Africa in Review: Part 1: The Good the Bad and the Ugly

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There is nothing quite like dropping the statement “I am moving to Africa” into a conversation to bring complete speechlessness to others. I remember telling people when the topic came up, and their reaction was universally the same. Complete silence. Followed by an open mouth with no words coming out, inevitably followed by an attempt at “WO… WOWwwoooh” and lots of head nodding. Friends were perhaps a little more polite, telling me how brave and adventurous I was, but quickly asserting that they would not be coming to visit and could never do it themselves. To be frank, most people thought I had lost my mind; and to be truthful there were a few times these past 2 years when I may have agreed with them. The moments with no water, no power, no Internet, or having close calls on the roads in the back seats of too many vehicles, I did sometimes question my own sanity….never for very long though.

It was however my dad’s response, which I remember the most clearly. The job in Tanzania had come about unexpectedly, in less than a week I had gone from being a couple of months away from moving back to Sydney for good, to signing a 2 year contract to live in a city I had never heard of, in a country I had never been to, on a continent I had only ever dreamed about. Two Skype interviews and a job offer later I recall saying to my prospective boss “Thank you, I really want this job, but I do have one slight problem, my entire family and all of my friends in Sydney are expecting me home in a few months. So I will have to break the news to them that I am now in fact moving to Africa for 2 years”. I called my long-suffering parents who should know me well enough by now to expect such shenanigans, and was greeted by the answering machine. Granted it was not one of the best decisions a daughter could make when delivering such an announcement, but in my excitement I chose to leave a message: “HI MUM HI DAD…. I have some GOOD NEWS! You know how I was moving back home? Well I just got offered a job in TANZANIA, so I think I will be moving to Africa for 2 years instead. Isn’t that great?” I imagine it took only seconds for my father upon hearing those 5 words “I am Moving To Africa”, to type the following text message, “NAT ARE YOU ON DRUGS????? AFRICA??? Piracy, rape, terrorism, HIV…MOVE SOMEWHERE CIVILISED!” Hmm, I remember thinking to myself, I think that went down as well as could be expected.

A day later I received an email from him, containing the security alert information pertaining to Tanzania, as issued by the Department of Foreign Affairs. After a little research of my own on their conservative rankings of dangerous locales worldwide, I had great pleasure in pointing out that even America was at that stage rated on the same cautious website as being only marginally safer than Tanzania on account of an impending terrorist alert. I suggested that perhaps he should seriously reconsider his upcoming vacation to Hawaii as it might not be safe. A week later and resigned to the fact that I was not going to change my mind, he called me. “Nat I have been thinking, if you are going to Africa, then I want you to take out insurance”. Thinking I was one step ahead of the game on this one I told him “no problem, I already have it, house and contents, travel and the school offers full health coverage”, “No you don’t understand, not that type of insurance, I want you to take out hostage insurance, if you are taken by pirates we may not be able to pay the ransom”. He was completely serious. Thanks dad. What are fathers for if not to think of every logistical scenario possible? It doesn’t always sit well with my spontaneous decision-making tendencies, but pragmatism is a good quality at times….only not this time.

Sure Africa can be a scary place, life can be cheap, the problems sometimes seem unbearable and if I am honest, it has been the hardest place I have lived. But it is also the only place where natural spectacles have repeatedly brought tears to my eyes, given me goose bumps and left me speechless on more occasions than I can count. The physical landscapes, the colours, the people. Ahh, the people. Their vibrancy, their generosity, their kindness.

As far as continents go, Africa is still largely misunderstood. Even in this age it is still very much the Dark Continent, when it comes to what people know and understand of it. To many it is simply that far off place stricken by disease, starvation, conflict and poverty. Sure, there are things to be fearful of, but let’s be specific. There are 54 countries on the continent and most of them are not plagued by civil war. It often seems that there is little good news to report on Africa if you listen to Western media, news broadcasts and Hollywood action films. I think it’s about time we evened up the balance. My goal upon leaving Tanzania is to be the best PR representative that the country has ever known. I want people to go and visit and see for themselves the charms, the sights, the people and the bucket list locations.

