Students in the Jacobson Center’s January course “Spiritual Writing,” taught by Sam Samuels, associate director of gift planning in development, examined published essays about spirituality and authored their own essays. Hanna Meghji ’11 agreed to share her essay with Gate readers, about a moment of identity conflict she experienced in Tanzania during last year’s World Cup.
The sun shone brightly overhead, causing me to squint. Despite the abnormally large size and uncommonly dark shade of the sunglasses that I donned, my eyes were still sore and tired. Wrenching the door of the jeep open, I hopped out. We had been sitting in that sturdy but uncomfortable vehicle for four hours, traveling the endless semi-paved roads of northern Tanzania, and it felt good to be able to place my feet upon firm ground. Now that the rumble of the Land Rover’s large wheels grinding against the stones and gravel that made up the road which we had been traveling had come to a halt, I was able to revel in the endless peace and serenity, unequivocal to anything that I had ever felt.
We had stopped in front of a sign that read, “Hifadhi ya Taifa Serengeti,” which was translated in English as “Serengeti National Park: A World Heritage Site.” The sky was a deep blue and the clouds were lazy—small, seemingly motionless, and scattered. The plains of the Serengeti were infinite. No matter which direction I turned, all I could see were miles and miles of savannah—blades of grass that crouched close to the ground and flat-topped trees which had been shaved neatly by the wind. The trees that I could see were no taller than eight or nine feet and presented themselves sparingly. A layer of dust covered everything. From the tips of my shoes and the bottom quarter of my jeans to the exterior of the jeep, it hung in the air, which was thick with heat and silence.
These abysmal plains were overwhelming. They were powerful and strong—survivors amidst the rest of the chaos that made up Tanzania’s political and national identity. Tanzania was the model country, the baby, if you will, for aid organizations around the world. The government fully cooperated with foreign aid agencies, and, because of this relationship, local Tanzanians had mixed feelings about the wazungu that had become a part of the country’s landscape. Wazungu literally translates to “white people,” but I had come to learn that Tanzanians used this word to describe all foreigners. Although I explained to them that I was far from a mzungu, they laughed and disregarded my pleas. Was I a mzungu? I didn’t think so.
Thousands of years ago, my family lived in Kutch and Gujarat, two provinces in northern India. They were merchants, and so, following the Silk Road to the heart of the spice trade, they wound up in Zanzibar, an island off the coast of Tanzania. For the next five or six generations, we flourished there, building our plantation empires from the ground up. Africans, during this era, were employed as house servants, slaves, or plantation workers and were seen as inferior to the wealthier Asians or Arabs. The African population on the island, however, was roughly 230,000, whereas the Arab and South Asian populations were closer to 50,000 and 20,000, respectively. Over the years, the frustrations of the locals began to snowball, and in December 1963 the revolution began, followed shortly by the coup of the Arab Sultan Jamshid bin Abdullah in January 1964.
My mother’s entire family fled Zanzibar during the revolution, some finding refuge in Karachi, Pakistan, and others in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. My father’s family was living in Pemba, an island north of Zanzibar, where rioting and violence were less prevalent. I was raised with a love for the country. It was not a love that was taught or force-fed but rather something I developed without anyone realizing that it was there. I was raised speaking Kiswahili and Kutchi, both languages of my forefathers, and at home we ate foods that originated in India and Tanzania. Along with these tangibles, I grew up hearing the reminiscent stories of Unguja and this feeling of nostalgia which kicked in whenever the island was mentioned despite the fact that I had never been there.
These were the feelings that pulled me to spend six weeks working in the country. Unfortunately, I was not met with the open arms that I was hoping for. The Kiswahili that I grew up speaking was nothing like the complicated, flawless Kiswahili that the locals spoke, and no matter how hard I tried, to them I would always be a mzungu—a white person, a foreigner. That title didn’t bother me so much when I was in larger cities such as Dar or even Moshi, but here, as I stood on the plains of the Serengeti and surveyed the bounties that had been bestowed upon a country which I considered my own, it bothered me.
