© David E. Moon, 2014  All rights reserved

 

Poor Man’s Safari

We returned to the Nairobi City park. This time we got off the bus on the way by and saved ourselves the round trip to Nairobi. The next stage of our journey was to travel south, through Tanzania and Zambia to visit Barbara’s brother Gary in southern Malawi. The choice of travel was simple. We could not afford to fly, hitch-hiking was unreliable, and we were expected within a two or three day window. The bus north to Lake Naivasha had been well maintained and comfortable enough and we had arrived on schedule, so a bus ride it was.

Nairobi to Arusha

The next night found us back at the Nairobi bus station boarding a bus for Arusha in Tanzania. The bus, while far from a modern touring bus, was large, had well padded bench seats, and room for everyone to sit. The bus crew consisted of a driver, a conductor, and a luggage handler. The conductor and luggage handler cheerfully hoisted our packs up to the roof rack and we boarded sometime after dark. Seated about two-thirds of the way towards the back of the bus, we could see the heads of our fellow passengers silhouetted against the depot floodlights. Just before departure, three rather tipsy Aussies, reeking of beer, staggered past us and sat drinking. Once underway, it was like sitting in a long tunnel. The headlights boring through the darkness extending the tunnel beyond the front windows. I had a strange sensation of unreality and of being cocooned. My thoughts were wandering when I became aware of a disturbance coming from behind us. The three very loud, vulgar, insensitive, boorish, beer-swilling Australians were making comparisons of Africans to primates and of buses to garbage trucks. They wondered aloud where all the beautiful, topless African women they had been told to expect were hiding. The only ones they had seen were old and wrinkled and had flat sagging breasts. They finally consumed enough beer to pass out, leaving us mortified to be white. Sometime later I woke from a light sleep as the bus lurched to a stop. Looking out the front window we could see giraffe, ghostly in the moonlight until suddenly captured in sharp relief by the headlamps as they wandered across the road. The rest of the bus-ride was uneventful; we even cleared immigration and customs painlessly.

The Bus Station

We arrived in Arusha around one o’clock in the morning. The bus pulled into a pool of light cast by a single spotlight mounted on a pole. Caught in the glare of the spotlight, we could see little beyond the bus. As people disembarked, the luggage handler handed down bags from the roof. I helped to pass out the luggage but our packs did not appear. Eventually, the luggage handler climbed down. I asked if our packs were still on top of the bus, but the formerly friendly man ignored me and walked away. I don’t know if it was the fact that we were white, that we were assumed to be with the Aussies, or that we were now in Tanzania, but we were clearly persona non grata. Stories of anti-colonial sentiment in East Africa, stories about Tanzania being anti-American (we looked and sounded like Americans), and stories of anti-tourist militancy came back to us. Only we and the Aussies were left standing in the pool of light. I climbed up the ladder and found our packs up near the front of the luggage rack. Just as I was passing the last bag down, the spotlight went out and I had to feel my way down in the dark. The Aussies disappeared into town, presumably to find more beer, and we walked towards the lights of what we took to be the bus station. The bus station was large and virtually deserted. Fluorescent lights cast a harsh, flickering glare on the cement floor and Spartan wooden benches. I recall thinking how ghastly Barbara looked in the light and assuming that I must look as bad. There was a counter at which a few people were buying hot tea and biscuits. I tried my phrase book Swahili; I tried pantomime; I tried English; they ignored me. The person behind the counter simply turned his back on me and began talking to a customer. I felt three emotions, the first was surprise, the second was intrigue – so this was what it felt like to be discriminated against –, and the third was unease bordering on fear.

Rape of Mother Africa

Since no one could, or perhaps would, speak English, we sat and waited for the ticket offices to open. At about two or three o’clock we heard a loud crashing, like garbage cans being kicked behind the building. This was followed by a bellowed “F..k Queen Elizabeth”, some incomprehensible Swahili, and then “Rape of mother Africa”. Whoever was yelling now had our full and complete attention. Interspersed with more bellowed Swahili were similar sentiments directed in English towards President Nixon and tourists in general. Eventually, a very drunk, very large man emerged from a door and spotted us sitting on the wood-slat benches. I am sure that the fluorescent light reflecting off the sheen of sweat on our now paler faces made us look even more ghastly than before. Pacing back and forth in front of us, he alternately mumbled and bellowed in Swahili. Brief repetitions of his previous English phrases kept our attention and accompanying them by spitting on the floor in front of us was particularly effective. Our sense of physical and cultural isolation and our sense of vulnerability was acute. We read our books. After some time, I noticed that my book was upside down, and I surreptitiously turned it right side up. I was thinking, what do I do if he becomes violent? Based on their reaction to us earlier, I could not expect any help from the others present at the bus station. The man was very drunk, and I thought that if it came to it, I might be able to take him in a fair fight. Unfortunately, he was sobering up fast and not becoming any friendlier. I had a sheath knife on my belt but feared what the law or the other people present would do if I had to use it. I made up my mind that if he attacked Barbara or if my life was in danger, I would use the knife and take the consequences. I carefully moved the sheath to where I could quickly draw the knife and waited tensely. I don’t remember how long we sat there with him pacing back and forth, but eventually he went away. Even so, we did not relax until the ticket agents arrived in the morning, and I am pretty sure that my book was still open at the same page when they did.

