Stone Town: A Few Frames

I sit at a wide wood table, placed next to an open doorway. Outside, a few feet away, shopkeepers and worshipers scurry by. It’s Friday- for many, the holy day. I’m in Stone Town, the old center of Zanzibar Town, trying to write a research paper draw from a very different time and place in my own lifeline. Stone Town, needless to say, distracts me with every sound, smell, and sight.

This place is the heartbeat of Zanizbar, the home of the bustling port where trade has flourished for many hundred years. Stone Town itself is a small area of the city, buildings sagging into each other, tethered with thousands of meters of electrical wires, two floors high in some places, more than five in others. Once inside the maze, maps will hardly help you. Jessica and I wind through streets, ambling until we find what we are looking for, never exactly sure where we will emerge from the maze. When you step out, the ocean breezes hit you, a change from the corridors that lock out the air.


The place where I sit and try to write: Zanzibar Coffee House hotel & cafe


The layers (some decaying) of Stone Town 


Beside the port: Container ships, cruise vessels, dhow fishing boats


Stone Town from above; minaret and church towers visible


The Palace Museum


Browsing the wares at the spice market 


Orange silk tents replaced with plastic tarpaulin at the spice market

Sometimes, you cannot find an outlet and you walk around, as if caught in a cycle, taking the same turns and wondering why it all looks so familiar. Sometimes it feels like Venice, Taipei, Warsaw. Sometimes I imagine I’m in a whole other place, one I haven’t been to- yet. Layers of history and culture form like sedentary rock, African and Arabic and European, stewed together with the chaos of Asian back alleys, a less frantic Kowloon. A city of so many places. So many directions and distractions.


The doors tell stories: Arab or Indian


My Stone Town street style (with Rwandan pants and a Polish scarf)


The Emerson Spice Hotel: Where we enjoyed a fancy rooftop dinner


Usiku mwema / Good night! 


At 12:30, We Pray

Four 500-ml bottles of water. Two liters in total. 12:30pm. My body absorbs it all and sweats it out. We take a break for prayers and lunch; above the hum of the fans furiously rotating above, I can hear the call to prayer sounding outside of the classroom. It’s not coming from a cracking PA system, as I am more used to hearing in different Muslim-influenced areas of Africa, but a man, somewhere not far from our building, probably standing among palm fronds and raising his voice in a round baritone. A man in a long gray thobe stands in the back of the room and distributes lunches in foil containers, biriyani rice and mystery meet rolled in a hearty spiced stew with bananas and warm cans of fruit juice.

I am with two other English Language Fellows from my program, and we are in Zanzibar, an island to the west of Tanzania, a place of ancient lore. Spices, slave markets, ancient dhow fishing boats with wide, triangular sails, moderately unchanged for four hundred years, except than many traders have now been replaced by vendors hawking sarongs and saffron. It’s a place of deep, rich, spicy history, once visited by Vasco de Gama, claimed by Portugal, ruled by the Sultan of Oman, absolved into the far-flung British colonies, and, in the most recent chapter of its political history, merged with Tanzania, but still craving independence. This history, stewed with Persian, Chinese, and Indonesian influence, bleeds culture and dynamism. My first minutes after arrival were spent winding through the labyrinth of Stone Town, feeling as though I had become a part of this storied history. A storied, humid history.


wandering around on arrival night

But my own exploration of this new environment is not yet able to begin as I’m on the island with two other fellows from my program doing work (yeah, actual work): leading teacher training for nearly fifty members of the Zanizbar Professional English Teacher Association. For two days, Mickie, Jessica, and I will lead workshops to present and practice some of the most holy tenants of modern language instruction: communicative exercises, student-centeredness, peer collaboration, group work, and fluency-building practices. It’s what I have loved about my experience in Rwanda, transported to this island. And afterwards, I will stay on and have a proper holiday, as the British would say.

