Friday, February 09, 2007

40 days

i seek the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom, always, to know the difference.

A little quiz for you:

You move to a new town. You are alone and pretty unsure of yourself. You want friends to talk to, and you need people you who can trust to give you advice about your new surroundings. The family across the street takes you in: The step-mother invites you to hang out with her on the front stoop, teaches you the local language, and brings you food a few times a week. The 10 year old daughter becomes one of your best friends: she takes you mango-hunting, she stays for sleep-overs in your guest-room, she plays with your dog every day, she realizes that she loves spaghetti and pizza. The father is like your own father: he helps you build your garden, he chases away kids who are teasing your dog, he trims the tree in your front yard, he drinks local beer with you in the evenings, and he comes to you for help when his daughter is struggling in school.

Fast forward one and a half years. These people are still the closest thing that you have to a family within a hundred miles. You are on vacation and you get a phone call from a friend that will leave you sobbing on the beach: Father is dead.

You return home to a double tragedy: Not only is father dead, but his relatives want to take his daughter away from her step-mother. It is for her own good, they say: her real mother died years ago, and this woman will only use her as a house-helper and chore girl. The other relatives don’t mention that they will probably use her in this same way in their own homes. But you know that neither situation is perfect… step-mom, despite being a close friend, isn’t ideal: she drinks too much, she sells local beer out of her home, and she could conceivably end up re-marrying into a situation that is less than safe for a young adolescent girl. You only know a few things about the other relatives: they live in a remote location where you would be unlikely to visit, the school system in that rural area is nothing more than a mean joke, and your best local friend has once described these distant relatives to you as “criminals”.

What do you do? Do you sweep in to “fix” things? Do you take the girl into your own home? Do you pack her off to boarding school? Or do you decide that the whole thing is none of your business? Do you adopt a “god complex”, deciding that only you know what is best for the child? Do you listen to the voice whispering behind your ear that YOU are the only person who can keep her safe? Or do you decide that it’s too illogical, too hard, too much and too soon for you to take on that role? Do you decide that it’s futile to even try? Do you wonder if you are being conceited and egotistical even to imagine that taking her from her family and sweeping her into the Western world is what is best for her?

All you know is that you can’t breathe when you imagine what it would be like to lose her.

What do you do?

January 8, 2007

Late at night on December 30, I was partying on the beach in Zanzibar and Bakari called me with the horrific news: “Baba is dead”. I thought he meant HIS father, and I started to tell him how sorry I was… and then he clarified: “Not my baba, jen, YOUR baba. Baba Jamila”. I literally fell to my knees in the sand, sobbing. I immediately knew what the situation would be back in Newala, and told Bakari one thing: “Don’t let them take Jamila away, Bakari. I will be home next week. DON'T LET THEM TAKE HER AWAY”.

On December 28, Issa Kunachi (commonly called Baba Jamila, after the name of his only child) heard the news that two local boys had drowned that day in a mud pit. Near the cashew factory behind my house, there is an area where people make bricks for their houses by digging them out of the sticky clay soil. Where the clay is taken away, all that remains are huge pits…which recently filled with water when the rainy season began a few weeks ago. The boys probably didn’t even know how to swim and likely thought that the pit was much shallower than it actually was. As people gathered around the pits that afternoon, somebody asked if there was anyone in the crowd who was able to swim who could retrieve the bodies of the boys. Issa volunteered, stripped to his shorts, and dove in. Around 2am that night, after a group of men had spent 5 hours emptying the pit one bucket at a time, they found Baba Jamila and the two boys, stuck to the mud in the bottom of the hole.

(baba jamila is second to the left, holding one of my project grants)

It’s like some kind of evil irony. We live on the top of a plateau, in a place where there are no rivers, no lakes, and where the biggest health problem is that there is no water for half of the year. And my Baba drowned in a mud puddle. I can’t help but think…if I had been there, I possibly would have volunteered to jump in. I certainly would have gone in after Baba if he had disappeared. And I definitely would have been the only person among the crowd who knew CPR. Frankly, though, since returning home 2 days ago, I haven’t spent much time wondering if I could have saved him (Or even died myself). I haven’t even spent much time mourning him. I mean, I do cry. I remembered him when I pulled weeds today in the garden that he built for me, and my kiswahili choked in my mouth this evening when I saw Mama Jamila standing alone outside her house wrapped entirely in black cloth.

