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Published: August 4th 2009
Half the minibus to the Tanzanian border is filled by a family of Indian extraction. The husband, not a subtle man, gets his youngest child's attention then points at me and exclaims "Mzungu!" as though I'd just landed from one of the many places on the planet where being pointed at from a metre away and having your ethnicity shouted at you is considered as courteous and welcoming. I tut, roll my eyes, and shake my head - things have reached a pretty pass if even non-Africans are calling me mzungu.
The road runs close to the shore of Lake Tanganyika for most of the distance to the border, and we even pass a paddling hippo at one point. There are three other English speakers in the minibus. Two of them are Rwandans working for a company that imports Italian pasta and wine to the region. They are already established in Kigali and Buj and are heading to Kigoma to see if they can create a presence there. The third guy is a Burundian, Jack, living in Dar es Salaam. Jack has his fingers in many pies in East and Central Africa and is travelling to Kigoma because it is
Props to Dar es Salaam
View from my window on the flight from Kigoma to Dar es Salaam
massively cheaper to fly from there to Dar than it is from Buj. He says that Buj has an airport but Burundi has no currently operating airline (!) These three very kindly look after me all the way to Kigoma, plying me with oranges, hard-boiled eggs, chicken legs, etc, and refusing to believe that I'm not hungry.
After a couple of hours at lake level, we head inland and start climbing the southernmost range of hills in Burundi. It's slow work, the minibus's engine struggling with the full load, and it's a relief when we finally hit the top and can career down the other side to Burundi immigration. As we wait at the immigration office, Jack lists out some of the main problems he sees facing Africa. Not surprisingly, corruption tops the list. Second, population growth is out of control - he himself has four kids but I guess that's below the average. I can't disagree with either of those issues. He tells me that Burundi has great tourism potential but is suffering from an image problem - I am charged with spreading the word.
It takes an hour to get from Burundi immigration to Tanzania immigration.
It's a dusty road and I soon regret travelling in my contact lenses. Part way along, we pass a pillar marking the actual border.
The first we see of Tanzanian immigration is a convoy of UN trucks carrying refugees - don't know where from - heading in the opposite direction. Formalities are completed quickly and we are soon crammed into a daladala
heading towards Kigoma.
Shortly after entering the first town south of the border, we are stopped by a man in what appears to be a Hawaiian shirt. He scans the passengers and eventually picks out four people, who are ordered to disembark. It turns out that he is a policeman on the make. He has picked his targets well, as none of them are carrying their papers - strictly speaking a punishable offence. He rubs his thumb and forefinger together in a gesture I don't need to speak Swahili to understand. One of the four, a young woman, bursts into tears. We move on a few hundred metres, leaving them behind.
Jack shakes his head ruefully and launches into a rant about how corruption is holding back Africa more than anything else. Government corruption gives
Zanzibar Hill Lodge
people the idea that it is acceptable at all levels of society. Certainly that would appear to be one difference between Africa and other post-colonial parts of the world. He pinpoints Rwanda as the worst country in the region for corruption (though Kenya seems to get the nod from most other observers).
Ten minutes later, as we are still stationary waiting for the daladala
to (over)fill up, a man pokes his head in the door. I recognise him as one of the Paperless Four. He asks Jack for $10, as that is what the policeman wants from them. That could easily be a week's salary in these rural parts. No wonder the young woman had burst into tears. Jack refuses but with regret. The man walks off, troubled. This sort of shenanigans must really suck.
Once we get going, the road itself is extremely dusty and that dust penetrates every corner of the minibus. Changing from contact lenses to glasses at Tanzanian immigration was a most prescient decision. It's a close-run thing whether this beats the Wadi Halfa -> Abri stretch for dustiness, but the reddish tinge of Tanzanian dust could be the clincher.
Worse is the
absolutely rammed nature of the daladala
. We average about 25 people (some of them kids, fortunately) in a vehicle that would have been uncomfortable with just 18. Since Sudan, I've seen no minibuses with roofracks, so we have sacks, boxes, and other luggage inside with us. I've ended up perched right on the edge of the seat nearest the door, meaning I constantly have the conductor's arse in my face as he leans out of the window. My left shin is pressed painfully against the edge of a box, which leaves an attractive bruise. The many pairs of feet scrabbling for space among the spare tire and collection of pineapples on the floor leaves little room for manoeuvre and I have to keep flexing my toes just to make sure they don't go numb. The uneven road surface jerks us all around and my right buttock performs heroics to maintain purchase on my sliver of seat. A handrail behind the backwards-facing bench opposite me is the only way I can maintain my position round sharp corners, but to use it means I have to thrust my face into that of my opposite neighbour. Soon, I have to do this anyway
From a distance
as another passenger is bent over the back of my own seat. One of the Rwandans suddenly finds he has a young woman plonked in his lap - the motion of the minibus ensures she gradually slides off, but the crush of bodies means this takes an age.
