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VIII. Baba Tupac’s House
“I don’t think you can go back to Baba Tupac’s house tonight,” Teacher concludes as I limp out of the hospital, dizzy and lightheaded with my wounds still tingling. Baba Tupac is called Baba Tupac because he named his first-born son Tupac. He is a jolly Rastafarian rapper and construction worker who has been my roommate so far this trip. Originally, I had planned to stay at Teacher’s place, but consensus declared it unsafe. Too many mateja funneling in and out to smoke heroin; surely one of them would be tempted to search a mzungu’s bags for something to steal.
It was a lucky break that Baba Tupac agreed to put me up. A few days later, a neighbor got drunk on banana wine and changed the lock on Teacher’s house. Then he chased my friend down the street swinging a machete and hollering, “I don’t want mateja living here!” Teacher moved to Mandili’s room; he hopes to retrieve his clothes and books when things cool down.
The first morning I woke up in Baba Tupac’s bed, his sprawling dreadlocks had nestled around my feet like an amorous sloth. Since Temeke’s energy supply is severely rationed during daylight hours, the electricity cut off around the time the roosters started crowing. That meant a respite from the loud reggae music Baba Tupac left playing as nocturnal ambience. But it also meant the fan stopped blowing. The rising sun beat down on the corrugated aluminum roof and glutted the room with heat. The courtyard, a concrete sliver, teemed with sunlight and distraction. Besides the importunate chickens, children were tackling each other and giggling, women were slapping dough to make chapati, and neighbors were dumping buckets of water on themselves in the dingy outhouse.
I’d wanted to shower, and defecate too, but didn’t know how. I needed a bucket of water, but didn’t know which of the courtyard’s many buckets belonged to Baba Tupac. I didn’t wish to make a burden of myself by waking my friends and revealing my ignorance so early in the day. I don’t like asking for help, because I am more male and more bashful than I like to admit. But asking for help is something constantly required of me in Dar es Salaam, where linguistic facility can’t negate my strangerhood. So I was trapped. Sleep failed me. Discomfort mounted. Finally, fearfully, I stepped into the bracing early sun with my purse of toiletries and laid eyes on a tub of water and plastic bucket right beside the door. Awed by the simplicity of it all, I stooped to fill the bucket.
An older woman halted her washing. “Someone help the mzungu!” She didn’t suspect I spoke Swahili. It didn’t help that I found myself mute. Nothing to offer but my own bemused face; what had I done wrong? A young lady emerged from the outhouse with a yellow-green khanga wrapped around her torso. She filled her empty bucket with water. A small green pail floated there. “Use this,” she huffed at me, and carried it back to the outhouse. The buckets looked identical. But one was reserved for showering, the other for rinsing clothes and dishes–a sensible segregation, for the insalubrious outhouse was not graced with modern plumbing. “Close the door,” she added, as if I would also be too stupid to figure that out myself.
I bask in all the joy, attention, and friendship my strangeness affords me. But I don’t need to get mugged to feel embarrassed or despondent. Any single unfamiliarity may expose my uselessness and trigger a morose state, until someone or some beers come along to comfort me. Today’s emotional whiplash—shooting a music video and then getting mugged—only magnifies the sheer blithe privilege that defines and polarizes all my days here.
IX. A Guest House
I agree with Teacher that I don’t want to ride back across town to Baba Tupac’s and soak his sheets with pus and blood. I suggest a cheap guest house called PR. I slept there often with a former girlfriend in 2010. She was strangled to death, eight months after I left her for grad school, two weeks after I started sleeping with the woman who became my daughter’s mother. In Dar es Salaam, life moves so slow, until it happens so fast. Blink and everything changes. I came back ten days ago and already received news of three acquaintances’ untimely deaths. AIDS. Car crash. Beaten to death by a mob for stealing.
The night attendant takes one look at me and decrees, “This is a guest house, not a hospital. Besides, it’s not legal for two people of the same gender to sleep in one room.”
