Chessa went to college, I got all sentimental and mushy and wrote a letter to my baby sis on her first year of college. Elephant Journal liked it and published it on their website. Read, share, tell your baby sis, or old sis, or mom or dad or grandpa you love um. Move mountains, baby sis. ❤
I’ve had a hectic past week or so. I wish hectic was a longer word so I could more accurately show how the days dragged on. It was tedious. Emotional. I wished for a fast forward button daily. It was seven days and I managed to attend two funerals, turn twenty-six years old, be eight thousand miles away from one of my best friend’s weddings, and finish a half marathon in a third world country. I cried too much, I laughed some. I think it was the most honest week of my life.
The deaths were unexpected and so were, in turn, the rush of emotion you feel when saying goodbye and its not anticipated. It’s an immediate pain, a knee jerk reaction. That type of reaction is quite honest: not the traditional clenched jaw ache when you know someone is about to go. Traditional Maasai funerals enhanced this honesty: those who attended didn’t withhold emotion, not like we often do in America. Many cried, as with any death, but others wailed, some melted to the floor, some threw dust because that is exactly how they felt at that moment. The women covered their heads and their faces with scarves because it feels like protection. Everyone covered his or her mouths because it feels safe. I have, a few times, attended a funeral in America, and seen the pressed lips and focused gazes, concentrating every ounce of energy from holding back tears. And despite the pain of losing someone so loved, I relished the fact that we exuded the pain so honestly. There was no doubt that love had been lost. There was no doubt every person there was hurting. I wish every moment of hurt could be that honest.
And then, in the middle of remembering, I became one year older. It’s strange to see and feel young death on a birthday. It makes you freeze up, hold your breath for a moment, and consider how simultaneously naïve and experienced you have become. How things are so fleeting. Last year, I played kickball and drank beer in a park with my best college friends to celebrate the changing of the year. This year was different. There was no fancy birthday outfit meticulously planned, there was no party that came with a Facebook invite. There isn’t room for any of that, not now, not here. But what there was is a handful of women who built me up and made me feel loved in special in the midst of rural Africa. I received a cake in a country where cake is (shockingly) hard to come by. The office was decorated with the precious balloons and streamers sent over through the last several years of tourists dropping by. And I received the most eclectic of birthday dinners: guacamole and mozzarella sticks, made from avocados salvaged from the market, tomatoes from the garden and cheese fried in oats with an expiration date of 2013. It was the most honest birthday I believe I had ever felt. No one participated out of obligation, no one tagged along because it was easy and convenient. It was strange creations made purely in love. It was honestly all we had.
A few days later I woke up with the lump in my throat that I fully anticipated. Two of my closest friends got married while I slept under stars in a completely different hemisphere. They started their first dance as husband and wife while I road a motorcycle through the dust and goats of Kilimanjaro region. Their first kiss as a married couple most likely coincided with my chai in a mud hut, dusty shoes, dusty children, dusty cheeks. Those cheeks were tear streaked a few days ago. I had the chance to talk to the two of them together before they tied the knot and it got me all types of teary eyed. I wasn’t crying because I was able to see how beautiful the bride was, I wasn’t smiling because I heard first hand their wedding vows. I smiled with them on the phone that day because I was happy for their future. Not the venue, not the music, not the flower arrangements or first dance song but for the love. Because that’s all I was going to be able to see or feel out here in Africa: the peace in their voices and the words they told me they were going to promise. It was what I like to call “happy regardless.” Regardless how far or how removed I was from their wedding. Oh, I was honestly celebrating with them.
I ended the week exhausted and worn with a half marathon ahead of me. The Mount Meru Half Marathon had started me training just two weeks before, running long hot miles in the never-ending dust and rocky trails of Maasailand. When the gun went off, I felt good and strong, found my rhythm right alongside one of the few other women running the race. She was a Tanzanian woman, long legs, long strides, and picked up the pace on the hills: just like me. She and I began our own personal race: I passed her on the incline, she took the lead as we rounded shaded trees, banana stands, women with baskets of oranges atop their heads. It was a fast race, quick and easy. In Africa, there are no mile markers. That seemed to be representative of more than just this thirteen-mile race. No mile marker in life to tell you that you were nearing the end. No definitive indicator to let you know that you were falling in love, growing up, finding yourself. My race partner and I crossed the finish line at the same moment. Breathless, cold and sweaty, she gave me a huge hug and said, “We ran so much faster because we had each other!” she was beaming. It was the most honest thing I had ever heard. No competitive words, no frustration at not beating her (as I saw it) opponent. She was happy we had made each other faster. Oh, if only I could honestly be that thankful for those types of competition in my life: to see myself improving and becoming faster instead of someone who may be better than me.
