Fiction

Tanzania: A Short Story by Jennifer Mbunabo

Image: Keoni Cabral via Flickr

Image: Keoni Cabral via Flickr

Tanzania is my name. And I am a human being. My birth name is Dunia but after my tenth birthday I changed it to Tanzania. Mother says I am too young to change my name. But I think I have grown up too fast and changing my name to the name of my country will make the world hear my voice. I am cross-eyed, with freckles on my face. I have white hair and a pink milky skin. The doctors here say I lack pigmentation but some of my country men say I am a good-luck charm. Some say I am not human. And others say my body parts are food ingredients for the ritual pot. I think I am lucky to have escaped mutilation and to be in the shelter house. But my best friend Kanunge was not lucky. He was ten years old and I call him Kanunge because that is the name of the village where his arms and legs were hacked off on his way from school. Mother told me the hunters did not kill him before butchering him. No. They butchered him alive. The hunters chanted. They said his cry would make his body parts potent. Kanunge is dead. So I don’t have a best-friend anymore. Mother says I will find one in the shelter, but I am afraid to make new friends. We all look alike. And maybe one day they will be gone like Kanunge.

Mother does not stay in the shelter with me. She has a brown skin so she is safe in town. Also she has to take care of sister. Sister cannot stay here because she is normal. She has a black skin. Two nights ago I heard Miss Taylor, the American news woman, talking to the Shelter head. I slid open the glass louvers in my room to peep at her long flying hair. Her hair looked like the hair on the Barbie doll that mother bought for sister- long, smooth and shiny black. She was talking about moving us to another location. When she saw me, she widened her blue eyes, came towards me and told me it is wrong for children to eavesdrop on adults’ conversation. I nodded and asked her if anything was wrong. She smiled, told me nothing was wrong, that I was a child and wouldn’t understand. She did not shut the louvers but moved farther away so I wouldn’t hear her. I don’t know why adults like her and mother think I’m a child. I am not a child anymore. I have seen things that children should not see. My life has been in danger since I can remember. I have been running from one house to another, hiding in the bushes, protecting my life. I have even watched my friends die. After all these things they still think I’m a child.

I heard mother say that Kanunge’s lineage has been wiped out. She cries always that she could not protect him. She cries about not protecting everyone. She is not superman so I don’t expect her to save everyone. Whenever she hears of any death she cries. She would not sleep at night because of me. Because she fears that the hunters will come into our house and divide my parts before her like they did to Winifrida and her sister. Winifrida and her twin were like me. I liked her a lot because she was giddy, talkative and brilliant. Mother told me that when she and her twin were born their father ran away because of what they turned out to be. One evening as Winifrida, her sister and mother were dining; they heard a bang on their door. It was so loud and heavy that the wooden door started to fall off. Three hunters entered and when Winifrida’s mother saw them she knew at once what they came for. We always knew them from the hungry look in their eyes, thirsty for our scarce and sacred blood. One of them said they would rape Winifrida and her sister and after that they would do what they came for.

They tied their mother to a chair and made her watch. They also tied Winifrida and her sister and stuffed table napkins in their mouth so we could only hear their muffled cry. We heard the sound of the hunters having fun like they do in bars when they are full of wine. They told Winifrida’s mother that the infamous witch doctor said that raping an albino will cure them of HIV and AIDS, especially a beautiful virgin and that yanking off their tongue, hairs and body parts would fetch thousands of dollars when sold to the men that want wealth and have high political ambitions. They also said that the body parts are more potent for the charm when they cut it from the victim alive. After telling her these things they brought out their machetes and started cutting my friends the way they butcher cows in the abattoir. Their blood splashed on the walls and their faint cry died into the night. The whole neighborhood heard but we were all afraid to help because many families had people like us with them. We had all escaped from our different villages in Tabora, Simiyu and Rukwa to settle here in Bukombe and still it was not safe. Winifrida’s mother killed herself later after telling us the tale.

It was after her death that I met Miss Taylor. She came to our house to cover Winifrida’s story. Mother was scared at first to talk to her but she assured mother that she would not reveal her name. We believed her. She asked for me and mother told her I had gone to school. She waited for me till I got back and asked me a few questions about Winifrida and Kanunge and many others. I told her everything I knew. She said I was a smart kid. Americans like to say that to children in their films. All their kids are smart. She was the first American I saw in the flesh. I have seen tons of them in films and tried to talk like them but I always bit my tongue. Looking at her watch me made me hunger for pizza. That is what they like to eat in their films. They always shop for groceries and then order pizza. I wonder what it is like to eat pizza and drink coffee. I asked her and she said that maybe one day I will go to her country and have loads of that to eat. After speaking to us, she advised mother to bring me to the shelter, that I would be protected there. At least for the time being. I wished she had come earlier so that Winifrida, her sister and Kanunge would not have died. Well, she would not have come to my house and my country if everything was good.

