Last year I had the chance to travel through the music-scapes of Tanzania and Kenya and Ethiopia (homes of my childhood, lands of my literal dreams); I feel I’ve grown in ways that I’m only beginning to recognize and identify. Maybe “grown” is not the right word—I feel reworked, revised, I feel startled and shorn, I feel unsure of many things I previously felt sure about. I feel, with a mixture of shame and relief, the size and the heft of my un-knowledge. “Grown” is the wrong word. I feel shrunk more than anything.
Maybe because I’d walked Tanzanian ground before (Tanzania as marked by the technical black lines of the World Map; there are so many tanzanias contained in that stomach-shaped scrawl) or maybe because I already spoke Kiswahili, or maybe because I am privy to the same generalizations and assumptions that I scold other outsiders for holding about East Africa, I expected to slide smoothly into the sprawl and strata of Dar es Salaam. Dar es Salaam: capital city, home to three million, primary port of commerce and trade, political nexus. Teeming with musical divas, starving entrepreneurs, con artists, rancid politicians, clear-eyed sailors, rural girls looking for husbands, kids vending ice cream they cannot afford to eat.
Dar es Salaam, gleefully defaulting on the promise encoded in its ancient title: abode of peace. A half-promised land, a humid festering land in which long months of sweat and striving rarely translate into real returns. Three million dreams hemmed in by the warm semi-circle of the Indian Ocean, sprouting and spreading in the heat like weird bacterial growths in a petri dish. How did I expect to enter that humid, living tangle without some great effort—without the pain of grafting, of surrendering myself to the larger organism?
Those first months in Dar es Salaam, I can only describe as transitional. I had hoped to speed through the acclimation process, bypass all of the discomfort and dependence and disorientation of starting over in a strange city. I’d expected to stride cleanly onto the “music scene.” I’d expected—across the pockmarked, pot-holed, unmapped morass of Tanzania—to ride some level inroad straight into its center. But within days, Dar es Salaam had reduced me—or elevated me, I guess—to the dependency level of a child: a tentative questioner, an apologetic intruder.
Only after being away from Dar es Salaam for some months has it begun to take shape in my mind. When you’re in the city, it demands all of your senses, at all times—there’s no way to hold it clearly in a single glance, which is what makes it so difficult to write about. Dar es Salaam is defined by its much-ness. It still feels too expansive and volatile and shifty for words, but like all lovers of place and language, I have to try—
Tanzania is a country for sleeping with no blankets, just sheets, and sometimes not even that—sleeping on bare beds, sleeping on the cold stone floor. At the home of the Guni’s—my first host family—there was an open courtyard in the middle of the house, and all through July, the city was ravaged by night-storms, storms that came right into the structure of the house, and not at all tentatively. The house was like a mouth turned skyward, thirsty for storm-water, gawking at whatever gods arced over the human schemata of the coastline.
For my part, I felt cracked open, a pomegranate with its bright red innards gleaming through the skin. Everything in me was showing—I simply couldn’t hide. During that first month, I kept waking up in the early dawn to rain plummeting down through the roof, and the cement floor running in rivers so that I couldn’t go to the bathroom without my clothes and skin getting soaked. The lines between natural and domesticated space were utterly irrelevant. The walls, the ground and my body—all were turning heavy with water, and never more receptive.