Category: Relocating

I have a memory seared in my mind.

I am five years old and swimming in the Apollo Hotel pool in Kampala. It is 1974. A quiet weekend outing is suddenly charged when a grinning Idi Amin Dada appears in his swim trunks. A little boy, no older than I, is standing in front of Amin, between him and me. The boy (one of Amin’s sons it is clear by the military fatigues he is wearing and his position next to Amin) is staring at me, though there must be many other people about. The boy’s anger is palpable and directed at me. I cannot imagine what I have done to inspire it. But I am afraid of him. I am not afraid of his father.

The context of this event was life in Kampala during Amin’s lunatic rule. Soldiers, usually drunk, were crawling on most streets, particularly the ones near our home (which was very close to a large barracks). Each night the city would erupt in gunfights that would continue long after I had fallen asleep.


Idi Amin with two of his sons in Kampala in 1975.

In my early attempts at telling the story of Asians in Uganda at that time, I chose to put these scenes of my childhood at the centre of the narrative, to put myself at the centre of the narrative.

What I wrote was forced and stilted and embarrassingly self-indulgent.

Four years ago, I moved to Tanzania, leaving behind a well-paying job at The Globe and Mail and selling my house, having no plan whatsoever except to live in East Africa and write a novel (with two children under the age of three in tow, this was a reckless decision by any standard). In Dar es Salaam, my husband found a job piloting a small plane. We lived off savings and his meagre earnings as I wrote each day.

It was exhausting. The mosquitoes and heat were unbearable and my baby was waking multiple times in the night. But the words were flowing and in a voice that rang so authentically I knew the story I had been trying to tell for years was finally freed.

What opened the floodgates was a sensation of disorientation. I was lost in Dar. I found no peers, saw nothing familiar and ached for home. I began to think about why I moved, why anyone moves. When I asked these questions, my grandfather, as a young man and not as the old, tired dying man I remember, appeared in my mind.

With this young man standing in the pale dust of Malia, longing for a life beyond his imagination, Where the Air Is Sweet began.

The characters quickly came to life, often expressing thoughts I had no recollection of forming. I realized that what I needed to do for so many years was to get out of the way and the story could come.

About five months into full-time writing, I began to insert details, gleaned from my parents, from aunts and uncles and later from books and later still from newspaper archives. I travelled through Uganda to the places I was writing about. I touched the house my grandfather built, visited my grandmother’s grave, stood in front of the once feared Public Safety Unit.

This book is fiction. It is framed by historical events and my family’s experience. It is, at its simplest, a story of movement and longing.

Leap and the net will appear. The thing is, the net is always there.

It took me a very long time to learn this. I didn’t believe it was there while we were in Dar for that year or even when we returned home, safe, healthy, an almost-completed manuscript in hand. I know now it’s our awareness that’s the issue, not the existence of the net.

My husband secured a job flying a plane for some executives. It paid very little, which was expected. Low-hour pilots aren’t paid well anywhere, and Dar was no exception. But we were prepared to lose money in this venture. The point was to gain experience. So, we found an apartment and settled in.

Now, I could start writing.

I resisted. I had so much to do: get Mia into a school, figure out how to buy reasonably priced groceries, learn how to drive on the “other side” and in the chaotic traffic.

In about three weeks or so, we found a school for Mia and I learned to drive our rental car, though I kept turning on the wipers when I meant to hit the indicator. And more than once, while making a left turn I went into the wrong lane. But I was beginning to feel more and more comfortable in the chaos.

Still, I resisted writing. There was always so much to do.

My husband called me on it one night. “You have to just write,” he said. “There will always be something else to do.”

Simple, irrefutable logic.

Finally, one morning in June 2009, I sat at my new desk, purchased on the side of the road from a local African furniture-maker. It was still sticky with newly applied varnish.

I stared at a blank Word document and pictured my grandfather as a young man. He left his village of Malia, in Gujarat, when he was in his early 20s to make a go of it in East Africa. He went alone with very little money and no knowledge of where he was going. Having taken off the way we had, with no plan and with so much unknown before us, I suddenly felt a kinship with him. In my mind, he was not the old man dying of cancer that I recall from my childhood. He was tall and strong and aching for something. I had visited Malia about 14 years earlier. It was dusty and dry. I remembered pale sand. Like a beach with no sea. With those words, with those images, I started writing.

My husband and I kept a blog while we were in Dar from 2009 until early 2010. I’ve included some of blog posts from that time. The are categorized under Dar es Salaam and 2009.