Miss Taylor asked me if I wanted to go to the shelter. Of course I wanted to go to the shelter. I did’t need to be asked. Mother does not ask me if I want to do a chore or not. If she feels I need to do it or it is healthy for me she would order me to do it. And I would have no other choice except I want a beating. But I understand Miss Taylor. In the country where she comes from, mothers and fathers ask their smart kids if they want to do anything before they do it. And if they say they won’t do it, their mothers would kiss them on the forehead, stroke their hair, smile and say it is okay. I looked over at mother and she nodded. I nodded too. And that was how I came to live in the Shelter in Kigoma.

I heard that because of what Miss Taylor is doing, her life has been under attack, so she has security around her. We have security in the shelter too. The shelter is more secure than my house, because of the barbed wire protecting the building and the large space of land where little children play and hide under the shade of the mango tree. Maybe they fear that the hunters will use charm to climb over the fence. But I don’t think Miss Taylor can be afraid. She never looks afraid. She talks with authority, sometimes shouting on the phone and bouncing her hair. I like her very much. I feel safe around her. She told us that we are human beings and do not deserve to be killed. She told us that in her country people don’t go about killing people like us. That people live freely and they have rights. She said we have rights too. We have the right to live.

The shelter has given us things that we need when we are out in the sun. We wear wide brim hats and sunglasses over our eyes. The doctors come here to check our eyes and skin too. They say people like us are prone to have cancer. I don’t really know what that is. All I know is that it is a deadly disease that sometimes can’t be cured. I like it here but I cannot continue to live here. I heard from the cook that very soon Miss Taylor would leave. What will become of me then? What will become of people like me? Miss Taylor does not call us albinos. She calls us by our names. I hate to be called albino. I find it offensive because that is not my name. I like it when she calls me Tanz, just the way they shorten their names over there, like Pete for Peter, Dave for David, Jen for Jennifer. Mother says I don’t talk like a child. But how can I talk like a child when I’m not treated like one.

Now that Miss Taylor is leaving soon, I am a little scared. I want to go with her. But many of us would want to go with her too. Will she adopt me the way Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt adopted their African children? I saw on the news that the government promised to set up a committee that will look into the matter. But I heard the news woman saying that many guilty witch doctors responsible for the deaths have not been prosecuted. So they are still roaming the streets looking for us to keep them in business. The people here believe what the witch doctors say. They don’t see us as humans. Their words are laws or proclamations that govern the society.

Today I am eating Kisamvu and rice. It is nice but not as delicious as mother’s. I think the Cook did not put enough vegetable and that is why it does not taste so good. I wish I could eat pizza and drink coffee. Salum is walking towards me with her food. I know her name because Miss Taylor often calls her and she helps the cook serve us food. I think it is because she is taller than most of us and probably older. I have never spoken to her. I don’t know why. She is already close to me. She drops her plate on the table and sits opposite me. There is nothing in her plate. We sit in a sort of dining hall to eat, with plastic tables and chairs in a row. She waves at me. I look up and smile, swallowing my last spoon of rice.

“Hello Tanzania.”

“Hi.”

“Why are you always sitting alone? Is it that you don’t like making friends?”

I smile at her. I am not angry that she thinks this way.

“I like making friends.”

“Then why are you always alone?”

I tell her about the death of my friends and how I am scared to make new ones and lose them again. I don’t know why I feel comfortable telling her. Maybe it is because of her soft musical voice or the coolness of her eyes. Looking into her eyes is like relaxing on your back on the shores of a beach, wearing sunglasses and feeling the coolness of the waves on your skin while sipping orange juice the way they do in films. I think that she has not felt pain before. How could she hear the horrible things done and still have that calmness in her grey eyes? Maybe she has not seen a loved one die.

“Have you seen your loved one die?” I ask expecting her to shake her head.

“Tanz, many of us here have experienced it one way or the other. Some of us have even more shocking stories.”

“What could be more shocking than my experience?”

“You have not lost your sisters or brothers. You have only lost friends. Many people here have. We are all victims”

I do not know what to say. I am surprised. Then why is she not angry as I am? Why is she so calm?

“Sorry Salum. But how did it happen?”

“I will tell you when I get back. Mind you, I will be coming with some friends.” She picks up her plate and mine and walks to the other tables and picks up their empty plates. She does not wait for me to thank her. She goes over to another table where a boy and a girl sit. She is talking to them. I think they are her friends. I always see them together talking and playing football on the table with their biro covers and crown corks and a paper post neatly crafted and placed at the two ends of the table. I really have not made friends. In the room when we are on the concrete floor and my mates are talking and laughing, I don’t join them. I try to sleep instead because I think they talk like children, like babies still suckling their mother’s breast. But now I think that maybe I should loosen up and stop acting like an adult. Maybe I should act like the child mother says I am.

