Tanzania 1996 – part 1

My journey to Tanzania on 1 June 1996 was the first time I had travelled abroad alone and I was apprehensive about the journey. When my plane touched down in Darussalam on a very warm winter’s evening there was some sense of relief, although I suffered from nerves which made my passage through customs uncomfortable. Sweating in the unexpected heat, I was greeted affectionately in the airport lobby by my Uncle John and Aunt Phyll who were happy to see me at last. That night we slept in the Catholic Secretariat beneath mosquito nets, the song of insects outside cheering my arrival.

Darussalam was bustling on Sunday morning, a scene far removed from the sleepy Sabbath days of suburban England. Warm conversation greeted our arrival in town, a Tanzanian at the telephone kiosk asking if we were German until he realised that he could engage Phyll with Swahili chit-chat. After a phone call home, we were soon on the road again, heading out of the coastal town in John’s white Land Rover. All along the edge of the potholed tarmac road, salesmen could be seen selling every conceivable ware: bananas, bricks, Coca Cola, clothes. Into the countryside, their numbers lessened, the stalls replaced by fields, homes and forest. Out here the vegetation was lush and green, revealing banana palms, coconut palms and even rice on the low river fed fields.

We stopped for lunch in Morogoro, 2000 feet above sea level, at the New Green Restaurant. Though there was a short rain shower during our stopover, the vegetation was not as fresh here as it had been towards the coast. The journey onwards was long, for we were heading far into the interior where the land was dry, the earth dusty and the plants pale in colour, but the smooth road afforded us some comfort. To our left and right, graceful mountains rose out of the plain, each one veiled beneath a layer of trees. Forty kilometres from our destination, we finally cut off the good road and took to a dirt track across Kongwa Ranch, passing through Kongwa town and then the village between it and St Philip’s Theological College. After a full day travelling, we arrived at our destination at six in the evening.

The Iona community (in whose company I lost my faith years earlier) out in the Hebrides Sea thousands of miles from here was famous for its African choruses: I used to love those atmospheric gatherings in the Abbey. Yet those Celtic renderings of Swahili verse paled now, as the native voices rose into the heavens from the evening service in the white-walled chapel. Those songs were my welcome to this college in the heart of Tanzania. I loved John and Phyll’s flat at the head of the road: its views were spectacular, while its architectural style appealed to me. I slept well that first night on the campus.

The following day was a national holiday in honour of the five hundred people who died in the MV Bukoba ferry disaster on 20 May. So many young students had died that day when the boat sank on Lake Victoria as they travelled homewards following the public examinations. All around there was a sense of mourning. It was a sad day, but at the time I considered it a blessing in a way: it gave me pause to reflect on our own approach to death. This was before the death of the Princess of Wales and that very public outpouring of grief, real or imagined. It seemed to me that death was not a taboo as it often seemed to be within our own culture: a taboo which seemed to leave behind so much pain as the consequences of loss and sorrow were hidden away. I wondered whether the source of this was a greater appreciation of life and death. In the afternoon a service was held in memory of the mother of one of the college workers, who had just died after suffering from Tuberculosis. In England in our era, we do not know of TB, polio or pandemic flu and the survival rate of children is good: and so death is perceived differently I believed. As the departed soul was remembered in the chapel, beautiful African hymns were drifting through the air once more.

I was getting used to life in that at first unfamiliar landscape, although it was not a life I had ever experienced before. Following the red soil paths around the college, I came across giant Baobab trees and Philippine Leucaena for the first time in my life. Wandering further, there was the national grid transformer, but it was not yet connected, so the private diesel-generated electricity came on at half-past six in the evening and went off three hours later. It quickly struck me how much we take for granted in our resource-on-demand culture. By my third day in that foreign land I was already feeling humbled.

Despite my own shyness, everyone I met seemed to be extremely friendly and kind. A young man called Yohana brought me his school exercise book one evening in an effort to help me grasp his Swahili tongue. Everyone I met on a personal level was welcoming and yet that paranoid discomfort remained. Travelling up to the capital, I interpreted faces and eyes in my own way, worrying about those glances from strangers. Dodoma was hot and dusty, its climate distinct from coastal Darussalam, just like Ankara compared to Istanbul. John was visiting the bishops at the Cathedral and so I spent the day wandering around the town with Phyll. In that suffocating heat, a chilled bottle of ginger beer was most welcome, but it did not set my mind at ease. I was a self-conscious visitor to that magnificent country in 1996. I was anxious about the European Colonial past and about how I would be perceived in that now independent land. What was I to make of the glances of the people I passed by? These were amongst my thoughts throughout my stay as a white-faced guest in a proud African state.

