Crossing borders


American writer and English teacher Elana Rabinowitz visited the city of Mwanza in Tanzania. She tells us about encounters with locals, language barriers, social division and dancing with a priest.

It took me two days to reach the coastal city of Mwanza and once I arrived I had to pinch myself. I couldn’t believe I was in Africa!

Jet-lagged, I spent most of Saturday in bed beneath the white mosquito net. Mama Rose, my trusty helper, continued to knock on my door with her calloused hands, trying to get me to eat the extensive meals she had prepared. Each time I declined politely with gestures, not knowing how to say ‘no’ in Swahili.

On Sunday, I mustered up the energy to attend a local dance festival. I’d only intended to make a quick appearance, but I ran into the local priest that I had met the night before. He was so delighted to see me that he grabbed my hand and skipped me down to a covered area. Most priests here are young and dressed in regular clothes, looking more like college students than fathers. I found it strange to be holding hands with a vicar, but it seemed harmless enough.

I was escorted to the coveted seats and planned to stay for a few minutes. The entire town appeared to have squeezed in. Hundreds of children sat perfectly still, with bald heads and a few flies. Girls with tight braids were forming an apex that hit the Tanzanian sky, and mothers were holding babies wrapped in printed cloth and bearing the hot sun. I realised that not one child needed an iPhone to simmer down, they were just happy to be there – as was I. Groups of men and women performed choreographed moves that made some of the audience get up on stage. They were good. Really good.

There was an obvious divide between the shaded area with complimentary Dasani water (where I sat), and the hordes of villagers packed into the sweltering open air. The partition consisted of two young women with a grass whip, ‘shooing’ away anyone that got too close. The little children were coming nearer to me. One little girl, sitting on my armrest, refused to leave. She needed to be picked up and carefully placed in a pile of dirt on the other end of the divide. I smiled at her; she smiled back.

It was almost dark and the electricity had gone again. To make the most of the last remnants of sunlight, I opted to read about Zanzibar. As soon as I opened the book, a group of female boarders asked me whether they could practise their English with me. One girl asked to touch my hair. “Next time,” I promised. The girls were in Mwanza to study tourism, yet had never heard of a single state in the US, not even New York City. I took out my laminated map and showed them America’s original 13 colonies and the different coasts and oceans. They wanted more. One of them had a t-shirt on with the words, “All dressed up and no place to go”. I wondered if she had any idea what it meant. But did it matter? Here I sat, teaching English and American geography and learning Swahili. I did not need to go anywhere. There was no divide.