I told my mom this may have been the hardest week of my life. I didn’t ring in twenty-six years old with a bang, but instead with a slow steady, step forward in the midst of chaos and frustration. So perhaps it wasn’t easy, but I promise it was honest. And maybe that’s all you can really ask for.
There are some words I have found in Swahili that I wish we would use more in English. The main one being bado. The word bado means “not yet,” and it gives me hope. Hearing “not yet,” instead of a mundane American “no,” is so full of promise. It hasn’t happened but it just might! Did you send the email yet? Bado. Did you get the promotion? Not yet. Do you have a six pack and a six figure income? Did your book get published and become a best seller? Are you a mermaid? Not. Yet. There is hope for the future.
Bado became especially relevant to me recently. Dad showed up in Tanzania about two weeks ago with brand new hiking boots on his feet and my hiking boots in his suitcase. I briefly ran the idea of climbing up Mount Kilimanjaro with him in when I was home in April, and here he was, in the very African wonderland I texted him about and showed him as far as my Facetime Internet would let me. Did he understand the stories of dust and colorful fabrics and hectic situation I desperately tried to explain on the phone? Bado. But there was a chance he would in the future.
Kilimanjaro just so happens to be the highest mountain in Africa and is nearly 20,000 feet high. My beautiful Colorado friends, I hate to tell you this, but that’s way higher than our highest Colorado mountain. And we are high in Colorado. My YouTube circuit workouts left me feeling prepared for what was about to ensue as a physical workout, but not for the mental piece. I understood the mental part of physical exertion: sometimes uphill body battles led to lengthy mental journeys. When I ran that marathon back in college, I had enough thinking time to re-plan my entire life. I was going to quit my job, drop out of school, move to North Dakota, maybe buy some livestock. I had plans to cut my hair, go vegan, start doing cross fit. When there isn’t much to think about except tired lungs or burning calves, the brain finds new things to consider. Kilimanjaro was no different: it was seven days and six nights of nothing but re evaluation.
The climb up Kilimanjaro is filled with physical transitions that seem to coincide with the mental shifts nearly perfectly. The first day is gradual uphill slope, filled with rainforests and birds that seem to match the thoughts: “I hope I brought enough socks. I wonder what we got on the work email today. Will we have soup for dinner?” But, the terrain changes rapidly and your mind follow suit: I exchanged a long sleeve t-shirt for a winter jacket and two pairs of socks, and my thoughts prepared to dip into something a little colder: “I’m coming home in December and I don’t know where I am going to live. What job will I have?”
By day four dad and I put on hiking boots, rain coats, winter mittens and scaled a rock wall on the way to the summit, and the mental chatter seemed to cling to the side of the wall as well, “What have you even done with your entire time in Africa?” My mind travelled further than Dad on his journey from Denver to Kilimanjaro with the situations and trials of the future that I anticipated hitting in the next few months: jobs, insurance, relationships, family. And we hadn’t even hit summit day and apparently that was the time when both the physical and mental were truly tested. But the truth was those situations hadn’t surfaced or required thought or a reaction. Bado.
There seems to be one rule when hiking up the highest mountain in Africa and this is it: figure out today. Finish the current and don’t worry about tomorrow. It’s not here, not yet. Being an American woman with a plan (and occasionally an attitude) this is always easier said than done. I can consider the next twenty four hours, but it will be riddled with concerns out of my control: “Will I be cold in my tent under ten million stars tonight? Should I have not sent that text message?” It’s then I realize the necessity of breaking this present time down even more. Worry about this morning. Worry about this hour. As we neared the top of the mountain at 19,000 feet the concern became even more consolidated. What do the next fifteen feet of your journey look like? What is your thirty second plan? Because at that type of altitude making the decision to stay standing and put on Chapstick takes a lot of effort. Forget the rest the day, the rest of the trip, the rest of my time in Africa and the rest of my twenties. Bado. The next moment was all I can forecast and control. And maybe that’s how it should be.
