Tuesday, August 25, 2015

That Beautiful Beast

A big hello from New York City where I have recently arrived and am happily ensconced on my parents' couch, enjoying wi-fi, cable tv, a/c, and food delivery.  The city is glorious at the end of the summer, the heat has died down, and there is a slow, syrupy quality in the air that languishes and settles everywhere you go.  I've yet to actually see friends and family, but am enjoying a little bit of "me" time prior to the onslaught of catch-ups and hang-outs.

This solitude also gives me time to reflect on my last couple months in Tanzania: my visit with my mother and, of course, Vumi.  I feel at peace somehow, and surprisingly strong.  I've been putting off writing my Kili blog entry because it somehow seems like a time of innocence, the "before" to now's "after."  It's hard to look back knowing as I do what is to come, and I almost feel guilty doing so.  But climbing Kili with my mom (and actually succeeding!) was very special to me, and I want to honor that memory with an upbeat, Sarah-style post.

So, here goes!!

(NOTE: Because there is just so much to say about our trek, I've broken down the major elements into sections, rather than telling the story chronologically.  I hope it will be comprehensible....)

I made the unilateral decision at some point last year that my mother and I should climb Mt. Kilimanjaro to celebrate our 70th and 40th birthdays respectively.  She didn't protest that much, so we went with my dear friend, Methley Swai, who runs a small, boutique tour company called Just-Kilimanjaro.

Methley is Tanzanian, originally from Moshi, but has spent a considerable amount of time overseas, particularly in New York where he attended Westchester Community College.  Obviously, his English is incredible but in addition to the language, he gets the nuances of mzungu culture, making him our perfect climbing companion.
In addition, we've known each other since I first arrived in TZ back in 2007 and have become quite close.  He's also spent time with both my parents over the years and took the three of us (partially) up Kili back in 2008, and has shared many a beer with my dad after a game of golf at Moshi's "country club."  Thus, he is well aware of the Rosenbloom philosophy of life and our unique approach to.... everything!

In addition to Mkuu (my pet name for Methley, meaning "chief" or "boss"), his team included eight others, mostly porters and one assistant guide and one chef.  The assistant guide, Peter, quickly became my mother's handler and one of the porters, Hassan, stuck by my side.

So we were a group of five trekking together while the porters basically jogged ahead of us with 25 kilos each of our crap on their heads.  GUARANTEED, they thought we were the slowest, most useless people to ever climb the mountain.

Knowing that we are little, old, non-mountain-climbing Western ladies, Methley made a schedule especially for us, in order to ensure us the best possible chances of summiting.  Kilimanjaro is a big, beautiful beast (5,895 meters or 19,341 feet above sea level), and she CANNOT be underestimated.  One MUST give her the props she's due.  Since we'd had a taste of the trek a few years earlier, we were definitely prepared to bend to her will.

We climbed the Marangu route, nicknamed "Coca-Cola" for it's relative easiness.  Another route, Machame, Methley's favorite, is known as "whiskey," but I've never been much of a fan of hard liquor, so I was prepared to stick with sodapop!  Marangu features a pretty gradual ascent that can be done over 5-7 days, with climbers sleeping in the comparative comfort of huts.  Obvi, Carla and I took the 7 day option.

The first two days we climbed steadily from the gate to Mandara camp and from Mandara to Horombo camp.  Upon reaching Horombo (approximately 3700 meters), we bunked down for a three-night stay, the reason being that Methley wanted us to have an acclimatization day during which we would still trek for distance and height, but we'd return back to camp to sleep.

After the acclimatization day, we had a full day of glorious rest during which we walked up a bit from the campsite to this giant boulder that I named "Sarah's Rock."  I instructed Mkuu to inform all future climbers of this designation and eventually to have it officially named such by the rangers of Kilimanjaro National Park.  It was in a nice, sunny spot covered with cairns, and I built my own tiny cairn before passing out like a lazy cat.  Hands down, best day of the trek!

But, alas, we had not come to Kili to take catnaps on her lower slopes, so it was "up and at 'em" the following day to reach base camp at the foot of Kibo, Kili's famous snowy pinnacle.  Most of this time was spent on the "saddle," the stretch of land between Kibo and Mawenzi, Kili's other, more jagged peak, which I snapped pics of at various times of the day.  (It was a rather long walk....)

