“Dear Jody. I am so so sorry. I cannot come because I have severe malaria. I am under sever dosage. Enjoy the ministry. Norma.”
Norma is a Kenyan sister in my hall, about 34 maybe. She usually wears her hair in a row of braids meeting at the very top of her head in a little square sprout which sticks up like alfalfa. She has a round face, steel rimmed glasses, and her chest swells out like 2 beach balloons filled with sand.
Norma is schizophrenic. “Sometimes,” she told me, “I think I am the faithful and discreet slave . . . but I’m not (giggle).” She cannot speak to most men, except David Livingstone who she hopes to marry if her texts can charm him sufficiently. She thinks most men have fallen in love with her, and once told me a story of her neighbour’s children being killed by their uncle with an axe. I’m not sure if that was true.
I told her I would come visit her instead of working in the ministry together, hoping to cheer her a bit and worrying about the sounds of “severe malaria”.
After work, I realized that the timing would be off if I had to take dala-dala because Deb and Kirstin cancelled on me. I wouldn’t be able to visit long because it would become dark soon after my arrival. I texted her asking if I should come Saturday for lunch instead.
“I will wait for you at 5:30 and I have planned to buy you warm apple juice at the mall. About Sat, I will ask my sis. I am sure she will accept like 2day. Norma.”
I could not cancel. So I went. I could not find her inside the entrance so I went out to the platform heading towards the University. I could not see her, I scanned the small crowd and gave her a ring.
“I’m here, where are you?”
“I’m here, too.”
I spotted a white bum sticking high in the air as its owner crouched low to the ground and buried her head in her knees in order to take a call.
“Um, I think I see you.”
I hung up and up swung the head belonging to the white skirt. She wore a long canvas skirt, red rubber sandals and a hand-knit wool top that could go up against the best of classic Christmas sweaters. Her smile became huge as I approached and hugged her. She was brighter than I have ever seen her and as we headed towards the mall to retrieve warm apple juice, she nearly laughed through her curled up lips. I knew I had not wasted my time on this visit.
She was pleased as punch to be buying juice for me, and in return, I felt honoured as she pulled her alfutano out and bought the box for me. I knew her allowance was monthly and very modest. Just enough for the dala-dala for ministry and some warm milk.
“My sister told me to buy it for you.”
We headed towards her house across the way, her walking at beat-neck speed. I commented on her quick pace and she said, “I am not well, in my mind.”
I decided to just walk faster.
When we got to her road she sheepishly told me their road was not paved.
“Neither is mine.” I replied.
We walked into the shamba kidogo and finally stopped at a white gate. I was expecting to be led to the servants quarters behind the house as she had referred to staying at the servant’s quarters of an mzee we ran into in the mall.
Her small nephew, Adrian, led us into the house instead. It was very nice, and Adrian smiled such a curious and charming smile as he escorted us in.
I sat in a love seat with giant leapord print cushions and asked him what he had learned in school that day.
“Tables and how to feed a camel.” His eyes were expectant and eager to entertain. His two front teeth were too big for his mouth and seemed to announce his presence. His mouth was always open, and a smile- always crouching in the corners of his cheeks.
“How to feed a camel? Did you see a camel today?”
“No, we just learned how to feed one.”
“Have you ever seen a camel?”
(Norma had, on her way to Nairobi in a small village, but not in a zoo).
“Tell me how to feed a camel.”
“First, you must wash your hands,” he demonstrated. “Next, you hold your hands out like this,” he cupped his little hands together and set them out from his body. He mimed pushing it to the camel’s mouth and keeping his palms flat when he opened his hand. “Third, you wash your hands again.”
He listed off the answer, and waited to see if I would ask more.
“Will you go to see a camel? Like at the zoo?”
We moved on to tables. It was multiplication and he hates math too.
He told me he likes English, Science and HGC; History, Geography and Civics.
“That’s what I teach!”
“You learn history too?”
“No, I teach history, I’m a teacher. And I teach all three of those subjects to kids in grades 6 to 10.”
“Wow.” He enunciated the expression, and his teeth told me he really meant what he said.
He came in and out as I focused my attention back on Norma. I could have talked to him all day. Some kids just spark; you can see their brains moving through the whites of their eyes. He is one, and with such an eager little mouth, just waiting to let loose that big grin.
I returned to Norma. She poured us warm juice and we talked a bit about her medicines, her mind problems, and her plans to move to Kenya. She feels her medicines are hindering her spiritual progress. They make her very ill and she vomits and lays in bed all day due to the side effects. Her prescription is very old and psychological health in Tanzania is a difficult issue to address seriously. Many dismiss such problems as demon possession, bad luck, or complete folly. She dreams of becoming a regular pioneer and feels it would be easier in Kenya. As we persist in conversation she tells me she is not the problem, her mind is not the problem. It’s the man that’s the problem. I discern she means her brother in law. She speaks with much clarity and has the ability to reason on a variety of subjects in a totally normal way. She is not out of touch by any means. But with certain things, especially when it comes to men, she lives in another world.
She told me that he is a very nice man, and good to her, he doesn’t chase her out of the house, and he buys her food and gives her a home, but its good for couples to stay with couples, not single women with a man. She continues on about the garage next door.
“It’s very noisy, and the men are very bad. There are so many men and they are so immoral. Tanzanian men are so immoral. They just molest me and molest me all the time, when I am resting. They try to concentrate on their work but they don’t do anything because they are only thinking about me. They are hassling me and molesting me in my house.”
I haven’t figured out if we are meant to correct her when she speaks of her illusions or if we must pretend it’s real. . . I try to explain that men in Kenya will be just as bad, men like that are everywhere. She insists that Kenyan men aren’t as bad as Tanzanians, that the men are here are far more predatory.
Finally we moved on, and I spoke of Dylan’s wedding and taught her that cats are apprehensive.
We both hate cats.
She told me of how the cat would curl up on her chest when she slept on the loveseat.
“Cat’s are so immoral,” The worlds slip from her mouth in a static Kenyan accent. The last syllables of each word stick and then fall and hold just a bit. Her words are thick and heavy, and come at a constant but slow pace.
I am not sure if Tanzanian men are more immoral than Kenyans, but she is definitely right about the cats.