A Christmas away from home …
Sun bleached and baked, the sand sinks in a hiss of steam as the lagoon tide pulls in to re-submerge the crude wooden dows that line the ever rising shore line. Seaweed scented breeze caries the chink-chink of pangas splitting branches to construct a palm roofed beach umbrella, shading the majority of Scandinavian Christmas fugitives. Crabs scuttle with one large claw hitching a lift on the wind before disappearing into the oyster marked branches of mangrove trees.
Bomani Beach resort is a small array of thatched roofed bungalows tucked away at the edge of a small local village called Mlingitini; over-looking a salt water lagoon. The village itself is a bleach drift wood community of windowless cement houses, small scraggly chickens pecking at the sand upon which all the “roads” are made. I use the term ‘road’ loosely, as for either due to the depth of sand or the bumpy pot-holed track that leads up to the village, there is little evidence of any cars coming through here. The community appears to be made up of Muslim fisherman with their sturdy (yet extremely rickety looking) traditional dow sail boats, their wives and daughters dot the low tide shore line, cultivating seaweed upon long stretches of twine and their children, in packs of three and four, comb the beach, kicking sand at each other and ogling the handful of Norwegians who sweat into their departure lounge literature.
Although we sit on the sand under palm trees, hearing the gentle lap of the ocean, it really doesn’t feel like we are at the beach at all (although we did get to admire the greens and purples of unbroken sea urchins and find giant snail like sea creatures who, shell-less lay jelly-like in the sun, marooned like lost sea manatees). Being on the edge of a lagoon gives one the impression of sitting at the side of a great salt water lake – and it only dawned on me after hours of wondering why it felt this way, that it is because of the mangroves that thickly line the horizon. Staring out to sea has always meant the tranquility of looking out at complete nothingness, just miles and miles of blue seemingly stretching on into infinity. And it is here, as I now sit in this chair facing this scenery, that I bring to you this blog – aware that no one has been updated on my life here in Africa for several weeks. This chapter then shall be an assortment of events which have passed, mixed with our most recent travels.
Before our long journey south east to Bagamoyo (which translates to ‘lay down your heart’ as it was where all the salves where brought from the main-land until being sold to go over-seas to work as domestic servants or on plantations) first in a sweat box bus hurtling like an angry bull along the melting tarmac roads, to be dropped off on the outskirts of a dusty town, we were bundled onto the back of a dala dala (our bags strapped into the back with a frayed piece of string), Hill wedged into the back and me, sandwiched into the front. A toothless women stroking my hair from behind and an ancient turtle like Babu (grandfather) looking at me with blind-blue eyes – after paying twice the price of the locals – we barely made 20 miles an hour as we throttle-lurched along a bumpy dirt track road in the direction of the coast. After a second Dala ride and a 20 minute tuk-tuk adventure, we arrived thirsty, dusty, sweat drenched and slightly argumentative (the vegetarian standard of menu was its usual vegetable curry made with wheat flour and little else and when told we were vegetarian, the Norwegian proprietress gave us a look of deep sympathy and confusion – as if our ethical dietary life-style was akin to a horrible disease) a heated argument followed until we finally settle down to a cold shower, the reassurance that we could pretty much design our own menu (ingredients permitted) and that they run classes on how to make your own djembe drum.
Why I had decided to book us into a Norwegian run and completely dominated guest house for Christmas is beyond me – not only do they celebrate Christmas on the 24th of December rather than the 25th (which they did with a scraggly blond pensioner dressed as Santa, which was actually a relief to see him out of his ripped denim hot-pants and tight surfer t-shirt – his lank locks flicked out of his eyes as he rudely interrupted couples trying to enjoy their dinner) and by a mountain of meat, thrown onto a BBQ, which they found a morbid fascination with photographing – but they also completely ignored the fact we were trying to celebrate Christmas the day after, with their fat fake Boxing day hangovers and placid smiles.
