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Choosing to Stay

This guest post was authored by Helen Clear Kaunga

I am not a Traveller. I tried to be one but I stayed. I guess that makes me a Stayer.

It doesn’t sound so romantic does it? Not something I would put in my Tinder profile (if I had one).

The first time I came to Mwanza, Tanzania (the place I now call home), I was 23. It was all deliciously romantic; the warm Earth beneath my feet, the ruby sunsets, the mighty, cleansing rainstorms, the giant, creamy avocados, the soft hum of crickets at night. I was also giddy and stupid, in the early throes of love with my (now) husband, so everything had an extra sparkle.

I felt the need to absorb Mwanza, to know it down to its bones. I wanted to mix myself with it and see what new self I could create. Bury into that new piece of Earth, curl up like a little embryo and see what grew. So you get my point- I really wanted to live in Tanzania.

For a couple of years I to-and-froed between the UK and Tanzania. When I wasn’t in Tanzania, I was dreaming about it. Bongo Flava and Taraab (Tanzanian music genres) warmed up many a grim, winter commute through London. I worked temp jobs in restaurants, offices and daycare centres to fund my all-consuming dream of returning to the land where the sky seemed bigger (and the grass, greener.) Whether I was polishing wine glasses, staring at some dreary spreadsheet or calming a toddler in a tantrum, memories of Tanzania lifted my spirits.

I wouldn’t say I manifested my life now, rather I kicked and screamed until the universe gave me what I wanted. I now work remotely, writing and teaching English online, and I’m officially a resident of Tanzania (because my husband is Tanzanian).

So, seven years later, do I feel I have sufficiently absorbed this spectacular corner of the Earth? Plot twist- some days, I feel totally saturated. Life in Mwanza is like a bruise that feels nice to press; it can be so frustrating but also exquisitely messy and human.

For example, people here are not bound by time but rather by each other. If someone says they are coming, it can mean now, later, or never. This sort of works when everyone subscribes to time as a loose concept (if everyone is late are they actually on time?), but throw a timely English sister into the mix and chaos reigns (for the English sister who’s naively traipsed into town to meet someone who’s still eating lunch one hour away). But there’s also something so forgiving about this liberal notion of time. Rain? Headache? Period cramps? I can cancel plans guilt-free.

People in Mwanza seem to be more comfortable with noise in a way that I can only aspire to. I mean- they’re neutral about ‘HALLELUJAH’ being wailed through a god-awful sound system by an impassioned preacher for 3 hours on any given morning. Once, my neighbours, with whom I share a compound, held a 3 day funeral for a family member. I watched with dread as they assembled two monstrous speakers outside my bedroom window. Queue three days and nights of (literally) non-stop music whilst I slowly spiralled into madness. In my husband’s words: ‘people here want to feel the music down to their bones.’

Sometimes I feel irritated by the very same things that made me fall in love with Mwanza. Whilst I used to revel in a joyful back and forth with a stranger on the street (it’s very normal here to engage with strangers), these days I find myself wishing I had a shell to retreat into to avoid such exchanges. I know- what a moody b*tch.

What’s more, I used to go to the market and marvel at the glorious array of fruits sold by lovely Mamas. Nowadays, in the market I find myself fixated on the water from sources unknown, which seeps into my sandals and between my toes, that I’ve dubbed ‘market juice.’

But whenever I consider leaving, I think of what I’d miss- the golden grasslands of the Serengeti, peppery mouthfuls of ubuyu (pink, powdery candy made from Baobab tree seeds), the all-encompassing neighbourly spirit, the dizzying, inky night sky pinpricked with stars, the sweetness of spoken Swahili, every word ending with a soft vowel.

Travellers are a very forgiving species. It’s easy to shrug off the annoying nuances of a city or country when you’re leaving anyway. For all its quirks, I’m still in love Mwanza. It’s a deep, slow-burning, gentle-glow kind of love. It’s home.

Maybe I’ll stay a little longer…

You can find out more about Helen’s life in Tanzania on Instagram

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