Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2012 v11n1
 print preview

Swinging Lessons

He watched Shangwe from the shadows of the schoolhouse: she moved with a determination that showed she’d thought carefully through the task ahead of her. She stepped over the thin grass and onto the dirt, grasped one of the chains and steadied the wooden seat, then she turned, and with one hand still on the splinter-friendly slat, she bent her knees until the chains supported her weight. Her other hand came up then, unsure of where to go, starting low, hip-height, grasping the thick metal links, and then moving one, two times.

He didn’t want her to know he was watching; he knelt down to rifle through his bag, page through his copy of The Tanzanian National Curriculum, check his watch. Then he looked up into the sky—it was late afternoon, color and shape were coming back into the world, greens became greener, the flowers on the hedge glowed a deep purple, the dirt of the road no longer glared like an old bleached bone, the bars on the open gate lined up neat and long. The leggy shadow of the swing set stretched out towards him. He turned his head half away.

Shangwe tested the movement of the seat, pushing herself in a small circle, and then, wanting to appear easy on this unstable plaything, she walked her feet back almost to the edge of the scuffed-out dirt hollow, straightened in the seat and swung forward, tipping her feet up towards the sky and leaning back just as she reached the apex of her swing. The chains bellied, he saw the lean length of her leg, her white slip fluttered, the chains snapped gently back to straight, and Shangwe swung gracelessly back, her legs stuck out in front of her, her brow wrinkled, the corners of her mouth turned slightly down.

He continued to watch, embarrassed at the awkwardness of her movement—he didn’t quite know what to do, or how to do it, or whether he should do anything at all. He knew only what he wanted to do, and that sent a nervous tremor down his arms, along his jaw. After Shangwe had swung back and then leadenly forward, after he had thought through the words he would need—he wanted to say this in English, using Kiswahili would throw them into a sort of intimacy that he wanted to avoid because he knew she would not like it—he spoke, “Shangwe, please. May I show you how to swing?”


When Shangwe was fifteen her mother had finally been persuaded to visit a doctor about the lump that grew in her belly but did not press or kick or heave over to get out but simply grew, hard and certain, for over a year. It would have to be cut out, the doctor told her. Her mother wailed, sobbing to Shangwe’s father that she’d lost him a child and how could he forgive her. Her husband asked that the doctors bring the mass of tumor to her after the surgery, hoping to convince her finally that there had been no child, no loss but a saving instead, but she only ululated the more when she saw the shiny silver basin and what it contained. They sedated her and sent the cast-off lump to the incinerator.

It was Shangwe’s brother who told her she couldn’t continue with school, that the surgery had taken all their money. Then he went off to Nairobi to a boarding school, the funds for which had not been anesthetized, cut out, and thrown to the flames. Shangwe and the younger ones, two sisters and another brother, were left at home. She folded their uniforms away, stacked up their notebooks, and resolved to study on her own.

Shangwe’s mother came back to them much reduced in girth and mourning the loss of a phantom child. She tried to nurse the youngest again, three-year-old Upendo, but the toddler pushed the flat breast away, squirmed out of her mother’s lap, and ran to where Shangwe stood in the doorway, watching.

Large-eyed Zawadi started going to the market with their father when the mornings had not yet opened up the sky. Their father sold potatoes and ginger root, sometimes large stinking heads of cabbage, and Zawadi followed people around as they shopped, trying to sell them a sky blue plastic bag from his neat stack when they bought their kilo of onions, their pile of mangos. He grew both bolder and quieter, and after six months their father shook his head one morning saying only that Zawadi should stay home with the others, with Shangwe as she cooked and cleaned, with their mother who put a hand to her belly every once in a while and gave a great sigh, with the girls that Shangwe fed and washed and tried to teach.

Zawadi told her two days after he’d been consigned back to the house that he would run away, live on his own. “How?” she asked, and he held out the collection of coins he’d plucked from the folds of her very own kanga. But the months passed and he stayed, untangling the goat’s rope, digging in the garden, scuffing dirt up in the street. Shangwe stopped looking at him each time he left the house like it might be the last time.


Shangwe stopped swinging, embarrassed, and started to stand saying, “No, no, thank you, Teacher. I . . . ”

“Sit down, it’s easy. I’ll show you.”

She sat and he took a seat on the swing next to her.

He pushed himself back and forth, trying to work out exactly how one did swing, when the legs went up, how the body moved, trying not to hope the wind would pick up, flutter her dress aside to reveal her leg. He willed himself to focus.

“Watch, Shangwe. When I go forward my legs are out, backwards they are under. Forwards out, backwards under. Start with that.” It was such easy, natural movement, almost as though the earth swung away from him and he stayed still, a warm breeze against his scalp. He wanted this feeling to smooth the wrinkles from her forehead, to produce for him the laugh he’d heard from her only once.

