Part 3: Just For Today: TRY
Things not working out in Dar the way I had planned was a huge blessing – it meant I found the work and friends within Zanzibar’s addiction recovery community. For the 3 months I was in Zanzibar, I spent my days working with and getting to know a myriad of different men within this community, many of whom I became good friends with. I taught art class for a few hours in each house once a day, inserting something different into their otherwise regimented and structured daily routine. It was incredibly challenging, sometimes draining, surprising, inspirational and rewarding work. I am incredibly thankful to the Detroit and Free at Last Recovery Homes, who welcomed me with open arms, let me try to convince them to try new things, didn’t judge me when I goofed around, and really cared for me.
I posted this article on Facebook right after it came out, but I thought reposting the link might be helpful/interesting for anyone who didn’t see it. (NPR’s article on Recovery Homes in Zanzibar). Like the article says, there are about 10 homes on the island, most of which are male-only, with only about 3 homes for women. I only worked with all-male homes: Detroit and Free at Last, but had an opportunity to visit about half of the other houses and meet other members of the community at group events and celebrations. Although in the same network and following the same basic recovery structure and philosophy, the two homes I visited could not have been more different.
Detroit: The first home established on the island, Detroit is kind of the pet-project and flagship Recovery Home in Zanzibar. Because of this, it gets most of the attention, reporters, visitors, volunteers, funding, etc. It’s about 20 minutes outside of the center of Stone Town on the Kiembe Samaki daladala (not sure why you all needed that detail, but there you go). The home normally has anywhere from 20 to 30 men living in the house at one time, with ages ranging from 18 to I would guess 50 or so. In addition to a small yard, the Detroit compound has a computer room and a room dedicated to art. It was amazing to see that art had previously been prioritized and recognized as something that could be important or useful in recovery, providing a kind of ‘therapy’ as well as business or economic opportunities. But when I got to Detroit, the room was a bit of a mess, so we cleaned things up and re-established the space for art work.
The first week or so lots of the guys came to my class, one of them, Haji, teaching us how to make paper beads. Pretty soon though, attendance started to fade and I was left with about 5 or 6 guys who regularly came to class: Sari, Denis, Safe, Wilfred, and Ali were the core, with others taking it more day-by-day. My favorite day at Detroit was when we made t-shirts. All the guys in my class got to design his own stencil, and I brought it some spray paint. The ideas that came from complete freedom and the excitement and pride my class had after making the shirts was awesome. When the other guys in the house heard what we were doing, everyone wanted to join in, bringing old t-shirts they too wanted sprayed with the “Detroit Sober House” logo Sari had made. It was so gratifying to find an activity that everyone found interesting and wasn’t “a class for babies” (actual description of my class overheard one day….).
Free at Last: Located in Bububu, this home was walking distance from where I was living, but nestled back in the village, about a 10 minute walk from the main road. I never saw other outside visitors/volunteers come to the house or anyone from the recovery community, unlike the almost daily visitors at Detroit. Free at Last’s residents were demographically similar to Detroit, but there seemed to be a more constant influx and departure of residents – who was staying or leaving changed much more than the close-knit community at Detroit. Free at Last’s house is in much poorer condition than Detroit’s, with little to no furniture other than plastic chairs (Detroit has couches and wooden furniture), only one bathroom and no spaces dedicated to art, computer skills, etc. Thoug the house seems small for the number of residents, the compound is large, with space for a small garden and chickens. Collectively, the guys at this house were really sweet. They were much more timid in wanting to try art classes, but in the end were really into it. Class was ‘class’ and I very much played a traditional teacher role, using any and all basic drawing/art lessons I could remember from high school/college/general crafting. I would ask the group what they wanted to do and they each would say, “we don’t know, you’re the teacher. Teach us!”. Fair.
One of the coolest moments at Free at Last was one of the first days, when I was explaining who I was and what I wanted to do. Most of the guys speak English, but Fauz, the house manager, would translate a lot of what I was saying into Swahili. I was trying to get the guys excited about the possibility of art classes, but the translation was hard and all I was getting were blank, tired stares from two rows of men sitting in chairs in 100 degree heat. It felt like a losing battle… I’ve found unless they already are, it’s pretty hard to get anyone excited about art. I knew they were thinking something like, “Who is this girl? Can she even paint? Why should I be excited? Why should I trust her?”. I didn’t have anything of my work to show them except for this tiny watercolor sketch of the Twiga Cement Factory from my time in Madale on the mainland (see Part 1 of this series). As soon as they saw it, the whole energy in the room changed. Most, if not all the guys at Free at Last had come to Zanzibar from Dar for this recovery program. They immediately recognized the sketch and there was this instant sense of community or shared understanding we participated in from that point forward. It was knowing that little bit of their past, that little moment of home, translated and conveyed without words, that allowed us to move forward with mutual respect and interest.
