Wrestling With Hypnos

Sylvia Ilahuka

Today was one of those days, so grey that the quiet cold ushered in sleep uninvited. I was in my chilly Boston office when slumber found me, unrelenting in its mischievous need to drag eyelids down. So I succumbed after a brief but valiant struggle, lulled by the heater at my feet and the humming of the building’s ventilation system, mouth ungracefully agape as I slumped in my swivel chair.

This would not do, young lady. It was time for tea.

My penchant for tea, particularly a cup well-sugared and milked, has been called into question many a time by those upon whose nations the British did not do a colonial number. As for me and my East African kinfolk, we turn on the kettle at the slightest excuse – or none at all. Anytime can be tea time, why not?

I returned to my desk with a mug intentionally made black and extra-strong, sipping it with relief as though it were medicine for my sleepy soul. Caffeine has never had much of an effect on me. I can still enjoy a good night’s rest after a cup of tea, while coffee only serves to upset my stomach. Yet here I was, in my hour of desperation, willing the brew to awaken my brain. This would not do at all.

How can it be that when it feels hours have passed, a glance at the clock reveals that only a few minutes have lapsed? The devil is a liar. I am reminded in such suspended moments of one of my secondary school History teachers, whose very essence evoked Hypnos himself, the Greek god of sleep. Disbelieving of the potency of her presence, my teacher implored me to find something else to occupy myself with during her lessons – read a novel, draw something, do anything, just please stay awake. But who could blame me? She described the Mau Mau uprising as though she had been there personally and was now recounting it to grandchildren around an evening fire, call-and-response style: Mau Mau waka—? Wakajificha msituni. Halafu waka—? Wakapigana na Waingereza. Leaning against the classroom doorpost in her pleated purple polka dot skirt and round-rimmed spectacles, she wasn’t even supposed to be lecturing in Swahili.

It did not help that History was scheduled for immediately after 11 o’clock tea and maandazi. Yes, tea again. This was when the sun was high in the sky, the sea breeze gentle, and teenage sleepiness in its prime. Beds having been vacated at 5 a.m. and bellies now warm, half the class would be dozing; let it be known that I was not alone.

And yet we survived, passed our Form 4 national examinations – I even managed an A in History – and left boarding school for the unregimented world. We became what we had dreamt of and what we had not planned: physicians, lawyers, bank tellers, mothers. Some of us are still on the road to becoming. And some of us still grapple with heavy eyelids around that time of day, wherever it may find us.

Thank goodness there will always be tea. Spiced, ideally.


Four pods of cardamom, five cloves, and a twig of cinnamon; that was all it took for my saucepan of tea to be labelled chai ya Kiislamu by the girl who came weekly to do laundry. ‘Muslim tea’. I think she was referring to the recipe’s coastal roots, densely populated with adherents of the Islamic faith, and the way she worded it and the cheeriness with which she exclaimed it was hilarious to me. I thought I had heard it all, until I crossed a continent and an ocean and arrived in a land where such a combination is referred to as ‘chai tea’. The horror.

I am often sorely tempted to inform whoever is making me this ‘chai tea’, often at an obscene price, that that term is redundant. But would it be worth it? It only dawned on me that the name had planted itself into my subconscious the morning that I was waiting for a daladala one summer at home in Dar es Salaam not having had time for breakfast. Standing at the bus stop, I found myself surreptitiously glancing around for a [non-existent] Starbucks where I might chance upon a “chai tea latte – whole milk please”. I caught myself mid-thought, aghast; convenience is an enchantment, one that we swear to be impervious to until it seduces us in the manner of two-day Amazon Prime delivery.

I, too, once swore never to give in to the call of the laundry machines in my college dormitory. Newly arrived in America and resolute, I vowed to wash all of my clothing articles by hand and even purchased a drying rack to seal the deal. Until the day I decided, out of ‘curiosity’, to just try them out and see how well they worked; the drying rack did not follow me to my next dorm assignment the following year.

Now I joke that the man who marries me should eschew an engagement stone and instead propose with a washing machine and a dryer. And a generator, should we settle on the continent. Who do we become when we let paradigms shift? When we pretend to resist that which is foreign, only to find that it changed us while our eyes were squeezed shut with the effort? Be careful that the grimace of strain does not solidify on your face and betray you when you return to gaze at your reflection in the street puddles you once waded in as a child. Like my therapist says, acknowledging the force affords you the power to receive it and direct it down a less destructive path. Much like anger is the frustration of finding oneself a tourist in your homeland.

But then again, that is what can happen when you don’t visit for six years, one reason after another. They are valid, but that doesn’t make them any less of excuses.


I knew with no uncertainty that I was doing the necessary the day I bought my tickets to fly home to Dar es Salaam. Mtu kwao, we say in Swahili, no? Anything to sweep those multiple zeros under the rug. Wincing as I entered my credit card details, covering my eyes as it processed, breathing a sigh of relief when it declined – then immediately worrying why. Is it a sign? Reprocessing, failed again; calling the credit card company, wanting to scream at someone in vernacular for putting a ‘suspicious activity’ hold on the card. How suspicious can it be that a girl just wants to go home? Apologies, hold lifted, tickets confirmed. Seat selected such that I can eat home with my eyes first before hurtling down from the skies, like a diver into waters with which they should already be familiar. Yet I never properly learnt how to swim. Hoping that the visit will be good, yet also knowing that it will surely be regardless of how it unfolds. Mganga hajigangi, they say; still, I have to heal myself before I can learn how to heal others.

