Strangers in Dar

People always tell you not to get in cars with strangers.

On our return from Zanzibar, we packed up our backpacks and bid farewell to Paje, which had been nothing short of paradise. I was sad to go. We took a taxi through the lush interior to Stone Town, ended up running through bumper-to-bumper traffic to catch the ferry, and arrived back in Dar Es Salaam, the rat scandal from the week before still fresh in our minds.

Claire had arranged a hostel for us to stay at called 4T before our flight back to Johannesburg and she spoke with the owner over the phone as we got off the ferry. I expected 4T to be a nicer hostel than Juba Hotel, where we had stayed our first night in Dar, because the owner of 4T had arranged for one of her taxi drivers to pick us up. Yes, she had multiple taxi drivers.

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As we walked toward the taxi, a man fell in beside me and started asking questions like what my name was and where I was from—you know, the real friendly type. When I said I was from America, he actually stopped, laughed, and started telling me how beautiful I was. “Goodbye, Black Beauty!” he called. My friends, for another time, found this to be absolutely hilarious. The taxi driver greeted us and we squeezed into the car (4 in the back), with me at the right window. As the driver began to back out of his parking spot, the man who had talked to me reappeared and started kissing my window even as the car pulled away. “Black beauty! Black beauty!” he called. Everyone else cracked up as he gave the window one last smooch, slapped the side of the car, and then we were out on the road.

In hindsight, I can shrug off the situation as ridiculous, although at the time I definitely didn’t know how to react. I guess I can say that I had felt embarrassed and special at the same time. It was surreal being a novelty: being a black woman in Africa, but not African.

So, traffic in Dar Es Salaam. You haven’t experienced true hell until you’ve sat in traffic in Dar es Salaam. My god. I thought it was bad in L.A., but I had no idea. We inched through the congested streets for about an hour, until the driver realized it was futile and we had to get onto the highway to get anywhere. He got on his phone every now and then and spoke in Swahili. He told us as well as he could in English that the other taxi driver for 4T would meet us and two of us would go into the other cab, since police gave out huge fines for cars with too many people in them on the highway. Splitting up sounded a little strange, but we complied. The other driver met us at a gas station and Wendi and Christina went with him. After maybe an hour, I felt like we had to be close to the hostel, but our driver exited the highway and went down a street that steadily morphed into hilly, rocky back roads. He drove through more forested, deserted areas up on hills and I could see the city getting smaller behind us.

Jess, Claire, and I kept trying to ask how much further we had to go, but our driver didn’t speak much English and we spoke next to no Swahili. At some point we drove through a university campus that looked just a nice and outfitted as some American ones. Then we started driving through villages and the crowded “main streets” of shanty towns where shacks made from wood and scrap metal lined the unpaved road. The streets wound on for what looked like forever in every direction. How the guy knew where he was going completely eluded me.

The whole “maybe we’re being sold into sex slavery” trope reemerged in the conversation between me, Jess, and Claire. While we were mostly joking about it, I was concerned just because yet again, we were being driven by a stranger at night in city, country, and continent we were unfamiliar with in bumfuck nowhere. We had no cell phones and had no way of communicating with anyone else, including Wendi and Christina, wherever they were. The driver spoke on his phone every now and then in Swahili, but as expected, we had no idea what was going on.

Just when I felt like we were all going to lose it, after over 3 hours of driving from the ferry, we arrived at a walled property on top of a hill. The other taxi driver was close behind. Grinning in relief and frustration, Christina emerged and told us she had been just on the brink of bailing on the taxi. Inside were two houses: the owner’s house and a guest house that they had converted into their hostel 4T. We went inside, having no clue what to expect and as it turned out, the woman in charge was one of the sweetest people I had met in a long time. The inside of the guest house was clean, simple, and modern, complete with a flat screen tv, which was the last thing I had expected. The lady sat us down at the dining room table and gave us a home-cooked meal! Her daughters helped out and while they were sweet too, they were definitely shyer. Oh, and I forgot to mention: there was AIR-CONDITIONING! Good lord. 4T was pure luxury compared to where we had stayed the first night in Dar. Although, the drive from the airport to Juba Hotel on our first night in Tanzania had at least not given us mini existential crises.

4t hostel in dar tanzania

Unity is Not Uniformity: On the Silencing of Intersectionality

On April 7, the Daily Trojan published a column by Rini Sampath on the lack of unity among women, particularly when it comes to addressing and fighting injustice. Sampath used the critiques people have leveled against Sheryl Sandberg’s bestselling book Lean In as an example of “a glaring problem with the women’s empowerment movement:” women not standing together in solidarity. Though I agree with many of the points Sampath made, I view the unity issue among women, especially within feminism, from a different perspective.

