Tanzania: Airmail


I’m not sure if it’s safe, but it is only 500 yards from the compound to the post office, so I head out alone. Everyone on the compound shares a post office box and I have been put in charge of the key while the secretary is on maternity leave. I’ve been here, volunteering, a few weeks now, and though I am told there is rarely mail, I am hopeful—a postcard maybe, or a care package. I’d settle for a note scrawled on a post-it, so long as it is in my dad’s handwriting.

I cautiously approach the beaten-down shoulder of the road, which although a main thoroughfare in Tanzania, holds no street name. The wide, pothole-ridden road collects people with neither discretion nor discrimination, as evening traffic heads home.

A dala-dala wobbles down the hill, a rattling shack of a bus, as a man holds his upper body out the passenger side window selling the drive. His worn shirt flaps in the wind and reveals his muscular core as the bus roars past. Rasta music pours out the scratchy speakers as the tires trip over every rock.

A woman flags it down, but dala-dalas don’t stop. She heaves herself into the bus as the driver only slows to assist her effort. Once she balances herself on the step, the driver speeds up and swerves back to the paved middle. The rackety door slides closed with the building momentum.

“Wasungu, Wasungu,” the bus driver yells at me from his window. Wasungu translates to white person, and is a blatant reminder of my lack of anonymity. I shake my head and look toward the ground in hopes to avoid subsequent glares.

Another woman walks back from the market, balancing the day’s unsold leftovers on her head, separated by a scarf to keep her skull from aching. The basket looks like untweezed eyebrows, unweaving itself with the weight of every mango; with every heave onto her head; with every cramming into a dala-dala’s full seats.

Just beyond the tall grass of the roadside, a man feeds a fire. It is burning day, or so I’m told. The thick smell of trash sticks to the back of my throat and the breeze feels like the escaping air of a preheated oven, humid and heavy. The dust cakes to my heels and I put up dust clouds with every slap of my sandals against the ground.

Children in dingy shirts run, chattering in Swahili. A green sweater sleeve drags and uniform skirts are dusty but won’t get washed for another week. The boys kick a flat soccer ball as they make the climb toward thatched-roof huts and mama’s stew.

With calloused palms, a short man balances a wheelbarrow of water jugs. The water sloshes against the sides, splashing overboard on the rough ride. His fingers boast stains and mutilations from years of work, maybe as a woodworker or metal smith. He leans backward, resisting the road’s slope.

The unpaved post office lot has been beaten by heavy storms. Deep crevices erode and weeds grow up from the damp soil. They tickle my naked feet as I plow through. A cow stands in the shade, tied to a tree. On cracked cement tiles I walk toward the P.O. boxes around the corner. As I insert the key, the glass and metal clatter against each other, the key rattles in the lock and the bend of the hinges reveals – nothing today. Maybe tomorrow.

* * *

Three months ago when I arrived, the locals said rainy season was here, but today, arriving with little foreshadowing, the first drops fall. My 500-yard walk changes only slightly. The water pelts my neck, catches in my eyelashes and plays out a vendetta against the uneven road. My sandals flick mud onto the back of my calves with a sting, turning yesterday’s dust to sludge. The rain stops almost as fast as it started and the commotion picks right back up again. Horns honk, cars dodge and the speed limit yields only suggestion.

A banana seller recognizes me and offers me a bundle as I pass. They wither with the emerging sun, as does she. Her day’s change, waded up in a torn fabric swatch, drips from the unexpected rain. She carries a baby strapped to her back, sleeping listless and content on her sharp shoulder blades. I wave at her, and tell her I will buy bananas on my walk back. She pretends to understand.

I pass a cart, a makeshift pop-out trailer, selling cheap toys and cigarettes. “Wasungu, Wasungu,” they shout at me, as they do every day, their lips vibrating from the awkward syllables. This hardly fazes me now.

 This walk used to be intimidating. When I arrived it was only a foreign road in a foreign country, too scary to step foot on alone. But now the walk on this road is ritual, routine, my daily calculated risk for freedom.
From outside the post office, I can smell the chalk and dust of thousands of letters—mailed, returned, lost. Dank Air Mail envelopes sit behind a desk with a rotund black woman. The woman wears glasses on the end of her nose and sticks her index finger into each package delivered, feeling for valuables or chocolate. This is where packages go to die. I am waiting on one for three months now.

I turn the silver key of the mailbox and open it just enough to see the light glaring through from the other side. Nothing today. Some days this walk is about handwriting on bruised envelopes from home and other days, most days actually, it’s just about the walk.


About the Author: Chels Knorr is a writer, an editor and a student. Find more of her writing at http://chelsknorr.com/ 


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One response to “Tanzania: Airmail

  1. This piece offers what is so satisfying about good travel writing – a glimpse into every day life in a place I’ve never visited plus the writer’s reflections that move me to consider bigger questions and understandings. Chels’s words create images every bit as vivid as any photos of the 500 yards from her compound to the post office. She also shows us how even such a short excursion can, over time, take us great distances. Lovely – thanks for posting.

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