As a boy in northern Minnesota, we’d drive down to “the cities” on special occasions. On the way, we’d often stop halfway at a city called Brainerd. Back then, you had to drive through the city because there was no bypass. Mom-n-pop shops through downtown Brainerd were the roadside attractions, and a McDonald’s or gas station would be our halfway point pit stop.
Today, I don’t see any of those mom-n-pop shops. They may very well be there, but I wouldn’t know because I don’t drive by them anymore. A four lane highway gets me around all that, lined with new big box stores and franchised restaurants along this thoroughfare to the northern half of the state.
Besides all these new options for pit stops when driving from the Twin Cities back up to my stomping grounds of Blackduck and Bemidji, I’ll also keep in mind when driving through that this flourishing hub in central Minnesota is now also a place to share my stories about Africa and other topics.
I’m honored to announce that the Brainerd Dispatch is now subscribed to my blog, The Periphery. Happy reading, Brainerdites.
Allow me to introduce you to my stories from Africa…
After eight months of working on tech in a village in central Tanzania, East Africa, it was time to start thinking about home. But just like a grand finale in a fireworks show, the most jam-packed showing of scenery and experiences would occur just before things came to their end.
In the two weeks before flying home from Nairobi, Kenya on September 30, I would trek around giant Lake Victoria. Here was my planned route:
Starting from Iringa, was a five city, three country tour.
First, I had to say goodbye to the people and places that dressed my life the past eight months…
I arrived to Iringa, Tanzania January 25, 2014. Things were as fresh to me then as they would be to you if suddenly placed in this mid-sized East African city. Dirty asphalt streets lined with small vendors of produce, breads, and sodas; alleys filled with locals on foot and more vendors peddling clothes, sun glasses, cheap electronics, sandals made of old tires, and seemingly a million other things.
All year long, this city would be my noisier, more developed weekend respite from the quiet and isolation of my village 90 minutes away. Here I got to know other foreign volunteers, a couple of expats making Tanzania their home, and some local residents.
After a few hours soaking in urban East Africa, I hopped in the rattle trap bus to my village, Magililwa. Out here, corn fields over rolling hills were interrupted by the occasional patch of forest. The village sat quietly on this land like a camp site. But instead of tents, were the mud/brick buildings with red dirt roads and trails as streets and alleys.
I’d get to know a few of the villagers. But I got to know many more students and staff at the school I was working at.
Boys and girls 12-18 wearing thin, dark green sweaters, light green pants or skirts, and black shoes. Every pupil had buzzed hair–causing me more than a couple of embarrassing pronoun misspeaks when addressing my youngest classes.
Teachers were mainly young Tanzanian men, staff were a couple of women helping with student meal prep, a couple of men worked on maintenance, and a grandfather-figure was our headmaster.
In both the village and the city, there were jobs to be done and adventures to be had. In the village, helping set up the computer lab and teach computer classes was my priority–the reason I came to Africa.
A class working in the completed lab
But I also had a way of following other curiosities to keep me busy. I photographed the life around the village: the traditional livestock and crop agriculture; the after-work social in the village square with old ladies selling produce, men playing intense rounds of some marble counting game, and others just socializing and drinking their sugar cane spirit. I would become their village portrait photographer.
On my weekends in Iringa, I photographed an incredible church service (blogged about a couple of weeks back), I befriended a young woman whose three-year-old niece lost her battle with malaria, and I found some time to help a couple of small businesses with their websites.
But like I said last week about stories being meaningless without someone to share them with, so are activities enhanced–even defined–by the relationships of those who shared in the experiences. All the activities and projects above were no exception. And a life split between the village and the city meant I had two occasions to say goodbye to those I came to know and care for.
The school goodbye was without much fanfare. This didn’t surprise me. It’s not that life in the village or at the school didn’t have its share of joy and celebration (soccer matches come to mind), but they didn’t punctuate certain occasions in the way my culture would. I remember my birthday in May–and it falling on the same day as one of the students, a boy turning fifteen on the 15th of the May. “Whoa!, it’s your golden birthday,” I exclaimed to him and his friends. I might as well have been speaking Chinese to these students. Birthdays just didn’t matter to them.
But though my parting wasn’t an occasion, I did have a couple of students recognize it. One girl said, “It’s your last day?”
“Yeah,” I responded. “But I might stay one extra day.”
“Stay two,” she shyly suggested.
Indeed there were many touching (and downright powerful) moments during my time at the school. I wanted the school to know this. So I printed pictures that best captured such moments and stapled them to a cardboard backing. My gift to the school was a reminder of the times they gifted to me.
Headmaster Mgongolwa and I
Now at the risk of breaking the vibe I have going on here, but for the sake of accuracy and painting a complete picture, there was another side of my departure.
Two days before leaving the village, the maintenance man, Busara, came by the teachers’ quarters. The 40-year-old, mustached, athletic, and good-natured man walked in the door of our dining space with his usual wide smile and dressed in his usual rubber boots, jeans, and worn green sweatshirt.
“Brandon?” he said as he entered.
“Yeah?” I answered while seated at our wood dining table.
He walked toward me holding out a limp wrist in the Tanzanian culture’s respectful gesture. (It’s my job then to grab his wrist as I might his hand if offering the method of greeting I was more used to.) I stood up and held his wrist.
