It takes Courage! Gisela and Dieter Helbig left their home, friends, and church, to go and live for five years with the Maasai in Tanzania. All that at 50 plus years of age. When the couple set out for Africa, the nomadic Maasai were undergoing huge cultural and economic change, as was the entire country. Gisela shares with us everything the couple lived through, from language difficulties to crocodiles, from medical emergencies to ancient customs, from the arid beauty of the landscape to the genuine warmth the couple experienced from their Maasai friends. One of Gisela’s most enriching times was spent teaching reading and writing under the shade of a giant tree. For the Helbigs, this was a life-changing experience. The couple is now retired, and lives in Nürnberg.
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– Our years among the Maasai –
Translated by Dee Pattee
Imprint: Cover-Design: Marco Ermann Cover-Photo: Fabian Knebel (Nanoari in Ngama) Photos in the image part: Ruth Belzner, Hildegard Jurisch, Marlene Klose, Fabian Knebel and privat Typesetting and prepress: Marco Ermann eBook-Conversion: CPI books GmbH, Leck © Maps: Mission EineWelt © 2015, Erlanger Verlag für Mission und Ökumene, Hauptstr. 2, 91564 Neuendettelsau, Germany ISBN 978-3-87214-552-9
Finding Our Bearings
1. The Landing, not without its problems
3. Learning, learning, learning
4. Arrival in Same
5. The Honeymoon is over
6. Boma Yeremia
7. Our new home
8. A reunion
9. On the border
20. A people fights for its future
11. Black and white
12. Change of Life: no heroism
Good And Bad Experiences
13. Naomi, a modern Maasai
14. Under Medical Care: saved
15. The “German”
17. Stumbling blocks
18. Under Medical Care: lost
19. The vestry meeting, or women are not hens
20. Learning under the shade tree
21. Maria, or death in the Steppe
22. The Women build a church
24. Not yet
25. Carrying the burdens of others
Disappointments and Amazing Escapes
26. Still a stranger
27. Perilous journey
A Long Farewell
30. Letting go
31. The bracelet
Map of Tanzania
Map of the Ruvu Parish
The Landing, not without its problems
“Ladies and Gentlemen…” The pilot’s voice comes over the loudspeaker. “We are making our descent into Kilimanjaro International Airport. The view is so clear that we are going to fly over the crater of Kilimanjaro, six thousand meters high, and take a look at the roof of Africa.”
Applause. First of all from the African passengers, then the rest of us join in. A general air of jubilation fills the cabin. Many of the passengers are going home, others starting their holidays. Cameras appear at the windows. And we, we are beginning our African adventure. Moving to Tanzania. We fly not far above the rim of the crater, where the ice looks like sugar frosting on a cake, spilling down the mountain in a mixture of ice and snow. In Swahili this mountain, known as Mlima, has a soul, just like humankind, the trees and animals. To this majestic mountain we are no more than a bothersome fly, buzzing over his vast reaches.
I feel excited. My throat is closing up. I am full of anticipation, but fearful of the unknown. What have we gotten ourselves into?
The aircraft begins to land, and as it comes to earth, applause breaks out. Again I see, under the wings of a parked aircraft, marabous, those huge birds I recall from my childhood picture books. What a perfect welcome. Dieter and I take off our seatbelts and give each other a hug. We have arrived. Let the adventure begin.
Our papers are not in order. That is clear, first in Swahili, then in English, as the customs official waves our various documents in the air. He points us towards a room marked “Immigration Office”, and there we drag ourselves and our heavy backpacks. Another official, an older uniformed man, is not unpleasant but soon makes clear that Dieter has no work permit. The temporary papers, sent by Dieter’s employer, the Tanzanian Protestant Church, will not do. (The government’s document, which we should have, simply hasn’t arrived.)
What to do? Dieter tries to explain that the work permit issued by the church will suffice. Guaranteed. Could not a telephone call clear the matter up? The official is sorry, but it is evening, the matter can be cleared up in the morning. The office is hot and sticky, the air stale. Are we supposed to spend the night here? I suddenly feel exhausted, dizzy. Dieter is getting upset and as I look at him, I see that he is sweating… ….he is feverish. Just as I begin to panic, the door flies open and a young woman in uniform appears, nods in our direction, and makes way for a white man who addresses the official in charge in fluent Swahili, then turns and speaks to us in German.
