Writers who tell the truth in simple terms

Perusing the work of three of my favorite commentators this morning. What they all have in common is the ability to see through the smog spewed by most of the media and state the obvious in simple but colorful terms.

George Monbiot: “Wrapped up in this story is everything that’s wrong with the way our economy works. Corporations ream the land with giant holes, extract a stack of money, then clear out, leaving other people with the costs. There’s a briefer description: legalised theft.”

Matt Taibbi: “It’s a little-known fact, but we reporters could successfully sell Sanders or Elizabeth Warren or any other populist candidate as a serious contender for the White House if we wanted to.”

James Howard Kunstler (whose predictions for 2015 appear to be another exercise in being spectacularly and entertainingly and insightfully wrong): “The pervasive racketeering that poisons American life from the money-in-politics farce, to the shameless, chiseling medical-pharma cabal, to the SNAP-card and disability rights empire of grift, to the college loan swindle, to the disgusting security state apparatus, to the corporate tyranny of local life and economies, to the delusional techno-narcissism of the media, to the despotic and puerile gender preoccupations of academia — all of it adds up to a society that cares as little for the present as it does for the future. And that’s aside from the pathetic digital device addiction of the generation coming up, and the sheer sordid behavior of the tattooed, drug-saturated, pornified masses of adults now forever foreclosed from a purposeful existence or a decent standard of living…. Even physically America is a sorry-ass spectacle: between our decrepitating cities, abandoned Main Streets, gruesome strip-mall highways, repellent and monotonous suburbs, dreary industrial ruins, profaned countryside, and desecrated coastline, there is little left to actually love about This land is Your Land.”

Bad judgment, good outcome

I intended to stop for a quick bite of goat at Woodland on Friday night, but I ran into Fredrik, a Danish guy I met there a few weeks ago. We were joined by an African guy named Jeremy who told us about his dream to become a motivational speaker.

The guy spoke good English, and so does Fredrik, so we had a wide-ranging talk about global politics before Fredrik started trying to convince us to go out to listen to music at a place downtown called Malindi, where he said he’d received death threats on two different occasions.

It was not a convincing argument, and it was getting toward bedtime anyway, so I said I’d go another time. He kept pushing, saying “Brett! Brett! We’re gonna go!” and finally I gave in, since I’ve been wanting to hear some live music while I’m here.

We called a cab and went to my house to see if Alfred wanted to come along, but he was in bed.

The cover charge was 3000 shillings, less than two bucks. The place was packed with Africans and a small group of Mzungus clogging up the dance floor at the foot of the stage, bros in tank tops shaking it white-guy style.

The lead singer was a dapper old guy, probably about 60, dressed in a red shirt and black pants and sliding his feet and gesturing with his hands to the rhythm as he sang. The band included guitar, bass, keyboards, a drum set, congas, and a horn section of trumpet, sax, and trombone.

The band was great, and so were the songs. Everyone was happy. I ate sambusas, which is what they call samosas here. They’re always good, even when you buy them off a guy’s head when you’re leaning out a bus window.

As I was standing on the side of the stage, a guy came up and started translating and telling me about the musicians and the songs. Some of them were from Congo, others from Kenya. The old guy was from near Muheza, where I’d changed buses on my trip to the coast. My translator was also from Muheza, where he worked as a magistrate. He’s in Moshi to study at the law school.

The old guy and horn players stepped aside and a younger guy with dreadlocks got up and sang Bob Marley songs — “By the Rivers of Babylon” and “Waiting in Vain.” Everyone sang along, even me. I even moved my feet a little, although I didn’t want to scare anyone by actually dancing.

Later a woman sang some songs, and then two younger guys who traded vocals, and then the old guy came up again to finish the night, singing with the two others and then by himself. My friend introduced me to him as he left the stage, and he asked me about myself in good English.

Since the music was over, I was ready to go, but Fredrik wanted to stay, and there was no sign of Jeremy, so I caught a cab by myself.

Once again, a bad decision turned into a memorable experience.

God with us on the Love Boat

Sometimes I’m too clever for my own good. When I was new here and one of the guards introduced himself as Immanuel, I said, “God with us.” He taught me how to say it in Kiswahili, “Mungu pomoja nasi,” which I later saw on the windshield of a dala-dala, one of the many Toyota Hiace vans that serve as public transportation.

