Friday, April 10, 2009


Posted from Moshi, Tanzania
It was one of those mistakes anyone could make. For the lucky, it's a near miss. For the hapless, it's disaster.

I thought I'd be clever. I'd pull Minwah's stick-stand off her rack while we were riding and hang onto it until she wondered where it was. The theft was perpetrated unnoticed, but I paid too little attention to where I was going. When I looked up I was facing the only rock in sight big enough to be a problem.

"Thou shall not pass," the rock said to my front wheel, and in an argument between a wheel and a rock the wheel is rarely the victor.

The rock, however, issued no such mandate to my person and therefore my body paid no attention to the abrupt halt enacted on my bicycle and continued its forward progress without the benefit of any supporting apparatus save the breeze.

Air molecules provide but brief support for airborne cyclists, so my continued easterly progress was short lived and I quickly got acquainted with the boulder's many smaller cousins that inhabited the gravel shoulder of the road.

The cousins, however, were much friendlier than their larger relative and welcomed me as though they were so many feathers convened specifically to gently receive any airborne cyclists who may be searching for an innocuous location to finally succumb to gravity and reacquaint themselves with terra firma.

As I sprang limberly to my feet, I gazed back at my bicycle. Parts and gear were strewn everywhere as though someone had set up a roadside stand selling cycle-touring equipment. But the tragedy lay with the fork.

It had snapped clear in twain within the head-tube, and now the fork and handlebars, like partially severed limbs, dangled by the brake cables.

Along with my miraculous escape from injury, my front wheel showed more resilience than I thought possible. When Ian from the Recyclery built my wheels, I could tell they were good. But I never expected a head-on collision with a rock would fail to dent the wheel or even knock it out of true.

Quinn, Minwah and I had split from Orian and Karen upon leaving Lusaka, Zambia, to ride at different paces. We stood and stared at the wreckage.

There was no way to continue. The fork must be replaced. We were in the country about 60 km east of Lusaka. We could find a farm, we decided, and I would leave my bike and bus back in to Lusaka to find a replacement while Minwah and Quinn continued on. A lone cyclist can travel much faster than a pair, and I would hopefully be able to catch them before the border to Malawi.

Then, as if fate or God provided, a lone cyclist rode up on one of the black "World Bicycle Relief" bikes that are so common. He noticed immediately that we were in trouble and introduced himself.

Absalom's farm was located just under a kilometer from there, he said, and we would be more than welcome to rest there while we sorted things out. Absalom's father, Michael, is the patriarch of the family, with eight children and many grandchildren who fill the farm with life and laughter.

I met Jessica first. She was walking home from school and stopped in Absalom's wake to help me roll my fractured bicycle. Soon she was joined by brothers, sisters and cousins and an entourage of kids wheeling or carrying pieces of my bicycle escorted me to Mr. Nkoloma's Farm. Quinn, who had ridden ahead with Absalom, returned to see our troupe.

"It's hard not to believe in fate when Absalom came along first, and then the kids were all with you when I came to get you," Quinn said to me. I don't believe in fate or karma, but it's hard not to see this as a strong argument in favor. The welcome I received from the gravel brethren was only exceeded by that which I received from Michael's family.

No less than 11 members of this family sat with us as we cooked, then around a candle and a corn roaster into the night. Michael's oldest daughter, Ruth, adopted Quinn because he's the same age as her eldest son, though she thought his habit of cooking made him very unmanly: "You cook like you are not a man."

From age 4 to age 70 they welcomed us in.

"I'm so happy to have met such strangers," said Michael. "I will do a dance for you." He got up and did a little three-step shuffle, swinging his arms back and forth, and it was hard to believe he was a 70-year-old man.

Later, one of Michael's sons arrived home from the bar. I could smell the shake-shake on him (see previous post), and he was in full-on broken-record mode.

He gave a benign and welcoming talk, though his proposals to Minwah became more and more frequent. The family was visibly uncomfortable with the repeating drunk in our presence. He asked Quinn if Quinn took alcohol. Quinn tried to respond "sometimes," but nobody seemed to understand what he meant. In the rural parts of Africa we've seen, you're either an alcoholic ("booze-bag," Quinn would say) or you don't touch the stuff. This lack of middle-ground, of responsible use of alcohol was further evidenced by the repeater's next question for Quinn: "what did you drink today?"

The next day I set off for Lusaka on my own, my frame and broken fork in tow. The Zambian countryside disappeared behind the minibus I rode in, the miles I'd just covered eaten up in rewind. The door of the blue Toyota squeaked open and closed, the hatchback rattled and someone smelled. I hoped it wasn't me.

In the space of an afternoon I found a fork and fit it to my frame. By nightfall I was back at Michael's farm working on my bike. His grandson Patrick sat with me while I worked late. Patrick didn't speak enough English for me to really explain what I was doing, but he gamely held my torch, eyes fascinated at my task.

Michael called me in to sup with him while his two youngest granddaughters watched and giggled. I thought I heard the word "uncle," but I wasn't sure; it may have been a word in the local language that just sounded similar. But Michael translated for me: "Uncle, will you come and visit us again?"

Michael's family sent me off in the morning with breakfast, a bath and bags of boiled peanuts and maize. But the most powerful memory of their kindness was from the night before.

As I carried my bike in the twilight from the bus stop to Michael's farm, his grandson Chris rode past in the other direction. He stopped his bike to say hi and welcome back, then continued on his way. Before he rode 10 meters, he stopped.

"Here," he said, and handed me a half-eaten cob of boiled maize he'd been chewing on.

He couldn't have known that in my haste to repair my bicycle I had barely eaten that day. I nearly broke down, right there in the road with gladness to be going back to Michael's farm in beautiful Zambia, and to experience such unknowing, uncompromised kindness when I needed it so badly.


friend of delta crew said...

Really enjoyed your recent post from Michael's farm. Sound's like something so catastrophic as structural failure turned into another opportunity to meet with wonderful people. Good travels to your group.

cr said...

more amazingness nate. i check daily for new posts, and can't wait for you to get back so i can hear even more of your stories.

Nikki Zimmerman said...

I used one of your posts in my intro to development class today (the production relations between Zambia and South Africa). So, thanks! I too look forward to hearing your stories when you come back to the states (or maybe when I'm in Sudan?). In about a year, I'm planning to move to Corvallis, OR or Portland. Are you heading back there after your trip?