Arusha to Dodoma

Tired and a little shaken, we boarded the bus to Dodoma on our way to Mbeya and the Zambian border. Initially everyone found seats, but soon the bus was standing room only and unless people were getting off, the bus would pass by the bus stops leaving the waiting people standing. Appar- ently, people could return to the bus stop each day for a week or more before the bus would have room to take them aboard. Dry rolling country dominated by reddish-brown earth, burned crop residue, and scrub  rolled past the window. Dirt tracks periodically led off the main road towards small settlements, and dust billowed behind the bus. About an hour after departure, the bus stopped beside the road and people appeared with hard boiled eggs and corn fritters for sale. Around lunch it stopped again and people appeared with charcoal roasted chicken and cassava for sale. Concerned about Barb’s sensitive stomach, we did not partake. When our fellow passengers noticed this, there was a quiet murmur and a couple of banana leaves passed up and down the aisle. People who had enough to share placed a small portion of their lunch on the leaves which were then passed to us with a deferential smile. We smiled, bowed, and spoke our thanks. Thankfully, the food was cooked, pealed or skinned, and probably safe. We felt pretty small, because hidden in our day pack were biscuits and tinned meat that we were too embarrassed to eat in front of  the others, and of which there was not nearly enough to share. We arrived at Dodoma with our unease of the previous night pretty much dissipated by the hospitality and friendliness of our fellow passengers. Dodoma was on the rail line and we spent the night at the railway hotel. Barbara threw caution to the wind and had a fresh salad for dinner in the hotel restaurant. We also, for the first and only time, changed money on the black market. We knew that Indians were trying to get their money out of East Africa and would offer a huge differential for American dollars or English pounds. We were naïve, ignorant of the political issues behind their actions, and oblivious to the looming crisis. We rationalized, everybody else is doing it, we were strapped for cash, and so we approached a young Indian man outside a movie theatre to ask if he could change some money for us. He took us behind the theatre and peeled our Tanzanian currency off a huge wad of bills. He must have been carrying several thousand dollars. To be honest, the size of the bankroll and the risk he must be taking had a sobering effect on us. It made us realize the seriousness of what we were doing.

Dodoma to Mbeya

The next leg of the journey was Dodoma to Mbeya. At Mbeya, we would change buses for the final leg to Zambia. As usual, the bus was soon overloaded. We were sitting at the very back, the aisle was jammed with standing passengers, and there were goats and chickens on the roof. I had the strange sensation of drifting in and out of reality. At one moment I would be intimately involved in the palpable present, intensely aware of my surroundings; the physical contact with my travelling companions, the heat of a bare thigh against my leg and the pressure of a shoulder and head against my side; the smells surrounding me, pungent  body odour and sour breast milk;  the bucking and jarring of the bus as it rolled over the potholes and washboard of the road. In the next moment, I would be strangely detached, an observer cocooned and separate from the reality around me. A large, brown, heavily callused, splay-toed foot was captured in a shaft of sunlight. It stood on the dusty grey flooring of the bus and as the bus bounced little puffs of dust would spray up like miniature geysers between the toes. I stared, mind wandering I don’t know where, until a body shifting or the bus jarring brought me back to here and now.

Barbara’s Folly

Barbara soon regretted her decision to have salad the night before. She desperately needed to expel the digested remains, so I laboriously worked my way to the front, sometimes crawling from seat back to seat back below the luggage rack. Once at the front I convinced a very reluctant conductor to call a rest stop. Barb thankfully stepped into the bushes while the passengers maintained their eyes rigidly facing front. About a half hour after Barbara’s unscheduled rest stop, we left the reddish brown and black of the valley bottom and began climbing a steep scarp face. The vegetation changed from the blackened grass and scrub of the valley floor to the grayish-green of Eucalyptus and other shrubs of the escarpment. As we climbed a very narrow road on a very steep section of the escarpment, Barbara told me that she needed to stop again. No she could not hold on, and, if we did not stop soon, we would all regret it. I was just about to begin the arduous journey to the front of the bus again when all hell broke loose. A chicken coop on the roof had broken open and chickens were cascading over the side. Even to a conductor concerned about maintaining his schedule, this was a compelling reason to stop. As many of the passengers ran down the escapees, Barbara gratefully slipped behind some bushes to rid herself of the last of the previous nights folly.