In our culture, there’s an idea that having disagreements and critiquing someone’s ideas or work is inherently divisive. But I disagree. Within a movement such as the one for women’s empowerment, everyone has different experiences and those experiences may not all align with one another. What I think is truly divisive is when no room is allowed for discussion and acceptance of differing viewpoints and needs within a movement. For example, within the feminist movement, the issues that affect all women are significant. Mainstream American feminism, however, has an unfortunate history of middle and upper-middle class white women being perceived as advocates for all women, when in reality they have unintentionally and sometimes purposely excluded other women from the feminist narrative. Sheryl Sandberg, whether she meant to or not, didn’t do justice to working-class women and women of color in Lean In, which is positioned as a book for all women. Issues specific to women of color, trans women, working-class women and queer women are often overlooked within the feminist movement. This is obviously problematic on its own, but what I think is worse is when people who try to address differences, inequality and privilege are squeezed out or told to keep quiet.

The issue of exclusion and prioritization within feminism hasn’t gone away. In 2013, feminist Mikki Kendall was driven to create the hashtag #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen after becoming fed up with the online trend she had noticed of many feminists of color being harassed and dismissed as “divisive to the movement” whenever they brought up how issues faced by women of color are often left out of the main discussion.

Sampath is definitely right in a sense. There is a huge problem of unity within the large and diverse feminist movement and between women in general. The solution, however, is not to tell women coming from more marginalized circumstances to keep quiet when successful, self-proclaimed feminists garner wide media attention for their messages that are, for better or worse, coming from greater places of privilege. Real solidarity cannot happen without intersectionality. It doesn’t come at the expense of inclusion nor should people with different, less popular opinions be expected to stay quiet lest their genuine concerns and critiques be misconstrued as fragmenting to unity among women. For the feminist movement to be successful, healthy skepticism and self-criticism are necessities we must take upon ourselves. It can be uncomfortable to disagree with one another and address privilege in a group in which everyone has faced some sort of marginalization, but it needs to be done if we as women truly want to unite and empower one another.

As someone who is in the process of reading Lean In, I can assert that there are plenty of constructive messages that I can take from it as a woman. As a woman of color, however, there are plenty parts of the book to which I can’t relate, making Lean In positioned as a guide for all women troubling. Still, I’m not interested in throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Feminism isn’t perfect. Lean In isn’t perfect, but acknowledging the imperfections isn’t divisive, it’s simply part of the glorious process called progress.

I advocate for all women to try to understand one another better, acknowledge that all women come from different places and have different primary concerns, and for women from more privileged backgrounds to make a concrete effort to include the issues faced by women of more marginalized identities. We shouldn’t close our ears to genuine critiques and discussions about problematic aspects of it but embrace those critiques and improve the movement for everyone involved.

 

This article was originally written for and published by The Daily Trojan. You can find it here.

Also, here’s my lovingly shameless shoutout to Mikki Kendall. She has amazing insight and you should definitely check out her blog hoodfeminism.

Our Parting Gifts of Salt (published)

This poem, which I wrote in Botswana, was accepted to be published in Altar Collective’s fourth volume! Altar Collective is a great new publication based in the LA-area. They’re getting on their feet in terms of establishing a bigger readership and bringing in enough funds, so I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of one of their amazing volumes!

 

Our Parting Gifts of Salt

We dragged dead things up from the ocean.

And the white stones that never lived.

With sand biting at our knees and soles

the stones became a ring and that ring encircled a star.

We filled oyster shells

with blue and pink pebbles,

ripped up seaweed coarse as matted fur—

Anything to keep the words at bay.

 

We dragged dead things up from the ocean.

Things the salty murmuring waves had surrendered:

exoskeletons of lobsters mercilessly cracked and crunched,

horseshoe crabs robbed of dignity, rocking on their backs,

the war wounds of their slimy legs and innards exposed,

the singing flutes

of a tuna’s bones splayed

like a fortune telling across the bowl lip of the shore.

 

The sun sank and spilled along the horizon’s thread –

a bead of blood touched with a needle,

and the burgeoning stars lit their secret lamps.

Soon our shadows were naked and black,

stretching like totems

or the towering cast of a lighthouse.

 

With arms raised, we plunged into the sea,

let the stirring tide

pick us clean with its pincers of ice.