During the morning, I work with one group. We focus on one of my favorite topics: improving reading comprehension through improving reading habits. The teachers break into groups, most mixed with men and women, with one of the local Embassy staff members encouraging a newly arrived lady to “join her brothers.” There isn’t tension surrounding gender; despite the very traditional Muslim society that guides daily life on the island, the hallmarks of conservative societies that I see in other classrooms (Rwanda included) are not present. Women speak up, speak their minds, correct their colleagues, laugh and enjoy themselves. Men shake my hand, smile and greet me. We are colleagues, despite our differences.

In deference to the conservative culture, I arrived covered up. But, as I’m going to Europe after this tropical jaunt, all of my long-sleeved clothes are heavier, totally unsuited to the 90 degree heat and accompanying humidity. I gleam with sweat, dripping from my forehead and down my legs, as I attempt to maintain my usual caliber of teaching energy in the oppressive, wet-dog humidity. In the audience, the women seem to be faring better than I- through evolution? Adaptation? How can it be possible that they merely glow while I melt?

The women all cover their hair, but the hijab run from modern, chic head wraps knotted to the back of the neck to the most conservative available without the niqab (face cover): hairline covered with a knit band, then wrapped a longer hijab so even the chin, lower neck, chest, and shoulders were covered. Most wear the traditional long black chador without a hood, a sort of cloak that resembles American graduation gowns, but the vibrant colors of Zanzibar still represented: I look out over a hijab rainbow, orange with red hydrangeas, scalloped deep purple with sequins, a Tiffany teal that matches my nail polish, wrapped and pinned with jeweled brooches. Many of the men wear kofia– traditional caps, either crocheted and close to their head or crown-style, raised, saffron yellow or dove gray with white embroidery.


As I walk around, shining with sweat and marveling at how the women are not, like me, slowly dissolving down into a humid puddle, emulating the Wicked Witch of the East (West?). In the training we emphasize teachers not as the center of the classroom but facilitators and guides, and I do my best to model. The groups are engrossed in their work, using Bloom’s Taxonomy of Cognitive Learning Domains to write increasing complex questions for O. Henry’s “Gift of the Magi.” They enjoyed the story- an excellent blend of American Christmas culture and the broad themes it contains. We could openly discuss the common problem of poverty- a theme in the story- and how it was one of their own experiences. Love and sacrifice, that of a mother, wife, husband, boyfriend, or child, was quickly understood and framed through their own lenses. They reminded me of why I love to travel and teach, and teach/travel. You learn that a few extremists, of any extraction, fail to represent the majority. Despite the kofia and hijab, we understood these values on the same plane. Life is about love. Love is about sacrifice. We give up our own happiness, at times, for those that we love. This is what is important.

We broke at 12:30, after the call to prayer. They filed out of the classroom, many thanking me and shaking my hand vigorously. One woman’s hands were elaborately decorated with henna- usually sienna on my white skin, but a deep, rich chocolate on her dark skin. I complimented her on the designs, flowers and arabesques artful curving around her knuckles and wrists and asked her if it was for a special occasion. “No,” she chuckled. “Sometimes, we just do little things to make ourselves happy.”


I returned to my seat to simmer in my sweat, checking the hours until the end of class. Zanzibar awaits. Spice markets, tortuga sanctuaries, the smell of roasting chickens, cinnamon, and nutmeg and cloves waiting somewhere. But for now, a few more minutes of collaboration and learning, sometimes subtly, from each other. And I’m drinking a lot more water.


Our Anniversary: Three Months

Rwanda, we’ve been together for three months. We began our relationship with me as a quiet 29 year-old, wide-eyed traveling soul who used bottled water to brush her teeth, and I’ve grown now into a 30-year old, cranky, loud-mouthed teacher who walks away from moto drivers when they attempt to overcharge by $.35. I’m surprised some days that you still put up with me, given that I can barely speak your language and harass your citizens with some sort of French-Kinyarwandan-Occasionally Polish pig latin, also known as whatever second language pops into my head when asked a non-English question.

But it’s been a good three months. They have been months with highs and lows, very excellent moments and very rotten ones (excellent ones spent above ground, rotten ones spent in ditches). And you tried, just last week, to break my spirit with a deadly combination of bacteria and amoebas lodged in my guts. But, still, despite the bout of Salmonella Typhoid, I still really dig you, sweetheart. Here, inspired by Bridget Jones and in celebration of the impending end of year (which I will spend in Belgium, Rwanda’s one-time colonial overlord), is my year in review.

