“Engaruka” Chapter 1

So… we just submitted a book proposal to an awesome publisher, Rocky Mountain Books!  A reply takes 6 months but we are excited none-the-less.


As usual I hear the roosters crowing as I wake. Light is beginning to seep in around the blanket hanging over the window and under the door of the room. The air is still and cool.  Within an hour the hustle of the day and the heat of the sun will be unavoidable. My younger brother, Innocent, sleeps beside me. I can see the frayed and stained foam mattress corner where the sheet has come away. I poke my finger through a hole in the mosquito net that is tucked tightly under the mattress. My stomach flutters and my heart sinks as I realize it’s Sunday and today I go back to school, my second semester of year 3- so I lay still and savour these last quiet minutes of home.

I hear footsteps padding along the cement floor of the main room. The door is unlatched and a faint squeak reports that the door has been opened.  Must be Baba, he will be anxious to be sure I am prepared for my trip to Engaruka today.  I roll over and tug on the mosquito net, making an opening to squeeze through. I steal away, careful not to wake Innocent, as I want these precious morning minutes to be alone with my father.  He is coming out of the outhouse, wearing red Adidas track pants with a towel over his shoulders.  The bright colours contrast wildly with his dark skin.  My greyed shorts and worn T-shirt hang loosely over my 10 year old body.  I wait to greet my father while he washes his hands and face.

  • Shikamoo baba
  • Marahaba. Umeaamkaje mtoto?
  • Salama

I start the fire for chai.  There are three stones set together; the fire smokes and then lights in the middle. I fetch some water from the outdoor tap, add the tea leaves, place the pot on the stones,  and wait.  My father brings two mugs and the sugar and sits beside me on a kigoda (low stool).  For him, an english style tea cup- and for me a green plastic mug. We sit in silence; not wanting to rush into the day’s inevitable events by speaking too soon.  I know I will get 100 shillings to go to the barber before I leave. My mattress will be rolled up for me to take with me along with one sheet, one blanket, and one towel.   I will have one school uniform that I will wash every wednesday and sunday,  along with a few play clothes, seconds hand black lace up school shoes, and a pair of worn out flip-flop sandals.  For class I will have exercise books, pens, pencils, and a compass set.  I will have my own supply of margarine and sugar, vaseline, a bar of soap, a toothbrush, one tube of toothpaste, and my own own cup, plate, and spoon. Finally, Baba will tuck 1000 Tsh into my hand (apx $1) and promise to send me more in two weeks.

The household begins to stir. My mother, sisters, older brother, younger brother, and nephew emerge. Breakfast is sweet black tea and boiled sweet potato.  The yard is swept, dishes from last night are washed, and before I know it I’m sent down the street to get my hair cut. Once in awhile we get to go to the barber, where we sit up in the high chair and he uses an electric shaver.   We get to be part of the loud music and men’s conversation.  Other times my father would shave our hair for us. First he would cut what he could with scissors, then by holding a single edged razor blade over a fine toothed comb, a closer shave could be attained.  Before the barber shop I go down to the Engaruka Hotel to tell Mzee that I will need a ride to school today.  He has a LandRover 109 that can manage the trip to Engaruka and makes a weekly trip in and out to brings supplies to the villages.

Yesterday my sister Anastasia took me to the market to buy my supplies. Having everything that is new and shining gave me a fleeting feeling of hope, pride, and excitement.  My belongings are all locked into a metal box, ready for travel, which will eventually be stored under my bed in the dormitory.  I walk back towards home. Rows of women are sitting, laughing, chatting, along the side of the road selling rice, bananas, mangoes, oranges, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, onions, carrots, green beans, and kale.  Behind this vibrant row of vendors in their bright khangas is a row of shops in a single story cement building. Once painted, the colours have been covered by red dust, faded by the sun, and chipped away by time.  I pass a hardware store, a housewares shop, cafe selling chai and maandazi (donuts), and on the end, the Red Banana Hotel.  Turning back onto our road, the dust lifts as I walk, covering my shoes in fine powder.

The goodbyes are quick. My mother shakes my hand and wishes me a safe journey.

  • Safari njema.

My father and younger brother,  walk with me to the Landrover.  Innocent holds the other end of the metal box, and every few hundred metres we switch sides to relieve the strain and twist on our arms.  Innocent is the baby of the family, my mother was 40 when we born, at a whopping 5kg.  My eldest sister was 19 at this time and having a baby of her own.   Innocent was raised with my nephew Brian, and spent most of his childhood our sister’s home.