I think at job interviews they should ask you for your four hour plan instead of your five year plan. Because it is in those small moments that things become accomplished. Books don’t become written, ideas don’t become businesses and nations don’t find peace over a casual realization that five years has already passed. The real movers and shakers find success in those hours when they are cold and tired and still decide to get out of bed. To take the next step forward. To write the next word when it’s difficult to finish or read or understand. It’s not in the entire mountain, the entire novel, the entire year in Africa. It’s in that uncomfortable moment that you choose to remain.
So Grandma, don’t worry, I kept dad safe and he has no desire to climb another mountain. Bado. And mom, I’m still coming home to America, but not before I finish what I set out here to do in Africa. I’m not done. Bado. And world, I am not worried about what you are throwing at me next year, next month or in the next work email or step up the mountain. Because I’m not there. Bado. But I will be.
A friend of mine recently showed me an Instagram account that made me laugh out loud. It was called “Overheard in LA,” or something of that sort, and it basically posted quotes that individuals had heard other people saying on the streets of Los Angeles. They all are borderline ridiculous, and it’s funny to hear the quote without the backstory. Heck, in LA it’s probably funny to hear the quote even with the backstory. The quotes are things like, “My dog and I decided to become vegetarians,” and “It’s like hot yoga outside!” You know, LA things.
The more I read LA quotes, the more Tanzanian quotes seemed to stand out. Weird situations are in abundance here in Sanya Station, the Maasai village I have called home for over eight months, which is a guarantee for some interesting sentences, either overheard or directed towards me in a conversation. So although a few are summarized, and a few are translated, and some are edited for the sake of a family friendly blog, here you have it, the first ever “Overheard in Sanya Station.”
“The cow slaughtering will be behind the toilets at 5am if anyone is interested.” –Fellow American residing in Sanya Station regarding the activities for O’Brien Day
Mid June marked a popular holiday here in Sanya, known as O’Brien Day. It’s a celebration of the incorporation of the O’Brien School, but more than that, it is a time where a big piece of the village gets together to perform skits and plays, dance, sing, and eat that cow that was slaughtered behind the toilets at 5am. Those who know me well understand a paper cut makes me squeamish, so I was not able to attend this particular ceremony, but the killing of a cow is huge part of the Maasai culture. The cow is killed with a machete, and the blood is traditionally drank by the men straight from the cow’s neck for strength and vitality. The skins are stretched and used for blankets, and the meat is used for a celebratory meal (and I mean all the meat.) Needless to say, this girl had to find a different toilet to use on O’Brien Day.
“I know a guy who has sugar if you are willing to pay.” – A Tanzanian friend regarding finding sugar in the midst of a shortage.
For those not yet up to date on East African politics, Tanzania elected a new president last year. This guy, Magufuli, is a stickler for the rules and recently began to enforce certain laws that had been casually overlooked in the past. This means import laws (such as permits required to import sugar) were now being enforced, and our sugar wasn’t coming into the country as easily as it had been in the past. This led to sugar less restaurants, grocery stores, gas stations and convenience stores (and brought a whole new meaning to the phrase Sugar-Free.) The only way to get sugar was if you knew someone who knew someone who could sell you sugar in a back alley or a basement at a morbidly high rate (think 400% of what was normally paid.) This led to pocketing sugar packets from coffee shops and less than sweet tea in the mornings.
“Cows die. Education does not.” –Director of a High School, in regards to what a boy should tell his father who encouraged him to quit school to tend cattle.
Grazing, herding, and caring for cows, sheep and goats has been the way of life for many Maasai and Tanzanians for as long as anyone can remember. The transition from herding to education has been a slow, challenging, and representative of the delicate balance between culture and advancement that we constantly see in our world. A student begins to understand the paybacks of staying in school and creates new ways of thinking (for example, the benefits of fewer children and the dangers of FGM). With new perspectives come new opinions that often conflict with what the family as practiced for centuries. A student at school has less time to tend to the animals and new ideas on equality and human rights. It’s a tightrope. The balance is this: culture is beautiful, but so is the ability to choose to pursue heritage, education, or whatever mixture of the two each individual may desire.
