I stumbled out of my tent at our lakeside campground in Malawi, Africa and headed for the black iron gate. Several monkeys followed me. I waited at the gate, greeting my 12 fellow tour group members as they arrived in groups of two or three. Shouting and laughter of young male Africans reverberated from outside the gate. I wondered aloud if they would swarm around us to try to sell their crafts, art or trinkets, an experience tourists in Africa commonly encounter.
The gate opened, and we braced ourselves. A young man stepped in and closed the gate behind him. He said hello, shook the guard’s hand and waived at us. He shouted his long African name above the din, but I didn’t get it and forgot to ask him. I’ll call him Kea, the name of a Tanzanian man I met later in Zanzibar.
“I will be your tour guide,” Kea said, as the voices outside quieted. “The name of the village we will visit is Mbamba.” (The “M” is silent.) Kea collected $5.00 each for the tour, then opened the gate and asked us to follow him. In a flash the men crowded around, then disbursed among us as we walked. Two of them walked on either side of me. One, a tall, chunky man with short hair introduced himself as Cisco and asked me my name. I told him, and we shook hands. The other said he was Bush Bebe (phonetically spelled)—unlikely, I thought, as I shook his outstretched hand. “Glad to meet you,” he said. His head was shaven, and compared to Cisco he looked about four feet tall. Cisco said he lived in the village with his grandmother.
“I live in the village too,” said Bush Bebe. I noticed that two young men flanked each of the other tour members. Everyone chatted as we walked.
Neither Cisco, nor Bush Bebe, mentioned selling anything, but I was certain they would. At the end of the tour my prediction came true. I bought a t-shirt that we designed together. As we stood outside the campsite gate, we agreed that on the back it would have a map of the five east African countries we planned to visit and pictures of a fisherman and women grinding cassava into flour. The village name, Mbamba, would be on the left front. I chose a black shirt and said it was up to them to choose colors for the graphics. They said it would be ready outside the camp gate at 6:00 o’clock. Obviously, their sales technique was effective. I probably wouldn’t have bought anything, certainly not a $35 t-shirt, before we became “friends.” I handed Cisco the money with only a fleeting thought that I might never see them again. About five hours later, at two minutes to six, the guard walked over to our camp and told me Cisco was waiting for me. The shirt is beautiful.
We walked along the dusty path—it hadn’t rained in a few days–toward the village, surrounded by the lush foliage and red and yellow flowers sprinkled about the jungle-like terrain. I recognized mango trees, cassava and groves of banana plants. Cisco said he was 19, had gone to secondary school and hoped to go to the university. His English was clearer and more grammatical than most of the Africans I had talked to. He said the villagers usually spoke Swahili among themselves. Bush Bebe said he was in secondary school. They both said they had lived in the village their entire lives and intended to stay.
We began to see thatched roof huts near the path. In about a mile we reached a small outdoor market and a water pump surrounded by thirty or so huts—the village center. Small wooden tables and brightly colored cloths draped on the ground were covered with fruits and vegetables—tomatoes, corn, potatoes, avocados, beans, bananas, fruit I didn’t recognize; and arts and crafts–paintings on animal skins of traditional dancers, animals, warriors; and wooden carvings of the wild animals of Africa–elephants, zebras, wildebeests, giraffes, monkeys, lions and leopards. There were handmade drums and local woodwind and string instruments of various shapes and sizes, and CD’s of African music. I doubt if anyone in the village had a CD player.
A line of women waited at the water pump chatting with each other and their children. As a child worked the pump handle, a woman filled a plastic tub. When it was full, she hoisted it up to her head, took the child’s hand and walked down a path with the heavy tub balanced on her head.
Kea asked us to gather around. The scene at the water pump continued. Kea said that most people in the village were subsistence farmers, growing cassava, tomatoes, beans, corn, rice, bananas and mangos. Some kept chickens. A few earned a living from tourism. There was no other work for the villagers. He told us that the well and pump had been provided by a charitable foundation, that it was the only source of potable water for the village. People who lived on the outskirts had to walk miles for water. He led us over to the outdoor market and said what we saw was the surplus produce that the villagers grew and arts and crafts the villagers made. He didn’t mention the CD’s. Nor did anyone try to sell us anything. He said there were no mangos or cassava flour at the market, because everyone grew cassava and mangos.