Salum taps the table and sits down with her two friends. She introduces the boy with the shaven head and eyeglass as Diallo. He looks 12. The girl with the cornrows is Vumilia. She might be 14-Salum’s age. I don’t want to ask the girls for their age because girls don’t like to tell boys their age. Salum clears her throat and speaks as if she has been waiting to unload the information in her head.

“As I was saying, Tanz, I have been through a lot and when I finish with my story, Diallo and Vumilia will tell you theirs. Just so you know that we are all victims.”

“Okay.”

“I used to live at Mwanza, near Lake Victoria. But we ran away from there because my life was threatened.”

“Okay.” Yes, I have heard of Lake Victoria. The fishermen there believe that our hair and blood if sprinkled on their nets would make them catch more fish and maybe find gold in the belly of a fish. So I understand what she is talking about.

“Before we left, my father took me and my sister to a government boarding school, but the Principal refused to admit us, saying the school was full.”

“You have a sister?”

“Had. She was kidnapped a week after we went to the boarding school. We have not seen her since then.”

She wiped a tear from the corner of her eyes.

“Sorry”. I do not know what else to say. I imagine they will never find her sister.

“I lost my father too.” Diallo says adjusting his eyeglass.

“Sorry.” It seems Vumilia is the only one without grief. As if she read my mind she clears her throat and speaks all in a rush.

“My grandmother was killed because she had red eyes. They said she was a witch. Some days after her burial, we woke up one morning to find her grave open and her corpse missing.”

“Sorry.” I have heard about the grave robbers. They steal the bones to make amulets. Now I see that I’m not the only one with grief. I feel sorry for them. Salum sniffs and blows her nose into her handkerchief. Now she does not look as composed as she did earlier. Salum must have been close to her sister. Diallo and Vumilia are poker-faced. The atmosphere is dull because of our sad memories. We do not talk for a long time.

“Let’s go and catch some mangoes.” Diallo points at the mango tree.

“Yes. I second that.” Vumilia raises her hand.

“And I third that.” Salum’s eyes brighten up.

“There is nothing like ‘third that’.”I start to laugh and they all join me. This is the first time I am laughing since I got here. And it feels good to laugh again. They stand up to go and I tell them I will join them later.

The mango tree is juicy. The fruits are very red. The little children are throwing balls around it. They should not be in the sun. They should either wear their hats or sunglasses. But if they wear their hats they will not enjoy the game. Miss Taylor has told us not to play in the sun. I don’t like playing in the sun because it burns me and the light hurts my eyes. But I wish I could play in the sun like sister without it burning me. When I see her play I feel it can be fun to bask in the sun, especially the morning sun because of the way she giggles and turns around. My teacher taught us that the morning sun gives Vitamin D. But I think the Vitamin does not work well on my body. I am thinking of my new friends. They are jumping around the tree and Salum is hitting the tip of the mango with a stick. One falls and the children cheer as they scramble for it. I must confess that it feels good to see people with flickering eyes all around me. To see Salum’s eyes jerk makes me feel normal. I do not feel out of place here. I used to feel awkward when my classmates in my former school mimic me. They say my eyeballs are always jerking; moving back and forth, and that I carry the book close to my eyes to read. It really felt awkward then because I seemed to be the only one squinting from the back seat when looking at the blackboard.

And when we go for physical exercises, I scratch my back and neck, often giving myself bruises because the heat from the sun stings. This morning some people with Red Cross crested on their white shirts brought in treated mosquito nets, more bunks, mattresses, clothes, foodstuffs and many fruits. I used to sleep on a wrapper on bare concrete floor and mosquitoes really bit me and I got red spots and irritation on my legs. I showed Miss Taylor and she said the Doctor will come tomorrow to give me malaria drugs. She also said that soon we will go to a proper boarding school where we would continue with our education. I don’t know if I want to go to a boarding school. We do not struggle for food here because we are not many. But if we go to a boarding school I fear that food would hardly be enough because the school will have many children from all the regions. I heard that in boarding schools there are rules for everything and bells are rung for every activity and everyone has to be involved. But here in the shelter no bell is rung. I decide to play when I want and if I want. I can sit down and watch the children playing in the sand or watch Salum and her friends chitchat or eavesdrop on the Cook or any adult I see around.

But as much as I like it here I know I cannot continue to live here. I don’t know what will happen tomorrow. I hope I survive. I pray Miss Taylor adopts me and takes me to America where I will be able to study, become a famous doctor like Ben Carson and walk freely. And someday I will send for mother and sister.

My name is Tanzania.

And don’t call me Zeruzeru because that is not my name.

————

Image: Keoni Cabral

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