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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Footsteps, yarns and little fibs
Neema [Ne-ema] a young rural girl who had it tough

Submitted: July 15, 2016

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Submitted: July 15, 2016




Sylvester and Paulina were moved out of their single-roomed house to be replaced by Sylvia, an unmarried woman of about 26 who worked on the farm, her greatest claim to fame was to be a member of the church choir.

I used to walk down to the cowshed to buy milk from my good friend Samweli, who was in charge of the milking. Samweli used to walk some ten kilometres to and from his home, which was up the slopes of Mt Meru.

It was in that old, wooden, ramshackle milking shed that I first met Neema. Well, not really met, more like became aware of her. She was shy and hid behind the shed peeking out wide-eyed at the mzungu 'white guy' who had walked in.

I would smile at her, and greet Samweli and gradually she plucked up courage and would formally greet me and shake my hand and give me the respectful greeting, ‘Shikamoo!'

I became aware that Neema had a hard life; Sylvia would go away to choir practice, leaving the little girl alone. It gets dark in the tropics at 7:00pm and Neema had no artificial light in that little house. She was just 8 years old and in the dark, after milking she had to cook her own ugali over the traditional three stone fire - with nothing else to add to the flavour. Sylvia could afford no more as the farm workers were paid only sporadically.

Sylvia had been used to her life alone, and did not really think too much about looking after her young niece, but old Samweli was good to her and gave her the job of filling the meal (a pollard made in the process of making maize flour) at the head of the cow bale. He often managed used to sneak her a little milk, or I would pay for some by reducing our quota.

It was Samweli and Mbise, who told me of the problems Neema faced; how hungry she had become, and how frightened she was when he left alone well after and Samweli gone on his long trek home. In a way, I think they were looking for me to help her in some way. They told me that she particularly liked bread, which a bit of a luxury to rural Tanzanians.

Most evenings after that I would take a few slices of bread with me, or perhaps some fruit and sometimes even biscuits. She would always reward me with one of her brilliant smiles!

Samweli mentioned to me that Neema actually came from Ngarenanyuki where her parents had too many children and were unable to care for her, so had sent her to Sylvia to relieve their family and food security situation.

During one of our chats, I told Neema that I worked in the Ngarenanyuki area and asked where her parents lived.

'Across the river,' she replied, in the vague way Tanzanians often do, a phrase she probably heard adults use.

One day Neema asked me to take her to visit her parents. The request did not surprise me and I agreed without hesitation.

I told Sylvia to fill a [shopping] bag with maize cobs, because it was in season. I was well aware that this means that she actually had to steal them from the farm, and it was highly unusual make such an order but it was a worthy donation in the scheme of things. The farm was loosely within my sphere of influence so no trouble was likely to eventuate. 

The day before we were to go, Neema was waiting for me on the side of the road, and when I stopped, she climbed confidently onto the step of the Landrover and asked what time she should be ready. I think she could not really believe she was actually going with me.

'Usinidanganya, don't you trick me.’ she said seriously.

She was waiting with her bag of maize at the roadside and I stopped off at Usa River to buy some sugar and tea to give to her parents as well.

We picked up Loti at Ngongongare, who was surprised to see Neema, so I had some explaining to do. Our journey took us through the Arusha National Park and she was excited to see the giraffe, warthogs and baboons, which made me realise that her only other journey through the park was on the old Landrover 'buses' where people were packed in and a small child wouldn't be able to see much at all.

She was apprehensive of gruff old Loti so was very quiet and respectful towards him.

On the other side of the park, we questioned her as to where her parents lived but she was vague, repeating that it was across the river and 'up'. Both Loti and I knew the area well but we could not be sure where she meant.

There are three possible river crossings; fords; one up to Mwakeny and Kisimiri, and the other a short cut to the Ngarenanyuki clinic and village area, the track then goes on to Uwiro. The latter was unlikely. The other route crossed the same river but there were bridges and we expected that she would remember those. As it turned out that was a wrong assumption.

We crossed the ford towards Mwakeny and she said she recognised the area – but in a hopeful tone. At the village, she knew nobody and the village leaders we met did not know her parents. We continued up to Kisimiri and called at the primary school there, again Neema did not recognise the area nor did the teachers know of her parents, so it was another blank.

Neema was anxious, I think because she did not know how long my patience would last.

Through Uwiro and Neema brightened saying that her older sister attended Ngarenanyuki Primary School, so we passed by there. Sure enough, her sister did study there, but she was not at school this day, but we were told to go into the village where someone would know her.

