Pockets for the Picking
A hand grabbed my shoulder, stopping me in my tracks by a bus stop full of staring faces as they notice my beard. I turned to face a ragged old man pointing to the bottom of my guitar bag.
“What? What is it?”
I felt the bottom of the bag and then felt something else.
“What the fuck?”
I whipped around and grabbed the wrist that was attached to the hand that was caught inside my left pocket, trying to lift my camera. I was about to socket the owner of the hand when I saw it was another bedraggled old man, barefoot with tattered clothing.
“What?” he said innocently.
“Fuck off,” I said, pushing him away. I turned around to the other guy, ready to push him off too but both had footed it. It’s hard to get anything out of my pockets. Even for me. I thanked my shorts for being difficult.
In the 20 months of travelling it was my first case of attempted pickpocketing. I had to give it to them. It was a clever ploy. From the excitement of being by Lake Victoria I was surprised at how light-heartedly I took it.
It had been an incredibly humbling experience traversing 1,500 K’s from Iringa just the day before.
I had risen early. Africans are early rises. Once the sun’s up things start happening. People yell, cars and trucks blare. Roosters crow – repeatedly. Packs of dogs harmonising their howling. Beers and sachets of Konyagi gin are consumed. I packed my gear and, leaving the Kilimanjaro Lodge, I headed up to the road that Emmanuel had directed me too the previous night.
As I hiked I tried to flag down some passing cars. One pulled over.
“I saw you’re guitar,” said Moses. “I’m a musician too. Get in.”
He took me 5 K’s down the road to an area where it would be easier for me to hitch. Thanking him, I set up my base and began to flag down cars, waving on buses and taxis. After what felt like two hours I decided I’d try five more vehicles then I’ll start hiking.
A car passed. A second one. Then I saw the truck. As it approached it sounded like he was shifting his gears up rather than down to a stop. Suddenly it pulled over and two passengers got out.
“Mambo,” I grinned, running up to them. “Where are you going?”
“Mwanza,” they said.
What? “Mwanza?” I repeated. It couldn’t be.
“I need to go to Mwanza,” I was all smiles. “Can I ride with you?”
“But I don’t have money,” and began my spiel, one of them translating for the others. The driver leaned over and said, “OK, let’s go.”
I had never felt more exhilarated. Not even after oppressing the banana revolt. I knew Mwanza was far but not sure as to how far.
“1,500 kilometres,” said Amour, the Muslim driver of Oman decent (his father had served in the Syrian army in the 40s. He showed me a picture). “It will take two days.” He spoke the most English out of the three. Houssani and Belizozo squeezed together on the passenger seat while I was throned like a sheik on the bunk bed.
“So where do you sleep?” I asked noticing the single bunk.
“Guest house,” Amour said.
The truck, carrying 22 tonnes of timber, rolled through endless green hills and forests, past Masai villages. Seeing my first Masai helped erase the memory of Iringa. The Masai people are probably the most feared tribe in Africa. And the proudest. Their staple diet is cow’s milk mixed with cow’s blood. Perhaps it’s what gave them all an average height of 7 feet. They are a nomadic tribe, always looking for greener pastures for their cattle. Both men and women stretch their ear lobes with colourful piercings. Their version of a bar mitzvah is to send the young boy-about-to-become-a-man into the bush with a spear. He is to come back towing a dead adult lion, died of his spear. But lions can breathe a sigh of relief now that hunting is illegal. I’m not sure what their rite-of-passage is instead. All I know is that nowadays they are settled. And that their diet hasn’t changed.
We stopped in a village. “Lunch,” Amour grinned.
Fish was on the menu with rice and some beans. On we trucked. As the hills flattened out to plains, rice paddies that begun right up against the road spread out, not as tidy as the ones in Asia. We were doing good speed as we came up behind a fellow truck. Suddenly, its rear left tire exploded. I watched ready to duck in case any rubber shrapnel headed for the windscreen.
We pulled over to see if we could assist the driver.
I had no idea that tires have metal wiring in them. As we helped with the jack, a convoy of four security vehicles with bullet proof windows passed. The lead, an SUV with sirens, the middle two large grey trucks and the last one another SUV.
