Things That Are Starting to Feel Normal
There's a weird thing that happens once you spend enough time in a place which is vastly different from home – it starts to feel like home.
Which is not to say two months in Tanzania is long enough to understand the place or to really know its movements – far from it – but only to say that things which were overwhelming or surprising in June have since started to feel like standard procedure.
I reflexively turn the kettle on when I want to take shower. Don't blink when I realize I can't turn the kettle on because the power's gone out again. Turn the tap to fill the stovetop kettle instead. Don't blink when I realize the water tank's empty again so I can't use the taps. Fill the kettle from the reserve water buckets and grab a match to light the stove. Wait 20 minutes for my shower to cook.
Joelle and I spend a Saturday morning drinking coffee on her porch and talking about the things she misses from home, things I might miss from home if I were to stay as long as she plans to. Cheese, mostly. Friends and family. Good bookstores. The changing seasons.
Western showers though? Meh. Consistent electricity? You'll get over it. Towel racks and closets and garbage disposal and recycling pickup and all of the other things we take for granted on a daily basis? You just learn to live without it.
There are no home loans in Tanzania. For the most part, no loans of any kind. If you buy land you buy it outright, and you build your house the same way. On the bright side, once you own your home it's paid for, it's yours. On the downside, most people can't afford to build the whole home at once, so they live in it while they build it in stages.
Joelle and Sylvester lived only in their bedroom for the first year in their house, the rest of it didn't exist. Now it's a whole home with multiple rooms, but each slightly unfinished. They got a kitchen a few weeks ago but it doesn't have counters or a sink yet. They have plans to get a Western toilet and a hot shower some time down the road, one day when they have the money to spare, some day, who cares.
Confronted with the lack of things we constantly take for granted at home, their alternative solutions start to feel very normal. Because they are normal. Because this is how most of the world lives.
There are things you need to spend money on. Food, shelter, your kids' school fees, necessary medicine, your parents' welfare, some clothing, water. Then there are things you don't. Couches, spare dinner plates, any dinner plates, a car, a fridge.
A friend from town, we'll call him Beka, lives in a simple two-room apartment in a local neighbourhood just outside town. His place has cement walls and a door and running water sometimes, but no kitchen, no shower, no sink; just a propane burner in the corner of an empty living room and a tap in the wall above the squat toilet. His neighbour's house is a mud and thatch hut and there's a different animal in his yard every day. One day a cow, the next day a goat, the next day a donkey laden with water buckets.
“The Maasai Land Rover is honking its horn,” he jokes when the donkey bleats one afternoon.
Beka and I go to the same bars, hang out in the same cafes, read the same books, talk the same shit. He dresses like he just walked out of an H&M catalogue, but when he goes home he folds his shirts and places them in a suitcase on the floor next to his mattress. You spend your money on food, shelter, necessary medicine, your kids' school fees, your parents' welfare, then there might not be any left for a set of drawers. Or you might just prioritize spending it on other things. At the end of the day you don't really need drawers anyway.
After only two months here the things which felt strange upon arrival are the things whose absence I know will now feel weird when I eventually go home.
Like greeting everyone. Seriously, you greet everyone, formally, for about three minutes back and forth. Even if it's just your buddies and you saw them an hour ago. Even if you're just stopping to ask someone for directions, make sure you get those 'hello how are you how's your morning how's your family' in first. Shake their hand and stay holding it through the whole exchange.
My friend Allistair in Dar jokes that Tanzanians spend 3/4 of their airtime on greetings – their phone will run out of minutes before they get to the point they called for in the first place.
Holding hands with strangers has started to feel normal. Crawling over people's laps to get to the empty seat in the dala dala. Crouching above somebody's lap for the whole ride because there is no empty seat. Sitting side-saddle on the back of a motorcycle in a long dress with no helmet while the driver heads straight into oncoming traffic. Sorry mom.
Referring to everyone by their role instead of their name. Dada (sister), kaka (brother), mama (older woman), mze (older man), mzungu (white person), Maasai. If you have a baby here and name it Alex, you'll just be Mama Alex from then on, eventually people might actually forget your name.