  • Ditches fallen into: 1.
  • Fingers dislocated: 1.
  • Carrots dangerously peeled with a sharp knife: 40+.
  • Pots of drinkable water boiled: 100+.
  • Bus rides between Kigali and Musanze: 16.
  • Times someone attempted to steal my iPhone: 1.
  • iPhone thefts foiled: 1!
  • Hours spent teaching: 120.
  • Hours spent deciphering lengthy Rwandan last names: at least 2.
  • Students taught: 203+.
  • Hours of teacher training conducted: 41.
  • Times called “muzungu”: far, far too many to count.
  • Times lied about marital status: 20+.
  • Moments I felt so homesick that I ate peanut butter and/or Nutella with a spoon: 17+.
  • Gigs of data purchased for iPhone for Skype, iMessage, Instagram, Facebook (i.e. trappings of First World Life): 45+.
  • Blog posts: 33.
  • Bratty, ranty blog posts: at least 3.

And then, there are the best things.

  • New friends who keep me sane and listen to me when I rattle on: many.
  • Old friends who listen from afar and tell me they miss me (though I miss them more): many.
  • Video messages from my sister and nephew, telling me to “Have a good day in Africa, Leauntie!”: many.
  • Moments my students make me want to cry: many.
  • Moments I am humbled: many, every day.
  • Moments I’m thankful for my life: even more, every day.

To the coming months! Love to you, Rwanda.




Two Tiers & Typhoid

In a twist worthy of a Victorian subplot, I spent the last weekend suffering bouts of intense abdominal pain and convinced myself that the challenge of locating a doctor in Musanze was somehow better than, well, dying. After a few medical tests, I was told, to my abject astonishment, that I had somehow contracted salmonella typhoid.


You know, of Typhoid Mary fame. A disease that enjoyed malevolent notoriety throughout the Romantic and Victorian eras, into the twentieth century with the Great Chicago Fire and Women’s Suffrage. All worthy of a 600-page novel melodrama.

But it didn’t stop there. I didn’t just have salmonella typhoid. My blood work revealed a whole run-down of suspicious characters: my intestines, it seemed, were blitzkrieged by a sort of parasite keg party and all I got was the hangover. It wasn’t fun. Intensive cramps that came like lightening after I ate, rattling my whole body and leaving me curled in the fetal position, praying they would pass soon. Six distinct parasites were listed on the lab report. Even the venerated William Makepeace Thackeray, who succumbed to typhoid (or cholera) himself, couldn’t have come up with that list. And Elizabeth Gaskell threatened to kill off her Abyssinia-trekking, gentle-natured Roger Hamley, causing a panic among the good Gibson ladies when he falls ill with what is probably malaria. Only one diagnosis? Pansy.

[Side Note: You can thank my bachelor’s in English and Alan Belwell’s Romanticism and Colonial Disease for all the Victorian name-dropping. Truly, this collection of essays, including the exquisitely titled “Keats and the Geography of Consumption,” serves to warm my heart and increase my love for the strange tangents of bizarre academic inquiry.]

It’s easy for me to joke about this because, one week after my diagnosis, I’m sitting at home, working on a research article, preparing plans for the week’s training courses, and packing for my upcoming Zanzibar-Frankfurt adventure. Before coming to Rwanda, I had a course of vaccinations, adding to the laundry list of needle sticks gathered prior to first visiting Africa in 2006: Hepatitis A. Hepatitis B. Typhoid. Diphtheria. Polio. Tetanus. Measles, Mumps, and Rubella booster. Polio, again. Yellow Fever. Typhoid, again. This meant that my course of Typhoid Etc. was confined to abdominal pain as the bacteria partied in my abdomen, and I wasn’t in danger of succumbing to high fever and deathbed diarrhea. I visited the clinic, received my tests and diagnosis, purchased my drugs, and went home to wait it out. Out the door: less that $90.

africa map

Memory is a funny thing: it can be triggered by songs, smells, noises, even fleeting glimpses of colors or shapes that transport you back to another time and place like déjà vu. Rwanda is forever doing this to me, throwing me backwards eight years to my first experience on this continent. For those who travel, you know it’s impossible not to compare: this country to that, this culture to that, these buses versus those trains. Africa is anything but one large country, and Rwanda and Namibia are as different as Switzerland and Poland: same continent, very different places.  And memory plays a serious role here, picking and choosing the details that you compare (consciously or unconsciously) against the new input.

