One thousand shillings

“Are you the one that gave me one thousand shillings?”

The bibi scrutinizes Happy’s face, looking for anything familiar that might lend a clue to help her old mind remember for sure.

She asksagain:  “Are you the one?  The one that came here that time and gave me one thousand?”

Happy smiles.  The bibi throws up her arms in joy.  “It’s you.  You are the one!”  “Karibu!  Karibu! (Welcome, Welcome)”

Deo sticks his head out of the door, but quickly goes back inside the simple three-room cement home. His little brother stays outside, wondering who these three visitors are.  This remote home in the shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro, on a dry plain dotted with baobab trees, does not receive many visitors, and surely none that include a white person.

As the old bibi continues to shower us with blessings and welcomes, Deo comes out of the house to greet us.  I have not seen him in a few years.  I knew him from the orphanage years ago, but then I stopped going there, and he stopped going there too.  I heard he was kicked out last year.  That is when I sent Happy to go and find him and make sure he was okay.  It was no easy task, but Happy managed to track him down in this village where the only directions one can give are ‘Turn left at the rock’ and “Go straight past the trees until you get to the other trees then turn right after the place where the goats walk.’  Happy explained that she worked for GO Campaign and she wanted to check on Deo and send back a report to America.  Thankfully, the report was good.  He was attending the local primary school and doing very well.  The family is only able to pay a small amount of school fees, but it’s working out and Deo is a good student.  I later learn that he ran away from the orphanage.

Deo was always a sweet child.  Very quiet, with a warm, shy smile, and delicate features.  He was the one with the withered leg.  One of his legs had been severely burned and it looked bad, but apparently it no longer brought pain.  Except perhaps the pain of memory.  I was told that when he was younger, he tried to take food from someone.  As a punishment, someone poured scalding water on his leg so he would never take food again.

I start taking photos of Deo with my digital camera.  He urges his younger brother to join him.  Soon bibi comes over and wants her picture.  She wants it by the wall.  Then with her hands on her chest.  Then with her hands in front of her face.  “Take another” becomes a familiar call.  She takes the camera from me after each click, to inspect herself.  The first photo brings peals of laughter – She probably has not seen the full effects of aging on her face in a while.  Who knows the last time she may have seen a mirror.  Maybe a reflection from a puddle during rainy season last year.  Click after click, she examines each photo, and the initial laugher gives way to gratitude and praise.  ‘God bless you.  Thank you.”

For what?  For visiting.  For taking her picture.

Soon we are joined by Deo’s mother.  She wants in on the picture-taking too.  She starts directing everyone, including myself, ordering us about.  She belongs on a Hollywood film set, not because she is beautiful, but because she is tempermental and great at barking orders at underlings. When I tell her to smile, it becomes clear she doesn’t really know how.  She tries different approaches.  Most involve pushing out air from her mouth.  Often with a “Huh” or a “Ha”, thinking that is the proper sound to induce a smile on one’s face.  Only once does she actually manage to create a smile.

Happy explains to me that this mama is crazy, though it doesn’t require explanation. This woman is clearly living in her own world.  In America she would be on regular medication and lunching in Beverly Hills with the rest of the crazy people, but here in Africa, there is little understanding or help for emotional distress or mental illness, and absolutely none in rural communities like this.

Leonsi can’t help but laugh at this crazy mama. The way she barks orders. The way she expels air from her mouth when trying to smile for the camera.  Even Deo laughs at her sometimes.  Leonsi explains, “Of course he knows his mother is crazy, but what else can he do?”

Deo is quick to tell me that his grandfather is in the hospital.  So it is just him, his younger brother, his crazy mother, and the grandmother.  “Take another picture”, the bibi suggests.  I can’t resist her. That face. That smile. She continues to thank us and thank God. It doesn’t matter that her husband is in the hospital or that they have no food on the table.  Bibi has lived through it all.  This is life in Africa.  She is joyous because she has visitors. No complaints from this bibi. Just gratitude for the moment.

And for that thousand shillings Happy gave her last year, no doubt.

Deo takes me into the mud house where the Bibi lives.  It had chickens and rabbits inside. The crazy mama calls for us to come outside again.  She orders me to follow her to another mud house a couple hundred yards away.  I do what I was told.

Some flying insect bites my hand when I am not looking.  Leonsi brings me the mosquito repellant from inside my backpack.  We continue on to the other mud house.

It is late afternoon, the time when the clouds move away and Mt. Kilimanjaro reveals itself for the first time since early morning.  The view of the mountain is breathtaking.  Only giant baobab trees and desert landscape between us and the mountain.  It may be one of the hardest places to live, but it is also one of the most beautiful.

Crazy mama takes me and her two sons inside the old mud house.  It is empty and dark.  She orders Deo to close the door.&n
bsp; I wonder what we are doing there.  Then she orders me to snap pictures of her and the children.  Another.  Then another.  She barks for Deo to open the door.  Then she wants more photos outside the house.  Then by the grave where Deo’s father is buried.  Stones and a small cross made of sticks mark the site.  Click.  Click again.

I wonder why this house is completely empty.  Happy explains that mama hears voices inside her head when she’s in that house, so she hasn’t used that house in years.  She sleeps in the other house instead, with the grandfather and her two boys.  Bibi lives in the other house with the rabbits and the chickens.

During the days, when Deo is at the local school with his younger brother, crazy mama just wanders on the property, usually sitting by herself, staring into the desert.

Bibi asks us to take the two boys and send them to a good school.  Most government schools are terrible in Tanzania, especially out here in the villages.  “But if we take the children, who will fetch you water, Bibi”, Happy asks.  Bibi just laughs.  “Who cares about an old woman like me? That’s not important.  Education is important.  I want them to be better than me.”

Bibi apologizes she can’t serve us tea.  She has not even a drop of sugar in the house.  Happy tells her we came with a small gift.  A bit of rice, some tea leaves, and some sugar.  The bibi clasps her hands to her face in joy.  “God bless you.  God bless you.  May you always walk on the safe path and not on the rough roads.  Thank you. Thank you.  God bless you.”

The sun will be setting soon and there are no lights in this village. We must start driving back to town.  Crazy mama, and even Bibi, asks for more photographs, but we explain the camera is tired.  Happy is now calling them “the photogenic family” because she has never seen adults so anxious to have their picture taken.  I click one more for the road.

I leave, glad to have seen Deo again, amused and saddened by his crazy mama, and thoroughly, utterly enchanted with his old grandmother.  I am ready to vote for this woman for President.  Should she choose to run, I will come back and run her campaign.  She is my new favorite Tanzanian.  She doesn’t ask for anything.  She is happy for the visit.  She looks forward to our next visit, and she knows we will help with Deo’s schooling.  She is thrilled by the rice, tea and sugar.  She is delighted by the memory of the one thousand shillings Happy gave her last year.  Nothing about her hard life can keep her from smiling.  Nothing about her hard life can keep her from being grateful.  She has wisdom.  She has joy.  She has memories of kind, generous visitors.

One thousand shillings is about sixty-four cents.