While you all were out twirling ribbons around poles this May Day, I was enjoying a different type of celebration: one to commemorate Tanzanian Workers’ Day, a national holiday akin to our own Labor Day. It was absolutely a blast from start to finish, complete with all the most potent Tanzanian foods (meaning, of course, that the seasonings were livelier than the salt and oil flavors pervading typical East African cuisine), as well as my own assigned chore of distributing sodas to students and collecting the bottles afterwards (the latter being much more complicated than the former, because apparently stolen glass soda bottles are in very high demand).
We began the day with a student talent show. For all performances such as this one, the students sit on chairs and desks arranged out in the sun, in an arc at one corner of the dusty academic square. We teachers sit on the concrete promenade that runs the length of each academic building, in the shade of the roof’s overhang. When I first arrived in Tanzania, I felt uncomfortable with this arrangement, since it essentially places the teachers in a row on a sort of stage, facing the arc of students. Performances occur at ground level, in the awkward space between the raised line of teachers and the arc of students piled in groups onto the tops of desks. By now, though, I’ve gotten used to being part of the scenery, a bright white distraction amid the backdrop for a skit or a song.
Two of my former students provided the first act: a cleverly-devised but badly-delivered rap welcoming the Form I (freshmen) students to the school. They may not have had beat or rhythm, but these kids sure had humor. Benedict and Ones, two very likeable teacher’s-pet-types who are also smart and decently popular among their peers, dispensed valuable advice to the first-years. On one topic, though, they had only to say, “Na swala la msosi, lazima uzoee,” which means, approximately, “And as for the food, you just gotta get used to it.” School food is quite the controversy here, where the daily fare consists of beans and ugali. (Want to try ugali? Ingredients: Dried horse corn, water. Directions: Grind the dried horse corn into flour. Boil water in a pot. Dump a bunch of dried horse corn flour into the boiling water. Stir. Continue to boil and stir until the mixture assumes the consistency of wet cement. Eat.) This is actually typical Tanzanian food, and it’s often all villagers can afford to eat day after day. But many of my students come from wealthier families in town who can afford to eat rice and vegetables quite often. As a result, the audience thought the reference to tasteless school food was a scream.
Another memorable act cautioned students about the dangers of falling into the patterns of corruption so common among successful Tanzanians. Through an interpretive recitation/skit, they depicted the Tanzania that would develop if they – the students of today – did not break the precedent set by the businessmen and politicians of their parents’ generation. Reminiscent of the regime ruled by Biff in Back to the Future II, the corrupt Tanzania of the future featured thieving politicians, careless doctors, and selfish teachers. But bahati nzuri, by good luck, a pure-hearted witch doctor was on hand to hypnotize those susceptible to corruption. The witch doctor, played by one of my current students, a popular girl named Eva, convinced the unscrupulous degenerates to rise above their venal ways. By the end of the skit, the characters were locked into a witch doctored trance, reciting quips such as, “I will not be corrupt,” and “I will never again accept a bribe.”
Among these clever performances were the usuals: several Christian chant-type songs, some hip-hop renditions, and at least two plays featuring a character who has sex, gets AIDS, and dies in quick succession. These standards have graced the “stage” at all four talent exhibitions I’ve witnessed here at the school Still, the messages are always good, and quite frequently the skits and songs are delivered with legitimate skill.
After the talent show, it was a regular party. We teachers had a momentary dispute about which classroom we would occupy, since it seemed that every location was somehow too near to where the students would be conducting their own festivities. Apparently, we wanted nothing to do with them. Finally, we chose a classroom and opened the buckets (literally) of food. There was pilau (spiced rice), cow meat (by no means steak), fried chicken, cooked vegetables, and even salad! The salad, called kachimbali, consists of tomatoes, green peppers, carrots, and other sundry vegetables drenched in their own juices and with some added flavors, such as lemon or salt. Asking for kachimbali is the only way to obtain raw vegetables here (unless you have a garden, which I…do not), so I go a little crazy when I have the opportunity to eat it. My plate was piled high, mainly with chicken and kachimbali.
We proceeded to have a mini-disco, during which I miraculously persuaded the teacher-DJ to play mostly American music. (I suspect that he just wanted to see me dance, and knows I have a hard time finding a hip-swayable beat in Tanzanian Gospel music.) Meanwhile, the students had their own parties: a hardcore, mostly-hiphop disco in one classroom, with a real DJ from Njombe town; Gospel music videos in another; and Gospel singing and dancing in the last. Supervision was light, to say the least, so who knows what other antics went down behind the dormitories and in the woods.
Eventually, I finished two beers without getting the slightest bit drunk (shocking the daylights out of the Tanzanians), worked with the school nurse to collect all 650 students’ soda bottles in their proper crates, and got my first legitimate Tanzanian marriage proposal (legitimate = not from a cab driver or other fleeting acquaintance). Just as the sun went down over the backs of the silhouetted mountaintops in the distance, the electricity died – in the middle of my favorite Tanzanian pop song, “Boy You’re Love is Wicked,” by Brick&Lace (Download it.).
"The generator is overworked,” the machine chief told me. “It won’t work again until tomorrow.” So the party ended abruptly, much like this blog post is ending right now.