Welcome! Here at “Back to Tanzania” you’ll find blog posts about my recent adventures in Tanzania, mostly centered around Morogoro where I live with my husband, Tisa. I’m American. He’s Tanzanian.
Morogoro is a medium-sized town in Eastern Tanzania. It’s not far from the commercial capital of Dar es Salaam, and it’s on a major trucking road. Tourists pass through, but it’s not usually a tourist destination. Many foreign missionaries coming to work in Tanzania or Kenya come to Morogoro first to study Swahili at the language school run by the KKKT Lutherans.
Under the “Arusha Days” tab, you’ll find re-worked blog posts from my 15 months stay in Arusha back in 2010-2011. Don’t worry–I’ve made them shorter and only included the interesting ones!
Under “Other Travels,” you’ll find photos, sometimes with narration, of trips to other places–many in the United States, but other countries and continents, too.
I’ve set up a separate section for “Tanzania National Park Visits,” because the parks here are so spectacular, and each visit generates so many photos. Some of these visits are also re-runs from 2010 and 2011. Some are recent visits.
And under “Writing Projects,” I’ll be posting short stories, essays, flash fiction and deleted scenes from the memoir I’m still working on. Some are about Tanzania, but not all.
I’ll be adding to all the tabbed pages little by little, so be sure to check back with each occasionally.
In Tanzania, they have a proverb that says it’s a disgrace to marry your mother. By which they mean that a wife should not be older than her husband. It was brought to my attention in 2009 because, yes, I am several years older than Tisa, my Tanzanian husband. I’ve been living with it ever since.
It came up again just a couple of weeks ago in Morogoro. We stayed a few nights in the Hilux Hotel, and on our last morning there, ate breakfast in their large dining room with a larger than usual group. From their accents, Tisa recognized them as fellow members of the Nyakyusa tribe and chatted with some of them. They’d traveled to Morogoro to attend a wedding. After breakfast, they drifted out to their chartered mini-bus. Tisa went out to check the oil and water in our car, right next to the Nyakyusa bus.
As he worked under the hood, he overheard the wedding guests on the bus deep in a heated discussion of….me and Tisa. What do you think? Is our brother actually married to that mzungu? The answers were split between:
1) Impossible! She’s much too old; and
2) Of course they’re married! You can see that they love each other.
This went on throughout the oil check. As Tisa moved on to the water, some people on the bus pointed out that Tisa was right there outside the bus, and if people wanted an answer to this pressing question, they should ask him. He’s our brother, we are all Nyakyusa, just ask him!
So, they called him onto the bus and asked him. He said yes, the mzungu is my wife. At which point, the doubters didn’t say much, although I imagine them making all those Tanzanian noises of surprise. Eh! Huh? Etc. Others, those whom I think of as being on my team, said that age doesn’t matter if you are in love. True love conquers all.
I came out into the car park as the wedding bus was pulling out. Tisa told me about the discussion, and we had a good laugh. Then I went to use the ladies’ before we started our drive. As I washed my hands, I spent a few moments staring into the mirror, checking for new wrinkles.
I elected to stay in Bagamoyo on my own while Tisa went to Dar es Salaam to lead a tour group of students from Uganda. I splurged a bit and stayed at a hotel right on the beach, rather than a cheaper place in town. The guest rooms are set into the side of the bluff that rises above the beach. I love sitting on the veranda there outside the room and overlooking the ocean. And being cooled by the wind off the ocean, since December is just freaking hot on Tanzania’s coast.
The heat meant it was low season. For most of the ten days I stayed, I was the only guest in a hotel that can accommodate about 30. I didn’t mind. The solitude was soothing and energizing for me. Also, the staff were so nice and had time to spare, chatting in Swahili with me, even after they all realized what hard work that is.
Bagamoyo is a charming small town, with a historic area of sand streets lined with heavy 1800’s era coral stone buildings, some crumbling and some still in use. There’s a small arts college and a community of dread locked young tour guides. When you walk the historic area or the beach, you are a potential customer. Young men engage you in conversation with the aim of selling a tour, or a Tinga-tinga painting, or a carved wooden elephant.
I found a bajaji (tuktuk, pedicab) driver that I liked (with help from the hotel staff). I made excursions into town to visit the ATM and buy laundry soap and eat at some of the restaurants. I even found a place for a pedicure (again with help from hotel staff). I made an excursion with the young night chef from the hotel to see the snake park, a staple of Tanzanian tourist areas. I spent a bit of time lounging around the hotel, on the veranda on the bluff and in the large booths in the restaurant that front on the beach. It was lovely.
