Claire Baker is an international nomad who has lived in East Africa, Europe, Latin America and... wherever the travel angels will send her.
Quand je rêve, je rêve en anglais. Au moins, je pense que c’est ainsi. Il se peut que je sois tellement fixée sur mes racines anglaises et mes pensées conscientes en anglais. Il se peut que je ne me rende même pas compte de la présence du français, ma deuxième langue, dans les moments les plus intimes et personnels qui envahissent mon sommeil profond. Du moins, c’est la preuve que je ne différencie pas de manière claire les deux langues dans le contenu de mes rêves et dans ma façon d’imaginer les choses. Tout de même, ce n’est pas pareil lorsque je parle à haute voix ; alors pas du tout…
J’ai grandis entourée par l’anglais, que ce soit dans une école de la banlieue londonienne, dans les rues de mon quartier, ou que ce soit avec les autres enfants du coin et nos jouets. L’anglais était toujours présent comme les nuages dans le ciel.
Quand au français, c’était juste une langue pour les vacances et les visites familiales dans les Alpes françaises. Cette famille-là était surtout les grand- parents, les tontons, tatas, cousins et cousines. Ca pouvait être aussi les amis du bon vieux temps de ma mère française, ceux qui me chouchoutaient et me chuchotaient dans les oreilles que j’étais la petite princesse d’Angleterre et me traitaient comme telle ! Avec eux, j’ai vite appris que je pouvais très bien parler le français, et que je pouvais facilement dire :
-« Oui, je veux bien reprendre un peu de tarte, merci ! »,
Et je le faisais toujours avec un petit air de petite fille gentille, car c’est ce qui plaisait aux gens. Au fait, c’était la réflexion vocale de ma situation : je suppliais, zozotais et donnais l’impression que j’étais bien plus jeune que je l’étais en vrai. J’étais la petite sœur de mon frère, la fillette de la famille, et j’assumais entièrement et fièrement ce statut.
A Londres où j’ai étudié, j’étais la plus âgée de ma classe, et la préférée des profs de langues à l’école. J’était celle qui complétait les devoirs en avance et en demandait plus. Je me faisais plus mature et plus grande. En plus, je reflétais ces ambitions dans ma voix, que j’essayais de baisser et de rendre plus grave et plus autoritaire. Ma voix était celle d’une jeune fille qui se voulait plus grande et avec plus de vécu, et qui voulait que le monde la prenne au sérieux, car j’avais des rêves et des ambitions que j’associais à la maturité et à la possession d’une voix de femme, une vraie femme, et pas une gamine.
Lorsque j’ai entamé ma vie professionnelle, c ‘était d’abord à Paris, ladite ville de l’amour. Mon problème, dès le premier jour en tant que jeune travailleuse parisienne, était la voix que j’avais adoptée pendant mon enfance, pour plaire à la famille et à mes attentes. La voix de petite fille qui sortait de ma bouche lorsque je parlais en français, n’inspirait pas la confiance et la complicité professionnelle, surtout lorsqu’il s’agissait d’une échange au téléphone, où j’imaginais l’autre personne au bout du fil en train de se demander :
- « Mais, où est la maman de cette jeune fille, et pourquoi laisse-t-elle sa fille utiliser le téléphone toute seule ? »
Et puis quelques années plus tard mon trajectoire de vie m’a amené en Afrique de l’Est , en Tanzanie. Les choses ont changé le jour où je suis partie pour la Tanzanie pour travailler pour une entreprise anglaise. Je me suis retrouvée parlant l’anglais dans un milieu professionnel pour la première fois. Non seulement je pouvais utiliser ma première langue, qui sortait de ma bouche d’un ton naturellement grave et sérieux, mais aussi j’étais dans une position de responsabilité et de pouvoir qui me donnait la confiance de m’exprimer d’une façon sûre de moi, qui correspondait à la situation sur place. Face à des gens beaucoup plus âgés que moi, des gens du pays, je me sentais à l’aise en faisant des demandes exigeantes comme :
-« J’’aurai besoin que ces modifications soient faites avant vendredi…si ce n’est pas le cas, j’irai ailleurs ».
Les quelques mots de Swahili que j’ai appris lors de mon séjour en Afrique m’ont permis de communiquer un minimum avec des personnes qui ne parlaient aucun mot anglais ni français. Aujourd’hui, quand je parle Swahili, je sonne encore plus mature et sage qu’en anglais, dû à un choix exprès de baisser le ton de ma voix pour avoir l’air d’autant plus vieille et sophistiquée. Je me suis rendue compte, tardivement, qu’on peut se créer un personnage lorsqu’on parle une nouvelle langue, et le personnage que j’ai choisi était celui d’une femme forte, indépendante et surtout, adulte.
