27 November 2009

Stronger Than Karma (A Thanksgiving Post)

It would seem obvious—to be thankful. Especially here, in Africa, where we are reminded everyday that we won the lottery ticket of birth in a rich country that affords better prospects in health, wealth, and opportunity.

Yes, sometimes we are thankful.

But sometimes, we're just struggling to live here. In the furnace heat, horns honking and crush of the street. Haggling for fares, caked in dust and dirt, trying not to snap when the internet and electricity go out. Fighting stomach ache, a fever. When food is no comfort, and you’re itchy from mosquito bites. When the ATMs are broken, your clothes smell like mildew, and you can't remember that Swahili phrase you practiced yesterday. Feels like the engine won't start. Feels like banging your head against the ground.

Overload. Exhaustion.


Even at 7am, it felt claustrophobic, alone in my apartment. I needed to be around other people, to fight off the loneliness that had been following me around Dar like a stray dog. But the cafe was mostly empty when I arrived, and I sat down in a huff, frustrated that my ankle still hurt, frustrated at the money I was about to spend, frustrated with everyone.

When the waitress, Deborah, took my order, I was curt: coffee please. After she brought it, she stood against the wall in the shade. While I wrote in my notebook, she said shyly: excuse me, are you the one who was robbed?

I looked up. Yes, I said, it was me.

She said: I'm sorry, pole, so sorry. And gently: I hope you will be all right.

I stammered a little, embarrassed, and said: I'm fine. She brought me some cold water to drive back the heat of the morning.


I needed a break from the cafe where I'd been staring at my computer, so I walked outside into the sunlight towards the sea. Tangled in thoughts—regrets about the past, worries about the future—I didn't realize I was frowning at the people I passed. Then a hotel guard, a tall, thin Maasai I’d talked with once, called out to me from across the street, smiled, and waved a greeting. I thought: he remembers me? I smiled and waved back.


I was lost one morning, and carrying a heavy bag on my shoulder. I didn't want to ask for directions, so I kept on nervously. After a while I knew I'd never make it on my own so I cleared my throat: sama hani, I said to the man walking ahead of me. He stopped and pointed the way.

—I will walk with you? he asked.

—No, it's okay.

But we kept walking, nearly side by side. Eventually, he cajoled me into conversation. Where are you from, what do you do? On emptier, quiet stretches of road, I wondered if I should be walking with a stranger. Perhaps he will rob me, I thought.

But he safely dropped me where I needed to go, and left me with a "no problem" and a wave.


Sometimes, even in the sweltering symphony of an East African city like Dar es Salaam, it’s not the clamor and din around us that keeps us from seeing. Sometimes, like everyone, we're buried under the weight of our own lives.

But then, a catch at the back of your throat. A flash, like light in water. The kindness of strangers. The kindness of friends. Utterly undeserved.

And then I see it again—what Dostoyevsky said. That life is paradise. And "we have only to understand that and it will at once be fulfilled in all its beauty, we shall embrace each other and weep."*

*(The Brothers Karamazov)

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