It’s always so hard for me to describe the feeling I get descending the steps from our plane in Kilimanjaro. Though I certainly recall the very first time I had done so in 2009, stepping out into the bright sunshine and the densely hot and humid air that is so typical of this tropical region, it has become a far different sensation now on my 22nd visit to this land that has become my home. Had anyone suggested to me at the time that I would continue returning after so many years, I would have thought them quite daft for certain. Yet, here I am, stepping into that very same bright sunshine with all the other visitors, most of who are excited as they are about to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro or depart shortly for their week in the Serengeti, having come for a different reason altogether. Though my travel this time has been quite different than it has in the past, now with the pandemic looming all about us and wearing my mask and face shield during the entire journey, a fact of life that this year will become known for, it has also been the same for many reasons. I have again left behind the familiarities of life as I have known for some 60 plus years to travel here to once again join not only my new-found colleagues at FAME, which has been my primary mission, but also to once again join my new friends and family here.
As is so often the case, I have traveled here with two large duffels not only filled with medical gear that is unobtainable in Tanzania and necessary for the work that we do, but also with items that I have brought for my family here. The Tembas have become my true connection to live here in this country and, along with the work that I do at FAME, the reason that I have continued to return twice annually for the last ten years. It is these connections, that along with the those that I have at Penn and my family in the US, have given purpose to my life, filling any voids that I hadn’t even realized existed.
Not only had we arrived to Kilimanjaro International Airport early in the day due to the schedule changes that have occurred as a result of the pandemic, our flight was ahead of schedule and Leonard and Pendo were not yet at the airport. Thankfully, my Tanzanian SIM card worked seamlessly the moment I placed it into my iPhone, accessing the local network and still having airtime left over from my last visit, allowing me to immediately alert them of my early arrival. They were still on their way from Arusha in the early morning hours to pick me up as they have done for all of my prior visits and are my lifeline here as simply getting a ride in this country is not as easy as it may seem. The bulk of my fellow travelers on the flight are meeting up with their safari companies for the very first time and the drivers all have signs they are holding up representing either their company name or the names of the travelers they have intended to meet. I do remember this event vividly from our very first visit, that feeling of surprise and expectation. Leonard hadn’t picked us up at the airport, but we had met him that very next morning at our lodge, and we had instantaneously bonded at our very first meeting, a friendship that has now lasted a lifetime and I have become an honored member of his family.
Many of the visitors here have similar experiences with their guides, forming long term relationships that are as more of a patron, but the Tembas have truly taken me into their family and much of the success of my program here has been accomplished with their unfettered assistance. One good example of this has been how they have opened their home to host each and every team of residents I bring, no matter how large, on arrival for their first night in Tanzania. This is not an easy task, to accommodate a group of four residents and a medical student along with myself in their home and prepare dinner for the entire group of weary travelers having just arrived after a full day of travel. Yet they have done so for the last number of years and would have it no other way, for each time that I offer to either compensate them or consider other arrangements, they look at me with the appearance of unimaginability (I believe that is a word) as if I were asking them for something that was entirely unthinkable to them. That is their culture here, for the opportunity to assist is the highest honor that one can be given, and that is readily apparent each visit here, not only with the Tembas, but also with Daniel Tewa, my Iraqw friend, and Kitashu, our Maasai social worker, and every other Tanzanian who we have encountered along the way. To have it any way is virtually unthinkable for them and to even suggest it can easily be taken as an insult. This is what my residents experience on their very first night in this country and it is a lesson that is not only comforting, but it is also never forgotten. Having gone into medicine, it seems only obvious that each of them would be completely receptive to this concept, and though that is true, it is something that can often seem easily overlooked in this fast paced and stressful world of ours.
Over the recent months, I have found that biking has become a welcome release for me and considering that our social lives have become non-existent in this new reality of masks and social distancing, it is an activity that has fit well into my schedule. Not wishing to give them up while here in Tanzania, I decided to search for a bicycle here and was directed to the Arusha Bicycle Company, a business that imports mostly used bicycles from Europe and refurbishes them for use here. Though a road bike would be something nice to have here, the lack of paved roads would make the utilitarian nature of a mountain bike to ride on the myriad of dirt roads and trails a much better choice for me at this point. Through some friends, I was introduced to an incredibly helpful gentleman with ABC, who sent me photos of various bikes and we were able to narrow it down quite well so that upon my arrival to Kilimanjaro, we were planning to head to Moshi, the town at the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro and where most outdoor enthusiasts visiting here make their home base. It is the opposite direction from Arusha as the airport sits equidistant between the two towns, but Leonard and Pendo were happy to help me out by taking care of this chore now so I wouldn’t have to travel back here tomorrow before departing for FAME.
