Meeting Neema

In a spotless room in a dusty slum at the edge of palm-studded Dar es Salaam Tuesday morning, I met Bill Clinton's sister Neema. Right away, she considered me family - thanks to her son, who immediately christened me "Bibi" (grandma).

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    Neema John, Bill Clinton Hadam's half-sister who lives in Tanzania, beams – happy to have gotten gifts and a connection from her family in Atlanta.
    Mary Wiltenburg
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    Briton and friends share in the 'loot of love' from America.
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    Neema in her tidy slum home.
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In a spotless room in a dusty slum at the edge of palm-studded Dar es Salaam Tuesday morning, I met Bill Clinton's sister Neema. Right away, she considered me family - thanks to her son, who immediately christened me "Bibi" (grandma).

Never mind the improbability of his having a 32-year-old, white, non-Swahili-speaking grandmother. Never mind the poignancy of that mistake, or the overwhelming strangeness of receiving such a visitor in the slums of Kigogo, where chickens scramble up and down the garbage hill at the edge of the settlement, and the sight of a mzungu is rare - or, even, unprecedented, if the stares as our little party trooped around were any indication. He knew I had come from America, and to 4-year-old Briton Joseph, America is the Land of Bibi.

This was not his only misunderstanding connected with my visit. The moment we met, he began to weep: "Where is my dog?"

Aloisia Shemdoe, the astute Tanzanian social scientist who is interpreting between us, was puzzled. "I've never seen a child cry like this for a dog," she said.

The boy was inconsolable, even when we told him a dog awaited him in the suitcase we were lugging toward his home - a large stuffed dog in NBA sports attire that was a particular gift from his 7-year-old uncle, Igey. When I pulled it from the suitcase, the tears intensified. "That's a doll!" he wailed, "It's not real!"

It seems that in phonecalls over the past few days, his grandparents had hyped the dog - without clarifying whether it would be toy or live.

Briton was quickly mollified, however, when we produced the remaining contents of the suitcase, including lollipops, Igey's treasured toy helicopter, and a creepy talking Santa head. For the next few hours, he and a band of dusty, shorts-clad youngsters ran up and down the hall of the tin-roofed building, and through the maze of footpaths between their cinderblock homes, listening to the head, until they, too, were shouting to passers-by, in English: "Happy New Year!"

More tomorrow on meeting Neema herself - and on Day 2 of our visit. Meantime, to stay up to date on the journey, join us on Twitter and Facebook.Travel in Tanzania for this project is supported by The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, in Washington DC.

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