But there is obviously something much more important that occupies my mind most of the time these days: Jamila. (To read more about Issa and Jamila, you can check out some of my posts from last year: December 2005, January, February, and March 2006) The girl is seriously like a daughter to me. So much so that I even, a few months before Baba died, jokingly researched on the internet if it would be possible for me to take her home with me. (As a side-note, it isn’t: Tanzanian law states that you must be 21 years older than any child you adopt, and I am only 17 years older than her.) Anyway, at the time, it was only a joke. Her father would have never let her leave him, and she would have never wanted to be away from him either. He kidded me sometimes about taking her away “to a better life, to America” but I knew that it was nothing more than idle talk. But he still came to me with issues about her education: after learning about her problems at school, I helped him to switch her last year to a much better one (that actually has enough desks for all the students! That's huge.) I don’t want to leave the impression that Issa was a faultless guy, or that Jamila’s life was all peachy-perfect before her father died. That would be a huge error: I always worried about her because of his drinking, because of the wasted people at her house all the time, and because sometimes she didn’t seem to eat more than 1-2 meals a day before she started coming to my house for dinner most nights. No, he was far from perfect, but he was still my friend and, most of the time, a good father (in comparison to some other guys I have seen here).

I have spent the last few days figuring out what to do about the situation that I have found myself in. There is a part of me, of course, that tells me I cannot do much. To be honest, I am surrounded by orphans in my village, and I am surrounded by children who live a life that is less than ideal. Why should this girl, Jamila, be the one for me to “save”? And in fact, can I really “save” her? Sometimes I think that she will do just fine if I let her continue on with her life in whatever way her family decides is best for her. But then I remember two things: The first is the day, in May of last year, when Issa came to me for advice about Jamila’s education. He knew even then that I would help, that I cared about her enough to make the right decisions for her. And I do not question for one second that he knew, without a doubt, that if something happened to him that I would continue to watch over her. That sustains me through this time of immense loss. He knew that I would never just walk away from her.

The second thing is a text message that I received on the day I returned home. I was sitting on the bus traveling from Mtwara to Newala… and I was petrified. Crying into my kitenge, scared to death of what would happen when I arrived at home. Afraid to see Mama, nervous to see Jamila, and unsure of how I would know what was the “right” thing to do. I wasn’t even sure if she would still be there: I didn't know then that Bakari had, true to his promise, asked her other relatives to leave Jamila here at least until February. My friend Tait knew how worried I was to be going home, and she sent me this text:

“You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars. You have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should…”

The text sent me into a new round of tears, of course. I can’t decide if the message is better directed at me - or at Jamila herself. I am not sure that it matters. Either way, I knew at that moment that we would get through this tragedy together. Which is, it seems, the way it was meant to be. What I mean is that, if Baba was meant to die, then I was surely meant to be here, and to be close to Jamila, when he did.

I got off the bus, dropped my bags inside the house, and walked back outside with my heart thumping in my chest. Jamila stood alone at the gate of her courtyard, waiting for me. A quick hug and a few words whispered in each other’s ears was all that was needed… my fear fell away. I went in to talk to mama and, when I asked her what would happen to Jamila, her only answer was “utaamua”. You will decide. I didn’t understand what she meant until later that evening, as Jamila and I ate spaghetti and read a new book I had bought in Dar es Salaam. The thing is, maybe you don’t remember what I wrote in one of my first few entries on this blog… but I never forget it: Half of my job here in Tanzania is just being someone that people will listen to. I hate using my whiteness to my advantage, but there it is. I am foreign, and different, and generally considered to be rich and educated. If I say something, people listen. They don’t always do what I ask them to (like being monogamous!) but they do pay attention to what I have to say- if only because I am so funny-looking.

