The air is crisp at 5:30 in the morning in the Eastern Province. It’s hard to believe but until about 9:30 in the morning, the chill elicits goosebumps on the skin and most locals wear sweaters and shawls until the sun warms the morning. I have come to cherish the coolness, wishing I could bottle it for intermittent relief in the middle of the day. By noon, the sun overhead makes the heat nearly inescapable. I make my way in the dark to the room where we take meals, at this local version of a “hotel”. This often consists of a hot vegetable soup, toast, eggs, bananas and passion fruit. By 6am, we are on the road bound for a village 1-2 hours away. In the morning, we are given a booklet of exam forms, and a cluster form with the name of our cluster, the selected umudugudu, the name and contact information of the executor and guide, and a hand-drawn map created by Damien, the cluster informer, the day prior. Because the tarmac road names are not commonly used, and a great many of their roads are simply dirt roads, the map consists of recognizable natural landmarks and estimated kilometers between turns. To say that I view these directions as a leap of faith is an understatement. The drivers, however, are experienced in these travel conditions and rarely blink an eye at the hand-drawn picture we are given. We make our way at first in the dark. The sides of the tarmac road are already busy with villagers well into their day. Some children walk to school in uniforms with oversized backpacks on their shoulders. Young men guide vintage bicycles overburdened with bushels of lime green bananas with great effort up one of the eponymous “thousand hills”. Young women glide up the very same hills, with the bright yellow water containers that have become synonymous with rural African life balanced atop their heads, a circle of leaves weaved together underneath to soften the load.
As the sun rises, it sheds light on the workers in the rice fields beyond the road. As our journey takes us deeper into rural life, women perfectly balancing garden hoes on their heads join the crowd of roadside walkers. Children working toward home with their own yellow gallons replace those that were school-bound. They scurry with their load for about 10 paces before dropping the container and resting for a beat, making their way in fits and starts. Sometimes they make a game of it with other children charged with the same task. To the passerby, the sunrise lends a romantic glow to what is surely an exhausting existence.