Category: Perspective

Impressions of Tanzania: A nation united

I recently needed a refresh of my Kenyan visa with a trip out of the country. I didn’t have money to fly but could afford a road trip somewhere. And I like road trips. So I bussed from Nairobi to Mombasa, then Mombasa to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. From Dar es Salaam, I caught another bus all the way across the north of the country to Arusha. And then I went back to Nairobi.

I did the entire fleeting trip in a record 36 hours, over a weekend, at minimal cost. I saw the entirety of northern Tanzania, ate at many roadside diners, and gauged something about the nature of the people. I even got a new Kenyan visa thrown into the bargain as well.


The road to Dar es Salaam runs past a distant Indian Ocean with crowds of coconut palms on the shoreline. Ragtag kids are just chilling out near the road, or playing ball in the yard of a village, surrounded by banana palms. Mothers are hanging up their washing, dads perhaps meeting with friends in the shade outside. A few small grocery shops and makuti (palm frond) bars punctuate the smooth journey on good roads.

Arriving in Dar es Salaam in the late afternoon, and having already been on the road for the entire day, I quickly enlisted a guy to help me find a local place to stay. In what was probably a half hour of walking Dar, we decided on a hotel overlooking a small sandy village that seemed undisturbed, living at the edge of the city.

I walked around a bit as dusk fell. It was obviously safe in the village as well as in the small part of the city at its fringe. No one even looked at me except to greet. I bought some dates at a fruit market, drank soda at a sidewalk cafe and ate an early dinner as dark descended.

I had pilau rice and masala fish at a family restaurant run from the covered veranda of their flat-roofed family home, where I drank bottled water in the absence of any beer on the menu. It made sense to be sitting outside in the humid night.

Through the evening, all around me, people sat outside, under cover from the drizzle, on benches, chatting in the damp darkness. Others passed, seeming always on some mission or other: men in Muslim headgear, women in multicoloured, patterned veils. There was constant activity as people crossed in angular paths, avoiding errant boda-bodas (motorbike taxis) on the road.

Urban East African Islam, peaceful and serene.

I slept early and checked out early to catch a bus direct to Arusha. A well-powered luxury bus took twenty of us the huge distance to Arusha, travelling comfortably quickly on the broad clean tarmac.

On the way, the vegetation changed to African savannah. Thorn trees and a carpet of green grass in the rain. Copses of hills with a backdrop of distant mountains. A few zebras and giraffes on the plain aside Maasai herders and morans (warriors) loping in the bush. And Maasai-style conservation all the way: thousands of newly planted trees.

The bus arrived in Arusha in the dark, and in the rain. I was expecting cash in the morning, to get me out the country and through the border so the boda-boda guy dropped me at a three-star place in the centre of town where, unusually, I was able to negotiate to stay the night and only pay in the morning.

By 10am, the cash I’d been promised from Kenya hadn’t arrived, so with not much else to do but wait, I wandered around Arusha a bit. And the experience of Arusha in the rain was enchanting.

One street down from the hotel, an informal market of banged-together split-pole stalls and homespun wooden trailers ran all day. The sellers, some of them older mamas, but some of them mothers with young kids, sat sheltered in the constant drizzle, busying themselves amidst spirited chatting and vigorous laughter. They were trading fruit and vegetables between themselves more than with anyone else, eating avocados and pineapples in the rain.

Everyone was in wonderment that I spoke some Swahili and most engaged me in brief conversation, usually asking where I was from.

Mimi ni Muafrika kutoka kusini,” (I’m an African from the south) I’d say, and they would usually laugh with a nod when I assented to the recurrent question of “Mandela?”.

They giggled at my Nairobi Swahili, a language that contrasts with the soft, lyrical style of theirs. But I was at least able to converse with them a bit in the notable absence of English. We were all at ease.

I was greeted warmly, sometimes quizzically, when asking for directions to the bank ATMs, and then to the only money transfer place still open. Both times I asked, the guys walked with me to the place, just so that we could chat.

The entire experience of Tanzania was without incident and salama sana (very peaceful). I saw no one begging and no one asked me for a thing. Only a Maasai mama selling jewellery at the Namanga border post wouldn’t let me go.

There’s a lot going on in Tanzania that’s promising and the country is recovering from its socialist slump. The roads are good and Dar es Salaam is obviously growing rapidly. Arusha is also the permanent headquarters of the African Court on Human and People’s Rights.

