The Museum of Natural Historicity and Phenomenal Nobodies celebrate the work of Michael Dopp, a Los Angeles based artist and global expeditioner. Dopp’s most recent work is included in the show In The Making on view at Roberts & Tilton in Los Angeles. What follows is “Now Please Carry Me, Or Else I Will Never See My Bride Again”, an essay Dopp wrote about his travels in East Africa. “Now Please Carry Me, Or Else I Will Never See My Bride Again” is Part One of an ongoing installation by Dopp acquired by Phenomenal Nobodies to be installed in The Museum of Natural Historicity’s permanent collection in its entirety. Phenomenal Nobodies and The Museum of Natural Historicity look forward to future installments of Dopp’s writings; and we have no doubt that you, the reader, will feel the same.
Best, PN Editor-in-Chief
Now Please Carry Me, Or Else I Will Never See My Bride Again
I had malaria while traveling in East Africa. I came down with the symptoms in Dar es Salaam, after having spent a month between that sweltering city and Stone Town, Zanzibar. I was there ostensibly for study, though my time was spent much differently than any one of my instructors at the University of Zanzibar would expect…or perhaps they expect as much from silly young enterprising Americans struck by wanderlust and love. By day I got lost in the souks, drinking endless coffee, wandering the streets in search of who knows what. By night the predictable unfolding of full moon beach raves and parade of seedy dance halls. On my first night on the island, I met the president of Zanzibar’s daughter (whose grandfather Abeid Karume led the Zanzibar Revolution ending the 200 year rule of the Sultanate) at a beach side club she owned. I later had to invoke our friendship in order to avoid arrest after I was caught being ‘indecent’ with a woman in a beached dhow by the strict Islamic police. The stratification of experience that the western traveler is allowed is illustrated by my acquaintance with Miss Karume while simultaneously living in the legendary Michenzani housing projects under the protection of the New Jack City heroin trafficking gang. But I would be remiss to not mention my true protector in Michenzani: Bibi. Bibi was my host mother and language professor. Her presence was huge, both physically and psychologically. A posse of young men were at her beck and call, moving in and out of the apartment at all times and accomplishing tasks she would set upon them. When they would return with food or items for the house, she would quietly scold them for some over looked aspect or short-coming of their errand. Then, just as their heads would hang with shame, she would cajole them with some piece of humor or gossip that would send them into hysterics. I don’t think Bibi and I were ever on good footing. As I came home my first night at sun rise following my debaucherous evening with Miss Karume, I stumbled into the apartment to find her sitting up waiting for me, and the way she looked upon me with pity and disgust should have taught me lesson, though I’m afraid it didn’t. What’s more, she had very little mercy for me in the following day’s class, where my hangover was making life very miserable. I tried to make it up to Bibi with the gift of a deep violet Kanga with gold trim, her color and garment of choice. It softened her eyes a bit when she looked at me, but what really made her feel better was the gift she gave me, a copy of the door keys. Still, I continued to stagger up the wet stone steps of Michenzani after long nights of hard drinking then awoke in the bug strewn apartment of my home-stay to the clatter of a thousand families in five floors of colorful chaos along a city block churning and grinding like the cane juice vendor below our window whose ancient machine was rusting from the sugary solution spraying out from the large stalks he endlessly fed it. Michenzani has a number of stairwells leading down into the street, each one operated by a different gang, most of which were named after seminal Hollywood films. The stairwell I had to pass through was run by the aforementioned New Jack City, who besides being in the drug business also worked in stereo sales, and operated a gym, the entirety of which was located through a hole carved out of the wall where two bench presses sat so close together lifting weights seemed unlikely. I never saw anyone working out in there, but the gym was occupied all times of day and night by several individuals wrapped in a cloud of dark brown smoke. Children in Michenzani came and went along the hallways and alleys on the way to Madrasah as they carried food and dropped it into hanging buckets dangling out of most windows, hoping for tips. In the living rooms of the homes in Michenzani, the TV was never turned off. There were only a few channels one of which was forever playing a Korean soap opera originally aired sometime in the mid 90′s and re-broadcast in its 8th season entirety. I don’t recall the program’s title. It was something like “Our Story” or “Loves Light” and it was watched by everyone in Michenzani. Bringing up the latest episode was a sure fire way to be in the good graces of anyone in the neighborhood. Another channel was routed to an individual’s apartment where they played bootlegged DVD’s that the rest of Michenzani watched. One day, this unseen curator of cinema at Michenzani decided that every Rambo movie would be played in continuous succession.
