It was our meetings with the teachers of Ufani Primary School, and their concern that Tanzania’s central government would close the school, that brought Marianne and me back to Dareda Kati Village in 2008, with twenty-seven Karimu volunteers. The volunteers went there ready to rebuild the classrooms that the government considered too dangerous for children to use.
We focused so single-mindedly on saving Ufani Primary School that we gave little thought to where the volunteers would stay or how and what they would eat during our time in the village. They were prepared to stay in mud huts or in tents and to do their own cooking, if necessary.
Marianne and I were prepared for worse. We had entrusted Joas Kahembe, the Tanzanian travel agent who had placed us in Dareda Kati in 2007, with a wire of many thousands of dollars to begin the renovations before we arrived. But we had no prior experience of working with Joas in that way. Although we knew he was not poor, we also had a sense of how far that much money would go in Tanzania. It could tempt a man of the middle class, we thought.
Our anxieties became magnified in Nairobi. This was our last stop before the fifty-minute flight that would take us to Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro International Airport, after which only a drive of several hours would separate us from the village. The two airlines that we used to travel from San Francisco to Nairobi had no working arrangement with Precision Air, the small Tanzanian carrier that we had scheduled for the trip’s final, short leg. We would have to collect our luggage in Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, and then check it onto the Precision Air flight.
Only one volunteer’s luggage had not been properly transferred while we changed planes and airlines during our twelve-hour layover in London. By coincidence, he was the same man who had given Marianne and me the greatest concern in the months leading up to the trip. Most memorably, he warned us that, in case we had any “team building” activities planned for the volunteers, he would not participate. Since this might be the only chance he would ever have to visit Africa, he would not let anything spoil his experience. By the time we realized that he could become a problem, the deadline had passed for getting his airfare refunded. We didn’t want to argue over who would eat the loss.
The likelihood of being stuck with a loud and consistent complainer irritated us more than it would have at other times. Perhaps unreasonably, we had expected the volunteers to follow the African example of never complaining. We saw this stoicism on the first bus ride we ever took in Tanzania, a year before this first trip with volunteers. On a warm day, I was shoehorned, like dozens of Africans—some of them carrying cages full of chickens, or trailing tethered goats—into just enough space to wave a hand in order to stir up a breeze. This put my ability to control my inveterate fidgeting to a test that I expected to fail. If I scraped by, with very low marks, it was only because my observation of the Africans’ perfect immobility shamed me into surpassing myself.
But I got help in another way. We had gone only a few miles before the bus slowed down and started bouncing even more jarringly over the unpaved road. Our African neighbors remained impassive. The driver finally stopped. When he told the passengers about our flat tire, I heard none of the groaning I had expected.
The Africans climbed off the bus with their chickens and goats and sat next to the road, on the dirt or on the patches of dirt-coated grass that, here and there, broke up the long stretches of dirt. They all stared at the tire that had let them down, except for a few sturdy-looking men who offered to help the driver change it. Grateful for the chance to move around, I joined in. I didn’t see much tread on the spare, but it seemed round enough.
This interruption, and the work on the tire that filled it, helped me endure the stillness of the rest of the bus ride. Yet the Tanzanians, Marianne and I had already begun to realize, did not struggle against enforced immobility. A flat tire, or an overdue airplane or bus, or a truckload of building materials arriving a full day late, or maybe two, means a chance to sit down for a bit longer. And this means a chance to talk some more.
It’s fine to stand up and move around and devote oneself to solving the problem that has caused the delay, if a solution is possible. But what if there is no way to reach the pilot or the bus driver or the truck driver to ask what the problem is, or no replacement part available for the repair even if one could contact him? The Tanzanians encounter dead ends like these every day. They become masters at discerning wasted motion, as well as wasted mental agitation.
Against this backdrop, the eruption by the volunteer whose luggage did not show up in Nairobi came as a shock. His frustration and fury baffled the Kenya Airways and Precision Air people. One tall, slender man in his twenties, from Kenya Airways, suffered our volunteer for longer than any of the others did. Though his features possessed less of the sculpted beauty that sets apart the men and women who work the Kenya Airways flights, he was beautiful nonetheless. He squinted, creating temporary wrinkles in his smooth skin, as if trying to bore into our volunteer’s head to see exactly where in his brain lay the peculiarity responsible for these irrational complaints.
“I did not put your suitcase on the wrong airplane,” he seemed to be thinking, “but someone did, and now it has already left for another European city; how will your misdirected anger bring your luggage to you in less than the three or four days that we have estimated you will have to wait?”
He squinted and tightened the knot of his red tie and tugged on the sleeves of his handsome red Kenya Airways jacket. Our volunteer explained that his luggage had never been lost before by any of the countless airlines he had flown in the United States The thought crossed my mind that even if Kenya Airways—rather than United, which had taken us from San Francisco to London, but which had no presence in Nairobi and no one there to complain to—had misdirected a suitcase, it was doing enough things right to afford tailored uniforms for this man and its other male employees.
