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Native Dance

Sitting on the 14 seater plane flying over Lake Victoria, my hands clenched tightly to the armrests and I felt butterflies in my stomach at the least bit of turbulence. I hate flying and add to that in a very small propeller plane run by an African airline.

Forget it. My blood pressure was soaring. At the same time, I was elated. I had convinced my boss to let me join him and his beltway bandit consultant, Paul, on a journey to a remote Tanzanian village called Ahakishaka near the Rwandan border.

I knew the part of Tanzania I was going to was not part of the usual tourist route. In fact, Peace Corps volunteers I met told me they were forbidden to go there because Rwandan refugees were relocated to that area after the 1994 genocide. A safari guide told me once that thieves sometimes jumped out from the bushes and ambushed travelers. I later learned all the refugees had repatriated and it was totally peaceful there now.

We were visiting Ahakishaka to meet with the villagers to discuss installing solar energy panels since they didn’t have electricity. My boss grew up there and after years in the big city of Dar es Salaam, he wanted to go back and help the Nyambo people. I was volunteering short-term as a grant writer to find donors for his various projects.

Although in my African dream I envisioned living in a small village out in the bush without running water or electricity, the only paying job I could find in Africa was in Dar. Even though I was living in Africa, rural village life was still a mystery to me. In an urban setting, I couldn’t really “go native”. There were English speakers all around so I wasn’t forced to practice Swahili. People lived in concrete houses so I couldn’t live in a mud hut. There were internet cafes on almost every street corner. So as the plane touched down on the gravelly strip of land in Bukoba on the bank of the lake, I could hardly believe I made it (in one piece) and would finally live (at least for one week) among real African villagers. It was almost overwhelming. For a week before the trip, I was convinced I’d at least get malaria as a strike from God. As my dream was becoming a reality, I though Murphy’s law would take over. But no malaria, no giardia, no parasites, nothing. I was in a land rover headed for the wild magical heart of eastern Africa.

We arrived too late to travel all the way to the village, so we had to stay overnight in the district’s central town. After a few meetings there the next day, we headed for Ahakishaka. It was dark by the time we arrived and I was getting nervous about living in a mud hut for a week. I kept telling myself “You asked for it!” and now I was gonna get it. Sometimes that saying “Be careful for what you wish for” is very true.

I was a bit bewildered when we drove up to a large house that was lit up with what looked like electricity. I didn’t understand. Where was the thatched roof and hardened mud walls? This was Sister Gudron’s house, a Lutheran missionary from Denmark who had been living there since 1968. Her house was like a country cottage straight out of Martha’s Vineyard, but powered by solar energy. Without my knowledge, my boss had arranged for me to stay in her home for a week. So to both my relief and disappointment, I’d be staying in the African village version of the lap of luxury a solar powered home with concrete walls and an indoor toilet.

During the week we, along with the village council members, went to a remote hamlet that is a part of Ahakishaka but quite far away and inaccessible by car. That meant walking for hours through banana plantations and hiking up and down hills where in the distance you could see Rwandan land. Once we arrived, the council members had to search for and collect the villagers so we could begin our meeting. Before coming, I expected the villages to be centralized and small. Here was another assumption blown to bits. These villages were enormous incredibly long because banana plantations separated family homes.

Finally, the people gathered and we started our meeting. The women, wearing colorful kangas and kitengis (traditional African cloth) most of them with babies at their breasts, were on one side and the men in western looking shirts and pants were on the other, sitting on large banana leaves on the ground. But I was distracted by a little boy who demanded extra attention. While the other children were timid, this boy kept running up to me, putting his hands together as if in prayer and saying “Chickamoo” which is a Tanzanian greeting by younger people to their elders as a sign of respect. It comes from Arabic and literally means “May I be under your feet” to which the elder replies “Marahaba” or “Yes, you may”.

He had a charming smile and although he was covered in dirt and was wearing tattered clothing, I could see he was a beautiful boy. My heart really went out for him as the western part of me thought how tragically poor he is and I wished I could take him home with me.

Little Darios, at only 3 years old, made the biggest impact on me that day. I searched in my bag for a gift something, anything to show him I thought he was special. But I hadn’t planned on meeting such a special boy. All I had was a red ribbon AIDS pin a friend had given me. If I’d pinned that on a child in America it would have meant nothing, but for Darios well, I might as well have been Santa Claus handing out a bagful of toys. He was ecstatic, winding his way through the crowds of men and women, pointing proudly to the pin on his shirt and then hugging himself as it was the only way he could hug his new gift. I promised myself once I returned to America I would send him a box full of clothing and toys.

The next morning I had a chance to walk around the grounds of Sister Gudron’s house. Tanzanian Sister Pauline’s house and the church were nearby. In the middle of the compound was a flower garden and yard and strangely enough a mud hut with a thatched roof. It was odd because everyone lived in concrete houses and no one was staying in the hut. When I questioned Gudron about it she told me she and the villagers built it just for fun and she had planned an “inauguration” party for the end of the week. I had no idea what to expect but I was grateful I’d be around for a village celebration that wasn’t set up for tourists.

The morning of the party, the village women were busy preparing the plantains to make “matoke”, a plantain dish that resembles mashed potatoes. Sister Gudron told me not to disturb them, to just let them do what they had to do without getting in their way. But I couldn’t help myself. I wanted to sit alongside them and for a while pretend I was a party of their community. The community of village women. One group stood over large vats, stirring ugali (stiff porridge) over open flames and another sat on logs peeling plantains. I was hesitant at first to join them, thinking about the sister’s warning, and because I couldn’t speak the tribal language Kinyambo and my Swahili was embarrassingly basic. So for a few minutes, I watched as an outsider until one of the women signaled for me to come closer and as I walked towards her, she held out a knife and a plantain.

