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A snapshot of life in rural Tanzania

She stares at me from the photograph, her face a study in serious calm; there is no hint of a smile. She sits on a bench, hands clasped around raised knees, feet together; her backdrop is a white washed wall stained with brown rain. Her hair is braided; she is wearing a long sleeved top of broad, pale, pastel stripes and her jeans are clean, but faded. This photograph marks a proud moment: a photographer has been commissioned especially and her outfit is fresh on, for nothing stays clean in the village for long. Perhaps it is her birthday. She looks to be about fifteen; her serious aspect an audition for the responsibilities of adulthood. On the image, the indentation of a small cross marks her face, made by a biro pen whose ink refused to flow.

 “That is my sister; she is dead.” Said the small boy who held the photograph album open for me, turning the pages with slow reverence. The retaining plastic crackled and the creases of the pages were dark with accumulated dirt. I looked into his face to see his expression, but he just smiled gently and jerked his head in a reverse nod, indicating that I should look at the other photographs in the album.

 On this trip, I had returned to the Kilombero Valley in central Tanzania, accompanied by teachers from a school that will be sending a group of students to the area in July. We were visiting a small isolated farm, or shamba, worked by a family who I had first met when a student in the valley ten years before. We sat on grass mats on top of the hillock where the boy’s mother had built her grass-roofed huts for sleeping and storage. A hollowed out tree stump, uprooted and laid on its side on top of a frame of branches, served as an effective chicken coop. All around verdant rice and swaying maize rose from the wet earth. Fifty metres away, the forest began; golden weavers flitted in its dark borders.

 I looked again at the photograph album. The images were all faded and carried a golden tarnish from the harsh conditions; it made them appear developed sometime in the late 70’s. Or rather, they reminded me of my old family photographs developed in that time. In fact, all the photographs dated from the last ten years. In them, Posse, the boy’s father, still lived. He is shown clasping his friend’s hand triumphantly high above the horizontal trunk of a felled tree. The two of them are wearing plastic safety helmets, an incongruous sight in rural Tanzania. In his left hand is an axe, the tool of their shared success. There are pictures of family gatherings: the christening of little Roy, Posse’s first born; pictures of white field researchers who hired the family as porters; pictures of random gatherings where the production of a camera had demanded its use. In these last sets, the poses are rigid and proud, but one suspects that a drunken grin was not far away. I have been in enough similar gatherings to know the back-story. Sadly, many of the photographs are marked with indented crosses.

 The story of this family epitomises the harsh reality of life in rural Tanzania. Farmers are completely reliant upon beneficial rainfall (not too much, not too little and all at the right time) if they are to produce a harvest that will both feed them and leave a surplus to be sold or bartered. Even if the rains come, they have little recourse to pest control and so must just hope that they are free of pestilence – whether elephant or locusts. Fertiliser is expensive and hard to get; it is also often poisonous after prolonged use. Medical services are difficult to access and prohibitively expensive. Life is hard.

 Therefore, when Posse, the head of the household, died from tuberculosis eight years ago, things became tougher, immediately. Expedita, his wife, was left with two young children to look after and a shamba to tend, the produce of which the family was entirely dependent. She soon remarried and moved with her family to the nearby village of Luvilli. Sadly, her second husband contracted AIDS and died, leaving her HIV+ and now with four children to provide for. The people of her village turned against her, believing that for a women to lose two husbands in relatively short succession, witchcraft must be involved. Their behaviour, driven by fear, malice, or a combination of the two, forced Expedita to return to the shamba. In her absence, the forest had begun to reclaim its former part; it took a considerable prolonged effort to return the ground to farmland. However, she did it, but at an unknown cost to her long-term health.

 I have known this story for over a year. I have seen the affect of its telling on other people, but never myself have I been able to feel the sympathy for the family that I suspect I should. Maybe this is because Expedita needs not sympathy, but practical assistance. One look at the farm tells you that she is a practical person; one look into her eyes tells you that she is a proud women. Perhaps it is just because I have grown inured to the attrition of rural poverty. The photograph album changed all that.

 I have the same photographs; different people fill them, but the occasions are similar and I think that I probably share the same feelings of amusement, happiness and pride that James (the small boy) does when I get the album out and flip, less carefully than him, through the pages. I especially like the pictures of past family gatherings that do not include me, the ones where smiles are easy, cares invisible and glasses held high, happy moments captured in soft focus. As we looked through the album, my defences fell. I understood with visceral clarity the value of the photographs, recording, as they do, brief moments of happiness in hard lives of little record. I felt honoured that James had shown me the album; but its litany of loss invoked in me a keen sadness. The feeling was intense, but brief: any longer would have been self indulgent and inappropriate amidst such resilience. After all, James did not show me those pictures to illicit sympathy, but out of pride.

