Thinking about the COVID-19 pandemic in Tanzania: Mama Halima, I can feel your pain.
It was in a cool evening when I and my friend — whom I have nicknamed Pablo Escobar — were walking towards a convenience store nearby. This day was a little bit unusual. There was an atmosphere of terror roaming around. The Bostonian quick smiles were not apparent on people’s faces, which was quite surprising. Frankly speaking, we were also terrified. This was because a few minutes before, our university announced the shift to online learning due to the Coronavirus pandemic. This meant that our Junior Design course — an important practical course — was going to be postponed, adding more work the following semester. How will the semester be like? We kept wondering.
The levels of panic among people were at its highest levels. In supermarkets, people started buying groceries in bulk like crazy. Items like toilet papers, hand sanitizers, and hand soaps were so rare that sometimes one ought to go to more than five supermarkets to find them.
In our case, it was a bit different. This is because Pablo personally knows the owner of the nearby convenience store: they speak the same language, so, they have ‘low-key’ developed a certain level of friendship. Therefore, it was easy for Pablo to humbly ask him to buy us some items when he shopped for his family. And, kindly, he agreed. The acceptance of our request made Pablo relaxed a little bit. “One cigarette pack please,” he told the store owner. “Which brand? Parliament or Marlborough?” He responded.
Of course, the answer was Parliament — Pablo’s favorite brand. I, honestly, do not know why he likes Parliament cigarettes. His answer is always, “…it’s a big brand brother. It makes me feel like the real Don Pablo!” But this time around, how he answered it made laugh; giving me what I wanted the most — a smiling face. Another question — about quitting smoking — was on its way, but I decided to let it go because I did not want to destroy the moment we were having. Also, no one questions Don Pablo’s egoistic responses and actions. That much I know. The least you can do is pat him on his back, and that is exactly what I did.
On the way back home, Pablo started complaining about how big of a risk COVID-19 is given his health history. He genuinely seemed to be worried, and this frustration turned him to be a moral philosopher of his kind, asking difficult questions on how the heck can some people eat bats.
As a relativist, I had a hard time responding to his arguments: I know that in some cultures it is nonsensical to see other people from other cultures eat wild creatures like bats. But then, through the same lens, perhaps, those same ‘weird’ people look at the non-bat-eaters contemptuously: “They say chicken wings are the best. Only if they knew how breathtaking bat’s wings are!”
That is just how life is! What you think to be righteous might not be so to other people. Is this a fact? Well, I truly believe so. But, generally, whether this is a fact or not, we ought to take a pause a little bit to assimilate it. This effort to make sense of this presumed fact brings important questions: What if the presupposed ‘righteous’ thing by group A — which is, in this case, deemed unrighteous by group B — causes a turmoil in matters that affect both groups? How do you navigate this?
The primary question posed in the paragraph above is quite intriguing. This is because it is vast, motivating, and dangerous, too. It is vast because it can be explored from different angles: racial injustices, income inequalities, gender issues, politics, and, as it is evident currently, global response(s) to existential threats like pandemic diseases and global warming. This same question is motivating — perhaps, surprisingly — as it brings people together to explore some possibilities for finding a common ground that promises coexistence and prosperity among people.
On the other hand, however, more than anything, it is extremely dangerous: it seems to be overly sensitive that it is absolutely error intolerant. And, sadly, due to the nature of the universe, as there is nothing as perfectionism in the ‘real’ world, some people who have ‘recklessly’ tried to answer this question have ended up making utterly blunders. The results? Deaths, hunger, war, concentration camps, hate, you name it.
So, is it possible that the topic I am about to indirectly discuss — Thinking about COVID-19 in Tanzania — is among those topics that are of the likes of the “… vast, motivating, and dangerous…” questions? In most ways, it is possible. This is because there is a strong emotional attachment to this topic: people have lost their loved ones; they have lost their jobs and so forth because of COVID-19. Therefore, it is obvious that it is a topic that must be approached intelligently — both emotionally and intellectually (I will write more about this in my next article). And what am I going to discuss exactly? Simple and clear answer: what the lockdown measure would mean to low-income people — at least, from my personal experiences.