Looking out the windows of Michenzani, one saw dry empty lots filled with giant crumbling cement pipes of abandoned projects around which goats lingered. Beyond these empty lots to the east stretched dense jungle hiding clove farms and distant villages. And then there was the roof of Michenzani, empty in the searing light of day, populated by shadows keeping romance’s vigil in the night. Under the clear tropical moonlight, the call to prayer echoed through the palm lined streets while waves of the Indian Ocean, like a vast metronome, kept pace in rhythmic timing with lovers and lost souls. One day, Bibi told me that a teenage couple had bypassed the rooftop all together. The young man had dressed as a woman wearing the full hijab and it had allowed him to pass in and out of his girlfriend’s apartment with no one noticing had scandalized Michenzani. The bathrooms of Michenzani had no running water, and every morning a truck arrived using a pressurized hose to push water up five floors and through a window to fill a decaying rusty cistern. The ideal was to take your bucket bath in the morning when the water was still fresh, before it became the home and graveyard of a million flying bugs. When thinking back on the many possible locations where I could have contracted malaria, the bathroom of Michenzani seems a good candidate.
So I was bitten by a mosquito, called a mbu in Swahili sometime during that month. I had been feeling a growing fatigue, while an accumulation of ache gathered around my limbs and head was accompanied by a sort of delirium. To match this delirium of disease was the delirium of romance that had been percolating between me and a classmate. Amongst other travel tales too numerous to list we had just shared a rare and dangerous journey across the sea to the distant island of Mafia. In a very brief time, Alex and I lived through the most excruciating circumstances in pure bliss, finding ourselves stumbling all over each other with the sort of embarrassing glee reserved for the abandon of the most cynical people transformed by love. The bright burst of our feelings came as it always seems to, by surprise. And as our travel plans differed, it came to an abrupt halt when a planned trip with my friend Eben was leading me North toward Uganda while Alex was bound for Rwanda to continue research. It was on my last day in Dar when Alex, Eben and I went to the old train station to purchase tickets to go our separate ways. Upstairs a small bar used to serve waiting travelers from the time of German Imperialism through English Colonialism still operated serving cold beers and fries. We sat together for what we thought was the last time and drank beer after beer, smoking endless Sportsman cigarettes. Perched on a balcony ringed in old iron lattice banisters with Kanga tied up as drapes, their patterns and color faded, the bar overlooked rows of forlorn train cars waiting to die in the summer light, I could have sworn that sad and beautiful place was the center of the whole universe.
Later that afternoon before boarding a train, I went to a clinic with dirt floors and chickens running about. There, a nurse with no gloves examined a pin-prick of my blood and assured me that the growing fatigue and fevers that had accompanied the squeezing pressure in my cranium for two days was indeed malaria. I felt certain that the medicine I was given by the pharmacist would do the trick and didn’t for one moment doubt my ability to communicate in Swahili, and I boarded the train for Mwanza. These decisions were, of course, emblematic of most decisions I made while traveling in Africa, that is to say: poor. How I came out of many of the situations I found myself in, not terribly scarred, sick(er) or dead amazes me in retrospect. What’s more, is the brash certainty of my acts, and foolhardy embrace of all that was precocious. That said, all aspects of my decision making was also formed by the general infrastructure of travel and life in East Africa, the lay of the land if you will. Anyone who has spent time there knows, much, is just out of your hands.