It is a colleague from the church, who has come to pick us up. He has seen us from the viewing area, had wondered what had happened to us. What a relief to see him now, like a breath of fresh air. We gladly let him take over the negotiations, which have left us completely in the dark. But then a quick word from him in German makes it all clear: a few U.S. dollars would have settled the matter. But our church doesn’t pay bribes.
So what’s next, we ask ourselves. Patience seems to be required. We let the flow of the beautiful Swahili language-which we hope one day to master-wash over us. But then, the talking stops. We wonder where our luggage is. Dieter is looking pale and exhausted. Our new friend gives a nod to indicate, “Can’t be helped,” and Dieter walks to the official’s desk, picks up his passport, sticks some dollar bills into it, and lays it back down. The official picks up the passport, removes the bills, and instead of putting them in his pocket, or a drawer, begins to count them. As I watch this man, who up till then had embodied civil authority, count the American bills, I recall something I recently read. That in the heyday of African socialism not even a humble porter would take a tip.
Was that only a dream, wishful thinking? That though all were poor, yet all were equal. Was this, after twenty-seven years of independence, the end of the dream, a nightmare even?
This exhausting day ends, with our passports stamped, and all of our luggage accounted for, except for the green trunk. We find ourselves in the home of a hospitable church family in-surprise-real European beds.
Dieter is sick. He is feverish and can only sleep, and perspire. All our plans go on hold. We were supposed to go to Same, our future home, before beginning language lessons in the southern part of the country. In Same we were to see the Bishop, Dieter’s future boss, a much anticipated meeting. We were also going to visit the building site of our new home, which was being financed by the Lutheran church in Bavaria. We were told that our visit to this site would motivate, inspire the workers. And naturally, we ourselves were eager to see our future home.
Now we had to take in account Dieter’s chronic bronchitis. The tropical climate was apparently affecting his health. We had to accept the most generous and uncomplicated hospitality of our German host family. For me at least, this introduction to a new world was made easy. I slept and slept. When I awoke, I began to realize what pressure I had been under for the past weeks and months. Breaking up a household, becoming students once more in Neuendettelsau, Salzburg and Birmingham, putting all my energy into the overseas shipments, all the farewells. I sometimes felt as if I were pulling all my known life out by its roots – an exhausting trial for body and soul.
But this interval was also a gift. I had time to think, to analyze my thoughts. I perched on our hosts’ doorstep with my diary. Before starting a new page, I leafed back to earlier entries. There it was, January 1, 1987. It all began with a dream of Dieter’s during an afternoon nap. He had just read that the Protestant church in Tanzania was seriously – even desperately – looking for support from its German partners. Priests were lacking, church workers were lacking. The Bavarian church authorities spread the word, and though we hadn’t thought of ourselves as missionaries, there was this need. “Would you go with me to Tanzania?,” Dieter asked after his nap. My quick “Yes!” started it all.
From earliest childhood I was fascinated by Africa, or my idea of it. Perhaps it had something to do with my seafaring family. In my early memories, which I can still recall, are not only native people, amazing plants and strange animals, but also ships and harbors. Before the last war, my father captained large ships between the port of Bremerhaven and various African ports, and spoke nostalgically of those days, now gone. When he spoke, I envisioned harbors very different from ours: native dhows with dark sails gliding here and there, men with sweat glistening on their upper bodies striding barefoot up gangways carrying huge bunches of bananas or immense bundles of cotton. Somehow the name Zanzibar came to mind, along with the palm trees on old postcards sent by my grandfather, who was also a sea captain. It was obvious that if one wanted to go to Africa, one had to go by ship, so that’s how I wanted to go.
I had to wait a long time for Africa, and the sea voyage was not to be. When I first set foot on African soil, in 1980, it was at the Johannesburg, South Africa, airfield. My heart was pounding, not from joy but from anxiety. Would we German “Boycott Women” be received as mere tourists? Two armored cars lined up on the air field – the very vehicles I recalled from pictures of the bloody student protests in Soweto – created a disturbing reception to the African continent.
