Tanzania: part v

Singida - Shelui

wednesday, 29th august

After our stuttered beginning we have started to fall into a daily routine. It is more frantic than our timetable in Shelui, and more varied - here we have a town to pop back to when we have forgotten something vital, fundis who work a daladala ride away, an internet cafe in the evenings and fifty places to eat when the sun goes down. These things break up monotony but allow me a framework to set my day inside. It means when I wake up in the morning [...] I feel that twinge of excitement - perhaps adrenaline? - which lifts me out of the mosquito net before the alarm.

The group of girls I introduced myself to last week have appeared to help us every day. Their ballsy leader is called Hawa, and I adore her. Yesterday they mucked in with Emilie to paint the walls white while I made myself invisible with Linden. I have the most beautiful photograph of them with their paintbrushes and bright white hijabs (except for Hawa, of course, who refuses to wear one.)

Later, when we had run out of paint and Emilie had gone to get some more with the children, the students wrote and drew on the blackboard. 'I want to draw giraffe on the wall', one wrote, and looked at me shyly. I put a big tick next to it. We have no money for a mural-painter this time around, and I'd wondered whether the students would be up for painting one themselves like the project in Dar. He and the girls drew animals with the chalk, and an outline of Africa. When the wall paint is dry I will search them out and see what they design.

Hawa and her friends called me over to answer questions about England. I got out my photographs and immediately the other children joined us. I showed them Lucy (and her long hair) and B, who I introduced as "husband" although I think these kids, unlike the students at Shelui, would have grasped the concept of "boyfriend". ("Do you have children?" Hawa asked instantly.) They pointed me out in all the pictures of the 'Herd, and I told them the story of the surprise party, of how I had been very sad and my friends had made me happy again. "Why were you sad?" Hawa's group asked, and I said [...] Although it was about as simplified a version of events as possible, for a small moment there passed an understanding between me and the girls, a shared experience between our sex which crossed mountains, oceans and deserts, cultures and skin colours. For a small moment I was no mzungu, I was just a woman. In England I think the comments which might have followed would have been directed in anger at the other party: "bloody men", "stupid boy". But Miriamu, Hawa's second in command, said to me simply, "Friends are joined souls." I thought that was beautiful.

I showed them my house, too, and how it was very old, and the windows of our various bedrooms. When they asked what the white was I told them snow, and how it was less that 0 degrees. When I described snowmen their faces lit up. The pictures finished the crowd drifted away, but the girls and I talked about London - Big Ben and the great glass ferris wheel and the wide river, and how few people smile because everyone is busy. Hawa's two friends told me dutifully they wanted to be doctors, but Hawa told me she would one day be a lawyer and live in London and work at a big law firm. "You can come and visit me!" she said.

[...] Efy and I went up to the regional offices to collect the school's books. A small pick-up arrived and we ferried the first load of boxes across Singida and up the hill. For reasons unknown the long dirt road which leads to Salmini School is being dug up, so to avoid the roadblock the truck bumped through the back lanes of the village. Concerned that the potholes were dislodging the boxes, I leant out of the truck window, and the reflection of a pale-faced girl peered back at me as we passed a shop-front, small and wide-eyed and chased by a great mountain of tarpaulin. In one corner the tarp had come loose, revealing the edge of a cardboard box, and as we bounced across the shop window I caught the beginning of the customs code: (KE). The sincerity of the moment I was in dropped heavily. I was passing through a village on the way to deliver the fifty boxes of library books I had created back in a storage room in Canterbury. I, that small wide-eyed girl, was travelling the last few miles of their journey with them.

Asia looked at me with an open face and asked, twice, "These are for us?"

[...] By the end of today the interior walls were painted, the outside whitewashed, and all the Geography referenced. We have bars on the windows and glass in the slats, and furniture should be mostly finished tomorrow. We are storming ahead. If our daily routine is to be frantic, let it continue like this: productive, positive, begun with a spark of adrenaline, and completed with a head torch and a pen, as the wind brushes against our door and Emilie sleeps deeply, and the mosque sings out into the dark and up to the stars.

Amira, opening the first box of textbooks

saturday, 1st september

Over the past 72 hours we have completed all the referencing and cataloguing, finished painting the inside and outside walls, and painted our newly refurbished chairs. The shelves and tables have arrived, too, and once we've bashed some nails into them we'll have some brand new benches made out of the mountain of broken furniture we found. Not bad for three day's work.

