AUTHOR’S NOTE: I do apologize for the delay in getting these blogs out, but due to our busy schedule, both clinic and social, I have fallen behind. Do not fret, though, as I have notes and will be getting them out over the next week to complete the visit
With no educational lecture for the morning, the extra 30 minutes of sleep was much appreciated by everyone. The image of Africa as that of the “dark continent” is not too far off the mark for a number of reasons other than why it was originally used which was to convey mysterious and unexplored regions of the earth. Though the Congo very likely still deserves the use of that term for it remains off limits to outsiders, the rest of Africa does not. But it is otherwise a very dark continent in much of its midsection, where the equator broadly traverses just below its waist. For it is here that the days do not change throughout the year and darkness comes quite quickly shortly after 6 pm every day of the year, like clockwork as they say, and sunsets are more rapid than we know at home, falling in almost exactly the same place day in and day out. There are no seasons here as we know them, no summer, spring summer or fall, but rather there is the rainy season and the dry season, and months are known only for their relationship to planting and harvest. We are approaching the heavy rains of April, when the skies open up and the ground literally turns to a soupy mix of water and clay making travel difficult and dangerous. In the dry season, the dusty roads, though easy to travel, leave a thick coating of red ocher over everything for several meters on either side and walking on a heavily traveled road should require a respirator in the best of circumstances.
The darkness here, though, is also related to the complete lack of light pollution and the fact that shortly after sunset, the blackness becomes so entirely dense that it is difficult to see your hand in front of your face as the cliché goes. Dusk would not have been a term invented here for it almost doesn’t exist, and twilight is so brief that the popular teenage vampire series may have never been written if it had been left up to an African writer. The lack of light pollution makes for the absolute most incredible skies full of more stars than one could possibly imagine living on the East Coast, though they are readily available in parts of the west at altitude and away from the cities for I have seen them many times in the High Sierras and the Rockies. So, once the sun is down and we have finished our dinners, served in their little individual plastic pots to each of us, there is time to relax and catch up on the days activities. As we have been collecting data on our patients here at FAME for the last five years, it is crucial that all this be entered into the spreadsheets each day as trying to do it at the end has proven difficult in the past. Often, we’ll have a medical student accompany us on these trips for this purpose alone, but with COVID, that has been off and on, given the restrictions that have been placed on travel. Hopefully, this will open again soon for everyone’s sake as it is a big chore and provides an opportunity for a medical student to travel with us that wouldn’t otherwise be available.
Other than the nights that we have watched a movie here at the house, which have been minimal, or the nights that we have gone out to the Golden Sparrow to dance, also really only once, the residents are in bed by around 9:00 pm and probably get tremendously more sleep here than they do at home. I am usually left alone at the dinner table, typing away on my blogs or catching up on emails until at least 11:00 pm, and though I do miss their company, having the silence in the house is a bit more conducive to putting pen to paper as the expression goes. When I was here on my own in September 2020, as the residents were not allowed to travel due to the pandemic, I was able to keep up on the blog throughout the entirety of my visit, but often we have other social plans that keep me from this work. Today was a good example, as not only were we going to be visiting with a close friend of mine, Daniel Tewa, later today, but the internet was also out for the entire day, meaning that we had to all go up to Frank and Susan’s house where Ke was staying as he did have it up there and I was afraid that the residents were going to kill me if they were unable to get access at some point during the day.
For whatever reason, our clinic was incredibly slow during the day, which was probably a blessing given the internet situation that existed. We amazingly had time to get tea and follow up on inpatients that needed to be seen well before lunch. It felt as though we had stamped out neurologic disease in Karatu and the surrounding areas over the previous two weeks and were now seeing the results of the incredibly hectic sessions that we had experienced previously. With the quiet day, it gave us plenty of time to finish up the day, get some work done and plan to leave for Daniel Tewa’s home early enough for him to give everyone a proper tour of the replica Iraqw home that he had built back in 1991. Though in the past, Daniel had always had our entire team over for dinner, given the events of the last couple of years, we had changed to having his wonderful African kahawa (coffee) outside where we could hear his wonderful stories about Tanzania’s past in the days of independence and prior to that exciting time.