Late in the afternoon, as the heat fades, the locals hit the beach. They stroll, they jog, they play soccer. Most evenings I joined them, walking first north from the hotel, then doubling back and walking south past the last of the tourist cottage rentals. Although I felt safe, here in Tanzania I am ever conscious of the possibility of being robbed. Most days, I left phone, money, passport, everything in my room. A couple of evenings, I photographed the sunset with my iPhone. And I was always careful to be back at the hotel before dark.
December 9, Tanzanian Independence Day was rainy and cool. That afternoon when I stepped out onto the beach, I noticed only a few locals exercising. This would be a treat! Such cool weather, and near solitude in nature! I walked north, past a group of art college students swimming, then turned and headed south. Another mzungu woman, walking a dog on a leash ahead of me, turned back and we passed each other. A group of Tanzanians, probably from Dar, came out of the water and crossed the beach to the last set of rental cottages. I strode on, getting that little exercise buzz that makes you want to keep going.
But after three minutes more of walking, I realized I was alone on the beach. Even the locals fishing in their wooden boats had come in and disappeared. Maybe it’s an American thing. Or a small town Western America outdoors-loving thing. But seeing the empty beach made me want to keep going. But I tuned into that little voice saying, “not safe” and turned back.
A group of seven young men were walking towards me, from 100 feet away. Some looked like the ubiquitous “beach boys” and some like students. Even as two of them veered away from the group and approached me where I walked near the water, I wasn’t particularly alarmed. The others walked on by. I expected the usual sales pitch, so kept walking and avoided eye contact.
One said, “Excuse me, madame, can I talk to you.” Yes, the usual sales pitch. But when I tried to step around him and keep walking, he stopped talking and stepped directly in front of me. The second man stepped close on the water side. Okay, not the usual sales pitch.
Within an instant, an arm came around my neck from directly behind me. Ah, I’ve made a mistake, I thought, but with a total absence of emotion.
In the next instant, I was lying on my back on the sand, pinned to the ground by that arm still across my throat. I could see only the sky. Nobody’s face crossed my line of vision. And maybe that’s good, because maybe that helped me feel the assault less personally, more distantly.
One man on each side patted my trousers pockets. The one on the right found my iPhone and pulled on it, but it snagged in the pocket fabric. I swatted at his hand, trying to shoo him away from the phone. But then I felt the pressure of that arm across my throat and thought, these guys can hurt me right now. You’re supposed to let them take anything.
I raised my hands away from my body and screamed, “Take the phone! Take the phone! Just take it!” It took a few slow-motion seconds for the man on the right to extricate it. He pulled it free and jumped away. The arm on my throat was gone. All of them jumped away from me. I jumped to my feet to see them running fast in a tight group south, away from the tourist area.
I screamed into the wind, “Wizi! Wizi!” Thieves! Thieves! This is the appropriate remedy in Tanzania. If anybody’s around, they’ll come to your aid and take the thieves down. But nobody was near enough to hear.
I walked back to the last tourist cottage in less than three minutes and back to my hotel in less than ten. That emotionless state of shock persisted. I was so calm and thinking so clearly of what I needed to do next. So calm, in fact, that the hotel staff took a moment to understand what I was telling them. I did feel shaky, though. And I was happy that a German/Tanzanian family were also at the hotel so I could sit at their table during dinner and not sit alone and stare out into the dark.
Tisa arrived a few hours later, tour finished, and was horrified to find out what had happened. And I was happy to have him with me, and not lie alone in bed and listen for thieves outside my hotel room. But that weird state of shock persisted until late the next morning. I was calm and focused during all the packing and visiting the ATM and buying petrol.
But as we drove away from Bagamoyo, the tears came. And I’ve cried a few times since. For five or six days, every time I was alone and not busy, I flashed back to that arm reaching across my throat from behind. To that pivotal moment of, oh, I’ve made a mistake. I’m thankful that the flashbacks have stopped now. Also, a weird feeling of gratitude to the thieves for not physically hurting me or molesting me. I now feel just fucking angry at them, thank you very much.
But I’m still shaky in situations in which I encounter young men or in which I need to make a judgment about whether a street looks safe for walking. I suspect it may take awhile for that to wear off. But I’ll have plenty of opportunities to keep working through it, since those situations occur all the time.
So for awhile, I’ll be that mzungu (white) visitor who flinches in fear from young male Tanzanians who mean me no harm. I apologize. I’ll stop as soon as I can. I’m working on it.
