The chicken that Marianne and I ate at Flaviana’s this afternoon was tougher and stringier than the chicken served to us last week in the homes of Deborah, Yasenta, and Esther. While Marianne soldiered through her own big piece and most of the piece that I slipped surreptitiously onto her plate, I contented myself with a mound of chips. When we had received the invitation we warned Flaviana not to kill a chicken for us, but she made it clear that we had no choice.
It was not an unhappy experience with Flaviana’s cooking, and certainly not vegetarianism, which had motivated our warning; we had a sense of her poverty and we were not sure that she could spare a chicken. We have grown used to seeing the villagers cook all day for us to produce meals that they would never make for themselves. Although we are embarrassed by the attention, we accept it because we know they take pleasure in the generosity and we think it would be mean-spirited to take their pleasure away. Yet Flaviana, who has HIV, is a special case.
Three or four years ago, she founded a support group for HIV-positive men and women. The group, to which Karimu has given some money in the past, now includes sixteen members. Flaviana had invited all of them to her home for lunch today. But many were busy harvesting their crops, so fewer than half, all of them women, showed up.
The discussion may have been tougher than the chicken. Yesterday’s meeting of the Ufani Primary School teachers and school committee members brought together educated people who know how to articulate and advocate for an agenda. The members of the HIV group give tentative expression to needs that they barely seem to understand.
Flaviana takes pride in the chicken coop that she built next to her house with Karimu funds, and which she has used Karimu funds to stock. During our first visit to her home, as she was forming the group but before it had received any money, her chickens were exposed to predators. Although she would have enjoyed the generosity of cooking for us then, doing so would have meant starving herself and her five children and the sixth one in her womb.
At least she would not have been taking food out of her husband’s mouth. Because his lack of HIV symptoms proved to him that he was not infected, despite having shared Flaviana’s bed, he left so that he could pursue other, uninfected women. He has not been heard from.
As much as the chicken coop has improved her life, she believes milk-goats would improve it even more. We all went to lunch knowing that goats would be the topic of conversation. Like the chickens, the two milk-goats that she hoped to buy with a new Karimu donation, along with a new male to keep them in milk and to help them make baby goats, would be kept on Flaviana’s property in order to yield profits for everyone in the HIV group. Milk-goats would produce bigger profits than the group was earning from their chickens.
I asked our translator, Alfred, to tell her that we were curious about what kinds of profits the group had in mind. How much money did the chickens bring in?
Flaviana thought for a long time before responding. She is an attractive, smooth-skinned woman, probably in her thirties. Her deliberate speech, sculpted cheekbones, and narrow range of facial expressions, which move at a stately pace between a prudent Mona Lisa smile and a generous, teeth-bearing smile, convey a dignity that has helped her resist the indignities of her condition.
She sat directly across the small table from us. The other women sat or squatted in a line with their backs to the wall on our left, perhaps ten feet away. Everyone in the room looked healthy; the Tanzanian government supplies their antiretroviral drugs at no cost. Flaviana speaks softly, so she was no easier to hear than the other women would have been. Yet they look to her, as the group’s founder and leader, to do most of the talking. I leaned over my chips and across the table and strained to hear.
June was an average month, she said. The group sold thirty eggs.
I wondered if the translation had been exact. Did that mean thirty dozen?
It meant thirty eggs, or two and a half dozen.
Therefore, each member sold an average of thirty eggs last month?
No. The sixteen members together sold a total of thirty eggs.
Marianne and I exchanged a glance.
What does a dozen eggs sell for?
Three thousand shillings.
“Two dollars,” I whispered to Marianne, looking at her again. “All sixteen members together made five dollars on the sale of their eggs last month.”
Despite the simplicity of the math, I had some trouble digesting the result. I could see from Marianne’s face that she was doing no better. I did the elementary problem over and over in my head, and it always ended the same way.
So I finally started pressing Flaviana about the milk-goats.
Well, they ought to get five liters a day from two goats. A liter sells for fifty cents.
I became excited for a moment, when I reached the part of the math which showed that the goats would be fifteen times as profitable as the chickens. Then I did the next step: the goats would bring an average of fifteen cents per day to each member of the group.
It wasn’t quite as bad as that, since the male goat would help to make babies. The babies would be sold, or they would be allowed to grow up to produce more milk. But I did not believe that Flaviana and the others could progress far enough fast enough if they started from fifteen cents a day. I hated the numbers.
Sifaeli Kaaya had already told us that one high-quality milk-goat would cost Karimu well under a hundred dollars. Why had the group requested only two milkers?