Referring to half white/ half black kids as cappuccinos. "Look how cute those two cappuccinos are." "Yeah that hotel's owned by a cappuccino guy." "She came for a volunteering contract and ended up with a cappuccino and stayed." Nobody getting offended about this.
Using buckets for everything. To wash your clothes, your vegetables, your floors, your hands, your body. Washing your shoes every day. Washing everything constantly.
Burning garbage in the yard. Throwing garbage in the yard. Throwing recycling into the garbage. Spontaneously giving away your possessions. Other people giving you their possessions. Honestly, you tell someone you like their sweater and they'll just give it to you. A woman at the bar complimented my earrings so I took them out and handed them to her. She bought me a beer as a thank you and then we just went our separate ways.
Wearing other people's flip flops. Other people wearing your flip flops. Watching people doing heavy labour in flip flops. A fairly lackadaisical commitment to personal safety in general.
Washing your hands at the table. Washing only your right hand. Eating salad with your hand. Wiping the top off your beer bottle because they refill them and they're often rusty.
Going for casual beers with Maasai warriors.
The other day Beka and I were waiting for the dala dala when friends of his happened to drive by and pick us up instead. They were going for nyama choma for lunch so we decided to tag along, it's not like we had any urgent plans anyway.
His one friend, we'll call him Lemuanik, is Maasai. Tall, thin, striking features, dreadlocks. He wears the traditional shuka, beaded bracelets, beaded anklets, and a crisp white pair of Air Jordans.
“Modern Maasai,” Beka joked as Lemuanik stepped out of the van and his sneakers hit the dust. “No leather sandals for this guy.”
Over lunch - bbq beef and ugali – Lemuanik mentioned how he wanted to learn how to eat fish. Not to learn how to cook it, but just to eat it. The traditional Maasai diet is made up of little more than beef, milk, goat, ugali, and bananas if they're around.
But like any culture anywhere, all Maasai are not bound to tradition, and all traditions are bound to change.
Even though many Maasai have persisted in their age-old semi-nomadic lifestyle – despite Kenyan and Tanzanian governmental attempts to assimilate them into wider society – many also have left the village, both physically and culturally.
Beka's best friend, we'll call him Kapalei (Kapa), is also Maasai. Kapa lives full time in Arusha, runs a safari company, listens to hip hop, drinks gin & tonics after work, ate half my chicken sandwich a few days ago. Dude doesn't even have one cow.
He wears jeans and hoodies and sneakers, his tribe given away only by his stretched earlobes and tall, thin frame. He'll wear the shuka and beads when he goes back to visit his family in the village, but never in the city.
“I'll put it on for you one day and you won't even recognize me,” he laughs, “But I don't like wearing it in town, you mzungu take too many pictures of me.”
Maasai are everywhere. On the beach in Zanzibar, in Dar Es Salaam, on holiday in Mozambique, at the club. Sometimes they're in the city to find work, make some money, and go back to the village to buy more cows. Sometimes they've just moved to the city, gotten a scholarship, moved to Europe. A lot of them work security jobs because, as my friend David explained, “Lions don't fuck with them, so why would anyone else?”
Lemuanik was casually chit-chatting about a trip to Europe he'd recently taken where he'd gone to 6 different countries. Due to a shitty confluence of socioeconomic forces such as systemic poverty, racist international border policies, colonialism's economic legacy and the ongoing financial drain out of Africa to the west, most Tanzanians can't travel to western countries unless they're sponsored by a program or by an individual westerner, which is often a romantic partner.
Assuming the Euro trip to be the latter, I ask why he went to so many different countries.
“To see my many girlfriends,” he smiles. “Open relationships.”
Beka's laughing, like, “What do they have a boma waiting for you in each country?”
Maasai are traditionally polygamous. Men have many wives, each wife builds and lives in a boma in the village, and the husband rotates sleeping between each one.
Lemuanik has six girlfriends in six European countries, flies between them, Air Jordans and carry-on luggage. Calls it 'open relationships' instead of 'polygamy.' Modern Maasai.
“Fucking expensive having girlfriends all over the world,” he laughs. “Nikwambie (I'm telling you), I spend most of my money on this.”
All people are not bound to tradition, all traditions are bound to change.
All of this has started to feel very normal. Because it is normal, because this is how most of the world lives.