Monday 4 November 2013

o : Mafia Island, No. 6 (Departure)

The Post Office
Mafia Island

Dear o,

There are two kinds of politics on Mafia.  The first is the big-P kind, the one we discuss, debate, invent, tease out, label and admonish – where we use terms like development funding, economic opportunity, electoral democracy, extractive institutionalism, and the power of philanthropy.  As much as we talk about the new internationally-enabled ATM coming to the island in three months, and its anticipated inflationary impact on the tourist economy, we also talk about the men who scale trees with foot harnesses to lop off coconuts, the boards on which their wives grate the fruit, and the leaves they use to build their rooftops.  We talk about a Chinese company, Chico, building the new Kilindoni-Utende road.  We ask questions about water drainage as much as who may have been bribed; we marvel at the speed at which the construction moves, as much as we worry about what is being asked for in return; we nod our heads when we see an exchange of engineering, construction and cultural knowledge, but we shake them when we watch people’s homes get bulldozed without compensation or assistance.  Islanders love this sort of political thinking: they are acutely aware of the world.  They wrestle with it, value it, and try to craft a better one. 

The second kind of politics is vendetta.  Here, gossip outperforms data, and presumption undermines people.  Neighbours stop considering how best to access and preserve the local well, but how to beat the other to it.  Victims of oppression start to “deserve what they get”, while their oppressors gain “noble” status.  Lodge owners can’t be friends with one another because competition trumps their humanity, and they worry that their clever hospitality innovations will be stolen by curious visitors.  Conservation groups stop working as a team because of divided loyalty, behind-the-back character sniping, and outright bullying.  And NGOs threaten withdrawal if their partners hire someone they don’t like.  Al and I are leaving Mafia today because of this latter sort.  Yet, ironically and sadly, dialogue of the former type has just started to simmer and cook. 

We’ve come here to the post office to wrap and send a parcel of books back to the UK.  A simple box is not enough for the air-delivered voyage: we had to run into town for brown wrapping paper and extra tape from the New Lizu Hotel, and now we watch the postal chief glue several full sheets worth of stamps to the package.  In order to send the 12kg we needed to buy a total of 206 stamps.  Each of them must go on the box and, with a bit of creative scrapbookwork, around the precariously-penned shipping address. 

There is a tipsy sadness to this moment which supplants the righteousness, pragmatism and resolve of the past few days.  I’ve taught my last English class, said my goodbyes and admired a final Indian Ocean sunset.  Yet again, Al and I divided up our trans-Africa baggage train between those items we want to lug even further (we’re down to four large bags, plus the 12kg box), and those we can leave behind and give away.  12kg worth of books might sound like a lot, but it’s only about a quarter of what we brought here.  The rest will be distributed to friends and lodge bookshelves in Utende, and hopefully to a learning centre on Chole Island.  Needless to say, this isn’t what I had in mind.

For the last few weeks I’ve been playing with a little idea, bouncing it off a few friends and devising in my head a plan to make it work.  Perhaps it was too naïve, even too retro, in the Age of Kindle.  Perhaps I was banking on everyone else getting as excited as me.  Perhaps I should’ve started earlier so that we wouldn’t now have to go.  But I wanted to build a library.    It would be small at first, just a single room with shelves, a couple chairs and a table.  It would display all of my books, and any that locals or visitors might want to donate.  It would be divided in half: English and Swahili.  At the border between those would be translations, dictionaries, and the rare bilingual work.  I’d scout Utende and Kilindoni to see who might have a room available, and if they would be willing to donate its space for a limited time.  I’d get the community together and ask who would be willing to volunteer a few hours a day, a few days a week, to sit and watch the place between, say, the hours of 8am and 5pm.  We’d get a schedule together, we’d build the shelves, get a lock and key, and start to spread the word.  The first library wouldn’t be a lending library, of course.  But everyone could come.

