The epic battle between the pencil and the watch had nearly reached its climax. My five-year-old host brother Junior was using his considerable vocal range to breathe all the anguish and clamor of combat into the small space above my mattress where he crouched, gripping the sworn enemies in his fists.
Pah!!!! Eh heh. Bam!!! Chuzah chuzah! HA HA!
He leaped up on short, bandy legs and flew to the bed next to us, then on to the floor. Pencil stabbed into Watch, making its fluorescent face flash in agony. Watch pounded Pencil’s head ’til the lead crumbled and left a short gray streak on the pale green wall. Junior brandished the warriors in front of his compact body like nunchucks. His brow was furrowed with all the concentration of a highly-trained imagination. Finally, with one deafening roar, Watch moved in for the final kill. Junior’s arm shot up in the air like a salute, then crashed down, splitting Pencil–my only pencil–cleanly in two. My brother cackled with glee, his face alight with triumph.
Junior, acha wewe! Bas!
I yelled at him–words in Swahili for ‘Cut it out!’ and ‘Enough!’ that I’d learned quickly, from necessity–, and his eyes snapped up to lock with mine immediately. The look he gave me contained no guilt, only reproach, even a little disdain. Junior let his props fall to the ground from his now limp arms. With one last glare in my direction, he shuffled from the room, slamming the door behind him.
I sighed and leaned back against the cool, concrete wall next to my bed. The mosquito net was tied in a knot around itself, hanging gauzy and damp from the oppressive humidity of the African afternoon. I looked at the shattered pencil lying on the ground, the defeated, unsung martyr of Junior’s play suddenly mundane and ordinary. I regretted for a brief moment my impatient scolding, then thought better of it as I eyed the small trash bag full of broken pens, pencils, bracelets, and trinkets, a graveyard of other warriors who had also met their fate in the dirty hands of my wild, ardent brother. Scooting to the edge of the bed, I picked up the pieces of the pencil and threw them in with their fallen brethren. I strapped the watch back onto my wrist, then tapped the buttons to make sure the thing still worked.
Outside the door I heard sounds of a scuffle, a muffled shout, then Glory’s wail. Junior’s little sister had somehow met his displeasure. The two-year-old stumbled into the room and onto my lap. Soon she was chewing happily on a chunk of my hair. I knew well enough after three months not to try to stop her.
Three months. Three hot months. It’s so hot. So hot. I’m tired and it’s hot. Wasn’t it supposed to be the rainy season a month ago? Where are the rains? It hasn’t rained once since I’ve been here. Maybe if it rains it won’t be so hot.
I’d come to Tanzania with beautiful, aspirational, wildly naive thoughts of assimilation into the local culture, of “picking up” Swahili just-like-that, of long nights of dreamless sleep earned from hard-won days solving problems of poverty in the developing world. I scoffed aloud and Glory looked up from snacking on my spit-covered hair. I met her wide eyes and nodded to her. Yes, my sister, my dada… I thought it was going to be easy. Can you believe it? Can you…?
Instead I got malaria no more than a week after the plane skidded to its final stop, pick-pocketed a week later, and had remained harried, sweaty, bitten, and somehow always dirty ever since. But there was a quality of joyfulness and presence in even the difficult moments, a heightened awareness of being as if I’d existed my whole life but never really lived. I had seen and felt the world through a veil, and having arrived in a place where everything was suddenly uncovered, old colors shone with new secrets. But sometimes it all felt too vivid, almost painful, like stepping into bright sunshine after years inside a windowless room and having no sunglasses. Sometimes I longed for the dark again.
I shifted Glory to my other shoulder and turned to swing open the window behind me. The sun was sinking rapidly and the rumor of a breeze teased my forehead. It really did look like it might rain. I realized the room was almost dark, and got up to switch on the bare bulb overhead.
Dada da da da. Mahaba.
