We are now a few days past the point when some of the Karimu volunteers began to weary of the blandness and monotony of our diet. It may be a bigger issue for the adults than for the teenagers, to whom eating seems to be largely about shoveling in calories.
The delightful women in the kitchen of the Integrated Agricultural Training Center give us plenty of food for lunch and dinner. Breakfast can be sparse, but the mid-morning snack of maandazis, which are like big, mildly sweet doughnut holes, gets us caught up. However, some of the adult volunteers are past all desire to fill up on the beans, white rice, and boiled greens that we see twice a day, every day.
It is therefore astonishing to realize that the food we are served is more varied than what the villagers eat. Although we usually get the beans, rice, and greens, as well as chicken, when we are invited into village homes, these are special occasions.
Last week was marked by three such special occasions, at the homes of three of the most prominent women in the village: Deborah, Yasenta, and, finally, Esther Ng’aida. Esther had recovered sufficiently from her unwanted meeting with the inflatable CPR doll that Marianne called “Baby Bacho” to organize a welcome like we had received at no other private home. Dozens of Esther’s neighbors greeted Marianne and me and a handful of Karimu volunteers as we entered her property. They sang, showered us with flowers, and draped locally-made seed necklaces over us.
Esther is one of the drummers for the village’s traditional dancers. They performed after lunch, as did a chorus of women that she, Yasenta, and Deborah led, with Yasenta always in front so that she could coax us into their dance with her high, sweet, fragile voice. One of their songs, which has a sequence of simple, repetitive dance movements to go with it, had been heard earlier from the same chorus first at Deborah’s and then at Yasenta’s. The song revolves around a Swahili expression meaning “We praise” or “We are proud of,” which must be completed with someone’s name. The women would not allow the song and dance to end until they had praised Marianne and me and every volunteer present.
Occasions like the afternoon at Esther’s are special because of the music and the gifts, of course. But they are also special because of the extraordinary labor needed to cook beans, rice, greens, and chicken over open fires for so many people.
Marianne and I saw Daniel Amma eat a more typical meal one day last week when we dropped by his home just after we had eaten our own lunch. We are close enough to Daniel to have insisted that we were full and that he should tell his wife, Victoria, not to bring us anything. As we talked with Daniel, Victoria served him an immense bowl of ugali, the thick, gluey maize mush that is the staple of the Tanzanian diet. He was clearly satisfied to eat the ugali and nothing else.
Daniel’s property is smaller than that of his head teacher at Ufani Primary School, Mangachi Msuya, so he grows fewer things than Msuya and his wife do. Nevertheless, Daniel has banana trees and papayas, and, I think, both mangoes and avocados. But these are cash crops, as they are throughout Dareda Kati Village, where most of the residents have no other way to earn cash.
A farmer’s choice of cash crops will be determined entirely by the market, since the local climate permits just about anything to grow. I have heard well-off Tanzanians say that the warm climate and easy growing account for the villagers’ poverty. Being comfortable and having enough to eat do not require hard work, the argument goes, therefore hard work is never seen here. This is not Karimu’s position.
Raising cash crops is something that nearly everyone in Dareda Kati does. People like Daniel and Msuya earn professional salaries that are a fraction of what men and women doing equivalent work in rich countries receive. Their salaries enable them to live in houses that bear some resemblance to middle-class American homes. And the salary that Msuya’s wife earns as a teacher at Dareda Primary School affords their small family other luxuries, such as one of the mere handful of flower gardens seen in the village. (Daniel’s wife works in the home, caring for their two young children.) Yet even Daniel, and Msuya and his wife, grow fruits and vegetables mainly in order to sell them, while happily eating a more plain diet than the one many of us have grown tired of at the Center.
This plainness extends to the coffee. In the Center’s dining hall we drink Africafe instant coffee, even though taking a right turn out of the Center, instead of the left toward Ufani Primary School, leads after a few minutes of walking to a large coffee plantation. Marianne and I have caressed the reddish-purple fruit envelopes with a certain yearning, but we know that the beans inside will end up at Starbucks.
Yesterday at Daniel’s house, I was only half-joking after lunch—beans, rice, greens, and chicken—when I gave him the option of returning the bar of dark chocolate that I had just presented as a gift. Victoria seemed unmoved by the chocolate, and I reminded Daniel (since Victoria speaks no English) that the first Tanzanian to whom Marianne and I had given chocolate, in 2007, wrinkled up her face and spat it out on the ground.
Needless to say, most of our volunteers, like the British guides we hire from Inspire Worldwide, feel differently about chocolate. One of the guides, Louise Gillette, is among the adults who have struggled lately at lunch and dinner. Marianne went to look for Louise after dinner last night to give her some chocolate, which she has been craving. She found Louise talking to Justine Sokoitan, the “city Masai” who manages the Center.
Justine looked skeptically at the chocolate.
“What is the secret?” he asked. “Why do white people love chocolate so much?”
Marianne had nothing to say; the excellence of chocolate seems self-evident to her.
A volunteer who overheard their conversation remarked that pregnant women often crave chocolate. So Marianne asked Justine, who has a wife and three children, what pregnant village women crave. The question had barely left her mouth before she recalled Daniel’s stark meal of ugali and correctly anticipated his answer.
“They crave soil,” Justine told her.