Arrival To Africa

This is the second piece in a series about my new life, experiences, insights, and project in East Africa.


At 3:00 a.m. I was standing naked over the drain in the concrete floor of an outhouse-like shower stall holding a pitcher of water over my head. This wasn’t a dare or a hangover prevention. It was Tanzania, and I had jet lag.

My plane touched down in Tanzania’s capital, Dar es Salaam, at 1:30 p.m. January 23rd, 2014, just as the flight ticket said. Of my four flights getting out here, this was by far the most punctual.

Besides delays, airplane/airport food, and the other usuals of travel, there had been a sea of stimuli and other excitement making the previous 48+ hours over three continents noteworthy. I’ll do my best to sum it all up like this: MSP, ORD, FRA, ADD, DAR, Despicable Me 2, The Hangover Part 3, difficult sitting-up sleep on the plane, interrupted-by-police-to-make-sure-I-was-a-passenger-sleep at the Frankfurt terminal, running to catch my connecting flight in Chicago, waiting 12 hours in Frankfurt, meeting a retired Kentucky couple doing mission work in Africa, meeting an Italian-born Englishwoman doing aid work in Ethiopia, meeting a man smoking crack in Frankfurt’s Red Light District, seeing cigarette smokers in the no-smoking terminal in Addis Ababa, and leaving the frozen grounds of Minnesota for the ocean and humid heat of Dar es Salaam.

Julius Nyerere was the leader of the Tanzanian independence movement and their first president in 1961

With my 45-pound carry-on full of laptops, I waddled off the plane and into the terminal. (I had already done a lot of waddling up to this point.) Inside, the building clashed with the earlier terminals along the way. Hallways here were narrower. Some ceiling tiles had water stains

We international arrivals were immediately directed by sign down a set of stairs for visa application. Down at the base, I saw the crowd of foreigners gathering around one of two large black men in navy blue uniform. These guys were taking people’s passports and visa applications one by one by two by three along with the cash necessary for the transaction. This cash was all American greenback (or bluishback, if you’ve seen the new $100 bills)—regardless of where the people flew in from.

Watching one of the guys carry around a stack of documents, I worried he’d lose track of which paperwork went with whose passport. I also imagined a careless traveler walking into the man and sending all the forms and money airborne slapstick comedy style. Accident free, the man took his pile to the visa authorizers sitting behind glass teller windows in a room to the right.

My solitude helped me maneuver through the crowd queue, and while this man took his stack to the room, I approached with my documents. As I neared, I heard him tell another traveler that the fee for his visa would be $50. When he addressed me, he looked at my application and said, “$100.

“Why $100?” I responded. “You told him $50.”

“The price is $100”, he retorted sternly.

What could I do? I took out a $100 bill (which Leah, the woman picking me up, admittedly told me I’d need), and he took my paperwork to the people behind the glass.

While I waited, I watched a group of six or so Chinese tourists expressing confusion about price and process which was fitting in this chaotic setting. “Talk to him,” I said in Mandarin to the older husband/wife while pointing to the uniformed man. Guess my previous travel experience was already coming in handy this time around.

Soon, another tourist said loudly, “Is there an American here?” I looked up to see an authorizer holding my passport up to the glass. I approached, and they asked me a couple questions about myself and my stay, the first one being: “Is this you?” while looking at my passport photo.

“Yes,” I replied matter-of-factly. Then after a beat added, “Oh, I grew a beard.”

They read the letter I had attached to the application, written and signed by Evaristo Sanga, the founder of Magulilwa Area Secondary School. It stated I was here as a volunteer for the the school and disclosed my cargo: twelve laptops, five microscopes. Satisfied, they issued the visa.

I walked to the baggage claim area just across the room, went to the second of the two carousels, got my luggage, and headed through customs surprisingly smooth. They didn’t even make me open my bags.

I walked out the sliding glass doors to a throng of people (and sunshine and warmth) standing behind a cordoned-off walkway for arriving tourists. In the crowd, I happily spotted a woman who reacted in kind. Leah, the other Western teacher at the school, came all the way from Magulilwa village to greet me.

Not the best picture. But I ain’t no Annie Leibovitz, either. Behind Leah is our driver hired by our school. Next to him in the back is Joseph, Leah’s boyfriend. The man in front is Joseph’s friend, Malugu, whose place we’d be staying at this first night.

Torn between four hours of sleep over the last two days and the relief and excitement of arrival, I took in the sun, heat, and the social energy outside the airport. In the crowd behind my new friends were others awaiting travelers including a slew of taxi drivers soliciting newcomers for a lift. Nearby were several business kiosks for cell phone service, convenience shops, and money exchange. The transfer rate is lopsided with me handing them $400 and walking away with 640,000 TSH – Tanzania Shilling.

We five walked past the bustle to the parking lot. I got in the front passenger’s seat which needed a steering wheel in front of it as far as I was concerned. But they do things a little different here in Tanzania and the driver was to my right.