Friday 7 June was the last day of the semester and it ended with a service of Communion in the chapel. Stuttering with broken Swahili I found myself standing before the happy congregation with words of introduction. ‘Habari,’ I asked, what news?

‘Nzuri,’ came the chorused reply – good.

I went on to tell them with rehearsed lines that my name was Timotheo, I was from England and the nephew of the Principal. My pronunciation was clearly hilarious for there was laughter all about me as I went on. Still, the chapel filled with applause when I ended. With the arrival of the holidays, the students were clearly overjoyed, for they left the chapel in enthusiastic song, their swaying close to dancing. Left behind, it was a kind of boost for me: my shy insecurity had given way to a moment’s confidence and I felt a sense of self-satisfaction. Two days later I would repeat my wee speech in front of another congregation in a half-complete church in the village.

The following day I studied Swahili without break and finally came across some advice in my textbook which I wished I had encountered earlier:

In Tanzanian culture there are conventions about who is the first to speak. It is usually the person of lower status who greets the other person. A stranger entering a village should greet the villagers who will then welcome him. These are conventions that should be noted, for the visitor will feel unwanted because nobody speaks and everyone looks unwelcoming, likewise the villagers may misinterpret it and feel offended because he is wandering around in their territory without even having the decency to make himself known to them. It is important in Swahili culture to greet people properly. A smile or a mumbled word is not sufficient and it is considered rude to ignore people.

I had a lot to learn. Indeed, when I was caught making biscuits in the kitchen in the middle of the week it provoked a number of questions. This was woman’s work I quickly learned and, while my eccentricities might be tolerated here, I was told that I would be chased out of town in Musoma, where a man who enters the kitchen is considered the lowest of the low. Still, my detractors enjoyed the ginger cookies anyway when they settled on the cooling rack.

It seemed like I would never get used to being a member of an ethnic minority. Saturday 15 June was no exception. Receiving visitors from England, John had agreed to take them up to Mpwapwa in the college Toyota, which although just over the hills behind us, could only be reached via miles of potholed dirt roads around the range of hills. The distance was shorter than that between Kongwa and Dodoma, but the journey took twice as long. Fatigued by that rough drive, I felt miserable again once we arrived. As a stranger pulled on Phyll’s bag, some men sitting nearby laughing at the sight, a crowd of men at one end of the central building called out as we walked past. A little while later, the man who had grabbed Phyll’s bag returned and began shouting at us. We wazungu (Europeans) seemed to be unwelcome there and I was happy to return to the suffocating enclosure of our car. The experience left me feeling depressed, demeaned, rejected and threatened, and possibly for the first time in my life I discovered what it is like to be on the receiving end of racism, if only for an hour or so. On our way into town, it had seemed so pleasant – people smiled and waved and so I waved back – but as we went further through Mpwapwa and up towards the new Cathedral that was being built, my mind was on our return. The Cathedral looked impressive, with spectacular views over the plain, but I did not appreciate it after our passage through the market. My mindless depression dominated the magnificent view.

Yet for every encounter with strangers and my perception of it, my meeting with individuals seemed to throw doubt on my previous conclusions. Tuesday 18 June was a day of conversation, which in those days came as quite a shock given my frequent reversion to silence. From next door came the Rwandan sisters, intent on bringing more Swahili through my lips. I suppose my lack of words was quite an aberration in this land. After lunch I ventured down the road to the student accommodation closer to the chapel, where I met three trainee priests: Amon, Suleman and Mote. Mote Mgombe had excellent English and thus acted as an interpreter between Suleman and myself: Suleman explained that they had been expecting me to visit and that not visiting would usually be interpreted as a sign of hostility. Taking his obvious upset to heart, I found myself visiting almost every day after that. Although we were talking together in a mixture of Swahili and English, it did not stop us delving into unfamiliar territory, with Amon leading us into realms I had always considered taboo.

Amon was pale and not in particularly high spirits since he had just been circumcised. Although circumcision was not the norm in his tribe – and his operation was motivated by the love of a woman – the other students were bemused by my culture’s attitude towards it. At the time I was equally bemused by theirs. They told me that the government had recently passed a law to prevent female circumcision, which various tribes had previously justified on the grounds of tradition, religion and superstition. Some people, they told me, even suggested that it was necessary to suppress desires that lead women into prostitution: given my own cultural background this concept did not sit well with me and I ended up asking questions about equality and gender dominance, which did not find an answer immediately.

