by Juliet K. R. Cutler
Hesitant about leaving the relative safety of the Land Rover, I sat for several minutes studying the open-air market as if witnessing it before entering it would make me feel more at ease. I recited a few basic Swahili phrases to myself with the stifling knowledge that I didn’t know nearly enough, and I briefly closed my eyes and took a deep breath. As much as I wanted to be in Tanzania, the truth was, right then, I wanted to hide.
An overhead patchwork of thatched roofing, plastic tarps, and burlap sacks shaded the improvised market from the intense mid-afternoon sun. Piles of tomatoes, avocadoes, oranges, mangoes, and papayas were neatly stacked in small groups on makeshift tables and in brightly colored buckets of every size and hue. Women, young and old, shared the day’s news as they tended to their fruits and vegetables—washing, sorting, and selling—while small children played together underfoot.
At the edge of the market, a sinewy old woman sat on the ground, her legs extended in front of her, a flat round basket in her lap. She sorted rocks from rice.
Several sun-wrinkled men leaned on their walking sticks in the shade of a nearby mango tree—their silhouettes bent together in quiet, leisurely discussion. They watched as women came and went with easy, careful grace—a basket, a bucket, or a huge tier of bananas balanced upon their heads.
Watching them, I felt foolish in my fear, yet fearful nonetheless. As a mzungu, or white person, I knew as soon as I left the Land Rover, I would instantly become the center of attention, something I commonly sought to avoid even in familiar settings. But here, there was no place for me to hide. To them, I was colorless, brilliant white in a sea of bold color incarnate. As I reluctantly slid out of the Land Rover, I tried to shrink, to become invisible, to blend in, but it was impossible. Every head was turned. Every eye was upon me.
I moved through the market haphazardly, looking for nothing in particular, and playing my part as the unwilling spectacle. I avoided eye contact. I didn’t speak. The smaller children stared wide-eyed, clinging to their mothers a little tighter. The older children whispered to one another and pointed. A woman stretched toward me, “Sister, sister, I give you good price.” Dust and human toil, sunlight and stench, flies amid delight—I was overwhelmed.
It wasn’t long before I realized I was being followed. A group of three boys trailed several paces behind me. I glanced at them out of the corner of my eye as I pulled my backpack off my back and held it close to my chest. The youngest looked to be four or five and the oldest maybe eight or nine. They were dressed in dirty, overly roomy blue shorts and ragged colored t-shirts, and they weren’t wearing shoes.
I didn’t want to look directly at them. I didn’t know what to say if they asked me for money. I composed my Swahili phrase in my mind, ‘Hamna shillingi kwa wewe. There isn’t any money for you.’ A message, I supposed, they received in many ways.
I intuitively avoided the market’s interior as I began to make erratic turns here and there in an effort to lose the boys. I kept a close watch on the Land Rover that had brought me from the language school where I was studying to the marketplace to “practice my Swahili in an authentic environment.” I nervously browsed the fruits and vegetables, and I vacantly nodded in response to any use of Swahili. The small parade of boys persisted.
I counted the minutes until my real-life language lesson was over and I could return to the safety of my small, spare room at the language school. Just before the appointed departure time, I stood within dashing distance of the Land Rover and turned to face the three boys, prepared with my Swahili phrase.
The smallest boy reached out to me with a wide, juicy smile and quietly offered me half of his peeled orange. He was eating the other half.
I blinked back hot tears as I knelt down to the boy’s eye level and smiled back at him. We remained like this for a long moment, as the market’s cacophony receded into the background. He’d caught me unprepared, but it didn’t matter. We didn’t need words, Swahili or otherwise, for this exchange.