Tanzania: part vi

Shelui - Singida - Dar

monday, 3rd september

We arrive early to sweep the floor, re-scrub the windows, fill the fiction shelves. Jacob blows up the balloons Emilie and I bought back in Singida, and students help us set up chairs on the sand outside. People begin to arrive, dressed in the clothes we normally see only in the town, and only on Sundays. Emilie and I change into our long skirts and READ shirts, and the outfit feels incomplete until Linden is looped over my shoulder.

We are meant to start at midday, and most people have arrived by 1. District officers and regional officers and local chiefs all introduce themselves to us while we try to make political decisions about who gets to cut the ribbon and who gets to unlock the door and who might sit where. At the last minute we realise we are missing Stephen, one of our library prefects, and when he eventually returns we realise why he ran off: the school has bought three crates of sodas for everybody. Stephen wheels them in his mother's wooden wagon, grinning from ear to ear; a boy bearing precious cargo. We put them in the shade inside, lock the door again, and I snap a photo before we start.

Jacob penned a speech in kiswahili this morning, with the help of the Big Man and his children back at the guest house, and it receives a charitable applause led by the District Education Officer, a large man wearing an impressive Hawaiian shirt. He cuts the ribbon, the headmaster unlocks the door, and we all step inside.

There are speeches in kiswahili from various important people which I try to gather the jist of, but mostly just nod sagely to. Towards the end, though, the headmaster points out one of the posters nailed to the wall. "Libraries are not made, they grow," he says.

The library prefects step up one by one and we pin their librarian badges on. Christina grins at me from ear to ear, before she swallows her expression in front of the elders.

At the end of the speeches sodas are handed out, and everyone cheers each other with their cokes and fantas before browsing the shelves.

As we leave the teachers wave from the courtyard. I steal the moment in my camera, our blue and white maktaba in the background -

- and then turn and steal another, where the other three are walking ahead. Together the pictures make an end and a beginning.

A celebratory chipsi mayaai for lunch, and then we are back in a daladala, already thinking about Salmini School and the work which lies ahead.

tuesday, 4th september

The library opening is tomorrow, but Emilie isn't feeling well. I feel bad for not writing my journal for a couple of days but we are just too busy, and there will be time in the evening. There is a small amount of painting to finish, and books to shelve once the fundis arrive in the afternoon. Lindsey is back in town to help us. Emilie calls from the private clinic in town: she has malaria.

Joseph helps us shelve books, alphabetically, and texts all his friends to remind them about tomorrow. Mohammed finally gets to draw his giraffe on the wall.

There is so much left to do in the morning.

wednesday 5th september

I am super-ill during the night. In the morning Lindsey and the boys head off to the school to do the ceremony while I call the medical insurance people back in the UK, and then take their advice and go down to the hospital. It is a horrible experience. My malaria test comes back negative. "You have high white blood cell count," the doctor tells me, with my fever peaking 104, "You need rest, come back tomorrow."

friday 7th september

I am back in Dar, after an awful journey. I am still sick, and most worryingly I can't keep my anti-malarials down any more either. I haven't eaten since Monday. Lindsey takes me to a hospital, where I go through the long bureaucratic process again (although at least this time it is in a language I understand.) After almost five hours I'm told I have dysentery, and leave with antibiotics and exceptionally foul-tasting rehydration sachets. Back at the YMCA, I take a celebratory photograph on my bed.

I spend the next couple of days under my mosquito net, reading novels cover to cover and thinking about the photographs I'm not taking. Once, when Lindsey is away, I hear angry chanting from somewhere below, and when I venture out the cleaning staff explain there is "a riot" going on in the street. Under my mosquito net again I hear a noise I recognise but can't place, that puts the hairs on the back of my neck up; when I look across my balcony there is a man lying on the roof next door with a machine gun, loading and unloading the clip. I close the door, stay under my mosquito net, and when I can't stand it any longer I take Linden and her longest lens out onto the balcony and take cover behind a screen, and shoot for myself.

The protest quietens, and the man with the gun on the roof is gone when I go outside again to watch my last Tanzania sunset. Gutted is an apt expression for how I feel. There was so much left for me to do which I didn't get done; small things like buying presents for people back home, or even being at the library opening at Salmini School, and huge things like being able to say goodbye to the children there, and finishing my film project. Along with my tripod, accidentally abandoned under a table in Salmini, I have also left the last piece of my visual jigsaw in Singida. There are photographs missing from the album I'm about to take home. Befores without Afters. Threads of photographs, left hanging.

I spend a long time on the balcony, looking through Linden's memory cards until it gets dark. The skyline flickers on and the lights outshine the southern stars, so I go indoors again and pack my rucksack and lock Linden away and put her memory cards in the heels of my boots ready for the journey home. In the morning I board a plane. A long time later, on a laptop screen in a coffee shop in a small town, I open Photoshop and a folder labelled 'Tanzania', and the photographs reveal themselves for the first time.

*

It's like this. A friend and I met in a similar coffee shop, months before, just after he'd had a disposable camera I gave him developed. I flicked through the pack, heavy in my hand, jumping across continents with each flick of my wrist. There were two pictures of two roads, one from Malawi - bright gold, specked with dust - and one from our city that afternoon, smudged grey and blue and filled with the underside of umbrellas. It was as though they had been taken in conversation with each other. I put them on the table, one above and one below, and said something without much significance, and my friend said, "How do you do that?"

Do what? was my first reaction. But I guess he meant, How do you look at pictures? I hadn't taken the photographs he showed me, I hadn't organised them beforehand or shot them with one another in mind. They had just presented themselves to me in an order which made sense. Because this is the thing: sometimes images speak to one another without consulting you first.

When I opened my photographs in that coffee shop back home I started to match them up with one another. Some of them, mostly from Shelui, fell into the ideas I'd pre-planned for them. But instead of finding great holes in my image-cache, where photographs had fallen through, or been forgotten, or left out thanks to my illness, I found others had taken their place. They created new sets which presented new ideas, matched moments with one another in ways I hadn't realised when I was living them. Of course there were photographs which were lost forever, like those from the Salmini opening ceremony, or adventures I might have had in Dar during my last few days. But the gap they left in my visual diary was smaller than I expected, and less profound. More importantly, I realised all those loose threads which I had worried over on a balcony in Dar had somehow tied themselves up on their own. Like me, they had written their own endings.

Things I learnt in Tanzania, for photography and life:

  • Trust your instincts: they are always right
  • Be wildhearted but not reckless
  • When you are scared, pick up a camera
  • Watch and listen, then talk and act
  • The best photographs are taken outside of the moment
  • Know the right moment before you wait for it
  • Don't worry about being able to adapt: by the time you are worrying you already have
  • Always. Drink. Clean. Water.

part i part ii | part iii | part iv | part v