Despite Joseph from ABC having sent me a message with a map of their location in Moshi, it took a bit of detective work, and a few phone calls, to locate them as there was no sign and their stable of bikes and workshop resided behind a completely non-descript metal door inset in a large solid metal gate, quite typical of businesses here. Once found, though, we were led into a large courtyard that contained dozens of bicycles and an indoor workshop where the bikes are refurbished when they arrive. The bicycle I had chosen was quite perfect and I immediately hopped on the saddle for a few laps around the courtyard to make sure the derailleurs were working perfectly and they were. When they had originally sent me the photo of this bike, I had never heard of the company, but with just a quick googling, discovered that they were a highly respected German company from Bavarian known for their mountain bikes and also having a solid stable of road bicycles. This was just bike I was looking for and I as eager to get it to Karatu where I already imaging my plying the back roads and even taking a ride up to the Ngorongoro gate. I had brought an extra helmet of mine, some riding gloves and several sets of bibs and jerseys to wear. I could not imagine a more perfect place to explore while getting in my exercise, though would have to do my best to avoid any unfriendly Cape buffaloe that I might encounter during my travels (that is not a joke!).
Once successful in my quest for the perfect bicycle and having loaded it into our vehicle, we were on our back to Arusha and the Temba home. Waiting for me at home were the Temba children who I have known for their entire lives. When I first came to their home in 2010, Lennox was four and Lee was two and both were typical children, never giving me a moment to myself unless I retreated to the solitude of my room. Now they are incredibly well-behaved and mature young boys who are top students in their school in Nairobi, though they are now both home due to the pandemic as their schooling is virtual. Gabriella is now five years old and is a very special child who has always struggled with her weight and speech, only to discover that the tonsillectomy she had done when she was younger had no removed nearly enough tissue and she was still mostly obstructed. Thanks to the help of Dr. Dan in pursuing the issue and having the opportunity to have spoken with Pendo, sight unseen, he was convinced that this was the problem, and in January of this year, she underwent her second tonsillectomy in Nairobi that appears to have been successful as she is gaining weight and her speech is thankfully slowly improving. Meanwhile, Gabriel, the baby of the group and who is now three, is the smartest and most outgoing young boy and who is a total charmer. The four children are just a delight and reason enough to make the journey here.
Pendo’s newest venture here has been to open a house wares shop for the local residents of Njiro, the suburb of Arusha where they live. Upon visiting the shop, I was incredibly impressed with the number of wares that she carried, most of which were not even available here when I had first arrived ten years ago. Blenders and mixers, coffee makers and microwave ovens were on the shelves along with a wall full of various and a sundry kitchen utensils that would place any similar shop at home on anyone’s list of places to visit. Of course, my immediate attention went to what I could find for the Raynes House at FAME, or, more importantly, what could I find to make my life more livable over the next month spending it alone in the Raynes House. I promptly chose a very nice non-stick frying pan to make my breakfast in along with a nice flexible spatula. I am more than happy to share my things, but admit that very often these items seem to either wander into the other houses at FAME or simply disappear, so I think I’ll store this frying pan in my locker during my absences. Next were a few nice tea mugs and a set of low tumblers that will be perfect for me to enjoy my gin and tonics on the veranda in the evenings while watching the sun set. I know that it’s a thankless job, but someone has to do it.
The highlight of the day for me was delivering two well-needed gifts to Lennox and Lee. Their mom had texted me some time ago inquiring into the cost of a laptop computer for each of them so that they could do their home studies as there was only one computer in the family and they were currently doing their schoolwork on iPads that made it difficult for them to do their work. Knowing that it would be an incredible financial hardship for them to purchase these, I quickly realized that I would like to do nothing more than to help the two boys with their ongoing studies and there was no more worthwhile thing for me to do for them. I began to search for two affordable computers, knowing full-well that they had to be identical as the two boys would otherwise fight over what they thought would be best. Leonard and I came home in the evening form an errand and Pendo arrived home shortly thereafter so that it was really perfect timing to give them the computers. Earlier, Lennox had asked me if his mom had conveyed their request for football (soccer) shoes and was clearly disappointed when I told him that she had not. Shortly thereafter, I brought the two computers out of my room and presented each of them with one of the computers, making completely certain to tell each of them that they had earned these devices with their hard work and devotion to their studies. They were speechless and spent the rest of the evening on the couch, each sitting not only in the glow of their computer screen, but perhaps more brightly, the glow of their faces, beaming with a sense of pride and accomplishment and both incredibly grateful. Though these are only small things, they have the potential to change other’s lives, and it is important that we take these opportunities when they are presented to each of us. For it is without charity that the world becomes a dark and inhospitable place and one far less worth inhabiting.