After a few uneasy and anticipatory hours of *sleep* at base camp, we woke up in the wee hours of the night/early morning and strapped on our head  torches to begin the arduous trudge up to Uhuru Peak, the highest point on the summit, the "Roof of Africa."

The reasons for starting to climb before dawn are manifold: a.) you arrive at Uhuru at a reasonable hour in order to get back down at a reasonable hour, b.) you avoid the intense heat of the direct sunlight so high up and literally on the Equator, and c.) you can't see that beautiful beast of a mountain while you're climbing and are less likely to be intimidated and lose hope!


Of course, Sarah and Carla and Methley and crew did NONE of this, left at four in the morning and climbed all damn day, the sun beating down and the crest of Kibo looming above us like the badass beautiful beast she is.

During one section named for Hans Meyer, the first Westerner to successfully summit back in 1889, Carla nearly lost hope and was propelled forward by Peter from behind and dragged along by Methley in the front.  Where was I, you ask?  Oh, never mind....

On the upper slopes, we got to see the massive glaciers that still glimmer and glisten in the sun.  It's true that the snows are melting due to global warming, but when you're up there, man, you would not know it.  They are all around the crater hole and the higher inclines from which you can also see Mt. Meru in nearby Arusha region.

After a whopping TWELVE hours (it takes the "average" person six, but Sarah and Carla and Methley are anything BUT average; of course, Methley's been up and down the damn thing in under 24 hours, but he humored us slowpokes) of trekking straight upwards, we reached our goal, Uhuru Peak.  It was indeed a sight for sore eyes....  And legs, and backs, and everything else!

Of course, what goes up must come down, so it's another two days back to Earth with a night spent at our previous resting spot, Horombo.

All told, up and down, Methley estimates we trekked 73 kilometers over the 7 days.  Doesn't seem like a lot when you look at it that way, but once again, dear readers, YOU CANNOT UNDERESTIMATE THE BEAUTIFUL BEAST!  A lot of those seventy-something kilometers were at a 45 degree or more tilt!! Add cold climate and uncomfortable sleeping conditions (though we were blessed with fairly mild weather and thank God for the huts), and IT IS ON!!  Nevertheless, veni vidi vici.... 

Now, anyone who knows me knows I am kind of a persnickety eater.  Not so much in *what* I'm eating, but rather how it is presented to me, e.g. I eat meat, but not on the bone, I don't like a cracker or cookie to be broken or chipped, beer can only come from a bottle not a can, etc etc.  Yes, I am a true fussbudget and have actually only gotten worse as I've gotten older.... and, weirdly, since I moved to Africa!

Mkuu knows all this, plus, you better believe I emailed him a strict list of menu options prior to our trekHe accommodated most of my requests, and I adapted kidogo (a little) since, for God's sake, we were on a freaking mountain.  So, the food was pretty good though copious and ever-present.  As a habitual lunch-skipper, I wasn't used to eating so much and, without getting into bodily functions too much, I would have to say, it took a hot minute to adjust!  No doubt, we were discussing said topic on this quick break; Mkuu is nothing if not a supportive and sympathetic guy.

As for beer, there was none, not in a bottle, not in a can.  But thoughts of a cold, crisp Kilimanjaro lager provided a pretty good incentive to get up and down in a hurry!

Now, one might think that climbing a huge mountain would be incredibly time-consuming and that every second of every day was filled with hiking and hydrating and sweating and slogging.

Not true.

With Kili, you wake up very early, climb hard for a few hours and reach camp in the late afternoon.  That leaves the whole evening spread out in front of you like a blank canvas.

Last time, neither my mother, my father, nor myself (three bookworms when at sea level) brought anything other than mountain gear which turned out to be a horrible mistake.  Staring at my dad for hours on end watching icicles form on his mustache is not exactly my idea of a good time.

This time, Mom and I brought books, cards, games, and most importantly, the latest issue of Vanity Fair magazine.  In another "anyone who knows me" instance, most readers won't be too surprised that I enjoy a spot of pop culture every now and then.  When you live and work in a developing country, it can be nice to zone out in your off-hours and think about things that are un-African.  Right now, that happens to be Caitlyn Jenner.

I have been fascinated by this story from afar, mostly by the dichotomy of Olympics-winning, Wheaties-repping, and Kardashians-starring Bruce and the emergence of Caitlyn, by all accounts a glamorous and stylish modern woman.  I had commanded my mother to bring the magazine from the States with the express purpose of reading the article in the down-time on our Kili trek.

