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Hustle and Stillness

May 31, 2017

Yesterday I got roped in

With four laughing Swiss

Young men who are training to be doctors.

The hostel provided us a walking tour of Moshi

To point out helpful landmarks -

Supermarkets, internet cafes, and restaurants.

We accumulated local vendors

As we walked,

One attaching to each of the men,

And sometimes to me,

Trying to sell beaded bracelets,

Canvases painted with scenery and animals,

Knives hidden in wooden carvings of women

With features sharp as the blade.


Today I am alone,

Feeling my way out from the center points I was taught yesterday,

“The Cafe” and “Double Road.”

I’m trying to take my time,

Enjoy mixed sounds of people greeting one another outside of shops

and bus conductors shouting and chickens scavenging for lunch,

The smell of charcoal, exhaust, and grilled meat,

The taste of chips with bright pink tomato and dark red pepper sauces-

Things I have missed for almost five years.


I was sitting at The Cafe and waiting for lunch. Back for the second day in a row because it was the place I knew and because the waitress there reminded me of someone from my previous life. I seem to describe things more and more through comparison - metaphors I live by (Lakoff and Johnson). The waitress couldn’t talk to one customer without being called by name by two or three others, and she bounced like a pinball between tables, laughing and rolling her eyes. I was reading Andrew Causey’s Drawn to See: Drawing as an Ethnographic Method (2017) when a line caught me: “When one is doing anthropological research, there are times when the easiest way to document experiences is through short, verb-less sentences, fragments of impressions, and disjointed words, phrases, or images, and that’s because the action of life is unrelenting and there’s little time to stop and compose complete sentences” (118-119). Causey’s point is that drawing can get to the heart of these fleeting, flowing moments, but before I could finish the thought, the above poem began to compose itself in my mind.


I am in Moshi. People keep telling me it’s a small city, not like Dar es Salaam or Arusha, but right now it feels big to me. Near the base of Kilimanjaro, Moshi hosts many foreigners who want to climb the highest mountain in Africa. Vendors and guides follow me down the street with offers of good prices for tours or souvenirs. To be honest, I am overwhelmed. For most of 2012, I lived in southern Tanzania, in a village called Peramiho, far from most tourist attractions. Maybe one day a week, I would take a bus into Songea, the nearest town, usually just to go to the library and to get milk for the baby. Life in Peramiho was quiet but fulfilling.


Now images, old and new, come at me in a rush, and I struggle to sort them.  I see people, and wanakazana - they are working hard, exerting themselves -  to make a living. All is a hustle around me, and I feel like I’m standing still. So I walk because it is something to do, and I learn where I’m going little by little, when I’m already halfway there. Quests are good - to find someone, or something - soap to wash my clothes, or a Swahili-to-English dictionary to complement the English-to-Swahili version I already have. And then in the downtime, at The Cafe or at a table in the market with a new contact, I’m overcome again, by sun, by walking, by endless cries of “mzungu, mzungu, mzungu.” Nothing feeling familiar or strange. My host in the market (I’ll let her name herself for the purposes of this blog) says, “Umechoka” - You are fatigued, you are weary. I say no, no, I’m fine, because I don’t want her to be right, but she is, of course.


I’ve read through Causey’s book once now, and at my hostel in the evening I’ve been working through what he calls Etudes, or exercises to help one learn to see better through drawing. He starts the reader off finding shapes, finding lines, catching sight of the details that lie between edges.




I find the practice he encourages helpful, especially in compelling visual situations where a camera would be intrusive, or in seeing things anew that I feel I’ve seen before. I also appreciate the theoretical underpinnings of his argument - Causey draws with a purpose. His purpose is to see, but at various levels. Borrowing from Peirce’s idea of firstness, secondness, and thirdness, he contemplates the levels of transcription, translation, and interpretation that go into writing or drawing what we see and experience (Causey 2017: 67). What are the things I see before I spiral into memory and the fear of expectation, of doing this right?


It makes sense to me that drawing might also allow me to breathe. Pen on page becomes an anchor, something external to me that I can share, without my fumbling Swahili to get in the way. I look forward to selling coconuts again, drawing the vendor across the way with light skin and high cheekbones, who thinks it her mission to find me a husband here, despite my host’s laughing “HaTAki!” - She doesn’t want!


There is a child at the market, Doreen, who has already found her way into my notebook, drawing circles one at a time, and saying, “Ona? Ona? Ona?” - See? See? See? Drawing my attention to each one. She says she’s drawn a car - see, the driver sits there - and eyes, so many eyes. To distract her, when I cannot see another eye, I sketch her quickly and show her what I’ve drawn, connecting two dimensional features to her own nose and feather-thin eyebrows with a tickling finger. From where I sit, I can only see one of her ears, and so I draw her that way. She corrects me, pointing at the right side of my image and tugging on her left ear. I draw it where she tells me.




The city, too, I think, will show me how it wants to be depicted. My perspective and those of others will blend on the page as I learn.


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