From the archives: Two epitaphs

The Islamophobe Brit mentioned in last Sunday’s post fled in the middle of the night during the week. This followed subjection of the Brit’s Muslim hosts to a rigorous test of their courtesy: sprawling possessively across a divan in the opposite gender’s staff lounge, the Brit complained first about hearing the neighbors make love through the walls of the apartment provided by the employer, then about the absence of “a light coming from Muslims which I see shining out of the souls of Christians.”

Or so my wife claims, and I believe her. She tells a good story, but couldn’t make this stuff up. She also reports that even though the Muslim co-workers responded gallantly to their courtesy exam, they rejoiced in the nocturnal flight from the Abode of Darkness back to the Brit’s illuminated London.

As I prepare to join my wife, the question of how one makes sense out of a new and radically different place has occupied much of my thought. My preparations have left me little time to write this week, so I repost below my entry from last June 7, which deals in part with my attempt to make sense of the strangeness of another place, one I visited for the first time less than four years ago:

Two epitaphs

Paul Richards’ death has taken me far too long to write about. Paul, a volunteer on Karimu’s trip to Tanzania two years ago, had nearly finished his first year of college when, on the night of April 23, he died in a traffic accident. He was a big-hearted young man with a big smile. I don’t know his father, Alan, well enough to recognize anything more than his ranginess in Paul. But I know that Paul inherited generosity and exuberance from his mother, whose house became a campground for his friends for a full week after the accident. We have no good way to handle death, for it is always death which handles us. Nevertheless, out of all the bad ways to handle death, Paul’s mother, Alisa, chose the best, by surrounding herself with as much life as she possibly could. The presence to her of all those young people, around the clock during all those days, was palliative rather than cure, since death is incurable. And because they have the most life, young people—the younger the better—make the best palliative for death. I, with my own four grown children still vigorously alive, felt nothing like Alisa’s pain. But I felt the loss of Paul enough to want to have even more young life around me. I would have asked my wife for a baby, a fifth one, except we’re too old.

In Bacho, the villagers now pray for Paul. They did not learn immediately about his death because they have no electricity and therefore no Internet access. So to receive messages from us, they depend on our friend in Babati, Joas Kahembe, who, once a month or so, undertakes the jarring drive to Bacho over sixteen rutted and cratered miles of the Singida Road. I wondered when I sent Joas the e-mail announcing Paul’s death what the villagers would have made of the shock which that death had delivered to his young friends. Paul’s friends seemed too many to count, since to know him was to become his friend. Yet I found only one or two among them with previous experience of the death of somebody their own age. This is undoubtedly a good thing: young people belonging to a rich country’s middle class have every reason not to know death among their own generation. Hence Paul’s death brought his young friends something besides pain; it also brought incomprehension. Although people my age or my wife’s—I am fifty-eight and she is fifty-two—can die without upsetting the order of the universe, the death of someone as young and full of life as Paul contradicts reason itself.

The universe has its reasons, I suppose, for reserving early death to poor people in poor countries. In Tanzania one child out of every fourteen dies during the first year of life and the thirteen survivors remain in serious peril for at least the next four years. This goes far toward explaining Tanzania’s average life expectancy of fifty-two, compared to seventy-eight in the United States and even longer in many rich countries—eighty-one in Canada and Sweden and eighty-three in Japan, for example. So a young man or woman who lived to eighteen or nineteen in Bacho would have lost any number of contemporaries to death.

But the prayers offered up for Paul in Bacho suggest that frequent death does not make life cheap. Maybe frequent death even makes life more precious by underlining its fragility. In The White Man’s Burden, the development economist William Easterly writes about the “relentless wailing of mothers in Sierra Leone who have lost a child to measles, the wailing that never stopped in a village during a measles epidemic.” Paul Richards’ mother, a passionate and successful immigration lawyer, has one other child and, if I ever undergo religious conversion, I might ask with my very first prayer that Alisa never has to bury that other child, Thomas. Yet the women in Easterly’s village know they will have many children, and still they wail when one dies.

In the United States the debate over healthcare reform called attention to the “young invincibles,” those twenty-somethings who had shunned health insurance because their age seemed to confer invulnerability. Can poor people in rural Tanzanian communities like Bacho, any more than the women in Sierra Leone described by Easterly, feel invincible at any age? All of Africa’s poor know that death can enter the room swiftly and without knocking, so they must take special precautions to guard against it. But how can the poor afford to take such precautions? Last summer our interpreter in Bacho, a farmer named Sifaeli Kaaya, whispered one possibility to us after introducing an employee of his, Frank. As Frank, an albino, turned back to his work minding a tilapia pond, Sifaeli told us, quietly enough so that his employee could not hear, that he worried Frank would be killed for his body parts. As a story which appeared a month ago in the London Telegraph reports, a “wave of albino killings”—sweeping Burundi as well as Tanzania—“started in 2007, fuelled by the sale of their highly-prized body parts to witch doctors across the region who use them to concoct wealth-enhancing charms.” The article details a handful of very recent murders, including the May 2 hacking to death “by a gang of nine armed men” of a young albino mother and her four-year-old son in Cendajuru, on Burundi’s Tanzanian border; the “boy’s non-albino grandfather who intervened to stop them was killed on the spot.”

