Arusha, Tanzania: Relationships And Lawlessness

When I came up with my itinerary for my year-ending trek, I knew it would be a series of stops around Lake Victoria. But I also knew I’d be kicking off this trek with a stop off the lake: Arusha in Tanzania’s northeast.

Arusha had been mentioned by various travelers I met throughout my time in Tanzania. Indeed, it may be the most popular city in the country for tourism. And whereas “touristy” may turn some people off, I acknowledged that this label was established for good reason: The Serengeti, the Maasai tribe, and Mt. Kilimanjaro in the distance.

Yet I didn’t do a safari here; nor did I climb Kilimanjaro. I met a university student who showed me a lesser-known but more intimate tourist site. But first, he used his connections to get the bus company to refund my ticket.


I woke in Arusha in a comfortable king size bed with soft white sheets, a big white comforter, and thick wooden bedposts rising from the corners and hoisting a mosquito net around me. (These thin, finely meshed fabrics are a standard sleeping feature in malaria-ridden Tanzania. I always thought them to add a cozy feeling of being in my own little nook when sleeping. Then again, I hated not being able to just flop down on my bed because the net was in the way.)

But I had zero complaints this day. To stay in such a nice bed here in East Africa was beyond a mere pleasant surprise. For not only was it way better than I expected, but it came after a night of unpleasant surprises.

The rain fell over the darkened 13th and 14th hours of our bus ride into Arusha the night before. (This was where we left off last time.) This out-of-season rain sneaked up us. It also crept into the bus’s belly compartment. My suitcase was in there, on the receiving end of a shower spraying up from the asphalt. And it didn’t contain just my traveling belongings. It had all my belongings, because I was concluding this trek by flying back to Minnesota. Back up top in the bus, I was blissfully ignorant of my suitcase’s water torture.

As we rode into Arusha, I texted the person I’d be staying with. My host told me where to go once I disembarked at the station. The bus pulled in just far enough into the parking lot, so its butt end wasn’t in the way of the oncoming traffic. I walked off with my bag to see buildings surrounding the dark, open lot. But they were a fuzzy memory and backdrop for the traffic of the nearby busy street, the activity of the other riders crowding around the bus waiting for their luggage, and then the constant hassle of the rain. I made an acquaintance with a waiting taxi driver. He took it upon himself to help me with my luggage. So I walked under an awning of the nearby bus stop. My jean bottoms were soaked.

Soon the driver came over with my bag. It was just as wet. I just hoped it kept the water from getting inside. I put it in the trunk of the cab. Then I hopped in the back seat and we drove off.

We rode out of the lit up city streets to the quiet outskirts. After a couple of miles, we turned onto a silent, darkened dirt road. We got lost. The driver got on the phone with my host. I had texted him earlier on this ride to know how much a cab to his house would cost me. “10,000,” he texted back. This meant ten thousand Tanzania shillings–about six bucks.

With the woods at our side, my taxi driver was directed to turn around. We were lost, but not far from our destination. And soon we spotted in the taxi’s headlights my host standing outside along his driveway. We pulled up to the young man in t-shirt and shorts. He stood in the now-lighter drizzle just in front of the black metal gate of his property. I hopped out and greeted Manu, the thirty-something, average-statured, goatee-wearing, Chilean-born, Italian-blooded Tanzanian transplant.

I turned and asked the driver how much for the ride.

“Mmm, 35,000,” he said to me almost under his breath.

I responded with ten.

He went off.

“Ohhaahhh!” he moaned pitifully. “I took you all this way!” said the medium-built, middle-aged Tanzanian man now with anger. “I can’t even pay for gas!”

Manu stepped in. “Don’t treat us like we’re stupid! I live here three years. I pay ten whenever I go to town.”

I said I’d give fifteen. The man was still upset–or at least pretending to be. If so, I bought his act and gave another two on top of it.

As we entered the house, Manu asked, “You didn’t give them more than 15, did you?”

“I gave him 17.”

“That why they they do this. They know it works.” Manu responded plainly.

