Julieth was destined for a larger place in the world, but her story begins at her family's store in the outskirts of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania's capital city.
The conversation started with rabbits, as it so often does at Kuka Pesa. Julieth was in the front of the shop, cleaning the cages, sweeping out the droppings and uneaten vegetable peelings. The floor underneath the cages was spotless.
Refrigerators murmured softly in the back room and the front was devoid of customers when the young man walked in. Many pairs of large dark eyes shifted inside the cages and focused on the intruder.
The young man hesitated and looked around at the cages awkwardly. His eyes glanced at the prices listed above them.
To put him at ease Julieth smiled and gestured for him to look around. When a new customer visited, she felt excited, sometimes she felt a yearning for a new life swept clean of bunnies and bossy family members. But of course, most boys close to her age were still living with their parents, probably not far from here. And his clothes looked like they were bought in a country store.
From behind, julieth heard a tsk tsk. Mom was about to step in. She was in charge of most proceedings at their shop.
“Habari gani! Welcome, what do you want here?”
“Nzuri! These rabbits, do you eat these?”
“Of course, This is a meat shop,“ Mom laughed, “What’s your name?”
“Shukuru, nice to meet you”.
He then turned toward Julieth and smiled and looked warmly into her eyes and said “Morning, how are you?”.
“Good good” Julieth said but before she could say anything else, Shukuru turned away and looked toward Julieth’s father who was sitting sleepily in the back of the shop. In Tanzania one needs to greet everyone in the room individually. usually not this quickly.
He had slightly wild hair compared to most of the closely shaved heads in Dar, but he looked quieter. He also didn’t look like the older men and women who buy rabbits to cook for their family’s Sunday dinners. Perhaps he’s just killing time as some people do. Running a store they've learned how to shuffle people like that out.
She wondered why people would eat rabbits anyways. They are cheaper to grow than chickens, and theirs is the only shop selling them in the Mbezi Luis area of Dar, Christians buy the frozen meat and Muslims buy live rabbits for Halal slaughter. It is hard to tell people’s tribe these days in Dar.
Dad sat up in his chair.
“Nesindisa Kiga”. he said in Chaga language, their tribal language.
Customers in Dar speak Swahili, the national language; occasionally a few words of English. When dad confronts customers with his tribal language, a few men from other tribes have on occasions glared at dad angrily then start shouting until the rabbit cages were shaking, One ever went on about the unity of the country and the memory of Nyerere, our country's founder. Mom always needs to step in and apologize to these men. They never come back to our shop.
Julieth held her breath.
“Nesindisa” Shukuru said back in Chaga, with an accent she can’t make out, it was not from the North where most Chaga people including her parents come from.
Dad smiled. He then talked with him about yesterday’s result of Simba football club, and other topics, until finally Shukuru pointed toward the price list and said that he would like to buy two large frozen rabbits, with extra ice.
As he was walking out, Julieth felt excited and blurted out “We have discounts on Saturday!”, Shukuru smiled and said thank you then left.
“I have news!” Dad said the next day with a huge smile
They all stopped and looked. It was never good news when Dad said something like this.
“My friend Samama is going to pay for my next trip to Nairobi!”
Dad lived on the glory of his one trip to Nairobi eight years ago. The mobile phones he brought back and sold in Dar paid for the Kuka Pesa.
“Samama?.” Mom said, and then left the room, leaving Juleith alone with her now slightly dejected dad.
These days Dad had been spending most afternoons drinking banana beer after lunch with his friends from Arusha, of which Samama is one. When their frequent big plans didn't pan out, his dad would say “Usikumbuke uovu” Remember the good things with the bad.
Her dad’s main job, besides telling everyone he was the owner of the Kuka Pesa and announcing to the neighborhood that rabbits are the future food of Africa, was collecting unused vegetables from local restaurants, as that was not a job for girls, and scaring off the occasional difficult customer.
Last year when her mother found out from her church friends that rabbit farming was a good way to make a fast profit, Julieth was similarly doubtful. After all their family had lost so much money over the years on many failed schemes.
Continuing into the next few weeks of Sundays, Mom stayed insistent. Julieth set to work figuring out rabbitry to put an end to this all one way or the other. They did already have a half acre of land and were raising chickens for sale.
Julieth thought her elder sister should help, but Neema was now an office worker in the city, and acted as if she was above such things as rabbit and chicken farming. Neema had received all the advantages of being first born. She didn’t visit often. Julieth took the bus 10km into the city to her sister's apartment every Sunday to use her computer while she was out with her friends. Julieth didn’t have internet at the Kuka Pesa, and mobile data was far too expensive for browsing information like this.
On weekdays she worked at the shop and on Sundays she used Neema's computer to learn the methods of rabbitry used in Tanzania, as well as in Kenya and Nigeria; what vitamins rabbits needed at which stages, how to isolate pregnant does, how to protect kits, how many pellets they need to be fed, how to handle sick individuals, how important it is to keep them out of the rain. And of course the cheapest way to build the racks of cage, the most expensive part of this whole new business. For the parts in English she couldn’t understand, she would wait for her sister to return from her afternoon parties, then refuse to leave until Neema explained them to her.
Back at the Kuka Pesa, despite Shukuru’s apparent lack of a family to cook for, he dropped into the store often, usually at the same time Julieth was helping in the front and not in the back scraping dropping out of cages, shoveling vegetable peelings in, or inspectIng does, bucks and kits for signs of illness.
One Saturday her mother was away helping one of her friends, and paid Dad for two rabbits. As dad returned to his semi slumber, Julieth became curious and decided to follow Shukuru.
Shukuru walked the dusty lane, up the hill which led up to the Morogoro highway, the busy thoroughfare lined with the larger shops. By the time they got to the intersection, he sensed her and turned around.
“Jambo!”, he called out and smiled.
Julieth stopped in her tracks and gave him a curious look:
“I haven’t seen you around before this year”, Julieth put her hand on her hip. “Who are you?”
“I’m Shukuru.” he smiled invitingly, and then said “My motorcycle is in front of the shop do you want to go for a ride?”
Julieth bit the inside of her cheek, and glowered at him disapprovingly. “No. I’m not going to ride your motorcycle”
She was quiet inside the store but outside her voice was bold and strong.
Shukuru looked disappointed, “No need to be angry, let me buy you a cup of chai.”
Julieth thought that was something she could agree on, even though of course so close to her home there would be gossip. Boys and girls her age don’t usually dare to be seen alone together in public.
“There’s something I want to let you know, even though I just met you. I’m leaving next week.”
“Is that why you are buying so many rabbits? Are you taking them somewhere?”
Shukuru chuckled. “I work for a Cacao merchant. I need to cook for our whole team here in Dar.”
“We will go to Kilombero next week in search of the best cacao to sell to the foreign traders. We are doing what’s called fair trade Cacao. The farmers need to work all day cutting, but if they sell it to their local jimkey they only get 1% of what is worth. But if we help them sell all their cacao to the foreigners we pay them much more.”
He then explained in great detail the processes of cacao growing and harvesting.
Juleith slurped her Chai, she nodded and listened, but she didn’t really know why he needed to explain all this.
“And I came to your shop to see you.”
Julieth grinned and said “So what are you going to do for me?”
“I’m going to bring you back all the cacao in Kilombero.”
[to be continued]