I do not often think of my habitual insomnia as a blessing, but tonight it’s useful, just like the headlamp that lets me see the pages of my journal. I need this time to write about my memories of our last day in Dareda Kati, before they exhaust themselves by competing for space in my head with the delights of safari: the scores of elephants we’re sure to see in Tarangire National Park, and, in the Ngorongoro Crater, the lions we hope to see dozing in the shade of our four-by-fours, close enough to touch simply by opening a window and leaning out as far as one can, for anybody foolish enough to try.
The Karimu volunteers left the village late in the afternoon to spend the night in Babati, half an hour closer to the safari circuit. Marianne and I have been put up in a typical small, single-storey Tanzanian hotel called the Unique Guest House. The expanse of the queen-size bed fans the mosquito net out far enough around me so that I am comfortable using it. The Integrated Agricultural Training Center, where all of us stay during our time in Dareda Kati, provides only single beds, and I can never sleep under a net there. I did try once or twice, back in 2008 or 2009. But in my narrow bed the net wrapped itself close around me like a shroud. Gasping for air, my thoughts flying straight to certain stories by Edgar Allan Poe—especially “The Cask of Amontillado”—I would decide to take my chances under a thick coating of insect repellent, also making a mental note that I must not forget my doxycycline at breakfast.
For the vast majority of Tanzanians, who have access to neither insect repellent nor antimalarial drugs, nets are vital. In 2010, Karimu gave away more than six hundred nets to villagers willing to pick them up from the Center. Even though the central government already had a policy of giving nets away to people who needed them, the people of Dareda Kati tell us that they never saw any of these government nets until Karimu’s free distribution shamed the regional officials into implementing their policy. I suppose that, however much satisfaction one can take in the lagging decline of malaria deaths in Tanzania—thought to be well over one hundred thousand annually a decade ago, and now down to between sixty and eighty thousand, suffered mainly by children under five years old—the Karimu donors can rightfully share a little of that satisfaction.
The year we handed out the nets, the volunteers put on a mini-play at our farewell ceremony. It touted the importance of nets, and the villagers laughed as they watched Cassandra Babcock, then on her third volunteer trip, sniff around for blood while outfitted with a two-foot-long mosquito nose. Cassandra managed to slay the foolish boy who had traded his net for a soccer ball, but the wise boy who kept the net made her groan with hunger.
Now performances by some of the volunteers figure in the closing ceremony every year. When Cassandra went home after the 2010 trip, she talked about Karimu with Anne Justine D’Zmura, her theater professor at California State University at Long Beach, and Anne has come with us the last three years. She created a class for college credits, which the volunteers have the option of taking. Those who take the class work with students from Ayalagaya Secondary School to script performances, which usually include music and dance, based on the interests of the Tanzanian children.
The Ayalagaya students wanted to concentrate on technology this year. Each time we visit we find more cell phones, with benefits that sound just as familiar to us as the disadvantages do: Tanzanian parents do not like to see their children checking out of conversations with them in order to text any more than American parents do. The farewell ceremony performances by the Tanzanian children and our volunteers focused on high tech, except for one mention of how guns can harm innocent people. It didn’t seem to belong, until I remembered the story we heard a couple of days ago about police coming to the village and firing shots into the air.
This year’s ceremony was the first one attended by a Member of Parliament, Jitu Vrajlal Soni. Soni, M.P. for the Babati Rural Constituency, runs his inherited farm of close to a thousand acres just outside of Babati. The family farm is there only because the Julius Nyerere government’s nationalizing of plantations in the nineteen-seventies forced his father to move away from the outskirts of Arusha, where Nyerere had made his most famous statement about the implications of “African Socialism.” His father had received a decent price from the sale of his former plantation, Soni said, because the buyer had powerful friends in government, so he believed he could escape nationalization. In the remote, rolling hills around Babati, at that time a small village of which the Nyerere government would have taken no notice, the new farm thrived.
In Babati tonight, Soni took Marianne, me, and our Tanzanian Board member, Joas Kahembe, out to dinner, holding our attention throughout the hour and a half that we waited for our food by talking about agricultural policy and forest preservation. Although there was so much detail that I wished I had brought a notebook, what Soni explained to us about the planting of eucalyptus trees stuck. As the population grows and Tanzanians try to reclaim more land to farm, they move into marshy areas that are the preferred habitat of the hippopotamus. Planting eucalyptus trees, which slurp up every drop of water in sight, is a way to avoid the wrath of a government that frowns on the killing of hippos. But the same dry conditions that force the hippos to migrate also make farming unproductive.
I should say that Soni held Marianne’s attention and mine, while Joas struggled to stay awake. Despite his sometimes prickly nature, Joas has been invaluable to Karimu ever since its founding in 2008. He is efficient and, because his home is in Babati, he has always had the Internet, enabling us to communicate regularly with him from California. Tonight all of his seventy-two years were showing, and maybe a few others that he had borrowed from somebody else. The Ayalagaya students suggested with their performances at the farewell ceremony that they are investing a lot of hope in the spread of the Internet across rural Tanzania, but I haven’t seen it happen yet. Karimu will need reliable Internet service to stretch its tentacles from Babati to Dareda Kati before, not after, Joas is no longer up to working with us.
Until our meal arrived, Joas perked up only to remind me of the Swahili expression that I had mangled at the end of my speech during the ceremony. Mungu bariki, I had planned to say: “God bless,” an appropriate way to finish off a speech to a crowd of intensely religious people. I slipped, though, and said baridi, which means not “bless,” but “cold.” Provoking some of the warmest laughter of the afternoon made my error worthwhile, even if it came too close to an accidental revelation of my own theology.