"Dust"


Red dust coated the top sides of the leaves of the maize and pigeon pea plants that lined the two miles of dirt road leading to the village. Tim remembered that when the main road had been dirt, red dust coated the top sides of the leaves of the maize and pigeon pea plants most of the way from Babati. But the Chinese had paved the main road. The thirteen miles from Babati to the turnoff for the village represented a tiny fraction of the paving that the Chinese were doing.

“They know this is a rich country,” Mkame Murungi had explained. “Why can’t you Americans see the riches?”

Tim wondered how the Chinese could see them. He wondered how anyone could see riches that lay buried underground. Did one simply thrust a spade into the ground here and there, hoping for the best? But the ground would be pockmarked everywhere. There had to be a scientific way to reduce the element of randomness and make predictions with some accuracy. Tim wondered about the science.

He wondered if the red dust on the leaves was heavy. Did the leaves sag beneath the weight? He and Joanne had always visited Wajuwatinga during the dry season. Would the leaves hang differently after being washed by the rain? In the dry season, beneath their coats of red dust, small like the clothes made for dolls, the leaves remained absolutely still, as if embarrassed to make a move in front of the foreign visitors.

There seemed never to be any wind to force them to move even though Wajuwatinga stood a mile above sea level. Wasn’t mountain weather supposed to be changeable, and didn’t that imply wind? Tim wondered about the science of weather. He thought it was one more thing among many that he would never understand.

Tim looked at the red dust on the maize and pigeon pea plants as the driver maneuvered the four-by-four over the dirt road leading to the village. Mkame Murungi would be among the welcoming villagers. Tim remembered Murungi’s story about moving, many years before, from the slopes of Mount Meru near Arusha, the homeland of his people, the Meru. To make a good impression on the Gitahi people among whom he would live, he’d bought a pair of dark slacks. But the slacks had been cuffed. As Murungi traversed Wajuwatinga’s dirt paths, the cuffs filled with red dust. Mrs. Murungi had solved the problem. She undid the stitching and turned the cuffs under and redid the stitching. Murungi wore his slacks cuffed on the inside.

Joanne had made a different kind of concession to the effects of the red dust. Every summer, as she and Tim prepared for their annual visit to Wajuwatinga, she would buy armloads of brick-colored T-shirts, half of them in her own size and the other half in his.

“They’ll match the stains that our khakis pick up,” she would explain, and Tim never argued.

They agreed that they didn’t want to look like twins. So Tim wore a gray jacket over his brick-colored T-shirt and Joanne wore a blue jacket over hers as they approached the village and the welcoming crowd.

*

Over the years, Murungi had often spoken of secrets to Tim and Joanne. The year before, Joanne had reached a conclusion about Murungi and his secrets. She thought it had to do with his tenuous command of English.

“Take the secret of the porridge,” she said to Tim. “He means the recipe is complicated. It requires several steps, so Mrs. Murungi does this and this and this.”

Tim and Joanne had recently learned Mrs. Murungi’s first name. But Murungi and his wife preferred “Mrs. Murungi” or “Mama Mizengo,” because their son, Mizengo, was their first-born. Tim and Joanne observed the local custom, as they did with Murungi himself. Several years earlier, during a visit of two or three weeks to Wajuwatinga, Tim had made a practice of using Murungi’s first name because he’d started to feel close to him. But after noticing that the villagers always called him Murungi and recalling that he’d seemed surprised to hear Mkame, Tim went back to saying Murungi.

“He married a Meru woman partly because they know the steps in making porridge and the other foods he grew up eating,” Joanne continued. “But that’s a mouthful, so he talks about the secret of the porridge.”

Was the secret of the Diocese reducible to complexity, though? Tim and Joanne appreciated the tiny agricultural institute in Wajuwatinga almost as much as they appreciated Murungi’s management of their work in the village while they were in California nearly all year. The institute had dormitories and a cafeteria and three hours of electricity every night. This made life relatively comfortable for the volunteers they brought to work alongside the villagers to build schools and clean-water systems. But Wajuwatinga’s remoteness probably explained why the institute had struggled, ending its classes soon after Tim and Joanne had begun their work. Why had the Arusha Diocese of the Evangelical Lutheran Church chosen this location twenty years before? Why did the Diocese maintain a staff that had failed to prevent the stealthy invasion of the institute’s borders by the bush?

Murungi had planted the institute’s original fruit trees, and dug and stocked its tilapia ponds. Now he would shake his head while strolling with Tim and Joanne past an unpruned tree or a dry pond.

“It is a secret of the Diocese. Maybe that boy has some small or big influence.”

“You practically built this place, Murungi,” Joanne said. “Won’t the Diocese tell you anything?”

Murungi put his hands up. His face assumed the expression of a man crossing a street who suddenly fears that the oncoming car won’t stop for him.

“The church is a place for me to pray to Jesus,” he said. “I want nothing to do with the business of the Diocese.”