On the wall of the place I stayed in Nkhata Bay, Malawi, was a quote about growing up in a home without privacy, “where everyone was welcome at all times.” The introvert in me was a bit horrified at the thought, but it stuck with me. My mind flashed to something the cook on my Botswana safari said: “In Africa, we don’t live for ourselves. We live for the community.” He described going to funerals for people in the community even if you didn’t know them.
I started wondering how much of a private life you can have in Africa. My impression is that generally people live less separately than many do in the U.S. It’s a sense I get when I see women on a bus help take care of children who aren’t their own and the way people always take the time to greet each other. I hear things like the comment from the guide in Botswana or another person in the Nyamirambo area of Kigali, Rwanda, who mentioned that in his neighborhood often a few families will each cook one part of a meal and then share the food together.
That said, I hesitate to make any sweeping declarations about a huge continent in which I have spent so little time. I can say for me, though, that as a clear foreigner, privacy often isn’t an option. People want to know where I am from and what I am doing on my visit. They want to sell me jewelry, clothing, postcards, even a book of poetry. Or if I don’t have cash they’ll offer to take my Timex sport watch in exchange. Sometimes they ask for money with just a look of desperation. It is, of course, understandable, though some of it can be exhausting, such as the man who spotted me on my way out of a Kigali bar and immediately started showing me a slideshow of a spelling bee project on which he wanted me to partner. It was another half hour before I could finally get to a moto taxi and head back to the guest house for the bed I wanted so badly. And some of it is fun. Two school girls in Tanzania playfully peppered me with questions about my life in the U.S. and told me about their dreams to work hard enough to get a scholarship to study engineering and medicine, respectively. I told them I had heard them singing the night before and they invited me to join them later, so I did. I sang one song with them and one girl showed me how to dance “like an African” as the other students stared and giggled. In Malawi, a young man saw me coming back from Chikale beach soaking wet one evening and said, “You look like you just fell out of a canoe.” And I danced in Lake Malawi with some teenage girls visiting from Mzuzu for the weekend. Sometimes when I walk around towns in Africa, I can feel a bit like a politician on campaign stops. In Nyundo, Rwanda, I visited an arts school where the guide had me stop in each of maybe 10 classrooms, introduce myself and say why I was visiting the school. Some kids seemed eye-roll bored and others asked questions, often wanting to know whether I practiced anything creatively. Many took my name down for Facebook friending, and many asked to get the address of my blog.
I often think of something I read early on in this trip in the volunteer handbook at the Cheetah Conservation Fund. It talked about how you would meet people from different cultures. It was important, it said, to get to know them and to let them get to know you. I knew the latter part would stretch me the most. Still, I have so much enjoyed the people who have shared their lives with me, and I am trying to do more of the same in my own small ways, whether it is telling people about how I came to be on these travels or sharing food with them. A few days ago a couple from Oman who I met on a ferry very quickly started showing me photos and video of their kids and (rather fancy) home in Oman. A Swiss man I met in Botswana took me through at least 50 iPhone photos of his wife, daughter and various places in Switzerland. A woman I met in Zambia told me personal family details within a half hour of meeting her. These have been soft, relaxed and natural connections, maybe something I only could have allowed after giving myself the space to take a break from my “regular” life and endless to-do lists. I also have been struck by how many people have taken their time for me, often to help me find my way someplace or to explain something about an area to me. To me, this is another way of sharing your life with someone, living “for the community,” so to speak.
I recently stayed in Lushoto, Tanzania, for a few days. It is a small town in the Usambara mountains about midway between Arusha, where I was for my Kilimanjaro climb and safari, and Dar Es Salaam, where I got the ferry to Zanzibar. Tall trees line curvy roads. I heard the sounds of kids playing and singing at the convent/Montessori school where I stayed. People said “jambo/mambo/shikamo” (all forms of hello) to me on the street. And I was able to walk in a market in relative anonymity. I saw women dressed in kanga around their waists with headscarves to match; carrots, green peppers and red onions laid out on mats; beans of all varieties in plastic containers next to bins of rice and corn; dried fish spread on tables. I heard “karibu” (welcome) from many shop owners but very few did much to pursue me. I was barely noticed even though I was the only mzungu (white person) I saw in the market. Being the observer is my most natural groove, and in Lushoto I got to be the observer I love to be.
In a few days I will leave Africa for Paris. I am both sad to leave and ready to spend some time in more familiar surroundings. I will enjoy being the observer more often, recharging in many ways and–I hope–having consistent wifi! But I am leaving here with a sweet spot in my heart for my time in Africa and all the people who have shared so much of themselves and their days with me. I would add some photos here, but–guess what?–the wifi doesn’t seem to be cooperating.