Both houses ran on the same kind of general schedule: 6:00am wake up, followed by morning chores, breakfast (tea and bread). Then is a Feelings Session, a sort of like group-therapy where each resident speaks about their struggles, successes, others offer advice, experience, etc., break, and a lesson from the NA program curriculum before lunch break. Lunch and the break after lasts about 2 hours, most guys nap or watch a movie. After lunch there is another lesson, and/or time for activities like my art classes. In the past, both homes had volunteers come and teach English, yoga and fitness, soccer (football), etc. Then is another rest time before dinner. After dinner there is a more formal NA ‘meeting’, evening chores and then dinner. Each day follows that schedule, over and over, kind of into infinity. Residents come for (usually) three month periods and just sort of jump into the flow of things when they get there. So there is no start or end date, or even signifier. I had mentioned a feeling of Groundhogs Day in my last post, but life in one of these home takes it to another extreme.
While there has been visible success with the recovery homes (re-emphasized by the establishment of more homes on the island and now even a few on the mainland in Dar es Salaam and Moshi), there are those who relapse, return to a house and start the three month recovery program again. I believe that the Recovery Homes, Sober Houses, whatever you choose to call them, are doing good, important, and much needed work. But I have some issues with certain way things run. For one thing, the residents are not permitted to leave the compound, without permission and often a "chaperone". This means that not only is each day the same, there is no opportunity to walk around, run, exercise, play, see friends. I began to take a group of guys from Detroit to the beach for about 2 hours every Sunday afternoon – the only ‘exercise’ and time away from the compound they get ALL WEEK. Without me though, they weren’t allowed to walk the 25 minutes to the local beach. Physical health is a big factor in mental health and recovery, and these men are not getting what they need… I am sure there are some sound reasons to limit resident’s comings and goings, but it just seems insane to keep them locked up like they are. What is more, not allowing residents to leave the compound grounds makes it all the more difficult for them to re-integrate back into the larger society once they complete the recovery program. The issues I had made me wish I could stay in Zanzibar longer, a year, maybe more, and help advocate for these guys. It felt like I could be doing a lot more.
The friendships and relationships that I made at the sober houses were probably the most real and true relationships I found in Zanzibar (aside from a select few friends). We developed these bonds that were kind of teacher-student, but by the end of it all, it was more true friendship. I felt a true sense of loyalty to each house, and to individuals I became close with. If I couldn’t come to a class one day for whatever reason, I felt bad and the guys told me they missed me. At one point, I started to feel this overwhelming sense of a (slightly indescribable) parallelism with the guys, in the sense we were existing and living our lives in this transient, ‘process’ in which we are expecting to come out ‘changed’ by the end. Now, I am not comparing the Watson to addiction recovery, or I kind of am… I’m not sure. I recognize the incredible wholly, 100%, opposite reasons we all met in those homes; so opposite it almost seems lurid to find parallels between the two experiences. But the way we converged in those spaces… again, ones that are transient and meant to facilitate change, it was one of the only times this year I have felt a sense of congregation with people who understand what it’s like to live liminally.
On my last day of work, I cried leaving Detroit. Instead of having a class, I brought some chocolate cake and we played UNO and listened to music on my phone (there are only like 6 songs on there the guys really liked…). I hated having to leave because I knew, more likely than not, art classes weren’t going to keep going. Sure, maybe a few guys would keep drawing or painting or making bracelets, but that space where we got to hang out and talk, goof around and focus on something OTHER than recovery, I was taking that space away with me. I have kept in touch with a few guys from Detroit since leaving. They message me saying they miss class and ask if I am going to come back. I would be lying if I said I would for sure. But it’s hard not to think about what could come about with a longer tenure…
Finally, I was lucky enough to have an opportunity to paint a mural at the Free at Last Recovery Home in Bububu and in doing so have learned one of the most important lessons of my life. There were already a few murals decorating and inspiring the compound, painted by a former addict who now is a house manager for the new program in Moshi, and I was honored when Fauz, Free at Last’s manager asked me to paint a mural. The commission was simple, but powerful: Just For Today: TRY. This mantra, idea, whatever, is something the guys live by, and a sentiment I have carried with me each day since. Life in recovering from addiction, in traveling alone for 12 months, in relationships, in mental illness, in school, in trauma, Life in everything can sometimes be too much, too overwhelming. But each day (even if it is Groundhog’s Day), is a gift, and all we can do is try for now, today. With that focused effort, dedicated to the small and immediate, it’s easier to take on and understand the whole, vast, and overwhelming world. Just For Today: TRY.