One of the greatest catalysts to my parents going to Tukuyu, Tanzania in 1967 was the friendship they had with a couple who were serving in Mbeya, Tanzania. The Oliphints were friends from seminary days in Fort Worth, Texas, and they had been called as missionaries a few years prior to my parents’ appointment. Mbeya was about 45 miles from Tukuyu, and was a bit larger town. We would go there to visit with the Oliphints, but also to shop at Desouza’s, an Indian shop which held many wonderful treasures.
The Oliphints had three girls whose ages were staggered between those of my sisters and I. The middle sister, Cynthia was one year my senior and very much my tour guide to Africa, especially the Mbeya part. She became something of a hybrid between friend and sister that has lasted until the present. There was something about her personality that convinced me that all aspects of her life were amazingly cool. Much of my memories of those early days are accompanied by her voice telling me in excited tones about some aspect of African life.
She had this huge tree in her front yard with a trunk so fat and tall, that we would have only ever been able to stare up into it if it hadn’t been for the retaining wall close enough to it to let us step into its branches. Climbing in this tree was a regular part of every visit to the Oliphint house. We could tell how much we had grown by how many new places we could reach each time. We could get high enough to feel the breeze sway us in the branches. As I think about climbing that tree, I can hear Cynthia’s animated voice encouraging me and helping me find the next branch to hold onto. She had a confidence about her that gave courage to this rather timid, fearful girl. If she told me it was alright, then I knew it would be alright.
It seemed to me that her life was full of all sorts of adventures. When I would come to see her, she would tell me of things she had done since our last visit and I would be in awe of her. She would talk about the fun she had with the Adams girls or the Laffoon boys and I would wonder how I could come to have such amazing friends. One day Cynthia told me that she had been crawling along under the hedge that surrounded their yard and someone had come along and thrown something into the bushes right in front of her. I can’t remember what it was she had found that day, but it sparked great possibility in me about what one might acquire in the branches of that hedge. For weeks afterwards, I wanted to crawl along in the underbrush in hopes of finding some amazing treasure hidden there by a passerby. Cynthia lost interest long before I did.
One day we planned a trip to climb Mbeya Peak. Cynthia had filled me with stories of other times she had climbed this hill with her cool friends from the Mbeya area. I remember especially her telling me how friendly all the people were along the way and how once they reached the top they had been welcomed with such open arms that they were able to pick the peas growing in the garden there and eat them. And as boring as that might seem to you reading this now, at the time, it seemed like the greatest accomplishment, ever, to climb to the top of Mbeya Peak and eat peas out the gardens of friendly Africans (this was the influence Cynthia wielded over me). What I remember about the climb, was that it was hot, dusty and much further than I had anticipated. But the children we met along the way were friendly, and we did finally make it to the top where the garden rows were full of green plants and pea pods. There was a woman standing in the garden looking at us with what I now think must have been suspicion. Being at the top, and thinking that the next step would have to be to eat peas off the plants, I put my foot up on the side of one of the rows and reached over to pick a pod. As I did, the woman began to yell many angry words in her native language, and leaned over to gather rocks which she began to hurl at us. We ran…and ran…and ran… and every time we looked back, that woman was right behind us yelling and throwing rocks. Finally, after what seemed a hundred miles she stopped following us, but any time we looked back we could see her up the hill raising her fist in the air and hollering angry epithets that I could understand the meaning of without knowing the language. She was going to make sure we kept running until we reached the bottom of the hill. Cynthia was as shocked as I was that we had not received the kind of welcome they had gotten on the last hike up the hill. I was sure it was my fault, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what I had done wrong. Wasn’t I supposed to eat the peas?
It was Cynthia who introduced me to white chocolate and Lyle’s Golden Syrup. It was Cynthia who showed me how to hold my feet up to push the thorn tree branches away when riding on the top of the land rover. It was Cynthia who gave me the courage to shoot a hunting rifle at a target propped up under a tree out on the plains where we hunted for meat (She actually shot an animal, but at least I shot the gun!).
Years later, we roomed together at boarding school. Sometime during those high school years we came to share a love for Dr. Pepper. Each time one of us would return from a furlough in the States, we would carry back a can of DP for the other. It was always such a ceremonious occasion to pop open that can and swallow the first sip of luke warm delightfulness (we were at boarding school – ice was not readily available to us). To this day, any time I drink a Dr. Pepper, I drink the first sip to the honor of my DP companion.
Cynthia and I have kept in touch over the years, but not always with much consistency. Lately she and her family have settled not far from here, and with the internet tools available to us, we have become more consistent in our communication with each other. I can’t say that her life seems all that amazing and exciting to me any more, but I do still have that feeling that she is a cross between a friend and a sister. She is only a year older than I, but she wants to take care of me. She wants to make my life better, and it warms my heart. Just last week she sent me a message on Facebook indicating that she would like to buy me a massage, and did I know of a place that could be arranged. Reading quite hastily as I got in my car, I thought she asked me if I knew a place where she could give me a mEssage, and I wondered all the way home why she couldn’t just give me a message on Facebook (was it the kind that can only be thrown into the branches of a hedge?). When I realized my mistake, I told her about it so she could laugh with me, and she replied that she had also chuckled at the wording of her message, telling me she would like to give me a massage if I would just tell her where. I have to say the laughter that interchange afforded me was as therapeutic as any massage could have been. I can’t tell you how much I have grown to appreciate this friend from what seems like a different lifetime. There is a connection there that doesn’t seem to fade with the passing of time or the changes of life. These fellow MK’s that were a part of that land that left its dust scattered all over my heart – they are a beautiful gift.
Whether I ever manage to arrange that massage or not, Cynthia and I, we’ll get by.