Road to Tukuyu: A Poem By Terry Rapoch

Now in his 70’s, Terry Rapoch’s astonishingly vivid memories of his experiences fifty years earlier as a CUSC volunteer teacher in Africa, ring out with authenticity. Is this something AI could ever do?

Now in his 70’s, Terry Rapoch’s astonishingly vivid memories of his experiences fifty years earlier as a CUSC volunteer teacher in Africa, ring out with authenticity. Is this something AI could ever do?

African Railways and Harbours ticket
7:30 am, August 4-5, 1968, Seat 1B
Dar-es-Salaam to Tukuyu, Tanzania
By way of Morogoro, Iringa, Mbeya

The palm trees are silhouettes against a dawning sky
Awake, packed, and fed, we await the taxi in the cool air 
A short ride to the bus station, arriving well in time.
The bus station is full of people, men, women, of all ages
Certainly, more than the bus can accommodate.
So, why are they all here at 7 am, waiting?

I have traveled by bus before, a time, seat, a destination
But recently arrived in Tanzania, I just see the disorder
Having no appreciation for this moment and this place
So many hoping to get aboard, to quit this city, to get home
Maybe from unrealized dreams of a different future
Now tired, now lonely, now worried about a family illness
Regardless, they are here just needing to be home
And this well-used bus is that way out in a land of few roads
It is that link to family, to friends, to village, and home
And so, they stay, hoping, as the sun climbs above the palm trees.

Rod, a fellow volunteer, and I move toward the bus
Carrying our two years’ worth of luggage.
The crowd politely parts as we approach the bus
We hoist our bags to the rooftop carrier,
Then step back to wait with all the others
As the coolness goes and the sun climbs higher.

A burly conductor arrives
In official khaki, parting the crowd 
He gets on the bus and frowns
Starts down the aisle, checks tickets
Those without, he points to the door
He is firm, not harsh in doing his job.
A woman must leave
Passes her baby to friends outside.
A man argues for a moment,
Then grabs his basket, grudgingly
Shakes his head as he leaves the station.

The crowd is thinning; only family left for goodbyes
The bus, now almost empty, awaits new passengers. 
Tickets presented, seats pointed to and taken
For us, all in another language, not understood
We have our seat numbers; we take our places
All aboard, and we wait now, wait for the driver.

The driver arrives
In a crisp, ironed uniform and white shirt.
Gloves on, he checks gauges, dials, and dipstick
He brings the engine to life and engages the gears
The bus is old; a post-war Albion bought from England
Decked out in East African Railways and Harbours livery
Maroon highlights on a beige body
Long used, colors fading among dings and dents.

We are off!
Three minutes straight to the service depot
To fill up on diesel, more checking of brakes and tires
Out onto Pugu Road, sunlight flashing through the palms
Heading straight to Kariakoo.
The central market area in Dar Es Salaam
To buy fruits for the journey and home
Bananas, sugar cane, pineapple, mangoes
Some delicacies not found upcountry.

Marketing done, city streets to Morogoro Road
Through the suburbs of Dar es Salaam, the harbor of peace
Gently climbing into the low hills, past farms or shambas
To Chalinze, the intersection with the north road
Going to Moshi, Kilimanjaro, Arusha and the Serengeti
A road I later traveled by motorcycle,confident, a veteran.

At the roadside, hot tea boiled with sugar and condensed milk, cloying
But so fine with fried corn fritters and bananas
A morning snack fit for royalty and hungry youth.

My seat is hard, the legroom cramped, my back protests. 
The old suspension shudders over the repaired sections of road
As it twists between small hills, lush with vegetation
Soon, mountains loom to the south, Morogoro.

The bus stops in another busy market area
A luncheon snack with tea at the hotel,
New passengers aboard, continuing south to Iringa
The mountains fade, the sun is high
The air is hot and dry; the road breaks up
Unpaved sections of dirt and gravel
Until there is just hard brown dirt and stone.

Corrugations mark every corner.
Six-inch bumps and bumps and bumps
The bus shuddering, sliding, rattlings
With seemingly endless vibrations.
A plume of billowing dust marks our 40 mph passage
Into Mikumi, a national game park
Elephants, baboons
We are part of the food chain.

The harsh afternoon sun flattens the colors of the land.
Lunchtime at the Green Star Hotel, about 3 or so
Cooked rice and assorted meats; beef, goat, chicken
A chef sharpens his knife on the cinder block wall
Then heads back inside, putting out his cigarette.
We are starving; rice and beef served steaming hot
Good and filling, the beef tough and chewy
Washed down with warm Fanta Orange.

