The Matchbook Diaries

Chinese New Year Week February 5, 2024 Shanghai thinking of Tanzania beaches

In Tanzania the local beach was a block from our first house.  It was considered to be one of the most dangerous places in Dar.  The police once tried to pick me up from the roadside there, to protect me.  I refused to get in the van, but I did walk off the bridge.  I went down there all the time with my husband, leaving cell phones and wallets at home.  The enormous drains empty into the Indian Ocean on that beach, literally flooding it with more than a foot of raw garbage, including medical waste.  Amid the muck there is always a flock of pink flamingoes feeding.

I always went in search of used perfume bottles, which I found by the thousands, eventually constructing an entire ceiling out of more than 2000 reclaimed bottles on beaded strings.  The perfume names are great, and always in English – Royal Hummer, Mark’s Kiss, Male Bondage, and then my favourite, which is pictured on this site – Boos, in a replica of a Boss bottle of cologne.

After a year trolling that beach without getting mugged I realized why – our beloved beggar – with whom we had almost daily contact as he worked the corner that was the turnoff of one of the only paved roads in Dar into the wealthy area where we stayed – had been protecting us.  Amos, the beggar, has no hands.  He has a beautiful smile and was always impeccably dressed in an ironed shirt.  (He’s married, with children.)  When you stop at a light in Dar you are accosted by beggars – crippled people, children, people with horrifying disabilities; I never got used to it, but many people just ignore it.  But usually the begging routine is to look desperate, or to be aggressive.  Not our Amos.  He would tap your window, smile, ask you how you are doing, in English, and then move along.  He was a host, not a beggar.

Anyhow, I turned once when I was alone on that very dangerous beach below street level, (high tide had left I just had to check!) and I realized Amos had left his post on the street and was supervising me from above, signaling to the desperately poor who live in the garbage not to bother me, I was his.  I had wondered, as we were the only white people who walked that beach, and no one, in the 7 years we did it, ever bothered us.  I did not know until that day that I was being protected the whole time.  Everyone had marveled at our audacity, but it wasn’t luck, it was Amos’ blessing that protected us.

Eventually an indigent man who lived there, Yussef, got to where he would gather us the bottles ahead of time, and then put them in a little pile.  I tipped him, of course, a few US dollars for his work – which was tricky because I did not want others to see him getting money they might hurt him to steal, and of course I never normally brought money or phone so – .  Yussef was painfully thin, always alone, and had nothing to wear but a Gandhi type undergarment, but he was a devout Muslim and wore a clean worship cap.  He always, always said, “I’m Yussef.”  He needed me to know his name, that he was important, named, that he mattered.  I already knew he was important, but it always broke my heart a little that he kept repeating his name to me.  I used to say to myself, “God knows, God knows Yussef is there.  God knows every hair on Yussef’s sweet, old head.”  I miss those men.