Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Kitabu and Shirati

Kitabu and Shirati
(Written Sunday, July 27, 2008)

A little late, I should describe the town, although pictures should do more justice.

On the left of the main dirt road through town, there is the hospital. Surrounded by white painted cinderblocks topped with barbwire, and a guarded gate—it looks frighteningly military at first glance. Access was restricted for most. White skin, white coat and stethoscope gained me daily passage with ease.

On the right side of the road across the street from Shirati hospital are lined a dozen places of business—mostly little corner stores or places to eat. A Tanzanian strip mall. Kinda. Not really. Made of wood or again cinder block, with tin roofs they would best be called shacks. Not very impressive, but I loved the feel. Although they stared at me everyday, the people were quite friendly—always saying hi with a smile, willing to teach Swahili. The third world pattern of having several stores that sell the exact same thing was in effect as well. A little diversity, and you guys could dominate the local market, but whatever. Don’t fix it.

Past the hospital, to the left off the main road, was the house I stayed in. About a 5 minute walk on dirt pathways, the house was in a residential area. Farmland, baby—the Tanzanian countryside. Each plot is only a fraction of a football field, with decent sized yards that often had crops—corn, tomatoes, whatever. Add your wandering chickens, goats, sheep, cows, cats, dogs—and the lake in the distant horizon. Spotted with trees, covered with yellow grass in between, the setting is a fresh contrast from polluted city life (the environment tends to be lowest priority in the developing world. Although they don’t have trash—because they burn all of it!)

A word about chickens and goats. These creatures are ridiculous. Let’s begin with the chicken. When I look at chickens, I laugh. I’m not sure why. I’ve thought about it for 2 weeks, and it’s still funny to me. “You…are a chicken.” They seem so serious all the time. Constantly pecking for food, defending their territory. And then when they run—a guaranteed good time. Something about little armless creatures in fast-waddling movement just cracks me up. I had the opportunity to see the rear view of a rooster sprinting to defend his territory—double hilarious.

Goats are equally stupid things. When we visited the neighboring city, Tarime, there was a goat continuously bleating, for no reason. “Blaaaa. Blaaahh.” I couldn’t stop laughing, he was a spaz. And he was looking at me laugh at him. Trying to make 2 eye contact, which he couldn’t quite do because as an animal of prey, his eyes are on the side of his head. Bozo. So he’d have to turn his head just a hair to the side to get one good eye on me. The locals were laughing at me I was laughing so hard. “Blaaah.” Plain goofy animals, man.

I enjoyed my walks to and from the hospital, definitely part of the “get away” from our car-based lives in the states. Joining the livestock lining the paths were various people doing I still do not know what. Hanging out, I guess. Many children, too, and one in particular stands out.

The first time we met, I saw this stubby little munchkin churning his legs a million miles an hour as he motored 100 feet from his house to meet me in the road. Standing in at all of 2 feet, 6 inches, he looked straight up at me, held out his hand and said,


“Kitabu? What’s that mean, little buddy? Cash, do you want cash? Afraid I’m out.”


“Hmmm. Maybe this is that derogatory white man term jack told me about. No. Maybe it means—sweet ass doctor. Or Tom Cruise stunt double. Probably not that either.”

“Kitabu,” he persisted. He was a dangerous little one. Put his face on TV and you’d fill your foundation’s endowment fast, he was very cute. Dimples, continuous smile, but enough mischief behind those eyes that he deserved due process.

“Kitabu? Allright, lemme check this dictionary here…kitabu. Ah, here we go. ‘Book.’ You want my book?” Practically a mobile library, I had books stuffed in every pocket of my coat, pants and shirt. “Ok, here you are.”

He bolted. Took off running back to his house, the little squirt vanished within seconds, and my book with him. It was gametime—cat and mouse, the chase, and I was in. “I’ll get you, my turkey, and your little book, too.”

I didn’t think it appropriate to enter the home, and he had disappeared somewhere inside. So I called from the front door. A woman (his mother perhaps?) saw that he’d swiped my book—she walloped him on the buns and secured the Swahili-English dictionary of mine, which would prove a crucial piece of literature during my stay. I felt bad that he got busted, gave him a hi-five and a pat on the head, and waved goodbye.

Everyday, he would greet me the same way—jump up once he saw me from his house, and come flying around the bend between his home and the pathway. I’d give him hi-fives, pick him up, throw him in the air, turn him upside down. He loved it. His favorite was to put his hands together above his head, and then with one arm, I would curl him up and down. Good exercise for my shrinking muscles, a fun ride for him. This little nugget, I would definitely take home with me, smuggle him back into the states. I got some great pics of him, including a video of his daily approach. Good memories.

Other natives of Shirati. Mem, a 20 something girl who tended her dad’s little corner store. Very nice, she taught me numbers 1-10, which I promptly forgot. I later found out she was flirting with me with she asked me to “sit on the bench” with her. Glad that one flew below my radar. Famous last words—“But I thought it was just a bench.”

A 30 something man, Edward, a high school teacher from distant town. Here because his sister had died in a kerosene explosion. Horrible. He kindly helped me find a place to lunch, and then asked me to send him a copy of the Oxford English Grammar rules. What? I figured what the hell, people haven’t asked much of me yet. More beggars in Berkeley than I’d found in this country so far. We’ll see how what the UPS rate on that one comes to.

Located about 2 hours from the Kenyan border in northwest Tanzania, Shirati is nestled within several mountains. A half hour hike west from town lands you at Lake Victoria, the second largest lake in the world, behind Lake Superior in the US/Canada. It’s quite impressive. Approaching from the east bank gives an amazing sunset view. Quite nice. My first visit was when I was feeling a little down. The bank is coated with shells. Charming, they harbored the snails that carry the parasite Shistosoma hematobium. The little buggers penetrate the skin within a second, storming the bloodstream in less than a minute. I was petrified of touching the water, let alone getting in. Judy Bliss got in when she came—she got shistosomiasis. Of course, this is the same water that I shower and brush my teeth with daily, but nevermind that.

Existence in Shirati is quaint, chill, quiet. It’s easy to feel a little trapped without transportation. But it’s not like there’s anywhere to go if you had one—back to simple, rural life. Makes me wish I had a guitar or piano. Not that I really play both, but one of my little escape dreams is to set up camp at a place like this, work during the day, then just retire for the evening learning guitar on the porch, sipping a beer. There are a few bars in town. I found the beer tasty, but often warm.

To find a Tanzanian hut, made of straw and mud, you just have to go a little outside of town. Once beyond the perimeter of the town, they are plentiful. These folks often speak local tribal languages, not Swahili. Loa is one, for example. And these languages vary depending on the part of the country you're in.

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