The first line of attack for a headache in my childhood household was tea. Followed by a shower, followed by Panadol if the first two did not work. I do not know what would have been prescribed for soul-ache. Tea could take many forms, contingent upon haste and herb; Chai Bora black and unseasoned, or milky and enhanced with lemongrass. My maternal grandmother used to make the latter, with blades trimmed from the bushes outside her house. My maternal grandmother, whom I did not get to bury, I imagine her spirit rose from her body like the fragrance of mchaichai mingled with smoke from her kitchen fire – perfume to soothe a soul sick of being labelled ‘American’ by those who watched her leave to follow learning, cheered, then turned around and said she had forgotten her people. Let me sit by grandma’s grave and invoke the ironworkers and rainmakers with whom I share blood, the distant royalty from whom I descend.

After all, the only lemongrass I have found on these shores is in jars, chopped up and drowned in preserving liquid.


When my marriage died of natural causes, I promised myself I would not become a cynic. Yet the evening I felt my left eye roll upward of its own volition at the sight of a couple arm in arm, weaving with infatuation as they walked ahead of me, I knew I had failed. “Oh for the love of God,” I muttered to myself, pricked by the shards of jadedness that scattered when the crystalline forever I’d imagined had come tumbling off its pedestal in the year that I was 27. But remember a business can close down and still have been a success during its existence. Things I did not anticipate but, then again, I grew up playing rede. Life throws a curveball, I catch it and throw it right back. If it hits you, Life, you will have to go and stand behind me – my captive until your teammates free you or the game ends in my victory. Who are Life’s teammates, anyway…Death? – ushindwe na ulegee – I have seen you one too many times and I refuse to play with you like that because I know you will come for me anyway at some point. It is time to sweep the shards up and clear the pedestal for the next thing, whatever that may be, that would be glued down and nailed firm for good measure. Just in case. Because I needed that quarter-life crisis to be the one and only. Because if I had to go through such death of the ego one more time, who knows if I’d emerge on the other side. If you take a blossomed butterfly and stuff it back into a chrysalis, will it remember how to break free?

Pray we will not wake up in the arms of Death to find that Life counted us out.

When someone close to us leaves town or moves to another country, we feel sad but take comfort in the fact that they can, if only theoretically, be reached through various media, be visited, or visit us. With death, however, the grief is in how wholly unreachable they instantly become and is worsened by the inability to pinpoint a geographical location for where the thing that makes them them has gone. A sense of being unanchored, as though one is lost and searching but does not know that they are; one who is asleep is unaware of their state until it has lifted. Honestly, Death and Hypnos might as well be cousins. The way they both sneak upon you and leave your 17-year-old self snoozing and motherless. If sleep debt can be paid off with a few days of recalibration, can I demand a refund for all the years past?


There are some mornings when Hypnos releases his grasp abruptly, as though something commanded him to let go. Today was one of those days, when I felt the pre-paid prayers of my late mother kicking in ten years after she last uttered them. That’s surely what it must be, on these mornings when tea seems more potent than dried leaves soaking in water – which is what it really is, really. As I looked at the photo I have framed of my mother on her graduation day from medical school, my grandmother beside her looking poised and proud, I remember that my roots are deeper than the wind that rattles my branches. Gales that blow around me in a clinic as I notice that there is not a single person in a white coat who looks like me – winds that I have to lean into if others are to follow fearlessly. That is not to say that none exist, but what is the use if they are out of sight since even a whirling Dervish needs a spot to fix his eyes upon, lest he topple mid-spin.

That will not do, young lady. Jikaze mwanangu, as my father would say.

Toppling is out of the question for the debris would make it nearly impossible for the next person to pass through. It occurred to me the evening I was walking down Longwood Avenue and burst into tears when I realised that what was wrong with me was that I hadn’t seen a single black oncologist all month. Let it never be said that I was an avalanche. So I make a cup of tea and fight sleep until dawn breaks. Breakfast in my world is often accompanied by tea – no, tea is breakfast. Breaking the fast, that period of slumber during which one was not actively nourishing their being. Breaking into the day – like this morning when the crisp chill of the air told me times had changed in the heavens and in me too. Who models for the role models? Steadies the feet that carry the shoulders upon which we stand?

There is something very jarring about the realisation that one is where one is to break ground, take earth, and use it to mould bricks with which to build something new.

For that you will need fortitude, and for that fortitude you will need tea.

Spiced, ideally.

Sylvia Ilahuka tends to play truant from writing, but readers are welcome to her bilingual English-Swahili blog Mkalimani and her general creative compendium Ntuntunu. A Papua New Guinea-born Tanzanian, she is currently absorbing her sixth language – and, other fun fact, happens to be the neck on the cover of Tsitsi Ella Jaji’s Beating the Graves (2017).  


*Image by Mòje Ikpeme

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