When I finally left Tanzania, I felt saved…

Suddenly a motorcycle drove by at a high speed. I felt my shoulder and arm were pulled forcefully and my whole body fell forward. When I came around from the shock, my backpack was gone already.

From October 2017 to February 2018, I was an exchange student in Tanzania. It was the farthest and longest time I was away from home. I lived in Dar es Salaam, “a peaceful harbor” in Swahili, which is the largest city and port in Tanzania. I took classes at Dares Saddam University. It’s a prominent university there like Tsinghua or Peking University is in China.

I was told that we would live in the apartment for scholars at first, but after arriving we found there were no available rooms, so we had to move to the student apartment that had poorer facilities. I was with about 30 other Chinese students and we were scattered to different floors in the building. I and another girl were assigned to the top 9th floor. The elevator was not working so we had to carry the big suitcases up by ourselves. By “big” I meant the kind that was obviously overweight and took us quite a while taking things in and out at the weighing scale in the airport before the custom staff finally let us pass.

Our room was overall a circular sector. A bed was next to the door, a cabinet by the bed, and another bed inside with a thick layer of dust on the mattress. There was a window on the wall and a balcony outside. That was it.

The first thing was to hang a mosquito net over my bed. This was what our teacher told us a thousand times before we came. Malaria was prevalent in Africa and was mainly transmitted by Anopheles. They were active at night so we better not hang around outside at night or stay up late. After hanging up the mosquito net, I laid on the bed without changing my clothes. There were clean sheets in my suitcase but considering the dirty mattress under me and the dirty myself without a shower, I just didn’t want to take it out.

The first day was bad. I didn’t expect the conditions to be as poor as this, but I was too tired to complain. I fell asleep instantly.

In the next few days, I kept telling myself to stay positive, and my ability to adapt wasn’t that bad after all. There was no drinkable water supply in our room, so we had to buy barreled water and carry it up to the 9th floor by ourselves. We often bought the largest size barrels for the lower price and carried them on the shoulders while going upstairs, no big deal. Guess this was one good thing about being young.

We usually ate in the school canteen. The food was cheap, about 1,000 shillings for a meal. One thing I ate often was “chips mayai”. Chips are french fries and mayai are eggs. The chef in the canteen would cook it on the spot, in an old pot, pour some oil, beat a few eggs, put the pre-fried fries in before the eggs are well done, turn it over, and put the whole thing on a plate when it’s done, then drizzle some tomato sauce over it. Basically, it’s just egg-wrapped French fries.

There was a delicious snack for breakfast called sambusa. It is a bit like a triangle-shaped dumpling with some meat wrapped in a layer of crust. I usually had sambusa in the morning with a cup of chai, which was tea. Regular chai tasted like brown sugar ginger tea, there was also chai maziwa, meaning tea with milk. There were some other foods too, mostly doughs made and fried into different shapes and with different names.

The meals in business school were better. A set meal there was about 4000~6000 shillings. You could choose a kind of meat from chicken legs, fish, or beef, with some beans and some red sauce, and spiced rice.

I actually ate very little during my time in Tanzania. I generally don’t like food containing too much oil and salt, and I was worried about the sanitary issues too. Later, I got gastroenteritis and had fever several times. I didn’t know if it was because of what I ate or I didn’t eat enough.

There was Uber in the local area, but I often got confused by the drivers. I’m not sure whether they didn’t know how to check GPS or didn’t want to, anyways they would always call to ask where we are, and apparently, we didn’t know the exact location, so it would often take a long time before the driver could find us.

The local bus was called Daladala. It was probably a second-hand kindergarten school bus bought by a local businessman from Japan. The door was very low, and a kindergarten name was written in katakana on the body of the bus. On the bus there were old and worn-out twin seats, children-size, you could be easily squeezed out of your seat if someone with a bigger body wanted to sit next to you.

Either stand or sit was fine on the bus. Someone would collect money at the door while people getting off. It’s about 400 shillings for a ride. The coins in the person’s hands would make a “daladala” sound, which aptly became the name of the bus. There were no numbers printed on the bus, no stop signs on the road, we just got on a bus at one place and then got off at another place. I just realized we didn’t really know whether the bus could get us where we wanted to go, but it did every time. It’s kind of amazing.

Sometimes we also took Bajiaji, a type of three-wheeled electric car. The driver sat in the front and the passengers sat in the small carriage behind which could seat 3 people. Bajiajis were easy to find on campus and they would come by as long as we waved at them. In case there was already a passenger whose destination was on our way, we can even bargain with the driver for a discount, just like Uber pool.

The local motorcycle is called Pikipiki. The name sounds cute, but for me it’s a word that entails terrible memories because a few days later I was robbed by someone driving a Pikipiki.