Well, turns out I was not the only interested party!  Mkuu shortly became enthralled and my mother as well.  I read the article aloud from Bruce's early years through his three marriages, the fame of the games and then reality tv, and finally becoming Caitlyn.

We dissected the article into minutiae - ideas of identity, gender, how we view and how we are viewed - and it was very interesting to have all the different opinions on the table.  Even more so when Peter, who speaks no English whatsoever and has no clue who Bruce Jenner is, joined us, and nodded at the cover, "Mzuri," or "Beautiful."  He was quite shocked to find out the beautiful woman had at one time been a man!

Caitlyn became a sort of trope for our journey, resulting in such phrases as "What would Caitlyn do?" when we came to any crossroads, literal or physical.  We are still of differing outlooks when it comes to sexuality and expression (it's tough for non-Westerners to understand our appreciation for nonconformity), but I think we can all agree that Caitlyn's story is pretty extraordinary (in a Toa twist, Bruce suffered from and overcame dyslexia growing up!), and Methley wants her to come to Tanzania and climb Kilimanjaro with him.  You hear that, Caitlyn?!  The beautiful beast awaits you!!

Aside from Vanity Fair, the other main form of entertainment was my iPod on which I have a bajillion and one songs.  But our soundtrack was limited pretty much to Bob Marley as he was the one artist we could all agree on.  So, for six nights and seven days, it was all Bob all the time.  Which is pretty much how it is all the time down in Moshi town anyway....  (Coincidentally, I started this video just as the lyrics "My feet is my only carriage/ So I've got to push on through" came up.)

There's so much more I could tell you, friends, but it's all from a time before now.  And now it's time to close this chapter down.  We had a great trip, my mama and me, with a good friend and the most incredible natural beauty one could imagine.  We set ourselves a goal - a REALLY FREAKING TOUGH goal - of taming that beautiful beast and for one brief week in July 2015, we did.

I had wanted us all to rep Toa Nafasi by wearing our tee-shirts at the summit, but none of us was much in the mood then, so we donned them down at the gate....  Just before getting that well-deserved beer!

I hadn't thought I would love the climb as much as I did, but it's happened.  I'm officially a Kili convert.  Provided we sleep in huts, and there's no meat on the bone for dinner, that is!  Any interested climbers for June/July 2016, give me a shout-out!!

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Show Must Go On

So they say in Hollywood, and so they say in Msaranga as well, it appears.  Last week, I alluded to Mama T's insistence that I be brave and show good face, which has been accomplished fairly well at school, less so at home, and not so much at all today.

But, the show must go on and so, to end this day on an up beat, I decided to post a blog entry immediately.  Perhaps, this minor journalistic act will stand as a game-changer, a way of moving on without forgetting, of continuing the important work that Vumi started and not letting her down by falling apart.  Ujasiri....

The catalyst for all this commotion was my last meeting with Mongi, Vumi's husband and the father of their five-year-old daughter, Grace.  Since her death, of course I've met with him several times: to plan the funeral, to follow up afterward, and now to recoup the many, many items belonging to the Project that she kept at her house.

In addition to being an amazing person and an incredible teacher, Vumi was also my entree to the community of Msaranga, and lived fortuitously close to the school and ward office.

Actually, it feels weird to be there without her.  Not that I can't handle it or am shy about any of my other relationships there (as if!), but just that we were partners.  She was the Robin to my Batman, the Watson to my Holmes, the Sancho Panza to my Don Quixote, the Costanza to my Seinfeld....  You get the picture.

Which isn't to say she wasn't a main dish in her own right.  In fact, that *may* be my point here.  Without her in Msaranga, with Toa Nafasi, I am the sidekick.

I have no one to (creepily and robotically) attach myself to and I am a bit lost without her.  It is a new feeling and, because of that newness, uncomfortable.  In my evilest thoughts, I almost wonder if she did this on purpose.  To force me to grow up, take charge, and be the leader I am supposed to be.  I did rely on her an awful lot....

Anyhoo, Hyasinta (the proper spelling of Madame Mwalimu's name!!  And more beautiful than my "Yacinta") and I went round to Mongi's early this morning on a glorious Moshi Monday in which the mountain was just beaming down on us, the sun shining bright in the sky, and I had been jamming to some tunes on my way to work - embarrassingly seen by my friend Ali unbeknownst to me but reported later....  Note to self: MUST REMEMBER HOW SMALL THIS TOWN IS!!

