(A lack of) Conversations in Tanzania

Words by Simeon Gready - November 2014

For the first time on our trip, it was raining. Drops smattered against the bus windows, causing the passing undergrowth to seem greener, denser, and more beautiful. I grimaced as I pulled at my collar, given that the humidity had not fallen despite the dark clouds above. We were in Tanzania, stretching away from Malawi and heading towards the town of Mbeya.

Leaving a place like Malawi was always going to be hard, and the manner in which we began in Tanzania didn’t help. From the border post we agreed a taxi fee of 5000 Tanzanian Shillings (TS) to the nearest bus station, which turned out to be just down the road. Upon arrival at the bus station, the taxi driver then demanded TS6000, though I stood firm and refused to give him the extra TS1000; it was a minor victory in a country in which we’d face major losses. The first of these was immediate: we were charged TS10000 each for the bus to Mbeya, only to find out from a fellow passenger on the bus, a local, that it should’ve only cost TS5500 each.

So I sat there, slightly pissed off, straining my eyes beyond the rain-streaked windows to the passing hustle of rural Tanzania. The roads were good, at least in comparison to the bumpy bends of Malawi, though the driving was no better; the landscape was hilly and seemed fuller as we passed large, well-established villages characterised by brick housing and rusted tin roofs off which rain drops clanged musically, some standing in high reeds or between forest-like patches of palm trees. The spirit of entrepreneurship was predictably evident given the number of stalls that sat in front of these villages, and the tenacious vendors that shouted at us through closed windows, furiously waving sodden products.

Tanzania, to me, seemed a more progressive and active country: there was substantial evidence of farming and irrigation amongst the hilly passes, and every other person was dressed in a smart suit. Uniformed teenagers jumped on at one stop, shaking off the rain, as the bus weaved its way around slow-moving trucks while motorbikes and cars weaved their way around us.

As my mood lightened slightly I attempted to start a conversation with the person next to me. I started with the usual basics, though the man, around my age, gave me none of his attention; shortly, sensing the awkwardness, the man in front of us turned around and started speaking to my neighbour in Swahili. I assumed he was translating, and waited eagerly for the result – however, the two men fell into fits of laughter instead, all the while shooting not so subtle glances at my deadpan face. I shrunk silently into the pits of rash embarrassment, though they ignored my attempts to hide it. I had been used to the friendliness of Malawians, and I reminded myself that this was perhaps not the case here; indeed, I found that spoken English was much harder to come by in Tanzania than in the more Southerly countries, coupled with a general suspicion towards white tourists.

Our plan for Tanzania was relatively straightforward. From Mbeya, we would catch the TAZARA train on its route from Kapiri Mposhi in Zambia to the seaport capital of Dar es Salaam. The train was to leave the next day, giving us one night in Mbeya. I was quietly looking forward to the train ride: I had heard it was a rough but epic journey through the heart of Tanzania, bundling along Chinese-made railway tracks to the delight of waving children for whom it was a weekly event. It was also, I had heard, notoriously late and perennially delayed.

The trick, apparently, was getting tickets in the first place: again, I was relying on reports from friends as opposed to detailed research. The need for persistence was greatly emphasised along with a determination not to be shoved out the line by pushy locals. This motivated our decision to arrive the afternoon before, despite the fact that the train was due to leave late afternoon the next day.

And so, the rain having disappeared as fast as it came, we arrived in Mbeya, a typical African town of busy, dirty roads, plenty churches, plenty electronic stores, and plenty taxis. The bus station was another nightmare: men jumped in our tired faces, quoting what we thought to be ridiculous prices, though seemingly clueless as to where the TAZARA train station actually was – we were hoping to catch the ticket office before it closed and get ourselves sorted a full day before the train came.

Eventually, we hopped into a minibus taxi, which, in a very roundabout way after a stop at a Stanbic Bank so we could draw money (and after charging us more than had originally been quoted - these minor losses were already starting to build up and negatively affect my psyche), dropped us at the train station. It was housed as a large, minimalist, Chinese-style building, MBEYA spelt large, proudly, across the top, tall ceilings and wide cold patterned floors. It was also completely deserted, both the parking lot and the building, as we found out that the office closed much earlier and that we’d only be able to get tickets the next day.

As we stumbled around the outside of the building, trying to make sense of the A4 information sheets plastered skew on glass doors, four young men wandered up the steps in front of the station, snapping pictures of themselves and each other in awkward poses. After overcoming their initial suspicion, we soon began chatting: they were business students at the local university (“What do you want to do?” “Business!” “Oh OK, what kind of business?’ ‘Uh, entrepreneurship…”) – they were eager to please, honest, bare-souled young men fully aware of the disadvantages that came with being an ‘African’: they all expressed their wish to go elsewhere once finished with their studies, even somewhat unashamedly hinting that we should help sponsor them. That, as always, was the signal for us to leave. For me, however, it felt like the first real conversation I had had in Tanzania.

Having said short, rushed goodbyes to the students, we made contact with our host for the night, who recommended a local expat bar, ‘Mbeya Hotel,’ for cold beer and a big dinner. It was much needed after a full days travel in difficult conditions, reminding us a little of home comforts ahead of further and probably more difficult travelling the next day. I was still unsure what to think of Tanzania – a beautiful country, no doubt, but I had yet to get a sense of its nature. With a full stomach and a hazy, beer-laden wander, we headed to our host’s house for the night, unsure of what lay ahead.