John Harvard's Journal
"I don’t need music, Kit. I need the sound of silence,” Dad says. He says “silence” in a way that I can’t write. The “i” is long, the end is fast, sharp. The word is crisp, but it is not italic. “Silence, Kit,” Dad says, is what he wants. Yet it is his unwritable words that fill our drive to Boston Logan.
It is June and I am returning to Tanzania to work with a nongovernmental organization called Support for International Change. Again, I will live in a rural village, run an awareness campaign for HIV and AIDS. It is my second visit to a country that no longer feels foreign, my first return to a place with all of the discomforts I do not find at home.
A year ago, at the outset of my first trip, five other Harvard students met me at the gate, where visions of African game land filled my head. As we lay across chairs meant for sitting—for nine hours in Istanbul, waiting for our flight—we talked of playing with the children and seeing the elephants; education about HIV may have also been a thought. Someone produced a travel book and we passed around 200 pages of Eastern Africa, searching for the 50 that held all Tanzania had to tell. Inevitably, it was the photos that consumed us longest, no matter the country they were from.
Some of my companions raised concerns—none of us understood the process of arrival, really; not one had a Tanzanian phone; had anyone looked up the exchange rate for dollars and shillings before, at home? There was too much unknown to be worried and so I stuck to thoughts of animals, children, heat, African sun. I was excited for the going; the fears of fellow students seemed to dispel my own.
It is now June again and I am returning to Tanzania as dad drops me at terminal E. This summer, I am a coordinator for the volunteer program, Tanzanian shillings already in my bag. A hug, a kiss on the cheek—“Sorry, Kit. I don’t think I’m supposed to park here long.” His truck heads back toward western Massachusetts and I turn inside the airport, where no one waits for me to arrive. Still, I am not unhappy to be traveling alone.
As I wait in line at the check-in counter, my shoulders are weighted by the bags I must check; my mind leads me to the mountains of home. I realize I shouldn’t expect this going to feel the same, though I face the same uncertainties as before. Even now I am tempted to return to Western Mass., did not pack my bag until hours ago. Do I enjoy this, the being out of my comfort zone? Or do I enjoy the looking back, the return, the sensation of “I did that”?
I board a plane to Zurich, where I sleep on the floor for six hours, waking only to make sure my flight’s gate is still closed. In Ethiopia, 12 fill a plane meant for 100 and, though there are two stops before we reach our destination, no one new gets on board. Ethiopians must not believe in canceling flights, I think, or balancing weight. I sleep, thankful for the open seat I have chosen from first class.
At 2 a.m., our plane lands in Arusha, Tanzania. (“Straight down,” Noah, my taxi driver will tell me. “It was as if you fell from the sky.”) And my first thought on the tarmac is that I had forgotten the smell. Food, dirt, body odor, smoke—all are there the moment I step out. Not quite the village, but not at all dissimilar. I imagine my fellow passengers—the Brits, the Germans, the uninitiated—covering their noses, not yet knowing that there is a sweetness to the sweat and the burn. For the first time, the going feels like a return.
This past August, I was returning to Cambridge. There were two and a half days at home, in Western Massachusetts (one, unpacking; another, packing again), two and a half days with the place I felt I could not leave before. Harvard was not where I wanted to be going, despite what I may have said. My mind remained in Tanzanian villages, with the sound of the maize grinders at 6 p.m. and the feeling of dust in my hair. I sang Bongo Flava (Tanzanian pop music) downloaded for the drive back to school—and this time my mother was the one asking for silence from the first floor.
I didn’t check my e-mail before I left for school, waited until the cheap gas station in Williamsburg before I even looked. My phone had vibrated every five minutes along the way and finally I decided to turn it off. But out of guilt, or habit, I opened the browser and lingered in the parking lot, waiting 10 minutes for small-town Internet to load. Three hundred forty-nine messages on the screen, 90 or so that required reply. During the semester, I knew, such was a manageable—daily, even—task. Still, I pressed the power button and hid the device in my bag, thought of the single-function Nokia that, for the past three months, had been my own. With a capacity of 100 messages, the phone’s greatest demand had been the inbox’s perpetual tendency to fill. It vibrated just as often, but with greetings rather than tasks to be done.
I pulled out of the gas-station parking lot, appreciated the 25 mph section of road. Although I have never seen a police car in Williamsburg, it has never struck me as odd that the inhabitants obey a speed limit like that.
