The Matchbook Diaries


Manna

God laments that it is nearly impossible for a rich person to enter heaven.  I, a rich person by any measure, live in a city of 7 million of desperately poor people.

To say life is hard for those 7,000,000 people is to understate the matter.

There is about 86% unemployment here.  The people who get work earn about 10,000TZ shillings a day ($4.50USD), but only if they work, and a day of work here is 12 hours.  There is no time off, no food given, no insurance.  You get yourself to and from the job site and you feed yourself if you can.  If you have an excellent job, the highest wages in the city, you’ll earn 300,000 (250USD) TZ shillings a month.  But those jobs are very, very rare.

Every day I watch women pre-dawn carrying children, usually multiple children in tow, and water, as they arrange open fires on the street side to prepare food to sell in open air restaurants where they squat and cook.  Men in rags dig sewage and filth from ditches.  Other men by the tens of thousands push huge hand-made wooden carts through the streets.  Those carts carry trash, or water, or goods for sale, or deliveries.  Those men are frequently barefoot and shirtless.  My part of town, the “dip quarter”, where diplomats and expats live, is the wealthiest neighborhood in the entire country and encompasses a few dozen square kilometers.  This is where the “good” garbage is.  Daily I see men digging through our filth collecting plastic bottles to sell to middle men.  By the time the sun rises many of them have been scavenging for hours, and the sacks on their backs are the size of a Santa Claus sack, literally.  Very old women in rags push brooms in the street.  At the rare stop light on the one four lane road through town you are besieged by beggars if you are stopped.

It’s so dangerous here at night that it’s best you do not leave your razor wire compound, but if you do, you certainly run every single light and stop sign if you see any, as you cannot risk stopping your car.  Any new foreign women stupid enough to walk through the dip quarter at any time of day will most certainly lose her purse instantaneously.  Many women I know personally have been assaulted at knife point or simply dragged behind a motor bike by their purse straps until they let go.  I do not carry a purse except when I am with my husband.  I do not leave my car unless I am in a guarded lot or behind the wall inside of a compound.  I do not wear my jewelry unless I am at a very private event.

The police, such as they are, are too poor to have vehicles.  They work on foot, standing beside the road flagging you down.  They collect bribes.  You rarely break a traffic law as there is very little reason to do so.  The roads are too damaged to drive quickly, and mostly you have to be exceptionally aware as there is massive pedestrian and bike and cart and bajaj (tuk-tuk) traffic.  The police mostly profile people in cars they can stop and demand a bribe.  We were stopped countless times when we moved here, but it’s been years, and I am not stopped anymore.  There are ways to deal with the police so that you do not have to be victimized by corruption much.  But at night, at night the police don’t work because it is too dangerous.  They evaporate at sundown. 

There is unpoliced mob justice day or night.  Sometimes in the mornings you’ll see a body dumped on the side of the road.  If you are caught stealing the instant punishment is to be burnt alive.  This occurs more than once a day in Dar.  One night outside the gates of our old compound I heard cries that were not the normal sort.  I knew in my heart an atrocity was occurring.  I could see a mob forming outside the razor wire from the second story window.  My husband went to ask the guards.  They slipped into the crowd, asked the group to move down the road a bit.  Our guard reported that a man had been caught stealing a flip phone.  They were burning him alive.  I’ve seen it more than once now, that preparation.  Our guard was not sympathetic to the thief.  My driver told me that if the cops come, which they don’t, but in the exceptionally rare event that they do, they do so to protect the thief.

In the middle class neighborhoods, which, to a Westerner would look like slums, there are tiny houses with water and electricity, but the “middle class” (living on about 150usd a month) have no money for paid security, so they have to hope they are not robbed.  Gangs of thieves operate in networks.  If a person with goods is away and no one is home, the gang will drive up a van and unload the entire house whilst the owner is away.  Then that person arrives to a stripped home.  The people watching the gangs robbing the house know better than to interfere.   The gangsters comprise, however, an infinitesimal fraction of the population.

Tanzanian people I know are honorable.  Of course there are scales of behavior, and no one is a saint.  But generally, if they are eating and you are not, they ask you to join them.  If you purchase an item and are not pleased with it, the maker of that item will fix, redo, or rework it until you are satisfied.  If you need help they will stop what they are doing and help you.  They tend to trust you.  They tend to expect you to trust them.

The other day I was driving an old woman home from a COVID booster we both attended.  She is the mother of my neighbor in our compound.  Grandy is British, but has lived on this continent all of her life, most of her time in Zimbabwe and Zambia but now here.  She and I, we share a gardener, Revo.  Revo works for Grandy three days a week and for us two days a week.  Grandy said that last week she bought a cabbage that was too big for her family.  She chopped it in half and gave half to Revo.  For this gift Revo placed his hand on his heart and thanked Grandy and said that she was like family to him.  Grandy said, “No one have ever told me I’m like family for giving them half a cabbage.”