Dave’s Folly

Despite Barbara’s unfortunate run-in with the local stomach flora, I felt fine and was emboldened to try some of the other delicacies offered at the roadside stops. At one place I noticed some interesting looking cake-like objects. They were a rich, reddish-black and on closer examination looked like they might be a baked custard of some kind. At a cent apiece, they looked too good to pass up. I leaned out the window and purchased one. It was wrapped in newspaper and passed up to me. I smelled it. It was virtually odorless. I broke it in half and it looked even more like a firm custard. It was not until I tasted the cake that the penny dropped. It was congealed blood. I was undecided as to what to do next. Our travelling companions did not litter or spit on the bus, but I had a mouthful of congealed cow’s blood. If I swallowed, I might do far worse than spit on the floor. The feel of the stuff in my mouth was revolting but I steeled myself and swallowed. Fortunately, I was able to choke back the gag reflex. I was happy to return the favour of the previous day and share my newly acquired treasure among my fellow passengers.

Another Deserted Bus Station

We arrived at Mbeya in the late afternoon. The bus station was a small, isolated, mud-brick, tin-roofed hut. It had a single entrance and one high open window. Outside the door was a large pile of chewed sugar cane chaff left by other passengers who had waited for the bus. The dirt floor was well packed and swept. There was a single wooden bench inside. It was quite dark, but the window gave enough light to cook by. I had noticed another small building in the distance and thought that it looked like a store. I left Barbara preparing dinner inside the hut while I walked the mile or so to try to buy some biscuits. We were in luck and I was rewarded with a packet of English digestive biscuits. It was dusk as I returned I noticed two young men standing on either side of the door. One was very deliberately peeling a stalk of sugar cane with his panga (machete). As I approached, he would look up, make eye contact, and return to peeling his sugar cane. After our night in Arusha, I was more than a little apprehensive. I knew that Barb was inside but had no idea what might be going on. I only knew that I needed to get into the hut and decided to brazen it out. As I approached the hut, I drew my knife and conspicuously used it to open the package of biscuits. I ate one and as I reached the door, I said “Hujambo rafiki” (How are you friend) and offered the young men a biscuit. The young man with the panga smiled and said in perfect English “Hello. Thank you.” I held out the biscuits, and without taking the package they each took a single biscuit. The second young man shyly said thank you and the first asked in rapid succession, “Would you like some sugar cane? Where are you from?”  I told him Canada, and he responded, “Oh, Canada, you have salmon and wheat! Welcome. Welcome.” They were a couple of lads from a village just over the rise and were relaxing before heading home. They did not even know that Barbara was in the hut. Barbara, for her part, had been oblivious to their presence and was finishing dinner preparations by the light of a candle from our pack. She had not heard their quiet voices over the hissing and roaring of our little camp stove and only became aware of them when she overheard the conversation on my arrival. They invited us back to the village for dinner and to sample some wild honey that they had found, but since Barbara was just about finished making dinner we demurred with thanks. I don’t remember spending the night, but I assume that we must have slept in the hut. The next morning we boarded another bus for the Zambian border.

Mbeya to Tunduma

The bus ride the next day was pretty uneventful except that a group of Masai wanting to use the bus provided a fascinating diversion. The bus slowed but did not stop immediately beside them. As it passed, the women began a loud ululation and the men, brandishing their spears and shouting, chased after the bus. Needless to say, the driver hit the gas and took off. The men stopped, lowered their spears, and the driver seeing this slowed again. Up came the spears and shouting, and again the bus took off. I was in full sympathy with the driver as I tried to estimate the penetrating power of a Masai spear hurled against the back of a bus seat. Finally, when the Masai approached at a walk with lowered spears they were allowed to board. The women had tightly cropped hair or shaved heads and were dressed in brown rough-cotton wrapped at the waist like a sarong. Large platter-like beaded neckpieces hung from their necks and long beaded hoops from their ears. Loose open shawls of the same rough material covered their shoulders. The shawl functioned as both top and baby sling. A quick bounce of the woman’s hip and the baby would swing around from back to front. As it did, a pull on one end of the shawl and the child would rise to the perfect position for breast-feeding. The men with their long tightly plaited hair caked with red clay, toga like garments made of the same rough-cotton material, cape similar to the women’s shawls, wooden club hanging from a leather thong around their waste, long wood-shafted spear with gleaming, near meter long polished- steel spear points on either end presented an imposing even formidable appearance. The women and children had a great time, laughing, chatting, eating, and drinking. The men sat rigid, spears planted between their knees, staring straight ahead. When they reached their destination, the women and children, still laughing and joking, tumbled off the bus. The men stomped down the steps and as each reached the ground he turned and spit on the bus before walking away.

