The Song That's Sung

May 22, 2012
What really caught my attention was when he started singing. The first time I heard it, he was sauntering down our road, singing the hymn warmly with no fear of appraisal. He didn’t care about the swivel of heads in his direction, instead simply ignoring the sea of black faces. Women paused their chores to listen in, hands frozen on washboards with dirty clothes and steps paralyzed, baskets of cloth or food balanced perfectly on heads; but the singing never faltered. It was some Western hymn, with a twiddly melody that was full of English lyrics. The tune was simple, but we had nothing like it in my village. Our music was thunderous, always sung to the beating of drums and the thumping of hundreds of legs as an entire village became one. We had never heard of a song such as his.

I had been outside, that first day, weaving as I watched my youngest brothers while they clawed their way around my family’s hut, playing together. It was all of a sudden that their laughter and screaming stopped, and this new sound took its place. He was about my age, I knew, but he had life in him where I did not. He was ambling among the destitute, his white clothing and pale skin reminiscent of baths with warm water, a luxury for anyone here. I looked down at my own batik dress, brown from a week’s worth of wear and growing worse as the day walked ahead. I looked back at him, at his white shirt. And I looked away; not always, but sometimes, it was too much. And he kept walking, down our dusty road until he turned and was gone, the music only a whisper, and we continued as though he had never even passed by.

The second time, he was singing the same song, but I was alone outside, hanging up clothes to dry. As he walked along, I saw him smile at the colobus monkeys, playing together in front of one of our neighbor’s homes. Seeing him, the monkeys abandoned their somersaults and play, seeming to peer at his strange, white skin. “What is that?” they seemed to ask. Yes, what is that? I wondered. I cocked my head like the monkeys, trying to take in more of him. I wanted to ask him questions, ask him about America; I wanted to see if the rumors I had heard were true. But I kept quiet, no more than a monkey to him. So many Westerners did not believe we were even any more intelligent than these monkeys that lived around us. Ha. My eyes narrowed as I continued drying clothes. Ha. What do the Westerners know, about us? About me? But then, I thought, what do I know about them?

Ignorant, he continued walking, his eyes taking in more of our mud huts and the surroundings this time, as if he were evaluating the way we lived our lives. So what, though. So what, if houses here were smaller and the work was harder than it was where he lived–in the West. So what. But then his eyes swiveled over to my house, over to me. In one glance, he took in my age, my clothes, my gender–I could see him examine me, and I looked away, my eyes hardening once again. So what, I thought. Just before I looked away, though, I couldn’t help but meet his eyes, and see in them what I seem to see in almost every Western eye: pity.

I heard him sing one other time. It was always the same song, that same happy hymn full of alien words and phrases. He had groceries in his hand, and seemed to be walking back to where he and his family were staying during their time here. I wondered for the first time why he didn’t just drive his car, his white skin causing no more of a spectacle in our village than his family’s jeep would. Just as he was walking by, though, I saw Asali and Keto, two of the children who live near my family, run up to him from behind. They were siblings in a family of nine children, and were often found begging for food outside the grocery store together. Keto was seven–Asali only five–and their mother often would not have enough to feed them very much, the majority of the food either being taken by their older siblings or saved for the youngest. They came running up from behind him, calling out to him “Tafadhali! Tafadhali! Chakula,” Swahili for “Please! food.” They both were barely clothed, in only scraps or hand-me downs. The one exception was Asali’s pink hat, which she wore even on the hottest of days here in Tanzania. It was given to her by one of the missionary groups that came last year, and has not been taken off since then; I think it was the only possession she had that was really hers. Begging children were an ordinary sight here, but something in my heart gave way when I saw that knitted hat scrunched tightly on her head. It was the pink, that piece of childhood, that brought me back to when I was her age, in the same position they were in now.
I was only six; my hair unwashed for days, my dress stained and ripped, I had asked everyone coming by, “Je, unaweza vipuri sisi chakula? Can you spare us some food?” I had finally even asked a white man coming out of the grocery store. He was dressed neatly in a business suit with a bag of food in one hand, and I had looked up at him, pleading. He saw me but turned away, spitting on the ground in the other direction. “Get lost,” he told me. My baby sister died of hunger a few weeks later. I couldn’t stand for these two children to get the same disappointment from a white man as I had gotten.

“Asali, Keto!” I called to them.