After my two weeks away, I still remembered the phrase, so when I saw Immanuel I said, “Mungu pomoja nasi.” I’m not sure if he knew I was riffing on his name, but his eyes lit up, and he invited me to church — kanisa. “Sure,” I said. “Sawa.”

So he told me he’d pick me up at 7 a.m. He was at my gate at 6:50, which meant I didn’t even finish my instant coffee before we were walking out to the main road and flagging down a car. Immanuel is a soft-spoken fellow, but he visited with the driver and his family, who he said were friends of his. They parked in town, said goodbye, and filed into their own church building.

Immanuel had told me his church was out by TPC, a giant sugar cane plantation with a sugar factory and miles of fields and houses and villages for the people who worked there. I wasn’t sure why he’d go to church so far away, but I didn’t know how to ask.

We walked a couple blocks to a row of dala dalas — one of the few means of transportation I hadn’t yet experienced in Tanzania. These things are everywhere, and they all look like they’ve been through a war, and they’re always packed to the gills, and most of them have strange names like “Mungu pomoja nasi” or “Neema something Mungu” (Grace of God) or “Mungu ni Mwema” (God is Good) or (if it’s owned by a Muslim) “Maashallah” or some other Arabic phrase. I’ve seen Mother Mary on the back windows, and Fidel Castro, and “Paradigm” and many soccer players from the English Premier League on rigs named “Chelsea” or “Arsenal” or “Manchester United.

Our chariot was called “The Love Boat,” and we were the first aboard, which meant it wouldn’t be leaving for a while. Rather than running on a schedule, they wait until they’re full before departing. So after we sat there for a few minutes, Immanuel led me into a little restaurant and bought me chai and a couple chapatis. While we were sitting there we were joined by a guy named Simon, who is from Immanuel’s home district. Simon is a Lutheran minister, and Immanuel invited him along on our trip to be the translator. I was happy to have him there, since his English was quite a bit better than my host’s.

Finally the Love Boat shipped off, and along the way we picked up Immanuel’s wife, Miriam. I gathered that Immanuel had made the long journey to my house in the morning just to be my escort. Every seat was full, but there weren’t a lot of people out, so it didn’t stop to take on more passengers, thankfully. I noticed that Immanuel was reading parts of Genesis and Isaiah in his Bible.

We got out in a place that looked like the end of the road, a small sandy village up against a row of green mountains. We were the first ones at the church, which said “Assembly of God,” and Simon and I were given a place of honor beside the small raised platform at the front. On the pulpit were the words “Jesu anaweza yote,” “Jesus can do all.” The back of the church was full of junk, and many of the colored “stained plastic” windows were broken out. The chairs were plastic.

I figured it would be a while before the service started, since there were only about five of us in the room, but this was not the case. Immanuel went outside, and his wife started talking to the “crowd.” Simon said she was telling them to pray for Tanzania, because the Muslims are trying to get Sharia law recognized in the new Constitution.

After her speech, everyone except Simon and me got down on hands and knees and started praying loudly. As I sat with my eyes closed, another voice joined the chorus, a loud, authoritative, impassioned man moving back and forth on the little stage. I peeked, and it was Immanuel, my shy and soft-spoken friend. Of course, I thought. He travels all the way out here because he’s the pastor, an evangelist to this little village.

Long, long story short, we were there for four hours. After the initial prayer and a couple nice songs, we had about an hour of “Sunday school” led by a guy with a big smile and a habit of swinging his fist with his arm cocked at the elbow, like a coach giving a pep talk. He spoke about Abraham and Lot, and Simon whispered impromptu translations in my ear.

After that more people showed up, about 50 or so, and what followed was a lot of singing — much of it, unfortunately, accompanied by a karaoke-style soundtrack on a fancy sound system that was out of place in the run-down church. Immanuel gave a long sermon, which was fun, because I could try to pick up Swahili words from Simon’s translations. The theme was “Do not fear,” “Siogopi.” Following was another prayer, with all 50 kneeling and crying out and practically rending their garments. Simon told me some of them were speaking in tongues, but I couldn’t tell. After that, Miriam spoke for a while, and they invited me and Simon up to introduce ourselves. I spoke in Swahili, and the crowd went wild with cheers and ululations.

