Africa In Review: Part 2 The Good, the Bad….

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THE GOOD: What I will miss:

1. THE TANZANIAN PEOPLE: In particular, their insatiable sense of humour. And how they can be so jovial at any hour, despite the circumstances. Whether it be at 7am in the morning catching the bus to work or while sucking fuel out of a gas tank of a vehicle (because 3 stupid Mzungu girls put diesel instead of petrol into the tank, hmm hmmm) what would take me more than a few cups of coffee or some saintly levels of patience and tolerance to achieve, seems to come naturally to the Tanzanians. They are warm and generous people. I remember sitting at a table in a restaurant with other diners who I did not know. When their food arrived before mine, they offered to share it with me even though we were total strangers. Their generosity was not the exception. It is considered rude in Swahili culture to eat in front of others. Impressive in a country where good nutrition is not often achievable. A barjaj driver I didn’t know, once offered me a sip of his Coca Cola, because he thought it was rude to drink it while I was a passenger in his vehicle. Not that you would perhaps want it to, but can you imagine that happening while riding a taxi in your city?

Respect for elders and the culture of engaging in conversation by first asking a series of questions as to the welfare of you and your family is another characteristic of the culture that I have come to love, perhaps because such civility is largely lost in my own. I once gave a waiter in a restaurant my cell phone so he could explain to a taxi driver where to pick me up. The conversation lasted about 5 minutes, on account of the waiter having to engage in a series of civilities before he could even make it clear what he was calling for. How are you? How is your day? How is your work? How is your family? While I sat impatiently thinking, come on get to the point would you. Again they were total strangers, but good manners dictated such politeness. As does greeting those who are older than you with the phrase “shikamoo”, indicating the reverence shown to the elderly in Tanzania. I try not to be offended when people use the term to greet me. Just as being fat in Asia is considered a compliment, being old in Africa is something to be proud of (perhaps because it is such an accomplishment) and people admire you for it. It doesn’t always sit well with our western values to be told we are old and fat though does it?

One of the best things tourists and expats can do in Dar is to take the time to get out of their usual haunts and get to know the locals. A good place to start is by taking the Dar Reality Tour ( that takes you riding through the neighbourhoods of the city, or doing an Invest Tour ( where you meet local entrepreneurs and partake in microfinance initiatives. This is the side to Dar that people rarely see, but everyone should experience. It is the side that I love.

I was telling my taxi driver friend Hasheem from Zanzibar, why I loved Tanzania so much. “The people Hasheem, the people are so nice”. Smiling enthusiastically and pleased by the compliment he agreed, “yes we are happy” then turning the smile into a laugh, “we have no power, no water, but still we are happy”…followed by a big genuine contagious cheeky belly rumble chuckle…..“you should marry someone from here then you would never have to leave”.

2. WEEKENDS IN ZANZIBAR: Whether you take the ferry or a small plane, the short trip to Zanzibar for the weekend on a Friday afternoon is perhaps the best T.G.I.F activity going. “Passing the green, white sand laced islands, a few dhow boats with their perfectly white iconic shaped sails. Watching a bunch of flying fish as they tear out of the water beneath the ferry and fly en masse across the surface for a considerable distance. It is that time of the afternoon that I love, just before sunset when the day comes to an end and the promise of change lingers in the cooling air”.

3THE HIGHWAY REST STOP EXPERIENCE: Each one provides a unique experience, but my favourite is the one on the road to Moshi. Masses of people line up at counters for roasted meat and chips. Men swing meat cleavers and giant knives not too dissimilar to machetes, to chop the meat into large chunks ready for consumption. Out the back enormous cauldrons boil away on earthen stoves with bare flames. Swatting at the flies you take your meal to a communal table and sit down to eat the food with your fingers. There is rap music on the ghetto blaster intermittently mixed with Kenny Rogers greatest hits, all of which competes for sound waves with the talk show on the TV which looks oddly familiar and is suspiciously named Soprah. Then in front of you, if you are lucky, you may have the surreal experience of seeing two elegant and supremely beautiful, traditionally dressed Masai women, babies on their knees sipping of all things a Coke. McDonald’s just won’t cut it for me in the future.

4. SWAHILI: Not owning a car has had its benefits. Namely, helping me to learn the language. There is perhaps no better way to understand the culture and to make friends in the country you live in than to make an effort to learn the language. The only problem with that plan is that I am terrible at learning languages. Kiswahili is meant to be one of the easiest languages around, so I had no excuse but to try.

Although not as treacherous as Vietnamese, there have been a few interesting pitfalls, for example, I often can’t tell the difference between the words:

Lewa (Drunk)

Chelewa (Late)

Elewa (Understood)

Olewa (Married)

You can imagine the trouble you can get in to with this, and I have had some entertaining and confusing conversations with people. For instance, when you think you are asking if someone is married, but what you are in fact saying is “are you drunk?” A lady once asked me in Swahili if I had understood her and I replied “No, I am not married”, which effectively answered her question anyway.

