Dar Samachar

Dar Samachar (News from Dar-es-Saalam)

From 2005-2007, I lived in Tanzania and worked for a non-profit organization. During that time, I sent a series of long e-mails to about a 100 friends in Canada, India and elsewhere. My e-mails became an important way to communicate and reflect on my experience. Later I posted them on-line as a blog archive.

“Nothing makes the earth seem so spacious as to have friends at a distance; they make the latitudes and longitudes.”~Henry David Thoreau

Dear Friends and Family,

This beautiful Thoreau quotation (sent by a colleague) is my tribute to all of you. You have been a great audience- intelligent and supportive; thank you very much, merci beaucoup, asante sana and bahut, bahut, shukriya! You have infinitely enriched our Tanzanian journey; some of you through your eloquent silence (!), others through pithy responses – frequent or otherwise, and yet others through lengthier musings.

I had no plan as such to write a such a detailed public journal when I left for Tanzania. But once it started, it acquired a life of its own, as things that are written down and communicated tend to. You received it as an e-mail insert and now I am putting it on-line too. I have really enjoyed putting these new media to personal use.

Though Dar Samachar is almost dead (do I hear some sighs of relief?!) I fear I am going to try a blog back in Canada. You will hear about it! I plan shorter entries. Time to go brief in the land of short attention spans and “no time for anything.”

Here we are then, in our last week in Tanzania. There was the customary farewell party at my office at the end of March where 13 of my colleagues sang my praises! The common theme: I was “dynamic” and had kept them on their toes, always following up on things they had to deliver to me. I was even considered inspiring by some; among positive traits mentioned were enthusiasm and friendliness. I was much thanked for my contributions, including putting in place some measures that will help the organization long-term, like a bank of good quality photographs to use in our publications and messages. My initial stint as manager was also appreciated.

I made a speech too, extending thanks and good wishes. I decided to let go of things that had gone less well and celebrate the others. Time to move on. I do have a strong and pleasing sense of completion.

The trouble with Mary

This sub-title is inspired by a whacky, Alfred Hitchcock film called “The trouble with Harry”.

Mary is our good maid, a woman in her early 30s, an altogether lovely person, hardworking and smart. I am telling her story because it parallels, in some ways, my relationship with Tanzania. And because this is quite a typical tale.

Mary walked up to me in August 2005 (she had been working as a painter in our building) and asked me to employ her as my maid (in Kiswahili of course). She came sans references and everyone I knew had warned me not to take on anyone “unknown.” I was desperate to find a maid and I had a good feeling about her.

Since that time Mary has been there for us, cooking simple meals, cleaning, sweeping and swapping, washing, ironing, vegetable shopping, spraying cockroaches (!) and doing a whole host of things that are central to running a house, and particularly so a house in the tropics.

I have come to really like her, though there is a language barrier. This is not the first time I have a maid, since I grew up in India, but Mary is special. I have never hired a maid before, as it was always my mother who did this. The Indian maids were “different”. I did not question their status or mine, nor did I feel responsible for them in the way I do for Mary. I could communicate fluently with them and knew something about their world.

When Mary first started working for me, she was a single mother of two children, eight and twelve. She also had a sister, Tina, ten years younger, who lived with her. We wanted to give her some lasting skills so we offered to pay for cooking, English or sewing lessons. She went for English classes for a few weeks, but then she became pregnant through her new boyfriend. This guy dumped her as well. I recall being furious that she could have got herself pregnant in the first place (and what of AIDS?) Contraception is available here for free. Then I wondered why she did not go for an abortion. She is Catholic but is she that devout? Possibly.

We paid her well by local standards; and she worked half-day on weekdays only. I urged her all along to find a second, part-time job and for Tina to find a job as well, but nothing happened. It was understandably hard for her to make ends meet, particularly after the third child was born. We hiked her pay once by including transport money and later threw in some money, for a few weeks, for milk for the baby. We didn’t want to give her handouts and create “dependency,” but we did end up supplementing her income in small ways and giving her advances, which she duly returned.

When Mary was on pregnancy leave, Tina came and worked for us. We got to know and like her too. I had hoped that Mary would learn Indian cooking from my mother when she was visiting Tanzania for two months. I had thought that this could be an asset in finding a job with an Indian or even foreign family. But since she was pregnant at the same time as my mother’s visit, this did not materialize.

Friends told me that coming from the Morogoro region as they did, Mary and Tina belonged to a tribe, which was inherently trustworthy. Attitudes to maids here generally leave something to be desired. And that goes for attitudes towards employees in general. There is a general lack of trust and respect on part of the employers which is mirrored by the “irresponsible” behaviour of the employees.

Next thing, Tina was pregnant with twins. When I expressed incredulity to Marc-Antoine (why had she not waited to have children?) he asked sensibly, “What else is there for her to do?” It entered my thick skull that I was judging these women by middle-class, career-woman standards. Totally unfair. Indeed what else was there to do? The one thing that probably made them feel respected was motherhood. But how were they going to feed and clothe all these kids? They expected to manage somehow.

Unfortunately tragedy struck and Tina lost her twins. We had monitored Mary’s pregnancy and had thought at one point that we would pay for a c-section if need be. Tina, being younger, seemed healthier. I had expected her pregnancy to go well. We were not asked for help either.
Finally all I could do was pray for her loss at a peaceful little outdoor shrine at a nearby Church, which I have come to like a lot. It was very sad. A first hand brush with deprivation and its terrible consequences.

Death strikes suddenly and comparatively frequently here. So many of my colleagues seem to take off quite regularly to attend funerals of relatives who often seem too young to die.

Thwarted expectations

We had told Mary a long time ago that we were temporary residents in Tanzania. As the time for our departure loomed, we asked her to focus her efforts on finding another job; we would adjust our timing to her efforts. We also talked to her through a friend who was fluent in Kiswahili that she should start planning her future, which could perhaps include a small business. We told her that we would leave her some money, and she would get some of our household goods. I talked about her and Tina to colleagues at my office in hope of finding them jobs. Some people were interested in having a full-time maid at home and Tina fitted the bill.

But her doctor said that she could not work for two months. I urged Mary to go and visit the prospective employer with Tina, nevertheless, to secure an agreement. One person seemed willing to wait for her. But nothing has happened so far; it seems that both sisters will be unemployed when we leave. I find myself rather put off by what I see as a lack of drive. Of course these women have a very raw deal indeed, but could they be doing more to help themselves?

HakiElimu focuses on the inadequate education system here. This seems directly related to Mary’s story. She could have benefited from a different education system and more options in her life.

But keep trying…

The education system typically lacks schools, desks, books, facilities, resources, qualified teachers, homes for teachers, a decent pay for them, and so on. There are some achievements; primary school enrolment is nearly universal (96.1% in 2006) and many new schools have been built. The number of secondary schools has gone up from 1.083 in 2003 to 2,289 in 2006 but they only accommodate a fraction of students who pass their primary school final exam. Secondary school enrolment stood at a mere 13% in 2006. The government is currently focussing on secondary education, after having tackled primary education first, mostly through infrastructure inputs.

Primary school is the only education most children will get, if they do not drop out. Nyerere, well aware of this, tried to create a primary education that prepared people for life. (Schoolgirl pregnancy is one reason not to finish school, and gender based violence and discrimination in general certainly mars education efforts.) The system is authoritarian, based on rote learning and multiple-choice exams. Corporal punishment is common.

