I sprained my wrist cleaning a cupboard. I’m not normally one to clean cupboards but a layer of mould had permeated our house while we were in Australia. 4 days in to our return to Tanzania, I had a stress injury. And I say stress injury, not just because it’s probably some kind of RSI, but also because part of what we are doing at the moment is settling back into the stress of our lives here. We do find that these kinds of incidental things happen more often to our bodies when we’re here.
It seems odd to talk about stress at the moment, because we’ve had a sense of coming home, and because we’re coming off really high level stress, like days spent at the hospital, and imminent death just one step ahead of us. And that sadness is far from over. But I’m referring here to low level but constant stress. It’s more than just the greater physicality of living in the tropics, it’s also like your brain doing more work in the background than it normally does.
Here are three examples that happen every day (unlike, say, the police dramas, which happen more like semi-regularly):
1. Less than 48 hours after we arrived, our vegetable guy rang our doorbell. We told him what we wanted. Of course he brought something different. No worries, we can live with that, so we buy them. But then he started in on trying to get me to employ his daughter. How do I explain to him, yet again, why I don’t have house help? (When clearly I do need help, since I can’t carry my basket of vegetables because of my sprained wrist!) Especially when I know he’ll be back tomorrow with the same vegetables we don’t want and the same request. And the next day.
2. In Tanzania, I give a great deal of thought to the standard we live at. We don’t see a whole heap of flat out poverty, but even those who are doing OK in Tanzanian terms have less than we do, and I find myself constantly aware of my relative wealth and unwilling (or unable?) to give it up, just wanting to explain, or maybe justify, and not having the opportunity to do so. So I spend a lot of time thinking about it, and talking to myself about it. Take our car which is a pretty beat up 4WD: it’s got clear rust marks on the outside, and the automatic gearbox is so shoddy you have to drive it like a manual and even then you can’t accelerate fast. Our car is in way worse shape than the cars of most TAFES associates, so it doesn’t scream ‘wealth’. But then, it’s also twice the size, and I wonder whether they think it’s incongruous for people who live in an inner city suburb and send their kid to an international school. Because even though our suburb is not where the majority of white people live, and even though the school is a budget international school option (even cheaper than the missionary school), it’s still a world away from their suburbs and their schooling options. There’s nothing to be done about this, but it doesn’t stop me stressing.
3. I’ve been having a debate with myself about the most idiomatic phrasing for picking Elliot up from school. When you go to meet someone off a bus or plane, you ‘receive’ them (-pokea) or ‘welcome’ (-karibisha) them. Saying you’re ‘picking them up’ sounds like they’re something that’s fallen on the floor. But I’m not sure if this goes for going to get someone at a place where you dropped them off previously, and if it doesn’t, there are several possible contenders for ‘to pick up’ (-chukua, -okota, -kamata). I’ve asked several people, but Tanzanians are often reluctant to correct Swahili, especially if it is just to make it smoother: if it’s understandable, it’s fine. And I’ve never heard a Tanzanian use the phrase, which makes me think that perhaps it’s better just to say that I’m ‘bringing him’ home (-peleka), which I think is more like common usage. So every time I think about picking Elliot up, or mention it to someone (the guard at the gate, the fruit guy, our friend the taxi driver at the end of our street, the egg lady, or the council ladies who come to collect our fees each week, etc because everyone talks to me about where I am headed) I am doing a normal life thing of taking a kid to school, plus the cross-cultural layer of wondering whether I’m talking about it correctly.
These are familiar stresses to us now, which makes them better than new stress, and is also part of coming home. They are stresses, but they are our stresses, from our cross-cultural life.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.