I am in a jeep with four other volunteers and our driver and guide for the weekend, Amani, when I feel the settling in, a grounding that connects me to an undeniably ancient belonging.
As an Afro-Caribbean woman, I am of course aware of a rooted history here (along with the arms of a distant past that run through India, where my mom’s family is from). Perhaps my genealogical connection is not specifically to Tanzania but somewhere on this vast continent, the map of my life begins. I know this, and yet it startles me to feel that story so closely, a song of earth and blood that pulses through me as the landscape outside my window unfurls in a patchwork of arid expanses and lush vegetation, a coffee brown dirt giving way to rich red soil.
We are on Maasai land for most of the drive to Tarangire National Park in the Manyara region of Tanzania. There I will catch my first glimpse of an elephant roaming a far-flung patch of grass in a clearing of trees before we are practically face to face with several of the majestic creatures; we will marvel at a cheetah sprawled in beguiling indolence on a solitary rock; laugh at the wart hogs that scurry as soon as our vehicle nears and the bold friskiness of the baboons, who scamper onto the roadway as if to stake their claim to the path we follow. For two days, as we relentlessly trace the rugged quiet of the park and slip into a wildlife panorama, after descending through a shroud of fog into the caldera of the Ngorongoro Crater, we will fall into a hushed awe and break out in bleating wonder: at giraffes that tower above treetops with unhurried slender grace, zebras that dawdle next to buffalo, lions that prowl the grasslands with feral hunger, and the elusive black rhino that trundles away from us unattended, as if disinterested in the motley magnificence and teeming activity of his surroundings.
In Tarangire and Ngorongoro, I will be swept up in raw, breathtaking beauty the likes of which I’ve never seen.
But this isn’t what compels me to finally let Tanzania in.
As we wind past the Maasai bomas, my gaze gliding over the huts where women huddle around fires and the kids leave their play to run after our jeep, waving excitedly, I finally marvel that I am here. I watch the men and boys draped in their red and blue blankets leading goats and cows to graze, see woman in vibrant kangas bearing overladen buckets and baskets on their heads, and sometimes toting children, too, and I feel a sublime kind of happiness. As will happen often yet unpredictably in this remote and shimmering land, tears fill my eyes.
I am home in a way I never expected to be — though I am mzungu (a term most often directed at white tourists but applicable to foreigners as a whole) and do not speak the language or understand the many nuances of Tanzanian culture. But that sense of familiarity I felt upon arriving here has shifted to something deeper, a branching back that has less to do with the similarities to my native St. Lucia than it does the rhythm of my ancestors.
For the first time in my life, the fullness of where I’m from and all I carry engulfs me, and I think were I not in a car with Amani and four other volunteers, I would probably weep. Instead, I swipe at the tears that spill from my lashes and keep my head toward the window where the wind is a knowing whisper on my skin. And I settle into a quiet reverence.
Today, we will do what so many come to Africa, and in particular East Africa, to do — lose ourselves in the untamed hinterlands in the hopes of spotting the kind of animals previously only beheld in zoos and flashing screens and glossy magazines. It was never my intention to book a safari in Africa. When I planned my trip, doing so didn’t even occur to me. I was not going to Arusha for leisure. All I could think of was volunteering with the kids and stepping into a dream. Still, with weekends free, why not take advantage of being in a world-renowned safari destination?
I may be a volunteer here, but I am also a tourist even if I am aware of wanting to sidestep that mantle. Yes, I would love to see more of this country and its surrounding nations, especially as other volunteers plan long weekends to places like Zanzibar and talk of journeying to Uganda and Rwanda. Yet I feel my first priority is the call that drew me here, though I am still skating the surface of that longing, pumping a hale and hopeful love into the children I spend time with during the week.
That’s why the emotion that washes over me driving to Tarangire is such a surprise. The yearning to return to the land of my roots has been more a loose tug than a stirring insistence, a someday fantasy somehow detached from the greater hunger to give of myself to the young and indigent ones who inhabit this place.
Two weeks into my journey, my brother sends me a message on Facebook, noting, after I’ve shared several photos, that I look more radiant than I’ve ever been.
“Must be something about being in the Motherland and being of service,” he writes.
I can’t disagree. For on my safari adventure, the two become inextricably entwined, fueling a new and fateful affinity to burnish the days that remain.