For example one night, taking a bus out of Kampala to the Ugandan/Kenyan border town of Malaba, our driver was forced to detour due to flooded roads. As we wound deeper and deeper into jungles near Jinja, the dark tributaries that feed Lake Victoria once mistaken as the source of the Nile by early European explorers, the passengers on the bus began to grow anxious. At first, it was a general din of Lugandan being volleyed from the aisle to aisle, then from front of the bus to the back. Before I knew it, the whole bus was alive in general upheaval, people shouting, yelling, arms everywhere pointing at alternative routes into the pitch black night, which seemed inexplicably even darker and more impenetrable by the hypothetical directions gesticulated by the hysterical riders. The roads seemed to grow evermore narrow as we wound into the bush, the canopy of trees making a tunnel through which the weak lights of the bus could barley illuminate. Just about the time I thought that mutiny was inevitable, the bus came to a clamoring, aching, squeaking halt. The noise of all my fellow travelers came to a halt with the bus, and we peered out the dusty front window and saw a huge lorry occupying the entire road. Everyone on the bus disembarked to investigate this situation. The lorry had a flat tire, and it was apparently abandoned. After long discussion about the possibility of backing up (not an option), turning around (not possible), staying put (out of the question), and calling for help (impossible), it was determined that the road was exactly wide enough for both the bus and the lorry to be parallel give or take a few centimeters. All that had to be done is move the lorry over about five feet to the absolute edge of the road and then squeeze the bus through. It was also determined that the load the lorry had on it, what must of been several tons of grain in large sacks, had to be taken off in order to move it.
Just as we began to unload the grain, men appeared from the darkness of the jungle, emerging with guns at the ready, and accused our bus of staging a grain heist. When the obvious became apparent to the guardians of the lorry, and we realized they did not have the keys and were only caretakers of the load, they agreed to allow for the unloading of grain, but first we had to pay them in order to reload the lorry. After much debate, a price was determined and divided by the number of passengers. A collection went out and we all chipped in to pay them for their trouble. Then we resumed with unloading the sacks. Everyone was involved. The demographics of the bus were practically an equal split of men to women, old and young, and all were helping. After the lorry was stripped of its contents, we surrounded it. Now in retrospect this seems extraordinary, but at the time it was very matter of fact. With every man, woman and child holding onto a piece of the giant rusty truck, we lifted it and moved it five feet to the edge of the one lane road. It is still phenomenal to remember this huge, inert, lurking machine, hovering momentarily weightless, while a wreath of humans shuffled our skinny legs somewhere in the Ugandan night. The bus crept by without even a hairsbreadth to spare. Our exasperation turned to momentary jubilation before the consternation at being into the ninth hour of a four-hour bus ride returned. All this is to say that much is out of your hands while traveling in Africa, or it’s very much in everyone’s hands all at once.
It was during a three-day train ride to Mwanza that I suffered the longest deepest fevers in a dilapidated sleeping car on the top bunk, wrapped in stinking stained sheets that I stained deeper with my sweat, and shaking in violent chills while moving on the ancient belching train through the scenic Serengeti that malaria and I got more acquainted. After the first day (of which I remember only a snippets of conversation with a large man in a suite about marriage and the Chicago Bulls and stopping in a town where I got off the train looking for something to eat, and everything was dark as if rubbed in grease of the tracks, or so it seemed to my delirious eyes), I don’t remember much of the trip. I know I was miserable, that I was the sickest I have ever felt, and that I stared at the ceiling of the train until I was no longer there. Whereas most visitors to Tanzania have stories and pictures of the great Wildebeest migration or a ‘traditional’ Maasai dance ceremony, my time spent on the legendary plain of Hemingway’s hunting ground in the shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro is a fried cerebral blur. No pictures of tall beaded men in kilt looking aprons or giraffe photo ops, all I could find amongst my papers was this poem. I don’t remember writing the poem, I don’t even write poems! Which explains its vagueness and halting manner. But perhaps this verse brings something more immediate, if abstract, about those first moments I was sick and time folded in on itself, and the distinction of memory and sense were all discombobulated and distraught:
thunder now heavily shakes the dust roof
mud cakes upon my face
before, I was wet for a week, a wrinkled prune
now skin cracks in golden draught
before her legs were wrapped about me tight
now her taste is vanished
before, I watched boats with maps drawn on sails
now coasts are unfathomable
before, an engine coughed and warmed our lungs and hearts
now, their is no exhaust to breathe
before, I was perched on ancient ledge, giving directions
now, mirrors reflect black galaxies and purple carpet
before awoken by the sound of a soccer game
now tenderness is hallucinations, a chorus of clicks and clacks
now fever becomes the trains rhythm
now cold and hot are filth, my body bangs and banged its limits
against the dust pan metal from below
I am floating now, the net is above me, passes through me
now please carry me, or else I will never see my bride again
When we arrived in Mwanza, Eben and I checked into a cheap hotel near the train station. Prostitutes lined the sidewalk, and sailors were coming and going down the hallways. A row of clocks with the name of different international cities lined the lobby wall, though they all pointed to different times, none of them worked, their hour and minute hands motionless. The train ride had exhausted me, but I had a hope that I was through the worst of it. I was told by the pharmacist in Dar that the three day regiment of pills would kill the virus in my system. I was anxious and in an attempt to feel normal, we decided to take a look around town. Mwanza is a port town on the southern edge of Lake Victoria. A sense of transience permeates everything. Workers line the sidewalks moving cargo and freight, loading and unloading. A passage of peoples and goods pulsates through the streets. As you get closer to the harbor the density of people and machines increases, becoming louder and more chaotic. Past the boat mechanics garage and down in the shadows under the bows of huge vessels make shift roulette tables are spinning while shirtless and barefoot men place bets as nets are dragged up along side the rickety shaking one man casino’s. Bids are being shouted out on piles of fish, trains are flowing in from all directions, women huddle in small groups cleaning shellfish, and beggars move quietly along the edges trying to glean what remains. Out in the water, large ships waited to jettison across Lake Victoria toward Uganda while cranes are descended into massive piles of coal and crates, swinging the goods high above the circling crowds as the sound of old and overused machinery whirs. Seagulls are everywhere. While in the harbor, we went to investigate the ferry schedule to continue our itinerary north. We found that we would have to wait five days for the next passenger ferry bound for the border town of Mutukula.
I returned to the hotel while Eben went down to the port to talk to the captains of various merchant ships to see if there was a possibility of leaving town sooner on a different vessel. Laying in the hotel, listening to the sound of sex workers down the hall, watching the fan lazily spinning above, I started to feel my body ache and its temperature rise. The swirling of the fan began to make my head spin and I felt as if the inside of me was crumbling apart in dizzying cycles. A pressure began to swell in my head, and I realized the three-day pill cocktail from the pharmacist in Dar did not do the trick at all, and I still was sick. I would learn more about Malaria over the following seven days. I learned that it rotates through your body with the cycles of your liver; that you can test positive for malaria one hour and negative the next; that its rolling fevers rack your body mercilessly; that you shouldn’t take the same medication to cure yourself as you took to prevent the infection in the first place; and that a different antibody needs to be used as the virus is already immune to the one you’ve been taking. I also learned that trusting your nonexistent Swahili skills isn’t wise. And above all, I learned that you should not travel by train, by ship, by ferry, by boat, by bus and motorcycle across the whole of Tanzania, and the largest lake in Africa while attempting to stow away and pay off customs officials in order to illegally cross the border to Uganda, and then onto a remote island filled with monkeys and roving bands of hoodlums while you have malaria.
Regarding that last bit, I will have to fill you in on it later…
All photos courtesy of Eben Goff
Michael Dopp was born in Bloomington, Indiana in 1978. He received is BFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and attended the New york Studio Program in 2005. He received his MFA in Painting and Drawing from The University of California Los Angeles in 2009. He has exhibited his work nationally and internationally. He lives and works in Los Angeles.