“You’re leaving,” he said.
“Yes,” I said touched that he came to say goodbye.
“When you leave, maybe you have a, uh, gif. A gifi.”
As I looked at him without response, he finalized it with one more pronounced, “Guifts.”
Oh, a gift. He wasn’t the only one. The day before, after a day dotted with student goodbyes, I was walking home in the dark of night after computer class. Between lit-up school buildings, a younger girl walking behind me caught up with a bounce in her step. These being my final days at the school, and with a send-off vibe in the air this day, I welcomed her approach both because I was savoring each moment and because I figured she might want to say goodbye herself.
I couldn’t see her face in the dark. But I knew she was a younger student due to her size.
“Sa?” she asked lightly. (How they say “sir.”)
“Give me my money.”
“What!?” I said with a mild but definite “ah, c’mon” surprisingly frustrated vibe. She wanted me to give her some cash.
In addition, my closest companion in the village–the older gentleman who I referred to as Grandpa Ndambo–offered a similar parting. What can you give to me? was his sentiment.
Back in the dining area, I explained to Busara that I gave him (and the school gave me) seven months of each others’ time. I said that gifts come as an unexpected and pleasant result of the effort and time and love you’ve offered. For example, I reminded him that I gave him a picture of himself earlier that year by surprise.
As much the philosophy of gift-giving, though, was this also a lesson for me in the way that Tanzanians stereotype white people as having money to give. They knew this school was mainly backed by white Americans. They knew the village water wells were also. Things to Tanzanians tended to be pretty black and white. And as much a lesson to me in how Tanzanians view people like me, was perhaps a lesson for Busara in the shortcomings of his stereotypes. He asked earlier in my year if I could give him a computer. I’ve had students ask me that as well–and since via email. But regardless of any philosophical breaches in his asking for a gift was the reality that I had nothing to give anyway. Not all Americans have money.
Feeling awkward, perhaps, he offered thank yous and your welcomes. “Asante…Asante…You’re welcome…You’re welcome,” he said while looking straight through my chest.
I tried to offer a reassuring smile, but it was a bit awkward for me, too.
In the city, Iringa, I had a goodbye dinner with the friends I made there. The occasion was the second time in eight months that I actually combed my hair. It was two nights before I would leave for that five city, three country, two week trek around Lake Victoria. Ryan showed up, a 27-year-old Peace Corps volunteer from Indiana. There was Leah, my one fellow foreign volunteer out at the village school. And there was Kathy, a Colorado woman who found love, a new career path as a safari guide, and a new home in Iringa. Both Kathy’s Tanzanian husband and Leah’s Tanzanian boyfriend showed up, as did other people I befriended along the way.
In two days’ time, I’d leave the village and city I called home for eight months.
Goodbyes are powerful for two reasons. We will miss that which (or who) we won’t see for at least a long time. The other reason is more subtle, but I also think more powerful and fundamental: goodbyes remind us of the temporary nature of things–and we don’t like this realization. Someone’s death, a break-up, a move, seeing your child go off to college. All these occasions have us reflect on the moments–the moments not to be had again–the moments we want to capture in a bottle–the fleeting moments that remind us life is short and temporary despite how much we want the beautiful to last forever.
There’s no remedy for this. There’s no escaping the fact that all things come to an end. But realizing this truth can help us cherish the time that we do have.
The day before I left the village, I walked the school grounds like it was my first day there. I just saw everything clearer, sharper: the buildings, the fields of tall grass. I felt the wind on the jacket-weather day.
Walking up the slight hill to the flagpole and administration buildings, I met Headmaster Mgongolwa at the top.
“Yes, Brandon,” he responded in that voice of his combining gruffness and warmness.
I stood and surveyed the school. Just him, me, the surroundings, and the elements. Shallow hills in the distance, village buildings decorating the valley below, school buildings closest to us. The cool air and cloudy sky filling the emptiness and setting the mood.
It felt like fall in Minnesota.
“Everything feels so fresh,” I said. Headmaster just listened. “Why is that things can’t be this fresh everyday? Why only when you are leaving?” Somehow it reminded me of the similar trait of only getting one’s butt in gear to get a task done when a deadline is looming.
I realized that I was present precisely because I knew the end was near. I could feel the end; I could see the temporary nature of my time here. This realization put me on a plane of presence.
But why not be on this plane always?
“We think things will stay the same.” I continued aloud. Indeed, when I don’t “feel the end,” I’m allowed to slunk down into a mode of being where I ignore my surroundings–or at least where they aren’t nearly as crisp.
“Presence is the recognition of impermanence,” I surmised to Headmaster.
Otherwise, we think things will be the same. Maybe this is good, a natural mechanism so that when we are in a place for any length of time, it allows work and productivity and project completion to take over in lieu of this plane of presence.
I wondered, though, if it was possible to have both.
Can I “feel the end” not just when a project is ending, or a deadline is looming, but just in general–knowing that I won’t live forever?
On the 15th of September, 2014, I started off on a journey. Presence was easy these two weeks as everything was always new. I learned, though, that sometimes presence isn’t pretty when facing the rugged reality of African travel.
Rugged, relaxing; ugly, beautiful; unique, universal.
So is East Africa. So will be the following weeks’ articles.
Goodbye village, hello Lake Victoria.