Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Small Talk, Tanzania Style

So I have written in the past about language issues here in Tanzania. Indeed, the struggle to communicate is one of the most salient issue here for an ex-pat. Deeper issues of cultural understanding manifest themselves in conversations, but you can’t even approach that level of communication if you’re standing there looking like an idiot trying to remember the word for “pineapple.” Katie can actually have conversations in Swahili. I can sound like a relatively functional 4-year-old.

Beyond simply learning, remembering, and using new vocabulary and then understanding the nuance that may be underneath the words themselves, you also must deal with the fact that people talk differently, and I don't mean accents or simple grammar. I mean the way they think and form sentences is different. In your own culture, you have a basic assumption of how people will speak to you. But here, someone may say something to you that makes sense to them and everyone around you but makes no sense at all to you. What I mean is, beyond idioms, beyond new words, the things that people choose to say and choose NOT to say are often just as baffling, if not moreso.

Let’s take simple small talk, for example.

Small talk here often makes no sense to an American ear. It’s confusing. Even after almost 3 years here, its confusing. But maybe "confusing" isn't the right word...maybe "pointless" is better. It circles around and around and makes no sense. Now, I know there’s very little depth to “Hot today, huh?” or “How ‘bout them Mets?” but you at least know you’re talking about the weather of a football team. (Ha HA just kidding, people).

Small talk here- at least small talk with a Westerner- tends to consist of just stating some random comment about something remotely related to you, but with the crucial point of not clearly stating what that thing may be. Here’s a typical example. Keep in mind that this is often in a mix of English and Swahili.

Me: Habari za leo? (How are you?)

Them: Nzuri. Habari za kwako? (How’s your home?)

Me: Good.


Me: …What?

Them: How is it?

Me: How is what? America?

Them: YES...UGALI. (a local food staple)

Me: …What?

Them: UGALI. Have you tried it?

Me: …Yes. Why?

Them: Sema? (Verb for “say”)

Me: Say what?

Them: MABATINI. (Our neighborhood)

Me:…What about Mabatini?

Them: How is it?

Me: Mabatini? It’s good.


This can pretty much go on ad infinitum until I just smile and walk away (or look very confused and walk away). There will often be thumbs up, high fives, and laughter on their part.

So there’s no real moral to this story. It’s just fascinating (and honestly, often annoying) to see this happen. I feel that a certain amount of their local interaction is on this surface level with minimal information. But I also think this is particular relevant to when locals interact with Westerners. I know that most people here know a little bit of English- often just a few random words they’ve picked up- but in the same way that I felt good when I had my first simple exchanges in Swahili, they are likely proud of themselves for engaging the mzungu in English. Even if it made no sense to the English-speaker. And I can’t really judge them on that, because I see that same confused look staring at me when I open my mouth and use Swahili.


Monday, August 18, 2014

Am I Missing Something?...

 ...or is the massage therapist missing something in this picture?

Recently, several of us here were going through books to donate, and I flipped open a book on massage and found the following pictures.


There were many more like these two.

Look, I've had some really strange massages before, but only ONE of us stripped down for the session.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Kids Draw the Darndest Things

...and that "Darndest Thing" is ME.

This last Saturday, the kids of our Chanua group met for their regular Saturday morning meeting. We vary on what we do at these meetings. Sometimes we teach them lessons to help with their school work, sometimes we sing and/or draw pictures, and sometimes we just have game days. This last Saturday, because we were also handing out items of clothing for the kids, we decided it was a good day to draw.

Now, these kids tend to draw the same things over and over, which is fine. It goes like this:

Girls: flowers, princesses, houses, their school teachers

Boys: soccer players, airplanes, cars, the Tanzanian flag

In light of the repetitive nature of their pictures, we often give them a topic to draw to inspire them to think outside the box a little more. And this week I told them that they should draw either ME or my coworker Mary.

My friends, you are in for a treat. Before we delve into these drawings, I want to say one thing: I LOVE these drawings. I love the way kids draw. I love everything about these drawings and I am super proud of them.

