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  • Writer's pictureNeema Komba

Radio Street

I live on Radio Street, in Finnish, Radiokatu. Most days when my research gives me trouble, which it always does, I think of it as a sign that I should get out of academia and get into radio. Our apartment sits on a small hill, and this winter, everything around is covered in a thick blanket of snow. When snow starts to melt a little, it feels like very coarse sand under your boots, and you walk with a bit of faith that there will be some traction but remain unsure that you will make it to your destination without falling. Walking on packed snow reminds me of walking in Golani, my old neighbourhood in Dar es Salaam, after it rains; the road is deceptively sandy on top and all clay in the bottom. There is a mastery to walking on slippery roads, which I have none of. For some reason, slippery things just beckon to me – come, and fall here. I have a knack for falling on my butt at the most inconvenient of times and places.

I have taken a liking to walking outside in wintertime. The crisp air is like medicine, bitter on the first lick, but healing. In most afternoons, Radio Street is silent but for the sound of your boots grazing crystal snow, the swish-swish of your snow pants when you walk, and the distant hum of cars on the highway. Everything sensible is asleep – the birds in their nests, the rabbits in their holes, except for two ravens dancing on snow-covered branches of a birch tree. I like to walk around Radio Street. I walk behind apartment buildings, and studio buildings, into the central park forest. There are often many people in the forest, walking dogs, skiing, sledding on small hills, running, especially when the weather is nice. Winter weather can be nice too, especially somewhere between zero and -10 degrees, centigrade of course, and no wind. In winter, sunny days are often the coldest. Nature, too, is well versed in deception. Some of the nicest days look awful from the window, grey clouds and white snow clinging on skeletons of trees making the world look like a black and white photograph, asleep, or half dead. But when you step outside, everything asleep in you awakens.

There is a freedom in walking around Radio Street that makes it feel like home, or somewhere close to it. It’s been a while since I have felt this freedom so far away from Dar es Salaam. Here, I don’t worry about getting shot in the streets by the police the way I did when I lived in Tampa or Columbus in the United States. Even though I am often the only black person in my walks, it’s not a cause of panic. In my first year here, I followed Aki’s nephew, Kasper, on his neighbourhood exploits and encountered a situation that affirmed my freedom. My husband, Aki is the reason I find myself in Radio Street. We met during our graduate studies at the University of Tampa and decided to move to Helsinki after. Kasper was my very first friend in Finland although I spoke zero Finnish, and he, zero English. For reasons I cannot explain, he decided to let me hang out with him, making my life incredibly easy. Unlike adults, who are often careful when they talk to you the first time, Kasper was carefree, talking to me in Finnish, repeating himself until I got what he was trying to tell me.

On that day, Aki and I took Kasper for a walk in the forest. He ran ahead as usual and disappeared into the shrubs. Of course, I followed him because I didn’t know how to tell him to come back. At this point, we had lost Aki, since he had to fetch the ball Kasper kicked in a completely different direction than we were heading. Having inherited all my mom’s cautiousness and mother hen’s protectiveness I used to despise when I was younger, I followed Kasper into the shrubs until we eventually appeared in someone’s backyard. So, there we were, in a backyard next to the forest in a small town in Finland. Me, a black woman who can’t speak Finnish trying to get Kasper, a white Finnish child, to go with me, and him running away from me.

The owner of the house, who so absolutely hated people in his backyard that it was the only fenced house in the entire neighbourhood, came out of the house yelling to keep us out (I am guessing). Seeing us, he froze. Seeing him, we froze. Kasper put his finger on his lips, then called to me to follow him, “Tule Neema,” whispering, as if being silent would make us invisible.

“What are you doing in my backyard?” Asked the man with pale blonde hair, almost white, and an all-white attire. First in Finnish, then in English when he realized I didn’t understand him. Clearly, Kasper’s whispering did not work.

“I am trying to get Kasper to go with me.”

My heart was pounding. I kept thinking, what if Finland were just like America, and this man thinks the worst of me, brings out his shotgun and shoots me.

“He is my husband’s nephew.” I said, pointing to Kasper to clear any misunderstandings, even though he hadn’t asked anything.

“Oo ho!” He said, not moving from where he was standing. Perhaps he could tell that I was afraid.