When our neighbours arrived, Amon and Edita began speaking in a language that did not sound like Swahili and turned out to be one of the 126 tribal tongues of the country. Against this backdrop, Mote was very keen on explaining why the existence of a unifying national language was so important. Even within each of the 126 different tribes, the individual languages were subdivided into multiple dialects, making natural conversation between different groups awkward.

After some time, Mote and I left Amon with the girls, wandering off to his room to continue our conversation there. He struck me as a very open minded and well read individual. Now that we had one another’s full attention, he wanted to take me up on the questions I had been asking earlier. He had no problem with the question I had asked, he told me, but the way I had asked it posed a problem. Tanzanian tribes were not unique, he said, in having defined traditional roles for men and women, but my worldview prevented me from accepting this. While Mote was able to approach the question from different angles, I found myself locked upon the only path I knew, adamant that these values transcended all boundaries of nation, race and class. So Mote talked about how women rose at five in the morning and worked through until ten at night, just to keep the home under control, but he neither praised this nor dismissed it outright. By contrast, I was convinced that with roles so rigidly defined that a man must stay away from home-making chores, an oppressive environment was in the making. Thus I ranted about women not being consulted in their futures, about how men make war and then sit and argue at the peace table. My views were not going to shift.

The following day, Edita sought my help with her English studies. Without a strong foundation in English grammar myself, I found it difficult to explain the rules of my native language. Swahili, by contrast, had structure at least, and Edita was the more successful teacher when she turned to advising me on my new tongue. In the afternoon I met with the students again along with one of Mote’s relatives. When this fellow had to depart, we walked with him part way towards his home, as was the tradition there. Then, returning to Mote’s room, we sat discussing music, since this seemed to be integrated into their whole existence.

In my presence they demonstrated how their fine choruses emerged, flowing from deep within their hearts. The result was moving song that made my spine tingle. Together they explained that the rhythmic words arose spontaneously as an element of their Christian worship. These were hymns for the sake of worship, they claimed, not for the sake of tradition. They said that their tribal rhythms and collage of voices sometimes moved people so much that they turned to Christianity through listening alone. Although he was out of practice, Mote had a real talent on the guitar, his fingers achieving such diversity of rhythm. When I returned on Thursday, I arrived armed with a compact tape recorder with which I captured eleven of their songs. Most of them were songs of Christian worship, with the exception of my favourite, Tanzania ni nchi nzuri (Tanzania is a very beautiful country) and a love song, Nampenda Coletta (I love you Coletta). The high of my new found friendship was welcome, but perhaps it would not last so long.

Friday 21 June was one of those days of emotion. At quarter past nine in the evening, a very sick child was brought to Phyll as the doctor on the campus. In her mother’s arms, she was sick, her worried father looking on, and Phyll gave her some kind of injection. It struck me as a strong reminder of how fragile life is and how precious all people are. The previous night the father of one of the night watchmen died of illness, and now there was this sight of a hopelessly weak child. All I could do was pray. I did not know what the illness was, or how serious it was, but the concern that I saw in Phyll’s face after the family left told me that this was a delicate situation. I felt sad realising that this family was lucky in being able to see a doctor and I wondered how many other families would go without health care at a time like this.

So that night I prayed, seeking the aid of our Creator. As an agnostic at that time without the strong faith of my family, it was something that did not come from me easily: but the sight of that poor little girl prompted me to take the only action that was within my grasp. I did not have strong faith because I believed in sincerity: my life was full of doubt, actions and thoughts that would please no one, and so I thought that my prayers would be worthless to a generous God. Writing my journal the following day, I wrote about how it was sometimes easier to pretend that I was lazy and to stay in bed, than to explain my real reasons for not going to church. I did not think that anybody really understood or tolerated that, but to do otherwise left me feeling like hypocrite and extremely uncomfortable as a result. But still, after the family left us that night, I turned and prayed to God.

With genuine concern and real sincerity, I prayed in the darkness until I was too tired, begging for an answer well into the night, asking that the little girl would be blessed and return to health. Were my prayers answered or was it just the dowa (medicine), I asked the following day? I did not know, but hearing news of her recovery, I decided not to reject my initial reaction: that someone up there had listened to me. I had friends who would have laughed at me because of that, but this was not about my friends. This was about the fact that I was brought up with faith and yet had been struggling to find it for myself for the previous four years. I did not know if I should read unnatural reasons into what I encountered, but sometimes I believed so strongly that there was something guiding me. I found myself in the heart of Tanzania with a group of Theological students who despite myself had offered me great friendship. I found myself listening to their beautiful choruses and gripped by discussions about how the church should act in our world.