When my husband and I decided to quit our secure and well-paying jobs as newspaper editors and take off to live in East Africa where I intended to write my novel and he intended to pursue his dream of being a full-time pilot, I bought him a card.

It had one of those calming, Zen-ish images on the front (I can’t actually recall the precise image, but probably a similar depiction of the Buddha as seen below). Inside the words read: “Leap and the net will appear.”


I loved this idea of the net because, well, we were we leaping and I was scared shitless.

We had given up careers, excellent benefits, sold our house (that we spent three years and a lot of money renovating), stored its contents and moved across the world with no jobs waiting for us. Oh, and we had our 3-year-old and 9-month old daughters in tow.

Four weeks after I watched him take the card out of its envelope, we were staying in a suburb of Dar es Salaam called Kariako at a dive of a hotel where our 3-year-old had a temper tantrum about three times a day and our now 10-month-old baby woke three or four times a night. Meals were always a challenge. These kids had to eat when they needed to eat and the restaurant in the hotel was limited — to put it mildly. We were frazzled, fried and snapping at each other with regularity. This was a few months after the global economy had taken a nosedive (in October 2008). The Arusha-based safari outfits where my husband planned to work were hit hard. So, he had no job or real prospect of a job and we were hemorrhaging money.

This plan of ours was 18 months in the making. Craig had left job almost two years previously to complete his IFR training. And now we were here. Could we quit? Should we?

I remember one night sitting on the floor with a baby resting in my arms. I had that blank stare of the mentally deranged. And then something caused me to focus my attention: a dead insect lying upside down under a table (hotel staff would come into our room each evening to “spray” at which point we would clear out for an hour or so). Our hotel room was small with two beds that were somewhere between a double and a single in size (one adult one child shared a bed). That pathetic dead insect provoked a thought: We were in free fall and there was absolutely no sign of a net.


DarZanzibar1Last month we went to Zanzibar for the long Eid weekend. We were supposed to go on a camping safari with some friends. But one of the friends became ill (turned out to be pneumonia, poor woman) and we had to cancel. So we were bummed and had four days of holiday ahead of us. So, at the last minute, Craig found a reasonably priced resort called Coral Rock on the east coast of Zanzibar and off we set. The ferry boat was fine, a bit crowded and a bit hot but Mia (thanks to a hit of gravol) slept the whole way. Lily slept about half the 2.75 hour trip.

However when we arrived we hit a hitch. We hadn’t brought our passports since our travel agent said we didn’t need them. (Craig happened to have his passport with him but the kids and I did not.) It struck us as reasonable not to bring them since Zanzibar is part of Tanzania. However the government calls itself the Revolutionary Government of Zanzibar and so it has some autonomy — I don’t know how real or imagined the autonomy is. But you need a passport when entering from Dar. I was especially irritated by this and snapped at the customs official that it is absurd to require a passport when travelling within national borders. Well, that got his back up and his ego took a huge hit. Craig meanwhile was (as he later told me), so amused by my self-righteous ire, that he joined in. So we both talked down our noses to this fellow for about ten minutes and thoroughly annoyed him. I have to admit, it was quite enjoyable. (I particularly relished telling the customs guy that yes, in fact, in Canada you cross the ocean to another province and do NOT require a passport) However, it was clear if we wanted to stay in Zanzibar we were going to have to change our tack. After much grovelling and apologizing they let us in. We had to spell out in a letter exactly what the deal was, where we were staying etc. But amazingly they took no money. They just wanted to hear how right they were and how wrong and sorry we were. We figured kissing the ground at their feet was worth it. We did not want to take those now exhausted, whiny children back to Dar on the ferry.

Anyways the resort was very nice. I’ve included some pics. We took Mia to see some real monkeys. She was initially afraid they’d attack her monkey, then she was bored (see pic). Kids. geez.

DarZanzibar3The beach was stunning. The water is actually turquoise. And there was a little pool where the kids enjoyed swimming. Lily had a bit of a tough weekend. Her molars were coming in and she spent a lot of the trip feeling terrible.

We took a trip into Stone Town and had a tour of the jamat khana, which in sections is 138 years old. Crazy.DarZanzibar2

Coming home was mostly uneventful. The customs agents this time could not have cared less whether we had travel documents and just waved us through (sigh). But the ferry was delayed four hours. Yes, we waited four hours in the Zanzibar sun until our boat came. The kids were fantastic. They hardly complained the whole time and then slept on the trip home. But it meant we left our resort at 9 a.m. and reached our home in Dar about twelve hours later. It was exhausting. But on the whole a good trip.