“I don’t like people in my backyard”, he added, pointing to a sign that says that in Finnish.

“Sorry,” I said. Meanwhile, Kasper was trying to sneak out through the same shrubs he came through. I stood there for a second and decided to make a run for it too.

“Sorry,” I shouted again, not knowing what else to say, and crawled through the same shrubs Kasper did and ran after him through yet another backyard.

Perhaps, this is why I enjoy walking around Radio Street. I imagine myself invisible, non-threatening, blending to the street like everyone else who walks around here. Even before the covid-19 pandemic, people at Radio street kept to themselves. Even the dogs of Radio street are quiet. Once, I heard my neighbour’s dog bark and I was stunned that in the two years I have lived there, that was the first and last time I heard this dog bark. My apartment is on the fifth floor, and judging by the doors on our floors, we have at least two neighbours. I have never met a single one of them.

Back in my hometown, I used to know every one of my neighbours, and my sisters’ and brothers’ neighbours, even when they lived in apartment flats. When you live in a place, you quickly learn everyone’s name in the neighbourhood. You form relationships with at least the shopkeeper and the genge owner because you never know when you might need something for the house, and you don’t have the money. Growing up, my mother had a shop, so not only did we have to know our neighbours, they also had to know us.

When we were children, every single one of us had to work in my mother’s shop on weekends and made sure to close the books on weekdays. Even though we had a shopkeeper, we were still the ones responsible for making sure everything ran smoothly. I enjoyed working in the shop, mostly because I could eat five-shilling biscuits all I wanted. I used to think of it as my payment, but my mom made me write every single biscuit I ate in the debtors register. But I think I liked observing the people that came to our shop the most. The fidgety old women. The rushing mothers. The forgetful children, who need to make several rounds because they always forget what their mothers sent them to get. When you are a shopkeeper, you must make sure everyone feels welcomed. You cannot treat anyone differently. You must be friendly, even when you don’t smile. And you must be fast. When someone comes to get a small scoop of cooking oil, you do not waste their time. Sometimes, they already have the pot on the stove, and they realize that they are out of cooking oil. So, they run to the shop with a cup, or a small bottle and buy 50-shillings worth of vegetable oil. Even though I was a child when we had this shop, I learned how to read people. It is also in this shop that my sisters and I got a sneak peek of what it will be like to be women out in the world.

My brothers didn’t get to learn discomfort the way my sisters and I did when we worked at the shop, even though we were all involved with the shop. At my house, responsibility and chores had no gender. We were all expected to do things - wash dishes, clean, help in the farm, feed the baby (I was the baby), wash clothes. My parents made it so that we didn’t feel so different from each other. Same treatment, Same expectations. Working in the store as young girls was different though, it was like being on display. There were men, grown men, who were always disappointed whenever they found me instead of my older sister, then still a teenager. They often came for nothing important, a matchbox, a pack of batteries or a single cigarette. They'd make small talk and ask where my sister was. Whenever my sister was at the shop, they’d linger and peer at her, they’d want her to squirm at their gaze. Sometimes, whenever she would see one of those men coming from afar, she’d come out of the store and ask for me or someone else to replace her. But we still had to treat everyone the same and make them feel welcome because we were shopkeepers.

At Radio Street, we buy things from a small K-market, some five minutes away from our apartment. I don’t know the cashier’s name or anything about their lives. I don’t think they even live close by. They often rotate between two cashiers. One of them, a stocky young man, is friendly. He speaks with an accent that tells me he is not from Helsinki. He elongates his greeting. Paivää! I don’t speak Finnish well. I have learned how to order things, but often get lost when they start asking me things in between my order. The other day, I was at a sports store in the mall near our house, and the cashier asked me in Finnish if I wanted a small black bag. I had just learned the sentence about a bag, but he just had to add those descriptors to throw me off. I knew what black was in Finnish, musta. I knew what small was in Finnish, pieni. I knew what bag was in Finnish, kassi. But when the cashier put the three of them together, in one fast sentence, I had no idea what he was saying.