Shangwe studied him, unsure, and then walked a few steps back to try again. Again her legs shot up at the peak of her swing, bellying the chains, almost tipping her into the dust.


The shame of it all was that just when Shangwe’s mother had gone to the hospital clutching her large hard belly, Shangwe herself had two months of a child in her flat stomach. The father was the brother of one of her girlfriends; he’d been home from boarding school on his June break when he’d put a hand on her breast one long afternoon and then pushed his tongue inside her mouth. The wet shock of it had given her a thrill of pleasure, and she’d come back the next afternoon and the next.

She’d been counting the weeks before the teachers at her school would notice the stretch of the uniform around her middle and force her to leave. She had wondered if she would be able to plead that it was not a child, just a growth like her mother’s.

Shangwe wrote to the child’s father. He did not write back.

Hers was, she knew, the usual story. And for this she cried in her bed at night, for this she stopped her work sometimes and stood, waiting for a solution to come to her. She’d wanted something more than what happened to most girls—most good girls, most smart girls, most bad girls—any way she looked at it, she’d wanted to break out of what usually happened. She had wanted the unexpected, the surprising. She wanted to be like those English women, those Americans, those Germans, who came to her country in their drab clothes with no children and no husbands, even at twenty-three, twenty-five. They had, she’d heard them say over and over, an education.

Soon after her mother’s loss, Shangwe had felt cramps low in her own belly and then a sly and violent sort of bleeding had begun. Shangwe had tried not to feel anything. No one knew. None of it had happened. Except that it all had happened, and now she spent her days at home scrubbing dirt and food and fluids from the clothes, from the floors, from the dishes, from her small sisters’ bodies.


“Don’t lean back yet, Shangwe. Watch,” he said, trying to will her crazy slant-swing under control, trying not to reach out for her, touch her arm, steady her. “Let’s just do the legs. Out. Under. Out. Under.”

She swung, her legs still moving late, not quite on his command. He made her stop and they both started together, small gentle sweeps forward, the movement settling in his belly, the nearness of her there, too.

“Good, Shangwe, good. Out. Under. Out. Under.” Her movement was still not right, but it was better. “Now watch this. Here I lean back. Here I pull forward. See how it goes with the legs?” He’d switched into Kiswahili without meaning to and his cheeks burned with embarrassment.

He swung, launching himself higher and higher until he could see over the hedge to the road and the houses beyond, grinning like a child, and then he slowed, dragging his feet, his arc decreasing, his face remaking itself into something measured, calm. Shangwe started again, trying to follow his words but making crazy shimmies out of it all. She stopped, started again.

“Body back, legs out. Pull your body forward, legs go under,” he continued, but she was still off—moving her legs and her body just barely too late.


Shangwe had started to see her life as a mirror of her mother’s, her sisters’ lives a mirror of her own. There had been, in her family as in many families, a move towards education. This had pleased the government, made the numbers Tanzania presented to the world look better, but in the end it made Shangwe know only that there was knowledge to be had and that she was not to have it—all because of a swelling belly and, in the end, not even her own. The rhythms of school had subsided and been replaced. Rules that squatted blankly on a page, the sharp voice of a teacher, the sweaty smells of the other girls and their laughter as they all walked home in the heat of the afternoon, their long dusty legs and arms scissoring lazily through the air—these had all given way to other routines: rising, preparing the fire to cook chapattis, moving crabwise over the floor with a rag and a bucket, the smell of the iron on damp cloth, throwing leftover rice to the dogs, sawing at the throat, once in while, of a chicken.

Shangwe saw before her a steady gathering of days marked only by the soreness of her knees, the addition of a piece of clothing to wash, the drying up of the wells. Through all of this her flesh would change as inevitably as water leaked from her cracked buckets, and her future would grow smaller a day at a time. Just as the sun rose and fell, so their bodies would go, so they would soil and then clean, so they would eat and then defecate. So it would continue until she died. It was all there, the future, right in the present, and Shangwe saw no room for anything surprising.

Each evening, when there was a breeze and her work had been pushed back, waiting for the next day, Shangwe studied her notebooks. After a few months, she’d memorized everything she’d written during her few years of schooling. Still, she looked at them, sure that the equations she knew could lead to others, that the names of capitals well-ingrained could help her guess the names of rivers, that science begat science, grammar rules spawned grammar rules, that the English words would multiply.

Some mornings her mother cooked and Shangwe took the little ones, Upendo, Tumu, and Zawadi, and taught them what she could—songs, numbers, spelling. One day in the middle of a lesson outside, Shangwe watched as the neighbor’s scabby dog trotted by with something in his mouth. He stopped near them, shook his head savagely from side to side, and then continued on. Shangwe saw the limp form of a kitten hanging from his jaws as he moved away.

