Maybe it’s because I’m jet lagged, 25-plus hours of travel leaving me dazed with an almost numbing exhaustion. Or maybe it is the relief of simply arriving incident-free, without missing my connection in Ethiopia as I feared I would every time the indecipherable departure announcements crackled over the PA , or without losing my luggage, tagged in Philadelphia and bound by a mere sticker to make it from there to Toronto to Addis Ababa and finally Kilimanjaro International Airport, with a stop in Mombassa beforehand.
But when I deplane in Tanzania, feeling my feet on the ground that has for so long been a beckoning song, I am surprised by the stillness inside. I do not cry, the one reaction I was sure of, given how often the tears have leaked in the last weeks leading up to the trip. I expected to be overcome with emotion, almost a decade of dreaming of working with kids in Africa and a year of planning this journey to Tanzania finally launching me into the open arms of a promise fulfilled. But even as I gaze skyward at the gauzy tumble of gray clouds sweeping over the greenery bordering the runway, even as I enter the terminal with its flashing signs of welcome and safari wildlife and watch my visa being stamped in my passport, I am almost serene.
There is happiness, yes, but compared to the giddiness I’ve felt chasing mystical adventure in Peru and a healing enchantment in Italy, it feels more like a slow uncurling, a ribbon of whisper-softness sliding from the spool of weariness that forces me to ask for the repetition of every query directed my way.
As I step outside to find my ride and am greeted by Tom and Farouk, I tell myself it’s because there’s something immediately familiar about Tanzania. The van they take me to is parked under a canopy of “shak shak” trees, the very trees (though I am sure they are called by another name here) whose long seeded pods I grew up shaking like maracas in St. Lucia, and this makes me smile.
Other images also evoke my childhood in the Caribbean as we make the 50-minute ride to Arusha: the cows and goats grazing or being herded along the roadside; the small stands and shops that break up the lush vegetation in congested clusters, proffering everything from grilled corn and meats to clothing and extended cell phone minutes; the mini buses — or daladalas, as they are called — that zip in and out of traffic, their captains’ voices bursting above the well-ordered chaos that includes countless motorbikes or pikipikis.
A sense of my island home assails me even with the internal chime of “I am here. I am actually here.” Of course as Tom (who will become driver, tour guide and a general go-to informational guide over the next month) briefs me on the areas we drive through and some of the notable landmarks, throwing in a few Swahili words for me to pick up every now and then, I am aware, too, of the strangeness of where I am. A continent far from the home I’ve made in the U.S. for the last 30 years, with a culture at once conservative and flamboyant, with an easy “pole pole” rhythm all its own. And I keep waiting for that realization to pierce me with something more electric, for a flare of joy as bold as the journey to which I’ve committed myself.
But even the next day as I stroll through downtown Arusha with Tom during my orientation, I feel simply content, my happiness devoid of all extravagance as I take in the many faces around me, stern and curious, open and cautious, with a sea of colors and sounds surging all around me in a bright and glorious cacophony. One of my favorite stops is at the local market, where the stalls laden with fruits and vegetables of every variety remind me of the market in Castries, St. Lucia, a fragrant rainbow din. There, Tom buys me a mango because when he asks I tell him it’s my favorite fruit.
We go to a bureau exchange, a cellular service provider, the supermarket — stops where I can get some shillings, a SIM card for my phone, bottled water. And all the while he schools me on street names — Boma Road, Uhuru Road (names I forget as promptly as he speaks them) — and points out various businesses, like the Benson appliance store, where “rich people shop,” and the cafe where I can get a cup of coffee and a good wi-fi connection. I don’t always understand him but we make each other laugh and that is often communication enough.
Later that night, I will attend a barbecue, a farewell for one of the volunteers leaving this week and a fundraiser for a local orphanage. The enclosed backyard setting tucked back from a dirt road with makeshift groupings of tables and chairs, music blaring and a smoking spit heaped high with chicken takes me back home, too.
But it is there I feel the first welling of emotion. I meet a woman, Katherine, who has left North Carolina to make Tanzania her home. She came more than three years ago to volunteer at a school, and returned home to find herself so ill at ease and unhappy that she decided to trade her life there for one of greater simplicity and a sense of community — as well as admitted sacrifice — here. She is now not only the director of the school where she once volunteered but is building a new one on a tract of land she’s received from the government. Her passion and bravery inspire me though she tends to dismiss such comments with “It’s just my life now.”
Listening to her I feel that tug. On only my first full day, it is not that I want to stay or can even envision anything beyond this moment before me. But there is something that first drew her here that she, too, cannot put into words, and in yielding to it, she has reshaped her life into a tapestry once unimaginable but somehow closer to the truth of who she is.
After I meet another volunteer who moved here last year, I am told by a native Tanzanian that the ” bug” that bites so many — the very one I’ve been warned about — is sometimes little more than the lure of escape, the longing to leave behind a pained or dull familiar for the possibility of reinvention.
I don’t doubt him but I also believe just as many follow a deeper calling, an impulse that won’t let go.
I am still waiting to discover what that is for me. But for now, perhaps I am simply settling into the blessing offered by a college friend from Kenya when he learned of my trip: “Welcome to the Motherland,” he rejoiced. “Africa will surely embrace her daughter.”
Yes, Mama, I am home.