There is a moment on the Mass. Pike—near Sturbridge—where two lanes become four. The mountains no longer rise up around you; vehicles are forced into the depository of two significant arteries, a tempo that seems faster than before. Cars from I-84 pass on the right, those from I-90 accelerate on the left; eventually, a form of settling occurs. It is in this openness that I feel most claustrophobic, where the trees have given way to rest areas and poles. The lost views of elevation, though, are inconsequential—at this pace, your eyes must be constantly on the road. Forcing my hands to loosen on the steering wheel—at 70 mph, remembering how to drive—I thought of Windsor, Massachusetts, population 875—rural, home.
Reaching Sturbridge, driving back to Cambridge, I crossed right, over two lanes: five minutes of anxiety just to slow down. Cars accelerated around me, with greater urgency than I about arriving where they needed to go. I increased the volume of my Bongo Flava, sang louder to words I did not know. I was still in tune with the rhythm of the country I had left, not ready for the pulse of the music the radio promised to play. I knew Harvard would soon feel familiar, that I would adjust to the pace of before. But though this consolation relieved uncertainties, I nonetheless wanted to maintain the travel, neither arriving nor letting go.
It is a two-and-a-half-hour trip to Cambridge from Windsor, depending on the state of construction and desired number of back roads. My hometown is 98.86 percent white, or so the last census has shown. The open spaces of country lyrics actually hold meaning and running into neighbors will leave you talking for 20 minutes, despite having places to go. It never takes longer than three hours to drive to Cambridge from Windsor, yet the bass of the pop music emanating from the tollbooth to Boston left me feeling that the distance between home and Tanzania is much less significant than the 131 miles between Harvard and home.
One night, in my final week in Tanzania, I return late from visiting another village. We have walked eight hours today to deliver flipcharts, markers, tape to a group, and check on progress while we are there. Shaba, age eight—one of the six children who live in the house next to ours—is cooking dinner beside the goats, sheep, chickens that settle by the door. The pot on the fire holds ugali, a thick cornmeal that requires nearly constant stirring as it is prepared. Shaba places his wooden spoon on the ground (beside the goats, sheep, chickens)anyway, and runs to give me a hug before remembering to greet me as an elder.
Hatujacheza leo. “We haven’t played today,” he says to me in Swahili.
Najua lakini leo nilitembea sana. Sasa, nimechoka lakini tunaweza kuongea kidogo. “I know, but today I walked a lot. Now I am tired, but we can talk a bit.”
Shaba sits, wiping the spoon on dusty pants. I ask if he knows why I enjoy being outside at night. He does not. It is 70 degrees—winter, cold—and Shaba would rather be inside with the warmth.
Kwa sababa napenda kuangalia nyota hapa. “Because,” I explain, “here, I love to look at the stars.”
Shaba looks up; the pot boils over. I ask if he knows that a man has been to the moon. He does not.
Tumeenda pale? “We have gone there?” I take the spoon and stir. By the fire, Shaba cannot stop staring at the moon.
Tumeenda pale. Ungeweza, ungeenda? “We have. If you could, would you?
Shaba, unaweza kuona nini hapa? “What can you see here?” I ask. The food is almost done.
Vitu hivi, tu. “Only these things.” He gestures with his hands.
Na ukienda mwezini, utaona nini? “And if you go to the moon?”
Kila kitu. “Every thing.”
I smile, returning the spoon to his hands. Tomorrow, we will play in the dust of the village, sit in the shade when the winter sun grows hot. Tonight, I am tired and dinner waits, inside. I enter our home next door, through the gate that we keep locked. Shaba and his siblings rarely visit us there; we have only windows through which we can see them play.
There aren’t any mountains to climb up, to see from in Bwawani, the village where we stay. “Hot, dusty, bad roads, no water,” is how a motorcycle driver in town will describe it as I sit behind him, en route to the office one day. It’s difficult to see farther than the closest farm in Bwawani, though people don’t tend to move much beyond that, anyway.
But I have been beyond the farms outside our windows, know what lies there even if it cannot be seen. I eat meat in the village, take a bucket shower with heated water, change into clothing washed by the mama hired to do our chores. White, female, American, I face the discomfort of someone who will never wholly quite belong, especially when entering my privileged life within our gated walls next door. Even within a place, I think, perspective is transitory; there is a coming and going, a process of becoming removed.
And I will forget this unease when I return to Harvard, where I will balance the notion of being tangential once more—the feeling of being deposited—until a form of settling occurs. I’ve realized that I can’t think of who I truly am at either place, really; perspective on one from the other has always seemed impossible to discern. It’s only when grounded in home and the mountains, or the air between here and there—that’s when I think of Tanzania and Harvard, these places that I love, to which I am always anxious to return.