An Aimless Traveler Might Find Something

I stepped off a plane in Dar es Salaam, an energetic twenty-year-old in search of total transformation. I didn’t yet know that Tanzania’s commercial capital, nicknamed Bongo, was a fast-paced city where you had to use your brains to survive. All I knew was that it was home to a relatively affordable Swahili program at the nation’s oldest university. When my mother saw the pictures of the harbor in my guidebook, she gasped and said, “It looks downright Dickensian.” I hadn’t read Dickens yet, so I asked her what she meant. “Teeming,” she said. Going into my eight-week course, what I lacked in street smarts I made up for with an exceptionally hopeful heart.

My morning commute from my bweni (dorm) to my darasa (class) took me down a verdant hill and on a footbridge over a trickling creek, past vines thick as dock rope that hung from a canopy of banyan trees. The vines swayed each time the wind blew, and since no one was around to tell me not to, I swung from them like a wild beast. Inside the Swahili Department café where I ate breakfast, a big-bellied chef dripped sweat while he fried hard-boiled eggs coated in ground beef and spices, cut slices of bright orange papaya and waved off clouds of flies. Outside, vervet monkeys dug through the canteen’s trash heap then, after he chased them away, taunted the chef from a nearby tree. I had never been so in love with a setting, but infatuation did little to soothe my inner restlessness. My girlfriend Sofia, who was waiting for me back home, knew that better than anyone. 

As soon as the shock of the exotic started to wear off, I began yearning to do more than just observe. For a few sleep-deprived weeks, I thought I’d found the key to my metamorphosis: Bongo nightlife. While drinking Safari Lager and smoking Sportsman cigarettes, I sharpened my Swahili in ramshackle bars and clubs. I’d get right up to the edge of trouble with wasted locals who wanted me to buy them another round, or aggressive hookers who wouldn’t take no for an answer. I was never unfaithful; I always found a way out with my sharpening wit. With my hair growing long, my face bearded, I was finally unleashing my inner wild man. But when I lied down at night, drunk and tucked under my mosquito net, I was as unsettled as ever. I started asking myself, with real urgency, What am I doing in Dar es Salaam? I longed for the clarity of a mission—not an evangelical one, but my own personal spiritual one. Surely, I wasn’t sabotaging my relationship with Sofia just for language lessons.

Walking back to the bweni one day, the sky burst and rain fell with a force greater than gravity. Over the pounding, a voice from behind called for me to wait. A man in a maroon suit barreled toward me from Hill Park, the campus eatery where I’d just had lunch. The man was short and fat, round. As he got closer I saw he was carrying a Bible. “Do you know Mungu?” he asked when we were finally face-to-face. “You must take Mungu into your heart, or risk eternal damnation!” Vague as the warning was, I wanted to tell him that I understood. But before I could communicate that I, too, wanted to have total faith in something, the orb of the man ran ahead. When I reached the crest of the next hill, he was gone.

The next day my new friend Muhando, who lived on campus but wasn’t a student, asked if I wanted to accompany him on a short trip. We had met a couple of weeks earlier, standing in line to fill buckets of water. I’d been whistling, and Muhando had taught me the word for whistle: mluzi. That’s all it took to start up a friendship in Tanzania, the tiniest spark. “Where to?” I asked about the trip. Up north, he said. “What for?” He said he had a kitu fulani—a certain thing—to attend to. Could I come or not?

My Swahili instructor granted me permission, so long as I kept a journal, and Muhando escorted me downtown to cash some traveler’s checks. Once we were alone in the bureau de change, he asked if he could borrow 100,000 shillings, around $100 USD. He’d repay me with interest, he said, at the end of our trip. I agreed, then followed him across busy Samora Avenue, around the back of a crumbling colonial-era building, and down a narrow passage not visible from the street. It was so skinny that we had to press our backs against the wall when a motorcycle blasted by. Muhando knocked on an unmarked door at the alley’s dead-end and told me to wait. He emerged a few minutes later carrying a manila envelope. Inside, I suspected, was the kitu fulani.

Early the next morning, I began my first trip out of the Coast Region and, in more senses than one, into Africa. I’d been on the continent for nearly a month, but I hadn’t yet gotten away from other Americans and the university. Giant, rolling hills—bright green—began outside Dar. The hills turned into high, rugged plains and the land grew dryer and dryer. At junction towns, vendors, mostly children, bombarded the bus with cold drinks, sacks of peeled oranges, and carved spoons. Through the window, I traded coins for refreshments and souvenirs while Muhando looked on in approval at my growing independence. We arrived in Arusha, 400 miles to the north, and took a room in a guesthouse. The next day a smaller bus would take us down a rocky road to our destination.

