The other night, we were woken up by a rat scurrying around our house. A disgusting, disease-carrying, fruit-stealing, home-invading rat. After we finished panicking, we vowed to get a cat.
This was harder than it sounds.
We headed over to our nearest neighbor, Mwalimu Devon. She stops by our house every day to greet us and invite us over for a visit. We knew she’d help us.
We told her “There is rats in our home. We need cat,” and she said “You can’t buy a cat with money. You need a kuku (hen).”
We smiled and left, utterly confused. Was this an indirect way of telling us that her cat wasn’t for sale?
Unsure where else to go, we headed for the town center. A few helpful men told us that Isiah definitely has a cat for us. Awesome! We had visited Isiah’s home and complimented his beautiful dairy cow and expansive farmland. Our nocturnal rat visitors were in for a surprise.
We also ran into Patrick, the local bwanashamba, or agriculture expert (although we prefer the direct translation: Farm Master). Patrick explained the local belief that if you swap a kuku for a cat, the two animals will stay in their new homes instead of roaming the village trying to return to their old owner. Mwalimu Devon had offered us helpful advice; we just hadn’t heard it.
So we walked the mile back to our neighborhood to buy a kuku from Mama Stella. She tied up a hen with twine and showed us how to hold it under our arms. We paid her 10,000 TSh ($5) and headed back to town.
We quickly learned that the only thing more entertaining than new white people walking around a rural Tanzanian town is new white people walking around and carrying a kuku:
“How much will you sell me your kuku for?”
“Where are you going with that kuku?”
“Ah, a kuku. Very good.”
When we walked past the town center, Patrick intercepted us. There had been some shagalabagala, or confusion. Isiah had only one cat, and he didn’t want to part with it. In Tanzania, it’s culturally appropriate to give advice that may not be 100% accurate; better to offer warm hope than cold reality. But not to worry – Patrick swore he would find us a cat.
A few days later, Patrick asked us to meet him at 5:30 P.M. and bring our kuku. He took us to the Muslim section of town, explaining that every house and small farm on the side road was owned by one family.
When we arrived at their house, two women were sitting outside on plastic lawn chairs. They insisted we take their seats and moved to a grass mound on the other side of the dirt path. After our long walk across the village, the sun had almost set. The air was chilly, and we were cold in our short-sleeved shirts. But our business was just beginning.
A young boy ran to bring us water for rinsing our hands, and the women produced a sharp knife, a tarnished silver serving tray, and a strange new fruit. They insisted we eat some. The fruit had a succulent taste, a ropey texture, and shiny black seeds we spit on the ground, imitating our hosts.
Ducks wandered nearby, snapping up the fruit skins we had tossed into the nearby corn. We said “American children like so much to feed bread to them. Tanzanian children?” in Swahili, and our hosts laughed and laughed. What a silly waste of food! Here, ducks forage for themselves, and cats are lucky to get table scraps like leftover ugali.
The house mama left and returned with an old seed sack and a bit of twine. A niggling thought ran through our minds, but surely we wrong. We returned to our conversation with Baba, the father of the house, explaining we would like to come back later and build a bag garden with him. As his corn stalks and avocado trees rustled around him and his livestock roamed the house compound, this patriarch smiled at the assumption we could teach him anything about agriculture. Ever the gracious host, he accepted our offer, telling us we were warmly welcomed to return any time.
Mama returned from the backyard, holding a squirming, mewing sack tied shut with twine. Our suspicions had been right, but we smiled as we took the bag. We carefully tucked it into our basket on top of the corn and fruit the family had already given us as a zawadi, or gift.
We headed back to the main road, Mama carrying our basket and insisting we return for dinner the next night. Baba joined in. “We love guests. You are welcomed to the village. Please come tomorrow to eat ugali with us.”
“Thank you, thank you, we will return,” we said over and over.
When we reached the end of their territory, Mama handed the basket to Patrick. Mama and Baba returned home, departing with a final invitation to visit them again.
“Do they expect us to come tomorrow?” I asked, in English.
“No,” he answered, in Swahili. “They are Tanzanians. This is their way of welcoming you. Maybe you will go later.”
We asked to carry the basket, but David refused. “We are Tanzanians” was his explanation. We decided to listen to this unspoken advice and accept his hospitality.
When we arrive home, Christopher let the cat out of the sack to keep the pack of rats out of our shack:
Meet Kiti Moto, Ratbane of the South:
She’s never tried to head back to the family who gave her to us. She must know she was replaced by a kuku.