HakiElimu has been talking about these issues and promoting a higher quality of education is its theme for this year. We are asking: what life and job skills do we want children to acquire thorough schooling and what is the plan to impart them? Questions that the government does not seem to be asking itself very seriously; its focus is on infrastructure rather than outputs.

Language is one of the problems. The students learn in Kiswahili in primary school and switch to English in secondary. But due to poor teaching in general, and poor language teaching in particular, they do not have adequate English skills by the time they enter secondary school. Nor are the teachers competent to teach in English.

Right now Tanzania boasts the most fallible education system in East Africa. There are very few public universities here as well. There is a parallel private education system from pre-primary to higher education, which only the well off avail of.

The failing education system is certainly one of the causes for Tanzania’s underdevelopment. Kenyan and Ugandans are accused of “stealing jobs” even as employers cry out for qualified and competent staff. At HakiElimu I was happy to be able to develop a script and storyboard for an illustrated storybook on the quality outcomes issue. Last year I got to do a similar book on HIV AIDS.

The title of this Dar Samachar – “It ain’t easy to get an education” – refers not only to the tangible educational woes, but also the struggle that the donors, various levels of government and NGOs (local and international) encounter in getting to the root causes of the problem and facilitating positive change. HakiElimu firmly believes that citizen engagement is the key to change. And is a leading NGO in this regard in Tanzania.

Letting go

We spent the last two days at our favourite beach resort, not very far from home. The Indian Ocean displayed its most gorgeous shades of blue, green and silver; the water a perfect temperature; the waves gentle; the sand silky, the sunset resplendent. The picturesque profiles of dhows were etched on the horizon as fishermen hauled in nets to rousing cries. We were given a fond farewell by the Swahili coast – a shore imbued with romance, coloured by the intermingling of cultures, scented by the spice and the slave trades.

On our last night, we went to the edge of the beach, to return some corals we had been decorating our home with. As we put them in the water, we asked the eternal sea to accept the confused emotions we felt towards Tanzania. To help us cleanse ourselves of them. We wanted to be reminded that the world is always much more complex than one’s own projections of it. When we turned away from the black water and looked up at the starlit sky, we spied the faint wash of the Milky Way. Goodbye Tanzania. We wish you well.

Photos of our last Zanzibar visit

At 95 she sings risqué Swahili love songs replete with innuendo. She is a small, birdlike woman from Zanzibar and a legend. Tran tra la… roll out the red carpet for the “barefoot diva of taraab and unyago traditional music” – Bi Kidude.

We are at Sauti za Busara – Sounds of Wisdom – a popular and growing music festival, both in numbers and reputation, in Stone Town, held every year in February. We had heard of this event in Canada from one of our world music aficionado pal and had resolved to go.

But February 2006 saw us wilting from work stress and the intense summer heat. We promised ourselves we’d go this year. Now we are in Stone Town’s historic fort, watching the world premiere of “As old as my tongue,” – a cinematic tribute to Bi Kidude.

How can I describe taraab music? It combines the slow, gentle, achingly nostalgic with the peculiarly robust (specially with Bi Kidude at the mike) – and sounds like a mixture of Kiswahili, Arabic and old Indian Bollywood music from the 1940s-50s. I find it beautiful, enthralling.

When Bi Kidude was a chit of a girl, she learnt taraab songs by hiding and listening to another famous exponent – Siti bint Saad – who, like Bi Kidude, lived in one of the old houses in the narrow lanes of Stone Town. Bi Kidude was not encouraged to sing, but she swore she would sing bint Saad’s songs all her life and she has done so! Bint Saad, said to be of slave origins, sang veiled; women were hardly seen or heard in the conservative, Islamic milieu of Stone Town.

But Bi Kidude was determined that she was going to be heard. She would run off from Koran school to the Stone Town docks, and as the Arab ships came in bringing unheard of luxuries – carpets, silks, perfumes – she would stand up in harbour front bars and belt it out! In the 1920s, the heyday of taraab, she travelled all over East Africa with an ensemble, singing unveiled! A few years of this, and two broken marriages later, she found herself in Stone Town, without work.

Hamna shida (no problem)! She turned her attention to drumming and singing at “unyago” – a traditional, pre-marriage, women-only, ritual, which teaches the bride-to-be how to please her husband sexually. And furthered her knowledge of traditional medicine, establishing herself as a healer.

With her raspy voice, uninhibited vocalization, smoking and drinking in public, fondness for witty repartee, she was way ahead of her time. Her music was not taken seriously until she was rediscovered when quite old, pitched into the international circuit and increasingly recorded. The movie shows her touring, with élan, in Europe.

Mostly illiterate, she continues to be poor as a church mouse, exploited by promoters and her community alike. (She is no financial planner and gives out of her own generosity as well.) Does she give a damn about her poverty? Not at all! All she cares about is singing.

She exemplifies the spirit of “doing your own thing” and how! I have become a great admirer, as is Shailja Patel, a talented Indo-Kenyan, spoken word poet, who performed “Drum Rider”, a poem dedicated to Bi Kidude, at the opening ceremony. Patel says in her poem, that thanks to Bi Kidude, she is no longer afraid of aging. As an ad for “As old as my tongue” puts it, Bi Kidude “challenges our perception of aging and stardom.”

We shook hands with Bi Kidude at the festival. (Due to a recent hernia operation she was not on stage.) I was so overawed, that wanting to offer the traditional, respectful greeting for elders – “Shikamoo” – I blurted out the response – “Marahaba” – instead!

That Zanzibari vibe again!

Stone Town was rocking! Though I did not like the cell-like confines of our budget hotel room (claustrophobia struck again!) I loved the musical vibe all around. It was set in a residential part of the town and the neighbours played muted music late into the night.

I woke up to a low, strumming guitar and love lyrics in English. In the hotel dinning room were a handful of young, good looking, African men, hanging out, while a powerful and distinctly dishy Kenyan performer – Makadem Ohanglaman – jammed away. (We heard his political songs later that day on stage.)

Every time we headed out of our hotel we had to go past the former office of the Culture Music Club, an eminent, local taraab band. We had spent a memorable evening listening to them, at a Stone Town restaurant, on an earlier visit.

The Stone Town waterfront is studded with elegant, white-washed, historic buildings, some fancy hotels, a well-used public garden which houses food stalls at night, and my favourite café – Archipelago – with open windows on three sides through which wind, light and the sound of the surf come rushing in.

We got to the Old Fort in time to catch Ellika and Solo, who commenced an inspired dialogue through their respective instruments – a fiddle and a kora. She is Swedish, he a Senegalese from the griot (storytelling) tradition that his country is famous for. A couple of bands later came “Dhow Crossing”, another enjoyable meeting of cultures. The band consists of teachers and students of a Zanzibari and a Norwegian music academy and combines taraab with Norwegian folk and western pop.

An amazing band that played that evening was Chibite, from central Tanzania. We had heard about the great musical tradition of the Wagogo tribe and this Wagogo group gave a wonderful performance that featured haunting singing, instruments such as the balafon, mbira and drums and energetic dancing by men and women in flamboyant, traditional costumes.

