Journey to My Village School

This is part three is a series about my current travels and project in East Africa.

***

Our peaceful paved path ended with the interruption of bumps and rattles from the onset of the dirt road. Meadows were replaced by crops, and the people in the city (poorer than what I was used to, but not strikingly so) were now replaced with folks who appeared to live in ways I had only previously imagined or seen on television.

On a bright, clear morning in the shacky outskirts of the Tanzanian capital, Dar es Salaam, our driver arrived to take us the 7-hour journey inland to Iringa, the city nearest our village school.

Peter, our driver, at the driver’s side door of our van.

It was around 9 a.m. on January 24, 2014. Leah, the other Western teacher at the school, and I grabbed our bags and thanked & said goodbye to Malugu and his lovely family for hosting us for the night. Leah added an extra goodbye to her boyfriend, Joseph.

Joseph lives in Iringa but was staying in Dar es Salaam for another day.

Despite the long drive ahead of us through the country, we first had to mosey back toward the city—to the airport—because one of my bags got stuck in Frankfurt. Can’t say I blame it. I would’ve enjoyed another day there myself. But I do blame it for holding up our journey.

To our pleasant surprise, the bag was there waiting for me when we got to the airport. (Things don’t always work as expected in Tanzania, Leah has told me.) After a lunch in town, we left the traffic, people, and buildings of Dar es Salaam behind.

A lot of ground to cover on the map; a lot of ground to cover in this post. Buckle up.

The landscapes along the route were a mix of field, hill, earth, and rock. Unlike the relatively abrupt ending to the Rockies making way for the Great Plains of the United States, Tanzania offers more of a blend: terrain gradual enough to see far distances, hilly and rocky enough to keep things interesting. One feature that I did notice a lack of was forests.

Forgive the reflection of the window.

Despite this being the rainy season, the whole ride out was sunny. (Like a lot of other equator-hugging countries, Tanzania doesn’t have seasons as I was used to. They have a rainy season—January to May, and a dry season—June to December. Dry season means absolutely not a drop of rain for that whole span. Rainy season means rainfall off and on throughout—and even within—the days.)

In Tanzania, there are only a few lengthy, good roads. Thankfully, the way out to Iringa is one of them. Not thankfully, trucks and a lot of other traffic use this route. And like how a windfall of cash reveals one’s poor financial decisions, so does traffic reveal the nutzoid vehicle maneuvering here.

Soon after we started out, I fell asleep in the backseat ‘cause it felt to me like bedtime. I woke up and rose (probably with funny-looking bedhead) to see a the back end of a semi-truck trailer completely blocking our view due to the fact that it was a cool ten feet in front of us as we drove a high speed.  I laid back down, then realized what I saw and got back up. I had to stop myself from saying to Peter, “Dude, what are you doing!? Slow down.”

Though I caught myself from such outward expression, I couldn’t help but imagine the possibility of almost-certain death should that truck have to slam on its brakes. I chose to rid such thinking by reading, talking with Leah, and hoping the moments of risky riding were few and far between. I wasn’t going to change how this guy drove, and I wasn’t going to stress about it fruitlessly for hours.

[An Englishman who now lives (and drives) in and around Iringa would later tell me, “Drivers here don’t consider the possibility of something going wrong. They think, ‘There’s enough space for me there, so I’m going to use it.’”]

When I wasn’t sleeping, shooting, staring, or stressing, Leah and I got to know one another a little better.

About Leah: 

Leah is from Colorado, is big on animal and environmental protection, and isn’t a hippie.

“I’m not a hippie,” she declared to me when I said as such from the backseat and her in the passenger’s seat. She distinguished herself from Hippiedom by noting her bathing, shaved legs, and no dreadlocks. That, and I’ve since found out that the 24-year old likes Def Leppard and has seen them three times in concert.

Getting past small-talk pretty quick as we rode along the Tanzanian terrain, she talked about being a vegan and the supposed cruel practices of factory farming. I shared with her the book I was wrapping up on why some countries are prosperous and other poor. 

