This is the World Vets team (minus Kyle, who was behind the camera, and Teri, who was at the dentist) at the end of our third day in Kikatiti. As you can see, compared to our first day in Arusha, we are dustier, our hair is sticking straight up, and the scrubs are pretty decrepit. BUT WE ARE ALL STILL SMILING. And that never stopped.
The two gentlemen at the far left in both rows were our drivers, who were amazing. They took us all over Arusha, finding markets in the middle of cornfields and gamely sitting in the sweltering cars guarding our supplies while we were out donkey wrangling. They were great. I have never met a driver as open about his family life as our driver. One morning I heard his voice suddenly pitch low as he started talking to Rudy, who was in the front seat with him. There was some giggling. Then Rudy said, “You know that method doesn’t work, right?” and more laughing.
“Oh, he’s talking about how his wife got pregnant with their second kid,” said Alana as I was craning my ear towards the front trying to eavesdrop.
“Wow,” I said. “You have good hearing.”
“No,” she said, “I just heard this story yesterday.”
So we had our hysterical drivers, and Livingstone, and Albert- the village councilman in Kikatiti, standing in this picture between Janet and Rudy. He had just finished telling us how glad he was that we had come to Kikatiti, and that in addition to signing the guest register for the town he would like to take us all to meat. He said it just like that: “I would like to take you all for meat.”
And Kyle and Rachel, both vegan, very politely said that although it sounded lovely, they were perfectly happy to enjoy the lunches that we had packed, but I had already said “Sure!” because, well, it seemed like the neighborly thing to do. So we all piled in the cars and drove to a roadside restaurant while Kyle and Rachel hurriedly ate whatever was in their vegetarian lunch boxes so they could convincingly plead that they were full.
Much to everyone’s relief, the place we arrived at was not just some roadside fire pit with a cone of meat like you see at some markets but an actual restaurant to sit down in, which if nothing else was probably less likely to make us all sick. We piled into the courtyard, sitting in the ubiquitous Coca-Cola plastic chairs that every roadside restaurant in Africa seems to have. Albert nudged Rudy off to the side, proffering the chair at the head of the table to Alana instead. He liked Alana.
I had already been out to a similar place once before with Erica from the Ahadi Lodge, which I was grateful for when the server came around with her jug of water and a bar of soap. While some of the team members looked at the pitcher in worry- do I hold out my glass? Nod? I knew that you stick your hands over the bowl, and they would pour warmed water over your hands. Tableside hand-cleaning service. Very nice. Especially for this group, who had been handling donkeys all day and had extremely grubby fingers.
Soon, we were all clean and tidy (well, at least our hands were), sitting in our chairs with our beverage of choice. I got a passionfruit Fanta, something one of the readers here turned me onto. Also known as Tanzanian crack. For the evening hours, I recommend Tusker lager, by the way. Albert ordered for the group, though what he ordered, we had no idea.
Laughter keeps you young
While we waited for the food to arrive, Albert turned his attention to Alana and initiated a topic I can only assume is considered polite dinner conversation in East Africa. It’s called, “How old are you and how much do you weigh?” When Alana demurred, he took this as a sign that he was to guess. Poor Alana tried very hard to let him know as politely as she could that this was not really a topic she’d like to spend a lot of time on, but to no avail. He guessed anyway.
He waxed poetic about the virtues of his preferred body type for a while, and then proceeded around the table, guessing the weights and ages of some of us. He skipped over the obviously old and haggard ones, like me. Soon, blessedly, the food arrived.
“Ah, nyama choma!” Albert announced with a clap, as steaming piles of some sort of meat were placed in front of us. I surveyed it. I saw bones, something that looked like connective tissue, and perhaps some sort of beef product mixed in as well. We were all looking at each other hoping someone else would go first.
I had learned the week before that the two plates flanking the meat could be your best friend: some sort of pico de gallo looking salsa stuff and a plate of salt. With enough of those items piled on, you wouldn’t notice the taste of the meat. I took the tiniest piece of meat I could find, pushed the plate over to Toccoa, and piled on the salsa. Then I spent the next 20 minutes chewing that one piece of meat, which was an effective way to defer having to eat any more.
