I woke up from surgery stuck in my head. I couldn’t feel my body, or anything physical at all. I was only aware of my own consciousness, floating in a warm, black space. I had no memory, no sense of identity, and no knowledge of the world’s existence. It was extremely calm. I wondered how long I had existed in such a way, how long I would stay, if there were others like me. I had no voice to call to them. Though I was not uncomfortable, it made me a little nervous to think that I might be stuck in this place forever. I stayed in this state for what seemed like a long time, then I started to hear voices, low murmurs from far away. I couldn’t make out what they were saying but I listened hard. Maybe this is life–I thought–everyone alone with her thoughts in the dark, with only the whispers of others in lonely conversation with themselves. But after a while the space around me began to vibrate and flash lines of orange like sunlight on closed lids. Then I could see. Imagine, the rush of first sight, the world suddenly external. My hand came into focus slowly, but I could see it before I could feel that it was mine. I still had no idea at all who I might be, or where–the thought that space might exist was just occurring to me. Large lights beamed down, there were men in masks walking back and forth. I had the startling idea that I had just been created and was being born. “Where am I? Where am I?” I asked in a voice that I’d never heard before, in a language I didn’t remember learning. The words came out thick and slurring. “Dar es Salaam, Tanzania,” someone said. Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, I thought. Where is that? Why would I be created there? Then I had a rushing vision of a long, white beach and a brilliant strip of blue before everything went dark and quiet again.
When I woke up again Anand and Linda were with me wearing blue hospital gowns and standing next to my stretcher. Feeling drunk, I told them how attractive they looked wearing them. Next, that I felt like a baby, an ugly baby that no one would want to take care of. I also said I didn’t like the word ‘operation,’ and would prefer that we all said ‘bananas’ instead. “This doesn’t feel real, I don’t think this is real,” I told them, and everything seemed very funny and it felt good to laugh.
The selected memories I have from that night are remarkably clear, but long stretches of time have also disappeared–either when I was unconscious or in too much pain. The following week is much more blurry. I remember seeing my friends: the faces of my classmates and professors from the University of Dar es Salaam, my homestay family, co-workers from the office of Tujijenge Tanzania, the other Rotary Ambassadorial Scholars in Dar, the Technoserve volunteers, and others whose lives have touched mine profoundly over the past five months. Linda, who had got me up Kilimanjaro earlier in the month, was a better friend than I could ever have hoped for, spending hours by my side, talking to the doctors, on the phone with my parents, and updating our friends. Visitors brought me juice, cookies, candy, flowers and cards. Whenever I felt my eyes begin to slide out of focus and my heart darken with sorrow, someone was there to bring the colors back, to remind me why I was glad to be alive. When Rita, the Kiva coordinator at Tujijenge, first saw me, she burst into tears and turned away. I called her to me and held her hand. “I was so worried about you,” Rita said. “And what of Juma?” she asked, her eyebrows raised at the tragic turn of our old joke.
Juma. My motorbike, or ‘pikipiki’ as they’re called in Kiswahili, with onomatopoeic flair. Back in December I realized I was running myself into the ground. I couldn’t keep up with my Kiva work, school, Rotary, Volunteer Alliance, my homestay family and my friends all at once, and so every area of my life and work was suffering. The problem was, I was enjoying each of these spheres of activity so much that I couldn’t bring myself to cut any of them down. What I could do without, I realized, was the three or four hours a day I spent taking daladalas, bajajis, or taxis from one place to the next in the polluted Dar traffic. A couple of weeks of deliberation and a broken-down daladala on my way to work to sealed the deal. My mind was made up. My friend Victor and I made our way to Kariakoo, and after some negotiation I handed over 1,250,000 Tanzanian shillings–about $900 USD–and became the proud owner of a black Toyo motorbike. I practiced driving on the bumpy dirt roads inside the Catholic Msimbazi Center compound where my homestay family lives. Nuns in grey habits pressed their backs to the trees as I sputtered by and children shouted in surprise. More than once, young men helped me restart the engine when I stalled in deep patches of sand. Eventually, I made it out onto the mean streets. “Eh! Mchina!” I was met with wide eyes and dropped jaws. I never tired of the exclamations of surprise from the other drivers. At red lights all of the motorcyclists would convene at the front, having sneaked between and beside the unmoving cars. I joined in their jokes, and enjoyed being a sight they’d never seen before. At Tujijenge, Rita was amazed at my bravado. She warned me that someone might steal the bike and warned me not to spread the news of my purchase too widely. “I have an idea,” I told her. “I’ll give my bike a name… a Tanzanian man’s name… So if anyone hears me talking about the pikipiki they will think I have a Tanzanian boyfriend! How about ‘Juma’?” Rita laughed and laughed. “Hah! A Tanzanian boyfriend! They will never know. You will say, ‘I am going with Juma to the market. Or, Juma is looking very good today!’ Juma. His name is Juma!” She told everyone in the office. “Have you heard what Rebecca did? She named her pikipiki Juma and now people will think it is her boyfriend.” Every day she would find me and ask, “How is Juma today?” and giggle. “Did he bring you to work?”… “We are fighting,” I told her once when the battery was dead. “Today he refused to wake up to drive me to the office. I had to kick him to get him going.” She laughed and clasped my hand, her dark eyes sympathetic. “Juma amekufa,” I told her. Juma is dead. I thought sadly of my now ex-boyfriend, remembering all the places he had taken me. I never called to find out what really happened to him after I left him in the road that night. Rita smiled and said, “he was not a very good boyfriend in the end.” You should never name a pet that might kill you.
