With the beginning of this sentence, I have succumbed to admonitions from several quarters to “put my story out” now that I am a public figure. It has always felt presumptuous and vain to recount the story of my life in public. And there are a number of ways to do this: chronologically, anecdotally, and so forth. In any way that the story is told, my 36 years of living have been quite eventful, if not peripatetic.
I was born on 28 January 1974 to a young, polite and beautiful nursing course trainee and a very vibrant, loud and charming local government functionary (Katibu Tarafa): Josephine and Yusuf. Few months after my birth, my father was promoted to become a District Commissioner in Tanga. After three years, my mother went for further studies and my father went to join the military for Officer Cadet course in Tanzania Military Academy in Monduli. Me and my little brother were shipped to our village Mahezangulu, Lushoto, and later to our maternal grandmother who was living alone (my mother is a sole child and my grandma was widowed early) in a village around Kyaka – now Missenyi District – about 20 kilometres between the border of Uganda and Tanzania. After a year, Idi Amin invaded Tanzania and the Ugandan army occupied areas around our village: my grandma, my brother and I became refugees in displaced persons camp in areas further back from the border. Our mother made attempts to come get us but roads were closed around Biharamulo and people were not allowed to travel to the “war zone”. When the full war between Tanzania and Uganda broke out in 1978, my father, as an energetic new army lieutenant, was assigned to the frontlines – and therefore could not assist in getting us out of the refugees camp, until one day when he showed up in dirty uniforms soaked with rain commandeering an empty bus and got us permit to travel back to safe zone and reunite with our mother.
When the war ended, my father was moved to Dodoma to work for the (CCM) party. (My sister, Mwamvita, was born there and was named because of the remembrance of my father’s safe return from war). In our neighbourhood, my brother and I were the butt of the joke because as passenger planes flew in the skies above we would cry and ran to hid in the bushes – because of the trauma of bombardment of Ugandan warplanes. In 1981, we were moved to Monduli where in 1982 I started Standard I at Rasharasha Primary School. In primary school, I was nicknamed “January Makaptura” as my mother bought me oversized shorts so they could last a couple of years.
In 1983, my parents decided that I should move back to the village (this time without my brother) to live with my grandmother. Life in the village, in 1983, in that era of scarcity where basic necessities such as soap, sugar, salt, etc were rationed, was quite rough. Hardship that comes with village life – no running water, no electricity, etc - tests your character. It was much more difficult for me to cope because I had lived in the cities where all amenities were available. School was about seven kilometres from my grandmother’s house, and to make it by 7am, you have to be up by 5am to get prepared. Every student arrived in school in the morning with wet shoes (or wet feet, for those many who didn’t have shoes) from collecting moisture on grass covering village footpaths. As a city kid in the village, I stood out in the village – for better and for worse. I did well in school because of the good foundation but I also slid back because of the sheer enormity of tasks a village kid has to undertake. After school at about 3pm, I used to go straight to herding goats in the nearby hills overlooking River Kagera (as you start a climb towards Karagwe). Goats are interesting creatures to manage. If you condition them that they have 90 minutes to eat, they will settle and won’t run around, and in 90 minutes they will be full. If they know they have full day, you will be frustrated because you will be running with them and by the end of the day they will still not be full. There is nothing more satisfying than herding goats back home with bloated stomachs. Every evening I would feel satisfied and extremely accomplished. And, as a kid, the wonderment of being in the bush alone with goats, the bewilderment of the immensity of nature around you, with occasional terror of a glimpse of a snake, does not leave you for your entire life. Alone in the bush, a sole shepherd of the important assets of the family, you reflect, you fear and you hope – all the while you are a nine year old.
When the goats are back, my grandmother and I would go fetch water from River Kagera. The water used to be smelly and darkish kind as we fetched it not from the river itself but its adjacent wetland. When I go to the village today, and see some 7, 8 and 9 year-olds, shoeless and in ragged clothes, balancing 10 and 20 litres containers of water from the same river, I recall my life back then – and reflect on the purpose of politics.
Life in the village happened at my grandma’s place. She used to have a little village pub selling local brew (lubisi). At 6pm, me and her open shop. Most customers were men. In the village, people knew each other and many customers will drink on credit. My grandma, who died this March, was tough as steel. She would handle drunken men who are aggressive with command and authority and cow them into leaving the pub or paying up their debts. I would watch in amazement as collect the money or measure portions to customers. Village pub conversation meandered from gossiping, to politics, to the latest developments in the village, to the retelling of the good old days.
