Well of course, sometimes it is very real. And then we don’t like it at all.
Yesterday I saw it on the face of this city. Not the written word, not the spray-painted graffiti stamp.
People, disorder, fire.
* * *
We sat in the theater. An exciting little outing to escape the dark, hot, powerless house in Micocheni.
We were wazungus, grasping at wazungu tradition as we snuck Pringles and licorice bites into the crusty, cold showroom.
The movie we wanted seemed out of order so we slapped our shillings on the metal ticket booth dugout, and eagerly ripped open plastic bags filled with very high-end, very low-tech 3-D glasses.
After a parade of Tanzanian commericals (not among the best I’ve seen), we slouched in to enjoy the Green Hornet.
It was a tongue-in-cheek, drugster action flick. And there were lots of green 3-D figure effects.
We will fast-forward to the climax of the movie.
A car chase, of course.
The ”Black Beauty” versus the drug lord pedestrians, chasing the car down winding allies, up shattering glass elevators, and through newspaper office cubicles.
The black car jumped from the screen, invading the theater, and flooding it with green streams of light and smoke.
The Green Hornet wrestled with his enemies.
The charade continued. A provocative, violent, bloody showdown. A green showdown. Straddling the line between cheeky mockery and real Hollywood screen dream, the action was exhausting and they really shouldn’t have stuck those pegs through “Bloodovsky’s” eyes… even if he was the villain.
And as our eyes turned green and we sat numbly hooked to the bitter comforts of familiar pop motifs flashing against our goggles, an African drama was unfolding outside.
A real 3-D disaster.
That same damn corner, that same corner from this morning.
I don’t know who it was, I don’t know who either of them were.
But one of them was only trying to cross the street outside of Mwenge, just beyond our Hollywood living room.
And the other, well who knows where he was going. He was going beyond Mwenge, somewhere else, and he wanted to get to somewhere fast.
And the second one hit the first one and the first one died.
And the second one stopped. He stopped his car and I think maybe he got out.
I don’t know him. I don’t know if he was a nice person, a fat person, a funny person, a sad person or a bad person.
But anarchy was stamped on his face, his legs, his spine. His car. His death.
In a place where justice is obscure, complicated and really non-existent, the people make justice of their own. Or so the story goes.
And dammit, there’s always people in Africa. Even at 10:30 at night, crowded on the most dangerous corner in Tanzania. There will always be people.
The people saw, they heard, they acted.
We sat, still dope-eyed and feeling a bit green, in our taxi.
People shouted and argued. The noise wrapped itself around all of our cars, and then around each of our heads, and settled in our ears, buzzing and threatening in the most unusual way.
A spark was lit and it coughed its way up a crude, shadowed torch. A murky figure dropped it to the ground; and tires were sucked into the mouth of the fire; it spit and sighed, slowly but violently swallowed the rubber and indiscriminate heap below.
Our driver, muttering “Jamani”-s (Oh My Godness-s), and halting his lecture on Tanzanian history, got out of the car.
“Lock your doors”, I said.
Beside us a lory truck grumbled and its red, steel tubs were off-putting so close to the pyromaniacal chaos ahead.
He came back and after liaising with some Tanzanian comrades outside, he began to try to turn the car around.
And I began asking questions.
He explained the accident.
I knew the myth of man-made justice had been made real that night.
“The people are angry, they are frustrated because the same thing happened this morning and two students were killed. They have lit the car on fire; that’s what you saw”.
I asked, “Did they kill him?”
Later I asked how.
“They kicked him”.
And they chased the police away, kicking him on his way out, too.
This is a place where we feel quite safe, it is not Nigeria or Darfur; its’ a place of peace and petty crime. The people are not aggressive- as I so often say.
But when there is no social justice, and corruption and traffic mayhem are among the nation’s greatest concerns, even the most docile of our kind can react violently.
It’s nice when you tell a story and somehow the tragedy or the reprisal of it reconciles itself though beauty or paradox in the end. This story is too impersonal for such resolution.
We dragged ourselves home, sunken green eyelids ready to retire but unable to rest.
And in my heart I wished I had not seen the truth of anarchy, though I had found it so interesting before. Because in person, anarchy is not romantic or exciting, as 'el Che' or 'de la Rocha' might have you think.
There is something gross and indulgent about it; it leaves you emptier than you were when you faced the crime for which anarchy demanded justice. It leaves you grieving not only the pedestrian, the driver, but also the integrity of a nation already bruised.