Truly mesmerizing were the sinuous, graceful movements of the smiling Rwandan women clad in flowing white and yellow robes that belonged to a troupe called Imena. The group gave a truly riveting performance with virtuoso drumming, singing and the charming display of easy athletic prowess by the men. Oh la la! I was struck by the Arabic-Asian feel of the dance and would love to learn it! Imena use their work as therapy and for cultural renewal, as a way to heal the deep scars of the genocide, says the festival brochure.

In stark contrast was Zemkala, a brash band from a brash town – Dar es Salaam! Their music came across as “modern Swahili” and youthful, and was accompanied by almost pornographic dancing by the two women! These lithe young ladies kept their clothes on, but their movements were so sexual that there was no need to take them off.

Sea and land

The next morning I escaped from the clamour of Stone Town to the Mbweni Ruins Hotel, 5 km South, with my Canadian colleague and friend, Kellie. Set in a lovely botanical garden, the hotel grounds also lay claim to the ruins of a 19th century Anglican mission. Here there used to be a chapel and a residential school for freed slave girls.

Lunch followed a walk in the grounds. The cliff top restaurant was the perfect spot for gazing at the sparkling, blue sea. The hotel itself is tastefully decorated and felt like heaven after ours.

Marc-Antoine, meanwhile, was pursuing his own love – diving. On his refresher diving trip off the coast of Stone Town he saw, and here I quote, “besides the usual shoals of colourful fish and corals, a small ray and a sizeable crab that was hiding under the debris of a shipwreck.” He stayed longer than me in Zanzibar and went diving off the North coast of the island where he saw a giant turtle, a lion fish, and another ray, besides incredibly beautiful fish. The lion fish is striking (google it!) and poisonous. He also saw a few cow fish, which are large and square. (Naming fish after land animals shows a singular lack of imagination, don’t you think?)

After Mbweni Ruins, we headed back to Stone Town for yet another fancy hotel – the Serena, where we had been promised a dhow race. The dhows were all lined up at the edge of the beach and looked picturesque enough but a strong wind was a blowin’ and this delayed the start by hours.

Some locals were dancing on the beach as part of the opening ceremony. A crazy Japanese tourist, in a black hat with holes in it, joined in. I decided to follow his good example. I have had compliments on my dancing here. My colleagues even gave Marc-Antoine and me money for our efforts, on one occasion! (Giving money to singers and dancers you like is a custom here.)

Thus ensued some wild dancing on the beach! We left after that. The dhows were still beached. I was sweat drenched, with sand in my hair and on my skin, which seemed so right.

Interesting encounters

At our hotel we ran into Pat, a Canadian who runs a centre on the island offering useful things like English classes, medical and educational services, with plans to expand into tourism training.

At a local café we ran into Errol, an Indo-Canadian who was travelling around the world. His last stop, India, had blown his mind, and I immediately commiserated! Errol and Jason, his Chinese-Canadian travelling mate, passed through Dar later and we had a great time at dinner with them.

Marc-Antoine met a Flemish couple while diving. They live for the time being in the nearby town of Morogoro. She is a chemist working with a demining (land mines) research project. They stayed with us overnight in Dar, enroute to a meeting in Mozambique.

On the last night, the hotel had no electricity. (This is getting repetitive.) The next morning, it ran out of water. It was clearly time to leave.

After booking my ferry ticket to Dar, I walked over to the local fish market. On the floor of the open-air market, lying in the dirt, were dead rays, still majestic. Some of them had flesh wounds. They were being sold for 8000 Tsh a piece. It made me sad. I think they are too big and interesting to be caught and eaten.

At another café with a sea view James; a crazy Irishman and world traveller, befriended me. We agreed that what holds humans back the most is fear, which is all in the mind. We compared notes on our African experience. James confessed that his heart was not really here and seemed relieved when I said mine was not either. Perhaps fear held us back? It could be that fear was one factor amid a jumble of complex reasons. James also spoke about having faith, how, if we need something, we may get it just a few hours before we need it, and perhaps not days before, when we want it to be there, to boost our comfort levels.

The festival had delivered wisdom in so many ways.

I boarded the overbooked ferry and sat on the deck, the wind in my hair, thinking of the gifts of song, dance and music. The gifts of the open sea and sky. The gift of life.

I resolved to try and attend one music festival every year. (The sounds of the festival were to reverberate in me for days.) I decided that one has to keep going, keep celebrating, despite fear, which I have experienced so viscerally lately. Because alongside fear, and because of it, lies immense beauty, and miraculous possibility.

Dear Friends and Family,

Hope you ended 2006 and started 2007 in good spirits and that you
continue in that vein. In this post I will report on the rather
disparate events over the last few months, since September ’06. Life
has been bittersweet and though this post may reflect more of the
bitter, rest assured that good things are happening too!

Here are the photos of our trip to hilly Lushoto over X-mas:

Lashing rain and electricity blues

Growing up with the monsoons in India, I was used to newspaper
headlines, at certain times of the year that read: Rain lashes city.
These were accompanied by pictures of people knee deep in murky
looking water, carrying those big, black umbrellas of yore, wading
stoically through the “water logged” streets. In Calcutta, I happily
missed school sometimes, thanks to lashing rain and water logging.

So when I came to Tanzania, I was looking forward to pounding,
pouring, gurgling, gushing rain, preceded of course by thunder and
lightening. (Nostalgia is a strange thing. It can make you long for
things, which, when actually delivered, you can’t wait to get rid of!)
In 2006, the official rainy season – March-May – came and went. Alas,
it was a damp squib. Missing was the melodrama – copious tears,
breast-beating, hand wringing, cries and imploring eyes, raised to the
heavens – the season doing a la Bollywood!

The wet and wild season arrived after all, but in the guise of late
winter, early summer rains. (I will remind you that the seasons are
reversed in the Southern hemisphere.) It was horrific for many. Lands
we associate with drought, like Somalia and Ethiopia, flooded (partly
due to excessive rain in Kenya) and some 1.8 million people were
affected in these three countries. Rain washed away bridges, flooded
and blocked roads, in Tanzania. International relief was delivered.
The issue was not much covered in local media, and now it has
completely disappeared!

0n 28 December ’06, we awoke to a mini flood of our own. The room
which serves as Marc-Antoine’s study has a leaky glass door and a bit
of rain has seeped through it, in the past. Combined with the balcony
drain not coping, and torrential rain at night, we had water all over
the floor! Marc-Antoine swung into action and scooped up 2 large
buckets of it, before tackling the balcony, which was even worse.

So now we have come a full circle (or maybe there is still some
distance to go?!) with electricity cuts, that at their height, went 12
hrs a day for about 3 months. On both sides of that period there were
lesser cuts. Our building water pump broke down twice, overnight once,
and over 3-4 days in November, not a drop coming out of any of the
taps and both our toilets are western-style! There was nowhere obvious
to get water or buy it.

Said Marc-Antoine the Wise: “We cannot remain isolated from the problems in this country.
” Or continent. Or the world. I thought.

We watched a DVD of Al Gore’s “An inconvenient truth” on global
warning, lately. A real-life horror flick (!) that makes me determined
to live a more environmentally friendly life. Have you seen it? If
yes, reactions please!

I am no stranger to power cuts or water shortages. We had ’em all in
dear ole India and still have them. But, there was a difference (or is
my memory failing me?!). Once the shortages established themselves,
the government made a plan, and by and large, stuck to it. They said
things like: You will get water for half an hour at 7 am and 7 pm
every day or you will not have electricity in your locality from 6 – 9
pm Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday.

