Hitchhiking into Arusha

The Vauxhall wouldn’t start again. Turned it over so many times that twisting the key got us nothing but a dull clunk. My folks let us use the Vauxhall so we could get to their house downtown for the reception they were holding so the new U. S. Ambassador could meet the Americans living in Arusha. Our job was to tend bar for the event. So here we were all dressed up sitting in an immovable hunk of junk in our driveway trying to figure out how we were going to get from our house on the Greek School grounds to downtown Arusha in time. We decided to trudge up the farm road to the office where we could use the phone. Maybe someone coming past the school could pick us up on their way to the reception. The school had a bus, an ingenious wooden contraption built upon a Bedford truck chassis, but the accountant we called Shifty probably had it out on one of his nefarious projects. If worse came to worst we could always hitchhike.


St. Constantine’s School was built by Tanzania’s expatriate Greek community to provide a Greek education for their children and preserve their Greek heritage. On a parcel of land amidst coffee estates outside Arusha, they built a little blue and white Greek Orthodox church, classrooms, a kitchen and dormitories, housing for the staff, and even a small farm to supply food for the children. As aid agencies arrived in Arusha to assist the East African Community, demand grew for an alternative to the one English language primary school in town, and the Greeks responded to this opportunity by opening an “English stream” international school in addition to the original “Greek stream.” My wife and daughter and I had come to visit my parents, found jobs at the school, and ended up staying. She taught third and fourth grade in the English stream, and I taught English in the Greek stream.


The phone call to my parents’ house revealed a pandemonium of deliveries, momentary kitchen crises, helpful hands in need of direction, and our four-year-old daughter chattering happily at her Grandma in the background.

But no one knew of anyone coming in to the reception from the Lake Manyara road. “Never mind,” I assured my Mom. “You have a lot to deal with there. We’ll figure it out.”


We positioned ourselves on the roadside beside the school gate, ready to flag down the first likely looking vehicle. We called it the Lake Manyara road simply because it was the road out of town you took when you packed up the Landcruiser to visit Lake Manyara National Park. The swarms of tsetse flies from the lake forced the park’s lions to seek refuge in the trees, and you could see entire prides of lions napping, legs dangling from the branches, in the low trees that grow along the lake.


The road probably had a numerical designation, maybe even a name associated with the towns and cities it connected, but to us it was the Lake Manyara Road. This close to town, the road was tree-lined, paved and pleasant as a French country road, as long as you avoided the pot holes. Wide shoulders accommodated the numerous pedestrians and herds of goats and cattle bound for market. Tall hedges hid the fields and coffee trees from view, broken only by the occasional gated driveway leading to the houses and out buildings of an estate.


The first vehicle to come along was a minivan packed to the roof with people and goods. We waved them on. Next came a vaguely familiar American pickup with a USAID logo on the door. The truck ground to a halt on the gravel shoulder and a familiar face leaned over his passenger to open the door to us. He was the veterinarian assigned to the Maasai Project, a young Californian we had partied with in Arusha from time to time. Once when the party ended up at his house, I was amused at the vet school diploma hanging inside the bathroom door, a place of honor he said he had chosen because Ronald Reagan’s signature featured prominently at the bottom of the certificate. Sitting next to him was the wife of the appropriate technology specialist on the Maasai Project team. They were returning from a day of spectacular game viewing at Lake Manyara, and their excitement was palpable, but mostly they were surprised to see my wife in her long cocktail dress and me in my safari suit standing on the side of the road. There was only room for one more in the cab of the truck, so my wife climbed inside while I stood in the truck bed hanging onto the cross bar over the cab to avoid getting my suit dirty.


The vet dropped us on the street outside my parents’ house. Most people drove right up to the house, but he didn’t want to attract any unnecessary attention to today’s safari. The sight of us walking up the driveway set Kibo, my parents’ German Shepard, to barking furiously and wagging his tail equally furiously when he recognized our scent. With him in the yard, there was no need for a gate. Despite the heavy foot traffic heading for the town center, very few pedestrians strayed onto this side of the street. One of Kibo’s favorite pastimes was to wait for a passerby to step into the relative privacy of the high hedge around the house and, just when the gentleman was prepared to relieve himself, lunge forward from the other side of the hedge howling with rage. Before the fellow could realize that a fence in the hedge separated him from the dog, he had wet himself in the process of retreating rapidly from the hedge and vowed never to approach that hedge again.


Alerted by Kibo’s welcome, my mother came out of the kitchen to greet us, followed by the cook and the gardener. She directed us to the truck of supplies they were unloading and returned to lifeguard duty watching her granddaughter splashing in the little pool beside my parents’ bedroom.


