger, carrying more on their heads than we roly-poly Americans can carry in a wheelbarrow. Many of the men have cellphones, and they’re always texting.

And no, I wouldn’t trade my (relative) fortune for their lot, and I don’t think it’s better when all things are added up, but I do think we’ve traded marrow for a plastic bone, and our American Dream, to extend the metaphor, is an endless game of fetch, an obsession with the new and the news, a taste for carbon smoke, an unrequited love affair with celebrity, leaders who have time-traveled from the 13th century, food so altered and poisoned that it’s barely food, addiction to painkiller-killers and antidepressants no more effective in treating made-up ills than a witch’s brew, and a racism so deep in the marrow that it’s no easier to see or recognize or grieve over than the truth, goodness, and beauty we’ve sacrificed to the false gods of capital, power, and a plastic freedom more dumb than free.

So I have mixed feelings about coming home, but I hope I will arrive with sharper teeth and stronger jaws, more like Thoreau, that old hyena, and the first thing I’ll do in my new pursuit of happiness is to take up my hoe, and follow him.

Things I’ve heard out my window

A goat, saddest bawling ever,

Roosters, day and night. Roosters.

The call to prayer.

African hornbills, raucous squawking.

Pied crows, calling and cawing.

Doves cooing and mourning.

Songbirds, unknown and unnamed.

Reggae and African music, live and recorded.

The neighbor lady singing gospel.

The house girl doing the laundry.

The gardener, cutting grass with a machete. Swish swish.

A child crying.

Cars from the main road.


Dogs barking and howling at any hour.

A cat meowing.

The gate, opening and closing.


Live jazz from the back of a pickup.

Police recruits, marching and singing.


In the footsteps of a ghost

I was thinking the other day that I haven’t felt so close to my dad since I was eight years old. There’s a faded color picture taken by my brother on the deck of an A-frame in Callaway Gardens, Georgia, where Dad was teaching orientation classes to Southern Baptist missionaries. In the photo, Dad is giving me a sip of coffee. On his face is a father’s affectionate smile; on mine, a combination of distaste and pure joy. His big belly is frozen mid-chuckle; my body, pulling back from the bitterness.

My first memory of that face was when he was teaching me to read, at age 3 or 4, in Toronto, where he was director of the Toronto Institute of Linguistics every June. His elation puzzled me but sent a clear message that I would need to continue to win his approval from that day forward. By being smart.

Around the same time, he displayed me in front of a linguistics class at the old Bethel College campus on Snelling Avenue in St. Paul. He wanted me to say “squirrel” because I couldn’t say my “r’s.” “Skwowo,” he wanted me to say. I fell mute and tried to hide behind him from the happy gazes of the students. I’m sure I was very cute.

Things happen in families, and between fathers and sons. To keep it brief, I felt alienated from my dad from an early age.

Dad lost his father at age 10, and in a sense, so did I. I wonder if he had an unconscious desire to pull away at about the time his dad was pulled away from him.

Dad was a little crazy, a workaholic, and Mom was crazy too, after living with him for so long. Our family became more dysfunctional as I grew, in a slow downward spiral that eventually stopped and reversed itself. Thanks to Dad, in part, facing up to it all.

I suppose my feelings about Dad were tangled up with my feelings about God, whom I perceived as a terrifying taskmaster watching my every step and waiting for me to stumble — not to catch me, but to hurt me even further.

From a young age, I was sore afraid, to quote the Scriptures via Linus Van Pelt, my spiritual guide through early childhood. I was afraid of the other children and their lust for life, afraid of hellfire and other fictions, afraid of my own longings and secret thoughts, afraid of Led Zeppelin album covers and “Radar Love.” When it came on the radio at night, I switched it to the North Stars game or a radio quiz show on WCCO called “Honest to Goodness.”

Mostly I was afraid of letting my parents down, not for fear of punishment (although I did receive my share), but for fear of a simple disappointed look, or worse yet the tears my mother shed when she found out I smoked cigarettes. I thought I had to be perfect, in the words of Jesus, “as our Father in heaven is perfect.”