Since 1979 the German Protestant Women’s Committee (EFD) had called for a boycott of South African products, with the slogan, “Ban the fruit of apartheid.” I had been part of this protest from the very beginning. This brought me into contact with both black and white opponents of apartheid, many of them refugees in Germany. Or others who came as visitors, and were guests in our home. In 1980 and 1982 I flew to South Africa as the guest of Christian groups who stood in opposition to apartheid, gathering material and information to use in our German churches. After 1982, my visa applications to visit South Africa were rejected.
But I still wanted to live and work among Africans. South Africa was no longer an option. So the offer of the Tanzanian church fell on fertile soil. I had just turned fifty, a good age to try something new. My health was good, and family obligations no longer stood in the way. Dieter felt the same way about this adventure. The two oldest of our three children had already left home and our sixteen year old was coming with us to complete her education in an international school, or so we thought.
Regarding our health, we had much to be happy about. Dieter’s chronic bronchitis and asthma had been so successfully treated that he could even do some mountain climbing, his favorite sport. All this added to our travel-and-new-experience fever. For the past sixteen years we had served in a prosperous Munich parish, where we had many friends and I could look back on solid work and involvement: Women’s issues, the peace movement of the eighties, youth work, the boycott of South African fruit. It was never boring. But sixteen years is a long time, and life can turn into a routine.
In 1987 we made an exploratory trip to north Tanzania. Our daughter was to visit her future school and we wanted to check out the climate. We were being cautious. The climate, hot but dry, seemed to pose no big problem. Our daughter, however, was losing interest in the move. During the long months leading up to our departure, she grew more and more unwilling to leave Munich and her friends. She was now 17, and we soon learned she had made her own plans: a new school and a host family, all of it cleverly arranged with the knowledge of her godparents.
Our three children liked the idea of their parents expanding their world. Our elderly mother approved. The Tropical Health Institute gave us a go-ahead, and the Bavarian Mission Office (today known as “Mission: One World”) apparently had no problem sending off a fifty-two year old pastor. The Tanzanian bishop was delighted to welcome a colleague with practical and professional experience. And I, the accompanying wife, was also most welcome. I took all the preparations and advice offered seriously. Dieter, however, was most anxious over the language problem. How could he properly preach, and teach, in an yet-unknown language? Since I had no clearly defined role, this was not one of my concerns. I could slowly adjust to things, as my husband established a mission in a vast part of the Maasai Steppes south of Kilimanjaro. Up to now, this region had been served by four Tanzanian priests who attempted to visit their flock, by bicycle or motor bike, in the vast Pare mountain region below main highway #1. The Bavarian partner church was supplying Dieter with a truck, with which he would minister in this area, of some thousand square miles.
But right now this priest lay in bed, sleeping night and day. I put my journal away. What mattered to me right now were my friends. A close friend, Hanne, had not only given me a wonderful going away present, she also had a special request. “Write up your experiences, send them to me and I will duplicate them so everyone can share,” she urged me. I had made up an address list for this very purpose, and I wanted to test the idea.
First of all, I took a walk around the grounds of the Theology Institute, where we were staying. With all my senses, I breathed in Africa. This was Tanzania’s winter, so it was no hotter than an ordinary Munich summer. Furthermore, we were in Makumira, at the foot of Mount Meru, only one kilometer lower than neighboring Kilimanjaro. Passersby, who occasionally appeared on foot or bike, offered a friendly “Salaam!” I admired the lush vegetation: huge trees bursting with leaves, tall close-standing banana trees. Despite this time of drought, I saw many flowers I couldn’t identify, as well as myriad tiny and larger butterflies. I became intoxicated with the song of the numerous birds and the smell of exotic plants and flowers. By evening, this smell would mingle with the odors of food cooked over wood fires.
Four days later Dieter was up and about. Our colleague, Helmut, got us two seats on a night flight to Dar es Salaam. Our language course in Morogoro would begin two days later. There was apparently a two or three hour bus ride on terrible roads to reach our destination. We couldn’t wait for our missing green suitcase. Helmut would pick it up at the airport and the next person coming our way would deliver it. How long would that take? “No problem,” said Helmut. “There’s always someone from one of our schools travelling your way. You’ll have it in a few weeks. You have everything you need anyway, don’t you?”
