Killian, our inimitable Kilimanjaro guide, had come to Dar as he promised and visited me the day I fainted in the market. When he arrived at the apartment I was lying down, still colorless and weak. “You gon’ be alright, I know it,” he told me. “Hakuna kisanga, dada. I feel real bad this happened to you, but you gon’ be alright.” Just like on the mountain, he urged me to do what I felt I couldn’t: just keep going. That night Nitesh’s mom took us out to dinner at Zuane. She grew up on Zanzibar but was forced to flee with her family during the Revolution. This was her first trip back to the land of her birth. Nitesh and his parents had found her house in Stonetown, dim memories of doorways and alleys their only guide. They met wazee–elders–of Zanzibar who remembered her father, and the same photography studio where she once sat for portraits was still there, black-and-white photos from decades ago curling at the edges. I tried to imagine such a homecoming. With my own departure from Tanzania looming, I wondered which of Dar’s places and pathways would remain locked somewhere in me, ready to be recalled should I ever make it back. And would anyone remember me? My friend Terry sends me beautiful quotes from time to time, the fruit of many dog-eared pages. One is from T. S. Eliot and reads: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” How would it feel to go home, now that I’d built a life in Tanzania? Would America appear to me in new and shining colors or as a sterile monolith, grayed by its many successes?
But the vital, urgent qualities of life in Dar that had disarmed and fascinated me–the chaos and energy of a country reliant on the ingenuity and desperation of people with no guarantees–now appeared to me as frighteningly random and futile, the manic animation of ants when the mound is upset. My life, suddenly fragile, was caught in currents entirely outside of my control. Perhaps for the first time I shared something substantial with the people I’d lived among for months: an acute awareness of fate’s indifference to me. This led me to flinch and tremble whenever a car sped past–to feel infinitely small and afraid–but also to believe all the more strongly in the importance of friendship and compassion. Some people say that Tanzanians are generous to a fault; no relative is ever turned away at the door, money is given to those in need almost as soon as it is earned, and as Mwalimu Rose always says, “in Swahili culture we say, ‘What’s mine is yours.’ In Swahili culture who is not your friend? No one. We are all friends.’” The words for father, mother, brother, and sister are used often to address those not actually related by blood as a sign of respect or friendship. Children sit on the laps of strangers in the over-crowded buses and for the length of the ride they are looked after with surprising care and tenderness. Despite lives of hardship and uncertainty, there is rejoicing in doing what one can to share the load. Because maybe that’s all there is that lasts or that we control: how we treat others in the face of the abyss.
My last days in Dar were bittersweet. The people around me confirmed the very best of human nature. Rose, my Swahili teacher from UGA, took my dad and I on a driving tour of Dar. We stopped to get fresh coconut juice by the beach and saw the motorcade of the president, Jakaya Kikwete, speed past on its way to the nearby statehouse. As she pointed out buildings and roads to my dad I said goodbye to them silently. Coasting through the campus of the University of Dar es Salaam and visiting the Mlimani City mall for the last time I let memories play like movies on the reels of my heart. The Beauregard family, mutual friends of a friend, invited us to dinner at their home off of Chole Road and to see the sunset over the water at the Yacht Club. My last weekend we rented a beach banda at Kipepeo on the southern shores of the city. Erasmus, Benson, Mwemezi, Nitesh and I drank sodas for hours and watched the tides litter the beach with a blanket of seaweed. The next morning it was all gone, replaced by white sands that touched a perfect blue sea. Steve helped me crutch down to the water and I put my feet in the waves one last time. The sadness I might have felt at farewell was softened by my suspicion that I would see these faces again. Or that if I didn’t, maybe I was just lucky to have known them at all.
But my final visits to the hospital stood in stark contrast to those happy hours with friends. The wound on my leg became infected. Dr. Faya was out of town, so my new doctor, a Ukrainian self-proclaimed “victim/participant” of the Chernobyl incident, began a new and aggressive treatment that involved cleaning my wound while discussing Soviet war tactics and his past as a competitive boxer. He shouted at the nervous nurses and bounced on the balls of his feet as he rushed around the room collecting bandages and sinister instruments I cannot name. “I was military doctor during accident of Chernobyl,” he said in a thick accent while waving metal scissors over my bleeding leg. “The government still sends me a check every month. Compensation for problems,” he added, a lopsided grin on his weathered face. At that moment I was finally ready to go home.