My grandmother is from a people who are steeped in etiquette: everything has elaborate rituals, most especially eating. Eating was communal where up to 8 people would sit down, and surround and share one big plate, and, as a junior, you do not pick up a piece of meat on your own. It is handed to you by seniors. And never ever will you greet someone while walking. You have to stop and offer extended greetings. The idea was to keep order, discipline and retain predictability in social conduct and relationships. So, I learnt to recall and abide to these rituals, and this provided me with a set of values that I have kept todate.
In 1985, I moved back to live with my parents in Lushoto, where I attended Kitopeni Primary School. My father was moved to Tanga city, where I completed my primary school education at Masiwani Primary School, and then he moved to Wete, Pemba, the smaller island in Zanzibar. We did not accompany our father there – instead we moved to a village called Kiomoni – 12 kilometres outside Tanga city. Commuting 24 kilometres everyday from Kiomoni to Tanga to go to school at Masiwani was hell as buses were very notorious in taking students. In most cases, you would rather walk on foot and get home at 8pm. The place was very malarial and I recall my little sister suffering from malaria almost every other week. We all suffered repeated bouts of malaria and I recall my mother moving from me to my brothers and sister all night sponging us with cold water to keep our bodies temperatures down.
Good thing Dad did not last in Pemba as we were moved to Handeni. I started my secondary education at Handeni Secondary School in 1988, the first year of its operation. It was more or less a bush school as we were the first students: literally 2 teachers, one classroom, no textbooks, no toilets, no labs, and makeshift desks. It was very rough. At the same time, the excitement that you are in secondary school – that you have somehow made it – was not diminished by these challenges. In the streets of Handeni, a typical urban centre of a very rural district, we would mumble some English words we could muster just to distinguished ourselves with – and to boast to - those who have not made it to the secondary school, back then a whopping majority (up to 80 percent) of primary school leavers.
When my father was moved (once again) to Lindi to become Regional Party Secretary, I had to move to a boarding school: So, I joined Galanos Secondary School, a more established if not reputable government school in the outskirts of the city of Tanga. I was a very good student there, almost always and effortlessly first in class. I was also very popular, outspoken and fearless. I ran for Deputy Head Prefect and won handily against a candidate favoured by the teachers (in old government boarding schools, the election of the student government body is a very serious matter). I was a very unconventional student leader as I clashed often with teachers over students’ rights, particularly poor state of food. Also, I did not quite fully use all the privileges that came of DHP position.
I was expected to do well at national secondary education exams. I chose to pursue CBA – Chemistry, Biology and Agriculture – as my “combination” for High School studies. The main reason for this choice was that it was an exclusive and a highly competitive combination. There was only one high school – Kibaha Secondary School – in the country taking only 34 students for this combination. So, I chose this because it was hard to get to high school on this. I was thrilled and moved by the challenge. So, we did our exams – and the day to go and look for the result came. And, to the shock of friends and family and teachers, my name was not there in the results sheet. I felt like collapsing. I went to another result centre thinking that there was a mistake – again, nothing. Inquiries to the reasons were not responded to immediately. Later we learnt that I was mistakenly linked to a cheating scam that one of the teachers was involved in. I was a pawn in a terrible mistake. A really long and painful story. So, what was the alternative? To resit the exams. I quickly registered as private candidate and pursued High School studies at Forest Hill High School on a tentative basis while resitting – so that when I get my results I can proceed on to Form Six. It was such a task, but I succeeded.
After high school, I trekked to Kasulu, Kigoma to look for adventure and check out in real life these images from media of massive numbers of refugees crossing into Tanzania. I ended up getting myself a job there, first as a registration clerk (basically registering refugee details in the “manifest” as they come into the country). I did this work enthusiastically as I had the opportunity to live alone and earn a salary for the first time. I was then promoted to become distribution supervisor – overseeing food and non-food items distribution. I saw people making a lot of money stealing refugees stuff and I was horrified. Of the things I am most fearful about is stealing: can you really spend stolen property with comfort? I feel like everybody in the world – who will be looking at you – will know that you are a thief. I remember very well to have brought to the camp police station 8 of my staff (including the retired army captain who was our chief of security) for unexplained loss of food items. I was naive and an idealist: there was no way there was going to be “evidence” that they stole it.
