In Tanzania

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The plane tilted west, then a bit to the north, away from the sandy white coastline toward a landscape dense with palms and banana trees. The turbulence there had been throughout the flight abated on our descent, calming my nerves, and an intense tropical heat seeped into the cabin. I peeled off the coat I’d worn to fend off the Shanghai winter— so unnecessary here— and very soon, we were on the ground. There was the feel of tires bouncing on asphalt. Light applause filled the cabin, sparkling and bright like the sound of firecrackers.

It was a momentary relief.

From the Horn of Africa to our destination, Sayyidi— a man in a pristine white boubou with an extravagant air— had come to occupy the seat next to me. He spent the last few hours of the flight trying to convince me to “marry with” him. He spoke in his uvular English, offering a vision of our life together, answering my polite declinations, saying, “but I love you,” over and over. I chuckled and smiled, thinking that he was not serious. It was only as we taxied to the gate, and his pleas became more insistent that I started to worry. I had landed in Tanzania, a place I’d read about though I’d never visited. I thought about it in abstract, social science terms, never considering the practical vulnerabilities I might face while traveling there alone. Ultimately I blamed myself for the situation. I was a woman of 28 years with a habit of being friendly to people of unproven character. So often, the men I encountered mistook my slight affect for romantic interest and my selective openness for lack of scruples.

As we taxied, I tried to process Sayyidi’s newest request; he wanted to know where exactly in Dar Es Salaam I was staying.

I should have told him to mind his own business, but I was distracted. Something was happening in the cabin. The seatbelt signs were still illuminated, but the aisles had been overtaken with dozens of men, all of them Chinese nationals. They were already grabbing their luggage from the overhead bins as the flight attendant tried without luck to make them sit down. These were the same men who I had seen queued up at Pudong Airport twenty hours earlier. I’d assumed they were connecting elsewhere through Doha, but here they were in the Motherland. I noted the contrast between their comportment during our midnight boarding— so subdued—and how rowdily they behaved on African soil. I wondered why they had come, and what it was that made them disregard safety protocols in their eagerness to deplane.

I finally found a chance to shake Sayyidi in the immigration queue. Another Chinese passport holder was standing in the middle of the hall, holding a blank landing card and looking confused. I walked over to him and asked in Mandarin if he needed some help. He did not thank me—a fact that I interpreted without negative inferences— but laid his passport down as I helped him fill out the form. I’d glanced up and saw Sayyidi watching me, but by the time I finished, he was gone.

My feelings of gratitude were short-lived. The Chinese passport holder got ahead of me in the queue for customs, only to hold up the foot traffic. The attending agent, a corpulent, no-nonsense woman with reddish-brown skin and a close-cropped natural, asked him repeatedly to open his bags for inspection. She even demonstrated with hand motions, but he stood there and wordlessly refused to comply.

After a while, she’d reached her limit. She exploded with anger in a way that made everyone in the vicinity stop what they were doing,

“Why do you come here if you don’t respect the laws of this country?” Her face was slick with tiny beads of sweat and shone under the fluorescent lights like a Macintosh apple.

The man was not moved by her emotion, nor the attention of the other passengers now focused on him. He was escorted to another part of the facility, and the agent gestured that I come forward, ending the standoff.

“I’m sorry about what happened,” I said, but I don’t think she heard. She simply went through the motions, inspecting my belongings— the frustration of the last encounter still plastered on her face.

I’d come to Tanzania to see about my mother. Only a month earlier, she had moved there with her partner from their home in Cairo. It was a decision I’d be grateful for in the weeks ahead, when the city was turned upside down by the violence of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. At the time of my landing, I was still unclear about the reasons they’d left and what exactly their work in East Africa would entail. Mom provided a basic outline of a plan, saying they had a grant with the University of Dar Es Salaam but offered little in the way of specifics. My siblings were also coming to have a closer look. My sister had arrived from the US one day before me, and my brother was still in route— on break from a tour of duty flying Blackhawks in Afghanistan. 

I cleared customs and walked towards the outdoor lounge where my mother was waiting for me. She was stunning as usual, standing in a beautiful Ankara print dress outlining her feminine curves, smiling and waving as I pressed through the crowd.

There were tears and hugs. She offered to help me with my things, but I refused, pointing at the small book bag on my left shoulder, which made up the totality of my belongings.

