Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Last Entry: Re-Entry

heading off to the Zanzibar airport
I’d intended to finish up the blog right after we got back to the US, but it’s not until now—on a snowy day five months later—that I’m finally getting around to it. 

We flew from Zanzibar on July 8, stopped for 4 days at our stopover in Amsterdam (where we visited the Anne Frank house and watched the final World Cup match on TV with other families at a neighborhood pub), and we arrived home to Tacoma on July 13.  On July 19, Brady and I left the boys with Brady's parents to go to a conference on academic writing in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, stopping for a week in France, and getting home for good on August 2.  Before school started, we enjoyed the tail end of a gorgeous Pacific Northwest summer--arising to cool, sunny mornings; picking blueberries in our favorite places; running with friends in the woods of Point Defiance Park.  Having seen much more of the world now, we know (not that there was any real doubt) that our home is among the loveliest places in the world. 

home sweet home
People have asked us what it’s like to be back home.  And that’s a tough question to answer.  When we were packing up to leave Zanzibar, I wrote twelve "top priority" blog entries in quick succession about things I wanted to capture before they faded from our consciousness.  In contrast, being at home feels like nothing to write home about.

Plus, we’ve been so busy. And I think that’s really the biggest day-to-day difference that we've all noticed.  In Zanzibar, we were teaching and going to school and exercising and doing things with friends, just like we do at home, but the predominant feeling we had was of having time (even perhaps too much time).  Back home, we’re busy; there’s more of everything—more scheduled activities, more homework, more house to clean and maintain, more choices to make at the grocery store, more new technology to learn to use.  And all of these things—wonderful though they are—take time. 

Now on the brink of the new year, we’re taking stock.

family dressed in Netherlands orange
In Zanzibar, we saw how much we have in the US and how little we really need. In Amsterdam, we saw how efficiently people can use bicycles as everyday transportation.  In France, Brady and I shared evening meals with people who took the time at the end of a busy day to enjoy a slow meal together.  In Tel Aviv, Brady and I saw hundreds of people outdoors, enjoying public outdoor exercise facilities and walking paths.

at a cafe in Normandy
In 2011, we want to take some of the best from what we’ve seen and exper-
ienced over the past year.  Thanks for reading our blog and supporting us while we were gone, especially during the holidays.  We hope to see you in the coming year!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Top Priority: Mitumba

When sorting through the various posses-
sions it is so easy to accumulate in America, I often have a hard time deciding what to do with two categories of things: the things that I just don’t like (old event t-shirts, clothes that aren’t very worn but are out of date or just never feel right).  Equally hard are the things that are pretty well worn out, but that still might have some life left in them (would anyone really want them or are they better off consigned to the trash?).  Generally, I give up, drop everything  off at the Goodwill or another charitable organization, feel simultaneously guilty and self-congratulatory for a bit, and then move on with my life, acquiring more things I don’t really need and will eventually be in a quandary about.

This year, I’ve seen what happens on the other side of that quandary.  Many, many things that no one wants in the US eventually make their way to Zanzibar and are sold as “mitumba.”  After almost a year, we’ve grown accustomed to seeing Zanzibari people walking around with shirts from various events that it’s very unlikely they attended and announcing identities they don’t appear to have (say, a middle-aged man wearing a “Jorgensen family reunion 2008—Duluth, MN” shirt, or an elderly man in a “Class of 2006 Roosevelt High Go Tigers!” shirt, or a teenage boy wearing a pink shirt that says “Hockey Mom”).  Women don’t tend to wear the t-shirts, but at a wedding I recently attended, I saw many women wearing slinky, sparkly used prom dresses, under which they wore coordinating long-sleeved t-shirts for modesty’s sake.

These various unwanted  American things are bundled up and shipped over to Africa, sold in lots at auctions to middlemen, and then transformed again to wanted things when purchased again by customers.  The resale price is relatively expensive for some things—I guess not surprisingly, given the distance these things have traveled and the number of hands they’ve passed through.   A used t-shirt in bad condition might be around 500 Tsh (around $.35), while a nicer t-shirt might run up to 2000 Tsh.  Shoes are really pricey and often cost more than new local shoes.

We shop from time to time at thrift stores in America, but I never thought we’d be buying American castoffs in Africa.  Certainly, when I was looking last fall for something that would protect my feet from sea urchins at the beach, I rejected outright a pair of well-used Tevas at the price of 15,000 Tsh (around $12) and instead spent 8,000 on a pair of new Tanzanian “Tuvas” which subsequently gave me blisters.  But, this spring when Oscar had outgrown all the shoes we’d brought with us from America and had worn two new pairs of Tanzanian shoes to the threads in a matter of weeks, we set out for the used market.  We hit the jackpot with a pair of used Keens that are like ones we had bought a few sizes ago in America.  The price?  Well, Brady bartered: a gently used pair of kids’ Addidas indoor soccer shoes, a practically demolished pair of sandals, an uncomfortable pair of dress shoes, plus 10,000 tsh.  A bargain!  Two months later, and those are the shoes Oscar’s wearing home.  

