One at a Time
They ushered us inside. The contrast was startling. Outside was black and jarring but inside was warm and familiar. The hall was bright and cozy with tables covered with cloths and set for dinner. We were led to wash our hands and find our places.
in the middle of each table were an assortment of beverages, among them bottles of wine and beer. Why was I so surprised by this, and why did it bring me such warmth and assurance?
There were singing, happy joyous voices. There was delicious home cooked food- chicken and cabbage and potatoes. There were messages of welcome and thanks. And there was more wine and beer. Although I had never been a fan of beer my first bottle tasted like heaven. It was a Tusker and the big elephant on the label made me feel like I was really in Africa, here with the Sisters sharing a meal and hospitality.
Sr. Rita, the Mother Superior, was at my table and her huge smile reassured me that we were right to have come. She put her hand over mine and squeezed it hard asking, “How about another drink Mara?” I said no thank you, that one’s my limit. Sr. Rita looked at me with a big smile and answered, “Yes Mara, only one….. one at a time.”
Driving into Butiamo was like entering another world. The air around the shade trees looked cooler and softer. The landscaping was carefully placed and tended. The homes were strangely familiar- rounded, dome like structures of cobbled stones, seemingly ancient yet lovingly preserved. The town felt quiet and reflective as we walked toward the museum, eager to learn more about Nyerere and the history of Tanzania.
After parking the Land Rover we started for the museum, walking up a short flight of stairs toward the smiling face of Nyerere- the father of the nation. We were ushered into a waiting room and sat quietly for a seemingly long period of time. A small square TV set sat on a cart with an interview of Nyerere on a loop in Swahili with no subtitles. There was a hushed reverent silence. Then a gentleman came in to collect the ticket price which seemed to be unclear, with negotiations ensuing like a deal being struck. A heavy guest book was sent around and we were all asked to sign-in before entering.
We were taken on a tour of the small structure filled with artifacts. Usually museums don’t do much for me- I’m too impatient to take my time and possess too little knowledge to take it all in. Although I shot off quickly, I could feel this man and more powerfully the reverence for him- all his gifts, so meaningful- carved stools, and exotic hides- made me think of the people who gave them to him, with their hopes attached. Right there, not behind glass- it all seemed so recent and new. The stools- symbols of relationships and accomplishments- newness of the history and the vision of its father.
Imagine our surprise when we were introduced to his own son, Nyerere’s actual progeny. He sat with us and made idle conversation about the growth of the area, the struggles and the potential- as if we were equals, or even cherished guests. So comfortable- he showed us around, pointing out the details and sharing the stories, and even took us into the house itself. He mostly spoke about his father’s humility, how he hated the big pretentious house and would often escape to be among the people. He spoke about the sense of responsibility that he had felt for his country. He spoke about the struggles of the people and the land….
We walked around the grounds and admired the natural beauty that grew everywhere. Huge boulders so grand and majestic were allowed to be exactly where they were with structures built around them. Big whicker holding containers sat ready for grain. And a cement pergola awaited intimate games and conversations.
What a gift, this intimate glimpse into the birth of the country. A man, a humble leader who yearned to be with his people. Could it get any better? The experience culminated with a visit into Nyerere’s personal library. The door was beautiful and grand but was no comparison to what lay within. We saw an extensive and impressive collection of books- rows and rows of books in a country where books were still scarce. We all dispersed and browsed through rows, glancing at titles and appreciating the diversity of genres and languages. But then many of us started touching the books, his books. We flipped through pages and looked at the words written in the margins. His notes, his writing, his thoughts about the novels and authors of his time.
It was truly remarkable and we all pondered its specialness as we walked through the house and paused to appreciate the vista before heading back to Musoma. This was the same view that Nyerere once reflected upon and I was moved by the strength of his presence. When I sensed Sister Rita next to me, I asked her if there were other leaders like Nyerere out there; leaders who were so humble and committed to their people. Without turning to look at me, Sr. Rita answered into the landscape,
“Not today Mara…. but maybe tomorrow.”
I was prepared for the circular mud huts; the boys with sticks driving cattle; the film of red dust that settled over everything. These were the familiar images that promised the African experience I did not receive.
As we drove away from Kitenga to our base in Musoma, we held onto the walls for stability, our Land Rover pitching over ruts and rocks. Our visit had been jarring with too many contrasts and not enough distance in between. We had seen gleaming billboards with white Americans gulping sports drinks against sun leeched earth. And my annoying ringtone, which had come preset on my Chinese manufactured smart phone, had emanated from the pocket of a village elder as he delivered solemn words under the meeting tree. Again and again I had tried to take it all in, but was unable to process the juxtaposition of images and sounds, unable to find and maintain perspective without comfort or context.
Then out of nowhere he had appeared, a teenage boy standing firmly in the middle of the road, staring at our approaching vehicle, staring at me. His royal blue T-shirt emblazoned with large white letters read “A-Rod Sucks.” As we passed he turned to watch us, forcing me to continue my gaze, burning his message onto my throbbing retinas. A-Rod sucks, I said to myself, trying to remember who A-Rod was, my mind telescoping away from the dusty village back to my own small world in Buffalo New York, to the fleeting context of pop culture and social commentary. I tried to imagine the intended wearer of the T-shirt as I struggled to understand the comment, seemingly irrelevant and out of place.
Yet what statement would be appropriate in this complex landscape? How to capture the contrasts, the mosaic of new and old that meanders through the dusty roads? My mind went blank as “A Rod Sucks” pulsated through my consciousness. I yearned for context as we continued our long journey home.
The Beautiful Children
So much of that first trip was a blur- white noise without contrast, resisting perception and understanding. And yet through every place we visited the faces and laughter of children captured our hearts.
There were the mute children who sang to us in sign language and gave us each nicknames based on our unique facial characteristics (not all flattering). There were the disabled children who lined up to receive our gifts of suckers and stick pens, crowding around us to hug and touch, so happy that we were visiting.
At Kowak School for Girls they performed a dance and sang for us, we even got to interview a few of the girls. They were shy and timid but so sure of themselves and their futures. They spoke of their love for the school, the importance of education for all girls, especially those in the villages. They spoke of their plans to be a surgeon, an attorney, and champions of girl’s rights and futures. They whispered of secret practices and of dangers for girls and women, of inequities and threats.
They were already on their way to making change.