Now, with that said, I'm gonna kinda make fun of these drawings because they are of ME and I look INSANE in all of them. They are wonderful.

I think I look pretty burly here. Like a lumberjack or someone who's ready for
some blue collar work. I'll see you mofos down at the DOCKS.

Looks like I'm wearing clown shoes. Symbolism, perhaps? 
Trying to make a statement about my soul. I like the artistic license.

In this one, I'm clearly angry about my botched plastic surgery. Which is TRUE.
I'm STILL pissed about it. Also, I'm angry about my clubfeet.

This one just works. I think I have a grill in this one.

The slightly stunned, vacant look? LIKE A PHOTOGRAPH, this one.

This one clearly got the proportions correct. Also, I need some red pants.

This was a child's take on me if I were a serial killing version of Ed Grimley.

I do wear a lot of greens and blues.

Katie and I laughed really hard at the red shoes. Then I remembered I own a pair of red shoes.


I did not realize my arms were that hairy. YOU LEARN SOMETHING NEW EVERY DAY.

Excuse me, sir. Have you seen my feet? And the other half of right arm?
Otherwise, this one is pretty accurate.

"Vacant Eyes and Tiny Slippers: The Story of Chris Reid." Monday, 11pm, Lifetime Network.

I like the sass in this one. I feel a little like Beyonce.

OK, I look like an angry monkey in this one. Which is cool.

I need to take a minute to talk about spelling. The Sukuma people do not
differentiate between R's and L's, so they spell my name is many creative
ways based on how they hear my name. So "Chris" becomes some variant of "Kilis."
Based on the above drawing, I'm obviously battling for the Iron Throne of Westeros.

I WISH I LOOKED THIS COOL IN REAL LIFE. Seriously. I look like a member of The Clash.

I look kinda like Ice Cube here. VALID.
Also, I'm handing out clothing here, hence the shirt in my hand. Or I'm Edward Wardrobehands.

This one makes me giggle to no end. I adore it. Also, Bruce Willis kills me in Sin City.

I shore am glad Aunt Mommy and Uncle Cousin picked me up after I got my lobotomy.

I think I need to consider going sleeveless more.


I'm not sure if you have ever seen Eraserhead, but THIS kid certainly has.

I'm kinda like Cthulhu, but with beard tentacles.


Bonus Drawing: Here's one of Mary, my Coworker.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

In Memory of Thomas

Earlier today, I received a phone call with some bad news. Thomas, a boy I knew up in Musoma, had succumbed to illness and died earlier this morning.

I met Thomas in early 2012, shortly after we arrived in Tanzania. The town of Musoma is where we went to language school, and it’s also the town where fellow missioner Liz Mach and Maryknoll Sister Marion Hughes live. Every two weeks, a group of HIV+ children (called Lisa’s Pride) gather at Sr. Marion’s house to play games, to do a weigh-in, and to receive basic food stuffs that helps keep their immune systems strong. While we lived in Musoma, we would try to make it out to as many sessions as we could, and that’s where we met Thomas.

First of all, Thomas was charming. He had a great smile. He was smart and quick to laugh. And he was a little dude. I thought he was 9 or 10 at first, but when you spoke with him, he seemed older. That’s because he was; his health issues had stunted his growth and kept him at a size very small relative to his age. He was a teenager and must have been 15 or 16 by now.

As should be obvious by his membership in Lisa’s Pride, Thomas was HIV+. I don’t know the story of how he was infected. He was also deaf, but he wasn’t born that way. When he was younger, he got malaria and received an overdose of his medication and lost his hearing as a result. Yet, he could still hear a little so he could hold a conversation with you- in Swahili or in English. And he could read lips- in Swahili or in English. I told you, he was smart.

