Month: January 2016

A Christmas Day Wedding in Dar es Salaam

My Christmas Day was filled with a Muslim wedding in Dar es Salaam. The invitation came in November at some point, and apparently it took most recipients by surprise. The groom, Omar Ilyas, is a friend who I had first met while volunteering with the Mwalimu Nyerere Foundation, and then ran across from time to time at African Studies conferences, lectures, and get togethers around Dar es Salaam. He is a political science graduate of the University of Dar es Salaam, and for some years has been working as an assistant to Salim Ahmed Salim, a former prime minister and ambassador to the United Nations who now sits on peace commissions. Omar is a die-hard loyalist to the Tanzanian vision of a peaceful, tolerant society of myriad ethnicities and religions, and has a large network of politically-attuned young Tanzanians who support his goal of building a political consultancy aimed at furthering these patriotic values. The bride, Mboni Kibelloh, I had never met, is a recent PhD recipient and the daughter of a well-off couple who spent most of their life in academia, if I understood correctly.

(The mother and father of the bride, on the right)

I had been told that I could wear regular clothes, but that a “kanzu would be preferable.” So I had rushed out the evening before to look for a kanzu at a small shop they sell outside a mosque. It was getting late and I was’t sure they’d be open and it took me a while to find it amidst the Christmas shopping crowds in the shops near Mwenge bus stop. I had parked on one end of the shops and made my way through endless rows of wooden stalls selling “mitumba”, used clothing. Young men stood on top of wood platforms with bullhorns announcing prices for bras and skirts and blouses at bargain-basement prices, while women rummaged through the piles of clothes like Americans at Macy’s after-Christmas sales. The Mwenge bus stop has been undergoing more-or-less continual refurbishment for ten years. What used to be a dusty (often muddy) jumble of wooden shacks and careening mini-buses, now has somewhat more orderly rows of wooden stands in one section and government-built shop fronts in another, with cement paver stones covering much of the ground. I recall coming through Mwenge in its older appearance one night as it got dark during the rainy season when the minibuses crawled through the puddles, and small oil lamps lighted stands selling french fries, tea, and fruit, and being impressed by the way the well-dressed working people made their way home through the mess with clean skirts and dignity intact. On Christmas Eve this year, I pushed through the crowds and a Muslim man selling Christmas favors said there were no stores selling kanzu’s except maybe at the mosque, and pointed me in that direction. At the kanzu store, I found out that these simple robes are more expensive than I expected at $25-40, nothing to break the bank but enough to make me want to choose carefully. Rather than the long robes of brown and beige that they had, I chose an olive green outfit with a long shirt and loose pants and some nice decorative stitching around the neck. It turned out to be the totally wrong choice, as 90% of the men attending the wedding wore the simplest robes in bright white that seemed to express something of the austere egalitarianism valued in Muslim society. My festive outfit, in faux-silk was much more Hindu than Muslim, and I realized much too late that I looked like more a character in a Bollywood movie than a Dar muslim dressed for the mosque….ah well, live and learn. People were polite enough to compliment me in any case.

(me, with the wrong kanzu, with the bride and groom at her house)

In the midst of the Mwenge shopping chaos, as is inevitable in Tanzania, I ran into two acquaintances. One I had communicated with before I left, the other just appeared out the crowd and said “Greetings, Uncle Paul.” She was the daughter of an Iringa friend who I had met on a few occasions when she was about 6 and then once last November. She is now a young woman, with a diploma in social work who found an internship with a company selling traditional medicines in Dar. She was making her way through the crowd with a friend in a bajaj (a little motorized rickshaw). We chatted briefly, and I told her to be careful in Dar and stick close to friends. Dar is a noisy, crowded, chaotic place, with a good bit of violent crime. I worried about this wisp of a girl, her father’s pride and joy in all that rough and tumble. But she is a young woman on her own, learning the ways of the world, and I’m sure Dar feels to her like New York City, an endless landscape of tall buildings flanked by old broken down Swahili houses, traffic, crowds, and life.

