I went running that morning.
I took off outside the gate and launched up the chocolate-colored road, ankle-deep in dust. A minute later, my shoes and socks were black with dirt, and I tasted the earth on my teeth, like salty crushed graham crackers.
Tanzania’s winter is so dry and the air so still, the land simply turns into piles of dust. A big brown cloud followed my kicking feet through the fields of maize and past the village shops with tin-roofs and blue-plastic tarpaulins.
About 7,000 people live in Maji ya Chai, a rather normal one-story village that spreads north from the road between Arusha and Moshi. The name “water for tea” derives either from the tea-colored stream that runs dark with tree tannins, or from old-time traders who deemed the stream non-potable beyond boiling the water for tea.
Either way, there was not much water that day. Already, I felt my throat stuck in unfinished swallows, coughing as I ran, inhaling the dust through my nose.
Running in rural Africa is not inconspicuous, especially if you are tall and white. Villagers may assume that you are being chased by a thief, others that you are a mindless mzungu training for a climb up Kilimanjaro, whose ice-capped hovers like a cloud on the horizon.
A few children joined me in my run, teasing me in Swahili as they huffed alongside, before falling away and clapping their hands into the dust.
I ran a few miles—under orange trees, around herds of nervous brown goats, past watering holes. Families dressed in their Sunday best walked to church with bibles under their arms. Others carried fantastic loads on their heads, walking carefully to faraway homes.
Further along the road I passed an old woman trying to lift a massive bundle of branches onto her head. I see this every day in Africa—women who tirelessly carry wood or water across miles of open land.
But now I felt horribly guilty—me, the tall white man, who “for fun” was expending surplus energy gained from too many good meals, brushing past this sinewy woman and her daily burden of tree branches.
“Can I help?” I offered, introducing myself and reaching for the load.
The woman’s name was Josephine and she refused me with a smile. Gathering wood is women’s work and she was fine—but I could not let it go. I grabbed the long bundle and heaved it atop my own head as I’d seen women do all over Africa and Asia. Immediately my neck buckled down uncomfortably and my shoulders hunched forward. With one hand around the heavy bundle, I took a step forward, and then another. I managed twenty yards before having to lower the branches back down on the road, “for a rest,” I explained.
Josephine tried to take back her bundle, but I said, “No, no—I want to help!” Then I asked her how far we were going. The woman only spoke Swahili, so she called her young daughter over, and Deborah, age 12, explained that the house was not far.
I lifted the load again, but this time placed it on my right shoulder. Now my back bent painfully to one side, and as I walked, I got a better view of the massive tree trunks that I was carrying. What was this—60 or 70 pounds? At least.
Now Josephine stopped me again—
“Wait!” she uttered, then laid out another strip of cloth on the ground and began gathering another bundle of heavy wood to take home. If this unmanly mzungu was going to carry her wood all the way home, then she might as well bring an extra load herself.
Minutes later, the four of us stepped slowly down the path—Josephine with her even bigger bundle of wood, her two daughters Deborah and Esther with theirs, and then me, stumbling with imbalance, handicapped by the enormous load that I lifted from one shoulder to another.
“You are very tired,” observed little Deborah.
“Nah—I’m fine, I just need to figure out the balance.” I tried defending my strength but after fifty paces, I admitted to myself that this 12-year old Tanzanian girl, her 10-year old sister and their mother were all much stronger than I, a grown man.
My entire body ached with the heaviness of the wood.
“Is it far?” I asked the girl, again and again.
“It is not far,” she replied, over and over.
“Not far” was too non-specific for me, especially in the country of Tanzania, where distances are moot and time is fairly fluid. Things happen when they happen—we would get there when we got there, whether it was around the corner or ten miles away.
By now, I was grimy and gross, my skin gummed up with sweat and shards of tree bark, my face stained with black dirt.
Josephine was asking her daughter to translate her questions to me.
“You want to wash when we get home?” she asked. It was a kind offer, served with some small trepidation. Water is precious out here, carried by hand for miles.
“No, thank you,” I replied. “I do not need to wash.”
And then, “My mother asks if you would like to eat maize?”
Another generous offer and a query into my deeper motives. Maybe I looking for a free breakfast? The mother wanted to know.
“Hapana, asante,” I refused. I did not need food, or water, or breakfast or bathing. I just wanted to help.
And yet my help was so weak and faltering. I was slowing them down, and every three minutes I had to drop my bundle and readjust it. Twice, Josephine retied the branches into a tighter load. She wrapped a ripped piece of kanga cloth around my head and showed me how to rest the trees on top, but I stuck with carrying the trees on my shoulder.
“Is it far?” I asked.
“It is not far,” answered Deborah, and we walked onwards, into a small path lined with tall sheaves of thirsty corn. White smoke floated into the blue sky from the surrounding huts and the neighbors shot us strange looks from behind their crops.
Who was this filthy sweating white man and why was he carrying all this wood on his shoulder?
They do this every day, I thought, contemplating the necessity of wood and water in one’s life. Energy and plumbing—wood for fire for cooking and water to boil for tea. I thought about making tea the week before in America—popping a mug into the microwave for one minute—and now me, for this one hour, heaving dead tree trunks on my shoulder and wishing for this stunt to be over.
“We are almost there,” said Deborah in her very tiny, little girl voice and she pointed up the path to an unfinished mud brick hut. When we arrived, I waited until mothers and daughters had dropped their loads before I added mine to the pile, and then grinned with relief.
“Thank you, thank you!” exclaimed Josephine, who then turned and began shouting instructions to her daughters.
Suddenly, Young Esther came running at me with a knife in her left hand, and for a second, I thought it was over—I had been lulled into a remote and unknown location only to be stabbed by a schoolgirl. Like a ninny, I jumped into the air, but the little girl ran right past me and then disappeared into the family’s patch of maize.
I listened to her hacking away at the stalks and then watched as she emerged with a smile and offered me five ears of ripened corn.
“Take,” commanded Deborah, and I humbly accepted it.
I had traveled to Tanzania with National Geographic Student Expeditions and tomorrow the students would arrive, ready to learn everything they can from this culture. But today, I was the student, learning how to carry rough-hewn firewood on my head for a mile, learning that I am about as weak as they come, and learning what goes into making a cup of tea in Tanzania.
Travel makes me a student of the world, and while I am grateful for every lesson on the road, I am even more indebted to those who teach me how to live, how not to be afraid, and how to work.
I thanked Josephine and her family, over and over, then departed their humble home of hand-split boards.
“Kwaheri!” I shouted. Goodbye.
And then I walked away with my precious gift of corn, back along the dusty trail, cutting through a field of sunflowers and making my way back to the village known as Water for Tea.