I had first met Daniel by chance in 2009 when I had first come to Tanzania on safari with my two children and had been asked by our tour operator, Thomson Safari, if we would like to do some volunteering as part of our trip. I had chosen Thomson for exactly this reason of promoting responsible tourism and also because of their reputation as one of the top operators in Tanzania for many years. Our volunteer time had been scheduled for three days at the end of our trip and we were assigned to help paint a primary school in the village of Ayalabe, just outside of Karatu, which, importantly, is where FAME is located. Leonard Temba, our guide and now my family, spent the days with us in Ayalabe and Daniel happened to be one of the village elders of this Iraqw village. Each day, we would have an early breakfast and head out to the village of Ayalabe, where Daniel would be waiting for us to begin painting at the school. It was really just the four of us painting, but I remember so vividly Daniel shaming any of the teenagers who happened to stumble by to the see the three wazungu in their village working. In this manner, he would not so subtly recruit them to work with us, cleaning and painting the window frames a lovely sky blue.
In this manner, we proceeded to paint much of the school buildings, though not nearly all, with the help of Daniel and our literally captive audience. On the last day, the entire school came out to thank us for the work we had done, which was quite frankly minimal, but it was the really about the effort that we had made to help. Afterwards, we went to Daniel’s house, where we met his wife, Elizabeth, and heard stories about the Iraqw way of life both prior to and after independence, and learning the dances and songs of their culture. It was truly a remarkable experience and I was so happy for my children to have the opportunity to meet such a remarkable man. It was during this same time in Karatu while we were volunteering, that I had asked Leonard to take me to a Tanzanian medical facility, thinking that he would bring me to some local practitioner of medicine, but rather he brought me to FAME, where I met Frank and, as they say, the rest is history.
Having returned home, I struggled through a number of personal setbacks over the next year, including the death of my father, but I knew that I was somehow destined to go back to Tanzania and FAME. When things were finally in some sense of order, I made arrangements to return to FAME in the fall of 2010, the first of my now two dozen visits back to this remarkable place. I recalled our visit with Daniel and Elizabeth so fondly and, wanting to meet up with them again, I obtained his phone number from Thomson Safaris and took a stab at calling him. Not only did Daniel remember me over a year later, but he immediately asked how Daniel and Anna were by name without any prompting from me. Calling half-way around the world to someone I had met over a year before and not having any idea of what to expect, I was very quickly put at ease and even more so when he kept repeating karibu (welcome) to me. It was if I was speaking to someone who I had known for my entire life. And that is how it has remained.
Despite having met with countless visitors over the many, many years of providing his cultural demonstrations for the safari companies as well as college students and researchers who stop by to see the unique Iraqw house that he has built on his property, when I returned and sat in his living room with him eating dinner, he told me that I was the very first visitor to have ever returned for a visit to see him on a personal basis. I was so incredibly touched by his generosity and warmth and, as I sat with his entire family watching his granddaughter, Renatha, eat the leftovers from his plate, an honor here, I quickly realized that we were to be lifelong friends. It was clear to me that he and I had been cut from the same cloth and it had been meant to be that we would encounter each other on opposite sides of the earth after so many years.
And it has remained so. I have visited with Daniel and his family on each of my return trips to FAME and, perhaps equally important, he has shared with my residents and friends who I have brought here, his family and his remarkable strength. Each time we have come, Daniel will have us over for dinner, or even just coffee, during which time he will share his stories of Iraqw life as it was in the past and is now, answer any question that one wishes to ask about world politics, or he will amaze everyone with his knowledge of US geography by giving everyone the capitol of their state, the square miles, date of statehood, and a multitude of facts that no one present was aware of, though should have been.
Unfortunately, with the internet down at FAME, Ke was unable to join us as planned, and Shama was also detained with work at FAME, so it was the five of us plus Abdulhamid, who we had asked to come along at the last minute. Arriving to Daniel’s is always an experience of warm greetings for everyone and it always seems like I had just seen him yesterday even though it’s been six months. Daniel’s farm is on the Gibb’s Farm road right at the Ayalabe Road junction and very easy to find. He is always waiting for us, waving his arms up and down and practically dragging me out of the car as I open the door. The lovely, though invasive, eucalyptus trees shade his home and the surrounding area including where he has a table and chairs set up for us to have coffee and snacks.