On Thursday Emilie and I had eight groups of students working in an empty classroom at different 'stations', getting the book labelling done. WHile some helped sort textbooks as they arrived out of their cardboard boxes others stamped the READ insignia into each front cover. Emilie and I wrote out example labels for each title and passed them onto the girls sitting at the desks who diligently cut out and copied them. Books and their labels were passed on to another group who sellotaped them onto the spines, and packed them back into their boxes. We got through all the maths in under two hours!

[...] There's a kid in Form 4 who's beginning to discover this particular power of the library for himself. Joseph [second from right, above, in the fantastic shirt] is sixteen, and he's been at school to help us every single day in the same red pullover which reminds me so much of my own former school's uniform. He's obviously an inquisitive student, but since the books have been unpacked I haven't seen him without one in his hands. And while at first he wanted only those which would help directly with his exams, in the past few days he has found his individual sparks in all sorts of subjects. "Rosa!" he said on Thursday, running up to me with his book open, "What is this organism?" He was pointing at a tyrannosaurus rex.

After that I found him the Usborne pocket guide to dinosaurs I remembered packing into one of Kent's boxes, and he sat at the back of an empty classroom and read it cover to cover. Towards the end of the day he came back to find me. "This book answers all of my questions," he said, and proceeded to tell me all about the different kinds of dinosaurs, the questions surrounding their extinction, and how some may have evolved into animals he recognised today. "This," he said, showing me a diplodocus, "The giraffe today!" The idea of evolution was completely new to him.

Our storeroom, a computer lab without electricity, in the middle of book sorting

Sorted books and a painted rooms, waiting for furniture

Painting shelves in the sun

sunday, 2nd september

Last night I said our room smelt of disinfectant and cup'a'soup, and this is why. As the sun was going down we decided to climb the rocks at the top of the town. I took cameras and the others brought beers, and we followed a route the boys have taken before. The first part is easy to climb - proved by the amount of litter left by previous explorers. (I even found an old roll of kodak, though I'm not sure whether there's any film in the canister.) Towards the top, though, there's a high wall. I passed my rucksack over to Efy and, after a couple of attempts, pulled myself up onto the ledge. Momentarily I wondered how we would get back over, but I thought of wildhearts and jumped the steep drop. We scrambled up another boulder and through some prickly bushes, and emerged at the top.

While the others opened their drinks I set Linden up on her timer, using my bottle as a focus gauge, and shot a few selfies looking out over the Singida skyline. The world was flat as far as the eye could see, apart from the clusters of golden rocks which sprung up in the distance like pebbles on sand. Around the corner Singida lake lay white a still like glass, and in the dying light pricks of light sparked across the town.

Focusing was difficult: the light was lost and Linden sat on the rock with her great 16-35mm held up with my jumper. I had to lie on my front to see through the viewfinder, and eventually I abandoned the bottle in favour of good old-fashioned manual focusing. As I skidded down onto my knees after the sixth or seventh shot, eager to have an image before the light left, I lost my balance. I put my palms out to catch my fall and my hands went straight through the glass bottle I'd put aside earlier.

[...] Back home my hands were a constellation, sparkled with shards tiny as sugar grains. Jacob gave me a tupperware box full of antiseptic solution, and a mug of cup'a'soup: "the closest thing to home cooking".

Now we are back in Shelui. We had a busy morning and a horribly squashed daladala ride and at the school the tables have been taken to bits and there is no one to put them back together again before the opening tomorrow. I'd write about all of this except I am desperately tired, and there is something more important:

I am sitting in our small, hot room writing by the light of my head torch while Emilie tries to sleep. [...] Tonight I have found something in the moment of sitting here, writing and listening in the knowledge that a week from now I will be in my own bed again, which has pushed my imagination urgently towards images of the future.

Oh, I want to be here again. Not here but somewhere like it; in the middle of a culture I can begin to find my way in, listening to strange music and realising it has become common to me, writing about experiences and realising I have lived through these stories. I have been thinking about those pinprick journalists a lot recently, stubs in a great world map, and trying on their persona as I walk around Singida and sit cramped in a daladala racing through the desert. How do they feel? I have slid my feet into the imaginary boots of a woman who treads the streets of London and New York, Johannesburg, Tripoli, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Gaza, Baghdad, Moscow, Washington, Rio, Sydney, Paris. When I put on my own boots this morning and walked through the market to the bus station with Linden over my shoulder I thought at last I knew they could carry me to those pinholes, too. Here tonight I know I will travel home sure that it is what I want them to do.

[My journals end here. Things take an unexpected turn. My Tanzanian journey concludes in part vi.]

part i part ii | part iii | part iv | part vi