At night, Flaviana explained, the goats would need to be herded into a brick shelter with a tin roof to protect them from hyenas and other predators. She gestured toward her yard, where she already had the necessary structure. The goats that now supply milk to her and her six children already take up most of the space; the shelter would only hold three more goats.
How much would it cost to build another shelter that could hold many more goats?
Flaviana and the other women looked at each other blankly. They had not thought of this.
They did not lack intelligence; they lacked certain kinds of experience, as well as the confidence that comes from experience. The power of the stigma that still clung to HIV was measured inversely by the tiny number of adults—sixteen, in a village where the population was approaching ten thousand—who had stepped forward to join Flaviana’s group.
These sixteen were not like Deborah, Yasenta, and Esther, who could mobilize all of their neighbors to cook not only for Marianne and me, but for as many Karimu volunteers as we chose to bring with us to their homes. Flaviana and the others could not call on the village’s traditional dancers to perform for us, or organize a chorus of women, or dispense gifts. It was not likely that, in the two days in the village still remaining to us, they could persuade a qualified builder to put together an estimate for a shelter that would hold all of the goats Marianne and I wanted them to have.
The members of the HIV group understood their status well enough to know that they must stay on the margins of many of the village’s activities, and that they must never push themselves forward into the circle of villagers who feel entitled to ask Karimu for projects that cost thousands of dollars, or even tens of thousands, and who know how to negotiate for as much as they can get when we insist that they have asked for too much.
Flaviana and the others had asked for two hundred dollars, which, we knew from Kaaya, would buy the three goats they wanted. We reminded her that we had only two more days in the village during which she could visit us at the Integrated Agricultural Training Center so that we would get the two hundred dollars out of a safe. We reminded her that she must collect the two hundred in cash, since her group had not known how to, or had not dared to, open a bank account to which Karimu could wire funds. Nobody in the group had e-mail or Facebook, so it would not be easy for them to tell us, after two more days, about a new bank account.
Morning of July 9
Flaviana caught Marianne and me at the end of breakfast this morning. Because we had hoped she would show up, we were ready with the two hundred dollars in cash that her HIV support group wanted in order to buy two milk-goats and a male goat.
When I succeeded in pantomiming my concern that walking around with that much cash was dangerous, she smiled. Peering from side to side, she raised the hem of the colorful robe covering her upper body just enough to reveal the waistband of her long matching skirt. (Women in this part of Tanzania are extremely modest.) She stroked the leather pouch that was tied to the waistband.
“Pocket,” she said, using the English word. Then she switched to Swahili.
“Nataka kusema zaidi.”
She wanted to say more, which meant that we would need a translator. We had not seen Sifaeli Kaaya yet, so we decided to sit and wait for him. Flaviana has a habit of trying to cover the awkwardness of moments like these with musical sighs. She had time for only one sigh before Sifaeli appeared.
Kaaya’s limp reminded us that we had not seen Daniel Amma since his motorcycle accident. When the accident happened, two days ago, we began to wonder if we would see Daniel again on this trip, and now we had less than forty-eight hours left in Dareda Kati Village. Marianne texted Daniel while I asked Kaaya to help us with Flaviana.
The limp that had come out of nowhere a few days back and then gotten a little worse each day was something else to worry about. The daily walk to Ayalagaya Secondary School was wearing on Kaaya. He is exactly my age: sixty-three. He accepted a full measure of concern before assuring us that the pain in his leg did not rival his suffering from a bout with malaria several years ago. The motorcyclist who had started taking him to and from Ayalagaya would do so again today.
After our lunch with the HIV group ended yesterday, Flaviana explained, the women discussed a question that Marianne had put to them: besides selling eggs and goat milk, could they think of any other ways to earn money? Well, children were always ripping or fraying or losing the blue sweaters that the government requires them to wear as part of their school uniforms. With a knitting machine, Flaviana and the others could make and sell sweaters.
Had they seen a pedal-driven machine—in other words, one which did not need electricity?
How much would it cost?
Flaviana was stumped. She emitted one of her melodic sighs.
Marianne’s phone alerted her to a text message: rest had healed Daniel’s leg almost completely. He promised that he would walk the hundred meters or so from his home to Ayalagaya Secondary School for tomorrow’s farewell ceremony.
Flaviana’s brow had become knotted, but now it smoothed out.
Yes, the message was from Daniel Amma.
“If you could find out the cost of one of the knitting machines that does not use electricity,” I said, “would you feel all right about asking Daniel to send us your request for the money?”