My box is loaded on top of the land rover and I’m told to climb into the back seat.  There are 4 of us across the bench, including 2 maasai warriors, and a maasai mama and her infant, slipped from her back onto her front as she climbs in.  Wrapped up layers khanga, smelling of mildly urine and strongly of smoke, the baby is passed to me, and I hold her while her mama gets settled in beside me.  The baby smiles at me as I rub my finger over her cheek; her damp body relaxes against mine.   The maasai warriors are dressed as they usually do- in shoes made of old tires and traditional shukas.  These shoes last a lifetime; a rectangle just wide enough for a foot, and just long enough for a foot, straps crossing over the top and one that wraps around the back; all assembled by hand and held together by simple nails.  The warriors wear two red shukas (flannel print blankets), tied over opposite shoulders, and fastened with a belt at the waist.  They carry their spears, as they must.  The law in Tanzania states that one is not allowed to carry a weapon such as spear or machete unless you are in the process of using it for work purposes.  The Maasai are exempt from this law as their traditions dictate that they must always carry a spear and a walking stick, and tradition long predates modern law.

The Maasai woman wears blue.  Two blue shukas, tied over opposite shoulders. The woman is adorned with beads, and more beads, and brass bracelets and anklets and earrings. Their heads are shorn. Instead of spears, they carry their babies. I would become deeply immersed in the Maasai way of life during my years in Engaruka.

The drive to Engaruka is 54 km, and takes 2-3h. The road, if you can call it a road,  is rough and dusty.  If you will ever travel this area of the world, after a time you will realize that your driver is actually following something of a trail through the sand… impossible to recognize at first, it emerges like a snake from the grass.

The landscape quickly changes from lush green to dry desert. The dust flies and extends like smoke for a kilometre behind us.  Engaruka village is the closest village to the school.  It is a Maasai community with bomas scattered throughout the area. The Maasai live in a boma with extended families, or one warrior and his many wives. The boma is enclosed by a thorny fence and the people and their livestock all sleep within to be protected from wildlife.   There may be 4-5 huts within one boma, built of sticks, mud, dung, and urine.  The town itself has a shop that sells sugar, tea, salt, warm soda, flour, rice, and few other items.  There is no running water and it must be carried from one stream that runs close by.  Vegetation is limited to thorny bushes and thorny acacia trees. The cattle and goats manage to survive and thrive due to the careful and expert pasturing of the warriors and their sons.

The baby fusses and I pass her to her mother. She nurses and is quickly lulled into sleep by the motion of the vehicle.   The view from the window is of sand, and sand, and rolling hills in the distance. Occasionally we see a couple of Maasai boys tending to their cattle.  They will run towards the vehicle with their arms extended, hoping for some water to save them while they  spend the afternoon under the hot sun.

Two classmates are in the land rover with us. They are sharing the front seat and I can’t hear their conversation; I can feel myself slipping into sleep with the heat and the rocking.

When we arrive at Engaruka boarding school, three of us climb out, and our metal lock boxes are unloaded.  We greet each other and head to the office to register.  We are given our class schedule and bed assignment.   We help each other to hoist our boxes onto our shoulders so we can carry them into the dormitory.   The boxes aren’t heavy as they hold minimal items, but they are bulky and awkward.   The dormitory is a long hall constructed of cement with 60 beds. The ceiling is high and the trusses are visible as ceiling boards are not installed. The floor is cement and cold.  Some of the beds are bunks but most are not. Each single bed will be shared by 2 boys. I learned quickly last semester to keep everything locked in my box.  All the time. I open the lock, get my bowl, spoon, and cup for dinner, lock up and tuck my box neatly under the bed. I head to the mess hall for dinner; beans and ugali (Tanzania’s traditional food; corn flour polenta) for dinner tonight, and every night , and every lunch, for the next months.  I line up with 200 students to get my portion, to get a drink of water, to do our attendance count, to use the restroom, to use the iron, every day for the next few months.  I roll out my mattress and tuck into bed early; the day will start at 5 am tomorrow. I tie my blanket around my shoulder so that it won’t get stolen by another boy while I sleep, as I will do every night for the next few months. I say a prayer under my breath, and think of family.  Though I feel like crying, I certainly won’t- not at any time for the next three months.

engaruka- boma africa


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