At the age of 31, the Peace Corps lured me in with their soul-taunting mantra “Life is Calling.” Before I joined, I was comfortably numb with my lifestyle. I volunteered at an after-school tutoring center, helped with various writing projects at local schools, and tended bar full-time to support my fledgling teaching habit.
The Peace Corps sent me to Tanzania and I couldn’t have been happier.
After nine weeks of extensive in-country language and cultural training, my classmates and I were sent to live in different villages throughout Tanzania. I said goodbye to my gracious Tanzanian family who let me live and learn with them near the coastal town of Muheza.
Still naïve, a tad idealistic, and quite culturally dumb, I set out for Matui, a waterless village in the center of Tanzania. Western culture and ideologies were only pondered and fantasized in Matui.
Dazed and confused, frustrations and challenges ruled my first few months as a volunteer. A mullet full of unkempt hair grew quickly on my head and the relentless sun scorched my skin. Dry heat sucked the moisture out of my body and my bowels began a revolution. I struggled to learn and understand the language and the depth of this amazing culture. I worked with teachers, nurses, village leaders, and neighbors. We shared countless cultural differences each day. I began to feel a bit like Dorothy in the Wizard of OZ. I’m not a quitter. However, if I had a pair of shiny, red ruby slippers I would’ve been tempted to click my heels together.
Thankfully, it wasn’t long before I met Neema. Neema became my Tanzanian work counterpart and self-proclaimed “babysitter of the skinny white guy.” She stood 5’4″ from the ground. Thickly rolled cornrows were knitted to her scalp with precision. A raspy voice complemented her ever-present bursting smile. She had skin as black as a moonless night and her laughter could light up the village. Most likely in her early fifties, her plump and healthy frame was fueled with warm Safari beer and a high-spirited personality. Working as a home-based nurse practitioner she was fairly well respected.
Neema also owned a bar that catered mostly to a group of her friends. It was a small, two-room bar made with sunbaked bricks, and had a sheet of tin for a roof. All the warm beer was kept in the backroom along with a small twin bed. The front room consisted of 7 or 8 plastic lawn chairs and a wooden coffee table in the center. A curtain separated the two rooms. Mice turds and bottle caps were swept off the dirt floor each morning.
Despite the physical differences, it was like any other bar in the world. People came to relax, revel, and banter. I spent a lot of time at that bar my first few months. My Swahili being at a kindergarten level meant I spoke with a lot of nouns and used my hands to fill in the blanks. Our common bonds were that we all enjoyed listening to one another and laughing together.
One night a group of us were sitting at the bar drinking warm beer and a vile liquor called Konyagi. If you can imagine a nasty brand of vodka and a gin of the same description having a one-night stand, Konyagi would be their loveless child. The lazy, 20-something-year-old policeman, his eyes bloodshot and his officer cap half-cocked on his head was sitting next to me choking down more cigarettes than beer. Neema’s two 19 year-old house girls were sitting close together in one corner talking to each other as if they were inseparable twins. A couple of random regulars always good for a few garbled peanut gallery comments sat quietly by the door. Neema being the host/bartender entertained us with her lively conversations.
All of us became warmly buzzed and our conversation turned to the topic of sex. Cigarette smoke mingled in the air, and the bar stank of konyagi and loose morals. Being a new health volunteer, I decided to use this as an opportunity to talk about the importance of wrapping the train before it enters the tunnel (if you catch my metaphorical drift). Using my newly acquired arsenal of facts, stats, and scare tactics about the dangers of unprotected sex with multiple partners, I began a rant that would have made Dennis Miller proud. There were a few slight head nods and mild concurrences, but soon the conversation went as flat as our beers.
I returned to the bar the next afternoon and found Neema talking to a Maasai man and an attractive girl who looked to be in her early twenties. We started the lengthy greeting process, which is the custom in Tanzania. Then the Massai man stood up.
He was dressed in the traditional Maasai fashion wearing multiple brightly colored kangas (sheet-like cloths). One shoulder was exposed, and a long-sheathed machete was tucked underneath a thick, brown belt tied around his waist. He had a quick inexpressive conversation with the girl and then she got up from her chair. He looked at me and used the tell-all gesture of inserting one straightened index finger through the curled forefinger of the opposite hand. He then escorted the girl to the back room.
I threw Neema a wide-eyed look of surprise. Smiling back at me, she nodded her head and said through her bursting smile, “It’s O.K., they’re going to use a condom!”
I heard a belt buckle loosen as I bolted out of the bar. Behind me I could hear Neema pleading for me to come back and drink beer. I was having none of it though. I was too busy laughing and clicking my heels together to no avail.
Keith Quatraro (Tanzania 2009-2011) was a recipient of the National Peace Corps Association Scholarship in 2014 and attended SIT in Brattleboro, VT. He earned his MA in International Education in 2016. Keith now lives in Boise, ID with his wife and two children. In his free time, he strives to be a better husband, father, outdoorsman, and storyteller.