Arusha to Zanzibar…
It is not worthwhile to go around the world to count the cats in Zanzibar.
Henry David Thoreau
1. As the plane banked, the man in the next seat, his thick Islamic beard trailing down over a long white caftan, and his broad feet spread over the footrest, peered across me. The final approach into Dar-es-Salaam International Airport had begun and our view through the TV-sized window was so spectacular that the only thing missing was a softly spoken narrative about the emerald waters of the Indian Ocean, and a price list of week-long breaks at luxury resorts.
Ever since the white-capped summit of Kilimanjaro had appeared on the same channel, we’d been getting along pretty well. It had been my first real glimpse of Tanzania, and our shared delight in the sight of that incredible equatorial iceberg, poking its rugged slopes through the foam of clouds cracked the silence between us. Then, one of his two friends, both also draped in purest white, unpacked their camcorder. Together the four of us watched in wonder as the icy atoll slowly floated past.
Little more than twenty-four hours had passed since the queue at Manchester Airport, everyone waiting at the check-in and the mounting anticipation; then a few hours in the intense heat of Dubai, and a brief touchdown on the unreal tarmac of Nairobi. I reflected on this very long day: so much had happened and yet concurrently nothing had.
When the sun finally set and the horizon seeped across the sky and the land, and when all that remained visible in the glass were reflections, I looked for distractions. There were the various knobs and buttons of the seatback video-games console, and an ever changing map that pinpointed our position as we crept across the globe. There was also the promise of conversation. My companion came from Muscat in Oman. She was dark and very beautiful and we had been talking on and off ever since passing over a river somewhere in Germany. She was surprised that I had spent almost an hour looking out through the porthole. I like keep reminding myself how flight is a great adventure, I explained. And so we talked and drank the complimentary booze whisky for me and G and T’s for my briefly acquainted friend before our wordless separation at Dubai. The second leg from Dubai to Dar-es-Salaam had been no more exceptional, and by then I was lost in that longer gap that separates complete unknowns: suspended in limbo like an electron leaping quantum-wise between energy levels. During of this time of indeterminacy (and other than a few hours stopover at the plush Emirates hotel in Dubai) my biggest jaunts were to the closet and back again, and yet imperceptibly throughout, the carpet had been hurtling forward at half the speed of sound.
The friends in their caftans who had joined me at Nairobi were quickly gone. Leaping up, they had collected their bags from the overhead locker before the plane came to a halt; but I was in no hurry and waited. Almost the last to leave, I grabbed the few items of my hand-baggage. There were the anti-malaria tablets, and the plastic cup and bottle of water I had used to swallow them; these were the most important items, all loosely packed in a polythene bag, alongside three tightly rolled-up posters, brought at Steve’s request, to give the school. At the cabin door I exchanged hesitant farewells with the crew. A great ambition was about to be fulfilled.
Long pored over maps and envisaged journeys to the East: to China and Tibet, and West, via the South Seas, to South America: twisting through the Andes on a narrow-gauge train of the people; taking a steamboat across Lake Titicaca and a llama ride to Machu Picchu. Time and again, without the slightest deviation, my thoughts had always arrived at the same places. Now, for the first time, I was stepping outside the Occident, but not as I had promised, to visit the friends in Hong Kong (an intended visit had been planned long before the British lease expired), nor to tag along on a backpacking expedition to India, but curiously, to come to Africa, the Dark Continent.
I arrived with few expectations, and these largely informed by Steve’s accounts in his letters back to me. His extreme journeys: negotiating deep floods on his VSO piki-piki (motorbike) and once crossing the Rufiji River in a dugout canoe. The daily walks into town, the vervet monkeys in the mango trees, and the annual staff v. student football game which the whole village turned out to watch Steve, on the wing, receiving huge cheers whenever he kicked the ball. Then there were the bouts of malaria and his kindly neighbour who nursed him through the fever. These were colourful outlines, though mostly the canvass was blank.
Nature, it was said, abhors a vacuum: any gap being quickly filled. And here were definite gaps, vast chasms of ignorance; well peppered with ill-informed worries about spiders, scorpions, and snakes, and the more certain dangers of malaria and dengue fever. I had read thoroughly the forty plus-page pamphlet, The definitive health and safety guide for business & holiday travel, paying special attention to the sections offering advice for travellers to “high risk destinations”. It came as a freebie, to supplement the programme of inoculation. Then with characteristic good timing, i.e., about a week before departure, I also chanced on an article in The Guardian about “mankind’s deadliest enemy” the mosquito. The author had been unlucky enough to contract dengue fever, and he related the horror of awaiting results from progressive blood tests: a count below a certain value meant massive haemorrhaging and slow death. It all provided wonderful fuel for the hypochondriac.
In the weeks before had come dreams with most grandiose themes: dark prospects of voyages across mysterious seas; vertiginous flights and descents to nether worlds; ferments in the belly of a whale. For more than a fortnight these visions haunted my sleep, and then, as the date of departure neared, the sequence abruptly curtailed. Perhaps the more practical concerns of organising the adventure had chased them away. But touchdown in Dar-es-Salaam came like a puff of oxygen. The anxieties were rekindled and with them came that skin-tingling, pit of the stomach thrill sensation I had all but forgotten.
2. Africa! I’m here in Africa! Though what those first thoughts were I don’t recall. Had Steve remembered my arrival? Certainly this was the main preoccupation that my other frets and fears could hide behind, and there was also the matter of negotiating customs and immigration: running the gauntlet of bureaucracy and suspicion that is the beginning and the end of every international journey.
Reaching our first point of inspection, an officer at the desk asked for my passport and some kind of arrival document. Whatever it was, I didn’t have one, and this was puzzling. You should have filled one out on the plane, she informed me, pointing a cursory finger to a pile of forms.
What an irritating and pointless bit of red tape, I quickly concluded, looking down at the spaces provided for information like name, address and so on; and nothing that wasn’t already available from my passport, or hadn’t already been supplied with my visa application. It was so typical. Typical too, that whatever on-board announcement there had been, I hadn’t heard it. Daydreaming probably. No need to get steamed up though, I reassured myself, everything is okay: here’s the bloody form and all that’s required is a pen…
Sheepishly I returned to the officer. She was playing with a ballpoint of her own, presumably to take her mind off the boredom of standing in that booth for hours on end. “Can I borrow your pen?” I tentatively asked her.
She ignored the request and continued fiddling; in fact she ignored me totally and began talking to a colleague in the adjacent booth. I searched around. The few passengers behind had passed through already, and there simply wasn’t a shop of any kind: not here, and not until I could get beyond this purely procedural matter of paperwork. Caught in this preposterous catch-22 situation, what I began to consider was just little crazy.
There were a few dollars in my pocket and no obvious need to keep hold of them. What harm would it do, I speculated, if not to buy the pen outright, then just to hire its use for a few minutes? Another voice objected: but that’s bribery, isn’t it? What the hell are you thinking! No, infuriatingly, the impasse had to remain. So, indignant and frustrated, I kicked my heals and fought temptation until, eventually, and with some effort, the officer’s mouth curled into a kind of smile. She waved the biro at me and asked officiously, “Do you want this?” It was a victory that was easily indulged, and I even offered a courteous though totally disingenuous thank you, before hastily completing the form. Then, following another long wait at Passport Control, everyone skipping between queues to get to the right gate, at last we were free.
Steve was easy to pick out from the crowd, and undoubtedly, I was no less conspicuous, and so we spotted one another immediately. The year away had affected some outward changes and he looked even taller than I remembered, though in truth he was quite a lot thinner, and his complexion, which had darkened, appeared darker still for being set against his sun-bleached hair. He shook my hand with a firmness I have rarely encountered and we left immediately.
Our taxi had been waiting for an hour and Steve helped load my rucksack into the boot. It was an old-fashioned saloon, with fake leather seats and soft-suspension; probably very chic in the seventies, though too small, I decided, to have featured in any episodes of Starsky and Hutch. I sank into the backseat. In the front, Steve issued instructions to the driver.
We quickly reached the outer limits of the city where the dusty streets were teeming and everyone looked to be engaged in trade of some description. The pavements, not that these were paved, were lined with stalls draped in fabrics, or hung with clothing, with shoes, electrical items, grocers, you name it. Street-vendors dodged between the sluggish traffic, with their range of small commodities arranged on trays. If they needed to move quickly, or to negotiate a tricky obstacle like the central reservation, they lifted the tray and balanced it on top of their head. We braked suddenly to avoid one of the many young boys pulling a cart. The driver in the car behind sounded his horn and swerved to avoid us. No exchange of glances followed, no foul-mouthed gesticulations and I imagine that even if we had collided we probably wouldn’t have stopped: nothing did for long, everything was in motion, perpetually so it seemed, like an antheap.
The roads were wide and at the intersections, billboards the size of tennis courts towered above the traffic lights. Glossy smiles and huge hands clutching beers, cigarettes and mobile phones; unsullied by the general grime, and oblivious to the overwhelming commotion, comfortably they maintained a cool detachment in the sweltering heat. Beneath these paper dreams, the young men waited in droves, ready with their trays of goods to rush out whenever the lights changed. Steve waved them away and directed the driver again, and it was another wonder to watch his lips move to the extraordinary new sounds. The driver wanted to speak with me but I knew absolutely nothing of Swahili. He offered some snatches of English and Steve helped where he could with translation. Welcome! he said. “Karibu!” I falteringly returned, with the help of Steve’s prompting. Tanzania is a very nice country, he told me, acknowledging Steve’s nodding confirmation: it a safe country.
Our destination was Palm Beach Hotel. It seemed so long ago when it became our agreed rendezvous: a place to head should we have missed one another at the airport. It sounded altogether ideal. Somewhere by the coast, I expected, and very probably a quiet view of the beach. We eventually pulled up on a road that was almost as bustling as the streets we had left behind. Under a nearby tree there was a broken chair propped up on some tyres. Heath Robinson, yes, but in a strange way it almost looked like a throne. As I wondered about the chair, Steve paid the driver.
Though it was only a few yards to the hotel, various stalls were pitched on sites between here and there, and as we approached, some of the traders left their posts and tagged along in magnetic fashion; others clamoured after us. Steve declined each offer. He had cultivated a manner that was both firm and polite. A hard nut compared with his wavering companion, who might just crack at any moment. Pathetically I looked to Steve for help. Do you want it, he asked me, as yet another item of merchandise was offered; then say no, he explained simply. A bus had pulled up and the waiting passengers were untidily funnelling inside. As the crowd thinned, one man, who at first was hidden in the midst of the others, could be seen shuffling around on the ground. Why did he sit there, I wondered, with his head at knee-height, and the others paying no regard? The truth was evident, and yet it wasn’t until his torso rocked and then swivelled, that it registered. No legs! I looked away, ashamed of the curiosity that had drawn and then held my attention. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him clamber aboard on his hands.
At the hotel Steve booked me into a double room and we organised the mosquito nets above the beds. I carefully tucked each edge tightly under the mattress, though I still couldn’t envisage actually sleeping underneath one. In truth, the accommodation was more hostel than hotel, and adjacent to a very busy and noisy and disappointingly inland road, though outside in the yard there was the compensation of a beer-garden. Steve ordered some food and a beer for me, and being teetotal, a Coke for himself; and we waited for Kate and Elaine to arrive. It was late afternoon when, back from their exploration of the city and the sea, Steve introduced us. These were old friends who had endured an extraordinary year on the Palestinian West Bank together, reluctantly leaving only at the outbreak of the Gulf War. Since then all three had journeyed far and wide, separately and together. They were real travellers.
Elaine searched through her lonely planet guide for a place to eat. Now to an explorer like myself, albeit, as I was becoming increasingly aware, of a rather sedentary disposition, guidebooks have always been a downright anathema. The best they might offer will probably be overrun with regulars, and the worst, inauthentic enclaves pandering to the mores of their imported custom. Elaine wasn’t the only one unconvinced by my argument, so I shut up.
After applying a layer of DEET (an insecticide sufficiently toxic to have been banned in America), we grabbed a lift from one of Steve’s taxi friends in another old banger. Our destination was in the suburbs, somewhere out beyond the high-fenced opulence, the security camera surveillance and the razor wire. Perhaps it was a sort of colonial club, and being escorted to a table, it was hard to overlook a most blatant division of labour: the black waiters serving the white customers. But we were there, and it was recommended, so we stayed.
More beers and another Coke for Steve, our political misgivings having duly waned, we could agree that this was a very pleasant setting in which to continue the conversation. The alcohol was beginning to work its trick too, so we drank more beers, though while Kate and Elaine helped their selves to the all-you-can-eat seafood barbecue buffet, Steve and I abstained on financial grounds. With the evening call to prayer from the distant mosques, and in the last light as the sun set over a glistening bay, we could just make out the simple triangular sail of a dhow. Such beauty, and our conversation, which had begun so unsteadily at the hostel, now blossomed. We had plenty to talk about of course, not least, the simple pleasure of deciding where next to go. After that we talked about all sorts and landed up on astronomy; it was difficult not to consider the subject as we sat drinking so happily under the stars.
Steve pointed out his own constellation. He called it “the kite” and traced the string, which trailed down over the trees. Kate, who is also a teacher, suggested I should give a guest lecture on the subject when Steve and I returned to Kibiti School, and drunkenly, I accepted Steve’s invitation. It had been a heady night and we returned in a suitably reckless fashion: rattled home by a young man who looked little older than ten (twelve at most), the speedometer touching eighty, and all, except for Steve, too merrily drunk to worry.
Back, and the Russian air-conditioning unit was droning angrily, and though it sounded as if it would spontaneously combust in the next moment, our room was pleasantly cool. I untucked a little of the mosquito net and crawled beneath, trying as far as possible to avoid loosening it further. Outside, a flock of bats was settling in trees to roost, and everything considered, this had been quite the most extraordinary of days: the sounds, the sights, the strangeness and the madness of this place: I wondered if I would ever get used to it.