“Is it appropriate to wear my ngati to the club?” – American counterpart in regards to what is appropriate “going out” attire.
I was Face Timing with my sister recently when she stopped me mid-sentence to ask, “Is that a giant giraffe on your dress?” And it was. I also had a dress in full zebra print that I often wore with my elephant scarf. The brighter, more colorful, wilder animals or conflicting patterns you can fit in one outfit, the better. It’s wonderful and I wish America would start trending this way. Maasai clothes in particular tend to be brightly colored with magnificent patterns. The square fabric that the Maasai women tie around their shoulders, neck and waist is known as an ngati. If its chilly you can tie the ngati over your head like a hood. If it’s warm, you tie it around the waist like a belt. ngatis can carry babies, hold vegetables, wipe tears and block wind. The only real problem with ngatis are so great, we need to moderate how often we wear them. Bars didn’t make the list.
“Did someone forget to tell America that we are all the same?”-Maasai woman and school translator in regards to the recent police and civilian shootings.
It’s strange to explain complex issues in their most basic form. She had seen me on BBC reading about the recent occurrences these past few weeks; from Dallas to Baton Rouge to Minneapolis. “Why are they killing each other?” she asked, a voice completely unaware of the race games or underlying issues America has dealt with from before the country began.
“People in America are sometimes afraid of people who are different than themselves,” I tried to explain to a woman who I called my best African friend. Who let me sleep in her bed when I got scared alone at school one night, who loved Rihanna and who had grown up in the exact opposite hemisphere and atmosphere that I had been raised.
“Who forgot to tell America that we are all the same?” she asked, still incredulous to the fact we had shot at each other for a different color of skin, where we were born, where our parents took us to church or what a last name may be. “Who’s job was it to tell America we are all the same?”
I thought about that for awhile. Maybe it was Obama’s job. Maybe it was the Pope’s responsibility. Maybe congress? Dalai Llama? John Stewart, Rush Limbaugh, J. Cole? Maybe it was my job. Maybe everyone was supposed to be held responsible.
I’ve heard a lot of things around Sanya Station lately, and wherever you live I know your ears and eyes and mind have been bombarded with messages: both direct or overheard, so I will try and keep it simple. If you hear one thing from the words on this page, let it be this: darling we are all the same.
For anyone who has been completely unconscious, marooned on an island with absolutely no Wifi, or trapped in a cabin with nothing but Stevie Knicks cassette tapes for the past eighteen months, the word on the street is that the United States is in the midst of a presidential election. I didn’t know exactly what to expect, spending an election year in rural Africa, but I don’t believe I envisioned being so damn informed about every nuance of the election from eight thousand miles away.
Yes, a large part of this hyper informative craziness that I subconsciously subject myself to has to do with being on social media. But Facebook aside, Africa keeps me informed. I sit on plastic buckets in traditional Maasai houses sipping goat milk chai, and the topic veers towards the American election. Seriously. Recently, I sat outside the fabric store in Moshi while friends did some shopping and a man came and sat down next to me. “Marakani?” he asked, which is Swahili for “are you American?” When I assured him I was, his next question was predictable, “Donald or Hillary?”
While I really, really have no desire to talk about Donald or Hillary, the concept I have come to understand is that when you come as an American into a different country, you must become prepared to explain America. Believe me, I try. We have fifty states and Puerto Rico is not a state even though we let them vote because we like them, but not like we like states. Yes, frat parties are real things, and no I have never met Sarah who is also from America. I get a lot of questions I can’t answer. Yet, strangely enough, the longer I stay in Tanzania, the more I realize that Africa has taught me a lot about being an American.
I learned that Americans worry. A lot. About being late for yoga class, about the price of a haircut, about who got invited to which party first and what we can do this weekend, and if I brought this same cookie to the party last year or wore this dress last time he saw me, or what she meant by that text or why your jeans don’t fit, or paint samples. I suppose a big reason I don’t worry about those things in Africa is because many of them don’t exist: there is no yoga, no one wears jeans, and all haircuts cost the same: twenty-three cents to and they’ll shave your head with a new razor blade. I’m not saying there is no stress. “Hakuna matata,” was coined for this very reason, to remind people not to worry when it starts to creep in. But what I have witnessed is that the twisted stomach and the furrowed eyebrow type of stress is reserved. It’s special occasion stress, for things in our control, with our consent, and for the betterment of those around us. No small stresses. Hakuna matata that traffic jam, America.
