Dear readers, I realize that this post is out-of-sequence in terms of real time, assuming of course that time actually exists, and we all know that it doesn’t. But now that I have finished my work here in Rwanda, and have a little free time to get caught up on unfinished business before I head out for my next adventure, I wanted to finish some of the posts that I started during my holiday in April.
Pardonnez-moi. Je crois que je vous donne des problèmes (I’m sorry, I think I am giving you problems), I mutter to the driver of the taxi carpool as he peers over the dashboard into the darkness that envelopes us as we hurtle down the road in search of the restaurant which I have been told is nearby.
La vie est une forêt des problemes. Nous sommes ici pour les resoudre. (Life is a forest of problems. We are here to resolve them) says a deep voice from somewhere behind me. I turn to and see a tall man, dressed in a long kanzu and Muslim kofia nestled into the far rear corner of the taxi. There is a pause, and then he illuminates further, C’est Hegel (That’s Hegel), he explains, and I wonder where he had been in his life to have ever read Hegel. I couldn’t imagine that it was taught in school here, but then I didn’t know what the educational system was like on this itty bitty island perched precariously, it seemed to me, in Indian Ocean off the coast of East Africa. I could hardly see his face but I could feel his sincerity. How is it that I am sitting in a taxi in the dark of night with a group of men whom I do not know and whose faces I cannot even see in a country that feels like it is the end of the world, given the journey that I took to get here, listening to a man quote Hegel? I muse. I mean, I haven’t even read Hegel and I am from the West. On the other hand, I didn’t go to French-run schools when I was a child, and this man probably did.
Of course, the thought also passes my mind that it is either an act of pure faith or utter insanity to have happily climbed into a vehicle filled with men whom I have never seen before to travel through the night in a city I do not know in a country I do not know to a place whose location I do not know and, apparently, neither do they. But this is what happens when I travel, I adapt to whatever the local transportation system is and, in the Comoros, shared taxis are how one gets about if walking is not an option and, of course, if one can afford it. As ill-advised as my actions might appear to be to someone not accustomed to plunging into the unknown in a new country, I had considered my alternatives, and walking alone at night just really hadn’t struck me as a particularly wise choice, especially since I did not know how far I would have to walk to get where I wanted to go. And so, here I was, with Hegel and company, on my way to an unknown location to eat at a restaurant that I have been assured serves some of the most delicious food on the island.
The Comoros Islands are a group of four small islands sitting in the Indian Ocean off the coast of East Africa. Three form the the archipelago island nation, Ngazidja (Grand Comoros in French),the biggest island, Mwali (Moheli), where I had met the tortoises I described in an earlier post, and Nwani (Anjouan). The fourth, Maore (Marotte), voted against independence and has never been administered by the Comorian government. Instead, it remains an overseas department of France, and was voted a region of France in 2011 which means, presumably, that if you travel to Maore, you can say you have been to France.
All four islands are the result of volcanic activity and I can’t help but wonder what’s stopping some other volcano(s) deep under the ocean floor from waking and engaging in more volcanic activity that would result in the disappearance of the islands back into the deep blue sea that currently surrounds them. They really aren’t that big. One of the two volcanoes that form Ngazidja, Kathala, is even still active.
To get to the Comoros is not easy, which perhaps accounts for why tourism, an economic mainstay of some of its neighbors off the East coast of Africa, such as Zanzibar and the Seychelles, is not well-developed. For example, there are no direct flights there from Kigali, despite the fact that, relatively speaking, it is just a “stone’s throw” away — 1000 miles, slightly less than the distance between Seattle and Los Angeles. I had to travel to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia from Kigali, 1500 miles to the north, in order to catch my flight to Moroni, the capital of the Comoros, 1500 miles southeast of Addis, where my evening adventure was unfolding.
The main road in Moroni is a narrow affair, barely two car widths’ wide, that winds along the coastline The most common form of transport are shared taxis which will pick you up as long as they are going in your direction and have an empty seat. You pay a flat fee to go as far as the taxi goes. If your destination is further along the road than the driver’s route, then you have to climb out and wait for another one whose route extends further. What I did not know when I climbed into the taxi that was now wandering around the city looking for my restaurant was that I would not be able to make the same return trip in one taxi. I would have to get out when a town taxi reached the city limit, and flag down another one, since the beach front hotel where I was staying was outside of town and only the out-of-town taxis go beyond the city limits.
