Felicity "Fid" Thompson interview

Perhaps at once the most visible and mysterious member of our class, Fid graced us with her humor and irrisistible English accent -- not to mention those compact, poetic stories -- in between gigs in Africa. She was a Citizen of the World, then she was at Iowa, then she was off again to the Heart of Darkness. What's she been up to these past few years? Let's find out.

EG: Where are you exactly and and how did you end up there again? How did you become so interested in Tanzania in the first place?

FT: I am still trying to answer how I ended up here, but the chronology is this: I volunteered for an organisation called Students Partnership Worldwide (SPW) in 2001 and then returned to work for them in 2003 – sandwiching my MFA at Iowa and 9/11 between Tanzania.

Iringa: a regional town in the Southern Highlands of Tanzania. It sits on a promontory like a ship's prow, looking out over the highlands. We are at something like 1600 feet and it is masika (small rains), so every day the sky turns purple and rumbly and lightening flashes over the far hills.

Last month, on the first day of rain, thousands of grashoppers flitted into town like little green fairies. We woke up the next morning, and Experius, wrapped in a towel, toothbrush in mouth, water bottle in hand, was chasing them round the garden and squeezing them into the empty plastic bottle like a madman. All around town groups of children were running to catch them. Everyone – the daladala drivers, the women selling sheets by the side of the road – seemed to have their own water bottles full of Senene. Valentino, our guard, was ecstatic. They are a delicacy – fried up in lots of oil and served with a little salt, a little chilli powder, and mwooah! A tasty snack.

Experius told us later that there is big business in the grasshoppers – people were selling sacks of them in the market for 50,000 shillings ($39). He was disappointed that he didn't get up in the night when they are docile and fly blindly into lights. I found them only irritating – they somehow found their way into the house and would leap out blindly on their massive springy legs. We are still finding tiny green legs everywhere. But when they fly they look like tinkerbells spinning through the air.

I can't figure out why I was so interested in Africa. I grew up in a village in England. Our house was small, mouldy, and damp; my school was posh and catholic. I remember two African girls came one year, the first black kids in the entire school. But I didn't know them; they were princesses from somewhere. My mum had studied Archaeology at Nairobi University and spent some time in the Congo when it was still called Zaire. But even before those stories, there were little bits of Africa in our dingy living room – some wooden masks and thumb pianos. I wonder if they inserted themselves deep in my subconscious?

Course I also grew up with LiveAid and all those starving chilluns on the telly and Bob Geldof. I am a colonial grandchild and we have a soft spot for Africa; I also had a Catholic upbringing and we have a soft spot for guilt. Then G.W. Bush was swept to power for a second time.

EG: What do you do there, for a living, for service to humanity?

FT: Currently I am in between both Serving Humanity and A Living. But luckily I have friends who needed a part time housegirl.

Last month I finished a project that created a radio soap opera that ran for four months on local Tanzanian radio. I wrote the scripts together with three young Tanzanian writers. There was all the intrigue and gossip of Eastenders, but also mixed in with storylines that educate about HIV/AIDS and challenge stereotypes about what it is like to live with HIV.

Do you remember the HIV ad campaigns from the eighties? They took the skull-n-crossbones strike-fear-in-the-heart of anyone who's ever had sex approach. In Africa, people still think of it the same way. HIV is immediate death, to live with HIV is an oxymoron, and if you have it, you must be some sort of slapper. There are some amazing euphemisms (Swahili is a language and culture that "lessens the sharpness of words") for HIV/AIDS:

  • kukanyaga miwaya – to hold onto electricity wires
  • ngoma – drums, drumming (where traditionally there is/was a lot of shagging in the woods)
  • umeme – electricity (as in you've been electrocuted)
  • wamredio – person of the radio (people hear the news about HIV from radio programmes)
  • pembe nne – four corners (the four corners of the coffin)
  • maiti inayotembea – a walking corpse
I know AIDS is old news and probably boring. But it's still bloody there, innit? Anyone who has even a vague interest should read And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts (not a porn star), a brilliant, bible-thick, soap-operatic, scientific epic on the origins of the HIV epidemic.

In February, I will start work on a series of short films about young people in Tanzania with my co-producer, Derek Thorne. Although since the hullabaloo about the film Darwin's Nightmare set around Lake Victoria, it is difficult to film in Tanzania if you are a foreigner.

EG: What are the people like? Are they kind of like Iowans?

FT: Tanzanians are like Iowans in the sense that everywhere in the world you can find Iowans. Although I have yet to see a Tanzanian mullet.

EG: Describe what a typical day is like for you there.

FT: Since the electricity problems, the day depends. With electricity, things are surprisingly similar to home. We have a loo that flushes and a hot shower. I bike to work and get stared at for not being Tanzanian. I'm just so white.

