Hi from me

Little bits and bobs of my life, my thoughts and my experiences in the place that has - I guess - become my home

From Pen

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Dar Days - 30 November 2008

Yesterday afternoon, my brother called me from the graveside of his brother-in-law. He told me that it had started to rain, and I responded with sympathy: ‘Pole sana’. Despite the relentless, unforgiving heat and humidity of Dar es Salaam, in which thick pearls of sweat creep stealthily down the front and back of t-shirts, trousers and underwear like an endless procession of moist insects, rainfall in Dar is not widely embraced. The streets, littered and clogged with dirt when dry, become muddy canals: the drainage system, or lack thereof, renders the roads impassable.

Yes – a curious opening. Perhaps you did not know that I have two brothers and that they are both Tanzanians, born and raised in Iringa. You are probably also wondering why someone would call me from a funeral. Surely, there was more sombre business at hand? Regarding the latter, I had been promised a call and, therefore, the call was made despite the circumstances. Regarding the former, let me reassure you, firstly, that I only very recently acquired this extended family whilst on a week long work trip to Dar. There, I was the house guest of Mussa Mgata and his family. Mussa’s brother, Anda, was my guide, driver, friend and source of great mirth. We were hysterical partners. After a week in their warm company, it was clear that we were ‘family’ and, so, I have two new brothers.

After years of fighting ‘family’, I have reached a stunningly simple conclusion. Family is all there is. I don’t know what took me so long, or why my route to this clarity has been so labyrinthine, but this is all I can think. My time in Dar, whirled into the maelstrom, drama and happy chaos of a Tanzanian family, sealed my thoughts on this matter. In most African countries, family is absolutely everything. The individual is important and respected but is, ultimately, subsumed by extended kinship. It can be difficult to grasp, particularly when nephews and nieces are not described as such but are referred to as sons and daughters. Mussa’s wife called is Mama Doreen (Mother of Doreen, their daughter) more often than Glory (her name). Cousins are referred to as brothers and sisters. The suggestion that ‘brother’, ‘son’ etc is not the correct moniker is met with bewilderment.

The notion of family is not merely emotional. It has a huge practical implication. Mussa is the eldest son within his family. With this comes responsibility. He does not question or challenge this: it is part of who he is. What does this mean? It means that he has financed the schooling of several relatives; supported their businesses; provided board and lodging to various family members; bought cars/ paid deposits/ sent money. He does not blink at this and, as Anda explained, it is better to provide for family than to eat. Giving to family in this way is not only natural, it also serves the purpose of consolidating relationships and demonstrating loyalty.

I must confess that I was overwhelmed at times by so many family members coming and going, sleeping on sofas and chairs, staring as I ate dinner, laughing as I tried to roll chapattis and shape mandaazi (plain donuts), talking wildly from 6 am to midnight. But, finally, I felt cocooned by this frenetic family embrace and it reaffirmed my wish to be part of my own family – nuclear and extended. To me, this means not only Cabots and Crankshaws but also the friends I will now call brother, sister, son and daughter. You know who you are!

So, I fell in love with family in Dar. But Dar itself? I’m not sure. It certainly intrigues, though early experiences did not augur well. I was bitten to near death on my first night which, when not taking anti-malarials, is always a concern. There is no noise more menacing than the irritated, determined, unremitting bzzzzzz of a bloodthirsty mbu (mosquito), especially when it has broken into the supposed safe haven of your net. The sound that draws a close second in terms of horror in the night is that of rodents under the bed. This, too, I endured. My toothbrush was the victim of a hungry mouse, which I caught red handed in the glare of my torch. This on my first night in sticky, stifling Dar: the one night of the week with a power out which rendered fans useless.

But these are trifles. What really hit was the contrast between this traffic ridden, somewhat ‘seedy’ city and the rural landscape from which I had been transported on an eight hour bus journey. The few arterial roads into Dar are sheer madness. Dala dalas cross the central line, swerve their cargo of squeezed in passengers, crash into each other with shoulder-shrugging regularity. Tuk-tuk style mobiles ferry hapless folk about the jammed city streets, exploiting their diminutive size by going in any direction possible. The roads echo those of Phnom Penh.

Then there is consumerism. You can buy almost anything in Dar, albeit at a price, and there are even shopping malls with CINEMAS! Quantum of Solace was on, but some ridiculous guilt complex prevented me going. For there is also great poverty in Dar, as everywhere, and the contrast between these glossy complexes and the city slums serves to highlight the destitution more. This is reinforced by the presence of some very plush residences in certain parts of the city: Ambassadorial residencies; the Presidential home etc. Who am I kidding? Can I please be an Ambassador and scrap all this squat toilet/ bucket shower/ candles-by-night simplicity? Give a girl a break!