Here’s what happened. That day, the director of the international department of the local school was taking us to Bagamoyo, a historic city with many monuments like ancient slave markets, mosques, etc. We were told we would meet at the gate of our building and leave at 8 in the morning. My roommate and I got there early and no other students were there yet. A lot of mosquitoes were buzzing around us while we were waiting, which reminded us that we didn’t bring the mosquito repellent spray. Since there was still some time, we decided to go back and get it. Before going upstairs, I told the director we would be back shortly and she said she would wait for us. But after we climbed up to the 9th floor and came down again, the car had already left.

I called the director, and she said that the car was too full to stand even 1 more person so they had to leave without us. It’s kind of funny that we were there first and waited for more than half an hour, but in the end, we were the only ones who didn’t get on the bus.

Since we had missed the tour, we decided to go to the Chinese embassy to complete some administrative paperwork as required. I went back to my room again to get my passport, Kindle, camera, and some other things. After we were done and out of the embassy, we walked to a nearby Chinese supermarket to buy groceries.

My roommate and I walked side by side on the street. I was on the side of the road with my backpack hanging on the outer shoulder. Suddenly a motorcycle drove by at a high speed. I felt my outer shoulder and arm were pulled forcefully and my whole body fell forward. When I came around from the shock, my bag was gone already.

My brain went blank for a few seconds and then I panicked and started crying. A garbage hauler was passing by and saw this happened. He picked up a bag of garbage and threw it at the motorcycle, but it didn’t hit it as it was driving really fast. He came to me and tried to calm me down. A few minutes later, I suddenly saw another man standing beside me. From a view of today, he seemed to be coming out of nowhere, and I bet he was with those people who robbed me. But back then, I didn’t think of this, of course.

I kept crying and stammering words about the important things in the bag, including passports, various documents, etc. After hearing this, the man said he knew where the robber was and he was going to help me find these things, and then left. After a while, he actually came back with the folder that I used to keep my passport and other documents, but just that folder, nothing else. I was completely messed up so I didn’t sense anything weird at all. I thanked him several times.

A while later, a car stopped beside us. The driver was possibly from South Asia. He asked us to get in the car and said he could take us somewhere (I couldn’t recall the exact place he was saying). As someone who’s not thinking already, I was about to climb into the car right away. My roommate stopped me and said what if he was a bad guy. Thanks to her, we didn’t get in the car. Then we called the embassy, and the officer who just handled our documents came to pick us up.

It was until I got into the officer’s car that I started to calm down, and I thought it was all and over. But it wasn’t. Suddenly a man ran by and threw in something from the car window. I freaked out immediately but turned out it was just my glasses case from the bag I had just lost. It was a new pair of glasses my mom bought me particularly for this journey before I came to Tanzania. I hadn’t even worn it once. The temples were broken, and the lenses were seriously scratched.

Why did he give back a pair of broken glasses? I couldn’t figure it out, and the more I thought about it, the more scared I became.

The officer drove us to a Chinese restaurant and ordered a lot of good food. He wanted to make us feel better, but I just couldn’t eat anything. For the first time in my life, I had the feeling of wanting to throw up while not being physically sick. I called my mom using the officer’s phone. It was about 2 or 3 o’clock in the afternoon in Tanzanite, not long after my mom started her day at work. The moment she picked up and her voice came into my ears, I cried out again: “Mom, I want to go home.”

The next day I borrowed my roommate’s cell phone and logged in to my WeChat. I saw a message sent to me by one of my teachers from my college in China. It was written in Swahili, something like: “Dear friend, the phone you took is very important to the owner. I hope you would return it to the International Office of the Dares Saddam University after seeing this message. Thank you for your understanding.”

In fact, many people were helping me during the whole incident, and I was very lucky that my passport and important documents were somehow brought back. But at that time I still felt completely helpless and insecure. Later, for a long time, I always recalled the details of when I was robbed, and the fact that pictures of me in my phone and camera would be seen by god knows who made me feel awful. I became reluctant to go out and I had to be with a large group of people most of the time. I never went out alone until leaving Tanzania.

We were notified by the embassy that Peace Ark was about to dock in Tanzania and we would be their volunteer translators. Peace Ark is a hospital ship of China. It has patrolled and provided medical services in the Gulf of Aden waters and Djibouti, Kenya, Tanzania, Seychelles, Bangladesh, and some other places.

I helped in the neurology room. There were a lot of medical words I didn’t know as I had just learned Swahili for a year. In fact, I barely knew any medical terms in English, let alone Swahili. Fortunately, there were local doctors who had studied or worked in China so they could help with the translation. A young female doctor studied medicine in northern China (I forgot which city it was). She talked in Chinese with the patients and switched to Swahili with the doctors, which was awesome. I often joined her at lunch and asked her to teach me some common words, such as measuring blood pressure, doing x-rays, and so on.