There were no images of African disease and famine to take home, and despite the simplicity of many Tanzanians’ lives, the people I spoke to were happy. And even if Julius Nyerere’s Ujamaa (African socialism) wasn’t the greatest economic success, that he produced a tribeless society is remarkable. Tanzanians no longer learn a mother-tongue language first. Swahili is their common language, giving them a singular identity. And what I experienced during this visit – and the two before it – was a joyous people, a people at peace with themselves. It’s not like that in Kenya at all.

Brian Rath was born and raised in Cape Town. He now lives and writes in Kenya, and has a novel due to be published shortly.

Making ends meet in Umoja

Salma is tired of running her mitumba (pre-owned) clothing stall in Umoja, Nairobi. She says business isn’t what it used to be and she spends too much time chasing the credit deals she has with her regular clients. They love the clothes, she says, but they never want to pay.

And when it rains, she has to go to the clients, through the endless traffic jam, rather than wait for them because they are reluctant to venture into the mud and sludge of the rickety market where her jua kali (informal) stall stands. And it’s been raining a lot again.

Salma’s clothes come from the huge bales offloaded at Mombasa, dispatched by Oxfam and similar charities around the world. The bales are transported from Mombasa and emptied by the mamas at the Kikomba market, near town, where Salma is a regular.

At Kikomba, most of the clothes are sold for a hundred shillings (R10) or slightly more. But then there are the numbers that the mamas know will sell at five times the 1 000 shillings that Salma’s willing to pay. These are mostly from design-house job lots. Burberry, Guess and Next are common, and lots of Italian names she doesn’t even know. Among the shoes, she sometimes finds Prada. In Nairobi, Salma is one of few sources for prêt-à-porter clothes from Paris! Her clients know it. And her clients will pay. In time.

In the afternoons, Salma usually leaves her stall in the care of three unemployed youngsters whom she pays 100 bob each (R10) for the shift. They tolerate the afternoon teens who come to the stall, try everything on, but never buy a thing.

But Salma will be back in Umoja in time to meet her regular clients as they come past in the evening. She knows her clients well, and knows who to call when she’s found what. And she’s usually right. But once she’s agreed on a bargain price with a client, she’ll often be told, “Sina pesa saa hii!” (I don’t have money now!). And this usually happens after Salma has packed the garment. So she gets tied into another credit deal that runs for a month at least. Salma says that business isn’t what it used to be.

Maisha ni ngumu!” (Life is hard!) she exclaims. “I work for my small money.”

Salma at her stall in Umoja. (Brian Rath)
Clothes for sale at an informal market in Nairobi. (Flickr/computerwhiz417)

Her stall opens at 7am. It stays open till 7pm. After packing up and paying the guy to take her stock to the store, she’ll go shopping for fresh vegetables and groceries, and get home by 8pm. She’ll cook and eat, and by 9.30pm will have fallen asleep in front of the TV. She’ll maybe wake around 2am and drag herself off to bed. And she’ll be up before 5am again.

She says she can’t carry on doing this for little return. Business is not what it used to be.

Ultimately, Salma wants to settle near the sea and she wants to learn to swim. She loves the beach and she swears she would quickly lose the extra 10kg just because of the ‘coasto’ lifestyle.

She’s Muslim, so she’s salama (at peace) among the Swahilis at the coast and she’s thought of opening a mitumba stall in Mombasa, where there are few stalls. But her ideal business would be to sell African print-couture in the upmarket coastal town of Malindi. If she could get enough money for Malindi, she would concentrate on her own designs.

She knows she could do well because every time she gets the cash to buy fabrics, and the time to guide the sewing fundi in making up the dresses, she sells them within a day, before her bigger clients have even seen them. She could make her eclectic African necklaces in Malindi too, but she just doesn’t have the time in Nairobi.

Salma has a sister living in the States, another in South Africa, and both are doing well. But her dad is old and he wants her nearby, so Salma is struggling in Kenya. Still, she enjoys her life. When the clients have paid, usually in the first week of the new month, she goes out to have fun with her late-twenties and 30-something friends. They’re a mixed bunch, Muslims and Christians alike, a few with kids but most not. One or two of them are married. They usually go clubbing and might dance to house or R&B at some place in the hip suburb of Westlands. Salma prefers drinking spirits to beer –  Napoleon brandy and Sprite.

