The benefit of Sifaeli Kaaya’s avoidance of the main footpath through the subvillage of Bacho is the splendor of his alternate route. I’m not sure that he needs to worry as much as he does about bumping into the men he has brought suit against. Yet I do not try to alleviate his fear, since other people have tried and failed. Besides, I love this different way, between endless fields of onion, cabbage, and sugar cane.
Sifaeli wanted to leave early for Ayalagaya Secondary School this morning, and I realized, as we cleared the last of the sugar cane and their swampy irrigation ditches, that in my haste I had not applied mosquito repellent. But I was hugging my heavy coat close to my body, as I’ve done every morning since the Karimu volunteers arrived in Dareda Kati Village last week. Mosquitoes might like the cold less than I do. Unless the weather improves, I probably won’t bother with repellent during the rest of our time in the village.
Past the towering stalks of sugar cane, the view opens up. I can see that the green of the rectangular fields of onion differs from the green of the rectangles of cabbage. Then I am reminded of how little I know about agriculture when I notice two or three other shades of green in the distance, and I open my mouth to ask Sifaeli to identify the crops for me.
We almost collide because he has stopped short, just ahead of me. While I gazed at the distant fields, following their gentle slope up to the crest of the ridge which separates us from the school, he was studying an approaching dog.
“Are you worried about rabies?”
My question was unnecessary. Sifaeli had already alluded more than once to the recent death of a villager from the bite of a rabid dog.
I agree that it will not hurt to stay out of the way of this dog. The animal cannot be distinguished by its manageable size, sandy color, sharply outlined ribs, or wary demeanor from any of the hundreds of other dogs whose services to the village—sounding the alert at the appearance of a hyena or of one of the small, spotted servals that the villagers confuse with leopards—are rewarded with kicks and barrages of stones. Although dogs here learn very quickly that they must not come too close to human beings, I suppose one that has contracted rabies could have forgotten the lesson.
This one remembers. It ducks its head and speeds up to get around us, swinging out in a wide arc and bringing the little drama to an abrupt conclusion.
As we resume our walk toward the school, I think about how much the drama of the moment owed to Sifaeli’s own dramatic personality. Most of the villagers, if they had any concern about rabies, would have been satisfied to strike the dog with a walking stick or simply to shout at it, in either case without breaking stride.
But Sifaeli’s exaggerated response is of a piece with his exaggerated fear that the men he says have accused him of theft, and whom he is suing, might kill him. I was present a couple of days ago when the Ufani Primary School teacher Daniel Amma, perhaps the most level-headed and trusted man in the entire village, tried to convince Sifaeli that his life is not in danger. Daniel got nowhere, so I won’t even try.
Of course, his habit of extreme caution may be the biggest reason for Sifaeli’s achievement of living for sixty-three years so far. (The 2010 government census indicated that only ten out of some five thousand village residents were more than sixty years old.) And his instinct for drama is not the least of Sifaeli’s many charms. A Sifaeli who did not worry about being killed by his adversaries in the lawsuit would be a different, and possibly less appealing, Sifaeli.
We finally reached Ayalagaya Secondary School, alive and free of rabies. I took advantage of a morning without meetings for Marianne and me to spend a few hours painting iron window-frames in the new teachers’ house. I saw Sifaeli only once as I worked, when he stopped by to tell me that he and the contractor, Isaac, are happy with the help that the Karimu volunteers are giving to the paid local builders. Both Sifaeli and Isaac seem optimistic that the house will be completed before the volunteers leave, on July 11.
Marianne had accompanied the volunteers to the school, taking the main footpath on which Sifaeli will not tread. She interrupted her own painting to tell me that I was wrong to think the villagers had begun to take us for granted and that we would not receive many invitations to eat in their homes: the calendar in her iPhone was completely full.
So I was able to marry the simple satisfaction of helping to complete this much-needed teachers’ house to a more complicated satisfaction. Trying to navigate the village’s social networks in order to finish the Karimu projects can be frustrating. However, the gratitude implicit in all of the lunch invitations—and in the invitations she had been forced to decline—was a heartening reminder that the projects do get finished.
The satisfaction evolved into confidence, or at least determination, as I thought about the meeting coming up in the afternoon with Moses Masawe, the plumber whose help we will need if we wish to end the drought at Bacho Primary School.