Glory babbled happily behind me as she pulled the sheets from the small bed. Chrisantus, the father, was a carpenter, and he had built the bed for me during my first month in Tanzania while I was still living near the airport in a drafty house with an Uzbeki graduate student doing his master’|s research, a Swedish girl, the Swede’s Tanzanian boyfriend, and the boyfriend’s best friend, a Bible school student named Victor who slept in the smallest room on a floor pallet with the Bible in his hand. The power was rationed in that part of the city, so we would lose power for a full day every three days. I took baths in the dark with a bucket of water and a cup, a flashlight balanced precariously on the edge of the tub.
At night we would gather in the living room around Ulugbek’s laptop to watch American movies. One day he came home late, quiet, and asked to borrow my camera. “I have to take pictures of this police report to send to my insurance company,” he said. That day, waiting at a bus station, Ulubek had struck up a conversation with a young musician. The man invited him to the recording studio. They took three buses, then got out to walk. The man said his friends would pick them up and take them the rest of the way. Ulugbek was sitting in the middle in the back seat, flanked by strangers, who soon announced they would be robbing him. Still driving, they went through the contents of his backpack: camcorder, laptop, camera, cell phone, wallet. “Give us any trouble and we’ll kill you. We’ll take you to the beach and kill you, man.” Accessing a reserve of self-possession I could never have managed, Ulugbek remained calm. “I am just a poor student,” he told them, “from a developing country also. Please do not take my things. I need them. First of all, I need that laptop because I am a student and it contains all of my research and work.” The young men exchanged glances, shrugged, said, “okay, we will not take the laptop.”
“But I aspire to be a filmmaker,” Ulugbek said. “I need that video camera.” And so on. he managed to convince the would-be thieves not to take any of his possessions.
“Just give us your pin number and we will go withdraw $100, that’s it,” they said. My friend complied. The thief returned his ATM card to him when he had collected the money.
“You know, we’re just poor students too, man,” the gang told him. “We all have degrees. We’re South African. But we cannot get jobs. So we have to do this.”
Ulugbek stayed silent. “What are you going to do now?” they asked. Ulugbek didn’t know. “Do you know where you are? How to get home?”
“No,” he told them. “I guess I will just take a taxi.”
“Okay man. Do you have money for a taxi?”
“Here,” one of them said. “Here’s 15,000 shillings, that should be enough.” He handed some of Ulugbek’s money back to him and they let him out of the car. Before they drove away the driver leaned out of the window and said, “Hey man, do you think you could help us get jobs? Do you have an email address? Can we email you our CVs?” His face was earnest. Ulugbek said sure, and wrote his email on the back of a receipt. “Thanks man! Bye!” They drove away in a cloud of dust.
I nearly laughed when I heard his story. “You are so lucky!” I wanted to say, but Beka’s face was serious. “I mean, really… They didn’t take any of your stuff! They gave you money for a cab home! They… they want to email you their CVs!” It was utterly ridiculous and I wanted to laugh at how absurd the whole thing was. You’re fine, I wanted to say, and what a great story you’ve got now.
But that night Ulugbek decided to leave Tanzania and go back to Sweden. “I just kept thinking,” he said, “I hope they have a gun. I hope they kill me with a gun. Not a knife. Please God, don’t let them have a knife.”
A week later we took Ulubek to the airport. I was sad to see him go. His slight frame cut a fine figure in the doorway of the departure gate. How insensitive and covetous of my friend’s company had I been to ask him not to go? How reckless was my own fierce determination to make Tanzania my home?
The sound of rain dropping into the packed dirt outside my window cut into my dark ruminations. Droplets fell through the screened and barred window onto my neck and shoulders bringing cool relief. Knowing I had to take advantage of the cool and quiet, I pulled the readings for my International Development master’s program from the foot of the bed.
“Do you know what ‘Development’ is?” one professor had demanded on the first day of class. “Do you even have an idea what this ‘Development’ that everyone talks so much about means? Do you want to develop? Is it good? Bad? Is it how much money you make? Or if you have a democracy? Or if the World Bank tells you you are developed?” He challenged us with a stare, his eyebrows raised above wide eyes. “NO. No way. It’s about human emancipation. Do you hear me? It’s about freedom. Are you free to speak your blahblahblah? Are you free to wear your hat on your foot and your shoes on your hands? Are you free to say who you want to be president? To see your children go to school? To call your husband an ugly goat? Are you free not to starve?” My classmates and I laughed awkwardly, unsure if our collective paradigm had just come toppling down in the course of a few rhetorical questions.
