5cense Tanzania

 Modal Landscapes: the Tazara Line through Tanzania, Across the Border by Matatu & Boda-Boda to Lake Malawi

Enslaved at Tazara Station, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania—Feb. 2, 2009

“No joy in the brilliance of sunshine.” That’s how Joseph Conrad put it over a century ago in 1899, and the quote I used to launch the last dispatch when I was headed west across Tanzania. Tthese words still ring true today. It summarizes everything I was trying to say about Africa being a fertile breeding ground for a gothic resurrection. Conrad's words keep echoing in my head the more of Africa I see. Here’s the full passage from which it came:

“An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances. And this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace. It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention.”

Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness after taking a boat up into the Congo. My bid to take a boat ride even along the border of the Congo had been thwarted, leaving me to fly back from Kigoma (the town where Stanley uttered the immortal words, “Livingstone, I presume”) to Dar with my vestigial tail dragging between my legs. Hopping over a landscape that would’ve taken Conrad or Livingstone months to cross.

In Dar, I got a room at the YMCA. It was fun. I got a good meal. I did whatever I felt. Which was to write a trop-goth story about cowries and bush meat.

The next morning, I got a taxi here to the Tazara train station. Got my ticket. This time south by southwest. Now I’m just waiting until “the afternoon” when the train leaves. Still on “Swahili time.” People are gathering.

Two more people have called me Chuck Norris—that makes a total of four so far in Tanzania. I’m getting more concerned about my lack of grooming.

I’m still reading Reader’s Africa. Now I’m on the chapters on slavery. Reader points out a few things I’ve never stopped to think about much in regards to the slave trade, if you think about it on basic economic terms. One is that I've never considered the implications on the African economy at the time due to this loss of manpower. The product in demand at the time were people, and their own kind were scrambling to sell them, leaving less people to work in their own fields across Africa.

The other thing often overlooked are the negative repercussions of abolishing slavery. To quote Reader, "Without a market, the merchandise clogged the system, constituting not only a loss of revenue, but also a drain on resources—slaves had to be fed.” As a consequence, the slave trade increased in Africa in the wake of abolition. For example, in Kenya there were 43,000 to 47,000 slaves working on the coast, hardly an insignificant portion of the population at the time. Just like in America, there are plenty of slave descendants in Africa. They might be the same color, but they are there, along with the mindset it generated—the gap between haves and have-nots. “The clean-up merely shifted the offending trade from one area of economic activity to another, leaving the so-called legitimate trade heavily tainted by its dependence upon a continuing availability of slave labor.”

To further put things in perspective: “A minimum of 600,000 Africans were enslaved within the boundaries of the continent each year during the 19th century—about ten times the number transported across the Atlantic each year during the 17th century, when the slave taking was at its height.”

If Africa has the distinction of being the oldest continent, of being the spawning ground of life on our planet, of being home to the first human beings, it also has the distinction of being the grounds for the worst atrocity committed in the history of this planet. Everyone is to blame for the slave trade, or maybe no one is to blame, but Africa and it’s diaspora are the ones still suffering the resounding repercussions.

Not to be grim or anything. I'll shut up now and show pretty landscapes.

the Tazara train somewhere in Tanzania

Tazara train

The Tazara from Dar to Mbeya

Now I’m on the train. The Tazara line is "nicer" than the Central Line. Though the first class compartments seat/sleep only four, not two. I’m sitting across from this Zambian gentleman who is taking the Tazara home.

Zambian train geek

He is a train geek like me, which is to say he never gets tired of staring out the window for hours on end. Tanzanians in general are train geeks. It’s not like Europe where everyone sits there reading in the air-conditioned cars, too cool to look out the closed windows. Here you have to fight for a spot at the window, that are always open, and everyone is glued to the landscape. Also in our compartment is a Tanzanian hipster and a Welsh guy who I don’t think is feeling too well. The one thing this train is not, is a good place to be sick.