Simon gave a prayer and the benediction, and he told me later with a subversive grin that he did parts of the Lutheran liturgy. He said the Pentecostals at the church would be intrigued that a Lutheran minister had participated in their service.

As things wound down, I was glad I’d be heading home to get some work done, but we sat there for another 45 minutes as the Sunday school teacher begged, pleaded, and cajoled the parishioners to pledge food for a meeting of churches that would be taking place at the church.

And then someone brought pop, so we sat there for another 20 minutes before slowly wandering back to the dala dala stop, and waiting for it to leave, and rattling back through the sugar cane, this time stopping along the way until there were 26 of us crammed in the 15-passenger van. Immanuel told me he wants me to help him start a school for orphans at the church. I smiled and nodded.

Along the way, Simon gave me some troubling news: We would not be heading home right away because Immanuel and his wife wanted us to come to their house to eat. I was not about to be an ungrateful American, so I didn’t say anything. We got off in a little slum between TPC and Moshi and walked along winding paths through small stucco houses with metal roofs, and goats and chickens and children and dirty water running in ditches.

As we walked, Simon said, “No hurry in Africa,” a saying you hear a lot in these parts. I asked for the Swahili translation, which is “hakuna haraka.” I’d heard both words before: “Hakuna matata” (made famous by Disney) or “hakuna shida” means “no problem,” and “haraka haraka” means quickly, the opposite of the more acceptable pace of “pole pole.”

Their house was small and simple but well appointed with matching sofa and chairs and a bed crammed in the living room, and an entertainment center with broken glass and handles, and a small Panasonic TV. After we sat down, Immanuel put in a DVD, and what followed might have been the longest two hours of my life.

The DVD showed a tent meeting hosted by Immanuel’s church in a Maasai village. It started off with singing — beautiful songs sullied by the cheesy soundtrack. The recording was bad, and so was the speaker on the Panasonic, so my ears were bleeding after ten minutes.

Unfortunately, it only got worse. The music was followed by a sermon by Miriam, an old-school Pentacostal shouting and testifying, translated by a skinny guy in a suit, just as loud and passionate as Miriam. It went on for a full hour, sounding like two people hollering at each other in two languages I didn’t know, while Immanuel talked on his cell phone in Swahili and Simon listened quietly, occasionally letting me know what they were talking about.

I couldn’t imagine what was taking the food so long, and I was having a hard time keeping my impatience to myself. Finally, two interminable hours later, the house girl brought a bowl of rice, a small dish of spinach, and three bowls of fish stew. Immanuel and Simon got catfish, and I got something that looked like a rock bass but with less meat on its bones. It was delicious, because every bite meant I would soon be on my way.

After we’d eaten, I leaned over to Simon and told him I really needed to go home because I was supposed to talk to my family on the phone, and I asked him to help me excuse myself politely. He confessed that he’d also been looking for an exit, and he gave a long speech in Kiswahili to our hosts. Miriam escorted us part way to the dala dala, and Simon took his leave to visit an uncle. Immanuel and I sat waiting in another dala dala for 20 minutes, which brought us to the city center. Immanuel got me situated in another dala dala to get home and we said goodbye.

I got home at dark, which is too late for me to be out walking, but I couldn’t resist. I headed down to Woodland for a beer.

I’m not sure which of my friends coined the term “sweetest beer of the week” for the one we’d drink after attending church back in the old days. But I do know I’ve never tasted sweeter.

Catching up

It’s been a busy week in Shanty Town, the ironically named neighborhood of Moshi — mostly walled and gated homes — where I live and work. I dove back into teaching after a two-week break, reading poetry with seventh graders, creating an online newspaper with tenth graders, and discussing Cannery Row with eleventh graders.

Today I wasn’t in the mood to go back to a rural school I’d visited my first week, so I took a walk instead. First I went to Moshi Club, the golf course, and caught up with Andrew, the restaurant manager. He remembered me, and I him, and we had a nice conversation.