Before I left for Tanzania I envisioned something radical: a world without strangers. I wrote of it then, my idealistic plan. Here is what I said:
This is my commitment: To live in a world without strangers. To give out of love, not pity. To see that charity to others is never a chore. To know that compassion is the realization of the brotherhood and sisterhood of man. For [some people], this way of life is natural, a necessity for survival in a dangerous world. For me, it’s a goal, a hope, and a promise to myself. It is the most golden of opportunities.
After the past six months, do I believe I lived up to those lofty expectations or do I cringe at the naïveté of my past self? I suppose what I notice is my certainty that I had anything to give. Now, the smallness of my offerings in comparison to all that I received is overwhelming. But maybe what I can do is speak of those gifts and in thanking their givers, give something back.
After the clot in my lung had finally broken up and I’d had both of the surgeries on my leg, Dr. Faya determined I was through the worst of it and decided to tell me just how worried he had been. “I thought maybe you would not make it. You lost so much blood. You are lucky to be alive, and to have kept that leg.” He patted my still-swollen and heavily bandaged limb. It was numb and I could barely feel his touch. I remembered the moments just after the collision, feeling my neck resting against the wet curb, realizing with relief that my back and head were okay, thanking God I had broken my fall with a backpack full of clothes–but those thoughts were tangled together with unbearable pain and disorientation, terror, adrenaline and shock. To hear my doctor say these words aloud sent the nightmare pouring into day. It darkened the room as if the lights had been cut out. But this is what I realized: it was random chance, pure accident, that almost killed me. Coincidence sent me around the curve in the road at the moment the taxi was coming the other way. A series of random events led me to arrive at that instant; having gotten there just seconds earlier or later would have altered the entire course of my life completely, had bad luck not prevailed. But what wasn’t accidental was my survival. That night I was saved by willful and deliberate acts of human kindness. And all I want is to find the words to say thank you for my life in a way that expresses the depth of my gratitude, but I do not think such incandescent words exist.
The Indian man walked into my hospital room looking uncertain. But I recognized him at once. The man who crouched beside me on the road as I shook, sobbed and bled. The one who spoke low words of comfort as he held me steady through the agonizing moments when I was lifted into the back seat of a car. The one who helped carry me from the car and onto a stretcher when we arrived at the hospital, whose kind face and white-streaked hair were all I saw when I reached out my hands and said, “help me, please help me, I don’t want to die.” Here he was, standing in front of me… and I couldn’t think of what to say. After thank you, what else was there? Everything else felt so trivial, to ask about his job or comment on the weather. “I’d been in Tanzania for five months before this happened,” I said. “Oh, very good. And how did you find it?” He asked. “Well, Dar is hot,” I answered lamely. He also didn’t seem to know what to say. He told me his name. Shiraz. He had been driving behind me, saw the whole accident. The taxi driver who hit me had told the police it was not his fault. This assault to my version of things had been crushing. Memory is a nebulous thing, more like wind than stone. Had I tricked myself into thinking all this pain was not my fault because to believe otherwise–to feel I deserved it–would take away all the will to survive it?
“Can you tell me what you saw that night?” I asked Shiraz, trying to sound casual. “Yes, sure,” he said haltingly, as though it was hard to talk about. “You were driving… you remember it had been raining that night. There was water at the side of the road and you started to go around the curve. It looked like you were trying to avoid the puddle, so you drove toward the center. You were close to the line. That is when the taxi came from the other way and hit you. He came into the lane.” I realized I had stopped breathing. I let it out slowly. With the drama of my emotion and pain stripped away, the account was lean and dispassionate. It was like an official version of things that makes it more real but also less immediate, less momentous. Like the difference between hearing the report of an earthquake and feeling it tear apart the ground beneath your feet, the swift reversal of earth and sky. I almost laughed at how short and simple his words made that long night sound. “I just wanted to come and make sure you were okay,” Shiraz said. “I’m so glad you are okay.”
