This blog is dedicated to our Bibi (Swahili for “Grandmother”) and beloved neighbor, who passed away last week at the ripe age of one-hundred years. She lived five steps from our back door, and her constant presence has provided the backdrop to our days in the village thus far. She spent many hours everyday taking the kernels off ears of corn or sorting beans even at her advanced age and status, the most senior villager by a decade at least.
It was only fitting then, as people heard the news of her death, they came in droves with gifts of maize which they kerneled together as they sat and mourned, the sales of which would be used to help with funeral expenses. Because, in Tabora, when the going gets tough, the tough kernel corn. Yet another indication of how maize is intertwined in nearly every aspect of society.
The funeral was a three-day affair, on the scale of Bibi’s long life and depth of her progeny which include six children, twenty-four grandchildren, thirty-six great grandchildren and three great-great grandchildren. It is almost unreal to imagine that five generations were assembled together in the days before her death. Family came from far and wide sleeping outside on maize-bag tarps in Bibi’s memory. After the burial, close family and friends were invited to share a meal. Three hundred dishes were served before they had to start turning people away.
A little about Bibi. She was a devout Christian and had a great laugh. She could time a papaya’s ripeness to the hour and was adept with a stick, swiftly meeting the backside of disrespectful children who were unfortunately within cane-length. She was interested in our activities and careful to ask how we had slept and to make sure we had eaten. Though past experience with foreigners could (and maybe should) have made her suspicious of our presence, she treated us with warmth from our first introduction. She was born in 1911 in southwest Tanzania and lived first through German and then British colonial periods. She moved to Tabora before its official founding when her husband was commissioned (or forcefully conscripted depending on who you ask) to work tough labor in the sisal plantations. In 1961 and at the half-way point of her life, she celebrated national independence. She suffered through the effects of Tanzania’s socialist experiment in the country’s infancy and this year, concurrently passed the century mark and Tanzania’s fiftieth anniversary. She has lived through significant advancements in the world in terms of access to clean water, power and healthcare, food and income security, all of which have yet to reach Tabora and communities like it across the world. Sometimes our work seems so insignificant after a century of near-stagnancy and in the midst of growing disparities, but everything must start with a seed.
So here’s to Bibi and may she rest peacefully because she has surely earned it.