Dad pushed me toward anthropology and linguistics, probably noticing my gifts in those areas, but I felt like a horse trying to spit the bit and run free. Which I guess I did. As I passed beneath the lintel to my first class in the Ph.D. program in anthropology at Berkeley in 1987, memories flooded back of my father’s heavy-handed guidance: the way he dismissed sociology (my love at the time) as a lesser subject than anthropology; the way he called my interest in philosophy and literature “navel gazing”; and most importantly, what I found in his file cabinet one day in a folder marked “Brett.”

It was a paper I had written in high school, and on it was a note to a colleague at Bethel where Dad was professor of linguistics and anthropology. “Brett is planning to attend Seattle Pacific University to major in English,” the note said. “What can we do to get him to come to Bethel and major in anthropology?” Standing in the doorway in Berkeley, it occurred to me that I had done his unspoken bidding, transferring as a sophomore to Bethel and majoring in anthropology. For fear of letting him down. A few years later, when I was considering grad school in sociology, one morning I woke up knowing I would apply in anthropology instead.

Three weeks after my threshold revelation I quit the program, the morning after a drunk in a bar wearing a newspaper pope hat told me and my friend Chris, “We’re all children of God. That means we’re forgiven. That’s the promise.” Once I knew my true Father would forgive me, I realized my earthly one would probably come around.

He did, gaining respect for me as an English teacher and a journalist and a writer, but we were never as close as the non-Swedish fathers and sons I knew. We probably could’ve been closer if we had both understood ourselves a little better, or if he’d said “I love you” now and then, but Dad was raised without a father, in a culture that didn’t talk (or care?) about feelings. In his old age, a startling confession: After his father died in a car accident in 1936, no one ever talked to him about it.

To cope with my own garden-variety trauma, I took to reading deeply and widely in philosophy, theology, psychology, and literature. Without such navel gazing, and the love of my friends and wife, I’d probably be as messed up now as I was at age 16, 18, and 20.

Dad passed away in 2000, and now I am here, following his dream for me, relying on his guidance as I navigate a foreign culture and a foreign language. I see him everywhere, talking to strangers in a strange tongue, smiling like he did in that photograph, his big belly frozen mid-chuckle. I follow him, barefoot like a child.

I miss you, Dad. I wish you were here. Nina pole sana, Baba. I’m so sorry.

Born to be wild

When Ndekirwa asked me to come to his house, I gave my usual response: “Sawa.”

I figured I’d get done with work Thursday afternoon, catch a bus to his village, and be home by dark.

The day before our date, however, our mutual friend Immanuel came to my house to give me the itinerary in a mixture of basic English and basic Swahili. Apparently I was to take a bus at 7 a.m. to a town about an hour away, where Ndekirwa would pick me up on his motorbike (piki piki) to drive me to his home on the side of Mt. Meru, where I would spend the night before coming all the way back to Moshi

“Sure,” I said. “Sawa.”

My cooperating teachers let me off the hook and even encouraged me to go, but one guy I know, who’s lived in Africa for many years, had a warning: “Don’t be surprised if he asks you for money.”

Unfortunately, it wouldn’t have surprised me at all. I’ve learned it’s the price you pay for making friends when you’re a relatively rich guy in a nation of poor people.

Some are more subtle than others. My night watchman Samwel, for example, waited a couple of weeks before telling me about his dream of going to driving school and asking “Can you help me?” The guy who replaced him wasted no time at all: “Will you sponsor me?” he asked, the night I met him. “We know all Americans are rich.” Fortunately I haven’t seen him since, and his replacement hasn’t asked.

The pastor who took me to his church (the aforementioned Immanuel) told me of his dream of starting a school for orphans. If I would help with money for supplies, I would be “their father.”

So I wondered if Ndekirwa had anything up his sleeve, but I wasn’t too worried about it.

I was worried about getting on the right dala dala and getting off at the right stop, however, since my instructions were hard to understand, so I invited my friend Kelly to escort me to King’ori to meet Ndekirwa. He’s an out-of-work guide and was happy to do it.

We got there at about 10 and ordered chai and chapatis while we waited for Ndekirwa, who joined us a few minutes later, arriving on his Toyo Power King 125. The mudflap had a painting of a Maasai man and the slogan “Maasai wa porini,” which I think means “wild Maasai.” He gave a long description of the route to his place. “Mbali?” I asked. “Far?” He nodded. “Mbali.” Whatever that meant.

