MOSHI, Tanzania—Over the course of the week I have noticed that my eyebrows are reaching for the middle of my forehead like long-lost siblings, straining to reunite and make me look like the lovechild of Frida and Groucho. They have no respect for the fact that I am in a country where women are more likely to shave their eyebrows and pencil them in for the rest of their lives than to shape them into the thin, pointy arches that I’m told improve bone structure. I had this problem the first time I came to Tanzania, three years ago, and it resulted in a memory card of unusable photos. But the situation has since improved: Last year, in Dar es Salaam, I found Zainab.
I had seen many South Asian women in Dar, most of whom had perfectly nice eyebrows. And, being Indian, I know this was not natural. One afternoon, I got in a taxi and asked the driver to take me to a salon frequented by Indian or Arab women. This isn’t a strange request in Tanzania, where most small businesses have neither public phone number, nor address, nor name. They’re just that stationary store near that nursery school whose owner has a kid named Abdullah.
The driver and I stopped at the nearest Indian grocery store, where he asked a woman in a full veil to give me the name of a place. Suddenly animated, she wrote down a number for me, “Zainab, she is a good woman, she will give you a good price!” She continued, “We are one.” If you are ever in Dar es Salaam and need to get your eyebrows threaded: Zainab has that salon across from Muhimbili Hospital, but not the entrance near the taxi stand.
In much the same way, I found Jyoti in Moshi. This time it was my waitress at Deli Chez, who took me to a four-room house behind a dry cleaner. Jyoti threads eyebrows, does facials, dyes gray hair with henna, and sells imported sandals and salwars in her living room. (Or is it a dining room? It has a fridge. Or a bedroom? It has a bed.) I can hear her kids watching Indian soap operas while I get my eyebrows done.
Jyoti’s daughter, Aisha, is around my age. Her skin is a pale yellow color, lacking the glossy finish gifted by the Tanzanian sun. Her English is melodic and uneven, unlike the rapid-fire patter of my African Tanzanian friends. I ask her when she moved to Tanzania from India and she laughs: her family has been here for over forty years. Forty years! And yet, I could mistake Aisha for a classmate of my cousin in Delhi. I wonder how her skin and accent have been protected—if she said, “ah-loh?” instead of “heh-loh” when answering the phone, did her mother correct her?
I’ve always wanted to fit in here, so I find it difficult to understand a determination to retain the differences that set people like Aisha apart. But efforts at cultural preservation do mean that in every city I know I can find a Zainab or a Jyoti—a kind, middle-aged woman who can help me look, and thus feel, like myself in a very foreign place.
Anita J. Joseph, an editorial chair, is a Social Studies concentrator in Leverett House.