TANZANIA, THE MOMENTS THAT MAKE THE DAYS: One of the Swahili phrases that quickly became a favorite the last time I was here was “pole pole” (pronounced poh-lay poh-lay), which literally means “slowly slowly” and so typifies everyday life here. Yes, everything unfolds at a leisurely pace, but, to me, this expression also speaks to an ability to live in the moment and go with the flow. This day is a prime example:
I wake up at my friend Harriet’s house, where I have spent the night and which she shares with her sister Betty. Harriet has a son and Betty a toddler and when I open my eyes, their faces are both pressed, curious and grinning, to the mosquito net. This is my first time meeting An-wei and Esther since they were asleep when I arrived the night before and as I lean in to greet them, they press puckered lips to the blue netting, and I oblige with a kiss. Before long, they are both cuddled next to me in bed and we are giggling and smacking our lips noisily against each others’ faces.
My plan today is to be at Save Africa by one to take the kids on an outing so ideally I should leave Harriet’s house by 11:30 a.m. because it will take two daladalas to get to Usa River. Harriet has already left to go to work and I linger for a while longer in bed with the children before Betty calls them to start getting ready for church and then prepares to make me breakfast.
When the kids leave, she also insists on making me lunch, though I tell her it is unnecessary, that I have a schedule to keep. She insists she will be fast. Then she disappears into the yard to slaughter one of the chickens they are raising. After it is plucked, she sits on the edge of a chair in the small, single room that serves as a kitchen, dining room and living room and asks me to help her cut it into parts. This makes me queasy, though decidedly less squeamish than if I’d killed the chicken myself, which Harriet invited me do when she called to check in, as if offering a gift.
Still, growing up in St. Lucia, I once watched my grandfather slaughter a pig on his farm, so I sit across from Betty, helping her break the chicken into pieces she will cook. I see everything — the heart, the liver, the stomach — thinking I might become a vegetarian after all. She places the pieces in a pot on one of three burners in the corner. And her promise of “fast” begins its idle stretch into two hours.
With Harriet gone and the children at church, there is little I can do. So I sit and talk to Betty. I walk outside with the chickens and baby chicks. I eat mangoes. Betty and I walk to a village store to get coconut cream for the sauce she’s making. On a small, fuzzy-screened tube TV, I watch parts of a bad dating show. I let myself be soothed by the breezes moving through the trees beyond the lace curtains, a sight that somehow evokes quiet Sunday moments at my grandparents’ house in Vieux Fort when I was younger.
At one point Betty, who is a single mom looking for a job and a place of her own (she sleeps on a mattress on the floor with Esther in Harriet’s two-bedroom house), tells me how hard life is in Arusha. I listen and then tell her she seems happy. “Are you happy?” I ask.
“Yes, of course,” she says, as if surprised that anyone might think otherwise. “I am very happy.”
And something about how emphatic the words fall, the light in her eyes, moves me to tears.
By the time I leave after a delicious meal of stewed chicken, rice, avocado and chips (what we know as French fries), it’s after one. The kids have returned from church, and Betty plans to walk me to the daladala stand with Esther. But as luck would have it, we see her brother, who lives just next door, heading out and he offers us a ride to the stand. He proves to be as charming and jovial as his sisters and is full of questions about America, where he longs to visit (he is shocked to learn we have poverty there, too). When we get to the stand, he has me sit in the car where Esther has fallen asleep on my lap as he goes in search of a daladala leaving shortly for Usa and then returns to escort me to one that meets his approval while carrying my bag.
Even running on African time, I know I am ridiculously late. I sit next to a young man who has his earbuds in. But then halfway through the ride he asks me where I am heading. When the conductor starts jiggling his hand for our money, I reach to pay him but this young man pays my way. “For two,” he tells the conductor and I am so touched by this unexpected gesture I tell him thank you repeatedly, squeezing his shoulder.
I learn his name is Karim and he works at the airport. When I ask if he likes his job, the question seems to confuse him. I rephrase it, wonder if he enjoys going to work there.
“I have nothing else to do so I have to like it,” he says.
We continue chatting before he gets off at his stop. When I finally arrive at mine, I run into one of the nursery school teachers from Save Africa and we strike up a conversation while taking in an impromptu performance of singing and dancing that seems to have sprung up in a roadside parking area.
By the time I walk into the Save Africa yard, it is after three. Francis has apparently told the kids we are going out because they run up to me asking, “Teacher, we go safari?”
When I find him, even he tells me I am late after remarking just the day before that Tanzanians are no good with time. (He had planned on taking me to lunch at 1 o’clock but we didn’t leave until 2:30.) He says the kids have been calling him a liar for promising I was coming to take them out. I apologize.
“We’re still going, right?”
We are in the girls dorm with Violet and Mary behind closed doors when I ask the question that really isn’t a question. He opens the door to find all of the kids gathered close and as he explains in Swahili that our trip is still on, they erupt into ecstatic squeals and shouts.
We all pile into two daladalas after they get dressed in their very best and head to the Mt. Meru Game Lodge, where they see porcupines, zebras, an alligator, monkeys and several other animals. But what they seem to enjoy most is lounging around the pool, sipping on the sodas that was included in their entrance fee, soaking up a few hours being anywhere but at the orphanage.
I am escorting a group of them to the bathroom when a gentleman says hello and asks how I am. He wonders where all the children are from and I tell him. Then, as if searching for the words to discern my connection, he asks, “You are all family?”
“Yes, we are family,” I reply, a sure and joyful ring.
The children lie on their bellies and dip their faces into the pool, some arcing their arms through the air like imaginary swimmers. They sprawl out on the lounge chairs, laugh and tease each other and want me to take photo after photo of them in this lazy Sunday paradise.
On the way home, their voices spill boisterous songs into the evening air. Several come up to me to say thank you before I leave. Eight-year-old Swaiba kisses me on the cheek and then the lips. Just as she’s about to walk away, she beckons me close, sprays kisses across my face, lifting me into her smile.
Francis walks me to the daladala like he always does, says “Well done,” with a high-five. “The children are happy.”
He is happy, too, as we hug goodbye and I tell him to take it easy for the rest of the night.
By now, I am late to meet Harriet, who I see almost every night after leaving the orphanage. But she is eternally patient and cheerful and we sit at a bar in town eating roasted meat with her would-be beau, who keeps talking to me in rapid-fire Swahili. Though I understand little of what he says, he makes me laugh with his high energy and animated expressions.
While there, I get asked out on every woman’s dream date: “I would like to take you to eat some ugali if God wishes.” (Ugali is a stiff porridge traditionally made of corn flour though other grains can be used.) Pole (in this case, translated simply as “sorry”) but I think I’ll pass.
Back home in Kisongo, where I am staying, the power is out. And so this very long and beautiful day ends with me sitting outside, gazing up at the sky with Kip, my canine companion, as I marvel at the multitude of stars dusting the night — and gratitude seeps into every single cell.