Although to be fair on our Scandinavian cousins, it didn’t really feel like Christmas day for us either, for after a hairy motorbike ride into Bagamoyo town by a Rasta who asked me first to give him money to fund a trip to America and then when I refused demanded money to pay for his English lessons – although his English seemed quite advanced because when I told him to bugger off, he seemed to understand perfectly and cease his demands, we arrived at Bagamoyo District Hospital. A bloodied bandage, scarlet wound on electric white cotton, lay stuck to the floor – abandoned by a man on crutches, one foot bare and black on the dusty floor, the other elevated and bound in what was left of his bandage and gauze. The waiting room contained two drift wood benches, lop sided with orange nail-rust circles that sat on a concrete floor covered in a layer of sand. A small television crackled out of a metal cage upon the wall. A young Muslim woman with her head covered in a light pink and orange sari, sat and stared at me intently, no matter how much I goggle-eyed her back in my discomfort. The picture was showing BBC World News, images of a flooded Australia where there had previously been drought and a snow covered UK and America – experiencing one of the coldest winters in who knows hoe long. As humans discussed catastrophe and irregular weather patterns without even a single ironic comment about global warming or climate change – the sun in Bagamoyo was melting the tin roofs and causing them to pop and crack, like corn in a hot pan. I sat and continuously wiped at my sweat drenched face with a bunched up sarong and watched as a young nurse in a grubby green uniform and black trainers jumped up onto one of the benches and began watching the television screen. She couldn’t see the bandage on the floor it would seem and neither could the countless women who kept walking through, getting it caught up in their kanga skirts and long dresses of Islam. Whilst I started to panic and think about blood carried diseases, I tried to distract myself by looking into the adjacent room, where bundles and bundles of files wrapped in twine lay on the sand floor, stacked to the ceiling, I wondered why they were carelessly neglected ad just dumped like they were – perhaps the patients they belonged to were dead? A ‘mama’ walked past me, large and swollen with a small baby strapped to her back and gawped at me.
I didn’t have to endure this for too long though, as I knew that Hill would be sitting not far away in the same waiting room we had been in on a previous visit when we came to get his second rabies injection administered. Before we had come away, we decided to take the dogs for a walk around the block. As we came to the local Rasta shop on the corner, we could smell roasting corn hobs which proved too much for a certain someone’s stomach. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to walk over there babe” I said, thinking of the stray dog who prowls the area. Trying my best to restrain three dogs trying to walk over to Hill, who by now was approaching the mama fanning sweet corn over a small charcoal fire. “It’s fine” he shouted back as at the same time a three-legged rabid dog came hurtling around the corner, snarling and barking before laying into the biggest of our three dogs, Benji, who now had it by the throat, Dizzy biting its behind and our smallest, Maggie, trying to get bites in where she could.
Hill began trying the best he could to separate them (as the locals stood around bemused no doubt and pleased at the spectacle to break up the monotony of a usual early evening). As Hill kicked the dogs in the mouth, one of them (we know not whether the stray or one of ours) bit him in the knee and drew blood. Thus, we were advised to go to the doctor for a course of rabies injections. After he had been stabbed in the arm by an efficient Matron esq. nurse, we were back on the motor-bike and heading back towards the tranquility of our beach bungalow paradise. Thus, we finally got to celebrate Christmas in style, with a bottle of port in our deck chairs, floating in the drunken haze of the late African sun and lagoon breeze.
After a week in a beach bungalow, lazily watching village life, reading books and enjoying each others company without the strains of The Umoja Centre 24/7 – we decided to pack up and head to somewhere a bit cheaper and more align with our paltry budget. Francesco’s, from the outside, looks like a faded and dusty road side youth hostel with an absence of youth – well – an absence of anyone really and when I catch a glimpse of a dark haired and stubbled Mediterranean looking male in his middle years, accompanied by a beautiful dark young female sitting in the outdoor restaurant which sits directly next to the bumpy, sandy roadside – in what looked to be the throws of an argument – well you could be forgiven for thinking negative thoughts. With the bathroom smelling somewhat of sewage and the emergence of a small frog poking it’s head up through the shower drain and a menu propped up outside that read ‘Today’s Menu – Goat, Sheep, Cow’ – although a bargain at 25,000 shillings a night (12 pounds fifty) with breakfast included – I did begin to wonder what animal breakfast would be. The establishment also came with a monkey, tied to a tree on a long rope, trying to break free and two parrots in a cage, swauqking in complaint.
There is nothing nicer then in life, to have misread appearances, to feel foolish for judging a book by its cover and being quite wrong. Although we had some mis-haps (including being robbed whilst we slept – someone had climbed up the tree outside, cut holes through the mosquito net, stuck their hands through and took everything they could reach – including my make-up bag, jewelry, our phone and a pair of Hill’s shorts – they left our Swahili phrase book on the ground outside – which was nice of them) and a slightly disastrous New Years Eve meal (where we were invited to join the family and friends table- were completely ignored whilst everyone spoke Spanish and only spoken to in English when someone felt it was time to insult the British – fed lots of wine and tequila and then charged an extortionate amount of money 5 minutes before the bells chimed midnight – and on New Years day had my nice sandals stolen by the cleaning lady) the Mediterranean guy turned out to be Benjamin, an extremely kind hearted and welcoming man from The Canary Islands – who insisted on feeding us copious amounts of yummy food (including home-made cheese and ripe tomatoes in olive oil and garlic) and explained about his monkey (who I’d been having plans to free in the middle of the night). Dali, the monkey, was brought to Benjamin by a group of local guys who had caught it when he was just a baby. They had a bar of metal around its stomach which was cutting into its skin – and were trying to sell it to gullible Mzungu for lots of money. Benjamin, although not wanting to encourage this cruel trade, fell in love with the monkey and wanted to save it. Dali used to be able to run free around the guest house, until the neighbors complained about him coming into their kitchens, stealing food and destroying their banana and mango trees, and thus, Benjamin was forced to forever have him on a long rope, tied to a mango tree. Sadly, whilst we were there, a group of guys brought round a young Bush Baby which they had caught, tied a rope around it and had come to Benjamin to sell it to him – thankfully he declined and hopefully the idiots would have set the poor terrified animal free – but that I shall never know.
