This year we enjoyed better luck than we did the last two summers in receiving our Karimu volunteers’ luggage on time at Mt. Kilimanjaro International Airport, near Arusha in Tanzania. Only one volunteer did not get his luggage: the unshakably good-natured Alex Foy, luckily. In 2008 the luggage of four or five volunteers reached us late and last year seventeen of our thirty-one volunteers had the same problem—the consequence, we’re told, of United Airlines’ inability to work out a transference agreement with Precision Airways, which flies us from Nairobi to Tanzania. Joas Kahembe and I had planned to make the three- or four-hour drive back to Arusha tomorrow, anyway, to buy mosquito nets, so we can also check to see whether Alex’s suitcase has arrived.
However, all credit goes to the villagers of Bacho for welcoming us so warmly that missing luggage has never felt like a serious problem. Our first, astonishing experience of this gift from the villagers came two years ago. On that trip we had a long enough layover in Nairobi to check on the progress of our luggage and to learn that nobody there had any idea of the whereabouts of the suitcases belonging to several of our travelers. These included the one volunteer who for several months had concerned Marianne and me the most: a university Professor of Politics who had assured us that he wanted to go on the trip only in order to spend time with his son—or “best friend,” according to the father—who would leave home soon to start college. One of the other high school students traveling with us called the professor’s response to hearing about his lost suitcase a “tantrum”—after the throwing of which, Marianne and I tried our best to avoid him.
But the people of Bacho, who call themselves the Iraq, tamed the professor almost instantly with the kind of welcome that American soldiers had heard they would receive from the other Iraq people in the spring of 2003. Depending on the length of our layover in London, we need two full days—by which I mean forty-eight hours—of travel from our front doors in the Santa Cruz area to get to Bacho. Even now Marianne and I worry a little that our volunteers will mutiny during the last few hours of driving through towers of dust over Tanzania’s awful, jolting roads, but we worried more in 2008 because we had not yet experienced the villagers’ welcome. That year we first caught sight of them in our headlights. Joas, who used his cellphone for occasional contact with a few of the villagers from the guest house he runs in the regional capital of Babati, said they had waited for us along the dirt path into the village since late morning because of miscommunication about our arrival time. Now our four-by-fours wound delicately among hundreds of the villagers as they danced, sang, ululated, and waved palm fronds and banana leaves in greeting.
The Iraq perform a simple celebratory dance, jumping up and down over and over again, with arms locked, and occasionally lunging forward exactly as people in rich countries do in gyms when they want to sculpt quads of steel. Unimaginatively choreographed, no doubt, but with the virtue of being easy for any stranger to learn. This includes the irascible professor, dragged out of his four-by-four by the dancers, garlanded in beads, his face lit up by a smile I couldn’t square with the storm that had recently darkened the Nairobi airport. Many of the volunteers wept, having previously received so glad a welcome only on exiting the womb. (I was among the weepers, but you shouldn’t count me since I cry very easily. “Look out: here come the waterworks,” Marianne likes to say.)
On our third day in the village, Joas notified Marianne and me that someone from Kilimanjaro Airport had delivered the overdue luggage to his guest house and that he would send it to Bacho the next day. We gave this news to the professor, who looked startled. “I don’t really need my suitcase,” said the man who had just wanted to spend time with his son. “Everybody has been lending me things.”
I had heard more than one person claim that nothing can rival an African welcome, and I was skeptical. But I gave up all my doubts on that night two years ago when the people of Bacho needed only minutes, if not seconds, to bring us all together.–Don Stoll