I was too busy listening to the air conditioner and the traffic to sleep; and there was also a mosquito. It buzzed mostly when I wasn’t listening. Then I would listen and it would stop. It was a game of musical statues. When it sounded close, I drew my body from the netting lest it might use its slim mouth like a drinking straw, slipping it through the perforations. Perhaps they can do that. Then a worse thought: maybe it was already inside, maybe more than one. Could we have missed a hole when we had made those few repairs? Perhaps the net might be keeping them in! Infuriating creatures! Why all the noise? Why not just attend to the matter silently? And round and round my insomnia dragged itself until something happened that snapped me from the reveries in an absolutely physical way.
It began innocuously enough as a slight belly cramp, which rolling over, temporarily relieved, but it was an ache that steadily intensified. And the buzzing was quickly forgotten as my head filled with the slosh of nausea, and what came next I knew very well from experience. I made a mad dash for the toilet. My bare feet slapped on the cold floors and splashed in the pissy water around the bowl. Some relief, but crouched in the shadows, I could hear the mosquitoes again; they would smell the carbon dioxide in my breath. Promptly back to the refuge of the bed, then even more urgently back again, to perch indelicately over the stinking bowl. Less than twelve hours since arriving: how can I be so sick already? What kind of terrible tropical plague have I contracted? The hypochondriac was waving his arms and rambling like an idiot. Oh, what a stupid decision to come! If anyone could have offered a teleportation service, I would have jumped aboard, right there and then.
In the midst of this, Steve awoke, quite naturally concerned. He unpacked the medical kit from my rucksack (had I ever travelled with so much kit?), and made up some rehydration fluid. It was warm and salty, like tears, which according to the instructions meant that the concentration was right, and following Steve’s advice, I drank it down quickly and also swallowed a couple of Imodium tablets for good measure. It worked right away and soon the cramps were gone and I was fit enough to sleep. This was powerful medicine! The next morning I was okay too, and over a fresh breakfast of banana and paw-paw, Elaine, who had trained as a nurse, offered the unlikely diagnosis that it was probably all the result of dehydration. I poured out another cup of tea. Thinking back, it had been alcohol most of the way from England.
3. For a fortnight, barring just a couple of days in the middle, we four travelled together and did the holiday things and the very next day we got up early and caught a bus north to Arusha to take a safari. For many miles the road was tarmac and in a few places, so smooth was the way that speed-humps were needed to slow the approach into tight corners. For many miles the land was green with deciduous forest. Strips along the road were cultivated and grown over with the scruffy fans of banana trees; their broad leaves hanging like torn paper. I saw men and women bending their backs in a paddy field and others fashioning a new wall for a hut by smoothing muddy paste over a frame of woven branches. There were mud huts at every stage of construction. When we reached any junction, and as the bus slowed to make the turn, the local children met our arrival with trays and baskets of goods, balanced as ever, upon their heads. Surging forward they begged our attention: if the bus happened to stop they frantically offered their wares: oranges, bananas, nuts and boiled eggs; and if it didn’t they turned back and chased after the next. I was reminded of remarks made by a journalist on a radio programme. What we don’t understand is that in Africa the people think very differently, he said: in the West, if you discover a large hole in the road then you probably report it to the council, whereas an African sees the hole as an opportunity and sets up a market-stall.
Meanwhile for the passengers there were films along the way: a Hollywood action flick, a comedy, also American, and a Nigerian movie called Back to Life. Voodoo horror was evidently popular, and out of the three, this one went down best with the audience, who found much to divert their attention from the complementary biscuits and fizzy drinks: gasping at the horror or chortling through the dialogue. Judging by the trailers, Back to Life was quite typical of the genre, the victim coming literally back to life to haunt their killers; returning in the form of a double-exposure skeleton-effect. The whole creation put together by a handful of people on a shoestring budget, and enjoyed in spite of the creaky plots and abject production values, which lent comparison to The Blair Witch Project. Certainly it made a change from the highly polished, but equally facile Hollywood nonsense, and passed a little more of the time.
For lunch we stopped at The New Liverpool Hill Breeze Restaurant at the foot of the Usambara Mountains. Dedicated to the football club, it was decorated with pictures of the team from their glorious decade in the seventies. Ian Rush, Kenny Dalglish, Sammy Lee and the rest posted up and the club emblem carefully painted as a mural back in the car park. We had twenty minutes, just long enough to finish the meat and chips, purchase a few bananas and more water for the journey on, and time also for a photograph that might impress a Liverpool fan I know.
The farther from Dar-es-Salaam, the wider the views became. We crossed a vast plain, perfectly open to the flat horizon, and beyond even this, to the faintest hint of a mountain range. It was an arid land, barren but for the distinctive baobabs, their ancient silver trunks and branches tapering into cones, like up-side-down trees transplanted from an alien planet; these, and the occasional shrubs, and the thin grasses pocked with termite mounds the same red-orange colour as the earth. The sky arched high indeed to compass such an empty and yet colossal landscape. But eventually the plain closed behind us, and the roads we were following narrowed too: first to lanes, and then to dust tracks. For hundreds of miles, we drove across fields, following the tractor ruts, or that was how it seemed: we had been clattered around for nigh on ten hours. To add to the general discomfort, my bladder had been full since Moshi I had been drinking copiously in an effort to stave off dehydration.
Nearing our destination, the bus began to stop every few hundred yards: it was delivering a literally door-to-door service, and of course on each occasion the rigmarole of finding and unloading the bags began again. Peeing in the street is commonplace in Africa, and I should have leapt off and taken that badly needed leak; I could think of little else. But it is hard to break with propriety and every time I vacillated just long enough for our driver to return, and then we inched onwards again, although like Zeno’s paradoxical tortoise apparently gaining no ground. It was slow, agonisingly so, as little by little, by these almost infinitesimal steps we proceeded. The bus had been more or less abandoned when, after a final bend (right as I still recall) we pulled up in the main station in Arusha.
Stepping out, we were surrounded. “Come with me.” “Get into the car.” “Ignore them! Get into this car!” Young men all wanted to pull us, and each in their own direction. One offered to find a toilet. I followed blindly through the main ticket office and out into the alleyways beyond. When I returned, another man offered his business card for “Victoria Expeditions”, and I told him dishonestly that we’d bear it in mind, though he seemed happy enough that we were walking in his preferred direction, and making for a hotel that was listed in Elaine’s guidebook. And thank god we have that I thought!
Sat around a table on the hotel balcony, we ordered tea. Then, quite out of the blue, we were approached by a man who cut himself in the guise of Ali Gee; the shell suit, the over-easy demeanour, all the outward signs were loud and clear that this guy was wide. He pulled up a chair and asked if we were interested in a safari. This is my company, he told us, offering an identical business card to the one in my pocket. Samuel Lugemalila, I am the director, he continued, pointing to a name embossed above a web-site address; and he gave us a convincing sales-pitch, though it was so hard to know who or what to trust, in this strange city at the end of the world.
We ordered more tea, and discussed our options excitedly. Three days would be long enough we decided: the place with the elephants, the crater and the Serengeti yes, the Serengeti, though Samuel Lugemalila, who told us he had formerly been a safari guide, laid it plain that most of the animals had already migrated to fresher pastures so this became the plan we gradually agreed, and then, when Samuel Lugemalila returned, we paid him: a mixture of cash and travellers’ cheques, and more than a thousand pounds exchanging hands. Don’t worry about him, the man in reception reassured, he’s okay. We worried nevertheless, but in any case there was much about Arusha that worried us. If anything indeed, it was our misgivings that had encouraged such rapid closure on the deal: we were most anxious to get going again, and as quickly as possible.
The next day, our entrepreneurial friend rustled back into the hotel, wearing an even more ridiculous get-up than before, and though it came as a great relief to see him, what he demanded was now even dodgier than before. Outside the hotel, there were two waiting cars. Kate got into the first (though Elaine insisted that she travel alongside) and I sat in the back of the second. Then we departed in opposite directions. We understood only that our signatures were needed in order to secure the cheques.
Samuel Lugemalila directed from the front passenger seat. It was a matter of urgency, he explained, and left it at that. Where are we going? He was strangely taciturn, it was a sharp change from the effervescent enthusiasm of the previous evening, and along with the secrecy came an equally alarming haste. Our driver turned and turned again: the outskirts of the town were rapidly expanding, and fast overflowing the confines of my imagination. The streets became narrower, quieter, more desolate, or was that my runaway imagination? Where were we going?
Thinking it best to bite my tongue, I absorbed these troubled thoughts in the intricate business of picking the dead skin around my fingernails. Then I recognised something, close by the roundabout at the edge of town, near to the bus station: a building with wide unenclosed levels like a multi-storey car park, though it certainly wasn’t one, or like a grandstand, which it wasn’t either. I could remember having passed that strange skeletal structure on our way in, the open storeys stacked like questions, so I knew we were on the edge of town. The streets were broad again when soon we turned into the driveway of a plush hotel and pulled up. Samuel Lugemalila turned around; he looked serious. “Did you bring your passport?” he asked, as we approached the lobby and were welcomed inside by a smartly uniformed doorman. One knew the another and they shared a joke: Samuel Lugemalila, it seemed, knew all sorts.
True to his word, our possessions had meanwhile been strapped atop a four-by-four. Jackson, driver and guide, and Daniel, the cook, were also expectant, equipped and ready to take us to Lake Manyara, the immediate destination on our itinerary. It was still early, little more than thirty minutes had passed since I had signed over the cheques; as promised, we would reach the great waters in time to see the setting sun.
4. Samuel Lugemalila had also promised to give us his “very best guide”. Perhaps that was just part of the patter, and though Jackson had remarkable abilities (at driving, observing, and in sheer endurance), we could only gauge those considerable talents against comparable deficiencies. The tracks we followed for hundreds of miles were often treacherous, more obviously so after Jackson was forced to control an angry skid in the Serengeti, but in spite of these concerns, and regardless of the fact that with our heads poking above the roof we had the height advantage of a couple of foot, Jackson was most often first to make any sighting. Years of experience had trained his instinct and accommodated his eyes to focussing at infinity.
As we neared the Serengeti, the Masai, men and women in their scarlet robes with chequered patterns of purple and black lingered by the roadsides for the next photo opportunity, and it was sad to see a people reduced to the role of extras. We skirted a Masai village, set like a tourist trap. Would you like to stop, Jackson asked. No, we already had our minds made up. Then at a bend in the road, Jackson pulled over. It was our signal to disembark, to stretch legs and admire another view: an opportunity for Jackson to take a short respite too. We drifted away from the road looking to find a better vantage, until the distinctive cries of children halted our progress. Their small voices were suddenly rushing toward us, and soon a group of ten or more had gathered. Evidently well practised, the subjects organised themselves into a row, set against the stunning backdrop.
“Take a picture! Take a picture!” they pleaded, forcing a predicament. And what must we look like, our pockets stuffed with banknotes? There is no damage of course, and nothing injurious about capturing the reflected light of their image on paper, but there is something cheap about paying for the service, and though the comparison may seem extreme, the visitors to a freak-show also provide the freaks they go to see with a useful income. So instead we gave a donation and turned to leave, but it made no bones. “Take a picture! Take a picture!” they insisted chasing after us. Okay, just one (after all it could do no harm) and then we turned to go.
“Do you like it?” one of the boys asked, offering me his stick, as we were ambling back to the bubble of our off-roadster. It was an interesting object, but of what value is a Masai cattle goad to me, teaching physics at Doncaster College? I offered a few more coins, but let him keep his staff. A younger boy asked Steve if he could have a pen for school. Happily Steve, who had come prepared, could offer two or three.
This is such an uncompromising land to settle, and how very little we understood. Jackson grew concerned if we ventured just a bit too far from the road. It is dangerous here, he would steadfastly caution. Then, only a few hundred yards on, we would see one of the Masai, deep in the savannah, standing majestic and sweeping a slow, dignified glance as we rolled past. Close to the road, an infant Masai boy was herding cattle with his own little stick. He waved to us, just as we once waved to passing strangers, but this was a small meeting of exceedingly different worlds: one fast, garish and comfortable, the other full of colour and hardship; blood-red human traces in a wilderness.
To protect us from the external dangers, we had the ample security of a metal skin with side-impact protection, and so the most serious hazard came from the thorns of the overhanging acacia. It was surprising how suddenly their branches appeared, and how often we were facing another way; though with four of us keeping vigil, there was always (just) enough warning to avoid being impaled on their vicious skewers. It was a thrill, and when we came to the densest undergrowth, like on the shores of Lake Manyara, swooping under the branches measured out the beat to what became a kind of dipping dance.
Jackson was accustomed to search for the so-called “Big Five” a collective title for the buffalo, elephant, lion, rhinoceros and leopard, which owes everything to the great white hunters of the past but he was also keen to know what interested us and quickly recognised our penchant for giraffes. Half a mile out, tall and mysterious with the serpent-necks of sea-monsters, they never disappointed. In any case, Jackson would always stop, if and whenever we asked that was all part of the job though it became apparent that our repeated demands could be trying to his patience. More than likely he had heard through the progress of reports that regularly passed from guide to guide, whenever vehicles met along the way, that there was a lion ahead, elephants, even a leopard (though we never tracked one down). Meantime we were messing about with focal lengths and adjusting depths of field for a last shot of a giraffe, which, of course, are two a penny in these parts. Eventually, though, he did catch on that mostly we enjoyed the diversity. He even let us refer to the bird books that he kept above the dashboard. Many were so brightly coloured it was difficult to believe the flesh and blood counterparts we saw were really out there: the red and green iridescence of the aptly named superb starlings; lilac-breasted rollers; and most resplendent of all, the bee-eaters, with their pure tones of green, blue, red and yellow. Some of the lizards were almost as extravagant. We drove by a party of mongooses, and then later an African wild cat, taking a drink at one of the water holes. The dik dik too, their shrunken frames incredibly adapted to foraging in the thicket, made worthy candidates for a complimentary “Little Five”.
