Africa, school of life
It’s 6.30 and the sun is about to set.
Our Jeep keeps grinding kilometres raising clouds of sand, while running on a dirty, red-coloured road.
Asphalt is for the main roads, and we’re going to Iguguno, a small village in the heart of Tanzania, in the region of Singida.
No roads are made of asphalt near there.
My father Francesco is on the front seat. Marisa, my mother, has a coloured handkerchief on her face trying not to breathe the sand coming from outside, which is coming inside although the windows are closed. With us there is my older brother Pierbruno, my little sister Maria and two nuns, our friends.
One of them is called Scolastica, but her friends call her “sista” Scola. She’s our main reference in Tanzania. We send her money so she can give it to all those boys and girls we help studying. She also handles all of the humanitarian projects we try to carry on.
Sista Scola is our guide, an incredible person, a generous soul and the kindest I have ever met. She’s like an angel with whom my parents have a very strong relation. Every time they talk to her on the phone is a huge emotion.
When you travel in Africa, you always should do it with locals. We usually have some local guy who is our driver and takes care of the car while we’re staying there. They can almost do everything, they know the region, they know the roads and the people. One of them cared so much about our trip that he slept on the roof of the car because he was scared someone could steal it.
But now we are just the people from our family and two nuns, in the middle of nowhere.
We’re 30 minutes far from our destination but something suddenly cuts one of the tyres. Drilled.
Suddenly, it gets dark. We’re in the middle of nowhere, in some obscure part of Africa, with a drilled tyre and a Jeep bent on one side next to a road full of holes.
Me and my brother, we were fourteen at that time, look to each other scared. Because in Africa once it gets dark it REALLY gets dark. There are no lights along the road and the only source of light is made by the headlights of cars and trucks that rarely come running by your side.
Dad takes the initiative. He goes under the car and with a flashlight in his mouth he takes the spare wheel. We lift the car with a jack. I take the key and I feel like I am the best bolts unscrewer in the world.
Suddenly we hear something from the fields.
“Ok, now here come four people with a knife, they threaten us, they rob us and they kill us. It’s over” I think. But then we realize that they just were locals going back to their houses.
Silently, a lot of men and women, young and old people, were walking in both directions. They had woken up early and started walking to make sure their days made sense. They walked to go to school, to go into town, to collect water or wash their clothes.
One of the things I learned is that Africa is always about walking. After some minutes the wheel is repaired, we feel united and strong like those families in the movies. My father starts the engine. We go back home.
In my african memories there is also another drilled tyre, in the Tarengeri National Park. We had just went past a group of elephants, keeping the distance, and suddenly the tyre drilled. We are in a national park, where animals are free. We could have been threatened easily. But two men helped us and we survived that time too. I had never seen my mother so scared: she locked us into the car and said we should not get out for any reason. “Don’t be stupid and stay safe, there could be some big animal out there”, she said. Maybe the idea of meeting a lion was some kind of fascinating, but she probably was right.
My mum and dad are both doctors. They decide to dedicate two years of their lives to other people. They start volunteering and in early 1988 they fly to Tanzania after collaborating with the LVIA association and studying swahili for some months, first in Cuneo and then in Tanzania. They leave without any certainties, without smartphones, without anyone. Two important years will follow, and it will be the base of their relationship and later of our family.
In that period, in order to stay in touch with our relatives, every two weeks they send a letter to Italy because phone calls are too expensive and there are only a few places to make them.
Every time a letter arrives, in Chieti, where my family is, it is a joy. My grandfather Rinaldo kept all of them and when I went to see him he always asked me to read because he was blind, so that he could experience again the emotions of that period.
The first pregnancy does not go really well. After 3 months Marisa loses her child and she experiences hard times. But she is a strong women, and on April 27, 1990, something really close to a miracle happens. In a small town called Itigi, Pierbruno was born, the first ever white child born in that area.
People will call him “Mwendwa” (loved, dear), the same people that after ten years treats him like a brother.
This is Africa: empathy, humanity, brotherhood, sharing. Africa makes everything simple. It makes you look to essential things. Teaches the love for other people, how to respect the diversities. Because in Africa there is no diversity, we all are sons of the same sky.
One day Father Oliver, a priest, touched his face and said “Do you see the colour of my skin? It’s different from yours.”. Then he took my father’s wrist and kept going “But you are a doctor, and you know what colour blood is. Mine and yours, is the same.”
I was born in Rome, like my sister, but we went many times in that part of Africa near the Equator. We feel like it belongs to us too. My first visit was in 1992, when I was one year old. Last one in 2007. Six times our parents put us on a flight to Nairobi or Dar Es Salaam.
But I can’t do anything but thank them for this, because you can tell Africa and is a fascinating tale. You can see it and be moved by pictures or documentaries, but if you live it you can become a better person.