Africa also taught me that Americans do everything fast, except drive. You have not experienced fast driving in America, I promise. Tanzania has two speed limits: below 50 kph, and over 50 kph. That over 50 kph speed limit tends to apply mostly to huge trucks carrying chickens and men and maize in the bed, or buses 35 people over the maximum occupancy. It does not, however, apply to the speed of life. Cooking is slow and boiling water is slow, and meetings are long. Weekends are sleepy and at nights I take time to look at stars. There are no happy hours, or gym memberships or housewarming parties. What there is, are long afternoons in the bed of a new mother, under the covers counting the fingers of the new baby. There are slow walks through sunflowers to meet a student’s family.
There are many hours in waiting rooms and outside offices while scanning Swahili dictionaries and taking note of new fabrics around the waists of the women who walk past. America moves fast, and we get things done. I know that more than ever now. But I hope I remember sweetness of slow when I go home. I hope my peace stays.
But all of this is fairly cliché and things you already knew: Africa moves slower and worries less, and it wouldn’t it be cool if America did that too? But that is not my point, not today. Moving from one country to another, I find that people focus on differences a lot. What is difference between Hillary and Donald, what is the difference between Africa and America, between Christian and Muslim, between black and white and what are the different things different groups are or are not allowed to do. The truth is, that while I have been forced to take note and adapt to several of these differences, the thing that sticks out the most is how similar we all seem to be.
I have found myself believing, now more than ever that the human soul is created in nearly identical ways. Of course, there are biological reasons for this: teenagers give you attitude on every continent and even first time mothers have an instinct how to comfort their child. But then there are different pieces of humans that strike me. I watch tears fall for the same things in both worlds. Laughter is identical. Families look different. But you see those who are attracted to each other lean, subconsciously, toward the person they love. It’s not the full moon or astrology or science. It’s humanity in its purist form.
Election years seem to bring out the differences in humans more than ever. Lines are drawn as we uncover opinions of friends and sisters and coworkers that we had never surfaced before. But what Africa has taught me more than anything, is that at the core, we are all the same. We need love, want patience, appreciate kindness, cry when we can’t find the peace. We hope for a future and find tears in our own eyes when we see someone hurt. We hunger and we sweat and we want things that we can’t have and scream like it will help. Then we pray to God we are able to create something worthwhile during our time on this planet. This is true of all humans. On every continent. From every belief or background.
So Africa, I don’t know if it’s going to be Donald or Hillary. But I promise, we are all going to be ok. We are on the same team. In the words of my beautiful African colleagues, we are together.
For those of you who don’t know yet, I like writing. And a big part of writing is putting your words in places where more people can see. The online magazine “Elephant Journal” published my article called “A Letter to my Far Away to Love: What we Must Remember.”
Read it on the website, comment, tell ‘um how much you like it, and I am one step closer to becoming a professional writer, and one step further from a life of cubicles, spreadsheets, and ill fitting dress pants.
I’m funnier in Africa. I found this out when I went back to America for a few weeks and less people laughed at my jokes. I suppose this needs a preface: I’m not saying I’m funny in either continent, but as a means of comparison, more people were laughing in Africa at my barely thought out and haphazard presentation of “jokes,” and poorly planned puns than they were in America.
Maybe they weren’t laughing more at my jokes specifically. Maybe everyone is just laughing a little more in general, myself included.
The point is that after about seven months in Africa then a brief three week stint back in America, I was receiving this question a lot (mostly from hipsters with thick rimmed glasses drinking fairly traded tea in dimly lit coffee shops): “What is the main difference that you have noticed between rural Tanzania and the newly metropolitan Denver?” And I put a lot of thought into this question. I thought about my primarily rice and beans diet in Africa compared to my “cinnamon roll with Bloody Mary breakfast” I was practicing in Colorado these past few weeks (and the fact upon my arrival in Africa, a fellow Tanzanian employee told me “Wow! You ate so much food in America!”) And then I started comparing fashion choices, women’s rights, speed of life, and primary education, but those topics seemed exhausting paired with how much travelling I have done lately, even if it is the kind of answer a hipster would have appreciated. Therefore, the difference that I wanted to note for everyone is that I am funnier in Africa, and it seems as if we all laugh a little more here. And I have started to wonder why.
