LUSHOTO, TZ--Back in the U.S., I paid a cobbler $25 to repair the sandals I've worn on every trip since 2002. After splashing through Hawaiian waterfalls, floating in the Dead Sea, wading off the coast of Aceh, and pounding the Inca Trail, the sandals were having a hard time keeping body and sole together. But the cobbler reassured me that with a few dabs of hallucinogenic glue, my traveling shoes would be good to go.
By the end of the first week of myTanzanian extravaganza, though, I'd completely blown out both Birkenstocks--my only alternative to bike cleats and hiking boots.
"Don't worry," Jerome reassured me. "Africans don't create anything, but they can fix everything."
Neither half of this adage turns out to be true, but the latter is certainly more accurate than the former.
Jerome sent me to the shoe fundi (repairman) in the Lushoto market--a dark labyrinth of dried fish, plump produce, athletic chickens, and fat mice. David and I were the only wazungu (whities) in town, it seemed, and so the"Jambos!" were flying left and right. The fundi whipped out his needle and thread and proceeded to hand-stitch my sandals back together. I know he charged me the mzungu price--1000 Tanzanian shillings, or about 75 cents--but I was willing to pay extra for his artistry. Three weeks later, my Birks are still intact.
As for the adage: Tanzania hosts plenty of brokens that go unfixed. I high-five the toilet gods on the rare occasions when the hasp on my stall actually locks. I have yet to stay in a hotel room that has all of the following in working order at the same time: fan, mosquito net, hot water, and light. My jacked derailer befuddled the bike fundis in Same.
But creative genius is also everywhere. Passengers twist the laws of physics to use every inch of space on every local bus. Women defy heat and entropy to turn their bodies and cheap cotton into chic on two legs. Old men fashion marimbas out of electronics packaging. Children turn requests for directions into business opportunities (more on that later).
People pull so much function and beauty out of so very little. Is that not art?