While this situation is distinctly uncomfortable, one can live with
it. The lack of planning, and not sticking to plan, if a plan is
announced, continues to distress me, albeit much less than

The whole “electricity crisis” was the product of unsavory deals
with questionable corporations. Politicians and their families were
implicated in private. Speculation ran rife in the media. Documents
were unearthed. But one thing missing was a long, well-researched,
in-depth feature article about the electricity crisis.

True, some English newspaper columnists attempted to dig deeper and
provide a critical perspective. But a systematic analysis of how much
power was needed in Tanzania, for domestic and industrial use, how had
it been provided so far, how much was missing and why, what were the
different deals with corporations – existing, past and projected, how
did this fit within the power policy, was not to be had. At some point
the whole issue was pretty much dropped! Ah well. Crisis reporting
fatigue I suppose. And then the rains came, filled up the dams and
voila there was hydro electricity!

However, some of my colleagues and neighbours insist that the whole
thing is “political” i.e. that the government can produce and deliver
electricity at any time if it wants to. And won’t if it does not see
it as a priority. Only 11 per cent of the population has access to
electricity. There were no mass protests and interestingly no
urban-based protests either. So the ruling party, CCM, can still
expect to be voted back into power? And there are further scandals –
over buying an out-dated radar from the U.K. and the bribes involved
therein and a lot of money disappearing from the Bank of Tanzania!

The CCM’s popularity is falling. One top-down and inhumane measure: moving all street sellers who plied their trade in different parts of Dar into a market at one end
of the city (where most customers have never been!) True, these
sellers created some “chaos,” and it was said added to crime. Well,
the government could have created say 12 market areas in the different
parts of the city and allocated the traders places there. Cleared up
the streets but kept livelihoods and petty trade intact. After all the
sellers need to be near paying customers. Now they keep trying to
sneak back and are unmercifully removed by the cops. The fact that
they cannot earn even the meager amounts they used to may have added
to crime, perhaps?!

HakiElimu in trouble again

Some of you may remember reading in an earlier Dar Samachar that my
NGO had been “interdicted” by the government in September 2005. The
government was unhappy with our critical advocacy. Specifically, they
did not like a critique of their education policy in practice, which
was a compilation of their own evaluation reports. We had packaged and
distributed the message well; this is our forte.

They also hate our TV and radio “slots.” These are public-service ads
that depict some of the real-life problems in the education sector,
like teachers not getting paid on time, rural teachers not getting
decent housing, even as more and more schools are being built, the
macro economic growth of the country not trickling down to change the
actual lives of the rural poor, etc.

In September ’05 the government prohibited or constrained us from a)
undertaking or publishing research on schools, b) developing and
broadcasting spots and educational films c) distributing publications
to schools and d) representing civil society in education dialogue
forums with Government. We consulted lawyers and were told we were
legally in the clear. We cut back on some activities but essentially
carried on, partnering with other NGOs or networks to release our

When the elected representatives changed in the December ’06
elections, though they all belong to the CCM, the new President,
Ministers of Education and others seemed more progressive and dynamic,
so we expected change. We repeatedly sought dialogue with the
government all through ’06 to resolve the interdiction issue but
nothing much came of it.

In December ’06, we went on a planning retreat to near-by Bagamoyo.
On return to Dar, there was a confidential letter from the Prime Minister’s office
informing us that our “advertisements and publications that are being
published via radio, TV and other media have been prohibited by
Government.” If we continued there would be legal action.

In fact we have continued our work and gone public on the letters. We
are not (yet?) shut down! The government has also proposed lately a
so-called “Freedom of information” bill, which will effectively muzzle
the press, free expression and access to government information in
different ways. There is a vociferous protest. Freedom of information
bills, now operating in more than 60 countries worldwide, are supposed
to give citizens to government information on request, thus giving
citizens more agency.

Is our approach to advocacy effective and commendable then? This is a
debatable point and more on this perhaps in the next Dar Samachar.

Dignified brides

My supervisor, Robert, invited all office staff to a “send-off” for
his daughter Eva in December. I attended the event with a colleague.

The idea is to introduce the families of the bride and groom formally
and for the bride’s family to “send her off” officially. Seems like a
great ritual in societies where people are still attached to their
extended families. It would work well in India!

A solemn and dignified Eva, with her bridesmaid/ best woman/ best
friend beside her, was the centre of attention. Both families arrived
and settled down with great fanfare. (Of course everything was being
photographed and videoed.) There was a Master of Ceremonies who kept
up a constant patter, alas in Kiswahili! He also ordered the canned
music to be switched on and off as needed.

When everyone had settled down, a youth group did a song and dance
routine. There were also prayers and words spoken by the Father and
Mother. And perhaps, by the Father in Law. I can’t remember it all too
well now. Then, the entire Bride’s side of the family walked over, in
a line, to the Groom’s side and greetings were exchanged. After that,
you’ve got it, the Groom’s side walked over to the Bride’s!

Then Eva and her lady in waiting, descended slowly, from the decorated
stage, where they were seated all this time, over to the “wedding”
cake. Eva cut pieces of it and went and presented it to the Groom’s
family and then her own. (I was sad because the guests did not get
any!) Then Eva walked over to the Groom, knelt beside him, and the
bride and groom, with their best woman/ man, walked over to the dinner
buffet. They walked back onto the stage with their plates and ate
their dinner there, as if enacting in public a ritual they will live
practically every day in their married life. The Bride’s and Groom’s
families ate next, followed by the guests.

The send-off started and ended with social dancing and was a very
joyous and communal occasion. We observed that same spirit yesterday,
when Marc-Antoine and I went for the wedding reception of an
acquaintance. After that, we met friends at a popular night-club-bar
here, and raised a toast to Marc-Antoine, who turns 40 mid next week.

Au revoir for now…

On August 1, 2006, my mother, myself, Marc-Antoine and my brother Amar, embarked on an enthralling adventure. We went on a 10-day safari that started in the charming town of Moshi (Smoke in Swahili) in Northern Tanzania and continued through Tarangire National Park, home of giant baobab trees and elephants, to the edge of the wild, westerly Lake Eyasi, land of the hunter-gatherer Hadzabe people….

They sailed in from Madagascar, writes Thomas Pakenham, Irish, “extreme” tree lover and writer of “The Remarkable Baobab.” Imagine giant dhows full of giant baobabs making the voyage from Madagascar to the shores of East Africa! What really happened is more prosaic, but no less wondrous. It was the giant seedpods of the baobabs that bobbed over from the island to the mainland. And now baobabs can be found in most African countries. More…

Her head was large, her stance majestic, her gaze cool. She sat a few yards away from my window. Her pupils were a tawny brown, set among yellowish cornea. Around and on her played a couple of lion pups, whom she seemed indifferent to. My gaze was locked into hers. I felt hypnotized. And she? It was hard to tell. Her expression remained neutral throughout the “encounter.”More…

The two men sat on the earth, passing a chillum (hash pipe) back and forth. They were totally absorbed in the act, inhaling deeply, oblivious to us – camera-wielding tourists – that they had agreed to allow into their midst, for one morning. Marijuana and tobacco are among the few items the Hadzabe actually buy, predominantly living off hunting and food gathering. The marijuana was supposed to help them focus attention during the forthcoming hunt. (The women were not smoking.) More…

Tanzanian Encounters

An encounter with a thief

30 August 2006, Dar es Salaam

It happened in a flash. Mishaps often do. They are over before we fully register what’s going on. They seem “unpreventable” and I believe they mostly are. Except for people endowed with exceptional reflexes.