The ambassador’s staff had driven up from Dar es Salaam with food and drink from the embassy commissary, and we needed to decide where to store the cases of liquor, beer, and wine. I grabbed a case of bourbon and instructed the gardener to follow me with a couple of cases of beer to the porch where some folding tables had been set up to serve as the bar. We covered the tables with table cloths so large that they reached the floor, concealing the cases of booze stashed underneath, and we set about plunging bottles of beer into two safari-sized ice chests beside the table. Glassware arrived from the kitchen and we organized them by size on the tabletops in front of us, along with a row of open wine and liquor bottles, mixers, a pitcher of water and a punch bowl of ice. My mother brought us a stack of paper napkins, and we were ready to serve.


As the first guests began to arrive, food appeared on the dining table and spread to the occasional tables in the living room. Guests carrying plates drifted through the doors opening onto the garden, stopped on the porch to get a drink, and congregated on the lawn in conversational clumps. We were slinging drinks as fast as we could, sticking to the simpler ones like scotch on the rocks, gin and tonic, or vodka lime. For anyone who ordered a sophisticated mixed drink, it became a self-service bar. We learned to appreciate the beer drinkers, who only needed to be told where to find the bottle opener, and the wine lovers, so long as they only requested red or white. A clutch of hardcore bourbon drinkers clustered at the end of the bar, attracted by the seemingly unending supply of this rare commodity. If you didn’t have commissary privileges, you had to either drive to Nairobi or stop at an airport duty free shop to stock up on this uniquely American whiskey. We soon learned that generous pours slowed down the demand for refills.


The guests carried their drinks onto the lawn and sought shade beside the lemon trees, stepping around the huge rough-skinned lemons that littered the grass where Kibo had left them after one of his endless games of catch. At that time the American community in Arusha was fairly small, so we knew most of the guests from my father’s work, my mother’s productions at the Little Theatre, or from teaching their kids in the English stream at our school. And then there was the ambassador and his entourage up from Dar, but there was one unfamiliar face I simply could not place. He and his wife were Black, and from the way they were dressed I thought they were Tanzanian. But their accent was definitely American: midwestern, a little southern, decidedly urban. He ordered “Ndovu,” Swahili for “Tusker,” the popular Kenyan lager brewed and sold in Tanzania under its Swahili name. At this shindig we were serving only imported beer, so he settled for a Heinekens. His wife went for bourbon, and once they were served they moved off into the garden away from the others. My wife was intrigued, so she excused herself from the bar to join them. Soon the three of them were yucking it up like old friends reminiscing about their high school days. I was to find out later that my close resemblance to my father had spooked them. They had met with him in the past, and he had denied their request to speak to the ambassador on their behalf. With my wife they felt comfortable and they opened up to her.


Turns out Pete, the husband, was a Kansas City Black Panther who’d fled a Federal gun conviction and ended up in exile in Tanzania after brief stays in Sweden and Algeria. His wife Charlotte joined him, and they settled on a farm in a village just outside Arusha. I’d heard rumors of a Black American who had a chicken farm outside of town, but that was all I knew about them. I never talked politics with him, but I imagine Pete probably chose Tanzania because of its standing in the Third World as a leading African Socialist state, with a philosophy of helping people help themselves very close to what the original Black Panthers set out to do in America. Back in Boulder I was a shelver in the university library, where back in the stacks I had a stash of the works of Julius Nyerere, the President of Tanzania known to his people as Mwalimu, the Teacher. I’d punch in at the time clock, ride up in the elevator with a cart of books, and settle into a carrel to study Ujamaa (African socialism) and the new world literature emerging from African universities. I was to be disillusioned when I actually encountered Ujamaa in practice, a strict restructuring of feudal society that had to be implemented at the point of a gun, but at this time I had high hopes for a solution to the world’s problems rooted in the traditions of African village life. I’m sure Pete suffered similar disappointments, particularly since he was a man without a country living at the mercy of the Tanzanian government without the protection the United States government provided me and my family, but I never had the chance to talk to him about it.


As the party began to break up and the guests began to leave, the guest of honor made his way to the bar and my wife attempted to engage him in conversation. She mentioned meeting Pete and Charlotte and said they really wanted to talk to him. The ambassador cut her off with a curt “I am very familiar with Mr. O’Neal and his problem,” and in a more paternal tone said he wished there was something he could do for Pete but the circumstances of his situation made that impossible. I handed him his drink and he drifted away from the bar to thank my Mom and Dad for hosting such a successful event. I knew we were in for a dinner table lecture from my father on “ambushing” the ambassador at their party in his honor, but I was proud of my wife for trying. To the best of my knowledge, Pete and Charlotte are still living outside Arusha, and their chicken farm has become a famous educational center for the African and international community.


My wife and daughter and I stayed to help clean up after the party, and in the morning my mother drove us back to our little house on the Greek school grounds. The Vauxhall still wouldn’t start, so we had to strap it to the back bumper of my parent’s Landcruiser and tow it back into town to the repair shop.