So, my hardwork was rewarded with a promotion to become Assistant Camp Manager at Mtabila II refugee camp. I founded the camp myself. I recall surveying all the corners of the camp when it was just a bush handed to us by the Ministry of Home Affairs. I recall receiving new “caseload” – and giving away the first plot.
I was young – 21, 22, 23, with a lot of authority, good salary, a car, a driver and most importantly a UHF radio handset, a real symbol of status in the refugee camp. It is at this stage that I started making friends with international people i.e expatriates. I worked very well with people at Africare, with UNHCR Field Coordinators Bushra Halepota (from Pakistan) and Alice Bellah Conteh from Sierra Leone. They all loved me. When I was leaving for college, I had a farewell party at Kasulu TTC and Alice gave me as present a gold Cartier pen (back then I did not realise its value and did not even know that “Cartier” was a luxurious brand. I was a bush boy).
In the camps, I also became very reflective and philosophical. I felt deep in my heart the suffering of these refugees. And I recalled stories told by my grandfather about my own life as a refugee (in my own country). I reflected a lot on the nature of man, nature of war, violence and peace. I also fell in love with a refugee girl (now happily married in Canada) but could not date her as my position as service provider to her, with all the resources at my disposal vis-à-vis hers, as a refugee and vulnerable got me to rethink the wisdom of us getting together. Perhaps I was wrong.
Anyway, when I decided to go to college, I thought I should do peace studies – to understand the nature of war, peace and violence; to see if I can offer assistance in making the world a much more peaceful place; to see if we can prevent people having to flee from their homes to other countries. Using the savings from my job and part scholarship, I went to college in the United States, a very prestigious one in Minnesota – St. John’s University, a catholic university, with a seminary, a monastery and many Benedictine monks as professors. But I first landed in Boston and took some preliminary/required courses/credits at a cheaper rate at Quincy College before transferring them to SJU.
Life in the United States was quite interesting. Everything was new and big. The second day I arrived, my hosts were at work and there was a ring at the door, and when I open it, two little African-American girls were there saying some things that I could not figure out. They were frustrated and left – and I felt embarrassed and figured America is going to be really tough.
Since I was in Tanzania, and watched American movies, I had longed to eat at MacDonald’s. So, at the first opportunity, I went there but ordering was an issue. So, I looked at the pictures of burgers and just pointed to the number whose burger looked delicious, but still many questions from the cashier in rapid English came toward me (after a few months, I learnt the questions entailed “for here or to go?”, “meal or combo?”, “large or medium”, “cheese and mayo?” and so on) and I felt like saying “Maswali ya nini? Wewe nipe tu hiyo burger kama ilivyo kwenye picha” or “Just give me the burger as looks in the picture!”
But America was a great place. For summers, I took on all jobs one can imagine: I delivered pizza and magazines, I worked in nursing homes caring for the elderly, I worked with people with mental disability (this was most readily available job for immigrants and foreign students), I worked as a security guard (where I had to buy that silly heavy belt with everything on it), as an office clerk, and so on. I recall in Boston, working at a house with people with mental disability, my boss was late and I was asked to get these guys to their doctor’s appointments. I had a driver’s licence but had never driven in the United States apart from the test to get the licence. I got lost for three hours. The guys I was with started losing it as time for meds came and I was on the road. I also started losing it as I hit the wrong freeway and as you know can’t drive slowly in the freeway, so I was speeding without really knowing where I was going. I was rescued by police – who escorted me back to the house. My boss was American of Greek origin. He understood and gave me another chance.
But my best job was on St. John’s University campus. I secured some 20 hours a week to work with the Benedictine monks at the monastery nursing home. This is serious stuff: working with these great men of god, who have devoted their lives to serve God – no kids, no property, no nothing – and they are placed at a house where they know, and everyone knows, that they are waiting to die. And I was a friend, a companion, caregiver and conversation partner to these men. You see the best of both worlds: strength of faith and fallibility of faith; prospect of death as inducement of fear and prospect of death as embraced opportunity for eternal rest. I attended a funeral mass for one of these men where the attendance is very small, because their work and their mark have been in missions around the world and because at that place called nursing home the banality of death can harden the heart that, when it happens, only few show up to celebrate it. In college, my favourite subject was philosophy and my mentor was Father Rene McGraw who got me to “get” Emmanuel Levinas’ “Totality and Infinity: Essays on Exteriority”. And since then, I have become a better person (I believe). I left college and took up a very competitive graduate assistanceship/internship at the Carter Center, an institute founded and led by former US President, Jimmy Carter. This took me to Sierra Leone.