On Tuesday morning Donald, David’s brother, escorted me to the road.
“That way to Musoma (pronounced: ‘Msoma’),” he pointed.
Shaking his hand, I thanked him for the escort and began to hike down the road, waving off buses, trying to flag down cars and trucks. After about 2 K’s a car pulled over. I conversed lightly in Ki-Swahili, reading from my notebook about my travel methods.
“Saowa,” said the driver. “Let’s go.”
I hopped in. David had mentioned that Musoma was about 70 K’s from Mwanza. We passed a sign that read, ‘Musoma, 170 km’.
Why do I keep doing this? Ask about time or distance here and you’ll never get an accurate answer.
My ride dropped me off about an hour down the road where I hiked to a police roadblock. I explained my travel methods to the duty officer. He introduced me to a female police officer in plainsclothes who was going to Musoma and said she could take me.
“What time are you going?” I asked.
It was just passed 08:30. “I’mma try get an earlier ride, if you don’t mind,” I said.
I sat in the shade, at the officer’s indication, and let him do the work for me. He must have misunderstood when he waved down a bus.
“I don’t have money,” I said as he ushered me to the bus. “Did you explain to the driver?” I asked him again as my large pack and guitar were being stowed away in the cargo bay. “Do they know?” I called back to him as I was practically carried aboard and directed to a seat in the back.
After a few K’s the conductor started down the aisle. In Africa, buses work as a co-op. There’s the driver who drives and maintains the vehicle and the conductor who makes sure there are always passengers and collects the money which he then splits with the driver (I’m not sure how the percentages work). As the conductor took out his receipt book I began to explain in slow, articulate English that, “I think there may have been a misunderstanding,” and furthered to tell of my travel methods in Ki-Swahili.
“How can I confirm this?” the conductor asked.
“That you are a musician.”
“My guitar is below.”
“So next stop, you will play for me?”
At the next stop my guitar was brought topside and I jammed my usual opener, No Woman No Cry.
“You must teach me guitar,” the conductor said, handing me his contact details.
“I’m not staying in Musoma,” I explained. “I’m heading to Serengeti. Besides, you don’t have a guitar. You need one so you can play every day.”
He stayed seated with me for the rest of the ride, conversing with me about life as a conductor. I asked if I could use his phone to call Godwin, my contact in Musoma.
“No problem,” he said, dialing the number.
It was arranged for me to take a motorbike taxi to the secondary school where Godwin taught history and Ki-Swahili. It’d been a year since I’ve ridden on a motorbike. The bikes in Tanzania are small. Nothing over 125cc.
“I used to have a 500cc back in the day,” I later told Godwin who walked me to his home where I shared a bedroom with his own 125cc Toyo motorbike.
“The wiring is shot,” he explained.
He showed me the primary school where he studied as a boy when there were 900 students. Today the school numbers 3,000. From there, we each took a motorbike taxi to Tempo Beach on the shores of Lake Victoria. The water was a brackish brown and didn’t look inviting. I was surprised to see coconut trees line the shore. I thought they only grew around sea water.
We headed back to his home for dinner – ugali – and then check out the night market up the road where we had some porridge. Tanzanian porridge is quite delightful, full of flavour like cinnamon and some other stuff I can’t pinpoint.
Back at the house, I helped Godwin open a couchsurfing profile and then hit the sack. The next day was an early start to head to the Serengeti.
The Serengeti is a Masai word meaning, The Endless Plains. The village we were heading to, called Pakingoti, was a few K’s shy of the gate to the famous park.
Godwin wasn’t up for hitch hiking so we take a bus from Musoma to the bus depot on the outskirts of the city (where I was dropped off the previous afternoon).
Another bus saw us to Mugumu, a main town in the Serengeti district, where we broke for lunch – red ugali with cassava (much more flavoursome than the white one) – and waited about three hours until the bus was packed. It took two porters, a conductor and a braker (a kid who places a stump or rock to keep the bus from rolling at stops) to push and roll the engine over to life before we were on our way.
Bouncing around on dirt tracks through endless greenery of grass and bushland, we reached Pakingoti by late afternoon .
My packs were immediately claimed by the wife, husband and houseboy of the compound where we were staying. Bath water was offered (first thing offered as soon as you enter your host-home) and then we sat down to a late lunch of ugali – again.
I was just recovering from the lunch ugali, still sitting like a rock inside of me. I was feeling bloated and struggled to breathe and move.
“Last night two lions came and took three cows,” said Nysarri, the head of the house.
“Lions?” I almost spat the ugali out . “You get lions here?”
“Of course,” Nysarri said proudly. “This is Serengeti.”
“There’s no fence?”