Maybe, someone might ask, “Where have you gotten the ‘madness’ to think about a topic as such?” I do not know the answer to that question, honestly. However, what I know is that it is a topic that has been ‘torturing’ my mind. One morning, I was staring at my phone for about two hours straight reading about some people’s views on social media about COVID-19 pandemic in Tanzania — especially the possibility of witnessing deadly effects due to some arguable incapacities in our health systems.
Did I understand their worry? Of course, I did. This is because most of my compatriots’ views were intact, and most of their views came from either their personal experiences with how the pandemic affected them or what they saw in other countries. I remember reading on Instagram about a girl who was in Italy when the country was severely hit by the pandemic. She seemed to be a pain in her family members’ necks. She wanted everyone to wash their hands thoroughly and wear personal protective equipment every time they went outside the house. Another girl on Twitter expressed her piteous frustration just because her mother did not want to stop going to church. These kinds of posts caused a surge of comments from readers expressing their complaints about how seemingly the pandemic was easily perceived by their loved ones.
I was in the same situation, too, quite frankly. I constantly called my mother and other family members preaching to them about how they should care for themselves. In one call with my mother, I asked her a question: “What are you doing now?” Her response? “Getting ready for church!” Alas. “I guess I did not preach well to her last time I implored her about not going to church,” I thought. “Mom,” this time with an amicable tone, “for God’s sake, please do not go to church,” I besought her. As if what I said was not enough, I ended up telling her the story of “patient 31” from South Korea. To my surprise, she seemed to understand what I told her. But who knows? I might get another excuse next time!
The next time I read people’s comments on a certain WhatsApp group — this time by smart, energetic, young people en route to living the American dream — I came to learn more about the pandemic. After every few minutes, someone posted an article about the possibility of finding a vaccine; another one invited people to join an initiative to help raise awareness back home regarding the pandemic. Seeing these initiatives and the freedom by which people used to express their views about COVID-19, I was inspired. Thus, I checked the group constantly to benefit from the vast knowledge my fellows expressed.
It did not take me long, however, to observe one thing that most of the comments people gave on the group ‘cringed’ for — lockdown. It was like every comment was crying angrily, “we need that goddamn lockdown in our country.” Was this madness? I do not think so. It could be because most of those who commented are in a country — United States of America — severely hit by the pandemic. Therefore, they believed that, at least initially, the lockdown measure would be useful in Tanzania.
“This is a tough call, Siegfred! What would you have done if you were the President?” I thought. “Maybe a partial lockdown, starting with Dar es Salaam and Arusha?” This time asking my shower gel bottle while pouring some on the palm of my hand: “What do you think, Mr. Shower Gel?” Indeed, this was a crazy, difficult question. It was crazy because Mr. Shower Gel ‘borrowed’ my brain for a bit to try to answer the question; it was difficult because my brain questioned my response and then made me think about my friends and their families back home who cannot afford the living costs brought by the lockdown measure(s).
The thoughts flashing in my head about how sustainably the lockdown measures would be taken took me to different points in my life. I started thinking about people like Mama Halima who used to sell some soup made of goat feet, tongue, testicles, and skin. Trust me. There was something about Mama Halima’s soup that Mama John’s did not have. I guess this was a fact not just human beings understood but also cats got it perfectly right.
Therefore, it was not a surprise seeing a clowder close to where mama Halima had its old-looking pot — which was extremely black on the outside but silver’ish on the inside, carrying the remedy of the day’s hustles — positioned. The focus with which these cats stared at you, especially when their shiny eyes in the dark illuminate some magic light, would terrify a ‘shit’ out of you to give up those impossible bones you could not defeat to suck the bone marrow out of, but assuredly scraped off every muscle and tendons the goat developed.
