I’m writing to exorcise a demon before I go to bed tonight. Not a literal demon of course. What I mean is I feel the need to make a confession before I can sleep.
Confession features in Tanzanian culture as an expression of power – I make you confess because I am more powerful than you, or you confess as a method of supplication because you are less powerful. There is a conciliatory nature to apology, but it’s got more to do with righting the order of things than a repair of an emotional relationship.
Absolution as a function of confession is less prominent, but that was what I wanted today and didn’t get. So here I am, writing it up for our blog instead.
My friend Mama Juma was meant to come over this morning. She’d rung on Saturday to arrange it and we’d agreed on Monday morning. Then at 11am she rang again to say that she’d encountered a problem on the road (there had been a downpour of rain), been turned around but was still on her way by a different method of transportation. Fine, I replied, I’m waiting.
Then three hours went past. Dar traffic is bad, but three hours is a lot. I had other things to do, like taking Elliot to the doctor to get his stitches removed before 4pm. It was starting to look tight. I wondered, had I misunderstood her? The phone line was bad so it had been hard to hear, and perhaps my Swahili had failed me. Perhaps I had thought she had said she was on the way but she was actually apologising for not being on the way? Then Arthur told me we were going have an unexpected house guest that night. That settled it, the afternoon was suddenly looking very busy. I decided to take Elliot to the doctor.
10 mins after we left home, Mama Juma called. She had arrived. Where are you? she asked. Now, normally when you’re out, you can say to someone to wait for you, but then, normally there’s house help who can set them up with a chair and a soda. So I came home to see her and to try to work out what to do. She looked lovely: she was in her fancy skirt, with fancy accessories. And I had to explain to her that I’d got confused about her instructions and thought she wasn’t coming and was now on my way out just as she’d arrived.
I gave her my pole and asked her if she wanted to wait, but I couldn’t say how long we’d be as I didn’t know what the wait would be at the clinic. She decided she’d go and I gave her some money for her trip home. She was very gracious: it’s just life in Tanzania she said; these things happen; we’ve only just missed each other.
Now, perhaps I feel this more keenly than she does. A morning of running around only to arrive at a place and discover the thing you were trying to get to is off, and then travel the long way home would be a frustration and a defeat for me. It may be less so for her coming from her cultural background. But I still feel like I’d let her down.
The problem was that I second-guessed myself. I should have been more confident that I’d understood the situation and just waited for her. Then all of this could have been avoided. But here I am, almost 5 years in to life in Tanzania, with a pretty decent level of Swahili, and still I easily default to second-guessing myself. And kicking myself, because shouldn’t I be better at this by now? And this time, it also meant a lost opportunity to build a friendship, and I don’t know whether I’ve set it back.
For me, saying that it was just circumstances, as she did, doesn’t feel sufficient. I really wanted to say that I had made a mistake, that I was to blame, and to have her acknowledge that and forgive me. But this is not the done thing here. Things are said to happen, but often great lengths are taken not to assign blame, whether to yourself or others.
The awkwardness I now feel is probably driven by my own cultural expectations, and in all likelihood, we will carry on, arrange another time, possibly joke about it. But tonight I feel awful, and the normal salve of my culture – confession, absolution, and reconciliation – is elusive.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.