Born to be wild

When Ndekirwa asked me to come to his house, I gave my usual response: “Sawa.”

I figured I’d get done with work Thursday afternoon, catch a bus to his village, and be home by dark.

The day before our date, however, our mutual friend Immanuel came to my house to give me the itinerary in a mixture of basic English and basic Swahili. Apparently I was to take a bus at 7 a.m. to a town about an hour away, where Ndekirwa would pick me up on his motorbike (piki piki) to drive me to his home on the side of Mt. Meru, where I would spend the night before coming all the way back to Moshi

“Sure,” I said. “Sawa.”

My cooperating teachers let me off the hook and even encouraged me to go, but one guy I know, who’s lived in Africa for many years, had a warning: “Don’t be surprised if he asks you for money.”

Unfortunately, it wouldn’t have surprised me at all. I’ve learned it’s the price you pay for making friends when you’re a relatively rich guy in a nation of poor people.

Some are more subtle than others. My night watchman Samwel, for example, waited a couple of weeks before telling me about his dream of going to driving school and asking “Can you help me?” The guy who replaced him wasted no time at all: “Will you sponsor me?” he asked, the night I met him. “We know all Americans are rich.” Fortunately I haven’t seen him since, and his replacement hasn’t asked.

The pastor who took me to his church (the aforementioned Immanuel) told me of his dream of starting a school for orphans. If I would help with money for supplies, I would be “their father.”

So I wondered if Ndekirwa had anything up his sleeve, but I wasn’t too worried about it.

I was worried about getting on the right dala dala and getting off at the right stop, however, since my instructions were hard to understand, so I invited my friend Kelly to escort me to King’ori to meet Ndekirwa. He’s an out-of-work guide and was happy to do it.

We got there at about 10 and ordered chai and chapatis while we waited for Ndekirwa, who joined us a few minutes later, arriving on his Toyo Power King 125. The mudflap had a painting of a Maasai man and the slogan “Maasai wa porini,” which I think means “wild Maasai.” He gave a long description of the route to his place. “Mbali?” I asked. “Far?” He nodded. “Mbali.” Whatever that meant.

We said goodbye to Kelly and headed off across single-track through villages of mud huts, and I wondered if we’d be going the whole way like this. At one of the huts, we met one of his sisters. At another, a toddler screamed and started to cry when she saw me.

When we came to a little river, we got off the bikes and I followed him across on stones. “Shamba changu,” he said. “My farm.” It was planted mostly in maize, with a few beans and sunflowers. Three women were tending the fields. I think he said it was seven acres, and that it cost him 25 million shillings, which is about $15,000.

He also showed me a building site where he wants to start an English medium primary school. “But no money.” I wondered if this was the start of a request, but I didn’t respond, and he didn’t continue — possibly for lack of words in English. (His English is not much better than my Swahili.)

From there we headed to a “main” gravel road and slid across the valley floor on red clay made slick by the rain. I even had to get off a couple times and walk. Ndekirwa’s bike, like most in Tanzania, has narrow tires with tread made for roads, so it doesn’t do well on the mud. I’ve read that a new Chinese piki piki costs less than $1,000, which is why there are so many of them. I’ve also read that it’s hard to get spare parts, and that the Peace Corps has a policy against volunteers riding on them — even on the motorbike taxis (bora bora), which I ride all the time.

Eventually the road dried out and changed to gray as we rose in elevation. The landscape was beautiful, pastoral, not so far removed from rural Wisconsin, with rolling hills, tall corn, scattered trees, and small streams with wooded banks. Instead of big American farmhouses, though, they were small brick homes with tin roofs.

On the left, the higher slopes were covered in forest — some kind of protected public land, by the looks of it. Low clouds kept me from seeing where it ended. We passed through another town called King’ori (Upper King’ori, maybe?) and continued on a few more kilometers to Ndekirwa’s village.

His house, one of the nicer Tanzanian-owned ones I’ve seen, was on the edge of a kind of common area with a public well or cistern made of concrete, a low area full of six-inches of water and a dozen green-treated telephone poles, and a couple donkeys grazing or lying on the ground. Across the way, but the road, the usual group of young men hanging out on their motorbikes: Toyos, Fekons, Kinglions, Skygos.