Two youngish men approached my brother, Amar, and I, from behind. We were walking down a dark and lonely road, a rather nice stretch in daylight that runs by the sea, in downtown Dar es Salaam, not very far from where we live.

This road had been marked as a no-no by knowing wazungus (foreigners) and cautious neighbours soon after my arrival here. I have often taken pre-dusk walks in the general area, leaving everything at home, except a tiny amount of money and the house keys.

Since the last few months I had become enamoured with the 9th floor bar in expensive hotel on the sea face. It had lovely views of the ocean, the harbor and the South shore of Dar, which houses some nice beaches. For a mere 2 or 3000TSh (less then US $2), one could sit gazing, sipping a soft drink or mocktail, munching the on-the-house garlic-bagels and bonus – being served by a young, good-looking waiter!

I had started going there with family members (my mom was visiting from India, later joined by my brother) and had become increasingly lax about security concerns. On that fateful day, I had gone there directly from work with my back pack which contained a nice new wallet (though not much cash), prescription glasses, house keys, calculator, a small “survival” notebook with my house address and my Canadian banking information (though in a kind of code) and other sundry items.

As the two men reached us, Amar, who’s well built and strong, sensed danger and swung his heavy backpack at one of them. The man fled. Meanwhile, the other guy grabbed my pack, which was dangling loosely from my arm. I tried to keep a hold on it but failed. The man ran off with it to the other side of the road and went in through a crude hole in a metal fence, into some bushes. Beyond the bushes lay the seashore. Beyond the fence, there was a basic eatery on the left and a small building of some kind on the right.

Amar was incensed and started to curse the thief. We crossed the road as he asked me what was in my bag. My mind was a perfect blank and minutes passed before I started to recall the contents.

Meanwhile, a passerby who had witnessed the incident told us that the man was probably a junkie and must be buying dope from dealers right by the building, even as we spoke. He suggested going after them with the police.

We stood indecisively by the ragged hole in the fence. Amar tried to get in. I was very conscious of the fact that Amar’s backpack held his passport and return ticket to India, which he had got confirmed earlier that day.

“Where’s the police station?” we asked the local man.
“Come with me,” he said.

We retraced our steps part of the way towards the Kilimanjaro Kempenski Hotel, where we had sat talking just minutes ago. He led us to a marine guard station. However, the armed marine guard at the place was understandably reluctant to come along; there was no one else at the station right then.

The local man told us where the police station was. It was along the same seaside road, a five-minute drive from where we were. We went back to the Kempenski Hotel and took a cab. Taking a cab from Kempenski is what we should have done in the first place!

The police station was small, dingy and minimally equipped. For instance, it lacked a phone! There was one person there, already registering a case. We waited our turn for about 10 minutes. Then a sweet-faced policeman with a smiling countenance registered our case in Kiswahili.

He asked me for my religion and ethnic group which threw me off a bit, but interestingly not my citizenship! Perhaps he assumed I was Indo-Tanzanian? He said that going back to the seashore then was impossible and that if we returned the next morning, it could be done.

By this time I was slowly beginning to accept that I was probably never going to see my bag again. As we started walking back home from the police station, for a curious and all too brief moment, I experienced a sort of lightness of being. I was without a prized possession; the loss was certainly going to be a hassle. It would mean changing the house lock, getting new prescription glasses, and so on. Yet there was that fleeting sense of freedom. Freedom from what? Materialism? Attachment?!

I thought of the delightful movie I had seen called “Enlightenment Guaranteed”. Two German brothers land up in Tokyo. One of them is going on a meditation retreat, the other, very sorry for himself, is tagging along, having just been jilted by his wife. Soon after arrival, they go out and cannot find their hotel again! Then they lose their credit card to a bank machine… So there they are, marooned in an alien city, sans language, seemingly having lost everything… and on their path to “enlightenment”.

One thing I knew: I wanted to return to the “scene of the crime”, ideally that very night. I discussed this with Amar. My rationale was that if the thieves were junkies and in a hurry, they might have taken the most useful things from my bag like the money, glasses, phone, and thrown away the notebook or even the backpack. Amar felt that even if this had happened, we would not find anything in the dark.

All this time my mother and Marc-Antoine had been at home. There had been no way to call them. When we got home, I left Amar to tell the tale while I dashed into the washroom and then got myself something to eat. By then I felt drained, but still managed to persuade Amar and Marc-Antoine to come with me to the seashore. We took a cab, “armed” with torches, an umbrella and a “fortified” backpack.

I had the strongest urge to go back, though it was not something I could explain rationally. I pretty much knew that the pack was gone forever; but I simply had to “see.”

And see we did. We stopped the cab near the hole in the fence and went through it. On the other side were a garbage-littered beach and a squatter colony. There must have been approximately 30 people, scattered here and there, mostly men, some sleeping amid the bushes, one had covered himself with cardboard, while others were sitting around. A couple of the men seemed a bit drunk.

They were quite open to us going into the area and looking around after we had explained what had happened, mostly in English. Towards the end of our search, which unearthed nothing, we met a couple of men who were rather belligerent. Well, we were tramping around on their home ground after all.

The brief encounter with this squatter colony really helped me “get over” the loss of the bag. These people were so marginalized; they had nothing, at least materially, so how could I get worked up over a loss which is finally of little financial consequence to me? (I was propped up, in typical middle-class fashion, by health insurance and my generous family members.) One “real” loss would have been my cell phone. (My first was stolen anyhow.) But I discovered the next day that I had forgotten it at work!

Who can really blame these people for drug dealing, if that’s what they do? Their options are probably very limited.

Neither could I bear a grudge against the “junkies.” I had witnessed down-and-out junkies, in filthy rags, close at hand, as a journalist in Bombay, in the mid-1980s, high on Brown Sugar, lying by the roadside, completely in its grip. One can hardly hold junkies responsible for their behaviour, which is not to say that people should not be protected, or protect themselves, from being robbed by them!

When I lived close to downtown Vancouver, junkie town indeed, I had been struck by the general acceptance of the Vancouverites when junkies broke into their cars, and even their homes, to grab what they could. The approach of some of my pals had been to leave their cars unlocked! I had been appalled then, thinking, “they should protect their possessions better”. Now I feel I have a better understanding of their behaviour.

Since the theft had occurred at 7.30 pm, there had hardly been any people around. This was a blessing too, as I am told that when crowds manage to catch a thief here, they beat him to pulp and at times to death. That would not have helped the junkie any. He needs detoxification and rehabilitation; not a tooth-for-a-tooth kind of punishment. It was also a good thing that we had not gone there with the police. The people there might have been harassed. In any case the police must know about the existence of this colony.

Amar had talked about how the Bombay police use “sources” to pick up regular, petty thieves and often reclaim robbed property. “If they want, the police here can catch these thieves,” he had said.

