Friday, February 19, 2010

A Day in Bukoba

Friends: My Friday arrival in Bukoba happened to be the day of a weekly lunch for 60 HIV orphans hosted by the owner of the petrol station that Mbasa manages. The boss, Mr. Raza, invited me to the luncheon and asked if I would give a talk to the orphans about my travels. He said it was the best meal many of the orphans ate all week. It would be a feast of two goats. He promised that I would be amazed by the amount of food the kids would eat.

Looking after the orphans was just one of several of Mr. Raza's humanitarian efforts. He runs his own NGO (Izaas Medical Project) trying to find limbs for amputees, many of whom are albino children who have had an arm or leg severed by a witch doctor who believes the limb can cure some ailment. Mr. Raza has enlisted the aid of several American and Dutch doctors, who pay periodic visits to Bukoba. He also has on staff a local doctor who provides free medical service every morning.

Mr. Raza is a Muslim of Indian heritage, born here in Bukoba. As he passionately described his many endeavors he said, "Now you can tell your Mr. Bush that not all Muslims are terrorists. The maiming and carnage he has caused is just terrible. You Americans only get your news from CNN. You are not learning the truth. You need to listen to the Arabic Al Jeezera news to know what is really going on in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Mr. Raza preceded me to the luncheon to join the orphans in prayer with a Muslim minister. Mbasa escorted me to the facility 45 minutes later. When I arrived a young man, also by the name of George, awaited me with a digital camera to photograph my appearance. He was from Dar es Salem, the capital of Tanzania nearly 1,000 miles away. He was three-weeks into a three-month assignment helping Mr. Raza with his computer work and fund raising. He was exceptionally bright and hospitable, a fine young man, who became my escort for the remainder of my time in Bukoba.

He said he would not be joining us for the meal as he was fasting during daylight hours for Lent, which had begun three days ago. He, like Mbasa, is an ardent Catholic. The orphans were still in prayer when we arrived. In the courtyard was a huge pot full of rice and a second huge pot of goat stew simmering over a fire. I helped stirring the stew with an oar. Before lunch I was introduced to the orphans by Mr. Raza. The orphans all sat on the floor, girls to one side and boys to the other.

After he talked about me for several minutes a dozen trays were brought out with the goat stew atop a mound of rice and placed among the students. Mbasa and I and the Islamic minister had our own tray. We too sat on the floor to eat. No utensils were provided. We ate the stew by balling it up with a handful of rice. The students about us devoured their platters well before we did. We had way more than we could eat. When we offered it to a group of boys nearby they quickly polished it off. All the while, George hovered about taking photos.

We adjourned to a second room for my talk. It was mostly a question and answer session translated by George. A few of the students spoke English but were too bashful to speak loudly and asked me to come near them so they could speak to me directly. The first question was, "Do you think Tanzania is a poor country?" I said I had only been in the country one day and that I was very impressed by the quality of its roads and the buildings I had seen and the stores selling many things. Someone else wanted me to compare my bike to Tanzanian bikes. I was also asked if I was afraid of animals camping out at night. I said, I thought the animals were more afraid of me than I of them. Towards the end someone asked me to ride my bike for them. I demonstrated my clip-in pedals. That grabbed their attention, drawing them out of their seats for a closer look.

After the session Mbasa and George took me to the one-room, dirt-walled shack where one of the orphans, an unwed 14-year old girl with a baby, lived with her grand-parents and brother and sister. They encouraged me to take pictures and invited me to hold the baby. They kept telling me how horrible her circumstances were, pointing out the corner of the unlit hovel that was her bed. I didn't tell them that I spent several winters living in a dirt-floored hut one-third the size of this house in Mexico with a girl friend.

I had planned to put up my tent at a lakeside campgrounds, but George invited me to spend the night in his compound, where one of the orphans lived and was looked after by an amputee. In the courtyard were two goats tied up munching hay. George said they had just arrived and would be next Friday's luncheon.

I had yet to see Bukoba's Lake Victoria shoreline, about a half mile away. It was late in the afternoon, so I made a quick ride down to the lake and then rejoined George and Mbasa and Mr. Raza at the petrol station. Mr. Raza gave me a letter to deliver to an American nun who lived at a convent 20 miles south on my route the next day. We shared a glass of freshly squeezed sugar cane juice, then George and I walked back to his quarters where the caretaker prepared dinner for us. While we waited George gave me a photo show on his computer of the many people Mr. Raza had assisted, with close-ups of many of their horrific ailments.

His screen saver was a photo of Stonehenge. George didn't know what it was, he just liked the image. He thought it was a natural wonder and was shocked to learn that it had been created by pre-historic man. I explained that it served as a calendar. It was also news to George that at the extremes in the northern and southern hemispheres in the summer time it is daylight until midnight or later and that in the winter time it is dark for most of the day. On George's second lap top his screen saver was the rapper 50 Cents, but the music he chose to play was by Abba, a group he likes even more.

It was nearly ten o'clock when we were through with dinner. We took a stroll through the mostly quiet down town in search of an open store so George could buy some cigarettes. Rather than a pack, he bought four. George had a bunk in his room, but I chose to set up my tent on the concrete of the courtyard. The goats were put into a room for the night.

The next morning Mbasa came by to take me to the lakeside to see the fish market. George came along with his camera. I rode my bike while Mbasa rode on the back of a motorcycle and George on the back of a bicycle. There were clusters of bicyclists all over town offering rides on their rear racks. Short rides were 200 shillings, with 1300 to the dollar. Mbasa was well known among the fishermen. The day before when I asked a fisherman if I could take his picture he wanted 1000 shillings. Today no one made any such demands. Dots of islands lay off the shore, some large enough for people to live on. Mbasa bought a couple of the Nile Perch for his luncheon.

When we said our farewells I thanked them for their great hospitality and tremendous welcome to Tanzania. Mbasa assured me I would be treated well during my entire stay. Unlike many of its neighboring countries that have been riven by tribal rivalries that has resulted in great bloodshed, Tanzania has been most peaceable. "We Tanzanians like each other," Mbasa said.

Later, George

1 comment:

parrabuddy said...

You are really getting to the heart of the continent and discovering the true nature of Africa!
If you have the contact still pass on www.physiciansforpeace.org and www.heathermills.org as contact points who may choose to assist George with his endeavours!
Reading the blog of your adventures creates a mental picture of what you are experiencing which is far tougher than the conditions i enjoy as i ride in europe. Hope your travels continue safely and fruitfully