Safari Lager and Swahili Hip-Hop
Nonfiction by Richard Prins
Sajo was the first student I befriended when I studied at the University of Dar es Salaam. I took a liking to him as soon as he told me he was a musician, poet and playwright. He was also a committed lush (in 2007, I was just a beginner) who staggered about the university cafeteria all day long, shooting pool and bumming beers. As a friend of Sajo’s, I was welcomed with open arms at the Chronic Table, a notorious corner of the cafeteria where a rowdy cadre of male students guzzled beer all day long. They christened me Jesus for my scraggly beard and ass-length hair, and graffitied that nickname beside all their own nicknames on our hallowed plastic picnic table. I hadn’t made any friends at college back home in New York, since I was cocky, socially anxious, living off-campus and mostly hanging with my circle of misfits and dropouts on the Lower East Side. Those beery afternoons at the Chronic Table were the closest I ever came to being a frat bro, and God help me, I relished every moment.
One of the Chronic Table regulars was putting himself through school selling marijuana he grew on his family’s farm near the Kenyan border. “In high school,” he recounted, “after I saw Sajo in the music videos, I tried to grow a beard so I could look just like him.”
It turned out Sajo wasn’t bullshitting about being a musician; he had been a member of Daz Nundaz, one of the most popular Swahili hip-hop crews of the early 2000s. They were among the first Tanzanian pop acts to inflect their songs with a melismatic style of singing taught in Muslim schools, as well as the lively polyrhythms of the Zaramo tribe.
Daz Nundaz had hit it big, but there was little money to be made in the Swahili music industry. Sajo decided to get a degree instead. He’s still broke, but he just handed in his master’s thesis in Community and Economic Development. I’m a year out of my own master’s program, which qualified me to do absolutely nothing, and nothing is exactly what I’ve been doing with myself. So I came back to Tanzania. My excuse was helping to produce the second annual Swahili Hip-Hop Summit. Now it’s over.
In two months I’ll fly home to Brooklyn, to the woman I still love and who still lives in my apartment even though we broke up several times and aren’t entirely clear on whether we’re broken up right now. Needless to say, I’m drinking even more than usual.
Sajo couldn’t make it to the Swahili Hip-Hop Summit; his thesis was due. “You wouldn’t have liked it anyway,” I shrug. “No beer in the venue.” “None at all?” he drops his jaw in mock disbelief. “So what did you do?” “I waited till it was over and then came to see you.”
It took me two hours and three busses to get to Sajo’s neighborhood. Kinyerezi is a new suburb where Dar es Salaam’s burgeoning middle class is building homes faster than the government can pave the roads that get you there. While I was stuck in traffic, Sajo called to say his youngest sister was cooking lunch for us. He also mentioned she’s very beautiful. I asked her age, just to see what he was getting at.
“Fuck you, man,” he replied in English, then switched back to Swahili. “That’s my sister you’re talking about. And you already have a wife.”
Sajo knows we aren’t married, but it would be disrespectful to use any word other than “wife” in Swahili. Mpenzi? Dhemu? Those all sound cheap describing a woman I’ve loved and lived with for almost three years. I haven’t told Sajo we technically broke up. He’d ask me why, and there’s no good explanation why we made each other miserable except to say we’re fucking defective human beings who should be shipped back to the factory and repaired.
After lunching on ugali and cassava leaves, we walk to the nearest unshaded pub and down some beers. I say I’m running low on cash, a preemptive measure I often leverage against Sajo’s talent for stretching a couple drinks into a dozen. So he phones Tuma, a former knight of the Chronic Table who lives on this edge of town.
“Jesus, you got fat!” Tuma laughs when he sees me for the first time in six years. Back home in New York, none of my friends believe me when I say I’m cultivating a beer belly. Here in Tanzania, it’s the first thing anyone notices.
“So did you!” I rib him back. I don’t actually remember Tuma, but he has cash and a car. He drives us to Segerea, a scruffy neighborhood hosting the city’s largest prison. Dokta Pub is celebrating its opening day with a DJ, emcee, and dance contest for the local children. Dozens of denizens are huddled on a hillock across the road. They don’t have money to drink, but they can still enjoy the spectacle. We take a seat at the bar and Tuma orders a round. We’re just in time to see the winning performance. A ten-year-old boy is missing most of the buttons on his dusty blue shirt. He transforms into a barefoot young Michael Jackson, enacting angular and electric sinuosities. His dangling hand becomes the cunning puppeteer of his skinny legs. Everybody cheers, women ululate, and drinkers queue for the honor of stuffing bills in his little breast pocket. The emcee asks if anyone can escort the prodigy home, so he won’t get mugged; an aunt jogs down from the hill, gripping her purple khanga loose around her waist. She takes his hand and leads him away.