This week was a wander back into my poor memory, brought on by grapefruit and coconut scented Palmolive soap, washing my hands as I got ready to leave my house and hail a moto to make for the clinic in town. Eight years ago, I sat in another clinic.  

In 2006, I spent three months in volunteering at a program for township children in Windhoek, Namibia, and there are few moments from those days that I remember clearly. Helping to break down road-kill oryx to be stowed in the center’s deep freezer? Yes. I remember that in all of its bloody detail. The clinic in Katutura, waiting to take a boy to see a doctor? I remember it well, two sweltering hours seated among a mass of people, unable to comprehend the call system. Were we next? I didn’t know. I sat immobile on a hard wooden bench, reliving Catholic school memories, not celebrating advent mass but waiting with a malnourished Namibian boy, five years old but barely larger than my two-year-old nephew today, asleep with his head pressed into my clavicle. Sweat beaded between my legs and the wood bench, which grew harder and more uncomfortable with each minute, but I didn’t move, not wanting to wake the tiny sleeping figure curled against me.

In Namibia, I worked in Katutura, the township that provides the lifeblood to the capital city of Windhoek. Every day, we passed the buses coming to collect the workers, the house maids and street cleaners, the garbage truck drivers and the shop girls, some neatly dressed, others in the ubiquitous blue coveralls that signaled labor. The township (such a nice way to describe a slum area with thousands of people packed into a few square miles of dust and poor sanitation) was born in the days of apartheid, when Namibia was claimed by Afrikaner Zuid Afrika (South Africa) and was better known to the outside world as South West Africa, home to the vast, sprawling Namib desert and the southern diamond mines.


The red sands of the Namib desert: Dunes near Sossusvlei

Namibia is a rainbow of skin tones, everything from pale Germans and Afrikaner colonists, to the Chinese and Indians who migrated to the continent, all mixed with the native Ovambu, Herero, Damara, and San. The Germans arrived during the colonial land-grab, with England claiming a few locations for the British Crown. Germany practiced genocide there, eliminating somewhere between 35,000 and 100,000 Herero and Nama peoples. Some call this the “practice” genocide, with the Holocaust a more concerted effort, but executed before Raphael Lemkin coined the term for the “crime without a name.” Following World War I, South Africa was mandated the country via the League of Nations, part of Germany’s punishment for warmongering. As South Africa descended into apartheid hell, beginning in the 1950s and 1960s, Namibia was divided into homelands and farming land was distributed among white farmers, with .2% of the population controlling 74% of arable land. I barely understood these factors when I was there: 21, just out of college, wide-eyed and naive.



Two Windhoeks: Christuskirche in city proper (top) and a barber in Katutura (bottom)

Katutura, home to 150,000, bloomed under apartheid as the inhabitants of the city judged to be just too brown, is a name that means “the place we don’t want to go” in Herero. The fraternal twins of poverty and disease flourished in this place, as cultural groups that once organized African traditional societies broke down. When AIDS arrived, sub-Saharan Africa fell quickly, with areas losing entire age groups to the ravages of the disease, called the “thin” disease throughout the continent. In Namibia, this resulted in an orphan population that grew to 100,000- a large percentage in a country of just 2 million. This is one tier of population: the tier that operates within a cycle of poverty, unable to remove itself from the entrenching forces that prevent life from being anything but subsisting.