Of course. But when I tried to recall the contents of this suitcase, I became a bit uneasy. Weren’t the towels and sheets we needed for the next four months in this case? We could probably borrow some. I gave up worrying.
We said a fond goodbye to the people who had so graciously welcomed us in our first days in Africa. And now we sat in an aged “Fokker Friendship” propeller plane of Tanzania’s national airline, an airline whose financial problems made regular flights decidedly uncertain. Through the aircraft windows the moon cast unearthly shadows. I couldn’t relax. The aircraft was bucking like an old sailing ship. I couldn’t take my eyes off the shaking wing and shuddering undercarriage, right under my window.
We landed, in a happy, almost over-excited frame of mind. At once we were struck by the whole atmosphere of this metropolis. The heavy, tropical air, with its odors of salt water, charcoal, fish and automobile exhaust somehow put us in a vacation mood. The landing field which we had to cross was dark, and the airport building itself was dark and closed shut. It was one a.m. and not a soul to be seen. The group of twenty or so passengers went from one glass door to another, all the while hoping to see a crew member. When all the doors had been tried, the passengers put down their carry-on luggage and sent one person off to explore. The conversation all around us, in Swahili, was calm and peaceful. Since we were the only foreigners, the only non-Africans, we just sat and waited.
An airline employee appeared from out of nowhere, accomplished all the necessary paperwork and soon, with our luggage, we were on our way, by taxi, to the hotel which had been recommended to us. The next morning, seated at breakfast, we heard the name, “Reverend Helbig” over the loudspeaker. Luckily it was in English. Reverend Helbig was to report to the front desk. Soon after, Dieter reappeared, smiling, with a man he introduced as colleague “Z,” who had come with his car to drive us to Morogoro. What? How was that possible? All the previous plans had been shelved. Our new friend grinned. He had been told to take care of us. He was taciturn, an old Africa hand. We were thrilled to be spared the long tiresome bus journey and realized that things in Africa worked differently. This was a country where a letter took two weeks to reach its destination, and telephone service existed only in theory. Electronic communication? Forget it. Yet here we had been saved by a sort of bush telegraph, easing us smoothly into our new life.
Learning, learning, learning
In the next few months all we had to do was study the language and learn about the country and its people. And go on occasional excursions. Our group consisted of twenty-five adults and a couple of children. The adults came from various European countries, and had a variety of career specialties needed for the work of the local church. I found it rather odd that we were all called “missionaries” as a matter of course. The hundred year old Tanzanian church, active in mission at home as well as in neighboring lands, felt surely more free than we Germans, with our heavy past of colonialism. I preferred to consider myself a volunteer worker in the Tanzanian church, should my talents be required. Right now, I was just an accompanying wife, like the other married women in the group. The women with particular job descriptions were all single. Couldn’t there be a category like “Woman doctor and accompanying husband?”
Fortunately, as students we were all on the same level. Our common goal was to communicate in Swahili. The teaching language was English, which is why we had spent a semester in England brushing up on this language. We had lived and studied in an Anglican college, with other students from the world wide ecumenical movement. This student life, in an international setting, delighted us. And we felt the same way about our time in Morogoro. It was a privilege to have nothing to do but learn. And furthermore, we were studying together, as a couple, and at our age! As we sat side by side at our desks under the window and crammed Swahili, I felt that we were laying a solid foundation for our next few years-though there would surely be difficult times ahead.
But learning a language wasn’t easy, especially when there was nothing familiar to connect it to. The teachers and staff of the language school did their best to help us. Whenever we met a gardener, or someone from the kitchen, that person made a point of greeting us, and then rehearsing the proper formulas for “hello” and so forth. All were happy to see how our vocabulary grew. One evening I overheard the night watchman and Anne, an Englishwoman, practicing through the open window: “Habari ya kusoma?” (How are you getting along with your classes?) “Good evening” and “sleep well,” and “usikate tamaa” (courage, don‘t give up).
Our quarters were poorly sound-proofed. We lived under corrugated tin roofs in a series of small rooms which led one into another. Furnishings were few and simple. The doors and windows were set opposite each other, to allow the air to circulate. Mama Zipora, the housemother, cautioned us to lock our door whenever we left the room with the padlock which was one of the things we had been told to bring from Germany.