After 3 months, we moved down to Mwanza, but for our first Christmas in Tanzania, we went back up to Musoma to spend a few days with Liz and Sr. Marion. We also went to assist with a big shopping trip where the kids from Lisa’s Pride got to pick out clothes for themselves. It was a lot of fun, and Thomas was around, of course. The day of the shopping trip was also my 36th birthday, so Katie baked me a cake. Thomas helped her light the candles, and then he brought the cake out to me as everyone sang “Happy Birthday.”

Sadly, that was the last time I saw him. We haven’t been up to Musoma in a year and a half. But I always asked about him, and I hear that he would still ask about me from time to time. I know Thomas liked me a lot, but I won’t say I had a particularly special relationship with him, because he liked everybody. But clearly, Thomas had a special place in my heart.

I’m not sure what happened, but he had evidently been sick for a while and had been in and out of the hospital. He was recently released because he was doing really well…and then he died. That’s what HIV/AIDS does: weakens your immune system until some secondary infection gets you.

I feel like I should take this opportunity to rally support for AIDS research and funding for ARVs, but I’m not sure what to say at this moment. We should take a “big picture” approach to tackling the HIV/AIDS epidemic, but today I’m taking the “small view.” I’m just mourning the death of a child…my friend, Thomas. 

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Day of the African Child

Every year, on June 16th, the world celebrates the Day of the African Child.

Today, I had a sobering experience to mark the day. I visited the office of Friends of Children with Cancer (FOCC) at Bugando Medical Centre here in Mwanza, Tanzania. The director, Walter Miya, is a friend of mine. At the end of our two hour meeting, he gave me a tour of the oncology ward. He took me to the bedside of each of the little kids there receiving treatment for cancer. It was a sad experience to be sure, but it's also a blessing that these children are getting treatment and assistance.

Let's be real: a lot of these kids won't make it. But at least they have the chance to try. And a lot of these kids WILL make it, and that's a reason to celebrate right there.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

A Shout Out to a Friend

I want to brag for a minute, but not about myself. I want to take a moment and talk about Aden Mabruk, my Somali Bantu friend from Columbia. I’ve written about him numerous times over the years, as he was a big part of my years living in Columbia, SC.

I first met him back in 2005 when I volunteered to tutor him once a week while he was a student at Dent Middle School. He was a quiet, intense, kinda surly 14-year-old refugee kid who was so focused on his school work that he would hardly look me in the eye or make any semblance of small talk. Over time, that facade slowly but surely dropped and we began to spend hours together each week discussing school work and any other questions he had on his mind. Eventually, due to numerous factors, my involvement within the Columbia Somali Bantu community expanded to include some degree of connection to almost every Somali Bantu family in the city. But Aden always remained my core connection, along with his friends Hassan, Abdi, Mohammed, and Omar (AKA “Motormouth, who's done quite well for himself, as well!)

Eventually, once Aden and his crew made it to high school, our time spent with each other dwindled. Aden got involved with sports, made a bunch of friends (and got very popular), and got involved with extracurricular activities. By his junior year, he was super busy, and he eventually ended our tutoring sessions. It was bittersweet to me; I was super proud of how far he and his friends had come, but I felt a real loss. He didn’t need me anymore! 
But once he graduated high school, he got a car and come over to just hang out at my house, and that was a fun new aspect to our friendship. He and his crew spent many nights sitting around a fire in my backyard chatting up my friends and neighbors (and trying to teach them the most bullshit card game I’ve ever witnessed, a game that I thought was totally made up by the Somalis solely to mess with Americans until my friend Fiona managed to actually sorta learn it one night and I had to concede there may actually be rules). He also took some ESL classes at USC in the building where I worked and he joined the PANASA group I helped start, so I would see him around campus.

