I shook my head in disbelief as an SUV-full of
blond-haired kids pulled into the Mbeya bus station.
Four children spilled out of the vehicle and rushed
toward us. I knew Mike (my cousin), and his wife
Terese very well, but their kids' names and faces were
only vaguely familiar. They didn't really know me
either, but they politely gave Nori and me big hugs
and said, "Hello Uncle Scott!" It is strange enough
for an Idahoan to be in Tanzania, and downright
bizarre for him to find relatives there.
We squeezed back into the car and headed towards their
house. I had to laugh at Mike's new accent. For some
reason, all native English speakers acquire a sharp,
staccato diction when speaking to black Africans.
"It's OK, Mike," I said, "you can speak English to me
normally." Everyone laughed.
One year ago, Mike and Terese had quit their jobs in
the US and moved with their children to Mbeya,
southern Tanzania. To a cousin like me, who saw them
infrequently, their decision came as a shock. But
they had been thinking about such a mission for some
time, and had visited Tanzania once before to check
things out. As with all African ventures, reality
turned about to be different from initial
expectations. Mike had hoped to do some evangelical
work and to teach computer skills. When he arrived,
he suddenly found himself the administrator of Grace
College - a small institution affiliated with their
The family lived in a mid-sized, two-story house
located within the grounds of Grace College. They had
hired a local woman - Mama Sikela - as a domestic
helper. Mama Sikela cooked meals, cleaned house, did
laundry, and brought in relatives when there was extra
work to do. This allowed Terese to focus on
home-schooling. It was a full-time job that required
careful planning and strict adherence to the schedule.
Upstairs, the "classroom" walls were covered with
history time lines, sentence breakdowns, and maps. It
looked like a great place to learn.
Mike and Terese asked us to give a talk to two groups
of their students at Grace College. One group was
learning English, another secretarial skills. We told
them about our trip around the world, some of places
we had visited, and the languages they spoke there
etc. They loved hearing about Hong Kong - so many
people, so little space, with buildings eighty stories
high. The listened intently as Nori gave them
examples of Thai, Chinese, and Japanese sentences.
But when we told the students that we had saved money
for almost eight years to pay for the trip, their eyes
bugged out. Eight years! So much of life was lived
'hand-to-mouth' that that kind of financial planning
African ways of thinking and value systems had taken
some getting used to. Petty theft was quite common;
if something was left outside or unattended, it
usually disappeared. Yet thieves caught with stolen
items might be beaten to death by an angry mob.
Whites are seen by many blacks as inherently rich. A
stream of supplicants came to the Bentons' door. Mike
remained polite, but had grown weary of the
long-winded preambles to requests for work or money.
He had a scrap of paper folded up in his wallet where
he kept track of loans and advances. One afternoon,
an old man came to the door. After a series of
perfunctory questions about Mike's health and family,
he got to the point:
"Michael, do you have any work?"
"No," Mike replied "not at the moment."
"Will you have any work in the near-term?"
"Can you give me an advance on that work?"
"Why do you need the money?"
"A relative has died. I need money for the bus fare
so I can get to the funeral."
"How much do you need?"
"5,000 Shillings..." It was about US$5, not a large
amount of money, but much more than any bus fare.
When Mike nodded and headed inside to find the money,
the man quickly added, "or 10,000!" I remembered a
funny story from a book I had read about the history
of Zanzibar. The gist was that as soon as a European
hired an African, that African's family started
'dying', one by one, starting with his mother. It was
a not-very-original ploy to get money or time off work
for the 'funeral.'
When we arrived, the Bentons gave us a few options for
excursions around Mbeya: we could visit the beaches on
the Tanzanian side of Lake Malawi, or journey to the
remote Rukwa Valley to stay with their friends and
fellow missionaries, the Ravenolds. The Benton kids
desperately wanted to spend time with the Ravenold
children, and we were already planning on spending
time in Malawi on the beaches, so the decision was
Even Tanzanians consider the Rukwa Valley a very
backward place. It is a place of animism and shamans,
superstitions and curses. The valley is highly
malarial, and suffers from extreme heat in the summer
months. As a result, the local population is for the
most part ignored by the government: doctors and
teachers cannot be convinced to live there, and
politicians have no reason to care about the Rukwa's
Lake Rukwa is a Rift Valley lake. But unlike its
massive brothers to the west (Lake Tanganyika) and
south (Lake Malawi), it is fairly small and quite
shallow; all but the most detailed maps exclude it; in
the dry season it often becomes two lakes. It is so
isolated that unique genetic mutations have occurred:
albino giraffes and polka-dotted zebras have been
spotted (pun intended) in the nearby Uwanda Game
Reserve. To reach the flat floor of the Rukwa Valley,
we had to negotiate a treacherous road that
switch-backed down the sheer escarpment.
