The first time I got shoved out of the way in a mad rush to the dala-dala bus, my friend Victor said to me, “This is the local local lifestyle, pole sana–I’m very sorry.” The next time he said it was when the electricity went out and I was reading in the living room. “This is the local local, pole dada–sorry sister.” Then again when I had Malaria: “The Tanzania local local, pole sana, pole sana.” In the streets, when Tanzanians are shouting to me, “Mchina, mchina!” Chinese person, chinese person! : “They are local local, they cannot tell you are Korean. Pole.” And every time, he smiles his big smile, apologetic, almost wistful, partly amused, always sincere.
I have also started to think to myself, “local local,” several times each day. We haven’t had water for the past eight days because of a broken water pump, so we fetch bucketfuls from next door. Tanzania is suffering from a major power crisis, so electricity is rationed. Ours goes out for a full day once every three days. I get up at five every morning to catch the dala-dala before the major traffic jams so I can get to work by eight. I see one bus that says on the back, “Don’t Hide, Just Pay,” another claims “Jesus is Power,” and a third “Blootooth On.” “Local local,” I think.
I myself am becoming more and more local local. I bought a kanga the other day, a long sheet of patterned fabric that is cut in half and worn around the waist and draped or wrapped over the shoulders. I sleep in it and wear it around the house. I’m also starting to think and speak in Tanzanian English. I have started to say things like, “this here pen” and “I live some few miles away.” When I want to say “etc.,” or “and so on,” it’s “and this, this, this.” When saying that someone went on and on (as in blah, blah blah), it’s “he said, ‘You are wrong,’ and what, what, what.” One of my favorites is “I feel to relax,” or “I feel to go to the store.” And not only have I started to speak like this, these phrases make perfect sense to me, have a charm and character of their own.
My Swahili is improving, too. This past week I went into the field to interview two Kiva clients who were filmed about five months ago for a documentary. The film crew is returning soon to shoot follow-up segments on the same borrowers. With help from Rita, the Kiva Coordinator, I was able to ask a majority of the questions about Ituna and Neema’s businesses. While I don’t want to give away details of what will be in the film, I will say that I was humbled and inspired by both of these women. They are shrewd business owners, caring mothers, and true bread-winners. When one endeavor doesn’t work out–cassava crops fail, it’s too hard to turn a profit running a pharmacy–they adapt, start new businesses, continue without a thought of giving up. They, too, are local local.
At a Rotary event last weekend, a kind Rotarian expressed shock and dismay that I take the dala-dalas to get around. He suggested hiring a private car. At work, my co-workers have urged me not to move in with a Tanzanian family, and instead to “get a nice apartment for mzungu.” I even got an email today from the U.S. Embassy warning foreigners against living in unguarded homes and taking taxis and dala-dalas for transport because they are “frequently overcrowded, poorly maintained, a common site of petty theft, and [their] operation is generally unsafe.”
I don’t want to be reckless or unappreciative to those who are looking out for me–but here’s the honest truth: I love the local local. It’s not always easy, and much of the time it’s very hard. I’m on the edge of exhaustion, I’m sunburnt and hungry, but I am also supremely happy. I can get a mango or an avocado for 50 cents at the Mombasa market down the street. I can fight my way onto a dala-dala like any Tanzanian, and I’ve come to enjoy the nearly four hours I spend a day on those “overcrowded, poorly-maintained” vessels because they give me time to think, to listen, to watch, to become daily more a part of the world around me. Children shouting “Hello-madam-how-are-you-I-am-fine!” in one breath, sleeping outside on the porch during an afternoon rain, eating in the dark at one of the many small canteens around the city, perfecting the bucket shower, taking clean clothes down from the line, this is the local local. Friendliness, generosity, grit, patience, hope. These are the local local.
I am learning hard lessons the easy way. That is, I am doing something I love, that I believe in, and for that reason it is worth every moment of sweaty, dust-caked fatigue, of anger at the world’s injustices, of fear that change is hard to come by. I’m living for a while a faint imitation of what millions live every day, for their entire lives. And what I’ve found is that poverty is cruel, but human dignity, ingenuity, and heart are persistent, unafraid. This gives me hope, conviction, and a fierce pride in how strong people can be despite their circumstances. So here’s to that strength. Here’s to the local local.