Jane Bryce continues the story of her return recently to Tanzania, where she spent much of her childhood. The first part was in the last issue of TA. She is writing about her return to Moshi.
I’ve walked a long way now, but something is growing in me. I’m certain I’m getting close, that this is the edge of the neighbourhood where I grew up, and if I just keep going, I’ll inevitably get there. I strike off onto a bush path – like any African, I’ll always look for a short cut when the main road is getting long-winded. I’m weaving through the backs of colonial era houses, solid and well built, surrounded by gardens. These are the kind of houses my friends lived in, the houses I visited with my mother, the gardens I played in. I am in suspense, waiting for that particular corner, that special landmark, which will tell me I’ve come home. Then I’m walking down a wide, well paved road with old trees on either side. I know this road. It’s called Kilimanjaro Road, and runs west to east, with the mountain on the left hand side still hidden by cloud, and the Police Training School grounds where we used to see groups of Chinese sitting in a circle when the communists were courting President Nyerere. My road, the road with my house on, branches off this one. It used to be called Rombo Avenue. I know exactly where I am. In another few minutes, I will be there.
But something makes me want to delay the moment, and I turn off and walk past well-remembered houses, until I arrive at St Margaret’s Church, at the other end of the road from our house. I passed this church every day of my life in Tanzania. I worshipped here with my mother, I was confirmed here by the archbishop of East Africa, my little sister was christened here, and when my father left government service and was no longer entitled to a house, we spent a few months in the nearby church bungalow where Sunday School was held. I remember every tree, the atmosphere of the churchyard, and though the church is locked, I can picture the inside. I regret not having remembered it was Sunday, because I could have attended service this morning. Even though I no longer call myself a Christian, I feel the need of a ritual, some kind of formal blessing.
Instead, I start to walk up the avenue of jacarandas which in the rainy season dropped their petals on the road so that you walked on a purple carpet. These trees, presumably (I think now) planted by the Germans when they ruled Tanganyika before the First World War, are old and their branches meet in a canopy overhead, so that sunlight is filtered in shifting patterns on the tarmac. They are the same trees. Part of my dream, but real, and they’ve been waiting here – it seems to me – quietly growing, since I left. The house is on the corner, and now I have my first shock. Around the garden, there used to be a hedge with yellow bell-shaped flowers which we would wear on our fingertips like witches’ talons. And a furrow all along the hedge on the outside, which ran with water in the rains, and which we would have to jump across. And a guava tree with silver bark, guarding the gap in the hedge.
The house is surrounded by an ugly concrete wall, so high that all I can see is the roof (but the same grey tiles). All along the wall is jagged glass, and round the front, a thick metal gate. I try climbing up on the bank to peer over, but I can’t see anything. I am nonplussed. The wall tells me that the house is now on the defensive, no longer open to the road, but separate and standoffish. I take a deep breath. I haven’t come this far to be kept out by a wall, and I ring the bell on the gate. And wait.
A young woman comes to the gate, opens it, leads me to the verandah and asks me to wait. It is the very same verandah, the one where the guinea pig cage used to be, where my parents sat in the evenings and drank gin or beer with friends, where I whiled away time with visitors as I got older. Only a second, and the door opens, and I’m invited inside. I have to summon all the will power I possess to cross that threshold. If memory is one of the defining attributes of human beings, what happens when you lose it? The sense of risk is overwhelming; I hold the past in my hands as I enter the room.
A man is sitting in front of a large television, eating. He looks at me calmly, as if a white stranger stepping through the door on a Sunday afternoon were the most ordinary thing in the world, and tells me ‘karibu’. He asks me to sit down. We exchange pleasant greetings for a few minutes, but he doesn’t ask me what I want. So I tell him, I used to live in this house. Oh, he responds enthusiastically, then you must have lunch with me. You see, you’ve met me eating, please join me.
And so I find myself, eating ugali and stew in my parents’ old living room, with the new owner of my childhood home. His name is Victor, and he bought the house a year or two previously. He likes it, it has a lot of space, he says. He looks at home, sitting there, comfortable, content. We talk about the old days, and it turns out his father, like mine, was a forester, but in Arusha, not Moshi. Victor himself is the chief engineer of roads for the Kilimanjaro Region. Three little girls come into the room. They show me their school books, and it turns out the youngest goes to the same kindergarten, two streets away, that I attended before Primary School. I ask to see their room, and they lead me through the house to my parents’ old bedroom, where there are now four little beds, then through the kitchen and into the garden – sadly bare and brown and missing some of the big old trees. The carefully watered grass and the lovingly nurtured rose beds, the terraces and shrubs are gone; instead there’s a shamba at the back growing maize and bananas. Victor tells me he found the garden like this, but he wants to remake it. He has plans, he sees how the garden might enclose the house in green again.
It’s late in the afternoon by the time I can bear to drag myself away. All this time, no-one makes me feel I’m intruding, or that they have better things to do, but I still have walking to do, and I say good-bye. As I walk away, a great burden lifts off me, and I realise what’s happened to me is a healing. I dreaded losing what was most precious, and instead, I’ve gained something I could never have imagined. I’ve met the inhabitants of my old home, and they’re a family like we were, they love it as we did, the little girls will have the same happy memories of growing up there. The past is not only intact, but the present is just as good, just as interesting.
In a daze, I reach the end of the road, and as I emerge from another canopy of trees, I see the mountain. The two peaks, snow-capped Kibo, and rocky Mawenzi, have come out, and sit shining in the evening sunlight. I don’t recognise the feeling I have at this moment. It’s only later I’m able to name it. It’s joy.