Mama was telling me that, if I choose to stay uninvolved, Jamila will probably be dragged against her will to some rural village, to live with relatives she barely knows. If, on the other hand, I ask her relatives to leave her with her step-mother, and I promise to look after her somewhat myself, they will very likely agree. If I offer to send her to boarding school someday, they will be thrilled that she has an unprecedented chance to get a good education. I hate feeling like I have this “power” that nobody else has… as though, with the sweep of a hand, I can change this girl’s life. The worst part isn’t acknowledging that this is true… it’s accepting that all of the other kids I care about will be, somehow, left behind. It is realizing that I choose Jamila because I love her, and that I don’t have the ability- or the space in my heart- to do this for every child who cannot stand on her own.

“He who saves a single life, saves the world entire.”

January 15, 2007

Jamila and I went to town today. We bought her a new uniform and some notebooks for class, which starts next week. We talked to her headmaster and asked that she be held back a year, since she is already behind her classmates (because she was at a low-performing school until June of last year). I am pretty confident that, by the end of this year, she will be all caught up in her studies and will be ready for Standard 4 next year. It means that she won’t graduate high school until she is 19, but I figure that is OK. Better that than she continue as she is, towards the back of her class, feeling like a failure.

While we were in town, she also followed me on a few errands I had to run. It was her first time to go into the bank, her first time in the government offices, and her first time to see a printer (I had to explain to her what ink is!) She’s a great kid, I’m telling you.

Jamila’s family is Muslim, which means that there will be an “arobaini”, which is a day of remembrance (very similar to a funeral) on the family’s last day of official mourning, which is 40 days after her father’s death. On that day, his relatives will come from all over the region and I will sit down with them to discuss Jamila’s future. On that day we will know for sure what will happen to her. My biggest worry right now is that I will go into that meeting putting my own desires ahead of Jamila’s needs. I can ask them to leave her here in Newala… but is that the right thing? Is that just selfish? I have to figure out what is best for her… and do it, even if it means that I will lose her. I’m glad that I’m not a full-time parent: the very thought of something bad happening to her makes me want to puke.

February 6, 2007

Today was the final day of mourning for Baba Jamila. According to local Islamic tradition, the family has spent 40 days in mourning- each relative wearing a strip of cloth taken from his burial shroud around their necks and, in Mama’s case, wearing black from head to toe. Last night I went with Mama and Jamila to the family compound where we slept on mats under the stars with about 40 other friends and family. Emily came from Masasi, also, so that I wouldn't have to do it alone.

This morning the women starting cooking as the sun was rising.

Around 8am there was a brief ceremony where the strings were cut off of the relatives bodies, and Jamila and her mother were anointed with water.

Then we sat down, separated by gender and by age, to communal plates of rice and ugali.

We then sat down to discuss Jamila’s future. I had already talked to her paternal uncle and paternal grandmother separately the day beforehand. Her uncle was completely wasted on gongo (like moonshine) when I talked to him, and her grandmother is kind but seems rather frail. They both told me that they had been ready to take her to live with them in their remote villages, but that they will leave her here at my request. I have promised that when I leave Newala, I will give them advanced warning and, if they think it is necessary, they will take her away at that time. For now, they agree that her mama and I will care for her together – but, typical to Makonde culture, they don’t trust that her step-mother will care for her appropriately after I am gone. Frankly, I don’t either. Since Baba died, there have been a lot more people drinking all day long at their house – and while I don't blame mama for trying to make a living (and can think of plenty of worse things that she could be doing to get money) – it is still pretty clear to me that Jamila’s environment isn’t great. But for right now, this decision feels right. As long as she is near me, I can make sure that things are going well. It’s one of those things that you have to take one day at a time. I don't know what I will do when I leave Newala, but it is certainly on my mind.

After we returned home this afternoon, Jamila’s maternal grandmother said to me, “Thanks for coming. We can’t believe that you slept with us outside on the cold ground! You are now one of us. We are grateful for how you have helped us and for how you are helping Jamila. But what have we given to you?” I could only laugh in response. Finally I said, “Grandmother, don’t you see? Look around at the family surrounding me. You have given me this. That is all there is.”

My father has opened a savings account in the US under jamila’s name. If I can afford to put away $1000 per year, I can send her to a boarding school in Mtwara when the next academic year starts in January. That way I can be sure that the money I send her is actually paying for her education… and I can keep her away from drunks and an empty stomach for most of the year. If you are looking for a cause for your next tea party, please consider spreading the word about Jamila. Just send me an email for more information. Thanks.



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