Nonfiction: Already Yesterday by Richard Prins

From L to R: Mwendo, Teacher, and the author in Mbezi, Dar es Salaam

White expats like to say there are three types of us in Africa: missionaries, mercenaries, and misfits. I was, obviously, the misfit. The white man walking towards me one Wednesday afternoon on the crooked, unpaved road called Sabasaba Street had feral eyes and the word “Propaganda” printed on his sweaty t-shirt. He didn’t look much like a missionary. I was used to mzungu-sightings at touristy haunts like the woodcarvers’ market or the Mlimani City shopping mall. But Sabasaba was in the middle of Mwenge, the neighborhood I loved most in Tanzania. Mwenge was home to haughty professionals, hip-hop aficionados, drunks and hustlers, university students, and scrappy artists. I spent several months weaving myself into its social fabric, even earning myself a nickname. They called me Jesus because I had long hair and the right-looking beard.

The other mzungu—he had five inches on me, and he was built sturdy—introduced himself in English: “Didn’t I see you at the Internet cafe, speaking fluent Swahili?” He was Max, from Germany. He’d lived in New York’s East Village, where I killed most of my free time as a teenager. After some conversation, Max said, “Come watch the Bayern Munich match with me. Tonight at Meeda.” He turned his hands to pistols and winked. “First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin.”

The Leonard Cohen quote had me laughing. I agreed to meet him and continued to my friend Zena’s house. I found half a dozen gossipers of both sexes distracting themselves, hoping she might send her house girl on a beer run. In Swahili, I asked them what they knew about this new mzungu

He was a wild mzungu, everyone swore, last seen with prostitutes hanging off his limbs at Meeda’s VIP Lounge. Rumor had it he was now shacked up with Priska.

“Priska? Who’s Priska?” I asked.

“You know Priska!” they cried in unison, reminding me that several weeks ago, Priska approached me at Meeda. I didn’t know her desire for a mzungu boyfriend was legendary in the neighborhood, and that she sometimes supported her nightowl lifestyle by latching onto tipsy white men like myself. At the time, Pendo, a friend’s girlfriend, was intent on setting me up with her friend, Bibuka, a single mother and non-drinking Muslim unlikely to take too much advantage of a naive mzungu. I enjoyed all the attention I received from Tanzanian women in bars and glitzy discos. But I hated knowing their interest was because of my white skin.

“You never bought a girl a drink in New York?” asked my friend, Teacher, the on-and-off boyfriend to the matchmaking Pendo. “They won’t go home with you unless they like you.”

I started dating Bibuka, who enjoyed being seen with me, going to bed with me, writing me love letters, and sometimes letting me pay for household expenses. When Priska danced up on me at Meeda, Pendo—a fierce lush who wore too much make-up and relished a bar brawl—promptly smacked Priska in the face. She did Bibuka and me a favor, yet I was curious about this Priska.

***

Meeda was an open-air bar just a stone’s throw from my room, where young and old alike gathered to guzzle beer, gorge on roasted meat and soup, plot assignations, or just fall asleep drooling in their seats to wake with their phones missing. I spent so much time at Meeda that I had taken to calling it “my office.” That night, I went to Meeda with Teacher and his mentee, Mwendo. Teacher grew up a precocious student who earned a scholarship to college in Iowa. He dropped out to become a vegan squatter in New York, then a crack-cocaine addict in the Twin Cities. I met Teacher one drunken morning at Meeda. The wise, alcoholic, idealistic, small-time pusher quickly became my best friend in Tanzania. After Fidel Castro’s resignation, Teacher retired from selling marijuana.

“Fidel gave up being president,” he had explained. “I can give up selling dope.”

Mwendo, Teacher’s more business-minded protégé, inherited most of his customers. Mwendo always kept a bag of pre-rolled joints inside the cuff of his jeans. It caused his foot to drag, but he made that limp one phrase of an almost balletic swagger.

The three of us missed the Bayern Munich match because we didn’t arrive until well after midnight. The bouncer comped us into the VIP Lounge; Teacher used to sell him weed and Mwendo currently sold him weed. Friends in high places. The music was loud and bouncy, and the air-conditioning palliative. I bought a round of beer even though the lounge was empty. Almost empty. A petite woman with denim short-shorts and compact afro spotted me. She sprung to her feet, dancing and taunting me with her lively hips. I danced after her from corner to strobe-lit corner, dipping and dropping so low that my knees screamed for mercy as I tried to keep up. She was fierce, relentless. She was Priska.

“Where’s your other mzungu?” Mwendo teased her.

“Out getting drunk.” Priska’s voice was sultry with lamentation. “And he took my fucking keys.”

For a woman locked out of her house, she struck me as unreasonably exuberant. Maybe she trusted the night would provide other places to sleep.

