Monday, August 3, 2015

Dear Vumi

Dear Vumi, 

TWELVE DAYS AGO, I saw you for the last time.  You didn't look very good, to be honest.  You had been sick for a while, with a cough that wouldn't go away.  It was strange.  No fever, no infection, but a cough that plagued you day and night, and sapped you of your strength.  Mwili hauna nguvu, you wrote to me twice in text messages, the body has no strength.

Before that day, it had been a while since we'd been together as my mother was visiting from the United States and we had planned on climbing the mountain.  I remember just before she came and we left for our trek, you and I went shopping in town for school supplies.  You weren't feeling well then either.  We stopped at a pharmacy for cough syrup.  Must have been late June….

But the day that would be the last time I saw you, yeah, you were looking pretty rough!  You were sick enough that you had stayed home from work for several days beforehand, which I can't recall ever happening before.  Me, however, I would call in sick to you all the time, any little thing and I would fink out.  But that was not your style.

I brought you cough drops and Advil (wewe, you became so spoiled, you know, no more Panadol for you, after having mzungu drugs!), and my mom felt your forehead.  No fever.  Just a cough.  Kikohozi kikali.  A fierce cough.

Grace was intrigued by the lozenges.  I think she thought they were candy.  Her antics made my mother laugh.  I wanted to take you to my doctor the next day so you wouldn't have to go to KCMC where we know all too well what the services are like.  But your husband said you'd started at KCMC, you'd finish there first, and then if need be, I could take you to Dr. Makupa.  Made sense, how were we to know that that would never happen? 

TEN DAYS AGO, you died.  Now, why would you go and do a thing like that?!  I wasn't expecting that to happen, you know!!  In fact, my worst fear about losing you was if you got pregnant again.  Remember how I would constantly remind you to be vigilant about  that?  No more babies until "our baby" was up and running properly.  Never would have guessed that you would leave me entirely.

You were so strong.  You were so young.  You were so determined.  You were so alive.  It's hard for me to think of you otherwise.  And I really don't want to.

When I received the news from Diwani Kiwelu, I really couldn't believe it.  I kept repeating, "Vumi wangu??" ("My Vumi??")  I think I was in shock.  I nearly wanted to laugh.  How ludicrous a thing to say, that my Vumi, Toa's Vumi, Grace's Vumi was no longer....

Impossible.  Unbelievable.  Incredible.

I was in the parking lot at the grocery store.  Do you know that when I got home, I actually prepared the meal I had intended?  How did I manage that?? 

SIX DAYS AGO, we buried you.  Oh boy.  What a sight to behold.  My dear dear Vumi.  You were loved, my friend.  You really must have been someone special to have touched all those people who trooped from the mortuary to your home in Msaranga to the family plot in Marangu.  It was really quite beautiful.  I hope you saw....

I came with my friend Rhiannon.  You met her once.  She remembers you telling me to be quiet.  I laughed at that memory.  You did tell me to be quiet an awful lot.  You told me a lot of things.  Some of which - wow - I will never forget.

I won't say that you were perfect because even though you're gone, I want to remember you as you were and that was human, flawed, and inconsistent.  But you were a pretty amazing person.  And our friendship was one of the most amazing things that has happened to me since I've been in Tanzania and indeed in my whole entire life.
I often remarked to my mzungu friends, "Isn't it incredible, two more different women you could not find, yet look at how we came together, how our lives have become inextricably bound, how we adore and torture and revere and neglect one another??"

Had I known that just twelve days ago would be the last time I would ever see you, would ever talk to you, have the chance to hug you and kiss you and tell you how much you mean to me, I wouldn't have said goodbye so carelessly, wouldn't have gone merrily along my way, chattering to my mom and heeding you no mind.  Careless Sarah.  Forgive me for that.  I never thought it was the end.

We met Mama T and the other Toa teachers at the morgue early in the morning and followed you back to Msaranga.  The casket was open, but I didn't look.  Didn't want to.  All of us cried.  Together.  Separately.  We all shed our tears for you.  Torturing each other with our sadness which was infectious but at the same time comforting each other in our misery.

Diwani Kiwelu attended as well.  So did Baba Ngowi.  They were lovely and respectful and though I have had my differences with those wazee in the past, this day was about you and we all paid our respects.  We all came to say goodbye.

Others from the village passed by as well.  That fundi we used to call "Weka Neutral," he was there!  Crazy Baraka was there too.  So many faces from over the years.  I wish you could have seen!!  Maybe you did....?

We made our way from Msaranga to Marangu.  It felt funny going back having just been there the week before, coming down off Kili.  I saw your mom there.  She was beside herself as I knew she would be.  I hadn't seen her in so long, maybe three years, but as soon as she saw me, she cried out to me.  I held her hands in mine for a long, long time.

