A couple of weeks ago I invited my friend Dennis hiking. He replied, “Maybe,” and explained that his weekly bee meeting will be on Sunday morning, and he could only skip it to come hiking if his counterpart would be able to lead the meeting.
Most of us have met each other’s counterparts. Dennis’s counterpart is named Aulelio Kalili, and is one of my favorite Tanzanians I’ve met. He has a big Cheshire cat grin and is always happy to see me. When I first met Kalili, I thought he was insane or that something was just a little off. I soon realized that his big smile simply never leaves his face, even if something is wrong. This is one of his charms.
Knowing that Kalili is completely capable of leading the Sunday bee meeting, I asked Dennis why he had to check in with him. Dennis said that one of Kalili’s wives had to go to the hospital for surgery on her stomach. Before I get to the surgery part of that sentence, I’d like to talk about Kalili’s marriage situation. In Tanzania it is not uncommon for a man to have two wives. There are only two rules to this: both wives have to agree to the second marriage, and the man has to have enough money to provide for both families. In Tanzania you do not have to be Muslim to have more than one wife, in fact many Christians, such as Kalili, practice polygamy as well.
After hearing about Kalili’s wife’s stomach issues, I understood why Dennis was on the fence about hiking, and I asked him to keep me updated about her health.
In the end, Dennis came hiking. On our way back to site, we were walking through our banking town, about to get on our respective buses back to our villages. As we walked down the dusty dirt paths of Makambako under the gray sky, backs sore with the weight of our hiking packs, Dennis exclaimed “That looks like Kalili’s wife!” As we got closer, the woman had stopped walking and was smiling at Dennis.
We greeted her, and she pointed us in the direction of a woman sitting on the ground: Kalili’s younger wife. We all walked over together and greeted each other in the local language, Kibena. Standing next to the younger wife was another woman with a baby wrapped up in a kanga and suspended tightly at her chest. Kalili’s younger wife said to Dennis “We have a guest” and pointed at the infant. Dennis and I looked at the baby, then each other in confusion. Yes, the baby was indeed the younger wife’s newborn. After living in the village almost a year and working closely with Kalili and his family, Dennis had no idea that Kalili’s younger wife was pregnant. The mother explained that the baby did not yet have a name (another Tanzanian custom is to wait a couple of weeks before naming the baby), and that she would wait to talk with the baba (Kalili) to see what the name will be. Dennis and I later discussed what we usually come around to in our conversations: What a strange place we are living in.
Baffled, I was immediately brought back to September when I was working side-by-side with my counterpart, Neema, and she casually told me my close friend Evelina, who I had spent almost every day with for the past 5 months, had just had a baby. I had no idea that Evelina was pregnant, and Neema said she didn’t either. How could I miss it? Evelina had never stopped doing farm work, walking around like normal, doing all of the house chores. She even carried me out of church when I fainted in between the pews. How could that woman have a baby? How could I not notice she was 9 months pregnant?
I recently went to Neema’s house to tell her about Kalili’s wife and ask about pregnancy here in the Wabena tribe. She told me that people do not acknowledge pregnancies. It stays like a secret within the family. Even if others know, they do not say anything. The expectant mothers swaddle themselves in many layers of fabric, or “kitenge” to hide their swelling bellies. Neema said that the elders do not like the look of a pregnant belly, and that people are disturbed by the sight of the baby moving in the womb, so it is best to remain modest and it is crucial for a woman to cover up her body (one of the few things that I can’t come to terms with in this culture). Once the baby is born, they must wait for some time to be named. There is no celebration of pregnancy, no baby showers, no congratulations in order for the expectant parents until after delivery, and especially no photo shoots of mothers with big bellies.
As I told Neema about our customs for expectant mothers in America, she could not believe it. She couldn’t believe we would have parties just for expectant mothers where we shower them with gifts. Of course, there are fewer women getting pregnant in America than in my Tanzanian village, where the average family has 4 children and women begin giving birth around 20 years old. It was really fun to compare the two different cultures and how we welcome new life into the world. Each of us finds the others’ custom equally as strange and fascinating. But at least now I know, this isn’t a real-life Tanzanian episode of “I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant.”