From the kopje (one of numerous small volcanic outcrops) which rose above the official entrance to the Serengeti National Park, the grassland, golden and still, extended in every direction; and even from such low elevation we were no more than two hundred foot up the horizon was a distant seam. Serengeti, Jackson told us later, comes from the Masai word serenget: “the endless plain”: a thought to briefly set my hairs on end. Back at ground level, the gazelle had been fired into statues, standing as still as the parched grass.
We next alighted at a drinking hole, to take a closer look at the hippopotamuses, wallowing in the fetid water, and wetting themselves with occasional flicks of the tail. In this manner they kept themselves moisturised, all day, and only at night, came out to graze. Splash… splash… splash… intermittent and euphonious in a fashion, following a line on from John Cage, and prompting the billing of a series of works entitled “Music for Unprepared Hippos” (subtitled: pieces played at waterholes all over Africa, regardless).
The crocodiles too were basking in the sunshine, spread along the banks of hippopotamus dung with dead eyes. In one spot, the safari trucks (our own included) had gathered like flies although given our intent, if anything we were rather more like paparazzi to see a pride of lions scratch themselves and doze after feasting on a freshly killed Topi. On the farther side, away from all the hats and cameras, and at a safe distance from the lions, a pair of vultures also waited and watched.
That night we camped in the Serengeti. Daniel pitched the tents in soil so stony that I could barely drive the pegs in. I gave up my attempts to help him out. As usual, he then prepared supper for all and washed up after, elegantly folding himself to reach a bowl on the ground, and patiently slipping a little water over each plate. It was a fascination to study his actions. There was economy in everything, so precisely measured did each of his movements appear to me, as if he had absorbed the gracefulness of the animals that he must have spent so many hours quietly watching. He seemed an altogether happy soul, sharing time and jokes with the other cooks and guides as he performed each of the domestic duties. It was a pity that we didn’t share a language.
Jackson was quite unlike Daniel, and no doubt the two differed substantially in constitution, like chalk and granite. The elements had subsequently carved out contrary shapes: Daniel had been smoothed over and rounded like a pebble, whereas Jackson remained as rugged and certain as a mountain. Daniel was gregarious; Jackson, quieter and more self-contained, and Jackson certainly didn’t, as the old expression goes, suffer fools gladly. Occasionally the bonhomie would crack and, as sudden as lightning, he would reveal a very serious air. Once I found a feather. It was very delicate and beautifully dappled, and as I was showing it to the others Jackson very dextrously snatched it from my fingers and in a single movement threw it out of the vehicle. It is not easy to throw a feather, and so that part was impressive, but how strange was his abrupt annoyance. “You must leave things here!” he ordered. On this occasion however, he was in good spirits, staying after supper, though politely declining our offers of beer, to share some stories with us.
Jackson held his greatest admiration for the lions (“the king of the animals” as he told us often) and for the elephants, which, he assured us, were certainly the most intelligent of the creatures. But they are dangerous he warned. If elephants find a man they will stamp and stamp until he is , and with this he pressed his hand flat on the table. He will be crushed beneath the soil so that no one can ever find him again!
We had slowly learned that Jackson had a wry sense of humour, but what he told about the elephants was spoken with perfect earnestness, and neither were the words filled with hate or contempt. The elephants are afraid of people, Jackson explained, because they remember our deeds. They have reason to hate us. Do they come to the campsites, we wondered, envisaging the thin fabric of our tents crumpled by elephantine feet. Jackson shook his head earnestly: there’s no danger here elephants see very poorly, and if they came here, then not knowing they would step around a tent, as they would avoid a little hill.
Samuel Lugemalila had booked us into the Wildlife Lodge for our last night on safari. There, grubby after our three dusty days on the road, we turned up like peasants at a palace. On arrival we were served with glasses of fresh orange juice, and for one night we were afforded kingly treatment. The lodge is really a grand hotel balanced on the very lip of the Ngorongoro Crater and purpose-built. In the main lobby, a ceiling-high window fully twenty-foot and stretching thirty yards or more, provides views over a most spectacular panorama, and beyond the glass there is a balcony fitted with seaside-style telescopes, providing for a closer examination of the creatures below. Following early breakfast, we reconvened in the lobby with Jackson, who had spent the night in a nearby campsite. As we awaited the reappearance of Kate and Elaine, Jackson became increasingly irritated: six thirty, I said, but now it is nearly seven. Apparently he was rebuking Steve and I for the tardiness of the others. I asked him about an incident the previous day, when he had slammed the window shut with such uncharacteristic alarm. What kind of snake was it that had stood erect and turned its hood to me? Had it been a spitting cobra that I’d been eyeing at such close quarters? Jackson confirmed my suspicion. And had it spat, what then, I continued with some urgency. When the poison gets into your eyes you must wash them straight way, Jackson explained, and then you will be blind.
Steeply down, out the cold and the clouds, Jackson drove us into the caldera. The Ngorongoro Crater from the onomatopoeia, which he explained mimics the sound of the Masai cattle bells is about twelve miles in diameter and two thousand feet deep and contains one of the richest and most concentrated wildlife habitats on Earth. The local geology reveals that it was formed by eruptions of Oldeani, a dormant volcano on the Southwest rim, as the gradual emptying of its vast magma chamber undermined the land which then collapsed under its own weight. Today it is a place of breathtaking beauty.
Here we found the largest herds of wildebeest and zebra seen throughout our journey, here too were elephants, hyenas, and lions. We saw the yellow-throated pelicans, sacred ibis, and the warm waters of a soda lake were flushed pink with flamingos. Enormous eagles soared on the thermals, toward the clouds that curled back over the rocky brim of the crater and froze like a snowdrift. It was here too that we finally encountered the black rhinoceros, albeit a specimen that was mostly hidden in the long grasses. Balancing precariously on the roof, I could make out the smallest patch of grey. Steve being taller could see more, whilst Elaine, with considerable agility also found a position from where she could confirm that the sighting was indeed a rhinoceros. Knowing how rare they have become we asked Jackson if it was unusual to see a rhinoceros. Not at all, he replied. After sunrise they come to the roads to warm themselves, and like all the animals, you should have seen plenty if you had risen in time.
With our three days spent, we felt tired but exhilarated, and back at the hotel in Arusha, Samuel Lugemalila was smiling broadly to receive us. Did you have a good time, he asked almost rhetorically. The only pity was that something had irreconcilably severed our brief comradeship with Jackson. For two days we had been the best of friends, but finally something unspoken had filled him with contempt. It seemed an age ago when he was still laughing at our antics and indulging our delight for strange stories, and it remains a mystery why he wouldn’t shake my hand to receive our tips.
Of course, it was all very different from the wildlife documentaries: the lioness forever stalking, the leopard endlessly dragging a gazelle into one of the trees, and the cheetah routinely chasing at full tilt, the pauses just long enough to catch your breath; and though hackneyed, it is a truth nevertheless, that the wildlife cameraman spends the greatest portion seeing nothing beyond the acres of tall grass, so that at home we tune in for the highlights. Time has been substantially cropped and, before all was sized-down to fill a twenty-four inch screen, the space was no less expansive than the time that fell within it. Telly is reduction. On safari we were beginning to learn to look into the depths of that space, adjusting to the outlines of zebra, making out the distant grey flecks of elephant hide, and discerning the incredible skin of a giraffe parting itself from the dappled foliage. Pausing again and again, and like a clearing of the throat, the sound of the engine dying becomes a signal: be attentive! Be quiet!
5. From Arusha we journeyed East to the exotic spice island of Zanzibar. For two days we were divided: Kate and Elaine taking a direct flight, whilst Steve and I pursued the more niggardly course by bus and then hydrofoil. We met again in the capital, Zanzibar Town, at the Victoria Guesthouse, as we had agreed. It was listed in the guidebook and after the consummate success of our safari with “Victoria Expeditions”, we had decided to try our luck with a hotel that bore the same imperial title. Located on the corner of a quiet lane, with a breakfast balcony overlooking the greenery of a small park, it proved to be a happy choice and we stayed for two nights. The days we spent getting pleasantly lost in the labyrinthine streets of Stone Town (which was reminiscent of Venice, though only in this regard), and then, in evenings, we explored the quayside market, side-stepping the presentations of braised octopus, squid and other watery creatures, passing the boys with their mangles, who pressed sweet drinks out of sugar cane, and on to peruse the displays of souvenirs, which ranged from ebony carvings and painted fabrics, to toy-trucks, ingeniously cut and folded out of empty oil cans, and giraffe-hair trinkets, twisted together, like tight bundles of black fuse wire as suspicious as unicorn horn and plainly horrible, and prompting the question why anyone should want one.
All at once, as we sat drinking tea, and pondered whether or not to cross the street to purchase a ticket for the traditional taafal music festival, there was a tremendous commotion around the stalls, and whatever had happened had caused near hysteria amongst the traders, who were suddenly chasing madly about and wildly shouting. Someone was a thief, but at this point the rumours became confused: some said the thief was caught, others, that he had turned into a cat!
The main market in Zanzibar Town is situated in close proximity to the old slave market, which is nowadays preserved as a museum, and the following day we circumvented the second to reach the first, and there hired some bicycles from a shop. We checked the locks and then wheeled the bikes through the narrow passageways, stepping over the blood-spattered feet of a man who sold fresh chickens, and dodging the throng of pedestrians and a man on a motor scooter, who tooted his way impatiently against the main stream. Then, like the four chaps in an Enid Blyton, with our provisions of biscuits and fruit juice, we cycled off to the beach.
After little more than a mile we had reached a small settlement with slum dwellings fabricated from various odds and sods: planks of wood, bits of corrugated iron, sacking, whatever happened to be convenient really. They were similar to those on the outskirts of Dar-es-Salaam, and here too, cut along the edge of the road, were the same shallow ditches: rudimentary drains to be stepped over many times every day. Ahead of us, some children were playing, chasing excitedly, and dragging something that looked like a bundle of rags tied on a string. They had raced across the road with the thing bumping along behind. What was it tethered at the end of their line? If it wasn’t a bundle of rags, then what was it? Nothing probably. We passed them.
Stop! We stopped. What was it? Elaine felt sick. It was alive? Alive, yes. The children, seven or eight in number and probably in age too, had stopped chasing and had begun casually jabbing it with sticks. A cat, yes, I could see that now, kicking out its life, though only shadow blows that clawed into air, and writhing with each suffocating yank, each prod, each giggle, twisting up like a slug. Across the road the adults paid little heed to the children’s game of cruelty, and look on or look away, move or stay, we were already entangled, bound by horror, disgust, fascination and guilt. Perhaps there was the unspoken opinion that we shouldn’t intervene: to do so would be to impress our western values, our comfortable sentimentality, to behave like moral imperialists, like church missionaries. Here in a different culture how could we understand? But we did and all too well, and Steve told us later, that this was the worst cruelty he had witnessed.
The children obediently gathered around to receive him. What he said we didn’t hear, he was fifty yards away, but that they were listening was certain. He bent down clumsily, and then, after a few awkward attempts, the cat spitting in distress, he succeeded in loosening the wire collar. Across the road, the elders maintained a casual interest in the whole matter, as Steve gave the children some final instructions. The cat didn’t move again, and by now a few of the children had slipped away. They had come to speak to the three of us standing on the roadside with the bicycles. The cat was killing the chickens, they told us. We were silent.
Our final days together were more peaceful ones. We had been advised over breakfast by a Danish couple, to hire a vehicle and spend some time on the eastern side of the island. The place they had in mind was called “Twisted Palm”, and it took another crazy journey in the back of a four-by-four to get there. We followed their advice and came to a beach-hotel with coral sand, as fine as flour, that carried to the steps outside our detached chalet-rooms, and formed an unbroken corridor all the way to the sea. The footprints we left were shallow, stepping lightly between exotic shells, cowries and conches, which here were as abundant as sequins sewn onto a Come Dancing ball-gown. I discovered a coral pebble that the sea had fabulously cut and rolled into a Henry Moore miniature and added it to a small collection. At intervals we washed the powder from our feet and sometimes paddled out further, though the water, which was clear to the bottom, never rose above our hips.
A friendly young man with looks more Mediterranean than East African, stopped us to ask if we’d like to go hunting for crabs. Then would you like a coconut, he asked, and pointed to the tops of the tall palms. The palms grew like eyelashes all along the edge of the wide sands, and soon he returned with two coconuts, and showed us how the crack one of the ends open by dashing it against a rock. He left the other one unopened and after a few abortive attempts I gave up and hurled it instead into the lapping ocean. Perhaps it found passage to a distant shore.
This was a heavenly place, somewhere to dream of, and for a few nights we dreamt well. I was quick to forget about the poverty and the other miseries, past and present of Zanzibar.
…And a week in Kibiti
Elsewhere is a negative mirror
6. It was midnight, when I’d finally slipped into bed. With the evening still warm, and more to ward off the dark than anything, the thin sheet provided ample cover. Then, at six, with equatorial precision, it was dawn, though whether it was the pale light or the cool air that had finally unzipped my sleep, I couldn’t say.
