Habari soul sister! How is news in your part of the world? Nzuri—I am well and enjoying Tanzania, as you promised I would.
Our travels seem to weave back and forth in remarkable ways. I know that you were just here last year, so perhaps there is very little I can tell you about this country, other than it is entirely unpredictable. Why just yesterday morning I was in the shower when I heard a voice shouting, “LIONS!”
Does this ever happen to you? I think not. And so I dressed in three seconds and ran, wet like a mop, into a waiting jeep where we chased invisible lions for two hours. I wish I could say that I was dry by the time we gave up on seeing any large cats, but by the time we returned, I was even more soaked with sweat and so red-faced from the heat as to expose my Anglo-Saxon disposition, which (I am the first to admit) is so wrong for the tropics.
Had I been home, I would have spent the morning stuffing a turkey like any normal American, rather than chasing down a pride of elusive lions. But no. I spent most of my Thanksgiving day on the road—on a dirt road—wait, a red dirt road. This is how you know you are in Africa—when the houses, roads, the tires on your car, and even the soles of your feet become stained red-orange from the iron-rich soil that covers so much of this great continent. Wearing sunglasses heightens the red color so that the land just seems to glow like a live ember in a fireplace. The color stays with you—and I’m sure if you dig around your sock drawer you’ll find a bit of Tanzania still in there.
So my toes are now red and I spent Thanksgiving Day jumping from one truck to another on my way inland from the Indian Ocean. As you know, driving in Africa belongs to its own category of travel. First, there is the car, some four-wheel drive souped up with dazzling decals, extra gas cans, a water tank—a whole inventory of useful stuff. Then there is the African music on the radio—marimbas (always), plinking pianos, the wail of a joyful African singer and a much larger percussion section than your little band. After that, the beat is inside you even when the radio goes dead—signifying that you have truly reached the rare and unreachable bits of planet Earth.
“What is this Thanksgiving?” is all that she asked me, this Tanzanian woman in the back seat, and I happily took it upon myself to explain. The word “pilgrim” was almost out of my mouth when I stopped myself and became cautious.
You see, only a few days ago, I was forced to muddle through the awkwardness of explaining the Confederate flag to a carful of eager Tanzanians. The souped-up 4X4 in front of us sported a Harley-Davidson decal, which (apparently) combines the Stars & Stripes with the Confederate flag.
“What is this Confederate flag?” is all that they asked me, these curious Tanzanians—and so I told them.
“Well, a long time ago, America was split into two separate countries . . .” I began.
“Like Tanganyika and Zanzibar!” they exclaimed (which were two separate nations before the unification of Tanzania in 1963).
“Yes, kind of like that. The North were against slavery but the South wanted to keep slaves . . . “ I continued.
“Just like in Zanzibar,” they confirmed, all nodding in agreement, though Zanzibar’s slave history is perhaps a bit more fresh, historically-speaking.
And so I gave them a softball quickie recap of America’s deadliest war as context for that non-sequitur Confederate flag decal and then, responding to further questioning, explained that while I was born in the South (“In the Confederacy?” they wanted to know. “Yes, where it used to be,” I confessed.), but that I grew up in the North and now live in the capital which is conveniently and geopolitically-located halfway between the two formerly-opposing sides.
Yes, my friend, two days in Tanzania and I have already lectured the locals on two great American events—the war that tore us apart and the holiday that brings us together.
And so I paraphrased the first Thanksgiving: “These pilgrims, or Christians, crossed the ocean—it took them two months . . . they thought it would be hot but it was not hot, it was winter and half of them died . . . so next year they shared their food with their friends, the Indians.”
The more I spoke the more pitiful it all sounded, and so I tried to focus on the holiday itself: the feast, the turkey, the football games, and marshmallows on top of sweet potatoes.
“We have sweet potatoes in Africa, but what is cranberries?” asked one lady.
Tell me Pam, have you ever tried describing a cranberry to someone who has never tasted one? Well, it’s challenging and I am not sure I did the cranberry family any justice. In fact, Ocean Spray should probably sue me for misrepresentation.