I was grateful to be with a ‘local’ all day. Not only did he see me safely to the various NGOs, potential donors and government buildings I wanted to visit, but he also took on board my adventurous streak and enabled me to access real Dar. My preference is always for the grittier side, although I did actually gag and regurgitate orange whilst investigating Dar’s biggest chicken market (which smelt nothing like farmyard chooks but purely of ‘rot’). However, I loved the fast, furious frenzy of the fish market at Kivukoni, where brawny men in blood stained clothes sell catches of prawns, octopus, tuna, snapper, tilapia, shark.... Behind, in steaming alleys, fish is fried, grilled and smoked and ready to eat from the stand. How I long for fish in Uchira. I relished pweza (BBQ octopus) and smoky, salty grilled snapper with a pudding of yellow passion fruit and guava. 50p well spent. This is how I love to experience a place.

Curry is also truly authentic in Dar, home as it is to a significant Indian population and a greater concentration of Muslims. Tandoori ovens grace many restaurants, blessing the plate with puffy, chewy naan and spicy, brick-coloured chicken, meat, fish. This at the end of a day marked by several tiny cups of treacly coffee from street vendors (often children) laden with huge kettles (2p a cup), sweet pineapple slices (5p) and the odd red banana (2-5p).

Then there is the Indian Ocean. A great, warm bath of an ocean, it laps at the edges of Dar es Salaam, with the promise of escape from the city and restoration of body and spirit. A 5p ferry hop across from Kivukoni transports you to some wonderful stretches of coast with the kind of fine, golden-white sand and vivid blue sea that we sometimes imagine is enhanced in travel magazines. I luxuriated for a day at Kipepeo, thinking endlessly of my Dad (a sea dog at heart) and cleansing myself in the salty belly of this vast sea. Accompanying me? Jellyfish; crabs bright hued fish, and the soothing sound of gently crashing waves. I am not romanticising!

I have stopped smoking. This will surprise you all, either because you had no idea that I smoked in the first place or because you think that I deserve some stress relief and that smoking is not half as bad as downing Konyagi, the ubiquitous spirit which is as cheap as Coca Cola here. Well, this girl is not ‘a smoker’, but I found myself lulled by the evil narcotic, nicotine, in my first month here. Maybe because so many people here smoke. Maybe because I am actually a bit more stressed than I sometimes actually feel and cigs can do a great impression of offering a helping hand. Maybe because they are 5p each and there is one in particular, Sweet Menthol, which almost justifies itself as a breath freshener........ Whatever the reason, I reached a point about a week ago when I actually craved a cigarette at about 10am. WARNING SIGN! Who was I turning into?

Why can I exercise absurd levels of discipline in some areas and none at all in others? Mind over matter, I decided. So I took my finest TShilling 100 piece to a little shop, bought a Sweet Menthol, sat under a Dar sky enjoying each poison filled puff, sat back and knew it was my last. That was a week ago. Wish me luck.

Back in Uchira, the air is cooler and fresher than it can ever be in Dar, kissed by Kilimanjaro and more mountainous climes. We had rain of such intensity and ferocity two nights ago that I lay awake totally hypnotised by its roar. It endured for hours, carrying with it a smell that was almost reminiscent of rain in the English countryside: hay, grass and newness.

We have a new volunteer who is going to be great company. She is an 18 year old American called Erin, and I am already bowled over by her frankness, intelligence and wit. I like her a lot. She will be working on our Sustainable Agriculture pilot. I quite like this ebb and flow of people.

We also have electricity, courtesy of new solar panels, and I cannot begin to tell you how hard this is to get used to after 3 weeks living by candle light, constantly relighting the tricky wicks and fearful of catching the mosquito net which would, certainly, disappear in seconds if lit. It feels almost wrong, clandestine, to switch on a light……

We also have more insects, birds and lizards than I have seen since I first arrived. Alas, I missed the large black garden snake that appeared (and was dispatched) on the balcony of our home whilst I was away, but I am fascinated by the array of flying, hopping, scuttling creatures with whom I share my home. The low drone of light aircraft, rising and falling humming cadences, accompanies evening reading. I am fascinated by the sheer diversity of these beings.

The moon was a barely visible crescent last night, the stars obscured by cloud cover. The night was cool and breezy. Our security guard lit a small charcoal burner to warm himself, his crossbow and arrow resting by the kitchen door. I am sleeping better but have hit a couple of big lows, missing the ease that being in the company of people who just know me brings. I miss those who just know me.

It is a little strange planning a Christmas away from family and friends, but with two weeks free I will probably take the opportunity to go on safari. The Serengeti, Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro Crater. It’s not too late to join me.

Hoping that everyone is safe, well and filling dark nights with red wine, good books and cuddles

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