By Tsholo Tlhoaele
In the fifth instalment, Tsholo takes us into Tanzania where she is caught off guard by unfortunate news from home and becomes a de facto national spokesperson, is fascinated by the busy-ness of Tanzania’s cities, repulsed by the smell of the local fish market, is disappointed when she gets a tourist-packaged experience of local culture and finally overcomes her fear of snakes.
5 December – 19 December
This was the longest part of my trip – but by far the most exciting. We loaded up Mama with our luggage and got ready for the drive. As soon as we got cell phone reception while we were driving out, breaking news came in: Former President, Nelson Mandela has died. I stared at my phone for a solid 5 minutes reading over the message several times. Nyika received the news shortly after and made the announcement through a microphone on the bus. There was no doubt that everyone knew who Mandela was. As the only South African on the bus, I was now liable as a government public relations official expected to sell the Mandela struggle story to everyone.
While on the bumpy road one of the travellers from Germany walked up to me and asked “How do you feel?” as if the news meant that I was devastated and had lost a father. It seemed a bit insensitive of me when I just shrugged my shoulders in a “meh, I am perfectly fine” sort of manner as though the news hadn’t even dented my heart. The thing is I didn’t have it in me. I spent the rest of the long drive really thinking about why I wasn’t too bothered – maybe because I saw death as a natural part of life, something that none of us can escape. The “I remember…” stories of Mandela during the apartheid struggle invaded conversations for the next nine hours.
Soon after we crossed over the Malawi – Tanzania border, my first impression was that Tanzania was such a busy country – there were people everywhere! Maybe because we were just at the border there seemed to be a lot of activity – but I soon learnt that my prediction was accurate. We drove through the city at a very stilted pace, constantly stopping and swaying off the road due to a heavy flow of traffic. It was painfully hot, we had been in the bus for a solid 11 hours, my feet were so swollen – I had now had enough!
We arrived in Iringa where we would spend the night. I was relieved to see a TV in my room as I was unpacking. I was really anticipating a relaxed and peaceful evening. As can be expected, all the television programs aired documentaries about Mandela. Every single station, in every language – ALL NIGHT! I was looking forward to watching a local movie or even a talk show, even though I couldn’t understand it, I wanted to make meaning of it myself. I felt sick – the TV content, the heat, the disrespectful insects and mosquitos and my untamed running stomach. I lay awake for most of the night.
The next morning I was the first one packed and ready to go. We made our way to Mikumi where we would spend the night. We drove past the Baobab Valley where we stopped to hug the trees in hope that all our dreams and wishes come true. Nyika cracked open a shell of the fruit and we each grabbed a piece to taste. It tasted very dry and powdery in my mouth. I was just proud of myself for at least making the effort to try it.
The Tanzanian city was interesting! I felt like a curious kid, fascinated by everything that I saw – from the use of bikes and buses as public transport to the sight of very few women driving and the market stalls on the side of the road selling what looked like a pineapple fruit of some sort. It looked so confusing and busy for me – but so natural and mundane for the locals.
We arrived at our beach front camp site where we would pack and prepare for Zanzibar the next day. Again, like Lake Malawi in Khande, this beach front was so peaceful and calm – nothing like the Durban beaches we have back at home.
We drove to Dar es Salaam (which means ‘house of peace’), the trade capital of Tanzania. A local ferry transferred us to the Northern part of Zanzibar. On the ferry, I met a local who travelled to Zanzibar every second day for work. Here I was travelling to see this world wonder, whereas this was just part of his everyday experience. I probed him with a few questions about his own travels and what he thinks of Zanzibar since he never went there for pleasure. He spoke passionately about how breath-taking it is and how he still gets excited to see the clear waters even though he cannot enjoy them in the way that tourists do. The hour long ferry ride was interesting for me, as I learnt that he too desired to see places like Cape Town, which he perceived as one of the most beautiful places in the world, based on what the media had obviously sold him.
We both saw each other’s homes as jewels of the world – but didn’t see our own as the ultimate. Now Zanzibar doesn’t compare to Cape Town in the least, but I couldn’t help think that he had a desire to be in Cape Town because he was so used to his own wonder that he must have been oblivious to exactly how stunning Zanzibar was. Why is it that why we travel outside of our own borders first before we fully explore what our own countries have? Maybe it’s because we take what we have for granted that we don’t prioritise the experience.
