Monthly Archives: December 2011

Nasty, desperate and dangerous

Open sewer in small-town Lushoto (25,000 inhabitants). Imagine this in a city of several million

An image is firmly rooted in my mind now, though I hadn’t dared to take my camera on the bajaj (motor-rickshaw) drive through Mikocheni and Mwenge neighbourhoods: there are loads of people on the streets, as always, watching the world go by, or carrying things, or selling something. Among them, one man is sitting, relaxing, feet propped up, and just below his feet passes an open drain, a channel of the city’s plastic and grime and shit and junk.

Maybe it’s because I’d had a break from the city, some clear air and fresh vegetation for a few days – but somehow seeing that today filled me with disgust. Continue reading

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“Beware the Mzungu”: Why children run away

“When I was a child, my parents told me: ‘Saïd, if you cry, if you do not help us in the fields, if you are naughty, the mzungu will come and take you away’”. Not only that, explained our guide, Saïd, but because Africans carry things on their heads, not on their backs – only children are carried on one’s back – the backpack-wearing white man inspires great fear. Children believe our bags are for stolen babies.

“From the age of 3, we are trained to carry things on our heads”, continued Saïd. It shows: people prefer to carry suitcases that way, rather than pulling them on their wheels; women descending steep, rough paths barefoot, bearing piles of firewood or great tubs filled with fruit; even a child almost hidden from view by a large mattress carefully balanced on his head. Continue reading

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The best seats on the bus

Coated in sweat-congealed dust and grime, engine grease, and splattered roadside puddles – and that’s after sitting inside the bus.

The Lushoto-Dar journey is meant to take about 6 hours, but with stops all along the route, traffic jams, and crawling trucks before us that refuse to pull over, 8 hours seems to be the norm. Not that you’d want to overtake more on those winding roads: we see several overturned vehicles by the side of the road, on both the outward and return journeys. Each time, as the driver slows to pass, my fellow passengers rise out of their seats to stare out the window with a kind of fascinated, fatalistic horror. Continue reading

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All I want for Christmas

Little things are a whole lot more complicated when you start somewhere new, but on the plus side you get to enjoy the rush of pride that comes with every moment of near-tears averted. Ticking off those little successes keeps you going: making it into the city centre and back in one piece; figuring out how to top up the electricity meter; surviving my first stomach bug; discovering that the ancient radio set in my apartment broadcasts BBC World. And finding someone to spend Christmas with.

My new travel buddy and I are off to Lushoto, about a 6-hour bus journey north of Dar. It’s supposed to be a bit like Switzerland – a picturesque place in the mountains – but apparently there’s no ATM in the whole town, so the analogy doesn’t quite hold. Continue reading

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Born in the 80s

"Strictly", African-style

I just went to a dance/fitness class given by a “reinvented 80s pop singer”. Before class he gave me a CD of his latest single, told me about his 70s disco/80s pop radio show and revealed that he’s just back from a stint as a judge on what sounds like the Tanzanian equivalent of Strictly Come Dancing. Before I could take all this in, Tony was already wiggling his perfectly formed bum and instructing us to “Pop it to the right!” with his perfectly formed British English vowels.

The air-conditioned, clean, bright dance studios, and the Oyster Bay shopping centre that houses them, are about as Western as you can get.  This is the kind of place in which you could hide from Africa, spending 10,000 Tsh notes in the deli or the Japanese restaurant or the pet shop. Continue reading

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A wet Christmas

So much for a Christmas in the sun – Dar es Salaam has been hit by torrential rains that are flooding river banks and sweeping away homes and non-tarmacked roads. The normally bad traffic situation is even worse; my colleagues left the office at 3 today to be sure that they’ll make it home tonight. Already, several deaths have been reported since yesterday, and as the rains continued this morning, the numbers are likely to go up.

My plans to go camping this weekend are looking a little less likely…

Update 23 December: The rains – the heaviest in 56 years – continued for several days and there are reports of between 15 and 20 deaths and almost 5000 displaced from their homes. The disaster has made it into the international media too.


Not planning ahead

Typing by candlelight is a novelty this evening, but if the power cuts or electricity rationing – not sure yet which one this is – become as frequent as they apparently were before I arrived, it’ll get a bit tedious. There are often brief blackouts during the day, but at the office we have a generator that kicks in with a groan to keep our PCs and air conditioning running. At home, with no generator, I’m anxiously willing my one candle to burn slowly: at least give me another few hours?

What’s irritating on a personal level (not being able to wash my hair, turn on the fan, boil water, etc.) translates on a national scale into one of the major obstacles – along with inflation and fuel and food prices – to economic growth. Continue reading

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Barefoot trading to glittering heights

Kariakoo neighbourhood, Saturday 10pm: the main market hall may have closed, but some traders on the poorly-lit streets nearby are still open for business, and people, flip-flop-clad or barefoot, are still milling around. Atop the concrete steps of the market hall, a row of beds – bare sheets of cardboard – are already occupied.

From behind the locked doors and windows of my Tanzanian friend’s car, I’m getting an oddly close-up view of a place I’d be cautious about visiting even in broad daylight. Earlier, a German friend had admitted even he’d gone too far by venturing in there alone, having been surrounded and nearly robbed within minutes of arriving.

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Losing oneself

Apart from a Zanzibar beach party (dodging maasai guys on the dance floor; not-so-sober sea plunge at 4am, etc.), I’m choosing to let socialising take a back seat for a while. And it is a choice, because it’s evidently easy to meet other expats, and easy to go out lots: “Oh, and you’ll turn into an alcoholic”, half-joked, half-warned my predecessor, whose job and apartment I’ve taken over.

I’m not yet convinced I’ll be taking over his lifestyle. Partly it’s a conscious decision – but partly it’s something more subtle. A sense that because I’m in Africa, things are Different. Clearly to all those going out drinking and flirting and having dinner parties it’s no different at all, just a bit sweatier and grubbier. But for various reasons – naiveté, or paranoia, or racism, or just realism – I’m a slightly different person here than in Europe. Continue reading

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Smiling faces

A photo of smiling African kids risks being a bit clichéd, but what I loved about this one was how within a second of me lifting the camera they all rushed towards me and straight into a pose.

We were visiting one of the schools in which we’re funding the training of teachers, and through them, kids as “peer educators” in HIV/AIDS awareness. It’s a pilot programme that seems to have been fairly successful – despite some resistance to raising the subject already at primary level. Continue reading

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