Manu was a true traveler. Home-schooled all his life as his parents bounced from country to continent. From childhood and into adulthood, Manu had traveled and lived in more countries that I have fingers and toes. He lived here in Arusha with his wife, Pru, an intelligent-looking, glasses-wearing Cambodian-Chinese woman whom Manu had met traveling in Cambodia. She was a good match, a woman of the world who globe-trotted right alongside Manu most recently throughout Africa and now settled in here in Tanzania. She worked at a nonprofit servicing women in need. He worked for an animal humane society caring for stray dogs. And in this city, that meant they were allowed to have this modern home of shiny white tiled floors and smooth white walls.

I arranged my stay in Arusha with this young couple via a travel community website called Couchsurfing. Simply sign up, request a place to crash when in town, and if able, put your own couch (or spare room) on the site for visitors coming to your town.

Of the 15 nights ahead on this East Africa trek, all but five would in the homes of perfect strangers. Of course, prior to arrival you communicate and examine your host’s profile. The glue binding the site together are these mainly young people interested in sharing their home with other world travelers and then–as was my case–an interest in a local’s angle on the place one is visiting. Oh, and typically the host doesn’t ask for a dime. That’s a pretty sweet deal for my volunteer’s stipend.

It was late, but before I could go to bed, I had to attend to my suitcase. Pru showed me the laundry room. I rolled my suitcase inside along the tiled flooring. I wasn’t eager to see what was inside. Unzipping its three sides, I flopped open the dripping wet top to unveil my collection of clothes, books, and a few electronics doused with the rainwater.

I told Manu and Pru that I was going to try and get some money for the damages the next day. They each exhaled a version of a skeptical “good luck.”

“Maybe if you went to the bus office tonight,” said Pru. But even then she wouldn’t count on it, she said. And now that I was waiting a day? Forget it.


I sat up from my king-sized bed, lifted the mosquito net up over my head, and readied for the day. Pru had gone in to work. Manu was still home and showed me their washing machine. So I washed my clothes and hung them outside on their wire clothes line in their yard:

Next I went into town. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a tour of it having me eyeing and taking in all its new aspects. I was on a mission. Precious time would be wasted on this likely fruitless attempt at a refund, but I was upset and, by the standards I had come to know from my life in the U.S., was owed a refund. Somehow I kept this entitlement mentality despite having been in Tanzania for eight months at this point. But I was also simply curious to see how they’d respond to a consumer complaint. I came from a place where the customer is always right and sometimes holds this thinking to an entitled fault. Here in Tanzania? Well, I paid the bus company. They got me here. So that was probably the end of it.

I hitched a ride back into town on a dalla dalla–the “town buses” which are old Toyota vans–from where our dirt road met the main tar road less than a mile away. After waiting alongside this intersection for only a handful of minutes, a van pulled up, and I was on my way into town. I squeezed in the middle bench and said hello to the young man to my right at the window seat. He had a gentle face trying to grow some facial hair. His shorter-stockier frame had on loose-fitting grey slacks, a designer black t-shirt, and a navy blue hoodie with colorful dot patterns and a neon green zipper. He definitely looked more “city” than the dusty, torn jeans and worn t-shirts from the young men back in my village.

I said hello. He said hello back and added, “Where are you going?”

Not wanting to explain my ordeal with the sopping suitcase, I just said that I was going to the bus station to get a ticket. He invited himself along to come help me get the ticket. I agreed as I didn’t mind the company. Then he introduced himself. Innocent was a student at Arusha Technical College.

“Your English is so good,” I said to him. “Did you go to English-medium secondary school?”

“Yes,” he said back, and then he shared with me more about his life. His parents worked for the government-operated electrical company, Tanesco. He himself was studying to be an electrician.

After just a few minutes, we disembarked having arrived into Arusha town center, a busy, but not cramped city of 4-5 story buildings lining the streets and housing restaurants, clothing stores, small grocers, money exchangers, and then a Samsung store with their latest smartphones and tablets on display. The tourism industry seems to have pushed Arusha toward the forefront of technological modernity in East Africa.

As we walked toward the bus station, I told Innocent what the real deal was. It didn’t deter his teaming up with me. In fact, is may have secured it. We approached the station, at which things suddenly got a lot busier. It was a large parking lot with dalla dallas and buses lined within. People were walking about as passengers; salespeople with drinks, snacks, and knickknacks; and the reliably aggressive men working for small commissions to reel a customer into a bus company’s office to use their service.

They see a white person, and they see green.