I had a quiet Christmas Eve dinner with my friend Elikana Ngogo and his household of young bachelors who keep an eye on the place as he comes and goes from his temporary home in Finland where his wife and kids are. On Christmas morning I went to Magomeni Lutheran Church, not far from where I was to meet the wedding party at 9:00 a.m. Like all Lutheran churches in Dar, Magomeni is a packed with middle class families and is in the midst of a massively ambitious building project. The middle class here does not have an income that Americans would recognize as middle class. A few well-off people make good money even by international standards, but for most $200-$500 per month places them squarely in the middle class: concerned about building up real estate assets and putting their children through school while contributing in respectable ways to community obligations like weddings, churches, mosques, births, and funerals. The service didn’t start until 8:00 a.m., so at 7:00 a.m. (the normal time for first services, an hour now being outpaced by a new push in many churches for a 6:00 a.m. service that allows people to make the most of their Sunday) I was early. I was brought in to greet the pastor, and so he inevitably invited me up to greet the congregation, something I’m used to, but not in front of such a sea of faces in Sunday best, with a balcony to boot. I said I was a lecturer at the University of Iringa (formerly Tumaini), and said a few words about Christmas.

(Magomeni Lutheran Church, Dar es Salaam)

Then I had to leave. I left something in the offering plate and asked about the best way to get turned around to head to my friend’s house. There were a number of cars parked in the narrow dirt street by Omar’s modest one-story house, where he still lived with his mother and sisters. He sent me out with one sister to pick up something at a nearby house, while he arranged to get my poorly-chosen kanzu ironed. People filtered in, women wearing magnificently colored robes and head scarves, men in their simple white kanzus. Eventually the best man showed up, an old college friend of Omar’s who I had first met ten years ago just after coming out as the surprise winner in the parliamentary elections of 2005. Still in his 20s, he had won as an opposition candidate for the far western town of Kigoma, on the shore of Lake Tanganyika. Since then, he has emerged as one of the most electrifying politicians in the country, a fearless voice exposing governmental corruption and calling Tanzanians to live up to the best of their nationalist ideals. His party was a free-market party, but in his concern for the common man, he has drifted towards the socialist ideals of the first president, Julius Nyerere. His popularity seemed to become a threat to the controllers of his party who did their best to demote and silence him. In response he and some friends started a whole new party, and ran a respectable campaign in the presidential elections, with a Christian woman as their presidential candidate and a Muslim man as vice president. He remained merely the party leader. So everyone was deferential when Zitto Kabwe made his entrance, also wearing the white kanzu but also a Saudi style checkered head dress, which he later doffed for a simple skull cap.

(Omar with best man Zitto Kabwe)

After a little frustration with two bus drivers suddenly gone missing (for tea) at the hour of departure, eventually a small convoy of SUV’s and two medium sized buses made our way towards the ferry port downtown. Zitto led the way (out of honor, but also presumably to ease potential encounters with police or port officers, but even that role not so necessary as there were two high ranking air force officers in another car), and I rode with the stressed groom, the only one wearing an accent to his kanzu, a gold-embroidered blanket hung over his shoulder. He was forward thinking enough to have a stack of skull caps in his bag, and gave me one.

(Anxious groom organizing transport in the sandy streets of Dar es Salaam)

They had made arrangements at the port to get the entire convoy on one trip, and we were escorted forward by young mute who the port allowed to busy himself directing traffic. Two ferries run 20 hours a day carrying people and cars back and forth across a narrows separating the Dar es Salaam harbor from a peninsula known as Kindondoni. Kinondoni has always had a quiet village-like feel compared to the bustle across the harbor, but a new bridge on the other side of the harbor will change that. The convoy made its way on sandy tire tracks across the peninsula to the bride’s house, whose enclosed compound sits just across from the new bridge. I asked what would happen today, and the older man who rode in the front seat of the car with us joked that the dowry had already been paid, so the task today was simply to just go “take” the bride. Omar shushed him, embarrassed by that sort of old fashioned attitude even when only a joke.

