Skins by Sarah Handyside

This week, short nonfiction from Sarah Handyside. Image courtesy of the author.

Somewhere south a man asked us why clothes from dead Europeans end up in Africa. These clothes have a special name – the Swahili sounded like it had swallowed up the English tomb.

He also asked for British opinions on witchcraft and crazy people, so we smiled weakly, and tried to explain our differences and guesses in broken bits of sentence, and waited for a few days and a bumpy bus ride to think of him again.

The journey is from Iringa to Tungamalenga, mountain town to rural village in south-west Tanzania. The road is barely a road – if you’re standing, as we are, wedged between immovable thighs, live chickens and prickly-heated babies on mother’s backs – then every ridge and rock on the dusty trail sends spasms up your joints and jars across unexpected limbs. You contort yourself, shifting your weight, the ache of each position smothering clammily across your body in minutes and demanding that you move again.

It’s dark now, so we have no way of telling which stop is ours. A loaf of bread is passed off, an envelope taken on. The darkness here is thicker than at home, and we are imagining lions and elephants. A group of schoolchildren get off, some men get on.

One of them pushes his way to the back. Facing us, he is tall and serious. He has huge hands, and for some reason I think butcher’s hands, a snap of expression from far away. He’s wearing a silvery-blue jacket, the kind you’d expect to see as part of a tracksuit. More bumps.

Then he turns, and across his back we read something surprising.

I have never been as aware of my colour as I am in Tanzania. This is a phrase I don’t like writing. I roll the words around my mouth like sweets that won’t melt. My privileges have made me want to think that it’s irrelevant now, that those things were long ago, another world. Skin is only skin, and we smile about it here, because we’re speaking Swahili, and tickling the babies, and respecting the elders, and they’re smiling with us.

They especially like that we’re wearing kangas – bright pieces of floor-length cloth with proverbs written across the bottom. Sometimes they’re used by women here to convey messages without speaking – Mama Ally laughed knowingly when I came back to the house with mine, chosen for the bright colours and pretty patterns while surreptitiously announcing something about cheating men.

We love them because they’re beautiful and practical and different to our skirts and shorts. And they mark us out as more-than-tourists, as people who are learning to understand and love and belong to Tanzania, who aren’t as different as our pale skin and straight hair might make you think. We are butterflies creeping out into our new jewel colours and skips of flight. We’re still learning how to tie them, and mine keeps falling down.

The man on the bus, his jacket fits perfectly. Perhaps he’s worn it for years. He gets off the bus before we work out where we are, when all is still dust and night, melodic voices and clattering motorbikes out of sight.

The white words across his back remain with us, a headline in the dust and gloom. They make us giggle and remember; they colour our conversation thereafter. What is it that we notice so sharply? What is it that we feel, a bittersweetness?

Leeds University Netball Club.


Sarah Handyside writes, edits and works in PR and marketing. She grew up in the very-far-north (Northumberland), studied in the not-so-far-north (Manchester) and currently lives and works in what seems like the very-very-far-south (London). She tweets at @shandyside.