between the sun and soil

between the sun and soil
image by dall.e 2

We see ourselves most clearly when we examine the objects of our love. Because to love someone or something is to surrender parts of you that most closely resemble the object of your affections.

No, to enjoy apples does not mean that there is a part of you that resembles pome fruits. Although, one could argue that as an apple, pear, or quince thrives from adequate sunlight, so does your skin. Yet that is really not what I’m presenting here.

My point, as far-fetched as it may seem, is that to have apples as the target of your delight, hints that there is some congruence between the tart sweetness in the forbidden bites that resonates with those similar qualities in you. Though I suppose this may be hard to picture given that bananas have proven to be the most superior fruit. I digress. To love is to give, and to give is to know which parts of us are worth sharing and why the recipient is fitting. And the receiver of this entry – and all the adoration I’m buttering you up for – is a sixty-year old land I call home.

To write that my home country is beautiful is like saying “a lion is a cat”. Technically, you’re correct, in the same way a tsunami is technically a wave. Naturally, the messenger of the news that tsunamis are waves that flood cities (and are therefore exceptional) does not warrant criticism. For in this case, my concern is that I will be accused of bias as I detail the beauty I am starved of, for having spent over a year outside of this land I call home.

This is the longest I have gone without tasting my mother’s cooking. The longest since I accidentally slapped myself while trying to catch a female anopheles mosquito, walked barefoot on the hot sand and pebbles outside our house, strolled in a thrift market full of men with no concept of personal space yet brimming with adoration for my beauty that somehow melts in the desert sun of the land I currently reside in. I miss these s i m p l e experiences, partly because I’ve always known they were just that – banal things that a Tanzanian woman experiences in the due course of living in the land, giving the land, and eating from the land.

Surely, I could write an encyclopedia on the varieties of foods in this land. Of cassava and millet, sweet potatoes and sugarcanes… of groundnuts, as well, which I am unfortunately forced to now call peanuts. My grandmother used to force-feed me groundnuts because they were healthy, she said. She boiled them in their pods and only added salt for taste, which is perhaps why I’ve never been a huge fan of peanuts. Yet it seemed like a rule of law to buy a pack or two during my road trips, especially between Dar es Salaam and Dodoma, where street vendors flock the buses to sell apples, corn-on-the-cob, counterfeit smartwatches, and hand-woven baskets. Certainly, the Dar-Dodoma road is one I know by heart, so much so that I could tell right when we entered and departed Morogoro, the region of Uluguru and Udzungwa mountains. They are no Himalayas, but those ranges could keep my eyes glued to the windows for hours, especially having slept off at the beginning of the trip while we left Dar es Salaam. Dar’s buzz is unending and too much for the eyes, so I typically slept for about an hour and a half. Once the buildings became more grounded and scattered, and the green of the plants became darker with denser shrubs, I knew we were approaching Morogoro. Dar’s coconut trees would be replaced by Moro’s sisal plantations and soon, we were driving amongst skyscrapers made of nothing but mother nature. Voluptuous, shapely hills that make love to billowy clouds and go so far beyond the horizon that it’s been virtually impossible to build an airport in Morogoro. Yet again, sometimes, things are simply prettier from the ground, perhaps because that way, there is something to look up to. And as much as I loved Morogoro and its seductive mountains, I always stayed alert for the fading greenery being replaced by red fissured soil, which is how I knew we had entered the region that birthed my hometown. Indeed, Dodoma is the place I miss the most in this land I call home.

Dodoma is the region of semi-arid dust, baobabs, and acacias, of chonky bitter grapes that somehow make the sweetest wine, sunflowers that harbor the most lustrous oil, and maize that sips, not gulps, a reasonable share of water. Dodoma is the land of mlenda and kumbikumbi – slimy okra and pumpkin leaf stew and fried flying termites, both of which are excellent delicacies from this land I call home.

Dodoma also happens to be the capital city of my home country, yet it is a city like no other, unique in the very fact that it is not one at all. In my hometown, there are no skyscrapers like Abu Dhabi or political monuments like DC, no historical wonders like Cairo or ancient buildings like Athens, no lush terrains like Rio or stunning beaches like Sydney. And in its own queer way, Dodoma harbors just the Tanzanian parliament while the rest of the government feasts in the bosom of the coastal and quaint region of Dar es Salaam. It’s no wonder that people often assume that Dar is the capital city of Tanzania – and it used to be. Except in the late 90s, three years before I was born, Dodoma officially became the federal capital to ease the influx of Tanzanian migrants to Dar and to centralize the population. You see, Dodoma is literally at the center of this land I call home.