As the ferry was pulling up to stop at the deck the nauseating heat was drowned out by the site of a fairy tale looking land. It was unreal! I couldn’t believe people actually lived here and got to experience these beaches daily.
We drove to a local spice farm where we took part in a tour, tasting and buying spices. Yoh! I was complete. I love food and cooking. I had goosebumps walking through the fields tasting my everyday Robertsons spices, but this time from the stem. The spice menu was diverse with cinnamon, mint, cardamom and even coffee. This was the perfect start to Zanzibar for me.
We arrived at Amman Bungalows in Zanzibar, where the travel group was allowed to disperse and spend their time freely but had to meet up for dinner and breakfast meals.
During an elaborate and Great Gatsby-like sea food dinner, we were entertained by a cultural dance performance that involved a python. Of course we were invited on stage to have the snake wrapped around our shoulders while we pose for a photograph. This is a game I wasn’t interested in playing. Everyone of the performers seemed very animated and rehearsed – I didn’t get a sense of genuine entertainment and showcasing of their culture. With Zanzibar being what it is, it was only natural to have a typical tourist experience. This dampened my spirits a bit as I felt cheated of the real Zanzibar culture because of this rehearsed state that everyone appeared to be in.
We left for a tour in Stone Town, the capital of Zanzibar where we were instructed we wear appropriate clothing that covered our knees and shoulders. Nyika justified this instruction by saying that the town was predominately Islam. He further stressed the point by sharing a story of a young tourist year’s back who had been splashed with acid on her face because she stood out with her shorts and bikini top in the town. That was enough to be covered from head to toe in the heat.
A local took us on a tour around the town, showing us the markets, which included the fish market. The smell in there was unbelievable. It smelt like someone had died with their remains undiscovered for several months. There were all sorts of fish, dead and even alive, fresh from the ocean. I couldn’t entertain the thought of buying anything from there.
Local newspapers were filled with reports on Mandela’s passing with more people finding it important for me to feel something when seeing the headlines. We visited the slave historical site, briefly went past the Freddy Mercury museum and ended the Zanzibar trip with a dinner at the Zanzibar Ocean View hotel.
The next day we made our way back to Der es Salaam on a ferry and headed out to Lushoto. We didn’t spend too much time here as we were preparing for the big Serengeti trip coming up.
We travelled to Arusha where we did some light shopping for our camping excursion. The town was filled with a lot of the Masai tribe members, all dressed in their traditional attire. We drove into the Serengeti National Park, the highlight for most for my fellow European travellers. This leg of the trip was all about nature, wildlife and camping. We travelled in open top 4×4 safari vehicles to Lake Manyara on game drives and day hiking. We walked through the Ngorongoro forest and even experienced a bit of the mass migration through the Mara River. We got to see the Big Five, a lion chase and even caught a lion and lioness mating – all things you would only expect to see on wild life TV.
The camping experience was a very refreshing one – sleeping on the ground with only a thin material protecting you from the wild animals you can clearly hear in the middle of the night sniffing around your tent. I was constantly alert, you could never be too comfortable there. In the middle of the park, occupying natural space that the wild animals own is a gamble for any human being.
On our way out of the park we made a stop at a local Masai village. Here we were welcomed by a song and dance from the locals. The young women looked mature and sure of themselves. The men and women were draped in jewellery that reshaped their ears and necks. The one thing I have always wanted to see was the Masai men jumping sky high like we see on TV. Not only did I see it but I got to be a part of it. The women embraced me in their song and dance and dressed me in their local attire and symbolic beads. There I was dancing with them, feeling so free and secure. We had an opportunity to walk around the village, take photos, ask questions, taste their food and be a part of their world.
We made our way back to Arusha to visit the Masi Mara Museum and the snake park. The museum told the story of the Masi people and highlighted the cultural practices. I saw the snake park as an opportunity to challenge myself with snakes that I had been too afraid to entertain during the previous parts of the trip. Even though it was a secured environment, I felt like I owned the natural space.
The journey over the last few days was something that needed to be captured in time. All the emotions, reactions and thoughts – my travel diaries did not offer enough justice. From this point in the trip, looking back to everything that I had experienced, my thinking about African people and the African experience and identity began to change. I had always had an inkling that what I’d known had the elements of myth and this experience was now proving that.