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.