I came up with a few theories. The first is that there is something in the water that makes people funnier. This theory got nixed because most of the villagers drink water straight from the well, and the Americans are confided to the big blue bottles of water bought in town, yet all of us seem to laugh a little bit more.
My second theory was language barrier, and there is plenty of that where I live. Most students at O’Brien School are taught to speak Maasai at home, along with the Swahili basics. Once they arrive at school, they are quickly instructed in English, and they continue to brush up on Swahili. This results in trilingual seven year olds and some wonderful responses to everyday questions. A common one is a sick student complaining that their “head is painting,” or “stomach is painting,” their “tooth is painting” (the equivalent of a headache, stomachache, or toothache.) And I feel for them, because a painting stomach is never comfortable, but it is all I can do but smile as I listen to “paining and painting” used interchangeably.
Another favorite is the request to “get in” to the office/classroom (instead of the incredibly American “come in.”) This usually takes the form of loud and excited request, such as “PLEASE MADAM, MAY I GET IN?” as if I am barring the office closed with arms outstretched, standing in the doorway in my Chacos. In fact, I love the phrase “get in,” so much more than, “come in,” that I have started using it, too. Mostly because replying, “Yes, get on in!” sounds like something you would do to a safari jeep or a sailboat, or at least something way more exciting than a school day chat in the office.
And I am certainly not immune to the interesting, yet often inconvenient language mishaps. I know on more than one occasions I have explained that the car, “Is hungry and needs to eat,” because I could not for the life of me recall the Swahili word for gasoline. Or, more recently, the American director Lizzy and I watched in anxious anticipation as a student with a bike lock stuck on his bike requested soap to get the lock off. He graciously accepted the soap, then politely explained he needed a saw, not soap, and how was he going to get a bike lock off with soap?
Maybe we laugh more because of the language and cultural barrier here, and maybe its because there is a little bit more thinking time, listening time, joking time, space to acknowledge the odd and awkward and comical. Maybe when the power goes out there is nothing more to do than think of funny stories or learn all the lyrics to Nikki Minaj songs. I know that much of what I have written on this blog has been heavy and often hard to digest, but while I compare life in American and life in Africa, something new becomes quite clear: convenience isn’t that funny.
I take that back. Convenience isn’t usually that funny. I saw an advertisement online for some type of tool that would cut a banana into tiny pieces with one press of the tool. You know, because cutting a banana with several knife strokes is so difficult. That is a funny convenience. But most of the time, either fortunately or not, it is the inconvenient stuff that makes you laugh. It’s pausing a school committee meeting because a goat has walked into the office; it’s putting shampoo into your hair right when the power goes out. It’s causing a minor explosion attempting to bake a cake in a crock-pot when power surges are likely, and plucking your eyebrows in the dark with a headlamp. From someone who has been there I can tell you honestly that grocery stores that always have cheese and tofu in stock, and restaurants that have something other than chicken or eggs on the menu are great, but they don’t make me laugh.
I suppose that is the most accurate description of the difference between America and rural Africa: it’s just not as convenient out here in Kilimanjaro, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t make me smile. And while you can’t choose these inevitable and ever impending trials and setbacks (no matter where you are living,) you can choose whether you laugh or become distressed. First hand real life experience told me that you laugh a heck of a lot more if you choose the former.
One day my Swahili will improve and these kids are going to speak perfect English in no time. And we may even stop having a cobra-near-the-shower problem, and the post office may stop having four-hour closures for lunch breaks, but until then, I like these inconveniences. I like laughing.
I’m also like the new recess game “pause and continue” the exciting equivalent to “red light, green light,” in a land where there are barely roads, let alone traffic lights. It’s wonderful and I am going to play it with my children one day. And when those kids are called to the school office because they don’t know the rules to “red light, green light,” I hope they knock on the door and ask if they can please get in.