I could see the other safari cars in the distance leaving trails of dust behind them as they bounced along the rocky roads. Those cars were filled with wazungu, expatriates here to tour and ogle. Those were the people who expected Africans to serve them without question. Not I. Then, why did they see me that way?
“Thank God for the World Cup,” I thought to myself.
It was only when we discussed football together that the locals felt as though I was one of their own. According to all the drivers, those wazungu couldn’t be bothered with football, especially the Americans. They just did not understand its richness or significance. The drivers also thought that because Americans drowned themselves in fast-paced games like basketball or rowdy, heavy-contact games like American football—which really was a spinoff of England’s rugby—they did not value the skill and resilience that players required to play football and so did not value the game.
“An hour and a half later,” I remembered a fellow Smithie crying once, “and the score is what? Still 1-0?! That’s nonsense!”
But it wasn’t about the score. It was about the attempts, the defensive prowess that turned certain goals into almost-goals, and the footwork that allowed for a team to maintain possession as they delicately and purposefully danced their way across the field.
During this year’s cup, things felt different. In the preliminary round of the tournament, countries are classified into one of eight groups. Having lost to Paraguay and tied with New Zealand, the Italians had underperformed, not earning enough points to continue. France met the same fate. England had been playing poorly, tying with both the United States and with Algeria. Germany had lost to the Serbs, and Brazil had tied with Portugal.
Lost in this world of football, I walked back toward the jeep.
“You are smiling,” Hashim, my driver, noticed. “You must be thinking about tonight.”
I laughed. He always knew.
“But who will you cheer for?” he asked me. “Have you decided?”
I shook my head, causing him to laugh at me again.
“You see? It is true when they call you mzungu.”
I smiled at his teasing. Tonight was the biggest match for all African countries. Of the six African teams that had qualified to compete in the World Cup, Algeria, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, South Africa, and Cameroon had all been eliminated in the group stage. Ghana was the only one that had made it through, and in this next match they faced the United States. The American team was not only littered with more seasoned players, but it had the morale and mental strength to win. Yet, despite their younger and less-qualified lineup, Ghana had become a beacon of hope for Africans worldwide. Tribes, races, and countries united in their support of the Ghanaians all over the continent. They had become Africa’s token team: The Black Stars. With the World Cup being held in South Africa that summer, “continent pride” had superseded both “national pride” and “league pride,” and, for many Africans, its intensity was increasing daily.
This unity and pride that backed the Ghanaians was also the primary cause of my moral quandary. Was I Tanzanian enough to choose Ghana and Africa over the United States, a country that had been my home for almost 15 years? Both options came with an element of betrayal. The only question was: which betrayal could I live with and which could I not?
The Game Is On
We had arrived at the Serengeti late in the afternoon, as the drive from Manyara had taken up almost the whole day. Hashim and I decided to pull into the hotel to catch the second half of Uruguay versus North Korea, the first post-group-stage game of the Cup. I rushed into the hotel, picked up my keys and asked where the television was. Instead of making my way to my room to wash away the dust and grime that had collected upon my skin, I made my way into the administration building. I could see the restaurant where they would begin serving dinner in two hours on the first floor. Above this dining area was a small bar, a row of three computers, and a comfortable lounge with a small television.
The hotel’s walls were the color of ivory, smooth and curved. The ceilings were high and majestic. Because they were located within the borders of the national park, the hotel owners were unable to put up a fence around their property. If I wanted to walk to and from my room after 6 p.m., I needed to ask one of the staff members to accompany me because there was nothing keeping the thousands of animals to which the Serengeti was home away from the hotel. It was a fantastic scene.
As evening set in, the game came to a close with Uruguay winning the match 2-1. I asked a staff member to accompany me to my hotel room. The hotel was like a large living organism. The administration building was the nucleus, a large central structure, and surrounding it were fifteen cottages, each with four suites split between two floors.
