Friday, March 18, 2011
The Dirtiest Place in the World
It’s also unstoppable, bucking and lurching along a grueling gash that slices through the African countryside. I can’t call it a road; it’s too primitive to deserve that moniker. Decades of rainy season floods followed by the hammering tires of heavy trucks make this never-maintained trail a nearly impassable ribbon of tortured earth. I’m thinking that nothing could be more punishing--except the alternative, a cross country drive across the scrublands, a near impossibility. So we keep pounding onward.
We’re on a mission, driving the beast from the dusty village of Kasulu—a town that my African friend called “the dirtiest place in the world” to Kigoma, a town hard on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. In the back a pregnant woman is bleeding—to death, if we don’t get her to a hospital soon.
We received word that a group of Tanzanians—a church choral group from Kigoma—was stranded somewhere along the road between the two villages, their truck broken down. So we set out yesterday morning, the three of us—myself; Chuck, a jack-of-all-trades type; and Jonathan, a missionary doctor from Kansas—to rescue the 30 or so men, women and children before nightfall. The thought of almost three dozen people stranded overnight in the African darkness without food and water and with bandits and predators lurking was not pretty. So we left Kigoma mid-morning, packed into an SUV with food and water, hell bent for Kasulu, white knights to the rescue.
Kasulu is 100 kilometers northeast of Kigoma, an easy drive under normal circumstances. But nothing is normal in Africa. The road is crowded with people, cows, goats, bicycles and carts. And potholes, damn potholes, everywhere. Fifty meters of smooth dirt is a blessing but even then you can’t pick up any speed lest you flatten a goat or dog or, God forbid, a mother with a child wrapped in a kanga at her breast and a basket of bananas balanced on her head.
Add another element of danger to the picture: the United Nations uses this route as a supply line between the railroad station at Kigoma and the UN refugee camps in the western region. So every few minutes a speeding truck with “UN” emblazoned on the door barrels by trailing a red cloud of dust. We see the drivers through their dirty and cracked windshields, sawing at the steering wheels as they try to keep their rigs from plummeting out of control into the bush. They seem oblivious to their surroundings, eyes straight ahead. People jump off into the bush; oncoming traffic has to pull over as the huge trucks bellow by leaving choking dust clouds and chaos in their wake.
Can the refugee camps be that in need of immediate resupply that these demons endanger themselves and anyone else on the road? No matter, the UN and the NGOs ride roughshod over the region and in addition to the supply trucks, earnest looking bureaucrats rush back and forth on the roads, their new vehicles carrying the acronyms and logo of their organization; WHO, ICRC, HOPE. I suppose they do some good but the results on the ground are not apparent, unless you count the bags of rice marked “USAID” that we saw at a duka in Kigoma—for sale.
All around the truck people huddled under the bed and in the lee side, seeking scant shelter from the searing African sun. We pulled up behind the truck and hopped out. I looked around, most of the strandees are women and girls but there are also toddlers and babies and a few men. The babies are obviously in distress, their mothers, some nursing, in bad need of water. I was amazed at their calm acceptance of their predicament. They patiently stood in line as we dispensed water bottles and fruit, not a word of complaint. I thought about how a like group of Americans would handle the same situation but I quickly erased that ugly scene from my mind.
The driver said the truck overheated and eventually stopped, refusing to start. Chuck took a quick look at the blue beast and figured that the water pump was dead—the truck would not go to Kasulu like this. We needed to get the women and children out of the countryside and to safe haven before nightfall so we packed as many as we could—which turned out to be twenty women, children and babies—into the SUV. This is a standard size SUV now, not some super-size vehicle. The Tanzanians were stacked like cordwood in the back, sitting on laps and atop each other in the seats. There was no room for Chuck and me so we stayed with the truck while Jonathan drove on to Kasulu, hopefully to return before nightfall to get us and the rest of the stranded group.
As Jonathan fired up the SUV he leaned out the window. “Try to be inconspicuous, white people stand out here.” And smiled and waved as he drove away. And that’s how I came to be stranded in the wild interior of Africa, surrounded by Africans, with no transportation, night approaching and one bottle of water.
We played mechanic and climb into the yawning engine bay of the beast. The water pump was indeed dead, the engine nearly drained dry. However, the engine had cooled down in the intervening hours and we were able to get it started. The remaining church group scrambled into the bed of the truck and we limped back into Kwaga. There we found a fundi—anyone who can fix things in Tanzania is called a fundi—and arranged to have the water pump repaired.
We started looking for a place to sleep when Jonathan rolled into the village. He had made it to Kasulu, found a church to house the Tanzanians and returned for us. Good news for all—a night on a dirt floor in Kwaga was not appealing. We wedged ourselves into the SUV, twelve people stuffed into one vehicle. The heat and dust and smell—we all reeked from sweat—was overpowering.
And then the most wondrous thing happened. The Africans—a choir group remember—broke into a joyous lilting African hymn, their voices cool and sweet. Here we were in the most miserable of circumstances, a day marred by mechanical breakdown, lack of food and water, numbing heat, frightened children and crying babies, and these people were rejoicing and singing. I was stunned beyond belief. That one charming, ephemeral moment will never leave me. When I am faced with a difficult time in my life I never fail to think of that moment of unfettered hope and gratitude.
It took us two hours to reach Kasulu, the Africans singing nearly the whole way. We stopped in front of a small Catholic church as dusk swept in. I hopped out of the SUV and pushed the double church doors open. The interior was dark and I was silhouetted in the headlights, undoubtedly a frightening apparition. Shrieks of “Mzungu!”—“White man!” echo through the church and terrified children scurried to their mother's safety. The mothers laughed as the rest of our passengers filed into the church.
The local priest offered us cots to sleep on in a stark dorm room and I stepped out into the night to watch the light fade over the African grasslands. And then the day’s second wondrous thing occurred. Hundreds, then thousands, then millions of African termites began to hatch. There were no electric lights and in the total darkness I could clearly see their delicate silvery wings catching the moonlight. The ground was covered with a shimmering silver carpet that rose into the darkness—an enchanting snowfall in reverse, the snow rising up to meet the sky. It was a blizzard of the most fragile life, entrancing and captivating, and I watched it for an hour before sleep pulled me to the cot. The next morning I stumbled out of the dorm and the ground was littered with millions of paper-thin termite wings.
Today we are heading back to Kigoma. Eight or so of us pile into the SUV and bounce out of Kasulu on the long and aching trek home. We finally pull into Kwaga to retrieve the beast. It is, naturally, fixed; the resourcefulness and ingenuity of these village mechanics never ceases to amaze me.
We fire the beast up and pull onto the road when a large and boisterous group of villagers rushes toward us, yelling and waving sticks. I briefly think we have committed some unpardonable transgression and are about to be beaten to a pulp but then I notice them carrying a prone body on a platform over their heads. It is a woman and she is obviously in great distress. She opens her eyes briefly and weakly struggles to raise her head. I am not a doctor but this does not look good.
Jonathan makes a quick assessment. She is pregnant and bleeding heavily and without help she will surely bleed to death. She needs more medical help than is available in this remote village--she needs a hospital, and soon. We load her into the back of the beast and take off for Kigoma, the poor woman writhing in terrible pain while we bounce over the rutted road for hours.
We make it to the hospital and she lives.
And I think: What if we had not happened to come through Kwaga today? What are the odds that on a rarely traveled backroad, a truck heading toward the only hospital in the region would happen through an isolated village at the exact time that a desperate woman needed emergency transportation? Infinitesimal, I say. And that was wondrous thing number three.