We spoke briefly outside the house and then went in to pick up the various school supplies and other materials that had been in Vumi's safe-keeping.  Jamani, she had a lot of stuff!!  If I hadn't been the one to keep giving it to her, I would have called her a hoarder!!

Mongi had graciously bagged everything up and had it all ready for us, which was really great, but upon seeing it all there in a big bunch, I kinda lost it.

Which had not been my intention.

The last time I saw him, the dear bereaved man had shed tears, so my blubbering was really poor form, setting him off again.  Hyasinta promptly told me to cut it out and thankfully, SHE kept it together, but for me it was like seeing a life in boxes.  A life that I had come to take for granted.  I mean, who can think of Fred Flintstone without Barney Rubble??  Bedrock could never be the same....

After returning to school and divvying up the goods (more tears as I reminisced over certain items: a book I'd given her, photos we'd taken of the first group of Toa kids, her notebooks - ones I remembered her writing in next to me, taking copious notes on each child's progress....), I calmed down and started paying attention to the Rubbles that I do have.

And I gotta say, my Vooms taught the girls well.  Hyasinta is quiet and beautiful, but she is also careful and attentive.  Ditto Elinami.  Clara and Dorin are more like Vumi - outspoken and fun-loving.  Dorcas has left us for the next few months to study in Norway (??!!) and then Guatemala (??!!??!!) on some kind of sponsorship, but I'm hopeful that she'll come along as well.

All in all, it was a good (ish) day.  I can't say my eyes are dry as I write this, but my heart is hopeful.  And my alarm clock is set - Hyasinta and I gotta be at KCMC bright and early tomorrow morning for more Wax Packers, so I really can't wallow around in the muck.  And Vumi would kick my ass if she knew I was behaving thus.  Ujasiri!!

Check out the photos below of the lovely ladies of The Toa Nafasi Project in fantastic and formidable action!!

Hyasinta takes charge.
And lil' heads bow to her attention.

In the nursery school classroom, Dorin takes control.
Brava, dada, I had no idea you had commandeered
your own classroom!  Excellent use of time and space!!

NOBODY'S escaping Clara's eagle eye.
She is a stickler for perfection!!
(Within reason for slow learners in Grade One....)

Vumi's cache of books back at my crib.
On the left (tear....) a Young Adult novel I had bought in town
back in 2007 and read with her to help her English.
On the right, the first kids' storybook we used for Toa,
Kuku Mrembo (Beautiful Chicken).
She may have read that book a hundred million times!!
Vumilia indeed!!

The large quantity of toys, games, and educational materials
we had stashed at Vumi and Mongi's.  I had no idea!!
Kinda feel like I should have been paying her a monthly service fee a la U-Haul or some other storage facility....  

Alas....  Next week, dear readers, I'll be writing you from New York City, where I'll be spending the next coupla months to fundraise and get my bearings back.

Be well, all, and many thanks for all the support.  xxxx

PS: Peep this funny vid of Dorin trying to teach the kids the word kunywa (to drink) which is *very* close to the word kunya (to poop).  Aahh, one can always count on the young to bring out irrational and inescapable giggles....

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Under the Same Sun

Hi everybody, hope this blog post finds you all well.  As for me and the others at Toa Nafasi, we are polepole coming to terms with the loss of our beloved Vumi.

There are still days when I simply just cannot believe she's gone, other days when I cry and rage and bemoan her fate, and still other days when I try my best to face the future and brave the bad times.

It helps to know we are all mourning her together.  It also helps that Mama T won't let me wallow in sorrow.  The slightest quiver on my lips, the tiniest tear in my eyes, she forms her mouth into a thin grim line and with one authoritative index finger raised, decrees, "UJASIRI!"  ("BRAVERY!").  Indeed.
At any rate, I've got tons of news to share including the details of my beautiful Kili trek (and triumph!) with my mom last month, but I'm not ready to write a light-hearted entry just yet.  Mama T can make her calls for courage all she wants when I'm at school, but on my own time, I'm allowed a little wallow....
That said, this week's piece will be a reprint of an article I found online from the Sudan Vision, an independent daily out of that country.  It concerns a photojournalistic look at another type of disability that is common in Tanzania: albinism.  It also discusses efforts at inclusion for these heretofore marginalized members of society.

I hope it will be enlightening to those readers outside of TZ who probably aren't aware of just how big a problem bigotry and brutality against albinos is.

