What it means to be east African – The Sequel

I’m sorry I haven’t been blogging much of late. I’ve been loafing through places that have little or no network and the past few weeks have been so jam packed (I was near Kenya a few days before Christmas, then Christmas in Kili, Trekked up one of the mountains of the Kilimanjaro range, travelled through the national parks to the place I used to live before here, saw camels – well, you get the picture!) I didn’t even have the time I needed to climb up and down that damned family planning tree. Anyway, here’s more of my life here in Tanzania.

1. RESPECT: The East African way of showing respect is different from what I’m used to back home. Elders of course are greeted with the “Shikamoo” (I hold your feet) phrase. Everyone is either a Mama or a Baba, used just as frequently as we use Uncle and Aunty in India. Everyone is family and you NEVER, even if the house has a huge british style knocker, knock on the door. Instead you say “Hodi” and you say Hodi at regular intervals till someone hears you and decides to open the door or invite you in by saying “Karibu”. Ringing the bell or just walking in (like I used to do) is considered really disrespectful. When you enter the house, the mother usually carries a huge bowl and a jug; walks to where you are seated and helps you wash your hand. Food (AND LOTS OF IT … Burp!) is then offered to you. Usually it’s soda, roast banana and some sort of meat. Another sign of respect is when people greet you Heri ya Sikuku (Lit: Happiness of the Celebration) instead of Merry Christmas or any religion specific festival. The reason is that there are a lot of people from various religions and cultures and the point is to make them feel included in the festivities of the season.

2. AMERICAN PIE: East African’s love Americans almost as much as they love the English Premiere League (Football, obviously). So apart from seeing Dala-Dala’s (Minibuses) sporting the flag of their favourite football team (Manchester United and Liverpool are the most famous), they are also completely or partially painted like the flag of the United States. In places where there isn’t a flag, there’s a painting of Mr. Obama himself. Also, the back of every bus is painted “In God We Trust”. At first I was confused – what with slavery and the American history of it. I asked one of the locals and they said that it is because despite the past, the American’s were the only ones who seemed like they were truly sorry for what had happened. The Indians and Asians are still exploiting them but the Americans treat them like equals, eat and drink with them without prejudice and also pour in tonnes and tonnes of dollars and clothes through the tourism industry. They also pay a lot of money just to eat in a local house – which they would have done for free. This makes them feel happy and less inferior. Some have even adopted an American lifestyle and are friendly to everyone they think is American.

3. SELF IMAGE: Which brings me to how East African’s think they are ugly and inferior. I understand that with colonization comes the colonization of the mind where you think white is beautiful – I’ve read and learnt so much during literature and culture classes but to actually experience it is painful. The older people, 60 and above, never meet your gaze if you are a foreigner. They are ashamed to have you in their house and apologise for everything in sight even though their hospitality is unrivalled. They feel privileged when you shake their hands or greet them in Swahili and they apologise as though they haven’t deserved it. People here believe that everything nice that you get needs to be earned, including a smile from a Mzungu and a handshake. The children stand like cadavers when you stroke their hair or hold their hands – they are afraid and will do anything to please adults (including African ones) so unlike children in India who run up to you and hold your hands all the way even to the loo, if you let them, African children don’t smile easy. You have to build their trust, shock them out of their numb exterior and then when the smile comes, it will dazzle you like nothing else. I was curious to know why this happens. I mean, the children I’ve met who are from the city have no qualms about meeting a stranger and even throw tantrums if you don’t pay them the attention they think they deserve. I got reminded that I’m bang in the middle of a country where slavery was rampant and that despite freedom, it is still recent and people can now be easily traded just as it was back when it was a thriving business. I got told a million times not to make Africa look so good. I got asked if that was my job. I didn’t know what they meant until I remembered a life changing conversation I had when I was 19 and in France with a woman who had survived seeming endless horrors with the Idi Amin administration in Uganda. We were looking at a UNICEF poster of a Ugandan child crying – it was in greyscale and the posters made you want to cry and loosen your purse strings – which was exactly the aim of the picture. She told me that no matter how happy someone was in Africa, the rest of the world would always pity them which in turn makes people feel that they’re in a bad place constantly and that they would never get over it. She told me about Media publicity and what they were actually doing to East Africa – how despite the good intentions of everyone to bring in the investments and the NGOs with the knowledge and resources to take Africa into the 21st century, they did not think of a way to help African’s with their mindset and did not think of a way to leave Africa an independent nation. The way the whole system works now makes it seem that the money will never stop flowing and the NGOs and aid workers will never leave Africa. It takes longer for the African people to stand up and say “this is not right” and the reason it is so easy to take advantage of them is that they still believe they are ugly and inferior, even the most beautiful and kind-hearted of people. It is the reason why slavery was easy and people didn’t fight back till much later. Bagamoyo was the slave trade capital of Tanzania – the name means, “It is here that I pull out and leave my heart”

4. TIME: I swear, sometimes I think they do this just as revenge on all the people who’ve taken advantage of East Africans. Their day starts at 7am and so when they say 1 o clock in the morning, they mean 7am and 2 = 8am. The first time I got told the bus leaves at 12 o clock the next day I almost died thinking they meant midnight! I now know better.

Also the days in the weeks start with Saturday – so day two is Sunday, three is Monday and so on. I’ve almost got the hang of it but it still makes me pull out tufts and tufts of hair

5. CHRISTMAS & NEW YEARS: Totally contrasting to what I am used to. They welcome the New Year and Baby Jesus by dancing and singing and cheering. The whole village comes dressed as though it really is a birth and there is a procession to the church where they dance and ululate. Imagine this under stars that you can almost touch and the snow of Mt. Kili shining bright to the beats of African music! UNBELIVEABLE!

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