Four nuns unpicked the quinine drip from my sister’s blackened arm before wheeling her to the foot of the aircraft. From the white cloth of their habits shone the purity of their intentions, but the metal-winged carrier that confronted them showed in no uncertain terms how severe her malaria had become. She was unconscious and being flown out of Tanzania to an intensive care unit in Kenya.
It is possible our paths crossed midair, for at that moment I was flying into Dar El Salam from London. I had no idea the bite of a tiny insect had stolen my sister’s immunity and was rapidly owning her body. Instead I was revelling in a trivial triumph. So excited was I by my first visit to Africa and the idea of travelling with my sister after six months apart, I had not watched one in-flight movie. My eyes had been fixed on my guidebook. Strong triangular creases already betrayed the beginnings of our journey – scoring the merits of Mount Meru’s hilltops and the rich wildlife within the Ngorongoro Crater.
It only took a three-minute answer phone message to cut these pre-holiday imaginings short. The sound of my sister’s quivering voice stung the back of my throat. I had been expecting an airport reunion, the happy kind you see in movies like Love Actually. Instead, I stepped out alone, fixated on my sister’s fragile mortality. I zipped my guidebook firmly into the bottom of my bag. With it, I childishly pushed away any of the vivid colours and infectious energy I had expected of Africa.
Like chalk and cheese, the first person I met in Tanzania was a cheery, exuberant and glowing man called Henry. His reaction to meeting such a glum and emotional traveller was to chew restlessly on his toothpick and spin his furry dice into a frenzy. He was a taxi driver, a husband and a father of three. I later discovered his eldest son was in a coma following a hit and run.
‘Where do you go in Tanzania’, he asked with a warm wink. I replied flatly, ‘I’ve no idea anymore’. And then offered up the word, ‘Mil-in-gano?’ The village did not exist in my holy grail of a guidebook, but my sister’s tearful voicemail had begged me to go there before joining her in Kenya.
‘Milingano’, he shrieked. ‘Well this is a very good place’.
I clung to the windowpane of his dust bucket of a car, wriggling my legs free from its sticky interior. As if mimicking the enthusiasm of its owner, the car vaulted every pothole in the road, repeatedly shoving my hip into the door handle.
The journey was long, noisy and uncomfortable. Each new signpost affirmed Henry’s sense of direction, but carried me further from my sister, stripping me of any remaining optimism. Never before had I felt such a reluctant traveller.
A stray chicken greeted our car as it crawled into Milingano. Stepping out, my sandals filled with the terrain’s burnt orange soil, warm from a day in the sun. The village was still, a gentle swell of mountains framed its multi coloured houses.
‘Here they come’, chimed Henry.
I lost count of how many smiles I saw at that moment. The pounding feet, darting eyes and stretched open hands of dozens of individuals, all jostled to ask about my sister’s health. Hidden away from the thumbed pages of my guidebook, I now understood why she had led me here. For the first time that day, I smiled.