Thursday, 20 January 2011

Playing the crazy card in Zanzibar.....

When I lived in Zanzibar, I took to singing in the streets. Empty streets, crowded streets. Sometimes I even sang on the bus. No, this was not an expression of elation at finally finding a culture free of the alienation and rugged individualism of western society, nor was it an adherence to some sort of local culture of musicality. And I'm pretty sure it wasn't a side-effect of the famously psychedelic malarial prophylactic, Larium, which I was taking. I sang in the streets of Zanzibar because I could.

I called it the Mzungu Crazy Card (mzungu is the Swahili term used to identify, varyingly, white people, foreign people, Europeans and magicians). As one of a handful of expatriates living on the Tanzanian archipelago, Zanzibar, everything I did incited laughter. Everything I did was "crazy," and treated as such. I haggled for a mango in the market. I asked for tea without sugar at work. Crazy! I asked for tea with sugar at work. Still crazy.

When your life is accompanied by a soundtrack of constant twitters it can be a little wearing, but it's also incredibly freeing. For example, I've certainly never been accused of being a fashionista, but in Zanzibar, my distance from the world of trends grew to fill the chasm between the hijab worn by the local women and the bikinis donned by the tourists. Stripes and plaid, pink and red: I was free to wear whatever I felt like.

My understanding of the Mzungu Crazy Card first came to me one night sitting on the side of a road in Pemba, the northern and much more rural half of the Zanzibar archipelago. After a day at work, I returned to my hotel room, showered and changed into pyjamas. When the hunger pangs of dinner hit, instead of returning to tropical expat wear (think white, light and long), I threw a shawl over my pajamas and hit the streets. I bought roasted cassava and chilies for 30 cents and sat down on the curb to enjoy my meal. Looking up into the stars, I saw it clearly: outside the norm, there is a lot of space.

Most of the time, the Mzungu Crazy Card served as a bit of fun. Occasionally, however, it was just what was needed to keep my foreign-ness from sliding from odd to offensive. Jogging was one of the more bizarre practices I kept up in Zanzibar. Very few people run, and almost none of them are women. Though I squeezed my runs to the edge of the island and covered them with the baggiest clothes I could find, my exercise regime never failed to attract a bemused audience.

I ran on the beach and one day the rocks were particularly slippery. I fell, tearing my pants from sensible to scandalous. I stood on the beach, paralysed with horror. A tear of this kind would be mildly embarrassing in a culture of biker shorts and tank tops; here, it was unfathomable. I looked around, helpless, willing a fabric vendor to appear on the horizon. And then I saw it -- a dirty piece of cardboard wedged in the rock.

"Could I?" I wondered. Well, yes, of course I could.

I walked the 10 minutes home clutching the cardboard as a makeshift skirt. I waited for something. Anything. And then ... nothing. No more looks or smiles than any other day. Suddenly my worries seemed much sillier than my couture. The Mzungu Crazy Card: my no-fail trump.

I knew coming back to Canada wouldn't be easy -- a stranger in my own home, some practices were sure to slip back on like a favourite pair of jeans while others would be as uncomfortable as jeans from junior high.

This struck me today as I walked the streets of Ottawa. It was the middle of the day, so the streets were quiet, the realm of the restless, the retired and the repatriated -- me. The rain had let up, leaving the streets well-lit, perfect for spotting fellow sidewalkers from blocks away. I spotted one such traveller as she rounded the corner and began heading towards me. I estimated we had a minute before path-crossing. I'm sure she made a similar calculation in her head. Without skipping a beat, we braced ourselves and the game began, a game I had forgotten and fell into with an awed and ironic ease.

At the beginning, it's easy. I look ahead. She looks ahead. I may look at her, she may look at me. It doesn't matter; pupils aren't in the picture yet. As we get closer, the stakes rise. Because we want to avoid looking like we're avoiding looking at each other, it's important to ration the looks in other directions. Yes, that's a very interesting tree, but save the inspection of the leaves for 10 paces from contact. Look at the squirrel, sure, look at the squirrel. But don't gawk at the squirrel -- are you a dog?

A few paces away, the dance becomes one of intricate subtlety, moves perfected through years of aversion: a survey of your surroundings at seven paces; a glance in the vague direction of the other at five paces -- just to be, you know, polite. Next, a glance downward or slightly to the right at three paces, maintained until you are at one pace, too far along to risk direct eye contact. At this time, you may allow a small smile, a hint of an acknowledgment of the Western Waltz you have just performed. Finally you cross paths. And you are done.

And I am befuddled. I picked up the moves with the stored knowledge of someone who grew up in a ballroom, but it felt uncomfortable. I had become accustomed to not just making eye contact, but actually staring at people in Zanzibar. My stares at people grew with my time as an expat. Everyone was looking at me, so I looked at everyone. I smiled at curiosity, scowled at leers and made faces at children. Children alternately giggled or cried (I was assured that their fear had nothing to do with how I looked or behaved; I chose to believe this). But they all looked. We all looked. You saw someone. So you looked.

Looking was more than a way to satisfy curiosity. It was also -- brace yourself -- a way to acknowledge fellow human beings. In Zanzibar, if you pass someone on the street, the least you do is greet them. Depending, this greeting can range from a simple hello to an inquiry into the extended family of their extended family. In my experience, the rest of East Africa was not quite so thorough in its greetings, but even the bustling business centre of Nairobi was filled with quick nods or eye contact assuring each other that we do indeed all exist.

Back in Canada, I am now looking for a new card, some new qualification for craziness. Reverse culture shock might work, or I may need to go even further. Vague mentions of cults or philosophical movements with posts- and -isms jutting out, unhinging conversation. I could also fall back on the perceived residual effects of my various tropical medications; anything, really, to be excused from the dance of anonymity that floods our Canadian neighbourhoods. Sure, I'm exaggerating, plenty of people say hi, but is that enough? Give me a nod, I'll want a smile. A smile, I'll want a hello. A hello may turn into questions about your day or your family. I may want to know about your brother's uncle. But excuse my intrusion. I've been away, and I'm not quite over it yet.

Rebecca Hall.

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