Letters from Tanzania: July 13, 2014

Heather ZwickeyHabari!

There is a suspicious monkey watching me type this morning. I think he’s trying to decide if my computer is edible.

I’m writing from the patio of Capricorn Beach Cottage, on the northern coast of Tanzania. The students are staying at a beautiful large house on the ocean – but there wasn’t quite enough room for me, so I’m next door at a little refuge on the beach. When we calculated beds, we forgot that Tanzania beds are small, and Greg (one of our students) is 6′ 4″. The only way to get him remotely comfortable is to put him diagonal in a master bed. So I’ve been exiled… Not that I’m complaining. Capricorn is amazing. I stayed here in 2008, and I’ve always wanted to come back – and it’s a short walk on the beach to the students.

We reached Tanga on Friday night, after a gorgeous drive past mountains and waterfalls, baobabs and acadia trees, and villagers selling everything from tomatoes and mangos to pool tables and bricks along the side of the road. The most unusual sight on this trip was a small house in the ditch, made of hubcaps, old bicycles, gears, car doors, and any other piece of metal that might have flown off a vehicle bumping along the Tanzanian highway. Each piece had been meticulously fit together to create shiny metal surfaces, odd angles, and the most spectacular wild roof line you can imagine on a five-foot roof. If the house were picked up and moved to a park in Boston or San Francisco, it would be high priced art. In its current precarious location, not six feet from cars and trucks speeding by, it’s simply an oddity – and shelter.

Seeing the ocean (Pacific, Indian, or otherwise) always makes me sigh one of those full-belly, big-relief, homecoming types of sighs. I don’t know if it’s from growing up in a land-locked state, or just a primal feeling, but the vastness of the ocean is calming for me.

My reaction to the ocean was superseded by Alice on this trip. Alice is from the village of Mowo on Kilimanjaro. She’s been traveling with us as our cook. Because she is getting used to how we natural medicine mzungus eat (and because we enjoy her), we decided to bring her with us to Tanga. Alice is 20 years-old and had never seen the ocean. More than that, because movies and pictures are not really large parts of the education in her village, she really didn’t have any concept of “ocean” and didn’t know what to expect. As she saw the ocean for the first time, she walked to the edge of the property and her mouth hung open as she stared at the sight. A full-moon over the Indian ocean. I think it just blew her mind.

Originally, when we planned this trip, we intended for the students to work with Bongo – our herbalist friend in Tanga. However, Bongo unexpectedly passed away in April. It was very sad. He wasn’t old – under 50. And he wasn’t that sick – kidney stones we think. But he went to the hospital, had surgery, and never came out. Unfortunately, this is all too common in Tanzanian hospitals. The quality of surgical medicine is poor, and most people don’t survive. We were devastated when we heard the news of Bongo’s death, not only because Bongo was a friend, but also because we worried that his vast knowledge of herbal medicine would be lost.

As it turns out, we had little to fear. Bongo had an apprentice named Sheboni who has picked up the work, and Bongo’s 18 year-old son, Kareem, is also learning herbal medicine. Yesterday, the students went with Sheboni, Kareem, and Bongo’s brother Asani to see the river gorge where Bongo collected most of his plants. With Julius as their translator and professor, they learned plant after plant – plants for tuberculosis, for hernias, for HIV, and for miscarriages. They spent hours hiking in the wilderness, documenting plants. Julius was quite the slave driver – ensuring that they took pictures of the leaves, stems, and roots of every plant and that they wrote everything down. Because Julius is not a physician, they had mini-Jeopardy games where Julius would try to act out or describe the ailment for each plant, and the students had to name it.

Maria and I missed this part of the journey. We had gone back to the house with one of the students who wasn’t feeling well – and me. Yes, I’m still a bit sick. Julius has been worried because I haven’t kept anything in me for four days now. This morning he decided to take things into his own hands.