Curiosity

Since the night ride from Nairobi to Arusha, we had been the only white faces on the bus. My beard and Barbara’s long straight hair where invariably a curiosity. One little boy kept peeking over the back seat to look at us. A smile and funny face encouraged him to boldness. He spoke a little English and wanted to know why we were so white. He touched Barb’s arm to see if the white would rub off like dust. He was desperate to feel our straight hair and giggled uncontrollably if Barb let him run his hand through her hair or I let him touch my beard. At a small village bus stop, children lined up single file in a perfectly straight line of sight to see the white mgeni (foreigners) sitting on the bus. We waved at them and the line collapsed in a heap of giggles and flailing limbs.

The border

We arrived at the border in the early afternoon. Customs and immigration were some way from the bus stop and we had to walk across the border to Zambia. Customs and immigration were again relatively painless for us, but this was not true for a couple from Rhodesia. The woman’s passport had expired and the Zambian customs officer was unsympathetic. The husband returned to the desk two or three times and each time was told there was nothing that could be done. Finally, the man folded about twenty dollars into the passport, told the officer that he was sure that if the officer looked just one more time he would find a renewal stamp or some other loophole. The officer thumbed the passport, palmed the bills, and stamped the passport.

Tunduma to Nakonde

After passing through customs we hurried across the border to Nakonde where we were to catch the bus for Malawi. Nakonde, a small village owed its existence to being at the border checkpoint and to being the terminus of the only bus service to Malawi. A ridge and swale landscape, covered with a mosaic of scrub and cultivated land interspersed with a few tall Eucalyptus like trees surrounded the village sitting on a low ridge. A few recent cinder-block or mud-brick, tin roofed commercial buildings lined a service road. Behind them the ground sloped down and away. Towards the base of the swale we could see more traditional wattle and daub, thatch roofed huts surrounded by small cultivated plots. There was no bus station. Instead, people were sitting in the open between the main road and the service road for the village. There was no shelter and only one tree to provide shade of any kind. A large number of people were waiting; each with one or more steamer trunk sized bundles neatly wrapped and sewn up in burlap. They were Malawian workers from the Zambian mines who because of currency export restrictions had to get their savings home in the form of goods rather than cash.

A Lesson In Patience

We found a tree just off the service road and sat in its shade. The sun was hot but did not seem to bother the Malawians who sat in the sun, seemingly at ease, chatting and laughing to pass the time. For our part, the cool shade and the soft dry breeze evaporating the perspiration worked up on our rush from the border post was welcome. Our rolled up sleeping bags and tent provided comfortable seats. The smell of dust was occasionally overlain with the aroma of lemon and sugar cane. At other times, it was the smell of diesel fumes from passing trucks. The people were friendly and open. Some, who spoke English joined us in the shade. I asked them about working in Zambia. Leaving Malawi was not easy they said, but they owned no land and could not hope to earn enough to buy any if working in Malawi. The only chance for  them or their families was to work in Zambia long enough to acquire sufficient goods for resale in Malawi. They hoped  that they could eventually afford enough land to support them. Owning their own land was a common dream and kept them returning to Zambia to work the mines. We were beginning to feel a bit like members of a community. While our white skin and strange clothes were still an oddity, were were becoming friends instead of visitors. The bus was scheduled to arrive at two o’clock. At four o’clock we began to ask if the bus was coming. “Perhaps. Sometimes it does not come at all.” was the answer. Some of the Malawians spoke English and we talked until dusk, but there was no sign of the bus. They did not seem concerned and as dusk approached some of the people began to drift away. We asked if the bus would come tomorrow and discovered that some of the people had been waiting for three days. At the end of the day, they would simply move, with all of their luggage, to a small grove of  trees where they would spend the night. We asked if we could join them and were told that it would not be safe. We were white and must be rich, so we would attract thieves. It was better that we sleep in the local guest house. “Do not worry. We would not harm you, but” we were told, “Zambia is too rich, there is too much alcohol, and there are bad people here. When we get to Malawi you can spend the night with us. Malawi is not rich and there are not so many bad people.” We spent the night in a nondescript, motel-like guest house and joined our fellow travellers the next morning at about six o’clock.
Giraffe caught in the headlights of the bus. The rolling landscape west of Arusha support dryland agriculture despite its arid appearance. Our second unscheduled rest stop gave me a chance to get a photo of the valley but avoided taking pictures of my fellow travellers. Uncredited Image purchased in a souvenir shop. Uncredited Image purchased in a souvenir shop. Malawian mine workers wait for a bus home.