An abrupt downward tilt of her chin breached the liquid surface on which Flaviana drifts, and on which one movement never disturbs the grace of another. Then, rediscovering her familiar rhythm, she eased into a broad smile.
Marianne and I have talked often in recent months about the need to encourage Daniel to join Facebook, since the villagers can access it on their flip phones. Flaviana has given us another reason to mention this to him.
Our walk to Ayalagaya was anxious, as we thought about the loose ends we still needed to tie up. We were relieved to find the Headmistress, Catherine Boay Buxay, who delivered two things she had promised. The first was an estimate for bringing solar power to the pair of two-in-one teachers’ houses that Karimu has built in recent years, as well as to the new teachers’ house which is on track for completion by tomorrow. Catherine also presented a budget for another year of electricity and another year of Internet access for one of the school’s classroom blocks.
Although Catherine did not have an estimate for adding more smoke-reducing stoves to the kitchen where her school’s cooks, Petro and Faustine, make lunch for five hundred students, we promised her that they will get their new stoves soon. Karimu had built a new concrete kitchen in order to get Petro and Faustine out of the soot-blackened wood shack where they used to cook over open fires. It never occurred to us that the additional work of cooking for three dozen teachers requires much smaller stoves, and now we need to fix this.
The home of Tumaini Munisi, who had invited us over for tea, is only a five-minute walk from Ayalagaya, so Kaaya accompanied us. His leg seemed to have improved in the couple of hours since we had seen him with Flaviana, maybe because the clouds had lifted and the day was warming up.
We did not need Kaaya to translate, since Tumaini’s husband, Christopher, was at the house. But it was useful to have both Sifaeli and Christopher on hand to double-team her when she balked at the idea of establishing a bank account before Karimu would send her money to upgrade her stove-making business.
“All of your partners must have their names on the account,” said Kaaya, stabbing his finger at her. “Don and Marianne don’t want to see a collision between you and the other women.”
Tumaini slumped forward in her chair. Her face sagged. She asked Kaaya how she could be expected to organize a bus trip to the nearest bank, thirteen miles away in Babati, for herself and all seven of her partners at the same time. And what would they say to the people in the bank?
Kaaya turned his finger toward Christopher.
“Do you see that very good man there?”
Christopher grinned. About half of his teeth are white and the other half are brown.
“I tell you, that good man knows what to do. You must listen to him.”
Christopher’s many years of employment as a veterinarian by the Tanzanian Ministry of Agriculture had been made possible by his facility with English, which is not quite on the level of Kaaya’s. He looked pleased to have the fruits of his experience recognized.
Tumaini sized up her husband skeptically, as if being able to speak English and possessing the confidence to open one’s mouth in the presence of a banker might be solutions to some things, yet not to the problem of how to transport eight busy women simultaneously to a place where the banker may have decided to take holiday or just a long lunch, or where the power might be out for the day, preventing the banker from achieving anything.
Kaaya was in no mood to comfort her. His voice rose by an octave.
“Don and Marianne work hard to raise money for Karimu. You must work hard to receive the money. That is fair!”
When we stood up to leave, Tumaini rallied and asked about our older daughter, Greta, who came to the village with us two years ago. At a meeting of midwives in which Greta passed on some advice about postnatal care that our Board member, Dr. Susan Hughmanick, had sent from California, Tumaini developed a special liking for her. Greta turns thirty-three today, so Marianne began to text birthday wishes. I pointed out that she could wait, since it was barely after midnight at Lake Tahoe.
Then Marianne and I enjoyed a rally of our own. We had believed the teachers’ house which Karimu has agreed to build next year for Dareda Primary School would have to be started almost from the ground up. Near the edge of the campus there is a partly finished wall, which we thought would be the starting point. On the way back to the work site at Ayalagaya Secondary School, however, Kaaya showed us a half-finished house on what we had not even realized were the school grounds.
Because its tin roof had kept the weather at bay, the structure remained in decent condition, despite having been abandoned even before Marianne and I visited Dareda Kati for the first time, in 2007. We asked why the house was left unfinished. Sifaeli shook his head forlornly.
“There was some collision.”
He stared at the house for a long time before turning back to us.
“Don and Marianne, do you ever say, ‘What kind of people are these, who are always having collisions?’ Do you ever say, ‘Let us go from here to some other village where the people can agree about what they must do and where they can work together’?”
A place with no collisions. For a moment, I considered trying to explain the standoff between President Obama and the Republicans. Too much trouble, I decided. I patted Sifaeli’s back, but Marianne answered before I could:
“We’re not going anywhere.”