Oh, yes. There were also Abdallah Mpemba who used to sell urojo and other coastal cuisines just around the corner at the end of our street; Mama Manka who had a café whose ‘maandazi’ were the integral part of your breakfast — or dinner for that matter if some tea with ‘maandazi’ was the only thing you could afford for dinner that evening; and, of course, a dozen of vendors selling everything you know from fried chicken’s intestines and feet to cheap, low quality, ill-shaped industrial goods.
To survive in this kind of community, you are supposed to be tough — physically tough and mentally tough. It is like a wild Amazonian jungle, whereby, ‘lion’ hunger is chasing you while at the same time, to get out of the danger, you need to cross the Amazon river full of ‘crocodiles’ poverty. It is a constant run; it is a constant hassle. The story in the streets? Better off yesterday than today!
I mean, think about it. How would you impose the lockdown measure on people like these who depend on subsistence ways of living?
Interestingly, some people have expressed their concerns about possible ignorance among the people who seem to be against the lockdown measures. Could this be the case? Possibly. But, what I know, and speaking from my personal experience, the observed actions might be risky decisions coming from well-thought premises (sometimes out of inconvenience).
Yes, I know. What I just said might seem vague, but it is something that I experienced — as already said — when my family owned a small restaurant some years back. I remember, during Cholera outbreaks, municipal health personnel and officers from a paramilitary — called Mgambo in Swahili — used to force small businesses to close to contain the outbreaks. But then this was a demanding thing to do: We depended on the business to get some money to support our hardworking, unified extended family.
So, we tried to do everything in our power to convince the officers that the food was prepared in healthy conditions. Nevertheless, this was not an assurance for them to stop randomly and heartlessly kicking the pots — others filled with cooked rice and others with beef stew — with their military boots. It is like the coconut aroma the rice gave out or the ‘naive’ looking roasted vegetable meat did not melt these people’s cold hearts.
If you asked me whether we wanted to be ‘chased’ by the officers, I would give you a solid no. Who likes being told to constantly carry 20 kg of water in a bucket after few minutes from a distant well just to adhere to the health guidelines only to witness flying grains of rice in the air from a dusty military boot? Trust me, that scenario is heartbreaking; nevertheless, it is not hurting like an empty stomach in the middle of a surly night.
“Alas, it is 30 minutes before my next back-to-back classes,” I realized. I decided to stop thinking about what the past brought to my mind; the focus was now on the possible topics to be delivered on the short quizzes ahead of me. Will it be the McCluskey method or Smith Charts? Questions started pouring out of my mind again, quite like the constant run in the Amazon jungle: threat after threat; thought after thought; question after question.
At this point, I could not resist soothing my spirit.
“Hi, Bixby, play Parte After Parte by Big Tril,” I commanded my phone.
“ Parte After Parte is now playing,” an electronic voice notified me. And, just like a passing wind, life went on.
Few days after my conversation with Mr. Shower Gel, while scrolling down the stack of unread messages in a certain WhatsApp group, I came across a comment which was some sort of a follow up on a video clip that was shared by one member. The video showed people, somewhere in Kariakoo, unbothered and laser-focused on doing whatever they were doing in a big crowd. “This is bad,” I thought. And, at that moment, the atmosphere in the group was filled with some sort of speculations about the possibility that these people did not care for/about their lives.
Did I agree with that notion? Of course, not. It is not true that these people did not care for their lives — at least, from what I think. What does “… not care for their lives…” even mean? But if there is anything that can bring good parallelism to challenge this thought, supposing that the thought suggests that these people are reckless about the most important thing in life — existence — and that most of them are coming from low-income areas, then it would be what I witnessed in the night of 16th February 2011.
11 pm, 16th February 2011: I was completely asleep before I heard people shouting and my door shaking. It was terrifying. The screaming and the vehement knocking on my door made me think that the world was ending. “What’s going on? Has Jesus come back? Does it mean I have not made it to heaven?” I started thinking.