Top Priority: Flowers

One pleasure of this year has been seeing the very different flower species of Zanzibar, as well as places in the mainland and in South Africa.  Here are a couple of pictures, as well as a link to a gallery of more.

Top Priority: Balungi and avocado salad

It’s balungi season in Zanzibar, and we’ve been eating our fill of balungi and avocado salad.  Balungi are huge pink grapefruits with irregularly shaped segments, and they are among the many fruits here in Zanzibar that we will miss.  Balungi taste perfect paired with the nutty creaminess of avocados, accented by sliced red onion, salt, pepper, and a dash of vinegar.  

Top Priority: Telecommunications

In some ways, this year has catapulted our family into the 21st century.  In the U.S., we have resisted buying a cell phone because we have a perfectly good landline and haven’t felt like the expense of a cell phone was worth it.

In Zanzibar (and in most of Africa), there are very few landlines, but there are many cell phones, and these have a burgeoning variety of uses:
  • For phone calls (obviously)
  • For texting  (which everyone calls SMSing)
  • For Internet surfing
  • For banking (it’s possible to transfer money from one person to another via banking services that accept money in one place and give it out to a person in another—think Western Union.
  • For bill paying (for people who don’t have checking accounts or credit cards, the ability to pay electrical and other bills via cell phone is a huge advantage).
  • For subscription (for a fee, it’s possible to subscribe to news updates, horoscopes, soccer match scores, Qur-an or Bible verses, ring tones, and more)
  • For education (in Niger, though not in Zanzibar, there’s an adult basic literacy program that sends lessons to learners through cell phone, and it’s likely that there will be more of these kinds of ventures)
Cell phone plans are unheard of.  What most if not all people do is buy a cell phone, buy a SIM card for the phone, and “top up” the cell phone with vouchers in various monetary increments, which are available in dukas almost everywhere.  (The new SIM card owner also might register the SIM card.  The government has been pushing this year to get everyone to register their SIM cards, but it’s not been very successful, because of resistance and low literacy, among other things.)  There are several competing companies that provide proprietary SIM cards/vouchers, and these companies are advertised by the standardized sign paint at dukas that sell the company’s vouchers.

We’ve been most impressed by the high-speed Internet available.  These blogs—as well as e-mail, Internet searches, and Skype conversations—have been made possible by this little modem that plugs into our computer.  It has its own SIM card and can be topped up with the same vouchers as we use to top up Brady’s and my phones.  Internet time costs 2-3 times what comparable service in the U.S. does, but it has been well worth it, as it has been our main link with home and with the world at large.

Top Priority: Christ Church Cathedral

One thing we’ll miss when we leave Zanzibar is Christ Church Cathedral.  The cathedral is a powerful symbol of international attempts to right the wrongs of slavery and to create an integrated modern society. The cathedral was built on the grounds of Zanzibar’s slave market and was part of British missionaries’ attempt to reclaim that land.  The altar of the sanctuary is built on the site of the whipping post, and the cramped slave quarters in the basement are open to visitors, in an ongoing attempt to educate people about this dark time in Zanzibar’s not-so-distant past (slavery wasn’t abolished until 1897). 

We attended services in the small chapel that is attached to the cathedral.  While not as large or grand as the cathedral, the chapel provided a welcome small community for us.  Sunday services in the chapel are the only Protestant services in English in Stone Town, so there is a regular stream of foreign visitors passing through.  On any given Sunday, the congregation is among the most racially and nationally diverse places in Zanzibar, but the liturgy is basically the same as in any Anglican church around the world.  Services are led by either a retired priest from the mainland or by a Zanzibari priest, and the congregation typically includes us, a couple of lay members of the church, a handful of other Zanzibaris who know English well and/or want to practice, a Swedish woman who lives in town, a family from Indonesia who live in town, a tourist or two from Europe, a tourist or two from America, and a tourist or two from somewhere in East Africa.  We will miss Christ Church.

Top Priority: Animals of Zanzibar

As the boys will attest, we have been missing our dog Lexi this year.  It helps to know that she’s being well taken care of by the president of the Greyhound Rescue Society but, still, we miss her. 

