“…poverty denotes a lack of necessities and simplicity a lack of needs.” -Dervla Murphy
I figure it’s more complicated, that there is a blurry line between need and ease.
I’ve been welcomed into a home off the grid, about a two-hour walk up a dusty red rutted road. Two hours up and two back is about the time it takes for Isack John to walk each working day. He invited me to accompany him and picked me up after his shift at the office where he works as a guard six days a week. It’s a long day, twelve hours opening and closing the gate. We walked together through the centre of town with Isack carrying my small blue rucksack which turns out to have held more than Isack owns in the way of personal possessions. [Murphy is right; when she travels on her bicycle she carries as little as possible in her panniers and even much of this she could jettison for lack of real need.] As I’m Babu, Grandfather, 62 to his 35, he carried my bag. Besides, he’s been on Kilimanjaro some 40 grueling times as a porter carrying heavy packs in thin, cold air. He did this for 4,000 /= per day or about $2.50; you can bump this up for the tips if equally distributed, but not by enough. The porter’s life is severe and he needs more money and he still needs more than the present $3.00/day. He’s looking, but everybody is. He might live simply but most certainly not easily. He is closer to home though.
We proudly passed his small church, Lutheran, the loveliest of red brick Oil-can churches. He counts his minister as one of his best friends. As we got closer to home Isack greeted more and more people because a lot of people live along this road and every other one that curls into the Afrikan distance. His road climbs toward the slope of Mt. Meru. He was born here. Greetings are important and begin before and continue after passing, dissolving into soft mutterings with meaning. Isack is proudly Masai and walks tall with generous stride. He is clad in street shoes and dress jacket. It is dusty.
He built his own house. It has two rooms. The walls are smoothed with soil and water and hardened and give the feeling of warmth. There is no electricity and no running water. He said it was small but we worked the language together to agree that a home is a home; no apologies where none are due. I was treated with generosity and kindness and I returned this honour.
His wife Rahabu was as gracious as the Queen and I, king for the day. Their three children, Godwin, Beatrice and the wee Dorcas and all his beloved nieces and nephews greeted me by presenting their bowed heads and, honestly, to have children present the tops of their heads to you has got to be the sweetest experience. You respond by placing your hand on each head.
Isack would not have me sleep on the chesterfield in the front room. It is black away from the city lights and quiet away from the Arusha traffic and I could see the stars when, before bed, Isack guided me to the outhouse and discreetly shone a little flashlight while I fished around. When he shut off the tiny battery operated overhead light (son Godwin went to the little duka or store down the lane for batteries and told me he’d wired the led lights himself. He is 11.) I went immediately to sleep in the double bed under Isack’s Masai shuka plus the one Isack had carried home with us from my bed. The two oldest slept at their Grandparent’s, one compound removed and Isack and Rahabu and baby Dorcas must have quietly curled up in the chairs and couch. They wouldn’t have it any other way, and I went to sleep secure.
Life stirs before dawn when Isack, so softly spoken, invited me to a Masai circumcision ceremony. Rahabu I’d guess was long in the kitchen heating water for tea and coffee and corn gruel over a small fire. Their kitchen is the cow’s pen for now as their cow died. Having wrapped me in my shuka and himself in his, Isack took me by the hand, a tender custom, down the dark road and eased me into a singing and dancing group of men and matching group of ululating women. I did not understand and Isack did not explain; to be present was enough. Though there in the pitch black I could see that two goats were being gently readied for a feast.
Life is tough as Isack points out. This is not just camping out for a couple of sunny summer days.
He loves children and takes pleasure in their whereabouts and in his faith and in being Masai. We walked his shamba or land. It makes sense because it feeds his family and those of the two other men he shares the land with. It makes sense precisely because it is not manicured. Here and there are beans planted amongst the corn and the bananas and tomatoes and potatoes and squash.. the rows aren’t always straight but, like Sylvia, they know where everything is and when to harvest. What they don’t use goes to market. Like Sue, the spent corn gets macheted and fed to a bossy and her calf or a goat. They asked if I’d like chicken which meant, if I’d insisted, Godwin catching one of the ones I was enjoying watching peck about the yard.
[I’ve picked twice out of the mouth of the Country director that large farms are in the pipeline, be it years in the distance, but small family farms feed families.]
The children help with dish washing in a plastic basin. Beatrice fetches water in a pail she carries on her head from the communal tap and, for a little girl, delicately and skillfully takes it off her head, steadies it with her chin while she relocates her arms and places it in the corner of the living room with not a drop spilled. She concentrates and she does this over and over the day. The dishes go back in the bedroom till next meal. The children some how amuse themselves without barbie and ken. One little cousin has the stick and spent bicycle tire he chases after to keep upright and rolling. Godwin took me for a walk by the creek where the water was warm and locals were out washing, clothes mostly which are then laid on the ground in the sun.
Some kids were splashing and we went exploring. Sharp eyes located one tadpole and one chura or frog. A few dipper birds. Flowers. You want animals? The land is pretty heavily used for crops and homes and people. (Let’s not forget the elephants raiding the corn fields elsewhere but I’ve not seen them to date.)
Isack took me on walk to visit two sisters and in passing, introduced me to several brothers. His father John came for coffee twice. He is 70 and has asthma and working-man’s hands. We went up and down and across the creek a couple of times and I was treated to pastoral scenes as laid out on the lower slopes of Meru. We passed a man dressing out a goat laid on a table; grinning, he offered me a handful of innards. We bought some sweet bananas for the kids. There was a man sewing outside his shop and little fruit tables or kiosks if you exaggerate and hairdressing cubbyholes.
Isack walked me back; he insisted. I picked up two beer from just around my home corner before he set off once again.
* Dervla Murphy, “Full Tilt” Dunkirk to Delhi by Bicycle. /74