You do not need to tell any Tanzanian about daily bread.  All they know is daily bread.  I do not know what they believe any more than I know what anyone believes, but I can say that Tanzanians speak often of God, not on rare occasions, but often. Westerners, on the other hand, politely veer away from that subject as they squirm, as if God were distasteful, or poor manners, or childish.  It is easier, then, to embrace the idea of God when you are so close to death all the time, so close to nothing at all.

God spends a great deal of time talking about daily bread.  Because there is only daily bread.  Wealth, education, social status allow me to pretend that I do not need God.  These things and others like them give me the delusion that I can care for myself.  I can buy bread for today.  I can (probably) also buy bread for tomorrow, and if I look into my security accounts and into my properties, none of which I earned, all of which are inherited, I can say that I can (likely) buy bread for the rest of my life.  That’s my problem.

The difference between me and other rich people is that I was raped several thousand times.  I deposited my money, when I inherited it, with my business manager, and I never looked at the account again.  I never monitored what she did, nor checked the balances.  My faith is not in those accounts.  I know exactly what it is like behind the golden curtain of wealth.  I saw my father every night on his knees, a slave to his Chivas Regal scotch and a slave to his cruel wives.  I saw my mother, the wealthy daughter of a powerful man, do things that are indescribable, not those she did to me, but other things.  My father always said, “Money isn’t everything, but it sure makes things easier.”  Yeah, that’s true.  But not the way my father meant it.

I can’t worship God and money.  It’s one or it’s the other.  Money did not save me from my mothers and stepmothers.  God did.  Money did not find me a man who loves me.  God did.  Money did not give me, a woman unable to bear children, a child, at 41.  God did.  I know exactly and forever what it means to be utterly helpless and hopeless.  God does not wish for me to be desperate and dependent.  I am not God.  I haven’t the power to change anything beyond my absurdly limited scope.  There is no bread in frozen yesterday.  There is no bread in unreal tomorrow. There is no living God yesterday and there is no living God tomorrow.  There is only a living God right now.  There is only bread right now.  Daily bread is not God rubbing our noses in our own helplessness.  Daily bread is the power of voluntary connection to and elective dependence upon God.  Daily bread means that the source of abundance (certainly, and not even primarily material) in my life is God.  Daily bread means I understand what comes first and last.  The alpha and the omega of life is not money.  My position in life is that of receiver, not provider, of privileged princess, not benevolent dictator.

I have seen, and I know personally, many, many people with enough money to be “safe” for the rest of their lives.  Those people, they worry.  They lock up.  They plan.  They insure.  They check and recheck their accounts.  They are tight fisted.  They sue.  They are scared and they are angry.  In their core they are afraid.  They think they cannot trust anyone.  They are all alike – lonely, angry, bored and boring, and covering it all up with politics or alcohol or substanceless style.  On their faces I see registered impossibilities, not possibilities.  Their god is cruel, miserly, unforgiving, feckless, and hard.  For them there is never enough.

God is none of those.  God laughs openly, cries openly, gives without measuring – these are not platitudes, but realities.  Money is not reality.  Reality is that what we need most of all, tenderness, tolerance, touch, attention, notice, none of these can be purchased, only given.  The source, the taproot of such things is God, Love, not money.  The tighter I bind myself to money, the tighter and drier my heart becomes.  The looser I hold onto any material thing, the deeper I laugh, the heartier I feel with every bite of life I take.

Bernard Baruch, my mother’s rich, famous, uncle,  (She called him Uncle Bernie.) said this, “I was eleven, then I was sixteen. Though no honors came my way, those were the lovely years.”  He means that those were the years when he knew that God was at the beginning and the end.  Those were the years he knew a good fuck, a great laugh, loud music, good food with great friends, looking at stars, that those were the treasures in life before it got complicated, before the truth was buried, obfuscated.

Daily bread is knowing that you and I are attached to something that owns it all.  We are attached to something that is willing to open that fat wallet of love and hope and diamonds and pour it all over us.  What do we have to do to access that generosity?  Ask and it shall be given.  Knock and the door shall be opened.  Rich people don’t want to risk asking, much less risk knocking.  At least poor people have the advantage of the compulsion of hunger.  At least they are driven into one another’s arms instead of into soulless tombs we rich people call home.

One of my favorite writers is Sandra Cisneros whose version of being 11 differs from my great uncle Bernard Baruch’s version.  I love her story as it certainly speaks to why we need daily bread.  Here is Eleven by Sandra Cisneros if you want to read it.

“Eleven” by Sandra Cisneros.
What they don’t understand about birthdays and what they never tell you is that when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one. And when you wake up on your eleventh birthday you expect to feel eleven, but you don’t. You open your eyes and everything’s just like yesterday, only it’s today. And you don’t feel eleven at all. You feel like you’re still ten. And you are—underneath the year that makes you eleven.