Even if Salma drinks and doesn’t ever wear the austere black abaya (popularly, the ‘bui bui’) or veil when out, she’s an otherwise devoted Muslim: She’s up every morning before five in her ‘bui-bui’ and a thick red scarf that she wraps around her head in the style of a Tuareg nomad. She puts her red Maasai blanket on the floor as her prayer mat and she reads passages from Qur’an for an hour, daily before daybreak.

Salma tells me that during the holy month of Ramadan, she was at the head-grinding blender from 4am so she could make her fresh vegetable ‘smoothie’ and eat a chapatti before the sun was out. She cooks many dishes but admits that she lacks the patience to make good chapattis. And she laughs a bit when relating how the noise of the blender drove her neighbours nuts before sunrise. It was only the Somali sisters in the flat upstairs who understood.

On the advent of Eid ul Adha in October last year, she cooked the customary pilau rice and goat meat as a special treat for a few invited friends. It was an honour to be invited but I could see she had battled to provide. With no alcohol present, she bought Coke and Sprite, warm, from the shop across the dusty road. But afterwards, tired and stressed, she admitted that “a Guinness would be great”.

Salma is tired of running her mitumba stall in Umoja, just outside Nairobi.  “It’s time to leave this place,” she says. Business is not what it used to be.

Brian Rath was born and raised in Cape Town. He now lives and writes in Kenya, and has a novel due to be published shortly. 

Funerals the biggest parties in Ghana

The chance to show off your best black clothes, eat spicy giblet kyinkyinga kebabs, enjoy unlimited free drinks and perhaps meet the love of your life – welcome to funerals, Ghana style.

Such is the love of funerals that they take up most of the weekend, and some Ghanaians want to reduce the working week to make more time for them.

“Funerals used to take up Saturday and Sunday, but now I’d say 90% of churches bury bodies on Friday as well, so people are having to take time off work to go to the service,” said Gabriel Tetteh, an online funeral planner. “With the pressure of having to fit in a visit to the service while working on Friday, and all weekend taken up, when you go to work on Monday you feel the pain.”

President Yahya Jammeh has just made the Gambia the first country to introduce a four-day working week, decreeing that the extra time should be used to devote more time to prayers, social activities and agriculture. Now some are hoping this will spread to Ghana. “The truth is that over here, public-sector workers have always found ways to have four-day weeks if they want,” wrote Elizabeth Ohene, a former government minister in Ghana.

Funerals offer the biggest parties and best socialising in Ghana, and are attended by extremely distant relatives or anyone who has known the deceased (and sometimes those who haven’t). Towns and cities are dotted with signs by the roadside advertising important funerals to passers-by, to attract the maximum number of mourners.

Ghana is also famous for its elaborate coffins, with families choosing to bury loved ones in caskets shaped as beer bottles, aeroplanes or giant shoes.

An employee of the Tchadio workshop prepares coffins representing a plane and animals in the Teshie area of Accra. (AFP)
Cultural Producer Lisa Warrener inspects a coffin carved in the shape of a frilled lizard by the Paa Joe Carpentry workshop in Ghana and commissioned for Festival Melbourne in 2006. (AFP)

“We estimate that the cost of funerals in Ghana often runs into thousands of dollars,” said David Dorey from MicroEnsure, a UK-based company that provides life insurance in Ghana. “There is obviously this cultural thing that seems to have spiralled slightly out of control.”

Some Ghanaians have complained that the fixation of funerals represents a prioritisation of the dead over the living.

“We Ghanaians, we love funerals. If you are sick, no one has money to pay your medical bills. If you need money for school fees, no one can help you. But if you die, everyone is running to give money for your funeral – a lot of money! We love funerals too much,” said Seth Akpalu, who lives in the capital, Accra.

“In Ghana, people do spend more on the dead than the living,” said Tetteh. “There are some people, when a relative is living, they wouldn’t mind. But when the person dies, they put a lot of money into it, otherwise other people will be there insulting them.”

Asked why they enjoy attending funerals, young Ghanaians said it was mainly for the social aspects, and the refreshments. “Free Fanta and small chops,” tweeted Deborah Vanessah, a singer and model. “Sexy black clothes,” tweeted another.

“Funerals are grounds to meet new partners if you are unmarried. I have met a girl at a funeral on two occasions,” said Samuel Kofi Nartey, a law student in Accra. “You know, in Ghana our funerals are parties. You get to dance with a person or sit around with them and talk about stuff and one thing leads to another.”