Bad bad bad us. We haven’t posted in far too long. I’ve been asking myself why and I think apart from being busy it’s because we are settling in more. Everything doesn’t feel like it needs to be reported as strange any more. Which is not to suggest that strange things no longer happen to us. In fact, some quite exciting things have happened. Poor Craig got hit by a a dalla-dalla (a mini bus) while riding his motorcycle about a month ago. He is absolutely fine. He suffered a sprained foot and road burn on his shoulder but otherwise had no physical problems. Emotionally, it was a bit of a wallop. Dar is not an easy place and the incident left him more than irritated with many aspects of the city, not least the insane traffic.

The kids are great. We have somehow managed as a family to get Mia to school for morning assembly, which is at 7:45. For the first three or four months of her school life, we could not get her to school before 8. Now, we all get up between 6 and 6:30 and more importantly we have found a shortcut. It won’t do in the rainy season because it’s not paved. But for now it works. Lily is walking and saying a few words. Her personality is as sweet as ever, though I believe I have seen signs of a temper (not sure where she’d get that!).

Craig and I joined a gym near Mia’s school and after I drop her at school, I go to run on the treadmill and then take my laptop to a cafe and write until it’s time to pick her up at noon. It works much better for me. I get to enjoy some outdoor writing, I get to exercise, and I don’t have to endure the sound of poor Lily banging on my door crying “Mama! Mama!” when I try to write at home.

So, all in all, things are carrying on more or less smoothly.

The power outages are very very frequent these days. We seem to run on generator more often than not. The heat is becoming more oppressive and I swear the fly population has doubled, but we are finding some space to enjoy our lives. There’s nothing like routine. And air conditioners.

There it is, the toughest blog post, the one that gets us back into posting again. And we will, more often. Promise.

Every morning when I drive Mia to school in that insane traffic, I decide this place is intolerable. It took me ONE HOUR to drive my 3-year-old to school yesterday (without traffic a 10-minute drive). And then at one point, as we sped up for mere moments, a military vehicle suddenly put on its sirens and swerved around me (I don’t know how he didn’t hit me), while every other car insantly stopped and pulled over for him. It was crazy. If you have a siren and a gun and are a soldier, you can do anything you want, including almost kill a woman and a child if you don’t want to sit in traffic like everyone else. grrrrrrrrrrr. Stuff like this is really incensing. That’s when I hate it.

And then later, when I am enjoying an afternoon with my kids sitting under a lush tree while a cool breeze blows, having to rush nowhere, I think, I don’t ever want to leave. sigh.

It’s all okay, in the end, circumstances will help me decide where we live.

Writing is going well. I didn’t get to do enough of it in S. Africa, but I enjoyed myself so much there (all those first world joys!), the racial tension notwithstanding.

But home is home. Dar was a relief, oddly enough, when we returned. (The racial tension was clearly more taxing than we realized.) That tropical third world smell — vegetation and traffic fumes — met us at the airport, along with the humidity — which was welcome after the cool, dry air of Pretoria.

Mia’s back into school rhythm after a week. She still says she wants to go to a restaurant every day (as we did in Pretoria), but every once in awhile she says, “It’s nice to be back in Daah (ie Dar).” And Lily is experiencing separation anxiety for the first time. Every time I leave the room she cries and then races (she is a very speedy crawler now) behind me. “Slap slap (sweaty, fat palms on tiled floor), pant pant.” She stands up on occasion, unaided. And she gets into everything. She is an utter, enchanting joy. And Mia is a grown up little miss (most of the time). She only wants to wear dresses or “girly shorts.” And she has been begging me to get her high heels. cripes. Where did this child come from?

All right. I will sign off now. Much to do without my dear husband here. I’m starting to feel like one of those European memsahibs of old colonial east africa, who look after household staffs, send their children to foreign-run schools and endure the absence of their husbands. Clearly, I must get back to writing my fiction…my imagination is running wild.

It’s been awhile since I posted. Lily’s eye is almost perfect again. She’s having her morning nap right now. Mia is home from school with a cold, again (the perils of starting school). Working on my novel is particularly tough with her at home. She’s a bundle of energy even when she’s sick. She just finished mopping her bedroom. I bought her a little mop from a hardware store. In a moment of African resourcefulness, the guy in the store just pulled out a saw and cut down a regular mop when I asked if they had child mops.

