Monday, 16 November 2009

In which we escape to Tanzania and start our holiday!

October 31st

In which we escape to Tanzania and start our holiday!

Today sees me waking up at half past four, sharing a room at the St Paul centre in Kigali with Jason. Yesterday has been a big VSO education meeting with just about everybody who works in schools there, and the new September arrivals are staying on in Kigali for the second part of their in-country training which starts on Monday. So I’m trying, unsuccessfully, to creep around without waking Jason, which is difficult because the way the room is laid out I can’t wash or switch the light on without disturbing him.

I know that I’m going to be spending all day today sitting on a bus, so I decide to walk down to the Nyabugogo depot to get some exercise and stretch my legs. As I walk down the hill dawn is breaking, a grey and wet dawn. It is cold, drizzly – a very English dawn and absolutely not what you’d expect on the equator. Let’s hope Zanzibar is going to offer us something different!

As I descend the hill Épi and Soraya pass me on motos. Half way down the hill there’s been an accident; motos are coming up the hill two abreast in a steady stream, ready to begin business in the city centre. Somehow two have managed to collide; there’s a bike on its side, police taking evidence and a young man sitting in the central reservation clutching his head and no doubt wondering how his day could have started so badly.

We claim our seats on the bus; prime seats right at the front with loads of leg room for me and the best view in the coach out of the front window. There’s even room to stow our rucksacks beside us without cramping our knees. In fact, the bus is nowhere near full which is a real surprise – on the Kampala run every single seat was taken a long time before departure. It turns out that the Dar es Salaam route is more a case of picking up and dropping en route than a true express service from one point to another. We pull out of the bus station, and wait, and wait, and wait, for a late arriving passenger. The late arrival turns out to be a muzungu, and none other than Rachael. Rachael is an American girl (from Montgomery in the Deep South) who is doing a year with “World Teach” in a school in the northern province. We met last year at Jinja in Uganda when we were all doing white water rafting at the same time. She’s more than happy to hang around with us; she has no definite plans for what she’s going to do in Zanzibar, and thus we suddenly become a group of four people which is lovely.

The drive to the Tanzanian border at Rusumo has its moments; today is umuganda and the police aren’t happy with people travelling instead of doing community service. Officialdom has decreed that people who seem to be trying to evade umuganda must be inconvenienced to make the point. Despite our bus having Tanzanian plates and a big sign on the front which advertises it as an international coach service, we are stopped twice and help back just to drive the message home. It’s infuriating but there’s nothing we can do about it. At Rwamagana we’re held for a good fifteen minutes. Our Muslim driver is very patient, and there seem to be at least three other crew members all of whom either try to cajole the police or just stand around and wait until they relent and wave us on. To be fair, they’re also stopping all other vehicles; it’s not just us. We pass Tina’s house at Kibungo and wish she were here with us to enjoy the holiday. We’re all loaded up with biscuits, big bottles of water, and I’ve bought a packet of what are jokingly termed “crunchies” which turn out to be jaw-breakingly hard lumps of fried bread dough. You have to swish them around in your mouth until they soften enough to chew. But at least it’s something to occupy the time and keep hunger at bay – we have no idea how often we’re going to stop for meals en route, and we know we’re on the bus for at least 28 hours!
At Rusumo we walk over the waterfall – very impressive now that the Akagera river is swollen with rains – and march up the hill into Tanzania to get our passports stamped.

Compared with Rwanda, Tanzania is huge, and empty. The first twenty or so miles are through hilly country, green with tree savannah. Here and there you see flocks of goats or groups of ankole cattle half hidden below the canopy of thorny bushes. Occasionally you see people tending animals or tilling the ground. But for the most part the countryside is empty. The contrast with overcrowded Rwanda is dramatic and begins the moment you leave the frontier post.

Eventually the hills peter out and Tanzania becomes flat. Whereas in Rwanda people tend to live out in the countryside, among their fields, here people tend to live huddled in villages. These were created in the late 60s and 70s in Julius Nyerere’s policy of “ujamaa” (brotherhood) as an attempt to increase the rate of modernisation of the country. At least one big, unplanned, straggly village near the border seems to be a refugee encampment. Houses are desperately poor and most have the tell-tale white nylon canvas roofs made from UNHCR-issue tarpaulins.

Another difference – whereas in Rwanda people are severely discouraged from putting thatched roofs on their houses, here in Tanzania thatch is the norm. Most huts are rectangular, made from a skeleton of thin, woven wooden laths and plastered with mud. Some are round. None have chimneys. Few have the outhouse toilets which characterise Rwandan compounds. In general people here appear to be poorer than in Rwanda.

A third difference – Tanzania has donkeys and bullocks pulling carts. After Rwanda, where the are no beasts of burden and everything is carried by people, it feels so strange to see donkeys grazing by the roadside, pulling carts or (very occasionally) being loaded up with sacks of produce.