“No fence. We get simba (lions), tembo (elephant), fisi (hyena). We kill the lions.”
“Is that legal?” I asked.
“Yes,” Nysarri explained. “The government then comes and collects the bodies. Last month we killed eight lions.”
Shit. I mean, these guys are in lion territory. It wasn’t the lions fault.
As a lightning storm approached I brought my guitar out and played some songs. Half of the village turned up, proving once again that music breaks all barriers. Especially since I was the first muzungho to visit and spend the night in Pakingoti.
“All the tourists just keep going to Robunda,” Godwin said.
I packed the guitar away as the rain started to come down with a vengeance.
“It has not rained here for a month,” Godwin said. “The villagers are saying that you are a blessing. That you brought the rain.”
I’ll take what I can get.
Later that night I was stirred to wake by the call of nature. I clambered out of bed, grabbed my head torch and quietly opened the front door and froze. The dinner story of the lions in the village, told just hours before, coming into focus now.
I flashed my light around, causing the dogs to bark.
“Shh,” I hushed. I was looking for the golden dots that would be the eyes of a predator reflected off my light. It was a half moon and I had read somewhere that most lion-human attacks happen when there’s no moon.
But what about when it’s only half out? Would that constitute to a half attack?
The outhouse (almost all toilets in Africa are outside. The majority are squats) was down the track, past the corral where the goats and sheep rested, past the chicken-run where the ducks hung out and having to tip toe past the dogs.
I opted for the grassy area behind the house. I scanned the darkness of the tree-line and slowly pulled out my dispenser and released the pressure from my bladder. Damn late night chai. Every time. You’d think I’d have learned but no. Now? Now I have to learn my lesson with a potential lion watching my every –
I froze mid-stream, fumbling with the head torch, dick still in hand, muscles tense.
What the fuck was that?!?
Holding in pee while peeing is about as comfortable as stepping on rusty nails. Release, damn it, release! I commanded my lower abdomen muscles but they needed as much convincing as I did that the very loud grunt I had just heard was a cow and not the hungry stomach of an apex predator.
Slowly, I released the tension and urged my bladder to open up the tap faster. I was getting whiplash from scanning the tree lines. If someone was in the trees they’d think I was a disco light. I shook out the last drops and scampered back into the house, almost slamming the door behind me, breathing heavily.
And to think I had thought about stringing up my hammock for the night.
The next day Godwin and I hit the road, waiting about three hours for the bus to Ikona Robunda village, just 4 K’s shy of the gate to Serengeti National Park. It was the same bus that had taken us the day before. The porters and conductors all shook my hand, glad to see me. We squeezed aboard the already full bus and made our way down the dusty road, past other villages and then open plains.
“Tembo,” my passenger pointed out of the window towards the young bull elephant that was lugging off a branch.
I was limited in my seating having my small backpack between my knees and my guitar on top. Yet I still managed to see the giraffes reaching for the tree tops, the gazelles and black-faced impalas staring us down and the vervet monkeys hanging around as we pulled into the village where Godwin’s parents live.
They picked us up from the bus stop and we rode down to their homestead. A corral of cattle was opposite their house. The sun set behind it over the Serengeti.
“Tonight we can look for fisi,” Godwin said. “They are nearby.”
“Sure,” I’m always up for looking for hyena at night with nothing but a head torch.
We hiked for about 3 K’s with Michael, the farm hand, playing guide.
“The fisi are very hard to find,” Godwin said as we walked back, our search proving futile.
In a way, I was glad. Hyenas are some of the more successful hunters of this planet’s predators and have some of the most powerful jaws in the animal kingdom, capable of crushing your bones in a powerful bite.
Dinner was Irish potatoes at the parent’s house while sleep was in the guest house where the farm hands and Godwin’s youngest sister slept. The next day I was feeling dehydrated. That and a lack of sleep since entering Tanzania had my body deprived of energy (lack of sleep due to the following:
Mbeya: 05:30 AM knock on the truck door
Iringa: English Premier League match shown at the three bars crowding the Kilimanjaro Lodge I was staying at.
Mwanza: neighbours habit of washing the dishes at 04:30 every morning – outside of my window. A choir of howling village dogs and a crowing rooster.
Musoma: dogs and rooster.
Pakingoti: Nysarri, for some reason, thought that turning on the radio from 22:00-01:00 was a great idea – in the room next to mine – at full volume (perhaps it’s to ward off curious lions?).
Robunda: cattle, rooster and dogs making a chorus line).
I hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep since leaving Malawi. I spent the day drinking water, staying in the shade and trying to catch up on much needed Z’s. By the evening I was feeling much better and even rocked out some tunes on Ol’ Red.
Dinner was rice and beans, chai without milk and a restful night – finally.