Modesta’s, and my, life-changing choice

Months of planning come down to a 30-minute deadline.

Katie Quirk
Modesta (standing, l.) pounds rice in her grandparents’ village in Tanzania in 1999.

The word for “plane” in Swahili is the same as the word for “bird” – ndege. I learned this a month into living on the southern shore of Lake Victoria in Tanzania. My de facto Swahili teacher was a gregarious village girl who loitered on my front porch every afternoon.

One day Modesta gazed up at an airplane cruising overhead. “Ndege!” she proclaimed.

“What?” I pointed to a radiant blue kingfisher perched nearby. “That is an ndege.”

Modesta bent over, guffawing – she never was subtle, which I liked – and then she explained that the word for both flying objects was the same. This made sense. No one in Modesta’s village of Nyegezi took to the skies. And neither of us imagined that one day we would find ourselves together on an ndege.

Three years later, I was living in India, teaching at an English-medium international school with classes composed of Bhutanese princesses, Korean kids who break-danced like robots, and teens from Mumbai with their own personal drivers.

Modesta was still in her village, probably about 15. I say “probably” because while her mother vividly recalled Modesta’s birth, she had no idea what year it had been. What was clear was that Modesta had exhausted her country’s free education options. Instead of high school, early marriage loomed ever more likely.

The elite boarding school in India where I was teaching wasn’t an obvious solution. But after months of mulling over whether inviting Modesta to join me was a blessing or a curse, I called her. I stressed the challenges: She’d have to adapt to living in an English-speaking environment, dealing with racism, and being separated from her family. She’d have to get a visa, which requires a passport, which requires a birth certificate, which, naturally, requires a birthday. And Modesta would have to fly on an ndege.

Modesta decided she was up for the adventure. In the space of two months, an order of no-nonsense Tanzanian nuns in baby blue habits invented a birthdate for Modesta, drafted plausible baptismal and confirmation certificates, and miraculously extracted a birth certificate and a passport from the Tanzanian government. My husband, Tim, and I flew to East Africa to meet with Modesta’s parents. They gave their blessing.

“She’s yours now,” Modesta’s father said.

My mouth went dry.

At the airport gate, the agent asked for our yellow fever vaccination certificates. Tim and I pulled out our immunization records and explained that Modesta didn’t have one.

“Then she won’t be allowed on the plane,” the agent said. “India won’t let her into the country without it. But...” My heart was racing. How had I failed to think of this? “There’s a clinic at the other end of the airport,” the agent said. “Takeoff is in 30 minutes, and the certificate is only valid 10 days after administration of the vaccine.”

Months of planning, hopes, and dreams came down to a 30-minute deadline.

We squirmed behind an airport cleaning lady as she strolled, leading us to the clinic. Twenty-three minutes left.

When the nurse administered the shot, I glanced at my watch again – 14 minutes – and brought up the African-sized elephant in the room: “So, in order for us to travel today, the paperwork has to be dated 10 days earlier.”

The nurse replied with a classic East African affirmative: a lazy eyebrow raise.

“Modesta is from the village,” I stammered. “For her this means everything: continuing her studies, learning English...”

The nurse didn’t say anything, but with nine minutes left, when she handed us the certificate, it was backdated by 15 days. 

We sprinted through the gate just as it was closing. When we finally took off, my hand shook as I held Modesta’s.

After we reached cruising altitude, Tim finally broke our silence. “I was ready to pay an enormous bribe back there, to get them to change the date.”

“I was ready to tell lies,” I said. “Big lies, whatever it took.”

“I was praying and praying to Jesus,” Modesta said.

Fifteen years later, Modesta has friends on four continents and the first college degree in her family. She has 14 international flights under her belt. We’re continents apart, but we dream of meeting up someday, perhaps on an ndege.

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