After around four hours we stop at a noisy, busy market town called Nyakanazi for lunch. It is also a toilet stop, but the girls report that the toilets are just a small room with a sand floor. There’s no pit to use, and you simply do your business on the floor. Needless to say there’s no water or paper. We have no idea how the toilets are cleaned. I decline to use them, cross my legs, and hope for better things later in the day….

One nice thing about Tanzania is that, as in Uganda, you can eat on the street and people cook on the street. We rapidly discover the Tanzanian staple of rolex with chips (omelette with chips, freshly cooked in front of you and laden with ketchup and fierce chilli sauce). It’s hot, fresh, and very welcome.

Leaving Nyakanazi we penetrate further and further into Tanzania. Despite the lack of people and general emptiness there is no wildlife to be seen, which is a pity. But after another four hours or so the land gets noticeably drier. Tree savannah changes into grassy savannah; trees become intermittent and stunted. The exception is the baobab trees. I think it’s the first time I’ve seen these in the wild, and they live up to every bit of the descriptions of weird shapes I’ve read. Enormous, impossibly thick trunks, from the top of which a knotted tangle of skinny branches weaves and pushes its way into sunlight. At the top is a thatch of leaves, but the area of leaves looks too tiny to sustain such a mass of trunks and branches. Many of the trees are either dead or dormant; they have lost their leaves.

Somewhere along the road, probably at Singida, we lose the only other muzungu on the coach. She is a Swedish girl; I never find out what she’s doing in Tanzania but she’s meeting friends at Singida and disappears through the mass of small shops and businesses and into the dust and clamour of a late afternoon market day. The towns are very noisy and chaotic. There’s tailoring here, with men and women using treadle sewing machines on the porches of their houses, or sitting right at the front of their little shops so as to be able to chat to passersby and greet potential customers. Further on there’s carpentry with rows of bed frames, chairs, cupboards and other furniture awaiting buyers. (Meanwhile it’s getting plastered in dust from passing traffic). Yet further along there’s the metalworking area with flashes from welding kit and a cacophony of hammers bashing metal; into shape which you can hear even above the bus’s engine and the sound system inside. And everywhere there are mounds of fruit and used clothes from Western charity organisations, and bales of brilliantly coloured African cloth all awaiting buyers. It’s loud, colourful, disorganised, and it’s precisely one of the things I’ve come to love about East Africa. Everywhere there are lorries hooting and lurching over the uneven, rutted roads; big busses play suicidal overtaking games in the hope of finding the next passenger flagging them down at the roadside. Cyclists take their chances and weave drunkenly everywhere, trying to find the smoothest surface. (Just as in Rwanda, few of the bikes have gears).

Tanzania drives on the left. You need to be aware of Tanzania’s vehicular pecking order, which determines who can run who off the road: at the bottom are chickens, who scatter at the approach of people. Then come pedestrians, then bicycles, followed by motos, cars, and smaller taxi buses. The big international buses like ours can sweep all these out of our path, but kings of the road are the articulated lorries and everything – everything – has to give way to them or face the consequences. (I wonder what happens when a lorry meets a train on one of the ungated level crossings?) (This para is adapted from the “Rough Guide to Zanzibar” description of traffic on the island, but it holds just as good for the mainland).

Further and further we go into the depths of Tanzania. Now the land changes again. We start to pass inselbergs. (This is Brucey the geologist speaking. If rocks bore you, go to the next paragraph). Inselberg is a German term meaning “island rock” and until this afternoon I’ve never appreciated just how apt the description is. Great mounds of granite rock rise out of the flatness of the plains and form low mountains or isolated hills. They are fractured into blocks, some standing together, others of which have fallen away to form a ring of massive boulders surrounding the hill in its loneliness. In one case there’s a spectacular split block which points vertically into the afternoon sun like a two fingered salute! (See photo). The rocks are always rounded; this is where exfoliation (weathering caused by endless heating by sunshine during the day, and cooling at night) has cause the surface millimetres of rock to disintegrate and crumble away. After a few thousand years the rocks become smooth and rounded, almost as if someone had polished them. There are dozens of these inselbergs, ranging from low jumbles of boulders where a hill has been completely worn away, to real mountains which would need half a day to climb. They dot the plains and the white afternoon heat like sentinels; around them are the crazed baobabs and the wretched huts of local people. (Sometimes the huts seem to be actually built into the fallen boulders). Here it is too dry for bananas; it feels funny to be in the depths of the African countryside without endless fields of plantains rustling in the afternoon breeze. All along the roadside you can see where fields have been created. In most cases they’re freshly dug, weed free, but nothing is growing in them. I assume either that the seeds have been planted and people are waiting for the rains to arrive to start things growing, or that nothing can happen until it rains. As you may know, we have a very severe drought in the northern part of East Africa. Kenya is particularly badly hit with cattle dying in their thousands and people being displaced southwards in search of food and water. Because Rwanda is further west, higher, and has more rivers it has largely escaped the drought, but it looks as if here, along the road to Dar es Salaam, we’re starting to meet the drought for the first time.