5. PUBLIC TRANSPORT: The joys of riding public transport in Tanzania. On one such occasion I counted 23 people with me inside a Toyota Hilux (and even then I got the impression that that was only half full, there was after all still standing room if you could find a spot for your feet). There were 5 people on the back seat next to me alone (let me be clear, I am talking about a regular family van not a mini bus). It is appropriate that they love Obama in this part of the world. With an American flag on the dashboard (next to a Manchester United sticker and Elmo doll) I couldn’t help but be reminded of Obama’s famous catch cry “oh yes we can” when we stopped at a crowded bus stop and it occurred to me that we couldn’t possibly fit anymore people on the bus. A large man with an enormous cardboard box made his way down the aisle toward me, he smiled as he flipped down the flimsy tiny fold down seat in the aisle and remarked “MREFU” which means ‘tall’, although I am not sure if he meant it as an observation or as an apology, as he took his seat in front of me. Next to me a little girl sitting on her mothers lap (and some of mine) kept saying “mzungu” excited to be sitting in such close proximity to a white person. My hips were twisted sideways and my thighbone was securely wedged between the back seat and the gentleman’s back in front of me. It occurred to me that god forbid we have an accident the sardine packed manner in which we were positioned would go some ways in making up for the absence of seat belts.

6. THE TRAVEL: For travel experiences beyond your wildest dreams, Africa is your destination. National Geographic just doesn’t do it justice. (Nor does Dubbo Zoo according to my mother!). Every holiday seemed like a trip of a lifetime. Kilimanjaro, hiking the Ngorongoro Crater, the Masai Mara, the Serengeti, swimming with whale sharks on Mafia Island, Gorillas in Rwanda, Victoria Falls, Ruaha, The Selous, The Okavango Delta, and I have only just touched the tip of the iceberg in terms of what there is to explore. Ethiopia, South Africa, Namibia, and West Africa, they will have to wait. After two years of reading my blogs and seeing my photographs, I managed to finally convince 12 brave friends and family members to come across for my last final African adventure before I left for my new job in Europe. Some were hesitant, some were excited, but at the end of 3 weeks every one of them had fallen in love with Africa. My mum who had never really forgiven me for not going back home after Vietnam said, “Why are you leaving? I don’t want to visit you in Switzerland, that will be boring after this, maybe we can meet in Africa again?” Typical, that in two years no one visits, and then they all come as I am leaving and wished they had visited earlier.

THE BAD: The hardships:

  1. THE POVERTY: I don’t think Westerners ever really can come to understand the level of need in Africa, even those who live there. I remember a conversation with my friend Theresa who was telling me how she had successfully undertaken a water project in a local community. She was hoping the new tank would stop the villagers from getting sick as they often had in the past. “Why do they get sick, is the water dirty….” I asked. “No it is not that it is dirty, they just don’t have any” she replied. I am often ashamed at how little I understand after living here for so long. I once asked my friend Tatu who works at the school, whether she had been affected by the recent power shortages, which had everyone in the city relying on generators for an entire week or more. “I don’t have power”, she told me, “I use charcoal in my house”. Then there was the askari (security guard) Ali, who worked at my housing compound, and dropped dead a young man not yet 40. Leaving behind a young family and wife. When I spoke to his colleague about this, he was surprised to see that I was so upset by such news and wondered why I thought it was unexpected. Dying young is all too common here. For me that was the hardest part. Not the day-to-day inconveniences and hardships, but the emotional strains. The real side of poverty, which translates to life expectancy, health standards and lack of education, none of it could ever become normal or acceptable to me, and for that I am thankful, it never should. As much as it shocks us, it is important to remind yourself that it is unacceptable. The knowledge that there is generation after generation being denied an education, the corruption. The solutions, which seem so far out of reach, despite the country having vast natural resources, a booming tourist industry and an enormous amount of aid.
  1. MALARIA: In two years I am happy to say that I avoided malaria. Having to put on mosquito repellent as if it were perfume every time I went outside and sleeping under a net no doubt helped. Yet for those who don’t have such luxuries the disease takes its toll. Contracting malaria seemed to be unavoidable for many of my Tanzanian friends. My friend Elias told me in June that he had had malaria 5 times already that year. I was shocked, but he merely said in his nonchalant manner as if he was talking about the common cold, “Yes, in Africa we live with malaria”.
  1. THE DRIVING: I will not miss driving on the roads in Tanzania. Too many close calls with head on collisions have made me realise that it is only by the grace of God (or sheer luck) that you escape such a fate. Poor roads, bad driving, speed, faulty vehicles, lack of regulations and drink driving tends to be a lethal combination. In that regard, it is very much cowboy country. Cars coming toward you at 140 km/hour, you see the smile and teeth first, like the Cheshire cat, then the type of vehicle, most worryingly a 30-year old coach that has seen better days and hasn’t had a service since 1992. If you are a passenger, you might choose to close your eyes, waiting till the danger passes, hoping it does in fact pass and not collect you in its path. With any luck you live to meet another lorry a bit further up the road to do it all again a few minutes later. 

