Butiama Bed & Breakfast

Butiama Bed & Breakfast

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Letter from Butiama: It wasn't me

This is one of numerous articles I wrote for the Sunday News (Tanzania) column "Letter from Butiama" between 2005 and 2011. Publication date: 27th August 2006. 
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I have a friend in Dar who once called me and thanked me, mockingly, for being in Dar without calling her.

I tried to explain unsuccessfully that I was not in Dar that, in fact, I was in Butiama. I had not been to Dar for about a year when she called me. She was not convinced. Someone had seen me at the Mwalimu Julius K. Nyerere airport, apparently having disembarked from a Mwanza flight, and struggling under the weight of a bucket full of Tilapia from Lake Victoria.

Whatever I tried to say, she remained unconvinced. I realized it was case of mistaken identity, and I recall years back when another friend told me that there was someone in Dar who looked identical to me. The friend tried to arrange a meeting with my “twin”, but I ran into my “twin” before the pre-arranged meeting. It was true that we shared some likeness. My “twin” even seemed to have a preference for batik shirts, same as I do, and kept a beard like mine.

By some strange coincidence he happens to be a scholar in some aspect of the law at the University of Dar-es-salaam. I also am trying, through the Open University of Tanzania, to become an expert in some aspect of the law.

Cases of mistaken identity range from the laughable to those with potentially serious consequences. A number of people around the world end up in jail for crimes committed by others. Some lucky individuals wrongly sentenced to death have been released before execution.

Just imagine the dire consequences of mistaken identity and yet there is one Turkish parent a few years ago in Germany who wanted to call his son Osama. German authorities refused to register the name, based on some law that prevents giving children names that could be offensive or bring ridicule.

I am often mistaken for one of my brothers who is a politician, and I usually let it pass when it is off-season. But during elections when political tempers and temperatures are unusually high, I become exceptionally proficient in saying that I am someone else.

The trouble with political campaigns these days is that some supporters and opponents always find reason to use force, and I do not want to be on the wrong side of a “forceful” argument.

Sometimes cases of mistaken identity turn to be embarrassing. I once approached someone I thought I knew, with a greeting and my hand stretched out for a handshake but he kept his hand to himself. After realizing my mistake, I apologized but the man was unruffled and did not see any problem in his reaction, which I found most impolite. Instead, he began to interrogate me to find out who I had assumed he was. It was during the last election campaigns and I resigned to the fact that strange things happen during elections.

You never know what apparently friendly people stretching out their hands to greet you can have hidden in their palms. That is what I assumed prompted that strange behaviour, especially after the man asked me whether I had mistaken him for some famous politician. It dawns on me today that he was probably taking the same precautions that I was taking against being mistaken for my brother.

When Professor Li Baoping of the University of Beijing visited Butiama for a few days in June 2003, I was having lunch with him and one of my nieces when he asked me to take a photo of him “with Mwalimu Nyerere’s granddaughter”. Later I told him I had visited China in the past and when the opportunity arises, I expect to re-visit his country.

As we exchanged addresses, he asked me whether I was related to Mwalimu Nyerere’s family. When I said I was he told me that he had assumed that I was “one of the Secretaries”.  I am still not sure if that is a positive or negative comment, but I have since been extra careful about what I wear when hosting visitors.

That friend who thought she saw me with about 20 kilos of Tilapia concluded the telephone conversation by saying something that resembled like “I hope you choke on your fish.” I had almost missed the point. It was all about the fish, I realized, not the friendship.

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