Not long after pulling out of the lot, we encountered the well-known Dar es Salaam traffic. Sedans mingled with flatbed pickups with semis. The traffic was evidently so established in some spots, that young guys make a few shillings by approaching cars in gridlock with various items to purchase–snacks, water, one guy even had some hand/arm exercise equipment that he walked right up to my open window to show me.

Cashew sales and delivery right to your car!

Along the shoulders of this main road were also many produce salespeople with pineapple, mango, and bananas. But my escorts had other ideas for food. We went to a mall that I assume is considered upscale here. Inside were shops with flat screen TVs and other luxury goods.

We ate at an Indian restaurant here that, except for the fact that everyone inside was black, appeared not unlike one you’d find in the U.S.

Well fed, we then drove to the home of Joseph’s friend, Malugu.  Malugu works for Tanesco, the government-owned utility provider for Tanzania, and owns his own house. From the mall, we took what the driver said was a shortcut.  While I’m sure he was right, it also compensated for any convenience of brevity with an abundance of bumps and rattles.  A 10-mile patch of torn-up pavement left the already-small, off-the-beaten-path, two lane road, a now-exposed, rock-strewn corridor that gave our van a beating.

Off the main street, this stretch was lined with shacks of businesses and homes. Residents walked along (and on) the road.

Over a couple mile stretch, the activity alongside the road broke for a patch of meadow:

There was little order of custom to driving. Just don’t hit anything/anyone as my driver, and others I saw, passed on corners, drove on either side of the road, and followed slow cars almost bumper to bumper.

After 15-20 minutes, we were back on tar. After 30, we were at the home of Malugu:

His home stood near the road and amongst properties close by on either side. Litter lay between the road and his house.

Inside was a modern, cozy space. We lugged in the luggage (besides my carry-on were three 50-pound checked-in bags), entering the front door to the kitchen complete with refrigerator. Through the kitchen, along the white, large-tiled floor, was the living room complete with flat screen TV in front of a couple easy chairs and a couch. The living room had two oscillating fans on the ceiling pointing downward and rotating the air.

As much as I wanted to sleep, I owed my hosts some company due their extraordinary hospitality. Malugu and his wife helping me with my luggage, got my room ready with clean bed, looked around for an electrical adapter (to be able to use my American plug-ins), and found a fan to cool me off while I slept.

I also wanted to “stay up” (it was only 7:00 p.m.) to enjoy the company of Malugu’s family. He lived here with his wife and three girls. One was 19, had graduated high school, and did housework. The other two were 15 and 12. With a National Geographic show about strange animals on in the background, Malugu’s  girls enjoyed the company of their American visitors.

Leah showing the school-aged girls something on her computer

Their youngest, Irene, 12, looked over at me from our adjacent seats and said in a soft voice, “Welcome to Tanzania.”

“Thank you,” I said smiling.

I asked her about school. She said she liked it and offered that she wanted to become a pilot. And then added again in that soft voice, “I want to go to America.”

I spoke about the good colleges in the U.S. Irene asked if I liked Beyonce’s latest song. I hadn’t heard of it. They were surprised. So dad came to the rescue with his smartphone to show me the music video for “Run the World (Girls)”.

After 45 minutes, my body forced me to say goodnight. From my bed, I could hear motorcycles whizzing by and pedestrians talking loudly. No matter; I was out in no time.

As I predicted, I was up and at ’em by 3:00 a.m. Leah had described how to shower here in our emails leading up to my arrival: simply stand there and dump buckets of water over your head. Soap yourself between pours. Having not showered since Minnesota, I was motivated to give this a try.

I walked out the back of the house to the bathroom/shower building:

The backyard. The shower was the left one of those pair of doors.

I walked out in a towel with toiletries in hand to the now-quiet air of Dar es Salaam outskirts. A five gallon bucket of water waited inside the shower stall. Inside, I looked to my left to see a gecko and up to the right to see a daddy long legs. I greeted my audience with a good morning and prepped myself like the American baby I am for the cool water about to be running down my back. I took the pitcher, scooped some water, and poured it on top of my head, feeling it run down my back and chest before splashing on the floor. Chilly, but livening.

I thought hot water would be one of those simple things taken for granted back home that I’d miss here. But I felt okay about getting used to this showering method. Hopefully, I’d be just as open to life ahead without other modern conveniences. Things would only be getting more technological primitive as I continued inland toward my school.

I went back inside the house, got dressed, played on my computer, and fell back asleep until the others woke. Our driver would be arriving at 9:00 a.m. to pick Leah and I up and take us to Magulilwa seven hours away.


5 Responses

  1. Doug Coppess

    Interesting stuff. Keep it up. I enjoy reading your posts. Reading it now watching the Super Bowl. Seattle is humiliating Denver who just scored to end the 3rd qtr. 35-8 Seahawks up.

    I’ve never liked cold showers unless its quite hot out.


  2. Maggie Ferdig

    I loved the intro first 3 sentences! Made me want to read more. Very interesting. I will be sharing the pics with the kids.

What say you?