05 January 2015

Intimations

This is the first of several posts telling some of my story of belief and doubt, about whether change is possible -- in my own life, and in the global poverty business, which is built around the idea that it's possible to help change other peoples' lives. 

Dar es Salaam | January 2010

You wake up very tired. Eyelids are heavy, feel plastered shut. For a minute, you can’t remember where you are. But then: outline of the hard, twin mattress, and the gauzy white mosquito net pocked with holes so that you had to wrap the bed sheet around your face and endure hot, sweaty suffocation or else lie exposed. Oh yes, I remember.

You remember how hard it was to go to sleep alone in this second story apartment, hearing every noise of the teaming city outside. You remember how as the night got darker and you lay in the hot stillness waiting for sleep to come, you thought you heard the old metal gate of the compound open, wondered if the guard had fallen asleep, if a thief was entering. You’d fixed your eyes on the outline of the bedroom door, peered so hard that the black became green, then red, then a blacker shade of black.

Who knows how long you stared into the dark. Maybe an hour. At least an hour.

Now, in the bright light of the morning you feel safe again, the ghosts are gone, blown away.

Pull back the sheet, throw the net over the wooden frame of the bed, and look out the window.  A crow is perched on the corrugated iron roof of the shop below where Tanzanian men build cheap furniture for the wazungu. Someone is playing music, the same as always—bongo flava—those dance party tunes that go round and round like a disco ball, so popular in this town. That goddamn music.

But I wanted to be here.

One night, feels like ages ago, before I moved to Dar es Salaam, I had dinner in Washington, DC with a friend who was visiting from Lusaka, where he worked for an American aid NGO. Seated at an outdoor café, a bottle of red wine between us, we’d teased each other:

—Still trying to fight poverty by thinking about it in Washington, he’d asked?
—Still traipsing around Africa pretending you’re Jesus, I’d shot back?

When he talked about his work in Zambia, he was like a spring morning: full of optimism and hope. But as the evening wore on, and the conversation turned personal, to talk of our families, and our pasts, his mood darkened. I watched while he stared into his plate, moving bits of fried calamari around with his fork.

—I think I’ve figured out how we can change our lives, I finally said.

His eyes lit up like a struck match: Do you think our lives can change?

I didn’t hesitate.

—Yes. Tomorrow can be different from today.

But that was a long time ago.