On Tuesday, November 23, Jacob met me at the Outpost, armed with the next claim for payment, to make another visit to the bank. I also planned to withdraw an amount for Philemon that Mathew and I had agreed on. The bank visit was usually a pleasant experience. Maternus, the bank manager, or in his absence one of his assistants, Godwin or Shabami, would greet us with a smile and a hearty Tanzanian handshake and we would chat a bit before he left to get our cash.
That day was an exception; no one was in the offices. We had to get in line downstairs with the dozens or so patiently queued up in front of a few overworked tellers. It could take over an hour.
We went downstairs and noticed that one teller whose only job it was to issue ATM cards had only a few customers, so we approached him and tried to short-circuit our
efforts. His disinterest miffed Jacob, who pleaded with him for some time before the teller’s resistance fizzled and he directed us to an unmarked door at the end of the tellers’ windows.
Holding Jacob back, he unlocked it, held it open for me and ushered me in. It was an experience to remember. The room was no bigger than a janitor’s closet (it probably had been), measuring about four feet wide and eight feet long with a counter and a glass partition (probably bullet-proof) separating me from a stone-faced middle-aged man who, without a word or nod of greeting, pointed to a slot in the glass. I offered a smile (that was rejected) and slid the withdrawal slip through.
Crammed between this fellow and the exit door behind him were large stacks of bundled cash, amounting to at least several hundred million shillings, piled up on shelves on one wall, and, on the opposite wall, a small counter and what seemed to be an old- fashioned money counting machine. The room was not properly ventilated; it was so hot and stifling that even the cash was sagging. The teller picked up a droopy bundle of shillings, loaded it on top of the machine, which quickly devoured it, whirring in appreciation, and then the machine spit out neat little bundles of 100,000 shillings at a time. He deftly bundled them all together to form one large bundle, put it in a metal “laundry chute” door in the wall below him, pushed a button, and as dispassionate as ever, gestured for me to open the metal door at my knees, from where the money could be extracted. The purpose of the next breath I took after exiting the tiny room was twofold: relief and oxygen.
The next day, Deo drove us to Gongali for our fourth visit. Mathew had phoned the previous evening and insisted on coming. Rose was close. She was still at home, but a friend of the family was with her, so she would be OK. We met Philemon at the Paradise Restaurant office where he did his usual “cash and dash”; Marco’s delivery truck was waiting.
During the five mile drive to the school site, Mathew clarified that the village was actually many farms spread out over a large area. What was considered the village centre was only a handful of buildings, the mayor’s office and several small stores that sold only a small amount of packaged foods and miscellaneous household items. Vehicular traffic in the area is minimal; there are only a few roads. A lot of the farms and homes have long trails leading from the main road. The way to Philemon’s home, for example, is simply a trail carved out by his motorcycle. Villagers commonly walk many miles to visit each other. I could distinguish their distant faint trails that seemed to arbitrarily zig-zag through the fields.
“So what happens at Christmas? Is there a hall where all can meet and celebrate? How do families celebrate Christmas?” I asked.