“Pendo’s with her sisters tonight,” Teacher told me in English, even though we almost never spoke English together. “Priska could sleep with us, couldn’t she?”

“Of course!” I spread my arms hospitably.

Priska’s sidelong glance reminded me that I had a girlfriend. “Bibuka’s my friend.”

I realized what Teacher’s proposal meant. I was appalled. But I could think of worse ways to spend a Wednesday night. All eyes on me.

Bibuka would find out. I bought a new round. We danced again. Then Priska tossed back her last swig of beer. She shook the bottle with a show of disappointment and, I shrugged. This was the VIP Lounge. Beers cost nearly two dollars, twice the normal price in Dar. Abruptly saying that she remembered a friend she could stay with, Priska waved goodbye. I arched my eyebrows as I waved back, hoping I looked mysterious and debonair. The DJ switched from soupy Swahili love songs to old-school gangsta rap. I bought myself another beer and kept on dancing.

My friends looked restless. I wasn’t going to buy them more beer. The sun was mounting the sky. It was time to call it a night.

Right outside the VIP Lounge, Max the German slouched over the bar counter with two objects I couldn’t help but covet: a bottle of the popular, pale sugarcane liquor known as Konyagi, plus a svelte Kenyan prostitute. She wore a skimpy, cream-colored dress and held herself upright with one hand on Max’s shoulder. His jaw hung loose from inebriation. His glasses bent over his nose. A strip of electrical tape secured the two droopy frames where one of the lenses was shattered. I shouted, “Safari Lager, cold,” and slid into the seat next to him.

“I was fighting, Jesus!” Max’s bar stool wobbled beneath his heft. He threw a few bitter punches in the air. “If only I spoke Swahili like you, I could make them understand. But the punks just hit me. I would have punched them back, and whooped them too! But a mzungu throwing punches at black men? They’ll throw me in jail. This man refuses—to play my music!”

From the look on the bartender’s face, it was clear that Max had been harassing him to play his music for some time. Max said, “Why can’t I hear Miles Davis?”

His prostitute tugged on my wrist. “I love you, baby.” Her English sounded flat and dizzy.

At the moment, I was more interested in Miles Davis than meretricious love. Bitches Brew was the first album I dropped acid to. I can’t hear the bass line of “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” without recalling synesthesia.

Max clicked his tongue twice. “So stereotypical, Jesus! I have something even better. A Tribute to Jack Johnson.”

I hadn’t heard that album, though I wasn’t going to admit it. In Swahili, I asked Mwendo what bar at this hour might play an old jazz record about a black boxing champion.

Mwendo tugged his patchy beard. “Calabash. The manager’s my customer. If I tell him to play your music, he’ll play your music.”

I was always up for Calabash. I had made myself a reputation there as the party-hungry mzungu who craved the tangled guitar melodies of live Soukous music. The singer routinely announced, Jesus is dancing! whenever I approached the band, cartoonishly palpating my hips.

Hearing the translation, Max rubbed his hands together as if to ignite a spark. “Then let me fetch the goods! Come with me, Jesus, come with me!”

Leaving Teacher, Mzendo, and the prostitute and carrying our bottles, the two of us jogged across the paved road and cut into the muddy alley where Priska lived. We ducked as Max opened the door to her musty room with its slanted tin roof. It barely fit a mattress and a dresser with clothes tumbling out of its drawers. Max stored a duffel bag there, from which he extracted a leather pouch bulky with CDs.

“All this music, but no way to play it. Look at my life, Jesus!”

We trooped back to Meeda, where he ran his hands up the Kenyan woman’s slender legs. He pinched at the tendrils of her skirt, winking at me. “Majestic, isn’t she?”

The woman adjusted the curled tips of her shoulder-length weave. Quickly exchanging glances with Teacher and Mwendo, she turned her eyes on me. “I love you, baby,” she repeated. Our lips locked and our tongues swirled. We both staggered a little. She threw back her glass of Konyagi and we all stood to tramp towards Calabash, passing the bottle between us.

“You’ll pay me tomorrow!” the bartender shouted after Max, but he shouted it half-heartedly; at least now he could sleep.