“Hello, sir! Where are you going?” one say rapidly as if they think you’re running behind. They also say this assuming all white people know English–because frankly, almost all do. Innocent and I ignore or said outright to the few men who approached that we were not here for a ticket. Then we walked up the steps into the office center for the bus companies.

Inside this solid, but dirty building in the middle of the parking lot were the storage unit-sized office stalls for these bus services. We found the service I used and entered. The same heavy set lady who acted as the bus’s conductor on my route from Iringa to Arusha was sitting behind the counter. Cool. She would be alble to verify that I was on the bus, as could my receipt. After she got done working with another customer, I approached the counter and explained the situation. I then whipped out my camera and showed pictures of the evidence–the books, the clothes, and the suitcase damaged.

She talked in Swahili to another guy standing around, who called another guy, who called over an older man. The chain of command was linked by a couple standers-around evidently. Finally, a shaved-headed man in slacks and a button-up walked in. He seemed like the owner or manager of the place. He looked at my pictures for 20 seconds of silence and then ruled that I would have to go to Iringa, as they were the branch responsible. I figured that might happen. I wasn’t surprised. In fact, I had been surprised that they had been this attentive thus far. But I still argued.

I said to the man that they are all the same company. So his branch should pay me, and Iringa can pay them back. He said that that’s not how it works, and I thought that as much a matter of institutional framework as it was a a lack of concern, I wasn’t going to get my money. But then a stout man in a green officer’s uniform came by; so did another man from another bus company, seemingly there out of legitimate concern rather than competitive muckracking. The officer apparently had some weight as he kept the bald-headed owner’s attention. They talked at the entrance of the tiny little stall vendor for a few minutes. These two new men saying things that the owner disagreed with. It seemed that they thought he should pay. I just sat down and looked a bit forlorn–figured it might help my case.

The owner came back to tell me that I needed to present the evidence. I had washed most of it. But I whipped out a couple of books. The ace up my sleeve. And then Innocent jumped in to talk in their language. They spoke for a good two minutes. I stood by and watched. Then the manager offered me 10,000. My ticket was 36,000, the amount I had asked from the start. So I said I needed at least 20,000. He meekly took out and handed me two pink 10,000 shilling bills.

I was happy. The owner, who somehow suddenly seemed to care what I thought, said caribou tena–“welcome again”–and shook my hand, and then I thanked Innocent by buying him some chipsi mayai (eggs and potatoes dish) at a nearby hole-in-the-wall restaurant.

Innocent at the eatery

I asked Innocent over lunch what he said to the bus company boss. He responded that the bus company gave me money, because he told them that if they didn’t give me some money, that we were going to stay there and prevent customers from coming in–that we’d already been doing that by being there as long as we did. He told me he also shared with the boss about his relationship with a guy a couple of years older (and a couple of pounds heavier) who he called his “brother.” This “brother” was also known to the bus company as a trouble maker. Innocent told me that he said to the boss that if he didn’t pay, then Innocent was going to ask his “brother” to come pay them a visit.

I stood listening to this with an expression entirely different from the passive, peaceful look on my face when Innocent was talking to the bus company boss in Swahili. I had assumed when listening to them speak that he was simply stating my case to them. Now at lunch I was hearing him describe how we were threatening them. I wonder what they thought of me standing by looking ordinary during this dialogue.

In a place lacking the institutions for consumer rights, it came down to people skills and who you know. Taxi drivers not metered will trying to squeeze out a few extra shillings where they can. Bus companies aren’t going to give out refunds. Why would they? Good will? Practically speaking, I had no recourse. I just got lucky and met a guy willing to help me out.

The book “Why Nations Fail” talks about how the institutions of the country determine its prosperity. They’d argue a place like Tanzania would benefit from a more formal structure of pricing and business policy. But that’s not the culture. It’s a wheeling and dealing kind of place, and I assume the other passengers just took their soaked luggage in stride.

I spent half a day on this, roughly a quarter of my time in Arusha. But I don’t consider it a waste. I learned about and experienced the fabric of their commercial institutions, learned about the Tanzanian culture as a result, and made a friend along the way. Indeed, I wasn’t just lucky to have him help me with my refund. The next day, Innocent showed me around to a more intimate tourist attraction in the area.

What say you?