Snapshot #4: The Bus to Iringa

Snapshots from the Field

Spending time this summer with our students in the East African countries of Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, we want to share with you a glimpse into their daily lives.

Snapshot #4: The Bus to Iringa

by Suzanne Skees

Iringa, Tanzania: We need to get to Iringa, a small city smack in the center of this country. Tanzania, population 44 million, is a bit bigger than Texas but shaped more like Wisconsin. Its name means fort, because it was built by the German army in 1890s as a defensive base for attacks against the local Hehe tribe. Currently, 113,000 people live here.

Six of us have packed our bags in Karatu, in the north. Our regional director, the unflappable Joseph Ignas whose response to every question is, “It’s no problem,” has gone one day ahead of us to meet the rest of our group flying in from the U.S. We plan to catch up with Joseph and the others late tomorrow night in the commercial capitol of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s biggest city at 4 million. It’s way out of our way but the only road to Iringa.

TSF grey-crowned crane

As the crow (or the striking local grey-crowned crane) flies, it’s only about 300 miles from Karatu to Iringa. However, no road connects them. We’ll have to take a 14-hour bus tomorrow, sleep overnight in Dar, and then jump on another 9-hour bus the next day to get where we’re going. Extremely grateful for the newly paved roads that inch their way across half of this underdeveloped nation, still we wish for an easier way to traverse between the two cities where most of our Tanzanian students live.

The unexpected happens when you travel, and it definitely has for all 5 of my companions. Filmmakers Matt Ferro (we call him “Pharaoh” as in king) and Houston Yang, together with Outreach VP Christi Zaleski, got stuck in Istanbul for 3 days due to a volcanic explosion that obstructed air travel. They turned their natural disaster into freak opportunity, however, when Turkish Airlines assigned them lavish hotel rooms. Shuttling back and forth from the airport to sightseeing, they soaked up ornate architecture by day and walked the cool city streets by night. They show us a photograph of some boys climbing trees in a mosque to steal fruit under cover of night. They say they plan to memorialize their unexpected Turkey tour by framing their cancelled-flight ticket stub once they get back to L.A.

However, they missed the first few days of interviewing students, and they just got off the 14-hour bus (actually 15 hours) from Dar. They spent 6 days getting to Karatu for 1 full day here, followed by another 2 days schlepping to Iringa. All they really want is a good hot shower.

Meanwhile, Operations Officer Saeed Hassan and Founder/President Matthew Severson have just arrived from a week in Uganda, where they visited our new partner Kathleen Education Projects.They decided after their meetings that it would be a good idea to go rafting on the Nile . . . They did not experience the same placid Nile that I’ve floated on in feluccas up in Egypt . . . here at the mouth of the Nile surged class-4-5 rapids over which they careened in a rickety raft. Did I mention that Saeed does not swim, and that they overturned? Everyone went under. Matt got pinned beneath the raft; but all he could think about when, past desperation for, he was about to gulp water, was that he had dragged Saeed into this The School Fund volunteer work and into Africa, and that if Saeed died in the Nile it would be on his head.

Somehow Matt pulled himself over and up and grabbed Saeed. They flailed up onto land, only to spend the next 6 hours soaking wet making their way back to their host’s apartment. They tried a matatu bus: an oversized van with no seats and open sides that should fit about 12 people but packs 30-40 and then hurtles over ruts and bumps, shocks not included. “That bus ride was actually more scary than almost drowning in the Nile,” Saeed laughs later. When the bus veered left and then right and then screeched to a halt, the 2 men jumped off and ran for their lives; until, still drenched and shivering, hungry and weak, they hired a motorcycle and piled up behind its driver, who proceeded to swerve them home.

Saeed and Matt ended up with strange rashes on their chests that could have originated from Nile bacteria or fungi. By the time they swung through Nairobi, Kenya to meet with a government official and proceed on to Arusha and Karatu, Matt also had fallen ill. Quite ill.

