Daniel Amma wanted to move out of the cramped mud hut that he and his wife, Victoria, and their two young children were living in when Karimu volunteers first traveled to Dareda Kati Village, in 2008. They needed more than two rooms, one almost filled by their mattress and the other by their dinner table.
As a teacher at Ufani Primary School, Daniel earned less than fifty dollars a month. But he had always lived in rural Tanzania, where the economy’s domination by subsistence farmers kept prices low. He had taught at Ufani School for a few years and at a school in another village before that, and he had saved scrupulously.
Finally, he managed to convince a bank in the bustling regional capital, Babati, that he was a good risk for a loan to pay for the part of the construction that his savings wouldn’t cover. Although Babati was only thirteen miles away, the unreliable roads and bus service meant that every trip there ate up a full day. It felt good to Daniel that his trips to Babati to talk with the people at the bank had not been wasted.
By the time of our stay in the village in 2009, a bigger house of brick and concrete stood half-finished next to the mud hut. When we went back in 2010, the hut had disappeared. Daniel and his family now occupied their new house.
Electricity remained a dream. A power line ran along the far side of the wide dirt road that passed only a few yards from the house. Hooking up to it, however, would cost two years of Daniel’s salary. He did not want to take out another bank loan while still repaying the first one, at more than twenty-percent interest. At least the new house included a solar panel. It didn’t produce enough power to run any appliances, but on sunny days it added a modest night-light effect to the main room.
Having only two children had helped Daniel and Victoria save. This made them unusual in a village where the average woman could expect to give birth to half a dozen or more children. We would have found the same thing anywhere in rural Tanzania, according to the government’s numbers.
The small family highlighted their superior economic prospects, based on Daniel’s education, relative to the subsistence farmers whose children he taught. To convert part of his salary into surplus income, they needed to grow some of their own food on the plot of land where their house stood and where Victoria’s sister and her husband, another teacher, had also built a house. They grew bananas on the little plot. These often served as the major source of starch in Victoria’s cooking. So they did have a surplus, which had enabled them to move out of the mud hut.
At the same time, the fact that Daniel and Victoria felt that two children were enough was a reminder of why some people in the village had misgivings about educated people like Daniel. It was a reminder of why, as the Karimu volunteers made improvements to Ufani School and then Ayalagaya Secondary School—while the work on Ufani continued—some of the villagers challenged Karimu’s decisions. They wondered aloud why Karimu only cared about education.
Two children were not enough for most families in the village. After Marianne and I had already been visiting Dareda Kati for several years, I met (not in Africa, but in Hawaii) an academic from Malawi. It is a neighbor of Tanzania’s, to the south, and its people share more than a border with Tanzania. They also share many of the same predicaments. For this reason, the academic from Malawi may have understood the situation in Dareda Kati better than I did, despite never having been there.
“Large families are usually seen as an advantage,” he told me, “for the very reason that labor can be shared among the members. If the lone mother is to do everything for the family, how fair would that be? We are talking of subsistence farmers, whose only means of survival is work by their own hands. How do we balance children helping their families with basic survival against accessing education that may get them out of poverty?”
If Daniel could pay someone in the village the equivalent of a few pennies to bring firewood to the house so that Victoria would not have to gather the wood, in addition to cooking with it, only a handful of the other families in the village could do so. Their alternative to placing the burden of collecting firewood on the wife and mother was to require a child to do it. This could mean missing school. Yet having a child miss school did not bother some of the villagers.
“Education tends to create new interests and values,” said my friend from Malawi. “Sometimes educated children have nothing more to do with their rural homes, choosing to stay in town away from their family to enjoy their nuclear family. But children are a future security for their aged parents. Poor as people are, they do not have any social security that is available in the West; neither do they have any savings for old age, as their primary work was in subsistence activities.”
Even if an educated child who had moved to the city sent money home, money was not the only thing at stake.
“There are no homes for the elderly in these countries; your children are the only hope you have in your old age to be there for you.”
Children were very much on the mind of another guest when Marianne and I visited Daniel’s new house in 2010. This was a friend of Joas Kahembe, our original Tanzanian travel agent, who had become Karimu’s project manager. Joas knew him through the Rotary Club in Babati, where both men lived.
It was a particularly hot winter day in the Southern Hemisphere. I kept trying to maneuver Joas’s tall, broad-shouldered friend into the shade of the buildings of Ayalagaya Secondary School. But Tanzanians get used to humid, much hotter days during their summer, and he was dressed for late autumn in the American Midwest: down vest, shiny black leather coat, and, randomly, a wool Green Bay Packers cap. He stood monumentally in the sun, grateful for its warming rays. He cradled a big bag of oranges.
“A gift from Israel for Mr. Kahembe,” he explained. “We don’t trust the Muslims, so it is important to support their enemy.”
I have no memory of why he and Joas had arranged to meet at the school. I only remember that Joas was delayed in Babati. Marianne and Daniel and I were at Ayalagaya to talk with some of its teachers, and we saw that Joas’s friend was at loose ends. Daniel invited the man, whom I’ll call Mr. Jecha, to join us on the short stroll to his home.
Because Victoria hadn’t known that we would drop by, there was no lunch. Marianne and I didn’t mind, though. We had a busy afternoon ahead, without much time to spare. I was thrilled to see that Daniel, hoping to arrange lunch with us and some of the Karimu volunteers in the next few days, had bought a case of Fanta sodas, including my favorite, passion fruit. Sensibly, Marianne and Daniel and Mr. Jecha contented themselves with the sugary black tea that Tanzanians call chai. I set about drinking the sodas like my plane was going down.