And now let me add the travel writers’ disclaimer. I do feel safe in Tanzania. Safer in some ways than in the U.S. Crime happens everywhere and you have to take precautions everywhere. The U.S. State Department’s advice on Tanzania is terrifying. When I read it, I hardly recognize the country I’ve come to love. I’ve been visiting Tanzania since 2006 and have lived here for extended periods twice. I had close calls with non-confrontational robberies a couple of times, and was saved both times by alert Tanzanians helping me out.
I am in love with ngoma, traditional drums and dance. Tanzania has more than 120 tribes (the exact number varies, depending on who answers the question), and each has its own dances.
I bring this up now because Tisa and I recently stumbled into a Luguru dance and it was electrifying. We were returning in late afternoon from a visit to the family of Tisa’s good friend, Babu, in a small village a couple of hours’ drive from Morogoro. The family are members of the Luguru tribe, whose home area is around Morogoro. As a matter of fact, the name Morogoro is probably a European mispronunciation of Luguru.
Driving back to town with Babu and a female relative plus her two little ones, we saw people on foot streaming toward something, somewhere ahead of us. Then we heard drumming. Babu told us from the back seat that this was ngoma! And he asked if I’d be interested to see it. Yes! Of course! Stop the car!
We piled out into a crowd of maybe two hundred people and drumming so loud, I could barely hear Tisa’s instructions to me. I completely gave up on understanding Babu’s Swahili–I’m still struggling to understand spoken Swahili in the best of conditions, and he was so excited he was spitting the words out rapid-fire to match the drums.
The crowd pulsed around a small lot between two houses. Two separate dances, one very large and one smaller, played out. In each, a group of drummers occupied the center, and two circles moved around them, both in the same direction. The outer circle was mostly men, and the inner mostly women, but the circles were not 100% sorted by gender. The men moved like the dancers in the video I’ve linked below. The women packed closely together and moved in a stylized shuffle/walk. The music was mesmerizing and some of the men were very skilled dancers. Some people, a small portion, seemed to be in a trance. The music and the dance together were compelling. The rhythm and repetition, the pulsing of it all, was visceral and satisfying.
The bigger circle was wild. The smaller circle not as wild. Tisa slipped into the smaller circle and was dancing, and I was working myself up to dance, too, and then two dancers approached me, the obvious (white) stranger, and urged me into the circle. I made two circuits in the inner ring, with Tisa passing me on the outside. And then a friendly drunken man started trying to escort me, so I slipped back into the audience.
Back at the big circle, part of the outer men’s ring was made up of a troupe of dancers with a banner and a name. About a dozen young men wearing white underwear tanks worked the moves beautifully. A woman of my own age (50-something-ish) in the inner circle gazed at them each time they lapped her with an undisguised emotion that I, as her age mate, recognized. But I was working not to show it on my own face!
We climbed a pile of construction sand for a better view. The very drunk young man carrying the troupe’s banner spotted the only mzungu (white foreigner) in the crowd and approached me with many lewd gestures. A lot of that was happening, so I laughed and hoped he’d pass on around the circle. No. He came closer to me, with his head at about my waist level and my feet planted in shifting sand with people packed around me. I made impotent gestures to block him or to shoo him away, but ended up with him planting his face into the big purse I had slung across my torso, which, thank God, was blocking my crotch area from direct contact. I didn’t have the balance or room to move away, and looked helplessly back at Tisa, standing behind me. He barked something at the guy and reached out and pushed him. The guy backed off, and several other middle-aged ladies nearby yelled at him, too. He stumbled around a bit, then rolled onto his back on the ground and made more and bigger lewd movements. Yikes! So that was a scary moment for me, but only a moment, and the people around me helped me out.
Babu told us this was a family celebration of an adolescent daughter coming of age. I believe it’s similar to a quinceanera, introducing the daughter to society as available for courtship and marriage.
I didn’t take any photos or video, because I was the only foreigner in the whole crowd, and because this was a community celebration, not a performance staged for an audience. I found a video on YouTube of a similar Luguru dance. This dance video captures the elemental spirit of what we saw. The drums sounded the same, but we also had a flute adding a repetitive, simple melody line. And then add a few hundred people and many decibels of noise to this video, and you’ll have a feel for what we saw. It was freaking awesome!
I got my first glimpse of ngoma in Lindi, on the south coast, in 2013. Tisa and I were road tripping up and down Tanzania’s coast. We’d stopped in Lindi on our way to Mtwara to see ruins of the 14th-century Persian caliphate. It’s true! A Persian caliphate! I didn’t know about that either, until I came here and saw it.