Kea said he would take us to visit the village school and the hospital, and then we would come back to the village center for lunch. He asked us if we would like to visit his home. We all said, “Yes.” Our individual guides left us. Cisco said they would rejoin us when we came back to the village.
We followed Kea for 50 yards or so. He gestured toward a hut made of mud bricks and a thatched roof. “That’s my home.” He said matter of factly that the thatched roof leaked. “I wake up with water dripping on me. Needs lots of maintenance.” He laughed.
The 13 of us couldn’t fit in the small home–a living room with a smoldering fire on the dirt floor, about eight feet square and two other tiny rooms with openings in the interior mud walls. We took turns, entering in two compact groups. He said they cooked over the fire. He pointed at a small table and two chairs. “This is where we eat,” he said, as he pushed them to the side to make more room. It was the only furniture; the house had no plumbing or appliances.
“Two bedrooms,” he said, pointing again, “mine and my grandmother’s.” The bedrooms were just large enough for a single bed sized pad on the dirt floor—nothing else.
He said one in five people in the village was infected with HIV, more women than men. He didn’t say, but it occurred to me that was why he and Cisco lived with their grandmothers. Probably, their mothers had died of AIDS. In answer to a question, he said that the average age for girls to marry was 15. Men, women and older children all worked on the farms.
As we left Kea’s home and headed up the dirt path for the school, 25 to 30 children appeared from somewhere. They looked as young as 3 or 4 and probably as old as 10. A boy on my left and a girl on my right grabbed my hands. They chattered away, always smiling. I couldn’t understand a lot of what they were saying, but they asked where I was from. They smiled broadly and shook their heads up and down when I said the United States. The girl, about 10, wore a dirty beige dress that was too big for her. The skirt almost touched the ground. The top was torn and top buttons were missing, exposing most of her chest. Many of the children were dressed in near rags, likely hand me downs from long ago. Only a few had newer, brightly colored clothes. Most of the girls wore dresses. The boy who held my hand, about 7 or 8, dressed in red shorts and an oversized yellow t-shirt, had a mango partly in his mouth, covering most of his lips. His hand was sticky. Several of the children picked up ripe mangos that had fallen from the trees, split them open with their hands and shoved them in their mouths.
As we walked, although it was just past 9:00, the humid heat closed in. Sweat covered foreheads and dripped from noses. We passed cassava fields and mango and banana groves. Each hut had crops growing behind or beside it. Those working on their small plots of ground were either cultivating with hoes or planting by hand. Kea said that they harvested by hand. We walked by dozens of people working, and many walking, usually carrying something on their heads—no vehicles or animals, except chickens. A girl, probably no more than 16, bathed a protesting baby in a plastic tub. I commented that babies the world over disliked baths. Cisco smiled and nodded.
In our travels in east Africa, except in the cities, we saw few vehicles or animals. Occasionally, people cultivated with a hand plough. Only once did I see an ox pulling a plough. There was no irrigation. Usually, there was enough rain, I assumed.
As we continued to walk behind Kea, I wondered how far the school was, but I didn’t ask. The children sang, first together, then by themselves. Sometimes they skipped in the sweltering heat. They were almost always smiling, chattering or laughing when they weren’t singing. The older children looked after the youngest. No adults came along, except Kea.
The two children holding my hands pulled me up to the front next to Kea. He smiled and asked me where I was from. “United States,” I said. He smiled broadly. “Obama,” he shouted, raising his hand in a fist. I smiled back, nodding.
“Yes,” I said. I voted for him. “Good. He’s a good man,” said Kea.
