We’re on a train through and out of Tanzania and as I watch its beauty roll by, I’m filled with affection and gratitude. A year is a long time, but you wouldn’t know it by the feeling. As fast as it came, it goes. But it wasn’t without gifts—zawadi.
The people of Tanzania greet. It isn’t smalltalk. Rather, translated, ‘What is the news?’ And they really want to know. ‘How is the home?’ To which one most always replies ‘Salama!’—peaceful, of course. And ‘how is the family?’. It was put to me once, in a clearly rhetorical sense, how can one move on with her or his affairs without first making sure those with whom they are engaging—and by extension those important to them—are well? Relationships first.
I was reminded to welcome others to your table, your plate, your eating space. It is a practice I first learned in Ghana. ‘You are invited’ in English there is translated ‘Karibu’ here but the intention unchanged. There is enough, I have enough, and we are together. ‘Tupo pamoja’ in Kiswahili. And there’s no better embodiment than to share in our collective nourishment. It is especially powerful when I remember that plenty is not always familiar.
The idea that large groups of people quite different from other large groups of people can live together, mutually, respectfully, will leave a lasting impression on me. And not theoretically but practically. In a moment when it seems we’re in a frenetic rush to satisfy our worst collective impulses [Muslim ban version # what are we on now?], Tanzania shows there is another way. Here, the call to prayer fills every ear within earshot five times a day and Christian prayers open work meetings. It isn’t ‘how can I see you as more of an other?’ It is rather, ‘tupo pamoja.’
And finally, shikamoo, literally meaning “I hold/bow at your feet.” It is the greeting one gives to their elders—more precisely, anyone who is older than you. It is a recognition of their years, and of yours as well. Coming from an American culture with its own word identifying prejudice against the elderly—ageism—the presence of a word doing just the opposite, in use every day all day, was re-orienting. It promotes the immediate and repetitive recognition that with time comes other things—wisdom, quiet, a slowing of the world in the best sense.
I might be leaving, but incompletely so. There are parts of me that’ll always stay, and things I’ll always keep.