(The outer compound at the bride’s house)

We all stopped outside the gate, and only the groom made his way in in a vehicle. The rest of walked into the leafy compound, with a small artificial pond with a little gazebo on it. The men of the house met us and escorted to a picnic tent surrounded by tables that nobody sat in, the women went to a different tent and sat at tables. We sat on mats in the tent, and were served strong spiced coffee. Eventually two young men started chanting prayers, and we prepared ourselves for the wedding ceremony with cell phone cameras snapping continually. The bride’s father came out and sat opposite the groom and the best man. The groom got to his knees and promised the father that he would be a good husband to his daughter, to love, provide, and care for her. He promised, and after a signing a few papers, the marriage was official. What remained was a meal, the presentation of some gifts to the women, and taking photos in the bride’s parents magnificent house. Women danced in slow circles and men gossiped about politics. The guests were mostly Muslim, not all, but like me 😉 were all dressed appropriately and you could not tell Muslim from Christian. After a good bit of waiting around, I made my way home with the older man I came with while Omar remained behind at the house.

(The bride’s father granting Omar marriage to his daughter)

(A smile of relief)

(The women dancing upon receiving a suitcase full of clothing as a gift from the groom to the bride)

We got back to the house. Omar and his bride greeted his aging mother, who was brought to tears of both happiness and sadness at seeing off her son. We were served some glasses of cool juice and got changed back into everyday clothes. I gave the older man back his hotel, which turns out to be the same place I regularly stay in Dar. So we both congratulated ourselves on our good taste. I drove back to the hotel where was staying this trip and was exhausted with a suddenly splitting headache, even though I had drunk a couple bottles of water. I bought a few aspirins at a pharmacy next door, had a bit of dinner and went to bed. I slept well and felt refreshed the next morning.

(Prayers at the Dar es Salaam reception the following day)

The next afternoon there was another reception in a Muslim meeting hall in “Uhindini” (the Indian quarter) in downtown Dar es Salaam. The women were in a room upstairs, men in a nearly empty room on the first floor, sitting on mats. The young men chanted prayers, and eventually the groom appeared, we had another meal, eating with our hands while sitting on the floor. We left within a few hours, with me driving my older friend back again to his hotel (his wife and kids were also around for the wedding and were using his car, he was happy to escape when he could).

(the groom makes his appearance the following day)

That evening we had one more reception, this time at a Jamaican restaurant on a northern beach. A very chic place, and this reception was for college friends and young acquaintances. Food and soft drinks were on the house, alcohol on your own bill. I told the groom I was saving him money by drinking straight alcohol. The gathering included many young professors from the University of Dar es Salaam, former colleagues of Omar, as well as a few former students of mine from Tumaini University, who now walk among the Dar es Salaam elite as businessmen and highly ranked civil servants. The bride and groom made a grand appearance now in a shining golden gown and the groom in a dapper baby blue sport coat and bow tie. A seafood meal, dancing, and drinks with the full moon rising over the sea.

(cutting the cake on a dark night by the sea)

Rites of Passage and Citizenship: Confirmation at Ipogolo Lutheran Church

Christmas has passed, and now New Year’s. It’s been busy and I’ve been silent. I attended the confirmation service at Ipogolo Lutheran Parish in mid-December, and wanted to at least share a few pictures of the event. As with any rite of passage in this country, it was overflowing with bright-eyed kids wondering what comes next. No matter culture we live in, we have to find ways to mark the passage of life-time. These points fix us into our cultural selves. Graduations and confirmations, weddings and funerals, they prepare us for life in our society. They mark us with the prejudices of our societies, as well as their wisdom. They mark the legacies of conquests and reinforce the accomplishments of liberation. They tie us to the past and point us to the future.

Most East African societies had a long-standing tradition of "jando", a right of passage into puberty. It was a period of songs and dances and hard-earned lessons that prepared children for the changes of adolescence and the expectations of adulthood. Usually it entailed a period of time in a wilderness camp, under the tutelage of a few experienced elders, who told scary stories and occasionally dressed in scary costumes, hardening the children for the terrors of adulthood. This often entailed circumcision for boys, and occasionally for girls. In a very literal way the rituals told them that their sexuality would lie in the hands of a society that had the right to distinguish between right and wrong in these matters, but they also affirmed sexuality as a blessing and a joy of life. This was proper for the underpopulated continent of years past when all the processes that brought life into the earth were seen as sacred.