I there learned to appreciate the value of time. In Tanzania is like dilated, and if it takes you two hours to go to school and two hours to come back home, you start learning that to do something well it may take you the whole day. And in that day you did something special.
In Africa I learned how precious basic necessities are and how lucky we are. Drinkable water, hot water, food, medicine, a roof above our heads. In Africa it is not given for granted.
First words I learned in Swahili were “Naomba maji ya kunywa” which means “I would like to drink some water”, because the water they drink is different from the one that is used to wash themselves. And “washing themselves” means filling a glass of water and throwing it on yourself.
One day we were going to Arusha, in the north of Tanzania, almost on the border with Kenya. It just was to take a break while we were going towards Nairobi, where we would have taken the plane home. Eight hours into a jeep. At the end of that trip we had teeth and hair full of sand and dust, and our clothes were sweating for a heat we never felt before. When we arrived we found a restaurant where we could eat something. We were dreaming about fresh coke, or Sprite, but when we sat down what did Sista Scola ask for?
“Maji moto”, hot water. Yes, hot water.
She just was too used to drink it because you need to boil it to make it drinkable.
One day, when she had tried for the first time sparkling water she said “What is this? A medicine?”
In Tanzania like in most parts of Africa you can give a real value to joy.
Poverty is so evident that leaves you speechless.
There are houses with no roof, with curtains instead of doors.
Children, the ones who go to school, have their uniforms and they wear it all day long.
They have no clothes to change themselves. The majority of them walk and run with just one shoe. They are so used to walk barefoot that when we played football with them they hit the ball with their bare foot.
In Tanzania I learned that playing with a ball makes you so happy you can forget something else is missing. You live of emotions given by small things. The smile of a child who receives a pencil as a present is something that can’t be explained: you have to see it.
I learned how important it is to be thankful to people who gave you something.
I admired the strength of the adults, the respect towards old people. Their faith in God and the energy of the communities during festivities. I learned how important it is to study and how it is the only way to improve your life, to build your future. Free.
Let me tell you about Inyazi.
He was 30 years old and already had 7 children when he showed up to the “village health workers” course that my father held in the villages near Singida. The course lasted 9 months and finished with an exam, and the main target was to inform people on health rules, on hygiene, turning them in “village health workers”. Inyazi was the best between all the students. After one month he went to my parents’ home and he was very embarassed.
He confessed that he had falsified his brother’s fifth grade certificate, without which he would not have been admitted to the course. He didn’t have it because he never went to school.
My parents were doubly stunned. First of all for confession. Subsequently for the skills demonstrated without ever having received any type of education. So the first thing they asked was how he learned to read and write.
“One day a piece of newspaper flew from a truck. My grandfather picked it up and taught me with that. ” They were completely speechless.
During our last trip Inyazi sent his son to invite us to have lunch at his house. “You absolutely have to come, Dad has redone the roof of his house, he is very proud and wants to show it to you!”. So we went to them on a hill. He, his wife and children welcomed us with joy, offering us chicken, fruit and chapati. Inyazi told us that his children were studying a lot and well, thanks to our Italian friends who paid their studies remotely. He and his wife never stopped kissing my parents as they were so happy of having them there. To have us there.
Then, the big moment came: the new roof!
It had cost him months of sacrifices and work. I was too curious.
We went outside and showed us his work: a series of overlapping and sloping sheet metal plates that covered the whole house with red bricks. I was amazed.
When we were coming back I asked my father “Dad, all of this joy for some sheet metals?” “When your roof is made of straw, building one made of sheet metals is a beautiful thing”.
It took some time, but I had learned another great lesson: the perception of every success or happiness is absolutely relative. In this relativity lies a profound beauty, as it teaches us to look at what we have not only with our eyes, but with the eyes of those who do not have what we have.
If I looked to my life with Inyazi’s eyes, I was like a king. Did I ever feel like I was? No. But I should have. I should have understood my fortune and being much more happy than I usually were.
During our last trip we also brought a basket, bought thanks to some money collected with the Chieti basketball friends. We mounted it under the amazed gaze of the local children, and we played together. They were used to kick the ball, and it took a while to explain them the idea that Naismith had of throwing the ball into the iron using hands. The most comfortable were the nuns, who seemed also the most amused.
Sometimes I think if that basket is still there…
I hope to find out personally because 2007 is too far away and I need to get back there and do something for the other half of my heart, which is in that land red as blood and fulfilled with so much love we can’t even imagine.
A love so huge and so true that I rarely found on this side of the Mediterranean and that makes me think of a sentence from Italo Calvino’s “Il Barone Rampante”
“If you raise a wall, pay attention to what you’re leaving outside.”
(Thanks to Marco Rao Camemi)