Thursday, 6 September 2018

First Impressions

Walking into Usa village with Frank, our guide
We are just back from a fortnight in East Africa.  For the last two weeks of August we visited Tanzania; a country whose name is an amalgamation of Tanganyika and Zanzibar.

Such has been the assault on my senses over these last fourteen days that I’m still trying to process the jumble of images and experiences that we brought home with us as we flew back at the weekend.

Our second week in Tanzania was spent ‘on safari’. Our group occupied two four by four jeeps as we travelled between, and through, four National Parks.  On one level it’s relatively ‘easy’ to process these wonderful memories: the early morning game drives, breaking down on the edge of The Serengeti, waiting for a herd of elephants to cross the road and looking down from the window catching sight of a beautiful jackal looking after two cubs.  These memories are deeply appreciated, can easily be processed and in some senses were expected.

However, that isn’t the case with our first week.  For the initial six days we were by ourselves, booked into a lovely game lodge at the foot of Mount Meru, we were left to our own devices.  We visited a school, were taken round a Fairtrade Coffee Plantation, toured the local township called Usa (not to be confused with the country of the same name!) and visited the local town of Arusha.

What follows can only be described as my first impressions.  None of it really made total sense and I’m sure anyone would need to spend more time than our allotted two weeks to put the real jigsaw together.

In the village, and to a certain degree this was also true in the town, people live in single storey, breeze block units with a corrugated roof.  The front door was usually no more than a hanging piece of cloth.  These homes lead directly on to dirt roads and were surrounded by mud coloured vegetation. 

Wherever we went in Tanzania we were aware of a certain level of bureaucracy which surprised us.  Pristine uniformed police officers could be seen daily at the same point on the road that goes from Kilimanjaro to Arusha.  Apparently, even if you are not over the speed limit it’s just ‘normal’ to be stopped, fill in the paperwork and be faced with a fine.

Buying a drink also had its own well-worn procedure.  For our usual dinner order of a bottle of water and a glass of white wine I regularly had to sign twice and came away with no less than five pieces of paper as a receipt.  (I’m so looking forward to going into M&S and declining my receipt this weekend!)

Yet maybe, despite the poverty and bureaucracy, the deepest impression I came away with is the generous welcome and unfailing hospitality we received from the Tanzanians.

Alongside this we encountered an irrepressible sense of community.  People were obviously looking after each other and this always seemed a noisy affair, especially at the roadside markets!

Some people in Tanzania spoke to us of the hope they have for the country’s future.  Much of the land has rich, volcanic soil so could, in theory, become one of the bread baskets of Africa.  This, alongside mining for gold and tanzanite as well as tourism means there is potentially financial viability.  Even more so because Tanzania is at peace with itself and its neighbours and currently has a president who is fighting against internal corruption and seems on course to gain a second term.

And yet…perhaps the memory that will linger the longest with me is that tour of Usa village we made on our first afternoon: the dirt roads, the breeze block shacks, the crumbling shops alongside the smiling faces and crazy driving of the hundreds of scooters, each sounding their horns.

Somehow all the Christian Aid videos and BMS presentations I’ve watched over these last five decades haven’t prepared me for what it actually feels like to be in the so called ‘Third World’. 

‘Feeling it’ is so very different from ‘reading about it’.

So, as I finish this piece, my train is pulling into Marylebone and I’m eating one of the biscuits I bought at Kilimanjaro airport on Friday night.  My mind is buzzing with so many yet unprocessed memories.  I can but simplify it down, lift up my eyes to heaven and pray just three heartfelt words: ‘God Bless Africa’.

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