Do you ever have the sense, as you’re living it, that an experience has the power to change your perspective completely? My first full day in Africa was like that.
This first day in Tanzania, we took a trip to a Maasai primary school, located a short distance from a ruby mine near Longido. The main reason we could visit a school, particularly this school, is due to the fact that gem cutter Roger Dery, an organizer of this trip, has built a relationship with a wonderful Maasai gentleman over a number of years. There is a consequent level of trust that allowed us unprecedented access.
We set off from Arusha and after a short stretch of highway, bounced our way over russet roads (road being a term used rather generously—by western standards this might have been called a “track”), encountering a family of giraffes, male and female ostriches, and other amazing birds along the way. Considering that this was not a safari, just a drive, it seemed not a bad start for our first couple of hours in the daylight.
Roger pointed out a substantial mound of grey-green gravel in the distance: the discard (tailings) of a ruby mine. The Maasai village of Kitarini is located close to the ruby mine. In fact, the nomadic village moved to its current location after the discovery of gem ruby in its bright green Zoisite matrix a few years ago. The Maasai people in the village and surrounding areas do the mining there.
A couple of low-slung buildings and a water tank made up the school compound. The weathered aqua-painted buildings with corrugated metal roofs stand out in the landscape of pale red dirt, shrub and rocks. When we pulled up, some of the children were doing lessons under the shade of a tree, and we could hear singing and reciting coming from the open windows of the main school building. The children ranged in age from about five–though they looked smaller–to early adolescence. They were dressed in bright blue and burgundy uniforms, with other clothing layered on. Many wore sweaters: they thought it was cold! We, meanwhile, were perspiring in the shade. Some of them wore ingenious shoes common in this area, made of recycled tires, sort of a criss-cross strap and a treaded sole.
Extremely curious about their western visitors, but expected to stay focused on their lessons, they regarded us carefully from across the dirt play yard. Their solemn, inquisitive faces reflect the fact that in their location, miles off the beaten path, these children see very few westerners, period. We are a novelty, probably quite entertaining in our clothing in various shades of khaki, technical boots, and funny hats.
But soon, there was a little bridge in the gap between us. Roger tells them a story, and we start to take some pictures as the toothy smiles start tentatively at first, then brilliant and spontaneous. The dusty distance between us closes. They love to have their picture taken, especially once they knew that we could play it back for them! They clustered around us, gesturing “now me, now me!” We had to keep backing up as they came closer and closer until we snapped the shutter. Then, a rush around us to play back the photo or video and the smiles and laughter as they looked–with a certain amount of awe—at themselves.
These kids haven’t had thousands of digital pictures taken of them by the time they reach toddler age, video clips documenting first words and steps. They don’t “pose” the way that our kids would. Their faces reflect a somberness: they stand still, and there is no artifice. They have no idea what they really look like in a picture. There is something precious about their utter lack of self-awareness. These children are completely without guile.
In a remarkably orderly fashion that would put some US schools to shame, the four hundred children lined up in rows. We handed out pieces of candy, which at first seemed to me a little frivolous. Why not books, pencils…lunch? But you have to understand that this one piece of candy is an enormous treat for them. There are no candy aisles. There are no grocery or convenience stores where they pester their parents until they give in. This is the best kind of luxury: sweet, chewy, and meant to be savored.
Lunch–maize and beans–was cooking in a small building in the back, over a wood fire. The kids collect sticks and firewood for the “kitchen” (really, a large metal pot over the fire) on their walk to school. They have ample opportunity for collecting the sticks: some students walk from up to five kilometers away.
Against the Maasai steppe landscape of red hills and green trees, the empty windows of an unfinished school building frame the view. It’s a skeletal reminder of how progress can come in fits and starts.
The school started from nothing a few years ago. The Maasai gentleman mentioned earlier, Sune, who is also in the gem trade, visited the nearby mine and saw the obvious need for a school. The initial contribution came from this gem dealer and his lovely wife, Pia, to help build the buildings. The government of Tanzania covers the cost of the teacher’s and head master’s salary. The rest of the funds have to come from elsewhere. The unfinished building was intended as the living quarters for the teachers.
Just the stone walls are erected right now, without a roof or finished interior—it is uninhabitable in its present state. Roger and Sune have collected some funds necessary for a roof and to rent a truck and some equipment to finish it. While this is a small project by Western standards, perhaps requiring a few phone calls, there is still a ways to go for total financing and arranging the logistics for completion. The corrugated metal, purchased and waiting, needs the transport to the site, but even this is challenging in Africa.
Scattered on the ground around the schoolyard are chunks of the Zoisite with the ruby veins as dramatic contrast. The stones echo the surrounding landscape of red and green. On closer inspection, the unfinished school building has chunks of these stones buried in the concrete at the corners and junctions as rebar: the building is literally constructed with the gems.
We drive away, smiling and waving on both sides of the windows, our pockets heavier with a few stones as mementos. It is no small feat for this cluster of buildings and families to survive out here. The faces captured on my camera tell a thousand stories. I whisper a little prayer of thanks and hope for the gems—the mineral and the people–that make this possible.
*Sharing the Rough is an important jewelry documentary that chronicles the journey of a gemstone from the mine in East Africa to a piece of finished jewelry-as-art. You can find out more at their website www.sharingtherough.com, and in the spirit of sharing, make a donation to the film that will also benefit the people of Tanzania and Kenya here.