“No fair,” he protested. “I’ve been to Africa 5 times now, and I’ve never gotten sick!” By then he felt lucky to have landed in the clean, new hotel (the idyllic Country Lodge) in Karatu, where he could collapse inside his mosquito bednet and just rest. He had a spotless private bathroom and a staff whose attention to detail rivaled Ritz Carlton’s. He missed a couple of days of school meetings—much to his dismay—but had “African Gatorade” (orange Fanta mixed with 1 spoonful of salt) and a visit to the local doctor, whose medicine cleared up Matt’s infection within a couple days.

TSF Matt & Houston with kids

By the time we leave for Iringa, Saeed has regained his boundless optimism, Christi has run around Karatu and gotten to know some of our students, and Pharaoh and Houston have warmed up their cameras with a few hours of material. Matt has regained his ability to stand, walk, and eat; and I just thank the brilliant stars in the clear African night sky that I’ve escaped unscathed thus far. We all feel ready to face those two days on the bus to our next venue.

Our new friends, expat American Tina Bump and her Maasai-warrior husband Wantay Taretoy, strongly advise us to get our bus tickets the evening prior to departure. After a certain period of Swahinglish haggling on Matt’s part and nervous hand-wringing on our part, we get the last 6 seats on the bus. It leaves at 6am, so we arrive in the shivery pre-dawn of 5:30.

Anyone who’s backpacked through Asia or built houses in Latin America needs no explanation beyond this:  old bus, various infestations, bad roads. No, the roads aren’t that bad; they just angle hundreds of miles out of our way. Mostly it’s the driver who makes the bus ride unforgettable. He has 3 helpers who take turns in the front jump-seat and on the floor; they serve tepid sodas precisely once in 15 hours. He has 100 friends he needs to stop off and see along the way. And he has a penchant for driving below the speed limit through every village and above it on every speed bump.

A mid-20s woman who gets on at Arusha to return to work in Dar after her sister’s wedding weekend at home, informs us that she has seen this same bus conquer the route in ten hours’ time. “It’s the driver,” she shakes her head wearily, talking plenty loud enough for him to overhear, though he takes no heed. “He is just pole pole, very slow.”

TSF jeep Maasai style

People crowd into the aisles and almost into our laps for segments from one village to the next. We pace ourselves drinking the one bottle of water each that we’ve brought, because we stop only twice at places that have unclean pit latrines. We nibble on our box-lunches (packed by Bump’s Café of AID Tanzania, our second home in Karatu) in-between bouts of nausea and hunger. There is too much dust coming in to open the windows more than a crack. The guys all keep their hoodies up so as not to catch lice, and we check our bags for roaches before reaching inside them.

All of this sets OK with me, except for the fact that I cannot work on this bus. These seats seem more jammed than airplane coach-seats. Although we sit among friends I cannot get my crimped hand to curl around to my notebook, and we’re bumping far too many times per second to write anything legible anyway. Some of the team sleep, and others of us pull worn paperbacks out of our grimy bags. I am grateful for the distraction of a borrowed Virginia Woolf novel. As I look around, I see not one local passenger reading anything. They sleep a little but mostly stare, with the patience of Buddha, far beyond my ken.

“Do you know,” I mutter to Saeed, “if we were on a plane we could have gone from San Francisco to Sydney by now . . . or New York to Tokyo—somewhere worthwhile.” He smiles ruefully. We wonder how airline passengers would fare without water, food, air, or facilities. Here, it is par for the course.