In my diary I wrote that I could not help my beliefs and fears. I could not help it if I seemed to keep what I believe very private. Some people have very strong faiths, I wrote, but I supposed that I was not one of them. I found it very difficult, but religion kept on confronting me and good Christians kept on reaching out to me, whether here in East Africa or on that remote island off the west coast of Scotland. Writing then, I thought that I might be searching all my life, but said that I would not give up. The previous day I had seen a vomiting, dehydrated child. Today she was looking so much better and was eating at last. I wanted to praise the Lord for that.

On Saturday, Phyll was required to put stitches into a little boy’s head, after the college’s head driver apparently hit him for poking a pig with a stick. The boy was the son of the head driver’s next door neighbour, who was also a college driver. Seeing the blood running down his face, the boy’s mother cried that if her son had killed the pig she would have paid for it, ‘but how would he pay for our son?’ When the man appeared to show no remorse, the boy’s parents decided to involve the Police, but the following day we learnt that the head driver had suddenly fallen very ill.

With the start of a new week, we climbed up the hill behind the college again, following the same route as the spring trail to begin with but then veering off in another direction. We eventually came to a halt on some open ground around three hundred feet above the campus, taking in a spectacular view of the plains in the distance and the hills beyond. After staying there for a little while, we followed another path further up the hill that was used by the charcoal burners. Almost at the top of the hill there was a stone lined pit which acted as a charcoal oven, the ground all around it littered with small fragments of the blackened wood. In all these villages, charcoal was sold as fuel for cooking and that tasty smell used to hang in the air all the time,

So close to Rwanda and Burundi, news from those two tiny countries was always relevant within Tanzania. On Tuesday 25 June the BBC World Service reported that a Burundi delegation was meeting in Arusha to discuss what neighbouring countries could do to prevent genocide like the one that took place in Rwanda in 1994. Here in Tanzania I had met refugees from that sad land. Our neighbour was already a refugee from the previous upheavals in Rwanda in the 1960s, but in 1994 she lost her mother and sister to the killings and now looks after her sister’s daughter. I was immensely touched by the great strength of these people. While I found myself with tears when I thought of all the pain and suffering that had has risen from that slaughter, these folk explained that their Christian beliefs allowed them – people of two fighting tribes – to come together in work and fellowship, and to avoid conflict. Never in all my life had I encountered such strength after such heartless pain.

With my parents and my sister due to arrive in Tanzania imminently, we left Kongwa at ten in the morning on Monday 1 July. The landscape seemed much drier and dustier than it had been when we drove across it a month ago. The view travelling east was stunning, much more so than when travelling west from Darussalam, with fantastic views of the mountains ahead of us. Away from Kongwa and towards Morogoro the land looked very fertile, the ground dark brown unlike the red sandy dust of Kongwa. The closer we got to the coast, the greener the land became. On our way we encountered a group of baboons running across the road. We bought bananas and sodas for lunch while we travelled, and a young boy sold us hard-boiled eggs when we stopped briefly later on.

Along the route there were skeletons of tankers and trailers every so often, with all of their valuable parts stripped away and taken for rebuilding. We arrived in Darussalam in the middle of the afternoon. The streets were busy and here I encountered my first African traffic jam. It was good to feel the heat in Darussalam for Kongwa has been getting chilly. Tucking into chicken and chips – a welcome change to red beans and rice – we had our evening meal at the very modern Jungle Café. We were staying in the Catholic Secretariat again because the hotels were too expensive for us, two poorly paid missionaries and a student. I found myself doing nothing but listening, for the city sounded busy: jet aircraft flying low over the roof top, police sirens wailing in the distance, trucks rumbling past outside and voices in Swahili. Seeing these people rising early and up until well past dark, I wondered if Tanzania ever rested.

Travelling though the city streets, I loved a lot of its architecture, even if much of it seemed to be decaying, with Arabic and Asian influences seen all around. I thought that I would like Zanzibar because I loved the Indian-Arabic style of architecture. Most people in Darussalam lived in modest houses, however, some in concrete five storey flats. The old, impressive buildings were mostly government offices.

