Earlier this year I prepared this little reflection for the Evangelical Women in Academia Conference at Ridley College in Melbourne. We ended up doing a panel, so I’m publishing it here instead. The theme of the conference was Grounded: in the Body, in Time and Place, in Scripture.
One day in 2017, the traffic was even worse than Dar’s usual gridlock and 2 hours was not enough time to travel the 12kms. I was sitting in the car, soaked with sweat, with my baby standing on the backseat also dripping, never more aware of the limitations of my body. This taxi, which was going nowhere, was still my fastest way to the airport. We were blocked on the roads, and it was too far to walk.
I was trying to catch a flight to Australia, to be with my twin sister who was dying of cancer, and for tests which would confirm whether the same affliction lurked in my body.
By the time I made it to the Emirates desk, they had closed. With my baby strapped to my front, hauling our suitcase, I tried to explain to the staff why I was late. I was one of about 15 people who had all been stuck in the same jam. They took pity on me, and allowed me to check in. Me, and two other women. All of us were white. To the brown people they said, “You have to learn to plan better.” And I thought, perhaps this was not about compassion for my sob story. Perhaps this is just about the body I’m in. I mean, yes, wazungu as we’re called in Tanzania are generally much more on about planning than Tanzanians. But in this case, we’d all been stuck in the same jam, and on account of my skin – by body – I was given the benefit of the doubt.
So, did I stand in solidarity with the brown people? To my shame, no. Not for a moment. With an inward cringe, I sighed with relief and started up the stairs to the waiting lounge. Now, in the end, they actually did let the brown people through, but it was quite clear to me that we were treated differently because of the bodies we were in.
I get treated differently all the time because of the body that I’m in in the place that I live, and it’s not always an advantage. Prices jump four or five fold because my skin is white, for example, though I don’t begrudge that considering the way the west has exploited and continues to exploit Africa. In fact, it feels just in some ways, for me to have a tangible sense of being ripped off.
There are more subtle ways too. There is no way for me to enter a room and not be conspicuous, no way to blend in or be unnoticed. There is always someone there who will insist that the Tanzanian hospitality protocols be followed or who will insist that a conversation take place in English for my benefit even though I have excellent Swahili. And while these are meant to make me feel welcome, they also have the function of keeping me at a distance, as clearly *not one of us*.
And sometimes I am the one who feels that discomfort, who actually doesn’t want people to draw close, who thinks, “why can’t I just live in a place where condolence visits don’t consist of people turning up at arsenic hour expecting to have a meal provided for them while they tell me about how if I keep strong and do not despair I will be kept safe from cancer, so don’t worry — but I am worrying, about my children bouncing off the walls, and how on earth do I respond to that kind of comment, and why won’t they all just go home and leave me alone”? Their closeness feels suffocating at times like that.
And it’s felt like my own body was inhospitable to me as well, as I have lived in a world without my twin. My body betrayed me. Why wasn’t I crying more? Why instead were my dry eyes open for hours in the middle of the night? Understand, I wasn’t awake at night because my mind was churning with thoughts because grief also took my brain function. With her body gone, mine was unrecognisable. I couldn’t read, and I certainly couldn’t write those articles about Tanzanian women’s theology I’d been planning.
I felt like a shadow of myself, hardly present at all, and yet all too present, because I couldn’t escape the body that trapped me any more than I could escape the mother of all traffic jams. How do you be present in a place that keeps you at a distance, in a body you don’t know, in a time of grief?
A dear friend of mine once said, “Be welcome. Be a half-person as long as you need to be.” She was talking about the loss of self that comes from living cross-culturally, but it applied to grief as well. In my disorientation, the kindness of these words kept me. “Be a half-person as long as you need to be.” I feel quite literally only half these days, as the surviving part of a twin dyad, and figuratively half, my body in Australia for the time being as I try to wrench my head and heart from across the Indian Ocean; welcomed in Australia, but kept at a distance because, after all, we are only visiting. And so I repeat again, in this place, in this body, in this time, her words of kindness, “Be welcome. Be a half-person as long as you need to be.”
Categories: Written by Tamie
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.