“Dada, Chai!” I hear my Mama call as I open my eyes. “Baba! Mama! Dada!” My baby host brother is yelling from outside of my bedroom window, which is obviously code for, “Dada, time to wake up, come play!” My family calls me “Dada,” (sister) because my name is very hard to pronounce for most Tanzanians. I grab my toothbrush, toothpaste, and water bottle to brush my teeth out the back door of our small home- we don’t have running water or even a bathroom. I open the door and the bright sun greets me, followed by a cool breeze. Kidete is high up in the mountains, and I love the sometimes cool weather that reminds me of home. I brush my teeth, get dressed, and go into our sitting room for Chai- breakfast, which is usually leftover rice from last night’s dinner or boiled potatoes, accompanied always with chai: tea with lots of sugar. Chai is a Tanzanian staple; I have yet to meet a member of Kidete who does not drink chai every morning. Lucky for me, my Mama’s chai is the best I’ve had so far!
Nice and Zacha are at primary school so I play with baby Ema for a bit as he throws things at me and laughs hysterically, and then it’s time for me to head to work for my internship! I say “tutuonana baadaye!” (I’ll see you later!) to my Mama and begin my trek. My internship looks different every day, and I am grateful for this! For the remainder of our time in the village, us interns are volunteering with the local NGO doing various things focused on water accessibility, orphan care, and vocational school training for secondary school kids.
My trek to the NGO is about thirty minutes, mostly uphill, which somehow my Mama calls “not far.” This in itself is an indicator of the differences between life in Tanzania and life in the U.S.- I’m getting my steps in this month! I walk through the “junction” on my way, which is the tiny center of Kidete consisting of some small shops and food stands. I then enter what I call “The Enchanted Forest,” a long path lined with incredibly huge trees. Primary school kids are walking to or from school at the same time, and they call me “mzungu, mzungu!” (white foreigner) or sometimes “Daktari!” (doctor) because there is a white pediatrician who spends winters in Kidete. Apparently, they think I’m her even though she’s about 60 years old. I guess village life is aging me quickly. I never know what to expect when I arrive at the NGO, which operates on “Tanzania time” a.k.a time isn’t really a thing and you just have to go with the flow, and expect things to happen late. What I can usually expect is to be put to work in some way, and to meet some interesting people!
After I’m done volunteering, I’ll make the journey back home for lunch around 2:00 or 3:00 pm; Tanzanians eat each meal much later than we do in the U.S. On my walk home, I see Goody, the six year old neighbor boy who comes over to play every day, who is also walking home from school. He shyly grabs my hand and holds it the whole way home, looking up and grinning at me, ignoring his school friends who make fun of him for holding a mzungu’s hand. These are the small moments I’ll never forget.
Once home, I’ll sit on a mat outside with Ema and Nice who is in Standard One (first grade), only has half days of school, and Mama brings us Ugali, beans, and mboga (greens). Ugali is a Tanzanian staple, and most Tanzanians love it. It looks like mashed potatoes, but is made of corn and tastes like nothing. You HAVE to eat it with your right hand only, and there’s a special way to do it; it’s tradition. I’m really bad at it, but I’m learning! After lunch, Nice and I will wash dishes using big pots of soapy water, and then I’ll work on some homework for a bit in my room. My room has a bed, and that’s it… which means, yes, my clothes from my suitcase are strewn everywhere and it’s a disaster. After a while, I’ll begin to hear lots of little chatter and giggles outside of my window which means Zacha and the rest of the neighborhood squad are back from school, and it’s time to cheza (play)!
I’ll walk out the door and all their faces light up; Dada is ready to play! I’ll engage in whatever they are already doing — kicking cans around as a game, making mud pies, seeing how far you can roll a tire by pushing it with a stick, swinging on the rope tied to the fruit tree in the backyard, a makeshift swing. After a while, they’ll ask, “Cartooni?” and I pull up some cartoons on my phone if I have good enough connection. I’ll let them pick whatever shows they want, and they giggle with glee seeing the funny happenings of kids their age in the U.S. or other countries. However, I feel a wave of guilt as well- up until this point, these kids have been entirely uncorrupted by screens, and find so much joy kicking empty cans around the yard, similar to how I grew up when I was their age. They are happy. They are free. They don’t beg their mamas to play games on the iPad- what’s an iPad? In fact, just this past week, my family got a satellite dish for the small T.V. in our living room. Now we can watch the news and crank some Tanzanian gospel music, a treat for the end of the day. I decide to release my guilt, however, and let them watch Cartooni’s for a little while, every day, because it’s a rare treat for them. They find freedom in choosing the shows and are learning to take turns with it, and it’s exposing them to other cultures even at a young age. After a while, eyes glaze over and it’s time to kick the can again.
While there’s still daylight, I’ll walk to my friend Ellie’s house, who’s Mama and sister welcome me in with a loud “Karibu!!!” Sometimes we’ll strap her baby sister Isabella to our backs in true Tanzanian fashion and go for a walk, sometimes having to stop random mamas on the side of the road to help us strap her in tight. We receive lots of stares, but also thumbs ups that we are following suit of Tanzanian women. The sun starts to set around 6:30 pm, and it’s time to head home because my one rule is to be home before dark! This, too, reminds me of my childhood in the best way- kids are pretty unsupervised and run wild around here, but their parents trust them to be home before dark, and they always are.
At home, it’s time to join my Mama in our outdoor kitchen to make dinner. We sit on little stools next to the open fire, and she teaches me how to cook rice, peel potatoes, and make chai the Tanzanian way. My Mama and I speak Swinglish together- she knows about as much English as I know Swahili so we find ourselves constantly switching between the two in equal measure, trying to find common ground between our words. I am amazed at the depth of conversation we’re able to have as we discuss politics, the realities of living in poverty, marriage, being a Mama, and education, all both in the U.S. and in Tanzania. She listens to my stories, and I listen to hers, and I feel us growing closer each evening as we sit by the fire and cook.
Once the food is ready around 9 pm, we all head inside to the sitting room to eat together. Baba is home by now too, and it’s the six of us; my family. My Mama piles a mountain of rice onto my plate, and I do my best to eat as much as I can, but I can never finish all of it. She has admitted that it is her goal to fatten me up, as it’s a sign of wealth here, but that’s just not what I’m aiming for. So once I feel like I’m about to explode, I’ll slip one of my siblings a piece of avocado, and if I for some reason get left alone, I’ll sneak out the back door and dump the rest of my plate into the pig pen. I’m only secretly helping my family to fatten their pigs up, so I see no harm in it. By 10:00 pm, it’s a struggle to keep my eyelids open, and my siblings have already headed to bed so I say, “Nimechoka, nineenda kulala” (I am very tired, I’m going to sleep). Mama and Baba say, “Usiku Mwema,” to me, a simple way to say goodnight, and I say, “na wewe pia” (and you, too).
I lay underneath my mosquito net, and I’m baffled. How has this month gone by so quick? I feel so close to them, I truly feel like a part of this family… and I have just one week left? How to savor it all?? How to express my gratitude? How to make every minute feel like five?
Sometimes what we expect the least is what we need the most- sweet neighbor kids, empty cans to kick, chai, and Cartooni’s.