Thursday, August 22, 2013


Wednesday 7/3/2013

On Friday night, Mama got a bad phone call.  Her ex-husband was in the hospital—he had just had a heart attack.  She sounded grave.  She said even though they are separated, they still care for each other, so she was very worried about him.  She dressed quickly and headed to the hospital that night.

Kristen and I were gone for the weekend on safari.  When we returned late Sunday night, we immediately knew something was wrong.  There was a lady standing outside the house, and Mama rarely has guests late at night.  We were met with even more people as we entered the house.  The living room furniture had been rearranged to accommodate all the guests.  Finally we reached Mama, who spoke in a soft voice.  She had bad news: Johnny’s father passed away that weekend.

On Monday morning, I greeted Mama with the usual “Habari za asubuhi” – which roughly means
How are you this morning?” Rather than responding with the usual “Nzuri” (fine), she responded, “Salama” (peaceful).  

Many friends, neighbors, and family came to offer condolences.  There was a steady stream of guests coming through the house each day, leaving lots of chai cups in the wash basin.  “They come to say pole to me,” Mama said.  There were also several women who came to help around the house for the days leading up to the funeral.  Mama was not allowed to work in the days leading up to the funeral.  She has worn a black sweater and head wrap these past few days.  Mama explained that:

“The days before the funeral, we are supposed to be sad.  After the funeral, we should be happy.”

In other news, Mama’s older daughter, Anna (22), came home from university yesterday.  Anna studies insurance at the University of Dar Es Salaam, and classes just finished this past week.  It was fortunate that she was home in time for the funeral.

Kristen and I asked if we should attend the funeral or help with any preparations.  Mama refused our help, saying she had enough friends already helping, and she also suggested that we not attend the funeral.  She said that the funeral might be long and we wouldn’t understand the service in Swahili.  She thanked us for our support and reassured us that she would have enough friends around her at the funeral to comfort her.

Today they held the funeral.  When we returned home from school this evening, there was a palpable change in atmosphere.  The mood had lifted.  The family was smiling and laughing, and Mama seemed more herself.  She was moving about the house with purpose, returning to her usual busyness.

Mama had changed into a white blouse and white headdress, a peaceful sight.  And Anna and Ruth wore matching black and white kanga skirts.  The kanga read:

All is the plan of God.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Mama's life story


This morning over breakfast, Mama told us her life story.  We knew bits and pieces, but this time she gave us the complete version.

She was born in the Kilimanjaro region, the ninth of ten children.  Her parents owned a farm there, which is where she spent her childhood.  But because the land in the Kilimanjaro region is becoming more and more cramped, after being divided into smaller and smaller plots with each generation, her parents eventually moved the farm to the Arusha region where they could find more land.  Rather than cutting up the land into ten plots for the ten children to inherit, the family decided to keep the land whole as one farm. Ruth’s father, the youngest son, now lives and works on the family farm.  Although he technically owns the land now, the profits from the farm are intended to benefit all ten children proportionally.

During her school years, Mama moved to Dar Es Salaam, the largest city in Tanzania.  She lived with her older brother and attended better schools there.  Dar Es Salaam is a hot, crowded city and seems very utilitarian to me.  It consists of office buildings, schools, and universities, so its population is largely made up of businessmen and students.  It doesn’t seem like many families live in Dar.

Mama went to university and studied to be a secretary.  So she has a surprising amount of technical skills, i.e. she knows how to type, send emails, browse the Internet, etc.  Unfortunately, she was not able to sustain herself as a secretary.  She used to run a little business out of her house, but that is long gone, now replaced with her food shop and beans business.

At one point, Mama moved to Denmark and lived there for three years.  For this reason, she actually speaks four languages: Kiswahili, English, Danish, and Kichaga, a tribal language from the Kilimanjaro region.  She worked for a Danish family as a cook and housekeeper but had a miserable time there.  She would be left in the house all day, and this was especially terrible in the winters with so little sunlight, when she would spend her days cold, dark, and alone.  “Denmark in winter is no place for human beings,” she said.  She was very happy to return to Tanzania.

Perhaps even more surprising, Mama has also worked as a safari cook!  It was quite an adventure and she enjoyed cooking for the safari groups.  (I suspect this is why she knows so much about westerners, in particular, our eating habits.)  But it was a rough life.  The bush is very hard on women, and she was constantly on the move.  She would leave for two weeks, come back for a weekend, and then leave again.  She left her daughter Anna, very young at the time, to be taken care of by her parents.  Mama said the reason behind taking a job like that was that she had just been divorced.  She was very upset about the divorce and wanted to shirk all her responsibilities.  The safari job allowed her to escape—to run away.  However, Mama’s constant absences made Anna upset, so she eventually left the job and returned home.

