Alfred has the kind of smile and bright eyes that makes a person honest and friendly, no matter what his natural disposition might have been. Pair that with being the sole person in Benako to speak a few words of English, and he’s easily the most attractive man in town.
We roll in to the tiny Tanzanian border-town just before sunset, eager to head Eastward and save ourselves an extra day of travel. Alfred owns and operates the bus-office – a small wooden shanty on the side of a highway lined with transport trucks headed from the Indian Ocean for the heart of Africa. Albert is, in all respects, our gateway onward. “No, no, – no travel at night,” he says with a smile and a laugh.
We’ve just crossed over from Rwanda where roads are smooth and clean and the danger of potholes is easily forgotten. “But, what about …” we protest politely. “No, no, come, I show you where you sleep,” Alfred replies.
His smile wins us over; we’ll hole up in Benako for the night and take the 5am bus to Kahama in the morning.
After dispensing our 5am-departure bus tickets from his bus-office-shanty, which makes him look something like a circus conductor jutting out of a 10-sizes-too-small clown-car, Alfred doubles as Benako’s premier tour guide, no charge, and shows us the lay of the land. He takes us to the best guest house in town – one of two options, and the only with electric lights – where our rooms run us a whopping $2.80 a night.
We dine, on Alfred’s suggestion, at a local eatery. Rice and goat are the only thing on the menu, and as a fellow diner calls everyone he knows and passes his phone to us so that we can speak English to them, it becomes clear that Benako doesn’t see many mzungus passing through.
In the morning, Alfred swings by our rooms for a timely 4:30am wake up call, all cheer as we groggily roll out of bed.
Two weeks later on the return trip, I search for Alfred as we whiz past Benako. I have a few shillings set aside ready to hand to him, but can’t find him at his office. I kick myself for not thinking of it during our 4:30 wake up call and hope to get back to Benako one day to ask Alfred where he learned such good English and to repay him for his undue kindness.
On my morning walk to work, I see a man step out of an awning a dozen meters ahead. My gait, unlike most Rwandans’, is fast and determined and so I’m soon in stride with him. He says a friendly “Bonjour…” His hello lingers, so I slow to walk with him. He asks what I’m doing in Rwanda and tells me he’s a teacher at a nearby school. He wears a heavy, patterned sweater with a sharp vest and a fedora. Were he somewhere in the West, he’d easily be a hipster grandpa, fashionable and slick.
He’s good company, neither intrusive nor distant. We talk easily, mutually interested in each other’s work. Our conversation is interrupted when we pass a child standing on the corner. He and the young girl trade words in Kinyarwanda. He sounds agitated, and she ashamed.
Our relationship is no-holds-barred, so I ask him about the exchange. I learn that Corner-Child should be in school, but it’s October and school fees are due. She doesn’t have the 3000RWF (less than $5 CDN) to pay for the trimester, so she’s asking passer-bys if they can spare a little change. Hipster-Grandpa tells me he’s scolded the girl for begging; “School fees are your parents’ responsibility,” he tells me; “You should be in school, not begging for tuition.”
A good sentiment in theory, but I suspect since she’s begging, her parents have other priorities. I think of what frivolous things I might spend five dollars on in Canada, and what a trimester of education might mean for Corner-Girl in Rwanda.
Fifteen+ hours in to a three day adventure to Arusha, Tanzania, I board a bus stuffed to the rafters with people, luggage, and livestock. I find a seat next to Michael, a 30-something geologist with massive muscles who occupies the middle seat of a three-seat row. His frame is too large for the tiny seats, five across in total, but what his body lacks in grace his smile and awareness of his surroundings make up for. With each bump that throws people and possessions flailing into the air, Michael’s limbs splay and quickly retract as he tries not to take up so much space.
It’s another 10 hot and sweaty hours to Arusha so I’ve readied my book and expectations for comfort. In truth, I’m exhausted from the previous day’s travel and the comfortable but short sleep in Benako’s $2.80 per night guesthouse. My cat nap is interrupted by Michael’s shining smile. “Can I see it?” he asks tepidly, pointing to my book. “Of course,” I respond, handing over the goods. I assume he just wants to read the back cover, but he starts in with the first page. I shrug and resume my cat nap.
When I wake up again, Michael is 20-some pages in to James Baldwin’s Another Country. I’m a bit nervous; in my 60-some pages, the book has delved in to issues of race, sex, and sexuality in 1950s New York City. I’m not sure how the pulse of Baldwin’s Beat Generation will be received in modern Tanzania, where race, sex, and sexuality could easily be considered taboo subjects. “Good book,” he says, turning a page. I shrug again and resume my afternoon nap.
Michael reads and reads until the sunset forces his hand. I sit beside him appreciating the scenery and his gusto for Another Country. When he passes my leopard-print bookmark and the 60-page mark, I can’t help but comment: “You’re an incredible reader,” I say, awed that he can read so quickly in a second language (or third or forth or fifth, as is so common for Africans!) and trying to recall how much time it took me to read the same number of pages in my first language.
Michael, who is now a trained geologist and an expert in his field, offers, “When I was young it cost about an American nickel to buy a magazine. I’d go to the shop and hide in the corner with a magazine until the shop owner noticed. I learned to read as fast as possible so that I could take it all in before the shop owner kicked me out!” he laughs, “I guess that helped me to learn to read so quickly…”
My mother said I must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy. That some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and more intelligent than college professors. – Maya Angelou