A fourth guest, a young woman, greeted us when we arrived at the house. Daniel introduced her as his cousin, Lucy. With Victoria and the smaller child at the market and the older child in school, the young woman had kept the outdoor fire burning, enabling the chai drinkers to be served right away. She brought in four cups, including one for herself. She reserved for Daniel the pleasure of using the metal bottle opener to take the cap off my soda.
Lucy wore her hair in the “Mt. Kilimanjaro” style, coiled into a tower that rose imperiously from the back of her head. She dressed less modestly than the other women in the village, although her clothes would have seemed respectably professional in the U.S. or Europe. When she sat on the sofa across from Marianne and me, her dark skirt hiked up enough so that she had to tug at the hem to bring it level with the tops of her kneecaps.
Daniel explained that she had grown up in a nearby village, but that she now lived in Arusha. Arusha is a city of about one million people, more than a hundred miles from Dareda Kati.
“She is studying in the university there,” he said.
His earnest expression made it clear that he was proud of her. He hadn’t needed —and could not have afforded—to attend university to earn his teaching certificate. Marianne and I knew that he hoped to go some day.
Mr. Jecha asked what she was studying.
I felt my eyebrows raise. Glancing to my right, I saw that Marianne and Mr. Jecha had reacted in the same way. Out in the country we rarely meet university students. The ones we do run across seem invariably to be studying Tourism.
She met Mr. Jecha’s eyes with a level stare, as if she were used to the astonishment that her answer had provoked, and also used to facing it down. I had thought she was pretty at first. Studying her as she looked at Mr. Jecha, I decided that she wasn’t especially pretty. What made her attractive was her serene self-assurance.
Mr. Jecha removed his wool cap and briskly rubbed his head. His hair was an impenetrable black, either resistant to whatever challenges had plowed deep creases in his face, or dyed. He adopted a hearty tone to speak to Lucy.
“You must work for me after you have your diploma. My business is in imports and exports.”
“That is very kind,” Lucy said. “But I think I will not find the best opportunities in Babati.”
Mr. Jecha injected more enthusiasm into his voice.
“I also have an office in Arusha. We will eat lunch together the next time I am there. I can tell you all about my business.”
The coolness in Lucy’s good manners seemed more pronounced now.
“In Tanzania, the best opportunities for international business will be on the coast, in Dar es Salaam. And Dar es Salaam will be a gateway”—her eyes darted toward Marianne and me, seeking confirmation that she had used the word appropriately—”to many opportunities for working abroad.”
Mr. Jecha produced a broad smile to support his rising voice.
“Young lady, you don’t need to tell me where the best business opportunities are in my own country! But you should think about what working outside of Tanzania will mean for your children. What kind of mother can you be?”
“Don and Marianne have four children, and they are working outside of their own country.”
Lucy shook her head.
“For me, I think it will be enough to have two children: the same number that my cousin has.”
Mr. Jecha turned toward Daniel.
“My goodness, Mr. Amma! What kinds of Africans are you and this young cousin of yours? Don’t you know that the Bible tells us that we should multiply?”
Daniel gazed past Mr. Jecha with the abstracted, professorial air that Marianne and I had noticed in the classroom when a student asked him an interesting question.
“My wife and I were two, and now we are four. That is already multiplication.”
Mr. Jecha sighed noisily.
“Do you know how many children I have? I have done my duty, just as the Bible commands. I know that you are a good Christian man.”
He looked pointedly at the glossy poster of Jesus on the wall in order to draw Daniel’s attention to it.
“He commands good Christian men not to waste their seed. Even your guests from America have performed their duty more faithfully than you have, Mr. Amma.”
Mr. Jecha looked at Marianne and me, avid reproducers, for assistance that was not forthcoming. Still working to maintain his smile, he turned again to Lucy.
“Please tell me, Miss: are you one of these modern thinkers who believe that the African should have fewer children because he cannot feed all of them?”
“I think,” she said evenly, “that if we improved every part of our economy, then the African would not want to have so many children.”
Mr. Jecha moved forward in his chair, the best one in the house. He raised his voice so that Lucy would understand.
“You should read your Bible more carefully. It tells us that the faithful will be provided for.”
Once more, Daniel intervened. He cocked his head and set his eyes on the middle distance, engaged with the question rather than his guest.
“I think this is not our reality. In my church on Sunday, I see hundreds of people, even one thousand.”
He looked at Marianne and me to secure our agreement, as Mr. Jecha had done. We had attended Mass with Daniel once every year since 2007. We both nodded our heads.
“Many of the good, faithful people in my church are not provided for.”
Mr. Jecha had an answer ready for that.
“My good man, I will tell you something that you should already know: to be a good Christian, one must do more than go to church on Sunday. You cannot be lazy, and work your farm only when you want a little money so that you can get drunk. God provides for the birds of the air. Therefore, God will certainly provide for a man and woman who work hard to feed themselves and their children.”
Lucy, Marianne, and I all began to talk at the same time. Daniel joined in, though his characteristic thoughtfulness left him a beat behind. It was a good time for Mr. Jecha to receive his long-awaited phone call from Joas, whose car had arrived at Ayalagaya Secondary School. They exchanged a few words and Mr. Jecha stood up, hoisting his bag of Jaffa oranges. If the graciousness of his good-byes was forced, it was nevertheless appreciated.
He did not leave as quickly as he would have liked. Victoria returned home at that moment. She was laden with purchases from the market and with her little boy. Her daughter trailed behind her. On the way home from school, the girl had run into her mother and lightened her burden by carrying some of the market goods. Introductions were necessary.
To see Mr. Jecha out, we had all gotten to our feet. But only one of us moved with some urgency, first adding wood to the fire and then untying the top of a sack of maize that slouched close to the fire like a drunk. This was Lucy, whose responsibility it was to help Victoria with the children.