I was very sad to be leaving Alli behind. I’ve traveled without her before but a place like this, Tanzania, just seemed so far away. My traveling companions were mostly new to me, my mother (whom I know very well of course) and five other women from her church, all in Tanzania to see for ourselves what we had heard so much about. We were there to visit Father Damian Milliken, a priest from the Rochester, NY area who has been in Africa for over fifty years, and to see the schools he has built. I’ve chosen to exclude any mention of Mezinde Juu, the school we stayed at and where we spent the majority of our time. We experienced so much there that it deserves it’s own posting. Also, reciting the entire experience would be a task that I am not up to. Instead I’ll jump from moment to moment, both in words and pictures. It may be a little disorienting but at times that is exactly how this trip felt.
After a day of traveling we were greeted at Kilimanjaro Airport by Father and the driver he had hired, Jeremiah. As the sun disappeared we made our way down a dark two lane highway towards Arusha. Overloaded trucks passed hectically while people walked the shoulder. We passed small dimly lit shops and dark mud homes, foreign and mysterious to our eyes. Come daylight I was able to see the flurries of activity and moments of disarray. Street vendors pushing their wares unmercifully, women and children carrying bundles on their heads; firewood, potatoes, buckets of water. Motorcycles skirted the edges of the roads with young girls riding romantically on their backs. Small buses pulled away from their roadside stops with passengers still chasing after and hanging out of the open doors once aboard. Dust kicked up from the shoulder and chickens, dogs, goats, and cattle wandered absent minded into the road. Herders would whistle and whip the goats and cattle back to the curb but the dogs and fowl were left to fend for themselves. We would pass through villages and settlements, the homes made of mud or handmade bricks, most finished with tin roofs, some with grass. Other dwellings were merely tarps squared with sticks. Small mud shacks had been converted into shops selling only essentials; toilet paper, toothpaste, soaps, and drinks. All of this was layered in red dust, the color of the entire lowland country.
We stood at the front of the church, a congregation of over seven hundred families. We were each wrapped in cloth traditional to the local culture. Four women came forward, these were to be our hosts for the afternoon. We were divided up and each of us in small groups were led through dirt streets and up stairs carved into the clay to our host’s home. Agnes led us into the small courtyard between her two huts. We squeezed into her living room and sat on wooden couches furnished with cushions. We socialized and met her family. The women helped her pick beetles and small stones out of the rice before it was prepared for our lunch; a small gesture but a good activity to help break the ice. To Agnes, other than there being four white strangers in her home, the flurry of hands picking at the rice I’m sure was not out of the ordinary, to us it seemed a world away. We sat in the kitchen with her while she worked hard over the clay stove; pushing the logs in to turn up the heat, pulling them out to turn it down. She prepared chicken and two kinds of rice with a simple tomato sauce. I was surprised that there was any meat at all. Considering it’s expense it is usually reserved for special occasions, which I guess this was but still, why did we deserve this? We found out later that Father had given each of the hosting families a chicken; this was a relief to learn. After lunch Maria, Agnes’s mother-in-law, led us through town to her family’s home. Inside was her daughter and her new grandchild who had been born two days earlier. The four of us crouched on small stools with our backs against the wall. I marveled at the situation. It wasn’t enough that we had been invited into these homes and fed food that they couldn’t afford. Here we were being handed a newborn child to hold, it’s lips still searching for it’s mother’s breast, waking to find strange faces staring into it’s bundled world. When it began to fuss the child was handed it back to it’s mother. We were led out of the dim hut and into another tiny home where more food had been prepared for us. I was exhausted, overwhelmed with emotion
Fr. Damian told us repeatedly that we must go to lunch with the children at St. Benedict’s, a primary school he built in the nearby village. We had spent the morning going from classroom to classroom trying our best to get the children to open up to us, but they were young and we were a strange sight for a school day. I reverted to making faces at them. This at least would get them to smile and make them a bit more comfortable with me and my camera. The lunchroom (a gutted church filled with benches) was bustling but quiet. Lunch was served from a bucket, a mixture of beans and corn. I had had some with dinner on occasion, it was hearty but bland. The children’s bowls were filled, but they would go back for seconds before finishing what they had first been given. It was a good amount of food, even by our standards, but I couldn’t help but think that this would be the only time that day that some of them would eat. I had a moment of clarity, standing above these children, looking down on them, taking their picture and seeing what things looked like between the smiles and giggles that my winking and funny faces had brought on.
Taking pictures was challenging. It was hard not to feel I was being intrusive or insulting. Cameras aren’t nearly as wide spread as they are in more developed places, the people aren’t accustomed to getting them stuck in their faces. I couldn’t help but imagine how it made them feel. Some westerner with all his money and technology coming along and snapping a picture, why? Are we some kind of novelty? Is it because we are poor, or because we look different than you? I’ll put on a smile, but where will you take that, what will you do with it? In these two weeks I took fewer pictures than on any other trip.
Out the window of the plane Cairo passed in the distance, it’s lights stretched out along the Nile amidst the pitch of the midnight world. I thought of places I may never see. Nightly, bustling worlds out of reach and far from home. Dim, foreign experiences. Interactions, sights, sounds, smells. Then I thought of all I had seen; food bowls in the outstretched hands of children, great beasts roaming open plains, the humble homes of strangers, and eyes filled with desperation, love, distrust, amusement, and hope. Amidst all this was Mazinde Juu, the secondary school founded by Fr. Damien, where I saw the future of a country; children in uniform studying to fill the shoes of doctors, engineers, and lawyers. But that story and those pictures are for another time.