The bus continues its shuddering pace.
As the sun begins to sink, we enter a gorge
A swift river, the Ruaha, runs by on our left
The steep valley populated with baobab trees
Upside down trees, massive boles with tiny branches
Rank on rank silvered, gilded by the late afternoon sun

The escarpment looms, part of the Rift Valley
Where the coastal plain and highland plateau meet.
The bus climbs in inches passing an oil tanker
Belching smoke so close I can count the bolts.
At the top, a different world
The air is cool and clear
Back on macadam moving through a velvet twilight
Into the darker unlit night
Past a gas station,up the hill to Iringa

It is the end of the line for this bus.
My trunk must come down,
Tired, I drop it, almost killing a chicken
The owner is upset, speaking harshly to me
What more, I wonder if I had hit the chicken!

The new bus arrives, same model and vintage
Luggage back up top, we sit in different seats
Better, more legroom, a bit snug
Rod at the window, myself, a woman on the aisle.

It is dark and cool descending the hill leaving town
Back on murram, dirt and hard rock again,
Passing accidents, some 29 in 200 miles 
Oil tankers, overloaded, drivers over-tired
Off the road, turned over, into trees
Repair crews busy cutting under harsh floodlamps
A small, narrow bridge almost blocked by a damaged truck,
Fortunately, no need to dismount and walk across.

Bumping into the night, the woman beside me slumbers
Leans against me and falls asleep, head in my lap
I put my arms uncomfortably on the back of the seat
Making sleep elusive as we shudder our way to Mbeya.

As the dawn breaks, the sun hits the tops of the peaks
All about 10,000 feet, towering over the town
The town tidily nestles at the foot of those mountains, 
The streets decked in light purple from the Jacaranda trees.

Arriving just past 6 am, the bus to Tukuyu has left
The next one is at 11, so off to the market for tea and mandazi
The folks setting up shop are hospitable
Hungry Is hungry; the tucker was great.

Back to the bus depot
An oddly formal-looking place, quite English, we wait
Boarding a separate first-class coach, so plenty of legroom!
Tukuyu is about 40 miles distant, almost there
Climbing the gentle switchbacks up the Poroto mountains
A panoramic view of the Usangu plains, the Chunya escarpment
At the top, a small village selling European potatoes
That only grow in the coolness of the mountain tops.

Then the real journey began.
A German company, Holtzmann, was building a new road
To Lake Malawi, to move produce and people linking towns
On a paved road that would not wash out in the rainy season.
Later l learned they completed the survey in the dry season
A serious error that delayed construction significantly
In a valley that receives over 80 inches in a year!
So we went from detour to detour
Disturbing the fine red dust like talcum powder
Seeing it seep in, settling on us, everywhere.

The valley is volcanic, heavily cultivated, very beautiful
Range after range of hills fall away toward the lake
All dominated by Mount Rungwe,
Now extinct volcano with heavily forested slopes.

It is around 2 when we arrive at the bus depot in Tukuyu
A town built on a small hill, possibly a cinder cone.
No one is there to meet us. 
I sit on the luggage, politely refusing help in my broken Swahili
Rod out to find someone to take us to the school.
At the Ministry of Education, a uniformed driver
Not pleased to deal with us at the end of his work day.

Baggage loaded in the back of his Land Rover
Heading back down the same dusty road
But turning toward Mount Rungwe after about 8 miles
A narrow winding road, steep in places
Passing through manicured tea plantations
Carpets of waist-high emerald green
Then the final hill to a white-painted two-story schoolhouse
The driver leaves.
Standing with our baggage, it is tranquil and hushed.
In time, the school clerk, the headmaster’s assistant, comes down
Welcomes us to the school, somewhat surprised at our arrival.

He escorts us to the Spears’ house
The teacher from England that we were replacing.
A stiff drink, a hot bath, and a meal are so very welcome.
The journey is over, but the experience just starting
In time, moving into the Spears’ house, hiring his cook and gardener,
Settling in for two years as teachers at Rungwe Secondary School.


Author’s note:

Looking back, this still seems a surreal experience. The volunteer organization, CUSO, had watched over us during orientation, teacher training in Kenya, and even the time in Dar Es Salaam. To be handed a bus ticket and sent off without any explanation or guidance on what was about to happen — It just seems very trusting that two young white guys could figure it all out!