The Ravenold family had been living, working, and
spreading the gospel in the Rukwa Valley for nearly
fifteen years. With much local help, they had built a
rambling home on a knoll just below the escarpment.
When the air was clear, Lake Rukwa was visible as a
sheet of silver in the distance. They had a small
cement pool, and often invited local children to play
in it. The whole Benton family was excited to see
them again. The kids were bubbling with excitement.
Months of socializing would have to be crammed into a
few days of non-stop activity. From dawn to well
after dusk, they talked, laughed and played; so happy
to be around kids their age. For Mike and Terese, it
was a chance to spend time with friends who were 'old
hands' at the missionary vocation.
On Sunday, we walked down the hill to the small church
in the village. We sat on low benches in the front of
the church and listened to the women singing hymns.
Three of the four women had babies hanging from their
backs. The babies' heads rocked back and forth like
'wobbly-head' dash ornaments as the women danced.
When one of the babies started to cry, the mother
executed an incredible twisting maneuver that swung
the baby around her back, under her arm, and to her
waiting breast in less than a second. The mother
never broke eye contact with me, almost daring me to
flash her a look of disapproval.
Three men were playing guitars that were plugged into
a disemboweled amplifier. The electronics had to be
fanned constantly to keep the amplifier from
overheating, but even so, it emitted shrieks and
groans every few minutes. The guitar accompaniment
was so loud and off-beat that the singers had trouble
keeping the rhythm. But they kept playing, and no one
in the congregation complained.
Towards the end of the service, Ted got up and
delivered a thundering sermon in rapid-fire Swahili.
The locals were as impressed with his fluency as I
was. His message was simple: just because something
bad happens to you, does not mean you are a bad
person. Superstition remained a pervasive part of the
villagers' lives. If a man's cow died, he was cursed.
Local medicine men (the missionaries called them
'witch-doctors') were employed to dispel the curse;
their 'cures' were unorthodox and occasionally
Ted Ravenold had an energy that bordered on
hyperactivity. He spoke rapidly. He had a dozen
projects going at once. Africa - with its excess of
time, but short attention span - was perfect for him.
He was first a missionary, but he had become the
village doctor, dentist, civil engineer, social
worker, teacher, carpenter and financier. He had
planned and helped build a water pipeline to the
village from a distant stream. He helped build a
school, and was planning on starting a carpentry
workshop. He had a plant nursery near his home and
was encouraging the locals to diversify their crops.
On Wednesdays he pulled teeth.
Nori and I watched as he yanked a decayed molar from a
woman's mouth. The woman had walked for days to see
him; she was obviously in great pain. The operating
table was a chair in Ted's garage. Ted and his
assistant (the young missionary staying with them)
wore surgical masks and rubber gloves to protect
themselves from possible HIV/AIDS exposure. When the
extraction was complete, he made sure to return the
tooth to her. Rumors had spread that he was using the
teeth for sorcery. He was fighting against these
superstitions all the time. His garage had a
rectangular pit in the center so that he could do
undercarriage work. Rumors had spread that he was
storing bodies in it.
Three days later, we drove back to Mbeya. It had
rained heavily. One of the main bridges at the top of
the escarpment had been destroyed in a flash flood.
Luckily, the waters had subsided and we were able to
rumble across in the 4WD. I had to walk in front of
the vehicle several times - through calf-deep water -
to make sure there weren't any deep holes that had
been gouged out and hidden by the many streams that
now flowed across the main road.
It was wonderful to spend a few days with family.
Nori and I loved waking up to the smell of fresh-baked
banana bread and coffee, rough-housing with the kids,
and conversation around the dinner table. We also
gained insights on an important aspect of Africa. Our
time with the Bentons and the Ravenolds had shown me
that my general cynicism towards missionary activity
was overdone. These 'wazungus' (foreigners) were
making a dramatic difference in local people's' lives.
They were living in difficult conditions, but had
made long-term commitments to the people. Whether the
locals took up Christianity or not, these small-scale
missionaries were accomplishing things that huge aid
(Christian and secular) agencies with
multimillion-dollar budgets were failing to achieve:
real, identifiable, positive change.