“HOT ROCKS and SPIT”
A true short story from Africa by Bob Manire–April 2002
For those of you who have not had the pleasure (or displeasure) of reading my “Letters from Africa”, I offer this short introduction. Since my U.S. Peace Corps days in 1993, I’ve traveled and worked extensively in Tanzania, East Africa. I’ve taught Math and Physics at Hegongo Secondary School in the North Eastern Muheza/Tanga region – at Makambako Secondary in the Southwest Highlands – and at Ilboru Secondary in Arusha located in North Central Tanzania. Today I reside on that famous landmark of Hemingway’s past, Mount Kilimanjaro, at an altitude of almost one mile. I lease a 5-bedroom fully furnished home on 10 acres for $50 per month. The compound is covered with coffee, banana, mango, avocado, flowering roses, orchids, irises, and chrysanthemums. The avocado trees reach heights of over 50 feet and annually produce a ton or more of delicious avocados. Yes, we have guacamole nightly! From the patio you can see the glacier-covered summit of Kibo (19K+ feet) and the raged peaks of Mawenzi (14K+ feet). The contrasting panorama of snow-white peaks and lush green forests blanketing the undulating hills and valleys below is a daily visual delight. Whether you believe in creationism or evolution, Tanzania is the birthplace of the human race. God truly lives here. It is the Garden of Eden.
My day began with a call from Robert Riwa, a Chagga friend, asking if I would assist him in the installation of a computer system at the Lutheran Center in Moshi. I was visiting friends in Arusha and would have to catch a dala-dala for the 100 km trip to Moshi. The trip generally takes two hours and can best be described as a combination milk run and Indy 500 race. My greatest fear in Africa is riding dala-dalas. Dala-dalas can best be described as small mini vans, packed beyond fraternity standards, 10-20 years old with no less than a half million road miles. Patched daily, rebuilt monthly, dented, rusted, tires worn smooth with sidewalls ballooning from baseball sized bulges, each dala-dala survives on a simple hope and a prayer. Every trip triggers the same subliminal thought - “Why did I fail to update my WILL?” In my case there is no problem since the sum of my worldly possessions easily fits in my backpack. My only wish is that they bury me in Africa, preferably on Mount Kilimanjaro. The trip from Arusha (at the base of Mt. Meru) to Moshi (at the base of Mt.Kilimanjaro) is breathtaking. Sitting on the left side of the dala-dala as we depart Arusha, I always enjoy the view of Mount Meru. As we approach Moshi the trip ends with the emergence of cloud shrouded Mount Kilimanjaro. The people of this north central region of Tanzania, mostly Chagga and Maasai, are among the poorest economically in the world. Annual incomes average $150 or less ($400 in 2014). I’ve been told that Tanzania is the third poorest and fifth most corrupt country in the world. Despite the poverty, everyone is warm and friendly, greeting you as they move between their small farms (shambas), businesses, and homes. Most are lucky to own a single pair of sandals with no more than one change of clothing. The currency of Tanzania is the shilingi (/=) with 1000 /= equivalent to one USD. Within the last year the shilingi has dropped in value from 800 to 1000 per dollar. For the majority of Tanzanians a soda (200 /=) or beer (600 /= … 2500 /= in 2014) is a treat afforded maybe once a month at most. The children of my village fondly refer to me as Babu Bob (grandfather) and surround me daily as I leave the house. Shouting “naomba biskuti”, I generally surrender to their pleas and move, hand in hand, to a local duka (small store) where I buy cookies. The scene of an old white haired mzungu (white person) with a dozen barefoot children clinging to each arm is a scene only Norman Rockwell could realistically capture. Robert and I had finished our business late and set out by dala-dala to visit his father-in-law in a small village near the base of Kilimanjaro. I had met Amos the previous month and was warmly greeted on our return. Nicknamed Mrefu (tallman), Amos at 77 is in great physical shape – a trait typical of most Chagga. Attribute it to the mountain air, exercise, or good genes, Chaggas are known to live well into their late 80’s and 90’s. Amos owns a small local bar where he serves pombe (beer), soda and mbege (a local brew made daily from ripe bananas and millet). Although very cheap, I’ve learned to stay away from the local brews. Two years earlier in Makambako I sampled ulanzi, a local brew common in the Highlands and made from bamboo plants. Trust me when I say, giardia is a parasite you will never forget. The only thing worse is a good old fashion case of malaria. Having experienced over 20 cases of malaria in the last 10 years, I can testify that it will truly redefine your definition of sick. For those less fortunate than myself or incapable of accessing modern drugs, malaria claims in excess of 1 million Africans yearly. Robert, Amos, and myself sat outside the bar on old wooden benches, our feet dangling in the street - a street typical of most in Tanzania - dusty and pot holed in the dry season - a river of mud in the rainy season. The surrounding mud walled, thatched roofed, and dirt floored homes were typical of rural Tanzania. Evening traffic consisted of people returning home on foot from their shambas or the local market. Many young men could be seen burdened and pulling wooden carts filled with everything from large stalks of bananas to bags of charcoal and wooden logs. The two wheel carts generally require one pushing and one pulling, with the one pulling straddling two wooden handles. I have seen carts so over laden that the one pulling sometimes finds himself free pedaling in mid air. The only hope at such a time is that no one or structure is encountered before the cart is slowed by the subsequent hill and the young man’s feet return to terra firma. Amos and Robert were exchanging family greetings when an elderly woman approached and paused to rest near our small group. With no shoes, a dress stained and ragged, she lowered the collection of snarled logs from her head to the ground. Her shoulders were stooped from years of hard work. Her skin heavily wrinkled and leathered from years of exposure to the harsh African sun. Greeting her I offered to buy a beer saying “dada (sister) – karibu – unapenda pombe?” Her eyes sparkled with life as she moved to sit next to me. As she drew near, I noticed her feet. They were calloused “shoe sole thick” from years of hard work. I wondered if she had ever owned a pair of shoes. I knew it had certainly been a while before she had enjoyed a few beers following a typical day of toil. As I struggled with Swahili, she began to speak fluent English. Later I learned she had been taught 60 years earlier by Lutheran priests in a remote school on the old mountain. Her husband had passed away and her oldest daughter had succumbed to AIDS, leaving her to raise 6 grandchildren. The logs she carried would supply the firewood for cooking ugali, a cheap, thick and tasteless paste made from ground corn and the main staple of the Tanzanian diet. She asked me many questions about life in America and told me of her struggle to survive with no job or pension. There is a saying in Tanzania – “maisha magumu sana” – Life is very difficult. Only if you live with these people can you fully comprehend or understand how difficult life is for the vast majority.
Of the many stories she told, the following will forever haunt me. When she had no money to buy food for her grandchildren, she put colored stones, water, and a small onion (for aroma) in a cooking pot. Placing the pot on the fire, she would bring the water to a slow boil, stirring the mixture while entertaining the children with evening stories. During the course of the evening they repeatedly asked when dinner would be ready. Examining the boiling pot, she would respond to the children that the evening meal would soon be ready. This question and answer dialog continued throughout the evening until the children fell asleep. As darkness fell on our small group, she thanked me for the beer and clasped my right hand. Bringing my hand to her lips, she spit on the back of my hand. My first reaction was to jerk my hand from hers, but something told me to wait. Kneeling, she repeatedly brought my hand to her lips and spit.
As she departed, I turned to my Chagga friend Robert and asked
“Why did she spit on the back of my hand?”
"Babu, she is very poor. The only thing she can give you is her spit."
That night, I did not wash my hand.