Fear is a terrible thing. It creeps up on us the older we get. Perhaps it is on account of having too much free time to think through the scenarios of bad situations, or perhaps it is an in-built self-preservation mechanism to save us from harming ourselves. It is what stops me from bungee jumping or learning to ride a skateboard, or surfing or for some people travelling. We need fear. But we also need to balance it out rationally. I am not afraid of driving, yet it is perhaps the most dangerous thing we do and we do it daily. People are afraid of Africa. Perhaps I was too, but I am glad it didn’t stop me from taking a leap of faith to find out for myself what it was like. There was you see, an overriding fear, that foreseen regret of being a 90-year-old woman with a walking cane thinking “I wonder what it would have been like in Africa?”

This blog is an attempt to remember the moments, which summed up what it was all about, the good, the bad and the ugly. The challenges, the lessons I learned and most of all those memories, which made it all so worthwhile. When you find yourself living outside your comfort zone with continual challenges and insights, there are far too many of those moments to write about. Often far more than this blog can cope with (and I know you find that hard to believe with my average posts being 3000 words), but I will try.

You know you are in Africa when…..

  1. You have to look for eggs with YELLOW YOLKS at the supermarket, or “Yellow Yorks” as the labelling often confusingly reads. In Dar, egg yolks are often white and taste like fish, on account of the chickens being fed fishmeal.
  1. You remind yourself you are not entering a war zone or refugee camp when you arrive at your local nightclub to see UN marked white Land Cruisers parked outside. Peacekeepers need a social life too you know!
  1. Instead of the usual Hollywood chatter and mundane dry gossip mongering your hairdresser starts telling you about witchcraft and cannibalism.
  1. You find yourself taking barjajs (tuk tuks) everywhere, even just when ducking out to buy milk.
  1. While sitting in the back seat of a barjaj, to go and pick up some milk, your driver gives way to 2 men and 2 goats riding a motorbike.
  1. You don’t even notice 5.
  1. Your closest gym is comprised of 20-year old rusty equipment sitting on the sidewalk.
  1. When the unemployed and those who are out of work take it upon themselves to find something useful to do in their community. They will commonly erect a red flag by the side of the road, put a tin next to it for collecting voluntary contributions and go about fixing potholes in the road. Now that’s what I call initiative!
  1. You wake up one Sunday morning to find 5 men with semi-automatic weapons and a truckload of prisoners wearing bright orange uniforms doing community service in your front yard.
  1. When someone says “we’ll get it on the way”. They do not mean we will call in to a store to pick it up on our way to our destination. They literally mean, we will buy it while we are sitting in the car in traffic as the vendors will walk beside the car selling nearly everything that anyone could ever need and quite often what you don’t. Electrified mossie zapper anyone??? How about a rabbit or a puppy? Naa, don’t need those, then maybe just some coat hangers, a hat stand, a reflective triangle, a giant map of Africa, a fish tank complete with fish and a fire extinguisher for today?
  1. Your ‘local’ is a Container Bar. Yes, bars (and even hair salons) are commonly situated on the side of the road in shipping containers. I suspect that there are more shipping containers being used for these purposes in Africa than there are on ships sailing the oceans of the world.
  1. Friends don’t give you their address, but rather directions to their house which read something like “turn right at oil com, drive down the bumpy road, turn right at the container bar, down the other bumpy road with the tree in the middle until you see the black gate and our house is on your left”.
  1. When filling in forms you are asked complicated questions you very often can’t answer such as “What tribe are you from?”
  1. You never go on holidays without a few rolls of toilet paper and a malaria self-test kit.
2 Responses to “Africa in Review: Part 1: The Good the Bad and the Ugly”
  1. colin says:

    another GREAT STORY nat uncle col xxx

    • Col thanks for coming to visit, I knew you would love it. I just wish we could do it all again tomorrow. See you at Christmas. Nat x
      PS: John is coming to visit me next week, the pressure is on to find something entertaining to do after our African adventure, not much can live up to that.

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