Godfrey and Emmanueli dropped me off at the Chinese restaurant in town and they were off hunting for spare parts for our vehicles. They left me there because I would be nothing but a liability – not simply because I know nothing about spare parts – but because my very presence would make it harder to get a good price. It wasn’t anywhere near lunch time, but I figured I could plug in my computer and work and wait for them to show up and then we’d splurge and have a treat. The guy who runs the restaurant doesn’t speak much Swahili and even less English but he makes good Chinese food, it’s good and cheap, the portions are generous, and the place is always empty so I figure we’re doing a good deed by giving the guy a little bit of business. I remember eating at this place a decade ago and it amazed me then, and it still amazes me now, how he manages to stay in business when he never seems to have any customers.
Unfortunately, he also has no electrical outlets anywhere. So he’s lost his big chance to feed the three of us and I take off wandering up the road ducking my head in every restaurant along the way hoping I can find a place to charge my computer and my phone so that I can tell Godfrey and Emmanueli where I have gone. Eventually I make it all the way up to the main road (the trans-Africa highway actually) and cross the street to a filling station where they have a nice little restaurant that I remember from years ago is a bit beyond the price range we like but I’m sure it’s got to have an outlet in one of the walls! I sit down and through the glass pane I see this big man coming with a huge smile and my brain is trying to figure out quickly who he is. It’s one of those things where you recognize the face but he’s not in the context he’s supposed to be! It’s the MP (Member of Parliament) and it was just four days ago that I was in his home village and Godfrey, Emmanueli and I were holding a town meeting with the people there. Missionaries had come to that village well over a hundred years ago – I learned that from the already-faded, more-than-a-couple-of-decades-old, very big sign that celebrated the centennial of their arrival. And it was a hard village to get to. The trip through the mountains had been a tough ride – we spent an hour at one spot while people dug out the truck that was stuck ahead of us. And after we made it to the top of that mountain, the road down the other side to the little village nestled in the mountains was treacherous. I was so glad that we were going a different way once we got there and we didn’t have to trace ours steps.
This MP was a jovial, truly happy man. He embraced me like we were long-lost and best friends. He had clearly been at ease there in the village, and now here he was in the town of Mbeya. He quickly explained that he had seen me walking up the street and took off to follow me and finally caught up with me just as I made it to the restaurant. He ordered water for us, he called Godfrey and Emmanueli on the phone and invited them to lunch with us, and he and I sat and talked while we waited for them. He was going over every detail of the town meeting, repeating things I had said in my speech, talking about what Godfrey had said, telling me how the next day after we left everyone in the village was talking about everything over and over telling to those who had missed out, sharing with each other. It truly had been a fun meeting. And I was happy.
And then he asked me – what was your favorite part of the whole meeting? I looked at him, thought for a moment, and then we both knew and we pointed at each other and smiled big smiles and laughed and laughed.
The greatest moment, of course, was when the old grandmother stood up!
She had been sitting on a mat with the other really old women of the village, and when she got up she towered over everyone. And she had on this beautiful cloth that was peppered with the most vibrant yellows. I can still see them in my mind. She was a big woman and when she spoke everyone looked at her. She looked over at all of the men and said when I was young no one thought about sending us girls to school – you men got to go and learn to read and write – but everyone thought it was useless to teach a girl. It never occurred to anyone that we would want to learn just to learn. But he said -- and she swung over to look at me – he said that he wants everyone to come to school, that school is for boys and for girls, and so this is the time. It’s no longer like it was. And so – and then she turned over to all of the younger women sitting further away in their big cluster – you carry those huge buckets of sand for your daughters so that they will all go to school. And the crowd roared. And then she swung back around to the whole crowd of people assembled, everyone got quiet, and she said, I am an old woman. So my bucket will be small. And I will only be able to fill my bucket half full each time. But I will carry sand for my grand-daughters. For all of the grand-daughters in this whole village. And in all of the other villages in this whole valley. They are all my grand-daughters. And they will all go to school! And the entire crowd roared and roared and roared as she turned around and sat back down on her mat …
My heart soared when I first heard her speak, and my heart soared again when my friend the MP and I recounted word for word everything she had said. And my heart soars again now when I sit here and think again about it.
I remember when Susan and I first dreamed of building the very first school and we said over and over again to each other that we didn’t ever want to walk into a classroom with 40 kids and see just 3 girls in that classroom. It would be a battle, but it would be a battle worth fighting. Over the last seven and a half years our scholarship fund for girls has been filled with coins collected by school kids, with money people have written to honor their mothers, with checks, large and small, sent by wonderful people who have shocked us by their generosity. And today out of 7243 students in our schools, 3961 of them are girls.
There are months and months of hard labor ahead of those people as they make bricks, haul stones, and carry those countless buckets of sand. A lot of those buckets, I know, will only be half full. And then, when all of the work is finally finished, all of the grand-daughters of all of those villages -- hundreds and hundreds of them – will get to go to school.