(I also hope that next week I'll be more chatty and less wallow-y....)
Under the Same Sun: The Struggle for Social Inclusion of People with Albinism

Photojournalist Jacquelyn Martin's project is in memoriam to Angel Salvatory, who died of skin cancer in late 2013 at just 18 years old.  She is seen here with her half-brother Ezebiel and mother Bestida, who she had not seen in the four years she lived away from home, after her own father led a group of men to attack her.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words; each one speaks volumes in Martin's work.  Through her striking portraits, Martin gives a powerful account of the daily struggle faced by people with albinism in Tanzania.  But she also gives us hope.

In 2012, Martin visited the Kabanga Protectorate Center in the Tanzanian city of Kabanga in the hope of creating portraits to put a human face on the issue.  Located in rural Western Tanzania, the center has become a refuge of sort for children with albinism, who are often unable to attend school due to discrimination and fear of attacks.  Because of the fairness of their skin, some consider the children "ghosts," and they have been targeted for ritual killings.

At a roundtable discussion addressing the socioeconomic challenges faced by people with albinism, recently hosted by the World Bank, Martin reminded her audience that the people she interviewed during her three-week stay at the center didn't want to spend their lives parked in government camps.  "They want to be integrated, be able to marry, have children and have a life," she said.

While albinism is a genetic condition inherited from both parents, regardless of ethnicity or gender, the phenomenon remains widely misunderstood.  According to data provided by the World Health Organization, estimates of its incidence vary from one in 5,000 to one in 15,000 in sub-Saharan Africa.  In Tanzania, by some estimates, one in 19 people carry the genes.

Collecting data on people with albinism remains a challenge, as many with the condition are forced to hide in fear of the stigma it carries.  It's also important to realize that albinism is not a uniquely African issue but rather a global health issue.  In Europe and North America, one in every 17,000 to 20,000 people also have some form of albinism.

According to Charlotte McClain-Nhlapo, the World Bank's Global Disabilities Advisor, who organized the roundtable as well as an exhibit of Martin's photos along with Marina Galvani, the World Bank's art curator: "This gave us an opportunity to raise the issue of extreme exclusion.  We are looking at people who are agents of change, who can contribute to society and, more importantly, who shouldn't be excluded because they look different."

In the roundtable discussion, participants highlighted results and solutions.  Sajjad Ali Shah, the World Bank country program coordinator for Tanzania, proposed linking the issue more proactively with ongoing World Bank programs in the country.

"For example, we have a health program as well as an education program, both designed to improve the access and quality of health and education services in Tanzania.  We also have a safety net program," he said.  "When we look at an issue like albinism, we tend to look at it through the lens of our social safeguard policy and say that there shouldn't be discrimination against people with albinism.  We should do much more than that," he added.

There was also some encouraging news.  On June 13th, 2015, the United Nations launched the first ever International Albinism Awareness Day to honor people with albinism and raise awareness of their plight.

Shortly after the event, roundtable participant Ikponwosa Ero, a lawyer and advocacy officer at the Canadian NGO Under the Same Sun, was appointed by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights as the first-ever "independent expert on the enjoyment of human rights by persons with albinism."

Ero noted that on November 28th, 2015, the first Pan-African Albinism Conference will take place in Dar Es Salaam with 28 African countries represented, calling it "the largest gathering of this kind."  It is another encouraging sign that the rights of people with albinism are slowly being recognized.

Jon Beale, managing director of Standing Voice, a British NGO working to stop human rights violations against marginalized groups, spoke about his association's work in Tanzania, where, according to estimates, 98% of people with albinism die before the age of 35 due to skin cancer.

Beale also had some good news to share.  Standing Voice and partner organizations has been distributing sunscreen, protective clothing, wide-brimmed hats, and vital information about skin cancer risks and prevention to people with albinism.  In some regions of Tanzania targeted by this program, incidence of skin cancer has dropped by 83%.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Dear Vumi

Dear Vumi, 

TWELVE DAYS AGO, I saw you for the last time.  You didn't look very good, to be honest.  You had been sick for a while, with a cough that wouldn't go away.  It was strange.  No fever, no infection, but a cough that plagued you day and night, and sapped you of your strength.  Mwili hauna nguvu, you wrote to me twice in text messages, the body has no strength.

Before that day, it had been a while since we'd been together as my mother was visiting from the United States and we had planned on climbing the mountain.  I remember just before she came and we left for our trek, you and I went shopping in town for school supplies.  You weren't feeling well then either.  We stopped at a pharmacy for cough syrup.  Must have been late June….