I notice a fly swirling in my glass of beer. Its sudsy wings flap ineffectually. I pluck it out with my forefinger and toss it to the ground with a mirthless smirk.
“You see what Jesus just did?” Sajo grabs at Tuma’s elbow, snatching his attention away from a light-skinned woman with a Koolaid-red weave. I can’t tell if what I did was strange and foreign, as a fly in a glass of beer is strange and foreign, or else so local that it’s strange, as a fly drowning in a glass of beer might feel strangely at home. I know Sajo approves when he describes my gesture to Tuma and asks, “Isn’t that so Swahili?”
“They call me Six,” a short fellow slaps my hand. He has a coltish grin and long front teeth that make him look like a rabbit. He shows me an excrescent nub of flesh jutting like a dead twin out of his pinky knuckle. Now I know why they call him Six.
“I had one of those,” Sajo displays a livid bump beside his own pinky. “They cut it off.”
Six pulls a dance move and I pull one back. He slaps me five and asks what I enjoy most in life.
“You know,” I roll my eyes and shoulders in their sockets, searching for an answer. “Travel, art, music.”
“What about fucking?” he leaps away from me, snapping his fingers and laughing so hard he starts to cough.
“That’s a necessity,” I assure him, after tossing my head back and echoing his laughter. “Like food and water.”
The lady with the red weave throws her arms around my neck, and we shimmy to the floor. She snaps back to her feet just before my knees cry for mercy, clapping her hands and sparing me an inelegant stumble. She swivels around and spools her butt into my thighs. My eager hips welcome her motions. A wiry teenager in tight jeans and a backwards baseball cap is pointing his iPad at me, filming everything. I want to laugh because I’m naive enough to think the iPad is even more conspicuously out-of-place than I am.
“Even Jesus is dancing!” the emcee announces, while the DJ pumps the music louder. “What’s your name?” I shout at my new friend.
She cups her hands over her glossy pink lips and trills her name into my ears, “Aisha!”
“Aisha, Aisha, ecoute moi!” I start to sing a Moroccan song the live bands sometimes cover here but shut myself up because I’m tone deaf and don’t know any French.
“Come see me in Tabata! I have a grocery there!”
A “grocery,” in local parlance, isn’t a place where you buy vegetables; it’s a no-frills spot where you sit in the road, drink cheap beer, and get bitten by mosquitos. I promise I’ll visit her, but don’t ask for directions.
We dance. We drink. Tuma’s grandfather shows up, looking implausibly youthful. He shows off his moves, gyrating on a chair, humping the floor. The emcee calls Jesus to the mic, shooing all the remaining children as they do backflips in the dirt and ask each other if I’m really Jesus. He makes me bless the pub and all its patrons. Then he lets slip that Sajo is in the house tonight. He summons my friend to the mic and makes him sing old Daz Nundaz lyrics. The children surprise me by singing along, even though that first single “Kamanda” must be at least a decade old.
The sun is setting, and I’m on fire. Music glides through me, liquid as the Safari Lager I’m swilling. The bottles keep arriving, first from Tuma, then another from his dancy gramps, then one from Dokta Pub himself – he’s a studious-looking guy, probably about my age, wiping sweat off his designer glasses as he admires the turnout and calculates all the shillings that will soon be his. The bottles are lined up, waiting for me, so I drink faster, the music gets faster, and I can feel the beauty swirl as it becomes a lost memory.
“That was bullshit,” Sajo fumes when the emcee lets him go. He wants to move somewhere else, somewhere they’ll respect his master’s degree more than his faded celebrity. Tuma drives us to Tabata, where he drops Aisha and his grandpa at her grocery; we park ourselves at a more vibrant bar nearby. I switch from Safari Lager to a Kenyan beer, Tusker. It’s lighter, and the night is mounting me too fast. Sajo spots Mchizi Moxie, a member of Wateule, one of the reigning Swahili hip-hop crews dating back to the late 90s. Unlike Sajo, Moxie pursued a successful solo career. He greets us like he’s on stage, yelling his words with a fierce and smoky rasp. He’s wearing a rainbow-striped wifebeater and black glasses with oversized frames. Three waitresses tug his arms, jockeying to take his order. After Sajo introduces me, I discover Moxie performed at the first Swahili Hip-Hop Summit last year, when I was stuck in New York. I tell him I wrote the grant and hooked them up with the main sponsor. This is a fact I want to repeat as often as possible, since it’s the only thing that convinces me I’m not an ugly drunken tourist. Moxie takes my phone number before he leaves; he’s shooting a music video next week, and he wants me in it. “We’ll make things happen, then we’ll party.” Back in New York, it’s been a couple years since I made a new friend; here in Dar, it happens every weekend. I hope I never go home.