That water flattened the whale song out of our lungs.

That gulping cold reached into our flesh and shook us.

We watched our shadows shiver on the sand

and we dragged ourselves out as if

we had just grasped lightning in our hands.

 

Last came the finale of reeds,

raised into a barrier around the ring of white stone,

the bone, the skeletons,

and corpses of lost sea creatures.

We put what we could to the flame

and the heat dried the salt rough on our skin.

We released the night howl from our throats

as that little fire licked up death.

One last time before I left,

around the ring we went.

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Freesias (published)

I am happy to announce that my poem “Freesias” was published in the 5th issue of Apeiron Review this year. You can view my poem in their publication (as well as other pieces) here. “Freesias” is on page 64.

 

Freesias

I sat on my grandmother’s lap when her arms were strong enough to hold me and she could still speak.

She told me stories about her Sight, murmured to me her premonitions, how she saved my aunt’s house from burning after a midnight dream of black plumes and the foundation disintegrating into ash. She had called my aunt who had fallen asleep with the stove on, the curtains above smoking.

She showed me how to take dead butterflies and press them between the pages of a book.

When my grandmother grew too sick and old to visit us, she moved in with my aunt. I was seven-and-a-half. I can count on both hands the number of times we went to see her, the two-hour treks up from Pennsylvania.

Her bedroom used to be my aunt’s storage, the metal-framed bed shoved up by the half-broken bookcase. Her radio perched atop boxes. Paintings of lakes and family photographs smothering the walls. The cramp of a window letting in a cough of light.

The smells clung like dust in whirring machines. Ammonia. Antiseptic. The sheets my aunt tried to wash regularly, but she worked two jobs and had a grown son who only understood thirty-seven words.

My grandmother’s soft, aged skin like paper was a veil over the shy horror beneath the perfume, like something had curdled and was waiting to be dumped down the sink drain.

My mother’s hand on my back guided me into the room to where my grandmother sat on the edge of her bed. I tried not to stare. I hugged her out of duty, smothering my flinch when she would kiss my cheek and the tubes in her nose would press their cool hissing below my eye.

I gazed past the aloofness of her smile as her voice quavered: look at you, Mariel. Skinny as a sparrow. My sister frowned and my mother croaked: Mom, this is Corinne.

The air tasted like dead freesias.

I escaped to the kitchen and watched how my aunt paused outside my grandmother’s room in the hallway that squeezed her like a blood clot in an artery.

In her house you could hear everyone breathing.

Ego Magic (published)

Here is the third and final poem of mine that was printed in the 2013 Winter Issue of Red Rose Review. You can find Ego Magic on their website here and be sure to check out their page to see what else is featured in the winter issue. And I would just like to say “thank you” to Red Rose Review again!

Ego Magic
Corinne Gaston

I was born amongst priestesses and horned gods
in a temple of a half-truth wasteland
I was draped in purple, before kings stole my color for their robes
I am a knife, leaping of my own will into the hearts of wolves
I am the witch in the company of vagabonds
I drink murky infinity in an espresso cup
I suck out the marrow from the bones of time
I devour the past
I boldly stride through the threshold of death
and return with the elixir of life
I stand before dragons who shriek with all their ghastly teeth
and I kiss them
I am the voice you hear in the deep, star-swallowing well
I am the underneath


Temple (published poem)

Here is a second poem of mine that was printed in the 2013 Winter Issue of Red Rose Review. You can find “Temple” on their website here. Also, take a look at the table of contents for the current issue and browse around.

Temple
Corinne Gaston

Out of all things I could want,
I want another night in the garden with you.

Another night of us bathed
in the orange evening song of seven-thirty.
When the hummingbirds linger around us
and the spiders come to bow at our feet.

When you have gathered our oracles:
the copper fleur-de-lis you carved for your family’s name,
my little marble figurines,
the ceramic jar I pinched together with my thumbs.

The incense burning sweet.

I would kiss the skin above your elbows, the veins
running railroads
down the mountains of your arms.

I would lie between the tomato sprouts with you
in the chartreuse froth of ferns,
beneath the citrus glow of the guava tree,
wander in the taste of your mouth,
the warmth your chest.

We could weave the breath of our prayers into the soil
and lick grainy salt from our fingers, our fingers
gathering the whispering smoke in the grass, whispers
building where bricks have failed.

What gifts could I bring you?
You
with your sparrow words of love
and the soft nightingale-brown of your eyes?