The Kenya Airways man would have been out of place in Dareda Kati. A minority of village men dress up to go to church or to affirm the dignity of their service in local government. They float freely inside their suits, which reach the Tanzanian countryside along with other clothes discarded by people from rich countries. The clothes get sorted into heaps on the dusty ground of the outdoor markets. One suit may travel to many villages and be displayed in many markets until the approximation of its fit satisfies somebody and a sale is made. The approximation is always on the side of too big, since the discards come from countries where food is plentiful.
One of the baggiest suits I have seen belongs to an ebullient district education officer named Frederick, who emcees the annual closing ceremony on our volunteers’ last day in Dareda Kati. Sweating into his rust-colored three-piece, Frederick makes sure that no performing group of village children or adults holds the spectators’ attention for too long, and that every exit is swift.
This is required because important people attend the ceremony. Politicians rarely seen in the backwaters show up to associate themselves with the work done by Karimu and the villagers and to give speeches that remind the villagers of their obligation to show gratitude to the important people who have honored them with their presence. Being important creates a necessity for dinner engagements with other important people, hence the ceremony must move along as quickly as possible. No one could mistake the important guests for locals. Their suits are filled out, or overfilled, owing to the importance of their wearers, which enables them to eat enough to grow too big.
Too big is how I would feel at the end of this first Karimu trip. I had brought only two pairs of pants from California, not knowing how hard the construction work would be. Both pairs were filthy and torn by the time we left Dareda Kati and settled in at Mosquito River Village, our jumping-off point for two days of safari before flying home. I thought I would be all right, since hundreds of kiosks lined the streets and alleys, and dozens sold used clothes. I visited most of them.
Even though my build is considered average in the U.S., every approximation that I found in the kiosks was too short and too tight. Eventually, I gave a dollar to a boy on a bicycle, who had pointed out that he could search all of the kiosks much faster than I could. What he found was also too short and too tight. I chose that over filthy and torn for my flight back to California.
But first we had to observe the Kenya Airways man’s perplexed endurance of our volunteer’s tirade, and then get through two more weeks with this angry man. A little cravenly, Marianne and I kept out of his way in the Nairobi airport’s steamy waiting lounge—or holding pen—and then made sure not to sit in the same four-by-four that he was in during the last five or six hours of the exhausting journey to Dareda Kati. Even if placating him was possible, we thought we lacked that power.
By the time we got to our destination, night had fallen. Our drivers told us about learning, from cellphone calls with the villagers, that certain details of our trip had been wrongly communicated to Dareda Kati: its people had expected us to arrive early in the afternoon. We understood the consequence of this mistake as our convoy snaked along the last quarter of a mile of dirt road.
Marianne and I thought our driver had turned on his radio until he glanced over his shoulder and motioned for us to look outside. The song and ululations came from the villagers, who had lined the road for hours. On a moonless night in a place without electricity, each villager was illuminated for only a moment as the headlight beams swept by. We had enough light to see that everyone was waving either a palm frond or a banana leaf.
I became separated from Marianne as soon as the four-by-fours stopped in a wide, flat area now overrun by villagers, who pulled our volunteers down onto the grass and into dance circles. A few people I recognized from the year before, and many other people that I didn’t recognize, spoke to me. I couldn’t hear a word over the exultant voices and the drumming.
So I danced. This is not a skill that I have, but, among the Iraqw tribe who populate Dareda Kati, dancing consists mainly of jumping up and down. Because the welcome had restored my strength after the long, jarring hours in the four-by-four, on top of two endless plane flights, I was able to manage jumping.
Marianne found me before I found her. She put her mouth to my ear and shouted.
“Do you hear what they’re singing?”
For the first time, I tried to make out the words, but she didn’t give me a chance.
“They’re singing about Don and Marianne!”
I had no time to reflect on my embarrassment. She gestured with her thumb, indicating that she wanted me to see something. Then she took my hand so that she could drag me through the crowd. When we reached its perimeter, she pointed to the volunteer whose luggage had not appeared in Nairobi. He was smiling broadly. A heavy, beaded necklace that the villagers had given him flew away from his chest with every vertical leap. His right hand gripped the hand of one of the women from the village and his left hand gripped the hand of a village man. They jumped in time with him.
Two or three days of grueling construction work later, on an overcast morning, Marianne and I received word that the lost luggage was waiting for pickup at Kilimanjaro International Airport. One of the four-by-four drivers we had hired for our trip to the village would deliver it to us.
The volunteer seemed astonished when we told him that he would have his luggage by the afternoon. His eyes scanned the T-shirt he was wearing, which was much too big. Then he looked back at us.
“I forgot about my luggage; people have been lending me whatever I needed.”