Before going to quench my thirst with Muhando, I popped into an internet café to tell Sofia not to worry if she didn’t hear from me for a few days. Before I could send my message, a lengthy email pinged into my inbox. It was Sofia! It was also the early 2000s. People weren’t often online at the exact same moment, and it felt like a sign. Two years my senior, Sofia had just moved to Mississippi to begin grad school in poetry. She was adjusting okay, for a damn Yankee, but suddenly I felt very far away. 

It wasn’t hard to read the subtext: since arriving, I’d written Sofia vague yeses about our future together, but in the midst of my immersion I had failed to commit to anything concrete. Unlike languages, I had no natural aptitude for initiating or navigating relationships. It had taken me an entire year of confessional creative writing courses to gather the courage to ask Sofia out. Her response to my suggestion that we “hang out sometime” was, Sure—what took you so long? Sofia was the best thing that had ever happened to me, but when we met I was already convinced that, to get off the path I was on, I had to travel to Tanzania.

I typed furiously, reassuring her that despite the thousands of miles between us, emotionally I was, Right Here! Right Here with you! Just as I clicked “Send,” the hum of the internet café went silent and the room turned dark. Sofia had no way of knowing an unreliable power grid was to blame. It was much more logical for her to attribute my nonresponse to that characteristic she was more familiar with: my indecision.

Over beers with Muhando, all I could think about was Sofia’s swarthy skin, her funky multicolored boots, and her conviction that whatever I so desperately needed to find was already inside me. She had written it on my wall, in permanent marker. Half of me was chatting away in Swahili, half of me was remembering back to waking in Sofia’s bed after our first date, my mind groggy from all we had smoked and drank, my body relaxed and alert following my first experience of real, adult sex. Snow was falling out the window. Inside, I was falling in love.

Uko mbali sana.” Muhando told me I was very far away. I tipped back my bottle and we headed for a nightclub. It was desolate compared to the densely packed discos of Dar, so I danced around the room by myself, trying to forget what Muhando had just told me: the town we were going to in the morning was too small to have internet. I had no way of getting in touch with Sofia until we had completed the kitu fulani. Think like a Tanzanian, I reasoned. Hakuna matata.

***

Dust-filled rays of sideways sun welcomed Muhando and me to Babati. “You’ve returned!” a man exclaimed. He was nursing a beer at an outdoor table as our bus pulled away, and he realized who he was looking at. We walked toward him, kicking up red powder as we crossed a square and entered a small yard through a wooden gate. Smiling, Muhando introduced the man as Baba Stella. A curly-haired young woman swooshed through beaded curtains and took our drink orders. Stella, the shopkeeper’s daughter.

Baba Stella asked how long we planned to stay. A week, Muhando answered, and my throat tightened. A wooded mountain loomed in the distance. If I was going to be marooned here, absent from both Swahili class and any communication with Sofia, I had better make the most of it. After a couple of beers, I had the courage to ask Baba Stella something I’d been wondering about ever since I’d learned the word wachawi. Were wizards real? If so, where could they be found? “Wachawi are in many places,” Baba Stella answered, stroking his salt-and-pepper beard. “There are even wachawi right here in Babati, but remember, wachawi are not the same as waganga.”

“What he means is waganga are healers, medicine men,” Muhando chimed in. “Wachawi can do real harm.” At night, he explained, when it looked as though a wizard was lying in bed, his spirit went off to the forest. Supplicants came with offerings, usually meat, and asked the wizard to grant favors or sometimes, cast curses.

I asked if they could take me to one—I was still shaky about my plans when I returned to America, and I wanted reassurance that no matter what, Sofia and I would find a way to stay together. But Baba Stella waved his hand. The sun was setting and the hills around Babati were glowing purple. “Forget it,” he said. “Time to close up shop.”

In the morning, Muhando yawned, rolled so he faced me and praised the linens on the queen-sized mattress we were sharing. “Mashuka mazuri,” he said. Nice sheets. Apparently they were of higher quality than what he was used to sleeping on in his “ghetto,” what he called the small room built onto the back of the house that the university provided for his father, a literature professor. 