After the introductions, he wanted us to go see his traditional Iraqw house that he had built in 1991 because, as he puts it, his children had always accused him of losing his mind when he told them that he had grown up in an underground house. For years, the Iraqw had built their homes mostly underground, covered by a large dome of dirt and grass to protect themselves from the Maasai who would steal their cattle for, as the Maasai believe, cattle are God’s gift to them and belong to no one else. By living underground and brining all of their animals in at night, they could hear if there was any intruder walking across their roof and then defend themselves. The Maasai and the Iraqw remained enemies until a truce was finally signed in 1986.
Meanwhile, when independence from the British came to Tanganyika in 1961 and then they became Tanzania after uniting with Zanzibar in 1964, Julius Nyerere, the first president and father of the country, had a true dilemma of how to develop an infrastructure in a country that had over 120 individual tribes living separately in their own villages and speaking their own languages. Realizing that the only way to unite his country would be to bring all of the population into the villages together, he banned traditional housing such as the Iraqw homes and others so that everyone would hopefully live together and they could begin to develop roads, water supply and energy grids. Add to this the fact that Tanzania had eleven (!) native college graduates in the entire country, Nyerere had a challenge of epic proportion in front of him to make things work. Having been continually doubted by his children that he had actually grown up in an underground house, in 1991, Daniel choose to build a small version of the type of home he had grown up in, one built for a young family with a handful of cows and goats. It took him three years to build it, but once he did, it has been utilized by researchers from the universities to see an authentic Iraqw house, built to the exact dimensions and of the very same materials he had learned in his early adulthood.
Standing in this original Iraqw home and hearing Daniel tell stories of Iraqw culture, you can practically hear all the commotion that would have been going on; the livestock being present through the night before being put out to graze, guarded carefully from the Maasai, the sleeping arrangements with men and women separated by the wide center row (“how babies are made is top secret,” says Daniel), the cooking area of three stones where a pot of porridge would be placed. Listening to him tell of how the house was built, having to gather the perfect y-shaped logs from the proper trees, using shrubs with natural pesticide properties underneath the grass and dirt root, and making everything perfectly watertight as his house was until just a few years ago when several elephants walked across the top. It was very easy to imagine what life was really like for the Iraqw only 50 years ago at the time of independence.
After touring the house, Daniel demonstrated the fine art of spear throwing for everyone and each gave their best shot, except for me as I was photographing the event and probably wouldn’t have been very good. Peter hit a bullseye with his first through, but others took several tries to get there. We eventually all sat down for coffee brewed in the traditional African style – boiling coffee with milk – which is an amazing treat, and even though Daniel forces us always to drink both thermoses of the drink, I don’t think anyone really minds. Then Isabel, his oldest daughter whom I have known since the very beginning and usually serves us dinner at her house, brings out an amazing pot of cooked chicken and vegetables for us to all share. This is the tradition here when visiting someone’s home, that you cannot leave without being fed, and I should have known that Daniel would never have let us go without feeding us. Thankfully, we hadn’t had dinner yet and there was no difficulty for anyone to enjoy the meal we’d been offered. During dinner, Daniel dazzled everyone with his knowledge of US geography and we also tackled many of the world’s problems. Sitting outside, with the coolness of the evening setting upon us, in a land as distant as one can get from home, it was truly hard to imagine how anyone could possibly hate another human being, or ever consider going to war for any reason other to defend one’s family. Describing the scene as idyllic would not do it justice.
Arriving home after Daniel’s to discover that the internet was still out at the house and not wishing to be murdered in my sleep by one of the residents (no names will be given), we all went up to Frank and Susan’s house to use the internet there at Ke’s invitation. Oscar, their Rhodesian Ridgeback, and sweetest, most cuddly dog of any size, spent the evening on the couch with Natalie as she soon discovered just how demanding he was for as soon as you stop petting him, a huge paw comes your way just a subtle reminder. We all made it home earlier enough as Peter and Natalie were presenting the following day at 7:30 am, so it was early to bed and early to rise…