On the walk to Woodland for some groceries and supper, I ran into Julius, who asked me where I’d been. I told him, and he told me he was off to school, where he’s studying procurement. At Woodland I was joined by Mike, a kind of odd duck I met my first week. He’s a friend of Hillary, a guy I’d been wanting to see again. Mike speaks a fast, street-style English, with lots of “whatevers” and “sorrys.”

Neema, the bartender, and Lina, one of the chefs, gave me good service as always, and the owner, Genes, said, “Long time no see.” I told him in Swahili where I’d gone during my two-week holiday. Pasco brought me my chicken and chips with his usual broad smile.

A couple nights ago, I ran into Frank, my doctor friend, and we had a long conversation about health care in Tanzania. We were joined by his friend, who’s the head of anesthesiology at the hospital where Frank works. Then last night, when I was on a bike ride with the students, I saw Frank at the Biker’s Bar, the place where we rent our bicycles.

I’ve also been catching up with Ndekirwa and Immanuel, two of my gatekeepers and Swahili teachers. Immanuel invited me to church this Sunday, so he’s picking me up at 7 a.m

On my way home tonight, a man crossed the road to talk with me. It was Hillary, who recognized me from our short meeting a few weeks ago. We agreed to get together at Woodland on Saturday.

When I came home, my night watchman Samwel was not here to meet me. In fact, he hasn’t been here since I got back from my travels. I saw his supervisor one night, who told me Samwel has been promoted to one of the crews that drives around and checks on residences throughout the night. I’m really happy for my friend, but I miss our nightly conversations. I also have a dictionary to give him.


I wasn’t committed to seeing Zanzibar at the beginning of my two-week safari through Tanzania, but I knew that Madalena, my traveling partner and friend from Moshi, was keen to go there. When I’d had enough relaxation on the beach, I suggested we catch a boat, spend a night in Stone Town, and catch the bus back to Moshi from Dar Es Salaam.

We arrived on the north end of Zanzibar after a four-hour boat ride from Pangani on the mainland. We were met by a man who said he was from the government, and that our captains had illegally landed on the beach. He wanted to see our passports, and I said he could find us at the nearest breakfast place. We snuck away as he talked to the crew of our wooden vessel, and he never caught up with us.

After a breakfast of dry bread (no jam or peanut butter at our hole-in-the-wall), we caught a cab to Stone Town, asking to be dropped off at the Tembo Hotel, which was recommended by a friend. We bargained for a rate of $75 per room (down from $110) and checked out the fancy digs before heading out for an afternoon in Stone Town, a World Heritage Site with a centuries-old history of influences ranging from Persian and Arab to English and Portuguese.

After an hour of wandering the narrow streets, we were joined by a young African man who started telling us where we were and how to find a place to book a bus from Dar to Moshi. He was a good salesman, never asking for money, but waiting for me to offer. I asked him how much it would cost for him to guide us around the city for a couple hours, and he said $20,000 — about 11 dollars. It was well worth it, as he led us through the spice market, showed us the slave market, and took us past the old fort and Freddie Mercury’s house. He knew all the narrow streets in town, and many of the shopkeepers and spice hawkers.

We ended up at a nice bar on the second story of a hotel, overlooking the ocean a short walk from our hotel. We had a nice visit with Abdullah, our guide, who told us about his family and his dream of moving away from Zanzibar. We paid him, said goodbye, and went back to the hotel for a rest. I swam in the pool and the ocean, where I chatted with some local boys in Swahili, asking them their age, and telling them about my own 17-year-old son. Later, I watched the sunset and a crowded beach of locals, with boys doing flips and handsprings down the sand and into the water. Down the way, they were diving and jumping off the raised concrete walkway.

For supper, we went to an outdoor food market and paid way too much for a skewer of barracuda and the worst corn-on-the-cob I’ve ever tasted. The sugar cane juice brought back a sensory memory of Thailand. I probably hadn’t tasted it since I was ten years old. As I ate, I was badgered by a guy selling CDs, and because I’m Minnesota Nice, I paid him 10,000 shillings ($5.50) for one. (Someone’s gonna get it as a souvenir.)

I got enough of a taste for exotic Zanzibar — the history, the culture, the clear water — to know I’d like to return for a spell with Diane, but for the time being, I was ready to get back to Moshi and the classroom and the students.