The production of the album was also a sign that the boys, who on my previous visit had stared in my direction with wide eyes from behind the first stalks of maize, had accepted me. Now the youngest had his hand resting lightly on my shoulder as he bent to point out a favourite uncle, also gone, and little Roy was finally edging near, his nose running, wearing a mustard coloured T-shirt a few sizes too big.

 This is not a simple story of endless deprivation; instead, the family illustrates well the complex nature of rural poverty. Upon close inspection, one always finds that this vivid land of colour is composed of shades of grey. At the time of our visit, Expedita and her family had just collected the first rice harvest. The grains lay on straw mats, covering any piece of land clear of the saturated earth, drying in the heat of the sun. There is currently little rice in the villages and so when she sells, she will get a good price. The papaya tree that shares the hillock is heavy with fruit, the soapy sweetness of which we ate eagerly after our walk in from the road. The chickens, a gift from students who visited last year, have prospered and multiplied. The cockerel, his fine feathers shimmering, was pressed upon us as a departing gift. For a shamba farmer, Expedita is enjoying a rare prosperity.

 Sadly, that prosperity will not last. Although she shows no symptoms of her illness, Expedita is becoming weaker; she carries little weight and has begun to find it difficult to walk to church in the village of Itete; a distance of seven kilometres. Yet she will not complain; in fact she was angry when young James, seizing the initiative, announced to us in English (which proved the value of paying for his school fees), that what his mother really needed was a mattress to sleep on, to prevent her becoming wet from the damp ground at this time of year. Of course, we bought a mattress, a wedge of foam covered in a wonderful, outrageous expanse of peach material decorated with swirls of red, yellow and toxic green, sealed in plastic.

 Along with the intellectual and emotional complexity inherent to spending time in rural Tanzania, it is the regularity with which one encounters the absurd that enthrals me, even when I am the source. We had originally planned to meet Expeditia and her boys to deliver the mattress the day after our initial visit to the shamba. She would wait for us at the roadside; the vehicle could go no further. Unfortunately, James and his friend had been injured in a bicycle accident the previous day and so when we arrived she stood alone, a diminutive figure wrapped in a kanga.

Immediately, without thinking, I said  that I would carry the mattress for her. Muttering things like, ‘it won’t take long’ and ‘I’ll run back’, I got out of the vehicle, greeted Expedita and grasped the mattress as it was handed to me from the roof of the Land rover. Hog-tied and looking like a two-foot high peach swiss roll, it rested against my leg; Expedita smiled quizzically, turned on her heel and disappeared into the bush.

My brain caught up with my mouth. The mattress was not heavy, but it was awkward to carry. It was too wide to sit under my arm, nor could I hold it in front of me without my arms wanting to fall off. Therefore, I swung it up onto my head, held it in place with one raised arm and ran off after her. She was fleet footed fluid grace; I was heavy booted, khaki clad and unsubtle. Drooping branches and stubborn bushes made my stride irregular; long thorns sought my eyes. The atmosphere was oppressive; clouds hung low in the sky, heavy with rain, and the temperature gauge hovered above 30 degrees Celsius.  Soon, my shirt clung to my back and sweat dripped from the tip of my nose. Fortunately, the woodland soon gave way to farmland, but this only prompted Expedita to increase her speed. I like to think this was because she did not want to delay me further, but, in hindsight, I think that she was just embarrassed to be seen with me.

As we progressed along the paths and through the tall green maize, I became aware of people in the distance straightening up from their labour to stand and stare at me. ‘What are they looking at?’ I thought to myself, tetchy in my fatigue. ‘Have they never before seen a tall white man running behind a short black woman with a rolled peach mattress on his head?’ Out in front, Expedita chatted away in Kiswahili, difficult to hear beyond the sound of my own heaving breath. She greeted every homestead we passed, seemingly giving no explanation of my curious appearance, perhaps none was needed.

 Eventually, she leapt the stream, which runs below her hillock, calling the boys out of the maize where they had been playing. I went through the stream, offloaded the mattress into the arms of two bemused but excited boys, said goodbye to Expedita and turned to retrace my steps. As I left, something caught my eye. There, at the base of the big mango tree, partly obscured by fallen leaves, an old plastic helmet lay, once white, now discoloured by the mud of many rains.

By day, Mark Gillies helps other travellers explore Africa: check out, the UK-based tour operator where he works.

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