this morning i sipped on a macchiato by the sea, my guests were wind & boats & clouds, & Alessia. we stared up at the vultures & snakes & lions all curled up in the carved wooden door of beit-al-jaib, the house of wonder, towering & regal. walked through the scraggly, sun-soaked gardens of royal graves, where time had smeared inscriptions blank with confusion. what does history speak or say? how do you speak or say history? the best part of walking through stone town is looking up and looking within. the big tree was planted over a hundred years ago near the friday mosque. if you close your eyes, you can imagine women peering out from their courtyards and latticed verandahs. and they are a part of this walk this morning. we ooh & ahh the embroidered dreams of india, hinting distant rajasthani desert laments. and there's that lone arab man with his hot tea and ready-made cafe blasting taarab-infused music from his mini samsung, smoking away and looking out to prison & bawe. the world is very much with us in this town, silence & shade wedged between the kelele.
In the last few weeks, I've been surprised and intrigued by 3 articles / reviews of three different art forms which are shifting & evolving in Tanzania -- mostly in Dar es Salaam. Visual arts, literature / creative writing, and music have all been the focus of conversation, dialogue and debate, at least online. In the world of music, Addis Rumble recently asked Mzungu Kicha ('Crazy White Man' from Denmark) to wax poetic on all things music-related in Tanzania. He talks Jagwa, music markets, the politics of music-making, and his own future plans.
In the visual arts world, Caroline Uliwa, poet and writer, asks "Why Tanzanian artists are not celebrated at home" for the East African. She sites economic, cultural, and religious reasons why Tanzanians would never buy art or collect it, the way it's done in the West. Uliwa writes, "Historically, art was not collected for its mere visual and textural appeal. ...'Take the ‘mwana nyang’iti/mwana hiti’ from the Zaramo and Kwere tribes of the coast, which many tourists buy today and wear on their necks. The small wooden female figurine with two plaits was traditionally a token passed on in the family from female to female when a daughter came of age entering womanhood; this was to continue fertility in the family,” says Vivian Nsao-Shalua, the Arts Promotion Director of the National Arts Council-BASATA."
In her article, Uliwa mentions my new favorite Tanzanian visual artist -- Cloud Chatanda, whose work I saw for the first time at Nafasi Art Space last month in Dar. His work blew me away with its pathos and originality. One of my favorite paintings is called "Kutafuta Ndoa / Searching for Marriage" in which a herd of curvaceous, busty women are seen stampeding toward a single man wearing a suit and clutching his briefcase as he runs ahead of them, looking back in fear. In the backdrop is the Dar es Salaam skyline. Hilarious and tender, the painting's underlining tensions about need, marriage, expectation, hunger, love, and social pressure. Chatanda is best known for his cartoons but I wish his artwork had more of a following, it's really incredible. Chatanda's artist statement blew me away:
I came to realize that the art I'm doing is actually an invisible religion which exists within. These weird feelings of mine hurt me and my mind, and it makes me have day dreams and create an imaginary world. I've lived with this for many years.
In the world of literature and writing, I recently wrote a piece for The Citizen (March 25, 2014), asking whether the stories that change us can also change society -- and if so, how? What are the stories that are not yet being told in Tanzania, and what's at stake if we write / rewrite the stories that shape and define us? I recently posted this piece, Changing Stories, Stories for Change on Contrary because the article printed but was not placed online. I reviewed a talk given by Billy Kahora, editor of KWANI literary journal based in Nairobi, Kenya, on the role of the artist / writer as a change-maker. Together with other poets, writers, publishers, and cultural workers, we took a closer look at the ways in which collaboration, poetry readings, events, and publishing can shift the social and / or political landscape in the days leading up to the 2015 elections.
Kahora talked with us about the history of KWANI, the idea of never sacrificing aesthetics for social change, and encouraged us to "harness youth narratives," -- to tell the stories that have not yet been written. Up for debate were the ways in which Tanzanian artists' pressures to conform make it difficult to take artistic or social risks. Sacrifice was a major theme that kept surfacing -- what are any of us wiling to give up to make the art that makes the most sense to us -- to our hearts & minds?
These online dialogues are a good start -- any conversation on the arts is a good conversation! But we need to widen the circles and find new / different ways to talk about where the arts are going in Tanzania and what we expect or want from a growing arts / music / literary scene in Tanzania. Is there growing consensus or dissonance when it comes to building and strengthening the arts & culture in Tanzania / Zanzibar?
I met Badri Lemai in Harar. He sort of fell in love with me, or the poet in me. We talked in his cluttered Harari living room where bugs scattered among his many messy pages of notes.
Two poems by Lemai:
I see the shine
through the Brain's Fanlight
The Dream is mine!
A Letter from the Wizards:
Love also kills.
Which, then, is preferable?
Death is inevitable.