Next to the guest house was a shack selling and making Djembe drums, where Ali – the most famous drum maker in Tanzania – skinned and sold drums to people who came to Bagamoyo for that reason alone. We had a great jam with the Rasta’s who hung around the shop and Hill got to buy a new drum, watching them finish tightening the skin on it – and then getting to play with a famous local Ragga artist here, Jikoman.
Our return from the 40oc Tanzanian coast (via a brief day/night in Dar es Salaam, in a cheap hotel next to the bus station for the 12 hour journey back to Arusha) gave us one day to do a heap of washing and celebrate my 29th year on this planet – before being picked up at 9am on the 4th of January – for our first ever Safari expedition. The plan was to drive out to the Serengeti and camp in its heart for two nights and then drive to The Ngorongoro Crater for the day before returning back to Arusha.
Someone once told me that The Ngorongoro Crater was the most amazing place on the entire planet that they had visited – and it is easy to see why. The carter was formed when a giant volcano exploded and collapsed on itself some two to three million years ago and it is 610 m (2,000 ft) deep and its floor covers 260 km2 (100 sq mi).The Maasai used to live within the Crater itself with the animals – until in 1959, when repeated conflicts with park authorities over land use led the British to evict them to the newly declared Ngorongoro Conservation Area. In order to get to the Serengeti on our first day – we had to drive past the crater rim – giving us the most extraordinarily beautiful view of the crater floor. No matter how many photographs you take – nothing will ever do justice to this breath taking view. Aside from herds of zebra, gazelle, and wildebeest, the crater is home to the “big five” of rhinoceros, lion, leopard, elephant, and buffalo. Knowing that in 2 days time we would get to be down there – with almost every individual species of wildlife in East Africa, we were super excited! But first – we were on our way to the landscape that I have grown up watching on television – the great plains of the Serengeti.
I am lucky enough to have a father who loves wildlife and documentaries- and so was raised on a diet of David Attenborough on Sunday evenings before school the next day – telling me all about the birds and the bees. This landscape had always been a major tug on my heart to come and visit Africa – and although my experiences with the people here and all the charity work we engage in has been life-changing – there was something magnificent about standing on very the soil you have dreamed about as a child.
As we sped over bumpy dirt tracks, with endless plains of grasslands stretching left and right, crooked trees and huge white clouds that take over the entire sky – our torsos protruding up and out of the open safari truck, wind in my hair, binoculars round my neck – you can imagine my absolute elation when we slowed down after spotting two male adolescent lions, sleeping in the long grass. To be so close to such extraordinary beasts, the slight breeze catching in their manes, the occasional flick of the tail to get rid of flies – one green eye opens slowly to take you in – there is nothing quite like it.
Although our guide was noticeably unimpressed by the fact that we were not fresh off the boat – and therefore ignorant of KiSwahili and the price of everything (when I asked for some milk he had the cheek to tell me it would cost 10,000 shillings – about five pounds until I asked him in Swahili if he thought I was stupid and that was rather expensive – where he blundered and admitted to it being 2,000 – about one pound) we did get to see so many animals just on our way to setting up camp – including zebra, giraffe, hyena, wart hog, hippo and buffalo to name but a few.
The only complaint that I have about going on a safari is that you are treated as a tourist – and tourists are notoriously stupid. Safaris are an expensive business, costing a minimum of about 400 British pounds for two nights and three days (per person – for basic camping – I have no idea how much it would be to stay in a lodge!!!) – and you are also required to handsomely tip your guides and drivers. The gift shop at the entrance to the crater will charge you five times the average price of anything in a local market in town – and because you are ‘stupid Mzungu’ who have just (in their eyes and mind) stepped off the plane – they will rip you off wherever they can. There was also an array of enterprising Maasai who stood at the rim of the crater at the most scenic view point, who would ask the tourists if they would like their photo taken with them – and then extend their hands and demand 10 US dollars as payment! What I get the most upset about is that when I say ‘no thank you’ for the hundredth time about wanting a necklace with a wooden monkey or giraffe on it – or another painting of Mt Kilimanjaro – or just to give money to whoever puts their hand out – is that I am met with scorn and tuts and remarks about ‘rich white people’. It upsets me because we have given up a year of our lives to help people and raised so much money – but of course you don’t walk around with that tattooed on your forehead!
