It gets cold in Africa.
We are just below the equator but over a mile high in altitude, so that evenings are cool and mornings are overcast. In Tanzania, July does not bring the T-shirt weather of home—July means winter.
We have traded summer for the African winter and I am shivering beneath a spotty flow of freezing water next to an open window. Two minutes is about all I can stand in the ice-cold shower.
Clean or not, I dry off with my Maasai shuka (blanket) and then dress for the day’s task—we are not here to play but to work.
I traveled to the Tanzanian village of Maji ya Chai with eleven students, two boys and nine girls, ranging in age from 15 to 17. Embedding myself with a pack of high schoolers make me feel rather old, especially when a mention of Matt Damon provokes eleven blank stares. (Who’s that?)
And yet my new friends also make me feel very young. After only a few days, I find myself reverting to my sixteen-year-old self, laughing and chatty but perhaps a bit more confident than when I was actually sixteen. Marching in a row, we carry blue metal shovels and wood-handled pickaxes down the road, energized and eager to launch into our task.
Our work this morning involves digging a one-foot-wide by one-foot-deep trench from the main metal water pipe in the village to a rural school, which until now, has no access to running water. A pipe will be laid and buried in this trench and then the schoolchildren will finally have plumbing.
The distance we must dig is short—only about a thousand feet.
“Is that all?” I wonder. We’ll be done in an hour, I think, and sink my shovel into the soft dusty soil, heaving a load to one side and then watching as the small hole fills right back up with dust.
An hour later and all of us know the land of Tanzania more intimately than most travelers ever will. We are wearing the cracker crumb soil on our faces and forearms, in our hair and earlobes, in our socks and shoes, and in our teeth and gums. So quickly we have learned that sometimes the earth is soft and easy, and other places it is all rock—hard stone that shoots sparks when struck with a steel axe.
The work is hard—none of the students pretend otherwise. Now that we know what we are up against, we take turns chopping at the ground, softening the soil around the stones, and then painstakingly removing each rock by hand in order to dig the trench for the water pipe to come.
By lunch we meet our goal to complete at least three hundred feet of the trench. Now my back aches from bending over for hours and hammering at the ground. My hands are blistered and bleeding and my face stained with dirt. I can’t remember the last time I worked this hard—most of my “work” involves tapping at a computer. (I have so many calluses in all the wrong places.)
But none of the students complain. Instead, they come back to the house and clean up in time to visit the village orphanage.
“It brought tears to my eyes,” says Madelyn, from Wyoming, and the other students say similar things about their time with the young children.
“They didn’t even know us but they still came running out to meet us with open arms,” says Katie.
This village of Maji ya Chai is warm and welcoming—all of us have felt it since we arrived. Strangers greet us on the road—smiling, waving and curious to meet us. They invite us into their homes, they are eager to talk, to show, and to share. Already, I have made a young friend, named Musa, who waits for me outside our gate each day and likes to follow me around.
Musa leads me to the Upendo Leprosy Home, managed by the Missionary Sisters of the Precious Blood. There we meet Sister Eileen, a bright-faced nun from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who brings us into the courtyard where about a dozen leprosy patients are doing their daily exercises.
The afternoon sun lights the concrete pavement and the white walls around us—in a circle of folding chairs, the old men and women wave their arms above their heads, repeating the motion and counting aloud in Swahili, “moja, mbili, tatu . . .”
Some of them are blind, and most of them are missing some fingers and toes, but all of them are smiling, waving their arms in slow motion, stretching their bodies and counting over and over, “One, two, three.”
We wait outside the circle of patients until they are finished, and then we greet them one by one, kneeling next to them, holding their hands and speaking to them with all the Swahili we have learned in the last few days.
“I am Francis,” says one man. He wears a hand-knit cap and beams with the most contented smile that a human can have.
Our conversation is simple. I am Andrew. Yes, I am American. Just like President Obama who is in Tanzania right now, too, I respond.
Even without his fingers, Francis holds onto my hands without relaxing his grip. In all my travels, in all the world, I have never met anybody with leprosy before now, and as I sit there next to Francis and his friend Thomas, I imagine the lives they have lived—so different from the one that I know.
We are not here to pity the less fortunate, or to feel pious or quaint or condescending in the midst of human suffering. We have simply traveled over to meet the neighbors in our village and to learn from them. The mood is peaceful and pensive, and when, after more than hour, we leave—we are all very quiet and reflective.
I think about all the times I have stared at my own face in the mirror and panicked over a stupid pimple. And now, after seeing the fortitude of these leprosy patients and their positive power in facing their own physical setbacks, I am changed.
Travel changes you. The cliché rings true even now, as we return to our spartan lodging in the village. None of us will be the same after this day.
But it’s not over. The smell of fried cassava seeps from the kitchen as the students gather round for their Swahili class. Mister Mkala is our teacher and he shouts his commands with a stern smile until someone comprehends and respond. Kids pick up language fast, and within the hour, some of them are speaking whole sentences in Swahili.
After dinner, the students wash their own dishes and clean up the kitchen. This is not a summer camp. It is an expedition and each one of them is “On Assignment”—during their nearly three weeks in Tanzania, they must design and execute individual projects in their concentration, be it wildlife conservation or photography.
I help them review their day’s photos and I am happy to find that all of them took very different pictures of very different things. This is the wonder of photography—that there are so many ways of seeing the same thing. We discuss perspective, and I encourage them to always change the angle they shoot from. See things differently, I remind them.
The day ends around the fire, where each student shares his or her worst part of the day, followed by their highlight. For most, it’s the orphanage and the joy of these Tanzanian children. I listen to their young voices describe the feelings they had. They are exhausted, physically and emotionally, but they are happy, too.
No, this is anything but summer camp. We are not here to be entertained, but to work. Tomorrow we will head back down to the fields and dig in the dirt for a few more hours. You should never travel to a place without giving something back.
I say usiku mwema (goodnight) to the others and head towards my bunk. The stars are shockingly bright and our student leader points out the Southern Cross, visible to the southeast. It’s nearly eleven o’clock at night. My feet are stained black from the dust, my lower back aches, and my hands are raw.
I lie down and tuck my mosquito net around me, close my eyes, and breathe in the cold and smoky night air. I realize that I am entirely content. Life is made up of days of time spent, and today, I have spent mine in the company of eleven amazing kids, all of them passionate for the destination we find ourselves in now. Together, we have spent our time digging, working, helping, learning, and changing.
Just one day, and I am changed forever. Changed and no longer cold, in Africa.