 

Poor Man’s Safari

We returned to the Nairobi City park. This time we got off the bus on the way by and saved ourselves the round trip to Nairobi. The next stage of our journey was to travel south, through Tanzania and Zambia to visit Barbara’s brother Gary in southern Malawi. The choice of travel was simple. We could not afford to fly, hitch-hiking was unreliable, and we were expected within a two or three day window. The bus north to Lake Naivasha had been well maintained and comfortable enough and we had arrived on schedule, so a bus ride it was.

Nairobi to Arusha

The next night found us back at the Nairobi bus station boarding a bus for Arusha in Tanzania. The bus, while far from a modern touring bus, was large, had well padded bench seats, and room for everyone to sit. The bus crew consisted of a driver, a conductor, and a luggage handler. The conductor and luggage handler cheerfully hoisted our packs up to the roof rack and we boarded sometime after dark. Seated about two-thirds of the way towards the back of the bus, we could see the heads of our fellow passengers silhouetted against the depot floodlights. Just before departure, three rather tipsy Aussies, reeking of beer, staggered past us and sat drinking. Once underway, it was like sitting in a long tunnel. The headlights boring through the darkness extending the tunnel beyond the front windows. I had a strange sensation of unreality and of being cocooned. My thoughts were wandering when I became aware of a disturbance coming from behind us. The three very loud, vulgar, insensitive, boorish, beer-swilling Australians were making comparisons of Africans to primates and of buses to garbage trucks. They wondered aloud where all the beautiful, topless African women they had been told to expect were hiding. The only ones they had seen were old and wrinkled and had flat sagging breasts. They finally consumed enough beer to pass out, leaving us mortified to be white. Sometime later I woke from a light sleep as the bus lurched to a stop. Looking out the front window we could see giraffe, ghostly in the moonlight until suddenly captured in sharp relief by the headlamps as they wandered across the road. The rest of the bus-ride was uneventful; we even cleared immigration and customs painlessly.

The Bus Station

We arrived in Arusha around one o’clock in the morning. The bus pulled into a pool of light cast by a single spotlight mounted on a pole. Caught in the glare of the spotlight, we could see little beyond the bus. As people disembarked, the luggage handler handed down bags from the roof. I helped to pass out the luggage but our packs did not appear. Eventually, the luggage handler climbed down. I asked if our packs were still on top of the bus, but the formerly friendly man ignored me and walked away. I don’t know if it was the fact that we were white, that we were assumed to be with the Aussies, or that we were now in Tanzania, but we were clearly persona non grata. Stories of anti-colonial sentiment in East Africa, stories about Tanzania being anti-American (we looked and sounded like Americans), and stories of anti-tourist militancy came back to us. Only we and the Aussies were left standing in the pool of light. I climbed up the ladder and found our packs up near the front of the luggage rack. Just as I was passing the last bag down, the spotlight went out and I had to feel my way down in the dark. The Aussies disappeared into town, presumably to find more beer, and we walked towards the lights of what we took to be the bus station. The bus station was large and virtually deserted. Fluorescent lights cast a harsh, flickering glare on the cement floor and Spartan wooden benches. I recall thinking how ghastly Barbara looked in the light and assuming that I must look as bad. There was a counter at which a few people were buying hot tea and biscuits. I tried my phrase book Swahili; I tried pantomime; I tried English; they ignored me. The person behind the counter simply turned his back on me and began talking to a customer. I felt three emotions, the first was surprise, the second was intrigue – so this was what it felt like to be discriminated against –, and the third was unease bordering on fear.

Rape of Mother Africa

Since no one could, or perhaps would, speak English, we sat and waited for the ticket offices to open. At about two or three o’clock we heard a loud crashing, like garbage cans being kicked behind the building. This was followed by a bellowed “F..k Queen Elizabeth”, some incomprehensible Swahili, and then “Rape of mother Africa”. Whoever was yelling now had our full and complete attention. Interspersed with more bellowed Swahili were similar sentiments directed in English towards President Nixon and tourists in general. Eventually, a very drunk, very large man emerged from a door and spotted us sitting on the wood-slat benches. I am sure that the fluorescent light reflecting off the sheen of sweat on our now paler faces made us look even more ghastly than before. Pacing back and forth in front of us, he alternately mumbled and bellowed in Swahili. Brief repetitions of his previous English phrases kept our attention and accompanying them by spitting on the floor in front of us was particularly effective. Our sense of physical and cultural isolation and our sense of vulnerability was acute. We read our books. After some time, I noticed that my book was upside down, and I surreptitiously turned it right side up. I was thinking, what do I do if he becomes violent? Based on their reaction to us earlier, I could not expect any help from the others present at the bus station. The man was very drunk, and I thought that if it came to it, I might be able to take him in a fair fight. Unfortunately, he was sobering up fast and not becoming any friendlier. I had a sheath knife on my belt but feared what the law or the other people present would do if I had to use it. I made up my mind that if he attacked Barbara or if my life was in danger, I would use the knife and take the consequences. I carefully moved the sheath to where I could quickly draw the knife and waited tensely. I don’t remember how long we sat there with him pacing back and forth, but eventually he went away. Even so, we did not relax until the ticket agents arrived in the morning, and I am pretty sure that my book was still open at the same page when they did.

