October Inch, Tingatina and Puff Adders

Habari za nyumbani?  How’s everyone at home?

A week ago today we flew low over the southern highlands of Tanzania landing on Ngwazi’s grassy airstrip carved between emerald expanses of tea.  It’s a long safari from home but we were finally back in the District of Mufindi, an area close to my heart.  Waving at us from the edge of the airstrip was my daughter, Lauren who now calls Nairobi home, and Geoff Fox the founder of the organization the African Book Box collaborates with.

The enticing scent of freshly drenched fields, the result of a fleeting rainfall or locally referred to as the “October inch”, accompanied us on our bumpy hour-long drive to Protea Point, the volunteer house.  Heartwarming greetings from Tanzanian friends embraced us.

To Mufindi Lauren brought two friends, Jay and Mick who presently live in Nairobi.  They are computer experts extraordinaire and had volunteered to set up two computer labs, train two teachers who will become mentors to others and supply excellent downloaded instruction for elementary and secondary curriculums.  Their nonprofit organization called Tunapanda, Swahili for “We plant”, sows the seeds for improved education for thousands of students struggling with no materials and abysmal instruction from inadequately trained teachers.  All that’s needed is a few computers (old but functioning, sometimes a challenge) and Jay and Mick’s discs.  No internet is required.  Recently only 6% of Form 4 (Grade 11) students passed the national exams.  No one passed at Luhunga Secondary, the local school we have supported by building a library and teaching there ourselves.  Heartbreaking for these hard working students.  These dismal results are the fault of a broken education system.

For years Ruth and I have been filling our suitcases with “Tingatinga” paintings for family, friends and fundraisers.  These vibrant culturally distinctive images sparked an idea.  Why not hire “an artist in residence” to introduce students, teachers and parents to the art of the late Eduward Saidi Tingatinga, a talented Tanzanian artist who started this genre of painting and inspired others to paint stylized images of African wild animals and village life. 

Enter Chasaki from Njombe, an educated softly spoken gifted artist. From an envelope Chasaki carefully extracted ten original small paintings on cards exquisitely depicting scenes of daily life for Tanzanian women and children.  From a plastic bag he took out two oil paintings called “Crossing Borders” representing the country’s past and the influences changing Tanzanian’s  present and future.  His work demonstrates how Chasaki’s art has evolved into his own captivating style.  We are trying to find a way to have his cards reproduced in Dar for the tourist market.

With our car loaded with paintbrushes, water colours, paper, plastic sheets, large pails of oil based bicycle paint, examples of Tingatinga art and a “big book” about Eduward Tingatinga’s life and legacy we set off for Mwefu Primary.  This is where I worked for 5 weeks last year with a group of students on a play about a devastating storm collapsing their school and the inspiring response from Mwefu’s villagers to begin rebuilding.  Multitudes of little waving waifs ran out from their mud huts onto the narrow dirt tract leading to the school.  When the students saw us arrive they all ran outside and enthusiastically greeted us with a karibu or welcome song from the play.  Most of the new classrooms continue to be floorless, doorless and windowless BUT piles of sand and bricks signal a serious attempt at completion. It may be pole, pole (pole-aye, slowly, slowly) but on Tanzanian time it will happen.

A whole new world opened up for children and teachers when they first heard the strange word “Tingatinga” (with teachers trying to find it in the dictionary) and then saw examples of Tingatinga art and Chasaki’s stunning work.  After initial experiences with water colours, two teachers and six rows of children dressed in shamba (farm) clothes kneeled on the plastic covered floor, heads bent, brushes in hands hesitantly dipping into palettes of primary coloured oil paint.  It was pure magic to watch as their brush strokes took form using dots, stripes, bright colours and animals with big eyes in the style of Tingatinga.  The students gathered around us and said, “The minutes go so quickly when we are doing this!” 

After four days at Mwefu and as a parting gift, Chasaki painted a large Tingatinga painting on the freshly painted white wall of a new classroom.  It was as if the children were watching an engrossing television program (presently an unattainable experience) as they saw Chasaki’s elegant image of a giraffe and zebra take shape.  We all burst into applause!

Does it feel good to be in Mufindi again?  Definitely!  Even with no water, no electricity, no solar and rumours of no petrol.  Hamna shida (no problem)!  With Abdullah’s amazing fix- it skills all of these issues have been solved.   We discovered we have resident metre long puff adders close to Protea.  Geoff emphatically informed us that healthy people easily survive attacks from these deadly snakes.  Just wondering - does this apply to healthy seniors too?

It’s been a FULL week in this month of “October inch”.  Some believe that the late Eduward Tingatinga, wherever he is now, “has been put in charge of painting a new sky every day over Tanzania.”

Lala salama (Sleep well),