That is not for want of seeing animals. There are animals everywhere in Zanzibar.  In our neighborhood, we have I don’t know how many roosters (at 5 AM it seems like roughly a million), lots of cats (again, rather loud when amorous or fighting), and the occasional goat that’s bought for a special celebration and lives in the neighborhood for a poignant day or so of bleating.  In areas with a bit more grass, there are also cows.  And then there are the work animals—donkeys and oxen that pull carts.  

There are almost no dogs (in part because Muslims consider dogs unclean, and in part, I’m told, because many dogs were killed a few years back during a rabies epidemic).  We ourselves have had a few sets of pet hermit crabs, but we stopped that practice when one too many had escaped (amazingly, all were eventually found, though one spent what must have been a terrifying night under the couch).  Most animals except cats are owned by people, but most roam around pretty freely. Few can be said to be pets in the traditional sense are birds, which many people around town have.  (Unless you count this man on a bicycle's literal "monkey on his back" as a pet in the traditional sense.)

Top priority: Beaches

Beaches are everywhere in this long, narrow island.  Over the course of the year, we’ve become beach aficionados (which is different than becoming beach bums).  We each have our favorite beaches, from the rocky caves of Mangapwani Beach; to the fantastic swimming and sometimes crashing waves at Nungwi (near Juli McGruder’s welcoming B&B); to the exquisite birdwatching at the long, flat, and often seaweed-covered beaches of the east coast; to the magical disappearing beach of sandbanks (little islands that only appear at low tide and that are best appreciated in the evening, when it doesn’t matter that there are no trees for sun protection).  We’ve seen seasonal changes in the sea (more dramatic, actually, than the seasonal temperature differences on land), and we’ve grown to appreciate the mercurial effect of the tides on beaches.  I’d never considered myself a beach person, but this year is making me reconsider. Here are a couple of pictures, as well as a link to a gallery of more.

Top Priority: Fabric

There are several different varieties of traditional fabrics in Zanzibar, including the kikoi (a long piece of fabric with tassles on the end, used as a sort of skirt for men and worn around the house like a bathrobe or sometimes in public, especially by elderly men), the kitenga (fabric in the sense that I’m used to seeing fabric in the US, long colorful pieces designed to be cut and sewn into other things—especially the fitted dresses or skirt-top combinations worn with matching head pieces by Christian women in Zanzibar and on the mainland), and a fabric whose name I don’t know but that is silky and often embellished and is made into long fancy dresses that get worn a lot more here in Zanzibar than comparable dresses are in the US.  Fashion is important in Zanzibar.

But, undoubtably, the queen of fabrics is the khanga.  “Khanga” is the Kiswahili word for guinea hens, which are common on the mainland. (I don’t see the resemblance, but apparently, the busy appearance of khangas reminded some influential person of guinea hens).

In any case, khangas are pieces of fabric with a patterned border and a coordinating patterned field, with a message written in Kiswahili.  Khangas are sold in long pieces of two panels, and, after purchase, are cut in two and hemmed to be worn as a skirt and head covering, usually over other clothing. I don’t see many women in Stone Town wearing khangas, but my friend Umayra assures me that every Swahili woman owns many of them, either at home or (in rural areas) for everyday wear.  There are hundreds of khangas currently for sale in Zanzibar, and new khangas come out all the time. During the course of this year, we’ve seen a few prominent khangas go in and out of fashion.

Tourist shops feature khangas with the words removed and the colorful patterns cut up and sewn into more structured garments.  But in Swahili culture, the saying on the khanga is very important.  The saying can communicate a subtly (or not so subtly) critical message when given as a gift (say, a khanga with a message about marital fidelity, given to a woman suspected of being unfaithful), or when worn in the presence of other people (say, a khanga worn in the presence of a known gossip that says, “silence is golden”).  Because of the distinctiveness of  khanga borders and fields, even people who can’t read can “read” a khanga.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Top Priority: Doors of Zanzibar

Zanzibar is famous for its intricately carved doors.  Even before we got to Zanzibar and were at Fulbright Orientation in Washington, D.C., Brady and I saw our first Zanzibar door at the Smithsonian, as an indication of Zanzibari culture.

Doors, both now and historically, are signifiers of wealth: the more intricately carved the door, the wealthier (or more status-conscious) the owner.  Doors also are signifiers of the values and constitution of the household.  For people who know the iconography of doors, it is possible to look at a door’s rosettes, anchors, fishes, crosses and more and know how many people were in the family at the time of the building’s construction, what religion the members of the household are, and what profession they practice.

One odd feature of some doors in Zanzibar is the “elephant spike.”  Although I’ve heard no credible evidence of there ever having been elephants in Zanzibar, the doors reportedly have spikes to deter elephants from breaking down the door and terrorizing the inhabitants. (I have heard a fairly credible theory that emigrants from a place that does have elephants popularized the style of doors from their home.)