You will eat porridge,” he declared. He’s been trying to get me to eat a Tanzanian porridge that they use for diarrhea. He’s suggested it twice, and I’ve declined. Not this morning. He went to the village and had someone make porridge for me. He brought it to me in an old yellow thermos. “Eat this,” he repeated.

“I don’t know, Julius, I’ll try,” I answered.

“No,” he said. “Not try. You will eat.”

Julius knows how to deal with a non-compliant patient like me. There is no questioning, and no ‘trying.’ He stood over me and made sure I slurped every vile bit of porridge. I have no idea what was in it – other than lemon. It was kind of soupy, sour, gelatinous hot goo. I guess we’ll see if it works. He’s now disappeared to see if he can find me a coconut. We need to get my electrolytes back.

Last evening, Maria and I were planning dinner while students were still on their safari with Julius, Asani, Kareem, and Sheboni. We realized that we didn’t have vegetables to go with the beans and rice. So we decided to walk to the village center to buy vegetables. Unfortunately, the village was a little farther than we thought, and the sun was going down. As we were giving up and turning back, a man road up on his bicycle. Maria and I exchanged a glance, and then approached him to ask him if we would consider taking our money to town, and bringing back vegetables in the basket on his bicycle. “Certainly!” he said, and he invited us to wait for him at his house which was just steps away from where we were standing. Now you might be thinking we were foolish to give him the money first – but  it was 10,000 shillings – which is roughly $6; and people don’t often have their own money to be reimbursed.

Our bicyclist’s name is Michael, and he is a boat driver at the marine center. At his house, we met his children, his wife, and his friend, a young female Tanzanian marine biologist. It’s not exactly who you’d expect to meet along the side of the road, but nothing should surprise me. TIA (This is Africa.) The marine biologist and Michael’s family are all from Moshi. While Michael rode off to find us vegetables, she proceeded to tell us about her work protecting the wildlife along the Tanzania coastline. She’s trained in Iceland (!) and she scuba dives and snorkels along the coast each day. As the conversation progressed, she proceeded to school us on climate change.

Eventually, we realized it was getting too dark, and soon we wouldn’t be able to see to get home. So we gave her our phone number and asked to have Michael deliver the vegetables to our house. We headed down to the beach and navigated by moon and iPhone flashlight back to the house.

About an hour later, Michael arrived. Because it is Ramadan, stores have very strange hours. They open during the day, close at sunset and then re-open at dark. Since he had arrived just at sunset, he had to wait for them to re-open. He brought loads of tomatoes, onions, peppers, carrots, and rice – and then tried to give us the change – 4,000 shillings. I can’t believe how honest and helpful people are here. Of course, this isn’t something we would try in Dar Es Salaam. But in the villages, the atmosphere is so welcoming.

Usually if it’s after dark, we drive the truck back and forth between the cottage where I’m staying and the house where Maria is with the students. I have to admit, it’s fun to shift with my left hand, and drive on the left hand side of the road. Our truck isn’t Julius’s Land Rover, which I’ve driven often. We have Sky’s truck. Sky is Julius’ partner in his safari company, and his truck is a re-modeled Toyota mini-van. It has eight bucket-seats, plush plastic green grass carpet, and an antenna that probably picks up radio in Australia. I was taking Maria home the other night and realized what Sky’s truck doesn’t have – reverse lights. As I was trying to turn our over-sized beast of a vehicle around, I’d properly judged where the fence was – and backed smack into a tree that was leaning over the fence on the opposite side of the truck. Don says I have to count it as another accident, bringing my total to 18. Maria says, Africa wins again.

This week, we will visit Bombo hospital, get some clinical experience at the mama-baby clinic, and pay homage to Bongo by helping Sheboni, Kareem, and Asani plant a medicinal garden outside Bongo’s clinic. I’ll write more about these things later.

In the meantime, I’ll be taking on the mosquito population of Tanzania one at a time. Current score: 12 dead mosquitoes; eight bites. I’m winning!

Love to you!