Overall, Leah’s been working in East Africa for the last couple years—first for an NGO helping villagers, now with Magulilwa Area Secondary School. She says she likes it better out here than in Colorado. Nothing against her suburban Denver upbringing—indeed, she misses the luxury of that lifestyle—but she doesn’t miss the superficial concerns of American life (clothing fads, overt consumerism); enjoys the genuineness, simplicity, and kindness of the people here; revels in the exploration of new lands; and is excited for the chance to make a difference at Magulilwa.

She found the school online and simply emailed Evaristo to see about working for them. She’s now been teaching biology and physics at the school since the fall and heads a tree-planting project on the school grounds. She works hard for the school and her causes, and I’m grateful to have another person from the U.S. here.

She says she wishes she could get her parents out here to show them that life in Tanzania is not what they think. I guess I’ll do my best to share with my folks via with blog. (And who knows? Maybe Leah’s parents, too. Hi, Mr. and Mrs. Fenimore!)

In between stretches of driving were stops for gas, food, and bathroom.

Fancy new city gas station

While here, I walked around to see this guy doing some masonry:

Making some geometric eye candy

On the road, we slowed for villages:

Then, a second pit stop at a not-so-fancy, out-of-city gas station.

Peter and the gas station attendant did this thing where they’d rock the van, I think to mix it as it filled the tank.

I got out to photograph some of the people working and walking about…

…as well as the landscape nearby.

Not long after leaving this second gas station, the skies began to darken. Too bad, too, because as dusk approached, we drove through lesser-known, though convenient-to-get-to nature reserve, Mikumi National Park.  And sure enough, as we sliced through the reserve, we saw a group of three impalas in the left side ditch.

“Don’t jump across the road,” I thought as we passed by as if I was riding through Minnesotan, whitetail deer country.

More exciting, was seeing a large animal feeding in the field to my right. Just over the ditch was a lone zebra in the dusk. I wanted Peter to stop, but stopping is prohibited. And with it getting dark and him having the lights on, he worried about drawing attention.

We approached Iringa after dark. I couldn’t see much, but could tell from all the lights up ahead that this wasn’t one of the small, roadside towns we passed along the way. After getting off the main road and working our way up and into this city atop a hill, Leah directed Peter where to go. We’d be staying at Joseph’s place.

I’ll write more about this regional hub, this untouched-by-the-corporate-West urban area, in a future post. For now, I’ll just share that on the following day, before taking our bus out to Magulilwa, I stopped at the first barbershop I found for an African makeover.

***

In the early afternoon of January 25, I walked along the dirt road near Joseph’s home when I spotted a small, white building with “Haircuts” written on the side in black paint. I looked through the open door to see no customers inside the bedroom-sized space with a couple stools, mirrors, and a poster of men’s hair model examples on the wall. I entered to three young guys sitting on an old couch that I hadn’t seen from the street.

One with a red t-shirt, blue jeans, and contemporary-styled crew cut stood to greet me with a handshake.

“How much money?” I asked.

“One thousand”, he said careful with his pronunciation.

Surprised at the inexpensive rate, I said, “ONE thousand shillings?”

“Yes,” he affirmed.

[One U.S. dollar is 1500-1600TSH (Tanzania shillings). This young man offered me a 65 cent haircut. A price this low I assumed to be what he charged everyone, and that surprised me, too, because I figured (and have since confirmed) that people here charge whites more when they can—for instance, for services like haircuts.

But like the reaction toward us foreigners being bifurcated depending on circumstances, so thus can the price of things. And from the look on his face, I think he was looking forward to cutting a unique head of hair.]

I looked at the poster on the wall. The good news was that there were probably 50 men’s heads to choose from, point toward, and enable my style desire to be known despite not knowing a lick of Swahili. The bad news was that my race was under non-represented in the pictures. Thus I had some trouble finding a picture I liked—or could even imagine working with my hair. After a minute, I found one that looked closest to what I had in mind—simple cut, really; buzz it on the back and sides and leave it a little longer on the top.

But I did want a lot cut.

I started with this tuft:

My barber and I from totally different worlds. I mean, c’mon, dude’s got an Iowa State shirt.

I sat, he draped me in a barber’s apron, and then he reached for his instruments. I watched him take the clippers off the shelf before us dusted in black hair shavings from previous cuts. I was calmed to see him take care to spray and brush his clippers with what I assumed was disinfectant. Still, I wondered about lice.

