It all started with my underwear. Or lack of them. Don’t take that the wrong way, it’s not how it sounds. I know, it’s a strange way to start out talking about a near-fatal accident in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on my back in a puddle with my neck on the curb, my motorbike mangled in the road a few feet away and my right leg shattered. But I was alive, and it might have been because of my underwear–at least that’s the conclusion I’ve drawn. After an accident like that, it’s hard not to think about every moment that led up to the fateful event, trying to find the first thing that set it all in motion. It’s also hard not to feel the parallel universes in which the accident never happened or was just avoided by the necessary few inches peel away into the night ahead of you, leaving you behind to suffer the cruelty of might-have-beens. So that night, on my back in the puddle with my neck on the curb and my bike on its side and my leg exploding with the greatest pain I have ever felt, my mind managed to or couldn’t help but think back to try to figure out what precise chain of events led me to end up there in that spot, and at the same time I watched a phantom dream of me disappear down the road with the wind in my hair having avoided the taxi cab that drifted into my lane and brought all the possibilities of the future crashing down into one unbearable, undeniable now. And in a moment that could have lasted a millisecond or a millennium, I thought it might have started with my underwear.
A few weeks ago I realized I needed to do laundry. Why? I was almost out of underwear. Living here in Dar es Salaam, that seemed a pretty good way to set the schedule. Back in the States I always hated doing laundry. Then I came to Tanzania. I don’t think I will ever complain about a washer and dryer again. Tanzanian women wash clothes by hand. They fill a big plastic bucket with water, and another with water and a handful of powdered soap. The dirty clothes go into the soapy water, and then, in a back-breaking move, the women straighten their legs, bend over at the waist, and lean over the clothes as they scrub them against themselves, then plunge them back into the browning water, then scrub them again, hard, one-two-three times, then shove them back in, all the while maintaining this angular, unnatural pose. The clothes are washed, then rinsed in the bucket of clean water, then wrung and hung from the clothes lines that stretch across any open floors or dirt patches. The first time I did the wash this way, my back ached and the blood rushed immediately to my head as I bent over the bucket. Soon my forearms were jelly as I tried in vain to imitate the rapid, rough scrubbing of cloth on cloth. Next my shoulders burned as I stretched my arms over my head again and again to hang up my dripping clothing. My host mother laughed and laughed, turning a bucket upside down so she could sit and enjoy the show. Mzungu anaoga nguo! Hah! The white girl is washing clothes! Soon I had an audience of half the neighborhood.
Well, after this embarrassment I decided to pay my house sister to do it for me. Whenever I was close to running out of underwear, I would tell Bahati, she would do my laundry, and she would use the money I gave her to get her hair braided at the salon down the road. It was an arrangement that suited us. So a few weeks back when I realized I need a clean set of clothes before the next morning, I went to Bahati with my request. Tafadhali, dada, kesho utaweza kuoga nguo yangu? Her answer: Sina nafasi. I don’t have time. I didn’t have it in me to do laundry for the rest of the night, so I stuffed all my clothes into a large cloth sack and headed out to my motorbike, Juma. I set the sack on the back end of the bike, then wrapped a bungee chord tightly around it a couple of times. I headed toward my friend Matt’s house, where he has use of a washer and dryer. The trip to his place takes about half an hour. I wove in and out of traffic, smiling at some people, ignoring others as the usual shouts of “Hey, Mzungu!” or “Wewe, Mchina!” came my way. At Matt’s I took off my helmet and threw my leg over the bike. Then I reached to get my clothes. I grasped the air. I reached again. I looked up. They were gone. So was the chord. I thought of the long ride I’d just taken, the smoky dusk air as night fell, and impossibility of relocating that bag. “Hey, that just means you have an excuse to buy a new wardrobe!” Matt offered me in consolation when I walked in empty-handed.
A couple of weeks later I was surviving on the few items of clothing I’d managed to hold on to. They were, of course, the frumpy ones, the hole-y ones, the ones that don’t fit quite right and therefore never make it onto my body and then into the dirty-clothes pile. It was time to go to Mr. Price. Mr. Price is Tanzania’s version of Target. They have the hip new clothes produced en masse at reduced quality and reduced price, bright graphic tees and color-coordinated rows of tanks, jeans and outerwear in a store with fluorescent lighting. I made away with a large bag of clothes that I shoved into the faded red-and-yellow backpack that has facilitated my nomadic lifestyle in Dar es Salaam.
The next day I went to the driving range with Wren. I drove along the coast on Toure Drive, felt the walls of my heart constrict as the blue waves rolled into shore under impossible piles of great white clouds. I bought a mango from a man on the street who wheeled a bicycle carrying a sisal basket full of fresh fruit. I chatted on the phone with my dad about his approaching visit to Tanzania. It strikes me now how normal the day seemed, how sure I was that the plans I made would carve through time and not the other way around. That evening was exciting: the grand opening of our friend CJ’s Subway restaurant. Satisfied by an Italian BMT and a macadamia nut cookie, I drove Linda home on the bike, grabbed my backpack still bulging with my Pr. Price purchases, and set off for my own bed. “Be safe,” Linda called after me.
