Warning: this post contains punch lines.
Every year the East Africa trip ends with a conference. We bring all five coordinators to a different one of our regions and meet to discuss the changes of the past year, the things that are still working, and strategies for improving what does not work as well. This year, the American team cleared out for the day before the conference in order to give our coordinators time to talk among themselves.
As the sun began to set both the coordinators and the US team members gradually straggled back from errands, meetings, and adventures to collect in the pool chairs by the Lodge. We soon found ourselves huddled together in the twilight, a cool breeze whipping over the lawns, and laughter floating out into the darkening sky.
When I appeared, everyone was deep in a conversation about the strangest foods we ate in our regions. I am happy to say that Godfrey (Western Kenyan) looked as unimpressed by the roasted “special crickets” in Uganda as did the US crowd. I volunteered BBQ rattle snake in a fit of patriotism (hello, Georgia and Texas!). The Kenyans won, however, with three different ways to prepare termites.
When the lodge staff finally beckoned us out of the darkness to the brightly lit patio for dinner, we were already in fine form. Richard stood to present to Louis (before all the lodge guests) a pair of Barack Obama underpants that we had discovered in our journeys today. Kathleen was made to announce that she and Louis had been severely reprimanded by a Tanzanian school matron for trespassing (we do sponsor girls at that school–really). But the best stories were Louis’.
Travel to Africa from the US always comes with a ridiculously long list of warnings. If you aren’t going to die of malaria or dengue fever, you will likely be shot by stray militia, eaten by lions, or done in by heat exhaustion and sunburn. You are told to distrust everyone, stay in you car, and hold your backpack to your body like a flotation device in the high seas. I recommend that anyone prone to worrying about all of these things stay home. But sometimes the warnings get to you.
Yesterday, on an afternoon run to the bank and phone shop, Louis had a particularly bad negotiating experience with the young man at the phone shop. Louis felt he had been cheated, and the situation was only resolved when Sister Lucy scared everyone involved so badly that Kathleen slipped the young man a 5,000 Tsh note when the irate sister wasn’t looking.
Louis returned to the van tired, hot and frustrated and tried to collect himself while Harriet, Sister Costa (the Mother Superior) and I chatted amicably in the back seat. At some point we heard Louis talking roughly to a woman standing by the van’s open window. He was telling her that he didn’t want anything, brusquely waiving her away with his hands. He became more annoyed that she did not immediately go away, and was rapidly growing more angry with her, when the Mother Superior’s soft, humorous voice called from the back of the van, “Louis, that is my friend.” (note here: Sr. Lucy is usually full of smiles; Louis is a pediatrician who has worked to help children in remote areas and violence-torn countries. He is adventurous and open when not thwarted by phone-repair fraud and frightening nuns).
But Louis and Kathleen outdid themselves today. Part of being in a country that is not your own is partaking in local customs with real enthusiasm. Last night, we had all seen a wedding party, escorted by a brass band, being driven through town in a parade-like celebration of the new couple. Everyone along the route could enjoy the music and share in the celebration.
Today, Louis and Kathleen were fortunate enough to witness another such wedding celebration. They saw the musicians in the pick-up truck ahead, and begged their driver to gun the engine so that they could catch up to the parade. As their van slid in alongside the band’s truck and came up on the bride and groom’s truck, Louis and Kathleen began cheering. Waiving their arms in the air, they leaned out of the windows smiling and shouting.
Alas, sometimes a little cultural knowledge is dangerous. It seems that, in Tanzania, the brass band and truck parade is used for both weddings and funerals. We are hoping the mourners were too distracted to notice our misguided team members, but I am now taking bids from any coordinator who would rather NOT have Louis lead the American team in his or her region next year. :).
Finally, a special thank you to the elegant Mrs. Tegisti Kimathi from Dar ‘Salaam. Mrs. Tegisti and her daughter rescued us with a private taxi after we got ourselves stranded in Moshi Town this afternoon. Asante Sana, Mrs. Tegisti. May we meet again!