Tanzania diary: July 9 (afternoon)

Despite the fervent religious beliefs of the people of Dareda Kati Village, they do not usually say grace before their meals. This has nothing to do with showing tolerance toward the Karimu volunteers. I have been referred to as a Christian more times than I could count, and Christianity is simply assumed of our volunteers. Even though I do not insist on my lack of religion, I reply honestly when I am asked. It doesn’t stick.

To hear grace before lunch today, followed by an extended and urgent prayer after the meal, was unusual. However, Livingstone Kaaya is not Lutheran like his father, Sifaeli. Livingstone worships at an Assemblies of God church that has sprung up near the town center during the last year, and he brought his minister to lunch with him this afternoon. That was an honor, as was Livingstone’s decision to close his busy shop for twenty minutes so that the man who usually looks after customers when Livingstone steps out could eat with us.

Livingstone bought us chicken, chips, rice, greens, and sodas from the same café where, nine days ago, Marianne and I sat with Joas Kahembe after the three of us had met with the Village Council. That afternoon I caught a little bit of Costa Rica’s World Cup match against Greece, but the daytime matches have finished now.

He did not feed us in the part of the café where the TV had been, anyway. We ate in a cramped room that the café reserves for private groups, which we reached by crossing a busy yard where a woman sat on a stool, peeling a mountain of potatoes for the café. We ignored the outdoor sink that stood near the woman and her potatoes. Most of the customers wash their hands there, but we expected Livingstone to observe the standard Tanzanian courtesy of visiting each guest individually with soap and a shallow bowl for hand-washing and a pitcher of hot water for rinsing.

Until last year, Livingstone owned a shop in Mto wa Mbu Village. Mto wa mbu means “river of mosquitoes,” an ugly name for one of Tanzania’s great tourist destinations. The village—if it has not grown too big to be called a village—which is adjacent to Lake Manyara National Park, is a drive of less than two hours from both the magnificent Ngorongoro Crater and Tarangire National Park, famous for its herds of elephants. The location might make Mto wa Mbu Village convenient for tourists even if it were swarming with mosquitoes. The Karimu volunteers spend two nights there every year after we leave Dareda Kati, and I’m happy to say that it’s not.

Livingstone’s shop sold wood carvings of the kind that tourists from rich countries love to buy. Many of the neighboring shops sold the same carvings. But many tourists passed through, so he did all right.

Owning such a shop in Mto wa Mbu Village could be dangerous, since not every Tanzanian who went there to profit from the tourists tried to do so by legal means. When Livingstone was finally robbed of almost two thousand dollars, he decided that his father and mother had been wise to settle in a place where theft rarely happened, since there was so little worth stealing.

Dareda Kati’s rich soil and abundant seasonal rains were made for farming. Unlike his father, though, Livingstone did not want to work the land. He thought he saw a chance to make good money from the intersection of poverty and development by becoming the village’s first mobile-phone banker. More goods and more money had started passing through now that China, as part of its larger strategy to gain access to Tanzania’s mineral resources, had paved a beautiful road directly through town.

Suddenly, Dareda Kati’s farmers, who had risen above subsistence only sporadically in the past, had some access to the hungry markets of bustling cities like Babati, thirteen miles away, and Katesh, twice as far going the other way. So the village had an expanding economy without a bank to serve it.

Both Kaayas, father and son, joined Dareda Kati’s new microcredit group, the Ufani Agricultural Organization, or UFAGRO. Sifaeli and Livingstone each took out a loan funded by Karimu. Most UFAGRO members use their loans to buy additional livestock or seeds for planting. Some of them open shops where they sell produce or tea, or the packaged consumer goods for which the villagers’ appetite is growing. But Sifaeli gave the money he had borrowed to his son, whose four hundred and fifty dollars enabled him to bring the village’s first M-Pesa franchise into the small shop space that he rented.

The promise of future prosperity justifies Livingstone’s current choice of living quarters. If he is facing customers as he stands in the few square feet behind his counter, he can turn around and, with one step, duck through a child-sized door into a narrow space which must have been designed for storage. Instead of merchandise, Livingstone stores only the thin mattress that he sleeps on. He must crawl lengthwise onto the mat, whose width equals that of the storage space.

The advantage of this living situation, Marianne remarked to him today, is that he will be present if anyone breaks into the shop at night to steal from him. This is also a disadvantage, of course, along with the fact that he must keep his wife and child a hundred miles away, in Arusha, until he has something else.

He offered to open his books for us, and we saw that he had recorded mobile-phone transactions for as little as a thousand shillings, or the price of a Coke. M-Pesa pays him approximately one percent of the value of each transaction. So a typical day of five hundred dollars of transactions nets him about five dollars.

It didn’t sound like much, until I remembered Flaviana and her HIV-positive friends, whose sales of eggs and goat milk will bring each of them sixteen cents a day until the goats begin reproducing. I did not want to think about how long it might take Flaviana to go from sixteen cents to five dollars a day.

I also remembered that Livingstone’s shop makes money the old-fashioned way, by selling Coca-Cola and Pepsi and beer and cigarettes and tampons and chocolate biscuits and shoe polish and tea and instant coffee and condoms.

Since his books showed transactions not only for the price of a Coke, but, occasionally, for hundreds of dollars, I wondered how he managed to keep enough cash on hand. If somebody wanted to withdraw several hundred dollars, would Livingstone need to ride his little motorbike to Babati in order to get the cash from a traditional bank?

Certainly. He reminded us of the man who had eaten with us, and who had left after the meal to watch the shop and deal with customers, as Livingstone pays him to do when he cannot be there.

Does he worry that, as the man known to operate the only mobile-banking business in Dareda Kati, he will be targeted by robbers?

No, because the most money he can withdraw from his M-Pesa account in one day is two million shillings, or about thirteen hundred dollars.

While I was still pondering the fact that I would never walk around carrying that much money in the United States, never mind in a poor country like Tanzania, Livingstone offered another reason not to worry about his safety: he sometimes rides his pikipiki to Babati for reasons unconnected to his mobile-banking business, so would-be robbers can never know when he may be carrying a large amount of cash.

I tried to imagine myself inside the skin of someone who might prey on a man who carries large sums of money now and then, but not always. I was stumped by my negligible experience in highway robbery.

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About Don Stoll

Don and his wife, Marianne Kent-Stoll, are co-founders of the Karimu International Help Foundation. They established Karimu in 2008 at the request of the people of Dareda Kati Village, in the Manyara Region of northeastern Tanzania. Karimu is devoted to working with the residents of Dareda Kati in order to satisfy their development needs, as defined by the villagers themselves.
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