Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Vignette: Tanzania/ Pangani: On living in the real world

Sisal plantation on the road between Pangani and Tanga
The house went up in flames in a matter of minutes. Once the spark jumped from the burning field to the nearby palm and then the makuti roof, there was no stopping it.

The couple grabbed what they could and fled. Got out with the most important items in tow: baby, passports, laptop, iPhone, a few bags of clothes.

We meet two days later; I go with them to the market to buy necessary replacement items; for two days G has been living in pajamas, her clothes turned to ash. She tells me the details of the fire while we drive: her fear, the moment she saw the palm tree go, how she knew then it was time to scoop up the baby and leave. How it all seemed so surreal – you never really realize it’s happening when it’s actually happening. How they are still processing the whole event. How, besides what they grabbed in those first few moments, most things are burnt to black: furniture, clothing, camera, baby clothes, sentimental stuff, books.

I recall a book we lent them last week – a family favorite, a gift from my mother. I wonder if it survived the flames, but I don’t ask.

G says that they’ve had wonderful support, except for the one comment that ruined her day. Judgmental, condescending. Suggesting parental irresponsibility for having a baby in Africa in the first place, implying that similar disasters could be avoided if only these young parents would wise up and get their baby back to the safety of home shores. That comment began with “I’ll say what everyone else is thinking…”

Not everyone.

The naysayers come out when the going gets tough. The naysayers will tell you the things you can’t do. We’ve heard plenty.

You can’t raise a baby on a boat.
You can’t give birth in Mexico.
You can’t sail across oceans with children.
You can’t you can’t you can’t.

The naysayers are good at prescriptive advice. The naysayers fit life into a space with four predictable corners.

The naysayers haven’t tried to live outside the box. They just know they can’t.

When our first baby was due, we were told we needed a paediatrician before the baby was born. We did as suggested; we ‘interviewed’ several potential paediatricians one month prior to the baby’s birth. Important topics such as immunization schedules, birth weights and standardized expectations for a healthy baby dominated the sessions. Books were consulted; charts were referenced. Only one listened to our story – how we planned to move aboard our 28’ boat, with our baby, as soon as summer arrived – and said, “Listen. You can raise your children anywhere in the world.” He was from Egypt. He’d seen a few things before landing his practice in Baltimore. “Love your baby,” he said, “and she’ll have a good life.”


Lunchtime. We admire our purchases from the market; G does not have to walk around in her pajamas anymore. Our friends tell the story of their wedding bands – metal, plain – and purchased in Malaysia for $2. We laugh at that, and we laugh again when they tell us they purchased an extra ring, because E knew he’d lose the first one. We laugh a third time when he tells us the one he’s wearing is the replacement ring.

The baby sits on dad’s lap, blowing bubbles.

“Oh!” says G suddenly. “Your book! I’ve just remembered your book!” This talk of lost things. G realises now that the book we lent her is destroyed, gone.

“It doesn’t matter,” I say quickly. But as soon as I say it I know I’ve misspoken. The book does matter. Just the like the wedding bands – the lost one and the replacement. What doesn’t matter is that the ring was lost, that the book was burnt to bits. But they are still part of the story.

I reach to take the baby, to hold him while his parents eat. I put him to my shoulder and inhale – he smells like he should: fresh, warm, milky soft. He squirms a bit and almost cries. 

“Try turning him around,” E says. “He likes to see the world.”