But I don’t have to worry so much about language in Radio Street. I have formed imaginary friends in my head to talk to in Swahili, because I don’t know anyone but my husband in this street. You must love your spouse to live in Radio Street, because they are your only neighbour and friend. I have gotten used to this kind of distance from people, long before the covid-19 pandemic came. At Radio Street, I have developed an ability to be alone without being lonely. Back in Dar es Salaam, I preferred my own space, which was almost impossible to get in a house full of people. Growing up with four older siblings, a multitude of cousins in our house, visitors from the village coming to the city for the first time, and my grandmother, and aunts and uncles, our house was more a village than a house. In the 90s after my father killed most of my mother’s pigs (not on purpose, that man is not a farmer), my mom converted all the barns into small apartments and we had a lot of tenants in our ‘small village’. It was difficult to find a moment to be alone, just you and your thoughts. Even in the middle of the night, we had to share that silence with our dogs, all eleven of them.

My old street didn’t have road names, the whole area was Golani. We named each house after the owner. My house was ‘Kwa Komba’, then ‘Kwa Dr. Komba’, ‘Kwa Prof. Komba’, according to my father’s mobility in academia. Once, there were three Komba’s in the vicinity, all of them Dr. Komba. One was a vet and the other Komba a lecturer, like my dad. Yet everyone who asked for directions to any of their houses, were shown to our house first because we had a shop. But also, because we had a car, and in the 90s when I was growing up, our Toyota Pick Up was a community car. My parents had to be ready at any moment to be woken up, and drive someone somewhere. A woman going into labour. A sick child. A sick grandfather. It was the funeral car. A party car - for weddings, first communions and confirmations. It was a cargo car and a moving car. It was also a community adventure car. Back then, whenever our parents travelled by plane, the children in the neighbourhood would all come along with us to the airport. We all sat in the back of the truck, while my father or mother drove to the airport. And we would all go there early, so that we could watch the planes land and take off. Back then, the airport felt like another world. Bright lights. Airplane noise. Travellers with all sorts of different bags. Whoever is arriving, would be greeted by an entire crew of neighbourhood children. And in those days, before gulf airlines were a big thing, most planes were European and arrived at god awful hours. But we stayed wide awake.

There is a certain freedom that comes with not knowing your neighbours. Last week, when I fell flat on my butt, I just got up without an ounce of shame. No one would be able to say that woman, who lives on 19 B fell on her arse in the forest. They probably don’t know each other well enough to gossip. Sometimes, I have shared an elevator or the gym with someone from my building. But often, I wait for them to be empty to use them. I have gotten used to distance, and solitude. I have discovered that I love doing certain things alone - exercising, walking, pretend running, squatting, any exercise really. I do not relish camaraderie when my body is making all these alien sounds. But I have learned that time alone is only valuable when you have someone to be alone from. Solitude is precious because there is noise, and stillness is ideal because there is hassle.

But not knowing your neighbours is also a sign of privilege. That you can get by without someone’s help, no need to ask for a bit of salt or cooking oil when yours is running out. I learned about privilege early in life. Growing up in Golani, everything we had, we had to share, because so many people didn’t have the same. We had shelves full of books, and every day, my parents brought back newspapers. Some elders came to our house just to read the newspaper. We weren’t the only ones in our street to have a car, or books, or things from the time our parents studied abroad. There were some much wealthier neighbours, with more than one car, and television sets. But they also had gates, you had to ring a bell to get them to come to the door. Our house stood naked in the middle of the street, without so many barriers with the rest of our neighbours. People walked in and out of our compound to say hello, rested under the mango tree and asked for water, brought gossip about who and what, neighbourhood children played rede and football outside the house. For many years, my father refused to fence our house.

Living in the alone-ness of Radio Street, I often think about my neighbours in Golani. How we walked in and out of each other’s house. Those Sunday mornings when someone rushes to borrow a comb, or body oil for their ashy legs. One day, we were all out of body oil, so my neighbour asked to use vegetable oil instead. We had this neighbour, Adam, who was always so acidic when we went to collect mangoes or sugarcanes from his farm, but would always come to our house for dinner as if he hadn’t spent all day kicking us out of his compound.

“Aisee, we mkulima.” My dad would sing his famous phrase whenever Adam dropped by during mealtime, pulling out a chair for him and giving him an extra plate. The phrase means ‘You are a farmer’, but I have never understood what that had to do with him coming at mealtime. There was always an extra plate for him because he seldom missed dinner with us.

