This post is part of a series documenting a trip undertaken by a team of volunteers with World Vets who traveled to Arusha, Tanzania in June 2012 to provide veterinary care for the under (or should be say un-) served donkey population. For the full series of posts covering World Vets, please click here.
Tanzania is a country of great riches, but also great poverty. The reasons are complex and multifactorial, but suffice it to say it is a great reminder that my middle class existence here in the States represents an abundance of riches to many of the people we met, who walk miles every day for drinking water.
I wouldn’t say there was a despondency about the situation. It just was what it was, and that was what was so jarring. To see children tackling Alana for pens- and when she ran out, crayons. She was being mobbed by children who each took one crayon, reverently and with great gusto, as if it were a magic wand. Or when a child got a packet of Skittles- and I’m not talking about a full size packet, I’m talking the little packets like you get at Halloween- and he or she would solemnly distribute them between three or four other kids, three Skittles to a kid. If one would drop, they would dive into the dust to retrieve it, popping the grainy bit into their mouth with a satisfied grin.
They were less enthusiastic about the toothbrushes, but they took those too. The children really were lovely, and loving, and amazing.
I was careful about photography while I was there. It’s a touchy subject for many people, particularly Maasai who have gotten sick of khaki clad tourists pointing massive lenses at them without so much as a “by your leave” and click-click-clicking away as if they were on exhibit.
The camera I was carrying was, shall we say, not inconspicuous. So I was careful to make clear what I was photographing was the team, unless I had the explicit consent of the subject to be photographed.
Children were usually more than eager to pose. The adults, a little less so. Those who were getting treatments with the World Vets team tolerated me. I decided not to push it with anyone else.
So when Kyle- friendly, never met a person he didn’t like Kyle- pulled me over to take a picture with him and two new Maasai friends on the first day of work, I was thrilled. They stuck their heads together and grinned, and I snapped away.
“Our feet,” he directed, and all three of them stuck out their toes like Rockettes.
“What’s up with the feet?” I asked.
“Well,” said Kyle, “I said I would give my shoes to the first person who asked for them.” He inclined his head to the left, to a man wearing what could best be described as a piece of leather just barely looped onto the sole of his foot by a narrow strap. “And he did.”
Kyle’s shoes weren’t Air Jordans. They were your average run of the mill sneakers, and given the amount of running Kyle and Rachel do, they were probably near the end of their career in terms of support. And I haven’t been in Africa long enough to realize that it’s not like the Goodwill here in the States, that someone’s used up sweaty sneakers are not only possibly still desirable but in fact a valuable commodity, one this Maasai recognized and pounced on right away.
But Kyle has been here before, has travelled a lot, and knew what would likely happen. In fact, he was counting on it.
But he needed the shoes for the week, so he promised this man he would meet him on the last day and give him the shoes. This man took down his cell phone number and said he would call to confirm. And that was the end of that.
On the morning of my flight home, some of the team went to work on a girls’ school and I, well, I continued to be a horrible human and skipped concrete pouring to go see a museum because I really love museums and I’m a bad, bad person and I needed to get my kids a souvenir so they’d forgive me for ditching them for two weeks but then I remembered the rest of the team was going on safari afterwards and I was going home so despite feeling bad I didn’t feel THAT badly. Anyway, as the museum goers were getting into our cab Kyle and Rachel jumped in.
“Just to the end of the road,” he said. “We can walk back.”
“Where are you guys off to?” I asked, as there wasn’t much at the end of the block.
“Oh, I have to meet the guy from the market to give him my shoes,” Kyle said breezily.
“He remembered?” I asked.
“Are you kidding?” asked Kyle. “He’s called me three times to confirm. He had to take the bus into town and wanted to make sure I would show up.”
The cab pulled up to the curb next to a small store, and out Kyle and Rachel jumped. A man unfolded himself from the curb and ran over, a man who had just spent the afternoon on a bus eagerly anticipating receiving a stranger’s used athletic shoes.
I turned and looked out the back of the car as we pulled away, dust circling the two new friends as they shared a hug over this seemingly insignificant gift, which, as it turns out, was not so insignificant after all.
A trip to do veterinary work is, at the end of the day, still about the people you meet and the connections you make. It is as it has always been.