Earlier she tossed a balloon back and forth with me for half an hour (did I say she’s sick?) while Lily squealed with delight. I told her if she let me work for a while I would take her for a ride on her new bike. She is at the moment sitting behind me. I can feel her big eyes searing into my back. :)

DarbikeWe bought her a little Chinese-made (read: cheap) tricycle this weekend. It has a little trailer on the back which Craig and I thought would be perfect for Lily. Mia had a different idea. “It has a seat for Monkey!” she declared when she saw it. We convinced her to give Lily a ride now and then. (see pic).

Pint-sized demands aside, I have to say I’ve never had this kind of energy to write. I don’t need to read articles about writing or draw outlines of characters I don’t believe in or do laundry — all things I did when I sat down to write in the past. Now I write. And when I don’t write, I want to. Hence my delay in writing posts here. I’m greedy about my time on the computer, particularly with Craig’s job in a sort of limbo until September or so (when we find out if his salary will increase sufficiently for us to stay here). I know this is precious time to write, so I write.

Funny how life bestows gifts without you realizing it: between the kids and the limbo state we’re in, I’m being shoved right into the present moment, where, after so many years of trying to force it to, the writing is flowing….

Africa’s storied charm is in the toilet, along with the never-quite-dead cockroaches. Okay, that was for rhetorical effect, the cockroaches didn’t go in the toilet; I called the askari to take them out of the house because I refuse to get within four feet of such grotesque creatures. (Four feet is sufficient distance for bug spray to slow a roach’s movements, I’ve learned.)

Let me share how I spent my days while Craig launched a new career amid the most stunning vistas of Africa and rested his head on the plush pillows of swank resorts.

Day one: the cockroach invasion – two of them in the house right at bedtime, not the biggest we’ve seen, but big enough. Between me and my can of bug spray, Mia’s squeals and our askari, we got rid of them.

It got worse after that.

Day two: the fall — Mia kept interrupting my attempts to get Lily to bed. Poor Mia, she’s bored and alone and we don’t even have a television to distract her. Finally I gave up and just played with them both until it was time for me to get ready for bed. I put Lily in her crib (which is in our bedroom) to keep her out of trouble. Mia wanted to get in with her. So I put her in and as I brushed, I could hear them giggling behind me.

Then Mia hollered that she wanted to get out. I asked her to wait a minute. Fifteen seconds later I heard a crash and turned to see Lily face first on the concrete floor.
(This African-designed crib has a rail that folds over and is held in place by a latch, a latch that can evidently be opened by a three-year-old. Mia opened the latch while Lily was standing and leaning against the rail.)

Horrified, I picked up my screaming Lily and began searching her face for sign of injury. Just as I noticed her forehead swelling, she threw up. And this sent me into a lunatic panic. I demanded to know from Mia what had happened. And then I did something I regret, I hollered at Mia. I paced around with Lily, both of us covered in vomit as she wailed. I couldn’t reach Craig by phone.

Lily calmed after about 20 minutes – her wails reduced to a whimper. At this point, I had a talk with Mia about my freak out and explained it wasn’t her fault Lily got hurt — it was the fault of the badly designed crib, but she must listen to Mummy next time. She nodded, her big brown eyes, staring at me. “I just wanted to get Monkey,” she said. sigh

In about an hour I went to put Lily down to bed, but her left eye had swelled and I began to panic again. Then I put both babies into their car seats, told Mia we were going on a Dora-like adventure to look for a doctor, and set out to find the nearest hospital.

God, or something, was on my side and somehow five minutes later I pulled into a parking spot that had been waiting for me (no signs of the hospital were visible from the road, but I had a sense of where it was, having seen in during the day). It was clean and organized but by no means anything I’ve experienced in Canada. But the staff was attentive and bright and in three minutes (after I’d paid a fee of approx. $7 Cdn) a doctor was looking at Lily. A young, bright African doctor, he assured me she was fine. He explained why the eye swelled and told me to keep a lookout for signs of more serious injury but he strongly suspected she was all right.

Day three: the aftershock — The next day Lily was happy, energized and hungry but her eye had swollen shut and was puffier than the night before. In the afternoon she began to whimper and moan and wouldn’t take formula or water. In a state of complete panic again, I began to fear she had a brain injury. Mia had gone down for a nap, and Emmie, our nanny, was out for lunch.