S. slept in my lap as we waited in one of the clinics found in the township, staffed (I learned from surveying the doctors’ name placards on the office doors) by Cuban doctors, not uncommon throughout Africa. Dr. Paul Farmer touches on this phenomenon in Mountains Beyond Mountains, noting that the U.S.’s sold enemy “…seems to have mostly abandoned its campaign to change the world by exporting troops. Now they were sending doctors instead, to dozens of poor countries” (Kidder, 2009, p. 194). Cuban doctors arrive in countries like Namibia; though they don’t have the same amount of academic schooling as their American counterparts, they are still well-trained to deal with the diseases that they most commonly encounter. They work in the clinics, not the nonprofits or NGOs, hence why S. was seen by one of these doctors.

The clinic smelled strongly of disinfectant, the kind used on floors, and I moved my face closer to the top of S.’s head to avoid it. Soap. He smelled like soap. Other volunteers at the nonprofit had bathed him, scrubbing away the dust with something like my grapefruit coconut Palmolive. His arms were stick-thin, as you see from pictures of famine. On his limbs were burns and scratches- S. was the victim of superstition, some member of his family believing him to be born under a bad sign and thus left him neglected (at best) or abused him (at worst). He was so small, so fragile, like a wounded bird. I barely knew him; the other volunteer and I were tasked with staying with the children at the clinic since we were warm, available, (but fairly unskilled) adult bodies. The doctor eventually called our number, and we filed into his tiny office. He tenderly prodded S.’s distended belly, observed the scars and burns, and wrote a prescription for anti-worm medicine. Hours of waiting, a few minutes in and out, with prescription in hand. The organization took care of the bill for the pills, helping one little boy out of the many who needed simple medicines to kill the worms that were distending his belly and sapping the little nutrition he received. It was a start, but wasn’t the solution to the problems he would continue to face.

Eight years later, I sat in a very different clinic, this one in Rwanda, this one engineered for those, like me, who live in a different tier than the populace of Katutura. The Musanze clinic is nearly empty- that’s one sign. I arrived, was checked in by two receptionists sitting behind computer screens, and was escorted to the office of a very competent, English-speaking doctor. Time was of no concern; following a blood draw, he worked down every test and compared my levels to those considered normal. Ten times he scrawled out the normal range for each test – and circled my results so I would understand. He showed me the words, salmonella typhoid standing stark among them. But he smiled at me, trying to calm my obvious discomfort and fear at hearing that word: typhoid. “It’s ok,” he said. “It’s common. Some medicine and you will be fine. No cause to worry.”

In developing nations, people die from typhoid. People die from cholera. Prior to arriving in Haiti in 2011, the country suffered another outbreak of the disease. While I was in Namibia, a polio outbreak erupted and the government vaccinated the entire country, medical staff canvassed the country, winding through the townships to issue droplets in mouths and mark fingernails with purple Sharpie to indicate vaccination against a disease that claimed more than 30 people during my months thereTo Westerners, these are the diseases of novels, history, and far away places.

And diseases that don’t kill you debilitate you, which I can attest first hand. I cancelled four classes, a presentation, and a training session for this week. I wasn’t able to work on an article that has an increasingly pressing deadline, and I could barely read. On a national scale, they slow productivity and hamper growth; on a personal level, you lie in pain and wonder what will bring relief.


2006: A challenging (but typhoid-free) day

I’m fortunate. It took less than $100 to get adequate treatment, and, barely a week later, I was back to eating regular food and my usual level of cheery, pulsing productivity. The privilege of my tier.

In a place like Rwanda, rocketing forward with development, you quickly see the tiers. I went to the clinic and saw a doctor in moments; I paid for this immediate access, medical care which was fast and effective but according to my middle-class point of reference, carried a minimal price tag. Just down the road is the Musanze Hospital, a sprawling yellow building with lines of outdoor benches. This is where the other tier goes to sit, wait, and wonder. This is the place where I sat, years ago and a thousand miles away, with a little boy who needed medical attention even more than I did this week. In a country that continues to move forward, a few benefit, and the tiers are even more visible.

So, please, I’m fine. No mollycoddling needed, no sympathy desired. Typhoid defeated, amoebas slayed, and Leanne walks to school another day- thankful, but as with every day, maybe a little more aware.