Feb 222009
 

MTAE, TZ– Tanzania is a young country, with some 44 percent of its people under age 15, according to our friends at the CIA. (By comparison, 20 percent of the US population is under 15.) I felt this demographic fact on my first day of hard riding through the Usambara Mountains. The hills and valleys rang out with the high-pitched cry of “Mzungu!” as children announced our passage through their towns.

The sisters in this picture were so enthralled by my arrival that they followed me all the way up a steep 30-minute climb. Although I enjoyed the accompaniment of their footfalls and giggles, I found it difficult to feel like a bad-ass cyclist when four schoolgirls–all barefoot, none out of breath–could so easily keep up with me.

When we reached the summit, though, only the eldest remained. She spoke her first English words to me: “Give me money.”

As I would later learn, this is a familiar refrain among Tanzanian children. Someone, somewhere has taught them the following: 1) All wazungu are crazy rich, and 2) If you say, “Give me money,” they will share their wealth with you.

I’ve asked several Tanzanian adults about this phenomenon, and they shake their heads and say that the children have bad manners. They also warn me against giving money–even if the children are desperately poor, and even if their desperate poverty has something to do with my people’s enslaving their people and stealing their resources for, oh, the past 300 years. At least.

But enough of my white guilt, at least here, for now. I wanted to give this kid a treat because here she was, all brave and strong and fast, alone on a mountaintop with some strange white chick. From my pannier I fished out a small gift I had for just this occasion–a millefiore necklace that my ex-mother-in-law, a glass artist, made. I have about 20 of these left over from my marriage, and was looking forward to unloading them on the unsuspecting populace. (Agribusinesses, chemical companies, and pharmaceutical multinationals perfected this strategy long before me.)

The girl looked at the necklace, looked at me, and then said, “Give me money.”

By this time, Jerome, David, and I had regrouped and the three other sisters had caught up. The sun was beginning to set and we had a breathtaking view of the valleys tumbling behind us.

“What are we doing here?” asked one of the girls in Kiswahili. (Jerome translated this.) “These wazungu aren’t going to give us any money. In fact, they’re probably going to cut off our ears.”

Jerome chuckled and reassured the girls that we weren’t the ear-cutting kind of wazungu.

I told him about the money/not gift communiques I was getting from the eldest girl. He then quietly asked her about the necklace. She didn’t say anything.

“What an ingrate,” I thought.

But then Jerome explained that she really liked the present.

“How can you tell?” I asked.

“Because she won’t show it to me and she’s hiding it from her sisters.”