From Binti to Bibi

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Having rested in the welcome, quiet shade at a nearby ‘fancy’ hotel, and refreshed our sweltering, dusty skin in the cool hotel pool, we walked slowly back to Karatu Hostel, our quaint abode just up the road in the small, very poor town of Karatu. Our gang of 7 split into groups of 2 or 3, those with more energy strolling ahead, while those slower and more distractible, myself included, fell behind, baking once again under the late afternoon sun. Oh look, a little hedgehog on the ground! Oh wait, I think it’s dead…

A young, bright eyed Tanzanian girl quickens her pace to catch up with Claire and me, who, captivated by the adorable deceased spiky rodent, are now well behind the rest of the group. The girl falls in step with us on the side of the dusty red road, filling the narrow spot between our swaying arms with her shy smile and vibrant blue sweatshirt. (It is a hundred degrees, yet, bafflingly, many people of all ages here wear heavy Western-style sweatshirts, toques, or coats.)
She doesn’t say anything at first, just happily walks with us two mzungus (white folks). “Nee twa nani, dada?” I stoop to her small height to ask, “What is your name, sister?” Her shy answer is inaudible; she blinks her big dark eyes and smiles up at us. “Jina langu ni Rachel,” and “Jina langu ni Claire,” we answer, and continue our slow walk. We remark that I too am wearing a blue shirt, “We are matching!” – and I notice then that her sweater features a small picture of Dr. Seuss’s infamous red ‘Thing 1’ and ‘Thing 2’ characters.

Turning over my shoulder, I see another, taller girl walking behind, catching up to us but not in any hurry. We slow further and welcome her to our line of, now 4, bintis (daughters) – Claire, myself, Thing 1, and Thing 2. We repeat the greetings and names, and learn from this older sister that she is 13, her sister 9. I point to the younger girl’s sweater, “Thing 1 and Thing 2!” pointing next at her and her sister, “just like you!” They erupt in sweet, happy, contagious laughter.

Through broken Swahili and English, we learn the elder binti is in Secondary school (where, in Tanzania, instruction is in English), and the younger girl is in Primary (which is taught in Swahili). “We saw you at church” they articulate, smiling coyly, through pointing and more broken English. Claire and I excitedly realize they must have seen us at the Karatu Lutheran Church on New Years Eve when we stopped in to witness the celebrations (well, I guess it’s pretty hard to miss the only ‘mzungus’ in the whole church, especially when one is over 6 feet tall). We exchange a few more giggles, until the fork in the road leading back to Karatu Hostel finally appears; we shake their tiny hands, walking away waving. The cutest, loveliest escort home.



In Kilema a few days later, we meet Irenie and January (or is it Jennifer? We’re still not quite sure…), two sisters who live in a cement and brick house just behind the Visitor’s Centre, our Kilema home. At the peak of Ngangu Hill at dusk, where we have climbed to watch the sunset, these two striking young girls, in soccer jerseys tucked in to matching faded yellow patterned skirts, curiously and joyfully approach us. They have the most beautiful, happy faces and wide twinkling eyes. January is the elder, with skin smoother and clearer than rich melted chocolate; Irenie is small and thin-armed, with the truest smile I’ve ever seen. Many watoto (children) here look rather younger than their years; petite and innocent. Irenie and January are so full of life, and are immensely entertained atop Ngangu Hill (as are we) as they scroll through allllll my photos from safari and beyond, take pictures with us, and giggle infectiously at their own faces when I turn my camera to reveal the photos. It seems, cameras being expensive and scarce, that children don’t often have their photo taken here, and many would likely not even have a mirror in their homes.

After the sun has set beautifully, leaving a rich purple-orange sky illuminating the two peaks of Mount Kilimanjaro, we all walk back down the hill, Isabelle and I each hand-in-hand with one of the sisters. They take us all the way home, clutching our clammy mzungu hands in their tiny cool ones, and cheerily bid us goodnight as they continue on a few strides more to their own home. We would see January and Irenie many more times at Kilema, either early in the morning as we headed out on the day’s adventure, or as we returned home, sweaty, dusty, and tired; each time we were greeted with big bright smiles of recognition, high-fives, and waves from these, my favourite, bintis.

Ten minutes in to our 4 hour hike through the hills and rural villages around Kilema and Kili, a gaggle of 7 girls around age 12, dressed in vibrant yellow skirts and white blouses for their youth church group, greets us gayly and immediately starts to walk with us. The path is very steep, but even in their little high-heeled sandals and dusty ballet flats, they are entirely undeterred and exceedingly keen to walk with us curious foreigners. They are most drawn to us three young women, Isabelle, Claire, and me – stroking our white cheeks and laughing, touching our soft long hair (for here, all school-aged children must keep near-shaved heads). The girls are quick and cute, holding on to our hands or arms at all times as they scramble, effortlessly, up the steep slope.

Just before the young ladies depart us, we come upon the small, clean, very remote wood-stick hut of an old, weathered, hunched-over bibi (grandmother). She looks nearly ninety (though it is impossible to tell her true age), bent to a right angle (from what is likely severe osteoporosis and vertebral collapse), with rough dry skin and cloudy, historic eyes. Bibi Maria lives alone in this completely remote hut atop this steep hill (with a tremendous view, mind you); how she survives, obtains food, or does much of anything to keep herself nourished and alive is a staggering, heart-wrenching mystery. She greets us warmly, then begins to itch her legs, chest, and scalp, complaining (in repetitive Swahili, as translated by our doctor companion, Victor) of skin irritation and aches and pains.

Stephanie has brought with us a small ziplock sandwich bag full of maybe 10 tea bags and a loose cup of sugar; Claire hands it to the bibi as Steph explains we have brought a small ‘gifti’ of ‘chai’ (tea in Swahili) and sugar. The old woman graciously, hands shaking, accepts the bag, clutching it preciously to her chest, and immediately breaks down in tears. “Asante, asante, asante,” she repeats through her weeping, wiping a hand down her face wrinkled with emotion; “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
My own eyes well with huge tears, and I wrap my arm tighter round the narrow waist of the yellow-skirted African girl still pinned to my side, overcome by this overwhelmingly touching, heartbreaking exchange, and feeling, all of a sudden, a desperate need to hug something tight.

Steph strokes bibi Maria’s hunched back, receiving her thanks gently and comfortingly; “Pole, pole, karibu sana”. (Sorry, sorry, you are very welcome).

We return to visit Maria a second time later that week, on our way out for a big KSF home visit hike. This time we bring with us a new crisp, blue, orange, and black kitenge, the traditional, vibrant African fabric worn by all women here as a skirt, dress, or covering. We greet Maria with warm familiarity, and hand her the new kitenge. She gingerly unfolds the fabric and wraps it around her behind, and then, to our utter surprise and complete delight, the 80-90-something bibi begins twisting her hips and arms side to side. Dancing. Dancing so joyfully in her beautiful wrap skirt, a rich happy smile on her aged face.



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