Her throat constricted and her eyes burned. She got up then, holding a hand to her head, claiming malaria. She spent the next two days in bed, sweating under the sheet pulled over her shoulders, wondering how people continued when everything about their lives was already known.


Shangwe was beginning to find the right rhythm, he saw, pleased. Slowly her movements were coming to match the actions he spoke aloud. Even so, her swinging degenerated, always. Each time she slowed, stopped, began again. And sometimes for two, three swings, she’d have it right. His face ached from the smiles, the laughter he held back. He’d watched her enough to know she would not appreciate him congratulating her for something she felt she ought to already know.

He stood to the side now. The afternoon had dimmed and the edge of the sky on the other side of the hedge had shown pink and orange the last time he’d risen up that far on his swing.

Shangwe was moving higher now, slightly unsteady, still climbing.

“Can you see the sunset?” he asked her.

“What?” she said, and he knew her brow was wrinkled with the question.

“The sunset, over the hedge—can you see it?”

He watched her head turn as she swung up, watched the furrows smooth away from her forehead, watched the smile spread into her lips, her cheeks, her eyes.

“Yes,” she said. “Yes, I can see. I can see the sunset.”


These were her dreams now: she wanted to marry, she wanted to pass her secondary school exams, she wanted to visit one of her country’s national parks—those places that brought so many foreigners to Tanzania. These were everyone’s dreams. She was embarrassed to have them and embraced them, too. These dreams meant that she need not think of the dreams she’d let loose of: enough English to study at a college, learning everything there was to know about sea animals—whales and manatees, turtles—a life outside this town, this country maybe, a trip on a boat bobbing on the ocean she’d never seen, a house of her own with tile floors, a sewing machine.

Her older brother had failed out of boarding school, had tried a trade school, left after seven months and was now fixing bicycles on a corner in Dar es Salaam. Zawadi had finally gone, just when no one had expected it and years after his conversation with Shangwe. Her sisters did what she did every day—washed, cooked, cleaned, waited. Shangwe studied them, hoping to see them change the course of things, do something that she hadn’t already guessed at, turned over in her mind, discarded. She watched Tumu especially—the way her chapattis came out so light, the curve of her neck when she stood at the edge of the garden and watched the neighbors’ lives. If anyone could change the future by stepping out of the present, Tumu had the best chance.

The only thing that had come Shangwe’s way was a job at the primary school three streets away from her house. She was hired to sweep and scrub and tidy the small rooms in the afternoons, when the children had gone. Every day she rushed to clean the floors, swab the bathrooms, arrange the teaching materials, and then she spent a few hours crouching over a small desk, trying to make sense of the books and papers left there on the shelves. Sometimes, if the teacher had not yet gone home, she would gather up the courage to ask a small question: is a crocodile an animal or a fish? What does the English word “yacht” mean? How is it that one time of day in Tanzania is a different time of day in America?


Shangwe was catching on, beginning to feel the ease of the rhythm that swung her up and up in a long, clean arc—he could see it, could see that she felt it.

Darkness was gathering around the trunks of trees, beneath the eaves of houses. In the cooling air, Shangwe felt that she was escaping all of that; that somehow where she was, moving higher and higher, that the hemming in of the dark could not reach her. Her skirt ruffled around her legs, she closed her eyes at the silky feel of the air rushing past, sending one lone shiver along her spine.

“I think you’ve got it, Shangwe,” he said, smiling up at her, feeling the rush of air as she passed him. He wondered, as she swung away from him and back again, if she would let him put a hand on her back as he led her through the gate, if she would let him walk her home, and if tomorrow, she would have another question for him, and he hoped that somehow he would be able to string the answer into a sentence that would make her smile the way she was smiling now.

Shangwe opened her eyes, saw the still figure below her caught up in the deepening dark. And it was strange, she thought, she could see so many sides of him as she moved. It was as if she was not seeing him in the usual way but from everywhere at once. She swung, saw one ear, then the other, saw the front of his face, then rotated and saw the top of his head, his shoulders. She saw his tall body and then it shortened as she was above it. There was a roundness to his head that she had never quite noticed before and a malleability. He was not just standing beside her, long-legged and narrow-shouldered, but he was standing beneath her too, and she could imagine for a moment what she must look like, swinging through the air, rising and then falling. He must be able to see this multiplicity of herself too. She watched and watched, saw the hedge take on a new dimensionality, saw glimpses of the road curving palely down the hill as she rose up over the hedge again and then again.

Shangwe’s chest felt too large. Her eyes stung with tears, and she was glad that darkness had come down so that the man waiting for her could not see her face. She swung back and forth, back and forth.  end  

return to top