As holds true for so many questions important to Karimu’s work, we might not have enough time, at least during this trip, to ask Jason Kahembe how he determined the boundaries of Bacho for the purpose of his Community Survey, conducted last winter, or rather—I make this mistake all the time—at the peak of Tanzania’s Southern Hemisphere summer. Jason drove me from his father’s guest house in Babati back to Bacho last Thursday evening, after the hard drive to Arusha and back had left Joas exhausted, but I think we have now seen the last of Jason this year. That’s a shame, because Marianne and I have enjoyed his soft-spoken intelligence the few times we’ve talked with him. “The Reverend Kahembe,” Joas calls Jason, who is college-educated—a significant distinction in Tanzania—and an ordained Lutheran minister and one of his ten living children, and who has also given Joas some of his twenty-odd grandchildren. (Whom Joas refers to by chronological order of birth, claiming that at his age, almost seventy, he can’t remember so many names. But Joas loves his jokes and may have told this one so many times that he grew to believe it; he remains razor-sharp about most things and I’ve never noticed him struggle with adults’ names.)
We know now about two Bachos, A and B, and we know Bacho B alone holds more than double the number of residents that Jason ascribes to Bacho. We want to know everything we can about Bacho B since it includes Ufani Primary School, where Karimu’s work started in 2008. The previous year at Ufani School, Marianne and I did our first work with the villagers, helping build a six-hole latrine to replace the single flimsily concealed hole in the ground meant to serve over two hundred students. That single hole, with its “walls” not of brick but of animal hides loosely fastened to some shaky poles, had provoked a government threat to shut down the school. Having seen Ufani come so far, we still consider it the heart of Karimu’s work. The local people take pride in Ufani’s buildings, all of them either brand-new or recently renovated, in its sloping garden immediately below the school, and in knowing that last September its graduates achieved the highest secondary school entrance-exam scores out of one hundred fifty primary schools in their district. Only three out of thirty-four Ufani graduates failed the exam and thus permanently lost access to public education—the only kind that almost all the villagers can afford. Through Ufani they think they can glimpse a brighter future for their children. So the pretty setting and what the school represents for the villagers make Ufani their ideal gathering place and the natural point of origin for any Karimu initiative. Marianne and I know Jason defined a survey area that put Ufani School at its center, but we don’t know why he surveyed such a small area.
We should talk to Jason face to face because in this instance, just like in a lot of others, process matters more than results. Spoiling relations with Jason could harm our relations with his entire network of family and friends. Hence we want him right in front of us because, although we know the direct personal encounter can go wrong, it still gives us our best shot at making things go right. Ten days a year in the village leave us no time to patch up serious mistakes.
However, I want to say more than that talking face to face often has advantages over other sorts of communication, which we all know. I think these advantages become even greater for relationships haunted, like it or not, by the ghosts of inequality. Probably anyone who has heard Marianne or me speak to a gathering of the villagers could confirm that we insist over and over again on our gratitude to them and that we talk tirelessly about working with them rather than for them. Although we mean these things sincerely, calculation lies beneath this obsessive repetition of a theme. The Tanzanians are poor and we are rich and, in whatever measure we truly value the kinds of sincerity and community and generosity which we lack and which they possess in verifiable abundance, they also know that their poverty and our wealth have brought us to them. We have come to them to bring some of our wealth and some of whatever mysterious skill or virtue or luck or magic we have that makes us wealthy. I don’t know whether they can imagine what we feel we lack and how our sense of what we lack can drive some of us to try to acquire—or even briefly to warm ourselves in the glow of—what they have. But I do know that they possess an overpowering sense of what we have that they want, so the threat that they will fall supplicant while we assert superiority always shadows our relationships.
“What country ever became rich by carrying a begging bowl?” asks the Ugandan journalist Andrew Mwenda. A fair question, and one now asked by the increasing number of Africans who grow increasingly skeptical of the benefits of foreign aid. Yet the tempting simplicity of Mwenda’s metaphor hides the labyrinth of paths by which big-time foreign aid—not to mention a small-potatoes project like Karimu’s—circulates through and interacts with African society. In our case, Karimu dollars paid for the improvements to Ufani School, but its students still have to do their work. We cannot know when we force dependence on Africans by bringing them some of our wealth and some of our skill or virtue or luck or magic any more easily than we can know when we must let go of our children with our strong hands so they can stand on their own.
Of course I’ve just resorted to another metaphor no less problematic than Mwenda’s, casting Africans as children and us rich citizens of developed nations as grownups. And even mentioning “development,” many people have pointed out before me, flirts with the same danger. But what I’ll keep calling our development work among the villagers will continue. We consider them friends and therefore can’t walk away, even if we run the risk of resting our hands on them too firmly and too long. We’ll try not to; what else can we do?
As for Jason Kahembe, we hope to talk with him face to face in order to make the best of our chances of judging whether we have presented ourselves as his masters. Jason may or may not have had solid reasons to survey a diminished Bacho. Either way, we must try to get at the truth without casting ourselves as adults and him as a child: no scolding or lecturing or even seeming disappointed in him.
Unfortunately I don’t expect to see Jason again this year, so I’ll speculate about the truth. Walking up and down hilly terrain to visit, or merely find, every household in Bacho B would have meant hard work, especially during the heat and humidity of the Tanzanian summer. Jason had finite time and a finite budget and he concluded, after talking to the heads of a hundred and then a hundred fifty and then even more households, that they had described the same types of lives he already knew well once he had talked to the heads of fifty. He had collected a lot of information about those lives which the villagers would have withheld from Marianne and me. We cannot rely on all that information. For example, how will parents unable to see a doctor know for sure what killed their child when so many different diseases could have done it, including several that kill exactly as malaria does? Yet Jason had elicited more honest guesses than Marianne or I could have, and he made honest records of those guesses. I’ll take that for now.—Don Stoll