After Marianne and I have traveled to Tanzania so many times, the fear of Africa that prevents some people from going with us seems absurd. With many of them, we can overcome that fear by pointing out that three of our four children have made the trip with us, and that they all want to go again. But the real absurdity is that sometimes we forget about our own fear on our first trip.
We committed to that trip before we knew we would have any fear. Marianne had wanted to go to Africa for forty years, ever since she saw the film Born Free, in 1966, when she was eight. We were about to send our youngest child off to college. Marianne sensed before I did—there was nothing new in this—that we would need a comparably rewarding exertion to replace the work of raising children. She said we should travel somewhere that would challenge us, while we were still young enough.
Even though I agreed, I had never had any interest in visiting Africa. I suggested Vietnam. My argument could not stand up against Marianne’s logic, though. She asked if I had wanted to go to Vietnam for as long as she had wanted to go to Africa. Because I am several years older than Marianne, I was already in my late teens at the end of the 1960’s. Back then, I did not want to go to Vietnam.
In the popular imagination, war had moved from Southeast Asia to Africa long before 2007. As little as we knew about Africa, however, we did know that it consisted not of one country, but of many, of which war afflicted just a handful. With Marianne’s privilege of traveling to the continent of her choice came the responsibility of deciding on a specific destination. She learned that Tanzania possessed the lions that had stalked her dreams since she was a little girl, as well as a history of peace. We have nothing to fear, we told ourselves as we booked our tickets.
The bland reassurances on guidebook paper were shredded by Africa’s irresistible reality. Marianne had told the Tanzanian tour operator she worked with that we wanted to travel the way ordinary Africans traveled. He hired a young Tanzanian man who spoke English well, instructing the young man to take us, by bus, to meet a small band of Barabaig pastoralists. They had been traditional enemies of East Africa’s famous herding people, the Masai. The Barabaig spoke no English, but the young man would translate and we would spend a night with them.
This happened after we had already been in Tanzania for four or five days, first on safari, with our own driver and our own cook, and next in a guest house. Although the guest house was down at the heels, its handful of British, French, and Dutch guests, communicating smoothly in English, gave it the comfort of familiarity.
Out of shyness, I suppose, our Tanzanian guide and translator preferred not to communicate at all. Yet I give him credit for knowing how to look after two people who were not used to traveling on a bus in which every square inch of floor space was filled by a crush of human beings and chicken cages. We understood only much later why he had ordered us not to tell anyone on the bus where we intended to get off: our ride lasted an hour or two, but he found us seats, which were meant for all-day passengers. We would have to figure this out on our own, since Desi, as he was called, never explained himself.
We got off the bus in a town called Katesh, at the foot of Mount Hanang. At between ten and eleven thousand feet tall, Hanang is the third biggest mountain in Tanzania. Desi’s plan, we saw later, was to take us to the Barabaig that afternoon, atop a much smaller peak that looked up at Hanang from beyond the other side of Katesh. The next morning he would bring us down to a guest house in Katesh, before leading us as far up Mount Hanang as we could go the following day.
But Desi explained neither any of this, nor why, after drinking a cup of tea with us in a café in the town, he abruptly stood up and left.
“Stay here,” he said.
To the two of us, knowing next to nothing about Tanzania, Katesh was equivalent to the literal middle of nowhere. Staying was our only choice, other than following Desi. Yet we had been too stunned to do that, and he had vanished before either of us thought to make a move.
Except for Marianne and me, there were only Africans in the café. There had also been only Africans in the streets when the bus brought us into town. Standing out conspicuously, we had no idea what our prominence meant. We had no personal experience of being the only white people in a town of Africans, so we grabbed for loose chunks of history to try to put our situation in a recognizable context.
At one time, white people who came to Africa in small numbers took slaves. What kind of detritus had that crime left behind? Was it naive to fear that the trace which slavery had left in the café was a thirst for vengeance? Was it naive not to have this fear? Marianne and I didn’t know, any more than we knew how long Desi would be gone, or what we would do in case he had gone forever.
As our first hour of abandonment in the café stretched into a second hour, the frequency of Marianne’s obsessive question—“What if he doesn’t come back?”—increased. If she was like Ilsa, in Casablanca, begging me to think for both of us, then I made a sad Bogart. Though I told her over and over, in an imposture of confidence, that he would come back, this did not amount to thinking. I could not know that Desi would return, and my paralysis kept me from planning for what to do if he didn’t. I resisted making a plan because I wasn’t sure that I knew how.
He came back after an hour and a half, during which we had remained a living curiosity in the café. He came back bearing meat, rice, vegetables, and fruit for us share with the Barabaig. When we left the café with him, we saw the market stalls right around the corner. Desi had shopped in the unhurried, African way, which necessarily includes bartering as well as socializing. He accompanied us on our night with the Barabaig and on our hike most of the way up Mount Hanang. Then he took us, again by bus, to the village where we would make many friends, and to which we would return many times.
Desi seemed like one of those friends, until a year or two later. He said he wanted to be something more than a tour guide. Two thousand dollars, which he did not have, would pay for the classes he needed to earn an accounting certificate so that he could start a real career. We withdrew the money from our savings and wired it to him, but he did not use it for education. As reported by people who knew of him, he had a good time at our expense. We never saw him again. Nor did we ever hear from him, except once, a couple of years after he had disappeared with our money. He sent Marianne a friend request on Facebook, which she declined.
We shall never again permit ourselves to be fooled by somebody we trust, until the next time it happens. Remembering Desi, and his place in our first visit to Tanzania, helps us remember not only the possibility of misplacing trust, as crucial as trust is, but also the possibility of misplacing fear, as we had misplaced our fear onto Africa. We have committed both of these errors.
Desi is gone for good now, even though he did come back to the café. But the propensity for trust, which gets rewarded more often than not in Africa as in most places, is not gone, and neither is the love of Africa.