As I ached between my sheets and mosquito net, nibbling papaya that Fatuma had lovingly prepared, I realized food had transcended language.
“Habari Asubuhi,” Fatuma said tenderly when we first met. Her broad smile was eager to welcome me to the fertile shores of Lake Victoria. Fatuma, short in stature, brimmed with sarcastic wit. One shake of her head, her wide eyes open, was all it took to know she was more observant than she let on. She could conjure up as few English phrases as I could Swahili, so we mostly communicated through facial expressions and hand gestures.
Each morning, as I emerged from bed groggily, she never failed to greet me with freshly boiled water for my tea. After breakfast, she tied up my mosquito net, hand washed my clothes and scrubbed the floors, while I tried not to drag in dirt on my feet. She even lit a fire in the brick water heater so I could enjoy a hot shower. I felt equally grateful and ashamed by these luxuries.
My six months working at a children’s foundation in Tanzania became a warm blur of empty glasses that briefly contained wine. A collage of pink sunsets and orange sunrises, dragonflies dancing in daylight, and mistaking fireflies for shooting stars at night. A symphony of rain drumming on tin roofs, and the hum of fifty girls singing “Mambo Sawa Sawa,” clapping in unison.
I would grin each time I passed fields of children playing soccer barefoot. I walked along the dirt road leading back to the village, dodging motorbikes and potholes through a sea of colorful fabric. A forest of mango trees and yellow blossoms from a Dr. Seuss illustration hugged the hill behind my house, where I often found Fatuma giggling with other house mamas.
Most days, blue won a tug-of-war with gray in the sky. Thunderstorms often shook the nights, especially when I was feverish with malaria. When Fatuma noticed I hadn’t come out for tea, she brought it to me in bed with a platter of cut-up papaya.
I felt so far from home while I was stuck in bed. I missed the comfort of being around friends and family more than ever. But every time Fatuma came to my room with papaya, she brought an encouraging smile along with her. She continued to check up on me like that until I was well again.
After I recovered, I never forgot Fatuma’s kindness. When it came time to leave, I gave Fatuma a hug that expressed all the things I never found translations for. It was easy to lose myself in a land where friendships bloomed over papaya, amidst tradition and gently sung Swahili. There was peacefulness there on a water body so big it could be mistaken for the ocean. My memories are now a piece of driftwood constantly washing up on that shore, and pulled back out with the tide.