Ndekirwa’s wife (whose unusual Meru name I can’t remember) brought us hot milk and bowls of roasted bananas — five each. I ate three and met two of his kids and two of his brother’s kids, and then we went for a walk. His brother’s little girl, who had been too afraid to come near me at the house, took my hand and walked with me across the commons and up the road. Another little toddler also came along.

We ended up at his Pentacostal church, where we sat down with the pastor and his wife. One of Ndekirwa’s sisters brought us chai and hot peanuts. The pastor didn’t waste any time. “It is our dream to start a primary school in the village, and we are looking for a sponsor.” He looked right in my eyes and broke into a grin.

I kept my mouth shut but was secretly considering my luck: With two people competing for my sponsorship (not counting Immanuel), both their odds had just declined precipitously! How could either one of them expect me to sponsor both schools, or choose one over the other? I was off the hook!

Just in case I hadn’t gotten the point, the pastor and his wife led us down a dirt road to the school building, where he repeated his pitch. “We are praying for a sponsor,” he said. “If this is your dream, you are welcome.” I stood there with a dumb smile on my face and didn’t say anything. The kids of the town have a public school to attend in a neighboring village. I’m not sure how a new school run by Pentacostals is going to improve their lives dramatically.

We all went back to Ndekirwa’s and had more hot milk and a lunch of rice, spaghetti, and ngombe (beef) stew. After that they asked if I want to go to the market in the upper King’ori town. I really wanted to lie on my bed and read Tolstoy, but I said, “Sure!” and the pastor walked home to get his motorcycle.

I rode with the pastor, while Ndekirwa took his small wife and the pastor’s large wife on his Power King. The village was full of people, since it was one of two market days per week. There were lots of used clothes — the usual thrift-store cast-offs from the U.S. — as well fabric, plastic tubs, a barrel of laundry detergent, and lots of vegetables spread on cloth on the ground. One guy was selling Maasai footwear — sandals and flip flops made of tires. A dozen goats were tied to a tree, surrounded by men looking them over and feeling them up. Lots of people were carrying live chickens, either tucked under an arm or dangling by the feet, sometimes two roosters in each hand.

I felt like the main attraction, receiving many double-takes as the only Mzungu in town. I spoke a little Swahili as the opportunity arose. When Ndekirwa bought some chai spices, the seller looked at me suspiciously and asked something like “Where are you going?” (…enda…wapi?)

I said, “Tunakwenda nyumbani yako kula chakula.” (“We’re going to your house to eat food.”) That got a good laugh from him and the others standing around.

We didn’t stay long, and when we got home and said goodbye to the pastor and his wife, I got the rest I’d been hoping for, lying in bed and pretending to read my dictionary. As the light grew dim, I went out to the commons, where I saw Ndekirwa. There were cows grazing and children chasing them home. Ndekirwa said they were his cows, and I was impressed by how hard he works — a job as a watchman, a maize farm, a herd of cattle, his five kids (two in boarding school).

We wandered over to his brother’s house, and they brought us chairs and coffee, which we drank while watching the planets and stars come out. I listened to the blend of Swahili and Meru, lots of rolled r’s, and stumbled through a sentence or two in Swahili if someone new came to the circle.

After we went in we sat around Ndekirwa’s living room with his kids and his brother’s kids (including my little friend from earlier), watching music videos on Ndekirwa’s cellphone. He told me his brother had died in 2012 in a motorbike accident. “Pole sana,” I said. He took me into a back closet and showed me the wrecked bike. It made me sad for the kids, and a little nervous for my ride back down the mountain in the morning.

Ndekirwa’s wife brought us more food, this time the Tanzanian staple of ugali (a mush made of corn meal) with more ngombe and spinach and a fresh avocado from the market.

I spent some time texting home then went to bed and slept well. We got up at 5:30 for the drive back to King’ori. Ndekirwa was going to drop me off at the bus station because he thought I’d be too cold to ride with him all the way to Moshi. I wasn’t cold at all, so I told him I’d stay with him. It was a slightly crazy ride on the highway, with a top speed of about 40, and the busses and dala dalas whizzing by at 60, sometimes two of them passing in opposite directions at the same time, with the one in our lane so close I could touch it.

I got more double-takes again from kids on their way to school, and from adults waiting for the bus, or from a lone Maasai with his stick and shawl and herd of cattle, looking briefly up from his cellphone.

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