Monthly Archives: January 2012

When you can’t get through

Africa is moving fast with its communications infrastructure. Mobile services are cheap, too: you can top up your prepaid cellphone with just 2000 TSH (EUR 1) at a time and the network I use costs just 2 euro-cent per SMS or between 0.75 and 9 euro-cent per minute for a national call. But we’ve still got some way to go.

Receiving SMSs two days after they were sent (or not at all) can be a useful alibi sometimes – like when avoiding the persistent messages I get from a male colleague I probably shouldn’t have given my number to. But otherwise it adds to the generally-present sense in Africa that you never know for sure if something has worked or will work or if plans will actually materialise.

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It seems absurd, but here you quickly get used to arriving somewhere and sitting in your car or beeping the horn till the gates (there are usually gates) are opened by  the askaris, or security guards.

The building where I live has two askaris; between them, they’re here 24/7. Ali is in his 40s or perhaps older, has a big beer belly and moves at the speed of a snail. Peter, slight and baby-faced, looks about 17. Yep, they’re not the most formidable duo, but they provide a reassuring presence, and know what to do when water tanks leak or your fuse has blown. They have a tiny hut by the front gate with one chair; if you’re heading out early enough in the morning, you’ll hear no sound but just see the propped-up feet jutting out. The guys do 48-hour shifts – so that hut is their on-duty bedroom. Continue reading


Insect Wars, contd.

I always lose in the battles against my ants, but I’m hoping the more I learn about them the better equipped I’ll be to beat them, one day.

Most recently I found swarms of the little bastards near the kitchen sink and finally realised what they were getting so excited about: an unopened packet of sugar I’d left out.  Salt, spices and teabags are of little interest, but a sniff of sweetness and they go into an ecstatic frenzy.  My fridge is getting a bit crammed now with pasta, bread, crackers etc., and I’ve actually developed a taste for chilled cereal – but having discovered these guys are so small they even get inside the fridge, I may have to move on to frozen cornflakes. Or an ice-cream diet. Continue reading


What we’re listening to

This is the theme song at the moment in every bar and nightclub here. Irritatingly catchy, and the mzungus love it.


Still in the dark

Window-shopping from your bus seat

What makes you feel lost, unsure – a foreigner – in Dar?

It’s a fairly safe city. But there are no street lights, and those that exist are long broken, so travelling after 7pm always feels eerie, and nothing like being in a big city; there are few street names or house numbers (people laugh when I ask the address), so you can’t find your way round with a map; bus stops aren’t marked and your “taxi” might just be a man with a car; and there aren’t many traffic rules that people actually obey, so the roads are chaotic and dangerous; and when your bus slows down the boys hawking cold drinks or pineapples are frantic in their insistence on selling you something; and elbows and arms of your fellow passengers thrust into your face on the daladala, people are even climbing in through the back window to get a seat; and people don’t understand my broken Kiswahili because all the words are so easy to mix up; and opening times might be given in Swahili time; and cafés don’t have menus, or if they do they don’t actually have what’s on the menu; and men ask you personal questions before they even know your name (Do you have a husband? How old are you? Can I have your phone number?). Continue reading

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A little after 6a.m. on Sunday, somewhere not far from Bagamoyo (some 70km north of Dar). Fishermen have sailed across the still, cloudy waters of the lagoon in a small ngalawa. They reach the narrow strip of land, where we’re camping, that separates lagoon and open sea. They’ll go lobster fishing now; but first, a break to stretch their legs, to bail out the water that inevitably trickles into the wooden hull, and to wonder at this grubby stranger who has turned up on their patch. In Swahili the same word, mgeni, can mean stranger, foreigner, visitor, or guest. Karibu sana, they say: welcome. I am all four meanings at once.

More photos of the secret lagoon here.


Me versus the mini-ants

George, my landlord, finally brought the rat poison the other day, and with a wicked giggle hurled bits of it into the roof space while I held open the hatch and shut my eyes. While I wait for the rats to perish, however, wadudu wangu wamefurahi sana – my insects are very happy.

Since my apartment flooded last week – burst pipe in the muslim toilet-hose, damn those religions and their extra-hygienic bathroom habits – the tiny-ant population has spread to my bedroom. This puts them well in the lead in the endless battle of Me versus Ants. They were already doing well: finding them crawling in my muesli (Ants win); putting the whole thing in the freezer – ha! (I win); reluctantly deciding that a bowl of defrosted ant corpses is probably not worth the overpriced 8000 shillings I’d paid for my European cereal (they win). Now that I’m sharing my bed with them I’m trying the advice of a friend: baking soda as a protective barrier.  Supposedly it stops them coming in, though I’m hoping it doesn’t attract something else in the meantime – my bathroom cockroach might like a sniff. Continue reading


Struggling against the status quo

Is dishonesty that common?

Asking questions in Tanzania presents you with an endless repetition, in various forms, of the same answer. A shrug of the shoulders, “that’s just the way it is”, “there’s no point”, “there’s nothing you can do about it”.

A Tanzanian friend told me her car was once broken into and the electric window controls from the four doors were stolen. She went to the “shop” where she knew she’d find them: she was asked what car she drove, what colour it was, and where and when it had been broken into. A few calls were made, and then she was told she could buy, conveniently, the exact goods for her make and model of car, for 400,000 Tsh (about 200 EUR). Had she told the police? No point. “Either they’ll hit a dead end, or they’ll have been paid off anyway by the people who’ve stolen the stuff”. Continue reading

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“Watch out for the seven-month dip”, warned my Canadian colleague, a seasoned expat who’s lived in French Guiana and Malawi before coming to Tanzania a few years ago. It’s just enough time, he says, to have got over the shock of the new, but not long enough to have made real friends (though I disagree with that) or to have achieved enough at work to make you see the value of sticking around.

We’d been told something similar during training back in Europe: things go great for the first few weeks or months, until the novelty wears off – expect it to go something like this, they said: Continue reading

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