The next morning we caught a fast ferry to Zanzibar, where a taxi driver recommended by a friend was waiting to drive us to the bus station. He had arranged transport on a decent bus, and we were soon on our way. They didn’t let extra passengers on to crowd the aisles — until we passed another bus that had broken down. Road construction made much of the 10 hours miserable in the back seat, but I knew the trip would be over that day, and grinned and bore it like a good African.

When we got to Moshi, some friends called us from a local bar, where we met them for a supper of chicken and chips. It was good to be “home.”

Lazy days at Peponi

Toward the end of my two weeks of travel in Tanzania, I spent three nights at Peponi Beach Resort on the Indian Ocean, arriving on the back of a motorcycle after a long day on the bus. The first morning, sails moved slowly across the horizon, but not the pleasure boats I’m used to from the U.S. These were real fishing boats, either dhows or small canoe-like boats with outriggers made of rough-hewn boards. I walked down the beach and talked to some of the fishermen who were lounging on the sand, but I couldn’t understand most of what they said.

The afternoon I arrived, I met an English guy who was driving from Egypt to Capetown. At supper that night, I met two Dutch doctors who had taken six months off to drive through Africa. I ate fresh fish caught in the Indian Ocean that day, and swam in 90-degree water, warmed by the sun. The highlight came the next day, when I sailed on a dhow for snorkeling, with a stop for lunch on a sand island exposed at low tide.

Even though I was in need of a day of rest, I signed up for the trip, for fear that it wouldn’t go the next day. It turned out to be as relaxing as a hammock would’ve been.

We left at low tide and had to walk a few hundred yards to where the boat was anchored. A dozen white folks slathered in sun screen climbed aboard with our gear, and the crew of three Africans motored into deep water while hoisting the sail. We motored and sailed to the first reef, where I wandered far from the boat because I thought that was where the captain was telling us to go. When no one followed, I headed back, where everyone else was kicking around within a few yards of the boat. There weren’t a lot of fish, but the corals were varied in shape, size, and color, although not as bright as other places I’ve been. The second reef had more fish and equally nice coral. I was first in the water and last out.

From there we sailed to the island, without the help of the motor, and the silence and the power of the wind reminded me why I love to sail. I sailed a lot as a kid, but it was always a mixed experience, because Captain Dad could always make a day at the lake into a stressful situation. Still, some of my favorite childhood memories are of catching a good wind on White Bear Lake.

We past a few other dhows, mostly smaller, some under sail, some not. At the sand island, the crew took the awning off the boat and set it up on shore for shade. It was probably close to 100 degrees, and I floated in the shallows most of the time we were there.

On the way back, we all climbed aboard, but the crew didn’t set up the awning, so I was anticipating a hot ride back. When they raised the sail, and it filled with air, we were all in the shade for the long, peaceful trip to the mainland.

My room was a tent under a thatch roof (16.50 a night). Outside was a plastic chair where I spent hours reading a detective novel from the 1950s. At poolside was a hammock where I napped. At the bar were cold Kilimanjaros, and even bags of Lay’s potato chips.

The staff, mostly Africans, were polite and friendly. The manager, an English woman who’d spent most of her life in Africa, was cheerful and helpful. Her father, the owner, had a welcoming smile and remembered my name.

Day 2 was the lazy day I’d been looking forward to. I read my book, wrote on the slow resort computer, ate a crab focaccia for lunch, and ate fried fresh fish and chips for supper. The manager arranged a boat trip to the north end of Zanzibar and assured us it would be safe.

Six a.m. came too soon, and we were off in a cab and on the water in a wooden boat with a small outboard (and a spare) at Pangani at 6:30. A half hour into it, I was looking back wondering if I could swim to shore if we went down. Two hours of rocking and splashing later, I could see Zanzibar, and I wondered if I could swim to shore if we went down. Two hours after that, we were cruising into the beach, with a pod of dolphins swimming past.

On the affective filter

One of the reasons I wanted to come to Africa, and why I wanted to try to use the language, was to know how my ESL students feel — strangers in a strange land, trying to understand and make themselves understood in a strange tongue. It’s been a good experience for me, and I’m sure it will make me a better teacher someday.