New York state of mind. I am astounded by this place. I am poetry on the trains, hip hoppers and pole dancers on the train. I am wearing my red patent leather body suit on the train. I am the grand time capsule of magical library reading rooms. I am the stranger I saw twice in one week. I am the silence of these streets at one a.m. in front of Kosher pizza joint. I am Hebrew script on yellow bus. I am wigs and tefillin. I am tattooed and lanky, round and freckled, lip-smacking and shrinking with exhaustion. I am type-typing in a mind-grill of inquiry. I am late-night bar and central star and all things for everyone. I am lonely on the city pony ride for one. I am those artist-talks in the well-lit lofts of Bushwick. I am the tucked-in confessions of me and my old friends. I am the impossibility of coordinating with lost friends, I am the possibility of strangers. Pathology, the study of paths. Erotic. Erratic. Gay boys and their caged cats. Russian doll girls with porcelain moon pouts. The ones with smart cat-eye glasses, the ones with bloodshot eyes. Astounded by the distances trekked in a day. Where the mind travels, its own complicated subway map of stops, stopping, lurching, going, gone.
I am realizing I'm taking a big, deep, full breath of my former lives on this great American od(d)yssey. I've changed, we changed, they've changed, the place has changed, America has changed, babies grew up, were born, relationships ended, began, snagged, started over, died, reignited. And sometimes we all skip a beat. A reference, lost. The frame, on a strange angle. The strange familiar. After four years away, I felt compelled to make this arc across friendships & time zones. A very fragile, tender thing to do, to see and be seen in various fragments / moments of strength and vulnerability.
Providence state of mind: India Point Park & Fox Point, the bay, decay & rebirth, water, filter, absorb, stormcatch talk with Jamie Topper and her hidden wind flute design, low howls, high cries, the boats, the flickering lights near midnight. Wickenden street, familiar: liquor, convenience, coffee, antiques, sex, breakfast, vintage shops. Piles of leaves like fire, blazing sun too, cooking epic meals while finishing each other's sentences. Will you look at that? Just look at this. Late night ghost notes, slipping into library space, which requires its own learning visa. Feverish grad school chats over kale and chickpeas with Emmy Bright, these days, waking up late, slow, easy. Providential.
San Francisco state of mind: The big old boats slow dance into the bay, and the tall, skinny palms down Embarcadero wave in the breeze like a Tina Tuner hair shake. And then there are the Ethiopian taxi drivers who tell me they haven't been to Addis in eight years but still feel they were happier there than here. And then there's the American Samoan taxi driver who speaks goodnight in Samoan and teaches me about Pago-Pago. And then there's the language play in the Berkeley Hills, bodies cartwheeling over the infinity bridge. And then there's City Lights and Chinatown and old espresso bars where the cops look like they're wearing uniforms for a play about themselves in a play about North Beach. And then what about the chilequiles at the farmers market where seagulls sulked with the homeless while I sipped on an ice-cold pineapple-cucumber juice? And then there's a full house of gay couples at the play about unlikely love. And then there's the way the sunlight kisses all the buildings pink, like we're in Paris. And then there's the chocolate shop and the tired elderly on the #30 bus and the Whole Foods and the no food spare change and the private Google Yelp Twitter shuttles and the shuffle of celebrities under cover over brunch. And the cat at the hipster bar. And the tired man with saucer eyes who came in late for a burrito. And the app for this and the app for that and no app-etite for any of it. That, and the catapulting, leaping, skipping stones of it. No mission in the Mission anymore, but a mission, still. Bless this little cottage nest. Bless this me here in the now.
I'm traveling through my past. In a country that used to be mine. I am nation-fluid, barely able though to grasp culture on either end of the spectrum. Hard for me to wrap my head around all these alternative arrangements. I guess we all become entrenched in our eccentricities. Sinking deeper into our own difficulties and strangeness, estranged. Fertility, motherhood, failure, loneliness, desire, longing -- all throwing wrenches in the way we used to relate. In the way I understood myself in these friendships in the past. It's no easy thing to try to move between and among friendships, histories, identities. At some point it seems we all have to choose a place and stay there. And then sink deeper into ourselves, or stay and rise up out of whatever drags us down. New York to Boston to Providence, a trail of friendships and lifetimes, a range of happiness and fear. No better or worse than anyone else's life.
A friend from Ireland wrote to me a description of this feeling of liminality:
"After a few months things all become so intangible and you don't know which world you lived in and which one you are living in now. Things are functional and practical and life propels you on without hesitation or comprehension a lot of the time and then all of a sudden it can feel like you don't understand anything you are experiencing and you never have but at the same time things are normal and make sense."
From the relative peace, safety, and distance of my perch in Chicago, IL, in the USA, I can't stop thinking about what unfolded in Nairobi, at Westgate Mall -- one minute normal, the next, pierced with terror. Over 62 people killed and shot in attacks by Al-Shabaab -- the "striving youth" of Somalia, an Al-Qaeda cell. I read about how in February 2012 they quarreled with Al-Qaeda and were losing power. A writer with Think Progress writes that this attack weakens their cause, that this is a sign of desperation. Others say it's about revival of image and impact. Revenge for Kenya's military intervention in Somalia in 2011. Their deal, waging jihad against enemies of Islam. Think Boko-Haram. Even Al-Qaeda thinks that Al-Shabaab are too extreme, too violent, too reckless. Now that's saying something.