I shivered a little and rubbed my goose pimpled arms. Beyond the grubby gauze of the window, the treetops at the edge of the school’s grounds hung indistinct in the early mist; the way insubstantial shadows may fall across a pane of glass. Leaning at the foot of the bed stood the imposing shape of Steve’s 125cc motorbike, and outside, the large white ducks and chickens were up already; their cackling over food unevenly punctuated by the typically strangled and ridiculous outbursts from the cockerels. In rural Shropshire, my childhood home, I’d always hated such rude insistence to get up how many sleepless mornings did I twist in bed and long for someone to shoot the family’s old cockerel? Yet here in Kibiti the same delighted me, and interestingly I found familiar strains in the rhythms and riffs of the whole dawn chorus; connections deeper and more mysterious than reason might untangle, linking this place to that, past to present, and by extension, all points to all times. Such improbable correspondence became all the more remarkable, when, at length, I was told that the deepest of the calls were not those of the songbirds, southern relatives of the Europeans, but quite unconnectedly were the hoots of wild monkeys.
Next door were already preparing for their day ahead. The bursts of chatter, soft and rapid, and the fortissimo matriarchal orders; the slosh and dribble of morning ablutions; and an occasional sharp blast and thud, a chair sliding back across the concrete floor and hard against the wood of a table. The abrupt squeaks and bangs, shouts of farewell, and the door slamming firmly behind; these wet-dry notes carried like reverberations of dark piano chords, eddying around the concrete hollow of Steve’s flat.
The stove was lit and on top some water was boiling in a pan. Maybe it had been the sulphurous pungency of matches that originally woke me; or more plausibly, the dull, throaty tang of burnt paraffin. Steve placed a cup of warm tea on the cold floor beside the bed, which I accepted with reluctant thanks.
Beside the cup there was something prickly and orange, and as I cleared my eyes of sleep, I realised I was looking at a part of the interior ecosystem that Steve had warned me about. During the night a cockroach, one of the larger of the monsters that lived around and about the place, must have fallen on its back. Though it was dressed in a coat of ants, I felt no sympathy. Cockroaches were everywhere and I hated them already. The previous afternoon, almost as soon as we’d arrived back from Zanzibar, and in place of the pile of junk mail that usually accumulates after a holiday, very nearly the first thing I’d blundered across was a cockroach. Steve had told me to expect as much, but it didn’t lessen my disgust, when unfurling from a tin that he kept for herbs and spices, it squeezed between my fingers. Steve (as usual) was stoical. He was accustomed to sharing his home with roaches and assured me that I would quickly get used to them… and also to the fractured movements of two geckos that occupied their spaces on the walls, and to the bees that lived under a sink and even the roving ants.
Crouched inside my funnel-web, spider-like, I watched the ant column carry the cockroach away in parts to a place under the bed. Having broken rank, a few congregated on the margin of a dark asterisk where a spot of tea had spilled over from my cup, and briefly I imagined an indoor safari: the ants with their necks bending like the wildebeest gathered around a drinking hole; like those we saw looking down through a telescope from the chilly terrace of the Ngorongoro Wildlife Lodge.
Ants are a marvel. When I have accidentally disturbed a colony, say casually dislodging a brick or some other thing half-buried, and uncovered their seething mass exposed in that dim depression, it has always transmitted a most urgent recoil, as instant and automatic as a knee-jerk; chucking the brick away to avoid further contamination, and then shaking off a dreadful presence that presently crawled upon my back, shudders running up my spine, that terrible frisson, like the bristle of static before a shock; then a second later, I would be transfixed. My fascination, morbid perhaps, fixed on the nest it was always the integral of the parts that interested and unsettled me, in approximately equal measure, and any ants that moved apart instantly lost their allure. Here the ants had formed a disassembly line, dismantling the cockroach piece by piece to carry it with them, until by evening all that remained was the smallest nib of chitin, the tiniest tip of what had been a head.
Over the week I learnt that the sugar ants or sisimizi, as they are locally called, are rather more comparable with the vultures that circle above the great plains, than to the wildebeest grazing beneath. They are scavengers, highly organised and efficient, and looking out for spillages: the smallest crumb and the most minuscule grains. They quickly converge on all these, flocking to drops of juice and congregating around a smear of margarine on the blade of a knife. And though their worst habit is that of turning up wherever you choose to sit, at least they don’t sting.
I checked my shoes for scorpions a paranoia that presumably stems from my acquaintance with westerns and old war films: the ones where the combatants are all struggling for survival amidst the shifting sands of the Sahara, or lost in the jungles of Indochina. Steve had been out to the stores and brought back a handful of deep-fat fried doughnuts (mandazi), andwhere in patches the grease soaked through the newspaper, it glistened enticingly. The doughnuts, once unwrapped, were sweet and stodgy, and very satisfying in spite of biting against the odd piece of grit.
After breakfast I filled a cup with the remainder of our bottled water from Zanzibar and carried it to the washroom.
Although fully fitted with washbasin, shower and even a flush toilet, and all plumbed in, there was no water on tap in Steve’s flat and none had ever been supplied. As I leaned over the basin, three cockroaches of varying sizes all smaller than the giant that I’d left behind, still twitching in the bedroom scurried across the porcelain and disappeared behind the dark gash of the overflow. Forgetting for a moment I twisted one of the taps to take a drink. It squeaked like a rusty wheel and, in the absence of water, I half-expected a fall of dust to cake my mouth, or worse.
7. A thickset man clad in loose-fitting shirt and shorts and a pair of flip-flops was standing at the door. He held four gaping fish, each dangling from the end of a dry reed, and it looked for all the world as if the fish had been caught that way; magically enticed to bite the reeds and never let go.
Steve made the introductions: “this is Mr Msungu.”
“Mr Mzungu”, I returned.
Mr Msungu corrected me and pronounced his name slowly, “M Sssungu”, making a big effort to emphasise the ‘s’. My mistake was easily made, though however inadvertent, I’d still dropped a bit of the clanger. Msungu, I didn’t know, whereas I was well acquainted with the word mzungu. It had followed us from Arusha to Zanzibar Town. From the chatter of the traders and touts, who used it generously amongst themselves as they chased after, pushing everything from mobile phones and hard-boiled eggs to safaris and expeditions into the clouds of Kilimanjaro; to the passing cries of local kids: “Mzungu! Mzungu! Mzungu!”
Westerner! Foreigner! Hey gringo! Sometimes this was a joke, a way of passing the time, like sticking your thumb up at motorists. On the beach at Twisted Palm we fancied it would be amusing to give it a go, and so resolved to shout mzungu at the next approaching tourists, just to see their reaction, but we finished mumbling belated hellos, and spoken to the sand instead.
Mr Msungu greeted me with a warm African handshake, sliding hands until our thumbs were interlocking, then back again and holding tight. He also offered a fresh welcome: “Mgeni!” Then sitting down with the fish dangling over the arm of the chair, he turned to Steve who translated: “You are our guest!”
This was my first morning in Kibiti and given my regular habit of sleeping in and rising late, it may come as a surprise to anyone who has known me that I was up so early this was a natural response to changes in my living conditions. The facility of only a paraffin light after ten o’clock, and then the cockerels crowing their reveille by six had quickly set the pattern for my short stay, and I must confess that the bright mornings compensated surprisingly well for the early nights.
Mr Msungu told me he was keen to speak English, and so we used the morning visits trading words of Swahili for English and vice versa. One morning, for instance, I was trying to light the paraffin stove to boil some water for tea when Mr Msungu asked what this was, pointing to the burning match. It was by no means obvious, of course, where the focus of his inquiry fell. Was he was pointing to the match, to the flame, or to something less tangible? With further gestures he showed that when a burning match was brought close to his skin it would hurt him. “What is this?” he asked, rubbing his arm and pointing to an envisaged injury. “Burning?” I suggested after a little consideration. He pulled another match from the box. “And this is burning?” he asked, rubbing it very lightly along the abrasive strip on the edge of the box. “No, that is ” This new word was about to confuse the issue but I couldn’t bring to mind a good alternative and so “striking“, I said finally. Mr Msungu repeated and then, after another considered pause, he scratched his fingernails back and forth across the tabletop: “And this is striking?”
I found these early morning seminars were, though in a queer way, quite relaxing; generating a feeling I have occasionally enjoyed when adding long columns of numbers together: an easy concentration that is part reverie and part meditation. It hardly mattered that as often as not the direction of our fingers was plainly at odds with the direction taken by any words that followed. Steve left us to it and without assistance our conversation (mazungumuzo as Mr Msungu later had me twist my tongue over) inevitably followed like a chain reaction with one subject toppling directly into another, the catalyst invariably word association. Odd key words were marked on the pages of my notebook: lists of sundry nouns, verbs and adjectives, jumbled together, and occasional phrases which had helped to contextualise the word or aspect of grammar we had wanted to convey.
We covered much ground. Beginning with the parts of the body: the fingers, hands, arms, toes, nipples (the same as the word for “lake”, he indicated, lifting his tee-shirt); the topics became increasingly complex, even venturing into the realms of philosophy and religion. Thumbing through Steve’s old Swahili-English dictionary looking up “evil” and “sin” in attempts to reconcile Mr Msungu’s Christian belief with my own agnosticism and In Tanzania non-belief is still something that is almost unheard of strangely helped to clarify my own vagaries. “Judgement!” I concluded happily one afternoon: “this is what I can’t bear about God!”
On a different occasion, Mr Msungu opened my notebook and inside the front cover he wrote the following and waited to see my reaction:
mtu mweupe mzungu
mtu mweusi msungu
“white man = mzungu / black man = msungu”, and by then my Swahili must have come on a little because I guessed the joke before he finished writing, but I was puzzled by another line he’d written underneath. It read mtu mwevundi and when I asked him what it meant he picked up the pen again and wrote, “red” and only that.
“Yes, but what is this?” I asked him, as mystified as before.
“A red man”, he replied pointing out in turn the two words, mwevundi and mtu, as he spoke.
“And what is a red man?” I was perplexed.
“A red man? What is a red man?” He smiled broadly and told me emphatically: “there isn’t any red man!” Then directly underneath mtu mwevundi he drew a small dismissive cross.
One morning Mr Msungu pulled out two pamphlets that had been folded tightly together and stored inside his back pocket. They looked like the kind of thing that he might have picked up at a health centre or a family planning clinic. Happily, and most importantly, one was in Swahili and its twin in English. Mr Msungu showed how he translated from one to the other, line by line, word by word. It was a task that ought to have been intolerably slow and unprofitable, except that he brought such overwhelming enthusiasm to bear. “What’s this word?” he asked, pointing to the English version of his texts, and offering a suggestion from the Swahili copy, matching words, and constructing a story to test if this understanding was correct.
It was a strange word that he had chanced to stop on. The word was ‘besides’ and the more I tried to define its meaning the less meaning it seemed to carry. I began to wonder if I’d ever known the meaning of the word ‘besides’. He read a little further and stopped again another word. Slow progress, but as I’d been told when I arrived, and as I gradually discovered for myself, time flows very differently in Kibiti.
Then Mr Msungu ran his finger further down the text and stopped again. He was pointing to the word circumcision, and my immediate thought was how I should begin to explain. Unconsciously I snorted an uncomfortable laugh, which surprised both of us. “You know this?” he asked. Yes, I returned, as flatly as I could. Suddenly he was uncharacteristically serious and I thought it best to remain taciturn. “And you know this?” I said finally, turning the question around.
“Yes, this is very bad”, he replied with a sweeping gesture in front of his crotch, and looking hard into my eyes, “they cut the girls.”
8. Mr Msungu invited me to his home to meet his wife and his family. His three children greeted us respectfully at the entrance, shushing shikamoo to acknowledge the approach of our elderly frames. Tradition remains strong in the countryside, though it has mostly been lost in the cities, Steve explained; and politely we returned each shikamoo with maharaba. Afterwards Mr Msungu told us that he regarded the whole matter as quite old-fashioned.
Inside, the little house seemed smaller still, though presumably there were other rooms out of view. Steve and I sat on a low settee and Mr Msungu took the other chair. The upholstery was quaintly fashioned with pictures of the English pastoral idyll, of shire-horses pulling wains, if I remember correctly, and the curtains were patterned with a bygone floral design. I could easily have imagined my grandmother living there; her pieces of capo de monte wouldn’t have looked out of place.
Mrs Msungu, who was pregnant with a third and, Mr Msungu informed me, last child, looked smart in her blue dress. She stood to welcome us with lingering handshakes and then sat quietly at the table and continued peeling oranges. Mr Msungu cheerfully opened the conversation. “Are you married?” he asked via Steve’s translation. It was a question that would crop up time and again, and from a local perspective Steve and I, mid-thirties and still single, were an exceedingly odd couple. “No luggage”, Mr Msungu concluded with a cheeky nod after I shook my head.
With a great deal of help from Steve, I explained that I was currently lodging with my sister and brother-in-law, Soo and Luke, and their baby son, George. Mr Msungu wondered what Luke did for a living and, as I peeled apart the segments of an orange and spat the pips into a dish that Mrs Msungu had also kindly provided, Steve had some difficulty with his translation of the word “solicitor”. The oranges were green-skinned, but sharp and sweet, and all freshly picked from the trees on the Msungu’s own smallholding(shamba).
The other VSO placement in Kibiti was Steve Thorn. (At the school the two Steve’s were differentiated by surnames as Mr Bestie and Mr Tony respectively; their monosyllabic originals extended for local ease of pronunciation.) Steve Thorn explained how everyone was entitled to cultivate a shamba. “Whoever clears the patch of ground can grow some crops there”, he told me later on our walk to the lake. The egalitarian upshot of this genuinely laissez-faire approach to land entitlement was that every family had their plot and every plot provided a little basic food and often a small surplus, and hardly surprisingly, “agricultural science” was one of the most important subjects taught at the school. Steve Thorn had tried his hand, preparing and planting a small plot at the back of the school ground with maize and beans; two of the staples grown in the region, but the attempt had been (by his own account) an unremitting failure, and the few seeds that did eventually germinate had been promptly uprooted by wild pigs. (I gathered at length and from a variety of sources that wild pigs are one of the primary hazards faced by the farmers in the region.)
