Three years ago, when Marianne, a Karimu volunteer with expertise in providing clean water, and the Chairman of the Dareda Kati Village Council toured some of the local water sources, we could never have imagined that this would lead to trouble. Although I was sick that afternoon and couldn’t go along, in retrospect I can see how much got lost in translation.
Marianne and I visited Bacho Primary School later that week. The school had no water, so each morning the head teacher would instruct twenty or thirty students to carry empty buckets up the slope of the Rift Valley escarpment, looming directly above the school, to the nearest water source. They would return with the day’s supply.
Before that first visit, we had not even known that Bacho Primary School existed. Marianne and I required no acute powers of discernment in order to understand why we had been invited there. We decided on the spot that Karimu would fix the school’s water problem.
After the trip ended and we had all returned to California, word of the decision to pipe clean water to Bacho Primary School leaked out to the Chairman of the Village Council, whose name is Barnaba. But the news was filtered through the hopes of villagers who, like Barnaba himself, speak little or no English. The misinterpretation that reached Barnaba confirmed a hope of his own: Karimu would tap one of the springs that he had looked at with Marianne and the water expert, bringing water to precisely that part of the village where Barnaba lived.
Marianne would later recall that Barnaba seemed to show particular interest in one of the springs. At the time, she had no idea that he had his house nearby.
In the months that followed, Marianne and I raised money in the United States for Bacho Primary School’s water and for other Karimu projects. Meanwhile, Barnaba planned for a water project that we knew nothing about. He also received congratulations from his constituents for persuading Karimu to undertake a project that would benefit villagers who had no interest in, or who opposed, education.
The longer that Karimu’s involvement with Dareda Kati lasts, the more Marianne and I see how hard it can be to comprehend the social relationships that must shape our projects. Karimu does not aim to impose on the people of Dareda Kati a vision for the improvement of their lives that comes from the outside, from people who live very different lives thousands of miles away. We want to serve their own vision. Identifying their vision is not simple, however. As would be the case anywhere in the United States, the people of Dareda Kati are distinct individuals who often disagree with one another, and who often disagree sharply.
We are not sure when the relationship between Barnaba and Joas Kahembe, our Tanzanian project manager, became fraught. The tension may have preceded the public misunderstanding over water. But we do know that Barnaba and Joas disagreed stridently once they realized that the villagers were hearing two different stories about water. The story about water that they heard from Barnaba, who is a local Iraqw, did not match the story they were told by Joas, a member of the Haya tribe who lives in Babati, thirteen miles away—a great distance for villagers who do not own cars.
Eventually, Barnaba was humiliated by an e-mail that Kahembe had requested from Marianne and me, and which he shared with the entire village. The e-mail stated that we had no knowledge of the water project that Barnaba wanted. Instead, we needed Kahembe to persist in trying to solve the difficult problem of finding an affordable water source for Bacho Primary School.
By all accounts, Marianne and I benefited by not being in the village during the period of the most extreme tension between Barnaba and Kahembe. The word that Tanzanians use for this kind of disagreeableness is “collision.” We were happy to stand out of the way.
Yet the shock-waves from the collision have continued to ripple outward. Friends of Barnaba seem to have spread the rumor that Kahembe’s job foreman, Sifaeli Kaaya, stole cement which should have gone into the teachers’ house that Karimu was building at Ufani Primary School. Kahembe has refused to cooperate with Barnaba on a desperately-needed teachers’ house for Dareda Primary School, thereby forcing the present construction at Ayalagaya Secondary School.
So the peaceful stillness that settled over the Dareda Kati Village Council meeting this afternoon, as the shock-waves subsided, came as a relief to everyone there—especially Marianne and me, who felt no relief during the first hour as excitement caused the translators to lapse into full-on Swahili, leaving us guessing at the direction of the argument. We had a nervous moment when Kahembe announced in English, and less than half in jest, that the villagers ought to appreciate the privilege of working with him because only his project management could guarantee that every Karimu dollar would be well-spent; apparently, he was the only honest man in a country whose citizens are known to be corrupt.
Even though this may have been too much, the Council members had no more warrant than Marianne and I do for challenging Kahembe’s honesty, or his efficiency. I believe the fix was in, and that they had made up their minds in advance to accept every piece of extra baggage that Kahembe brought along with his honesty and his proven ability to make sure that jobs get done. In the end, he and Barnaba shook hands, pledging to put aside their differences for the sake of the community.
We hope that Barnaba and Kahembe were not concealing daggers in their other hands. A genuine peace would mean that next year, as long as Karimu can raise the funds, Dareda Primary School will get its teachers’ house. Tomorrow, Marianne and I will meet with Kahembe’s preferred water engineer from Babati, Moses Masawe. Masawe has a reasonably affordable plan to end the drought at Bacho Primary School, three years after we first met with the teachers on its parched grounds.
After the Village Council meeting had ended, we sat with Kahembe in a café while he enjoyed a late lunch of boiled beef along with the food that has been his favorite since childhood, boiled bananas. Because the jungles not far from his boyhood home form the heartland of the great apes, I suppose bananas would have been inevitable. He assured us that beef and bananas are the dish for which this particular café is known. But I’m not sure that I know how to describe the color of the gravy produced by boiling beef and bananas together. Marianne and I contented ourselves with sodas.
Kahembe must contend not only with his seventy-two years of age, but with diabetes. His hair is now completely white, as I think it was not even as recently as last year. Yet in the past twelve months our Karimu Board Member, Dr. Susan Hughmanick, has helped him to improve his health dramatically by advising him to change his high-starch diet. Still, this seemed to be a kind of celebration, and I let the bananas pass.
A portable TV had been set up on the bar so that the customers could watch the World Cup knockout match between Greece and Costa Rica. I kept one eye on the game, not missing Greece’s late equalizing goal, as I explained to Kahembe that we hoped Masawe would agree to use volunteer labor by the Bacho Primary School parents as a way to drop his labor charges by at least a thousand dollars.
Barnaba claims to have persuaded the men in his part of the village to work without pay on his own small water project, making it very inexpensive. The materials might run about a thousand dollars, which Karimu could easily spare if Masawe were to accept our cost-reducing proposal.
Despite the handshake in the Council meeting, Marianne and I had worried that Kahembe would be cool to the idea of helping Barnaba, since Joas is not known as a man who recovers swiftly from an offense. We were comforted by his nod and his seemingly casual change of subject, as he talked around the toothpick that he was using to excavate some of the stringy beef from around his molars.
Any well-off Tanzanian consumes a lot of stringy beef and will therefore develop a high level of skill at talking around a toothpick. Some people say that Kahembe is rich, so we had no trouble in following his account of how much we would enjoy visiting his ancestral homeland, near the border with Uganda.
If there was time, we could even make a foray across the border to the birthplace of his fourteenth great-grandfather. The flight from Kilimanjaro to Mwanza would be cheap, and the overnight ferry ride across Lake Victoria would take our breath away.
“Would we see the chimpanzees?” Marianne asked.