The next day a Tanzanian man walked in. He wore glasses and neatly pressed slacks. I couldn’t place him. “I am Allen,” he said, as he came to shake my hand. “My wife and I drove you to the hospital.” The second of my guardian angels. Again I struggled for words, and when they came they were thick and inadequate. Thank you. Thank you so much. Asante sana, asante kwa maisha yangu. Thank you for my life. Just like Shiraz had done, Allen shrugged off my thanks and would only say how sorry he was that I had been hurt. The night of the accident I had not seen Allen’s face. He was on the passenger side and I was behind him, with my leg across the back seat. I remembered his wife’s profile and their voices as they promised to get me to the hospital as fast as they could. They asked if I knew any phone numbers, where I stayed, who to call. They told me they had my bags, not to worry. “We are almost to the hospital now,” they promised. “You are going to get help.” My blood and dirty water from the road was covering the clean leather of their SUV. As I tried to recall more details I remembered seeing the small form of a child being pulled into the front seat as I was put in the back.
“Oh no! There were children. Were your children in the car?”
“Yes,” Allen told me. “We have two daughters. They were with us. One is two years and the other is eight.”
“I am sorry. They must have been so scared.”
“Well, they were OK. But my oldest daughter, she has many times said she wants to be a doctor. Ever since she was very small. After that night she said to us, ‘Mom, Dad… I don’t think I want to be a doctor anymore.’”
“I don’t blame her,” I said.
Great, I thought to myself. I’ve ruined the dreams of a child! But Allen smiled.
“You know, as we were driving behind you I said to my wife ‘I have seen this girl riding around Dar on this pikipiki. All over the city.’ And my wife was saying to me, ‘I want to get one, too. If she can do it I think I can, too.’ That is when we saw you get hit,” Allen said.
“So did you tell her she could get one?” I asked. We laughed.
Shiraz and Allen and his family saved my life that night. In Tanzania, if you take someone to the hospital you are responsible for their hospital bills if they cannot pay. As a result, accident victims are often left to fend for themselves. It would have been easy for them to keep driving, to assume someone else would take care of me, but they did not. They took me to the hospital, paid my entrance fees, found my phone and called my friends. Mohamed, his father, and Anand ensured that I was taken from Muhumbili to the Trauma Centre of Tanzania, the best hospital in the country. I shudder to think what would have happened had Shiraz and Alan and his family not stopped for me. After they visited the hospital to make sure I had survived, Shiraz and Allen called or text messaged me nearly every day. I kept thanking them. They kept asking me not to, saying instead, “Is there anything else you need? Can we do anything to help you?” On the way to the airport I talked to both men on the phone. They asked that I keep in touch via email. Shiraz said, “When you come back, we would really like to welcome you to dinner in our home.” I leaned my head against the window of the taxi and watched the familiar buildings blur with tears. But I smiled to know I’d have a dinner with good people waiting for me when I return. Kwa heri Dar es Salaam.
Thank you to Linda, Wren, Anand, Mohamed, Shiraz, Allen and family, Mwalimu Rose, Nitesh, Matt, Lydia, Mwemezi, Victor, Steve, CJ, Julie, Erasmus, Jackie, Benson, JC, Sixton, Jamie, Li, Anja, Rita, Felistas, Mama Anna, Deborah, Marla, Geofrey, Mama Maria, John, my classmates and teachers from IDS, Michael, the staff of Tujijenge Tanzania, Lisa, Sarah, Philip, Lynne, Ashley and Toby Beauregard, Signe, Kilian, Alia, Nestory and Geof for being the silver lining. Asante sana pia to Dr. Faya and all the other doctors, nurses and staff who treated me at the Trauma Centre of Dar es Salaam. Finally, thank you to the countless friends and family members who sent messages of love and support.
In no uncertain terms, you all saved my life.