Mr Msungu told me that he too grew maize and sold the surplus on, but only to supplement his main income as a driver. At least that was before his car broke-down two years before, and since then he had done whatever odd jobs were available.
“How much do you earn?” It was a question I wasn’t really expecting and one that many would have frowned upon. The impertinence! And perhaps under other circumstances it would have been, but despite wondering where this abrupt inquiry could be leading us, I considered that it would be ruder, perhaps disingenuous, not to give an honest answer to his simple question. So with a little mental strain and without the aid of a pen and paper (let alone a calculator), I converted my modest salary, as closely as I could into its Tanzanian shilling equivalence. Though the figure I eventually arrived at quite obviously astounded Mr Msungu, even after a slight readjusting of the numbers.
To put that comparative wealth into some kind of context, I decided that we needed a useful benchmark, and at first I thought about setting it against the annual rent for my room. I changed my mind. The issue of paying rent to such a close relative as my sister might confuse the whole matter in an unnecessary way. So I chose instead to contrast my wages against the cost of the flight over to Tanzania, though if the intention of this was to illustrate my own relative poverty, then, with hindsight, here was an equally bad comparison. Mr Msungu was more astonished than before: “it costs so much to fly to your home?” He could scarcely believe the numbers, the fact that I had spent so much, and such a large chunk of my total income, on this one insubstantial thing.
When I saw Mr Msungu for the last time he was walking through the school grounds with two of the children. The youngest was pulling a small cart. I stopped them and asked if he would mind my taking a photograph. “Like this?” he asked tugging uncomfortably at his tee-shirt. That’s fine I told him, and in any case this is the last chance because my camera is broken. I showed him the repairs: two wires running out of the case and twisted inside a torch (basically the battery was flat and this was an improvised way of supplying power, but it was cumbersome in the extreme and I imagined it wouldn’t stay fixed that way for long). Okay, he agreed; and I promised to send a copy.
9. The school had been built entirely from scratch during the late years of Julius Nyerere’s post-independence government, and opened in the early nineteen eighties: it was the last of four schools constructed with materials and workers supplied by the Cuban government. The design was simple. Three crude, but ample concrete blocks: one containing classrooms and the canteen facilities; and two others, parallel to the first and connected by low-level walkways, to accommodate the students in separate-sex dormitories. In addition to this main complex, but set apart, there were also two tenements, to house the teachers’ families. With Kibiti finished, the Tanzanian project was complete and the Cubans downed their tools and left. The various contraptions: the trucks, cranes, jigs, and earth-movers still remain: mementos and reminders of the school’s most unlikely origin. Their rusting steel frames are makeshift climbing-frames for the teacher’s kids, and perches for domestic fowl.
Steve’s flat occupied the furthest corner of the ground floor of the second tenement block: his quarters were rudimentary but more than adequately spacious. The front room was the largest, and Steve used one end as his main living space and the other for food preparation. There were also two bedrooms, the toilet-cum-shower room, and a small kitchen with the electric stove that Steve never actually used and with electricity only supplied for a few hours during the evenings it was a rather impractical item. Beyond the kitchen there was a small outdoor cubby-hole fitted with a basin for washing clothes and with corrugations in its concrete surround serving as a washboard. On my inaugural tour with Steve, the paler of his two geckos was resting on the wall above the basin. As we approached it had skipped up the wall and escaped inside through the rudimentary ventilation panel above the shower. There were many ways to creep inside Steve’s little flat. At the front of the block, the entrance door brought visitors directly into the front room. Inside, all natural illumination was provided by one narrow window strip over the doorway, and though for extra light and air, Steve would regularly swing open the pair of double-doors on the opposite side, on entering the flat, the immediate impression was invariably gloomy. There was another space outside through the double-doors: a platform with a low balcony, criss-crossed by Steve’s washing line. An estate agent might have generously described it as a terrace.
Living in Kibiti it turned out was a lot like camping, since even to provide the basic essentials required our engagement in a daily round of domestic chores. Foremost of these was the interminable collection of water. Every drop had to be carried from a well that was about a hundred yards behind the flats; or if Steve was feeling a bit more energetic, from the UNICEF pump located on the farther side of the school. Our drinking water and any else we required for cooking then needed boiling, and any drawn from the well also had to be filtered: to maintain a constant supply of fresh water there was just a little planning involved. During term time, Steve employed a young woman to the fetch water that filled the large red storage tank, featuring so prominently in his living room, and ordinarily her trips alone were enough. But my arrival had quickly put an extra strain on the reserves, and after a few days of lugging buckets around, we decided to cut the workload by making conservation a paramount concern. The plan was simple, and it turned out, effective: we just recycled the dishwater, one of our main points of wastage, by using it to flush the toilet, which was the other.
When I was about eight or nine, I learned a remarkable fact about life. It followed from a simple school experiment that required the dehydration of cabbage leaves, baking them over sand until they were almost as sharp as glass, and weighing the solids before and after. Subtracting the difference, we proved, the teacher explained, that cabbages are very watery indeed (ninety nine percent or something). This was strange, but what I soon discovered was odder still, and also rather disturbing. In spite of feeling so solid it transpired that, like plants, we are mostly water too. Humans, in fact, I read later, are more or less seventy-percent water; and there was an illustration (on the facing page) showing a model of a man, transparent and hollow, filled to his armpits with inky, blue water.
That we could be reduced to ash, like the cabbage, was a shocking childhood discovery. Perhaps it sowed the seeds that sprouted into a youthful fascination with watery things in general; and for a period I was something of a hydromaniac. I stared for hours, almost unblinking, observing the insect larvae that wriggled up from the mysterious depths of the garden pond. I found another book, which described the construction and maintenance of a tropic marine aquarium, digested it thoroughly, and dreamed of owning an octopus. And there were other unfeasible plans. I imagined, for instance, constructing a fully plumbed model town, fashioning the network of pipes from drinking straws; and I was probably the only kid who excitedly looked forward to the school visit we made to a local sewage plant (though I took care to avoid seeming overly enthusiastic).
Living in a climatically temperate and technologically sophisticated country had allowed me to forget this vital link. Where toilet bowls and taps are commonplace, it’s easy to take for granted the cool (or hot!) fresh water that flows perpetually from those domestic cornucopia… water, water, everywhere, or so it comes to seem. But here in Kibiti, whenever the level dropped in the main storage tank, the laborious task of refilling immediately became the most pressing issue, since only then could we get back to ordinary matters of eating, drinking and washing. My blasé attitude quickly readjusted: water is soon precious again.
For showering Steve used a bucket he had got well accustomed to the asceticism of life in rural Tanzania and for washing any other things (dishes, clothes, carrots, etc) there was a choice of bowls. But using a bucket to take a shower is a fiddly and unsatisfactory experience and Steve told me that, though he never used it, he also had a “solar shower” it was one of the very few luxuries he’d brought from home. The “solar shower” turned out to be a lot less complex than it sounded. There were two basic parts: a tough, black plastic bag, which had a transparent window to let the light in; and attached to this, by a short length of plastic hose, there was a showerhead with a simple tap-valve. It was such an uncomplicated system that no instructions were needed (though I seem to recall that some were supplied) and it offered the delightful possibility of washing in a steady stream of warm water. Keen to give it a go, I filled the bag with well-water, taking care of course, to spill as little as possible. Then I balanced it on the low balcony of Steve’s terrace in the hope that it would soak up plenty of the abundant infrared rays.
A few hours later, when I came to retrieve it, it had gone. I guessed that it must have just toppled over, but peering over the balcony, I saw a group of small children standing around. They were poking something with a stick, and if I hadn’t suspected, I might have thought that they were prodding at a dead animal; trying to make it move, then jumping back again when they thought it might. They were so absorbed in this game that they didn’t catch me spying down on their heads. Eventually I coughed for attention and asked, in broken snatches of English, if I might have the thing back. It was still intact and the water was warm enough for a delicious shower. The children ran off to chase the ducks.
10. Despite the extra chores there was plenty of free time in Kibiti, and getting up early made for long and lazy afternoons. Steve had asked again if I’d like to take one of his classes, to give a guest lecture. The idea of teaching some astronomy, remained for a time, an exciting possibility.
Maybe we could do the class at night under the stars? Yes, that’s possible, Steve told me, the students are keen to learn and they study in the evenings already. So when I wasn’t reading The Faber Book of Utopias, or Steve’s copy of The Tao of Physics; or perusing the very good textbook that Steve had acquired and a far better book than the one I was using for my classes in Doncaster; or chatting with Mr Msungu; or looking through Steve’s mail-order copies of The Guardian (including re-reading the article about diseases borne by mosquitoes); then very often during those easy afternoons, I was thinking up a scheme for this lesson.
In truth it was something I had been planning for a long time. An hour maybe (though ten minutes would be fine, Steve assured me) talking about comets. You can talk about anything you like, Steve insisted, the students won’t mind whatever you choose. No, it had to be about comets, I decided, and in a notebook that Steve provided, I used the central double-fold page to draw out a rough diagram that showed the orbits of the inner planets. Mercury, Venus, Mars… out to Jupiter, and on top of these, the intersecting orbit of Halley’s Comet. Then I stopped and changed my mind. Perhaps it might be better to introduce myself first, I wondered, and start the lesson with a map of Britain.
Steve had already shown me around the school, as part of my inaugural tour, so I’d seen the dreary, undecorated classrooms, with the rows upon rows of desks. Often as not, the blackboards were built directly into the fabric of the walls: raised patches, black and rectangular, like the negative impression of a window, and, aside from the desks, the only features that might have identified the room’s educational function.
As our visit continued, we passed from classroom to classroom, wherein groups were sat together, quietly studying. When Steve knew the faces that looked up from their books, he introduced me, and always then the students politely said hello. Some of the older ones wanted to know more, and asked where I came from, and if I was also a teacher, and then whether I was coming to teach them. There was a general inquisitiveness, a readiness to know, and this was now as apparent from the frank scrutiny I was receiving, as it had been from the prior scrutiny of their books. Certainly they weren’t asking questions to impress Steve, like so many students on a school visit; no, they genuinely wanted to hear my answers, and it was a little startling to be suddenly in the spotlight. The students work here most days, Steve explained, as we turned to leave another dismal room, and as meanwhile the students returned to their books; regardless of whether there are formal classes or not, they regularly finish when the lights go off at ten.
I thought back to my PGCE. As a student teacher I had been required to know about plenty of fashionable nonsense taken from the current vogue in management theory. Most notably and annoyingly, there was an entire module of the course set aside for what was called “evaluation”, when we were taught about procedures for quality assurance. There was BS-something-or-other, for instance, which later became ISO-thingumajib. An industrial system, devised to ensure consistency in production-line manufacture, could, we were told by our tutor, be usefully applied “to evaluate learning provision”.
Here was the sausage-factory ethos of quality control, but there was also a soft liberal element to the new pedagogy: a light yellow yoke at the centre of the hard-boiled corporatism, and this was the notion of student-centred education. In the new language a teacher becomes “the facilitator to learning”, and her job is the stimulation and encouragement of the student-clients. Gradgrind is out, thank god, but into his shoes, drops Mary Poppins, and as she invites everyone to jump into the beautiful land of Dick Van Dyke’s chalk drawing, we must concentrate hard by repeating the new mantra… “motivation, motivation, motivation”.
I imagined that, as with other things in Tanzania, education might be an altogether more down-to-earth concern, and certainly unclouded by such bizarre froth as quality assurance. That sort of thing is creeping in, Steve assured me as we had continued our exploration, but the difference is that here at least the students are keen. I looked around another classroom; here certainly were the most devoted students one could imagine. At weekends and during the holidays, they are required to clean the school, Steve informed me as we reached the dining area. When I had looked surprised by this, he asked how else the work could be done. There simply isn’t money to pay for cleaners! On top of all of this: the grim reality of those dim and dour classrooms, lacking any colour or comfort, and the miserable conditions of their shared accommodation (which I didn’t see but only heard about); there was also the daily tedium of ugari: a thick paste of ground-up maize and beans, which was the only regular dish the school kitchen served up. I wondered how the students maintained their enthusiasm: the answer came piecemeal.
Mr Msungu had finished school when he was about twelve. Steve’s carpenter had undoubtedly left school at the same age, and this was all quite normal in Tanzania. Those like Edwin one of Steve’s friends I met later who had progressed through secondary school were quite simply the educational elite; since for the majority education after the age of eleven or twelve was a privilege their families would never afford. So lucky indeed were the ones attending a school like the one at Kibiti. Once here, achievement is all but guaranteed to get these sons and daughters into government, into industry, or perhaps even into education since teaching remains, for quite obvious reasons, one of the most highly respected professions in a country as poor as Tanzania. And the luckiest of those very lucky few may eventually seize a chance to emigrate. For the others, the overwhelming majority, there are no safety nets, excepting the benevolence of friends and family, and in a country that is primarily an agricultural producer, the greatest number must necessarily support themselves by more muscular means: farming or hawking their produce and generally both. And it is at this manual level where competition is fiercest, and where for simple economic reasons the wages are so terribly low. But what I have described is a meritocracy of a sort, and of that sort it is a meritocracy writ large. So it is perhaps quite easy to understand the students’ eagerness, but still that is only half the tale less than that.
11. At the weekend we decided to walk to the lake. It was Saturday and the women (there were no men as far as I could tell) were busying themselves with the weekly wash.
Around the school grounds, their bright and colourful fabrics, laid out flat on the grass or swaying on the lines strung between the twin grey apartment blocks, brought some much needed relief to my eyes. We followed Steve Thorn, who was reasonably sure of the route, and made a way along the footpaths, between the school
plantation and behind the many shambas. Now and then, he drew our attention to occasional points of interest: the odd bird that he happened to know the name for, and the notches cut into the trunks of the palms, which the farmers use to reach the coconuts.