Indeed, this is why the Dar-Dodoma road is considered the main road in my country. Through it, you can cross from the northernmost regions to the very south. You can begin your journey from any of the three regions that hug Lake Victoria: Kagera the land of succulent plantains and nutty, chocolaty Arabica coffee, Mwanza the land of Sato and Sangala, and Mara the land of my childhood memories… oh and the Serengeti. Surely, you can drive — in a humble bus, from this lacustrine climate, all the way to the Savannahs in Mtwara, Ruvuma, and Lindi, the latter two being home to our continent’s largest game reserve, which is named after the father of the nation I call home.

Through the Dar-Dodoma road, you can also travel as far west as Rukwa and Kigoma. These are regions that border Lake Tanganyika, my continent’s deepest lake and the world’s second. You can also go as far east as the coastal region of Pwani, home to what was once the trading hub for ivory, salt, rubber, and my people, during the Indian Ocean slave trade. Just above Pwani is Tanga, home to the jurassic-age Amboni limestone caves and Amani rainforest. I visited Amboni when I was twelve and somehow, I got over my fear of the dark shortly after. The caves were filled with bats, of course, yet what I remember most from the trip was that one of the caves’ entrances is naturally shaped like the map of the African continent and inside it, are rocks shaped like sofas, an elephant, a ship, the arabic alphabet, the statue of liberty, and genitalia. I also visited the Amani rainforest when I was eighteen, and I went on a night walk with my classmates to look for special tree frogs. I almost fell into a little river when crossing a short bridge made of wood, an incident that made it into my “best-student-in-biology” remarks given by my high school Biology teacher. She said she could tell I was terrified during the night walk but I still persevered through the cold and dew of the rainforest. In hindsight, I was less concerned about slipping through the muddy terrain than bumping into a green or black mamba (not that the color matters). Reptiles, as a species, bring out the fear in me, which is why I wonder sometimes if it was for this reason that I never dared to take a chance at climbing Mount Kilimanjaro when the chance was presented to me in my junior year of high school. Regardless, I find comfort in the fact that I convinced one of my college roommates to visit my home country and she ended up going to Kilimanjaro, which, I’ll have you know, is a really special mountain in the land I call home.

Kili is the world’s highest free-standing mountain, with a fresh Savannah on one side and dewy tropics on the other. Yet what fascinates most people is that Mount Kili has snow at the top while it doesn’t snow in the land I call home, you see.

It could rain and hail for days though. So much so that most regions experience floods between November and January, like Dar es Salaam and Manyara did recently. Manyara is home to tree-climbing lions and over four hundred species of birds, including thousands of flamingos. Yet this region experiencing floods is no news to the locals, and as a matter of fact, our current president skipped COP28 to pay personal condolences to victims of the floods last December. It warmed my heart to see this gesture and it reminded me of the nature of my people, especially because shortly after, a Pakistani taxi driver in the land I currently reside in told me that the passengers he’s had from East Africa are the kindest people he’s met. I blushed as I thought about how often people say that Tanzanians are a hospitable people. My sense is that this hospitality is a product of the peace we have from our rejection of divisions that cause -isms. It is surely a great source of pride for me that we’re a united people in this land I call home.

It is literally in our name. The United Republic of Tanzania. A union of TANganyIkA and ZANzIbAr, which we’re now celebrating sixty years of. Sixty years of building a nation of over 120 tribes and tongues, with the full spectrum of skin colors, followers of countless religions and gods, and lands settled in by over 5 different nations: the Portuguese, Indians, Omani Arabs, Germans, and then the British. It is no wonder that I struggle to pinpoint who exactly a Tanzanian is. For it is not merely in what we do, eat, or wear, but how we do things that we are defined as a people. And what can I say of the manners in this land I call home?

Our girls say “Abe” and our boys say “Naam” when they’re called by name. Our young say “Shkamoo” and our adults respond, “Marahaba” when greeting each other. When we’re sorry for what we did we say “Samahani”, when we feel sorry for you but not for something we did, we say “Pole”. When congratulating you, we say, “Hongera”. Our filler words in speech are “Hebu”, “Yani”, “Kwani”, “Mbona”, and “Jamani”. When we’re grateful, we say, “Asante”. When we love you, we say, “Nakupenda” and when we miss you, we say, “Nimekumisi”. If we like you and consider you a friend, we’ll call you, “Rafiki”, if we don’t, you’ll be “Adui”. When we sneeze, our moms say, “Afya!” (Or maybe it’s just my mom). And contrary to popular belief, we don’t say “Hakuna matata” in this land I call home.

