Fury and Shame
Email message a Portland, Oregon. Peace Corps volunteer in Tanzania since September, 02.
I'm sitting on a bus on the way to Dar es Salaam ("haven of peace"). Several Peace Corps friends and I are taking a trip to relax at the beach, and we're upbeat. The bus is nice, with just a couple of broken seats and rattle-y windows, and now they're going to show a film. Maybe it'll be "Eight-Legged Freaks," the classic I've seen three times on Tanzanian buses. No, it looks like an actual Hollywood movie, with real actors: "Savior" is the title that appears on the screen. We absent-mindedly watch as we continue to chat and enjoy the scenery. It looks like a pleasant movie, with smiling white people. Why are they showing this movie on the bus? Almost all the American movies shown here are violent.
Then there's some kind of explosion in the movie. Ahh, this is more like what I'm used to seeing. After all, most people on the bus don't speak English well enough to follow dialogue closely--action movies are easier.
A little later, my attention turns once again to the screen as I hear the familiar sound of Muslims praying. Dar es Salaam and most big Tanzanian cities have mosques that sound the call to prayer over speakers five times a day. It's beautiful and, to me, still exotic: a man's voice singing in Arabic, "allah akbar..." I watch the movie as the men reverently prostrate themselves on a carpet. Like the Tanzanians watching, I don't know what the movie's about, but this is something familiar.
Then a white man enters and begins to shoot the Muslim men, one by one, in the back as they pray and then try to flee. The audience is shocked. My Peace Corps friends and I begin to feel uneasy with the movie. We are the only whites on the bus, and this is starting to hit close to home, close to the issues the whole world is concerned about these days. A man turns to Gwen and asks in Swahili, "is this real? Is this how it really is?" "No!" she assures him, mortified.
A young Arab woman, dressed a black robe and scarf, moves from the front of the bus to the back.
The movie continues, and presently there is a scene in the home of a middle-aged Muslim woman. She's terrified because white soldiers with rifles in hand are entering her bedroom, where she sits on the bed frantically praying. A baby is crying. The bus riders watch tensely. But the men appear to be friendly to the woman; they look at her kindly and don't appear interested in harming her. They're looking for someone else, a man I guess. I'm relieved. With a grin, one soldier slowly turns towards the woman and kneels on her bed, and my stomach turns. Suddenly, he raises his knife and brings it down on her, stabbing at her viciously as she screams. He has cut off her finger, still with a smile.
The whole bus cries out, especially we Americans. The Tanzanians are stoic, although some are laughing--they're used to seeing violence in American movies. But we are appalled. My hand's at my mouth and I'm crying. "Make them turn it off!" I say. We had talked about requesting a different movie; this was the last straw. Pamela jumps up and talks with the conductor, saying we don't like the movie. Easygoing, he obliges and stops it. We applaud, a pathetic little protest in the middle rows.
The bus riders are quite amused with us. Our protesting the movie is even more interesting than the movie was. I hope the Muslim woman saw.
I don't care what the movie's really about, or if the main character has some catharsis later. All I know is, the difference between that movie and the news these days is hard to see, and I am humiliated to think that the Tanzanians watching might not understand the difference.
Today I saw the pictures released from Iraq, of prisoner abuse by American soldiers. I looked at them just before my computer time ran out; then I stood up to pay. I was shaking, unable to smile at the playful Tanzanian running the Internet cafe. Usually, news doesn't affect me as much as it should--I'm sort of numbed and desensitized to hearing about the latest bombings, the latest terrorist attacks and suicides, the latest mistakes. But this piece of news for some reason hit me like an earthquake rising up from my stomach; it woke up my feelings again.
I haven't felt so ashamed to be American since a year ago, when we began to attack Iraq. Walking down the street, I feel alien and.unwelcomeable, like I don't even have the right to be here, like if the people I'm passing knew the news that I know, they wouldn't want me here. I almost want them to despise my Americanness and me.
I go to pick up my backpack, and the man who fixed it comes out of his shop to meet me. He's a young Tanzanian man with sores on his hands; he hands the pack to me on his way somewhere else.
"Thank you very much," I say, "how much?"
"Just leave it," he says, "don't worry about it."
"No, how much? Maybe 200 shillings?" I say.
He smiles and agrees, shrugging.
His kindness only makes my shame deeper. I pull the change out of my purse and give it to him. He goes along on his way and I go on mine.
A mixed Arab and Black man passes close to me and our eyes meet. I'm filled with pain.
"Salama," he murmurs.
"Salama," I reply.
The news of the day fills me with fury and it fills me with shame. Shame, shame, shame on us.
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