Dinner at my house wasn’t always a feast, but it was most certainly a bustling commotion. We were always at least 15 people in the house every single day. The ugali was always big, one needed strength to make it. The kids were noisy and mischievous. My cousins and I often tried to get each other in trouble. There was always someone trying to make someone laugh or talk or do something not allowed at the dinner table. My parents wanted us to have some quiet dinner, but that was always a feat to achieve. Back in the 90s when kenge (monitor lizards), terrorized my grandmother’s chicken coup, my cousins and I took it upon ourselves to catch and torture them. Our first kenge catch wasn’t glamorous, in fact, it was the first time I saw my father run. And by run, I mean bolt out of fear leaving all his children behind. The kenge, after eating all the eggs, got itself stuck in our sewage system, and kept knocking the pipes while my elder sister was in the shower. So, we blocked one end of a septic tank, and poured water in the pipes until the kenge sprang out of the septic tank. Everyone surrounded the septic tank with some weapon, ready to strike when it got out... My father, who had the heaviest weapon, a sururu (pickaxe), was the first to run when the kenge came out. The rest of the family followed, leaving only Peter, the gardener, to face off with the kenge. Peter hit the kenge just below its head with a hoe and killed it in one blow. If he had struck it anywhere else, the hoe would have bounced off on its thick skin. That was the day we learned how to kill a kenge. And in the next few months, we used that knowledge cruelly. We hunted some kenge down, tied them with a sisal rope, and paraded them around the neighbourhood. Kids would throw stones until the kenge died. At dinner, one of my cousins would try to remind us of all the gross things that hung out of the kenge, and I would lose my appetite. My mom would get cross with me for leaving food on the table. After a while, kenges stopped coming to the neighbourhood to eat our eggs and stayed safely in marshes by the river.

In the 90s, before many people moved to our street, many of the areas were farms or bushes. We, too, had a few orange trees, a patch of cassava and sweet potatoes, a lot of sugarcanes and banana trees. There were also a lot of snakes around. Often, everyone kept jiwe la nyoka in their house. The stone, which allegedly might be a burnt giraffe bone, was used to suck the poison out if a person was bitten. Back then, anti-venom shots were rare, and snakes were plenty, so this was the single most valuable item in the house. It was normal to run into at least one snake a week, or if you liked to spend time in bushes, one snake a day. We learned to tell the deadliness of snakes by their colour. The green ones were often harmless, while the black ones were poisonous. We learned that if there was a smell of roasted potatoes or some nice food in a shrub, we had to keep away because there was probably a python habitat. Sometimes, snakes fell off trees, or just appeared in front of the house. Once, my cousin stood face to face with a cobra, and just froze there, until the cobra went on with its business. She was lucky that nothing happened. In another instance, one of my sisters got bitten by a poisonous black snake and no one could find the stone in the house. My brothers rushed to each of our next-door neighbours’ houses, and each came with a stone in hand. We made a small incision on the bitten area and put the snake stone. The stone stuck until all the poison was out, then it fell to the ground. To this day, I don’t know the science of this stone.

Snakebites were a normal part of our growing up. It was the sort of thing that happened when you left children to their own devices. And we were often left to our own devices, scraping every single inch of nature that surrounded us. We fished in the river and hunted for birds. We climbed on tamarind trees, and zambarau trees, and mikungu, and furu trees. My elder brother and sister were such successful climbers that they had a small zambarau and furu business when they were in school, that is, they sold them to their classmates. Golani, in those days was all shrubs and forest, not so thick, but thick enough to be warned about. But living that close to the forest was always thrilling, and a little bit dangerous.

