Nane Nane

Stop what you’re doing and spend a good 20 seconds just imagining dust.

Arusha is in the middle of a drought, so the smell of dust is omnipresent. One side of our mountain has rice paddies, where the peaks pen in the clouds, and the other is fighting. My cousin Ezra is too. Barely off the plane, he bombarded me with philosophical questions about string theory, economics and the nature of Truth as applied to combatting corruption, which is becoming his new consuming passion. Cops stop him on the road and he plays elaborate mind games with them, trying to get them to admit their folly if they ask for a bribe and shoving 500 shilling notes at them if they don’t.

Today is Nane Nane, which translates to “8 8”, or “August 8th” and is a major agricultural and cheap plastic crap festival made all the more major by the lack of rain. I am thrilled at the notion of a culture which celebrates cheap plastic crap only once a year rather than all 365, sort of an inverse of America’s Earth Day. Tomorrow will reveal if the festivities in fact die down.

Nane Nane was packed, what seemed like tens of thousands of people meandering through a concrete exhibition area that’s part farmer’s market (with Swahili names thoughfully sitting on each pile of veggies), part agricultural convention, part open-air walmart, part bar and part zoo. With a sigh of relief I tracked down the most supple looking agricultural NGOs (one doing drought-resistant food/biofuel, another doing agricultural water efficiency), talked my way into the EDs’ offices and set up meetings on Monday. Now it’s officially vacation.

Ezra, Rebecca and I milled about admiring plastic flowers and deftly outmenuevering pickpockets. At one point someone practically jumped into Ezra’s arms, throwing one arm around Ezra’s back while another reached for his shirt pocket. Ezra responded by instantly dropping to the ground, leaving the pickpocket sprawled long enough for Ezra to grab his hat and dance it out of reach while the crowd looked on confused. Ezra skipped off and was still beaming when he went off to bed.

We saw terrified monkeys and a baby hyena boxed into tight metal cages which children banged on constantly. Behind glass there were poisonous snakes in sawdust; Puff Adders and Red Spitting Cobras. We decided to leave a half hour before dusk to meet a doctor and pilot for sushi, but an overturned truck kept us in traffic for close to 80 minutes. Around us people streamed away from the festival, purchases in hand. As the sun settled groups of 14 and 15 your old boys started striding by confidently. As they became drunker and bolder we saw three fights break out, saw them crowding around girls walking home. Once the sun had set they began to tap on our windows and try our door handles, which are kept locked as a matter of practice.

Over sushi, flown in fresh from the coast, we discussed gossip at the Arusha airport. It seems that pilots are pairing up, marrying and having kids, and tourist flights to Serengeti and other national parks have dipped severely with the global economy. A shining new hospital, built with money from Lutheran churches, is struggling to make it to the black in the face of the corruption that has become Ezra’s fixation. It’s survival would be a boon both to the community and to the medical flights that keep my cousin so busy.

We drove home over a new road, one which has been intentionally left unpaved so that cars can “pack in the dirt.” As we bumped and rattled dust seeped in through the cracks and filled our cab. Rebecca is pregnant. “When I have my baby” she says “we’ll put it next to all those other pilots’ babies and have a contest to see which is cutest. My baby’s gonna kick all those other baby’s asses.”

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