“Sean, where are you?!”
Good question. I was walking around town towards a restaurant I frequented throughout any typical week. Saturday happened to be fish-fry-special night and nothing was more delicious than the fresh caught fish from Lake Mwanza.
“Heading towards the Uhuru Monument. What’s up?”
Sunsets in Arusha can be borderline nirvana. There weren’t too many lights illuminating the city sky so as to block out the emerging stars against the increasingly pink and orange horizon. If you looked during the right time frame, you could see Mt. Meru displaying an array of brown that ranged from roasted coffee towards the base to light cocoa powder at the summit. There was some purple mixed in at times as if Kilimanjaro had lent it’s neglected little sibling some additional color.
“Are you near the cemetery?!”
I was. Something about the plot reminded me of New Orleans, a city I had not yet visited. Perhaps it was the tress sweeping down over the graves as if imitating weeping willows. Maybe it was how many of the graves were above ground. I mentioned this to my good friend, Nancy, at previous point. She stood and stared.
“There’s a lot of energy and life in there. Not all cemeteries are like that.”
In any case, no matter how many times I passed it by, I couldn’t help but stop and stare.
“Yup, passing by right now.”
“Okay, we are across from the police station.”
As you passed the cemetery and headed straight down the road towards the Uhuru monument you also passed by a local police station. There always seemed to be a logjam of cars, taxis and motorbikes down there. Some of the policemen even recognized me from having gone by so many times.
“Mzungus don’t like to walk. What are you doing?!”
I always smiled and replied that walking kept me in shape. The officers would usually laugh and then tell me to be safe and to never hesitate to stop by should there be a problem. Guess there are perks to being friendly.
“My cousin is coming to pick you up. Stay in front of the cemetery.”
This was hardly the first time Frank had told me to stay put and wait for someone to come and get me. The very first time I asked him how they would spot me. His booming and unfiltered laughter signaled that I had, despite what your elementary school teachers tell you, asked a very stupid question.
“I tell them to look for the white boy with the short hair who looks like Wayne Rooney!”
Lesson learned and point taken.
I stood on the corner waiting for Frank’s cousin to show up. I wondered where exactly Frank was leading me to. Most of the time, when a similar arrangement was set up, we’d end up at the first of several bars and/or nightclubs. Sometimes we’d start at 5:00 PM, other times (especially on the weekend) 12:00 PM. In any case, once you got on, you were on for the whole ride with the last stop usually coming at 5:00 or 6:00 AM.
Damn, that was fast. I hadn’t even begun to run through the possible scenarios. Turns out Frank hadn’t sent his cousin but his brother, Freddie, instead.
“Freddie Fresh, how’ve you been?”
As gregarious and boisterous as Frank was, Freddie was equally quiet and cerebral. He always had a small smile on his face. Small enough to make you think he was just a naturally friendly guy, which he was, but also subtle enough to indicate a mischievous side.
“Hop on, brotha.”
As I put one leg on the sidestep, he began pulling off in earnest. I fell straight on my ass in the middle of the road.
“Good one, Freddie.”
He chuckled but didn’t gloat. He pulled back around and told me to get on for real.
“You’re lucky you’re wearing that fancy outfit right now. Otherwise I’d have to rub this dirt on you.”
He chuckled again.
“Where you going tonight?”
“Same place you are.”
“But why are you wearing a suit?”
“Because it’s a special occasion.”
“Neat, what’s the occasion?”
I froze. Well, I froze as much as you could when zipping down the road (and occasionally the sidewalk) on the back of a motorcycle.
“Yes. Well, the wedding already happened. Now it’s a party.”
Needless to say, I did not see that coming. Reality soon smacked me in the face when we pulled into the lot across the street from the police station. There before us was a throng of suits and dresses, traditional and western, bustling with energy. As we disembarked from the motorcycle I came to a sudden realization.
“Freddie, I can’t go in there.”
“Why not? You’ll be fine.”
And before I could finish my sentence Frank appeared in all his glory.
He gave me a huge hug and lifted me off the ground just to show how much he had been hitting the gym.
“Come, we must meet the bride and groom!”
Before he could pull me in, I protested again.
“Frank, I’d really like to but I can’t.”
He looked at me quizzically.
I looked down and gestured outward with my arms.
“Do you see what I’m wearing!?”
Some background here.
I had been living and working in the amazing nation that is Tanzania for around four months at this point. One of the key points hammered into us by fellow expats and other Tanzanians was to dress acceptably. Underdressing was frowned upon in various social circumstances and no one wanted to be the mzungu who showed disrespect by not dressing appropriately.
So far, I had been extremely vigilant about following this standard. When on assignment for work, I always wore khakis or slacks with a collared shirt, both of which had usually been ironed vigorously the morning of with a heated-up cooking pan. My boss had even shown me a place to buy some secondhand dress shoes. For a brief period of time I was the owner of a pair of knock-off black wingtips that seemed to collect every speck of dust known to mankind.