Since the drought, the dam that powered the entire country fell below 76cm, and chaos broke out. Power cuts everywhere, all day long, every day, for months. With no power, there is no point having a fancy flush loo or an electric water heater. You're better off with a long drop
and kerosene stove. You're better off in the village.

For other thoughts, photos, and random shit, you can have a look at me blog.

EG: What was it like making a soap opera in Swahili? How did you come to be involved in that? What was it about? When will we be seeing it on the National Geographic Channel?

FT: It was great fun and ridiculously hard. The Swahili is not the hard part. The hard part is working with a shitty radio station, a production room that is not sound-proofed, actors who've never worked with written scripts, and a very skinny budget.

But it was cool because it was a proposal that I wrote and got funded myself through SPW. The project has a website, if you want to check it; it is in English mostly. Unfortunately, we don't have the bandwidth to upload much audio, but you can listen to the "Theme Tune" (ooo, it's a catchy one) and a snippet of a song by two of the actors. The actors were very talented and creative. I hope to put some more of their work on the web soon.

My favourite episode is when Anna decides to commit suicide after finding out she is HIV positive and her boyfriend tells her he cannot marry her. Sounds morbid, I know, but it was really well done. Moving, even.

EG: What else are you involved with there?

FT: I am involved with the two local radio stations, Country FM and Ebony FM (pronounced "eee-bon"!), making programmes on youth and also about HIV/AIDS. Last week, I produced a mini audio documentary about people's views on adultery. Basically, the idea of 'going outside' of a marriage or relationship is considered morally wrong here, but everyone does it! If men do it, then they are called the Male with Lots of Seeds or, The Man with Responsibilities or simply, Commander. If a woman does it, she is called a whole host of names that have nothing to do with her having lots of eggs or responsibilities, and more to do with her being a floozy. Here are some of the more tasteful ones:

  • bus seat (everyone sits on it)
  • beans from Mbeya (they only take a minute to cook)
  • guest's floormat (anyone can sleep on it)
  • striped polecat (species of small African carnivores allied to the weasels and skunks)
EG: How has your fiction writing gone since leaving the workshop?

FT: It has gone. Disappeared. Or at least it has been quietly brewing on the back burner, sort of smelling good but never quite ready. I've started again, though, so please forgive me. It's difficult to commit to writing and to the world at the same time.

EG: You recently received a proposal of marriage, did you not? Please describe what happened with that.

FT: It is not uncommon or particularly flattering to receive marriage proposals here – generally any man sitting next to you at a bar decides that he is in love with you and wants to marry you. Of course, it helps that you are a mzungu (white). Generally, he is in love with your skin; he wants to marry your skin!

Last week, I was proposed to by our weekend guard's son, Gibson. In fact, I was proposed to by Mussa, our weekend guard, who stuffed a folded square of paper in my hand as I walked through the door. Mussa is slim and dark-skinned; he is submissive to the point of subservience. He double-bolts the front gate as soon as he arrives, even if we haven't got home, even if it isn't dark yet. I have always wondered what he would do if robbers were ever to break in. So when he stopped me on the doorstep, I was surprised by the forwardness of the gesture. I went inside and opened the paper.

The notebook paper was decorated with tiny meticulous crisscrosses in blue and red biro. Mussa was asking me to marry his son. He explained that he didn't want me to take it the wrong way but, in his words, "I think the best way to get connected to wazungu (whites) is to get into their clan." I was somewhat offended; I did take it the wrong way. I have never met Gibson, and he has never met me, and I wonder if Gibson has had any say in this, or if Mussa, who is constantly in debt, has decided I represent all manner of wealth, luxury, and opportunity. Me and my clan of whiteys.

I prefer the barroom proposals – at least you know what you're getting.

EG: Do you have any plans to come back for a visit?

FT: Definitely. Thinking about May 2007, when we are done with the films, my visa runs out, and I am skint!

EG: How long do you think you'll be living in Tanzania?

FT: As I recently made clear to [the plunge]: "i am still in tanzania. not necessarily definitely maybe indefinitely here. fuck i don't know."


the plunge said...

Love the interview. Fid's a dynamo. I would love a movie that consisted of one of her days on one side of the screen and one of mine on the other. There would be like 90 minutes between moments where you could point to both sides and say "look, there's something that's the same." And I mean that in a good way for Fid and a bad way for myself.

Fid, do you think your filming grant would cover that one?

Brando said...

We miss Fid. And that picture makes me so nostalgic. It was such an awesome party.

traca de broon said...

We've got a photo of you from that night, Brando, in a mullet wig and keyboard necktie. Truly a photo bribes are made of.

Good times.

possum said...

Fid is my favorite.