“Tumaini!” they yelled at me, excited. Asali’s face was glowing to see me; I often tried to get her and her brother any extra food I could spare for them. Changing courses as I had hoped, they ran over to my hut.

“Jambo!” I told them, smiling. “Hey. Come inside with me. I’m sure I can find you both some food.” Asali hugged my body.

“Asante sana,” she told me. Keto replied as his sister did. “Thank you very much.” I had no idea what food I could find in our house that could be given to them, but I realized that at the moment that was not my biggest problem. The Westerner had seemed to hear the children begging before I distracted them, and was now walking over this way. As his singing paused, for the moment, he watched us and changed directions.

“Hey,” he said, when he reached the three of us. I looked him over coldly. Ignoring me, he bent down below my eye level, until he was at the reach of Asali and Keto. Asali ducked behind my leg a little, but continued looking at him. “Do you guys need some food? Here, take an apple, each of you.” He reached into his bag and pulled out two apples, holding them out to the two siblings. Keto grabbed his hungrily, but Asali slowly took it from his hand, as though expecting him to change his mind and snatch it away. The Westerner stood up, now, so that he was looking at me. “My name’s Payton.” he said to me. His eyes narrowed for a second, as though he were thinking. “Do you… do you speak any English?” he asked.

I waited a while to reply. “Yes. Some. I learned English at school.” I held my head up a little higher. “I continued school up until only two years ago, taking classes until my fourteenth summer. The children, though,” I nodded my head down to Asali and Keto, “know very little English. Only Keto has had any schooling, and it has not been much. His parents cannot afford for him to continue.” As I spoke, I felt my accent weigh on my words, drawing me down. If his words were a feather, mine would be a barbell, laden with confusion.

“Are they your siblings?” Payton asked.

I looked down at them, smiling as they nibbled at their apples. “No. We are just friends. They are brother and sister, however.” I looked up at him. “Thank you, for the apples. In Swahili, we would say ‘asante sana.’”

“No worries. There’s plenty of food to spare in my house.” My body froze suddenly, hearing that. Where am I? I wondered. Or was, I should ask; I’m not there anymore. But I had been somewhere, I realized: for a couple of minutes, I had been miles away from where my feet stood grounded now–maybe having gotten there by plane, by ship, by air or faith–but I had seen the cars roll past and the people chat and the green grass waver in the slight breeze. It had been real, for a minute or two. Then he had said that, my stomach had growled, and I came home. Payton seemed to realize my return. “Well,” he said, looking around at just about anywhere, it seemed, but my face. “I’ve gotta go.” With that, he turned around, beginning to walk the other way. He was leaving; tomorrow, I knew, he was going back to America.

“Wait!” I called out. He turned around, eyes wide. The word had simply bubbled up, unbidden but demanding its presence. It was a word–a stupid, ignorant word–that had all the weight of a tree and all the roots of one too, clamping itself down as soon as it is said, making it unable to take back.“Wait,” I said again, more quietly. At this moment, that word meant everything to me. “I… I wanted to ask you. That song... that song that you sing. What is it about?”

He started to look around again, shy to my face. As I had spoken, the words had walked out of my mouth free, but had fallen to the ground the moment they felt this suffocating air, leaving a silence heavier than the actual sentences. So now, Payton took his time to find the right words, words that would float instead of founder, that could bear the weight of my African home. “Well, it’s a love song, actually. It’s about this guy who finds this beautiful girl and, well, they both fall in love, but then he has to leave her.” His face grew redder as he spoke. “It’s, it’s kinda corny, but–I don’t know–I’ve always liked it.” With these words, his face, though, quickly worked up a bright red, this deep blush surprising me, not only in its color, which is not one you see often here on a person’s face, but in how I was the reason for the change. This possibility was never one before imagined, and to my surprise, I relished in it–in the idea that I could change the color of skin, that someone cared what I thought of him, that we were equals and I was someone he was embarrassed before.

“Oh,” I said, this display now making me dumb to speech. “Thanks, I guess.”

“For what?” Payton asked, the red now still cooling down.

“For telling me what the song was about.”

“Oh. Right,” he replied, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. “You’re welcome.” For a few seconds again he just stood there again, jiggling with his hands. “Well, I gotta go, I think.” Finally, he looked up at me. “Bye, Tumaini,” he said, and turned around, beginning the walk back to his house.

“Alamsiki, Payton” I whispered. “Bye.” He never turned back, but I could’ve sworn I saw him smile.

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