Finding My Heartsong in the Southern Highlands

by Tudzeline1 (Nadine Waltman Harmon)

Sometimes we find love in the strangest of places and in the most unusual circumstances. It all began for me one late June night, a winter’s night in the southern hemisphere when I felt surrounded by a seemingly cold, harsh and uninviting environment. After traveling all night over a bumpy road from Dar es Salaam, Rukia Masasi and I reached her parents’ home in Iringa, Tanzania. Rukia, who had lived with my family and attended the local community college, would be my interpreter while I researched folk tales of the Wahehe, the indigenous people of Iringa Region. My research was partly financed by a grant from The Delta Kappa Gamma Society International, an honorary for women educators. I would live in the small guesthouse in the Masasi’s compound while I learned about Wahehe folk tales.

As I looked at
the typewriter I wondered if I could find the right words to retell the Wahehe folk tales.

The Southern Highlands, Iringa Region in Tanzania, East Africa is a land of surprises. Surrounded by high stone mountains, its many red mud-brick houses blend with the earth. Here, too, are many modern houses built by former colonials or expatriates. In winter the trees, for the most part, are bare of leaves. An exception is the vivid, wild bursts of jacaranda blue blossoms reaching towards an azure sky. This is the home of the Wahehe, the Hehe tribe that once brought terror to other tribes when they went into battle holding their assegais’ high in the air and shouting “Hey, Hey.” Near Iringa Town is the stronghold of the famous Hehe leader, Chief Mkwawa who defeated a segment of the German Army in World War I. Chief Mkwawa was Rukia’s grandfather several times removed.

Within a short time after I arrived my hostess Taim Masasi took me to the guesthouse. With a warm smile she said that one of my former students,2 a member of the Wahehe, had traveled a long distance to repaint the guesthouse. My home for three months was comfortable. There were two bedrooms, a bathroom and a small kitchen, which I never used. I ate with the family in the big house nearby. Sometimes, when I was writing, the cook brought food to me. There was a small fireplace in one corner of the living room, a sofa, several chairs and a coffee table where my host had set an old Underwood typewriter. As I looked at the typewriter I wondered if I could find the right words to retell the Wahehe folk tales.

That night, in strange but friendly environment, I felt the pangs of anxiety being thousands of miles away from home and knowing little of the language. As I contemplated my circumstances I focused on the positive and remembered the warm welcome I received earlier in the night. Taim Masasi, my hostess, had sent the houseboy to put hot rocks in my bed. Covered with blankets and my feet warmed by the rocks, I listened to the howling wind and the scratching of tree branches against the window.

It was under such circumstances, years ago, that I felt another part of my Heartsong. Surrounded by strangers, I learned to trust, to depend on other women and truly believe in love. It was there that, after such a long time, my muse inspired me; that I listened to that soothing, wonderful inner voice telling me to pick up pen and pencil and start writing again.3

Before the lemon break of day people already at work awakened me. This was a pattern of my life to follow. At night strong winds blew and women sought warmth in sweaters, shawls and blankets. The wind stopped before dawn. Within a few hours searing heat from the sun brought a languid restlessness to people. By mid-day people sought the cooler interior of their homes or the shade of buildings. At mid-day shops closed for the daily rest, but opened again in the evening.

It was a congregate of loving, singing, laughing women, children, teen-agers, mothers and great grandmothers.

This was not the Africa you see on CNN. There was no wildlife within miles. The night songs were different. No coyotes or wolves sang at night as they did in my sometimes childhood on Oklahoma’s tallgrass prairies. My Highland’s night song, my heartsong, was the wild winds, branches scratching the window above my bed and mingling with the far off howl of dogs guarding the compound. This was not a man’s world I entered. It was a congregate of loving, singing, laughing women, children, teen-agers, mothers and great grandmothers. Most of the children were at school during the day. They came, sometimes, in the late afternoons, politely calling to come into the house to ask if I wanted tea. Taim, their mother, checked often to see if I needed anything. All of this caring added to my heartsong.

It was on one of those cooler mornings I met Bibi, a woman who embodied the love of my mother, my grandmothers, sisters, and daughters, all the wise women I ever knew. While eating breakfast, one of the children came to say, “Bibi is here. She is waiting for you.”

I found Bibi sitting in the courtyard with her back against the cool outside wall of the big house. She sat on a colorful, patterned, woven grass mat, large enough to accommodate the two of us. After the usual polite greetings were exchanged Rukia told me that Bibi only spoke Kihehe. The only word I knew was Kamweni “welcome.” Before she left us Rukia told Bibi that I had come to Tanzania on an ndege (airplane). “Bibi has told us that if anyone ever puts her on an airplane she will punish them,” Rukia said laughing. She repeated the message in Kihehe. Bibi nodded, looking serious. Bibi was an ample-sized woman. There were no wrinkles on her face. At the age of eighty-something she had walked a long distance from her house to visit. Bibi was no stranger to me. I knew she was Rukia’s great grandmother and a direct descendant of the great chief Mkwawa.