“Fred… Fred… Zishi… Wake up! Wake up!” My mother kept yelling.
“Oops, that’s my mother’s voice! So, she has not made it to heaven, too?” I wondered.
A few minutes later, after being fully awake, I opened the door. The first thing that I saw was my mother’s rarely seen ‘pissed’ off face. Why was she ‘pissed’ off? I do not know! Maybe, she was mad at my ‘sleepy’ head; but then, how would someone be mad at something like that? Was it the chaotic situation around? Again, maybe!
What I was seeing this time was something I had never seen in our neighborhood. People were screaming; others were running — some with babies, older or sick people on their backs. I asked my cousin what was going on, but he did not know much apart from the fact that there was a series of blasts at military munitions from a military base in Ngongo la Mboto.
“So, why did you wake me up?” I asked him. “Go ask your mother,” he replied.
For sure, I asked a dumb question. But I had some reasons: if the military base is 10 km from our house, how were we going to be affected by the blasts? Little did I know that the vessels were landing in areas beyond a 10 km radius; meaning that we were also in danger. Surprisingly, my mother did not seem to be extremely worried as compared to her younger sister. “Maybe, it is because she went to national service; but why did she give me a pissed off face if she is not that much worried,” I kept asking myself.
What ended up happening in this chaotic night was a big number of people on the streets running away from the base as far as possible. Some of these people had their possessions on their heads; some matured women and men were almost naked. Life was not the same for a few days: overnight, a big number of people became homeless. They demanded immediate care — food, clothes, shelter, and emotional comfort — which was, of course, well given by the government. To me, this was among the days that I came to know how financially fragile most people in my community are.
Furthermore, from witnessing that ‘live’ horror movie, it proved to me that no one wants to die recklessly. That even the seemingly ‘don’t care’ kind of people in our community would run the same way as the most conscious ones when exposed to a certain danger threatening their lives.
And, yes, I understand that someone might say that there is a difference in confronting a visible enemy and the invisible one. That using the blasts in Gongo la Mboto to justify the people’s response to the danger brought by the SARS-COV-2 virus (an invisible enemy) through COVID-19 is illogical. But, as much as this might be true, one question arises: How puzzling would it be to unrealistically guard people against COVID-19 but then let them die from hunger which kills more people than Malaria, AIDS, and tuberculosis combined? Definitely, this is a hard situation; it is a hard situation for both, the leaders and the led.
The levels of sacrifice and wisdom needed in our country in solving the challenges brought by the COVID-19 pandemic reminded me of one of the last scenes of the movie Apocalypto. In this scene, the main character, Jaguar Paw, and his tribesmen are portrayed as captives of another Mesoamerican tribe. Jaguar and his compatriots are then allowed to buy their freedom by gambling it with their lives. The scene shows Jaguar running in a zig-zag way to confuse the shooters. But someone might ask, “Why troubling for uncertain freedom like that?” The answer to that question could be anything with a strong sense of purpose at the center of it. I guess the fact that Jaguar understood the cruel nature of the Amazon jungle made him ready to sacrifice his life for a higher course — to protect his family
In the same manner — most likely — that is what was happening to most people seen in that video clip shared in the group, the majority of which cannot afford the economically demanding lockdown measures.
Thinking about that video clip, I immediately remembered a conversation my close friend had with another common friend who was among the people who kept going to Kariakoo no matter the prevalent danger. In the screenshot below, he gives his justification. A justification crying a similar cry like Rev. Martin Luther King had: ‘I have a dream… I have a dream….”
MLK’s dream was a dangerous one; yet he still ran for it, and then made changes in people’s lives. Similarly, it was because of the dream to unite and then protect his family that made Jaguar ready to run for the danger that promised the possibility of a better tomorrow regardless of the odds. It is because of these kinds of dreams and elements of necessity that make people appear to be insensitive to the dangers COVID-19 entails, which is an aftermath of pure sacrifice for a greater goal — which might not make sense to you at all.
