In 1994, I was in a remote corner of Tanzania to conduct my dissertation fieldwork in African history. I had read some about the region but not much had been written for decades since few outsiders had been there and locals often had little access to education as the region had only had a secondary school built in the mid-1990s while I was there. So before heading to Africa, I flew to New York City to meet with one of the only U.S. scholars to have ever been in Ufipa, Tanzania. She provided contacts with both the African priests and sisters who lived in Ufipa.
When I arrived, I initially met the priests and sisters who offered much-appreciated housing and food. But one of the first people I met was Irena, the front desk clerk at a small hotel in Sumbawanga, before heading up further north. She asked, with surprise, what I was doing there, alone. I said that I was there to do research and would be living in Chala, 40 miles north. Her jaw dropped and she said, “That’s where I live.” Within minutes of arriving in the regional capital, I was being woven into a social network. When I left a few days later, Irena handed me an envelope with money in it, money representing a month’s wages, entrusting me to carry this large sum to her mother, a woman whom I had never met. In Chala, I was grateful for the small task of having to find Irena Kang’ombe’s mother. I went down to the small market place and within minutes, Verana Salya, a middle-aged shoe saleswoman, greeted me and said she could take me to Irena’s mother. I followed Verana as we wove in and out of pathways between sun-dried brick houses. In return for delivering the money and visiting their home, Irena’s mother gave me a basket full of peanuts. Verana then took me around the village and introduced me to members of the community. Everywhere she took me, with few exceptions, a member of the household would explain his or her connection to Verana in words along these lines, Verana’s mother’s uncle’s wife and my grandfather “wametoka tumbo hili moja” they came from one stomach; or they had the same mother.
I was being introduced to the community of Chala, while at the same time Verana was being introduced to me as an integral member of the community and, in particular, as a child of someone who, in turn, had a myriad of connections to others. So it was that within days of arriving in Ufipa and hours of arriving in Chala that I had social connections, and as it would turn out, familial connections. Such connections were the sinews of the local economy and had been so for a very long time.
One of my favorite memories from being in Tanzania was a dinner that I shared years later with Verana’s brother, Witgary, who was a driver for me during one of my research trips and another driver my parents had hired a decade earlier in 1995 when they came to visit, Nyoka. The two had never met before. They and their wives and I and a colleague had a dinner together. Some of the conversation was taken up with Nyoka and Witgary establishing contacts that each could use in the other’s home area. Since both were drivers and mobile, they knew that the more people they knew across the country, the better. I was a sufficiently reliable intermediary so they both trusted each other and, thus, their networks. By the time dinner was over, both Witgary and Nyoka knew that if something happened to them where the other lived, they would be well taken care of. This exchange of information was almost instinctual. I do not think that anyone else at the table, besides my colleague from the United States, even took note of the exchange. But to me it was a remarkable testimony to the importance of social networks.
Back as a Ph.D. candidate, I needed these connections to be able to learn about Fipa culture and history. So I started learning the local Fipa language seated side by side with Verana’s father who had had a serious bout with leprosy several decades earlier in his fifties and was not able to move much, but was delighted to teach me Fipa. Like so many, he had a nickname by which he was commonly known: Mzee Kontwa. Mzee meant older man in Swahili but Kontwa was in the local language and referred to a tick that rode on a cow. This was the way Kontwa thought about his life post-leprosy, as a free-loader. My need for his linguistic knowledge was a gift to him as well.
When I wanted to start talking to people, there was simply no way Verana’s family was going to allow me to walk within the village or from village to village by myself. But the only people available for such a task were far younger than I. All the mostly adult and adult men and women had work to do most days. So I ended up walking around the village and the area with several different teenagers during my eighteen months of fieldwork.
At first, they were essential cultural and linguistic brokers. I did not understand enough Fipa to conduct interviews without them translating for me from time to time. And they could explain to me how who we met along the path or road was related to someone back in Chala, further increasing my own possible networks.
But when their companionship became indispensable was on trips of several days where the village was far enough away that we had to spend the night. My initial naivete that I might be able to do this on my own was dispelled very quickly. There are no road signs, no roads, actually, connecting most of the villages I visited. And when arriving in a village there was no clear indication (to me at least) of where the village “head” lived. The paths we followed were narrow and were the habitat of a number of poisonous snakes, including one called the “two step.”
