Let it be

I cannot bear the Beatles anymore. I’m just back from a three-day trip to the north of Tanzania with the ambassador, whose CD collection consists of only one artist. I know the Beatles were prolific but even they can’t fill eight solid hours of driving, every day, with new material.

Apart from the soundtrack, the trip reflected some of the stereotypes I’d dreaded. The white 4×4 complete with national flag fluttering from the bonnet; the irritable, bossy diplomat berating his meek African driver for not overtaking; the overdone ceremony and repetitive, fawning speech-making of the official visits.

In Babati hospital

Perhaps an official visit does have a real value: the people receiving the funding and now responsible for the equipment they’ve got may be more likely to take that responsibility seriously; and it does get the national governments and their representatives close to the people they’re supposed to be helping. What made me a bit sad was that the ambassador was giving off about roads being blocked, cars not pulling over fast enough to let us pass, shops being closed etc. You would think after his seven years in Africa he’d have mellowed: could it be instead that the longer you’re here, the less patient you become?

Anyway, I loved seeing the country slip by as we drove the 600km or so northwards, and then returned 2 days later. From the “unplanned” housing on the outskirts of Dar emerges a young woman in figure-hugging skirt and high-heeled sandals, jumping over an open ditch to get to the roadside, to wait for her bus to work. Small pubs, hair salons, mobile phone shops, repair shops, photocopy shops, houses of clay/mud brick and grass or tin roofs line the roads here, and at each village we pass. We reach open country – rich and green now that we’re in rainy season – with banana, sisal, coffee, pineapple, mango, avocado, cashew plantations. Bright blossoms of purple jacaranda and deep orange cedar trees; purple and maroon checks of the maasai people’s clothing. The vast trunks of the baobab trees: the thickest of all may be a thousand years old. Children who can’t be older than 6 herding goats or a few cows; a group of teenagers on the long walk home from school; sometimes, solitary figures walking in the midst of miles and miles of open space, not a dwelling nor an animal to be seen: how did they get there, and what are they doing today? New roads being built, years late for some, overseen by Chinese men in orange overalls: each time we see one, he’s simply sitting there while his African workers sweat beneath. Trucks stuffed to the brim with pineapples; charcoal being transported by bike or scooter. The haze of cloud that lifts only briefly to reveal the snow-topped Mount Kilimanjaro behind.

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