"Transitioning" by Grace Brandt

I was branded a week ago.

Less than a week ago my daily schedule consisted of waking up when the first light seeped into my tent or even twenty minutes earlier when the birds started chirping bloody murder. I would stretch my arms above my head, drawing my feet out of the warm cocoon of my sleeping bag and into the cool morning air. Next came my sweatshirt. I’d toss back the pills that prevented me from getting things like malaria or babies, squeeze a bit of toothpaste onto a brush, and trudge towards the bathroom, hoping no one would be there so I wouldn’t have to wake my brain up enough to ooze out a Swahili greeting just yet.

I get to breakfast on time, early even, but I always feel like I’m late. Everyone is there eating and I have the last few pieces of toast, slices of fruit. I eat, chat, maybe read and watch as each group heads out. Archaeology has likely left before I’ve reached the table, but sometimes we cross paths—me wandering in hoping there aren’t only soggy pieces of toast left, them running out with the crispiest ones hanging from their mouths. Next is the tembo group, elephants galore. Third, the group that can’t get to the park until the ranger station opens at 8 is the river group. Once they all leave, only the anthropology kids remain and some of them don’t hang around if they aren’t heading out in the morning shift.

At 8:30 I march to the Land Cruiser, loaded up with brown paper kilo bags of sugar and little boxes of Green Label tea. The ride to the bomas is never short, but I rarely read or listen to music. The scenery is enthralling. We drive out of camp and towards the main road. Once on this stretch, I saw a massive tortoise shell a short distance away. “Stop the car!” I shout. Walter stops. “Can I go grab it?” Walter nods. I run out of the car, pick up the white shell and shook it—inside were bones from the tortoise with remnants of the legs still stuck to the back end, rotting and potentially reeking. I jog back and set it on one of the middle seats. We drive for two minutes and Walter stops the car. “Why don’t you just hide it in that bush there? We can pick it up later,” he said. And we did.

We would reach the main road and cross it, heading into Maasai land. Every day we ran into herds of goats, groups of cows, donkeys carrying water in bright yellow plastic jugs with Maasai women walking alongside them. The animals were typically accompanied by small children, children who would see us coming from a mile away and start running towards us or yelling, and waving. Always waving, forever waving. I felt an obligation to wave back, to wave at each of them in recognition and to try and wave longer than they did. That part was hard; I’d always imagine those kids—hands still raised, moving back and forth long after the dust our car had kicked up settled.

I loved this drive. Partially because the sights were incredible—an earth-toned landscape sprinkled with bomas, brightened occasionally by the vibrant fabric worn by the Maasai, their large and glittering jewelry, and in the background a great rock wall shoved up from below to form the Great Rift Valley—but also because I didn’t want it to end. Pulling into a boma had a strange energy to it; I felt like I never really knew what was going on or how we would be received. Just because it had went well before didn’t mean it would go well again. It was similar to the way I felt before performing and, in a way, my role as an interviewer was something of a performance. I was nervous because I wanted them to like me, and I was nervous because I wanted them to answer my questions, but mostly I was nervous because I cared.

I spent these days asking questions about joking and laughter to beautiful nursing women and to cheeky young men and to stately old ones.

Can you tell me about the last time you laughed so, so much?

Do you joke with your children, boyfriend/girlfriend, husband/wife, friends, parents, elders?

Are you good at making people laugh?

I learned a great deal about jokes and humor and the way the Maasai interact, but I learned other things, too. At the end of each interview, I handed out a kilo of sugar and box of tea and asked if they had any questions for me. This was my favorite part. Nearly everyone asked me if I had a husband, then a boyfriend. The men assured me I could be one of their wives, joked about bedding me. The women suggested I marry one of their sons, chided me for my childlessness, told me I would be a koko if I waited ten years to have one. One woman, one with a gorgeous smile and the most beautiful laugh I’ve ever heard asked me about a million questions with no obvious train of thought, her curiosity was admirable.

Have you ever been sick? Have you been to the hospital? Why are your eyes that color—in the Maasai community, many elders have glaucoma and their eyes turn an opaque blue color, this woman’s only experience with blue eyes—Are you sure you can see me okay? Are you a Christian? Are your parents Christian? Is your boyfriend Christian? Do you have a phone? Do you watch TV? Have you ever milked a cow? Do you miss your mom? Do you talk to her?

I learned about things that weren’t so funny, too. One of my interviews took place at a boma where a small celebration was taking place. This was the largest gathering of Maasai men I’d ever seen and the most booze I’d seen consumed as well. I sat down with a man who was clearly intoxicated—many of my interviews had mentioned people in the community who drink alcohol as being both funny (because they fall down and say funny things) and as people they cannot joke with (because they talk forever, even until the next morning and because they contribute nothing to the community) and my translator thought I should talk to one.

