In Tanzania, an American English teacher reconnects with his students

March 8, 2012

Mountains can never meet, but people can meet again.

— Swahili proverb

The mountain was just as I remembered it: high and stark, dusky black against the blue sky. Its name was Meru and, like its sister to the east — Kilimanjaro — it was the remnant of an extinct volcano. It had a steep grade on one side, which gave way to foothills and then to the city of Arusha. On the other was a long slope that rolled out into lakes and plains.

For many years, Mount Meru had hovered in the back of my mind. In the mid-1990s, I had lived in its shadow, in its foothills, just outside Arusha, where I taught English at a local school. I had seen the mountain only from afar, and the fact that I had never climbed it always felt like a kind of failure. Unlike most people who travel to Tanzania, I had no desire to climb Kilimanjaro, which seemed like an overrun fundraising cliche. But Meru was different. Meru was difficult, unforgiving, temperamental, with an air of hard beauty and mystery.

Our bus rolled forward, and I stared out the window at the mountain’s outline. After all these years, it looked the same, though much else had changed. Seeing it again reminded me of my last glimpse of it through a bus window, and of the ache of departure, of the bitterness of leaving all my friends and students and neighbors, but also of the sweetness of having known them.

This was a reunion of several kinds. After too long I was back in this place — to reconnect with people, to find out how things had changed.

But also, I was finally here to meet the mountain.

***

In the morning, I woke to sounds that I’d long ago forgotten: chattering crowds of children running to class, hornbills squawking in the trees, the clanging bell announcing breakfast at the school. As it happened, I was staying where I had lived back then: an old German colonial house in a place called Ilboru. When I had first moved in, back in 1996, it had been empty for many years. There was no water, spotty electricity and a cold breeze that blew down from the mountain, chilling the house at night.

Today, it had been reborn as a bustling teachers’ center with computers and a library and a guesthouse for teachers attending seminars and other travelers.

After I got up, I headed out the front gate and walked down the dirt road into town. This was unsettling: Memory distorts, and so the curves of the road felt familiar but also strange. The trees seemed taller. There were more buildings and fewer farms. The kids were ruder. Yet the air was filled with the same old smells of dust and cooking fires.

When I got downtown, I spent several hours wandering around. The lepers who used to beg by the river had been kicked up the road by trinket vendors. The library was still a sorry, run-down affair, filled with books on Dianetics and other irrelevant subjects. The “Modern Supermarket” had evolved into a liquor store. The Metropole Bar and Restaurant was now the “House of Burgers.” People, in general, had gotten fatter, and they had cellphones. Hotels were going up everywhere. The clock tower by the post office actually worked — and was sponsored by Coca-Cola. The Air Tanzania office was open, but the company’s two planes were broken.

From time to time, as I walked around, waves of memory and sadness washed over me. Where were all the people I knew? Arusha was a big town, but not that big. It felt as though I had been forsaken by an old friend. I hadn’t even lived in Arusha that long — just over a year. An Italian acquaintance had told me at the time: “A year is like a breath.” But it was a deep breath, and things were never quite the same after I exhaled.

***

Back then, when I first landed in Tanzania, I was 24 years old and barely out of college. I had just left my girlfriend, Bridgit, and life behind. I was alone in a world where everything was wonderfully strange. Once my time in Arusha was over, I returned to Bridgit. We moved around, got married and eventually settled down and had two daughters. At times, that old house at the end of Ilboru Road felt impossibly far away. At others, it felt like a part of me that had never left.

It had been 14 years since I had last seen Simon, a student in my high school class who lived far up the mountain. Every day he would start walking to school at 5:30 a.m. to get to Ekenywa Secondary School by 7:30. Once I had gone with him to visit his house. It was far from any power lines or telephone poles or newspaper stands. We sipped tea and listened to the BBC on a radio that was older than I was.

Simon was not my best student. English was an effort for him, and he was largely on his own in his education. But in some ways he was one of the most determined. One day, I remember, he came to my house for tea. We sat down, and after just a few minutes of chatting, he came to his point.

“When will you leave Tanzania?” he asked.

“In December,” I said, “after school finishes.”

“To America?”

“Yes.”

“Can you take me with you?”

“No,” I said.

“Please, sir,” he said, “don’t leave me here.”

“Simon,” I said, “I can’t.”

Tears welled in his eyes. He avoided my gaze and struggled for something else to say. He asked how much a ticket was and whether I could just give him the money for the ticket. No. Half a ticket? No.

“Please,” he said, “I will be so sad if you leave me here.”

