I. Give To Everyone Who Asks You
And if anyone takes what is yours, do not demand it back. That’s what Jesus said. If someone takes your coat, you should give them your tunic, too. But he never said what to do if you’re walking down Old Bagamoyo Road and a car swerves at you to swipe the backpack off your shoulder. Most likely, Jesus wouldn’t tell you to hold onto that strap as you topple to the dusty cement road, to wrestle with a strange grasp while the vehicle accelerates and drags your body like a jet ski. You never speak English in Tanzania, too proud of your fluent Swahili. But as the road rips into your clothes and skin, you roar “fuck you!” at the face in the window, scream it as many times as you can breathe it, like when you’re visited by something evil in a fever dream and only uncontrollable hissing will make it disappear. But this isn’t a dream, and I’m not Jesus; that’s just what they call me here.
II. I Am a Swahili Rapper
Although I am ashamed to say this out loud back home in Brooklyn, although I find other ways to imply that I am an interesting person, like mentioning “I used to work for an entertainment company in Tanzania” or “I dabble in Swahili hip-hop,” it is nonetheless true that I have recorded several songs in which I rap in Swahili. These songs have been played on Tanzanian radio stations, and their music videos have been played on Tanzanian TV. In the ten days since I returned to Dar es Salaam, I have been interviewed for a national radio broadcast, and performed at Uhuru Stadium for Independence Day.
None of this dabbling has made me a household name in Tanzania like Mzungu Kichaa, a glabrous Danish fellow who started recording Bongo Flava songs in the 90s and hails as Swahili music’s preeminent mzungu* (needless to say, I will never admit how deeply I envy and resent him). Still, it has brought me immense joy because I am someone who loves music, who believes music is more important than any other human endeavor. I consider musicians an elevated subspecies of homo sapiens.
The name that is attached to all my songs, the unshuckable nickname that has followed me throughout Tanzania ever since I spent a semester abroad here ten years ago, is “Jesus.” Apparently my long hair and scraggly beard make me look like I stepped out of a stained-glass window.
Just before the drive-by mugging, we were shooting a music video for “Dar to New York”, a song I recorded with Sloter (from the old-school rap duo L.W.P. Majitu) and Kemy. Our location for the shoot was Kawe Club, an old lounge on the shore of the Indian Ocean that was slathered in bright graffiti. Sammy, who inherited the club when his parents died, was delighted to host our music video. As our director Shakka was setting up, Sammy took me aside. “Don’t be such a mzungu,” he coached, and plied me with beers so I would act “hard” while rapping my verse for the camera. (I may contain multitudes, but I doubt “hard” would top the list if you ever played a word association game about me).
III. My Backpack Only Has One Strap
I feel like a fish fighting for my life as I hang onto that strap. The car drags me along, the road grinding my knees and the tips of my sneakers while trees jog by. But I’m free to let go of the hook at any moment. He doesn’t want my meat; he just wants my bait. I’m not the fish, I’m the fisher, a fisher of men. The tires squeal; the car jerks and speeds up. My senses catch up with me. I’m really getting trawled now. I see no chance of rescuing my backpack. So I let go. Separated from the vehicle’s momentum, I roll, knee then hip then shoulder skidding the cement. I jump to my feet and see my friends a hundred yards behind me. Teacher’s wailing on his knees, certain I’m being kidnapped or killed. Mandili’s crying softly to himself. Sloter is searching the road for rocks to throw. A minute ago I was a fabulous Swahili rapper. Throngs of children followed our cameras up and down the beach, hoping to glimpse the action and perhaps themselves be glimpsed. Now I’m just a lost chagrined mzungu, as I was in the beginning, as I shall be in the end.
It’s dark out. The road unlit. But I can see blood spattered on my wrist and elbow, feel the sting in one knee and both hips. My pants are gouged. My blue dashiki hangs in strips. My backpack and everything inside it is hurtling away into the night. These men were professionals. Which means they probably had weapons on them, a machete at least, that could have sliced the bag off my arm, or my arm off the bag. They could have flung the blade and split open my face if it snarled at them any longer, or just stepped out of the car and pummeled me. And within those hundred yards they dragged me, I could have rammed face-first into any roadside object. The car could have swerved; another vehicle could have struck me from behind. In short, I am stupid, and lucky to be alive.
