Thursday – Masasi

masasiI am in my hotel room in Masasi. We have some blessed quiet time this afternoon – over three hours. We spent the first hour of it sitting around the hotel lobby reading through their scant collection of tourist magazines and waiting somewhat impatiently for our lunch… but lunch, when it materialized, was very nicely prepared and plated, so all is forgiven and we still have two hours to rest or meet our own needs. In Newala I would have walked up the main road, past the cathedral, to explore the town center and market a bit, but here I don’t feel sure enough of the environment to do so. Instead I’ve put on my headphones and some music – the first time since the plane, somehow! – and I’m trying to catch up on my notes a bit.

Leaving Newala was hard. I made a list in my notebook of precious people, to try to keep names and faces in my mind and heart. But those are only the people we came to know, a little; and it was everyone, really, so many kind faces. Welcome for strangers and tolerance for our failures when we misspoke or did the wrong thing or didn’t meet expectations.  Our time in Newala and the churches surrounding it was, truly, sweet. This morning I walked as far as the cathedral grounds and back, taking some final photos. One of the fellowship group ladies recognized me as I was taking a photo of the cathedral sign, greeted me and introduced herself (finally coming up with the word “fellowship”, which was enough!). I tried to explain – safari leo, Masasi, sad face! – and she wished me safari njema. So kind. Such smiles. Back at the restaurant hotel, I held my cup of hot coffee (kahawa wa maziwa) close to my heart, as if its warmth could ease that ache. Even now my eyes prickle and my throat clenches when I think about Newala, the people, the place.

A happy memory from last night. I had said my goodbyes but was stuck waiting on the dark porch of the building where the nuns host large dinners. Violet was there, and another younger woman, and two of the nuns – one nun and one novice, I think – standing and chatting in the dark, while others of our party inside continued their farewell conversations. Suddenly I remembered that I had another pack of glow sticks in my bag. I pulled them out and opened the packet, laying them on a windowsill. I activated a couple and made them into bracelets with the joiners that were in the packet, and started handing them out to the other four women. They were tickled and delighted. Violet’s friend stacked her arm with glowing bracelets; one nun waved hers in the air and giggled like a child; the other experimented with hanging hers on her crucifix to illuminate Jesus. Such fun.

Somehow, this morning, we managed to get all our luggage in or on the St. Michael’s Prado once more. Three bags went on top this time, secured with long rubber strips cut, I think, from the inner tubes of old tyres. Inside: more luggage, a painted statue of Jesus, a beautiful carved Last Supper from the local ebony (my neighbor at dinner last night said it’s called pingo, and is especially found in the Makonde region) which I believe Bishop Steven is carrying on his lap, bags of sculptures and cashews, a large basket, two turtle shells we cannot figure out what to do with (we are pretty sure we aren’t allowed to take them into the U.S.), and six full-grown human beings. Plus a container of freshly-roasted peanuts, still warm, from the sisters – a little taste of love from Newala.

The drive from Newala to Masasi isn’t long, perhaps an hour and a half – down, down, down off the plateau, into a hotter and flatter landscape. As we drive down, we see many women walking up, with huge bundles of grass balanced on their heads. They use it for thatching and bedding, and households seem to keep several bundles on hand. Apparently they gather it in the lowlands, and morning is preferable so that it’s not too hot yet for the long walk uphill.

We stop at two churches on the way. The first is Christ the King, with its lovely i-shaped windows and a chalked crucifix near the front door. We greet the priest briefly, but he’s unwell, waiting outside the local clinic, so we don’t trouble him to let us in. We also stop at the Church of the African Martyrs, a striking structure – maybe the first village church we’ve seen that’s not a simple rectangular shape. The walls are painted blue and perforated by spaces between the bricks. It’s hard to see inside, the spaces are small. Outside we make the acquaintance of a very large red locust. We also use the choo at a nearby homestead – the priest’s house, I believe – and take the opportunity to nose around a little and take some photos. These homesteads are so simple but so well-ordered. This one has a small rectangular building, brick or cinderblock or wattle-and-daub, tin roof or thatch; a small building out back that houses the kitchen (a hearth made up of three large stones, several stools, a large bag of grain, a huge pot of something); a choo (the more enclosed place to relieve oneself, the more open place to wash); a chicken house and a pig house; a work table, a laundry line, and so on, all in a tidy, well-swept yard surrounded by a high stick fence for privacy.

We drive on. There’s more interesting geology here, north of the Newala-Masasi road: big dark granite rock formations. They remind me of the monanocks I’ve seen in New Hampshire and parts of the south; I suspect they may be the same – ancient volcanic cores left behind when the rest of the mountain, softer stone, weathered away over hundreds of millennia. I look forward to researching the geology of Tanzania – it’s quite something.

