Living in a nice, huge house just off of the main road in a major tourist town, I found myself playing host to countless visitors during my two-year stay at Moshi Tech, many of whom I had never before laid eyes on. One of these was Nancy Fingerhood, who had just finished her service as a Peace Corps Volunteeer in Bulgaria, and was spending a few months working for an NGO in the big city of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, since she just couldn't quite bring herself to settle back home in the States right away. She showed up on my doorstep on October 17, 2001, I recall, on her way back from a safari in the backcountry. We became fast friends, and continue to keep in touch. This article, first published online at TRAVELMAG: The Independent Spirit, tells the story of one her favorite experiences in Tanzania.
Sitting on the 14-seater plane flying over Lake Victoria, my hands clenched tightly to the armrests, I felt butterflies in my stomach at the least bit of turbulence. I hate flying and add to that in a very small propeller plane run by an African airline.
Forget it. My blood pressure was soaring. At the same time, I was elated. I had convinced my boss to let me join him and his beltway bandit consultant, Paul, on a journey to a remote Tanzanian village called Ahakishaka near the Rwandan border.
I knew the part of Tanzania I was going to was not part of the usual tourist route. In fact, Peace Corps volunteers I met told me they were forbidden to go there because Rwandan refugees were relocated to that area after the 1994 genocide. A safari guide told me once that thieves sometimes jumped out from the bushes and ambushed travelers. I later learned all the refugees had repatriated and it was totally peaceful there now.
Although in my African dream I envisioned living in a small village out in the bush without running water or electricity, the only paying job I could find in Africa was in Dar. Even though I was living in Africa, rural village life was still a mystery to me. In an urban setting, I couldn't really "go native". There were English speakers all around so I wasn't forced to practice Swahili. People lived in concrete houses so I couldn't live in a mud hut. There were internet cafes on almost every street corner. So as the plane touched down on the gravelly strip of land in Bukoba on the bank of the lake, I could hardly believe I made it (in one piece) and would finally live (at least for one week) among real African villagers. It was almost overwhelming. For a week before the trip, I was convinced I'd at least get malaria as a strike from God. As my dream was becoming a reality, I though Murphy's law would take over. But no malaria, no giardia, no parasites, nothing. I was in a land rover headed for the wild magical heart of eastern Africa.
We arrived too late to travel all the way to the village, so we had to stay overnight in the district's central town. After a few meetings there the next day, we headed for Ahakishaka. It was dark by the time we arrived and I was getting nervous about living in a mud hut for a week. I kept telling myself "You asked for it!" and now I was gonna get it. Sometimes that saying "Be careful for what you wish for" is very true.
I was a bit bewildered when we drove up to a large house that was lit up with what looked like electricity. I didn't understand. Where was the thatched roof and hardened mud walls? This was Sister Gudron's house, a Lutheran missionary from Denmark who had been living there since 1968. Her house was like a country cottage straight out of Martha's Vineyard, but powered by solar energy. Without my knowledge, my boss had arranged for me to stay in her home for a week. So to both my relief and disappointment, I'd be staying in the African village version of the lap of luxury a solar powered home with concrete walls and an indoor toilet.
During the week we, along with the village council members, went to a remote hamlet that is a part of Ahakishaka but quite far away and inaccessible by car. That meant walking for hours through banana plantations and hiking up and down hills where in the distance you could see Rwandan land. Once we arrived, the council members had to search for and collect the villagers so we could begin our meeting. Before coming, I expected the villages to be centralized and small. Here was another assumption blown to bits. These villages were enormous incredibly long because banana plantations separated family homes.
Finally, the people gathered and we started our meeting. The women, wearing colorful kangas and kitengis (traditional African cloth) most of them with babies at their breasts, were on one side and the men in western looking shirts and pants were on the other, sitting on large banana leaves on the ground. But I was distracted by a little boy who demanded extra attention. While the other children were timid, this boy kept running up to me, putting his hands together as if in prayer and saying "Chickamoo" which is a Tanzanian greeting by younger people to their elders as a sign of respect. It comes from Arabic and literally means "May I be under your feet" to which the elder replies "Marahaba" or "Yes, you may".
He had a charming smile and although he was covered in dirt and was wearing tattered clothing, I could see he was a beautiful boy. My heart really went out for him as the western part of me thought how tragically poor he is and I wished I could take him home with me.
Little Darios, at only 3 years old, made the biggest impact on me that day. I searched in my bag for a gift something, anything to show him I thought he was special. But I hadn't planned on meeting such a special boy. All I had was a red ribbon AIDS pin a friend had given me. If I'd pinned that on a child in America it would have meant nothing, but for Darios well, I might as well have been Santa Claus handing out a bagful of toys. He was ecstatic, winding his way through the crowds of men and women, pointing proudly to the pin on his shirt and then hugging himself as it was the only way he could hug his new gift. I promised myself once I returned to America I would send him a box full of clothing and toys.
The next morning I had a chance to walk around the grounds of Sister Gudron's house. Tanzanian Sister Pauline's house and the church were nearby. In the middle of the compound was a flower garden and yard and strangely enough a mud hut with a thatched roof. It was odd because everyone lived in concrete houses and no one was staying in the hut. When I questioned Gudron about it she told me she and the villagers built it just for fun and she had planned an "inauguration" party for the end of the week. I had no idea what to expect but I was grateful I'd be around for a village celebration that wasn't set up for tourists.
The morning of the party, the village women were busy preparing the plantains to make "matoke", a plantain dish that resembles mashed potatoes. Sister Gudron told me not to disturb them, to just let them do what they had to do without getting in their way. But I couldn't help myself. I wanted to sit alongside them and for a while pretend I was a party of their community. The community of village women. One group stood over large vats, stirring ugali (stiff porridge) over open flames and another sat on logs peeling plantains. I was hesitant at first to join them, thinking about the sister's warning, and because I couldn't speak the tribal language Kinyambo and my Swahili was embarrassingly basic. So for a few minutes, I watched as an outsider