“Both statism (which invites populism) and state decay (which evokes localism) stymie the growth of civil society but nevertheless…”
It was still raining and bits of reading for my “State and Civil Society” class were interrupting my thoughts, not the other way around.
“…the resiliency of [Tanzanian] society and its ability to reproduce itself with considerable autonomy is one of the reasons…”
How would the women I met every day at the microfinance office define the term, development? When they received their money, counted it out carefully, signed the loan booklet, and tucked the wads of cash inside their purses or pockets, did they feel development then? Did they thank God and the IMF for the long shadows made by new skyscrapers in the city center, for the Japanese mini-buses now packing the streets? Did they stir development into the ugali pot, or in with the spiced chai, or did they drop it in their children’s tattered book bags as they went off to school? At night under their gossamer mosquito nets did they dream development dreams?
“…the entire fabric of society did not fall apart during years of unprecedented hardship.”
This development. I was starting to think it was nothing more than a word, a signifier with nothing to signify, other than a lot of people talking about problems with no solutions. What’s the problem? Underdevelopment. How do we fix it? Develop. How do we do that? I don’t know, go ask China.
After about an hour the rain stopped. I shut off the flow of desperate thoughts, and managed to get through a few chapters of dense readings. It was completely dark outside and I realized I was hungry. From outside the bedroom door I could hear shouting.
“Dudu! Dudu! Dudu!”
“… the power, autonomy, and capacity of states is therefore a function of the relative autonomy of civil society…”
“Dudu! Dudu! Dudu!”
I tried to block out the chanting but soon I had to close my book. What does dudu mean? I wracked my brain, painfully aware of my limited Swahili vocabulary. Does it mean relative? No, that’s ndugu. Is it shop? No, no, that’s duka. What is dudu???
That’s when the first one made it under the door. A pale brown, inch-long insect. Dudu. It hit me. BUG. And then came another. And another. And another. I soon realized they were not normal dudus. No, these dudus were dying. Thrashing, spinning on their sides, legs churning the air wildly. Why is it that when insects die they can no longer stand but their legs still move rapidly and with passion? It was as if something in their center had failed but their extremities were trying desperately to escape the death creeping out from the core.
Almost unable to believe it, I got up and made it to the door without stepping on any of the bugs. I’ll never forget the sight that greeted me as I opened the door. Swarms of insects covered the floor and every surface. Their thin wings no longer working, they spun in tiny circles that made the room appear to vibrate. The children were running around scooping up the dead ones and throwing them outside, stomping on the live ones, shouting wildly, almost dancing, never ceasing their chorus of “Dudu! Dudu! Dudu!” I stood in the doorway long enough to take it in, then closed the door and got back on my bed. I pulled my knees to my chest and watched the dying bugs on the floor.
A few minutes later, Junior entered, battle-ready and determined. Using the broken pieces of my pencil, he began to finish off the rest of the bugs, valiantly scooping them into the trash bag as he went. My other host brother Victor, Junior’s senior by five years, brought me a bowl of rice and beans cooked with the largest fish they had brought home from the market that day. He sat on the edge of the bed and looked downward, every now and then glancing up to see if I was enjoying my food, grinning slightly when I smiled at him. Glory teetered in, her pale pink dress hanging off one small, brown shoulder. She climbed onto the bed, into my lap, and rested her head against my chest. The last of the bugs finally stopped twitching on the concrete floor. “After rain, dudu,” Victor said, miming rain and then pointing at the insects on the ground. “Always after big rain, dudu.” He climbed up and sat next to me. It was cool and somehow I was happy, surrounded by my intrepid little band of protectors. I fell asleep that way, holding on to them, and woke up refreshed in the morning.