Monday, January 28, 2013

Meet the R&D: Carly Mensch

Here's a post by R&D Group playwright Carly Mensch, who is currently in Tanzania working on an investigation for her new play. For more info about our R&D Group, click HERE! Many thanks to Carly for writing this post for us!

Mambo Civilians,

Greetings from the Evangelical Lutheran Hotel in lakeside Bukoba, Tanzania. Thousands of miles of rusty-red roads and banana plantations from the nearest theater. In other words: prime real estate for a Civilians’ style investigation.

I am in Bukoba chasing a ghost.

Some background: My boyfriend and I first came to Bukoba in 2010 to research his PhD dissertation on a bizarre footnote in Tanzanian medical history. During this month-long trip, we met a guy named Raymond who became not only our translator and guide, but also our friend and older brother. He was ambitious, dynamic, charismatic, opinionated—a former professional soccer player and teacher who could opine for hours about the problems of the region and his plans to fix them. He was well-traveled—with friends from The Netherlands, Finland, Belgium—and helped start a handful of NGO projects in the area. He also lived a very dramatic life. His stories sounded like James Bond adventures—with tales of fighting bad guys in Siberia and sleeping in ice holes in Finland.

Raymond in 2010 after buying a mushroom from the side of the road.
His life-story could have filled ten blockbuster movies. And then, in December 2011, Raymond died. We learned through an email. It was sudden and surprising. Raymond was only 38.

Soon after, we learned details about his lifethat were shocking and confusing. We got angry. We got sad. We got curious.

Cut to the present.

I am back in Bukoba, talking to anyone who knew Raymond.


Why investigate the life of a man who wasn’t famous, made no major contribution to society, and died relatively unnoticed?

Why single out the life of this man, this individual, to mine for larger meaning?

And what business does the theater -- a live and predominantly Western medium – have to do with a dead African guy?

For now, I have more questions than answers.

But, as in the beginnings of most projects, it’s not about answers.
It’s about listening.
Here are some snippets from my adventures in listening.


A coffee shop, Bukoba style. On the ground in front of a concrete building painted with 7-Up ads, a man crouches over a piping hot metal kettle on a portable coal-burning stove. This is Hamza, who runs the place. In this alley-cum-curbside-nook, he serves coffee to a small entourage of regulars, all old men, who sit on low wooden benches covered with flattened cardboardboxes. My boyfriend and I tell him we are waiting for a man named Ramadani King. Hamza laughs. “Yes. There is a King. And his name is Ramadani.”

The coffee shop, empty one morning.
While we wait, a shoeshine cleans the red dust off an old man’s shoes. The little Turkish style coffee cup is so hot it burns my hands. A drunkmasai teenager tries to get us to buy him a soda.

Ramadani King rides his signature Vespa.  In the background: Hamza's
Ramadani shows up on a Vespa wearing a flamingo pink Oxford shirt and a leather satchel. He’s about 70, has a gap between his front teeth and speaks with a deep, gravely voice. Ramadani gives us big hugs—he has met my boyfriend before, entertained him at his house. He was a family friend of Raymond’s and once studied sociology. (Raymond called him the smartest man he ever met.)

Ramadani King on the footbridge to his house
This coffee shop is Ramadani’s haunt. He is even distantly related to Hamza, though it is hard to tell in a culture where everyone calls each other “brother” and “cousin” and “mama.” Ramadani tells us about Raymond’s funeral in his homevillage of Muruku: “So many people. People from all over the world.” It was a Catholic mass, even though Raymond was lapsed.

Ramadani tells us what he knows, but reminds us that he is from a different generation than Raymond. “He had many, many friends his age. There were three boys in the town who would follow him everywhere. I think they worked for him. You should find them.” 

So—with a few leads—we let the conversation meander. He tells us about poverty in Kagera region. About his own poverty. About the boredom of old age. At the end, we run off to another meeting; Ramadani refills his cup. He will most likely sit here for the better part of the day.

Later, I write in my little grey notebook: “Deep voice. Funeral. Who could play R.K.?”

A photo of Ramadani King with another friend of Raymond's named Happy

William runs Bukoba’s one and only tour company—Kiroyera (“Bright Sun”) Tours. His office is on the beach, near the local fishermen and ferry dock, where he has also built a handful of traditional “bandas” for tourists to sleep in. ($5 a night!)