Our driver was a middle-aged man named Jelani. He had a slow, calm demeanor with a toothpick cocked on the left side of his mouth that he maneuvered so deftly he could have signed his name with it. He drove from the arrivals lot and pulled onto Julius Nyerere Street as I began telling my mother about the strange encounters I’d had on the way there.

She laughed at the story about Sayyidi, not connecting with the sense of danger I meant to convey.

It could have been her confidence that, as long as we were together, her children would always be safe. There again, my mother was not one to countenance criticisms of Africans. By then, she’d spent eight years living on the continent, mostly in Egypt, where she’d attracted a coterie of politically-minded friends.  Many were intellectuals or the children of prominent African revolutionaries— all of them still invigorated with the anti-colonial energies that had spread throughout the continent in the mid twentieth century. It was the innocence and the idealism of her vision that filtered into how she understood my conversation with Sayyidi.

“It’s true that you are a beautiful woman,” my mother told me. “You really can’t blame him for trying.”

The story of the Chinese man was different. People like that were all over the country, she said. There were some well-meaning actors among them. For instance, the Chinese government had undertaken a massive feat of civil engineering, building highways to improve Tanzania’s transport networks. Some of the construction was faulty, but she saw the overall endeavor as a social good. There were many others, however— poachers and prospectors among them— whose presence was more questionable. She told me, for instance, about the difficulties the government faced to stamp out smuggling and other illegal activities at the ports, having been outmaneuvered by savvy Chinese intermediaries. She pondered aloud just how much she’d have to fork over to access her own things once they arrived.

“There was something in those bags that man didn’t want her to see,” my mother said. “He’s probably being detained as we speak. But rest assured, someone will come to pay off the right person, and he’ll be out of there in no time.”

But it wasn’t just the Chinese, she said. From Cairo to Cape Town, there were South Asians, Arabs, the old European powers, and, of course, the Americans still wreaking havoc. “It’s a wonder that the people don’t collapse under the weight of all the meddling.”

I turned away from my mother so she wouldn’t sense the anxiety take root in my face and looked out at the coast. It was dotted with out-of-service oil tankers, some close to the shore and others far out in the distance. They were all orange with rust, floating on the horizon like a string of beached whales— majestic and foreboding in equal measure.

Mom’s flat was in Kinondoni on Binti Matola Road— a large three-bedroom unit that reminded me of the garden-style apartment where she had raised my siblings and me. The inside was spare and rather dark, shaded by an ancient-looking ficus tree. Mom’s furniture was still on a ship somewhere in the Indian Ocean, so after she showed me where I’d be sleeping, my sister and I convened in the living room on a couple of plastic lawn chairs.

Mom stood in the middle of the floor, describing what she planned to do with the space. Her dining set would go in an alcove near the kitchen and the couches near the balcony. She’d already identified a local artisan who would make some beautiful wall hangings for the corridor headed to the bedrooms. Maybe she could really be happy here, I considered. I looked around, trying to envision everything she’d described when the room went black. There had been a low hum the entire time mom was talking—a sound I only perceived once it shut off, submerging the apartment into a dark stillness. This was the first of several instances like this, where joyful moments were interrupted with outages that seemed to mock you for your leisure, forcing you to stop whatever you were doing until some basic modicum of service had been restored.

That afternoon we ventured to the core of the city, looking for a generator and to top up mom’s internet account. As Jelani drove, I watched life unfolding around me. This was Dar Es Salaam in process— the dense traffic, the vendors weaving through the cars with wears balanced high atop their heads, the sounds of Taraab and Swahili hip-hop floating through the air.

Further along, a fortress-like structure came into view. It was completely walled off with barbed wire around the perimeter. A tall metal pole poked its head up from a central courtyard, where the Five-stared Red Flag of China hung languidly in the humidity. An armed guard stood stone-faced at the gate through which, it appeared, only Chinese nationals tended to pass.

Jelani parked the car in front of an outdoor strip mall opposite the compound, gesturing for us to wait inside as he asked for directions. Mom and my sister were consulting a phrasebook as I watched the driver ask for help. Jelani approached one man, who must have been affiliated with the compound, and was immediately rebuffed. The man waved at him dismissively, then stormed off, leaving Jelani on the curb looking plaintive, his empty hands stretched out before him as if to ask ‘why?’

