One Who Splits the Night in Half

by Nancy McDaniel

It still makes me smile. It’s one of my fondest memories of my two weeks spent in the northwestern part of Tanzania in July 1994. I was on an Earthwatch trip, helping collect data. Our Tanzanian leaders were both literature professors, one in Tanzania, one in Minnesota. They were studying Tanzania’s Epic Folklore and we were there to help them interview people in the villages in Shinyanga Province.

The Bus Back
We had just finished up three days and nights in the village of Bariadi and our next adventure was to take the overnight bus back into Mwanza. We slept fast, and early, as we needed to be up, packed, and waiting for the bus at 2:30 a.m. Having heard many stories about the adventures on a local African bus, I was ready for just about anything. Unlike my companions who were fed up with what they felt was the redundancy of Zairian music, the same food everyday and the omnipresent dust, my love for Africa and her people made me open for another new experience.

“How lucky we are” said Professor Songoyi, our Tanzanian host from the University of Dar es Salaam, to get a brand new, brightly painted “video bus”, our chariot for the 4-hour drive to Mwanza. It arrived, gaily heralded by its bright, primary colored Christmas-tree-like lights on the outside. And on the inside, we were delighted to find clean and cushioned seats, only 2 across rather than the typical 3 (just like first class), each facing the large screen TV, proudly mounted over the driver’s head.

I settled in next to my tall Tanzanian friend, Massesa, whom I guess I had sort of a crush on. (He, of course, thought me just a endearingly silly American “auntie,” nine years older than his 38, who liked to bask in the hot African sun, play Pied Piper to the children and try to learn bits and pieces of the local tribal language, Sukuma. The quasi-compliment he paid to his friends about me was that I “must have been charming when I was younger.” Then he redeemed himself somewhat by also saying that, even though I was the oldest on the trip, I was really the youngest.) How nice to have someone next to me that I knew and cared for, holding my hand. I wanted to lean my head on that strong shoulder, but it’s just not done, so I just let myself slip into a twilight state, for the long trip back to the Big City.

Twilight Sleep
Quiet sleep at first, then I was abruptly awakened by the pulsing beat of the Zairian music. A while later, as I dozed off to my Zairian lullaby, the music stopped as quickly as it had started and the movie began. A wild, and, to my ears, cacophonous Indian musical, the production numbers in which would have shamed Busby Berkeley. Outdoor dance scenes. Kung fu and lots of other fights, maybe some murders. Maybe not. Unrequited love. And something that involved a black Labrador dog. Just as I pulled myself out of my sleepy haze enough to think I might be figuring out the plot, the driver would abruptly turn the video off and turn the music back on. This pattern went on with no seeming rhyme or reason for the whole ride back to Mwanza.

The other Americans were whining and complaining about this bizarre sequence of events. And all I could do was smile. “EAWA,” as my Africaphile travel agent frequently says, “East African Wins Again.” But the absurdity of the whole spectacle charmed me. Where else could this be happening? Certainly not on an American airplane while I earned frequent flyer miles. Later, the video bus ride afforded me the other best memory: an informal christening ceremony for my new Sukuma name. Earlier in the trip, my new Tanzanian friends related that some other Westerners who had previously come to help on the project chose to “take” a Sukuma name by which they were called while they were in country.

Choosing a Name
I eagerly accepted and, after much deliberation, carefully chose the name, Milembe, which means peace. This served me in good stead and also served as a wonderful icebreaker when I met the women in the various rural villages, as many of them had a daughter named Milembe. I answered to the name proudly. But back to the video bus. Between the Indian movie and the Zairian music and my being awake and asleep with my tipped head tantalizingly close to Massesa’s shoulder, I at one point opened my eyes and saw one very bright star in the dark, pre-dawn sky: dark as only an African sky can be, bright as only an African star can be.

I asked what the star was.

Massesa answered, “that is Kabusinze, the Morning Star. Kabusinze means ‘one who splits the night in half.’” My heart melted and I asked if I might take a second Sukuma name.

Conclusion
Thus, to this day, I still receive letters from Tanzania addressed to “Kabusinze Milembe McDaniel”, an appellation I wear proudly. And, along with my name, I softly hold fond memories of the magic night of the video bus, moving noisily across the African night.

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