We spent a day with two local young women, plus family members that joined up as we went along, seeing the short list of sights in Lindi. At the end of the afternoon, sitting on the beach, we heard drumming, ngoma. We followed the sound, and slipped into a dance practice inside a fenced restaurant courtyard. Wow! It was amazing! This was the Makonde tribe, which many consider to have the best dances in Tanzania. The troupe greeted us and welcomed us to watch. We saw only two numbers, which left me wanting more. And then a few days later, we rolled into Mtwara just a few hours after the very last performance of a week-long annual ngoma competition. Which we have missed again for about three more years.
We stumbled into the next performance in 2015, on a road trip to the opposite corner of the country, in Mwanza at the Sukuma Museum. Sukuma is Tanzania’s largest tribe. A professional dance troupe was performing for a large group of upper class Tanzanian secondary school students touring the museum. It was a great show. But I have to say the impromptou dancing we’ve stumbled across since, without costumes, in dusty fields is better–more heartfelt, more emotion, less choreography, and the audience is right at the edge of the dance, rather than seated at a distance.
Here’s a dance from the museum show in which the women demonstrate their competitive household skills, and the men choose their bride.
And another, without the obvious theme, but with a lot of impressive jumps by the young men .
And the theme of this last dance was, “scare everybody with a big snake.” They brought out a wooden box, and teased us by leaving it with lid open in the center of the dance for a few minutes. Then they pulled out a huge python! The chief dancer let the python crawl toward the audience. The audience jumped up and ran! This was my opportunity to get some quick phone photos of the snake. The dancer then pulled the python by its tail back into the center of the ring. The audience came back and sat down. Repeat. Fun audience participation.
Why a python? I’m not sure, and I don’t find the answer from my brief stab at internet research. There is an element of competition in Sukuma dance–groups competing for audience attention, and the giant snake will certainly attract that attention! Also, the museum display of traditional houses featured stuffed pythons crawling through the rafters, so perhaps there’s more to the python than getting the audience’s attention.
Coming back from Malawi a few months ago, we drove through the town of Tukuyu up in the mountains in southern Tanzania. We took a side trip out a dirt road to see a natural stone bridge called God’s Bridge. When we got there, it turns out you have to call the Forestry Department’s employee who then comes to meet you and give you a tour (unless you drove up the other road to his somewhat distant office first, which we didn’t).
When this forester arrived, he was willing to do the tour, but told us he was in a hurry because he’s the leader of a traditional dance group and they were scheduled to perform (right now!) at a grand opening celebration for a new market about a half hour drive away. He invited us to come.
We were in the home territory of Tisa’s tribe, the Nyakyusa, and he’d been telling me how cool their traditional dances are. And the natural bridge would be in the same place for another million years. So of course we went to see the dancing–and it was an amazing thing!
Out in a village way up a rough dirt road, and 200 people all gathered around in a circle watching the dancers in a dirt lot surrounded by banana trees. We were the only car, and when we got out with our host, several people came over to greet us. People were really excited to have two visitors, and one foreign, join them. The whole time we were there, people approached me to say how happy they were to see me there. I was going to leave the camera in the car, because I thought it might be intrusive, but our host brought it out for me, and people kept urging me to take pictures, so here are some.
This was the first dance, below. It opened with the troupe’s drummers playing, and the dancers walking around and through the ring, but also with many audience members taking a turn through the circle, too. Then two dancers with spears and with many neckties used as costume entertained us with comedic wild moves. Then the whole troupe moved in and danced.
The white shorts and long-sleeved shirts in the dance, below, are traditional wear for Nyakyusa men’s dances. This was one of three troupes performing, and it was a competition. I felt loyal to the first troupe, who wore football jerseys from Tanzanian teams, because our Forestry Department host was with them. And I’m happy to report that, in spite of this troupe showing up in correct traditional costume, our group won.
This dance, below, was our group again, and featured two young boys who are already great dancers.
And on the way back to town, since we had the only car and it was a van, we had almost the whole dance group crammed in there! When the dancing broke up, and Tisa and I walked back to the car with our host, we got mobbed by about 50 people hoping to ride in the 10-passenger van. Tisa and I climbed inside and let our host sort it out. We even had two teenage boys riding inside the cargo compartment at the back, clinging to the spare tire. The first few bumps we hit, I said something along the lines of, “Be careful! You’re going to bounce those boys in the back!”
An old man sitting in the seat behind me said, in Nyakyusa translated by Tisa, “Eh, don’t worry. We have plenty of young men.”
And we have recently missed the annual ngoma competition in Mtwara again. And some other events around Mbeya. There’s always next year…and whatever events we stumble across in our wanderings around Tanzania.