Calabash Pub’s tall thatched ceiling was as bulbous as the gourd it was named for. The place was packed any night they had a live band, its humongous speakers filling the neighborhood with guitar solos and choruses of Congolese hits from the 70’s. At this hour of the morning, however, it was empty. The bartender startled at but agreed to this request to play our tunes. Max produced a few thousand shillings for a Konyagi and a single Fanta, a concoction he called Funyagi. I helped myself to a glass. John McLaughlin’s swampy guitar twanged for us. A buoyant drumbeat thumped along. I waited for Miles to kick in on the trumpet. When he did, everything was glorious. Outside, roosters were crowing in alleyways and pecking at the earth. Water splashed in washroom buckets as people revved their engines, left their homes, or jostled in the crowded daladalas that delivered them to work. Hearing strange music, strange laughter, they stared into the Calabash. As they passed, perhaps they wondered what was going on. The answer? We were fuckin’ partying. I slurped bitter orange fizz and danced with my chair. Mwendo untucked a joint and sprinkled tobacco into it for his newest client, Max. The Kenyan dropped her glass. It shattered. Teacher’s missing tooth was in full view as he cackled, spilling some liquor. “You’re a trip!” he toasted Max. “I really dig you, man!”

The German strummed a dizzy air guitar. “This is all going in my memoir. I call it, Shitting in the Fridge!

A Tribute to Jack Johnson came to its lugubrious close, with voiceover quoting Jack Johnson himself, “I’m black – they never let me forget it. I’m black, alright – I’ll never let them forget it.” Max switched to Jimi Hendrix blasting “Purple Haze.”

Then Priska stomped in. She was no longer the jaunty firecracker who had danced with me at Meeda. The tiny, furious buzzkill planted her feet in front of the drowsy Kenyan usurper and folded her arms. The woman scampered to the street. I remembered kissing her but didn’t remember learning her name. I remembered dancing with Priska, too. But she was busy screaming at Max. He spoke no Swahili and she hardly spoke English. She slapped at his face but only reached his neck. Then she pointed at the street, yelling, “Stop-Go! Stop-Go!” I assumed she meant to say: Stop acting like a damn fool and Go back to my room.

“But we’re just starting to have fun, baby,” Max waved a 5,000 shilling note at the bartender. “Stay. Have some Funyagi.”

Another bottle was coming to our rescue. At the lackadaisical pace we were sipping, it would last us a couple hours. I took a flip through Max’s music. “How about some George Clinton?”

“You don’t know a thing, Jesus!” Max cupped Priska’s bum as she plopped it resentfully in the chair the Kenyan woman evacuated. “Twenty-five years I’ve been in the music industry. I brought George Clinton to Germany, and now I want to bring him to Bagamoyo.”

Bagamoyo is a scrubby beach town just north of Dar es Salaam, formerly a hub of the Zanzibari-Arab slave trade. Its name means Throw Down Your Heart, which is what newly captured slaves were reputedly told before their departure. I told Max that Teacher and I were consulting for a local entertainment company that was trying to bring the legendary rapper Nas to perform in Dar.

“We wrote a proposal and everything.”

“A proposal, wow. For your high school science fair? Listen, Jesus. I came to Tanzania because I had to get out of Berlin, if you know what I mean,” Max pantomimed snorting a line of cocaine the length of the table. Perhaps this little binge of ours was Max’s idea of detox. “I want to make things happen here! Music is my life, and I need to get paid. I don’t want to live in Priska’s room forever.”

I invited him to our entertainment company’s next meeting, taking place that very evening.

“But Bayern Munich is playing tonight. I have to watch it at Meeda.”

“Wasn’t that yesterday?”

“Was that already yesterday? Jesus, maybe it’s time we go to bed.”

“Agreed. But first,” I lifted the bottle of Konyagi.

“Obviously! We finish what we started.”

So we drank. It was early afternoon when we walked back to our homes on bleary, bustling roads. We stopped short when we spotted Teacher’s daughter in the street, giggling at us. Her two missing baby teeth made her grin look even more like her father’s.

I bent over and swung the girl’s hands back and forth. In Swahili, I said, “Have you met my crazy mzungu friend?”

“Are you calling me crazy?” Max shot me a perplexed look; maybe the guy knew more Swahili than he let on. Eventually, Max got deported for working on a tourist visa. Priska started sleeping with a German friend of his. I hear they still live together in southern Tanzania. Teacher moved to the slums and helped build the first needle exchange and methadone clinic in sub-Saharan Africa. He became an outreach worker, but maybe he reached out too much because now he smokes heroin every day.

***

I went home to Brooklyn, to start my MFA. There were days when I wondered where I left my heart. Last time I saw Mwendo, he nicked my laptop. We don’t speak anymore. Last time I talked to Max, he was coordinating a jazz retreat in Bulgaria. If I insulted him when I called him crazy, he wouldn’t have remembered when he woke up. As for myself, no matter how hard I try, I never black out. I always remember every damn thing.

Richard Prins is a New Yorker who sometimes lives in Dar es Salaam. He received his MFA degree in poetry from New York University. His work appears in publications like Gulf Coast, jubilat, Ploughshares, Transition Magazine, Witness, and has been listed as a “Notable Essay” in Best American Essays 2014.

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