We exchanged letters, but I still worried about him and about all my students. Their prospects seemed so grim. But then, in the following years, something quietly remarkable happened: The economies across Africa grew. It was not Industrial Revolution-scale growth, but it was growth — enough, in a place like Arusha, to make a difference. According to a 2011 report from the African Development Bank, the number of people in Africa’s middle class tripled from 1980 to 2010, and today fully a third of people on the continent are considered middle class. Africa’s economies were barely affected by the latest global recession.

I walked down the Ilboru Road, then turned off until we came to a small building, where I found Simon sitting in his office, a concrete room painted yellow, with a bookshelf and two computers.

“Mwalimu!” he said. “Teacher! It has been a long time!” He got up to greet me. We embraced. Simon sent his partner, Michael, to get sodas from the bar next door. He handed me his card for his company, African Safaris Planner, which gave his title as “Operations Manager.” I asked what that meant, and he said he didn’t like to use “Director,” because people thought you were a big man and would pay for everything.

We spoke mostly in Swahili, though I could hear his English had improved. Our talk eventually settled on other students from Ekenywa. Upendo, one of the brighter girls, was a teacher out in Mbulu. Seuri was a driver for a hospital. John was in Germany studying. Digna was a traffic cop. Josephat worked for an NGO. Gerald, a bright and hardworking student (and Simon’s cousin), was an engineer with his own construction company.

“You remember Gerald?” Simon asked.

“Yes!”

“He’s even fatter than me.”

Many of them, it seemed, had landed squarely in Africa’s growing middle class, though at least one had landed in prison, and a few were dead. But Simon now had a house he was building just down the road, piece by piece over the years. It was a nice, concrete house with bedrooms and a spacious living room for his wife and three kids. He still struggled, but his struggles sounded oddly familiar.

“It’s not easy,” he said. “I’ve tried to do marketing. I don’t know. It’s hard. Maybe you? You can be our contact in America? Then you will get a percentage? Just to tell people about us. Maybe they will feel better if they can talk to an mzungu.”

“Hmmm. Let me think about it,” I said. I wasn’t really interested in becoming a travel agent, so I changed the subject. “About our safari next week. You have arranged everything?”

“Yes,” he said. “Everything.”

***

At the Tanzania Tourist Board office downtown, there was a rack full of photocopied brochures for villages in the area offering “cultural tourism.”

I’d heard about this phenomenon. It seemed like something new and perhaps promising — capitalizing on a Tanzanian natural resource: hospitality. So I picked up the brochure for a village called Kioga and called the number. A young guy named Faraja agreed to take me on a half-day tour.

The next morning, he was there waiting, and so we walked up into the hills together, through fields of coffee and bananas and corn. There was a light rain, and the dirt paths grew slick. We got to talking and quickly discovered we had both been at Ekenywa at the same time, and his business partner was one of my favorite students, Matthew. The two were trying to get their own tourism company off the ground, but it was hard to come up with money to register it. High in the hills, we stopped to rest. I pointed to a big, new house below.

“That is someone who lives in Kenya,” Faraja said. “A lot of these people are not from here. They are just buying plots to build on.” He pointed to another house with a shiny roof and beautiful garden. “That one is someone who lives in Dar es Salaam.”

“And that one?”

“That is a new lodge. The owner is a member of parliament. He finished Ilboru Secondary School in 1995, then went to work in a bank in the U.S., and came back.”

Higher up, we stopped at Faraja’s older brother’s house, which was also under construction. We sipped tea and chatted about the price of sugar, about our daughters, about Ekenywa. Faraja told me about the various things they did for customers: cooking local food, doing overnight stays, teaching Masai language and so on.

We finished our tea, then resumed our upward trek. We stopped at a traditional round Masai home. We walked up to an overlook, where the landscape opened below us. The rain had stopped, and there was sunlight in places. We were high above the city, which stretched farther than I remembered. A nearby hill was feathered with transmission towers. I could feel the past slipping away, making room for the present.

“Arusha has changed a lot,” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “A lot.”

***

Gerald was indeed fatter than Simon, but not quite as fat as Simon had led me to believe. As Gerald waved from down the street, it took me a minute to see the face of the boy in the face of the man. But it was there, in his smile.

We were downtown, near the clock tower. Gerald was in town working on a five-story guesthouse near the stadium. On our way to lunch, the three of us crossed the street, and a car stopped in front of us.

“Mwalimu!” the driver yelled. “It’s James … from Ekenywa!”

James. I remembered his face. Lackluster student. Not a bad guy. I believe he exited my class with almost no working knowledge of English.

“James!” I said. “What are you doing these days?”

He held out a tissue and unrolled it. Inside were two big, cut pieces of blue gemstone.

“Glass?” I said.

“No, not glass. Tanzanite. I’m selling it.”

Some cars honked behind him, and he said he’d call later and sped off.