In the next night, let us crush the shards of sea-glass
hanging from the stooped tree that makes liquorice-bitter avocados.
Let us scatter the dust
into the air, sow the green glitter into the soil.

Let me feed the crumbs of your fears
to the mockingbirds.
The evening
purples around us like a bruise.

Mars (Published Poem)

I would like to thank Red Rose Review for published this poem, “Mars,” that I wrote in Paris back in 2013. You can view the poem on their website here. Enjoy!

Mars
Corinne Gaston

I can still feel the smoky wild dagga of your eyes
the char of your hair,
the embers in your laughing breath.

You, who devoured tarot cards like candy.
You, who prayed
with your forehead pressed with ash
and your hands knucklebone deep in the ochre dirt.

Your crowned spirit shed its body like a garter snake,
leaving it here for us to burn

and in days to come I will build you monuments of spiraling bricks,
paint them
with the charcoal of your funeral pyre
here beneath the curtains of infernal sunset.

Here
where I bathe in molten puddles
and tuck rose petals beneath my tongue,
where I dress your corpse for burial.

You were my mercurial star,

the alizarin drumbeat of my heart.

Tonight,

in the red gardens of Mars, the lions weep.

Sea Snake in Paje

“How are you enjoying your sunburn?” the bartender asked with a grin.

I handed him a 1000 Tanzanian shillings note for the water I was buying for the beach.

“Sunburn?”

“I can tell,” he said, still grinning.

I shrugged nonchalantly, not quite believing him. “Eh, it’ll be okay.”

I thanked him for the water and headed to the beach. I hadn’t been sunburned in years and the last time was because I had been on a beach in the Bahamas in the sun all day when it was well over 90 degrees.

…I guess Paje wasn’t so different. I was suddenly glad that I had brought a beach wrap with me and I draped it over my shoulders. I had planned to do some water sports while I still had time in Paje, but I felt so relaxed, all I wanted to do was hang out on the sand. Around 1pm, I went out to explore the sandbars exposed at low tide, but this time I went with my friends Christina and Wendi. After maybe 10 minutes or so, my shoulders began to hurt and I realized that the bartender really had honed in on my sunburn before I had!

I saw some of the same creatures I had seen the day before such as the huffy striped transparent shrimp on the sandbar, but this time was more exciting. Christina occasionally jumped after stepping on things that moved. It only happened to her for most of the time we were out there, and then it happened to Wendi and me. We still don’t know what she was stepping on, but they could have been fish, crabs, or maybe small rays. We hadn’t minutes when one of them shouted “snake!” Just a few feet in front of us, a white snake with black stripes was calmly winding past us beneath the shallow waves. I’m not kidding when I say ‘shallow,’ that water was a foot and a half deep at most. I almost didn’t see the snake because it was barely opaque. We quickly debated whether we thought it was poisonous or not, but because it had blended it so well against the sand, we bet that it wasn’t.

“Corinne, get a video of it!”

Christina tossed me her GoPro and I followed the snake as closely as I dared. I love snakes and this one was beautiful, but I wasn’t trying to get bitten 15 minutes from shore. Well, I preferred not to get bitten at all. The snake didn’t mind us even a little so I dunked the GoPro under the water and hoped that I got a decent video. Days later, we learned that the majority of Hydrophiidae (aka: sea snakes) are highly venomous and I suddenly felt pretty foolish for chasing after one with a camera.

I still don’t know the name of the species and unfortunately I don’t have any photos. White sea snake with black stripes. Any ideas, blogosphere? Might have been

 

 

Soap & Suds at the Seaweed Center

When we first arrived in Paje, my eyes were drawn to the neat rows and columns of sturdy sticks in the shallow water right off of the beach. At first I paid them no mind, but I soon realized that they had been strategically placed to collect seaweed. Seaweed is a big name in Paje. Hundreds of women have harvested and sold seaweed for years, but historically, they’ve earned very little for their work, often harvesting small amounts and exporting the raw goods at extremely low prices. The nearby Seaweed Center, which just opened in 2011, hires several dozen women who are able to earn a regular wage. And I’m pretty sure the Seaweed Center is a cooperative.

After I explored the expanse of sandbar, rock, and shallow waters exposed at low tide, I visited the Seaweed Center with my friends Christina and Wendi. It took us a while to find it. We walked up the beach for maybe 15 or 20 minutes, asked a couple women for directions, and were finally directed inland, crossing through plots of grassy land with unfinished houses, between hostels, and across dirt roads white with sand.

