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An Old Woman, a Chicken, and Three Babies

(Lien De Wispelaere is a scientist by profession and a globetrotter by heart. She first set foot on African soil 10 years ago and has fallen in love with the continent.)

I sigh. Things have been hectic here in Kidia. This rural Tanzanian village, located on the lower slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, will be my home away from home for the next months. In this last 10 day period, I spent my time on the mountain collecting leaves, soil and rain samples for my Ph.D. research. Today is my first day off. I decide to descend into the town of Moshi and visit some of the markets.

Eriki, my favorite field assistant, told me yesterday to just stand on the side of the road and a matatu (local minibus) would probably pass by around 10 am. It’s a mystery to me how he knows the schedule as there is not a single official bus stop along the single road to Moshi. After 40 minutes of waiting in a random location next to the street, I’m about to give up, when I glimpse movement in the distance.

I appear to be the first passenger and choose a spot next to the window. After two turns, we pick up an elderly woman wearing a colorful traditional khanga. She drags a heavy bag of oranges onto the bus and she sits down right next to me. As a Belgian, I love my personal space and I feel a bit uncomfortable that she has chosen to sit so close to me while the rest of the bus is (still) empty.

My personal space is invaded further when the minibus gets filled way past its 14-passenger capacity. I now look into the dark brown eyes of a man who sits opposite to me and greet him with “Habari za asubuhi”, which means good morning in Swahili. He smiles and doesn’t seem to be bothered by our knees rubbing against each other.

The man is not alone. He is holding 2 living chickens. As soon as he dozes off, one of the animals escapes by jumping out of the window. The chicken lands uninjured and starts running down the dusty road. Two volunteers try to catch the agitated chicken. It takes 5 minutes before peace has been restored and we are able to continue driving.

I see 3 young moms with their babies waving to the bus. I feel sorry for them as I assume there is no space left in the cramped minibus. To my big surprise, we stop and the door of the bus slides open. The babies are passed around and one ends up on my lap. Luckily, she is laying quietly and seems fascinated by my glittering necklace. The mom of the beautiful baby girl catches my eye and gently nods. I guess she is trying to tell me that she’s okay with entrusting her baby to a stranger. The mothers are standing upright in the door opening and we drive on with the open door.

Despite the open door and windows, the temperature is rising. I feel the sweat trickling down my legs. The last kilometer on asphalted roads passes effortlessly. I’m relieved to at last be able to stretch my legs and return the baby.

After shopping, I find a bodaboda (motorcycle taxi) to take me and my bags back up the mountain. I ask the driver to wait as a pile of juicy looking oranges has caught my attention. The stall vendor crosses the street to accept my shillings. I recognize the colorful khanga before I identify the woman from the bus. When our eyes meet, she bursts into laughter. She draws a mountain in the air and points with her wrinkled finger up and down. I have come a long way to buy oranges, which I could also have found back home in Kidia.

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