Monday, March 30, 2009

Lunch In Dar es Salaam: My Search for Obama Kangas

by: Ryan Schuette

This month I traveled to Dar es Salaam in my role as a foreign correspondent to report on a conference the International Monetary Fund hosted. A folded, spotty paperback edition of Jeffrey Sachs’ “The End of Poverty” in my backpack, I crisscrossed the busy streets of the Tanzanian capital to find the conference center, itself lost somewhere in a maze of ten-storey skyscrapers, temples to modernity in a city that echoes with calls to prayer by night. I read that book insatiably, made notations, scribbled figures on a notepad, in part because I would meet and probably interview the author – a panelist – and partly because I saw some of his conclusions about international development reflected in the faces of working poor, with their “simple annals,” as Abraham Lincoln once denoted their lives and lifestyles, all around me.

I never interviewed Sachs. The man, a celebrity in the way only a bespectacled bookworm advocate for the poor can become, ducked out of the conference center as soon as reporters engulfed Kofi Annan, the keynote speaker. A little disappointing? Sure. But what I found in Dar es Salaam made my work for the fair trade business Awava – for which I moonlighted as a serious-faced fabrics shopper – resonate with the idealism I absorbed from “The End of Poverty.” Hopes, dreams, and a little faith to make our world better than the one we inherited, this is what I found reflected from the organization and the book on a small corner, in crowded market spaces, searching for a U.S. president and the stuff of future purses.

It began with my mission for Awava: I needed to find Barack Obama’s face. Put a bit more straightforwardly, I needed to find his face on a four-foot khanga, surrounded by the words Honera Barack Obama, or “Congratulations, Barack Obama,” in Swahili – material that would surely sell well for Awava in America and profit the female entrepreneurs who need it for their daily bread. The only market in which I would find BaracKhanga, I knew, lay in the mishmash of makeshift kiosks, shaded shops, and medieval-looking mosques of downtown Dar es Salaam, a cacophonous rush of cars, spoken Swahili, and American pop music that leaves you with the impression of not so much a clash of civilizations as one – or a few – that got crammed into a blender. That’s culture the world over in an era of globalization, but here I found burkhas and high heels, Britney Spears and the call to prayer, Camel cigarettes and alcohol bans: a real-world microcosm of the so-called “Americanization” you read about in textbooks.

After the conference ended each day, I ventured out into the marketplace that sprawls forth like a gaudy octopus from the center of the city. The first day I met with disappointment: no one could tell me where I could find the khangas I discovered in Zanzibar two months earlier. The second day I came across a man on a step in front of his shop, a cigarette hanging limply from his lips, absorbed in a newspaper. Upon mentioning “Obama” and “khanga” – a note of despair in the back of my mind – he directed me to a bony, bearded taxi driver, a man who spoke little English but understood immediately when the shopkeeper mentioned it to him. The taxi driver gestured me into his vehicle and rushed me down a few blocks, through streets filled with baying goats and Tanzanian women in miniskirts, and to a shop parked on the corner of a street pushed together by two mosques, towers that looked more like minaret-crowned guardians of unspoken godliness. Women in miniskirts from the street before seemed to vanish, and all around me I saw men in flowing white garments and women in closeting hajibs: a bastion of cultural conservatism in Tanzania’s capital.

The taxi driver pointed me to the shop on the corner I first noticed. I paid him 5,000 Tanzanian shillings – roughly three dollars – and stepped out of the taxi. Entering the shop, I found a fat, bearded shopkeeper with two other men behind a counter. Posters featuring Mecca, the holy place of Islam, plastered the walls next to folded khagas of all kinds: diamondback fabrics of blue and orange, of yellow and black, of butterfly patterns and distinctly Islamic designs with curlicue expressions in Arabic and Swahili. I noted that two ceiling fans rotated lazily above me. The shop smelled of textile fabrics and goat-meat – their lunch, I saw, as his two counterparts munched on it between spoonfuls of rice and curry.

Shifting uncertainly, feeling like a six-foot pale-skinned giant from a distant country called Texas, I said, “I’m looking for a khanga with Barack Obama’s face on it. Do you have it?”

The shopkeeper nodded and asked me to follow him to the back of his shop. Passing by the varied fabrics, I came to what I wanted: a treasure trove of Obama-faced fabrics, neatly folded in massive piles on stools and draped over cabinets. I pulled the ones I wanted – ten each in blue, purple, and red – and carefully considered a few non-BaracKhangas that I thought would do well as some of Awava’s purses, aprons, and laptop bags. Making my selection, I headed to the shop front and threw down a substantial amount of money.