I’d take photos of this place, write up an inventory, and start sending letters to companies and individuals in Dar es Salaam: do you have any books you’d like to give us?  I’d build a website to make the endeavour serious, sustained, and organised.  Just the other day I was trying to think up a catchy acronym: The Mafia Island Reading Project (MIRP).  The Mafia Island Books Initiative (MIBE).  Or, to really go for it: the Mafia Island Library Fund (MILF).  I didn’t think it mattered, really, what we could call it: the point would be the intent, and nobody would be confused: if you’re afraid to send another cheque to another development thing, just convert your cash into paperback currency, throw it in a box and take it to the airport.  I had that part figured out, too: I’d get ahold of Coastal Aviation or Tropical Air and ask, when they have a flight with extra room, to bring a box of books in one of the empty seats.  We’d put their logo on the website, of course. 

When the project got big enough, we’d build a real library, from bottom-up.  We’d measure the dimensions according to the reading room and shelf-sizes.  We’d invest in computers, first to catalogue the books, then to develop a lending system, and then to offer word processing, internet, and printing.  We’d build a separate room for classes: English, Swahili, computer skills, literature, even yoga if big enough.  We’d secure funding, train librarians (one English, one Swahili), and sponsor new writing.  We’d expand with branches in Kilindoni, Utende, Bweni, Chole and Jibondo.  We’d get our own vehicle to haul the boxes from the airport to the branches, and maybe even set up an island-wide database of books, meaning that you could borrow a book in Bweni and return it on Chole.  We’d get eBooks and iPads, second storeys and air conditioning.  We’d install television sets and listening stations for people to watch the news in English, Swahili, French, Arabic, Spanish, Mandarin and Czech.  We’d host conferences and charter our own planes to fly in guest lecturers and new material, if the islanders weren’t by then writing and printing it all themselves.  What couldn't we do?  How about a Mafia Island symphony orchestra (MISO or MIPO)?

Alright, I'm a little carried away.  But there was a point in my rambling fantasy that was legitimate, hopeful and exciting.  There was something I could do, something I could build, something I could contribute – and I wasn’t just prodding.  I was certain that in a year we’d have what could only be called a real library, and that Mafians would take pride in it because it wouldn’t be just plopped down by the grace of the development gods.  They would build it, they would make it, they would write it.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not sad because I didn’t accomplish some abstract pipe-dream.  I’m not dark and depressed because I didn’t see a whale shark (we did go out in a boat and try yesterday, but the rain defeated us); I’m not down because of all the fish and mollusk and coral I missed out on (though Al might be).  For me, it is the people, these wonderful people, who make Mafia.  It is the “Jambo!” woman on the road to Butiama, the girl by the water well who made fun of the way I said “maji” (water), the lodge manager who told me she once had a guest complain, and promptly leave, because “everything is made out of wood!”  It is my students who got excited about every new word and every new connection, my students who only ever got excited about “Game Time!” (hangman), and my teachers of everything from Swahili to butterfly species to banda construction.  It is all the people I didn’t meet, all the island I didn’t visit, all the letters I didn’t write.

According to the rubric of success for the second form of politics (the small kind), I lost this battle.  In a few hours this little African island will descend beneath the horizon and pass from my vision.  Those who read and scoffed at what I wrote (but who lacked the courage, or the truth, to actually respond) might buzz from their tiny triumph, or simply forget Al and I like the burrowing jigger fleas that islanders must remove from the soles of their feet.  But if the small kind of politics is the sort by which our world turns, it is by the bigger kind that we shift its axis.  The result of shallow grievance run amok is that you go to bed with a black eye or a sore fist and wake up to the fact that everything is the same.  The result of bigger thinking, of passion and reason comingled, of dialogue, is that you go to bed with the sore ears of listening and wake up to something different, something better, something more understood.

The day before yesterday I was ‘summoned’ to answer for what I’ve written in my letters about Mafia Island.  I didn’t have to go, of course, and the meeting was set up by a chance encounter anyway.  But I couldn’t help but defend myself, especially to someone who was told that my letters were meant to demean Mafians, Tanzanians and even Africans.  That I was out to make a joke, to point and laugh, to get high by the expense of those who don’t write them.  I do indeed challenge those things I feel are deserving of challenge (Frontier, corruption and, yes, the president’s stupid chair), but to say that I write to humiliate is a disgusting, silly and utterly false accusation.  I stand to be corrected and, two days ago, I stood so.