Stephen Krashen became a renowned expert in second language acquisition for several reasons. One was his outrageous claim that “input is enough” – which most now agree was an exaggeration. Output, I believe, helps strengthen the pathways between ideas and sounds, which aids fluency and comprehension. It also elicits “+1” responses, because as people hear you struggling to understand and speak, they try to lower their level of output to match your level of comprehension. They also offer corrections that help the learner improve in expression as well as understanding.

One of Krashen’s theories that is harder to argue with is that an “affective filter” impairs language learning. As I’ve thought about my students’ struggles with learning English, and my own brief and spotty attempts to use Swahili, I’ve thought about it a lot. I’ve learned both how strong the filter can be and what kinds of events and experiences can help to lower it.

The first “layer” of the affective filter I’ve experienced is lack of motivation. When I came to Tanzania, I was not sure how hard I would try to learn Swahili, since I would only be here 10 weeks and would be busy with other things. What gave me motivation was a brief talk with my cooperating teacher. I told her I wanted to travel, and she said it would really help to learn just a little Swahili. That was all the motivation I needed, and I dove in. I’m happy to say that after two weeks of travel, I found my three-week intensive and self-directed crash course to be adequate to my needs. I used the language to find the right bus in the middle of nowhere, to converse with strangers who knew no English, to make small talk to kill time, to order food and hotel rooms, to buy souvenirs, to give children a laugh, etc.

The second layer of the affective filter was lack of confidence. I heard other expats say “Swahili is hard,” and I assumed they were right. After spending just a couple hours looking at the basic grammar, however, I found out that patching together simple sentences is really quite simple. Once I started trying out a few, like “I am trying to learn Swahili. You can help me,” I found that I could make myself understood. The antidote to confidence, for me, was a little bit of success. One my fourth day, a man told me I should come back to Tanzania to teach Swahili to Westerners. On my tenth day, I spent two hours talking with a guy who knew very little English.

Right now I’m feeling the “confidence filter” affecting my ability to comprehend. I’ve convinced myself that speaking is easy, but understanding is hard. While I know there’s some truth to that, I also believe I could understand more than I think I can if I could relax a little and stop saying “I can’t.” We’ll see if I make any progress during the next five weeks. I’m also feeling a lack of confidence with speaking because I feel like I’ve hit a plateau on what I can talk about. This is partly due to the fact that I haven’t had time to study the language as intensively as I did during the first two weeks. Still, I’m having some additional successes, and if I press on, I’m sure the confidence will return.

The third layer for me was fear and anxiety. The difference, to me, is that fear is of something specific, while anxiety is more vague. The older I get, the less I care what people think of me, so this filter was not such a problem, but I’m sure it can be debilitating for some. I was talking to a Tanzanian doctor who told me the volunteer doctors who come have a terrible time learning even a little Swahili. My theory is that doctors are very uncomfortable with uncertainty, with not knowing the answer, or with not getting it right. With language learning, though, mistakes are going to happen, and sometimes they’ll be humiliating.

I’ve learned that encouragement can go a long way toward thinning the fear filter. I’ve been given encouragement dozens of times: the gatekeeper who taught me “kidogo, kidogo,” little by little; the bus ticket seller and the motor bike driver who both said, “I love to hear you speak Swahili”; the Swahili teacher at the school who said I’d learned so much in two weeks, “What do you need my help for?”; the guy at the bar who said, “In 10 weeks, you will speak Swahili”; the retired engineer who said I’ve learned more in five weeks than many people learn in a year.

The fourth layer, and the most difficult for me, and probably for many others, is more a personality trait than an affect or “feeling”: it’s simple shyness. I’m a borderline introvert, so talking to strangers does not come easy for me. Many people are a lot more shy than I am, which must be a real hindrance to their language learning. On the other hand, though, some who are shy around people of their own culture seem more extroverted around people of other cultures. I think I have some tendencies in that direction, and some of the expats I’ve met whose Swahili is pretty good seem to be quite shy.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a good solution to the problem of shyness. I only know what works for me. It’s a four-letter word in English, but three in Swahili: bia. You can probably figure out what it means. If not, try Google Translate.