These Are The Things I Want To Remember

I have about two months left here. 52 days. If we’re being honest, I’ve been counting down the days almost to the hour. If anyone looks you in the eyes and tells you, “it gets easier,” punch them. They’re lying.

At least when it comes to living in Zanzibar. I thought eventually I would feel.. normal. At times I have, but it’s usually fleeting. And I guess that’s the nature of it. In order to feel ‘normal’ I would have to completely check out. It would mean removing myself from my community and my environment. It would mean checking out and heading to the beach every weekend. Getting drunk at the resort parties that are comically similar sans time or place. (Comprised of mostly tourists with a few local beach boys capitalizing on the situation and selling 15-dollar joints to the ignorant wazungu.) Checking out would be easy.

But, to me, checking out is cheating. Being here would be a waste of time if I checked out. The experiences here, good and bad, are a part of a bigger picture, a bigger plan, but knowing that hasn’t made it any easier.

I don’t want it to seem like this place is a big suck hole, it’s not sometimes. I apologize if it seems like my posts are trending on the negative. I wouldn’t trade my time here for anything, but the biggest struggle is that despite however many amazing experiences you have, the bad ones can easily control your life. That’s true no matter where you are. Some of the most vivid and realistic memories I have are from times when I was battling with depression. At the drop of the hat I can picture with detail some of the darkest places I’ve been, but many of my favorite memories are muddled, almost lost. I can explain to you in heavy detail the first three days I lived in Zanzibar during my first trip, some of the longest and most terrifying days of my life. But, despite the role it played in changing my life, the rest of that trip looks like the pages of my notebook after being dropped in water, the ink spreading and mixing its colors, some words lost and others barely legible.

I don’t really know how to explain why living here is hard. I’ve talked before about the tangible things that make it difficult. I don’t know if I’ve ever talked about the intangible. I’ve talked recently with two friends about connecting our ‘real’ lives with the lives we lead outside the borders of the States, attempting to explain to people why you do what you do, and battling stereotypes of enigmatic ‘Africa.’ We settled on the notion that if you ‘get it,’ you get it. If you don’t, you probably never will. Some people, usually the most unexpected, are open and willing to learn, but most won’t be bothered to think outside their own lives. For these people the conversation will end with ‘yes, Africa was cool.’

For the others, the conversation might go something like this.

The tangible experiences change everyday. Being shoved into a truck bed at 8 in the morning, a feat bearable enough until you realize the dereva (driver) has some vendetta and is driving like he’s in his own personal game of ‘Grand Theft Auto.’ Having three adult women tell me I am selfish because I wouldn’t give them my money. Watching men fuck me with their eyes as they take slow drags from their hand rolled cigarettes. Facing men who think I owe them something. Most of this is, in a way, harmless. I try to remember that they might be trying to connect with me and that’s the only way they know how. Most people know a limited bit of English and most of it comes from American movies. ‘Hallo baby,’ and its other forms might be what they think I want to hear. (?) Recently though, I’ve been in a situation that made me fear for my safety and it has affected me in a large way. It is excruciating when you no longer feel physically safe in your life.

The intangible are more consistent, although different things can trigger them. Living in Zanzibar feels like I’m in a bubble. I have two lives, one I left behind and one I’m living now and will eventually have to leave. It’s hard to not feel like a stranger to people you once spent most of your days with. Relationships and friendships break down. You miss out on a lot.

Part of this intangible stress is how I’m counting down the days to go back to a place that is now foreign for me. That’s something you will never understand unless you’ve lived abroad in a radically different country. How can your home become a foreign place? I honestly have no clue where I will be even two weeks after I’ve returned. There’s a certain amount of anxiety that comes with returning and not knowing how you’ll fit back in. The only thing I know is that it’s going to be a struggle. Plans were made and fell through. People I was looking forward to see disappeared. Not knowing can be thrilling sometimes, but now it’s morphing into a knot of anxiety.

These are the things that start to control your mind. I think it’s important to remember the hard times I’ve faced, but it’s way too easy to forget the people who’ve filled my heart, both here and there.

These are the things I want to remember:

  1. Walking through my neighborhood on my way to work while most are already well into their days. There’s a group of about twenty kids who freak the fuck out when they see me. They usually refuse to speak to me but for a collective “HIIIII” screamed at the top of their lungs, which I swear lasts five minutes. I’m sure the entire neighborhood knows when I’m around because of them.
  2. There’s a bibi (grandma) in one of the houses I walk by. If she catches me I’m greeted with,”Shoga yangu, umepoteza! Hujambo?” (My best friend, where have you been! How are you?) I am going to fight to remember all the women, mostly strangers, who have deemed me their shoga (Best friend foreva) over the year.
  3. The way my five-year-old sister, Shuny, practically shits her dira (dress) every time I come home. I need to remember watching her running towards me, laughing so much I’m scared she might choke, and giving me a big kiss. When I was a kid I used to beg my parents to adopt a younger sibling for me. Now I have six. Shuny is my sidekick. I’ve loved watching her grow these last few months and witness the kindness and love she has. When I first arrived she was just turning five and she was kind of a brat, I think it comes with the territory of being the baby. Now, she’s caring and thoughtful. She is constantly sharing a piece of whatever she’s eating with me and telling anyone, “mpe Shelby kipande chake!” (Give Shelby her piece!) 
  4. Following behind a four-year-old boy who was running after mkubwa wake (his elder) holding a bucket for fetching water and trying to keep his too big pants from falling. He was calling out, “Hamid! Njoo, nifunge! Nifunge!” (Hamid! Come, help me button my pants!)
  5. Walking through my neighborhood and greeting the wazee (seniors) who spend their entire day drinking coffee and sharing stories barazani (in a sitting area). I want to remember their collectively grumbled “As-Salaam-Alaikum” (arabic for peace be unto you) and the way Bwana Farki quietly raises a kikombe kiduuuchu (tiny cup) to ask if I will stop for some coffee. We never share many words, but his small acts of kindness have given me a disproportionately huge blanket of comfort.

Once the three-month mark hit I started feeling sad for all the wonderful people I would be leaving behind. I have become grateful for the smallest of things and the most simple friendships. At this point though, I’ve been hit with disappointment after disappointment and I’m ready to move on. Our classes were a 4 month long bag of suck. Now, I only have two months to work full time at Zanrec and our work is being blocked by red tape. It would be really easy at this point to check the fuck out.

I’m going to fight to keep these good memories just as vivid as the bad ones.  A friend who comes to teach in Zanzibar expressed how impressed he is by what Meghan and I have done. He ‘gets it’ and he reminds me how strong I really am. I’m proud of doing something not many people would have the courage to do. I can never express enough thanks to the people who have cared for me and shared their love with me over the last 7 months. And I’m slowly learning how to kindly say, ‘Sepa.’ (Fuck off*) to the ones who haven’t.

XO
Shelb

*This may or may not be my personal translation

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