For about an hour we fought with our words across the table.  He said I was picking fights when I should just be quiet, that Tanzanian people don’t like being described.  I said that I try to describe, to follow my sense of humour, and above all to tell the truth.  And, that when you come across an injustice, you don’t just keep on walking.  So why did I call the obese general with an iPad an obese general with an iPad?  (Because, he was obese, he was a general, and he had an iPad.)  Why did I say the American flags the children waved were meant to ask for more money?  (Because whoever manufactured so many of them were clearly thinking of maintaining the MCAT relationship, as well as gratitude.)  Why did I laugh when I was asked to form a single-file queue?  (Because, I had not once been asked to form a single-file queue anywhere in Africa, and I thought it was a little funny, given dalla-dallas, trains and everything else one has to queue for, and that this wasn’t England, and that the bulging crowd around me also found the command a little funny – and, let me further add, we didn’t obey the order.)  Eventually my detractor realised that I wasn’t a newspaper reporter, that I was trying to tell stories, that the slant is part of the character, the angle part of the point.  Eventually I realised that I shouldn’t so readily assume that everyone will appreciate the character, point, slant or angle I’m trying to give to the story, and that if the obese general with the iPad read the letter, he might feel a little vulnerable and even offended (but would he be upset because he’s not actually obese or didn’t actually have an iPad?  Maybe, but I hazard that he’d be delusional.)

We ended the conversation with shaken hands and smiles, but a whole well of energy remaining in our throats – we weren’t finished with each other.  We hadn’t been seen, been recognised, been really heard.  Tired as we were of the wanting material, we weren’t tired of the fight.  The illusion of ill intent was shattered, but the will to understand the other beat beneath.  Luckily, we met again at the bar that night, and we talked.  We talked politics: the big kind, about Chinese roads and American investment and East African Community trade relationships and development never reaching the villages and the need for education and the sinister plague of corruption and the comedy of the international stage and the desire to make and remake and keep on remaking until we’ve got it.  We didn’t agree on everything, and we weren’t the only parties to the political table, but there was an understanding.  There was a nod that said we don’t have to fight each other to fight the good fight.  There was a transcendence of vendetta and small-mindedness, an elevation from fear to hope, and, whether or not because of loud voices, the willingness to get a few sore ears.

Before I sign off, let me write something I said I would write.  I’m not correcting the record because I don’t keep the record, but I am adding the voice I should’ve found before.  The reports that get written in the marine park don’t necessarily get sent away to sit forever on dusty shelves, as I suggested is thought by many Mafia Islanders.  There is a cumulative effect to research, even if it takes many years to ascertain, and there is good work being done at Mafia Island Marine Park (MIMP).  On that point, and so far on that point alone, I shouldn’t have resorted to the easy hearsay without a few more questions first.

After writing this letter to you I find I leave Mafia with a little lift, strangely enough.  Yesterday we didn’t see the whale sharks, and instead circled around the shallow waters near Kilindoni for a few hours in the pouring rain.  You peer into the water and hope to catch a glimpse, even a shadow, to make it all worth it, but eventually the blue-shirted watcher standing on the bow says it’s time to turn back and you quietly agree.  Of course, the trip wasn’t all lost – we did talk big-P politics with two very politically-keen Midlanders, one involved with human rights in southern Africa, the other a London labour lawyer who tackles discrimination.  And when we got back we sat on the beach and waited for the solar eclipse.  None of us had the special glasses or long box with aluminium foil, but we did have the petit courage to squint.  At first I couldn’t see anything when everyone else could, but by the time the sun’s light prematurely darkened I squinted again, tight and a little fearful of permanent eye damage, and I saw it.  There was a black sphere halving the white sphere, intermingling and breeding a different light.  I caught just a few glimpses while someone’s camera caught the total show, but it was enough.  It was a tiny fraction of the time of the total eclipse, not enough to really appreciate, but maybe enough to start to understand.  The image is now burned (hopefully not literally) into my memory. 

When I went to bed the hypochondriac in me worried I was falling asleep not only with sore ears from all the political talk, but sore eyes as well.  And now I wonder, could I have woken up to a world even slightly different?  I hope so.



Looking for whale sharks,
the day before departure