A Tanzanian Town and the Tanzanian People – from a Mzungo’s perspective
This was the daily introduction conversation exchanged with strangers on the streets of Tanzania. For the first two weeks living here, my brain couldn’t think quick enough and countless times I ended up answering the wrong thing. The locals would laugh at my clumsiness trying to correct myself with another wrong answer! At times it felt like the locals were testing how much Swahili did I speak, which was pretty much just about it.
Tanzanian people are super friendly, curious and always happy to greet us, Mzungos. They call the foreigners “Mzungos”, which means white person. Not in any way with a negative tone. But Mzungo does bring the connotation of ‘money’.
It is part of the East African culture to haggle the prices of most things they buy! So foreigners should feel comfortable to do it as well, as the starting price will have their skin color into consideration. After some numbers fired back and forth, often I would hear the seller saying, “this is not Mzungo price, it is rafiki price”. Rafiki, the name of the friendly monkey in the movie Lion King actually means ‘friend’ in Swahili.
So I knew they were not going to lower the price any further, even though I was being charged a cheaper, but still Mzungo price. But truth is, most times we would agree a deal that would leave us both feeling happy, so thumbs up!
Moshi, a town blessed with daily views of the highest mountain in Africa, the Kilimanjaro, was my home for one month. Travellers settle here to prepare and dress the courage to face the life-threatening climb of their lives. For me it was home while I spent some time volunteering at a Nursery School in the outskirts of town.
With a population of 180 000, Moshi has hundreds of projects currently sustaining the community. Just a wander along the streets and it is possible to see how much work has already been done. Schools were built, small businesses created, men were given tools to farm and women learnt the skill of jewelry making and fabric sewing.
Every other corner, tailors sit outside the shop making magic happen, turning ideas into typical African fashionable outfits, where colors burst in patterns stamped in waxy fabrics. I must admit I got a bit carried away and I had some clothes specially made for myself (if I will wear them back at home I will find out later!)
Life impregnates the city streets within the first sunrays. And locals travel from all over to sell their goods right on the streets. My impression is that anyone can sell anything that they have extra to make a living. If they only have bananas, they sell bananas. If it is a pack of cigarettes, why not sell individual cigarettes… Women are notorious for carrying their load on top of their heads. So the women selling vegetables carry around a bucket with veggies on her head. The woman selling shoes walks around with one shoe on her head. And the list goes on… To me it was all very entertaining to watch how they can balance it and walk so gallantly. I was sure to look like a wobbly pair of legs if I did the same.
Furniture, such as bed frames, mattresses and sofas were also sold out in the street. The shops didn’t look big enough to accommodate all the furniture on sale, and the Tanzanian people figured they could just expose it, out in the open space in front of the carpenter atelier. See photos below and note the lifting stones where the bed frames are stranded. I honestly don’t know if they would put away the furniture daily when they close the shop, but I would guess so, which sounds like a lot of work!
Another unexpected business seen in the Tanzanian streets are simcard deals for calls and Internet. By the side of the road, a girl sits on plastic chairs by a plastic table, under a beach umbrella with the logo of the network. I told the girl how much allowance I wanted, she took photos of my face, took note of my passport number, took my payment and then she disappeared for almost half an hour, while I waited under the umbrella. When she came back, she carried a new simcard and she helped me set it up. It was overall relatively quick for African time.
African time… a slow, peaceful, hakuna matata kind of time, runs behind everyone else’s in the world, but in Tanzania it even runs behind the actual time in Africa. Not confused enough?! In Tanzania they have two clocks: the normal one where midday is midday and the Tanzanian one where midday is 6 and 6 pm is 12. Got it? Zero hours is when the sun rises at 6am. From there on they count how many hours the sun has been up. So when arranging a meeting with a local for 2 o’clock, make sure to confirm which clock are they living by, because it could be 8am or actually 2pm. Oh!, and expect them to be late anyway!
Electricity is still a luxury, only 14% of Tanzania population has access to it. In Moshi the power cuts were frequent, lasting from 1 hour to a full day. We even went out to a bar with a power cut and instead of going home we just sat drinking under the moonlight. If you ever go out in Tanzania, you might get asked if you want a warm or cold beer. Tanzanians like to drink warm beer (at room temperature, which is generally 30ºC as for the lack of air conditioner).
In Moshi town center, everything is within walking distance, but when you start melting after 5 steps, the boda-bodas (motorbike taxis) and tuk-tuks were always a good idea.
Here the driver of taxis, tuk-tuks and boda-bodas give you their personal phone number so that in the future you can call them directly. I never had a driver telling me he was too busy. It’s like they are never off duty, always prompt to drive customers from A to B.
As for the dala dala, the local bus… it looks more like a mini van, with two people working on it, the driver and a boy who collects the money and rides with half his body out of the door’s window. Despite the destination of the dala dala being written on a stripe around the van, the boy at the window shouts the name of the destination when approaching a stop. Once you make eye contact with the dala dala boy and you agree you are going in the same direction, he won’t loose you as passenger to another dala dala. Even if you figure out that his mini van is already at full capacity and the one that just stopped behind isn’t. The first dala dala boy will escort you to his crammed mini van. A dala dala at full capacity, to me is when from the outside you see all the bums squeezed against the window and the heads are leaning onto someone else’s chest to accommodate the low ceiling. No way I can fit in there. But the Tanzanians are very optimistic and I lost count how many times I underestimated the Tanzanian definition of “full capacity”. Until the passengers find themselves in a position where the eyes are the only part of their body they can move, it can still fit in people and goods.
But if the dala dala is relatively empty, it can wait at a stop until it is nearly full. Which could take another 10 minutes or more.
You rarely see a local rushing through the day. And whenever I was rushing (yes, I am the kind of Portuguese that does things at the very last minute and then rushes to be on time), some local would say to me pole pole (slowly)… Optimism is the main feature mirrored in the face of every Tanzanian.
Optimism lives in the dark Tanzanian eyes, Hakuna Matata sits at the tip of their tongue and kindness overflows on their smiles. The truth is… when I saw these three features in their face, I knew I could trust them: no worries, I was in the right place, everything is going to be all right. Be happy.