Like some days you might say something stupid, and that’s the part of you that’s still ten. Or maybe some days you might need to sit on your mama’s lap because you’re scared, and that’s the part of you that’s five. And maybe one day when you’re all grown up maybe you will need to cry like if you’re three, and that’s okay. That’s what I tell Mama when she’s sad and needs to cry. Maybe she’s feeling three. Because the way you grow old is kind of like an onion or like the rings inside a tree trunk or like my little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other, each year inside the next one. That’s how being eleven years old is. You don’t feel eleven. Not right away. It takes a few days, weeks even, sometimes even months before you say Eleven when they ask you. And you don’t feel smart eleven, not until you’re almost twelve. That’s the way it is.

Only today I wish I didn’t have only eleven years rattling inside me like pennies in a tin Band-Aid box. Today I wish I was one hundred and two instead of eleven because if I was one hundred and two I’d have known what to say when Mrs. Price put the red sweater on my desk. I would’ve known how to tell her it wasn’t mine instead of just sitting there with that look on my face and nothing coming out of my mouth.

“Whose is this?” Mrs. Price says, and she holds the red sweater up in the air for all the class to see. “Whose? It’s been sitting in the coatroom for a month.”

“Not mine,” says everybody, “Not me.”

“It has to belong to somebody,” Mrs. Price keeps saying, but nobody can remember. It’s an ugly sweater with red plastic buttons and a collar and sleeves all stretched out like you could use it for a jump rope. It’s maybe a thousand years old and even if it belonged to me I wouldn’t say so. Maybe because I’m skinny, maybe because she doesn’t like me, that stupid Sylvia Saldivar says, “I think it belongs to Rachel.” An ugly sweater like that all raggedy and old, but Mrs. Price believes her. Mrs Price takes the sweater and puts it right on my desk,
but when I open my mouth nothing comes out. “That’s not, I don’t, you’re not . . . Not mine.” I finally say in a little voice that was maybe me when I was four.

“Of course it’s yours,” Mrs. Price says. “I remember you wearing it once.” Because she’s older and the teacher, she’s right and I’m not.

Not mine, not mine, not mine, but Mrs. Price is already turning to page thirty-two, and math problem number four. I don’t know why but all of a sudden I’m feeling sick inside, like the part of me that’s three wants to come out of my eyes, only I squeeze them shut tight and bite down on my teeth real hard and try to remember today I am eleven, eleven. Mama is making a cake for me for tonight, and when Papa comes home everybody will sing Happy birthday, happy birthday to you.

But when the sick feeling goes away and I open my eyes, the red sweater’s still sitting there like a big red mountain. I move the red sweater to the corner of my desk with my ruler. I move my pencil and books and eraser as far from it as possible. I even move my chair a little to the right. Not mine, not mine, not mine. In my head I’m thinking how long till lunchtime, how long till I can take the red sweater and throw it over the schoolyard fence, or leave it hanging on a parking meter, or bunch it up into a little ball and toss it in the alley.

Except when math period ends Mrs. Price says loud and in front of everybody, “Now, Rachel, that’s enough,” because she sees I’ve shoved the red sweater to the tippy-tip corner of my desk and it’s hanging all over the edge like a waterfall, but I don’t care.

“Rachel,” Mrs. Price says. She says it like she’s getting mad. “You put that sweater on right now and no more nonsense.”

“But it’s not—”

“Now!” Mrs. Price says.

This is when I wish I wasn’t eleven because all the years inside of me—ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, and one—are pushing at the back of my eyes when I put one arm through one sleeve of the sweater that smells like cottage cheese, and then the other arm through the other and stand there with my arms apart like if the sweater hurts me and it does, all itchy and full of germs that aren’t even mine. That’s when everything I’ve been holding in since this morning, since when Mrs. Price put the sweater on my desk, finally lets go, and all of a sudden I’m crying in front of everybody. I wish I was invisible but I’m not. I’m eleven and it’s my birthday today and I’m crying like I’m three in front of everybody. I put my head down on the desk and bury my face in my stupid clown-sweater arms. My face all hot and spit coming out of my mouth because I can’t stop the little animal noises from coming out of me until there aren’t any more tears left in my eyes, and it’s just my body shaking like when you have the hiccups, and my whole head hurts like when you drink milk too fast.

But the worst part is right before the bell rings for lunch. That stupid Phyllis Lopez, who is even dumber than Sylvia Saldivar, says she remembers the red sweater is hers! I take it off right away and give it to her, only Mrs. Price pretends like everything’s okay. Today I’m eleven. There’s a cake Mama’s making for tonight and when Papa comes home from work we’ll eat it. There’ll be candles and presents and everybody will sing Happy birthday, happy birthday to you, Rachel, only it’s too late.  I’m eleven today. I’m eleven, ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, and one, but I wish I was one hundred and two. I wish I was anything but eleven, because I want today to be far away already, far away like a runaway balloon, like a tiny o in the sky, so tiny tiny you have to close your eyes to see it.