We called on Loti's sister because she lived close to the track, and we thought she might have some knowledge of the family but we drew a blank there too! So we continued on and stopped in a dry creek bed where some people Loti knew were standing, talking. One of the women recognised Neema and told us that her parents lived up a track that ran beside the creek bed! The track led to the small sub-village of 'Kwa Iyani'.

Neema was very excited to see her grandfather sitting on a stool outside his house so we stopped to greet him, and kids from all directions converged upon us! Soon Neema's mother arrived. The reunion was tearful and happy, so we left them and carried on with our own duties.

Back at Neema’s parent’s house, we were told that we must have something to eat, and while we waited (in rural Africa you must wait – a fire has to be kindled before even water is boiled) I looked around at their environment. The village people were obviously desperately poor and the small village of perhaps ten houses was perched on a dry, barren ridge. I judged it to be one of the drier areas within the broad Ngarenanyuki region. The yellow of the clay (there was no hint of grass) was bright in the sun and the few Acacia trees were gasping for moisture. There were a lot of kids!

Neema's father had been found and had gone to 'borrow' rice. When he returned, he killed the only chook I had seen there. As we ate, I asked if the kids could join us, but there simply was not enough to go around, so Loti and I ate while the rest went hungry. I have no doubt supplying us with a meal was at the cost of the family’s food security. I was pleased Neema had brought the bag of maize cobs that were suitable for roasting!

As we prepared to leave, we were asked to take two other girls with us as well! A sister of Neema's and a smaller cousin, each had a small bundle of clothes prepared! Victoria and Baati were excited about their expected trip, because they had never been beyond the first bridge! I looked at Loti and he shrugged his shoulders, unconcerned, but I though Sylvia might not be too happy!

The journey back to Makumira was a thrill because everything was new to these exuberant girls, they called out their greetings to the giraffe, warthogs, baboons, National Park Rangers, the tar sealed road, the mud brick buildings to Usa River, the lorries, the buses and anything else they had never seen before! I also saw things through fresh eyes.

I was right! Sylvia was less than happy, I suspect she was not even expecting Neema back! Now there were three extra mouths to feed and I think she cast the blame squarely in my direction! However, it was obvious that Neema enjoyed the company and I received plenty of attention whenever I called for milk or cow manure for the nursery. And by pulling a few strings Victoria and Baati were allowed to go to the local school without uniforms.

After a month or so, Sylvia finally convinced me that it was time to return Victoria and Baati to their parents, and this time I used a donation from a service club back home, to buy a substantial amount of food to take with us.

I enjoyed the journey back because the girls sang most of the way - using the popular song, Habari gani? Nzuri sana! [How are you? I'm very good!] To greet everything and everyone they saw! Even Loti was called by his name rather than any respectful title he should have been given! And he enjoyed it!

As we approached Kwa Iyani village they sang. "We have arrived eh! We have arrived, eh! We have arrived at Baba & Mama's [house].

Neema’s family was very grateful for the food and all were happy when we left there. From time to time we returned there with food provided from donations of relatives and friends and we were sure it was shared around the ten households in the village.

Neema was lonely again and Sylvia had taken up with this guy who had a violent facet within his character. Horrified, Samweli told me that Neema was witness to this guy pulling a knife on Sylvia! Often, poor Neema would cower in the corner of the unlit room during their fights! I am not totally sure, but I think Loti reacted to my expressions of concern, which resulted in Neema being removed back to Ngarenanyuki because suddenly she disappeared from the cowshed.

I next met Neema at Olkung'wado Primary School where she was a student. Olkung’wado is in the same education district, but I was surprised that she was not at the school much closer to her home.

It turned out that her uncle was the Head Teacher at Olkung’wado and that she was staying at his house. I was more easily able to take bread to her uncle's house because I knew him well and his school, which participated of our environmental project.

More often than not, we found Neema at her uncle's house when I called there, so she was missing out on school, and I suspected that she was being used as a house girl. This saddened me but I kept quiet.

Not long after, I noticed she was not at school, nor was she at her uncle’s house. I found out that she was actually working as a house girl for a relative in a far distant village! This is what happens when families are so poor that they are unable to provide for their children. Neema will have no more education but she will work for her keep. Sometimes these situations are good, sometimes not.

Now, I have no idea where Neema is or how she is faring - I can only hope for the best.








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