It is more than a little disconcerting when you see your 14-year old students driving their parents’ swanky 4×4’s unaccompanied, knowing they don’t have a license. Or when informed by another student that his dad taught him how to drive when he was 12 and that he bought his license from a corrupt official.

Driving up a mountain pass in a mini van with oncoming traffic, on hairpin turns, my Kenyan friend said, “In your country you would have barriers to stop you driving off the cliff right?” Then a big laugh that I did not join in with, “not here, this is Africa, hah ha ha”.

The roads in Dar did improve somewhat during my two years there. The rumour from my cynical Tanzanian friends was that it was in preparation for Hilary Clinton or Prince Charles’ visit, or because a high-ranking Government official had recently moved to the neighbourhood. Justin, my barjaj driver routinely drove me along the roughest, pothole cratered dirt roads I have known. Sometimes they were filled with water on account of the heavy rains. He would drive us through and I would lift my feet off the ground as the water cascaded in, all the while hoping we wouldn’t get stuck and have to wade our way out on foot through thigh deep water. He once asked me, “In Australia, are there any roads like this?” “Not quite like this Justin, not in my city anyway” I replied, remembering how often people in Sydney complain about the quality of the motorways and freeways and want to hold the Government responsible for even the most minor problems.

My taxi driver Michael had interesting views on drink driving. Taking me home late one night from the pub, we were behind a car that was swerving all over the road. “He is drunk”, I said in Swahili (mind you that is what I thought I said, it could very well have been “he is late”, or “he understands” or “he is married”, but Michael knew what I was trying to say). “Yes”, said Michael. “He must be Indian or Black, he can’t be a mzungu. White people know how to drink and drive!!!!????”

  1. THE LACK OF EDUCATION: From a professional point of view, as a teacher, Africa has left its mark on me. More than ever I have come to realise the value of education.

“Education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mineworker can become head of the mine, that a child of farmworkers can become the President of a great nation. It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another”.

(Nelson Mandela, Long Walk To Freedom).

I once met some peacekeepers from Sudan who were holidaying in Zanzibar. We had an interesting discussion, as their view was that education at least from our Western perspective has little place in development. In fact, they rather passionately believed that it was almost neo-colonial in its pursuit. I could appreciate their opinions, but in my experience everyone no matter what their nationality, deserves the right to be educated if they want to be. In the West it is often taken for granted. In Africa, it is one of the greatest opportunities people can strive for. I have had too many heartbreaking conversations with Tanzanians who never had that opportunity. Patient Elias, would put up with my poor attempts at practising Swahili, when he dropped me home from school some days. He loved that I was a teacher and used to ask me all manner of questions, revealing his curiosity for the world around him, which he never had had the chance to satisfy in a classroom. After much contemplation, he would ask questions like, “The sun, how does it burn?” “Does it burn 24 hours a day?” “The moon is it running after the earth (meaning does it revolve around)?” “Is it bigger than the earth?”, “No one lives on the moon, do they?”, “Does the moon have different weather to here?”. “Maybe one day we will have to move to the moon, on earth we are having too many problems”. I always loved these discussions, and he almost always made me laugh or smile with his thoughtful responses. One day he said, “Natalia, do you have black people in Australia?” “Yes Elias, they are known as Aborigines, they have lived there for a very long time”. “How did Black people get to Australia? Was it slavery?” Finding myself way out of my depth I replied, “No, they probably walked I think, and maybe used canoes, I don’t know if anyone really knows, it happened about 40,000 years ago”. He found this very amusing. “They walked? From Africa? Why would they do that?” “Hmmm, I am not sure, maybe they wanted to see what else was out there”. By this point he was laughing loudly, “They walked from Africa, because they wanted to?” I don’t think it took Elias very long to figure out that my knowledge of Science and Anthropology was only slightly better than my Swahili, clearly in the teaching exchange that was happening between us, I was the one getting the better end of the deal.

2 Responses to “Africa In Review: Part 2 The Good, the Bad….”
  1. kchoan says:

    Natalie, this is such a lovely insightful thing. it’s made me quite happy. thank you

    • Hi Karen, Nice to hear from you, I hope everything in Dar is going well and that you had a wonderful Summer break. Switzerland is the complete opposite of TZ as you can imagine. I am not sure I will have as much to write about, but for the time being the efficiency and outdoor pursuits (and the cheese!!!) are proving a real novelty which I am loving. Send my regards to all at IST and please send my love to Justin and Michael if you see them, I miss seeing them. Natalie

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