IV. The Contents of My Backpack
The things I might have died for, in approximate order of value to the thieves:
1) My iPhone, which I don’t usually walk around with in Dar es Salaam, but which I took with me today because I missed my partner and wanted to text her during the shoot.
2) My wallet, with 80 US dollars inside, plus my debit card, and several forms of identification such as my non-driver’s license and business cards that identify me as “poet & platypus enthusiast.” I don’t usually walk around with my wallet here, either, but I needed to pay Shakka for directing the video.
3) Clothes, which were the reason I brought the backpack in the first place; Shakka wanted me to dress differently in each shot. A button-down green batik, a Rise and Resist t-shirt, another t-shirt silkscreened with the face of Tanzania’s first president, Senegalese pants, swimming trunks, and six or seven boxer shorts. (A Swahili slang phrase for being broke is kufulia. It means you’re doing other people’s laundry. Yesterday Teacher did my laundry for 7,000 shillings—a little over three dollars, or the cost of soap and water plus his morning dose of heroin. I could have just given him money to smoke heroin like I do every other morning. But he’s been wearing my clothes all week, so I didn’t feel ashamed to let him wash them. I asked him to bring my swimsuit to the shoot. He brought all my underwear, too, apparently convinced of my immediate need to wear lots and lots of underwear.)
4) Three phone chargers
5) Mosquito repellent
6) A half-eaten pack of Nacho Cheese Combos I bought at JFK
7) My notebook, mostly filled with Swahili rhymes already recorded. But on the plane I drafted a short essay about gentrification and segregation in Brooklyn as my biracial toddler is experiencing it, and I do not know if I will be able to replicate those thoughts since they are now so distant from me.
8) The keys to the apartment I live in with my partner back in Brooklyn
9) Two books, including The Poisonwood Bible I half-finished on the plane, where it is written:
You’ll say I walked across Africa with my wrists unshackled, and now I am one more soul walking free in a white skin, wearing some thread of the stolen goods: cotton or diamonds, freedom at the very least, prosperity. Some of us know how we came by our fortune, and some of us don’t, but we wear it all the same. There’s only one question worth asking now: How do we aim to live with it?
V. How Much Money Do I Need?
A question posed by my father after I tell him my wallet and debit card were stolen and needed cash to get through the last ten days of my trip. I wasn’t prepared for the question, the same way I am never prepared to be asked about salary requirements at a job interview. “I have no idea,” I say, “But I owe the director two hundred already.” It’s a lie. I already paid Shakka. I’m not sure why I say it. I want money but don’t want to seem like I want it, don’t want to admit how quickly I burn it guzzling Safari Lagers and chasing live music every night of the week. I’ve never asked my parents for assistance. I think the last time they sent me money was the last time I was mugged in Dar es Salaam ten years ago. I had only known Teacher for a week then. We were with our mutual friend, a dipsomaniac named Chilu, who had invited me to crash in his dormitory. A few beers later, he decided a rotund prostitute should join him. We got about twenty paces out of Meeda Bar before two men whisked me off my feet. A muscular wrist clenched my glottis. “White phone!” one of them chanted at me. His stubby dreadlocks shook with ferocity. His voice was hoarse and his eyes dilated. “White phone!”
“I speak Swahili,” I croaked back. Getting mugged was humiliating enough; I refused to be spoken to like a simple tourist. “My phone is in my pocket.”
Hands swiped at my pants and unstrapped my Teva sandals. A third man punched Chilu in the face and tore the shirt off his back. His ladyfriend ran away giggling.
In the morning, I tramped back to the dorms in Chilu’s mauve shower sandals and emailed my parents to cancel my debit card. They insisted on sending me money, even though I assured them I had enough cash stashed in my dorm to make it through the semester. I had only recently commenced my habit of drinking every day, and still enjoyed a frugal existence. But now I have an appetite. I sound like a grifter. What has made me less independent at thirty years of age than I was at twenty?