Here and there, along the track itself, we encountered the local army ants. Both Steve’s had stories to tell about their encounters with the siafu. Awoken by a biting stream that, to their misfortune, had chosen the route for that night’s foray directly over the one or other’s bed. It was just one of the hazards of sleeping on a ground floor.
Here and there the ribbon was thick and dark like coagulating blood, the ants linking, legs hooking together, becoming a tunnel, living, pulsing and straining like a blood vessel about to burst. Others walked freely through, hidden and protected. So many tiny brains co-ordinating, and inevitably we make comparisons: they are the selfless, sisterly comrades of a workers’ collective; they are the foot-soldier slaves to an imperial leviathan. In this there is much anthropomorphic taste, and in any case, I always keep an eye out for the loafers.
A young woman joined us. She was carrying a blunt-looking sickle, and swung it happily as she skipped along, chatting away to Steve Thorn. Briefly she came to talk to Steve and I, but we couldn’t keep up with her rapid Swahili, and so she flashed a last smile, waved farewell with her sickle, and took another path.
I had been told that the lake was large and so, naturally enough, as we arrived at our destination, I was expecting to see the wide waters, and perhaps even a hippo or two. But instead, and after an hour or more in total, and perhaps fifteen minutes on the thinnest tracks, where I was constantly fretting that my next footstep might drop onto one of the snakes that were very probably lurking in the grass, we finally came to a small building and a few tall reeds.
To judge from the large bore pipe that jutted through one of the walls, bent like a knee and sank directly into the soil, the building may once have functioned as a pumping station. It looked disused. A narrow channel had been opened through the reed-bed, and a couple of dugout canoes were moored-up along a chink of shoreline, but this thin sliver of water gave only the vaguest hint of the main body of the lake beyond. A sudden voice from behind the pumping station asked if we’d like to take a trip in one of the canoes. Oh hell! If I could swim and wasn’t half the coward! Reluctantly I persuaded the others that given the rickety nature of the boats, with their narrow hulls and thin wooden skins, it would be sensible to turn for home again. I hated being so damned judicious all the time: worrying about this, being careful about that, none of it felt right here, and for a moment, as the boatman turned to leave, I felt my skin burn luminous white.
Steve Thorn pulled an orange from the rucksack and peeled it as we walked, and soon we came upon another small building. With a wide opening in one side, it might have served very well as a bus-shelter, if it hadn’t been for the location. Steve reasoned that it may be used by the fishermen, but I felt that this did little to explain its existence, and it was such an odd structure, made stranger by its isolation, that sufficiently intrigued we decided to take a closer look round.
Whatever its purpose, someone, or many, had decided that the whitewashed walls required some decoration, and using what was apparently a pencil, they had thus adorned them inside and out with a lavish covering of graffiti. It was the first I had seen since Manchester though possibly this is absence of memory rather than a lack of sub-Saharan graffiti per se and I found that there was much to appeal: dumb-line drawings of men and women, a chicken, a centipede perhaps, a stick-bicycle, and the cubic bubble of a car. In two places there were the regulation depictions of couples conjoined in unlikely union, though even here the partners had been drawn with the fullest generosity; and high up, close to the roof of the shelter, my favourite thing, a friendly-looking serpent, was shuffling its coils across some of the many words.
There were many more words, in fact, than pictures, and Steve Thorn told me that these conveyed just as little apparent meaning as the cartoon hieroglyphs that they abutted and balanced against. It’s all nonsense, he assured me, except for one thing maybe, and that’s probably about a teacher who used to be at the school.
12. After the fortnight of travelling I was looking forward to trying my hand at a bit of cooking again. Before the trip, I suppose I had envisaged African markets full of exotic fruit and vegetables: spiky, bulbous and brightly coloured; and all requiring special forms of preparation. Steve had set me right on this, pointing out that in most places the range of available ingredients is actually rather limited. Indeed to make up for this local deficiency, we had planned to purchase the extra things at Dar-es-Salaam, whilst en route to Kibiti, but it turned out that either the things we had in mind, such as mushrooms for instance, couldn’t be found on the shelves of the supermarket, or those that could be found, like cheese, couldn’t then be stored when we got back. So during my first days in Kibiti we would have to rely solely on the provision of the local stores (dukas) and, unless the local kids happened to catch one of the wild pigs (a local delicacy), this meant the choice of a small selection of vegetables or some dried fish. We could, of course, have acquired a fresh fish from Mr Msungu on that first morning, but unfortunately neither of us had the remotest idea what to do with one. So that left the vegetables: tomatoes and onions, a few potatoes, both ordinary and sweet varieties, and plenty of very small but violently hot chilli peppers. All these we chopped and fried together in different combinations (taking care to add just a soupcon of chilli), combining a few spices (one of Steve’s other home luxuries) to provide a little seasoning, and a glob of Steve’s ever-versatile polyunsaturated spread. On the adjacent stove we then slow-boiled a pan of rice, having first carefully sifted for small stones. But it wasn’t long before our inventiveness was being stretched to the limit, and so to seek out novel ingredients, we decided to take a trip to the neighbouring market town of Ikwiriri.
I should explain that the actual location of the school at Kibiti is really about two miles from the town proper, on the edge of another small settlement called Kinmyanya. Without the school Kinmyanya very certainly wouldn’t exist, and when I asked Steve for the spelling, he told me that he wasn’t entirely sure, since he couldn’t remember seeing it written down.
The road to Kibiti, though rough and pot-holed, is metalled, and good by Tanzanian standards. From Kinmyanya, it rises steadily for half the way, then descends about the same distance into the town, and throughout the days, it was busy with people sallying back and forth. On either side, the shambas, which run with hardly a break from place to place, were planted with coconut palms, bananas, paw-paw, and the other crops of beans and maize. Orange trees, which were then in season, were laden with so much fruit they reminded me of Christmas trees.
The vast majority of travellers made their way along the road on foot; a few pushed bicycles, but no one drove a car, and there was much democracy in this, since between pedestrians there can be a sort of comradeship, which motorists, isolated within their glass tanks, have inevitably lost. Often those we passed would nod politely and say hello, or on occasions extend a hand to exchange a lingering African-style handshake, and almost as various as the local greetings were the local butterflies, so huge and splendid in the sunlight. It is a shameful admission then that I soon found these excursions to and from Kibiti to be burdensome affairs, the greetings and the friendly enquiries to be altogether overbearing, and that I soon began to miss the anonymity of the downward gaze of home.
When, occasionally, a bus or a lorry roared past, swerving now and again to dodge the larger pot-holes, and billowing up a cloud of dust which settled quickly on the roadside vegetation, adding yet another coat of salmon pink, it was best to keep out of the way. In Tanzania rights of way operate in reverse. That is, precedence is given to the largest vehicles first; bicycles next; then last of all pedestrians. It all comes down to who can make the most convincing threat: loud horns are obviously best (these scream “get out of the way or you’ll be flattened” and they quite possibly mean it), but bells on bicycles also do the trick. Thankfully traffic was typically light, and much of the time, we were free to wander wherever we chose.
On my first trip to Kibiti we accepted a lift. The two young cyclists, who were obviously accustomed to taking passengers, negotiated all the bumps and holes with an increasingly reassuring skill, and holding tight, I tried not to think too much about the details of my holiday insurance policy. At the end of the ride I asked Steve if they were friends. No, I don’t know them and they declined the money I offered, he told me.
Ikwiriri is the next large settlement beyond Kibiti but too far to walk. We could have walked to Kibiti and taken a bus from there but were fortunate enough to reach the road in good time to catch a connecting dalla-dalla a type of small minibus. In Britain such a vehicle would have strictly restricted carriage, ten passengers at the very maximum, and more than this number would certainly invalidate the insurance cover. Whether or not in principle such rules applied, it was hard to say, in practice however, the modus operandi for most forms of public transport was straightforward and uncomplicated. For Tanzanian bus operators, time is not money, and so naturally enough, departure times are extremely flexible; instead, and if there is any maxim here it is that “space is money”, which means that successful business depends on the vehicles being full to the brim.
The conductor slid the door wide and we squeezed inside the ledge. The journey resumed with the door still open. Half a kilometre or more passed before we could rearrange ourselves for the door to close. Sensing the ground spinning behind me, I clutched tightly the wobbly plastic vanes of a ventilation grille, but I could only just get a hold with my fingertips. At the same time, I consciously avoided the feet of the other passengers, and balanced on tiptoe between them. The strain was intense and my bones ached in a way I have rarely experienced.
Looking down for a moment I saw that I was leaning over a mother and her young son. The boy craned his neck back to get a look at my unfamiliar countenance, made the more peculiar, I imagine, as I had clenched my teeth and was trying desperately to swallow the burgeoning discomfort. The sign above the slender bars of my finger-hold provided a brief distraction. GOD IS GREAT, it proclaimed in defiant capitals. To the right, another sign, of similar shape and design, demanded NO SMOKING!
Approaching the top of the dividing ridge between the school and Kibiti proper, the dalla-dalla stopped again to drop someone off. As we rearranged ourselves, the conductor took pity on me, and offered the empty seat. “How do you like African transport?” he asked, and before any smile had re-formed, he turned again to collect fares from the other passengers.
As we reached Kibiti we passed the wreckage of a lorry. The cab had been badly crushed and very likely the driver had been very seriously injured or killed. It had happened recently, within the last few days, because the wreckage was fresh, but accidents are common enough and we hadn’t heard any news.
At Kibiti we transferred to a larger bus, and sat on the back seat there was a bit of room at last. New passengers arrived and filled the empty places. Most climbed aboard the usual way, but one young man simply chucked his bag through an open window and clambered after it. No one paid him any great attention. From Kibiti to Ikwiriri the road is rough but reasonable, whereas beyond Ikwiriri, I’d been told that it was close to impassable. Taking advantage of these favourable conditions we travelled quickly. The bus hurtled and bumped along and the trees on the roadside became a blur. Sixty, seventy, eighty miles per hour, that’s how fast we seemed to go, and bouncing this way, swerving that, and the sudden dust-storm as we crazily dodged a bus doing sixty, seventy, eighty the other way. The drivers in Tanzania must be remarkably skilled to get around, to survive the roads; and the vehicles, it’s incredible that they don’t breakdown more often though I gathered that they breakdown often enough. These journeys pushed the battered things right to the limit of their envelopes, so that taking a bus ride was often, and in equal measures, exhilarating and alarming.
We arrived at Ikwiriri around noon and our shadows stayed close under our feet. I had grown accustomed to dusty streets and ramshackle shops and houses, but Ikwiriri was somehow different. The bus had stopped outside the local branch of the bank, a tidy but modest building, and from there the small businesses extended on and on, apparently without end. The row of shops, cafes, blacksmiths, butchers, and even a small guest house, were threaded along the single electricity power-line, and the poles that carried the wire to Ikwiriri, but no further, shrank, like the rest of the town, to a dot on the southern horizon. Tailors were sat outside in the sun peddling large treadle-wheel Singer sewing machines: machines that I had thought obsolete for forty or more years. But general dilapidation was normal, and it wasn’t this that made the place feel so strange. No, the difference here was to do with scale. Ikwiriri was alike in every respect except for that it had grown large; and as with creatures that suffer from giantism, disproportionately so. Like a plant that grew too fast to find the light, or the roots of another that are forced flat when a seed settled between the strata of rocks, it had been forced to follow a line and stretch out one-dimensionally. In the blazing heat, the sun high over our heads, I had the uncanny feeling we had entered a frontier town.
The market was across the road from the bank, and after some searching, we managed to track down a few exciting new ingredients: carrots, a root of ginger, a (rather drawn) bulb of garlic, and even some peas. The carrots turned out to be a bit soft in the middle, though they rinsed out well enough. Then hungry with the thought of food, we picked out one of the cafes and found a table in the shade. As we waited for service I spotted another piece of graffiti. A thin white line of chalk arcing upwards, a misshapen tick perhaps, except that beneath, and to make the matter unequivocal, there was the brand name, Nike. It was a sight that faintly jolted me. Here, juxtaposed by the higgledy-piggledy deterioration of Ikwiriri, this free advertisement for an expensive brand of footwear in a town where most of the youngest residents are barefoot. Someone had chalked it there, but why? And though, scratched on any wall back home, I probably wouldn’t have blinked, this scribble carried a greater significance, and amidst the degradation, the ubiquitous poverty, it looked for all the world like it had been inscribed as a charm; as a new fetish to replace the older, worn-out ones: evidence that the irresistible cargo cult of globalisation was quickly expanding south. I ordered a plate of goat and chips and a bottle of ginger beer, manufactured, I was sad to discover, by the Coca-Cola Corporation. The meat was chewy and the meal was expensive and no doubt they saw us coming.
We sat on a bus and waited for it to fill. Across the street two market-sellers had drawn a crowd of punters who were looking for cheap shirts and dresses, and amidst the general bustle of customers and traders there was one man who stood out. His clothes were unusual, not the typical trousers and top, nor a football shirt; he was smarter and stranger still for sporting dark sunshades. On top of this, he was quite uncommonly portly. Something about him, both attracted my attention, and also caused me want to look away, anxious to avoid the attention of his secret eyes. If I were a policeman I might have suspected that he was loitering with intent, as every now and then he walked across to one of the stalls. Certainly he was looking for something. Finally he grabbed one retailer by the throat, a man who rather than putting up a fight, cowered submissively. After a second eyeball to eyeball confrontation, the fat aggressor pushed the scrawny adversary aside and walked away.