The shopkeepers were surprised – pleasantly. They probably hadn’t seen as much money in awhile. As soon as I had loaded my khangas into four fat bags, the bearded shopkeeper motioned to me. “Come, come,” he said. “Have lunch with us.”

I thought about it. The Tanzanian sun blazed above me – quite a different feel from the mild Ugandan heat – and no ceiling fan could beat the air conditioner that would welcome me at my hotel. My arms were sticky from sweat, and I yearned for a cold shower. Still, lunch was tempting, and the smiles of the shopkeeper and the two men warmed me over to a small portion of their meal.

The hospitality was immediate and unconditional. One man pulled out a stool for me, cleared the table and made room for me. The other poured rice with curry and vegetables into a bowl for me, sharing no offense when I refused goat-meat. The bearded shopkeeper opened a Coca-Cola for me, and we ate together.

Though the first minute or two after my outspoken thanks succumbed to some awkward silence, the shopkeeper broke it by asking me, “So where are you from? Britain?”
I laughed. “Nope, all the way from Texas,” I said.

The three men raised their eyebrows and made crooked grins. “So why you like Obama?” one managed, gesturing at a pile of BaracKhangas I had bought. “You are from Bush country.”

I laughed again and explained what I was doing, the fair trade business I supported, and how well Barack Obama’s face sells in America.

“We think Obama is good,” one of the men, who introduced himself as Abdul, a Pakistani, said. He didn’t venture to explain his politics and I didn’t seek an answer why he liked Obama; I think we all understood that our nationalities preceded us and engendered tension without any of us seeking it.

The other man, Mohammed, until then quiet, asked me, “Why are you in East Africa?”

After they heard me describe myself as a student and journalist, the shopkeeper, stroking his beard, said, “I want to study in America.”

That changed the course of the conversation, because he added, “I would like to live in America. I want to be an engineer.”

Abdul and Mohammed piped in, too, saying how much they would like visas. “Are there mosques in America?” the latter asked.

I nodded eagerly and explained that I received my education near Dallas, which boasts of a burgeoning multi-religious community, and that some of my best friends were Muslims in Texas.

Well that stopped lunch. None of them could believe it. The shopkeeper asked me, “So I could worship in America? I could be a Muslim there?” I readily assented.

“We want to escape the poverty,” Mohammed said, about stumbling over himself, his eyes glistening as he spoke. “You see this shop – it is good to us. But our families – I have sons – they want more, too.”

They all talked about their aspirations, and how they, save the shopkeeper, were limited by their expatriate status in Tanzania. The next shock was reserved for me, and it came from the shopkeeper. After describing his intention to become an engineer, he revealed to me that he had taught at a madrassah in South Africa. Madrassahs are synonymous in the Western mind with religious instruction, and with another word: fundamentalism. With images: burning flags. With sounds: planes colliding into buildings. But the man before me seemed less a vision of anti-secular piety than a shopkeeper dressed simply, eating simply, wanting simply more for himself and his friends and family.

“I want to do good by Allah,” said the shopkeeper. “I want to learn to build dams. I want to help develop my country.”

The shock wore off, replaced by a sanguine sense of friendship with these men. Gone were the burdens of nationality, the instant and mutual fears, if they existed: we were friends having lunch with each other. The fans still rolled on lazily above me, but the air conditioner and cold shower beckoned less.

Finishing lunch and my Coca-Cola, I bid farewell to Abdul, Mohammed, and the shopkeeper. I thanked them with as much poise and graciousness as I could muster, shaking their hands repeatedly and smiling as much as possible without seeming forced. The shopkeeper provided his name and email address to me and we vowed to stay in touch. I’ve lost that small piece of paper since, unfortunately, but the memories stay with me rather consistently, like the breeze from lazy ceiling fans on a hot day.

Boarding my plane back to Kampala, I thought of these men and their aspirations. With a jolt I came to think that this conversation somehow interlinked all of our endeavors – Awava and Kate, the director, braving an uncharted lifestyle in Uganda to improve the “simple annals” of others; Jeffrey Sachs, traveling the world and speaking until his voice cracks about aid commitments to the extreme poor – the seemingly separate and innocuous roles they and others play, the fruits of their labor juxtaposed into visions of a free America, a free world, boundless and generous and welcoming. I realized that the aspirations of these men were one in the same with the aspirations of the women in Gulu, one in the same with my own.

Imagine if we could all sit down and eat together. World peace? Maybe not. But we would find something in common, that’s for sure.

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