East Africa was variously conquered, infiltrated, occupied, and blessed with bringers of global religions with middle eastern roots, that is to say Islam and Christianity. These religions now predominate, drawn into the culture like a whirlwind that stirs up all sorts of cultural matter scattering it across a new landscape marked by the claims of each of these religions to know the one true God. Those old local cultures did not disappear, but they struggle constantly against the certainties of orthodoxy, sometimes winning, sometimes losing, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. These religions distrusted the disorderly impact of sexuality, and emphasized the virtues of submission to earthly authorities. They didn’t even talk about sexuality if they could help it. Instead they constructed systematic theologies, impervious to argument, having been argued over endlessly during the course of centuries. Theologies brought the rational into an awkward dance with the ecstatic, cool reason fighting off a fundamentally emotional faith, and all too often winning. Winning just enough to pack that emotional ecstatic faith into an explosive little package that made a formidable weapon when unleashed.

Confirmation is a rite of passage packed with systematic theology that is completely lost on a group of 13-year olds. They are told to attend by parents, or maybe they just want to tag along with friends, they want to be part of life in their community, so there they are, sitting tightly together, giggling a little, but mostly attentive with that quiet obedience that seems to come so naturally to children here. They are fed mostly with healthy doses of well-intentioned advice for life, spiced with a bit of Luther’s bombastic defense of a merciful God, and the unaccountable idea (that few actually believe) that all sins are forgiven for nothing more than the simple belief that it is so: that, in the language of Christian doctrine, Jesus was a messiah who died and thereby erased the sins of all people, making his death a form of sacrifice leavened by the idea that after such pain he was then raised back into divine existence. It is a liberating idea articulated with great force by a German lawyer turned theologian who found in that concept of forgiveness a systematic theology that could contain his fearless confrontation with a world of hypocrisy and corruption. In Ipogolo, the sermon mostly warned against the most common dangers for local youth: gangs of delinquents, drugs and criminality, and the vaguest hints that girls in particular should be judicious stewards of their own sexuality. Confirmation in Ipogolo, as with most rites of passage, was mostly about turning good kids into good citizens.

One girl who had attended the confirmation all year long, whose teacher said she was the top student in the class, saw her father approaching before the service was about to start and silently disappeared in order to avoid his wrath. The father confronted the church elders overseeing the preparations for the service, they called the pastor, who called the police, as the man was threatening people. He was Muslim. His wife, the child’s mother, had died some years ago and the child was raised by her mother’s younger sister who sent her to confirmation class. Upon hearing that the police were on their way the man left, and was apparently picked up and kept in a nearby jail cell for a few hours, then sent home and told to report back on Monday morning to discuss the issue. The girl made her way back into the service after her father had left and was confirmed. We met her again later at the police station, where the pastor had also been told to come by to give a report of the incident. A young female officer took his statement. The girl and her aunt came out from a detention room where they had been place, in part for their own protection, while a police officer interviewed them individually about what happened. The young male officer said that she had told much the same story, and he was impressed with her self possession. It was clear he said that she was confirmed of her own free will, and that the fundamental issue at stake was freedom of religion. I asked about what the rights of parents were in regard to the religious education of their children. He acknowledged parental rights, but said that as a practical issue they would defend the child’s desire in this kind of case. Tanzanian political culture is both very respectful of religion and very careful not to tread too heavily on religious practice. "People have religion," the first president Julius Nyerere quotably said, "but the government has no religion."

Two young boys arrived with some food for a guy in another cell. A policewoman told the other policeman that the kids should probably taste the food first, according to procedure (since in theory they might have been sent by the man’s enemies to poison him in jail). The girl and her aunt made their way home, with some thought given to whether they might better stay elsewhere for the night. We left with the pastor and another young couple made their way out the door while the police men and women laughed, saying the two had come in fighting like a hyena and a leopard, but now they both boarded the same motorcycle together to make their way home. Standing at the door of the spartan little police station, we witness endless little rituals of citizenship.