Yesterday I sat at my computer for most of the day, angry to be locked inside writing graduate school papers while white sand beaches and Dar’s infinite adventures waited just outside the door. I checked my email every so often, looking for a distraction. In the small gmail chat box, I saw a name appear that made me smile: Yoctan Ludas. I met Yoctan in 2007 when I came to Tanzania as a volunteer. He was one of my closest friends here. Since my return to this country I’ve been too busy to reconnect with many of my Tanzanian friends and acquaintances from last time. The guilt because of this has sat like a heavy stone around my neck. I’ve thought nearly every day of Yoctan, Yotam, Temela, Rajabu, Fatuma, Angel, Babu, and others… So I quickly clicked on Yoctan’s name and said hello. Mimi ni hapa hapa katika Dar es Salaam!!! I told him. I’m here in Dar. He caught me up quickly. He’s studying now, Yotam and Marley no longer work with Global Crossroads, the volunteer placement organization, Angel (the cook at the volunteer hostel) is now married with a child, and Babu, he finally said, passed away. He had liver cancer, Yoctan told me. Do you remember, he was a good smoker. I did remember Babu sitting on the porch with Simba the dog, smoking cigarettes and grinning as I awkwardly hung clothes from the line.
Babu was the proprietor of the volunteer house in Mikocheni, Dar es Salaam. I stayed there for about a week and a half before moving on to Bagamoyo where I volunteered for 9 weeks. When I came back to Dar before flying home I stayed with Babu again. On the day that I left he walked with me to a small canteen down the road and helped me order rice and fish. He drank a Pepsi while I ate, twisting his baseball cap around in his hands and chuckling at my attempts to pick the fish meat from the bones. On the way back to the hostel he held my hand in the friendly Tanzanian fashion, and I tried a new phrase I’d learned in Bagamoyo: Wewe ni chizi kama ndizi. You are crazy like a banana. HAH! His eyes grew wide and he laughed, slapping his knee with his calloused palm. Njoo, njoo! he said, come, come. We stopped to talk to almost ten of his friends on the short walk back to the house. Sema! he’d whisper to me conspiratorially. And I’d repeat, Wewe ni chizi kama ndizi! much to his continued delight.
Babu, I’m sorry I didn’t get to say goodbye to you. All of the volunteers that passed through Dar brought you up every time we talked. We remembered your shuffling feet, sweet smile, and strange meals (oily spaghetti with eggs!).
Babu, it turns out, means grandfather. I never knew his real name. In his own way, he is a part of the reason I am in Tanzania again. I remember on one of my last days when Rose (another volunteer), Angel and Babu were playing bao, a Tanzanian board game like Mancala. I watched them and listened as Rose, whose Swahili was quite good, asked them how to say “I will miss you.” It turns out there is no exact translation of this phrase, but after hearing it explained, Babu suggested we turn it into a Swahili verb. We added the infinitive “ku-” to the beginning, and then felt closer to being able to tell each other how we felt about saying goodbye. Nitakumiss na wewe. I will miss you, we said.
Nitakumiss you, Babu. Lala salaama.