My dad arrived the Wednesday after my accident. Linda helped him book a hotel room, but the hospital staff soon realized he wasn’t going to leave my side and told him he could just take the open bed in my room. The next day he checked out of the hotel and moved his things into the hospital. I couldn’t have asked for any comfort greater than the feel of my father’s hand on my forehead. I tried to teach him some basics of Swahili. He learned asante, which means thank you, and Baba Rebecca, the father of Rebecca, but not much more. I hadn’t told him or my mom about Juma. When I finally gave him the details of the accident and Juma’s place in my life had come out, he didn’t scold me, just nodded. Later, as I stared at the Indian Ocean through the window and felt very sorry for myself, he told me he once rode a motorbike down dusty country roads in Puerto Rico where he and some wild college friends had gone on a spur-of-the-moment trip from snowy upstate New York. I never even knew he’d been there. I pictured him white-knuckled but smiling as he flew down sun-baked roads and past deep green forests that smelled exactly like the ones in Tanzania, under a sun that was just as hot. And I felt a little better.
I stayed in the hospital almost two weeks. The clean, modern facility–so different than the local hospital I’d gone to first–was built just a year ago. There was a large, flat-screen TV above my bed. My dad made use of the hospital’s wireless internet. The nurses wore dark blue scrubs with the hospital’s logo on the breast pocket. The small symbol didn’t make much sense–Nitesh joked that it’s small version of the African continent surrounded by arrows and overlaid with a series of squares seemed to say, “Recycle Africa and I just beat you at tic-tac-toe… twice.”–but it did remind me daily of how lucky I was to be receiving high-quality medical care. And that luck had little to do with it. I met most of the hospital’s nursing staff during my stay. They stopped in to check on me often, and when I didn’t need anything they stayed just to talk. I was one of the only patients in the entire hospital. The Cancer Institute, where my friend Lydia volunteered, is often packed so full that patients must share beds. Family members sleep or sit on the floor for lack of chairs. At the Muhumbili national hospital there are similar problems with overcrowding. Few Tanzanians can afford to go somewhere like the Trauma Center of Dar es Salaam. So all of my well-trained nurses in their neatly pressed scrubs had plenty of time for me. I thought again of the man who had suffered silently in the cot next to me during my stay at the first hospital. I wondered what had happened to him and felt something a lot like guilt.
John was my favorite nurse. His English was quite good–he had lived in the U.S. for nine years while he worked and got his nursing degree from a school in Minnesota. Now he was back in Tanzania with his wife, and they were considering opening a butcher shop. What I appreciated the most about John was his refusal to allow me self-pity. He didn’t speak to me in a hushed whisper or let me sit in silent grief. Instead, he asked me questions and told me jokes. Every morning he would walk briskly into my room and say brightly, “What are our goals for today?” The first few times I scoffed out loud. I couldn’t imagine having a goal, but if I did I thought it would be to just keep breathing. “Do you want to sit in a chair? Do you want to eat a full meal? How about sitting up for a while?” He gave me suggestions when I didn’t answer. After about a week I still hadn’t given him a goal, just mutely struggled to show signs of life when he demanded it. But one day I woke up feeling stronger and when John asked, “What are our goals for today?” I answered at last: “I want to wash my hair.” It was greasy and matted to my forehead. He raised his eyebrows, but didn’t show any other sign of recognition that I’d finally emerged from my stupor. “Okay. Let’s do it!” He filled a metal basin with water and surveyed me with determined eyes, his hands on his hips. But the long pause that followed revealed his inexperience with hair-washing. “So… I guess I’ll just put some shampoo in the water… Then dip your hair into it… Hm. Yes, that should work, I guess.” I could see him struggling to work out the logistics of it in his head. That might have been the first time I laughed. Luckily, Linda and Lydia walked in the room at that moment and rescued John from the monstrous task of washing my hair, and me from the disaster of him trying. With my hair finally clean I felt like a new person. John looked at me and said with a smile, “Hey, you kind of clean up nice.”