Indeed, whatever a Swahili person may be, their speech must count for something. Although it is not merely in speaking Swahili that one is made one of us, just as my fluency in English does not marry me to the royal family of England. Unfortunately, I hear that some are pushing for Swahili to be made Africa’s lingua franca. Whatever grounds this proposition stands on, infirmity is not lacking. Because the waters of a language are sweetest when there’s a thirst for it, the wells of Swahili must not be run dry in attempts to cool down the fires of empty pan-Africanism. I doubt that most Tanzanians wish to have a language they cultivated be exploited to make a point. I feel that we, and I speak here mostly for myself, wish to advance our position as a nation without imposing that how we do things is worthy of forceful adoption by other peoples. And there is a gentle beauty in this… that while we have reasons to gloat about the natural and constructed glories of our land, we dare not tread as far as claiming some cultural superiority. Certainly, I was taught to practice modesty in the land I call home.

Za mtu ni mbili, akili na haya. Of a person are two things, brains and modesty. Mwenye sifa, hajisifu. A person worthy of praise, does not praise himself. Kiburi si maungwana. Arrogance is not noble. We’re a people of proverbs, sayings, and aphorisms in this land I call home.

We say them often to each other… and we even print them on our khangas, some of which are plastered on the walls inside the British Museum in London. I have two khangas with me as I write this. One of them has the saying, “Furaha ya maisha ni kupendana”: The joy of life is loving each other. It’s one out of three khangas that my sister received among her wedding gifts, I think, yet I use it often as a towel alternative after I shower. Sometimes, I simply lounge in one of my khangas when all my clothes are in the washer or dryer, but this is usually when I have no delas left to wear either. The two delas I own were also passed on to me by my eldest sister, both of which she wore during her last pregnancy of my nephew Mati, whose company I long for, just as much as that of my siblings. I don’t often see them now that all but one are adults. Yet lately, I’ve been fantasizing about eating nyama choma with ugali and kachumbari with them on Saturday, after church. Or having one of my sisters escort me to plait my hair in a local salon, where the ladies talk about new weight loss herbs or rant about failed marriages in town while the guys exchange illuminati theories about the world’s richest or bet on the English premier league. Or riding in a bajaji with my mom, to go buy vitumbua, kachori, and proper maandazi from the ladies on the one-way road outside Dodoma Municipal’s Mosque. Of course, I tried making my own maandazi and of course, they turned out great, but they just don’t taste the same as those back at home. And yes, I listened to Diamond Platnumz’s songs and recited all three of our national anthems to myself, yet the melodies just don’t sound the same outside the land I call home.

I acknowledge the temptation to see hyperbole in what I’m about to share, but the food here doesn’t slide down my throat in the same way as the food in the land I call home.

Clouds don’t flirt with the sky in the same beckoning way as the feathery clouds of Dodoma. Mama told me that members of the Gogo tribe can steal the rain sometimes, and you can tell by the way the clouds’ shapes suddenly change, shortly after teasing you with the possibility of rain. This might explain why the cloud-seeded rain of the land I currently reside in just does not feel the same as the Gogo-approved rain in my hometown. The air doesn’t smell the same either. Come to think of it, I always feel like I take a deep breath when I arrive at the airport here and hold this one breath for as long as I’m in this land. Perhaps this entry is my lungs’ way of letting me know that we’re running out of air and finally, it is time to go back and visit the land I call home.

The use of the word “visit” next to “home” seems rather strange. Yet my flesh has grown accustomed to the pleasures of this land I currently reside in and I suppose my relationship with Tanzania has been molded to that of “visitor” and “visited”. See while in the land I currently reside in, I enjoy a timely and modern public transport system, views of architectural wonders on my daily commutes, access to global cuisines in the palm of my hands, certainty that electricity, wifi, and water are ever-present, impeccable cleanliness of public buildings and facilities, presence of air conditioners in virtually every building I’ve been in, safety from petty theft and minor crimes and so much more that I’m beginning to take for granted. These are perks which my home, as much as I hold it near and dear… is yet to offer. I use “yet” deliberately here, because I have always held onto hope for a better land to call home.

It’s strange… paradoxical, really… to love something as it is, while simultaneously nurturing a yearning for its improvement. I notice this within myself, where I recognize my capacity for growth yet take solace in how far I’ve come already. And as much as I often sense a looming deadline for maximizing my potential, I also feel a lingering sense of urgency to fully explore the richness this land I call home has to offer. The deadline at hand is my undisclosed death date, of course, which unfortunately marks the end of my time to work on my “self” as well as other selves, my country being one of them. So naturally, I often tell myself that it would be a shame not to make anything out of myself, but even more of a shame to not have made anything of my country because I didn’t make anything of myself.