At the intersection of Ali Hassan Mwinyi Road and Haile Selassie I had to decide which way to go home. I chose to go via the quiet and curvy United Nations Road instead of the busy main road Kawawa. I remember thinking to myself, “this way will be safer.” A few rain drops fell on the visor of my helmet, and I wiped them away with the back of my hand. The roads were mostly empty that Sunday night. I passed darkened buildings that sat like hunched giants with their backs turned against me. The road curved ahead. I swung around the bend, and it was sudden: there were bright lights and searing pain and I was upside-down in the air, my hands still clutching the handles of my bike and I felt like I was flying and I thought how strange it was, and then I was on my back, and simultaneously I couldn’t feel my leg and yet it felt like it was being ripped apart, and my neck was resting against the curb of the sidewalk and my arms were wet at my side in a cool puddle of freshly fallen rain.
When I looked at my right leg it wasn’t my own, but some monster’s, swollen and deformed. I didn’t have any feeling from the knee down, and my leg lay there limp, unable to move. Within seconds my thigh was twice its normal size and looked strangely bent as if I was seeing it through a curved magnifying glass that distorted the object beneath it. I noticed that one of my leather sandals had come off in the crash. I wondered where it was. Then the rush of pain. I could hear my voice escape my throat like the wail of an animal. Would saying “no, please no,”–begging it to the night and the road and then the faces soon crowded above me–somehow reverse time and fly me back through the air and onto the bike and before the sickening crunch of metal against metal and flesh and bone? It didn’t. Hands removed my helmet from my head and untangled the straps of my backpack from around my shoulders, then pulled it from beneath me. That’s when I felt my spine resting against the hard ground and realized that if not for the full bag of soft clothes in my backpack necessitated by the loss of my underwear, I might not have been alive at all.
Someone was telling me I would be okay. Asking me, could I move. Hands were touching me, pulling at me. For a while they debated what to do. “We will take you to the hospital,” someone said. I screamed as they lifted me into the backseat of a car. Pole sana, pole sana. Very sorry, very sorry. In the car I clutched the headrest of the seat. I pleaded to be taken to the hospital, stated the obvious: it hurts, it hurts. I could see the dark profile of a woman in the driver’s seat and hear the whimpering of children from beside her. “We are taking you to the hospital, we are almost there. You will be alright,” she said. “Who can we call? Do you have any numbers? Do you have any friends?”
At the hospital they pulled me from the car. I saw the face of an Indian man, realized it was his voice that had first comforted me in English as I lay in the road. They wheeled me inside to a dirty room. Women whose faces I don’t remember looked down at me, laughed as I tried in Kiswahili to say what happened and begged for medicine to ease the pain. “Stop screaming,” they said calmly, with hints of derision in their tired voices. In a stretcher near me I saw a man staring at the ceiling in silence. His legs were bloody and mangled. I looked away and tried to be quiet. Someone came in carrying rusty metal shelving. They shoved it under my leg to stabilize it. That’s when I must have passed out from the pain.
When I came to, Wren, Anand, Lydia and Mohamed were standing around me. They held my hands and comforted me, even managed to make me laugh. Everything felt like it would be okay because they were there. They told me I was to be taken to a different hospital. The man on the stretcher with the bloody legs was still there next to me, quiet, but now his eyes were closed. The haughty nurses had long since left us alone. I was glad to be going. Linda rode with me in the ambulance while Wren and Anand went in a taxi. In the new hospital we waited, I’m not sure for what. Doctors came and went, looking down at me with solemn but calm faces that I could not read. I asked Wren to pray with me; he murmured an Islamic prayer and I felt the presence of God, who goes by many names but ultimately is, regardless of what we say, think, or understand of it–and we do a lot of the first two but so little of the third, or at least that’s what I remember thinking at the time.
An African doctor with white hair and small, kind eyes behind thin-rimmed glasses arrived. He had a deep, tonal voice that could have gone well with the Blues but instead sang me to peace. Any fear that lingered with me was absorbed by his hands and the low, sure sound as he spoke. Dr. Faya told me the news: I had broken my femur, tibia, and fibula. He wasn’t sure if I’d injured any internal organs, or other bones, but we’d deal with that after fixing the obvious problems. We were going in to surgery. I called my father before they wheeled me in to the operating room. I would later learn I was in surgery for five and a half hours, and had six blood transfusions. My tibia and fibula were crushed in several places and my femur was broken cleanly in two, the pieces of bone running parallel to each other for almost two inches. The doctor worried for my leg and for my life due to the fact that I was in shock, hemorrhaging, and losing massive quantities of blood when I came in. Later, I would have a second surgery to repair a break in my patella that they’d missed the first time around, and struggle to overcome a pulmonary embolism, a clot in my lung that resulted from the massive trauma to the bones in my leg. But those things said, the worst was behind me.