Desi, our guide and translator the first time that Marianne and I traveled to Tanzania, ended up taking us to the cleaners for two thousand dollars. Maybe, at first, he truly intended to use the money we gave him to pay for the classes that would bring him an accounting certificate; maybe, once he had that much cash in hand, he simply couldn’t resist the call of the alcohol and women it would buy. Or maybe he never dreamed of an accounting certificate, and only of what would convince a couple of well-meaning Americans to part with their money.
For sure, though, Desi was an able guide and translator. We worried at first that he had abandoned us to cutthroats in a café in an obscure town called Katesh. But his return—and the ninety minutes of his absence, during which the staff and patrons had done nothing more aggressive than cast bewildered stares in our direction—helped us conquer our naive fear of Africa. So when Desi led us on a hike out of Katesh, to spend a night with a group of Barabaig herders, Marianne and I experienced curiosity instead of fear.
Six years later, four Masai—traditional enemies of the Barabaig, who had often fought with them for control of Tanzania’s best pasture land—visited our Karimu volunteers in Dareda Kati. They endured a couple of hours of friendly quizzing before finally asking a question of their own: “Why are you so curious about us?” I answered, a little disingenuously, that we would expect them to ask us endless questions about ourselves if they were to come to see us in our country.
Yet among the Barabaig, Marianne and I had felt none of the embarrassment that would descend on us while the Masai stood up to our barrage of inquiry. The Barabaig are unknown compared to the Masai, and less accustomed to visitors from rich countries. Because they gave no impression of squirming under the ethnographer’s objectifying gaze, Marianne and I did not squirm. We sat in their home and endless questions flew back and forth.
They did not understand why I had brought only one wife with me. Later, when I would tell the story, I leaned heavily on the trope that I had decided to bring my favorite wife. That was true enough, but not what we said to the Barabaig. Marianne and I told them that in our country a man typically sustained just one marriage at a time. We watched our hosts solemnly nod their heads and file a mental note.
Did their good manners conceal disapproval? They remained impassive when I tried to explain why I had no answers to some of their other questions: what crops did I grow, and what animals did I hunt? Their gaunt faces were masks until they tore into the chicken, rice, vegetables, and fruit that Desi had brought with us from the town below: gifts, as he made clear, from their American visitors.
Barabaig men, and children of a certain age, walk many miles every day in order to pasture their cattle. The survival of the herd is precarious, therefore slaughter is reserved for special occasions, like marriage. The milk-giving cattle are precious because they supply half of the tribe’s regular diet. The other half consists of maize, the most reliable crop in this part of Tanzania, and one that a people with a narrow margin for their own survival will happily go back to again and again.
Hours after the last scrap from our feast had disappeared, talk rolled around to the subject of wild animals. The Barabaig assured Marianne and me that we would be safe inside our tent, since the biggest, most dangerous animals had fled into the national parks. Some of the men remembered the time before the parks. They had often seen elephants then, and they missed them.
“Because they’re beautiful?”
Desi had hesitated before translating my question. The answer came back instantly.
“Because we used to kill them with poisoned arrows. Now the government stops us from doing that.”
I covered my embarrassment by changing the subject. The Barabaig had scraped every speck of meat off of the bones of the chicken we brought. Then they had cracked open the bones to suck out the marrow. How many Barabaig would an elephant have fed, and for how many days and nights?
Years afterward, I met a scholar from Malawi to whom I confessed the fear that Marianne and I had the first time we went to Africa. He admitted he had felt similar fears when he first left his own continent for travel to Europe and America. Why shouldn’t he have been afraid? The scholar’s home in Malawi was not as remote as the pastures of the Barabaig. Yet he may have had little more right than the Barabaig did to stipulate the other fearful practices that would seem normal to men who do not take multiple wives, who somehow feed themselves despite neither hunting nor farming, and who wish to save the lives of elephants rather than kill and eat them.
I still wonder sometimes if the Arab boys whom I taught briefly in the United Arab Emirates, in 2011, would have been frightened to visit the U.S. Probably not, because, as they saw it, they grasped the need for self-protection better than I did. Shocked by the revelation that I did not own a gun, they warned me that I must buy one, since people shoot each other all the time in America.
Gift-giving helped diminish the mutual suspicion between the Barabaig and their guests. When it came time to leave their dwelling of sticks and cow-dung plaster, Marianne charged our wind-up flashlight. Her realization that the stars would lead us to our tent coincided with a gasp of amazement from our hosts. She handed the flashlight to one of the men, asking Desi to tell them it was a gift.
Inside the tent, fatigue lost out to excitement. We were near enough to hear the man and his oldest wife, whose turn it was to sleep with him that night, play with their new toy. One of them would turn the crank to make the light go on or grow brighter, and they would laugh. We didn’t know whether it was the magical appearance of light or the whirring noise produced by the crank, or both, that delighted them. But the delight lasted for a long time. Marianne and I drifted off to sleep as the toy was still being played with and still provoking the couple’s soft laughter.
The oldest wife was called Hanjit. Though she might have been about fifty years old—roughly the same as her husband, we guessed—she could have been younger, but weathered by hard work. It never occurred to us to ask. The youngest wife was undoubtedly in her teens.
Hanjit had not liked our first gift to her as much as she liked the flashlight. In the afternoon, while she cooked for everyone, Marianne decided to reward her with some squares from a bar of dark chocolate, bought in California. Hanjit wiped her hands on her goat-hide skirt before putting the chocolate in her mouth, where it did not stay for long. She made a sour face and spat our gift into the cooking fire.
In the morning, the Barabaig men walked part of the way down their mountain with us, back toward town. I wanted them to understand that Marianne had not been trying to make a fool of Hanjit with the chocolate.
“It’s a strange taste to you,” I said, “but one that we love in our country. Where we come from, a man who has done something to make his woman angry might give her a box of it to show that he wants everything to be good between them.”
Hanjit’s husband nodded to show that he had heard me. His eyes, narrowed because we were walking into the sun, scanned the meadows flanking the trail, alert for signs that would have meant nothing to me. Although the day would warm up, at this hour it was still cool at our elevation. He hugged his wine-colored robe close against his body.
“What would a Barabaig man do to show that he wants to end the trouble with his woman and be on good terms with her?”
Once again, Desi’s translation came back without a beat.
“He gives her some maize and tells her to cook it so they can sit down and eat a meal together.”
The Barabaig men stopped. They had hoped to make a gift to us of a monkey or hyena sighting, but the fields were still. Their cattle needed pasturing, so we shook hands and said goodbye.