Sajo persuades Tuma to drive us all the way to Changanyikeni, the neighborhood I live in, a quiet neighborhood tucked into the hills that spiral northwest of the University of Dar es Salaam. Our old Chronic Table compatriot Ndama just opened a pub near my house. Sajo hasn’t been there yet. We take another round of beers in Tuma’s car. Midnight swerves past us. The ride is smooth, sloppy heaven.
Ndama is so surprised to see Sajo, he runs a lap around his own bar, stamping his feet with laughter and kicking up dust. There’s a lady here who wants to speak English and show me pictures of herself on Facebook. She buys the next round, so Tuma ignores me when I beg for a ride home. I don’t understand her English, and my Swahili is a blur, because I drank all my words except for the ones that say I want to sleep. Soon I feel her tracing my sex in the back of Tuma’s car. We bounce on the jagged Changanyikeni road. My friends are chanting along to the late night blast of Swahili rap, too drunk to notice her sliding my pants down my thighs. All I wanted was sleep. Now all I want is a smothering of flesh. But when they park in front of my house, I stagger into the darkness alone, trying not to step on my roommates as they snooze in imperceptible mounds. I count steps to the door of the master bedroom they evacuated for me. Unzippering the mosquito net, my penis jolts again, freshly atingle with the surprise of being tested, fondled, tasted. I hear Tuma revving the engine outside, driving her away into more laughter. I don’t think she got my number. She told me her name, but it’s flown away. They will see the sunrise, and it will be beautiful. All the stray dogs of Changanyikeni are barking and howling at each other, a convocation they schedule nightly at about this hour. The guard dogs join in, too, and the noise ricochets down the valley until it avalanches back uphill, making it sound as if the hounds have formed a torch mob outside my screen window. I try thinking of the woman I left in Brooklyn, who is probably just finishing her shift at the cafe. She feels distant as the English language, and so do our perpetual resentments. In my mind, we’re still together and in love no matter how many times we broke up. My head is spinning itself to sleep, propelled there by the licentious loneliness that walks me through my days.
When I wake up, my newlywed neighbors are splashing each other with giggles and soapy water in the bathroom next to mine. A troupe of lithe, angular monkeys are squeaking in the road and gleaning scraps of food. Decades ago, there was also a sizable baboon population, but the university decided they were hazardous and had to be eradicated. A single baboon escaped the slaughter. I used to spot him, a tribe unto himself, struggling to join the smaller monkeys pouncing on food deliveries at the cafeteria and kiosks. Sometimes he reminded me of my own awkwardness.
Sajo has messaged me from an unknown number; he lost his phone somewhere last night (again? I text him back, you just got that phone!) and wants me to send him Tuma’s number. Tuma calls asking if I want to keep drinking—after all, it’s still the weekend.
I can’t because my forehead is shuddering and my body is withered with pain. Also, I have a meeting this afternoon. Budgetary discrepancies from the hip-hop summit. I’ll try getting some more sleep, a virtual impossibility on a Sunday morning in Dar es Salaam. The church downhill has plugged the valley with noise as the pastor fulminates with promises to vanquish all the witches and freemasons menacing Tanzania. For we will see they are allergic to the blood of Jesus! And we will know the truth, and the truth shall set us free!
Now the monkeys dance past a goat, tethered to a stake, his furry testicles drooping like tumescent utters. He moans at the monkeys, perhaps begging them to untie the rope with their nimbler hands, before his neck is slashed open and his flesh cooked over flame. I also hear the pea-seller approaching, shaking his basket and shouting his morning wares, njegere, njegere, njegere! His voice always sounds just like a braying goat’s, and I wish he would translate the pastor’s raging jeremiads into the beast’s own tongue: Be silent, goat; only truth will set you free.
I shut my eyes and tell myself I can’t be lonely, not when I have so many friends, not when the lining of my skull feels like someone spent all night thwacking it, generously, with a lead pipe.
© Richard Prins[This piece was selected by Dan Malakin. Read Richard’s interview]
Richard Prins is a New Yorker who also spends time in Lusaka and Dar es Salaam. He received his MFA degree in poetry from New York University. His work appears in publications like Gulf Coast, jubilat, Passages North, Southern Indiana Review, Transition Magazine, and has been listed as a “Notable Essay” in Best American Essays 2014.