Over the past decade, thanks to its lengthy coastline and the easily-bribed officials tasked with regulating it, Dar es Salaam has become a hub of the international drug trade, a rendezvous point for Middle-Eastern heroin making its way to Europe and South Africa. This geopolitical quirk has occasioned an exploding local population of heroin addicts. Mateja, in the vernacular. “Customers.” An apt phrase for people who must constantly purchase their own comfort.
I don’t wish to blame addiction for rising crime rates in Dar, or imply it’s the reason I was mugged. Dar is one of the fastest growing cities in the world, with an infrastructure and economy ill-equipped to accommodate its surging numbers. And the “Africa Rising” narrative, so dear to global investors, only applies to a minuscule upper-middle class. The rest of the population only witnesses an egregious disparity of wealth. But the heroin boom certainly doesn’t help matters, either.
Teacher’s fear of needles spared him personal entanglement with heroin in the 80s and 90s, despite squatting in the Lower East Side for several transient years addicted to crack-cocaine. He was deported around the time President Clinton signed into law the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which retroactively lowered the threshold of deportable offenses. Fifteen years later, a European NGO employed him as a translator and researcher in Temeke, Dar es Salaam’s slummy southern district. There he helped establish sub-Saharan Africa’s first needle exchange and methadone clinic. Constantly exposed to heroin, he began smoking it. He was later fired for stealing money, but continues to be active in the harm reduction movement, volunteering in roles like General Secretary of TaNPUD (Tanzania Network of People Using Drugs). His activism has achieved genuinely positive public health outcomes. For example, most of his friends smoke heroin instead of injecting it. Last year Mandili overdosed on methadone and whiskey. His friends knew to bring him to the only local hospital that supplied naloxone, the opioid antagonist that brought him back to life.
VII. Sinza Palestina Hospital
If you google Sinza Palestina Hospital, you will find a YouTube slide show of a pretty blonde volunteer cradling in her arms a series of African babies. “We Are the World” plays, shamelessly, as the soundtrack. The video description reads: “Many halls filled with people who are suffering, hearing the sound of new born babies crying, seeing the faces of people who are in pain and are terrified of what is going to happen next are just a few things that happen on a regular basis at Sinza Palestina Hospital located in Der [sic] Es Salaam.”
I take a seat beside several patients huddled on a bench. The triage nurse bumps me up the queue. Maybe it’s the sight of my blood, my abrasions begrimed with the road’s dirt and grit. But more likely it’s the sight of my white skin. I know privilege is the most insidious breed of violence. But I let it happen anyway. After all, my whiteness is also the pernicious force that illuminated my backpack as if it were plated in gold.
The doctor asks how I got my bruises. He uses the English word, but flattens the R as an L, so that it sounds like I just picked up a bad case of the blues. I tell him what happened. He says I need my wounds dressed, an injection for the pain, antibiotics, and more pills for the pain. He dispatches me to a room labeled “dressing room”. Less glamorous than it sounds. A nurse swathes the back of my hand in cotton gauze, dips a cotton ball in a disinfectant solution, and dabs it on my wounds. The sting drills through my chest, makes me gasp and suck my teeth. “It’s medicine,” she consoles me. “Where else?”
I point at my elbow, shoulder, knee and both hips. “Should I take off my pants?”
She looks alarmed. “Are you wearing boxers?”
My last pair, ripped in the seat and caked with blood. One abrasion stretches from the knob of my hip to my inner thigh, a streak of tender reds, gooey pinks, mottled browns. In this dressing room where it is deemed improper to undress, I have difficulty pulling my drawers low enough to expose the wound without exposing myself. The disinfectant makes my eyes water as I hop on the tips of my toes. I can’t remember pain ever feeling so sharp.
In the injection room, I show the next nurse my bicep. He gives me a strange look.
“Where do I get the shot?”
“Your buttock.” So one nurse is afraid to see my genitals, the next one eager to see my ass. I drop my pants. The waistband grazes a clammy, grimy, undressed wound beneath my right butt cheek. I didn’t know it was there, but I won’t bother asking the nurse to dress it.