By Adam J. Weise © 2010
As I sit on the outdoor patio of the most expensive hotel in Dar es Salaam, the same one President Bush vacated two days ago after renting out every room, I wonder how it is possible for my new $30 five-countries-in-one portable power converter can break while Billy's $5 converter trudges through its third year in Tanzania. I am now completely without all my electronics except for this laptop whose battery is quickly depleting as the only outlets available here are for British devices only. Billy, who is currently pecking away furiously at his five year old laptop, has taught me how to use being white to garner every advantage and free amenity possible. Being white has not been all that pleasant, though, as it has caused me to become quite jaded with anything connected to money. Immediately upon arrival I went to buy two bottles of water and after the vendor overcharged me Billy loudly demanded an explanation in Swahili to which her reply was that she didn't have the correct change so she figured shortchanging me was a completely legitimate thing to do. For good reason white people are the target of beggars and street children and many a friendly conversation devolves into an outstretched hand and word "please" being repeated over and over while awkwardness ensues. I learned while volunteering at a Miami homeless shelter that money should not be given to beggars as it only serves to sustain their lifestyle and it leads to little positive change. Now you are absolved of any guilt you have ever felt about refusing change to the homeless, especially in the United States, where there are numerous shelters and organizations where the disenfranchised can access. In a third world country, these avenues for assistance either don't exist or are there but to a far lesser degree. I'm not sure if I can condemn charity given towards the old woman with no legs or the quadriplegic dwarf that I see every time I walk past the post office in downtown Dar es Salaam. Where are these people to go? In a country like this who will help them?
We are going to take the boys on a beach retreat and by retreat I mean a beach day peppered with one or two serious activities not involving water or the recently purchased soccer ball that has become the center of attention with the boys. This means I am wearing swimming trunks while Billy wears his only non-school teacher pair of pants which are plagued with five holes nearly all of which are in unseemly places. Despite our decidedly informal attire we are allowed to use the posh hotel's free wireless Internet due to the pigment of our skin. Being white and 6'2'' I differ from 99.9% of the people I meet. I have seen one man in Africa thus far that is both taller than I and of the same ethnicity. Wherever I walk in Mabibo, the section of Dar Es Salaam's urban sprawl where I reside, children will gawk at me like I'm the Loch Ness monster; something they've read and heard about but up until now had never quite believed existed. Jaws agape and only a few of the braver ones will address me but it is usually only with a cry from afar of "mzungu" which means white person. Some scream it from the top of their lungs while others whisper greetings underneath their breath. Many will hold my hand as I walk even if we are going in opposite directions and if I sit or bend down to their level their hands almost instinctively go to the top of my head. My long blond hair has become a sensational hit among the children, who boy or girl are forced to shave their heads up until college to prevent lice from entering the schools.
The combination of the children using their permanently dust laden hands to constantly grab at or play with my hair and the lack of access to running water has led to me being quite filthy by American standards but since I have occasional access to the upscale gym's shower I am quite clean in comparison to the boys in the orphanage. Although I alone have developed a series of rash like bumps on my hands and feet, I fear the Sponge Bob Square Pants sheets on my bed may not be as clean as they appear to be.
Whether Sponge Bob is clean or not, sleep is hard to come by as we now have a generator, which is spectacular in that it allows us to tutor the boys and me to utilize the computers I brought, but this same generator is very loud and its use has led the boys to stay up quite late which prevents my attempts at sleep. Each night I tuck in my mosquito netting and crank up my iPod to full blast and hope not to wake before the Muslim Call to Prayer which is broadcast by a megaphone from the local mosque. This message is supposed to occur at dawn but the mosque's overzealous announcer begins far earlier than the set time as he channels a both the enthusiasm of Robin Williams from Good Morning Vietnam and the vigor of a professional wrestling announcer. As the call to prayer draws out, I lie in bed sweating profusely quickly losing any hope of returning to sleep and I think of how much money I would pay to an imaginary wind God for a cool breeze. On a particularly sweltering hot morning I settled on $27, which is enough money to feed myself here for weeks, but I stand by this number nevertheless.
Billy and I recently went to Subway where we spent the equivalent of $5 on a huge meal; yet he still chastised my opulence as we could have had our usual $1 chips myai. Chips/fries, ugali, a very simple tasteless carbohydrate, or rice are combined with either soda served in a refillable glass bottle circa 1950 in the United States or one of the four African beers. I've learned from the boys not to think of eating as an enjoyable activity but simply as a necessary daily task like brushing one's teeth.
I recently set up an art project where each boy creates a piece of art with supplies we provided with the end result being everyone's art being displayed on the walls, a best drawing being crowned and a prize awarded to the most popular piece. After explaining this to the boys and not revealing the prize Justin asked me if the prize could be "we get to come home to America with you?" Not only was this heartbreaking but it made me realize that the Air Qatar travel kit with the mini toothbrush would not suffice as the prize. Later that night Haji, the smallest boy, asked me to stay here and become the new Mr. Bill. They are aware that Billy and I plan on leaving on April 25th and 29th respectively. I am giving the option of staying in Tanzania indefinitely a lot of thought as it would be an easy transition for me as I could take Billy's motorcycle, his room and his responsibilities.
I already have a job lined up as I worked two days this past week with Billy at a preschool/daycare run out of a wealthy Indian woman's house. The nannies of these wealthy German, American and Japanese expatriates drop off the four year olds at 8 a.m. and pick them up at 11:30 a.m. each weekday. The children are quite spoiled by both African and American standards but it reminded me of my college job at the Hales Corners Recreation Department which I adored. While a little fussy, none truly misbehaved except for little Zead whose family owns the sole milk provider to Dar es Salaam. Billy introduced him as his favorite and I could see why as during the first few minutes Zaed was painfully shy, clutching to Billy's pant legs with one hand and his empty bear shaped backpack with the other. I took him to see Billy's motorcycle and even though he was the only child who spoke strictly Swahili his timidity faded. Little did I know this would snowball into him spilling water on me, attempting to spit on me and his eventual metamorphosis into a full blown terror. His greatest feat was a whirlwind punching attack which made use of both his fists and his mouth which bit at the air in anticipation of his target: my leg. The second day the little Arabian hell spawn came in just as reserved and apprehensive as on the first day but before long he was trying to reenact his own hit and run with an tricycle and an unsuspecting Japanese boy named Nishi. His cuteness helped him immensely in the eyes of the other counselors as his greatest punishment was downgraded to a two minute timeout. By the end of the day he had won me over to some degree by lying next to me and draping my arm, which had to equal or surpass his body in size and weight, around his little shoulders while we listened to Billy tell us whether Gus the Goose would find K.C. the Cat's picnic. The owner of the day care center offered me Billy's job once he leaves and she wants a reply soon.
Adam Weise splits his time between Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Austin, Texas. The organization described in the writing has become the House of Blue Hope, which Adam and Billy now sit on the board of. Adam is also a co-founder of Ex Fabula, a Milwaukee storytelling group.