Anyway, the kid meant a lot to me, and still does, though since we moved to Tanzania our communication has really dropped off. Despite our best efforts, I didn’t even manage to see him when I was in the States this February. I wasn’t really sure what he was up to these days. And then THIS showed up on his facebook wall the other day:

“To friends in the U.S and outside of U.S I'm really sorry that i have been difficult to reach these few months. I and my brother Tariq Sabreer have been working big project starting our own business. Allhumalallah finally we did it. I'm honored to be a partner with such talent person. We are the owners of the new restaurant in town and its name is Feel Goods Restaurant & Grill, previously know as Nick and Gyro. Yesterday was our first day and we started great. This year has been very successful year indeed. I have been accepted USC Engineering school, its education school and start my our business. I’m happy. I would like Thank my Mother Hawa Haji Mohamed, My bother Hussein Mabruk and my American family (Vickie Westbrook and Spears Westbrook) for their support. So friends come out support us.”
Wha??! He's starting a restaurant while simultaneously starting Engineering school?!! I’ll be honest, I have a hard time wrapping my head around this! I’m not SURPRISED, because he’s one of the most driven, motivated people I’ve ever met. But where did that surly little kid who only wanted to do math problems and would never smile go? Where’d this twenty-something entrepreneur come from? And where'd that beard come from?!

Needless to say that I am super proud of this guy, and I’m proud of the role I’ve had in his life. I’m certainly not the only person that played a role in his time in the States; he’s had tremendous support over the years from a variety of people that could all see his potential. I think we can all pat ourselves on the back for what we’ve done for him, but the true accolades go to Aden himself for all his hard work that’s gotten him to where he is today. I wish him the best of luck and look forward to seeing where he’ll end up next.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Big Pain One Two Three! Adventures in Massage

It all started with a birthday present.

Katie’s birthday is April 1st, and this year I purchased Katie a gift certificate for a 1-hour back and neck massage, which cost $50 at a nice hotel here in Mwanza. Because it is a bit pricy for our missionary incomes, we’d never been to this spa, but it was her birthday and I wanted her to have a treat.

Well, even fancy hotels in Tanzania, no matter how nice, still manage to skew the best-laid plans. Katie found some time when she wasn’t busy with her work, and called and made an appointment, as per the manager’s instructions. She arrived at the appointed time, only to be told that they had two walk-ins and that she should just wait an hour or two until they were done.

Not cool.

Long story short: Katie couldn’t wait that long, and she got the manager to agree to give her ANOTHER $50 massage for her troubles! So yesterday morning, Katie called and arranged for her to get her massage at 4pm, and that I could get the free massage at 5pm. Pretty sweet!

We arrived at the hotel right on time, and all the appointments were on the books as scheduled. Katie goes first, I work on my laptop for the hour, looking out over the lake and watching kingfishers dive into the water. Lovely.

At 5pm, I am waiting outside the spa entrance and I see Katie come out with a strange look on her face. She says “I feel fine, but I’m glad that's over.”


Now, we’d heard that this masseuse used a lot of pressure when she worked. Our friend Kristle had been there recently and had told us as much. I was prepared for it, but Katie’s face had me worried a little bit. She said it was good but it hurt. Also, the masseuse didn’t really know any English.

Well, I walk in and am greeted by a little Asain lady in REALLY broken English. She is from Thailand and has been in Mwanza a year. She shows me to the bathroom and tells me to change, basically by pointing to the rack of towels and yelling “CHANGE.” No problem. I strip down, leaving my underwear on, wrap a towel around me, and walk out into the room.

The masseuse immediately laughs at me. Not sure why. It’s not cruel, it’s just odd. I smile and ask if I wasn’t supposed to have take my clothes off. She smiles and points to the massage table. I climb up, keeping the towel around me as I lay down on my stomach.

She immediately rips the towel off, and there we are, staring at each other, her smiling, me in my underwear. I just laugh. We laugh together, in fact. Then she puts the towel over me and the massage begins.

The massage is not bad at all. She clearly knows what she is doing. But she gets to my neck and starts saying “NO GOOD. BAD. BIG PAIN. BIG PAIN.”

I would like to point out that I am not making fun of the way Asians speak. But I am trying to convey how bizarre and nonsensical this lady was sounding to me and she was talking with me.

