Last week I turned in a paper for my State and Civil Society class in the Masters of Development Studies program at the University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM). The prompt was: Analyze the paradox between the World Economy that is continuously internationalizing and the world political systems that are compartmentalized into separate nation-states. Choose any East African country as your case study. When we first received the assignment, my classmates read the sentence in silence. No one spoke as we filed out of the room. Once we were out of the door there was an instant storm of exclamations:
Paradox? Ah! This question… What will we do?
My classmates, all brilliant Tanzanians, have nevertheless been educated more years of their lives in Kiswahili than in English. In schools throughout the country, Kiswahili is the medium of instruction and English is just one subject. Most colleges and universities, however, are taught entirely in English. I’d call it the identity crisis of a nation with true pride in its linguistic heritage and a commitment to throwing off colonial structures with a simultaneous need and desire to compete in the global village for the material benefit of its citizens. Sounds like a paradox to me.
Though I took Spanish for nearly ten years in American public schools I can’t imagine being asked to suddenly switch from English to Spanish as soon as I set foot in the University of Georgia. But here they are, trying to do the equivalent. To add to the confusion, there are the cultural differences. I myself have been struggling with getting used to Tanzanian humor because irony, sarcasm, and humorous paradoxes are conspicuously lacking in it. Instead there’s an appreciation for situational absurdities, and statements of the semi-obvious or strange hypotheticals. Oftentimes I find myself surrounded by belly-laughing Tanzanians and I am nothing but bewildered. I try in vain to trace the source of the joke. Something about the circular, nodal paradigm of African narrative and explanation evades me, like trying to catch falling leaves. My attempts at grabbing just create a breeze that pushes the prize farther away. So I guessed that maybe this concept of paradox, of unlike things together, the oxymoronic contradiction of terms, might fall for them into that same realm of perplexity that I encounter when I try to enter their discursive world.
That day I hurried away, but the next morning a few of my classmates gathered around me before lecture began.
Have you started the assignment? What is the meaning of this… ‘paradox’?
I gave them a definition, a few examples, held my hand out to the left and the other to the right then clasped them together to show the bringing together of seemingly contradictory things. They nodded and smiled.
Ah-hah. We see, we see now. The paradox…
With a Tanzanian accent, ‘paradox’ becomes mystical, potent, as if it names something other-worldly and capable of a quiet magic. They wandered to their seats a little enchanted by the discovery of this new word, like they had just seen a spinning top for the first time. What mesmerizes is not the concrete thing itself but the phenomenon of its action. I saw the few I’d spoken to whisper to others and spread the news of the meaning of ‘paradox’ as if it were a treasured secret.
The paper was due a week later, the Tuesday after Christmas. We only had Christmas day off, and the two weekend days that followed it. As we handed in our papers, Dr. Ngware asked “Did you go home for Christmas?”
“No, we did not,” came the reply.
“And why not? Did your families not want to see you?”
“Ah, but professor, we could not. We had to write this paper. It was a paradox,” said Ramadhani.
For the first time, I shared a genuine laugh at a joke with my classmates.
“Paradox,” several people chuckled, “yes, a true paradox.”
Today we had a guest speaker, Professor Ay Ub Rioba of the Journalism School at UDSM. He came to talk to us about the relationship between the State, Civil Society and the Media. He discussed at length the role of the free press as watchdog, a check on the hegemony of the ruling party. But he also mentioned that sometimes the media can go too far, can abuse its ability to criticize and ultimately prevent the government from achieving goals that would benefit the citizens.
My friend Alex raised his hand.
“Yes, professor, thank you for your lecture. It has been very good. Now could you please go a little farther in explaining this… paradox.”
He paused before he said it, almost as if for effect. I turned in my seat and caught his eye. He gave me a small grin. I couldn’t help but chuckle, and then laugh out loud as everyone in the class tried not to but ended up doubled over with laughter. John, one of the first to whom I’d explained the word, pointed to me as he giggled, and Azizi gave me a high five. We laughed for a few minutes straight. The poor professor sat at the front of the room, utterly confused. When finally we were able to compose ourselves, Dr. Ngware begged his forgiveness and assured him we were not laughing at his expense, but rather at the fact that we had a writing assignment that used the word ‘paradox’ in it. After this explanation, his face was the mirror of how mine must have looked all these times that I’ve struggled to understand Tanzanian jokes and failed. This made me laugh even harder. Is my sense of humor changing? Had I been initiated? Sometimes it is hard being the only non-Tanzanian student in my master’s program. I’ve made friends with everyone in my classes, but often I feel on the periphery, an outsider, like I’m trying a little bit too hard to fit in, to find something in common with my classmates or impress them with my knowledge of Tanzanian slang. Today I didn’t feel that way anymore.
Swahili is rolling off my tongue a bit faster now. I know the streets of Dar, navigate them well on my newly purchased motorbike. In Zanzibar for New Year’s weekend I noted wazungu (foreigners) with wary, slightly disdainful eyes. Here I am called mgeni (guest), Mchina (Chinese person), dada (sister), rafiki (friend), mama mdogo (small mother), wewe (you!). Daily I add new identities to this creature I call myself.
American, Korean, Southerner, adoptee, woman, now Tanzanian. What next?
Am I a paradox? Or do these unlike things, these disparate, colorful characters, have more in common than I’d ever thought possible? I’m a person who has always felt at odds with myself. Making sense of each piece of my being has filled notebooks, been pounded out through the soles of my shoes on long runs, kneaded into dough, drank down in cups of spiced tea, carved into a park bench in Georgia, collected as postcards and trinkets from around the world.
But the feeling I get here is that what matters in the end is not what names I attach to myself. It is not what I get or even give away, but what I share with others. That’s the paradox of human life: we’re stuck in bodies that trick us into believing we’re not all the same.