~ Nanci Hartland's first journey
into the Heart of Africa ~
Climbing down the stairs of the plane onto the tarmac in Africa for
the first time into the night air at Mt. Kilimanjaro Airport, the smell
was different than anything I had smelled before; denser, sweeter
and more acrid all at once.
My friend Willie, who is from a village 8500 feet up in the Pare Mountains within sight of Mt. Kilimanjaro lives near me in southern California. He greets me with a booming, "Welcome to Africa!” He picks me up, swings
me around, backpack and all. Putting me back on my feet, he places my hand into two dark brown ones, "Meet your new Masai husband!"
Jet lagged after thirty-six hours of flying from San Diego, CA; “OH NO! I’ve been sold!” was my immediate thought. I look up into a proud chiseled face with a mischievous grin.
"I am Laiza”, he says with dignity and English diction. Dressed in the traditional red garments of his tribe, with all kinds of things hanging from the holes in his earlobes, his flashing eyes conveyed the joke, though for just a moment they had me. I burst into laughter along with the others in the greeting party. Waiting for my two duffle bags to be dropped off the plane onto the dust, we introduce ourselves with a lot of happy, noisy confusion
Two mornings later, my duffle bags are tied on top of a Land Rover. I am being driven to Same (say Sammy) to meet another friend of Willie’s. The village is a nine hour drive and no bus goes anywhere near it, just a pick up truck that delivers mail once a month. Today we are part of their delivery.
In Same, 2½ hours later, we arrive at a bus stop overcrowded and teeming with Africans offering chickens, trinkets, hard-boiled eggs or a fried egg slapped between two pieces of white bread wrapped in wax paper.
Masai women sell traditional wide beaded necklaces backed with leather. Bracelets are beaded in bright colors over a piece of inner tube that stretches somewhat to fit on a wrist. I buy two in a turquoise, white and black design from a tall strikingly beautiful Masai girl. All of this is available just by sticking your head out the window. Dozens of buses arrive here five times a day.
As soon as I step down from the Land Rover a throng of raggedy skinny children with bright eyes and big smiles selling or begging surround me. Godfrey shouts them away as he climbs to the roof of the Rover and throws down my two duffel bags into the dust. He shouts a Swahili greeting, “Jambo! Mqueno, this one is yours. She’s Nanci. American”.
Mock bowing to me with a bright smile, Mqueno picks up my duffel and walks away. I follow quickly with the other one and my backpack to an old Toyota pick-up truck with the hood up. He throws the duffel into the back and tells me to do the same with mine, as that is my seating for the trip. I clamor in with my duffel bag and backpack and look for a way to hang on. Godfrey gently places the burlap sack covering the weathered wooden box that holds 25 Guava and Plum fruit tree seedlings between my duffles. My gift for the village. I say a cheerful good-bye and thank him for his help with the trees. He smiles and is gone into the crowd.
The hood slams down and the new driver steps away and wipes his hands on a dirty rag that he shoves in the cab. He takes a plastic bottle of water from behind the seat and quickly washes his hands carefully, dries them on another cleaner cloth and greets me. “Jambo! Ngeti is my name. Karibou! Welcome again to Afrika!” and offers a firm handshake and a smile about as wide as his ‘Afrika’ or at least to the horizon.
The next 3 hours are spent careening over a narrow two track red dusty road, down into dried up riverbeds, over and up again, like “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride”. A few times he follows the riverbed and finds the narrow track again further down. We are bouncing along under trees whose branches arch the road, or out under the sun and the wide clear blue sky. I am like a happy dog leaning into the wind with its ears flapping and a frisky smile. My eyes are big and wide as I take in everything at once using all my senses. A troop of Vervet monkeys with long arms, and babies clinging to fur cross the road in front of us and climb again into the trees.
Climbing down out of the back of the truck several hours later, my knees are shaky under me. Ngeti, the driver, hands me a cold too sweet orange crush soda in a tall glass bottle. Seldom do I remember anything wet tasting so good. Several women with babies and bags climb into the back.
Surprising me, Mgueno generously gives up his seat in the cab to me with a wide smile as we start the last 4½ hours over a narrow dirt and rock road up the side of a mountain so steep that a few times we all get out and push! A woman walking with a baby slung across her chest is added, then another with a baby and a chicken with its legs tied.
After a few hours the quiet Ngeti stops the truck and gets out. He gestures for me to get out too. Standing next to me, Ngeti moves his arm in a wide gesture pointing out and then down.
As if he can read my heart, in a soft and yet strong voice he says, “There it is, Nanci, Afrika. You can find your soul here or lose it. I have seen both happen to many who have come here, chasing dreams.”
The view down the side is of a thousand miles of Africa laid out before me.
I am in Africa!
I have left everything familiar behind!
© 2017 Nanci Hartland