Tanzanian culture is a visiting culture. People drop in. Friends stop by. “Hodi,” they call. The verbal equivalent of a knock, this word announces one’s presence. You’ll hear the reply: “Karibu!” Welcome. “Hodi, hodi!” It never hurts to say it again. “Karibu. Karibu sana!” Welcome, you’re so welcome. Chairs are fetched, mats thrown down under shady trees, and children sent running to nearby shops to buy sodas for the visitors. And then, they talk. They bring news of births and deaths, marriages and fights. They discuss a child’s sickness, a new car, the long rains. Sometimes the conversation drifts up into the trees and sits like monkeys. You can hear them rustling the branches, or maybe that’s just the wind. The silent people below don’t look up, or fidget, or seem uncomfortable about the silence. The wait patiently for something worth saying. When it comes, a laugh rolls around the circle, and the visit continues unbroken. The guests will stay until the sodas are all gone or the sun has ducked behind the house and the mosquitoes have joined the party. At first, this whole cultural phenomenon made me anxious, especially the long silences that stretched between stories. I had books to read, papers to write, food to cook… and no patience to endure wasted minutes. Why should we sit without talking, accomplishing nothing? But in time, I grew used to these visits and even came to love them–unhurried joy in the presence of others, the ease of togetherness, no need to fill every moment with words. As you can imagine, my stay in the hospital called for even more visits than usual. Friends came by after work, my colleagues brought cookies and juice, and even people I had only met once or twice at parties or on campus stopped in to say hello. One day, a young man I didn’t recognize at all came in. I pretended to know him, embarrassed that I couldn’t place his face. I asked a few vague questions to get him to drop some clue. None came. Eventually, he got up to go. “I must work now. The shift starts soon,” he said. “I will visit you again tomorrow. I am glad you are feeling better. The night I drove you here in the ambulance I was very scared for you.” Geof the ambulance driver did come back to visit me several times. Once he brought me a fresh avocado because I told him I missed buying them in the market. I felt closer to the world outside as I ran my fingers over the fruit’s leathery skin. Matt and Nitesh came back from safaris in the Northern game parks and told me thrilling stories of lion kills and the daring rescue of a bus-full of passengers from the middle of a croc-infested river in the Serengeti. Linda gave me Haribo peach rings. Erasmus and Benson made a DVD called “Rebecca’s Adventures in Dar” with scenes they filmed on a camcorder all over the city. These gifts kept me going, their givers kept me going. And sometimes, when we’d sit in comfortable silence, those were the best moments of all.
After eleven days in the hospital I was discharged. Dr. Faya told us it would be two weeks more before the risk of hemorrhaging would pass and I’d be safe to fly home. I was secretly glad. After the accident I’d entertained ideas of remaining in Tanzania. Before I could even sit up I was practicing the speech in my head that I would give my father to convince him to let me stay. I suppose now I realize how silly that is, but then I could only think desperately of the pieces of my heart spread around the city among the thin monkeys that scamper between white-barked trees on campus, under the dusty shoes of women who wait for loans at the Tujijenge branch office, in the games that Victor, Junior, and Glory played beneath my mosquito net in the house at Msimbazi Center. I was not ready to gather myself from these places, these loves of mine. The day after I got out of the hospital, Julie drove my dad and I to the Slipway on the peninsula. It was Nitesh’s birthday (and Matt’s the following week) and I was determined to buy them presents. In my days in the hospital I’d forgotten just how hot it is in Dar. As I crutched back and forth between small stalls full of jewelry, fabrics and carvings, a cold sweat slid over me. I went to sit on the steps inside the Shreeji’s grocery store for a few minutes, then hobbled back outside. I was in the middle of a hard bargain for a Tanzanian shirt when I started seeing flashes of orange and darkness clouded the edges of my vision. I knew I had to sit before I couldn’t see at all. The next thing I remember I was lying across a bench. My dad was bent over me, shaking me, his hand behind my neck and panic in his voice. Shapes swam above me, the skin felt tight on my face, and I knew I was going to have to say goodbye.