As hard as it is to make sense of this situation, the stream of even more pressing thoughts kept stressing my mind. And, consequently, I decided to stop for a while to give myself some time to assimilate what I had already paid attention to. But then, I was aware of the fact that my decision to stop receiving these pressing thoughts, from wherever the ‘heck’ they were coming from, had to be temporary because never will we — humans — be able to solve the challenges facing humanity by keeping quiet.
Moreover, undoubtedly, we need to be cautious about how we collectively approach the challenges we face because it is very easy to neglect the concerns other people have. And this, at least personally, has been evident in how people have approached the COVID-19 pandemic, especially regarding ways to protect our country from the tragedy. We need to be aware of the fact that people are different, and we need to accept that and see how we can come together to ensure the possibility of finding better solutions to solve whatever challenges our societies face for a common good. Also, we need to understand that the fact that society A is implementing method X in dealing with problem H does not necessarily mean that society B can implement the same method to deal with the same problem.
As I’m assembling my thoughts for a conclusion, I want to acknowledge the fact that what you are reading might seem apologetic and/or judgmental; but, as much as it is not true, it is not my plan to seem so. My wish is to try to express the need to understand the burden of others in solving challenges facing our communities. I believe that, from gaining such understanding, we will be putting ourselves in a better position to produce better solutions for the existing challenges. My wish is to raise a debate/awareness among people in developing countries to do better and to transform our minds into forms/patterns that will solve our problems realistically, reliably and sustainably according to the nature of our environment for the sake of our communities and humanity as a whole. Moreover, my wish is to see the emergence of bold youths who will be bold enough to not hypocritically pat the backs of ‘Pablo Escobars’ of our communities — in public and private sectors — for a better tomorrow.
In those lines, three critical needs arise. (1) The willingness and ability to tell our stories honestly. (2) The willingness and ability to respectfully listen to other people’s stories. (3) The willingness and ability to understand people’s stories and intelligently — both emotionally and intellectually — respond to them. These three needs are important because, as my engineering design professor believes and teaches, “… stories help us understand problems better.” And do you know what brings happiness in life? Yes, you have gotten it right — solving problems. Solving problems intelligently, to be precise.
A few moments after escaping the jungle of thoughts I was in, I heard someone knocking on my door: “Delivery from the dining hall,” the delivery man called. “Yes, there we go!” I exhilarated. I left everything else I was doing and then approached the door. I opened it, and what I saw in front of me was a big, white paper bag with my dinner in it. I then got back to my suite and started unpacking the containers which were wrapped by thin nylon, symbolizing a serious amount of care used to prepare the food in a clean, healthy manner. I started eating, but, slowly, some thoughts started coming.
“What if I were home now? Would I have gotten this kind of treatment my school is giving to me while self-isolating? Or how many are privileged enough to be able to sustain their lives during these challenging times without suffering from hunger?” I then imaginarily saw my friend talking to Mama Halima.
“Mama Halima, one bowl of soup please.”
Mama Halima takes a small plastic bowl and pours in it her magic. A few minutes later, after blessing his stomach, my friend opens his old-looking-canvas-wallet with a big Manchester United logo on it. He is now asking Mama Halima, “how much for a bowl of soup again?” She responds, “Tsh. 700 for the soup but the total cost is Tsh. 1200 after adding the cost for the two chapatis you ordered.” He then takes a Tsh. 2000 bill — the only money he was able to make throughout the day — and gives it to her. She looks back at him, “I do not have change, my dear: you are my first customer today.” First customer since you opened two hours ago!? He gets puzzled.
Indeed, this is one of those times when you just ‘have to’ utter a three-words-sentence: Keep the change. But, if my friend does that, how will he pay Mangi his money back after giving him a quarter of a loaf of bread in the morning before going to work?
Mama Halima, I truly feel your pain amidst this COVID-19 ‘madness’!