All were doing about 300 K’s an hour. “Prisoners?” I asked Amour.
“Money,” he said.
“Money?” I repeated, astounded at the level of security needed for bits of paper with a number on it. I was saddened by the priorities humans make. More money spent on security for money on this convoy than on helping out villages that didn’t have any clean drinking water.
We rolled on and stopped for dinner at a roadside village where all truckers ate rice and beans with goat. By ten in the evening I had spotted a jackal and we were parked in another roadside village. Amour showed me my room I was sharing with Houssani. We each got a double bed.
Amour had been driving straight for almost 15 hours and was still perky as when I first encountered him in the morning.
“How long have you been driving trucks?” I asked him.
“Twenty years,” he grinned.
Sheesh. I retired for the night. Houssani, surprisingly, didn’t snore. He woke me while it was still dark and we hit the road. We stopped for breakfast in the town of Tina, where Amour’s kids live. I sat with Houssani and Belizozo. We ate chapatti dipping it in tea that had enough sugar to keep a village of kids going berserk. On the side was goat soup with meat and intestines.
I passed the innards onto Houssani. I don’t like innards. Meat is fine but everything else just doesn’t seem like it’s supposed to be consumed.
Bald-headed storks, birds so ugly they were beautiful lined the sidewalks, scavenging for food. They had huge droopy necks that resembled an 80-year-old man’s shaved scrotum (not that I’ve ever seen – or want to see – an 80-year-old man’s shaved scrotum), long, sharp beaks and a wingspan the width of a family sedan. They stood at about 4-feet in height and they were everywhere – the African pigeon-type.
We rolled and stopped in the town of Shinyangi where Houssani went to the bank. I chilled out around the truck stop. Some guys were brewing coffee and called me over, offering me a Turkish cup.
“Asante,” I grinned, sipping on the dark brew. I told them I was from Australia and play guitar. The guy standing next to me had dreadlocks.
“Rasta,” I offered him knuckles. He grinned, and, pounding mine, we both tapped our chests.
“Smoke?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said, knowing his referral to Mary-Jane rather than tobacco.
“Amour,” I turned to my driver. “I’m just going with this guy for a bit.”
Amour eyed the Rasta suspiciously. “OK,” he said. “Five minutes.”
I assumed the product was all rolled up and ready to smoke. But assumptions make asses out of you and me. Rasta jumped on a bike and raced off while I waited with fellow smokers across the road. The clock was ticking and I realised that Amour probably wouldn’t appreciate me coming back smelling like a Jamaican, especially with the amount of police roadblocks we had been passing through (he had to use bribes at each block).
“My time is up, guys,” I said as Rasta was nowhere to be seen. Apologising, I headed back to the truck.
Houssani finally returned from the bank and we trucked on the last 130 K’s to Mwanza, stopping for a late lunch where I had my first ugali, the Tanzanian version of nsima, the maize flour staple diet of almost all Africans. It was served different here. In Zambia (nshima) and Malawi (nsima) it’s served like patties, three per serve. Here it was served as a ball the size of a bowling ball, blander than the ones in the previous countries.
We hit Mwanza towards five in the evening.
“Lake Victoria,” Amour pointed to the left.
I stared at the largest body of fresh water in Africa. I read about numerous expeditions that the English had sent back in the late 1800s to find the source.
It was Burton and Specke’s expedition that had made the discovery. Specke actually was the discoverer as he had separated from Burton. No one had believed his claim to finding the source as he had no scientific backing to it.
Even Burton became one of his biggest critics. Back in England he suffered from a few years of defamation which led to a huge public debate between himself and Burton. It would be his chance to prove that he was right. On the day of the debate he had either shot himself accidentally or intentionally. Whatever the case, he was dead and only towards the end of the 19th century was it finally proven that Specke was indeed the first European to discover the source of the Nile River.
We arrived at the unloading depot where I bid farewell to my trucking friends who had had no qualms (or at least, didn’t show it) to shouting me food and bed. With the excitement of seeking new adventures before me I hit the streets, waving off the failed pickpocketing attempt I had foiled.
The roofs were lined with bald-headed storks, keeping a keen eye out for food scraps. I walked about without a clue as to where to go, where some hotels and lodges might be.
