In 2010 at the age of 21, I graduated from college with a bachelors degree and moved to Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous island nation in the Indian Ocean, off of the Tanzanian coast.
Seventeen years spent in a classroom had left me starved for real life. Enough with theory, I wanted practice.
Boy, did I get what I asked for. I spent the next few years as an ardent student of the School of Life, matriculating at classrooms in Zanzibar, Uganda, and Kenya, and accompanied by an unforgettable cohort of peers.
Within my first month in Zanzibar I pruned my long curly hair into a short boyish cut because I thought I could avoid catcalls on the street that way. I spent those days at the local hospital managing a research study on family planning and abortion. A year later, in Kampala, Uganda, my housemate Paul the OBGYN, would come home to share new tales from the maternity ward at Mulago Hospital, the same one featured in the Last King of Scotland. While riding to work one morning in Kampala, I was followed down the street by a tank with a soldier firing warning shots into the air– a clear message to opposition party supporters during election season. One chance August afternoon in Nairobi I found myself sitting across a table on a date with Sibongiseni Shabalala, a member of the South African a capella group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Within a couple of years, my work would take me from Rwandan maize fields to negotiations at the Ministry of Agriculture, all within the same frenzied day.
You really couldn’t make this stuff up.
The more I have thought about these past few years, the more I realized that I really ought to recount these tales in detail. This past year has marked a turning point in my perspective– these stories have started to provoke just slightly less emotion and a little bit more laughter. Thus, today marks my embarkation on a new set of vignettes for this blog I call– Tales from the Deep (or A Retrospective Recounting of my African Debut) .
Tales from the Deep could be considered, among other things, a coming of age story. I was after all just 21 when I first moved to Zanzibar; green behind the ears, a spring chicken, Dr Sultan called me.
As I first sat down to write this series, a quote by Robinson Davies came to mind: “There is absolutely no point in sitting down to write a book unless you feel that you must write that book, or else go mad, or die.”
I‘ve felt an unsettling gnawing from within for a very long while that I thought might be helped by writing, but did not know what to write or how to express the knotted tangle of thoughts, emotions, and experiences swirling in my mind. I thought perhaps a story, a work of fiction, could serve as a metaphor for the journey I have taken and would help me unload the volumes I have accumulated.
My attempts however, were shallow and felt to me entirely too contrived. It wasn’t until a trip I took to Indonesia in December last year where I encountered an Englishman, a fellow of 34 years, who had spent the past three years living in a Balinese village atop a mountain, that I realized fiction was entirely unesscesary– my reality without any embellishment was entertaining enough. Simon seemed to me like a 21st century Paul Gauguin (minus the paintings and death by syphilis). Replace banker from Paris with IT start-up guy from London, and Tahiti with Bali, and you have Simon.
Simon could recount to me endless stories of village life in Bali. He lives on a small farmstead on Mt Batukar in Bali’s Tabanan province, and runs an ecolodge where I stayed. He cares for a rescued Sumatran pig tailed macaque, and several dogs, cats, and ducks all of which he acquired purely by accident or happenstance. For example, his dog Walu, which means pumpkin in Balinese, he explained to me is a sacrifice dog who would have been otherwise slaughtered in a ritual had Simon not made him his own pet. Lola the macaque on the other hand, was poached from her jungle habitat and raised in a dress as a little girl by a childless lady before Simon adopted her. She has a grave aversion toward all women due to the early trauma she suffered in her monkeyhood– I can attest to her loathing.
Simon’s world ran tangentially to mine, however we differed in one critical way. His ability to not only see the comedy in his daily tribulations but also maintain a sense of wonderment long after the romance of Bali was no longer so fresh and the mundane had settled in was so very refreshing to me, and it was exactly the example I needed. I also needed the necessary distance from my time in East Africa to be able to understand it and comment on it from a slightly more neutral and removed perspective.
In fact, what being in Bali did for me was exactly what I had hoped for: I could suddenly see the past five years of my life through a new lens, and it started to make a little more sense. I suddenly had a moment when the immortal words of Johnny Nash rung loudly and clearly in my ears:
I can see clearly now that the rain has gone, I can see all the obstacles in my way.
Here’s to new beginnings and clarity. Stay tuned, my friends.