The train left just before sunset. We watched the landscape go by in the last rays of daylight then went to sleep with the window wide open. Unfortunately, the way they scheduled the Tazara, at least in the southern direction, you pass through the Mikumi national park at night. On the way up from Zambia, supposedly you pass through during the day with giraffes and zebras running next to the train. Oh well, maybe I’ll hit it on the rebound. I looked out a few times and thought I saw shapes in the lightning flashes, or the dim moonlight. Though it could’ve been my imagination. To requote Reader, which I already used in the last dispatch: “This capacity to visualize things that do not yet exist has been seen as the fundamental hallmark of culture, imagination.”

When the sun rose, I wrapped myself in my provided blanket and stuck my head back out the window like a dog. It was foggy. As we got further south, it got more arid and Baobabs started sprouting up, amidst forests of acacia. But like the rest of Tanzania, it’s mostly agricultural, with small farms of maize, beans, cassava, eucalyptus (for wood), bamboo, sunflower, groundnut, pumpkin and rice (in the swampier lands even further south).

southern Tanzania, approaching Mbeya

southern Tanzania


When I was recently putting together the MDG Centre website, as an illustration for agriculture, I wanted to use a photo I took of a male farmer. But I was told not to, as it was not representative of Africa—that most farmers are women. You hear this all the time from left-leaning feminist development workers—that women do all the work and the men sit around getting drunk. So I decided to gather my own evidence. As the train travelled through southern Tanzania I took note of people working in the fields. I counted 70 female and 76 male “farmers,” that is people physically working in the fields. Mostly it was couples working small plots together, occasionally children (only a few times I saw that actually). Granted women often have babies on their backs when they are working, so perhaps that image stands out more in people’s minds. Or perhaps you could argue that it’s not a scientific count as I was counting mostly in the morning hours, and men take the afternoon off to drink or get hookers or whatever it is people say about men here. All I can say is that I saw a lot of sweat dripping equally off the brows of both men and women.

Crossing the Border and into Malawi by Matatu and Boda-Boda

The train pulled into Mbeya around 3 in the afternoon (9 o’clock Swahili time). I didn’t really have a plan. I was thinking I would stay in Mbeya and take it from there. Mbeya seemed like an agreeable enough place, it was higher up in a mountainous setting and cooler. When I got off the train, a tout approached me asking me if I was going to take the ferry on Lake Malawi. He showed me a schedule that said it was leaving the next day and pushed me into a matatu (actually they call them daladalas in Tanzania). He instructed me to go to some crossroads, get off and take this other daladala, etc. I let myself be swept along. For a number of reasons, I’d been avoiding road travel in favor of trains and boats, but daladalas or matatus are admittedly a good way to experience the people of a place. It is usually too crowded to see out the window, but you definitely get your chance to “get close to people,” that’s for sure. Maybe too close for comfort, but comfort is thrown out the window.

As I mentioned before (frightening my facebook friends), my observation of Tanzanians is that they are a rather ornery and hostile lot. Not that I understand what they are saying, but it sounds like yelling, and sometimes it escalates to pushing and shoving and rather gesticulative hand gestures. In typical fashion, just like Kenya, the daladalas won’t move until they are packed (though Nairobi now has laws as to how many people you can cram into a matatu—not the case in Tanzania). And when it stops a kilometer down the road to let other people off, it will just sit there while the conductor (the driver’s sidekick who collects the money, akin to a barback to a bartender) runs around trying to recruit passengers. You might think the daladala is full, but they’ll always find room for someone else. It’s all about maximizing profits. Forget about the time constraints of the passengers. Tanzanians voice their opinions about this from both ends, passengers yelling at the conductor, and the conductor arguing back, it’s constant squabbling, with music or a soccer game blaring over the tinny stereo trying to drown it all out. And once the daladala finally moves, it moves with a vengeance, speeding maniacally, again to maximize profits, or perhaps to appease (overcompensatingly) the people bitching about the time lost waiting. All I cared about was that I got a roasted corn along the way, to supplement my diet of raw groundnuts on the train (that were given to us in Mbola). I’m sure I stunk, but so did everyone else. Everyone’s smell mixed together and permeated everyone else’s being until we were all one and the same.

