From Peaks to Valleys and Places In Between

It was Friday night and Florian had come to bid us kwaheri, goodbye.  He was leaving the village to begin his second year of university.  Five years ago we had been invited to Florian’s home to meet his mother and three younger siblings.  His family comes from Ikaning’ombe, a remote Mufindi village.  We were welcomed into his spotless two -room mud hut and served a delicious meal of pumpkin leaves, ugali (a thick maize meal porridge) stewed tomatoes and beans and home grown bananas.  Mama Florian has always worked tirelessly, encouraging her children to share the workload in a loving environment.  Scraping together funds for school fees, books, transportation and uniforms has always been a challenge.  Forian had graduated with distinction in high school. And now standing in front of us was a confident young man discussing his future plans.  Like most university students everywhere, fees and living expenses are a burden and particularly in Tanzania.  Hopefully a student sponsorship can be arranged for this promising young man. 

My phone rang early next morning with sad news and a request to attend a funeral. Mama Allan would not greet a new day as the sun scattered light over her mourning village.  She is the mother of baby Allan who lives at the Children’s Village (orphanage) along with his 3 out of 8 older siblings.   The father died two years ago and the mother who was also HIV+ had stopped taking her anti retroviral (ARVS) medication consistently and was often consuming pombe, local brew.  I think her daunting problems had become too overwhelming.  The NGO has provided support for this struggling family and will continue to be a resource and refuge for them.               

Besides Ruth and I, there were two other Canadians attending this funeral.  Allan and Birgit Castledine have a long and precious history with Mufindi.  Many years ago they were CUSO volunteers teaching in a secondary school here.   Birgit, an African Book Box director, has applied her wealth of administrative experience to develop organizational and reporting procedures related to ABB projects.   Allan has a PhD in biochemistry from UVic and like his wife is passionate about this corner of the world.  His brilliant problem solving skills means he can do anything with his hands and has been called upon daily to rebuild or fix things needing repair. Allan is a fundi (craftsman) extraordinaire!  They are a dynamic couple making a difference.

A line of four slow moving vehicles made their way through several villages finally arriving at Mwefu where HIV afflicts almost every household.   Allan was driving a donated 1976 British ambulance packed with NGO staff.  This vintage vehicle with a prominent red cross painted on the side looks as though it belongs in a period piece.  As we approached the village the usual groups of bare footed watoto, children, running out onto the narrow dirt road were absent.  Steady streams of people climbed the hill, the pale red soil cluttered with footprints. Directions were not needed to find Mama Allan’s modest mud home.  The haunting wailing from within the four mud walls pierced the morning air and drew crowds of people inside to say their last goodbyes.   

More and more people gathered and waited and waited beneath the mid day sun. The local fundi was making a simple pine coffin.  When it was finally completed Allan collected the coffin in the ambulance.  Everyone present donated to the cost of the coffin and food to be served after the funeral.

A funeral procession of almost 200 walked along narrow pathways, eventually leading to an enclosure lined with clusters of bamboo.   Mounded red earth of various sizes was scattered on the periphery – the unmarked graves of several villagers.   Women congregated on one side of the freshly dug open grave, men on the other.  With jembes, hoes, and shovels young men adjusted the size of the grave so the coffin would fit perfectly.  The coffin was lowered and on top of it was placed Mama Allan’s folded rush mat.  This mat had been her bed and where she had taken her last breath.  Family and friends picked up handfuls of dirt to scatter on the coffin.  The men shoveled dirt over the coffin, adding a fresh mound to mark yet another death in this village.   The village leader stood on top of a mounded grave and gave a speech, including the names of people and the amount of their contributions.  His pronunciation of the wazungu, foreign, names drew laughter

Almost every young woman in attendance had a baby, wrapped in a brightly patterned kanga (Tanzanian cloth) snuggled against her back, close enough for each mother to feel the beating of her baby’s heart.  Most of the women were without shoes, their calloused feet floured with red dust.   Most of the men had shoes.  The women from the NGO, Ruth and I included, were invited inside a house for a simple meal of ugali (a thick sticky porridge) and beans.  We sat around the perimeter of this small room on low benches placed on the dirt floor.   A basin with a jug of water was offered as we each washed our hands before scooping up the food..   Within the dark interior women were softly talking, a blend of Swahili and English.  Quiet conversation, gentle laughter, a natural companionship.  A collection of women concerned about the welfare of children, looking to the future for Mama Allan’s orphans, to search for the best possible solutions to provide comfort, love and care.  The youngest four orphans will remain at the NGO’s Children’s Village where medical care, education and a safe, secure and loving environment are provided.  The older children in their mid to late teens and older will receive guidance and support from the NGO to continue their education. 

Kidogo kidogo, little by little many people’s lives are improving.  More people are on life saving drugs (ARVs) to combat HIV.  They have renewed strength to work, to improve their living conditions, to be with their families.  Real change is occurring. For some, though, life’s daily challenges in Mufindi combined with the obstacles on the road to recovery are too much to endure.    

With love,