Ndiyo.” Yes, I agreed, but my mind was already somewhere else. One month earlier, I had spent the night before my departure at Sofia’s brother’s apartment, in Hoboken. Awake before dawn, I held Sofia’s slender body in my arms, then placed my cheek against her taut belly. It was tan from all the adventures we’d had over the summer—backcountry hiking, jumping naked into pools at the base of waterfalls, tubing down bubbling brooks. Terrified of the distance about to come between us, and equally afraid to delay my trip, I dressed in silence then tiptoed down to the street. Waiting for my taxi, the front door opened and out she slipped, bare feet on the cobblestones, wearing nothing but a sheet. The last thing Sofia said before I ducked into the cab was “Come home.” I turned as we sped toward Newark, and the sheet fluttered in the wind as she faded into the distance.

Muhando seemed in no hurry to take care of the kitu fulani. After an hour of grooming, he took his envelope from the backpack I had lent him, and we strolled, stopping to chat with people Muhando had never mentioned before, to a modest-sized house with peeling paint. I asked who lived there and Muhando told me the District Commissioner. But no one was home. I asked what we were going to do now and Muhando shrugged. He didn’t know.

I wanted to protest, How are we going to get it done if we don’t know what it is we’re doing!? But that was a reaction from the English-speaking part of me. I kept quiet as we ambled back in the direction of the guesthouse then stopped for a morning beer. I asked if there was anyone we could track down in lieu of the District Commissioner. Muhando was choosing his words when a matronly woman came around the corner and raised her eyebrows at him. She was surprised, and not entirely pleasantly, it seemed, to see him. She asked us over, then and there, for a visit. Not today, Muhando told her. She asked how long we’d be in Babati and Muhando said a week, maybe two. I balled my fists. Two weeks! After she left, I asked Muhando who she was and he said she was his aunt. His real aunt or a woman like an aunt? What was the difference, and why, all of a sudden, did I need to know?

I asked Muhando to show me around town. A procession of children formed behind us as we walked past mud-block houses. Elders sat in doorways, dozing in the hot sun. “Nipe pipi.” Give me candy, a young boy said to me, setting off a chorus of giggles.

Muhando explained: “They think all wazungu have candy.”

That night we went to Baba Stella’s. If the shopkeeper was worldly and wise at his place of business, he was a statue of quiet contentment in his home. He sat in a puffy armchair, watching but not paying attention to the Miss Tanzania pageant on TV. He hardly spoke, but a sense of calm emanated from him and spread around the room. His wife called from the kitchen and his youngest children sprang up and began bringing out plates of makande, an upcountry specialty made of beans, corn and coconut milk. The atmosphere was as satisfying as the succotash. As we ate, I felt no lag between what we were doing and what I intended to be doing. My foot-tapping and progress-monitoring melted away, and I joined Muhando and our hosts on the plane of the completely present. The only other time I’d felt like that was when I first took a very small dose of magic mushrooms.

***

Our third or fourth day in Babati, Muhando took me to a dusty indoor hoteli. I greeted a table of men wearing Depression-era flat caps, and after the usual questions about where I was from and why I had chosen to study Swahili, one of them asked me a question for which I hadn’t already prepared an answer: “What do Americans depend on?” Americans depend on dreams, I responded right away. The men looked at each other and scratched their heads. “Us, for example,” one of them clarified, “we depend on farming.” Embarrassed, I rushed to explain that the U.S. was transitioning out of manufacturing and into a service economy. What we depended on was a mix, like chipsi mayai. Now I’d really done it. What did the U.S. economy have to do with Tanzania’s national snack dish of French fries mixed with scrambled eggs.

“What about you?” asked a man who hadn’t spoken yet. “What do you depend on, personally?” Up to that point, I’d worked as a busboy, office clerk, shelf stocker, sandwich artist. I said I was a cook. “Their economy must be good,” the man commented to the rest. “On the salary of an mpishi he’s able to travel to Africa.”

At a hoteli down the road, we rotated into a game of pool. A barefoot boy, not yet in puberty but with a cigarette dangling from his lip, racked the balls. After that, we ran into Muhando’s aunt again, and she insisted we follow her home for afternoon tea. The woman’s living room was full of cabinets displaying cups and saucers. A house girl brought out white bread, margarine and jelly. I didn’t feel content, as I had at Baba Stella’s. I felt like we were wasting each other’s time. Sofia was probably driving herself mad, wondering whether I’d contracted malaria, gotten bonked on the head, or fallen for some Tanzanian woman I couldn’t resist. As we stood to leave, Muhando’s aunt warned us to not depart Babati without coming for another visit.

I wandered off into a field behind the town square. So much sitting and shooting the breeze! I missed the constant stimulation of Dar es Salaam—the daladala honks, cries from competing vendors, admonitions from wandering preachers. Here in Babati, all I wanted to do was take care of the kitu fulani.