I could tell we were near the border when all these touts saw me, the mzungu, and started flashing wads of bills at me or showing me their bicycles, yelling for me to get off so they could “escort” me across the border. I got off the daladala and onto a boda-boda (what they call them in Kenya anyway, which is applicable here since “boda-boda” is derivative from “border-border” because they originally used bicycle taxis to take you the distance across the no-man’s land between countries where car’s aren’t allowed).

My boda-boda dropped me off at the Tanzania border, where I went through emigration, then walked the stretch of road across the bridge over the Songwe river, harassed the whole while by pesky money-changers. It was getting to be dark and starting to rain. Someone was saying the border closed at sunset and the sun was setting. Others tried to sell me "a visa," or tell me I needed to pay to cross the border, when in fact it's free (for Americans anyway). I found the legitimate (though hidden) immigration office in the nick of time. Then I changed some money the legitimate way, some dollars, some shillings, to Malawian kwacha. Made the necessary adjustments in my head to deal with yet another currency. The bus was some 500 kwacha to Karongo (the nearest town to the port with a hotel), and a gypsy cab was offering to take me for 600 kwacha ($4 USD), so I opted for the gypsy route.

The gypsy cab was a beat up, compact “saloon” car, with seven of us crammed into it, along with three bushels of cassava and who knows what else. It felt like being on a roadtrip with friends. The vibe changes instantly when you cross the border into Malawi. People are far friendlier and laidback. We hit a few police checkpoints. At one of them, the guard honed in on the woman in the front seat and his hand went straight into her bag, pulling out a few boxes of face cream. He prodded further, barking at her, and she coughed up a few more boxes of this French face cream. He took the boxes and threw them on the hood of the car and walked away. The woman’s bottom lip started quivering and then she started crying. She reached into her bra and pulled out some money, pleading with the taxi driver to talk to the guard, who by this point had wandered off under some trees. The driver took the money, had a conversation with the guard, and came back empty-handed. He took the boxes of face cream off the hood of the car, gave them back to the woman and we were off again, at least until the next check point.

After a few more check points and a few more bribes, we got to Karonga and dropped some people off at the bus station. Then we went to the crowded night market where the taxi dropped off the passenger with his three bushels of cassava to sell. The taxi driver ran all sorts of errands. In addition to human passengers, evidently he was trafficking all sorts of contraband from Tanzania. I was the last bit of cargo to be dropped off, at the end of some dark road, at a seemingly abandoned and mosquito-infested hotel on the shores of the lake. I found a bar still open, where I experienced chambo (a type of fish from Lake Malawi) for the first time. Delicious. Not only that, but they have a hot sauce here called “peri-peri” that kicks some serious ass. Nali is the prevailing brand. It is made from bird's eye peppers. Fresh fish and hot sauce, what more could you need? I'm liking this place.

My borrowed blackberry stopped working when I crossed the border, leaving me feeling a bit disconnected, especially in the midst of the final edits for Stories in the Worst Way, which I had in my pocket on a flash drive. There are no internet cafes to be seen. The phone or SMS doesn't work either, and everyone I ask just says, "no network." I’m truly off the grid.

Another Failed Ferry

When I was planning this trip, I really had my heart set on a long boat ride into the heart of it. Maybe I had a romantic, but misguided, notion that I would discover my own Colonel Kurtz. If you look at the map, there are two long lakes, Lake Tanganyika and Lake Malawi, running down the western length of Tanzania and eastern length of Malawi respectively. My original plan was to catch a ride down lake Tanganyika, bridge the gap by land somehow, then ride down Lake Malawi to Zomba, where I was to meet up with Jess and the Spicer. No such luck. And I had no way to communicate my whereabouts to them.

