As I write this it is the Muslim celebration of Eid and I’m in Tanzania. There’s a definite air of holidays about the day. Call to prayer started at the usual time of 5am but this time went on until 7am, with about four Mosques competing audibly within a square kilometre. In terms of denominations, there are more Christians here but a sizeable number of Muslims as well so the Government acknowledges important events on both calendars with official holidays.
Pride without prejudice
I’ve taken the bike out and off road to explore. Actually no, not off road, strictly speaking, but it felt like it. The roads were marked as main roads on google maps but they were worse than some I’d recently ridden in the Brecon Beacons in Wales during the Taffy Dakar. Stones, sand and gravel, a little scary in some places, but ultimately the destination was rewarding.. the shores of Lake Victoria, next to a small flotilla of fishing boats.
I don’t think they see too many Mzungo’s (white people) there, much less a girly on a motorbike, in full armour and a helmet cam. But in every single place I stopped to admire the view I was greeted warmly, with no other agenda other than to practice a smattering of English. That was incredibly refreshing, they did not want money thrown at them or to show me to their uncle’s shop.
In fact, every person here I’ve met has shown a remarkable dignity – that’s something not written about much. Apparently bad news sells and statistically gets more 'hits' in social media which is why headlines are often negative. By the way, I will try never to use that technique - why permeate the world with 'Things are terrible, here's more reasons why you should be miserable..' kind of posts?
During my travels today I asked a couple of people (via sign language) engaged in everyday tasks - such as breaking stones with a hammer or washing clothes by a stream – if I could take their picture. They politely declined and I was glad I asked in advance. However interesting those pictures would have been and visually appealing, the people involved did not care for having their picture taken, not for any money (no, I did not offer and definitely I'm sure it would have offended them). These people probably earned pennies a day and what they got was never enough for their basic needs. But they had self-respect and consequently I was moved and learnt something important. They did not know they too were teachers.
Is this Normal?
It took me about four days to pluck up the courage to get on the back of a boda boda. That’s Tanzanian for motorcycle taxi, hundreds of them just drive around the town in Mwanza. They’re usually cheap Chinese bikes, poorly run, poorly driven and not maintained (see my Maslow at work in Mwanza blog for why). The wheels are rarely pumped to the right pressure. The chain is too loose or too tight, either way bad mojo.
The drivers scoot and buzz about like flies, swarming to get past obstacles either left or right. They could be wearing a helmet, a construction hat, a woolly hat or nothing at all. Usually the helmet is not done up. The passenger helmet never fits well, is smelly and if it does have an unbroken clasp then it won’t tighten under your chin. This is why I didn’t get on one until a few days into the country.
But then I went for it. I wanted the experience, I was a bag of nerves – the helmet didn’t do up so it was about as useful as networking with a sausage. I was rigid from the neck down. I was wearing flip flops, t-shirt, cotton trousers.. you get the idea. It was wrong and yet somehow it was ok, just for this one trip. For the experience.
After that like some crazed junkie it was easy to take the next, and the next, and the next. Then I started filming these trips, for the folks back home to experience boda boda first hand and to talk about how dangerous it all was. It took me about another week to see the irony.
What was I thinking? Getting on the back of a dangerous bike with an untrained rider on roads where the biggest vehicle has right of way and pedestrians are definitely bottom of the pecking order. And not wearing the right gear? And to cap it all, I’m here to promote road safety. It got me thinking about why I thought it was ok.
It boils down to our adaptability to new situations that are considered ‘normal’ where we are. So, rubbish bikes and riders are normal here. Not wearing a helmet is normal here. But if this was the UK.. absolutely not. I can even now feel the fear of going down one of our maintained roads without a helmet. I just would not do it. The term you could apply is ‘normalisation of risk’. Becoming accustomed and downgrading risk situations. But the risk is still there, we just choose to ignore it. (By the way, if you want to see a short video of one of these journeys, you can here.)
It’s not only risk that succumbs to this change in attitude. Other behaviours that are not acceptable at home are tolerable here. Really loud, heartfelt, top-of-the-lungs singing (with speakers) at 3am in the morning. Yes! Churches are sometimes in full swing at this time, during a weekday too if it’s a funeral. Sometimes the choir is hauntingly beautiful, you can forgive the intrusion into your sleep. Well, for the first hour anyhow, after that visions of torch bearing akin to a scene in Frankenstein invade your thoughts until eventually the music stops and you can finally sleep. But noise pollution is accepted here, even in such an extreme form. I can just imagine the uproar in the UK.
Polygamy is another thing that’s not unusual amongst the Maasai and indeed, if you ever marry in Tanzania (as you do), when you apply for your licence the groom (whatever the faith) is calmly asked ‘just the one wife, sir?’ in order to tick the right box on the form in front of him. Animals here are not pets, they are either strays or they are guard dogs. If the guard dogs bite someone they’re not put down, they’re actually seen as just doing their job. Good boy.
Want to experience a long life? Experience more
Part of the reason I love to travel is just this.. to widen my experience and see things from other points of view. I think it helps to develop tolerance and patience, but also it satisfies an insatiable curiosity. To walk a mile in another’s shoes, as the saying goes, to get a glimpse of another world is a way to experience more than one life. In fact, your life really does feel longer if you have multiple experiences you can recall on. It's because of the way the brain optimises its memory banks - similar experiences are combined into one memory (like every time you drive to work, you remember a 'generic' drive but not every single time separately).
Last night I saw a boy of about four running along the road – the stony, dirty, glass and plastic strewn road – with no shoes. What would it be like to spend even a day in the life of this young boy? To walk a mile here without shoes?
The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good. - Samuel Johnson (possibly)