Updated: Aug 7, 2020
As I’m about to fall asleep a donkey will sometimes bray crazily just outside my window; at first alarming, now it’s somehow comforting. The landscape surrounding my new home in the Iringa region of Tanzania is speckled with donkeys, or punda, and primitive-looking bovines with humps at the back of their necks. (This hump is an evolutionary feature that stores water, supporting cattle living in arid climates.) To the east is Uhambingeto Mountain, which looks stony and grand in the illuminating afternoon sun. Now, the nights are mild and the days are roasting, with winds throughout. Fields and fields are scattered with the brown spent stalks of sunflowers, and I imagine they’ll be spectacular when the rains begin. From where I live there are numerous dirt paths that meander towards the main road, just about a kilometer away. A few days a week I make my way there to greet the shopkeepers and mamas, and buy eggs and produce. I enjoy the ritual of walking to reach my destination, but sometimes I make the jouncy trip on my bicycle, to the amusement of the watching children.
I’m here to teach biology to Form One students, the equivalent of high school freshmen. I’ve been welcomed with warmth and curiosity, greetings and cheering—and the occasional stroke of my hair, ventured only when I'm in a cluster of girls, and followed by much giggling.
Prior to swearing in as a volunteer and moving to the Southern Highlands to teach, I spent my days training in the coastal Tanga region. I was learning Kiswahili and teaching as an intern at a local school. During that time I lived with the Kitururus—my generous and loving host family. I became close quickly with my two dadas (sisters) Salome and Agnes, both in their early twenties. Agnes’s sweet one-year-old Mercy and I became inseparable.
My favorite time was spent cooking with my mama and dadas, talking and preparing vegetables while sitting on a mat in the courtyard. They used no cutting boards or potholders and had admirably resilient hands. I’d help by picking stones from rice in wide woven baskets, and shaving the meat from coconuts. To prepare pilau, my favorite spiced rice dish, we’d make a paste of garlic cloves, fresh ginger, and salt with a wooden mortar and pestle. Then we’d add the seasonings to onions browning over a wood fire. I was taught that the browner your onions, the darker your pilau will be; I loved watching the onion slices sizzle and shrivel in hot sunflower oil.
On my birthday, I was told to take down my hair and was given a pink party hat and a bouquet. I was led into the kitchen where my usual chair was draped with a white cloth. My family must’ve sung happy birthday seventeen times and my face was sore from smiling. Agnes strolled in wearing a gold sequined gown, bearing a loaf cake with a chocolate stripe. Everyone danced as Salome played an upbeat song (something about “the life God has given me…”) on repeat. I cut a portion of the cake into bite-sized pieces and took turns feeding my family toothpick-pierced bites. After everyone had received a piece, it was my turn to be fed by each of them. Only after cake did we sit down to enjoy a grand meal, which, of course, included pilau.
One evening I accompanied Salome and Agnes to the "machine" with three heavy bags of dried corn to be ground. (In the days previous we had removed the kernels from their papery cobs, making good use of our thumbs.) Aggie bore her load on her head in traditional fashion and the three of us made our way to the main road. I’d never been out past dusk and I was seeing my surroundings in a whole new light, or lack thereof. People gathered in the yellow glow of shops and the roar of the grinding machine was the backdrop to lively chatter. We dropped off our bags behind other waiting bags of grain and corn, soon to be flour, and strolled. My dadas joked and laughed uncontrollably and it was entirely infectious, reminding me of being with my own sister. I tried kashata that night, a treat made of ground peanuts, coconut, and ginger. Wrapped in a snippet of newspaper and munched on under the stars, it struck me as food of the gods. We picked up our goods, turned to dust by the mighty machine, and set off for home with no flashlight—only a sliver of moon.
With one week left before leaving my host family, I met my kaka (brother) Bright. He came home from boarding school for break and was wearing a terrific otter sweatshirt when I met him. He’s fifteen, with incredible dance moves and excellent English. In the short time we had together I became very fond of him and we talked about everything from LeBron James and the U.S. economy to the best place in town to get chips.
I've been in Tanzania now for a little over three months, and already I feel at home with my school and village community in Iringa. It's comforting to know, too, that I will always have a place with my Tanzanian family in Tanga.