One day I just finished lunch and casually said “I’m thirsty, is there any water”. A middle-aged man in the room heard it and asked me excitedly if I was from Beijing. I said yes, then he said he knew it when he heard the way I pronounce “water (shuǐ)” because Beijingers often stress much on the third tone. This man was a military doctor and he was also from Beijing. He seemed very happy to meet me and insisted on giving me a lot of instant noodles that he brought on board.

Besides doctors and nurses, there were many young soldiers on board. One was from Hangzhou, he often played cards and did magic tricks for us; another one was is in charge of handing out lunch boxes, he was learning guitar by himself, and I taught him how to press the strings properly.

The food on the ship was much better than in the school canteen. There was a recreation room in the basement with a ping pong table and a beverage spot. We got our lunch box there every day. There were scrambled eggs with tomatoes and rice, and fried chicken drumettes. These were things I always liked to eat. There was also Lao Gan Ma chili sauce, warm soups, anyways I could get decent meals there, and my weight was at the peak in those days during my whole time in Tanzania.

I still remember many faces of the patients on the ship. There was a blind child with very big eyes and bluish-white eyeballs, he was held and led by his mother all the way; there were some girls who looked very young but were mothers already, breast-feeding their children in the nursing room; and there was a middle-aged woman, chubby, had grown something protrusive on her body. I saw her in the room for blood tests and heard the doctor said that she has AIDS so she could not be tested. It was the first time I had seen an AIDS patient personally.

My mind kept processing and imagining: even if these people had come here, they could only get very limited help, so what would they do when the ship left; some poorer people probably couldn’t even come here, they could just lie at home and wait; what would my life be like if I were born here? Probably already a housewife, a mom, raising my three children, or five, six… When I think of all of these, I got mixed feelings.

We were busy those days. Our school was located on a mountain and the ship was at the pier. A bus would pick us up at the gate of our apartment at 6 every morning, and we wouldn’t come back until late at night. The Peace Ark stayed in Tanzania for a week and then drove away. A lot of people didn’t even know it had been there.

An old American lady lived in the same building as we did. She had a personality, often turned on the TV with the max volume at 6 o’clock in the morning, waken us all up, yelled at the staff, but she got along especially well with the cats in the yard.

I didn’t really know her until the last few days in Tanzania. We met in the yard. She came to us and started talking, and casually pulled out a leaf from some “grass” on the side, split it into two halves, put one half between her lips, and handed the other half to me and let me taste it. I put it between my lips too and it tasted like lemon. She said she planted these plants and they could be mixed and eaten with salads, and we could take some if we want. Before I left, I gave her the tea I brought from China and she gave me a business card in exchange, turned out she was a professor of philosophy at a university in the U.S.

When the day of leaving Tanzania finally came, I felt “saved”, honestly. At the time, I was not doing well. I had fevers several times, and I had never traveled this far, I really missed home. It was a unique, unreal, and complicated experience for me, and until now I could still feel its indescribable impact on me. I went to a strange place cluelessly, and all the norms I knew for more than 20 years were erased, life was like getting a “factory reset”, then immediately installing tons of new programs, running in my head stumblingly with intertwined curiosity and fear. Feelings were so strong and pure, either happy or upset.

I don’t know if I could ever find myself in these scenes again: sleeping with gecko everywhere, fighting against a mouse that kept gnawing our bags, jumping up and down because the big fat moths just suddenly flew into the room, and kept finding small black bugs in the folds of my sheets, running into a huge army of mayflies when it rained, and observing a stick insect in the yard that I had only seen in books; water and power outages were common, and when a hot bath was available, it was the happiest moment of life; sometimes the lights in the corridors would automatically turn on after the sunset, and that was when we cheered “Wow, we have electricity tonight!”; When the power was down, I would crawl into bed and read suspense fiction on the phone. I read Edogawa Rampo, my roommate read Agatha, everything was in darkness except the glimmer of our phone screens, there were sounds of geckos on our heads, and we look at each other with startled eyes…Then I was squatting in the yard handwashing my clothes and sheets. The plastic wash bowls often cracked all of a sudden so I had to keep buying new ones, and the hangers we used to dry the clothes frequently cracked too, and the clothes would drop on the floor, got dirt on it, and I had to wash it again, sometimes this could take a whole afternoon; I also skipped rope and kicked the shuttlecock with my friends in the yard, when we were tired we would stop and look at the sky, amazed by how beautiful the sunset was, how fresh the air smelled…

Looking back now in a life where norms have taken up almost everything, I feel “saved” in these memories as well.

Story: Yue | Writer: Yinong| March 2021

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