It could have been much worse, of course – could have been my camera and not my pencil that I dropped in the sewage. Still, I felt pretty stupid for adding to the already existing mounds of waste that clog up every artery of this neighbourhood. And then even worse when one of the villagers showing me round ignored my pleas to abandon the pencil and instead slithered down the bank to fish it out from among the shit and plastic and stagnant, opaque water.
This is Tandale, a poor neighbourhood on the outer edges of Dar, where waste is not collected often enough, if at all; where housing is “unplanned”; and where the only clean water is that which is sold – for a high price – by private traders.
My colleagues are trying to change that, at least to some extent. In the meantime, I was documenting the current situation, guided by eight or so villagers who’ll oversee a new community-owned water company once it’s up and running. The people we passed looked at me suspiciously, hiding from my camera when I tried to shoot them washing or cooking or working. But my guides were thorough in showing me everything. Malarial mosquitoes buzzing over dark dank waters; scrawny hens pecking through the edges of puddles; the thin wispy black smoke of an attempt at burning a pile of waste; hole-in-the-ground toilets in concrete-built stalls; rubbish compacted into a sort of river bank to try to stop overflowing, as happened in December’s floods.
Definitely wearing the wrong shoes for this walk, I soon realised, as I followed them across drain after drain, by way of a makeshift bridge – a few pieces of scrap wood – or unconvincing stepping stones, praying I wouldn’t slip. The women were already erupting in gleeful cackles at my Kiswahili word-mixes. They’d have a great story to tell if the only mzungu around went the same way as her pencil.