We were living in a bitterly poor country, and so the things we brought with us represented untold wealth. How painful and degrading is the divide between rich and poor. This was brought home to us more and more in the coming days. We had no idea, for instance, that the mosquito netting on the window and over our bed, patched but serviceable, was a luxury not everyone had. This in a country where malaria was the leading cause of death.
In our first orientation, our teacher warned us that pythons lived in the swamps behind the fields of papaya, banana, sugarcane, corn and coconut trees which were part of the school grounds. In the four months we were there, not one of us saw pythons, but we saw many other snakes. And we gained a lot of respect for the mosquitoes who bred in these very swamps. With their persistent drone, they ruined what might have been peaceful, idyllic evenings. To sit outside and enjoy a fragrant, warm evening was out of the question. Not for me that special time between sunset and nightfall, a time I used to enjoy in my home on the north German coast, where the interval is longer. Here under the equator, night fell very swiftly. I made a habit every evening after supper of taking a stroll around the grounds, wearing stockings, long pants and a long-sleeved shirt. Dieter sometimes came along.
How subtly nature made its changes, unlike the swift passing of seasons in Europe. Behind the kitchen area stood a baobab tree, whose stark silhouette seemed a symbol of Africa. One day, after a heavy October rain, the tree suddenly sprouted, at its very top, some pale, tender blossoms. How unexpected they were, on this bulky dinosaur of a tree.
On a discard pile I found a branch of frangipani, which, though crushed, still gave off its magical perfume. I took a twig of it into my room and for a long while enjoyed its incomparable fragrance. A fragrance which, on my return to Germany, I kept searching for in perfume shops. Without luck, of course.
Our little forays into tame nature were our only chance for a bit of privacy. As a group, we spent all our time together studying, having our meals together, even sharing shower and bathroom space. When we intruded into our neighbors’ private life, it usually turned out to be no more exciting than ours: learning Swahili. As a group, we grew closer, helped each other out, and had fun together. Since the school couldn’t furnish us with linens, fellow students lent us theirs. Ours were in the missing green trunk which eventually showed up, after many escapades along the way. (That is another story.)
We did our laundry together, in huge laundry tubs. We cut each other’s hair. No African hairdresser could have done any better. Ines, a German doctor’s wife, was skilled and innovative with the scissors. For Dieter’s birthday, she trimmed the silvery locks which grew past his ears. We all gathered around the birthday boy, who sat in the ‘barber’s chair’ under open skies, and told Ines that she had made a new man out of Dieter. He was ready to take on the world!
Dieter and I were by far the oldest students in the course. Surprisingly, this took some getting used to. Somehow I felt older here than I did back home. There I led my life among people my own age, as well as among younger ones. I knew that in Africa age was honored and respected, but that I belonged in that category? I wasn’t so sure. In Munich no one got up to give me his seat on the tram. Here I was given the only available chair, while everyone else had to sit on hard stone steps. All of them the whites, Europeans. Perhaps I could learn to enjoy the benefits of old age, at least during my time in Africa.
I had to struggle not to mind my age, especially behind the wheel of our little Suzuki, which we had bought from a teacher. Unfortunately, the steering wheel was on the left side, and the rear window had to carry a sign, LHD (Left Hand Driver), as in Tanzania traffic moves on the left. In Tanzania, however, if I didn’t drive I would be completely helpless, dependent on my husband. So before leaving Germany I learned to drive. Two weeks before our departure, by the very skin of my teeth! I got the drivers’ license, memorized all the German traffic rules. But I had had no driving practice. In Tanzania Udo, a young German from Westfalia, took it upon himself to help me practice driving, gave me helpful hints. (Dieter was not about to do this!) Patient, calm Udo, with his dry humor, saved me!
Finally one day I was brave enough to drive to the market in Morogoro. Progress along that road was usually at a walking pace. The potholed road was crowded with cars, bicycles, men pushing overloaded carts, and women with huge bundles on their heads. I was very nervous and had to fully concentrate. But all went well, and I felt that I had mastered driving under African conditions. Later on, I came to enjoy driving over rough roads, whether in the maze of the city, or in the bush. Maybe it had something to do with my never having driven the so very proper German roads under proper traffic conditions.
