The search for Konyagi – Tanzania’s national spirit, an oily cane spirit, somewhere between gin, vodka and rum – with it’s logo of a triumphant athlete, sent me out into the Kilimanjaro darkness on a quest. We had run out of booze and I’d volunteered to go and replenish our stocks.
We were six 18 year olds, who had just finished school, and had decided to fill a summer before starting university with a few months in Tanzania, back at Uru where some of us had visited two years before. We lived together in a lovely old coffee estate house that had been renovated by some teachers from our school and the people of Uru, to house exchange students visiting from Cumbria.
Starting with the nearest shacks we hunted for any kind of booze, but with no luck we had to look further afield. Normally we stuck pretty close to the house, or in the direction of Kilimanjaro’s summit, but that night we found ourselves heading downhill, out of our normal comfort zone. It was late by Tanzanian standards, and store after store was closed. By store I mean a hastily constructed wooden shack, roughly the size of an outhouse, with a small window through which to buy Sportsman cigarettes, Blue Omo washing powder, Lux soap bars, toffeed popcorn, or peanuts in a bag sealed shut over a candle.
Down we went, following the muddy track, stepping over steep puddle filled canyons, building up a platform sole of mud on our shoes. The road curved around eventually to follow the contours of the mountain, and we came to a collection of houses lit with fluorescent beams and centred around what looked like a shop. I wandered into the compound, and was quickly startled by a large barking sound and a small furry figure hurtling towards me from one of the houses. It crashed into my right knee, hitting the top of my calf with bared teeth. I screamed in terror, and more lights started to come on outside the houses. Out of a dark doorway came a figure wearing a captain’s hat. He smiled broadly, and asked me what I was doing there.
“Well, I was looking for Konyagi, but your dog just bit me”.
“I have Konyagi in my shop, but it is closed. I’ll get my keys”.
Moments later he invited me into his shop, and lit it with an electric light.
“My name is Honest John Kilayo” he said, and proceeded to tell me about his family, his shop, his friends, and showed me many photographs, as a Chagga is wont to do, even when woken late at night. In the photographs was a friend who I recognised as being from a previous exchange visit, four years ago, perhaps when Honest John had been at school.
He opened beers for us and himself, and we talked while we drank. I paid for a bottle of Konyagi, and reminded him that his dog had bitten me.
“Come back any time” he said. He turned the page of his photo collection to show a scene of him standing proudly in his shop, immaculately stacked with goods, holding a beer in an outstreched hand, the captain’s hat on his head. “The day I opened the shop”. He turned the page. The next picture showed him lying on the floor surrounded by empty beer bottles and the contents of the shop strewn all around. “We had a party when we opened” he told me. “My father is going to let me manage his other shop in Moshi after this one.” More beer came, and we drank it, then, mission fulfilled, it was time to leave.
That night, as we staggered back up the muddle track, the realisation that I had been bitten by a dog in Africa started to settle in the foreground of my thoughts. I had been reading avidly a book of tropical diseases, and knew about the risks of Rabies. I started to sweat as I dwelt on it more. Back at the house I tore my trousers off to check the wound. There was no visible damage, but I could still feel the pinch of the dogs teeth. The more I thought of it, the more it tingled. Since the tropical diseases book said so, I scrubbed the site of the bite with a soapy nail brush. The seeds of a terrible fear that would later plague me were sown, but at least we had something to mix with our tonic water that night.