You wanted to dress “smart”, so to speak. Not being very familiar with British lingo, I was admittedly slow to pick up on this category of dress. Being a born smartass, my response to being told how “smart” I looked often resulted in my replying, “what, I usually look stupid?” Needless to say, there were many confused and befuddled looks, but, eventually, nearly everyone got my lame attempt at channeling my inner Rodney Dangerfield.
A wedding was one of those times where you wanted to dress “smart”. On this particular day, however, I was dressed dumbass. My attire at the time consisted of a red Yuengling t-shirt (local beer company from back home), a pair of cargo pants, hiking boots and, just for good effect, a jean jacket. Instead of looking like Daniel Craig in Casino Royale, I looked like an Appalachian James Dean wannabe. There were so many potential cultural violations and offenses about to be committed that my mind’s social awareness situation room was blaring the DEFCON One alarm.
“Abort! Abort! Get your ass out of there ASAP! We are approaching ‘ignorant asshole foreigner’ territory! I repeat, we’re approaching ‘ignorant asshole foreigner’ territory!”
People were calmer at 2:00 AM on the bow of the Titanic to say the least.
“Frank, I can’t go in there dressed like this.”
Not only was I now considering how offense my outfit could be to a different culture, but also what my mom would think should she have seen me wearing such an outfit at someone’s wedding. Guilt’s a funny thing, especially when you’re baptized catholic.
“You can come to the party dressed as you are, it is no problem.”
Frank was unflinchingly adamant. There was no shaking his confidence on the matter. He turned to Freddie and began rapidly giving him instructions in Swahili. Freddie nodded along and soon dashed into the hall. He reappeared within a minute.
“It is fine. The bride and groom say ‘no problem’.”
I was still unconvinced. What if Freddie hadn’t entirely explained the situation? What if other people were offended? My mind was going through every worst-case scenario without pause.
“Here is the problem now; I have told them I am bringing a guest from America. They are expecting you. If you do not show up, they will be offended. They will think you do not respect their marriage.”
Damn it, he got me. Frank was always good with guilt trips. Sometimes I’d find out after-the-fact that he had been lying. On this occasion, however, I could tell he was dead serious.
He was asking if we should go in.
As Freddie, Frank and I walked down the stairs towards the basement heavy bass music bumped throughout. Lights beamed from the main room and soon we turned the corner. There before us was a wedding celebration I had never seen before. There were balloons seemingly everywhere, stereos and amps piled into a pyramid, a buffet that snaked in and outdoors, a constantly shifting dance floor and, much to Frank’s delight, the largest collection of beer crates I’d ever seen outside a brewery itself.
This wasn’t the most lavish, expensive, extravagant or well-attended wedding I had ever been to, but it was by far the most energetic. No one was sitting down. Everyone seemed to take a turn dancing and nearly everyone did so with their hands full. Men and women holding hands, some people holding their food while dancing to the latest Davido anthem, groups of men toasting and dancing while watching a Premier League game on the kitchen TV. Everyone was moving in one way or another with occupied hands.
We made our way around the room in a whirlwind manner. Frank and Freddie took turns introducing me to cousins, nephews, nieces, co-workers, aunts, uncles, family friends, the kitchen staff, the catering crew and even some of the police officers. My Swahili was acceptable at best but everyone was incredibly patient and understanding.
“We’re going to meet the bride and groom now”, Frank proclaimed.
As Frank and Freddie led the way I sheepishly tagged behind. I was still a bit embarrassed at my being under-dressed but all anyone had to say when they saw me was “welcome” or “have you gotten any food or beverages?” Tanzania will spoil you with its hospitality and warmth.
“Sean, this is Alpha and Scola. They are the lucky couple today.”
Alpha and Scola were sitting at a larger table similar to one you’d see at a traditional Italian wedding back home. People had placed gifts around them (no cash envelopes noticeable) and both occupied their thrones with an air of peace and tranquility. You could tell immediately how much they were in love. All they needed was each other. Everyone else could disappear and they’d be just as happy to be where they were.
“Welcome, Mr. Sean.”
Alpha reached his hand out first and we shook.
Scola followed soon after.
“Hongera Sana!” I replied, much to their amusement.
“I appreciate your Swahili”, Alpha answered.
“I apologize for not wearing better clothing, I was only told that I was coming at the very last minute.”
The happy couple both laughed and shook their heads.
“If it was Frank who invited you, I do not blame you.”
They knew Frank awfully well then.
“Where are you coming from?”
“I’m originally from the US.”
“Are weddings like this in America?”
“No, they’re not usually this fun.”
“Well, welcome to Tanzania and welcome to our wedding. Please, have some food, some beer and dance.”
