Karimu‘s first project in Dareda Kati Village, in 2008, was the renovation of Ufani Primary School. Gradually, as a few years went by, we became involved in other projects which had nothing to do with education. This was partly because we saw that children could succeed in school only if they received adequate health care and enough to eat, and if they had a way to get to school even during the most hazardous times of Tanzania’s rainy season.
It was also partly because we came to understand, slowly, that some of the villagers did not appreciate an educational system which threatened to teach their children that they could live better lives by moving away from an isolated rural village. On the other hand, these villagers certainly appreciated modern health care and plentiful food and a reliable bridge across rising waters.
When Karimu started renovating Ufani Primary School, however, the job seemed like enough because of its difficulty. The school consisted of four unpainted classrooms, none of which had glass in the windows or doors in the door-frames. Every classroom had a dirt floor, so we knew we would need to pour a lot of concrete. But when Marianne and I were in California, talking to our volunteers about construction work, we had not understood the special challenge posed by one of the classrooms.
Its floor was both the most uneven and, relative to the single door through which children would enter and leave, the highest of all the classroom floors. Each of the four classrooms needed leveling in patches. This floor, unlike those in the other classrooms, would need to have every one of its thousand or so square feet lowered by several inches before we could pour the concrete cover.
We faced a challenge because the hard-packed dirt of the floor, which turned to mud whenever rain insinuated itself into the room and which spread a thin blanket of red grime over clothes, hands, and textbook pages when the wind gusted in, showed no respect for the first tools that we used to try to shatter its surface.
The tools were a haphazard collection of picks, shovels, and hoes. The ones whose handles had broken in half were assigned to the shortest volunteers. The ones whose business ends were coming loose from the handles were reserved for the paid local builders, who worked in flip-flops and without gloves.
Using the pidgin Swahili that we fell back on when neither of our two translators was around, we quickly learned to refer to the local builders as fundis. A fundi is a craftsman or a skilled worker, and its plural is mafundi. Similarly, a white person is a mzungu, the plural of which is wazungu. But we were just mzungus and fundis to each other, distinguished by the willingness of the latter to do the more perilous jobs and to work faster, without taking a rest break or a drink of water for what seemed like hours on end. We would step away from the job, take a tall drink from a water bottle, and then offer some water—maji—to a fundi. He would give a puzzled look, shake his head, and continue working.
I spent most of the first day of renovating in the classroom with the elevated floor. Although many of us started out there, our numbers dwindled as we understood the danger of striking one another instead of the ground. My constant companions in the room were a California high school senior and her cousin, a nursing student at UCLA. They had developed fast friendships with Sarah Charlton, a student-teacher from London and an experienced traveler throughout East Africa, contracted by Karimu to help look after our volunteers and supervise their work.
At intervals throughout the day, Sarah, often with a fifty-kilo sack of cement on her shoulder, would look into the classroom through one of the windows, which had no glass yet. She was after extra hoes. The high school girl and her older cousin knew exactly how to appeal to Sarah’s profane, sarcastic sense of humor, so their reply was invariable:
“There are only two ho’s in here.”
It never got old.
The barely serviceable hoes, picks, and shovels, like almost everything needed for the renovation, were paid for by Karimu; we had only asked the villagers to supply the bricks, which they made rather than bought. The tools whose business ends could have flown off in mid-swing or on impact with the ground, which neither Karimu nor Sarah’s employer, Inspire Worldwide, would let the volunteers go near, could easily have been replaced ahead of time, had we understood the problem.
Yet the fundis, accustomed to rough working conditions, saw nothing wrong. The classroom that the high school girl and her cousin and I worked in needed the top few inches of floor to be broken up and then hauled outside. For the hauling, the fundis gave us battered tin or aluminum bowls. These were more shallow than woks, but deeper and a little wider than frisbees.
One of us would squat in order to scoop up a bowlful of loose dirt. It would be handed off, then walked part of the way to a window to be handed off again. Then it would be walked all the way to the window and get handed off to someone outside: the first person in a long line of dirt-passers. The responsibility to squat and scoop was handed off frequently among the three of us, as dictated by aching backs or knees. I appreciated the youth of my two co-workers, whose backs and knees took longer to give out.
I went on to stand in many more long lines. After that first day in the classroom with the raised floor, however, the brimming bowls of sand or gravel or wet concrete were always passed from person to person into a classroom, where the children and their teachers soon would no longer have to make do with dirt floors.
Slightly over half of our twenty-seven volunteers were women and high school girls. While their eagerness to throw themselves into backbreaking work—the only kind of work we did on this first trip—didn’t surprise Marianne and me, it surprised most of the villagers. On the second or third day of work, Daniel Amma, the Ufani Primary School teacher, rested his hands on our shoulders as we stood in one of the passing lines.
“You have created a revolution,” he said in his soft voice.
We hadn’t noticed that several places down from us in the line, two children in navy-blue schoolgirl skirts and white shirts were passing bowls of wet concrete along with our bigger girls. Other schoolgirls looked for chances to jump into the line.
Some of the leading women in the village, we found out, had protested that it was not right for their American sisters to work so hard without help from the village women and girls. The village’s most respected midwife, Veronica (pronounced “Varrow-neeka“) Moshi, spoke out, as did the local representative to the Ministry of Community Development, Gender and Children, which is charged with promoting gender equality.
The Ministry fights an uphill battle. Yet this time its representative, and Veronica, won a minor skirmish, if not a revolution, as women and girls from the village started to join us in large numbers. The schoolgirls who passed concrete were just the front line. Some women would take part in our most grueling job: using shovels to mix sand, gravel, cement, and water into concrete.
Exactly like the fundis, the village women who mixed concrete did not break for rest or water. They were prepared to labor tirelessly because the daily work of so many women and girls includes carrying buckets of water and bundles of firewood.
“The men in the village did not know that women could build,” Daniel told us.
Mixing concrete was the hardest work I did on this trip. But neither on this trip, nor since then, have I ever carried a full bucket of water, or enough firewood to satisfy the needs of a big family for one day, across a great distance.
Five years after the first Karimu visit to Dareda Kati, Karimu would partner with another nonprofit, Bridging the Gap Africa, to build a new, stable bridge. Dareda Kati needed the bridge because the river that flows beneath it floods every March and April, slicing the village in two. Five years after Daniel’s revolution, the villagers who most appreciated the new bridge may have been the grandmothers that we had watched stumble, and nearly fall, as they staggered across the old, shaky bridge under their loads of firewood.