As we approach the city of Dar es Salaam, we get excited about 2 hours too soon. Then it’s a matter of just sitting still in a traffic jam. Even our mellow filmmakers start to breathe heavily; we’ve all had enough. When at the 15th hour we finally disembark and rescue our dirty luggage from the belly of the bus, we brush impatiently past aggressive porters and taxi drivers. Against the black night sky we see a beacon promised to us by Joseph: the glowing neon sign of Blue Pearl Hotel, only two blocks from the bus station. Our short walk in the cool night air perks us back up, and we pass a street market with strident hawkers and chatty customers. We don’t really expect that it will take a solid hour to get our keys while sweat drips down our faces at the front desk; that the restaurant will require two hours to scramble up some really mediocre food; and that our rooms will have dirty sheets and cold water. For now, we just feel glad to be off that bus; because in nine hours’ time, we’ll be back on again.

Tonight we meet up with Joseph, Outreach Officer Laila Handoo, our five high school fellows, and two accompanying moms, Judy and Jennifer. Three of the newcomers have lost their luggage en route to Africa. They take it well, and others pitch in shampoo, toothbrushes, tee-shirts.

The next day, our 8-hour scheduled bus ride takes 9, but it feels comparatively brief. The road west to Iringa from Dar runs smooth; the bus does not break down; and our driver stops only 3 times along the way at fruit stands and latrines. Judy has procured simple, tasty lunchboxes, which we ration to last all day—all except Connor, whose body has just revolted. He has a look of terror in his eyes: not about feeling sick, but about losing control on the bus. Christi trades her seat by the window and we pass the chewable pepto bismol several rows back to him. Lucky for all 125 passengers, he rallies.

High school fellow Connor much later, with intact stomach and retrieved luggage, interviewing TSF students Ramadhani Simba and Hamis Hussein.

When the bus pulls into the station at the top of the hill in Iringa Monday night, we again have hope that we will somehow get to clean accommodations and food. Eleven of us will stay a week in a house with no real shower or laundry—but we do have thick mattresses on the floor and an ancient security guard out front. Three of us will have crackers for dinner in a noisy, dingy hostel with one public pit latrine. Still, it’s good to be in Iringa.

The week ahead will bring many hours of waiting for meetings, and a few frustrated conversations with school and community leaders whom we wish would engage more fully in the education of their local youth. Conversely, it will bring many wonderful hours spent playing get-to-know-you games and doing two-way cultural information interviews with our students at Lugalo and Ummu Salama Secondary Schools. During brief intervals when the town’s Internet is operative, we’ll have the chance to walk 30 minutes to the local Internet café and teach the students how to update their TSF journals. We will play soccer with the students, after many debates over the world’s best teams and players. We will share fragrant curries and chapati at the great Sai Villa hotel. We will climb Gangilonga Rock, known as the “talking stone,” at sunset, marveling over the superb views of the town and surrounding hills.

Our first “get to know you” session, just outside Umma Salama Secondary School.

Our time in Iringa proves worth the trouble it took to get here, mostly because of the people we get to know: the townspeople, teachers, and students. What really hits us when we leave is that we chose this journey, and we only dabbled in the adventure that is Africa for a few weeks. Those born here, however, deal with the lack of infrastructure and resources every day. And when we depart to go back and work in Karatu in the north, we charter a private plane—a luxury donated by one of the parents. The flight costs more than most locals make in 6 years’ time.

The reality is that we are rich, filthy rich, by the world’s standards. I would not survive a week in a mud hut sans electricity and plumbing. Our group has brought good intentions and plenty of patience, but we all feel the strain at times of skipping meals, walking for hours, and waiting for work. Our trip has given us insight into the daily lives of not just our students but their teachers and families. As we fly to Karatu and eventually back to the States, we want more than ever for the world’s youth to have a chance to build a life of choice. Maybe here in Iringa, that could be a mud hut with a flush-toilet, high-speed Internet, and a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains.

Suzanne Skees, director of Skees Family Foundation, traveled with The School Fund to write about what our mission looks like as real students and teachers implement our program on the ground. Suzanne donates her time pro bono, as does the entire TSF team. Additionally, the Skees Family Foundation provided a grant to support our students’ school fees and our filmmakers’ travel expenses. She writes about organizations working to end poverty and extend equal opportunity, and blogs for the Huffington Post

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