That must be bullshit; Tanzania is homophobic, but sharing a bed is never construed as homoerotic activity. Most unmarried Tanzanians share their bed with at least one sibling, friend, distant relative, or stranger of the same gender. Shelter is dear, and the culture abhors solitude. Sleeping alone is said to tempt witches. I myself have been visited at night by liquid, shadowy, man-shaped figures who crowded my bed until I hissed and made them disappear. Guest houses are popular because they’re bastions of privacy, the only place anyone can have sex. PR is located beside Mori Road, a street lined with boisterous bars and nocturnal gauntlets of sex workers. Meeda Executive Lodge lies directly across the street, behind Meeda Bar, where Teacher and I met ten years ago. It was a boozy morning. We’d both been up all night drinking, back when the bottle was his drug of choice. He tried to sell me a fat joint in exchange for a beer. I made a friend for life as soon as I discovered he had squatted in the Lower East Side parks and haunts where I killed many a weekend as a teenager.
The manager at Meeda tries to remember me. “Is this really Jesus?” After all, Jesus never had a beer belly, eyeglasses, or a bloody bandage discharging pus from his carpals like he just stumbled off the set of a zombie flick. The closer I get to Christ’s dying age, the less I resemble him. (Unless you consider his resurrection the original zombie apocalypse. Rising from the dead, claiming innumerable souls, inspiring crusades, colonialism, cannibalistic rites, and genocide. And here I come, rocking some gnarly stigmata.)
“He had an accident,” Teacher explains.
“Yes. He needs to rest.” My friends don’t want anyone to know I was mugged; as my protectors, they were mugged by proxy.
The room costs 25,000 shillings. That leaves me with 15,000 in my pocket. The antibiotics and acetaminophen will cost 6,500. Today is Teacher’s 47th birthday. I promised him we would party all night, back when I thought I would have a debit card and intact epidermis. I want a beer. I want my friend to have a good time. And I want bus fare back to my passport and untorn clothes tomorrow. I peel a 10,000 shilling note out of my pocket. “I’ll get the medicine tomorrow when I have more money. Just bring me a Safari and have fun with the change.”
Heroin is cheaper than beer in this strung-out city, this glutted market. I’ve left them enough fuel to go all night.
“You want a beer instead of medicine?” Teacher chuckles at me, as if he wouldn’t do the exact same thing.
“Just one.” I hear a pleading tone in my own voice. “That way I’ll sleep.”
Let me remember this: when my skin was gouged and aching, I chose a single beer over the pills that might heal me.
I want to take off my clothes and let my wounds breathe. But now I’m alone with Kemy; Sloter has spent much of the day prodding her to have sex with me. I strip to my boxers and climb into bed, gasping at the pain of descent. I bury my face in the pillow and hold myself up with my chin. That takes some pressure off my knee as it brushes red on the sheet. Teacher delivers my beer and splits. I take a long swig. Kemy looks at her phone, types a message. She looks at me, bandaged, sipping, grimacing. “You’re in pain?”
“Yes,” I nod.
“Okay. I’m resting.” She crawls towards the pillow and turns her back to me. I want to be held. I can’t text my partner goodnight. I down my beer quickly and turn onto my least wounded side. It hurts. I sleep.
X. In the Morning
Kemy stirs and looks at me. “You’re in pain?”
“Still,” I nod. And I have two dollars in my pocket. If my father has sent more, I will need my passport to retrieve it. It will take a couple hours to cross town in morning traffic.
Teacher knocks on the door. My tie-dyed t-shirt hangs around his neck, sliced open like a pair of curtains for his chest. One blue and yellow strip bandages his elbow. “I got on a motorcycle wearing Mandili’s Maasai blanket,” he explains. “It got stuck under the wheel and tipped us over.”
“Happy birthday,” I wince, wishing I could have stayed up all night riding motorcycles and drinking the urgency of night, wishing one of my last shirts wasn’t hanging in shreds before my eyes. “Where were you going?”
“Sinza Mori.” That’s the closest place to score heroin. “Then we slept in the back of Meeda, like old days.” When Teacher lived in this neighborhood, he lost at least a dozen phones at Meeda Bar, some extracted from his pockets while he dozed, others pawned to the bartender for a few last rounds. “How’s your hand?”
I spent the night startling awake anytime it grazed the pillow. “Starting to scab over.”
“Yeah, that should heal up. Give it till next week.”
A whole week of this? I ruined my vacation in that split second decision to defend my backpack. I examine my torn up body in the bathroom mirror. My hip wounds look rotten for being smothered by dirty fabric all night long. The forgotten wound beside my butt has taken the exact shape of a heart, suppurating yet rosy, like a schmaltzy tattoo.