I walked around in the bedroom holding Lily, crying (I was crying, not Lily), cursing everything from the furniture-maker to God to myself for turning my back on the kids.

As soon as Emmie returned from lunch, I decided to take Lily to the Aga Khan hospital (the biggest and best in Dar). My neighbour offered to drive and in short order a neurosurgeon had a look at the baby. By now, Lily had had a nap. So, she sat in his office giggling, grabbing at his papers and gulping formula. Her state and his assurances satisfied me that she was fine. He explained that swelling generally increases for 48 hours, so the eye didn’t concern him at all. But he too, like the earlier doctor, said to keep a close eye on her for a couple of days.

The next few days were pretty uneventful, the usual railings against bedtime and night wakings. Lily will have a black eye for a few more days but she clearly did not sustain a serious injury. I don’t know what would have happened if she had.

The whole experience has left me drained and feeling utterly alone. With no family or friends in Dar, going through this without Craig really bowled me over. The only communication Craig and I have had are very short phone calls and text messages. Always having had loved ones nearby, being alone like this is a shock.

Mia is darling company (when she’s not having a temper tantrum), but she’s only three.

I now await Craig’s arrival (his plane is supposed to land any time now). I need some reminding about why this place and this life is so preferable to living in Canada, where 911 will dispatch help in minutes and family and friends are a phone call away when my husband is out of town and I need a shoulder to cry on.

Here’s a glimpse of our living arrangements. We live in a two-bedroom apartment in an area called Mikocheni.

OIt’s about 10 km from the Dar city centre (during traffic that can be well over an hour’s drive). Our building is three storeys high and has six units. We live on the third floor. It’s lovely. Clean, bright, spacious.

OThere are two en suite bathrooms and one giant powder room. There are no bathtubs (just stand up showers), so Mia and Lily bathe in laundry tubs. We have all decided these are far superior to a bathtub. The kids love them and can’t seem to get into too much trouble. Although Lily dove head first into Mia’s tub the other day and came up sputtering. We have air conditioning that is controlled in each individual room (saves on electricity big-time) and we have fans as well.

PThere’s a grassy area in back where the kids can play and where we put in small horsey swing for the kids (up in a tree, actually).

I know that is a whiny headline for my first post, but I feel whipped. It’s just a cold, or maybe it’s malaria (says my neurotic self), so I should just suck it up.

It is Monday, 10:24 a.m. and there is a lovely breeze behind me. Breezes here are beautiful. Cool. Kind. Refreshing. Mia is at school (more about that later). Lily is napping. Craig is waiting to hear about his flight to Zambia/Malawi.

There is a great deal of waiting in Dar, I find. In traffic, for taxis, for meals, for internet. It’s a different kind of waiting than I’m used to. There seems a greater acceptance of it. I believe the word I’m looking for is patience. There appears to be more patience here, in general. Patience and acceptance. For example, rather than bemoan the horrific traffic that daily plagues the entire city, many see it as an opportunity to make money: vendors who come right up to your window while you wait in traffic, selling oranges or ice cream or ironing boards. It occurred to me yesterday as Craig launched our blog (and went through his posts for typos) that we don’t have a dictionary in our home. No problem, I thought, I’ll pick one up at the intersection of Haille Salassie and New Bagamoyo tomorrow on the way home from Mia’s school. And I won’t even need to unbuckle Mia from her car seat. See? I’m adapting so smoothly to Dar.

But my throat is aching (does malaria cause sore throats?!) It’s a cold. Mia brought home the virus from her new school. It’s brand new, has roots in New Delhi, just opened last week so it is very clean and freshly painted. The teachers are sweet and Mia loves it. The administrators are ridiculous. Formal and stiff and “we will make your child a success in life.” She’s three. She wants to play in the dirt and have a friend besides monkey. It’s a real adjustment, this paying for school business. But we’re learning. We arranged to give the school a try for two weeks before paying a shilling. So that’s savvy, we think.

I like it here. It’s like the wild west. So much opportunity and so much chaos. The rules are made up as we go. Driving is on the left, unless a bullock cart gets in the way, then you just drive in the other lane like you are in Canada (wow this is easy!) until you see a Hummer coming at you. Fines for leaving your driver’s licence at home (as Craig learned) are 3,000 shillings (about $3 Cdn), if you want to go the police station and get a receipt. Otherwise, it’s a touch heftier.

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