With some boys in torn school uniforms, I kicked around the bundle of rags they used for a soccer ball. With some young men hunched in front of a vacant stall, I chewed miraa, a leafy green stimulant. Later, I rode with Muhando in the back of a pickup truck to a restaurant where I accidentally ordered a bowl of crow soup. The cook looked at me askance, but Muhando knew I meant oxfoot, which was only a vowel away. I felt bloated, useless. I soaped my hands using water heated in a tin kettle, but they were still covered in cartilage and fat.

The next day, Muhando learned that the District Commissioner wouldn’t return for another whole week. I told him I needed to leave, with or without him. Then and there, he took his manila envelope and we walked to a small house far from the center of town. Inside was a young woman nursing an infant. After an exchange of greetings that felt stiffer than usual, Muhando produced from his envelope a single sheet of paper. The woman looked it over. It was a list of courses and grades, with a seal attached. Satisfied, she produced from her bosom a wad of shillings.

As we walked back, I asked Muhando if we were done with the kitu fulani. He said we were. “Really? All we had to do was bring that to her?” Muhando nodded. “So what is your job, exactly?” I was speaking Swahili, just like I had been all week, but my tone was borrowed from the world of officialdom, from English. We slowed our pace and Muhando explained how difficult it was for people in remote areas to obtain government documents. The woman had been trying to get her transcript all year, he said. She needed it for a job, so she could support herself and her family. I asked Muhando if he had a connection to the agency that issued transcripts because of his father’s teaching position.

“Not exactly,” he said. “Every time someone makes a request, everyone involved asks for chai.” Tea? Not tea, Muhando explained. Chai was slang for bribe money. His job was to help the woman get the document faster, for less chai.

“Wait,” I finally realized, “that was a counterfeit?” Muhando didn’t say anything. “My God, are you a forger?”

“I just delivered it,” Muhando said after a long pause. “It was supposed to go through the District Commissioner, but…” Muhando trailed off, and we walked in silence.

I asked my question again as we were getting back to the guesthouse. “So what do you call your job, Muhando?”

Mwanashortcut,” he said. A child of shortcuts.

***

The next morning, the first rays of sun came beaming over the mountains as Muhando and I, packs on, walked to the town square. A man worked balls of dough into discs and fried chapati on an iron griddle. A huge pot of tea gurgled beneath blazing coals. As the sun rose, everything around us started to glow. The mountain, the hills, the cooking smells, even the blasts of trumpets coming in over the chef’s radio. Our bus arrived and kicked up a huge cloud of dust. It, too, was golden.

As we picked up more passengers on the outskirts of town, the bus swelled from full to dangerously overloaded. Worried we’d tip, I steadied my forehead against the seat in front of me. We crashed into potholes. I clenched my jaw so I wouldn’t bite my tongue. I looked up, and a giant sack of beans swung from the sagging luggage rack. Next to me in the aisle, a woman gripping a live chicken turned and jutted her butt into the little triangle of space between my head and knees. I couldn’t stretch or fidget. I couldn’t even squirm.

As the road got rougher, I braced harder and harder. Strangely, I didn’t feel anxious at all. I wasn’t waiting for anything, I realized, now that we were heading back to Dar es Salaam. But it wasn’t just that. The other passengers and I were all going through something unpleasant together. When the woman with the chicken got off, I turned toward Muhando and he shot me a sly smile. I wasn’t sure what it meant, or maybe I was afraid of where it would eventually lead, so I craned my neck past him to look out the window at the baked earth. One by one, giant faces of people I knew appeared like images from a kaleidoscope projected onto the bright blue sky. Family members. Close friends. Sofia. Muhando’s face flashed before me, too, even though the real Muhando was sitting right next to me.“Mwenda bure si mkaa bure, huenda akaokota,” he said. The grammar was different than everyday speech, but I knew all the words. It was a proverb, I could tell just by the cadence. I translated to myself: An aimless traveler is not the same as an aimless person sitting at home—an aimless traveler might find something.

Photo Credit: Steve Ody via Unsplash

About the author

Jay Boss Rubin has worked as a Swahili instructor, translator and interpreter for over a decade. His creative writing has appeared in Barzakh, Buckman Journal, Cosmonauts Avenue, Kwani? Journal, The Rumpus and other publications. His contribution to the Columbia Journal is an excerpt from his novel "Operation Tembo," for which he is seeking representation. Twitter: gone2bongo

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