Jelani pulled out a phone to make a call. He looked confused about the encounter that, to me, smacked of condescension and a fundamental devaluation of his worth as a black-skinned person. I didn’t know this, but I sensed it. I had sensed it for years living in China, where I’d endured the same treatment and worse, being spat at and put out of stores, among other things. Part of me understood how it could happen in China, but witnessing this in Tanzania of all places— Jelani’s homeland— filled me with quiet rage. How does one dare to be so imperious on land that isn’t even ‘theirs’?

My brother arrived the next day as the generator was being delivered. It was fitting that everything at the flat started working by the time he walked into the door— a giant canvas rucksack on his arm and a smile on his face. The relief I felt seeing him alleviated months of constant concern. I was happy to find him in good spirits with his mind intact and all of his parts in their original places. 

All the bedrooms had been occupied, so he had to sleep on a blow-up mattress in the living room. He filled it with air as he told us about the war. He talked about his soldiers and their excitement for the break. He mentioned having to pull one private aside—a young man who openly declared he was headed to Bangkok to make love to as many Thai women as possible.

“I tried to talk some sense into him, but I’m just a commanding officer, not his conscience. Who am I to say he’s headed in the wrong direction?”

That night we all went out dancing, accompanied by Karim— a student at the University of Dar Es Salaam, who my mother had met in her brief time on campus. He kept to himself much of the night, which made all of us self-conscious, but we were too much in need of fun. Under the multicolored strobe lights, my brother, sister, and I danced to the Hip-Hop beats. We spun and dipped, Kid-n-Played, not caring that, out of all the people there, we were the only ones on the floor.

Eventually, Karim came around and joined us, but he didn’t dance. He sort of stood there, moving a little so as not to appear out of place. After a while, I couldn’t help but notice him fixating on me. He wore a pained smile. Perhaps he wasn’t accustomed to a diversion of this sort, and it made him shy like he was trying his hardest, looking for a way to make our pleasure his own. I danced with him a little, intent on showing him some moves, but he firmly took my hand. With wide, insistent eyes, he pulled me away from the lights into a shadowy part of the dance hall. I wasn’t sure what this was about. I got my first clue when I sensed him forcing my hands toward his crotch. I pulled away from him. My thoughts immediately ran the episode alongside another experience I’d had, walking along the street near my mother’s house. I hadn’t understood the hissing, sucking sounds the people made as I passed. Karim’s attempts with me that night helped me understand that they viewed me through a lens of base carnality, and there was no asking why. I might have found their reasons as strange as Karim found my dancing, as the onlookers found the sight of me walking down the roadside on the way to buy soap. Culture only has a few touchpoints by way of universal logic, and it was my role as a non-Tanzanian to adjust as best I could.

I went outside to be alone with my thoughts. Across the street was an outdoor restaurant. It was quaint, with string lights hovering above the dining area. A group of Chinese patrons was sitting at one of the tables, having a good time, laughing and smoking. A waiter walked over to them and pointed at a sign, then made an “X” of his hands to signal smoking wasn’t allowed. Everyone at the table nodded and put out their cigarettes. The young man bowed to thank them and moved on. As soon as he turned away, the woman among them pulled out a new pack of cigarettes and lit up, sending a trail of smoke tunneling up from her pursed lips into the night sky.

That’s when my brother found me. He asked if I was okay. I told him I was fine, but I didn’t want to talk. The truth was, in the moment, I was confused. I was processing hurt from multiple sources, not knowing which wound needed the most immediate attention.

The next day I wrote a long email to my partner back in Shanghai. I went into detail about all of the strange happenings. There were so many Chinese nationals in Dar, certainly more than I’d expected to see. I didn’t know what to think of their presence. I hadn’t seen anything more than evidence of superficial rudeness toward the Tanzanian people, but something about the dynamic was off. Or, maybe, I wrote, it was the simple fact that I had lived in China and felt the sting of anti-Black racism there to such an extent that I was hyper-vigilant here. Perhaps the weight I placed on these incidents was outsized compared to the actual degree of consequence. They weren’t alone in their opportunism. I mentioned an incident at a fancy bookstore. I wanted to buy a Ben Okri novel, and the South Asian shopkeeper, hearing I could only pay with American dollars, immediately doubled the price. I told him about mom’s apartment, the kid at the dance club, and the old-school sexual politics. I recalled that I’d abandoned the hijab years earlier to be rid of this kind of shaming around the body, but here the practice of wearing what I wanted made me feel vulnerable and exposed. I was proofreading the message when I saw the bars on my Wi-Fi signal disappear. I wondered if something had gone wrong with my device, but my sister confirmed otherwise. 