I think this is why I love living in Radio Street, which is only a few metres from the central park forest. It reminds me of Golani, of being young and careless, of sliding down muddy hills, and getting bitten by snakes, or stung by bees. It reminds me of eating wild fruits-- mabungo, maembe ng’ong’o, and makungu. I spend my Radio Street summers in the forest too, picking blueberries, raspberries, and mushrooms. I haven’t encountered snakes yet, only mosquitoes. I feel at home in nature, in its peacefulness, in the whisper of the wind through the trees and the songs of insects. When I was in first grade, my favourite activity was kubaka panzi, which literally translates to ‘raping grasshoppers’ but really just means catching them. I used to spend hours in fields chasing after them. I would catch them in my small hands and feel them tickle as they tried to escape. Then I would release them back into freedom and watch them dance. I knew, even then, not to cage anything that was meant to run free. I don’t catch insects in central park, but I still try to listen to their sounds, and guess what insect is making which sound. I cannot really name the critters after their sound yet, but it is always fun to try.

There is a silence in Radio Street that feels empty, that needs to be filled with something that reminds you of life. I recognize the silence because I remember the time before a similar silence engulfed my hometown. Golani used to wake up to adhana, the muslim call for prayer. Back in the day, the sound travelled far, all the way from the Kibo masjid, which was about 30 minutes from our house. It was our first alarm. Then there were the neighbourhood cocks that crowed every morning. Kokorikoo. The children roused, and walked to school, crossing mto Kunambi on foot, and the forest to Mlimani Primary School. These days, the first roar of a bodaboda rouses earlier than the adhana, and the streets start bustling early with cars, motorcycles and exhaust fumes. The more affluent families put their children in school buses and send them off to English medium schools in better parts of the city. The less affluent walk to the government primary schools nearby, brooms and jerry cans in hand. There are no places to play and run wild that are not your own fenced yard. There are no mango trees to rest under, or grass to catch grasshoppers that are not in your own fenced yard. The front yards are paved with concrete blocks. The old cassava and sugarcane fields are now beautiful houses with colourful roofs, and fences.

It seems, the more our street grew and progressed, the less neighbourly it became. No one wanted a naked house. People cut down their thorny michongoma and put up concrete fences with broken glass on top, or electric lines. These fences started as a sign of wealth, the more affluent you were the higher your fence since you had more to protect from thieves or your neighbours’ eyes. And then the fences grew higher, and the thieves came, and we hired security guards, and we were no longer allowed in the forests, and the shrubs. You don’t just meet your neighbours outside their houses in your evening walks. In my childhood, my father and I walked around our street hand in hand. He took me everywhere, or perhaps, I followed him everywhere. We stopped by all our neighbours’ houses. At Mwakyusa’s house, they would discuss sungusungu duties (neighbourhood watch), and how terrible the road is. We would stand for a long time, and seldom go inside. Mama Edina, Mwakyusa’s wife, would call us to sit down, but then my father would say we were just passing by the road. They would continue talking again about street business, whether we should all pitch in to dig drainage so the road doesn’t get completely eroded during the rainy season, or how we need a bridge that would last longer than one rain season. Then we would walk down further, past “kwa Nyirenda'', where Pendo, my sister’s best friend and nemesis lived. Then we would walk to Mahenge’s house. Mahenge was my father’s best friend. We went to visit him almost daily. They talked about different things, writing grants, landscaping, and so forth. Mahenge loved landscaping. His house was always beautifully done, something that never happened at my house. At my house, there was always construction going on. My mother loves to build. A new tenant unit. A store front. Something, always something. One year, before I left home for school, we had a beautiful garden in front of our house, with manicured grass, and plenty of flowers. When I returned for holiday, there was a duplex for rent where the garden once was.

“You can’t eat grass,” My mother said.

Golani hasn’t become as silent as Radio Street. There are still the roars of bodaboda, adhana, and Church bells. There are still invitations to iftar, and maulid, and first communion, and confirmation, and jumuiya meetings (small catholic communities), and some remnants of the old neighbourly days. Walking around Radio Street reminds me of all the things we lost, and all the things we gained, and all the things I had forgotten for a while.

Yesterday, I ran into my neighbours by the stairs for the first time.

“Moi!” they greeted me cheerfully, and I awkwardly bowed, as if I were in Korea instead of Finland. The silent dog wagged its tail. I smiled and waved at the fully covered toddler with snow coveralls (hallarit), a beanie and a hoodie, with only his face visible - popular Finnish winter fashion. The child smiled back and kept waving until I was out of the building. Although it was -17 degrees, and windy, it was the warmest day I have had on Radio Street for the two years I have lived here.

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