If I had been robbed at knifepoint, as a black, Tanzanian, woman colleague and a white, woman, mzungu (foreigner) friend have been, my reaction might have been quite different. Tanzanians overall are not aggressive at all, even though a lot of thefts take place in Dar. I had believed that I was invulnerable. I had mostly taken precautions. When I let my guard down, I had paid for it. Now I know I must be vigilant and walk around with minimal possessions, after dark.

I am always awe struck by the fact that millions of people, here and else where, are leading the most materially deprived lives imaginable. Yet these people are very decent. They simply do not steal or commit violent acts.

I recall walking around street people, sleeping on the pavements, on my way to a suburban railway station in Mumbai, two decades ago. I was well dressed and had some money in my purse. I wondered then why one of them didn’t just rise up, strike me, grab my purse and run.

I don’t believe it is just the fear of reprisal that keeps these people in check. I believe it is their basic humanity, still present despite all the hardships they are undergoing.

June 24, 2005 – is a date stamped on my passport. It is not stamped in red but it should be. This was when I landed at Dar es Salaam airport, over a year ago. The airport is inevitably named after Julius Nyerere – Father of the Nation.

My first impression of Dar was unremarkable. It met my expectation of a large city in an African country. I soon came to like it. I found it very “liveable” and still do.

I immediately started work at HakiElimu, the NGO I was contracted to work with. About two months after my arrival, I was given a collection of Nyerere’s speeches on education to proof read. We had already published a first volume of his writings on education. Our annual work plan for 2005 promised a second volume.

On July 14 this year, this second volume of Nyerere’s writings went to the printer. We don’t have the printed copies yet but they are expected soon. Incredibly, it has taken nearly a year to produce this book, which was supposedly nearly ready to print when it first came into my hands!

This was frustrating process, but as I reflect back on my year here, trying to capture the lessons learnt, I think: maybe a year is the appropriate amount of time needed to produce this second volume after all. Who is to judge this and against what yardstick?

Am I beginning to get it?!

NGOs, donors, and the international aid business in general love “lessons learnt.” Some projects stipulate that we learn our lessons quickly and then rapidly adapt and apply them elsewhere. But learning is a continuous and life-long process. (The great Brazilian educator and activist, Paulo Freire has written brilliantly on this theme.) Deep reflection and profound learning take time. That is why projects with a long-term vision have a much better chance of success. This brings me to social movements.

It seems that there are multiple reasons why some social movements “work” while some NGO projects “fail”. In social movements, change comes from the grassroots, people actually want it and in fact initiate it, while some NGOs, specially in the past, imposed change.

I don’t want to give the impression that all is fine with social movements. I know NGOs more intimately than social movements. I have read about the latter, intersected with them at work and in my personal life, written about them as a journalist and known some people who have worked within that frame. Social movements can go horribly wrong. Yet those that have worked have delivered some amazing results: like a variety of human and animals rights legislation and practice. Democracy. Freedom of expression. Universal education. The list is very long and inspiring.

It seems sometimes as if some NGOs are conducting experiments which are not very well thought out. And whose impact is not well measured. There is no doubt that the goals NGOs set out for themselves, and which the donors agree to fund, are extremely challenging. There are few “reliable” answers to the question of how to bring about social change. NGOs operate within the context of some very complex, socio-economic forces. Possibly the lessons learnt have not dug deep enough, not been captured very well and have been hard to put into practice.

In my experience, some NGOs do not have a real willingness to listen and learn. They are run and staffed by mostly middle-class professionals who may be out of touch with the poor, marginalized, yet resourceful “beneficiaries”. The bulk of the people who work in NGOs are intelligent, skilled and committed (again in my experience), but the system within which they operate may not permit analysis that does really in-depth, real innovation and a rigorous self-evaluation and learning model.

So much for yet another Veena-style overarching critique! What have I learnt then about life, and about myself in this past, challenging and rewarding year? A lot of the things I am going to say next will sound like clichés, but hey, many clichés seem to have come alive for me here!

Soma Moja – Lesson 1
Take not anything for granted; judge not other cultures through your cultural lens

This is surely obvious, especially when you are in a foreign country. But the human mind uses patterns to keep going and tends to cling to beliefs acquired in other countries/ contexts, even in the face of the strongest evidence to the contrary. Of course this sort of clinging can only lead to distress.

Keeping an open mind is tough, in a “baffling” foreign country, but worth aiming for over and over again. It helps you personally and it helps the world. Win-win or what!

Soma Mbili – Lesson 2
Humans are emotionally rather than rationally motivated

Yah! I think our hearts, spirits, the so-called “irrational” parts of ourselves mostly guide our lives though some of us are very skilled at justifying this in rational terms!

Corollary: You cannot fake/force emotions

I have lived in 8 other cities and contexts besides Dar/Tanzania. Five of these were in India and three in Canada. I have felt at home in 6, though the initial entry in some was not easy. It seems that either you consider a place home or you don’t. (Of course there are rational reasons for this – ha ha – but they do not tell the whole story.) You can’t force that feeling of home, though you can learn to deal better with the alienation. Time, reflection, spiritual tools help.

It’s particularly interesting in Dar, as being back in the tropics is very comforting for me in a direct and tangible way. My heart lifts every time I look at the light blue day sky and the deep blue night sky, see green trees and flowering plants year-round, feel the caress of a just-cool sea breeze, catch a glimpse of the Indian ocean, walk along a sandy beach.

But under this is a layer of psychic discomfort, that “not at home” feeling. I spent some of last year saying to myself “I will feel at home here sometime.” Lately I have started telling myself though that I may not feel at home here anytime and this is OK too. This admission has come as a relief. Ergo you cannot force your heart to feel one way or another… At the same time you can try to move beyond the negative emotions and not get stuck in them.

Soma Tatu – Lesson Three
Language binds or separates

It obviously aids comprehension and its lack compounds confusion. Working in a mostly Kiswahili environment has led me to some understanding of how it must feel being disabled! You miss out on information, nuance, context, even if your colleagues fill you in and you strain to comprehend. I have made peace with my identity here as an expat. But I wish I had had more time and resources to keep studying Kiswahili.

Still I have managed to get work done here, and done it well, so I should celebrate that as well. And my situation has given me a better handle on the English-French language controversies in Canada.

Soma Nne – Lesson Four
Life can be so unfair!

I consider myself socially committed and hold the belief that life can become fair someday for most, even all, people. However, the appalling extent of “disempowerment” of the majority of Tanzanians has come as a shock, a slap in the face of the ideal of social justice.

I still believe strongly that social justice is worth working towards and fighting for. I believe that there is no alternative. But I feel I am facing the full complexity and challenge of the “how can this be possible” at a much deeper level than ever before. Right now I feel somewhat overwhelmed. All the more reason to keep going.

Some important questions to ask in this context: How do the people who NGOs are trying to bring justice to, see justice? What do they want and at what pace?

Soma Tano – Lesson Five
People are basically decent

Confirmed here yet again as it has been in all situations in the past. Given the tough lives most of them lead, it is surprising and heartening how much “humanity” they have managed to hang on to.

Soma Sita – Lesson Six
Count your blessings but don’t deny your pain

I am privileged. I come from a middle-class background, live better than the majority here and am an employed professional, amid a sea of poverty, want and powerlessness. Ergo I should always be thankful and I have absolutely nothing to complain about. Wrong!

