Scent of a Mzungu

The crack of an engine revving in the distance breaks across the savanna and disturbs into riot the corners of anxious life. Howls beget howls as the engine’s cracks and stutters draw nearer. Dogs and roosters and goats and crying children and stranger noises yet, bizarre yelps that seem to rise up from the dark stubble of acacia fields and sunburnt farmland itself. It is a remote swath of savanna many kilometers from the village of Bagamoyo and it is not yet accustomed to the paved road being constructed at its doorstep that will link it with the major settlements in this part of the world.

By the kitchen stoop you sit and wait and swat the mosquitos and do not think of very much at all. The darkness speaks the madness of the savanna. A sense of inexorable fate seems to impel you forward. You feel bound to follow a course you yourself have laid, you yourself have helmed wittingly to this point. You do not think of the urushiol oil in your lungs nor of what your gut says of your plans of the dhow. There are many that take the old sailboats from Bagamoyo across the channel to Zanzibar and you plan to be one of them. This is after all a place that you have come to know. When you truly know a place it is safe to undertake the impossible things that you may not try in a strange environment. This is the code that the world has taught you. That you come to know a place like a person. Like a body. The compass arrow of its heart. But you do not think of any of this. You sit there and hear the engine cracks draw nearer as the dark lines of the guava tree before you waver indistinct on the sand like a gothic harp and the riotous liturgy of formless fears plays on.


By your side sit the girl and the dog. The girl with a fixed stare at the overstuffed backpack and a brown eye flicking to the dog in the dark. The dog sitting on her confused haunches, crying out to the stars for help, for account. Her whole being shivers and is disturbed into riot by the ancient sounds and the less ancient ones and a boundless shapeless energy coils in the muscles of her jowls. Her long snout mourns heavenward and there is a glint of saliva on the tip of an incisor in the steel moonlight. But she does not lift her anxious mass from her haunches. By your presence you root her to the spot.


Not twelve hours before at nine am this very morning you lie in the dusty stubble of the underbrush beside the girl and cough and watch the openness of the massive sky with flecks of clouds drifting towards the mountains of billowing cumulus and you think how the tiny flecks are like a person and their ideals and the clouds are like the truth. The collision of a dream and its destiny. As if one came from or strayed from the other and sought by its return to cause change in the order of things.

In the long hours of the hot morning you burn your neck the color of strawberries and sweat through your pants till they drip while you gather banana leaves and cashew leaves to burn for manure. Shirtless, covered with cashew dust and lips smacking with the numb nothing taste of banana plants the rest of the world seems very unreal, very distant. It is not real, you tell yourself, you tell her, half-delusional and spots of yellow Indian sun twinkling your vision. It is a memory. And the new world sitting and spinning before you, a microcosm turning in your palm. A fistful of dust and grass and tropic sunshine. Together you and the girl haul for hours the piles of tiny cashew leaves and the gray bulky strips of dead banana leaves. Deep in the savanna a mile from the farm you find a cement hole in the ground and you stack the leaves in the hole and you strike a match on the cement and sling your arm around her shoulder and watch it burn. Smoke wafts over your faces and flecks of dancing ash aspire to the air, seeking out their cumulus cloud.


Sometime later, still lying there and you begin to cough and there is a burning itch on your hip and all at once you remember. Cashew trees are of the anacardiaceae family. They are siblings of mango trees and sumac plants and poison ivy and produce the urushiol oil. When the oil is burned and the vapors inhaled the lungs often swell, leading to asphyxiation and eventually death. This in a place of trees and dust that you thought you had reached an agreement with.


Weeks before you see them first by the fish market when the tide is out and they sit in the briny shallows like wooden whales beached and stolid in the late afternoon sun. The ancient planks of seaworn oak, broad, suggestive of bulk, of bestial strength. Massive rowboats anchored to shore with seaweed rope. You them in their stilled potential in the brine and drying sand like something talking to you out of history or history as you imagined it could be. The barnacled hulls holding a quiet sibilance of mariner songs. There is a thin man who sees you watching and he speaks quietly with a rich baritone, a roaring whisper, as if it came from some deep reserve which his small bony frame did not betray.

Baga – moyo, he says. It mean drop your heart in Kiswahili. We in Tanzania – we have no trouble. We are a people of peace. Many white people like you – many mzungu – many mzungu no understand. Tanzania hamna shida – Tanzania no problem. Drop your heart. Your forget your care. You lay back. Dhows – dhows are symbol of this. Symbol of all this.

His hands wave as he speaks and seem to collect together the masses of people before him in the invisible fold of his clasp. Around you the night market is beginning: the fires glowing deep in the awes of the bungalows and the fishermen coming in twos and threes toting long fillets of kingfish and changu and marlin and tuna. The teeth jutting out of opened mouths frozen in immortal scream. And the bony market men shifting their tables in the rows of mud, lying down newspapers and slapping the fish atop and cursing, heaving, screaming Swahili joys and Swahili laments.