Mama has lived in her house in Makumira for some time now.  More recently, she worked as a housekeeper for a family at the TCDC compound, where I’m taking Swahili classes.  She knows how to drive, which is a rare skill that enabled her to run errands and drive around the children of the family.  I’m not sure why she stopped working at TCDC, but she is still on good terms with the TCDC staff.  Her connection with TCDC is the reason why I’m living with her for my homestay!


Sunday 6/23/2013

A very traditional Sunday in Makumira

In the morning, Kristen and I went to church with Mama.  We had slept in, so we asked Mama if we should wait to go the 10 o’clock service. It was 7:50, but Mama shrugged and said, eh, we could probably make it to the 8 o’clock.  She still had to shower.  Love it.

It was about a five minute walk.  We heard the bell tolling before we could see the church, but Mama pronounced that we were right on time.  We stopped in a classroom to say hi to Mama’s Sunday school class.  She actually teaches them on Saturdays, through a program called “Compassion” for disadvantaged children.  Compassion goes beyond a traditional Sunday school to teach the children about manners and give them care that they might not see at home.

Mama attends a Lutheran church.  It was spacious with marble tiles and high ceilings, evidently an important building in the community.  The service had lots of singing, and the choir sang several times. When the choir got up to sing, they moved into a single line before us and stood there motionless for a few moments.  Then they began to sway, and then pulse, and soon they were full-out singing and dancing.  They really knew how to move, even in the most subtle way.  Most of the singing was high-pitched and soft, while accompanied by an electric guitar and some sort of synthesizer.  It made for a cool, ethereal sound, and of course it always had a good beat.

Everyone was dressed in their Sunday best.  But it was interesting to see the Tanzanian definition of “Sunday best”.   There were so many patterns.  The men mostly wore suits, very similar to western clothing.  Many of the women wore starchy blouse and skirt outfits with matching headscarves, head-to-toe in one vibrant pattern.  I also saw a lot of structured jackets and shoulder pads.  The kids were all dressed up puffy princess skirts and little suits, which was adorable.

At one point, we had to introduce ourselves in Swahili to the congregation, which was pretty fun.  It wasn’t intimidating because everyone is so welcoming.

During the sermon, Mama whispered translations to us:

She says that when we join together, we are powerful.  When we do not, we are weak.  The Lutheran church has united across Tanzania and that’s why it is strong.
She says we should join together so that we may both grow and do big things.  When we are lonely, we cannot.
She says we should not lie.  We should always be faithful.  In the Bible, there were people who lied, and because of that, they died.  So we should be faithful in anything we do.

Today was Jubilee, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Lutheran Church of Tanzania, which is why the pastor spoke of the importance of unity in her sermon.

The service lasted about an hour and a half, which was very reasonable.  I’ve heard that some of the services that other host families attend can last for as long as three to five hours.  Before leaving church, we all dropped money in a donations basket.  The church seemed to have an extremely strong emphasis on donations.  Mama has her own donations envelope, marked with her name, Glory Mswia. (This was how I came to know her last name.)  It helps her keep track of her donations throughout the year.

We left the church, walked outside, and I realized that the men and women had separated into two groups.  One by one, people brought up goods to the center of the group and a man began to rattle off prices very quickly—they were having an auction.  Mama explained that people can bring in goods instead of money for donations.  She herself bought 4 avocados for 1000 shillings (less than a dollar).  The money she paid will go to the donations envelope of the person who brought the avocados.

In the afternoon, Stella took us to the market in Usa River (there are several markets in the area, each held on specific days).  The market was pretty chaotic.  The food was laid out on blankets right on the ground, and the women selling food sat on the ground amongst their goods.  Even the rice was poured out on the blankets, totally exposed to open air.  There were also a lot of stands selling secondhand clothes and shoes.  We noticed that the mannequins are a bit larger, especially in the hips.

Mama was right—you can buy anything and everything at the market.  I didn’t take any photos, because we were already drawing a lot of attention.  Many people shouted “mzungu!” at us.  Mzungu is the Swahili term for westerners.  Today was actually the first day I was called mzungu, which is odd considering how common it is for Tanzanians to shout “mzungu!” whenever they see westerners.  I’m not sure why it took so long, although some of Mama’s customers have called us wageni (visitors).

Stella brought us to a shop to buy traditional vitenge skirts and got us a good deal.  Bargaining is customary, expected, and even considered polite.  Our Swahili teachers have told us to feel comfortable bargaining, especially because we might be given inflated mzungu prices.  I’m hesitant to bargain, which is something I need to work on for when I go to the market without Stella to help me.  For the time being, I’m enjoying my new Tanzanian attire.