But the day that would be the last time I saw you, yeah, you were looking pretty rough!  You were sick enough that you had stayed home from work for several days beforehand, which I can't recall ever happening before.  Me, however, I would call in sick to you all the time, any little thing and I would fink out.  But that was not your style.

I brought you cough drops and Advil (wewe, you became so spoiled, you know, no more Panadol for you, after having mzungu drugs!), and my mom felt your forehead.  No fever.  Just a cough.  Kikohozi kikali.  A fierce cough.

Grace was intrigued by the lozenges.  I think she thought they were candy.  Her antics made my mother laugh.  I wanted to take you to my doctor the next day so you wouldn't have to go to KCMC where we know all too well what the services are like.  But your husband said you'd started at KCMC, you'd finish there first, and then if need be, I could take you to Dr. Makupa.  Made sense, how were we to know that that would never happen? 

TEN DAYS AGO, you died.  Now, why would you go and do a thing like that?!  I wasn't expecting that to happen, you know!!  In fact, my worst fear about losing you was if you got pregnant again.  Remember how I would constantly remind you to be vigilant about  that?  No more babies until "our baby" was up and running properly.  Never would have guessed that you would leave me entirely.

You were so strong.  You were so young.  You were so determined.  You were so alive.  It's hard for me to think of you otherwise.  And I really don't want to.

When I received the news from Diwani Kiwelu, I really couldn't believe it.  I kept repeating, "Vumi wangu??" ("My Vumi??")  I think I was in shock.  I nearly wanted to laugh.  How ludicrous a thing to say, that my Vumi, Toa's Vumi, Grace's Vumi was no longer....

Impossible.  Unbelievable.  Incredible.

I was in the parking lot at the grocery store.  Do you know that when I got home, I actually prepared the meal I had intended?  How did I manage that?? 

SIX DAYS AGO, we buried you.  Oh boy.  What a sight to behold.  My dear dear Vumi.  You were loved, my friend.  You really must have been someone special to have touched all those people who trooped from the mortuary to your home in Msaranga to the family plot in Marangu.  It was really quite beautiful.  I hope you saw....

I came with my friend Rhiannon.  You met her once.  She remembers you telling me to be quiet.  I laughed at that memory.  You did tell me to be quiet an awful lot.  You told me a lot of things.  Some of which - wow - I will never forget.

I won't say that you were perfect because even though you're gone, I want to remember you as you were and that was human, flawed, and inconsistent.  But you were a pretty amazing person.  And our friendship was one of the most amazing things that has happened to me since I've been in Tanzania and indeed in my whole entire life.
I often remarked to my mzungu friends, "Isn't it incredible, two more different women you could not find, yet look at how we came together, how our lives have become inextricably bound, how we adore and torture and revere and neglect one another??"

Had I known that just twelve days ago would be the last time I would ever see you, would ever talk to you, have the chance to hug you and kiss you and tell you how much you mean to me, I wouldn't have said goodbye so carelessly, wouldn't have gone merrily along my way, chattering to my mom and heeding you no mind.  Careless Sarah.  Forgive me for that.  I never thought it was the end.

We met Mama T and the other Toa teachers at the morgue early in the morning and followed you back to Msaranga.  The casket was open, but I didn't look.  Didn't want to.  All of us cried.  Together.  Separately.  We all shed our tears for you.  Torturing each other with our sadness which was infectious but at the same time comforting each other in our misery.

Diwani Kiwelu attended as well.  So did Baba Ngowi.  They were lovely and respectful and though I have had my differences with those wazee in the past, this day was about you and we all paid our respects.  We all came to say goodbye.

Others from the village passed by as well.  That fundi we used to call "Weka Neutral," he was there!  Crazy Baraka was there too.  So many faces from over the years.  I wish you could have seen!!  Maybe you did....?

We made our way from Msaranga to Marangu.  It felt funny going back having just been there the week before, coming down off Kili.  I saw your mom there.  She was beside herself as I knew she would be.  I hadn't seen her in so long, maybe three years, but as soon as she saw me, she cried out to me.  I held her hands in mine for a long, long time.

Your sisters were there.  Ma Upendo and Ma Rhoda.  I didn't see their kids, but perhaps I would not have recognized them, so much time had passed since I had last seen your family.

