On a train ride from Mpanda to Tabora, Central Tanzania, I was grateful for my gender. Without it I wouldn’t have joined these boisterous ladies (800 words).
Sweya peels her green-skinned orange and shares it, a wedge for each of us—Celine, Lucille, Jennifer, Jennifer’s son and the foreigner. At the next stop I disembark, seeking a snack to share. A girl sells me square Swahili donuts out of a plastic bucket, shy of a dime each. But only two of my cabin mates accept the mandazi. I feel I could have done better, but I’m not sure how.
It was a needed and wanted journey. We needed to move ourselves east faster than we could ride our bicycles. But what we wanted was to ride the train. We loaded our bicycles, and then Evan and I were separated by gender. We came together to eat. We would part again, and I’d continue coming together over food with the ladies in the ladies cabin. They confused me and I them.
Because I’ve learned that my appearance befuddles outsiders. My clothes are plain and they don’t cling like those of Tanzanian women, in spite of their bulges or perhaps to celebrate them. With no ill intentions Celine invades my privacy, opening a jug lid while I try to nap. Quietly they look at the bunches of spinach, tomatoes. Ordinary food, for those that can’t afford meat, chips, soda, candy, biscuits, tickets for the sleeping class. I tell them my phone is worth a million of their currency when they ask. That’s a lot here. They urge me not to lose it. The phone is actually worth more.
I trust them but also carry my valuables whenever I leave the cabin. Or, I’m in denial.
Lucille offers me strawberry Barack Obama chewing gum from her purse. It tastes mediocre but the novelty stays.
It’s the late afternoon and the women work together to fill the cabin with sweet potatoes. A man is holding the bucket up to the window while the train trundles forward. For this, we will get yelled at by a military man on board. Celine scoops in the tubers, her considerable heft pressed against the glass. On their way down to the floor some get caught in the metal sink and Lucille washes those ones. The effort seems futile because they all form a pile, becoming footrests for bare feet with polished toes. Even I can recognize that the sweet potatoes are a bargain by Tanzanian standards. For a bucket, a USD. Everyone is satisfied.
Evan makes us guacamole for dinner, hunched over the chopping board in the communal bottom bunk. We lay it thick on chapati and hoard it all for ourselves. No one told us that dinner could be found later, set up along the tracks in the dark. We didn’t think to ask, either.
To lay in my bunk I have to move Celine’s Grand Malt malted beverage, very cold, in a can, down to a spot beside the sink. In doing so I interrupt the constant chatter. The talk is as comfortable as the silences in between, but they’ve all just met. It’s dinner time as I try to fall asleep. Jennifer looks up and offers me a share of her rice and meat in a plastic bag. It’s ten and the fluorescent lights are flickering close to my head.
A while back I read something about East Africans being brief in their goodbyes. We arrived at two in the morning, making our exit from the cabin all the more curt. Jennifer had saved her plastic soda bottle and had her young son piss into it. Then there’s only Sweya and me left. She’s found a wider plastic cup to suit her anatomy, squats down over it, and makes like the boy. Her big blue dress hides the sight so I just listen. I want to congratulate her and laugh at her in equal measure; there are two toilets at the end of our carriage. Then she’s gone.