The Rwandans, Jack and I discuss this and that in order to keep our minds off the discomfort. Jack adds infrastructure to his list of Africa's problems. I'm staggered that this is the transport that they - entrepreneurs all - are having to take for their business trips, which I mentally contrast with the first class flights that were the staple of my own work travel when I was merely a dogsbody. The Rwandans eventually lapse into silent stoicism but Jack remains upbeat and chatty.
Something about our interaction clearly irritates a guy in a New York top sitting nearby and he decides to have some fun at my expense. We come to a halt on a steep hill and the tractionless tires spin impotently until the driver realises we need to lose some weight. New York guy imperiously orders "Mzungu, get out!" I'm by no means the heaviest person
Man in the mirror
The death of MJ hits the Beeb
in the vehicle but I was going to get out anyway, in a bid to appear helpful. It's a long slope, and the ten of us that get out then have to trudge uphill a couple of hundred metres in the afternoon heat to rejoin the minibus. Once there, New York man points inside and says "Mzungu - in!" I bite my tongue.
Jack has seen this, and engages in a ten minute conversation with New York guy in some language I don't understand. There's clearly a disagreement, which ends with Jack shaking his head. I ask what the man's problem is. Jack indicates that he will tell me later. When he does, he condenses their chat to a pithy "He doesn't like mzungus". Well thank goodness there's some logic behind it ...
Jack then articulates something that I've thought a lot about. He says that many locals see white skin and make a whole raft of assumptions and generalisations because of it. I think this has been the most frustrating thing for me about travel in Africa so far, that I'm regarded by many as just a Generic White Person, one of the amorphous blob of 5
billion mzungus on the planet with the same hopes and fears, loves and hates, feelings and emotions. Obviously I've experienced similar attitudes in other countries but it's so widespread here, and even more bizarre because of the enormous number of foreigners that have come through Africa in the last few centuries. This weirdness is accentuated for me by having lived in cities with such racial diversity that it doesn't even occur to me to group people by colour (though I know I do that for nationality).
The appearance of tarmac several kilometres outside of Kigoma is a relief, not just from the dust and bumps but also the mental torment of not knowing how much longer there is to go. I unfold from the daladala
, hair thick with dust and glasses coated. The soreness I will feel for the next few days is like that experienced after a first gym visit in months. However I shouldn't complain - the conductor probably endures this four times a day.
I've struggled to find decent-sounding Kigoma accommodation on the web and the one name I have written down means nothing to anyone, so Jack suggests I might like to try a place where he has stayed several times. It turns out to be excellent and only $15, though he says the fact that I arrived with him probably saved me from a higher mzungu price. When checking in, I discover just why Jack spent most of his childhood moving around countries other than his home (including a 7 year stint in Kigoma). One column of the guest book is Tribe, and he fills in Hutu. He will later opine that ex-British colonies have been much more peaceful than ex-French or ex-Belgian ones. If tribe is considered to be the same as clan, then my own insertion of McCabe is not incorrect. I immediately shower, red dust grudgingly emerging from various holes.
Jack's kindness is something of a double-edged sword as he drags me out that evening for dinner with some of his friends from his 7 years in Kigoma. None of them speak either English or French. My Swahili comprises hello, welcome, thank you (with an optional very much), journey, and 3, the last of which has stuck in my mind as it's the same as the name of the early '00s Russian lipstick lesbian schoolgirl pop duo t.A.T.u - not the best building blocks for a riveting conversation. We sit in an outdoor restaurant in the glow of a single candle, with Kigoma apparently not on the grid. The food is chicken and lots of it, all on the bone and glistening in the dimness with a coating of barbecue sauce. This is not my favourite dish by any stretch. One of Jack's friends ends up paying, making my awkwardness even more acute.
Jack drops by the next morning to insist that I join him for another jaunt around town. In daylight, I discover that Kigoma is a pretty small place with the main street the home to most points of interest. However our first visit is to the fish market, a little bit out of town on the other side of a small bay in Lake Tanganyika. This is opposite the main port area, which sees the majority of Tanzania's lake-based business. It's also possible to travel to the delightfully-named Mpulunga in Zambia via the famous MV Liemba.
The fish market is a colourful bustle of activity, its crowded shorefront location with a picturesque backdrop of fishing vessels moored in the bay. It's a mzungu-free zone apart fom myself, and I acquire a Pied Piper-like trail of young kids as we edge through the throng. Most of the fish are silvery and in various sizes, the vendors women in bright print clothing. Jack is unimpressed by the prices he is quoted, and we move away from the shore to a quieter area where there are large drying racks out in the sun, covered in fish. Using criteria I'm not privy to, Jack sees some produce he likes and snaps up 4kgs worth. We then stop at another section of the market where the speciality is some black fish that is displayed in a ring shape, tail bent round and thrust through a hole made just behind its mouth (apparently it grills best that way). Jack quickly buys a few kilos of these then mutters aloud that he will need to get to the airport early for his flight in order to find some lightweight traveller to act as a mule for him.
