Everything is different.
The trees that line the road and the ones in the fields we drive past are different. The birds, too, big circling birds of prey and tiny sparrows with blue bodies. The clothes people wear are often different and much more colourful and curvy. The mannequins displaying clothes have amplified buttocks to realistically portray the typical African woman (even though the mannequins’ colour is still pale like my skin); the sidewalks are not safe squares of concrete but more often dirt patches on the side of the road, in places whirling up in a dusty cloud when a truck passes by. The Kiswahili language is still largely incomprehensible to me, although I recognize more and more words in passing. Not enough to know if I’m being harassed or complimented so I choose to believe the latter. I greet people in shops with enthusiasm and they respond with giggles and smiles. No matter how well I’ve been able to camouflage myself in the past and walk any street unnoticed – either because the Moroccans in my old Amsterdam neighbourhood otherwise harassed me or because as an amateur photographer I want to blend in with the environment so that the subjects are unaware of my presence – my relative hypopigmentation fails to disguise me. I’m now officially a mzungu, “white person” (not a negative term, simply descriptive), and most certainly a minority. Because I like to walk, which is probably an even weirder thing to see a mzungu do as we should by default have enough money to drive everywhere, I constantly get offers from pikipiki drivers to get a lift from them, but not in a annoying way; they are just trying to identify a customer and to make a living. There seems to be no urgency with anything ever – meetings are scheduled only never to materialize, flights are delayed endlessly and without customer information, meals are ordered and can appear anywhere between 15 to 90 minutes later. Rules are not really rules when you know someone who has a family member somewhere. The police will fine you because they can, not because you did anything wrong; better to give them 10.000 shillings than protest the 30.000 fictional fine, as that might get you a much more expensive situation. There’s no drinking the water from the tap, power sometimes disappear…
Not everything is different.
The plants I used to buy in climate controlled stores in Amsterdam and did my best to keep alive and to get to thrive in a much colder environment, are readily available here; either in road side nurseries or simply as road side plants, planted or wild. And in supernatural size! But they are familiar and comforting to me. The fruit and vegetables are juicier and fresher as they have ripened here (even if you should peel everything), but they too are similar.
It still kinda works
However chaotic this new/old world appears with the dust whirling up by passing trucks, the exhaust from lower octane-driven vehicles, the honking to courteously not aggressively warn each other, the swerving, white-knuckling, teeth-clenching overtaking manoeuvres –
However much they rely on hard physical daily grinding labour, harvest their crops in a distant field, get the crop to the main road by donkey or bike or cart or on their heads, get it on a daladala to offload it close to a market in town –
However much everybody seems to be busy outside every single day and at all hours thus adding to the sensation of being in a sprawling crawling ant’s nest –
However much Today’s needs are sought to be met in a very visible and tangible hustle; however much it seems the average person is not afforded the luxury of worrying about the past nor the future much more than a handful of days on either side of Now –
They still, like people in Amsterdam, eat, buy, sell, work, sleep, procreate, hope and wish. We’re humans, we just do things differently. Albeit they pray a tad louder here than in Amsterdam.
Happy with less
An image that stayed with me from Sunday morning as we were driving to the airport from Arusha was a glimpse of a group of little kids, dressed in mismatched scraggly clothes. Fertile fields of maize and sunflowers immediately behind them, the mountains a distant blue-green gently jagged backdrop, slanted morning rays of sun, the kids were jumping up and down and laughing with delight – not because we went by, they didn’t notice my mzungu state – but because they were happy together, jumping around. Adam noticed my looking at them, and he simply stated: ‘Happy children’.