We’re driving along a reasonably well-maintained two-lane highway outside of Karatu, Tanzania. The smooth rush of asphalt beneath the thick tires of our Land Rover feels like a soothing balm to my jarred fillings and aching back after four days of bouncing around the bush trails of Arusha and Tarangire. Our driver turns off the highway onto a rust-red dirt road and begins picking a path through the stones and discarded bricks. A large dog, clearly a recent victim of the highway — its skull split open like a cracked melon — oozes fresh blood into a ditch beside the road. I’m trying to block the wretched sight from my nine- and seven-year-old daughters when they are distracted by the piercing cry of Wazungu! Wazungu! A small band of children, led by a pantless child in a dusty blue sweater who looks no more than three, are running beside our truck crying out in Swahili “White people! White people!”
We are on our way to Ayalabe primary school — a visit that has been in the works for nearly nine months. With the assistance of our superb tour operator, Thomson Safaris, we were connected through their charitable arm to two students at the school close in age to my daughters. My girls entered into a pen pal relationship. They would craft a short note in English which we would email to Thomson’s Boston office that was then forwarded to their office in Tanzania. In milliseconds, the message travelled the 12,000km between Boston and Arusha. The timeline expanded there considerably as the e-mails had to be translated into Swahili, printed out and delivered by staff on their next trip to Karatu. Then the student would write her own reply which would eventually be picked up again by Thomson, brought back to their Arusha office for translation and emailed to us. At times it felt akin to speaking through tin cans attached by an epically long string.
In all my months planning this trip, the focus was firmly set on maximizing unique wildlife encounters. The fact that Thomson would arrange a school visit registered as an interesting sideshow to my primary travel objectives. But now, nine months later, we were only a few hundred metres away from the school and my mind was filled with mixed emotions and apprehension. What does a 30-something English-speaking lawyer with a big screen TV in the basement, an Xbox, and a few too many pounds courtesy of three (or more) square meals a day say to a nine year old Swahili girl who just spent two hours walking over 10 kilometres on an empty stomach through grassy plains and along dusty roads just to get to school in the morning? What would my sweet over-privileged white girls have in common with their pen pals?
Our trucks pull into the school’s driveway and the scene is pandemonium. A sea of uniformed children clad in purple and blue come rushing out to greet us. They crash over the vehicles like waves breaking on the surf, jostling to get a view of the visitors through the dust-caked windows. The entire school, 475 students, has been given time off in anticipation of our arrival. I crack open the door of the truck, pushing it slowly to avoid shoving any of the children aside. This must be what Justin Bieber feels like. The school’s principal, a distinguished looking man who stands out from the mass of children in his lime green button down shirt, clamps a powerful grip on my hand and introduces himself.
The principal leads us on a tour of the grounds beaming with pride as he shows off the newest classrooms built with the assistance of our tour company’s charitable arm. With corrugated tin roofs and stone floors bursting with thin wooden pews for the 45 students crammed into the class, they are simple but functional. I immediately think of my daughters’ classrooms back home in Toronto, each equipped with state-of-the-art internet-enabled digital SmartBoards. The class I am standing in now doesn’t even have electricity. The box of simple school supplies we carried with us (pencils, highlighters, crayons, sharpeners, erasers) seems particularly meagre at this moment but is accepted as if I had handed over gold bullion.
The principal is addressing the class in Swahili. I am assuming he is introducing us as he points to each member of our small group in turn and I recognize the word “America.” When he gets to my family I hear “Canada” and then a long pause followed by blank stares from the assembled students. He says something in Swahili, the word “America” again, and then cups one hand on top of the other as he repeats “Canada.” I’m guessing the True North may not be on the Tanzanian primary school geography curriculum.
The class rises, hands on their hearts, to give a stirring rendition of the national anthem followed by a song in English exhorting the listener not to pollute the earth. Our girls are finally paired up with their pen pals. They stare at each other blankly for an awkward moment before the principal motions for them to shake hands for pictures. They look like tiny diplomats fresh from a treaty signing, clasping each other’s hands in a formal pose. The entire school then spills out onto the soccer pitch. A ball is tossed on the red earth and the principal produces a whistle. Suddenly, 475 pairs of legs are hunting for that single ball. I am at a loss to distinguish between the teams — if there even are any. It’s pandemonium of the best possible kind.
As the morning progresses, groups of kids break off. I spy my wife, the speech pathologist, surrounded by a throng of children who are teaching her how to count in Swahili. My daughters are leading long lines of school kids as they shuffle along the periphery of the soccer field. They’re each holding hands again with their pen pals but this time the stiff formality of the photo op has been replaced by a genuineness and warmth. My heart melts. I bring my camera up to my eye — as much to conceal the tears welling up there as to document the moment with a photograph — when I feel a hard tug at the back of my shirt.
“Pitcha? Pitcha!” The boy mimes the act of taking a picture and I turn towards him and snap away. I rotate the digital screen to face him and he smiles at his own image. In seconds I am mobbed. Dozens of children are shouting “Pitcha! Pitcha!” They paw at the camera until I finally relent and let one take a photo of me with his friends. Then my newly minted photographer goes into full paparazzi mode holding down the shutter and snapping dozens of photos of anyone he can find.
It occurs to me that — accounting for my camera, lens and external flash — I’ve just placed a piece of technology whose value might exceed the gross domestic product of the entire school into the hands of a 10 year old.
Too soon our guides are calling and we are ushered back to the waiting trucks. We roar off in a cloud of red dust and to the waves of hundreds of hands. As if to highlight the gulf that separates Western privilege from the difficult but rewarding life eked out in rural Tanzania, we drive only a few short kilometres up the very same road as the school before arriving at our opulent lodging for the night — the truly decadent and amazing Gibbs Farm. Sitting on our giant four-poster bed, the gauzy mosquito netting pulled aside and a roaring fire crackling in our bedroom, I reflect with my kids on their visit to Ayalabe. My seven year old is humming a Swahili tune she had learned while my nine year old updates her wildlife checklist in her safari journal. In three hours at a school half way around the world, my girls have gained knowledge they could never have obtained in a lifetime back home.
Tune in to Part Three as The Crime Traveller delves deeper into rural Tanzania, encountering the Maasai tribe in the heart of the Serengeti, and catch up on his adventures on safari in Part One if you missed it.
Edward Prutschi is a Toronto-based criminal defence lawyer. Follow Ed’s criminal law commentary (@prutschi) and The Crime Traveller’s adventures (@crimetraveller) on Twitter, read his Crime Traveller blog, or email email@example.com.