Of course, Christian and Muslim Tanzanians can also pray for health or for the wealth to buy it. I don’t wish to imply that religious faith merely substitutes for the missing advantages of science. Such a reductive view of faith cannot explain the coexistence of religion with medical science in a rich country like the U.S., where most people believe in both. In other words, religion and science do not everywhere compete against each other in a zero-sum game. In the African bush, however, even if people would like to benefit from both faith and medical science, the latter is mostly absent and the practice of religion is fervent and, often, unnervingly literal. Karimu owes its existence to Joas Kahembe and his dedication to helping the people of Bacho—I still need to tell his story—yet Joas reads his Bible in a way I cannot easily reconcile with his generosity to the villagers. The Bible instructs us to go forth and multiply, Joas has said to me more than once. Joas himself has discharged his duty to God by fathering eleven children and one will not read anywhere in the Bible that God has excused his countrymen, even the poorest, from the same obligation. If God has instructed us to go forth and multiply and He is merciful, then He will provide for men and women who faithfully perform their duty.

Karimu’s volunteers cannot ignore the sternness and narrowness of most religious faith in Tanzania. People who know the country better than we do assure us that not only does the handholding we see there among men not indicate homosexuality, but that we must never mention homosexuality. In this area, public opinion and law coincide. Thus in 2007, an official report by the Tanzanian government to the United Nations Human Rights Committee declared that homosexuality is “considered an unnatural act punishable under the Penal Code. . . which provides that any person” with “carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature. . . is guilty of a felony and is liable to imprisonment for 14 years.”  Hearing warnings like these before her trip to Tanzania with us two years ago, a lesbian friend wondered whether she could at least change a few minds in Bacho. Wouldn’t the trouble she had taken to travel halfway around the world to help the villagers have the effect of humanizing homosexuals? In the end, though, our friend never mentioned her sexuality in the village and, for all the changes that we at Karimu have talked about bringing to Bacho, we haven’t gone near this issue. It seems like a wall we cannot climb, so we don’t even look at it.

How do we avoid this issue, though, when we know what the villagers would say about, and fear what they might do to, our homosexual friends? How do we love the villagers despite this knowledge and this fear? This tension is no more strange, however, than the tension we sometimes experience in our relations with family or friends. I think of my grandfather, who died of pancreatic cancer in 1984. He was an alcoholic who for decades covered my grandmother in verbal abuse and who all his life carried the racial and ethnic prejudices he had acquired during his working-class childhood in Liverpool. Yet my earliest memories are of the unreserved affection he showed me, affection which never lost strength until his death. He was loyal to a fault toward all his grandchildren and great-grandchildren who, since they were his, could do no wrong. And my wife still recalls with gratitude how generously he welcomed her into his family. Since she was mine, she was by extension his, therefore she could do no wrong, either. My grandfather’s bigotry and stingy, resentful politics were serious faults. But for a long time I have believed that an even worse fault was my own inability to see my grandfather as a whole man, who had virtues as well as the vices on which I focused. I failed, or refused, to see my grandfather whole for twenty years beginning in my adolescence. Because those were the last twenty years of his life, I can neither recover nor atone for them.

Like people everywhere, the people of Tanzania do not always choose the objects of their love wisely. However, we cheat ourselves, as I cheated my grandfather and myself, when we fail or refuse to appreciate people who, even if confused in the objects of their love, give that love as intensely, lavishly, and steadily as the Tanzanians do. It can be easy to see that the aim of someone else’s love is not true. Yet surely we exaggerate our own wisdom if we believe that we ourselves love all and only those objects deserving of love. What do the people of Tanzania love that we ought to love but do not? What do they shun that we ought to shun but do not? We cannot jump over our own shadow or see our own blind spot. But we can throw ourselves into the arms of an immodest love when we find it, as we find it among the Tanzanians. The modesty of our wisdom demands that we love immodestly.—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.
This entry was posted in Africa, development, poverty, Tanzania, volunteering and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to From the archives: Two epitaphs

  1. Bill Best says:

    Don, I love how you wrestle with difficult subjects in your very human essays. They give me insight into my own struggles and into those of other people whom I am getting to know through you. Thank you for your humanity and gift for expressing is so beautifully. I am richer for it.

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