Hill thinks that I am becoming quite conservative in my attitudes (I know – me!!! The most anti-conservative far-lefty you will meet) – because I don’t believe that handing money over to everyone that asks you for it is the right way to help – thinking it better to direct it to small projects that provide healthcare, medicine, education and food. The more that I have been out here in East Africa – the more that I am also coming to the conclusion that certain types of charity breed dependency and a bizarre form of jealously and racism. When we finally arrived at the area to set up our tents, our guide told me that without exception, we should not feed the birds (the Serengeti has over 500 species of birds – all so beautiful – a favourite of mine being the Purple Starling). When I asked him why – he said that the birds would just constantly expect tourists to feed them and they would forget how to fend for themselves. I suddenly thought that they should put up signs outside the entrance to the Serengeti and indeed in all tourist places saying ‘Do Not Give Money to Beggars’ – not because I’m a cruel and uncharitable person (having just been working out here working for free for a year and having had countless direct debits going out to charities in the past will tell you that) – but because so many tourists do put their hands in their pockets to alleviate their guilt of ignoring problems in Africa for so long, because they can afford to fly out here – tour about and film some animals with their state of the art video cameras and huge Nikon cameras – that giving a few dollars to some children on the road side makes them feel good. But problems here don’t go away because that happens – what you are evolving is a dependency on hand-outs (sitting all day waiting for Mzungu to come and hand over cash) rather than going out to find work or trying to pull themselves up and out of the poverty trap. What you breed is the assumption that anyone who comes from the western world can afford video cameras and i-pods and plane tickets – nearly all Africans I talk to here (with the exception of one) believe that there is no poverty in the west at all. It breeds the right to steal from people – as it becomes a Robin Hood scenario of ‘taking from the rich to feed the poor’. Please – I implore of you – if you are ever coming to Africa to go on a Safari, instead of putting coins into a hand – make some time to visit some great charitable projects – decide to sponsor a young person to help them get an education to find work – visit an agricultural charity and put some coins in their hands to fund irrigation systems to help farmers – ask a local seamstress to make you a new wardrobe and pay her fairly – visit an orphanage and bring some supplies for a local school. Yes – these things require a little more effort and time – but scars and problems only heal with time – and a quick fix is not the answer.
When we finished putting up the tents that night, we sat back and looked up to the infinite sky of stars above, so bright and plentiful without any human intervention; street lights or smog. Our guide, Gido, told us that we should hurry up and go to the toilet now, for we should not leave our tents during the night. Sure enough, that evening as we bedded down on the plains of the Serengeti, we could hear something chewing up the grass outside the tent and the sound of lions as they continued on their migration.
Up at 5am, we got back into the truck, wrapped up in blankets to watch the sun rise – and have the best chance of spotting more animals in the cool air of the morning. This was an event I was the most excited about, as I have long dreamed of the huge orange ball that would rise and take over the entire sky. I was not disappointed as we were blessed with a clear sky – and as the sun rose up and out of the earth, lighting up some air balloons on the horizon and stark branches of Baobab trees. Not long after, we spotted two baby leopards playing shyly in the braches of a tree by a rock formation, their mother absent as she was off on the hunt to bring back some food. As they tumbled and played with each other – the view from the other side of the truck was a thick horizon of zebra – so many you did not know where the trail started and finished. The Serengeti hosts the largest migration in the world, which is one of the ten natural travel wonders of the planet – and as luck would have it – we have come at the right season with nearly two million herbivores traveling from the northern hills toward the southern plains, crossing the Mara River, in pursuit of the rains. I think the highlight for me that day, was getting to see two separate herds of elephants, complete with a baby, as they chewed the grass they could find along their journey. After a long hot day, we ate a hearty dinner at camp before another early night in anticipation for our trip to the crater the next day.
Our descent down into the crater was a very exciting time, it was really cold and had started to rain – which I knew would be great for all the animals, especially the Hippos (do you know how much a hippo pool smells? My word, it is a good job that documentaries do not permeate the smell through your television – they are truly foul smelling animals who bathe in their own feaces). We got to see the last animal on the ‘Big Five’ list, a great big Rhino, lying on his side blissfully undisturbed by all the safari vehicles coming into his habitat. To be completely honest, the amount of tourists in safari trucks at this time of year is quite disgraceful. I’m not sure why they don’t have a cut off point as to how many people can drive in at a time – quite disturbing were two male lions lying in the grass after just finishing eating their kill of wildebeest – surrounded by about 7 trucks full of people all zooming great big camera lenses into their faces.
The best bit about that final day? I would have to say watching as a pack of hyenas managed to steal a zebra leg from a huge solitary male lion, as the drama all unfolded not through a television screen with the dulcet tones of my hero Mr. Attenborough – but before my very own eyes…….