Andrew Harvey, one of the original members of the Global Citizenship Initiative (GCI)
is now pursuing his masters degree in linguistics at the University of Dar es Salaam in
Tanzania. Over the next few months, Andrew will write a series of articles chronicling his
time in Tanzania. They will appear as the Global Citizen profile in the GCI Glocal Guide.
By Andrew Harvey
Final exams, and I’ve discovered that I’ve gotten rusty at revision. It’s too hot
to study in Dar at any rate: sunshine peels skin; humidity destroys textbooks. I watch
a white house gecko dance across my ceiling after a moth, and catch myself wondering
again –back to a specific night from about two months ago. The night we ate bone
Sounds mixed together that night in an awful way: the teething child next door
was screaming, and the chickens in the chicken coop fretted loudly. Below all of this –
like furious percussion – the swollen river behind the little house slithered past like a
great black snake, pulling trees, garbage, and the corpses of dead animals from the
slums and into the sea.
The little house on the riverbank belonged to a family: Francis and John – two
cousins who called each other ‘brother’, and an aunt who everybody called ‘Mama’.
They’d moved from Kilimanjaro some years back, all to find work and opportunity in
Dar. Every night for over a month we’d shared supper under a roof of corrugated metal.
They taught me stories and legends in a rich, subtle Swahili. I made them laugh trying
to explain ice fishing and the Royal St. John’s Regatta to them in the Swahili of a six-year-
That night I couldn’t concentrate. A huge moth orbited the naked compact
fluorescent bulb, sending shadows and white light shuddering all about. Three days
into a bout of malaria, my brain was aching and my joints screamed. I’d spent that
entire day feverishly passing in and out of dreams, and though I’d pulled on clean
clothes and brushed my hair, I still felt like I was incapable of waking up.
Until one sound rose above all the others.
The spoon fell from atop the sugar tin, and some of the ginger tea spilled from
“Zilizala?” Francis looked to John. Earthquake?
“A’a – angalia!” John answered back. No – look!
We all turned to where he was pointing, and watched as a tree in the yard
trembled, tipped on a strange angle, and was dragged by the river off into the night.
I was fully awake now, following Mama, John, and Francis to the riverbank. The
weak glow of the flashlight revealed massive bites taken out of the land, entire stands of
trees torn from the earth and munched into muddy pulp. As we stood marveling at the
damage, the ground split and yet more of the yard calved off and plunged into the angry
“Mungu yangu.” Mama murmured. My God.
The little house on the riverbank was little as it was – an informal plot balancing
precipitously on the edge of an unplanned sprawl.
Bridges made of sticks and discarded metal had spanned the river in some
places, and garbage and solid waste had been piled six feet deep where the community
dumped it. Today, however, was a day of rain: the heaviest rain in fifty years. Bridges
had collapsed, entire blocks of slum housing had been swept away like matchwood. The
earth had been too dry to drink all of the water the sky had sent it, and now the rivers
had grown into squalid arteries, taking everything they could reach and vomiting it into
the Indian Ocean.
Of course, one doesn’t need to live on the Swahili coast to appreciate the
ravages of climate change in Africa. Pieces of conversation I’d heard about conditions
inland described dry seasons crueler than any in living memory and oral tradition alike.
Somalia, to the north, still occupied the pages of every weekly journal.
Finally accepting that there was nothing we could do, the four of us returned to
the shelter of the corrugated metal roof, lowering ourselves around a wooden table.
Mama took a pot off of the charcoal stove and ladled hot soup into four small bowls –
one for each of us.
“Tunakula nini?” I asked. What are we eating?
“Mifupa.” Francis replied. Bone soup.
Bright, buttery broth punctuated with thick sections of cow’s knees and ankles.
The centers were still full of milky marrow, which we would suck clean.
“This is medicine.” John told me. “You will be strong again soon, little brother.”
And somewhere during the course of the night, I remember everyone switching
from Swahili to something else, their voices rising above the sound of the water,
perhaps rising in spite of the water. A language with a different musicality –different
sounds. I remember feeling full, and warm, and pleasantly bewildered at the
conversation I no longer understood.
“Pardon us, my son,” Mama momentarily switched back to Swahili for my
sake, “We are speaking in our mother tongue.”
“What is it?” I asked.
“Chagga,” she paused for a moment, said a string of phrases as if to
demonstrate, and laughed. The sound of more of the riverbank being obliterated rose
above the night noises, and she spoke a long string of words to John and Francis, who
periodically responded with quick wisps of the same.
She paused, and turned to me again. “We are far from Kilimanjaro, but we use
this language to be close to it again. It helps us remember who we are.”
A distant roar rattled the turbulent night as a brick wall crumbled into the
“They say,” Mama continued, “that the ice will be gone from our mountain
before my sons are old men. Maybe one day, the language will be all we have left.”
A moth finally comes to rest on the wall, and the white house gecko that I have
been watching pounces. The moth escapes easily, leaving my friend the gecko to lick its
eyes in befuddlement. I switch off the light, tuck the edges of my mosquito net under
my bed, and toss myself down upon my pillow for the night.
As it happened, I was to get better and return to university. The river was to
recede, sparing the little house on the riverbank for at least another season. The baby
next door continued to teethe and the chickens continued to fret.
On Kilimanjaro, the glaciers are still melting.
Meanwhile, Mama and Francis and John are still using Chagga, and by doing so, a
sort of tremulous, precarious equilibrium has been restored: to the cosmos of the little
house on the riverbank; to the cosmos of the mountain – of the world. Student of
languages, I would like to say that I understand this, but I will not sleep again tonight,
because I do not.
I am a gecko dancing across the ceiling after moths – licking his eyes in