XI. Looking For Money
We exit through the bar. Some old friends are sitting at the counter, drunk at 10 a.m. I don’t know whether they are still my friends. I met them through Mwendo, a scrawny rapper who sells marijuana at the soccer field behind the Mwenge Woodcarvers’ Market. He was the first person to encourage me to compose and record a Swahili rap verse. But then he stole my laptop, so we don’t speak anymore. Kulwa sees me, but must not see my stigmata. He seizes my wounded wrist and slaps my back with all his might. The pain jolts to my shoulder like I’m being electrocuted. “I’m so happy to see you, Jesus! You visited me in prison! I’ll never forget that until the day I die!”
Segerea Prison was indeed the last place I saw Kulwa. Mwendo took a delegation to visit him. In a Tanzanian prison, you don’t get to sit with your loved ones or phone them through a window pane. Visitors are shunted into a chamber with a dense wire screen, prisoners on the other side, everybody blind and wailing each other’s names, like a game of Marco Polo where everyone is Marco as much as they are Polo. When I asked Mwendo why our friend was in jail, he answered “GPS phone.” What he meant was our friend had stolen a phone without deactivating its GPS system, so the police tracked him down.
“You should go see Mwendo,” Kulwa suggests. “His life is very hard now. He has no money to buy marijuana or record music.”
“He screwed me over,” I shake my head. “I don’t know if you got the news.”
Of course he got the news. Gossip is this neighborhood’s ambrosia. But Mwendo’s loyal customers prefer to feign oblivion.
“I understand, brother,” he nods, solemn and cryptic. “So how do we live now? Will you buy us a beer or some soup?”
I show him my bandaged wrist. “I have no money, because I got mugged. I’m going now to see if they sent money from home.” Now Mwendo will hear I was robbed, and tell the whole world it’s because his scrawny ass wasn’t around to protect me.
Gmail is suspicious of all the computers at the nearest internet cafe. They insist on sending a login code to my phone. I no longer possess my phone, so I cannot confirm that I am myself. I call my father. It’s two in the morning there. He’s just finishing his viola practice. He will transfer money, but it won’t reach Tanzania for two more days. My partner’s asleep. Western Union won’t let me wire myself.
I may not have any money here, but I do have lots of friends. Like Nata. I used to write grants and procure sponsors for her entertainment company. She was supposed to get married next week. That was my excuse for taking this vacation. But she needed emergency surgery to remove fibroids, so the wedding has been postponed. That means there is no reason for me to be here.
I pass my hand into a crevice beside the door of their family compound and grab the wood chip concealed there. I use it to depress the lock’s tongue and release the gate. Before sitting on their couch, I tug my sticky pants and peel a fresh scab, rebuking my body and reminding it the fabric is not a graft replacing everything the road tore away from me. My skin will have to replace itself.
Nata’s sister comes out of her room to greet me. They are a big, loud family, and she is the biggest and loudest of them all. “Jesus! Didn’t I warn you! Never walk around with anything important!” She whips a sheaf of red bills out of her purse. “Start the antibiotics right away! And remember you can’t drink beer!”
XII. Yombo Kilakala
I count my remaining clothes in Baba Tupac’s room and change into something less shredded. Looks like I’ll be going commando for the foreseeable future; it’s easier on my wounds, and the thieves drove off with all my unbloodied underwear. Baba Tupac’s baby is sleeping underneath the mosquito net. I will convalesce elsewhere. Teacher and Mandili’s room is in Yombo Kilakala. A diverted, unplanned community. We walk over the Tazara train tracks, underneath a bridge, past goats munching tall grass on the banks of a smelly river, and up a labyrinth of dusty hills strewn with trash. Motorcycles are the only vehicles that will risk these steep, narrow roads. But they hesitate at night, fearing gangsters with machetes underneath the bridge.
Teacher drags their mattress out of the room so I can relax in a sliver of shade. Mandili fetches lunch from the mother of his children. I’m hungry. None of us ate dinner last night, or breakfast this morning. The hot pot is full of rice, beans, and sweet potato leaves, plus a black plastic bag of chapatis. I like to fold the chapati and fill it with beans, a leaky and ersatz burrito. But I can’t screw the lid off the hot pot. My hand feels like a crab’s pincer with the scab stiffening around my knuckles. I knock the pot over and scald my legs with beans. Teacher rips the tie-dyed rag off his elbow to wipe the mattress. I borrow Mandili’s swim trunks. They disappear indoors to smoke heroin. The sun braises my pale shins and burns me wherever the beans failed.