Arusha to Dodoma

Tired and a little shaken, we boarded the bus to Dodoma on our way to Mbeya and the Zambian border. Initially everyone found seats, but soon the bus was standing room only and unless people were getting off, the bus would pass by the bus stops leaving the waiting people standing. Apparently, people could return to the bus stop each day for a week or more before the bus would have room to take them aboard. Dry rolling coun- try dominated by reddish-brown earth, burned crop residue, and scrub  rolled past the window. Dirt tracks periodically led off the main road towards small settlements, and dust billowed behind the bus. About an hour after departure, the bus stopped beside the road and people appeared with hard boiled eggs and corn fritters for sale. Around lunch it stopped again and people appeared with charcoal roasted chicken and cassava for sale. Concerned about Barb’s sensitive stomach, we did not partake. When our fellow passengers noticed this, there was a quiet murmur and a couple of banana leaves passed up and down the aisle. People who had enough to share placed a small portion of their lunch on the leaves which were then passed to us with a deferential smile. We smiled, bowed, and spoke our thanks. Thankfully, the food was cooked, pealed or skinned, and probably safe. We felt pretty small, because hidden in our day pack were biscuits and tinned meat that we were too embarrassed to eat in front of  the others, and of which there was not nearly enough to share. We arrived at Dodoma with our unease of the previous night pretty much dissipated by the hospitality and friendliness of our fellow passengers. Dodoma was on the rail line and we spent the night at the railway hotel. Barbara threw caution to the wind and had a fresh salad for dinner in the hotel restaurant. We also, for the first and only time, changed money on the black market. We knew that Indians were trying to get their money out of East Africa and would offer a huge differential for American dollars or English pounds. We were naïve, ignorant of the political issues behind their actions, and oblivious to the looming crisis. We rationalized, everybody else is doing it, we were strapped for cash, and so we approached a young Indian man outside a movie theatre to ask if he could change some money for us. He took us behind the theatre and peeled our Tanzanian currency off a huge wad of bills. He must have been carrying several thousand dollars. To be honest, the size of the bankroll and the risk he must be taking had a sobering effect on us. It made us realize the seriousness of what we were doing.

Dodoma to Mbeya

The next leg of the journey was Dodoma to Mbeya. At Mbeya, we would change buses for the final leg to Zambia. As usual, the bus was soon overloaded. We were sitting at the very back, the aisle was jammed with standing passengers, and there were goats and chickens on the roof. I had the strange sensation of drifting in and out of reality. At one moment I would be intimately involved in the palpable present, intensely aware of my surroundings; the physical contact with my travelling companions, the heat of a bare thigh against my leg and the pressure of a shoulder and head against my side; the smells surrounding me, pungent  body odour and sour breast milk;  the bucking and jarring of the bus as it rolled over the potholes and washboard of the road. In the next moment, I would be strangely detached, an observer cocooned and separate from the reality around me. A large, brown, heavily callused, splay-toed foot was captured in a shaft of sunlight. It stood on the dusty grey flooring of the bus and as the bus bounced little puffs of dust would spray up like miniature geysers between the toes. I stared, mind wandering I don’t know where, until a body shifting or the bus jarring brought me back to here and now.

Barbara’s Folly

Barbara soon regretted her decision to have salad the night before. She desperately needed to expel the digested remains, so I laboriously worked my way to the front, sometimes crawling from seat back to seat back below the luggage rack. Once at the front I convinced a very reluctant conductor to call a rest stop. Barb thankfully stepped into the bushes while the passengers maintained their eyes rigidly facing front. About a half hour after Barbara’s unscheduled rest stop, we left the reddish brown and black of the valley bottom and began climbing a steep scarp face. The vegetation changed from the blackened grass and scrub of the valley floor to the grayish-green of Eucalyptus and other shrubs of the escarpment. As we climbed a very narrow road on a very steep section of the escarpment, Barbara told me that she needed to stop again. No she could not hold on, and, if we did not stop soon, we would all regret it. I was just about to begin the arduous journey to the front of the bus again when all hell broke loose. A chicken coop on the roof had broken open and chickens were cascading over the side. Even to a conductor concerned about maintaining his schedule, this was a compelling reason to stop. As many of the passengers ran down the escapees, Barbara gratefully slipped behind some bushes to rid herself of the last of the previous nights folly.

