Jennifer Ferris: A monkey up a gum tree

Can you believe it? I just saw a monkey up a gum tree.  This has prompted me to write another update on life in Arusha, Tanzania.  It has been almost four months since I arrived at the foodwatershelter project in Sinoni, an outlying area of Arusha.  One thing I have come to realise is that life here is “dirty feet”.  As I have an aversion to wearing covered shoes, that means that almost every day I have been here, I have walked along the local dirt roads, or even just in our own compound with my sandals or thongs, resulting in dirty feet.  I think that this is the biggest complaint that I can make here, so I consider myself truly blessed.

Most days I am the first person up in our compound, called the “vollage” (volunteer village), and I feed the cat, turn off the electric fence, greet the Askari, our security guards, then have breakfast.  After breakfast I walk to Kesho Leo, our project, where the Mamas and their families live, next to the school.  The 2 buildings, one where the Mamas live and the other one the school, were built very close to each other and are offset, sharing one joint entry area and a common roof.   I guess it is hard to imagine.  One of the reasons for the design was to maximise the rainwater catchment as there is no running water in their area.  When I arrive, I open the school rooms and get the washing bowls and cups for the Mama on roster to give porridge to the children when they arrive for school.  It is a great initiative, ensuring that all children are fed and able to concentrate.  This has been my routine for the beginning of the year, but it is changing as I shift my focus to other areas of my job.

Walking to school each morning is quite a social event.  I pass many children heading the other way, going to the local primary school.  Some of the children know me, and others just like to talk to a “mzungu” white person.  Many of the children like to practice the English greeting they have learned, “Good morning” and when I ask them how they are, “I am fine” so if you come to Tanzania, you will meet many people who are “fine” as this is the school response that all children learn.    It is the custom to greet people as you pass, and it has taken me a while to become familiar with the greetings.  Sometimes they are a simple exchange of “habari” then “nzuri”, just a simple “how are you?” and “I’m well” type response, but here the greeting can also continue for several rounds.  I feel reasonably confident that I can reply appropriately, but sometimes the greeting continues past four responses, and by then I am confused and have run out of responses.  Lots more to learn, and that is ONLY the greetings.  I had hoped to have learned more Kiswahili by now, but I have been so busy and learning so many other new things, that my language acquisition has mostly just been absorption of language from daily experiences, especially in the classroom.

I pass many other people too, on my way to and from Kesho Leo.  There are the local “dukas” which are the local shops and I know the owners for most of them.  These can be a front room built on to the house or just a stall out the front.  The houses are a mixture of mud houses or locally made bricks.  I am very impressed with the care that is taken of these homes.  Even though they don’t have grass lawns and it is just dirt, their owners keep them looking clean and tidy, sweeping the dirt and removing leaves and other rubbish.  Some families not only sweep their yards (they often have shrubs as fencing) but also sweep the dirt road outside their property.  It is a strange experience to walk along a very rough dirt road (in parts) then to walk over a section that has been obviously carefully swept and is spotlessly clean.  It demonstrates the pride that people have in their homes.

Now that brings me to the monkey up the gum tree.  I have only walked one route to school since I arrived, however the other day one of the vols mentioned she walked through “Death Valley” – so called because the soil here is very slippery to drive on when it has rained and this road goes down and up very steeply to connect two parallel roads.  I decided to see if it was a shadier way to go to school, so tried it.  She had also mentioned that she had seen monkeys on that route.  So when I was about half way down this steep section of road, there it was right in front of me, a small group of monkeys, and one of them ran straight up a gum tree.  It seemed so bizarre, to see a monkey, up a gum tree, in Arusha, but in reality, many of our trees grow very well here in Africa and it is common to see them.  Much of the housing and furniture here in Arusha is made out of Grevillia robusta – Queensland Silky Oak.  They are very common here.

Another local event is the transport.  Daladalas are minibuses that squeeze as many people on as they can.  A few of them come past the local “town” to pick up people from the secondary school which is closer to me, but if not, I walk further to the pick-up spot.  This means of transport is very cheap, only costing 300TZS (Tanzanian Shillings) or about 20 cents.  It is always an adventure, and you get very close and personal with the people next to you.  One day it was as full as usual and I was the last person to get on, so it was my backside that was sticking out of the side door that we use to get on and off the bus.  People are usually very considerate, and on this occasion, a lady seated near me took my bags and held them for me.  It is not unusual for strangers to help each other in this way.

Before I finish, I must mention the school choir that I hear at mass every Sunday.  I go to the local secondary school, Edmund Rice, where they have mass on Sundays for most of the year.  The organist plays very up-beat music, and the choir is well balanced with male and female voices.  Added to their amazing sound, is the actions that go with the singing.  I find myself wanting to join them as they move in time to the music, doing simple movements like stepping and turning, or clapping up high or down low.  The beautiful singing and synchronized movements of the whole choir are truly inspiring.

I hope you have enjoyed a snapshot of life here in Tanzania, so until next time…

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Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it is the only one you have. - Emile Chartier