I quickly came to enjoy their company as well. It was far more enjoyable to walk with someone than alone. I began to wonder why anyone would ever walk alone?
Fipa thought it necessary to have someone accompany me because something bad could happen. In addition to snakes, there were insects of various kinds. It could rain suddenly or I could fall ill. For a few trips, I took a small motorbike that I had a Tanzanian license to drive. But on these trips, too, I never went alone. The bike was squirrelly on the dirt roads and having an alternate driver was welcome. When we got a flat tire, his assistance was essential. We were able to get it repaired in the village to which we were heading. How? I am still not sure.
They thought it necessary to have someone accompany me because I was less suspicious this way. No one walked alone; so if I did, I would stand out even more than I already did because of my skin tone and hair color. A cultural broker was very important. Knowing someone in the village was a huge benefit and smoothed most villagers’ understandable concerns about my presence. Fipa were cognizant of the fact that the power imbalance between Tanzania and the United States was great and they were on the losing end of it. Therefore, their country and particularly remote regions were subject to all kinds of exploitation. For all they knew, I was a harbinger of some bad project or development to come.
They thought it was necessary to have someone accompany me because I was a guest in their country and area and they wanted to ensure the best possible experience—it was safer and friendlier. And I came to see their point of view.
It would be easy to assume that Fipa reasons for making sure I had someone to accompany stemmed from their more communal approach to life. Such characteristics are often contrasted with our more individualistic culture in the West. But this is too simple and because it is too simple there are lessons here for those of us seeking to escape the maw of individualistic, neoliberal, annual, frontier culture that we have created here in the United States.
They thought companionship necessary because over centuries it ensured survival and resilience in a sparsely populated and harsh and unforgiving landscape. Travel required a network of contacts, knowledge of the local flora, fauna, paths, and language. All of this seems obvious to me now, but coming from North America and a family that valued independence, I had to learn this before I could successfully do my work.
This reality was embedded in their language. Fipa had elaborate greeting rituals that varied based on the time of day, a previous meeting that day or not, and relative age, among other things. It took me a long time to learn a subset of the possibilities and to respond appropriately.
One of the greetings that surprised me the most was translated in English as “What have you denied us?” To a North American, this seemed an odd, possibly hostile query. But, of course, I was there to look at the world through their eyes. I was told prior to roads and vehicles, when people had to walk from one place to another (and it could be hundreds of miles), they relied on social networks for hospitality. But if one was in an area with fewer contacts, then it was fair to ask about food and drink. Apparently, the question was meant to ask, “Where is a gathering of people drinking millet beer?” Millet beer is about as far from Bud Light as one could get in terms of calories and nutrition. In fact, a number of elderly Fipa I knew seemed to exist on little else. Finger millet contains protein, magnesium and calcium in large quantities. It was the primary grain that they grew for hundreds of years and supplied their main starch for a daily meal of ugali (ground and boiled millet flour) and vegetables, meat and/or fish. After the harvest, some of it was brewed. Fipa often drank it in community around a large gourd, sharing a straw, for hours. So, for a weary traveler, knowing where to find such a gathering was important.
It seems to me, though, that all their reasons apply in the United States as well. Since my time in Tanzania, I am much more likely to seek a companion for a walk, an errand, or a project than I was before. And, it seems to me that these sinews are going to be exactly what is needed as we find our way from fossil fuels to green energy and so many other changes. Over a year ago, I spent a few hours with Fred Iutzi, who was, at the time, the President of The Land Institute. We had a wonderful, wide-ranging discussion. At one point, I asked him what he thought were the most important things we would need during the transition to come. The first thing this scientist who was working on the decades long project of developing and marketing perennial grain agriculture noted was deep social networks. They will provide the resilience we will so desperately need. They will be able to point us toward our equivalent of the millet beer when food systems are disrupted. They will be able to help us avoid dead-end paths that do not lead to our chosen destination. And they will provide us with the solace and challenge that will allow us to innovate. And, finally, they will ensure that the knowledge and experience of the widest possible variety of people from the widest possible set of places are available to us. We will all be strangers in the new world that is developing around us. It would be wise to assume we need companionship and community for what lies ahead.