— by Edwina Sutherland
Thinking back on my trip with ABCD this February, I wondered if I might sum it up, using a few well chosen words. But that’s impossible. There are so many impressions that filter through the senses while you are there. Yet one thing stands out larger than any other, and that is the people.
Marangu West sits in the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro. We could see the mountain from the roof of our hotel. It seems they only pave the main roads, so a red-dirt, rough road winds its way up the mountain, passing the many small farms and a forest of banana plants. We walked up this road many times, to get to the school where we worked as volunteers. Each small holding is run by a family, who may or may not be closely related. It was hard to tell, until we had it explained to us. Male relatives are referred to as “brother,” although they may actually be a cousin. This tells you so much about the people of Tanzania. AIDS has devastated many families, so they come together to live as a new family, with cousins, aunties, parents grandparents and children. There is no social safety net, such as we have, so they form new families to help each other. We heard a story of a ten year old boy, who walked 1000 km after his parents died, to live with his grandfather. Incredible!
The people are warm and friendly. Everyone says jambo (hello) and shakes your hand. They love to laugh and are happy. They have so little, yet they are happy. They appreciated everything we did for them, from the gifts and school supplies we brought, to the maintenance we did at the primary school. They are so grateful. They were delighted to hear our rudimentary Swahili. The language was fun to learn and rewarding when you saw how receptive they were to our efforts, gently correcting us if we got it wrong.
As wazungus, (white folks) we stood out like a sore thumb, but we received only welcomes everywhere we went. The families that ABCD sponsor wanted to thank us and did so by inviting us to eat with them. They shared the food they had gladly and welcomed us to their homes. Frank entertained the children with some songs and a game of “Simon says,” which was a big hit! Yet I felt uncomfortable eating their food, when they have so little. They don’t eat meat every day and yet a chicken was killed in our honour. I tried to overcome that feeling, realizing this was what they wanted. Rice and beans are a staple in the diet, along with bananas. One fellow told us rice and beans was his favourite thing to eat!
One of the more prosperous farmers invited us into his home and shared his views with us. They are deeply religious people and he said simply, “we are all here to love one another.” We would all do well to remember that. He also proudly supported the opposition party of the government. For without opposition, he said, there would be no democracy! He showed tremendous pride in his country, his family and his home. It’s humbling, especially when one considers how disaffected our youth are in the political process and how apathetic we are at times, regarding politics. These people know they must work hard to bring progress and change to Tanzania.
The children were wonderful. We came across two girls, about 7 or 8 years old, sitting in the grass, threading long strands of grass through their hair, as a decoration. Their smiles told us how much fun they were having. The boys run around with an old leather soccer ball, enjoying the most raucous game. The ball had barely any skin left, but still was a valuable piece of equipment. Their uniforms are often hand-me-downs, the collars of the shirts too large and often fraying, some sweaters in tatters. Yet for church on Sunday, they wear their Sunday best clothes, proudly.
Women and girls do not rank very high in Africa. The ABCD girls’ leadership conference aimed to encourage them to find their voice and walk their own path. I could see how conditioned they are not to ask questions or put their own thoughts forward. Two girls told us they wanted to start a hair salon. One had a spectacular braided style!
During the conference break time, we went outside and played some games. The skipping rope came out and they all took such joy in the game, even the secondary school girls. No one was “too cool” for a bit of skipping fun. I led them through a yoga session. I could see that they thought this was the strangest thing ever, yet they joined in, gave it their best effort and giggled quite a lot! Perhaps it was because Mr Kaniki, the headmaster was also joining in! It brought me a lot of joy to share yoga with them. Phys Ed in school consists only of netball. They walk everywhere, some walk for miles to school and all of them work on the farms.
The children begin learning English in primary school and are keen to say “Good morning, how are you?” By secondary school, their English is a bit better. There are not enough teachers in this district and high class numbers are common with students crammed onto wooden bench-desks. They learn by rote and repetition as there are not enough books, if they have any at all. How fortunate are Canadian students, who have tablets and computers at their disposal and take this for granted?
So it’s the people I think of when I look back at my trip: Sebastian and Emanuel, little David, Rose and so many more that we met. Their warm smiles and welcome, their laughter and curiosity about snow and Canada. Kilimanjaro is topped with snow, but most of them will never climb the mountain, or go on safari, as so many tourists come to do. How lucky am I, that I saw for myself this amazing country and met so many wonderful people?