“The internet’s down again. Time to go back to the Airtel,” she yelled from her bedroom for everyone to hear.

 When mom told us that the landlord was coming to the flat, she encouraged us to tidy up and try looking our best. The woman was the wife of a prominent politician. She was well connected and could be of great help as they settled into life there, so mom wanted to make a good impression. My brother deflated the blow-up mattress, clearing it from the living room floor. My sister cleaned the kitchen and the bathrooms. I spent the morning sweeping and moping, then put on a little red dress before the owners arrival.

In the process of cleaning, I came across some polaroid pictures of my mom and her partner. My sister had taken them on the night of my arrival. I looked closely and noticed my mother’s partner, how the brightness of his smile outstripped her own. She smiled a Mona Lisa smile, staring directly into the lens as he looked beyond it. I had no proof other than my sixth sense, but I began to suspect that something was up between the two of them and that this move wasn’t about bridging the growing divide.

The landlord was a bespectacled woman, fancily dressed in a gorgeous brown and pink wax print fabric, with the slow, deliberate gate befitting a woman of stature. She sat in one of the plastic chairs as mom offered her a glass of water. They chatted briefly about things none of the three of us were privy to— children and grandchildren, a recent trip to visit family in Zanzibar.

Mom brandished a bag and pulled out of it several vast stacks of US hundred dollar bills. My siblings and I looked at each other. The feeling passed between us that we were watching something illicit like a made-for-TV drug deal. The woman saw our alarm, and it made her laugh. “In Tanzania,” she said, “It’s customary to pay rent one year in advance. The amount includes maintenance and any other incidentals that may arise. Don’t worry,” she said, “your parents are in good hands.”

She seemed gentle and kind, trying to allay a sense of worry that we’d clearly failed to hide. This emboldened us to ask her some pressing questions.

We asked if she had recommendations given the inconsistency of electric power. We asked about the internet and the availability of running water—I had opened the toilet seat on more than one occasion and found several lizards crawling around the dried-out commode.

The owner reassured us everything would be fine, that these things were just a normal part of life in the city. Shortly thereafter, she signaled it was time for her to leave.

Mom closed the door softly as she went, but once the landlord had gone, she turned toward the three of us in a fury.

“Why did you do that?” she snapped. “Asking her all of these questions as if I haven’t been working to resolve these problems myself? We just moved here! Of course, things aren’t what they need to be. You’re just upset that we live on an unpaved road!”

I hadn’t even considered this before she said it, though it was true. There’d been no rain as long as we’d been in town, and yet mom’s street was soggy, dotted with deep, water-logged potholes that rocked the car whenever Jelani came to pick us up for outings.

My sister started to explain, but mom cut her off.

“You all embarrassed me! How could you? I didn’t raise you that way!”

We had been there for several days by then, with front row seats to all the instability. Did she only want us around as silent witnesses or hope we wouldn’t see the situation for what it was? We were only trying to help our mother, yet she took great offense to our efforts as if we were deliberately trying to cause her pain.

“Maybe you guys should go out for the afternoon,” she said. “I need some time alone.”

Mom fell heavily into one of the lawn chairs, then she held her face in her hands and started to cry.

On Jelani’s recommendation, we went to a Chinese restaurant a couple of miles down the road. The place was clean and quiet, with a regular clientele of aid workers and diplomat-types in and out of its doors. The food wasn’t anything to write home about. Most of the menu items were served battered and fried. Whether you ordered shrimp or chicken, it came out in golden poofs, so you couldn’t tell by looking which dish was which. 

“Do you think we went overboard?” I asked my siblings

My sister said, “no.” We loved our mother, and the loving thing to do when you give a damn about someone is to ask questions, she said. 

“She’s just mad right now, but I know deep down she feels how much we care.”

My brother said to give it time— that mom had survived far worse than power outages and bad internet.  He didn’t say much more; anyway, I knew by then he had checked out. My brother didn’t leave a war just to find himself bogged down in a petty family argument; he had his sights set on greater things. The next morning he would embark on an incredible journey, leaving us to begin a three-day trek to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. 

A local man dressed in a white button-down shirt and a red bow tie served us our food. The proprietor— a small, plump Chinese woman with a bouffant hairstyle, trailed him. She asked us in English if we were enjoying our rice and stir-fried vegetables. That’s when my siblings made the face they always make in these instances, encouraging me to demonstrate my language ability.

