Where Have You Been So Far?

My husband and I drove into the dark lot of the 13th Street bus station in Milwaukee just over two weeks ago.  It was 10pm and we were feeling a little stressed about what we would do if Joseph Tambo didn't get off the bus.  The next one wasn't until midnight and Andrew had a lot of work to do and couldn't afford a sleepless night.  And what if he wasn't on that bus either?  What were the chances that all those connections went off without a hitch, from Joseph Tambo's apartment in Bangui, Central African Republic to this deserted parking lot in Milwaukee, Wisconsin?

Andrew asked me again how it was that I had neglected to get a flight number.

And what if someone had stolen Joseph Tambo's identity, a complete stranger pretending to be Joseph Tambo, my most attentive student twenty years ago when I was a Peace Corps teacher at the C.E.G, a French middle school in Carnot?

What then?

I convinced myself that was absurd.  We sat in the car in silence.  The bus arrived.  I jumped out and there was Joseph Tambo and though he was twelve when I last saw him, I knew this was the same student who sat in the front row of my class with an intense curiosity and interest.

We hugged and I said hello and introduced him to Andrew and while we drove back to Appleton, I told him about the highway and where we were and where we were going.  I asked him about Bangui and his job at the American Embassy, and about our connections to Scott McBride.  But mostly we sat in silence, a bit dumb struck at how amazing life can be.

Joseph Tambo at The 602 Club with our alderperson Gypsy Vered Meltzer and urban planner Andrew Dane

The second day he was here, he talked to the high school students in my character writing class and two days after that he spoke to all the students at Renaissance.  Joseph told them he always knew I was a simple person, and that at the end of my stay in Carnot, when I wrote my address on the blackboard, he had the vision, that he would one day visit me.

He started to teach himself English, and because he was always studying English while helping his brother at the market, someone told him there was a job for English speakers at the American Embassy and that he should apply.

Out of over 130 applicants, Joseph got the job.  Now, he supervises eight people, has attended trainings in Frankfurt and Johannesburg, and is up for another promotion that would take him to Washington D.C. for a training in September. When Joseph told the students that he didn't know if he would be able to handle the challenge of the promotion, I asked if they thought he would be able to do it, and they yelled, "Yes!"

One student asked what kind of food he eats in his country.  He told them about ngunza and ngozo, the national dish made from cassava leaves and root.  I asked him if he'd ever heard of McDonalds and when he said no, we all gasped.*

Joseph Tambo at the Lawrence University cafeteria

Joseph eats sunflower seeds, cranberries, rhubarb, kiwi, walnuts, maple syrup, pancakes, pretzals, pizza, hotdogs, apple pie all for the very first time.  "Everything," he says about the food, "is new for me." This morning was his first taste of cinnamon.  He learns the new words chill out, toast, so far, storm. He is surprised that instead of "oh my god" people say "oh my gosh."  And he puzzled late one night after he arrived over the strange question people keep asking, "Where have you been so far?"

Joseph is most impressed that people here are simple, that the university professors stand in the street chatting and playing ball with the neighbors.  "In my country, if you are a university professor, you think, 'I am king!'"

He is also impressed with how many activities people do. "It makes you feel alive."

Dr. Fonkem Achankeng from Cameroon, Joseph Tambo, and Dr. Alfred Kisubi from Uganda.
Upon meeting in the Indian Darbar parking lot, Alfred told Joseph, "You and I have something in common,
Bokassa and Idi Amin!" infamous evil dictators from Central African Republic and Uganda.

Joseph Tambo would like to have children someday, but he feels it is wrong to bring children into a world where they have no chance of getting a proper education.  Joseph gets most passionate talking about how education will be the salvation of his country, if only they can have a great leader. A foreign service officer introduced Joseph to a high ranking American official by saying the country would turn around in a week if Joseph Tambo and his two colleagues were in charge.

Joseph calls himself a simple man.  He does not want such an important job.  His goal is to build a house and start a school.

Appleton Mayor Tim Hanna and Joseph Tambo

Joseph would not buy a pair of shoes he found at the Fox Valley Thrift Shoppe because they smelled like smoke and he was afraid the dogs at the airport would smell drugs on his shoes and he doesn't want to get thrown in jail.  "My friend told me, that American prison, once you are in, you do not get out."

He saw his first movie with Len Borruso and David Gerard, Tom Hanks in Hologram for a King. Joseph's review, "I laughed a lot at this funny guy."

Civil War reenactor and Joseph Tambo at Horizons Elementary for Civil War reenactment day.
Since Joseph has been here, I've noticed pretty much continual reference to the Civil War.
Has it always been that way and I haven't paid attention?
Or are we turning our cultural eye back to what is again relevant to our own times?

We went to see Rosanne Cash and her band play with the Fox Valley Symphony at the Performing Arts Center.  Joseph whispered "fantastic!" at the start of their second song.  "Very professional," he told me afterwards, and noted that it is because they start so young, like the kids playing piano at the girls' recital that we attended earlier that day.

Joseph went to Luna Cafe with Tad Neuhaus and Ellen Watson to see our neighbor Mark Urness play jazz with Dane Richeson and Jose Encarnacion, and their guest Joe Locke.  We went to Matt Turner's IGLU students' vocal concert.  He saw Ali Sperry and Jamie Dick, our friends from Nashville and their friends, The Danberrys play together at The 602 Club.

But judging by how he filmed until he ran out of recording space on his phone, perhaps Joseph's favorite was the North High Freshman Band and Orchestra concert.

Sitting at Copper Rock coffee shop reading the Post Crescent, Joseph was shocked to learn that a teacher could be thrown in jail for many years for intent to meet with a student for sexual relations. He laughed and thumped the paper at a story of crows pecking away at people's houses.  And he thought Bernie Sanders saying he will "fight for every vote" was hilarious.

Johnnie B. took Joseph to Costco and Home Depot and Manderfield's and Goodwill.  Upon return, Joseph declared Johnny B. a "very wise man".

Patrick Hyde took Joseph to catholic mass.  He introduced Joseph to the priest.  Joseph said the priest pretended to have never heard of The 602 Club.  I said he probably wasn't pretending, most people don't know about The 602 Club.  But Joseph was sure he was.

Joseph on one of many bike rides in Appleton

*Looking at photos on his cell phone, I see a photo of Joseph standing in front of a McDonald's at a mall in Johannesburg.  Joseph says he thought I asked if he had ever eaten there, not if he had ever heard of it.

Joseph at JD's watching N.B.A. basketball and eating his first french fries.
When I asked for two sodas, the server gave us the extra large cups.
When I asked for smaller ones, she advised against it, since the extra large are one dollar and the small $1.30.
I explained this to Joseph.  He said that doesn't make any sense.  


  1. Joanna - I so love this whole post! How wonderful that your old friend Joseph got to come and visit you and the family. Appleton is a good place to ease into American life -not too fancy, but cultured, quirky, typically American. I'm sure he has had a fine time. I hope he can come to see you again. AND, it sounds like he's someone I'd like to meet as well. The old 'hood would throw him a good alley party!!

  2. Thank you so much, Joanna, for sharing dear Joseph Tambo's American travelogue. What a great tour director you are!