The hardest part about traveling is surely the friends you leave behind. Today I learned from my dear friend Brian that Salma, our neighbor and friend in Bagamoyo, Tanzania in 2007, died sometime in the past two years due to complications during a botched surgery. Salma was one of the two “house girls” that lived with the Dihenga family next door to the Kunjombe’s house where I stayed. Her wild laugh, exuberance, and absolute kindness are still vivid in my memory. The day I left Bagamoyo to return to the United States, Salma paid a man with a film camera to come take photos of us. When I returned to Bagamoyo in the fall of 2009, Salma had the photos from that day in an album next to her bed. She also had a baby who was only a few months old. Brian was not able to find out what happened to the child after Salma’s death. The sadness I feel about Salma’s death bears with it a certain shame that I could not be with her and that it took me so long to find out about her passing. I’m also reminded that the injuries I sustained in Tanzania would certainly have been fatal if not for my relative wealth. I am sick with anger at the injustice that I should survive when she did not because of this fact.
The first time I said goodbye to Salma, she pressed me to tell her when I would return. “As soon as I can, ” I promised. “It’s very expensive. But maybe in a year or two.” She was solemn (and Salma was never solemn) when she replied, “Ah yes, but I may be dead by then. You will come back, and they will say, ‘Oh, sorry! Salma is gone, she has died, you are too late! She is buried deep!'” I was nineteen years old then, and I don’t think she was much older. “Don’t be silly,” I said. “You are young.” She looked at me and shook her head. Then she laughed and pulled me into one of her signature hugs: arms wrapped my neck, face pressed against my cheek, and her weight bouncing against me as she jumped up and down. I hugged everyone while my host father Jimmy helped load my bags into a waiting taxi. As the car pulled away, Salma and Gracie, the other house girl, were jumping and singing “Happy Birthday”; they waved until I was out of sight.
Below is a short excerpt from a chapter of the travel memoir I wrote about the time I spent in Bagamoyo. It describes the first time I met Salma. For context, Jimmy was my host father and Kenny was his two-year-old son. Rest peacefully, sweet Salma. Nakupenda wewe. Asante kwa urafiki yako. Nitakukumbuka na wewe daima. Lala salaama na Mungu.
When I woke up my feet were sticking out from under the net and all of the sheets were twisted beneath me. The door creaked. When I looked up I saw two wide eyes lower than the doorknob and a small hand wrapped around the wood.
“Hello. Are you Kenny?”
The eyes continued to stare at me.
“Come here,” I said softly.
He disappeared behind the door. I heard his feet slap against the concrete floor. A few minutes later I was still in bed and I heard the small feet approach again. They stopped at the door. I didn’t look. After a few still moments, they came closer. A hand touched my hand. I turned to face him slowly.
He looked at me for a long time. He had a long face and short curled lashes like his mother’s.
“Poa,” he whispered.
Then he turned and ran away. Jimmy was right. Kenny did look like his mother.
“Labeckah!” Jimmy’s voice stopped me from drifting back into sleep. “You are sleeping all day and all night! Are you alive? Should I call the hospital? I will tell them, ‘oh I am so sorry, Labeckah has died!’”
“I’m up.” I called, and shuffled out.
Jimmy was in the doorway, and Kenny was behind his left leg, clutching it with both hands.
“You have met my son Kenny. He is two yeahs old. He is a good, strong boy. He is named after an American woman. It was her second name. She came here for three months. She even taught me to drive. Eh, Kenny?”
Kenny was silent.
“Come Kenny, come around,” Jimmy said, pulling his son from behind him. Kenny wasn’t wearing a shirt. His stomach was round and protruding. It made him look like an old, pot-bellied man in miniature. His short legs were plump and pigeon-toed.
“I don’t think he likes me, Jimmy,” I told him.
“Ah! Kenny, be a good boy. Nenda kucheza, go play with your toys. He only likes his mother,” Jimmy said, looking at me. “Kenny is sometimes being a bad boy because he will not eat his food. He is always saying he is full. I am worried for my son.”
His round belly and puffy cheeks made it look like he was getting enough to eat, but I nodded. I didn’t see Mama Kenny. From outside I heard a shriek.
“JUNI! Wewe, acha! Ha ha ha. Gracie. Gracie! Njoo!” A loud female voice interrupted Jimmy’s concerns.
“Oh, it is Salma,” Jimmy said, smiling. “She lives with the neighbor. She is craze. She and Gracie (they are both working for the Dihengas), they are so craze.”
When we walked outside I saw two young women, both large and robust. The one was still shouting, chasing around a tiny little boy wearing a sweat suit and tottering unsteadily. She had very dark skin, big eyes, and cornrow braids in her hair. She had a piece of yellow kanga cloth wrapped around her waist. The other had small features that seemed crowded in the middle of her face. She always looked like she was squinting.
“Salma! Gracie!” cried Jimmy, stopping them in their tracks. They both straightened and looked at me.
“Ooooh,” said the short one with the braids. “Mzunguuuu. Wow.”
“Ah!” the other said. “Mzuri sana! Very pretty, very pretty!” The both began to jump up and down, clapping their hands. They burst into song.
“Happy bethday to you! Happy bethday to you! Happy bethday dah friend… Happy bethday to you!” I couldn’t help but laugh.
“I am Salma,” said the one with the braids, rushing over to grab my hand. She patted it with her own.
“And the other one is Gracie,” said Jimmy. I smiled at Gracie, who blushed and grinned.
“Oh, and Juni, Juni,” said Salma. “Here is Juni!”
She snatched the tiny thing from the ground. He was barely old enough to walk. He had bright eyes, far apart on his face, and a small acorn nose.
“Junior Dihenga,” Jimmy told me, placing his huge hand over the child’s head.
“We must go. You must leave Labeckah alone. She does not like your singing. It is not good and you will never be famous! The dogs are running away now that they hear you,” Jimmy told the girls. They laughed at him and batted their eyelashes, humming loudly. He shook his head and clucked at them. As we walked away they broke into another rousing round of “Happy Birthday to You.”