We sat and waited for an hour… an hour and a half… without a watch who could tell? In any case, the tape of (most-probably Congolese) pop-music had wound round at least twice before we departed. Whenever a new passenger arrived and took a seat, the street-vendors ambled over to the bus with their various wares. Meanwhile, the goats scavenged for morsels of food discarded amongst the plastic bags and other roadside garbage, and I thought about lunch again.
A mantis was hanging from the open window. It looked more beautiful joined in contemplation by its own reflection. I watched closely, poised in case, as I expected, it would be dislodged by the sudden motion of our departure, and being the mzungu-seeking bug I suspected, and following a lead taken by many other weird African invertebrates, drop effortlessly into my unprepared lap. In fact within hours of first arriving at Dar-es-Salaam a particularly large insect (presumably) had added to the discomfort already caused by its descent from the clear blue sky, with frenzied running around and round my crotch. As though driven by a bolt of electricity, I had stood abruptly up, whereupon it landed solidly on the ground between my feet and ran away.
But, as we finally began the journey home, and the bus lurched out onto the road, the mantis did not budge, and was seemingly unaware that the ground had shifted. It must be well adapted to its environment I thought; that or it’s grown accustomed to the rigours of Tanzanian buses.
After little more than a hundred yards we had stopped again. The bus had arrived at the local petrol station.
13. When I first met Edwin, who had become the closest of Steve’s friends, it was on a walk back from Kibiti. We had visited the post office in order for Steve to make a phone call, then afterwards, had eaten chipsi mayai (literally chips in omelette) at one of the bars. Edwin was cycling home with his wife and they stopped briefly to say hello.
A couple of days later, we met again at the flat, and curiously I entered into a conversation about geography, or more precisely O-level geography; and it was amazing to discover the extent to which our schooling in the subject, given that we lived half a world apart, had run along parallel lines. We knew the same discontinuous facts, about, for instance, the German industrial heartland in The Ruhr, the mineral deposits at Karuna in Northern Sweden, and even the natural advantages of the deep harbour port in Rotterdam; and though where I had studied rubber production in South East Asia, Edwin had been taught about cereal production on the plains of North America; the occidental accent was unmistakable. I asked Edwin what he did. Perhaps he was a geography teacher. No, he told me, I teach chemistry and physics.
Soon Edwin and I were getting along well might O-level geography be the perfect ice-breaker and he seemed more cosmopolitan than other teachers I had met at the school. I wondered if he was from Dar-es-Salaam. No, he told me, though he added that at one time he had lived in the capital but that he didn’t enjoy the life there. “People cheat on one another, and you can’t trust strangers.” So I guessed again… Dodoma? (Dodoma, which is very centrally located, is a sort of official capital in Tanzania.) Edwin shook his head again, it was not his home though he had lived there too for a short time. I was fast running out of options. Do you give in, he asked, after I had made another unsuccessful stab with Arusha. Okay, I conceded. Mtwara, he said proudly, and he stood up to find it on Steve’s wall-map.
A gecko, not the pale one that might have been albino if it hadn’t had such black pin-prick eyes, but the darker companion, and which throughout our discussion had remained quite as motionless as the wall, ran for cover behind the map. Edwin ignored this seismic disturbance, and the bulge in the central Tanzanian plateau as it was forced higher still, and pointed to a place-name close to the border with Mozambique.
I showed Edwin the notebook I was keeping. It contained details of this and that: the half-remembrances of notable events, with the odd quote, and fragments of reconstructed dialogue waiting to be filled out, like the blank spaces in a colouring book. On other pages, following like milestones that once marked a route, were the lists of words that had cropped up during my conversations with Mr Msungu.
“Mtwara you should write here”, then Edwin pointed to the end of the page where my notes had reached, “that this is the home of Edwin Paul Munga”
On the adjacent page, I obliged Edwin’s curiosity regarding my own origins with a rough-hewn map of Britain; the boundaries of Wales and Scotland, approximated by dashed vertical and horizontal lines respectively. Within the space that remained I estimated the location of the centre of gravity of England, and there marked Sheffield with a small ‘x’.
“Does England have mountains?” Edwin asked
“Yes, sort of… “, I paused to think, “but the biggest mountains are here” I concluded adding a casual swirl beneath the angular hood of Scotland and with some quick mental arithmetic explained that, “the biggest is about 1500m high.” Edwin repeated the number. “Do you know Kilimanjaro?” he asked.
We returned to the embryonic map. Edwin was keen to discover the whereabouts of the few places he had heard about, and our first stop, inevitably, was Manchester. What geography lessons have achieved in raising the profile of places like Karuna and Broken Hill, making the ordinary seem exceptional, so football, by engraving its name in the imaginations of millions, has recreated Manchester as the alternative capital of England; and just as the local knowledge of England very often began at Old Trafford, it generally stopped at Anfield. In any case, I already knew from letters and what Steve had also told me that football for Edwin was more than a passing interest. They had played together in the annual staff v. student game, with lessons cancelled and the whole village out to watch. Steve had played out on the wing, but at the hub of the team was Edwin, with energy and the guile of a semi-professional past.
I passed Edwin the notebook as he intended to draw a map of Tanzania, to compliment my chunky one of Britain, which had by now more than fulfilled its purpose, and was quite filled in: loose hatching showed the main areas of upland relief, and the spot locations of football teams and major centres of population marked with either a dot or cross.
Who do you support? Arsenal, he told me, and so I put London on the map, though I labelled it Arsenal, and then seeing the need for completeness, tagged Tottenham and Chelsea underneath. What about the teams in Tanzania, I inquired, don’t you like any of those? I was bursting to ask about his experience as a player, and as he told me about Simba (Lion) who are “the best team in Tanzania” and also the team he prefers, and Yanga (Young Africa Sports Club) their closest rivals, I decided to broach the issue. Only at a very low level, he insisted, but then I got injured. With a little more persuasion, it became clear that Edwin was being characteristically modest about his achievements and that once he had played a game at the Karume Memorial Stadium the national football stadium.
The gecko was still evident behind the wall-map: its bump hadn’t moved.
Edwin made a careful copy of the map. Then, when it was almost complete he added a final mark: a five-pointed star close to the Southern border. It was to pin his beloved Mtwara. I felt obliged to ask the obvious question: “Have you ever been to Mozambique?” “No”, he replied. I was learning to forget to be surprised.
14. During my short stay with Steve, I spent the greatest part sat in one of the three red easy chairs in the living room, talking, reading, or listening to the solar-recharged battery-powered CD player; though music was something that Steve usually reserved till later, to pass what he called “the dark hour”: the hour between sunset and the school generator kicking back on at seven-thirty. The walls were like the walls of all the rooms, magnolia, and plain but for the occasional poster or map, and for the photographs and postcards tacked up behind the stoves. The largest of all Steve’s posters depicted a huge wave breaking spectacularly over a rocky shoreline. The attached caption read take a walk on the wild side, and every now and then during our conversations, looking up from my chair, either the photograph itself or the caption beneath would catch my eye.
As the sun was setting, the wave’s white crest steadily melted into the dusk, and finally disappeared like so much foam. And then Edwin’s voice became increasingly disembodied, his dark features also fading into the gloom; and so with our shadows long, we pulled the chairs outside and sat under Steve’s washing lines. Martins flew high above the trees and the balconies, and low to the ground negotiating a route between the chickens and the ducks, others dipping lower still, chasing in and around the hollows where the rubbish was burnt. Their dark streaks were uncountable. One headed directly toward our terrace, then dived adroitly and disappeared beneath, flying unseen under our feet and between the squat concrete legs of the tenement.
The moon was as sharp as the incision of a scalpel, white like flecked bone: two horns balanced in perfect horizontal equipoise. Steve’s kerosene lamp was lit too, and through the sooty glass, a hot yellow arc was pale imitation of the moon’s fine sickle.
“Does it usually look like that?” I said to Edwin, though I knew it was a stupid kind of question and rightly Edwin looked puzzled. “ Is it always that way up?” I continued, pointing hopelessly at the moon, but Edwin didn’t answer.
“I suppose it must be”, I finally concluded, answering my own question.
We sat in silence. Then Edwin gently lifted the sleeve of my tee-shirt. “The people see this…” he said, pressing his dark index finger to my pale skin, “and they see money.”
He looked at me plaintively as I uncomfortably shifted a little on my chair. His remark was more than a well-intentioned warning to be on my guard, it was an apology and now Edwin was looking directly back at me, his eyes wide and shining and hopeful. We needed a solution, a way to tear up the past and reconcile the differences that hold our worlds apart, and there was a terrible silence as we struggled to find words. “They see the mzungu” I proffered finally, as way of closing the matter. Edwin quietly nodded.
15. The martins had settled. It must have happened when we were distracted though the tranquillity that followed was as refreshing as the passage of summer shower. The reappearance was abrupt, and in formation; breaking into flight from off the rooftops and out from the ledges like the eruption of a most serene firework. A burst of sparks, wide and flat, lapping three or four times around the buildings, then vanishing into the deep mauve. When Edwin went home to his family, Steve and I had passed the time listening to one of Schubert’s string quartets (which perfectly fitted the mood for the dark hour); and then a little later we ventured across to the local bar.
Following the path that cut through the school grounds, the piles of rusting steel moulds and partially disassembled cranes which loomed in the half-shadows were occasionally rendered solid by the wandering beam of the torch, but as we reached the road, the torch failed, and Steve drew my attention to the two clearly delineated shadows that dragged behind us. “You’d hardly think there’s enough light,” he said, pointing ahead again to the moon’s bright smile.
The evening air was lush, simmering with the rhythms of myriad insects, frogs, and god knows what besides, itching and aching in the dark of the trees and scratching a living under bushes. Here where all space is curved, where all edges are fractured or bent and every surface is bowed and dimpled, where the rectilinear exists only in theory: with no poles, no railings, to guide the vertical and horizontal, no paving slabs or kerbs, no white stitching down the middle of the street, and in the sky not even a feathery trace of a vapour trail; and certainly nothing to recall the angular impressions of chimney-tops and the shadows, which on moonlit nights in Sheffield cut through the silvery rooftops like the sheer flanks of a pit-shaft. There was an occasion when a friend, now lost, was walking home, and we were talking of nothing. She stopped me. The moon is very eerie, she said, and I don’t like the shadows, they are ghostly, and she shuddered theatrically for emphasis and then tugged my hand to lead me home. The moment passed, vanishing like an echo. But the echo found me listening again in this other place a thousand miles away.
I looked up at the sky. It was as black as a vacuum, an abyssal darkness pricked in a thousand places, so that it was likewise brimming with light. Yet other than the ubiquitous, thin streak of the Milky Way, all was unrecognisable, and so peering into the sky produced that same giddy sensation which also meets the face of a long-absent friend until, soon, we have readjusted our memory to make their features, so transfigured by an age of separation, familiar once more. I remembered that Steve had begun to distinguish his pattern of four stars arranged like the points of a kite, but he had lived in Tanzanian long enough to take stewardship of those few. If I ever decided to live this far South or further from home, I’d probably corral a few of my own, just until I could get my bearings again, but at this moment I delighted in the resolution of their absolute independence.
We slipped past the few dukas and arrived at the bar. The others were settled already, occupying the regular spot near the gate and just as usual they invited us to join them. Mr Komba offered me a drink. Sat out under the starlight it was too dark to recognise him, but actually we’d spoken a few nights earlier. He had bought me a drink then too and so I had missed the chance to return the compliment.
Mr Komba called the waitress across and whispered some words into her ear. Across the courtyard the telly was on and flickering colourfully. Steve told me that the owner of the bar who was something of an all-round local entrepreneur and also supplied the community with basic grocers at the main duka in the settlement had only installed it a matter of months before. It was the biggest attraction in Kinmyanya.
The kids had filled the couple of rows of benches and were attentively watching commercials. Just in front, their parents and the other elders sat in the line of chairs, shushing whenever the kids’ excited chattering grew too distracting. There was also the background chugging of the generator to contend with, noisily providing power for the TV and a few lights. To compensate, the telly was turned right up, and the speaker, though operating outside its optimal range, and consequently distorting to the extent that the occasional English speaker sounded just as foreign as the rest, was at least then powerful enough for the wobbly, croaking voices of the talking heads to reach all sides of the yard.
Habari. The News. That was the main feature of each evening’s viewing, interspersed with frequent ads for Guinness and the makers of a brand of toothpaste called Whitedent, and what seemed to be a disproportionate number for proprietary painkillers. People take them for malaria, Steve explained. Having suffered two bouts of malaria, he was uncomfortably acquainted with the symptoms: fever, delirium, headaches, the most terrible headaches; and everyone without exception gets malaria, he explained: it’s as common as flu.
The waitress returned with our beers and Mr Komba’s change on a tray. She was young and slight and served us with the deference of a maidservant charging the glass of his lordship. Her head bowed in attendance, her voice had become as slender as her tiny arms; it was the softest murmur. Though mostly she kept silent, timidly collecting any money, opening fresh bottles, returning change, then slipping back to the dim solitude of her watching post. If eyes did briefly meet, she quickly glanced away. She earned the equivalent of about five pounds a month. No one tips.
The available beers were all African brands, with names evoking strength, power and the exotic Safari, Kilimanjaro and Ndovu (elephant) are the ones I can remember. (The one I had chosen was an award-winner at the Burton-upon-Trent festival.) Each cost the equivalent of about fifty pence, a substantial sum of money, and I thanked Mr Komba again for his generosity.
It puzzled me that the local people could afford these prices. They can’t, Steve Thorn explained, this is the teacher’s bar, which made it crystal clear why we never encountered Steve’s carpenter or Mr Msungu. There is another place. Steve Thorn had picked up on my liminal musings, and indicated in a direction away from the road. I followed the line of his finger. It went beyond the shambas into the dark, and pushing through the dense undergrowth, without light and only a tactile memory, I came to a clearing, and a gathering of men no women apportioning draughts of firewater, sharing in the arcane communion of the kilibu… Why, I enquired tentatively, weren’t we there instead? You don’t get involved with that, Steve Thorn assured me, that is a very slippery slope.