We said goodbye to Kelly and headed off across single-track through villages of mud huts, and I wondered if we’d be going the whole way like this. At one of the huts, we met one of his sisters. At another, a toddler screamed and started to cry when she saw me.

When we came to a little river, we got off the bikes and I followed him across on stones. “Shamba changu,” he said. “My farm.” It was planted mostly in maize, with a few beans and sunflowers. Three women were tending the fields. I think he said it was seven acres, and that it cost him 25 million shillings, which is about $15,000.

He also showed me a building site where he wants to start an English medium primary school. “But no money.” I wondered if this was the start of a request, but I didn’t respond, and he didn’t continue — possibly for lack of words in English. (His English is not much better than my Swahili.)

From there we headed to a “main” gravel road and slid across the valley floor on red clay made slick by the rain. I even had to get off a couple times and walk. Ndekirwa’s bike, like most in Tanzania, has narrow tires with tread made for roads, so it doesn’t do well on the mud. I’ve read that a new Chinese piki piki costs less than $1,000, which is why there are so many of them. I’ve also read that it’s hard to get spare parts, and that the Peace Corps has a policy against volunteers riding on them — even on the motorbike taxis (bora bora), which I ride all the time.

Eventually the road dried out and changed to gray as we rose in elevation. The landscape was beautiful, pastoral, not so far removed from rural Wisconsin, with rolling hills, tall corn, scattered trees, and small streams with wooded banks. Instead of big American farmhouses, though, they were small brick homes with tin roofs.

On the left, the higher slopes were covered in forest — some kind of protected public land, by the looks of it. Low clouds kept me from seeing where it ended. We passed through another town called King’ori (Upper King’ori, maybe?) and continued on a few more kilometers to Ndekirwa’s village.

His house, one of the nicer Tanzanian-owned ones I’ve seen, was on the edge of a kind of common area with a public well or cistern made of concrete, a low area full of six-inches of water and a dozen green-treated telephone poles, and a couple donkeys grazing or lying on the ground. Across the way, but the road, the usual group of young men hanging out on their motorbikes: Toyos, Fekons, Kinglions, Skygos.

Ndekirwa’s wife (whose unusual Meru name I can’t remember) brought us hot milk and bowls of roasted bananas — five each. I ate three and met two of his kids and two of his brother’s kids, and then we went for a walk. His brother’s little girl, who had been too afraid to come near me at the house, took my hand and walked with me across the commons and up the road. Another little toddler also came along.

We ended up at his Pentacostal church, where we sat down with the pastor and his wife. One of Ndekirwa’s sisters brought us chai and hot peanuts. The pastor didn’t waste any time. “It is our dream to start a primary school in the village, and we are looking for a sponsor.” He looked right in my eyes and broke into a grin.

I kept my mouth shut but was secretly considering my luck: With two people competing for my sponsorship (not counting Immanuel), both their odds had just declined precipitously! How could either one of them expect me to sponsor both schools, or choose one over the other? I was off the hook!

Just in case I hadn’t gotten the point, the pastor and his wife led us down a dirt road to the school building, where he repeated his pitch. “We are praying for a sponsor,” he said. “If this is your dream, you are welcome.” I stood there with a dumb smile on my face and didn’t say anything. The kids of the town have a public school to attend in a neighboring village. I’m not sure how a new school run by Pentacostals is going to improve their lives dramatically.

We all went back to Ndekirwa’s and had more hot milk and a lunch of rice, spaghetti, and ngombe (beef) stew. After that they asked if I want to go to the market in the upper King’ori town. I really wanted to lie on my bed and read Tolstoy, but I said, “Sure!” and the pastor walked home to get his motorcycle.

I rode with the pastor, while Ndekirwa took his small wife and the pastor’s large wife on his Power King. The village was full of people, since it was one of two market days per week. There were lots of used clothes — the usual thrift-store cast-offs from the U.S. — as well fabric, plastic tubs, a barrel of laundry detergent, and lots of vegetables spread on cloth on the ground. One guy was selling Maasai footwear — sandals and flip flops made of tires. A dozen goats were tied to a tree, surrounded by men looking them over and feeling them up. Lots of people were carrying live chickens, either tucked under an arm or dangling by the feet, sometimes two roosters in each hand.

