The unbearable agony of the three-minute download

The Bacho Community Survey attached to my May 18 post downloads at what seems an agonizing rate—it took between three and four minutes this morning, when I wanted to print a copy.

But a couple of minutes into my wait, which had consisted in a couple of minutes of nervous pacing, I started to think about the irony of my impatience. Karimu had commissioned the survey so we could better understand the needs of people who appear always to have three or four, or many more, minutes to spare. In fact, my wife Marianne and I always emphasize the necessity of preparing oneself for lots of waiting when we describe to our first-time volunteers what they will experience in rural Tanzania. I often make the point that the villagers hurry nothing because they have nothing to hurry for. I tell our student volunteers that Bacho’s young people have no music lessons or basketball practice to get to on time and I tell our adult volunteers that Bacho has no offices with time clocks to record tardies and no restaurants to hurry to in order to keep a reservation.

Of course, attitude might have more to do with filling up our time than activities do. As I grew more aware of my impatience with the download of the survey, I asked myself what I needed to do in the next ten or fifteen minutes in case the download took that long—and my answer was, nothing. Yet I must admit I rarely end up telling myself that during times when I feel rushed, which is one of the reasons I sometimes wonder how ideally suited I am for work in Tanzania. If ever my lectures to Karimu’s volunteers fall on ears deaf to my counsel of patience, those ears most likely belong to me. I’ve exaggerated my talent for impatience since, in truth, I’m often happy doing nothing at all. However, I explain fully my ambivalence toward Tanzania only by conceding my inclination toward social impatience. Cassandra Babcock, now finishing her second year at California State University at Long Beach and looking forward to her third visit to Tanzania with Karimu, likes to point out that when Tanzanians say “How are you?” they mean it as a question; in other words, they expect not a perfunctory “Fine” or a nod, but a lengthy, considered answer. As an inveterate, maybe even lifelong, perfunctory nodder, this makes me a little uncomfortable.

Still, even confirmed introverts can reap a generous reward by trying to adapt to this way of life which seems to leave no space for introversion. Dropping in on any of the huts in Bacho will occasion a meal—not a snack but a full meal, involving all of the handful of simple dishes that the villagers eat day after day, apparently never tiring of any of them: plain white rice, a gluey corn mush known as ugali, beans, and perhaps some of the soggy, boiled green vegetable that the villagers call “Chinese.” This food, without frills and virtually without seasoning—maybe a dash of salt at most, but never pepper and certainly nothing even more exotic—means life to people who live with no frills in everything they do. Therefore the food’s straightforward simplicity makes no disappointing contrast to the rest of their lives. For these villagers it is good enough that their food gives them life, so as long as they are grateful to live they will also be grateful to eat.

I don’t experience the reward I alluded to in the villagers’ food, however. I suppose too many meals too easily come by, along with too many flavors tasted and too many others I’ve heard about but not bothered to try, have spoiled any possibility that I could respond with Adamic innocence to white rice. The reward which I find myself thankful for is the very experience of thankfulness, which the villagers announce with startling directness. People who have little of a few things and nothing of most things become good at giving thanks for what they have. Usually Karimu’s volunteers eat in the cafeteria of the tiny agricultural college where we stay when we work in Bacho. Now and again, though, Marianne and I and a few other volunteers will visit a hut in the village and that, as I’ve already said, inevitably leads to a meal. And, just as inevitably, the meal leads to a ceremony: manifesting that supreme social patience which comes so hard for me, yet is second nature to the Tanzanians, the occasion demands that everyone at the table shall speak, in turn, about the importance of sharing this meal. One after another we pay homage to the food and its providers, both human and divine—so far I’ve not met an unbelieving Tanzanian—and even more so to the company. The Tanzanians’ speeches lose nothing in sincerity despite falling sometimes into comic excess, most memorably for Marianne and me when one of Ufani School’s teachers, the very handsome, very dignified, very intelligent, and very Catholic Daniel, invited us to his home. Daniel gravely suggested that one day the generosity Marianne and I had shown to Bacho would be rewarded with sainthood—which I don’t rule out for Marianne but which, in my own case, atheism probably excludes.

So every one of our meals in the huts of Bacho becomes a small Thanksgiving: a paradoxical outpouring of excess food by people who have too little for themselves, as well as an outpouring of excess gratitude by people who have too little understanding of how much gratitude they deserve. The paradox is that, to us, the destitution of the villagers looks like that of orphans and widows and homeless wayfarers, yet they feed us as if these words from Deuteronomy were addressed to them:

When you reap the harvest in your field and overlook a sheaf there, you shall not go back to get it; let it be for the stranger, the orphan, or the widow, that the Lord may bless your undertakings. When you knock down the fruit of your olive trees, you shall not go over the branches a second time; let what remains be for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. When you pick your grapes, you shall not go over the vineyard a second time; let what remains be for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow.

Marianne and I and Karimu’s other volunteers take to Bacho the belief that people who have much should not neglect people who have little. Few of us do any farming at all but, coming from a rich country, we own the equivalent of abundant fields, olive trees, and vineyards. Although Bacho’s fields grow barely enough to feed the villagers, their country and their hearts overflow with beauty. So it stings when they say, as they’ve often done, that they have nothing to give us in return for the improvements to Ufani School and the other things we bring them. I feel incapable of explaining to the villagers how much they give us. First they invited us to stay for a little while in their country and then they invited us to stay, forever, in their hearts. Laura Hull, who traveled to Bacho with us two years ago, spoke for all of us when she said the villagers’ generosity of spirit is a greater gift to us than what we give is to them. For me, the villagers’ hearts are the fields that feed us, the olive trees that give us shade, the vineyards that satisfy our thirst.—Don Stoll

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About Don Stoll

Don and his wife, Marianne Kent-Stoll, are co-founders of the Karimu International Help Foundation. They established Karimu in 2008 at the request of the people of Dareda Kati Village, in the Manyara Region of northeastern Tanzania. Karimu is devoted to working with the residents of Dareda Kati in order to satisfy their development needs, as defined by the villagers themselves.
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