So, there we sat throughout the morning with me speaking English and broken Kiswahili and Bibi speaking now and then in Kihehe. For the most part our conversation consisted of smiles and laughter as we watched the children playing in the compound. After that first, warm, congenial meeting Bibi came to see me several times. Each time it was the same: her arrival was announced and I joined her on the grass mat. We smiled, laughed and shared our lives in different languages, neither of which the other understood. Nevertheless, there was a love of our surroundings and a feeling of familial connection. We shared tea and mandazi, little sweet cakes made by Taim’s cook.

On mornings when Bibi did not come to the compound I stayed in the guesthouse and typed the folk tales I had collected. Knowing I wanted to finish before returning to Dar es Salaam, Taim insisted on bringing lunch to me. Within a few weeks I had written a complete Humanities program incorporating the folk tales. I also planned projects for an African unit for Seventh grade students.

One day I decided to visit Bibi at her compound. Sarah, Taim’s oldest child, accompanied me. Bibi was all smiles when she saw us enter her compound. Unlike Taim’s modern house, Bibi’s small house was built of red, sun-baked brick with a corrugated tin roof. There were two buildings in the compound. I never entered Bibi’s house. Bibi was cooking outdoors in the traditional way with her pot sitting on three stones and using charcoal for fuel. She sat near a steaming pot of beans. Sarah and I sat down on a mat nearby. Immediately Bibi called for a little girl to bring us a basin of water to wash our hands. Next the child brought us a white enamel plate and some bread. Bibi ladled beans on our plates. It was an extremely hot afternoon and suddenly my stomach threatened to embarrass me. Although I attempted to eat, my distress was evident to Bibi. She told the child to take my plate away and spoke in Kihehe. “Bibi says she understands. It is a hot day. She says the next time send her a message before you come. She will kill a goat or a chicken, “Sarah said. I asked Bibi about her health. She complained of arthritis. Her back hurt. She had no bed, but slept on a pallet on the cold floor. Sadly I told Bibi good-bye. She raised her arms to embrace me and spoke gently. “Bibi called you her daughter,” Sarah said. I nodded. Tears streaked my cheeks as we left the compound. It was a painful parting, as painful as when I told my mother good-bye.

“Bibi has said a prayer every night, thanking the
person who made her life more comfortable…”

With my work finished, Rukia and I returned to Dares es Salaam. In Dar I gave Rukia money to buy Bibi a mattress. She found one she liked and instructed one of her father’s truck drivers to transport it to Iringa on his next trip. The following summer, when I returned to Iringa, I asked Sarah to send a runner to tell Bibi I had arrived. I was summoned the next morning. After the initial greetings I found no changes in Bibi. During the visit I asked Bibi if she liked the mattress I sent her. She looked at me then raised her hand arms toward the sky. Tears streamed down her face as she called on Allah. “Allah be praised.” This was the first time she learned it was I who had sent the mattress. “Bibi has said a prayer every night, thanking the person who made her life more comfortable. She didn’t know it was her daughter,” Sarah said.

People thought Bibi had certain magical powers. Perhaps she did. Months after I returned to America Bibi traveled by car to Kilimanjaro region to visit. While there she became ill and was rushed by car to the hospital where she died. Because Bibi had to be buried within a certain time, and because of her relationship to Chief Mkwawa, an airplane was put to the use of the family. A number of prominent people accompanied Bibi’s body back to Iringa Region. Just a short distance from the airstrip Bibi’s casket broke away and crashed toward the cockpit. The pilot lost control of the plane and crashed in a field. Fortunately, no one was injured. Her family remembered that she had promised to punish anyone who put her on an ndege (airplane). Perhaps Bibi did have strong medicine. She certainly had the last ‘word.’ I shall never forget Bibi whose warmth and laughter is recorded in my heart, my prose and verse.

1 Tudzeline, meaning “For We Have Known Each Other”, the name given Nadine Waltman Harmon by the Wahehe.

2 Gideon Israel Nyaupumbwe, one of my students, translated the folk tales.

3 As a result of this research an article and some poetry were published in The Delta Kappa Gamma International Bulletin. Poetry was published in the U.K. and in The New York Poetry Forum and A Different Drummer (no longer publishing).


Journal, Volume 2 Issue 12