The water was hot and vicious. I hadn’t felt so clean in ages. The askari who had accompanied me home now walked back to the dining area with me. I took in the delicious smells of both traditional African food and a general all-health-conditions-friendly buffet of fries and pasta. Candles were the only source of light in the dining area, creating a dim, romantic, and peaceful environment. I ate quickly, anticipating the showdown that would ensue later. Almost all of the guests were Americans. I knew that every local in the hotel was cheering for Ghana; hell, the entire continent was! I could not wait. It was not long before the actions of those in the hotel mirrored those of the American and Ghanaian football players.
As they assembled into their respective locker rooms, we, the inhabitants of the Serena Hotel in the Serengeti, hurriedly forced the last morsels of our dinners into our mouths. The Tanzanian natives—brown-skinned, laid back, hospitable people dressed in khaki uniforms with gold nametags attached to their left breast pockets—began to murmur as the countdown for the kickoff drew nearer. The white tourists let their sunglasses hang around their necks as they swarmed into the lounge excitedly, leaving no couch, countertop, or inch of wooden floorboard bare. The African workers stood behind their guests, maintaining a respectful distance but also eager to watch the game, laughing and chattering excitedly amongst themselves.
It was a pleasant yet strange scene: two populations coming from entirely different backgrounds crowding around one television that sat atop a table in a small bar in the most luxurious hotel in Tanzania. As the undertone of Canadian artist Knaan’s song “Waving Flag”—Coca Cola’s token theme for all commercials during the World Cup—faded, the excitement and chatter in the hotel came to a standstill. In the distance, you could hear the wind blowing. A cheetah yawned preparing for another cool winter night on the savannah, and a herd of wildebeest lowered their shaggy necks and curved horns to the earth, taking shelter amidst the long blades of grass.
It was in this silence that I first noticed it. With the fragrance of garlic potatoes still lingering upon my tongue, I surveyed the room. Everyone had bowed their heads. Some had closed their eyes. Others whispered to themselves fervently. Two worlds—the East and the West, the wealthy foreigners, and the obliging locals—had united in silence, united in prayer. What was it about sports and the preservation of honor and legacy through friendly but intense competition that urges us to call upon our spiritual senses? How is it that two entirely opposing factions can share one prayer and hope prior to facing off with one another? And, yet, there they were: a white-skinned man held his white-skinned wife’s hand, clutching her fingers tightly as he sat in a red sofa directly in front of the African bartender, named Welcome, who had clasped his two hands together in front of his lips, praying silently.
I even found myself calling to God, though I was not sure whom I was praying for. I wanted Ghana to win. They were the underdogs, and they needed to show the world that this continent had more than just poverty and STDs and civil war. This was a landmass exploding with skill, prowess, and perfection. And there was a part of me—a large part of me—that was an American, a part of me that thought, “Hey, if the U.S. makes it to the quarter-finals, maybe, just maybe, that is what it will take to spark some interest around international football in the States.” The game was beginning, and I still had not sorted out my allegiances.
And the kick is…
Hungarian referee Viktor Kassai gave the football to the Ghanaians, and The Black Stars took off with force. Within the first five minutes, Kevin Prince Boateng danced his way through the American midfielders, the first line of defense. Facing three American defenders, he entered the boundaries of the penalty box alone and unsupported. With a gentle and deft flick of his left foot, he launched the football delicately into the back of the goal…and, before I could stop to think, my arms were above my head in triumph. I yelled and howled with the workers who were standing next to me as the Western tourists gaped at the television, floored by the fact that this little team from West Africa had just scored a goal only five minutes into the match.
An American tourist whom I had stood behind at dinner caught my eye and my body was wrought with guilt. I was an American citizen. I should be mourning that goal.
The excited voice of the commentator signifying an almost-goal for the U.S. jolted me out of my internal crisis, and I turned my focus to the game. The minutes drew on, sprinkled with sighing and howling from both sides of the tiny lounge. Knaan’s beats returned signifying halftime, and the Americans turned to the Africans to order their favorite pastimes—beer, ginger ale, and cigarettes. I decided to step outside and snag some fresh air. Perhaps it would clear my head.
