Since August, many of you have been writing to ask after, and offer assistance to, Bill Clinton Hadam's 20-year-old sister Neema. As you may remember, the onetime runaway and her 4-year-old son are living in Tanzania, separated from her family and anxious to be reunited with them. After months of saving and planning, this weekend, if all goes well, I will travel to Dar es Salaam to meet Neema and Briton, and to spend several weeks getting to know them and learning about the time their family spent as refugees. As often as possible, I'll post updates about the experience of what one Pixar-and pun-loving friend has called: "finding Neema."But even the preparations for the trip have been an adventure. Beyond all the shots and logistics, getting ready to go meet their daughter has changed both my relationships with, and my sense of, mom Dawami and stepdad Hassan.
With Dawami, it's made things more complex. She's unable to leave the US until she receives a green card, a process that could take months. So there's no way she could be heading off on this trip herself right now, even if she could afford a ticket. Still, understandably, she seems conflicted about not being the one going to visit her child - whom she hasn't seen for more than seven years.
Meantime, the planning is complicating my understanding of Dawami's family. Last June, she told me - or at least, I thought she told me - that she came from a family of six full- and seven half-siblings, and that her parents were still living. From time to time, I've asked where they all are, and whether she has contact with them, without discovering much. I thought this might be a lost-in-translation issue. So this weekend, before visiting her, I drew up a family tree including her parents, her former husband, and all of the siblings she's mentioned. The idea was to learn whether any other family members are still in Tanzania, and whether I might visit them.
But when I unrolled the tree, Dawami reacted with anger.
"Why you make like this?" she asked. When I explained, she said: "No brother, no sister," and with her finger indicating slashing off the branch of the tree with all of her siblings on it.
"No one?" I asked.
Dawami drew a circle with her finger around her, Hassan, Bill, Igey, Neema, and Briton. "This family. This only family," she said.
I drew a line through the branch, between her and her next-younger brother Obadi (33), lopping off him and sisters Geneva (32) and Grace (29), brothers Fidelis (27) and Focus (23), and baby sister Gorit (21), of whom she keeps a treasured photo. She seemed slightly mollified. And though I tried to ask gently, I couldn't get to the bottom of why. I plan to ask through a translator when we meet this afternoon. So, to be continued....
At the same time, the planning has brought me closer to her husband Hassan, who - contrary to the impression he gave this fall - seems genuinely excited about the trip. He's packing a suitcase of presents to send to Neema, Briton, and other acquaintances, and though he has yet to discover online social networking, he's been calling and getting back in touch with friends and relatives all over Tanzania with a new-to-Facebook zeal. They've responded with warm messages of karibu (welcome in Swahili).Today he called me excitedly and revealed: "To everybody I say: My sister is coming to see you. Mary, my sister mzungu.' They say: Oh, you have sister mzungu?' I say, She come see problem for refugees.' "
One friend, he reported, enthused: "Nice, nice, nice! Welcome, welcome!"
Technically, mzungu is the Swahili word for "European." In practice, it's an all-purpose term for "white-person-in-Africa," first reported by 19th-century missionaries and explorers, and deriving from the word zungua: to go round, to travel, or to be tiresome.So long as we're not tiresome to you, though, follow our travels on Twitter for the latest Little Bill Clinton project updates.