Leaving was harder than arriving. Stripped of my maps and pictures, the house was home no longer. My presence had been packed into bags and boxes, along with saucepans and souvenirs. I had lived in the house for nine months while working as a teacher at Kibohehe School. Emptied of my things it reminded me of the day I had arrived.
Saying fond farewells, those first few weeks in Africa seemed part of another lifetime. Looking back, there were times when a Tanzanian sense of humour would have been an invaluable asset.
“Oh My God! Come and have a look at this, Al.” Alastair, a towering Scot from the Borders and my fellow teacher, hurried into my cell. (The school called it a bedroom. Admittedly, it did have a bed). I pointed into the wardrobe, the only other item of furniture. His grin dissolved into horror. “Get some deodorant!” I passed him a can. He struck a match, held it up to the nozzle and sprayed. Flames billowed into the recesses, triggering an exodus of inhabitants.
Fifteen minutes frantic stamping and a few more blasts from Alastair’s flame thrower solved the problem, leaving the cement floor littered with crushed cockroaches. Our first day and we had struck a blow against a plague of biblical proportions. Lizards, bats, a resident praying mantis and an inquisitive scorpion were to be our constant companions. But as I stressed in letters to friends, it was the ‘real Africa’. A week passed and food became a problem. Our biscuit tin was almost empty. Ramadan fasting began shortly after our arrival, so the bottom fell out of the chapati market and all local production ceased. My culinary ability was toast, and Alastair always asked me to boil water, in case he burnt it. It was not long before the grim truth dawned on us – we would have to cook.
Getting to market was the first challenge. Directed by the Headmaster, we took a path that lead through a coffee plantation, and soon reached a tyre-rutted track. Half an hour passed. Nothing stirred in the surrounding patchwork of arid shambas and thorny woodland, so we decided to walk. By the time we reached the scruffy little collection of one room shops and homes the sun had reached its zenith, and my enthusiasm its nadir. A metal Coca-Cola sign was nailed above the door of one house, so we stumbled in. Revived by a soda, my eyes swam back into focus.
The market was a kaleidoscope: vivid, rainbow hues swathed the women, the cool greens of leafy vegetables clashed with the angry red of tomatoes, lemon-yellow maize roasted over ash-white charcoal. Mesmerised by the shifting colours I wondered if I’d got a touch of the sun.
Stepping into this surreal chaos, we were accosted from every direction. Octogenarian women squawked ‘Karibu’, younger women grinned and thrust baskets of fruit at us. Everywhere we passed, conversation stopped and laughter erupted at these two European males trespassing in a citadel of African womanhood. Yet the ribaldry was good natured and we were welcomed, as much as bewildered.
Cooking began half an hour later, after a quick pick-up ride home. Carrots and onion sizzled, rice bubbled reassuringly. Before long we were tucking into raw vegetables and Polyfilla. Neither of us spoke during the meal. I winced as I imagined my mother’s disdain were she to be confronted with such a culinary atrocity. Suffice to say, after nine months, our stir-fry was a delicacy.
In comparison to teaching, cooking is easy. Only Alastair and I would suffer the consequences of too much chilli or singed carrots. Having left school only six months earlier, I was well aware of the pain a bad teacher can inflict on a captive class. Knuckles white as I clutched my chalk and duster, I stepped into the classroom for the first time, and across the threshold from student to teacher.
My first feeling was of deja-vu. The pockmarked walls and cratered floor were strangely familiar. Where had I seen this place before? The answer was newsreels of war-torn Beirut. Forty pairs of eyes followed me across the room. “Good morning class. My name is Matthew, and I’m from Britainr”.
I wrote my name, and then asked them for theirs. I told them to spell them, partly because I had no idea how to spell the unfamiliar Muslim names and, partly because even Christian names can be difficult to make out when pronounced in a thick Swahili accent.
After a short talk about myself I threw down the gauntlet and asked them for questions.
“No. I haven’t met the Queen recently”
“It rains a lot and is very cold in winter”
“How old do you think I am?”
The final question gleaned answers from 16 to 35. “Actually I’m nineteen and I don’t have any children”
After an hour of such bombardment I felt a sudden empathy for parents whose children have just started to ask “Why?” about everything. But despite my exhaustion I was jubilant, infected by the students’ enthusiasm. I left the classroom to the delightful sound of good natured laughter.