I asked if the people of the village had enough to eat. “Yes, usually,” he said. “We take care of each other. If a family is in need, we help out. We look after each other.” I asked about crime in the village. “Crime? No, none,” he said. We kept walking. Most adults and children near the path waived at us with big smiles as we passed. A man standing in front of a hut walked up, patted me on the shoulder and said “Welcome.”
After walking more than a mile from the village center, we finally arrived at the school. It was made of the same mud bricks as the houses, but with a sheet metal roof. I counted ten classrooms. It was a Sunday, so school was not in session. We followed Kea into a classroom. The children stayed outside, laughing, playing, shouting, much like a group of American kids would have done. The classroom floor was concrete.
One of the teachers started his presentation. Kea shushed the children outside without much effect. The teacher told us there were eight grades and ten teachers. They taught math, English, Swahili, art and music, he said. I thought of our schools in the United States that were eliminating art and music from the elementary school curriculum. Music and art flourished all over east Africa. Are art and music more important to the poor?
The teacher told us there were about 1,500 hundred students in the school. For most it was all the education they would get. Some went to secondary school in a larger village that required them to leave their parents. A few went to the university. He said that the school was built by charitable donations and it survived because of charity. He pointed to a plain wooden box with a slit in the top and asked us to donate. Most of us did.
After the teacher’s presentation, we looked around the classroom. The books on shelves in the back, except for math and English, seemed almost random, donations, I assumed, including many novels, some classic—Ivanhoe—some not so classic—Danielle Steele—for children? I saw no children’s books. The children’s art hung on the walls, much like an elementary school in the United States. They depicted mostly village and family scenes.
I asked the teacher if the school had a computer. He said they would like to have one, but they didn’t. After I got home, I read an article in the New York Times about an organization that was dedicated to providing computers for all African children by 2012.
When I trudged out the classroom door, sweating, I thought of the children that would be sitting in the sweltering classroom on Monday. Our child companions rejoined us, shouting, “Hi,” laughing and holding our hands again.
We walked about a half-mile down another path to the hospital, a brick building, smaller than the school. It had a main room with a concrete floor, where we congregated—again the children stayed outside—and two other rooms in the back that we didn’t enter. I didn’t see any x-ray machines or other medical equipment that you would expect in a hospital. Maybe equipment was in the back, but then where were the patient rooms?
The hospital administrator, a tall, thin, young man, who spoke excellent English, told us that care at the hospital was free. Like the school teacher, he asked us for donations. Nobody asked any specific questions about the care that was given. I can’t imagine that it was much beyond first aid, but I don’t know. Nevertheless, the man spoke to us with a sense of importance and an urgency and pride in what he was doing.
By the time we went outside to join the children, it was even hotter. They still laughed, skipped and chattered as we took the long walk back to the village center. Different children held my hands this time and asked me questions—where was I from, was it hot there, did I like living in Boston, how many people lived in Boston? Sometimes I couldn’t understand what they asked. Kea had told us that English is their second language. A couple of times they skipped off for a moment, and then came back and grabbed my hands.
When we got back to the village, our individual guides rejoined us. At the village center near the water pump, a large blanket was spread out on the dirt. About 20 yards back a fire under a grill flared and smoked. Kea asked us to sit. Men and women set down large bowls of food and brought plates, spoons and forks. Others handed us bowls of soup–sweet potato, Kea said. The women dished chicken, beans and rice from the steaming bowls onto our plates. The food was spicy, similar to the spices in Indian food. We were served bread made from cassava flour. It all tasted good. The portions were huge. I feared embarrassment from wasting food I couldn’t finish.
The children stood behind us talking and laughing. Someone asked why the children were not eating. Kea told us they would be given what we did not eat. They were excited, he said, because they didn’t get chicken very often. We all left a lot on our plates, especially chicken. When we finished eating, adults handed the children our plates. They gobbled the food quickly.
I gave a few children coins. They grabbed at them with gusto. Others gave them pens and paper. Children in towns and villages we had passed through begged for pens and paper when we stopped. That was usually their first request.
