Sky, sun and freedom

Sky, sun and freedom

Certain aspects of Tanzania ensure your constant awareness that this truly is a different world…

The sky, for one, seems bigger here than anywhere else I’ve ever been. It hangs over you, flattening you between the immensity of the space above and the solidity of the earth below – sky and earth, each the aerial reflection of the other. At all times, it captures you inside a 360 degree embrace wherein the horizon is an endless, enclosed circle – it makes your head spin. Even the clouds seem to float perpetually just out in front of you – not above you at all, but somehow straight out in front of your nose. I’ve tried to figure this out, but I haven’t discovered the optical illusion that makes the African sky so different than any other sky you have seen in your life.

And then, there’s the moon… When full, the moon shines with an intensity that makes you feel as though you are discovering a new planet, and that this unknown celestial body is much more than the moon you’ve seen a million times before. This new moon is wrapped in broad, glowing bands of green and yellow, adding an almost mystical quality to the (otherwise) absolute black of the Moshi night sky. In effect, the rapt attention of anyone beneath the moon’s illuminating gaze is simply demanded, and it is simply given.

But, the sun… oh my, the sun. You learn quickly there is no escape from the African sun. It burns bright and hot and causes relentless hours of discomfort throughout the day. Everywhere, the dry, dusty earth appears to bake and crack in the heat. If you are walking for even a short time in the sun, you soon find yourself experiencing a “shrinking sensation”, as though your skin is drying like fruit and quickly becoming too small for your heat-swollen body.

It strikes me, as I walk and I sweat and I think… somehow, all this teaches another lesson. That is, here, there is no place to “hide”. There is nowhere to put yourself away in comfort for a few hours, or to retreat to a personal sanctuary where “inconvenience” can be held at bay. The fact is, life here is constant work and toil. Seven days a week, people must move out of their homes during the day, into spots of shade and breeze along the streets, or into the market places to set up their fruit and vegetable displays. In this way, social interaction and observation remains constant, even as laundry is done, food is prepared, and produce is sold. The place where you live is, after all, utilitarian and functional – it is not geared towards luxury or entertainment. It is simply the place you sleep, eat, bathe, and perhaps store a few personal items.

And so, with no place to “hide”, and with the masses of people moving through the streets and lining its edges, you also begin to realize something else… As a Westerner in Tanzania, no matter how long you stay, you will never escape a constant and perpetual level of awareness, interest, and curiosity in who you are, why you are here, and where you are going. It is as intriguing as it is exhausting, and you begin to grow quite accustomed to the variety of interactions and the impossibility of predicting the outcome of any one. Indeed, interactions range dramatically from bland and idle interest, to unbridled hospitality, to anger, resentment and disgust. In any case, you learn to open to and relax – after all, social interaction is relative to a social reality that is much larger than yourself.

Speaking of that which is “relative”… somehow, under the marvel and influence of the Tanzanian sky, sun and moon, there is something qualitatively different about “time” here as well. It moves with an almost fluid character. It doesn’t seem bound to the same rules and constraints that exist in other places. Here, it seems unleashed, somehow, and open to following a movement and tempo that is not at all tied to man-made cycles and activities. I am slowly learning to love this… and as days pass, I feel evermore free.

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[This is an excerpt from a journal I kept while working in Tanzania years ago. I lived and worked in a small town at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro called Moshi. This specific journal entry was written on November 20, 2005.]

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