“But you have so many holidays in America!” they wondered aloud, and I contemplated this. Do we have so many holidays? Maybe we do, but I felt a little cornered and so I turned the question back on them.
“What about Tanzania? How many holidays do you have?”
They listed them in chronological order, starting with Zanzibar Revolution Day, and then Union Day in April, May Day of course and then past a whole heap until Independence day on December 9th (so soon).
“See, you have a lot of holidays here too,” I rebutted, like a grade-school child. They agreed though—Tanzania has a lot of holidays, too.
We did not always talk. For many hours we traveled in long silences over the red dirt road—up hills and down hills, through mud hut villages with huts so fragile, I thought how with a running start, I might be able to break down any of those walls with my own two hands. From my window I admired the great sights of Africa outside—children swam in the rivers, women dressed in brilliantly-dyed cotton walked for miles with amazing bundles balanced upon their heads, goats and chickens scurried freely. Tall Maasai herders pushed their bony cattle along the roadside, kicking up a trail of red dust in the air—true nomads alive and roaming in the 21st century.
Africa’s visual feast leaves no hunger for the mind, and my thoughts were many as I sailed along the rippling horizon of life that is Africa’s endless land. Green, palm-pocked plains gave way to longer, browner patches of dry grass and scrub, fed by rivers that splashed with animated hippos and then the indigo sketch of mountains in the distance.
We stopped many times—one always does in Africa—to buy pineapple from one man, mangoes from one woman. Everyone had a kind of fruit to sell, so that the last truck I traveled in became a kind of cornucopia of tropical delights. We halted for lunch at a truck stop café, ordered from a Swahili menu and ate off blue plastic picnic tables.
All this time Pam, I was trying very hard not to remember that it was Thanksgiving. It was silly, really, but perhaps just maybe I was missing home a tad. Thanksgiving is such a wonderful holiday to be home for and instead of gathering around a huge table with family and friends, I was gathered with strangers at a plastic table eating boiled plantain.
Not that there is anything wrong with boiled plantain. Some of my best friends would like boiled plantain if they ever tried it (and if they added enough chili and salt)—but somehow, I got that little twist of melancholy that can hit you when you’re far away from something warm and familiar. I think you know what I mean.
But this woman at the table—the same one who asked about Thanksgiving hours earlier—after lunch was over, she went over to the chef, who was just pulling a fresh-grilled goat off the fire. Oh Pam, if I could write with smell (and you weren’t so vegetarian), I would try to convince you how that meat was the best-smelling barbecue I have ever inhaled. It smelled meaty and wholesome, perfectly seasoned and homey.
It smelled like Thanksgiving.
And without saying a word, this woman bought me a leg off that goat. With a few hard slaps of his knife, the butcher chopped up that goat and plopped it into a sack, which she then handed to me.
“I want you to have this,” she said, and smiled at me.
I know how I am always telling you about all the times I am traveling and brought to tears, and how I will probably never get to blog about those times, but there I was, standing with my red-stained toes inside stinky shoes–sweaty, tall, white and awkward at a Tanzanian truck stop, holding a gift of roast goat and trying to keep my chin quite steady.
For the last hundred miles of my Thanksgiving Day journey, my new friends and I shared juicy chunks of well-seasoned mbuzi (goat). The food tasted good and made us happy—we laughed and joked and when we finally reached Mikumi National Park, there was still half a bag of meat left to share with the man who greeted us at the door.
This is how friends are made in Africa—over the sharing of meat. It is really no different than the pilgrims four hundred years ago, who shared a meal of meat and gave thanks for food and for one another.
My Tanzanian Thanksgiving lacked turkey and pie, but there were many friends and meat. How can I ask for more? There was also travel, something for which I am forever grateful, and as I write this letter to you, I find myself landed in a most splendid spot of savanna, dancing with impala and bushbuck.
There will be elephants, I imagine (so stay tuned!) but for now, there are only giant bugs and a lovely pink gecko watching over my head like a reptilian guardian angel.
I hope you are well Pam. I hope you make it back to Tanzania someday. Though we are always traveling on opposite ends of the Earth, I shall remind you, as they say so perfectly in Swahili, tupopamoja—we are together.