Dave’s Folly

Despite Barbara’s unfortunate run-in with the local stomach flora, I felt fine and was emboldened to try some of the other delicacies offered at the roadside stops. At one place I noticed some interesting looking cake- like objects. They were a rich, reddish-black and on closer examination looked like they might be a baked custard of some kind. At a cent apiece, they looked too good to pass up. I leaned out the window and purchased one. It was wrapped in newspaper and passed up to me. I smelled it. It was virtually odorless. I broke it in half and it looked even more like a firm custard. It was not until I tasted the cake that the penny dropped. It was congealed blood. I was undecided as to what to do next. Our travelling companions did not litter or spit on the bus, but I had a mouthful of congealed cow’s blood. If I swallowed, I might do far worse than spit on the floor. The feel of the stuff in my mouth was revolting but I steeled myself and swallowed. Fortunately, I was able to choke back the gag reflex. I was happy to return the favour of the previous day and share my newly acquired treasure among my fellow passengers.

Another Deserted Bus Station

We arrived at Mbeya in the late afternoon. The bus station was a small, isolated, mud- brick, tin-roofed hut. It had a single entrance and one high open window. Outside the door was a large pile of chewed sugar cane chaff left by other passengers who had waited for the bus. The dirt floor was well packed and swept. There was a single wooden bench inside. It was quite dark, but the window gave enough light to cook by. I had noticed another small building in the distance and thought that it looked like a store. I left Barbara preparing dinner inside the hut while I walked the mile or so to try to buy some biscuits. We were in luck and I was rewarded with a packet of English digestive biscuits. It was dusk as I returned I noticed two young men standing on either side of the door. One was very deliberately peeling a stalk of sugar cane with his panga (machete). As I approached, he would look up, make eye contact, and return to peeling his sugar cane. After our night in Arusha, I was more than a little apprehensive. I knew that Barb was inside but had no idea what might be going on. I only knew that I needed to get into the hut and decided to brazen it out. As I approached the hut, I drew my knife and conspicuously used it to open the package of biscuits. I ate one and as I reached the door, I said “Hujambo rafiki” (How are you friend) and offered the young men a biscuit. The young man with the panga smiled and said in perfect English “Hello. Thank you.” I held out the biscuits, and without taking the package they each took a single biscuit. The second young man shyly said thank you and the first asked in rapid succession, “Would you like some sugar cane? Where are you from?”  I told him Canada, and he responded, “Oh, Canada, you have salmon and wheat! Welcome. Welcome.” They were a couple of lads from a village just over the rise and were relaxing before heading home. They did not even know that Barbara was in the hut. Barbara, for her part, had been oblivious to their presence and was finishing dinner preparations by the light of a candle from our pack. She had not heard their quiet voices over the hissing and roaring of our little camp stove and only became aware of them when she overheard the conversation on my arrival. They invited us back to the village for dinner and to sample some wild honey that they had found, but since Barbara was just about finished making dinner we demurred with thanks. I don’t remember spending the night, but I assume that we must have slept in the hut. The next morning we boarded another bus for the Zambian border.

Mbeya to Tunduma

The bus ride the next day was pretty uneventful except that a group of Masai wanting to use the bus provided a fascinating diversion. The bus slowed but did not stop immediately beside them. As it passed, the women began a loud ululation and the men, brandishing their spears and shouting, chased after the bus. Needless to say, the driver hit the gas and took off. The men stopped, lowered their spears, and the driver seeing this slowed again. Up came the spears and shouting, and again the bus took off. I was in full sympathy with the driver as I tried to estimate the penetrating power of a Masai spear hurled against the back of a bus seat. Finally, when the Masai approached at a walk with lowered spears they were allowed to board. The women had tightly cropped hair or shaved heads and were dressed in brown rough-cotton wrapped at the waist like a sarong. Large platter-like beaded neckpieces hung from their necks and long beaded hoops from their ears. Loose open shawls of the same rough material covered their shoulders. The shawl functioned as both top and baby sling. A quick bounce of the woman’s hip and the baby would swing around from back to front. As it did, a pull on one end of the shawl and the child would rise to the perfect position for breast-feeding. The men with their long tightly plaited hair caked with red clay, toga like garments made of the same rough-cotton material, cape similar to the women’s shawls, wooden club hanging from a leather thong around their waste, long wood-shafted spear with gleaming, near meter long polished-steel spear points on either end presented an imposing even formidable appearance. The women and children had a great time, laughing, chatting, eating, and drinking. The men sat rigid, spears planted between their knees, staring straight ahead. When they reached their destination, the women and children, still laughing and joking, tumbled off the bus. The men stomped down the steps and as each reached the ground he turned and spit on the bus before walking away.