Alcoholism and its accompanying problems are everywhere, but it is not often that I sit down with an alcoholic in the midst of a celebration to ask him questions about humor and laughter. He laughed and he told me about his two wives and seven children and demonstrated how he would joke with his wife by pulling my translator up and dancing with her, trying to touch her breast, and then he told me that he had not seen them for a long time. Seven children he did not see because he traveled from boma to boma taking impermanent farming jobs and he had not joked with his parents because they had not liked his drinking. He began at age 15. He told me all this and despite the weight of what he shared, he was completely devoid of emotion. Any sadness, spite or anger he might have had was muted by the cup in his hand. I laughed with this man and I learned that humor is not always funny. Sometimes it makes you want to cry.

I learned that ordinary, everyday life sounds could be beautiful. Sitting down to transcribe my interviews I would be captured by the tinkling sounds of the small, thin metal circles dangling from ears, bracelets and necklaces brushing against each other when women grabbed my arm, bent over in laughter. I would hear the crying of babies in the background, crying that ceased almost immediately as it became suckling, a cacophony of roosters crowing and goats bleating and sheep baaing, rain pouring and thunder cracking. Life happening.

I learned that grandmothers have the best stories and will tell you things others won’t,  because most no longer give a fuck. One koko told me that she joked most with warriors, because warriors and young girls use her house as an esoto—a sex house. Another koko said that younger women would tell her that their boyfriends were coming when their husbands were away and she would stand outside the house they occupied, keeping watch and alerting them to separate if need be. The first day I met her, one grandmother threatened to circumcise me and kept the joke going when I returned to interview her.

I learned that speaking another’s language is meaningful and that, in the absence of language, it is always better to overdo it in the respect department. I learned how to show respect. I saw people both revere and relentlessly tease the elderly. Halfway through my interviews, I realized the reason people giggled when I asked if they joked with their spouses was that husbands and wives rarely joke in public as a sign of respect; their jokes are primarily reserved for the bedroom. I learned that the conditions of one’s life determine how she will age and I found that my estimations of ages were often wrong. The young were older than they looked and the old were younger. I’ve seen what wisdom looks like by bowing my head to it.

A week ago, I traveled to a boma to pick up a bracelet a woman I hadn’t even interviewed had made for me and I ended up receiving two Maasai brands and now I’m sitting in a room in Dar Es Salaam plastered in pink and Disney channel paraphernalia watching my 15-year-old roommate Nina pack for her trip to Sweden.

I’ve learned things here, too.

From Nina I’ve learned that it is possible to have a 700 second long story on Snapchat and that there’s an app called Straight Outta Meme that overlays photos with the caption “Straight Outta _____” and “it’s looks so cool!!!” and that it is possible for someone’s favorite color to be gray despite 90% of their wardrobe being pink or purple. Every time I respond to anything Nina says, she says, “Exactly.”

“That’s so cool.” “Exactly.”

“That’s funny.” “Exactly.”

“Really?” “Exaaaactly.”

I’m not sure I understand it, but I think it’s growing on me. She fills me in on bits of her life, tells me all about her friends, feeds me morsels of 15-year-old gossip that simultaneously bring me back to that age and accentuate the gap between us. I gotta give it to her, though, Freddy is an amaaaaaaazing dancer.

After interacting almost entirely with Tanzanians who supported the opposition party—the party that was unsuccessful in the recent election—I’ve learned about many of the same issues from the point of view of a ruling party supporter. From my host father, I have learned about all the wonderful things President Magufuli has already done in his short term thus far.

Tonight at dinner, my host mother told me that chakula means food. In the four days that we’ve been here, she has yet to sit down to eat dinner with us which might explain why she doesn’t know that my mastery of Swahili extends at the very least to the word food. She is, however, allowing us to use the kitchen in the morning to make cookies for Thanksgiving and for that we love her, mother dear.

I’ve learned how overwhelming cars honking and people yelling at you to buy things can be when you’ve been living in a tent in the middle of nowhere for 6 weeks and that the Zinger sauce at KFC is spicy but totally manageable. I’ve learned that movie theaters make you forget where you are and the difference clouds can make when the beating sun feels unbearable.

I’ve been here before—in this city, on this campus. I’m returning and it feels strange, both familiar and far away. And excessively hot. I miss my time up north—reading in a hammock hanging in the trees for hours and more card games than I ever could have imagined playing, but mostly I miss it because of the people I met there. A week ago I was branded by a Maasai woman and now, thanks to Nina, I am being introduced to Adele’s newest hit. Isn’t life weird? Exaaactly.