Most of the women turned to watch me with smiles on their faces as I kneeled beside her. Since she couldn’t explain how to peel it in words, she showed me from top to bottom until the blade almost touched the heel of the other palm. I tried to peel it that way but was afraid of the blade cutting into my palm. Some of the women laughed at my clumsiness until finally the woman who called me over reached out her hand with a look in her eye saying “Enough already”.

I stood up, put my hands in my pockets and nodded goodbye. I supposed the sister was right. I should just stay out of their way.

Since my colleagues were in another town for the day, I was alone waiting for the festivities to begin. As my efforts to help with the cooking were awkward at best I decided to read a novel as the villagers prepared the food. Finally, around 2 p.m., people started coming. With all the different kangas and kitengis, it was like a sea of colors and shapes pouring in Gudron’s yard. I ventured again to join the women. At least this time I knew I wouldn’t make any mistakes. With my pigeon Swahili, I could greet them, say my name and ask them simple questions.

Mostly we just nodded and smiled at each other. Some of the children played with my hair or touched my skin. Patiently we all waited for the ceremony to begin.

Once the matoke, ugali and goat meat were ready, women brought the food into the hut and several elderly men followed them. After they finished, another group of men had their turn at the meal. I realized only the men were allowed to eat in the hut and the women and children ate outside using huge banana leaves as plates. Everyone was filling up their calabashes wooden cups shaped liked pumpkins and elongated stems – with lubisi, a brown millet drink. The people were gulping it down as if they had discovered water in the desert but after one sip, I cringed. I guess it’s an acquired taste.

A group of men gathered in front of the hut with small drums and an igubili, a one-stringed instrument sort of shaped like a guitar and played pressed up against the skin of the stomach. After an elderly man gave a speech about the hardships his generation faced years ago living in the villages, the music and dancing began. I sat under a tree next to a young woman who teaches English at the local school. She had her one year old daughter with her and she cooed and laughed as I tickled her face. One thing I’d always wanted to do since coming to Tanzania was carry a baby on my back like African women do. I grabbed the chance and asked her if she’d let me “wear” her baby. I ran to my room and got my kitengi to wrap the baby in. When I came out, she placed the baby on my back, piggy-back style and tied the kitengi across my back and around my waist to hold her up. I took a few steps forward and slowly a wave of laughter swept through the crowd as they turned away from the dancers to watch me. There I was, standing with a baby tied to my back, just trying to understand even slightly one of the sensations of an African mother. And there was every single villager, now with their backs to the dancing and drumming in front of the hut more amused by the white girl carrying an African baby on her back. I had interrupted the entire celebration. My face was burning and I stopped in my tracks and froze like a deer in headlights. I had become the center of attention, rather than fitting in. I laughed it off and returned the baby to her mother and the party continued.

Once my colleagues returned, I was given the honor of sitting next to the elders and drummers. Their dancing was quite sexual, with kangas strategically tied around the fullest part of their hips. A circle was cleared for the dancers but it wasn’t really big enough for their movements pelvic thrusting, arms swaying and bare feet pounding on the dirt. When the rhythm sped up so did their gyrations and it seemed like a competition to see who could move the fastest. The man who gave the speech earlier gestured for me to join them and I declined. Maybe they would think I was not only an outsider but also an intruder. I also didn’t want to steal the spotlight again. But Paul turned to me and whispered, “Here is your chance to do something you may never have a chance to do again.”

And I really did long to dance with them. So I got up and rocked my hips to the beat and they opened a space among themselves to welcome me in. I could see villagers in the back of the crowd craning their necks or standing on tippy toes to get a better view of me.

But then I focused on the women I was dancing with and followed their lead. Slowly, I shut out everything except for the sounds of the drums.

I had never danced to African drum beats before but it felt natural. Like I’d already done it. I closed my eyes and all thoughts floated out of mind, as if I was meditating. When I opened them, I saw the women smiling back at me and we seemed to be connecting. I can’t remember being that happy and centered. Just a feeling that all is right with the world. I don’t know if I felt that way because I had danced in an African village in a former life or because I was destined to do so. But the feeling overpowered me.

The dance didn’t last long, but it was the most significant part of my week in Ahakishaka.

I could sense that the women who found my incompetence at peeling plantains and interest in carrying a baby on my back amusing, now looked at me as a friend. After the celebration, several came over to me and complimented me on my dancing (I understood that through a translator). Did they see me less as “The Other”? I don’t know if they saw me as “The Other” in the first place. Maybe it was my own insecurities which created an imaginary distance between them and me. I know that after the dance, I felt closer to them and some kind of cultural barrier was broken.

I would’ve like to have stayed longer to enjoy the tranquility and natural beauty of the region, but mostly to get to know some of the individual people better. Unfortunately, I had to leave for Dar the next day. Back to the dust, heat and noise of the big city. I didn’t look forward to going but I knew that’s where I had to continue my work to find funding for our projects. Now that I’m back in America, I’m thankful I had such a special opportunity to visit the Nyambo people. When I think about my time in Tanzania, that week stands out as the most rewarding. I got the closest ever in my life to fulfilling my dream of living in a traditional African village and experiencing traditional African life.

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