This blog is about one night, when the sun went down.
The A14 rises and falls with the dogged unpredictability of a turbulent sea. Each crank is powered round with exaggerated effort and if a rhythm can be traced it’s dead or off beat. We’re worn-out and anxious to get off the road and to sleep. Stuffed buses, trussed up like fairground attractions, rage past on a Dar Es Salaam deadline and as I chew over the irony of one’s mud flap motto God Will Decide, I suspect I’ve too much lactic acid in my thighs to stay alert. We’ve limited water left, having showered at noon to shake off the humidity and will have find a village or a house. Tonight, it doesn’t take long for a cluster of ochre shapes to become life-size houses.
Thirty metres back from the main road and opposite a sisal plantation – both pleasing and alarming in its uniformity – a run of tiny faces, effulgent in the last sun bounce in a successful attempt to attract our attention. Breathless and frenzied the small people yelp and whoop and wave. Behind them a brood of women, settled at the base of a tree, oversee the situation with good grace. Although concerned that our presence might be an imposition on a village so materially poor, the women’s warmth and a call of Karibuni (welcome) draws us to a standstill.
We bump our ungainly loads off the road and wheel back towards the group. The run of youngsters vanishes and joy is replaced by horror as the unpredictable, frankly volatile Mzungu (foreigners) – a.k.a us – abandon the realm of expected behaviour. White people don’t usually stop...says a broad woman with soft features as she gestures for us to join, to sit down.
A raised eyebrow and a nod is enough to establish it is okay for us lean our bikes against the first house. We do so gently and as I forage without grace in my back pannier for a skirt to restore modesty, Diarmaid pulls on the granddad striped trousers he had tailored in Sudan, slips off his sandals in his own evening ritual and pads across to the brood.
Blossoming steadily the group stretches to some thirty people, most of them small. Those at the apparent helm are all women and the absence of men, at this time, is a joyous omission. A peaceful excitement rests easily around us and using broken English and fitful Kiswahili we talk through our story in brief:
From Tanga? By bicycle?
But...actually...we started first in London, London in the UK.
London? By bicycle?
When did you start your journey?
The broad woman with soft features is the undisclosed but doubtless leader of this group. Her round eyes and faultless complexion framed by a neat kohl headscarf. 40 I guess, 45 at a push. At odds with the peacock of colourful skirts around her, her black robes broadcast that she’s in mourning. Lest that is our guess. We don’t ask. And she doesn’t say. What she does say is My name is Salima.
Salima welcomes us quietly into the tribe – a term that I use here to describe a simple but visceral bond between peoples; a sensation more than an emotion that enables a shared calm. Small dust-clarted legs tumble over one another to get a closer ear as Thuli, Salima’s daughter, translates what she can of us to the group; here secondary schools are expected to teach in English. Teased lovingly by their elders, the children who had scattered in fear slowly return. The least confident relieved at their burgeoning human shield. It is agreed then that we can camp. A verbal contract that can only be made official once a small child has been dispatched to rouse the sleeping chief. He does so and five minutes later a crumpled, smiling man whose taqiyah (small prayer cap) is level with Diarmaid’s chest, comes only to give us his blessing.
With orange titanium arms that snap into a spider like spine, a delicate mesh roof and rainbow of Nepalese prayer flags our tent seems designed to please crowds. The more inquisitively minded delighted to be asked to grab a pole. Up in a flash, we unstrap our mats and fling our panniers inside. Diarmaid grabs the kitchen – his front right pannier – and we settle back down, with Thuli opposite, in the carefully kept centre of the fold.
With his stalky beard tickling the top of his fleece, Diarmaid sits cross legged and, as magician might, begins to pull out one kitchen item at a time. An act of necessity not conjury – it is a simple matter of space: the pepper sits inside the tin mugs, the knives and the chopping board only accessible after the pot has vanished. A ripple of discussion chases each item. Is that oil? What kind of oil? Where on earth did you get such big onions? [Kenya] The soy sauce is passed around on a flat bedded spoon for only the bravest to taste. Thuli likes it. We learn some basic culinary terms and after great discussion it’s concluded that they don’t grow lentils in Tanzania.
A slow and preposterously poor choice of bicycle fodder, the lentils take over an hour. But with Salima and Thuli as guides we sail comfortably through the dark.
Do you know any songs? Asks Thuli
Not many but Diarmaid does and I wish I did. You?
Can you sing?
Noooo but we’d love to hear you.
And she starts. And others follow. The Swahili version of Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika, the kids carry each other through the national anthem with a clarity that only the young seem to muster. Diarmaid croons his way through The Boys of County Armagh to rapturous applause before a gentle solo from Thuli leads us to a close. The lentils! They’re ready to serve.
It’s now about 9 o’clock and long past ours and many of the kids’ bed times. Having arrived at dusk I’m conscious of the fact that I haven’t actually seen anyone else eat. It feels uncomfortable to be spooning mounds of rice and dahl into two bowls. I clean our spare bowl and fill it to the brim. There’s an awkward moments of indecision when I can’t work out who to give it to and pass it into Thuli’s hands.
If you guys want to try some, please, er, share it around, I stumble.
And I feel immediately silly. Almost before the sentence has fallen from my mouth Thuli is spooning a dollop of the dahl into each and every small hand.
And it made me sad but at once it made me strong also. For any person or group that gives before it takes and gives without being conscious that it is giving must be spiritually more complete than the one who looks to meet their own needs before giving.
By 9.30 we’re tucked up in bed and the kids, high as kites, have been sent home. For a sizeable number of those that home was the closest mud brick house. Salima, we discover, was caring for an extended brood. We didn’t ask though. And she didn’t tell.
But she did say is:
Goodnight and god bless Mac, goodnight and god bless Hannah.
Thanks for everything.