Meanwhile we’re being entertained by Nigerian telly soaps and Congolese music played at deafening volume on the coach’s sound system. The soap operas are every bit as hammy as those we saw on our way to Kampala, but are so amateurish that there’s a sort of compelling horrified fascination in watching them.

Tanzanian time is an hour ahead of Rwandan (and three hours ahead of GMT), so we adjust our “watches”. Of the three of us nobody has brought a watch, and only I have brought a mobile phone, so keeping accurate time isn’t going to be our strong point over the next fortnight. It’s a good job that there’ll only be a couple of occasions when we have absolute time deadlines to meet!

During the day we drive through a heavy thunderstorm. Because the land is so flat we can see for miles and any storm is visible ages before it reaches us. Sunset over the plains seems to take forever – in Rwanda the sun is always setting behind hills or mountains and the whole process seems to be over in five minutes. Here the sun slowly sinks and the baobabs throw their twisted shadows across the land like a drawing from one of your nightmares. In the final murky twilight the baobabs are sinister beyond belief. Just let your imagination dredge up all those images of twisted trees with murderous intent……… well, readers, the Tanzanian plains is where they seem to go when they’re not haunting you!

I have to praise the road system in Tanzania. In all the drive from Rusumo to Dar there’s just one, admittedly extensive, section without tarmac. The roads are straight, and the tarmac is in good condition. This means we drive FAST. Every so often there are speed bumps; some of these are simply rumble strips which can be ignored but make a brain shaking noise as you pass them; others are potential vehicle wreckers. The driver knows his road well, and progress consists of mad dashes at around 70mph, followed by sudden deceleration for the next sleeping policeman. At this point we lurch forwards; it isn’t enjoyable if you’re trying to drink from a big water bottle at the time! There are few private cars on the roads; most traffic consists of articulated lorries. Also at intervals, and particularly for the first hundred miles or so from the Rwandan border, there are police check points.

Another peculiar feature of Tanzanian roads is an obsession with weighbridges. Quite rightly, they want to prevent their roads being damaged by overladen lorries (Rwanda, please take note). Every hundred miles or so there are compulsory stops where every wheel of every passing vehicle is weighed. I can’t see the logic of having to do this for private cars, small vans or even big buses like ours – surely it’s only commercial goods vehicles which can be overloaded to the point of causing real damage to the road network? But you can see these weighing stations from afar because of the long queues of lorries waiting to pass through. Our coach driver doesn’t want to wait in inline; we know we’re not going to have a problem with weight. Every time we are stopped at these checkpoints we have to negotiate or barge our way to the head of the queue among a lot of hooting and arguing.

Between Singida and Dodoma there’s a long section of road which has yet to be properly built and tarmacked. They’re in the process of doing this, but in the meantime we have to slow right down and weave and bump our way along the ruts. I can’t imagine how awful the journey from Kigali to Dar would be if all the roads were like this, and I salute the sheer strength and endurance of people who undoubtedly had to make the journey many years ago. The dust is tremendous. We’re told to OPEN the bus windows to keep the dust out. This seems counter-intuitive, but we do as we’re told and against all the odds we don’t end up coated in topsoil. There are some interesting moments, however – all vehicles try to follow the line of smoothest earth, and at many points, in the darkness, we seem to be heading straight towards an oncoming lorry, only to lurch to our side of the road at the last minute.

Night falls over the bush; the moon rises (a full moon) and the effect is magical. By now we’ve been on the bus about eighteen hours, but we’re still glued to the windows, looking out at the empty blackness of the Tanzanian night. We cross railway lines which look abandoned. By midnight we’re at Dodoma, the capital of the country. Dodoma is a new creation, intended to open up the interior of Tanzania and move the focus of activity away from the coast at Dar. By night it’s a funny place; it appears suddenly and doesn’t seem to have any real centre or focus. The bus station at night would certainly not be its selling point, either. It is sleazy, dirty and smelly. “Guards” are lolling in front of the businesses they’re supposed to be safeguarding; in some cases they opt for the Rwandan approach of going to sleep at the door of the businesses and hoping that any burglar will trip over them and wake them up. We are all hungry; there’s nothing that looks safe enough to eat except for another rolex and chips. Then we have to pay to use an unpleasant toilet, and get back in the bus.

What nobody’s told us is that the bus is stopping here for two hours. Those in the know have disembarked and found seats or spread blankets on the floor around the kiosks that litter the bus station, and are trying to stretch themselves out and snatch a couple of hours of proper sleep before we continue. We’re back in our seats, trying to make ourselves comfortable.

Best thing about today – I love the feeling of adventure. We’re in a different country; everything around us is strange and interesting. We are comfortable as it’s possible to be on a long coach journey. This is the start of our holiday – bring it on!

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