NO GOOD. BIG PAIN.” I assume she has seen that a week ago I got a very bad sunburn on my neck because I am dumb and live by the Equator and forget to use sunscreen. My neck was peeling a bit. She stops massaging me and reaches under the table and brings up a wooden spoon.

THIS GOOD. YES? VIY KG K VGV G KGV” because I honestly couldn’t understand what she was saying.

“Sure. OK.” I say, and she starts rubbing my neck with the spoon. HARD. REPEATEDLY. And it HURT. She is just going to town on my neck. I tell her I need less pressure, that it was hurting too much (especially on the sunburn!). She says “BIG PAIN ONE TWO THREE IT GOOD!!! NO BAD! BIG PAIN ONE TWO THREE!!” And then she starts working down the back. I assume she is just exfoliating the hell out of my skin. She starts on the other side, first with the neck, then down my back again.

She finishes, and says “VERY BAD! VERY BAD. IT’S GOOD! COME COME!” She motions me to a mirror, but as she walks off, she pulls off the towel, so there I am in my underwear, walking across the room. She hands me the towel again, I cover myself up, then she points to my back and says “VERY BAD. BIG PAIN ONE TWO THREE DAY. THEN GOOD.” And this is what I see:

Holy hell! WTF DID SHE DO TO ME?! All I could do was laugh. Kinda maniacally. And she laughed with me! So there I am I’m all blistered and bruised standing in my underwear laughing with a little Thai lady.

I have since learned that this is a technique called Gua Sha, a Chinese traditional method of alleviating pains and illnesses. And no point was this explained to me, nor was it listed as part of the deal. I’m not much into these types of traditional healing methods (I’m skeptical) and I likely would have passed on it had I known. But you can’t unring a bell, so there it is. Gua Sha.

The rest of the massage was quite nice, although she was very rough. Lots of pressure on her part, lots of grinding of teeth and holding of breathe on my part. We made small talk (VERY small talk) and she kept smacking me and telling me to relax, then laughing. Honestly, she laughed the whole time, which COULD have been creepy, but actually kept the mood just light enough to where it was amusing and not so uncomfortable.

And then she laughed at my penis.

OK, this is purely speculation, but I’m pretty sure she laughed at my manhood, like, THREE TIMES. So, the whole massage was surreal, and I had a bit of a smirk on my face the whole time. She kept saying “WHY YOU SMILE? SMILE?” and laughing. She was working on my right arm, when suddenly she pointed to my crotch and said something like “HA HA YOU HAPPY. SMILE!

Let me be clear, there was nothing to laugh at at that moment, and I wasn’t actually “happy” at all. I just smiled and sort of laughed and then she kept going.

Did she just laugh at my penis?” I lay there thinking. “Did she just make a boner comment? Surely she didn’t.

Then a few minutes later, she say “YOU SMILE. YOU HAPPY!” and pointed in the general direction of my crotch again, and then started lifting her arm up, up, up like... well, you know.

At this point, I thought, “Is she propositioning me?” But nothing in her behavior indicated this. I think she just thought I was, I don’t know, giving her a sincere compliment. But I was not. NOTHING DOING DOWN THERE. For real, y’all.

Finally, she finished the massage, I get dressed, she serves me tea, I sign her book, and I’m done. I walked out to find Katie with the same strange look on her face.

“How was it?” she asks.

“Strange...wait until you see my back!” I say.

“Oh, I know. I just didn’t want to scare you off...” And then she showed me hers.

Needless, to say, we both had an unexpected adventure today.

But only one of us had their junk laughed at.

UPDATE: A friend of mine who works as a massage therapist and specializes in more traditional methods told me that this technique shouldn't have hurt like it did. More importantly, she confirmed my suspicions that I was indeed being offered the infamous "happy ending." Hence, the crotch pointing and repetition of "Happy?" Needless to say, no special services were received that day, but regardless of her offer, she could have given me no happier ending than when she stopped dragging that damn spoon across my back.