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.”
“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.