My first day in Malawi, I woke up in Karonga and went for a run along the lake.

sunrise over Lake Malawi, in Karonga

Then I caught a bicycle taxi into town. I tried to find an internet café or place to make a phone call to no avail—"no network." Got into a matatu south. Though they don’t call matatus matatus in Malawi. They don’t have a clever word for it, they just call them mini-busses. I asked a few people about it and they admitted with a tinge of jealousy that Kenyans were more creative in this regard—that matatu was a good word for it. That’s the other thing about Malawi, most everyone speaks English well (unlike Tanzania). But what I like most is that they don’t stare and they don’t bother you unless you are asking to be bothered. They’re like the French in that way. They treat you like one of them and are not unrealistically friendly. And they charge you the same price as everyone else without having to bargain for it. They leave you alone, but if you approach them or start talking to them, they’ll come back at you in perfect English and are genuinely friendly, not in a way that you suspect they want something from you (which is the inevitable outcome of most conversations in say, Kenya).

Did I mention that the lake is beautiful?

Lake Malawi as seen from a matatu, somewhere between Karonga and Chilumba

One other thing—they don’t drive like complete maniacs, like they do in Tanzania and Kenya. They actually respect bicyclists and pedestrians and give them distance. And the roads are really good. Though the matatus still wait until they are chocked full to proceed to the next stop. It's all good-natured though. At Chilumba I got off and hopped a bicycle taxi to the port. The bicycle taxis here are called “cargos.” Again, it was admitted that the Kenyan “boda-boda” was a much better word for it. Ends up my cargo driver, Oliver, was the head of the cargo union of that region. He was telling me the ins and outs of the cargo drivers, how they are monitored to make sure the bikes are in working condition, and that they are not overcharging people. He also told me that the boat to Monkey Bay wasn’t running til Sunday, but said we should go to the port to check just in case. I was bummed beyond belief, but what could I say, riding on the back of bike through rice paddies and maize fields.

Boda-boda ride to another vacant port

Oliver was also a farmer, with three acres where he grew maize and cassava. He told me firsthand how the Malawian government subsidies have helped him. Before they were subsidized, a bag of fertilizer was 8,000 kwacha, but with the coupons the government gave to small farmers, you could now get a bag for 800 kwacha (less than $4 USD). And the fertilizer definitely gave increased yields. He still had problems making ends meet though, hence why he was pedaling me around for a buck or two. His wife was back home working the fields.

Speaking of, I continued my male/female farmer count, in Malawi (northern, along the lake), and counted 45 men and 30 women. So for those that say men are lazy and don’t do any work in Africa, put that in your pipe and smoke it. Speaking of smoking, it seems the only people you see smoking here are the cargo drivers, including Oliver, who had to make a pit-stop to get cigarettes. He also made this pit-stop to put air in his tires.

boda boda driver

He cargoed me back to the crossroads, where I got another matatu and plodded on to Mzuzu (pronounced “ma-zooz”). I got off and was finally able to send an email from Western Union to at least let Jess know of my whereabouts. I thought I might stay in Mzuzu, but I walked into one hotel and walked right out. I hopped another packed matatu to Nkhata Bay, which I’d heard some things about. I counted some 25 adults, 10 kids, 5 chickens (under seats) and 1 rather pissed off goat in this matatu, of which I imagine the specs from Japan would say "seats 12 comfortably." The goat was pretty funny, he would throw a bleating fit every five minutes and everyone would laugh and look at me, as if they knew of my goat fetish. I couldn't get a picture of the goat really because it was crammed under the backseat. Here's some views from the inside of the matatu though.

selling catfish (if you buy it, you strap it to the hood so as not to stink up the inside)

catfish monger


selling ready to eat fish

fish mongering to matatus


father and son sitting in front of me

father and son


woman breastfeeding two kids to my left

matatu girl


Malawian hipsters in the backseat, woman on right was the proud owner of the pissed-off goat

Malawian hipsters

Onward to Nkhata bay and my affair with Wittgenstein's Mistress.


(c) 2009 Derek White

5c Tanzania