We then return to the town centre and do a circuit of each of the stalls, with Jack apparently knowing all the owners. Half of them are selling cloth, most of which goes into making women's clothing. Most of the material comes from Nigeria via DRC - since purchases in DRC are made using $, most of the cloth merchants function as unofficial FX dealers and I get better than the bank rate for my cash.
Jack buys a bolt of cloth for his wife and we then visit what appears to be a tailor. The walls are covered in posters of different dress styles and there are sewing machines on the table. An English dictionary and book on economics look slightly out of place. It turns out that this is an FX dealership, the tailoring accoutrements just a front to hide its true purpose. Jack states that it is easy to make money in Africa because there are few regulations.
Shopping complete, Jack now insists that we must eat before he heads to the airport. I'm wilting in the heat and humidity, a soggy mess of a human being who just wants to return to his hostel and stand under the cold shower for a few days. I tell him I can't eat as I'm so dehydrated, perhaps with greater vehemence than intended as he looks a little surprised. I drink several Sprites - he tackles a spadeful of ugali
, the maize-based stodge that's Tanzania's national dish, which I know would've stuck in my throat.
When we part ways back at the hotel, Jack extends an invitation to visit him and his family in Dar es Salaam, if I go that way. I wonder whether I find such hospitality overwhelming because I never offer it myself. I guess that's something to work on when I'm next in a position to do so.
I read that 6 miles south of Kigoma is Ujiji, the supposed site of Stanley and Livingstone's 1871 meeting at which the phrase "Dr Livingstone, I presume?" was heard. It was also in Ujiji that, 13 years before Stanley and Livingstone's encounter, Burton and Speke had been the first Europeans to set eyes on Lake Tanganyika when they were searching for the source of the Nile.
My e-mail brings news that perhaps it's going to be possible to catch the wildebeest migration in the Serengeti after all, and the simplest way to get there is, unintuitively, via Dar. Flights aren't stupidly expensive so I book one in preference to a two-day bus journey.
My last night in Kigoma, while eating dinner, I meet a Congolese guy Jay who is a lecturer in Dar es Salaam. He will soon be heading to Liverpool for a PhD. He decides to tell me that, while studying in Dar 3 years ago, he knocked up a Canadian fellow-student who is now living back in Canada with their child. She apparently told him that she wouldn't consider marrying him for another 10 years. He doesn't think he can stay single for that long and seems to be looking for advice, which I am quite possibly the least qualified person in Kigoma to give.
Back in my room, I watch a couple of South African soaps which, though in English, also have English subtitles. With dialogue like "Get your dirty arse out of here and go bathe", it's probably necessary to have a visual confirmation of what your ears thought they just heard. In the wee small hours after watching the Brazil-South Africa Confederations Cup semi followed by what I think is my 27th viewing of "Not Another Teen Movie", a newsflash alerts me to the sad tidings that Michael Jackson is dead. I play "Smooth Criminal" ten times in a row on my MP3 player as a reminder of when he truly was a genius. Dull but possibly useful info
i. I think the only direct way to get from Buj to Tanzanian immigration in the south is on the Buragane minibus - their office in Buj is on Rue Science, just west of the junction with Boulevard Lumumba. Its departure time is at 7AM and it costs BIF8,000. It takes about 3.5 hours to reach Burundi immigration, where you'll spend maybe 30 minutes, then another hour to reach Tanzania immigration, where it terminates.
ii. I changed all my BIF on the Burundi side, getting a decent rate but that's because Jack negotiated for me. I didn't see any moneychangers on the Tanzania side.
iii. Remember to put your watch forward one hour once you enter Tanzania.
iv. A 3 month visa for a Brit is $50.
v. The minibus from the border to Kigoma left at about 12:45PM (no idea if there's a timetable), cost TSh6,000, took about 3 hours, and was extremely uncomfortable, as described above. Probably best to ask someone to club you over the head at the beginning.
vi. A cab from the bus station to the centre of town cost TSh2,000.
vii. I stayed at the Zanzibar Hill Lodge, paying TSh20,000 for an excellent double room with cold shower, TV, fridge, floor fan, and breakfast. I think the price was purely because Jack did the haggling. The hotel is near the east end of the town (i.e. the end furthest away from the lake) - turn off the main road at the National Microfinance Bank and keep walking straight. After a couple of hundred metres, the road curves to the right and that's where you'll find the hotel.
viii. No ATMs in Kigoma accept Mastercard, but you can get a cash advance on a Visa credit card via the NBC ATM.
ix. For FX, try any of the cloth stalls in the market - their rates (for $, at least) are better than the banks.
x. Sun City cafe on the main street, not far from Baby Come and Call Internet but on the opposite side, can do a decent veg and rice dish (everywhere else I tried only did meat). They'll also get beer from the hotel bar over the road.
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