Your sisters were there.  Ma Upendo and Ma Rhoda.  I didn't see their kids, but perhaps I would not have recognized them, so much time had passed since I had last seen your family.

Parents of some of the Toa kids made the trip.  Ma Morgan screamed out when she saw me.  She is so appreciative of what we've been doing for Morgan.  I'm going to meet her in a few days to go to physical therapy with them.  I want to be sure that the processes we've started don't stop suddenly because of this - I know you would do the same if it was me.

Jeremiah Sunday sat with us in the church.  His little hands were on my back when I sobbed for you.  Patting and comforting.  Then he moved one seat over because Yacinta needed patting and comforting too.  Such a good little boy.  I'll make sure he's okay, don't worry.  I'll go and visit him in Marangu, both him and his mama.  Promise.

I didn't even recognize Sia, she's grown so tall!  And beautiful!!  It was towards the end of the day when we caught eyes, after the church service when we were at the plot.  I was already spent, had no words left to say.  She had her head tilted the way she always does but instead of the shy smile she usually wears, her face crumpled when her eyes met mine.  I held her head in my hands.  Can't believe we taught her nursery school way back in 2009, and now she's a little lady.  Amazing.

I still have not seen Ema.  That will be tough....  I am dreading it actually.  The last time I spoke to him, I was mkali.  I wish I had been kinder....

There were lots of flowers around your grave and candles too.  I picked up the wrappers because you know I hate it when people litter!  Weka mji safi, I say, usitupe takataka barabarani!!  I was going to take something from the burial site as a totem, but I decided not to in the end.  I think instead, I'll make a yearly pilgrimage to come and see you.  Probably with the other girls too.  Certainly Yacinta.  She is brokenhearted….

I left you there in the ground in Marangu.  I can't believe I did that.  What kind of friend leaves another cold and lonely and sad and grey?  But I really didn’t have a choice, Vumi wangu.  I have to go in this direction and you in that.  But I think of you constantly.  Vumi, Vumi, Vumi, Vumi….  I say your name aloud and....

....I miss you....

TODAY, LIFE WENT ON.  I went back to school for the first time since "winter" break and my own holiday with my mother.  I entered our classroom and greeted Yacinta and the girls.  I observed Elinami teaching and Dorin as well.  Clara was in the nursery school class as I guess that teacher was absent.  Dorcas did, well, what Dorcas always does.  She's a good egg though.  They all are.  They loved you rotten, those girls did.  You were their kiongozi, their leader.

Yacinta and I started to plan for the future.  I think you would have been proud of us.  You know, neither of us is naturally strong like you.  Neither a born leader either.  We have to work hard at it.  But I am actually starting to think we'll be okay.

She's a beautiful person inside and out, Yacinta is, thank you for bringing us together.  I hope we will be able to fill your shoes, perhaps I'll be the right foot and she the left?  What do you think of that?!

Mama T smiled when she saw me.  At the funeral, I had been a blubbering mess.  She had taken me outside the church and said, "Ameshakwenda.  Sasa ukubali."  ("She's already gone.  Now you accept.")

Typical words of wisdom from the mouth of Mama T, right??  She's strong like you were.  And she makes me laugh like you did.  She retires at the end of this year, but she's gonna join Toa and keep declaring her words of wisdom.  And scaring the bejeezus out of naughty little children, I imagine....

I saw Kennedy John this afternoon in class.   He ran towards me with a big bear-hug.  I'm pretty sure you don't know what a bear is, but trust me, the hug was good and big.  He's fine now, no more shida with his health.  I asked him if he wanted to go back to KCMC though and he said yes.  Think he had more fun than he let on those days with us.  Torturing him with all manner of testing and probing. 

Mwalimu Mkuu called Yacinta and I into his office.  As usual, it was terrifying.  He really does not have an indoor voice!  He wanted to know who the new kiongozi would be when I'm not around.  I pointed to Yacinta who laughed prettily and looked down.  He barked a few words of appreciation at us and assured us that tuko pamoja (we are together), but dammit, must he be so menacing all the time??  Yaani.... 

NOW, I'm writing you this letter and as I write, I can feel my face form the crumple of a frown, the hint of a smile, the touch of a tear.  I can't believe our chapter has ended.  It was not supposed to be this way.  But, sadly, this is the way it is.  And I must accept as Mama T has said.  I don't know, Vumi, what the future holds for me, for Toa, for all our beautiful, clever, wayward children.  But this much I can attest to:

I love you, Vumi wangu, and I will never forget you for all the days that are left to me, I'll never forget who you were and what you did.  And I'll make sure no one else does either.

Your crazy mzungu friend and sister,

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