A Day In the Life of a Village Girl
the daily life of Salaama Obedia and her Sambaa family, told by Megan Abbott for Cheeni
Irente, Tanzania, Africa
Seven year-old Salaama wakes up before the sun each morning in the one-room mud hut she shares with her family. Her family is of the Sambaa tribe found high up in the Usumbara Mountains of Tanzania. Old tribal traditions still stand strong here, living conditions are basic, and the average yearly income is $500 per year per family.
Salaama’s family’s house.
There is no electricity in Salaama's hut, but small strands of pre-dawn rays slip through the cracks on the walls, offering just enough light to avoid stepping on any wandering scorpions on the way out the door each morning. She steps outside and finds mama already awake, sweeping the dirt floor that surrounds the outside of her house. Her baby sister, Yuusa, is wrapped tightly in a brightly colored kanga around Mama’s back. Fau and Neema, her other little sisters, are still asleep on the straw mat inside the hut, and bibi (Swahili word for grandmother) is tending to the goats.
Mama greets Salaama, kisses her forehead, asks her about her dreams, and hands her a miswak stick to brush her teeth. It is not common for girls in such rural areas of Tanzania to go to school. Instead, they shadow their mothers from a young age learning how to cook, clean, run a household, and care for babies, elderly, and sick members of the family. Houses typically do not have electricity or running water, so there is a lot of work to be done just to keep the house in order. Despite the hardships, Sambaa families are full of love for one another, and generally live in such close quarters that it is custom to maintain a respectful level of peace and harmony.
Salaama’s father already left an hour earlier to begin his two-hour walk to work at a farm up the mountain, he’ll be back before dusk. Most men find work on vegetable farms in the lush, fertile hills, where they can hope to make $1 or $2 per day for a full 8 hours of laborious work.
Salaama’s mountain village
Water for all drinking, cooking, and cleaning must be fetched in 5-gallon buckets from the village well down the road. Normally Mama goes alone, but Salaama is getting to the age where she wants to learn to balance buckets of water on her head like the older girls. She regularly asks to come along with Mama, and sometimes even goes alone to fetch buckets. Mama doesn’t mind the extra help.
Salaama’s mama is a pro, she can balance two buckets!
It takes about an hour each morning to haul six 5-gallon buckets from the village well and back home. This will be plenty of water for the day so long as everyone is careful not to waste a drop. Mama breastfeeds Yuusa while Salaama runs off to the bush behind the house to collect some kindling to start a fire for cooking breakfast. No houses have modern day stoves or ovens, all cooking is done over a small fire or burning wood coals, but Salaama’s mama insists that the food tastes better this way!
Breakfast is always the same. A traditional Tanzanian tea and porridge made from water and corn flour. Salaama eats quickly, washes her dish without being asked, and asks to go play outside with her other sisters who have finished eating as well.
It is nearly unheard of for children to have toys or electronics, or for houses to have televisions or entertainment systems. Children are left entirely to their own imaginations and come up with impressive inventions to play with. Salama and her sisters play for hours everyday with little “people” figurines they’ve crafted from mud and left to dry in the sun.
Around lunchtime Salaama and her sisters help mama cook. Mama is careful letting Salaama around the fire, but Salaama is more than eager to want to be present and learn. For lunch they cook ugali, a staple starch in Tanzanian cuisine, which is a stiff dough made from maize flour boiled in water. They eat it with a vegetable sauce made from tomatoes and leafy greens their father harvested on his farm.
Mama puts the baby to sleep after lunch and Salaama offers to wash the dishes. She knows how to do this carefully, without wasting a drop of the precious water. While the baby is sleeping, Salaama’s mama heats a big pot of water over the fire so that she can give the three older girls a bucket bath. Bathing three children with just one bucket of warm water turns out to be a tedious, lengthy process involving lots of giggles.
When Salaama gets dressed she asks mama with a big proud smile if she can go fetch another bucket of water from the well.
It is custom to buy food daily on an as-needed basis, as mice and insects infest vegetables quickly, and homes don’t have proper storage or refrigerators to keep their foods safe. Papa comes home with a handful of vegetables each night to cook for their dinner. Since they are without a proper kitchen and must prepare the meal on a mat on the ground, they begin food-prep a couple of hours before the actual meal. Tanzanians are firm-believers in “slow food.” Food is prepared at a relaxed pace and then cooked slowly over a fire, one pot or pan at a time.
Dinner is a savory eggplant, tomato sauce served over rice and eaten with hands, as all meals are. Nearly everything eaten on a daily basis is vegetarian, as meat is expensive and difficult to store, so it’s saved only for special occasions like weddings and holidays.
It is custom each evening for the family to sit altogether on the straw mat next to the crackling fire and listen to bibi or father tell age-old stories about lions or Maasai warriors in the bus that their own grandparents and parents had passed down to them before. Since no one has television or electronic devices, storytelling is a hugely significant part of the culture and observed by families everyday.
The family retires altogether on the floor of their mud hut in a nest of blankets atop a straw mat around 8 or 9 each night. Tired from the hard work and eventful day, they all wish each other “lala salama” (sweet dreams) before dozing off and starting again tomorrow.