Curiosity

Since the night ride from Nairobi to Arusha, we had been the only white faces on the bus. My beard and Barbara’s long straight hair where invariably a curiosity. One little boy kept peeking over the back seat to look at us. A smile and funny face encouraged him to boldness. He spoke a little English and wanted to know why we were so white. He touched Barb’s arm to see if the white would rub off like dust. He was desperate to feel our straight hair and giggled uncontrollably if Barb let him run his hand through her hair or I let him touch my beard. At a small village bus stop, children lined up single file in a perfectly straight line of sight to see the white mgeni (foreigners) sitting on the bus. We waved at them and the line collapsed in a heap of giggles and flailing limbs.

The border

We arrived at the border in the early afternoon. Customs and immigration were some way from the bus stop and we had to walk across the border to Zambia. Customs and immigration were again relatively painless for us, but this was not true for a couple from Rhodesia. The woman’s passport had expired and the Zambian customs officer was unsympathetic. The husband returned to the desk two or three times and each time was told there was nothing that could be done. Finally, the man folded about twenty dollars into the passport, told the officer that he was sure that if the officer looked just one more time he would find a renewal stamp or some other loophole. The officer thumbed the passport, palmed the bills, and stamped the passport.

Tunduma to Nakonde

After passing through customs we hurried across the border to Nakonde where we were to catch the bus for Malawi. Nakonde, a small village owed its existence to being at the border checkpoint and to being the terminus of the only bus service to Malawi. A ridge and swale landscape, covered with a mosaic of scrub and cultivated land interspersed with a few tall Eucalyptus like trees surrounded the village sitting on a low ridge. A few recent cinder-block or mud-brick, tin roofed commercial buildings lined a service road. Behind them the ground sloped down and away. Towards the base of the swale we could see more traditional wattle and daub, thatch roofed huts surrounded by small cultivated plots. There was no bus station. Instead, people were sitting in the open between the main road and the service road for the village. There was no shelter and only one tree to provide shade of any kind. A large number of people were waiting; each with one or more steamer trunk sized bundles neatly wrapped and sewn up in burlap. They were Malawian workers from the Zambian mines who because of currency export restrictions had to get their savings home in the form of goods rather than cash.

A Lesson In Patience

We found a tree just off the service road and sat in its shade. The sun was hot but did not seem to bother the Malawians who sat in the sun, seemingly at ease, chatting and laughing to pass the time. For our part, the cool shade and the soft dry breeze evaporating the perspiration worked up on our rush from the border post was welcome. Our rolled up sleeping bags and tent provided comfortable seats. The smell of dust was occasionally overlain with the aroma of lemon and sugar cane. At other times, it was the smell of diesel fumes from passing trucks. The people were friendly and open. Some, who spoke English joined us in the shade. I asked them about working in Zambia. Leaving Malawi was not easy they said, but they owned no land and could not hope to earn enough to buy any if working in Malawi. The only chance for  them or their families was to work in Zambia long enough to acquire sufficient goods for resale in Malawi. They hoped  that they could eventually afford enough land to support them. Owning their own land was a common dream and kept them returning to Zambia to work the mines. We were beginning to feel a bit like members of a community. While our white skin and strange clothes were still an oddity, were were becoming friends instead of visitors. The bus was scheduled to arrive at two o’clock. At four o’clock we began to ask if the bus was coming. “Perhaps. Sometimes it does not come at all.” was the answer. Some of the Malawians spoke English and we talked until dusk, but there was no sign of the bus. They did not seem concerned and as dusk approached some of the people began to drift away. We asked if the bus would come tomorrow and discovered that some of the people had been waiting for three days. At the end of the day, they would simply move, with all of their luggage, to a small grove of  trees where they would spend the night. We asked if we could join them and were told that it would not be safe. We were white and must be rich, so we would attract thieves. It was better that we sleep in the local guest house. “Do not worry. We would not harm you, but” we were told, “Zambia is too rich, there is too much alcohol, and there are bad people here. When we get to Malawi you can spend the night with us. Malawi is not rich and there are not so many bad people.” We spent the night in a nondescript, motel-like guest house and joined our fellow travellers the next morning at about six o’clock.
© David E. Moon, 2014  All rights reserved
A lone man walks the towards Arusha. Ascending the scarp en route to Dodoma.