A breeze journeys uphill. For one peaceful moment there are no flies nursing on my scabs like supplicant monks who’ve discovered paradise. Mandili’s house sits atop a dump site, a valley where the whole neighborhood chucks their trash. Scores of black plastic shopping bags flutter in the breeze so that they are indiscernible from the crows flocking and foraging in the mountain of refuse. When the rainy season comes, all that trash will be rafted downhill, through the alleys that jut between the slabby little homes with rusted metal roofs.
XIII. Somewhere Sterile
My hips won’t heal while suffocated by my pants. I need somewhere sterile I can lie around naked. Teacher suggests Mama Enoch’s, one of the only bars in Kilakala. Booze was scarce in this destitute and heavily Muslim neighborhood even before heroin stole its thunder. The bar has several rooms in the back that cost a mere 5,000 shillings to sleep in. I presume bed bugs are likely, but maybe a few bites will distract from my wounds. My room has a heavy steel door that clangs of imprisonment, plus a fist-sized hole in the window screening. Teacher tells me to leave my stuff in the farthest corner in case anyone comes with a long stick to pluck valuables. “Michael Jordan,” he names the slang for this type of theft. “Because they put a net at the end of the stick.” He also hands me an empty water bottle to pee in. “The toilets are messy, and good luck finding them in the middle of the night.”
I take off my clothes and run the ceiling fan. I take out the phone Teacher lent me and call my daughter’s mother. My little girl answers the phone. “Hi daddy!”
“I’m so happy to hear you! What are you doing right now?”
“I’m eating pizza!”
“You’re eating pizza? Wow! I’m jealous – I wish I was eating pizza!”
That’s no lie. I’m a New Yorker. Pizza is my staple. It’s usually the only thing I miss in Tanzania. I’m usually too busy here to feel homesick, but now I want to jump across the ocean and pick her up from preschool. Watch her leap out of her seat when she sees me, then stumble over her own excitement as she runs into my arms.
I lie down again when the call cuts off. The ceiling fan is installed beneath the lightbulb. Each rotation, three blades eclipse the light, a pulsing strobe that makes the walls appear liquid. I watch my thighs dim and flare, the sad sight of my body trying to fight off the dirt, filth, and bacteria that has plagued it. The plastic bottle glows in the light. The last time I peed in a water bottle was in Zambia. My daughter was born there. The first morning I woke up in Lusaka, an expecting father in yet another cheap guest house, I couldn’t figure out how to unlock the door of my own room. The toilet was outside. I needed to pee. So I chugged the last of my water and filled the bottle with humid urine. Then I went back to sleep, hoping the door would unlock itself before I had to start banging it and screaming for management to rescue me…
Shit, I’m on vacation, motherfucker! I can’t have any fun if all I’m going to do is watch a fan blow over my naked shredded body while I pity myself. I don’t need to shoot a music video to feel glorious in Dar es Salaam. Beers, girls, a good live band—that’ll do just fine. I’m getting out of here.
I tape a paraffin bandage over my hips and take the lid off the little dust bin so I can toss the packaging. A miasma of old sperm clobbers my nostrils. The bin is lined with discarded condoms from several nights of liaisons.
I phone Mandili. “I’m feeling better. Let’s go to Kisuma.”
It’s Sunday night. Hussein Jumbe will be singing. But this neighborhood is a maze I don’t remember how to get out of. Last year the municipal authorities installed street signs on nearly every corner in Dar es Salaam, but managed to skip over Kilakala. My friends will be remunerated in beers for escorting me.
XIV. Is This My Idea of a Good Time?
I walk into Kisuma Bar tossing glances over both shoulders. Last week I slept with one of the waitresses. Her name was Elizabeth so she called herself Queen. I knew her interest was occasioned by my whiteness, but we made each other laugh, so the seduction felt less arbitrary. I thought the sex was splendid until she got up and left in the middle of it.