Parents of some of the Toa kids made the trip.  Ma Morgan screamed out when she saw me.  She is so appreciative of what we've been doing for Morgan.  I'm going to meet her in a few days to go to physical therapy with them.  I want to be sure that the processes we've started don't stop suddenly because of this - I know you would do the same if it was me.

Jeremiah Sunday sat with us in the church.  His little hands were on my back when I sobbed for you.  Patting and comforting.  Then he moved one seat over because Yacinta needed patting and comforting too.  Such a good little boy.  I'll make sure he's okay, don't worry.  I'll go and visit him in Marangu, both him and his mama.  Promise.

I didn't even recognize Sia, she's grown so tall!  And beautiful!!  It was towards the end of the day when we caught eyes, after the church service when we were at the plot.  I was already spent, had no words left to say.  She had her head tilted the way she always does but instead of the shy smile she usually wears, her face crumpled when her eyes met mine.  I held her head in my hands.  Can't believe we taught her nursery school way back in 2009, and now she's a little lady.  Amazing.

I still have not seen Ema.  That will be tough....  I am dreading it actually.  The last time I spoke to him, I was mkali.  I wish I had been kinder....

There were lots of flowers around your grave and candles too.  I picked up the wrappers because you know I hate it when people litter!  Weka mji safi, I say, usitupe takataka barabarani!!  I was going to take something from the burial site as a totem, but I decided not to in the end.  I think instead, I'll make a yearly pilgrimage to come and see you.  Probably with the other girls too.  Certainly Yacinta.  She is brokenhearted….

I left you there in the ground in Marangu.  I can't believe I did that.  What kind of friend leaves another cold and lonely and sad and grey?  But I really didn’t have a choice, Vumi wangu.  I have to go in this direction and you in that.  But I think of you constantly.  Vumi, Vumi, Vumi, Vumi….  I say your name aloud and....

....I miss you....

TODAY, LIFE WENT ON.  I went back to school for the first time since "winter" break and my own holiday with my mother.  I entered our classroom and greeted Yacinta and the girls.  I observed Elinami teaching and Dorin as well.  Clara was in the nursery school class as I guess that teacher was absent.  Dorcas did, well, what Dorcas always does.  She's a good egg though.  They all are.  They loved you rotten, those girls did.  You were their kiongozi, their leader.

Yacinta and I started to plan for the future.  I think you would have been proud of us.  You know, neither of us is naturally strong like you.  Neither a born leader either.  We have to work hard at it.  But I am actually starting to think we'll be okay.

She's a beautiful person inside and out, Yacinta is, thank you for bringing us together.  I hope we will be able to fill your shoes, perhaps I'll be the right foot and she the left?  What do you think of that?!

Mama T smiled when she saw me.  At the funeral, I had been a blubbering mess.  She had taken me outside the church and said, "Ameshakwenda.  Sasa ukubali."  ("She's already gone.  Now you accept.")

Typical words of wisdom from the mouth of Mama T, right??  She's strong like you were.  And she makes me laugh like you did.  She retires at the end of this year, but she's gonna join Toa and keep declaring her words of wisdom.  And scaring the bejeezus out of naughty little children, I imagine....

I saw Kennedy John this afternoon in class.   He ran towards me with a big bear-hug.  I'm pretty sure you don't know what a bear is, but trust me, the hug was good and big.  He's fine now, no more shida with his health.  I asked him if he wanted to go back to KCMC though and he said yes.  Think he had more fun than he let on those days with us.  Torturing him with all manner of testing and probing. 

Mwalimu Mkuu called Yacinta and I into his office.  As usual, it was terrifying.  He really does not have an indoor voice!  He wanted to know who the new kiongozi would be when I'm not around.  I pointed to Yacinta who laughed prettily and looked down.  He barked a few words of appreciation at us and assured us that tuko pamoja (we are together), but dammit, must he be so menacing all the time??  Yaani.... 

NOW, I'm writing you this letter and as I write, I can feel my face form the crumple of a frown, the hint of a smile, the touch of a tear.  I can't believe our chapter has ended.  It was not supposed to be this way.  But, sadly, this is the way it is.  And I must accept as Mama T has said.  I don't know, Vumi, what the future holds for me, for Toa, for all our beautiful, clever, wayward children.  But this much I can attest to:

I love you, Vumi wangu, and I will never forget you for all the days that are left to me, I'll never forget who you were and what you did.  And I'll make sure no one else does either.

Your crazy mzungu friend and sister,