I agree that money makes misery more enjoyable, as the saying goes! I escape to “wazungu” enclaves and treat myself when I am under stress. I know I am here for a finite time. But one cannot and should not deny that this kind of a move to an entirely new culture brings challenges, stresses and worries. It’s important to acknowledge the darker emotions, but not wallow in them. This is what Buddhism says: Become curious about your pain! Feel it, live it, but do not use it to cause harm, understand it, go beyond it.

Soma Saba – Lesson Seven
Nature provides continuity, beauty, comfort wherever I am.

A big hand then for Mama Nature who is so beautiful and bountiful, even though some of her children seem hell-bent on draining her dry! Hurrah for the environmentalists too!

Soma Nane – Lesson Eight
You can depend on books

To transport you to other worlds, other realities. I have really enjoyed and gained a lot from a variety of books from the wonderful HakiElimu library. I have read fiction, a range of how to books, including books on web writing and design, marketing and copy writing, books on development, education, management, and dazzlers like Malcolm Gladwell’s – “The Tipping Point” and “Blink”.

Soma Tisa – Lesson Nine
Living abroad makes you value and appreciate home better

Though I am told there will be reverse culture shock on return and a probable re-evaluation of home. (Hey – I’d rather just hang out at the beach than learn all these lessons, but oh well… there’s no escaping life or one’s self is there?!)

Soma Kumi – Lesson Ten
Being unhealthy really sucks

But you still gotta keep goin’! Health problems related to allergies to mould, etc., surfaced for me here.

But I have stopped getting worked up when I fall sick. Instead I actually laugh and get on with the caretaking. I have had to learn to do a bit less, pottering around the house some weekends and read.

ALL IN ALL, IT’S BEEN QUITE A RIDE! I have lost my sense of humour from time to time but mostly retained it and that’s been the greatest saving grace. Laughing at the various “situations” and my reaction to these has helped a lot.

Perhaps the final lesson should be – Hang on to your sense of humour. And don’t take yourself or life too seriously. This is particularly true of work. I have learnt to take pleasure and pride in smaller accomplishments, adjusting to the fact that it takes much longer here to get things done.

This is a collection from a Safari operator:

Dear Friends and Family,

I hope that this instalment of Dar Samachar finds you fresh and expectant, what with Spring about to arrive in Canada and the monsoons in India. It’s raining here as I write. We’ve had some, but not enough rain, it seems. People and the media do not wax endlessly eloquent about the weather here, so it’s hard to know if the rains have made a significant dent in the three year drought or not.

I am in fine fettle, while dear Marc-Antoine survived a recent hard disk crash on his computer with remarkable resilience. (Since his thesis was fully backed up, that was not an issue). The fact that he was able to put in an older hard disk also helped. He is racing towards a mid-to-late May deadline, to submit his magnum opus. His Masters thesis stands at 266 pages of single-lined text in what I suspect is fairly heavy duty French. I know that the theory chapter takes on Habermas, Weber, Foucault, et al.

My mother-in-law lately expressed regret that I have not been able to read this brilliant piece of work and I assured her that with another decade of French study under my belt, I will be equal to the task! Frankly, my main interest in the thesis for a while now has been its completion! Though I expect other computer programming related obsessions to take over rather promptly. Still, at least those are related to the cash economy!

Soon after setting up house here in Dar, I discovered Tanga Fresh. This is a line of good quality milk products, produced in Tanga, Tanzania’s second busiest port city, located 200 km North of Dar. I am particularly partial to their yogurt. So I had a positive impression of Tanga well before I decided to go there on Easter weekend.

I set out with two colleagues, Elisabeth and A, to this formerly important slave and ivory trade centre, which had developed under Omani Arab domination. Then came German control, a failed nationalist uprising, a World War I skirmish between German and Allied troops (consisting mostly of Indian soldiers) and British conquest.

Tanga’s fortune in the early decades of the 20th century was built on sisal plantations.
() Once a major source of fibre for making ropes and sacks, the invention of synthetic textiles such as nylon, after WW II, caused the collapse of the sisal market, from which Tanga, in a sense, never fully recovered.

I was also going Tanga to visit a cousin, S, who had come there from India, to work on building a furnace for an iron and steel factory. I had not seen him for a decade.

The industrious Elisa got to the Dar bus station early and bought our tickets. But alas, when she got in, she found our seats already occupied by a fat lady and her smallish son. No amount of argument from her or other bus passengers, who tried to intervene on our behalf, budged her. Had the company double-booked? We never found out. Elisa managed to sit next to her, and the conductor found front seats for A and me.

The bus was choc-a-bloc with standing passengers. Poor A, sitting in the very front seat, got the worst of it. The conductor, leaning against the door, managed to suspend himself about an inch above her thigh and remained in this position for most of the journey. I teased A on disembarking that I considered her practically engaged to the man! “Oh we are married,” she replied gamely.

The bus made numerous stops, with the passengers hopping off for washroom breaks. At one point, bags of charcoal were loaded onto the back of the bus. The driver drove fast, if skilfully, between these halts. I felt sympathetic towards him. After all, his job was to drive, not to hang around at stops.

The chador-clad, young woman next to me, who was replenishing her make-up stock through the vendors who boarded the bus at the various stops, craned her neck most of the way to watch the road. It seemed that most of the passengers in the front were watching the road rather anxiously. These long distance buses have a reputation for reckless driving. Luckily, I am pretty shock proof re road behaviour, post-India.

Lake or sea?

My cousin dropped E and A off at a modest hotel, at their request, and we adjourned to his quarters on the factory premises. Later, we went into the town centre. It was remarkably clean, and had a pleasant feel, comprising of a mixture of older and newer buildings. When we remarked on the seemingly fresh swept streets, a passer by assured us that the ‘Swahili’ part of town was not like this at all.

We took a cab to Ras Kazone, the more affluent part of town, on a peninsula to the East of the centre, where we saw Indo-Tanzanians and black Tanzanians swimming at separate water-front “clubs.” A note on so-called black Tanzanians – the skin colour ranges from light coffee to pitch black and the features reflect a racial mixture as well.

The bay was tranquil and looked like a lake with placid little waves, rather than a piece of the Indian Ocean. Elisa, who’s Swiss, remarked on how familiar the landscape appeared, and I concurred. We sat at a waterfront restaurant, admiring a lightening display etched on the horizon. The line of land we could see across the water also fostered the lake impression.

Next morning, we backtracked for half an hour, to a small town called Muheza. From here, we intended to find our way to the Amani Nature Reserve. Muheza is at the foot of the Eastern Usambara Mountains, which are covered with an astonishingly rich and complex tropical rainforest.

We found a daladala headed for Amani, which means peace; a few minutes walk from the bus station. The daladala had dark windows and was stuffed to the gills with people and luggage, mostly foodstuff that people wanted to cart up the hills. We got seats at the back, but I felt a sudden peaking of my claustrophobia, which made me scramble out and claim a seat in the front, with the driver and another passenger.

The Garden of Eden

Onward rushed our daladala through villages with the usual baked brown huts and cute little kids to wave at. The tree cover was lush and diverse and we spotted birds and baboons. The road curved and we climbed gradually. Suddenly, there was a shout; a thump and the daladala came to a halt. The back door, which had been slammed shut with great difficult, over the excess luggage, had flown open, scattering stuff on the road! Elisa had suggested this as a distinct possibility.