William at his tour agency
I meet William because he once started an NGO called BUDAP that Raymond was involved with. BUDAP teaches handicapped locals (often polio victims) how to make drums and other handicrafts to sell. Raymond and William were friends, drinking buddies. Even though Raymond supposedly drank William under the table, often staying out til 2 or 3 in the morning downing tall glasses of Serengeti.

(They’re also two of the only young guys in the town who speak perfect English. Usually it’s the elders who were educated under the British system who speak fluently.)

William sits in a leather swivel chair facing a laptop and a miniature Tanzanian flag. On the wall is a photo of him with two friends: the sons of arch-enemies Ugandan Generalissimo Idi Amin Dada and former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere.

I describe the project to William. That I’m trying to collect stories about Raymond for some sort of ambiguous writer project. He nods, says “Yes, okay” and then proceeds to tell me the chronology of their friendship.

He talks much of Raymond’s charisma. His popularity. William described most people around here as shy, especially around outsiders. Raymond, however, was different. He was confident to the point of brazen –seeking out every foreigner who passed through Bukoba. (William called him a “fly trap,” which sounds a little nefarious, to me. But maybe it’s one of those lost-in-translation things.)

“What made him like that?” I ask.

William’s response: “He was just like that.”

William gives me some more leads. He shows me photos of Raymond’s funeral, naming as many people as he can. I start getting the sense that I am losing Raymond—getting further and further from the tumultuous rockstar personality I remember, reducing him to mere anecdote.

Raymond was a great storyteller, often weaving fact and fiction into an entrancing tapestry. The stories about him, however, are far less exciting. Normal. Black-and-white. How do I deal with this?

Because really, the best person to tell the story of Raymond is… Raymond.


We visit the Mukwenda family farm in rural Muruku, where Raymond is buried in a small flower-lined plot about a hundred feet from the house.

Mr. Mukwenda answers the door with a frayed pink-checkered towel wrapped around his waist and three white plastic razors in his hand. We learn his wife is away visiting her sick mother; he is all alone.

He seems caught off guard, embarrassed. We apologize for not sending notice of our arrival (we didn’t have his number) and offer him a meagre loaf of bread. He invites us in. He recognizes my boyfriend immediately. “I have been expecting you to return.”

We offer sporadic words of comfort and condolences. Sometimes we trade small-talk (“How is America?” “Cold.” / “How is your stay in Bukoba?” “Good.”), but most often we lapse into long silences. 

Above us—wasps fly in and out of nests adorning the ceiling.

And there in the corner, looking down on us all, is a photo of Raymond. He has on a very serious expression and wears a hat that reads: “FINLAND.”

At one point, Raymond’s older brother Edmund wanders into the room. He is wearing Raymond’s signature army vest and cargo pants. He doesn’t say much; just sits in a chair in the corner.

We returned the next week to find Mr. Mukwenda in better spirits. With Raymond's brother Edmund.
After what feels like hours, we bring out a handful of photos of Raymond—the true purpose of our visit. Mr. Mukwenda flips through them. One photo is a close-up of Raymond, smiling, holding a giant mushroom he has bought from the side of the road. Mr. Mukwenda puts down the photos; he turns quiet.

We try to ask him a few questions, but it seems pointless. Even though it’s been a year since Raymond’s death, he has the air of a broken man.

Before we leave, he tells us, “There is nothing more bad than to bury a son.”

My project, put most simply, is about life and death. About loss and legacy. Family and friendship. I may be thousands of miles away from the nearest proscenium, but the stories I'm finding hit close to home. It's a refreshing reminder.

Okay, the internet cafe clock is winding down. Off to do some more listening. Next on my list: a former teammate of Raymond's. Good thing I played soccer as a kid.

- Carly

Bukoba Town, Tanzania
Thanks again to Carly for writing this post and sharing her investigative process with us!


  1. Very orignal and brilliantly conveyed. Thank you for sharing this story. I loved reading it.

  2. Thanks for reading! And thanks to Carly for such a totally awesome narration of her travels and project!

  3. We knew Raymond from Bukoba and were thinking of meeting him again when we will return to Tansania untill we read your post. We are very sad and don´t know how to react. How did he die? God bless our friend, he was a good friend.....