I felt like the main attraction, receiving many double-takes as the only Mzungu in town. I spoke a little Swahili as the opportunity arose. When Ndekirwa bought some chai spices, the seller looked at me suspiciously and asked something like “Where are you going?” (…enda…wapi?)

I said, “Tunakwenda nyumbani yako kula chakula.” (“We’re going to your house to eat food.”) That got a good laugh from him and the others standing around.

We didn’t stay long, and when we got home and said goodbye to the pastor and his wife, I got the rest I’d been hoping for, lying in bed and pretending to read my dictionary. As the light grew dim, I went out to the commons, where I saw Ndekirwa. There were cows grazing and children chasing them home. Ndekirwa said they were his cows, and I was impressed by how hard he works — a job as a watchman, a maize farm, a herd of cattle, his five kids (two in boarding school).

We wandered over to his brother’s house, and they brought us chairs and coffee, which we drank while watching the planets and stars come out. I listened to the blend of Swahili and Meru, lots of rolled r’s, and stumbled through a sentence or two in Swahili if someone new came to the circle.

After we went in we sat around Ndekirwa’s living room with his kids and his brother’s kids (including my little friend from earlier), watching music videos on Ndekirwa’s cellphone. He told me his brother had died in 2012 in a motorbike accident. “Pole sana,” I said. He took me into a back closet and showed me the wrecked bike. It made me sad for the kids, and a little nervous for my ride back down the mountain in the morning.

Ndekirwa’s wife brought us more food, this time the Tanzanian staple of ugali (a mush made of corn meal) with more ngombe and spinach and a fresh avocado from the market.

I spent some time texting home then went to bed and slept well. We got up at 5:30 for the drive back to King’ori. Ndekirwa was going to drop me off at the bus station because he thought I’d be too cold to ride with him all the way to Moshi. I wasn’t cold at all, so I told him I’d stay with him. It was a slightly crazy ride on the highway, with a top speed of about 40, and the busses and dala dalas whizzing by at 60, sometimes two of them passing in opposite directions at the same time, with the one in our lane so close I could touch it.

I got more double-takes again from kids on their way to school, and from adults waiting for the bus, or from a lone Maasai with his stick and shawl and herd of cattle, looking briefly up from his cellphone.

Politics, religion, and the local brew

Another reason to learn Swahili: It keeps the cops on their toes. Sunday I hired my friend Kelly to take me to Marangu, a little Chagga town on the way up Kilimanjaro. A lot of people who hike the mountain start at Marangu, and there’s a little park there with a pretty waterfall I’d heard about, and a run-down exhibit on Chagga culture. Kelly hired his friend Ima to drive us.

On the way there, we were waved to the side of the road by some white-uniformed traffic police who were standing in the road — a common occurrence here. A guy came up and talked to Ima and then circled around to my side to have a look at me. “Habari za asubuhi,” I said. “Nzuri,” he replied.

In a questioning voice, with a skeptical look on his face, he said, “Mambo vipi?”

“Poa,” I said.

“Habari za leo?” he asked.

“Nzuri,” I said.

It was just a few basic greetings, but my response time is improving, and I gave the usual answer in each case, so I suppose I did okay.

The guy let us go, and Kelly couldn’t contain his glee. “He hear you say, ‘Habari asubuhi,’ he think, ‘This guy know Swahili!’ Ah, he know what I say! I no ask for chai! Ha ha ha!”

From what I hear, officers often pull you over here in hopes of making a little money for “chai” or “chakula” (food). Often they’ll trump up a charge, but if you give them a few shillings, they’ll let you go. In this case, Kelly said the guy was afraid to ask for a “gift” because he thought I might understand him.

On the way there we talked about changes in the Muslim culture in Tanzania, and about the upcoming elections. Kelly is worried that fundamentalists are corrupting the minds of young Muslim boys, and as if to make his point we passed two women in head-to-toe black robes with only a slit for their eyes. Kelly and Ima shook their heads.

