When Tucsonan Tina Springer was a skinny 10-year-old in South Bend, Ind., she remembers sitting on her bed, reading an article in the August 1956 National Geographic about Africa.
She was fascinated with a land so far away, so strange, so intriguing. The article filled her with thoughts of safaris, acacia trees in the sunset and tribal living.
Forty-eight years later she booked a flight and a safari tour to the Maasai Mara, a national reserve in southwestern Kenya known for its lions, cheetahs and leopards, as well as the annual migration of more than a million wildebeest and hundreds of thousands of zebras.
“I knew as soon as I was in the plane back to America that I would return to Kenya,” she said.
And she did. Once a year for the past 10 years she has made the 9,500-mile trip. Eventually, three-week outings became three-month stays. In Kenya she would help buy goats for villagers and deliver books bought with money raised in Tucson.
These days Springer is no longer a tourist or a volunteer in Africa. She’s just a 68-year-old muzungu (Swahili for white person), with cropped blond hair and chronic arthritis in her feet, who finds the city of Nairobi exciting, crazy and somewhat frightening, but full of happy people who have won her heart.
Each day there she buys a newspaper, cell phone credit and fresh fruit from locals who sell on corners. She goes down to the bar to watch her favorite team, Manchester United, play soccer. She takes the colorful matatus (buses) to nearby towns. She knows the names of Maasai tour guides and taxi drivers, now her friends, who give her special rates.
Springer’s connection to Africa is palpable when she speaks of her home away from home. It is also visible. Three tattoos adorn her skin: the word Rafiki, which means “friend” in Swahili, wraps around her wrist; Akinyi, her name in Luo, runs down her inner forearm; and a Maasai shield rests on her back.
But after going back every year for the past decade, Springer is not sure she can continue traveling to the East African country she has come to love.
Now retired from Long Realty and Habitat for Humanity in Tucson, Springer covers the cost of her $4,000 trips by renting out her northwest-side house while she’s away, accumulating airline miles and pinching pennies.
Returning won’t be easy, either financially or physically. She fears it might be time for her African trips to stop.
Or maybe not just yet.
“I think I’m going to turn it over and let God decide if I’m going to be able to come back or not,” she said.
• • •
Springer was raised in a Catholic family, had a Catholic education and moved to Chicago after she got married at age 21.
A year later, she had her son John. Two years after that, her daughter Kris was born.
“I was a ’60s wife,” she said.
To her, that meant running the bathwater for her husband, picking out his clothes for the next day, starting his car on cold days. She cared for the house, belonged to a women’s group and a volunteered at her children’s school.
And she loved all of it.
But the marriage ended after nearly 10 years and Springer had to figure out things on her own.
She got a job in real estate to keep some of the flexibility she needed for her children, then 9 and 6 years old, and she continued doing what she loved best: being a mom.
Tuesdays were board-game nights. No television was allowed. She and her kids alternated weeks, each of them picking the game, the music and the meal.
When it was John’s week, it would be Kiss and macaroni pizza. When it was Kris’ turn, it meant listening to George Michael and eating slumgullion, an old family recipe with ground beef, canned tomatoes, macaroni and green peppers.
And when it was Springer’s turn, R&B would blast from the radio and sometimes as a treat they would eat Kentucky Fried Chicken. Her favorite song was “If you don’t know me by now,” a romantic ballad by Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes.
When her daughter went away to college, Springer traded her house in the suburbs for a condo in the city.
She didn’t think about it then, but it was her first step on her journey to Africa.
• • •
Ask Springer what keeps her going back to Kenya year after year, and she’ll tell you it’s the people.
She has friends in every corner of the country. She’s found a best friend in a Maasai man she met seven years ago.
But what she treasures most is seeing children grow into young men and women.
Soon after her first trip to Kenya, Springer met Joyce Oneko, who had a feeding center in Kunya Village for children who had lost a parent or parents to AIDS.
After a church service in Tucson where Oneko spoke as a guest, the two hit it off immediately. On Springer’s next trip she carried suitcases of medication and first-aid supplies her friends had donated for Oneko’s organization.
At the feeding center, Springer met Rodgers, then an 8-year-old boy with autism. She felt a heart-to-heart connection — he reminds her of one of her grandsons.
Since then, Springer has become “Auntie Tina” to Rodgers and his best friend, Nashon.
Last year, she got Rodgers a bicycle, which changed his life completely.
“The self-esteem he feels among his peers can never be measured,” wrote Oneko in an email. “No 16-year-old school boy in the community has ever owned his own bike.”
This year, Nashon got one, too.
Springer said she gets more out of her relationship with the boys than they do.
“I can’t help them get out of the life they are in, but I’m giving them love and I’m giving them consistency,” she said. “They know that every year they are going to see me. It’s been difficult making the decision to not come back next year partly because of that.”
In her own way, Springer also has changed the lives of women in the village.
Three years ago, she decided to help paint the classroom for the daycare and along the way taught the women how to do it, too.
It’s not unusual for American women to grab a bucket of paint and a brush. But in Africa, Oneko said, women don’t paint houses.
By the end of the first day, all the women wanted to join the painting party.
• • •
Nairobi is a congested city with a lot of traffic and few level places to walk. It’s a tough place to get around on two bad feet, as Springer does.
As a white woman from the West, she’s also seen as someone with a lot of money. People ask her for help all the time.
“It used to break my heart that I couldn’t help everybody,” she said. “But then I started to realize that saying no was something I had to do. You can’t help everybody.”
She’s fascinated by politics and development — and why they don’t always work together, said Sally Davenport, a friend who has traveled with Springer to Tanzania.
On a recent visit to Kibera, one of the largest slums in Africa, Springer looked out at the cluster of tin roofs stretching to the horizon.
She paused to contemplate the immensity of it all, her soft blue eyes hidden behind her leopard-print glasses.
“You read and hear about places but it’s so different to actually see it,” she said, standing in the middle of the train tracks with piles of trash lining both sides.
Her eyes watered as she looked over the tiny huts and communal bathrooms, the windy paths with raw sewage running alongside, the butcher stalls where slabs of goat and beef hang in the midday sun.
But she also marveled at the lively neighborhoods, the children giggling when she stopped for a visit.
“It really touched my heart,” she said later that day.
• • •
As she walked through Kibera, all of the sudden Springer heard someone yell, “Tiiinaaaa!”
It was an old friend who worked as a security guard at the building where she rents her apartment in Nairobi. He is now a math teacher in the slum.
After a long embrace, they promised to keep in touch.
“I have not known many people who can make friendships the way Tina does,” Oneko said.
“We will be walking with Tina on the rough road within Kunya village, or on the streets of Kisumu City, or sitting in a small back-road eatery, and suddenly you hear “Tiiiiina,” she said.
Springer loves this place. But she has endured 19 surgeries, mostly for her arthritis, and they’ve taken a toll.
“I’m not going to be able to do this the rest of my life,” she said.
But there’s still this year.
She recently booked a ticket to Kenya for this summer.