I found myself alone in a bare room with nothing to read but the guest house rules, as chronicled on the wall in bright red paint:
1) It is not permitted to sleep with more than one woman
2) Women: Don’t throw pads into the toilet hole.
3) Tie it up in a nylon bag then put it in the dust bin
4) The bag is under the TV. Unity is action and action is cleanliness.
I brainstormed all the reasons I might have disgusted her. I took too long to finish. I retraumatized her by performing cunnilingus even after discovering she was circumcised. I turned briefly flaccid when I worried the condom was slipping off. I was just an ugly, hairy, sweaty mzungu.
But it felt like we were having fun. She claimed she would be locked out of her home if she didn’t hop on a motorcycle and return there immediately. I didn’t believe her, even though I had just believed her when she said she was having an orgasm.
She called the next afternoon. I answered with wounded indifference and we haven’t spoken since. Now I’m back at Kisuma. The band is setting up. Another waitress helps us to a table. “Your friend isn’t here,” she whispers. “She slipped and hurt her ankle. Someone must have been jealous, seeing you leave together. They went to a witch doctor and put a curse on her.” And look at me, limping in with abraded hips and crusty gauze clenching my wrist. Maybe they put a curse on me too. Maybe I deserved it.
The waitress has seated us at the same table as a middle-aged fat man with a shiny wristwatch. He snaps his pudgy fingers. “Bring their beers.” We make grateful steeples with our hands when our drinks arrive. He buys more when they run out. Mandili and Teacher drink faster than me. I know I’m weak. I worry my wounds are infected and I will soon become quite ill. Or my hand will heal wrong and I won’t be able to grip anything ever again. I wonder what my scars will look like. A sexy story or a lingering repugnance. The band plays a few songs in the jangly old Congolese rumba style that always touches my soul. Jumbe takes the stage, affecting a casual, everyman look with his wispy mustache, striped polo shirt, and a crooked baseball cap that says “Professional Smoker.” He has a commanding voice. Reedy and plaintive one second, then sultry with sudden and epic intensity as he launches into the chorus of his hit song “Nachechemea”:
Some people said bad words
Others announced I had departed this world
They carved me an expensive box
But by the love of God today I am limping
A woman picks up her chair and plops it down beside me. “Let’s daaahnce!” she trills in English. She has light skin, mountainous thighs, a painted smile.
“I’m wounded,” I reply in Swahili, showing my hand and pointing at my hips.
“I’m Margaret,” she pretends not to understand me. So I stand up and squirm along to the guitars. Their melodies are sweet and frantic. But my hips ache. I sit back down. She waves her empty beer at me. It would be rude to display financial independence in front of our patron. I tell her I can’t. So she buys one for me. I pop two pills in my mouth and wash them down with lager. The fat man frowns imperiously and leaves, but not before telling the waitress to bring me a bottle of water, plus another round of beer.
“She’s a prostitute,” Teacher warns me.
“I know her,” Sloter chimes in. “She’s a professional thief and she has AIDS.” I’ve heard him stigmatize many ladies this way. He was orphaned by the virus. I’ll cut him some slack.
We drink and listen to music. It’s getting late. Mandili downs the last of his beer. Teacher suggests we walk back to Kilakala.
“Sugusugu,” Mandili says, invoking the name of the informal security forces, recently marshaled to enforce curfews in crime-ridden areas (really, to manufacture a source of employment for restless young men, plus a source of patronage for the ruling party. And, of course, to harass the indigent).
Teacher shrugs. “If we say we’re escorting our mzungu friend, they won’t bother us.”
“But the gangsters will,” Sloter counters. “You guys should take a motorcycle.”
“Three motorcycles,” Teacher agrees. “They won’t ride mishikaki past the bridge.” The word means shish kebab, and it’s slang for fitting three people on one motorcycle, bouncing together as if skewered. He dashes off to the motorcycle queue and comes back quoting a price. “Buku jelo, buku jelo.” 1,500 shillings a piece. For seventy cents, the motorcyclists are willing to bring us up the crooked hills of Kilakala, my latest hasty home.
I settle myself onto the seat of one of their machines. “Take it easy,” I warn the driver. “I’m wounded.”
He hands me a helmet, revs his engine, and the night air sprints to get behind us.
*“Mzungu” is the Swahili word for a white person, originating from the verb “zunguka,” meaning “go around in circles”, as early colonists seemed to do.