As I made my way down the staircase, I bumped into Welcome, who was coming upstairs with a new crate of Kilimanjaros, the most popular beer in Tanzania.
“Dada!” he called out to me—Kiswahili for “sister.” I was taken aback by the familiarity of his address. “Dada! Today, we will show those wazungu that they cannot walk over us as they have in the past.”
He grinned toothily. I was speechless. Was I in? After all this traveling around Tanzania searching for acceptance and belonging, had they begun to see me as one of their own? How could it be that a simple gesture such as the involuntary raising of my arms during a football match be the sole determinant of my loyalties and identity? I contemplated this as I stood along the balcony and enjoyed the light breeze rustling across the savannah. It was completely dark out there. But it was in this darkness that I felt comfortable with my conflicting desires.
Cheers erupted from inside the building, and I made my way upstairs, nodding at Welcome. He grinned again.
In the second half, the United States team was a tyrant—merciless and ready for vengeance. This was the team that we had been expecting. Their first half had been full of mistakes—holes in their formation allowing for Ghanaian penetration and carelessness with the ball causing an inability to maintain possession. It seemed that they had learned their lesson.
After much stalemate, the Americans caught a break 25 minutes before the game ended. Clint Dempsey, one of the American team’s power forwards, was racing toward the goal only to be knocked over by John Mensah, who slid into Dempsey in an effort to regain possession. As both players were already inside the box, Mensah conceded a penalty kick, which star striker Landon Donovan calmly launched into the right corner of the net, past the giant Ghanaian goalie Richard Kingson.
It was the 62nd minute, the game was tied, and the Americans were playing the football that they had been known to play. As the tourists cheered and the Tanzanians began to frown, I felt my heart skip a beat. I loved Donovan. Humble in his interviews and flawless in his technique, the man was a beast—an attractive beast, one that I admired.
I glanced over to Welcome again, who was distraught and worried, and realized that my heart had chosen: Ghana. The next 28 minutes were agonizing. Every single person in the room was at the edge of his seat. Some were standing because it allowed them to feel less helpless. With every attempt from the United States, I frowned and whispered a note to God. “You will help them win. They deserve to win. They need to win. This continent needs a victory, and you will be the one to deliver it.”
A Memorable Finish
As the match came to a close, the score was still tied at 1-1 and fans and players alike were exhausted. The referee declared two minutes of additional time to recover time lost during the match. The players got ready for the last two minutes of the game before having to go into overtime. The hotel was eerily silent.
Altidore to Dempsey, Dempsey to Bocanegra, Bocanegra advances into midfield, Bocanegra to Clark, Clark to Donovan, Donovan races forward…and intercepted by Ghana! Mensah to Mensah, Mensah to Asamoah, Asamoah to Ayew, Ayew spins a long ball with this left foot into the dangerous path of Gyan, and…
My hands lifted to my mouth. Everyone in the room leaned forward. The ball bounced twice upon Gyan’s chest. He steadied himself as it fell to the ground. Running, he faced Tim Howard, the American goalkeeper. Worry was eating at all of us. With one quick fluid motion, his left foot made contact with the ball. It rocketed over Howard’s fingertips and into the back right corner of the net—just as the referee called time.
They had done it.
Cheers erupted from the long line of employees who stood in the back, and I found my eyes watering with overwhelming pride, joy, and relief. What a match.
I realized a lot that day—a lot about myself, about my spirit, and about God. I know that everyone does not claim to believe in God, but there is something about epic events, times when one leaves his fate up to a higher power. We allow destiny to be placed outside the realms of our control. We place it, instead, into the hands of 11 men—11 men and something greater. Some call this power God. Others call it karma. And then there are those who call for it to remain nameless and unknown.
Whatever it may be, that night on the 26th of June 2010, 56 people in the Serengeti held their breaths, sighed, and howled as, for 92 minutes, they left the fates of the Ghanaian and American national football teams to the heavens. It just so happens that this time God worked in my favor. Perhaps he pitied the identity crisis that I was experiencing in light of this game.
Perhaps next time I won’t be so lucky.