The children who had pens and paper sat down in the dirt and started drawing immediately, but Kea interrupted them, put away their pens and paper and organized them into a line. Drummers appeared and started playing. The children danced and sang and invited us to join them. They tried to teach several of our women how to do the traditional African dance. The village men laughed and beat their drums. Whether they were dancing, singing or just talking, they reverberated a vibrant energy. The joy was contagious. We danced with them.
It was easy to focus on what the people of Mbamba don’t have. They don’t have vehicles of any kind, either personal or for work; washing machines, dryers, refrigerators or any other appliance; electronic entertainment, such as radio, TV, Walkman, IPod or computers; showers, bath tubs or toilets; animals or machinery to help farm; diapers; modern toys; telephones; air conditioning or heating; make-up; deodorant; tissues; glasses; dental care; flooring; curtains; electric lights or any means of irrigating their crops. Instead of lawn mowers, they use machetes to “mow” during the wet season when the grass grows high. As best I could tell, they had no underwear. At least, the children didn’t. The list of what they did not have seems endless.
What they have is less obvious and concrete, but defines their lives: joy in their everyday lives; a sense of community; the pleasure of helping someone in need; the gaiety of lives filled with music and dance; the fulfillment of creating music and art; the satisfaction of eating what they planted, grew and nurtured with their own hands; the natural peace of connection with the land; living surrounded by the natural beauty of the landscape and wild creatures of Africa; the love of an extended family and clan; small, simple pleasures; the accomplishment of making with their hands things they need to live; the time to enjoy the company and comradery of each other and their children; real human communication with those they care for; respect for and from each other; the incomparable enjoyment of watching and nurturing children; knowledge of what is really necessary; I suspect, the joyfulness of sex without it being promoted endlessly by media; the ability to distinguish the important from the unimportant; acceptance of life; acceptance of death; thankfulness for what they have. These people, desperately poor by our standards, lacking every comfort, convenience and entertainment that we deem necessary, are alive in the most human sense of the word.
In every village, town and city we visited or passed through in east Africa, most people we came within hearing distance of waived, smiled and said hello. Many said, “Welcome,” asked where we were from. Some tried to sell us something, and some did not. Everyone, selling or not, was unabashedly friendly. Never before in any other place have I had so many conversations with strangers. They were curious, as well as extroverted. They asked questions. They wanted to know about us. They were interested in other human beings, and they took the time to show that interest, and to try to relate to all of us.
When they found out I was from the United States, they often invoked the name, “Obama.” Many asked if I had voted for him. A few asked if I knew him. Most said something positive about him. Pride showed on their faces, not just in Kenya, but in Mbamba and everywhere between.
I remember a similar openness, friendliness and zest for life when I was growing up in a small town in California in the 1940’s and 50’s. It no longer exists in the America I know today.
It has been said that all other things being the same, it is better to be rich than to be poor. I suppose that if you isolate those two conditions, that is true. But life is more complex than that. It cannot be isolated into rich or poor. Life involves a complex set of conditions, relative wealth being only one. The villagers of Mbamba taught me that wealth is not the most meaningful condition and may even distract one from real human fulfillment, as it has many Americans. Of course, if you do not have enough to eat to quell hunger or to maintain health, or are sick with no means to obtain medical care, or have no shelter, life cannot be fulfilling.
I don’t mean to imply that the people of Mbamba do not suffer or to minimize the hardships they endure. If I thought their lives were nirvana, I would give away all my assets and move to Mbamba to be a farmer. But many Americans could learn something valuable from the way they live with what they have.
The people of Mbamba taught me that if you have those necessities, you don’t need anything else. You don’t need what Americans strive for, so desperately that if we don’t have enough of what we seek—and we never seem to have enough—we numb the effects of our perceived failure with pills and alcohol; we don’t experience either the pain or the joy that life brings. Many of us never realize what we have done to ourselves.
When the singing and dancing in Mbamba concluded, the children who had accompanied me on our tour ran over, said good-bye and hugged me. I hugged them and turned my head away so they couldn’t see my tears. My tears were not for them.
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