“The food is very good, and the service is too,” I said in Mandarin, then smirked at my siblings like, “Okay! Are you guys happy now?”

“You speak Chinese?” she said in English, then smiled and walked off, leaving the server standing at our table and staring. His was a different kind of look—one of admiration and pride.

The owner returned to our table with her husband— a thin, weathered-looking man, steely but without his wife’s spark. The wife pointed at me, “She speaks Chinese,” she said, this time in Mandarin. “You should talk to her.”

The husband nodded politely, then asked me if I wanted to tour the kitchen and see the veranda out back. I hesitated, looking to my brother and sister, but they waved me along. It was a strange invitation but one I took for novelty’s sake.

The husband led me through the kitchen headed outside, though, on my way, I caught a glimpse of two young men cleaning pots together— one was a local Tanzanian, and the other must have been the owner’s son. They were joking and laughing while they worked. This was very special to me. I felt in the moment that I’d caught a glimpse into a best-case future scenario where the coming together of Chinese and Africans was concerned. In their play, I saw the possibility of indigenous Tanzanians and Chinese immigrants communing peaceably, in a way that was utterly stripped of artifice and based on mutual respect of our shared humanity.

We sat on an open bench. The proprietor removed a cigarette. He offered me one, but I declined. I asked him how long he’d been in Tanzania and if he liked it here.

He danced around an answer. “Have you ever been to Kenya?” He asked.

I shook my head ‘no.’

“We moved here from there two years ago. That’s a place you should see. Here’s is different.”

I told him it was my impression that the Chinese were doing well in Tanzania. “I see many businesses run by Chinese, and all of the public works where their laborers dominate. You must know a lot of these people,” I said. He grimaced and shook his head.

“I don’t have anything to do with those types,” he spoke under his breath, a measure of disgust woven through his words. “Many are not good. I just stay here and run my business with my wife and my son.”

He asked me why I’d come, and I told him about my mother having recently moved here. She was doing some work at the University. The more I tried to explain, the more I realized it was all hot air. I’d been sold a bill of goods and didn’t know, but for her partner’s sake, why my mom was choosing to stay here.

He looked at me then out in the distance.

“We had a change of fortune,” he said. “I lost money back in China, and my family couldn’t afford to live there anymore, so we went to Kenya. Then we came here. Life is not easy for us, but at least we are together.”

“Does your mother know many people here?” he asked me.

I told him just a few.

“She will need to meet more people; it will be better that way.”

“You understand me. You really understand me.” He said it with shock and some joy. “Come on, I will make you and your family a whole fish with black bean sauce.”

I thanked him but said no. “We’ve eaten a lot of food at your restaurant today, but I’m honored to meet you. I do hope life gets better for you and your family,” I said and meant it sincerely.

“And maybe look out for my mom. I will tell her where to find your restaurant if she has any trouble.” The owner looked at me. He nodded out of politeness, but his eyes were confused. Immediately, I felt ridiculous. The awkward phrase was a window into my own troubled heart. Here was my mother, pitching her tent in a place where I had little confidence that she’d be able to really thrive. I felt this with such painful immediacy that I’d ask a man I barely knew, who’d never laid eyes on my mother, to be her protector.

The day before I left was a Sunday. That morning I was awakened by the sounds of worship. It was a chorus of what seemed like hundreds of voices, singing a praise song in Swahili. I questioned where the music was coming from. I had walked up and down Binti Matola Road and the surrounding streets every day since my arrival; not once had I spotted a church. I figured the same breeze that was ruffling the window sheers had carried the harmonies over the hills and into my room, the voices sweet and full of yearning. They crescendoed in a sustained “Amen” that overwhelmed me with its heart-rending power— a moment I will always regard as one of the most ethereal of my life. The perfection of this moment was followed by an equally intense realization that I’d had enough of Dar. After just a week in the dusty heat, I was ready to go back to a wintry China— a place with its troubles, but one I had the heart to suffer through and try to understand.

The house stirred to wakefulness. I heard the rasp of shoes on clay tile, then came the knock on my door. It was my mother. She wanted to know where I’d last seen the lantern. Something had gone wrong with the generator again, and she needed it to get a closer look. I didn’t have a clue where it was, but that wasn’t the point. “Okay, gimme a sec,” I said, bounding out of bed and into a t-shirt and jeans. I walked into the interior, still dark despite the hour, trying to help my mother find a source of light.