Thoughts on Masasi so far… goodness, it is a different world. The town so different from Newala: big and bustling, three banks to Newala’s one, countless guest houses along the five-minute drive from our hotel to the cathedral. Masasi is a crossroads, on the way to many other places, so it’s busy (and perhaps a little unsafe) in the way of places where everyone is from someplace else. Everyone knew everyone in Newala, and that made things feel safe, even for a stranger. Not so here, I think. I’m not saying it’s unsafe, just not sweet and sleepy like Newala.  As I’m leaving the bank, having gotten a little cash at the ATM (! couldn’t do that in Newala), a young man in dusty white cutoffs and sunglasses addresses me, tells me something energetic in Swahili about the mountains, insists on fist-bumping with me twice. I am puzzled rather than alarmed, but Bishop Oscar is concerned enough to get out of the car. He says to me softly, Be careful. He never had to tell us that in Newala.

Bishop Oscar says many people leave Newala to come to Masasi. Some run guesthouses, others find work in various ways. A bigger town, more opportunity – the same old story.

Masasi Cathedral and Newala Cathedral are just as different. I am glad we saw things in this order – Newala first, than Masasi – so that Newala didn’t strike us as inadequate. Masasi’s cathedral grounds are practically opulent, by Tanzanian standards. +Oscar says they get a lot of money from their companion diocese. Of course, this diocese is also a hundred years older than Newala, so it’s had a good deal more time to develop its assets. We drive uphill towards the cathedral, which nestles in up against one of the big rock peaks that surround the city. +Oscar tells us that the diocese owns the whole hillside; the people living in the many houses there have to pay rent. On the cathedral grounds proper: a large, elegant meeting hall, which they rent out for weddings and such; an Internet cafe (!! – we immediately latch onto that as an idea for Newala); a Mother’s Union house, a bookshop, a guesthouse, homes for the priest in charge and bishop, lots of office and outbuildings. Most of the buildings are freshly-painted and in good repair. They’re also well-endowed with cars and trucks. The cathedral itself is HUGE. We can’t see the inside now – maybe later. The building is over a hundred years old, but in great repair. It all makes Newala look small and shabby, poor and under-equipped, and I suddenly understand Bishop Oscar’s big books of strategic plans/dreams much better. This is what all that could look like, come to fruition. It should be inspiring to see what can be, and I suppose it is. But I think we all have a somewhat negative reaction, truly. All this stuff, all this comparative wealth, doesn’t make Masasi a nicer place than Newala. We are very loyal, very quickly. We miss Newala, and wouldn’t trade it in for Masasi, Internet cafe or no.

Over lunch here at the hotel we talked a bit about the history of the diocesan split, and how little the Diocese of Newala had at its birth in 2009. Everything I learn about Bishop Oscar deepens my esteem for him. It was deeply courageous to work for this diocese to be formed, and to take it on as its bishop, knowing he was beginning with almost literally nothing. It is courageous and compassionate to continue his work and his struggle for the people and the tiny, brave, faithful churches of Newala Diocese, and to seek out allies like us, in our “diocisi rafiki”, to join him in that work. It is even more courageous, heart-stoppingly so, to extend his struggle into the arena of politics and economics, standing up to the principalities and powers that would rob this region of its mineral wealth and leave them with nothing but the environmental consequences. He is a good man right town to the ground. God bless him and his ministry, amina, amina.

He’s also got a wonderful, understated sense of humor. An example: Last night at the dinner, we were presented with gifts from the cathedral: a big pile of shoebox-sized boxes, wrapped in shiny paper. My friend Yusuf, the youth chairman, was MCing the evening. He called Bishop Steven up first and presented the box. He opened it and said, “Oh, cashews!” and showed us all that the box contained two bags of local cashews. Yusuf called up David, who also opened the box and said, “Cashews!” Then he called me up, and then Paula, and Oswald, and we all received our boxes, not opening them – they were clearly all cashews and it would have been embarrassing to seem like we were hoping for something else. Finally there was one box left, and Yusuf  called +Oscar up to receive it, saying some proud words about their bishop, which got applause. +Oscar accepted his box, opened it, held it up, and said, “Cashews!” The room broke up. He’s a hoot.

Musing on the rhythm of days near the equator: Our inner clocks, tuned to the Northern hemisphere, tell us that when it is warm and sunny, the days should be long. But days are the same length year-round here: twelve hours of light, twelve hours of dark. It gets light between six and seven in the morning, and dark between six and seven at night. The activities of the day are skewed forward – shops and stalls and schools open early, and most things close as dusk falls. Things don’t shut down entirely – people will still sit out, eat, drink, talk and laugh – but electricity is not widely or reliably available enough to continue life after dark as we do in America. As long as I spent in Uganda, it still surprises me a bit when the dusk starts to fall so early.

Tonight some more visiting and exploration around Masasi. Tomorrow: back to Dar….

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