Down the street, we came to an office building, where we climbed stairs and knocked on a door. It was an auditing firm. Inside, seated at a desk covered by ledgers, was Makata, the erstwhile Ekenywa math teacher.

He was so happy to see us that he left work and came with us to a restaurant, where we ate nyama choma (grilled meat), drank beer and sat for several hours, reminiscing about the old days, catching up on events, gossiping about other students and teachers, and discussing how things had changed. It was all very good to see what these young guys had become, how life had carried them down the road to something a little better. At one point, I asked something that had been on my mind.

“Gerald,” I said, “do you think having an American teacher helped you with English?”

“Sana!” he said. “Very much! It helped me so much! I got a B in your class, but a C in all the others. Do you remember?”

“I remember you were very good in English.”

“Sana.”

I wasn’t sure if I believed it, but it was nice to hear. Whatever the case, here they were, sitting around the table, talking business and discussing “access to capital” and “tendering” and other things that went beyond my grasp in either Swahili or English.

They had all grown up. And so, I suppose, had I.

***

About the time I started to feel like I belonged here again, it was almost time for me to leave. Yet there was one thing I still needed to do. And so on one of my last mornings in Arusha, I waited until a small white van pulled up in front of my house with an “African Safaris Planner” sticker on the side. It was a 1999 model with a cracked windshield. But it had four-wheel drive and a pop-up top, and Simon was buying it little by little.

Mount Meru is a 15,000-foot peak that sits inside the borders of Arusha National Park, and the entrance was just a few minutes outside town. It took a few hours, however, to sort out all the payments and bribes, and afterward, Simon was despondent, because the officials had sprung a new $80 fee on him that pretty much wiped out his profits for this trip. He brooded for a while, but finally resigned himself, and we started walking up the mountain with an armed ranger guide named Dilunga. Not far into the park, we crossed a field full of sleeping Cape buffalo. I stopped.

“Do you want to see them?” Dilunga asked.

“Yes.”

He walked over, and I followed. We got within about 50 feet, and a big bull stood up, lowered his head and snorted in our direction.

“Is that enough?” Dilunga asked.

“Yes,” I said. “That’s enough.”

We kept walking up. The park had buffaloes, hyenas, leopards, elephants, giraffes. Dilunga had a rifle, but he told us what not to do if a buffalo charges.

“You cannot outrun them,” he said. “If you try to climb a tree, they will smash you into the tree.” Instead, we were supposed to lie down and remove items of clothing to confuse the animal.

We climbed higher. It was a steep, 3,000-foot trek to the first hut, where we planned to stay that night. When we stopped to catch our breath, we were all sweating, but Simon was talking about trying to go farther.

“Is this harder than Kilimanjaro?” I asked. That mountain had winding, gradual paths to the top. This one didn’t.

“Yes!” he said. “Much harder! You can take anyone and put them on that mountain, and they can get up it. But this one? People do Kilimanjaro, then they come here and fail.”

Back on the trail, we entered a lush, damp forest full of trees bearded with moss. We stepped over fresh buffalo dung and hyena scat, then, in the late afternoon, we came to the Miriakamba Hut. There were a few other tourists — all Europeans — and sitting around or standing on the deck.

Simon and I dropped our bags in our room. High up the weather was bad and clouds covered the peak, so there was no point in trying to reach the summit. But I still wanted to see more, so I asked Simon if we could walk up the trail. After he had rested, he went to find Dilunga, who got his gun.

We met outside. There were two paths: one that led along the crater rim to the summit, and another that went somewhere else. We took the second path, and as we walked up it, colobus monkeys jumped into the high branches, while blue monkeys sat and stared. Around one corner, a bushbuck ran into the trees. Around another, two Cape buffaloes started, then ambled off into the bush.

The road began to go down again, and soon we came to a place I had heard about but could never quite imagine: a mile-wide plain that opened up inside the mountain. In the middle of that plain stood a massive 3,000-foot-tall ash cone, surrounded by high walls of the mountain above it.

“This is where the chief of the Meru tribe lived,” Dilunga said. “When they had a problem, like there were no rains, or there was sickness, they would come here and pray.”

It was easy to see why they felt drawn to it, why it would be sacred and powerful. It was the kind of place that comforts you with your insignificance. It was a mountain within a mountain, a world within a world, a secret at the heart of Meru. It was beauty and mystery beneath the hard surface. That was, after all, what I had come here looking for all those years ago.

The rain started. The sky was getting dark.

“Is it enough?” Dilunga asked.

Simon nodded.

“Yes,” I said. “It’s enough.”

Frank Bures is a writer in Minneapolis. To comment on this story, send e-mail to wpletters@washpost.com.

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