I crossed the street and a local gentlemen stopped me. “Hi brother, welcome to Mwanza,” he said. “I’m David.”
“Hi,” I grinned, shaking his hand. “I’m looking for a hotel where I could play music for a bed,” I then furthered my explanation of my travels.
“I have many contacts,” David said. “I’m a lecturer of tourism and travel at my own school.”
As we walked down the street David then offered me to stay at his house.
“Wow,” I said. “Thank you so much. If it’s alright with you for me to stay one night or two until I find somewhere I can work in exchange for food and bed, that’d be much appreciated.”
“You cannot stay one night or two,” he said. “You can stay as long as you need. You are welcome, my brother.”
I was blown away. The guy knew me for two minutes and had just opened his home to me. Love Africa.
He hailed down a cab and we rode about 10 K’s outta town. David is a pastor who lives in a Location (kinda like a township) with his wife, Peruzi, and two-year-old son, Ariel, in a small two bedroom flat in a house shared with two other families.
The shared toilets and showers were cleaned by the families, taking turns. As soon as I walked in Ariel took one look at me and began to cry. It’s not the first time an African baby has shed tears of fear due to my grizzly looks. I laughed as did the parents.
“Give him some time,” I said. “He’ll come round.
The room where the kitchen stuff was stored was cleared out for me. While we waited I noticed the poster of animals on David’s wall. I pointed out the emu.
“It’s an Australian bird which cannot fly,” I explained. I then gave animal facts about the rest of the creatures pictured. Elephants – “They regulate their body temperature through their ears,” wolves – “Of which all dogs are descended of”, polar bear – “Largest land predator on the planet”, tiger – “Bigger than a lion, smaller than a polar bear yet can still take either one out,” leopard, lion, reindeer, an arctic fox.
“You really know a lot about animals,” David seemed impressed.
“I love nature.”
The room was ready. A single mattress on the floor with a mosquito net hanging above it was my bed. I stored my gear away and David took me to his friend’s – the Hillfront Hotel – where I might be able to play music for food and drinks.
Mama Catherine, the owner, sat with us. We chatted for almost two hours, sharing world views. I was two beers in and played her a few songs. She then led us to a conference room where a mixed group of 14-22 year-old boys were rehearsing.
They rushed up shaking my hand, pointing to a poster. “We are the Jackson Crew,” said the leader. Then they demonstrated why.
I was blown away. I was standing before African replicas of Michael Jackson. They had choreographed and executed moves I had only seen in the genius’ videos. As a kid, I used to dance like MJ.
“Can you play us a song?” they asked.
I whipped ol’ Red around and for the first time played standing up rather than sitting on a bar stool. And it wasn’t too bad. I played No Woman No Cry and the guys joined in the chorus, harmonising beautifully.
“Do you know Dirty Diana?” I asked Ibra, the leader of the crew.
“Yes,” he said.
I strummed the opening chords and began to sing the first lines of the chorus. The kid jumped in and I motioned for him to get on the mic while I continued to play. It was one of the best jam sessions which would continue to repeat for the next few days.
“Mama,” I turned to Catherine, “I really want to learn Ki-Swahili.” I was determined to learn at least one African language fluently. Or at least to a level of conversation. And since my next country, Kenya, were also speakers of Ki-Swahili, I figured this would be the one.
“I can teach you, my dear,” she said. Over dinner of rice, beans and deep-fried Telfar fish from the lake, we arranged a time for the morrow.
On the walk back home David asked me, “Do you think you might be able to teach about animals at my school?”
I have never taught before a class. “Er, sure. I guess.” A plan was formed. David would bring in the poster and I would explain about the animals, their behaviours and where they come from. We reached the house and sat down. There was no electricity. Light was from a kerosene lamp.
“Peruzi cooked dinner,” David said. “If you can, try and eat something so as not to offend her.”
I was stuffed from the dinner at the hotel but, “Sure, I’ll have a bit,” I said.
Dinner was rice, beans and chai – the local tea that was sweetened beyond sanity. I’m not much for sugar in my tea or coffee. At about nine I retired to my new dwellings, reflecting on the luck I’ve had in the last two days.
I think Tanzania is going to be one helluva place.