We proceeded to do all three in no time flat. The more people I was introduced to the more beer we seemed to consumed. Additionally, many members of the wedding party had brought their own packages of Konyagi to the party, which needed to be shared as well. For those unfamiliar, Konyagi (a.k.a. “The Spirit of the Nation) is a gin-esque beverage that can come in a bottle or plastic pouch and tastes remarkably similar to something you’d use to take off varnish.
After several hours of sweating on the dance floor, occasionally sneaking a bite to eat and then re-hydrating ourselves with alcohol, we all found ourselves more than happy to be at this particular wedding. I had even forgotten how ridiculous my outfit was and now found myself being complimented by an older woman wrapped in a gorgeous kanga on the coloring of my shiny red t-shirt.
“Sean, you’re up next.”
Another shot. Great, just what I needed.
“Nah, I’m cutting myself off, man.”
Frank looked at me with a sideways glance.
“No, you’re next to speak.”
Speak? Where? To whom?
“To the party. The bride and groom asked if you’d speak and I said ‘yes!’”
Just when I felt comfortable. Just when I was feeling as if all would end well. Boom! What a way to sober a guy up nice and quick.
“Frank, I just met the couple. I don’t anything about them other than their names. What the fuck did you think I was going to say?”
“I knew you’d say ‘no’, so I said ‘yes’ for you!”
Even better. He knew exactly what he was doing. This would not be the first nor the last time Frank did something supposedly with my best interests in mind.
“Listen, I will translate for you.”
“That’s not the problem.”
“Is it about the clothes, again?”
“It’s the clothes, my not knowing the couple that well, me not knowing Swahili. Shit, what the fuck can I say? I can barely maintain a relationship. What do I know about marriage? They might be divorced by the time the sun rises if they take any of my advice on marriage.”
Frank laughed. Again. I was too pissed off at myself to even give him a snippet of my anger.
“Just go and talk about life.”
Yes, because I knew so much about that as well.
“When you get up there, you will be fine. You are a guest.”
Christ, if one more person reminded me of that I was expecting the silverware, bottles and tables to begin singing a la Beauty and the Beast.
“Next we have a guest from the United States here today!”
I glanced at Frank.
“Guess that’s my cue.”
“Please, welcome, Mr. Sean!”
I walked towards the head table, smiled and waved to Alpha and Scola, and then took the mic.
“Habari za jioni?”
“Nzuri!” the party called back.
I explained in beyond broken Swahili that I was going to speak in English but that Frank would translate.
“As much as I’d like to believe my Swahili gets better with each bottle of Tusker, I’d rather spare everyone of this potentially painful experience.”
Laughter all around. Whew, at least I got some laughs.
“Alpha & Scola, I want to first say ‘hongera sana’ once again to you both, but also to your friends and family. This really has been a special day for everyone involved. I mean, I just met you two three hours ago and I’m feeling beyond blessed to be here.”
As Frank translated there were smiles and nods. Once woman even shouted “amen!”
“I don’t know much about marriage, but I do want to pass along some wisdom I’ve gained from a sign that hangs in my grandmother’s house. It’s an old Irish blessing and it goes like this;
Dance as if no one were watching,
Sing as if no one were listening,
And live every day as if it were your last.”
I was looking directly at the happy couple and they both began nodding and smiling. Scola mouthed the words “absolutely” and Alpha raised his fist to tap his heart. As Frank translated, more and more nodding occurred as some smiles grew larger.
“I am inspired by your love and admiration for one another. Something tells me you have already been living by this mantra long before I popped by. I’ll keep it short and end here by offering you both a toast and again thanking you both for welcoming a complete stranger to the happiest day of your lives. Cheers.”
As we all toasted, I couldn’t help but note how any feeling of relief was now being overridden with a deep sense of joy. To be not only welcomed but accepted. To not be judged but appreciated. For all the obstacles I had imagined barring me from entry, I had egregiously overlooked what remains my favorite aspect of Tanzania; the people themselves.
As Frank and I walked back we both were pulled aside for pictures, handshakes and hugs. People wanted me to repeat the phrase or write it down for them. Frank translated countless conversations. An older mama was kind enough to even wish blessings upon my grandmother for imparting such wisdom. Almost every person we interacted with reiterated my being welcome to the point where I was hearing “karibu” or “karibu sana” in surround sound. It was an unmistakable warmth that comes from family.
“Let’s go”, Frank suddenly stated.
I did a quick farewell lap around the room. As we moved towards the door Frank tossed me a backpack.
“What’s this for? It’s empty.”
Frank smiled and nodded towards the remaining mountain of beer cases.
“You’re my brother and younger brothers get the rest of the beer.”
I laughed and asked why.
“Because, motherfucker, the party’s just getting started!”
Soon Freddie walked by with his own backpack.
“Let’s go, brotha.”
I smiled and we walked back together. Once we loaded each bag beyond capacity we returned back to Frank and hopped on differing boda-bodas.
“We’re going to sing, dance and live like kings tonight!” Frank exclaimed.
With that we peeled off into the cool Arusha night.