One of the women working there greeted us outside the shop and gave us a small tour of the facilities. She showed us where the seaweed is first stored and dried after they collect it from the ocean and she even gave us a little to taste. It was crunchy and plain, with a slight flavor of sea salt. After the taste test, she took us inside and briefly walked us through the process of making the soaps. It takes multiple days to make a batch of soap, but it seemed to be well worth it. She told us that they sell quite a bit to local hotels and shops. There are even business people over in the U.S. that will come and buy their soap in bulk and take it back to sell in boutiques. Tourism is bringing in an increasing amount of revenue.

After showing us the heaps and packed shelves of seaweed beauty products in their storeroom, she led us back into the shop. They have an array of scents: lemongrass, turmeric, lime, clove, and coffee-clove. I bought one for myself and then I went a little overboard and stocked up on the soaps as token Christmas gifts.

The Best Vegetarian Gravy Ever

This is the recipe I used to make vegetarian gravy for Christmas dinner. I looked up a bunch of recipes online and then cobbled together my own concoction, and luckily it turned out to be delicious! This recipe is kind of loose when it comes to measurements, which I hope isn’t too frustrating. It’s pretty simple to readjust the amounts to your personal taste, which is why I wasn’t too rigid. I love mushrooms, so I added tons and tons of mushrooms. You like onions and sage? Add more onions and sage. Taste your gravy throughout the cooking process to make sure it’s how you like it, but I found that it didn’t get that classic “gravy” flavor until after I added the fresh sage and thyme. Yeah, so definitely don’t skip the sage and thyme!

To make this recipe vegan, simply switch out the butter for a vegan replacement like Earth Balance!

Also, if you have a big group of people (or if you really just love gravy), I highly recommend multiplying this recipe. This one is good for maybe six people.

Ingredients:

  • Butter or vegan replacement like Earth Balance
  • 2 onions
  • Several cloves of garlic
  • All-purpose flour
  • Vegetable Stock (the brand of vegetable stock you pick will have a pretty big influence on the flavor of the stock. Mine was more mild and sweet and less savory than I wanted, so I offset that with thyme and sage
  • Tons of mushrooms (brown and baby bella will do just fine)
  • 4 Carrots
  • 2 celery stalks
  • Fresh sage
  • Fresh thyme
  • Black pepper
  • Paprika
  • Oregano
  • Garlic
  • Gravy master (but browning or soy sauce might work too)
  • Salt (to taste)

Before getting started with the cooking, you should chop your vegetables and set them aside:

  • Dice 2 onions
  • Mince 3 garlic cloves
  • Slice up to 3 cups of mushrooms (don’t dice. The bigger pieces of mushrooms will add some nice texture and thickness to the sauce)
  • Chop four carrots into thick chunks
  • Chop up the celery, also into thick chunks

Now for the fun part!

  1. Put 4 to 5 tablespoons of butter (or vegan equivalent) in a saucepan over medium heat.
  2. Add the diced onion and let it cook for a minute or two before adding the minced garlic.
  3. Occasionally stir and cook the onion and garlic until the onion is caramelized.
  4. Add 3 to 4 teaspoons of flour and mix everything together. (The flour and butter will combine to make a roux, which will act as a thickening agent for the gravy later on. It’s better to add the flour before the liquid, because adding it after might cause it to lump up if you don’t stir quickly enough)
  5. Slowly stir in 3 cups of vegetable stock.
  6. Add the sliced mushrooms, carrots, and celery.
  7. Add several whole fresh sage leaves and some fresh thyme (add more depending on personal taste.)
  8. Bring the gravy to a boil
  9. Reduce heat.
  10. 10. At this point, add the other spices: black pepper, paprika or cayenne, garlic powder, and oregano to taste. (DON’T add salt)
  11. 11. Let the gravy simmer for a while so the vegetables have time to soften.
  12. 12. Once the vegetables are soft enough for you, begin to constantly stir the gravy until it thickens (you can also choose to stir it occasionally if you have other things you’re tending to, but this way takes longer)
  13. 13. Add a dash or two of Gravy Master, stir and taste.
  14. 14. If the gravy isn’t salty enough for you, this is when you should add it. I left the salt for last in case the veggie stock and Gravy Master/soy sauce automatically added the right amount.
  15. 15. Enjoy!

ps: I broke my own rule and added a little extra flour around step 10, but I made sure to stir quickly so the flour didn’t clump up!

pss: I’m a dope, so I didn’t take any photos. Next time!