He started in with those clippers. As he mowed my mop, we ambled in a mini-conversation. Where are you from? What is your name? Soon came the minutes where nothing was said at all. That was fine with me. I wanted to record:

His two friends on the couch watched the show. And after a few more minutes, the barber switched to scissors. Dull scissors.  And without any water or combing to prep, he simply started snipping/ripping chunks of my hair. It wasn’t painful, but I could hear and feel as much tearing with each snip as there was pure cutting. The inefficient, unclean cuts made this usually-timely activity a time-consuming endeavor despite his not being overly careful about the uniformity of my ‘do.

After he was finished, I told him, “More.”

After he was done with that, I took the clippers off the bench and went to town on my beard.

Voilà:

Just as we were wrapping up, I saw Leah walking by outside and toward the bus stop. I called out from my barber chair, and she came inside impressed at how much a difference a little less hair makes. I paid the barber 2000TSH and headed with Leah to the bus stop.

This last section of this piece was the last leg of my Tanzania trek to Magulilwa Area Secondary School.

***

Leah led me to a parking lot filled with dalla dallas (vans that function like buses), taxis for those willing to spend quite a bit more, and produce/knickknack salespeople looking to take advantage of all the traffic. The “buses”—old ambulances from Dar es Salaam, I have since discovered—lined the road along the lot.

Leah and I hopped aboard a bus filled with other locals and their goods. When transportation is scarce, people use it to deliver whatever they can: huge bags of rice, clothing, or even a chicken as I saw one lady with in her lap.

As the bus pulled away from Iringa, buildings made way for the valley scenery. It being rainy season, thick, bright green grass covered the meadows as the foreground for the hills behind. The hills here have many tan boulders dotting them like small pieces of toffee on a mound of dessert (minus electricity and most Western foods, allow me to tease myself with such analogies.) A river cut through the meadow, its water and banks stained with the red color of the sand, clay, and soil in this region.

In only a mile or two, our peaceful paved path ended with the interruption of bumps and rattles from the onset of the dirt road. The scenery was no less beautiful, but the path made it harder to appreciate. And the natural beauty made way for the human element. Meadows were replaced by farms, and the people in the city (poorer than what I was used to, but not strikingly so) were now replaced with folks who appeared to live in ways I had only previous imagined or seen on television.

Young fella was chopping the knife into the end of the corn cob. As he lifted his knife-in-cob combo, gravity split the two, sending the cob downward.

A sharply-dressed man nearby clashed with the appearance of the young boy–not to mention my preconceived notions that if some of the people here live a certain way, they must all do.

Right away, the periphery of “poverty in Africa” was coming into view.

After about 30 minutes into this jolting jaunt, Leah pointed out to me the last village along the road with electricity. After this, the power lines stopped—a mere six miles away from Magulilwa. (We’re hoping to change that.) Then, after 45 minutes of bumps, stops, and pictures, Leah pointed out our school on the horizon:

Buildings in the distance

The bus stopped, we exited…

…and Leah led me into the teacher housing compound.

Leah introduced me to Mr. Mgongolwa, the school headmaster.

Headmaster then showed me my room.

I was home.

 

til next week,

-Brandon

 

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7 Responses to “Journey to My Village School”

  1. Karen Sontag-Sattel says:

    Dear Brandon,
    Jack and I are really enjoying the letters and pictures from your trip. Thanks so much. We’re learning a lot and are beginning to feel like we are right there with you.
    Karen and Jack

  2. Sue McNamara says:

    Wow. Very interesting! This is something I would never be able to do, (not really sure if I would even want to), so it is fun and exciting that I am able to follow you along on your journey Brandon to get a small taste of what it is like. I can’t wait to hear more!

  3. judy says:

    Brandon.
    so very interesting enjoy following your journeys and experiences

  4. Bev Klein says:

    What great picures and very interesting to read about your adventure. Keep up the good work.

  5. Doug Cain says:

    Muzuri sana, Brandon
    I am writing an article for our newsletter on you & MTN. Good to see you made to E. Africa… enjoy the wild-life

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