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.
Robbery is an unfortunate part of life in Tanzania. I wrote about it when I lived in Arusha, where it’s common and scary. Here are three posts from 2011: “Robbered”, “Robbered, Part 2”, and “Robbered, Part 3”.
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.