Over the last forty-eight hours at the Westgate Mall in Narobi, poets and diplomats were killed, everyday people too. Others still are being held hostage. This kind of terror is horrifying any time it happens because it is so threatening to the "ordinary," to whatever kind of normal we think we all deserve. And Al-Shabaab is on Twitter live-tweeting their case, justifying this launch. Their military leader actually has a chance to defend the #Westgate attack via Q&A with Al Jazeera.
Ghanaian Poet Kofi Awoonor was among those in the attack. His last poems eerily attest to the eternal. He writes,
And death, when he comes
to the door with his own
inimitable calling card
shall find a homestead
resurrected with laughter and dance
and the festival of the meat
of the young lamb and the red porridge
of the new corn
Resurrected with laughter and dance. A Resurrection. A laughter revival. How do we stage it? It would take a massive, collective detachment from our screens and phones, calendars and chores. At what point will "hope and history rhyme," how do we reach for the shore on the far-side of revenge? Thinking of Seamus Heaney, how he helped us with Double-takes of feeling.
History says, Don't hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.
Call miracle self-healing:
The utter, self-revealing
Double-take of feeling.
If there’s fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky
That means someone is hearing
The outcry and the birth-cry
Of new life at its term.
I find it interesting that this Al-Shabaab is about a "striving youth" movement. While living in East Africa, mostly Zanzibar and Tanzania, I was mostly friends with the young ones. With over half of the country under 25, it's probable, but still a somewhat strange dynamic for me, a woman in her late 30's. I found that the young ones are full of fire, ready for change, striving, reaching for creativity and outlets for creative expression. They want to speak and be heard, be part of a larger conversation, take the floor, have a place, but even more so, just be normal, find rhythms, have enough change in their pockets for lifts on the dala-dala to and from friends and family. There is so much power in youth -- how then to channel it for good -- how not to mangle and bend Islam's strong pillars of faith in the name of justice, how then to listen to young people when striving for something greater than all of us? How then to tap the enormous potential of young people?
I realize that the story of Somalia is a sordid one, not simple enough to couch in terms of youth empowerment. NGO speak won't rescue us from this one. But I can't help but wonder what an Al-Shabaaber would say in a poetry workshop, or a philosophy class on seeing, or even any old conversation where his or her experience mattered to the larger chorus?
I think too about John Berger today. About his notes on ways of seeing -- the world, ourselves. Of poetry he writes, “Every authentic poem contributes to the labor of poetry… to bring together what life has separated or violence has torn apart… Poetry can repair no loss, but it defies the space which separates. And it does this by its continual labor of reassembling what has been scattered.”
― John Berger
There has been a scattering, a need to defy the space which separates. A reassembling of what got scattered.
Divine Double-Take on Westgate
Amanda Leigh Lichtenstein
The Westgate bodies were so dead
They were counted twice.
And the horror was so horrific,
We doubled the horrible utterance.
And the attackers doubled as men
And as women, confusing the army.
It was a like a war situation, a double
War on me and you.
And everyone should have had two names:
A Muslim name and a secular name,
One to save you, one to get you killed.
And everyone should have carried two guns
One to shoot your attacker, and one to shoot
Me into the shape of mangled, metal shame.
And everyone should have had two prayers
Memorized, one for the Prophet, Mohammed,
And one for any other goddess of choice.
Because don’t you know all the gods
Are not just in love with us, but in love
With each other as well? A massive, holy
Orgy of divine obsession with the other?
A euphoric, ribbon of grinning for the god
In each us, growing green from the seed
I've spent nearly four years thinking about being "Other" -- living in Africa demands that you at least consider it. How you deal with it is another question. Deny, augment, diminish, ignore, defend, cajole. Here's an essay that a traveler wrote about being OTHER in Ethiopia. http://advokatdyavola.wordpress.com/2013/09/17/foreigner/
There was also this show called MZUNGU that the Kilimanjaro Film Institute -- a photography show that interrogated the notion of Other from Tanzanian teens' perspectives. It was an interesting show but one that made me wonder if the images perpetuated these stereotypes or worked to break them down. Tough to say unless dialogues are a part of the show. Not sure if there were really formal conversations but we did talk informally and most agreed that it was time Tanzanians critiqued the behavior and language and power of whites/foreigners.
What were some of the categories?
Big Backpacks. Bad Dancing. Peculiar Shopping. The Scandinavian Volunteer with Hair Braids. Mzungu Dress. White Women Who Love Rastas. White Women Who Love Kitenge. White Women Who Love Head Wraps.
i think it's a long over-due conversation. The responsibility all of have to address difference with respect, love, curiosity, patience. To understand the rage and negativity and even "bad luck" we may pose to locals, and to understand in ourselves the reactions that give rise to self-detachment from the world that presents itself to you.
We are not all traveling for pleasure and it's not guaranteed that we are well-received where we go -- we can't expect that anymore than a foreigner in the West can expect to step into a set of values and systems without any struggle. Border crossing, culturally, spiritually, emotionally -- it's not a simple task.
Once again, and always, POWER is the ultimately concept to critique and challenge -- and the relationships therein that sediment or loosen the ties that bind us from understanding one another.