I was to learn only several weeks later that what I thought was kachumbari did not, in fact, have any tomatoes in it. The tang came from lemons, and the color came from the cows blood they poured in it. I think life was better before I knew that. Note to self: skip the African salsa next time.
“Why aren’t you eating?” asked Albert, nodding to Kyle and Rachel, who were sipping their soda and pointedly looking everywhere but at the bowl of meat in front of them.
“Oh, we’re vegetarians,” said Kyle. “But it really looks wonderful.”
Albert shrugged, and then, realizing they weren’t going to eat it, pulled the bowl over and dug in. I caught Toccoa’s eye. Apparently she had been surreptitiously feeding pieces from our bowl into Albert’s when he wasn’t looking. I gave her a silent thumbs up. Soon we were left with empty bowls and a sense of accomplishment that we had tried something, well, new and interesting. And authentic. Though I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say I can’t wait to go back and order it again. The server came back with another bowl of water, and we washed the….salsa…from our fingers.
“We have a saying in Africa,” said Albert, “That the more you laugh, the longer you live.”
“In that case,” I said, “We’re gonna live forever.”
Extemporaneous Speeches of Great Import
Albert smiled, the corners of his eyes crinkling. His secretary, who had joined us for lunch, produced the groaning ledger that was the Kikatiti guest register from underneath the table. “Ah,” said Albert. “Who should sign first?”
I looked around for Teri, while everyone else pointed at me. As the official De Facto Leader I had the honor of signing the guest book first, which was a huge thrill. It was about to get better.
As the group took turns signing the book, Albert stood up and gave a lovely speech, thanking us for coming to his village and providing a much needed service for the people he served. “We would love to have you back,” he said. “Any time. We are all so grateful for what you have done today.”
We all applauded, touched by his heartfelt words. He sat, steepled his fingers, and looked at me expectantly. I peered around the table to see where the ledger was.
“Would you,” prompted his secretary, “like to say some words on behalf of World Vets?”
Now, this was new to me. I’m no stranger to public speaking, but I usually have a few weeks’ notice, slides full of pictures of dogs and chimpanzees, and a podium. I had none of this here. I thought of Cathy at home in North Dakota, who probably had no idea when she sent me out here that I would find myself giving speeches on her organization’s behalf to African leadership, and Teri, who would probably be SO BUMMED she had missed this chance to talk. But you know, I’ve lived my whole life waiting for the opportunity to be in the middle of Africa with someone wanting me to rattle a speech off the top of my head about an organization that, although I admire it immensely, I am prohibitively unqualified to speak on behalf of since I’ve been a member for less than a week. I’ve dreamed of such a moment. And here it was.
The pressure was on. This was my moment. I cleared my throat, pushed the chair back, and stood up, brushing off my knees. And I started to talk.
Now, thinking we were just pulling off for a quick bite, I had left my camera in the car for this, so I had no documentation of this epic speech. I don’t even remember what I said, but I think it had lots to do with being grateful for his village’s warm welcome, and how lovely everyone was, and then in the heat of the moment I think I said we couldn’t wait to come again and we were honored to be invited back.
Janet, who had brought her point and shoot, took one picture of this speech, but I don’t have the picture. I’ve seen it though. I don’t normally watch myself when I talk, but multiple people have teased me mercilessly about the fact that I don’t talk with my mouth, but with my entire body. Speaking is, for me, a form of interpretive dance. And in that picture, I have my head cocked to the side and my arms out like I’m holding a beach ball, no doubt expressing the warmth that was exuded to us by the people of Kikatiti that encompassed us like a warm hug. I was probably waving my hands around too. I’ve been told I do that.
I’d like to say it was an exceptional bit of extemporaneous speech-giving, marked by dramatic highs and lows, but in reality it was probably mostly just adequate and I tend to speak so quickly they probably only caught half of it anyway. No matter. I managed not to offend anyone, as far as I know. And the offer still stood when we left, to come back.
Right before we departed, Alana continued with her tradition of bringing out the freebies and getting mauled in the process, so we had to wait until her coffers were empty before we could leave. It gave us a chance to pass out the pre-emptive Pepto tabs, talk a little more with Albert, and get a few more pictures in with our new friend. Word on the street is that when it came to guessing age and weight, he tended to underestimate both.
I think he knew what he was doing.
Based on our laughs that day, yes, we’re all going to live forever.