I ran to rescue my backpack, making a mental note keep any breakables in the carry-on backpack next time. A cardboard box had opened incongruously scattering fish on that mountain road!

We repacked and went on. The air turned cool and fragrant and we entered the gates of the official Reserve. The East Usambara rainforests are said to contain 2000 species of plants and 230 species of trees, many of them found nowhere else but here. There are also 200 types of butterflies and 350 types of birds! Since we were using local transport, we could stay only overnight, but we still got a feel of this vast treasure house of nature.

We passed boards that told us there were research centres on malaria, tea, etc as we headed for the Amani Conservation Centre Rest House. With its log cabin rooms, it reminded me of Canada. The place was efficiently run, with simple but healthy meals provided at the dinning room next door. And had running water and electricity.

Soon after lunch, we set out for a walk with a guide whose pet name was Africa! (Oh the simplicity complacency and of wazungus.) It was beautiful to walk on a forest trail, rich with brown leaves on red earth. Many trees had creepers growing on them. The fecundity was indeed what one associates with a rainforest.

We saw wild cardamom plants, a tree whose seeds gives a rich butter which Unilever uses to make Blueband margarine, plants that served as aphrodisiacs (inevitably!), trees that yield quinine, medicinal plants that the locals use for curing stomach upsets, twigs they chew on to clean their teeth, wild mushrooms and berries and so on. There were a variety of fan-like palms to be seen on the mountainsides leading into the valleys.

Africa told us that at first people with malaria had died from drinking the boiled bark of quinine, as they had not known the right dosage to take. He pointed to a poisonous plant, which the larvae of certain butterfly species feed on. They are immune to the poison, but the birds that try to feed on these butterflies, die. Africa pointed out to a tree – an invasive species introduced by the Germans that was attempting to take over the forest – leading to some uncharitable remarks about this nationality.

There was a plant there, which the Chaggas, a business-oriented ethnic group whose original home is at the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro, use for peace making. The wrongdoer cuts off the top of the plant and carries it to a meeting of the community or elders. He or she is then forgiven.

Soon we got to the look out point. The top of the hill had coniferous trees, cypress species and lichen on the ground. From this point we could see the surrounding hills and valleys, a village in a distance and a tea plantation on the opposite hillside. We heard bird song and saw a flutter of wings, and some wild flowers and butterflies. We sat down here for quite a while and came down to the rest house with some reluctance.

That night the moon shone like a beacon of hope, the light so dazzling white and pure, that we gazed hypnotised. It had drizzled and then rained towards sunset, but the sky had cleared up at nightfall.

We had a rude awakening the next morning, as our daladala arrived at 6 am instead of the expected 6.30. Sitting sleep-eyed in the lurching daladala (the road is only a dust track, rocky in parts), I saw a golden-pink sunrise. The dew-drenched leaves shone with a special radiance, as the first rays of the sun kissed the high treetops. It seemed that the world had just been born, even if such a profusion of flora must have taken some time to emerge.

It took one way back to a time when forests clothed our blue and lonely planet, and reigned supreme. What a change had been wrought through the millennia! Instead of living in and with the forests, humans now create “protected” areas like this Reserve. How pathetic and sad is our alienation from nature and the continuing degradation of our environment!

The daladala rolled down to Muheza, from where we were headed for Pangani beach. At this point, I was beginning to question the conducted tour approach of our trip and longing for my bed in Dar! But a breakfast of mandazi (the local and nicer version of donuts), meat samosas and spiced, milky tea restored me to the call of the road again. After all, we were headed for a freebie – my cousin’s Indo-Tanzanian boss owned a posh hotel where we were going to be hosted overnight.

River, ocean, sky

We took a rattletrap of a taxi, which rode roughshod over a mostly red earth road, this time through a landscape of small villages, and lush palm trees. Instead of a gas tank, this cab had a plastic container with a tube running out of it!

We passed through drier parts with bushes and thorny trees and a whole section where the poor trees seemed to have browned due to the prolonged drought. Pangani is another former slave trade town, but we saw little of the place. We crossed the Pangani River, which joins the sea here, by a small ferry, to the other shore called Mashado. Then we drove up to the elegant, Spanish-villa style Mashado Beach Resort.

Perched on a cliff, with manicured lawns, it has fantastic views of the Pangani creek and town on one side and the curve of the bay, lined with mangroves, on the other. It was view that one could watch for hours. This is exactly what we did, sitting at a gazebo perched at the edge of the cliff. At night we sat under a starry sky, a cool breeze wafting over us.

The Resort must have been owned at one time by a book lover, as the rooms, as well as a cosy library in the main building, were stocked with somewhat dated British novels from the mid-20th century, as well as classics like Vanity Fair. All the books were either hardcover or nicely bound. In my room there were books on useful topics like how to grow roses and race a boat!

We set out on our return journey the next morning. We crossed the ferry hoping to get a cab on the other side. But there was none to be had. So we walked the 15-20 minutes to the small market. Elisa and A chose to stay put here. We were to catch a bus to Muheza, from here. My cousin and I took the lone cab to the beach for a quick dip.

The real beach, which is highly regarded, is probably further on. What we got to dip into was the overflow of the Pangani River, plus the sea, over clayey sand. It was wonderfully refreshing all the same and I was happy to have dragged my cousin into the Indian Ocean. I am very Hindu that way and strongly believe in immersing myself, or at the very least, wading knee deep through a body of water to forge a real connection to it.

A shady deal

Back at the market, my cousin found a bus going directly to Tanga and decided to go back on it. Our bus was supposed to come at 12 am and leave at 12.30, but even by 12.50, there was no sign of it. We needed to make our Muheza-Dar connection at 3.30 and the trip back would take about 2 hours.

There was only that one rattletrap of a cab in evidence, the same one that had taken us to the beach. A was assigned the unenviable task of bargaining for a fair price, since she had the best Swahili. Finally a price was agreed upon, but A indicated that she did not feel that the taxi owner was very reliable. We had already decided that we would go with the driver alone and not have a second guy in the cab.

We loaded our luggage and were about to set off when the cab owner jumped in. We protested strongly till the guy got off. Our driver drove first to a gas station and after filling up, swung the cab onto a narrow road. There were a lot of trees but not much else around and as he kept driving on a sand track we asked him why he was not taking the main road.

This was a shortcut, he explained, which would soon join the main road. We drove on, with distinct misgivings. The road was lonely; what was to stop this guy from driving us to a pre-arranged destination?

None of us spoke and I rationalised that since he was one of the two cabbies in town and we had many witnesses, he would not really dare to do any mischief. Still, I was not fully convinced and offered up a prayer to Lord Ganesh!

We all heaved a sigh of relief when the cab finally swung on to the main road. It was not so clear whether we would make it to Muheza as this vehicle seemed in a worse state than the earlier one and was going more slowly. The door on the driver’s side would swing open every now and then and he would grab it shut! If the car had to breakdown, I hoped it would do so further down the road where there were some villages at least. Dinky little Muheza suddenly seemed very attractive. It had cabs, buses, electricity to charge our cell phones with, and places to eat and sleep!

Slow but steady was our progress, the red dust starting to swirl till it had blown into the cab and settled down on our clothes and belongings. We made it to Muheza and got our onward connection only at 4 pm. We even saw a rainbow on our way back. And that is how Lord Ganesh received an offering of Indian sweets the next day!

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