In Africa, I had to react quickly. The usual traffic rules didn’t apply. Traffic fatalities of men and animals were frighteningly high. We heard many horror stories about the road from Dar-es-Salaam to Zambia, of the heavy trucks which night and day carried their cargo from that important East African port to the interior. The road ran past our school grounds. Whenever I took my evening stroll, and came to this road, I watched the garishly painted, poorly lit trucks, the also poorly lit busses, as they charged down the rutted highway. And I thought my thoughts.
The drivers were often drunk, I was told. Otherwise they couldn’t stand the pace. Prostitution and AIDS, which was rapidly spreading across Africa, added another dimension. An African man in this very patriarchal society disdains the use of condoms, not because of his Catholic faith, but because that is his mentality. Ines, who for several months worked in a mission hospital alongside her husband, told us this story:
A young woman came to them, in desperation, for advice. Her husband had AIDS. Must she fulfill her marital duties, unprotected? The husband, a truck driver, was insistent. Our small group of foreigners pondered long over this question of life and death. Some of us tried to take the larger world view, others held to their own set of values. And this was just the start.
Arrival in Same
Four months later, our intensive language and acculturation course was over. Our farewells were heart-warming, but brief. Our African instructors had to get back quickly to their work in the fields. It was December, and the rainy season had begun. And we foreigners were eager to start the next stage of our lives. I had a lot of mixed feelings at this time. I felt a pull between the past and the present. A nostalgia for childhood things, a realization that I had to bring order into my life. Sort, discard, and organize. Since January 1987 that had been a major preoccupation of mine. But now, suddenly, the future had arrived.
Before dawn, our little Suzuki was packed, and we would soon find out if it was equal to the task. Three trunks, a huge backpack and the many household articles we had found in the market in Morogoro. Our green trunk had arrived, intact. And what a story we learned later from our colleague who had picked it up at airport customs. The trunk had to be opened. So he opened it. It wasn’t locked. For some reason the customs officer was called away, and then for some reason the trunk slammed shut. The official returned. The trunk refused to open. Useless argument by the poor colleague. Loud discussion. Accusations. Everyone in the customs line insisting that the trunk lid had a mind of its own. Finally, the customs officer gave up. Now all of this upset me very much, for under the bed linens was a passport with South African stampings. I had obtained another passport for Tanzania, which belonged to the Frontstaaten who were enemies of apartheid. Foolishly, I had dreamt of once more visiting South Africa, even though my last attempt to obtain a visa had been refused. If this passport, with its telltale stamps, had been discovered, I could be accused of being a spy, or something along those lines. Then what of our Tanzanian adventure? All of it for nothing. We would have been shipped back to Germany. But thanks to this mysterious turn of events, we had been saved. Life could go on.
We started early, for we had a whole day’s journey ahead of us. After a few hours’ drive we left behind this menacing highway which symbolized, to me, a country dragged into the modern world without having gone through the necessary stages of infrastructure development. Eventually we turned north onto National Highway #1, which led to Nairobi and was known as Tanzania’s worst road. The traffic was so light that after an hour I dared to take the wheel. At once my anxiety was gone. The road was a mass of water-filled potholes, for it had just rained, and on either side of the road the green fields sparkled in the sunshine. It was fiercely hot. All the car windows were open. We moved almost as slowly as the pedestrians with huge bundles on their heads. They waved at us and peered into the car, shouting words we couldn’t make out. So we waved back: “Salaam”. That was one word we did know, and it seemed to suit. What a cheerful mood!
And how amazing that these people saw us only in the friendliest way. We, the wealthy. We had, after all, a car, and were white. Soon many miles were behind us and we could drive faster and let the airstream cool us. There was nearly no traffic on the road, no villages, only occasionally another car. Once a snow-white hawk hovered over our heads, high up in the blue sky. We enjoyed the drive, pushing on ever northwards, but we were tired, and often changed places at the wheel. Suddenly the dark shape of a mango tree appeared, with figures dashing into the road and back. It was a pack of children, yelling, screaming, holding mangoes in their hands, which they offered us. We bought a huge bag of this delicious fruit, bound in a palm leaf sack. When we asked the children where they lived, they pointed in the direction of the dark bushes by the road. Somewhere back there must be habitation, but to our eyes, it was a completely empty landscape.
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