We collected my folk from the airport late into the evening on Tuesday after a busy day in the city. We had spent the morning shopping and attending to business, passing some time in the library at the British Council where I wondered whether I had stepped into another world. It was a smart building with a neat garden and was very nearly silent. The streets outside were crowded with salesmen, and there I bought a couple of bootleg cassettes featuring Lucky Dube’s latest album for 1600 shillings (about £2). Later on we spent the afternoon at the Bahari beach hotel. Phyll told me that they used to feel as I did, arriving in that luxurious setting after a month of simple living, but they had overcome the feelings of guilt, recognising that everybody deserves a break and a treat sometimes.

Construction of big houses along the road out of town towards the hotels was underway, in the new expensive suburbs of Darussalam. Upon the verges along the roads there are men making cement building materials, such as building blocks, decorative cement fencing and castings. This was a city alive in trade and enterprise. At every set of traffic lights people would run up to the car to attempt to make a transaction. I liked Darussalam a lot, for it seemed to be a cosmopolitan place. While there would always be the turning of heads as we walked on by, this city was an open place not at all like Mpwapwa. Where the crowds were smaller and people looked my way as I approached, I would utter those words Swahili folk use to show their respect. Shikamoo, shikamoo, all day, to these people in their beautiful country.

Our return to Kongwa came on Wednesday, with a journey that seemed much longer than before. Just as we had done on my first trip, we stopped in Morogoro for lunch and to do some shopping. My mother ventured into the market with her sister and my sister to buy some food for the coming week, and returned with expressions of joy written upon their faces. They loved the atmosphere, their reaction just more confirmation that my own pessimism was rooted in paranoia.

During the week that followed, I felt that things were changing. With the arrival of my folk, the Swahili lessons ceased, while Mote was now occupied preparing for a relative’s wedding. Something had changed. By Sunday 7 July, something was bothering me. It may just have been the news on the World Service, which made me rather depressed as I imagined the picture rather than writing the stories off as mere statistics. I saw the image of a Tamil Tiger rebel in my mind as I heard about her on the radio; she had blown herself up as a human bomb. And then I read in the Weekly Guardian newspaper about the murder of a Muslim woman in Bosnia. I thought about it and I wondered how anybody could be so evil. The world depressed me because I knew that I was helpless to stop the selfish, ignorant hate.

That day I wondered how people like Archbishop Desmond Tutu had the energy to continue their battles for justice and peace when bad news just struck me down. The massacres were not statistics: no, my mind was overflowing with hideous images of bodies and the faces of victims. I lamented that there was nothing that I could do and I wrote that my illness was seeing reality. Oh, the power of the media: perhaps my weeks without the newspaper were preferential.

Still, I introduced my parents and sister to the congregation in church that day, greeting the people first in their own tribal language and then continuing in Swahili for no more than two minutes. After lunch we walked through the village and along a dry river bed. Still insecure, I felt uncomfortable walking through the settlements uninvited, but continued onwards with my family nevertheless.

The next day we returned to the capital, Dodoma, in preparation for our flight to Musoma early on Tuesday morning. We went for a walk in the evening from the airport and MAF compound to the Post Office in Dodoma. Alas I still could not get used to the laugher accompanying the finger-pointing and cries of wazungu as we passed by, and I was left feeling angry. I began ranting about the wrongs of racism and the insincerity of those who could only see one kind of racism. Looking back on my journal entries I am amazed to read my thoughts from that time and how I joined dots that may not even have been there, to the point that I was launching into tirades again the gesturism of the anti-racism movement.

For some reason I suddenly had all this anger. I found myself unable to balance the struggle that I had encountered over the previous month with our new-found holiday intrigue. For a month or so I felt I had been living a life, but now we were marching around in our brand new boots, VCR in hand, snapping the sights with our automatic camera. I did not want to regurgitate my experiences on my return into a five minute sound bite about how this year I ‘did’ Africa and how splendid it was.

This was my first visit to a poor country in my life: prior to that I had travelled abroad in Europe and to New England in the United States of America. Nothing had prepared me for Tanzania and I found myself completely off balance. I knew that the purpose of holidays was to have fun, but I did not know if I had the right to have fun here when I saw people walking barefoot, carrying buckets of water on their heads. Did I have the right to have the time of my life, I asked myself, when life seemed to be a privilege for many people here? We were staying in one of the poorest nations in the world and we were viewing it on the liquid crystal display of our video camera.

I think I can still understand the discomfort I was feeling a decade ago, even as I deride the immaturity of the writing that journal of mine. I had had a very sheltered upbringing and I was suddenly in the midst of a whole new world.

The journey onwards… to be continued.

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