My escorts are not discouraged by their lack of knowledge of my destination. There is quite a lot of discussion about the best way to get to where they do not know. They seem to be trying to figure out the most likely place where the restaurant could be, given their knowledge of the city. I am sure that our path lies straight ahead but they are convinced that we should turn right, and so we do. I cannot see anything but a few lights on the occasional shuttered shop as we pass by. It feels like we have been driving forever, and that we are getting further and further away from civilization but, in reality, it has probably only been for a few minutes and we are still clearly in the middle of the town that stretches along the coast of Grand Comores.
I start to worry about the precious petrol that the driver may be wasting by going the wrong way. After all we are on an island and I am told that, sometimes, when one of the tankers that brings fuel to the island nation is delayed, everything more-or-less grinds to a halt. The thought then passes my mind as they turn onto the road that I am sure is going in the wrong direction, that perhaps they are going to whisk me away to some unknown fate and attempt to rob me. I have to remind myself that I am not a character in one of the crime shows to which I am addicted, and that I am, more likely than not, as safe as houses with not one, but three men, looking out for me in a country which I do not know. What thief worth his salt would be spouting Hegel, anyway? That I should always be so well-protected.
My idle speculations are interrupted as the philosophical discussion continues: L’homme est comme un mosaic, chacun a son propre coleur. (Man is like a mosaic, each has his own color.) Spinoza said that, our resident philosopher announces. I cannot resist making a small contribution: Et la femme aussi (And woman also), I say, knowing full well that, Western philosophy notwithstanding, I was probably not in the company of a group of feminists. Of course, I was then gifted with a lesson on French grammar, as it was explained to me that “Man” refers to all people, not just men, the group enthusiastically informed me. I refrain from pointing out how the words we use affect how we see the world and that using a masculine reference did not, in fact, promote attitudes of equality towards women. After all, I was in a traditional Muslims society, in a car full of Muslim men. If there was ever a time to bite my tongue, this was it. I remembered my Swahili father in Mombasa, a pillar of the Islamic community. He would never have tolerated such insolence on the part of one of his daughters.
There was also little likelihood that a sociopolitical analysis of language use by a foreign tourist was going to have much of an impact on time-honored patriarchal traditions. Still, I felt that I had done my best representing the women of the world, no matter my futile gesture might have been in the present moment. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day and social change takes time. But if we do not speak at all, then nothing will change, I reassured myself. With that bit of self-congratulation, my feminist self accepted her fate and drifted out the window into the night, as my culturally adaptable self settled into the familiar world of Islamic patriarchal logic. Oui, je comprends l’usage du mot “homme” (Yes, I understand the use of the word “man”), I said, admitting defeat as gracefully as I could I resumed watching the shadows and lights of an unfamiliar world pass outside my window and wondered whether I would ever get to my destination. I also wondered what other great European philosophers awaited me in the back of the taxi.
Finally, my guides admit defeat and make their way to a gas station to ask for assistance. Who ever said that men never ask for directions? However, their first attempt ended in abject failure, no one there had ever heard of the restaurant in question, despite the fact that it had been around for 13 years, as its owners informed me later that night. Presumably, like me when I am at home, local people do not ever eat out in restaurants either. We then head to the Alliance Française office which, of course, is closed but, lo and behold, someone in a shop across the street that is still open knows where the restaurant is and… it is no more than 50 yards down the road from where we are! Silently, I swallow my pride and thank my lucky stars that they had not listened to me when I tried to tell them where I thought we should be going. I shudder to think where we would be by now if they had gone straight when I had told them to. They drop me off a few minutes later. I pay my fare and watch as the tail lights of our car fade into the distance. Feeling slightly abandoned, not to mention uncertain as to how I was eventually going to get back to the hotel after dinner given what it took to get here in the first place, I turn to enter the restaurant. Funny how quickly I can get attached to strangers, I reflect. I was already missing Hegel and Spinoza.