Every evening when the news ended the pattern was the same. The adults left and the kids moved forward to occupy the better seats. And as every night they came and waited with growing anticipation as the news dragged on and on, until at last, what they’d waited to see an inferior martial arts movie. With the fussing adults finally out of the way, they were free to shout at the baddies and giggle themselves senseless whenever the action became particularly outlandish.
These weren’t the only ones watching, this was a television after all, and the lure of its soft phosphorescent glow was as irresistible as that of any television in any other place in the world, regardless of the quality or otherwise of the broadcast. So when we did occasionally glance a look to one another, and someone ventured a circumspect conversational gambit, those other louder, and entirely disembodied voices, quickly absorbed all but the briefest exchanges between us. One group alone could summon the necessary willpower to look another way and they were the regular group of draughts players.
The de facto leader of this breakaway resistance movement was the chemistry teacher Mr Mwambeni. I had actually met Mr Mwambeni a few days earlier when he had unexpectedly called in at the flat to tell me that the girl at the post office had given me the wrong amount of change for some stamps. I would need to go back and pay her the difference, he told me. This was all very strange given that the post office was over half an hours walk away and feeling a bit put-out, I challenged Mr Mwambeni, telling him that if I had only paid such and such then how come I still only had this much left in my pocket. That’s right, he said, seeing the change in my hand and immediately correcting my miscalculation.
Leaning over the table and then back into his chair with his hands folded behind his head, he reminded me of my old sixth form chemistry teacher. His smile was intelligent and perhaps a just bit cocky, but there was something very likeable in this, and though the others round the table obviously wanted to beat him, it was perfectly easy to imagine that they would have preferred to have been him.
The counters in their game were old bottle tops, and to judge from the hair-straightening squeals, their serrated edges must have been sliding across a something very like a sheet of glass. Steve Thorn laughed when I posed the question. It was once a window that fell out of a passing bus, he told me: apparently the chequered pattern had been painted onto the back of it. I stood up and edged forward, careful to avoid getting in the way of the martial arts movie, then crossed the courtyard to find the toilet.
Inside the light was a great help as I aimed at the centre of the letterbox hole in the ground, trying not to stumble against the concrete footrests moulded either side: the stench of ammonia was stark evidence that plenty before had tried and failed. Flies little bigger than dust motes floated between the worlds above and below, and hanging by a fully extended leg, poised high above the door, and quite as still as the miasmic air, a pale spider waited with the greatest patience. I lifted the latch, careful not to disturb it.
Before we left and as a final farewell to Mr Komba and Mr Mwambeni (top of the photograph, stretched out with his draughts-playing friends on the steps of our apartment block), who had come over to join us, I decided to order a few beers (and it was very definitely my round).
The waitress returned humbly with her tray full of bottles and a little pile of coins. I waived the change it amounted to little more than ten pence and she thanked me so very quietly that I was sorry I hadn’t offered more.
16. On our return Steve Thorn stopped me. Move over here, he instructed, but I could feel something already, something to make me scratch and twitch. Soon I was frantically brushing myself. It was the saifu, there at the end of the shaft of torchlight, in precisely the place I had been standing, thick broken lines, darker than the earth. As we turned to go, there was a burning like sulphuric acid: a sensation so acute that at first I dismissed it as heartburn. Then feeling through the cotton of my tee-shirt I located the offender, pinching hard on a nipple. Afterwards I wondered how it had been so discriminating in its choice of target, though probably it just attached itself to the first bit of landscape that protruded. I squeezed it tightly. It was robust, with the tough, rubbery flesh of a flea. Then carefully I rolled it along a crease in the fabric and out into the light. A large black ant, its legs were still kicking and my rough handling hadn’t caused any obvious injury.
“That’s a baby,” Steve Thorn informed me with a grin, “the adults have big jaws and don’t let go”. He seemed almost disappointed, and continuing enthusiastically, informed me that the adults were traditionally used for stitching wounds. Apparently you can break their heads off and their jaws still hold tight. But, of course, there is no such thing as a baby ant, I thought.
The following morning I said farewell to Steve and left Kibiti, travelling with Steve Thorn (who had made an appointment to have a tooth capped) back to Dar-es-Salaam. My flight home wasn’t for two days, but to ensure I wasn’t trapped by the unreliable bus service, Steve had recommended that I leave at least one day early. The proposed lecture about comets remained undone; I’d chickened out and taken the easy option of a full vacation with no work. But before I could bid a final farewell, there was one final event I happened to witness.
It was still early, before the start of the day’s lessons, and so I was surprised to see that a few of the pupils were already lined up outside the main block. The girls and boys together had formed an orderly queue, and as each in turn came to the head of this line, they were bid by the master to fall to the ground, ready to take the lashes of his cane over their prostrate backs. I watched as each received their punishment with silent dignity, accustomed as they plainly were to such everyday cruelties. We turned our backs, and all those replies to the question of when I would return, rang more hollow than ever.
We had timed our departure well again and a bus arrived within a few minutes. Naturally enough, it was full to bursting, but we managed to squeeze aboard and, since some of the passengers preferred to stand, we even managed to find a couple of empty seats. I balanced my rucksack across my thighs. It was nearly as full to bursting as the bus.
Along the way, we bought some bananas and boiled eggs from the passing traders, discarding the pieces of shell and peel on the passing roadside. This was the way here, so I was almost very unfortunate indeed. Stopping at one of the frequent checkpoints, and on the point of jettisoning one of the banana skins, I had the strangest feeling that I ought to take a peek beforehand, rather than simply casting it blindly to the wind as everyone else seemed to do, and as I had learnt to do also until that moment. A split-second later, in the midst of these occupying thoughts, one of the guards walked directly past the open window. He would have been directly in my line of fire, and the banana skin would very likely have slapped full in his face. I gave deep and sincere thanks to whatever divine force had arrested my attention with her timely caution, and avoided this most farcical of transgressions.
Thankfully we reached Dar-es-Salaam without any serious hitches. There was just one occasion when the driver must have steered into a larger hole and the effect of this had catapulted us a few inches into the air. Other than this, the journey, though bumpy and rattley (and this was Africa after all), had gone as smoothly as we could have hoped. There had been no mechanical failures and we’d travelled the eighty miles or so in about three hours.
As we came to the sprawling metropolitan suburbs of Dar-es-Salaam, the bus emptied itself with frequent stops, and I relieved my aching legs by putting the rucksack on an empty seat next the window. It came as wonderful relief though I feared that given the endurance of such prolonged pressure, deep vein thrombosis might yet set in at any time. Paused at one of these stops, I noticed the head of a man as it bobbed occasionally above the window. There was something odd about his movements and also his close proximity, and as the bus moved off again I watched out of the back window wondering why the man had made me so suspicious. As his figure began to shrink into the dust and
the distance I saw him hold up something small and white. It was my hat!
With astonishing audacity he had unzipped the top pouch of my rucksack, and slipped it out, while I was sat only inches away.
Almost as amazingly, after a quick but careful check, I found that the hat was the only
thing he had taken, and when I discovered this I laughed with the greatest sense of relief.
In any case there was also considerable irony attached to my loss. It had served me well that hat, and very likely it was the reason I hadn’t suffered a serious case of heat-stroke, head poking through the roof of the four-by-four, for our full day in the baking heat of the Serengeti. And yet, I had only purchased it out of duty. Soo had made it quite plain that travelling to Africa without a hat would be foolhardy even by my standards; and in fairness she had been quite correct. But now with those adventures behind, the hat would most likely have found a dusty hole, forgotten along with the other drawer-filling clutter, and never meeting the light of day again. Another passenger asked Steve Thorn why I was laughing. Because a man stole my hat, he tried to explain, but it was hardly surprising that the man simply shook his head with disbelief. The joke after all was on me.
We booked rooms at the YMCA, located in the heart of Dar-es-Salaam. Then in the evening we went out to find a bar. After Kibiti, all the buildings looked so much taller and grander than they had before, and as we sat drinking beers under a rather elegant apartment block, with electricity cables running across the street, and electric lights buzzing all around, it was easy to believe that we were somewhere very much further north.
A group of young men offered us drugs (“white powder” as they advertised it), and handshakes that held us on and on until we finally had to tear ourselves free, and still they wouldn’t let us alone; not until they had found another pair of Europeans to join their table with less resistance. Later at the bar some sort of scuffle ensued. Lots of shouting and language that was mostly beyond Steve Thorn’s translation. Most on that table left soon after, but one came over to sit with us. He was very much the worse for alcohol, but now polite and contrite for his earlier behaviour. And he wanted to talk about other things, like who we were and what we were doing here, and that Julius Nyerere was a fine man. Then after handshakes he left and careered unsteadily down the road.
The following day my last in Tanzania Steve Thorn wanted to pick up some new books, so we made a visit to the library of the British Council. Arriving too early, we passed the time sat at the table of a franchised burger bar across the street, where I read in one of the local papers about a recent outbreak of cholera. It had already killed several people in the city. Once inside, the British Council was luxuriant and familiar with the smells of carpet and books. I found a book of photographs and perused its contents: journalism juxtaposed with art, and the sublime against the ridiculous. Steve Thorn liked a still life of some fish poking through a crack in a road; another, with actors assuming the pose of dead combatants, filled him with disgust. Who would want to look at that, he asked me earnestly.
I decided to take a taxi to the airport. Taxis are easy to hail in Dar-es-Salaam, in fact if you are white, then just looking across the street is likely to summon one. Mine was typical, with large cracks running across the windscreen and a temperamental gearbox. And we hadn’t travelled far before the driver wanted some money. He had in fact pulled over at the first available filling station and evidently didn’t have any cash for petrol. Where are you flying, he asked when we were going again. “England”, I replied, offering him a swig of water which he politely declined. “London?” At that moment, a car drove past with a large red scarf stretched along the rear window, and amused by the perfect timing, I pointed to the black letters emblazoned across its red belly. “Manchester!” I said delightedly.
17. Customs at Manchester had decided to go a bit loopy and the sniffer dogs were straining on their leashes as we were ordered to pass by in single file. Reaching the green channel, I tried to look as nonchalant as possible, and though I really had nothing to declare, unconsciously perhaps I fancied being stopped and searched. Whatever the reason, as I approached the exit gate, trying to balance the downward gazes to the floor with those up toward the awaiting officers, I had the sense that I was about to do “something suspicious”. A moment later and my dread became confirmed by a voice behind: “HIM!” I could almost feel a finger stabbing into my back.
An officer checked my rucksack and quickly found the bag of old socks, and then soon after the bundle of wooden statues, bought in Zanzibar as presents and which, for additional protection, I had folded up in a jumper. As he unpicked the tape that held the bundle together, I enquired if it would be possible for customs to wrap them again afterwards, explaining to him that I hadn’t personally wrapped them up in the first place. He stopped abruptly. You didn’t wrap them? They had been wrapped by the shopkeeper, I replied. He was intrigued but I guessed (correctly as it transpired) that once he saw I had been telling the truth, and recognised that in fact I wasn’t trafficking anything more exciting than a few shells and a couple rocks (as requested by friends), he would let the whole matter rest. Another officer ran a small vacuum cleaner through the remaining items: an attempt to find any ‘traces’ he informed me. Finding nothing, I was allowed to leave through the exit.
Still dazed, I was horrified when moments later someone stopped me again. When Soo finally got my attention, I realised that George had come along for the ride too, and though he didn’t recognise me he was clearly excited by the experience of being in an airport; whereas I was only grateful to be leaving.
Our drive home was more than a convenience; it was fresh experience. The first thing to notice was the quality of the roads. So smooth! And I already had got well accustomed to vehicles though notionally on the left-hand side of a road, in reality veered from left to right to avoid the larger cavities and keep to the path of least resistance. Then there was the condition of the vehicles per se. Few if any of the vehicles I saw in Tanzania would have passed an MoT. There was always visible neglect. Steve Thorn had told me of one memorable journey, when periodically along the route, his bus had broken down, and the conductor had asked if passengers could supply certain coins. These were evidently used to fix something under the vehicle, or “inserted into cracks in the axles” as Steve Thorn had put it. So it was amazing to be travelling in such comfort and apparent safety after three weeks of cramped buses and dilapidated taxis. And the amazement increased as we reached the outskirts of Sheffield and began to see lawns and gardens and lines of colourful shops and tidy houses. Never had Sheffield looked more fabulous, and with such an all-over healthy glow. Boo-Boo the cat greeted us at the front door, her black coat shining. George’s blocks, geometrically simple and tonally pure, were scattered kaleidoscopically about the parkay floor. And one week in Kibiti had not only cleared my eyes (however temporarily), but had also stimulated my olfactory nerves. So, when the car door had clunked shut against the smooth roll of the plastic interior with the pot-pourri air-freshener still swaying, then that closed modern air had given way to the delicious fragrance of suburbia. But there was a puzzle here: Kibiti is a rather lush place, ripe with exotic plants baring names I never learnt, and though July is the middle of the dry season and it hadn’t rained for two months, the place was as green as green and, according to Steve, would remain so until the October rains. So what of the aromas in Kibiti, where had they gone? Had they been lost as vapour, or, conversely, with water so very precious, was it that the plants were so tightly sealed against any loss that no waft of juicy perfume could escape? Of course, this is pure speculation, and whose to say what was or wasn’t there in Africa, but overlooked; or even that this joy in the recollection of smells and colours, however sweet and vivid, wasn’t the perennial pleasure of arrival.
A newly published version of my travelogue “Arusha to Zanzibar” is now available in paperback.
Click on the link below if you would like a copy of the book, which is being sold on a non-profit basis at cost price.