Afua Hirsch for the Guardian Africa Network

A bad shoe day in Maputo

The generosity to be found at busy intersections on the streets of Mozambique’s capital can be puzzling to first-time visitors.

My Canadian-based partner, Imelda, was hardly a first-time tourist — she grew up in Maputo. But she was still caught off guard when a couple of shoe-shine boys crouched down and set to work on her best stilettos while we were waiting for a robot to change.

For a moment she thought she was lucky — perhaps it was a new local custom, a way of offering compliments of the season? But when she looked down she was shocked.

Her clean white shoes had been covered in black-tan shoe polish. Before she could recover, the leader of the shoe shine brigade stood up with his waxy brush and demanded: “100 Meticais, menina [sister].”

In a fit of rage typical of a backhome diasporian, Imelda waved down a municipal police officer. Climbing off his motorbike the burly officer burst out laughing when he heard Imelda’s complaint. When he calmed down, he addressed the chief waxer: “Do Santos, sort out your customer!”

Then, leaving no doubt about whose side he was on, he told the boy: “At least today you can afford sardhinhas [tinned fish].” He started laughing again as he climbed back on his bike and rode off. Imelda was left fuming about corrupt police and — more immediately — about how she was going to address the meeting we were on our way to with any dignity in her smeary black-brown heels.

We were going to Maputo’s Alumni Scholars Club where Imelda was to give a speech describing her experiences as a young Maputo girl who had moved to Canada where she was doing an MBA at a top university.

Clearly the guest speaker needed to look her best and live up to the “returning banking alumni” image.

Her nails and make-up were immaculate and when she got dressed that morning she had settled on a white Giorgio Armani suit — complete with matching stilettos. She cursed the shoe polishers. “I am not gonna throw you a single dime. Just look at what you’ve done to my shoes!”

But the polish boys simply threatened to apply another layer of liquid black wax. The leader spoke: “If you don’t give us 50 Meticais we will confiscate your shoes. Do you know how much wax costs?” While he presented his ultimatum, the other boys tried to grab Imelda’s shoes off her feet. The situation was getting crazier and eventually I threw a 100 Meticais note (about R40) towards the boys, grabbed a sobbing Imelda and rushed for the nearest taxi.

Maputo’s streets have become synonymous with the unwelcome attentions of shoe-shiners. Waiting for a robot to change at a busy intersection makes pedestrians easy targets. Most of the time the boys don’t even use genuine shoe polish, but a dense industrial liquid that often corrodes shoes. Most disturbingly they don’t care about the colour of the reluctant customers’ shoes. They apply whatever they happen to have.

Having cleaned your shoes, it is common to threaten to seize them unless the ransom is paid. As we hurriedly looked for replacement white shoes in Maputo’s boutiques, Imelda could not come to terms with the change in her shoes — from crisp white to greasy black. People like Imelda — returning diasporians and tourists — are the most likely victims of the shoeshine boys.

We locals have adopted a more cautious approach to robot crossings in our seaside capital. 100 Meticais for a compulsory shoe polish? That’s a good day’s business in Maputo.

Skand Felicio is a pharmacist in Maputo. This post was first published in the M&G newspaper. 

Introducing Voices of Africa

“Great, yet another blog about Africa” is not the response you want when you’re pitching the project to a group of Zimbabweans over lunch. But I understood Zaheera’s cynicism, and yes, this is another blog about Africa.

Except that it’s told by Africans, and its aim is to give the rest of the world a glimpse of real life on different parts of the continent. It’s a space to share the stories that we don’t hear often enough; the ones that get buried under the doom-and-gloom reporting that continues to shape the continent’s image.

The Dark Continent narrative has been knocked to shame but, like Fifty Shades of Grey, it persists. A soldier carrying an AK-47; naked children with protruding ribs; women balancing groceries on their heads; villagers queuing for medication – these recycled images scream “This is Africa!” when they’re really a trite, tired representation. The continent has its challenges but we are not our wars, poverty and diseases.

“An emerging market”, “exotic” women, technology booms, safaris, and National Geographic-worthy sunsets don’t sum us up either. They reduce us.

The point of this blog isn’t to romanticise Africa but to normalise it; to rubbish the idea that we exist between two extremes – despair and development; and to invite Africans to write about their world instead of being written about.

It’s time we tell our own stories. As you’ll see, it makes for refreshing reading.

Qudsiya Karrim is editor of Voices of Africa. Email her your stories, suggestions and queries at [email protected] or connect with her on Twitter