Do they take passengers? you ask.

Oh yes, the man says. For very cheap – cheap price, cheapest price. Goody price.

Only sometime you do not get to where you wanted to go. You go with tides and you see what the sea wants. You understand? You know? In Tanzania – it does not matter. Drop your care. Drop it. Drop your heart.

Tide rolls in with sundown and boats that have spent the day anchored to the surf begin to rock in the choppy waves. One by one they fill full of chattering and joyous Tanzanians as they loose their anchor and fill their depths of holds with cargo and depart to sea. You see one man wading chestdeep in the surf towards his dhow, holding his clothes above his head in one hand and a cell phone to his ear in another. Drop your heart, the man whispers again.


In the weeks to come they came in dreams in all their august bulk silhouetted against a starfreckled horizon. A phantom fleet that hardly exists and whose destination is exactly as fluid as the tides it sails. The white masts gleaming against the dark of the sea. Holding every appearance of a vessel that could sail you to your dreams. The black horizon bobbing gently with the steady churn of swells. You bail with an old tin bucket while the girl and the dog sleep and you watch the surface of the water and think of the dark universe below and its untold adventure. You paddle towards dark clouds of imagined destiny and ingratiate yourself into the nature of things by the cadence of waves.


As the stuttering engine draws closer to the farm the howls of the dogs and the night creatures seem to take on a mourning quality, as if they have quit their distress and their terror and their disbelief at the noise and have taken to pleading with hollow sobs.

The dog has laid back down with her ears folded over her face and eyes you and the girl as if you may change your mind. Is it possible that Buddy knows this is a bad idea? you ask her.

Buddy always knows, she says.

You watch the shadows by the guava tree as the engine draws nearer and you think about the darkness and how in Bagamoyo it is a very different kind of darkness.The places of shadow beneath and between the trees seem to be holes of nothing and there is a part of you that urges caution and to avoid it. You sense a voidlike quality. As if you may lose a body part if it brushes this black zone of unfamiliarity. In the distances of the night over the howls of the animals and the roar of the engine you hear laughter and the wild beat of tribal chanting from the farm in the valley below. You think maybe this is what the shadows hold. Hints of older worlds, following another set of rules, slightly beyond the scope of what we could hope to understand. As the lights of the motorbike approach down the road the dog trembles and the other sounds of the night become harder and harder and harder to hear and soon they are only a memory.


The motorbike drops you and the girl at the fish market where you had spoken to the man of the dhows and the dropped hearts. It is a starless night and the market is empty and stinking with the rubble of burned trash. Formless figures stand in small groups and can be known only by the blinking crimson eye of puffed cigarettes smoked and tossed aside. You sit together on a rock and wait for the man known as Baba Hadija.

You have been told he is the captain of a dhow that will take you to Zanzibar. One by one the groups approach you and ask you if you would like passage to Zanzibar and you tell each the same: no, you are waiting for Baba Hadija. Midnight comes and goes and the dhows begin to fill and you begin to ask the denizen captains and stumbling drunks and heroin addicts who walk the beaches by night. They laugh and say you are not safe here and you must not wait any longer and you must come with us. They do not know Baba Hadija. They suspect he does not exist.


The sacks are dusty with savanna dust from the reaches of dry Africa and stacked ten high across the length of the boat. The few passengers in colorful rags crammed at the prow and peer like vagabond refugees to the distances of swaying sea.

Land is twenty yards of surf behind and the last of the crew is running the final cargo aboard.

Zanzibar no problem, says one of the shirtless sailors, whitetoothed, rippling with muscle like the knots in the seaweed rope he reels in from shore. Seven hours – no problem. But we must see your passports. Passports first – then we go.


You search frantically in your bags, digging, turning over the dusty sacks and emptying your pockets and spilling guidebooks and sunscreen and other relics of mzungu life but there are no passports. Nor are their wallets or a camera or an iPod. It is all gone. Stolen while you sat on the beach, you assume. The boat bobs gently in the rising surfand you look down into the water. You hold the girl’s hand. Your last thought before you leave the dhow is of the cashew leaves and the urushiol oil and the gentle warning from the world you thought you did not know.


Down the long sand road in the savanna outside Bagamoyo where trucks excavate the earth for dirt to build the new paved highway there are dogs that roam the brush. Their ears are peeled back in sharp v’s like jackals and they barrel at tremendous speeds through the dusty countryside for flesh and bone. When night comes they are restless demons and the distant sound of an engine clicking sends them in howling frenzies of horrible augury. In the melancholy of their moans you will know that they were coyotes once.