There’s an election later this year, and it seems that a guy named Lowassa is the people’s choice at this point. He’s a former prime minister who stepped down after scandal a few years ago. It sounds like he might not have been involved but fell on his sword for the sake of his party — the CCM, which has ruled the country since independence in 1960.

The other issue on people’s minds is Zanzibar, which is primarily Muslim and has some autonomy, with its own government as well as the national government, unlike the mainland or “Tanganyika,” which has only one centralized government. There’s an independence movement in Zanzibar, and some people on the mainland are afraid it will become more fundamentalist and potentially breed terrorists who will join Al Shabab and Isil and Al Qaeda.

I don’t know much more than that, but there does seem to be a significant fear that the country — which has been internally peaceful, although lagging in development — might eventually see the kind of religious conflict present in Nigeria, Kenya, and elsewhere.

We got to Marangu and saw the falls and the park, and I decided to buy them nyama choma (roasted animal) for lunch. On the way to town they were telling me about “mbege,” a local brew made of millet and banana. I had seen some people drying the millet when I was on a bike ride with the students, so I was curious, especially when a drunk or crazy guy came up and started scaring me by getting a little too close and asking unintelligible questions.

“Do they make it here?” I asked. Ima and Kelly said they did. “I want to try it,” I said. They looked at each other and smiled. I asked if it’s strong, and they assured me it wasn’t. I asked if it’s safe, and they assured me it was.

At the restaurant, Kelly told the waitress we wanted mbege, and she brought a guy to our table who was dressed in a Winnipeg Jets cap and a Maasai shawl. He looked a bit sketchy, like he might’ve been homeless or a beggar — or too fond of mbege. I gave him 2,000 shillings ($1.10) and he came back with about a half gallon of liquid in a plastic tub. We filled our three glasses and there was still half of it left, so I told the guy to pass it around to anyone else who might want some.

It looked like some weird grain beverage you might drink on a fad diet or “cleanse.” It was gray and thick with millet husks or something, and it tasted sour and grainy, like a witch’s brew of bad booze and compost. But I got used to it, once I figured out how to strain the solids with my teeth and stick them against the side of the glass with my thumb.

Ima, whose dad is from the local Chagga culture, said mbege was traditionally drunk socially. It was always tasted first by the person providing it to show that it wasn’t poisoned, so I had accidentally followed protocol by asking the guy to pass it around.

He also said it’s used as an offering to the ancestors by followers of traditional Chagga spirituality. People pour it at the end of the ancestor’s grave to ask for a job, or money, or a spouse — or more mbege, I suppose.

Today after class I was invited for chai by some gatekeepers and gardeners. After most of them left, it was just me and Alfred (my gardener, not my roommate) and Ndekirwa. To fill the silence I said, “Jana nilinywa mbege,” “Yesterday I drank mbege.” Ndekirwa laughed so hard he almost spit out his chai, and Alfred thought it was pretty funny too.

I asked Ndekirwa if he likes mbege, and he said no. Then he asked me to come to his house on Thursday, and I said I would.

Alfred said, “Mbege ni tamu.” “Mbege is sweet.”

I don’t know I’d go that far, but at least it didn’t kill me.

My crappy cellphone

Shortly after I got to Tanzania, I bought a cellphone for 20 bucks. You prepay for your minutes here, so I bought 10,000 shillings’ worth and hardly used any. I wanted it for emergencies during my two weeks of travel, but I was going with a friend and ended up letting her make all the calls

I finally figured out how to text home, which I did a few times before I used up my charge and realized I’d forgotten my charger back in Moshi.

When I got back here, I didn’t bother getting more minutes. It was too hard to remember how to text, and too hard to use the crappy little navigation buttons. In hindsight, I probably should’ve gotten a local sim card for my iPhone, but in hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t.

I finally bought more minutes when my friend Samwel texted me and I wanted to get back to him. Before I could, though, I ran into him on the street, proving once again that I didn’t need a cellphone.

Alas, I’ve started using it to text people, and I carry it around, and every now and then I take it out and look at it, like everyone else is doing with their cellphones. There’s nothing to see, but it still calls for my attention.

It was a great few weeks without an imaginary friend. When I get home I will miss the loneliness and try to find a way to keep my distance.