Il n’y a pas que moi qui ai remarqué la variation dans les tons, mots et comportements que l’on emploi dans de différentes langues. Beaucoup de personnes qui grandissent dans une ambiance bilingue observent que leurs voix subissent un changement important selon la langue qu’ils utilisent, et les gens réagissent souvent différemment dû à la version de leur personnalité linguistique qui se manifeste. Il arrive parfois que ceux qui ont adopté le français comme deuxième langue savourent quelques sons en particuliers. Par exemple les voyelles serrées à la fin de ‘pâtisserie’ ou les ‘oui’ qui forment parfois une sorte de ‘shhh’, très plaisants.
C’est une victoire personnelle pour chaque personne qui arrive à maîtriser une langue assez pour pouvoir jouer avec, jongler avec ses mots, ou accentuer certains sons à leur guise. Hélas, j’ai souvent été prise en tant que jeune fille lorsque je tentais de faire une plaisanterie en français ; car mon interlocuteur ne pouvait pas imaginer que j’avais fais exprès de commettre une erreur pour exciter leur fou-rire.
Bien sûr à un niveau scientifique, certaines langues engendrent des mouvements spécifiques de la bouche et l’ utilisation unique de la bouche et des cordes vocales, et ceci a un impact sur le ton de la voix. Le français nous demande de former plus de sons nasaux et des vocaux plus serrés, donc on forme plus facilement des ‘o’ avec la bouche, tandis qu’en anglais la bouche est plus ouverte, les sons plus ouverts, et donc la bouche plus ouverte. Je suis arrivée à une étape de ma vie où je me rends compte de la force de mon accent, et l’influence qui peut avoir ma langue sur ma personnalité, et je l’utilise maintenant de manière totalement consciente quand ça peut me servir.
Quand on est bilingue, on ne maîtrise jamais une langue exactement de la même façon. On a normalement une langue plus ‘naturelle’ que l’on utilise plus souvent, ou dans un contexte plus informel, et on se sent donc plus à l’aise avec une des langues, plus que toutes les autres. Même quand on parle une langue très bien, une chose que l’on néglige bien trop souvent est l’intonation et la variété d’intonations que l’on emploi dans cette langue.Et on remarque souvent que quand l’on parle une langue que l’on maîtrise le moins ; on a une voix plus ‘plate’, et souvent plus aigüe.
Est ce que c’est un manque de confiance ? Ou est-ce simplement un manque de connaissances de la totalité d’intonations natives ? Quelque soit la raison, c’est une vérité universelle que nos voix changent, et cette même voix change aussi notre comportement. J’ai hâte de voir comment pourrait changer ma personnalité sous l’influence d’autres langues que j’apprendrais plus tard. Peut-être bientôt…
“Where’s Burundi?” most of them would say, or even “But, Tanzania’s really dangerous, no? There’s, like, ebola and stuff”. I’m referring here to friends of mine who are not only well-educated, extensively-travelled and intellectually curious folk, but who are also as aware as I am that there are often gaping holes in our knowledge of the current global landscape. And so when they ask these questions they’re not assuming a mastery of geography, but exposing their own ignorance in order to be provided with my input, and to expand their own understanding of the world.
Humans have a singular gift for being acutely aware of so many worldly issues whilst ignoring much of what is going on around them. There are more than seven billion people in the world and it’s impossible to keep up-to-date with what’s going on in every single one of those seven billion people’s lives. It’s impossible, even, to know what’s happening in all of the countries they live in.
Admittedly, there are too many social, political and humanitarian issues for us, as individuals, to keep up with and assist in, as our time and resources are limited. There are certain areas of the world that, depending on where you are in relation to them, you can all too easily be unaware of the tumult and goings-on of.
Media we now follow is often brought to us through the medium of carefully selected Facebook posts, or news apps, which filter our subjects by our interest our recent clicks, and how attractive the images are that accompany the articles. A recent survey shows that the UK and US are skeptical countries, with a startling majority (69% in the US and 64% in the UK) of the population believing that the media doesn’t report all sides of a story, and that the vision we’re given is a one-sided, pre-programmed one that doesn’t truly inform us of any situation. The foreign stories that reach national media are limited to ones of great novelty, or great international implications.
Living in Tanzania this year I was close enough to Burundi and Kenya at key times in their civil relations to know that tensions were more or less heightened over the course of several months, and a refugee crisis was brewing in Burundi, and minor but horrific attacks were happening in northeastern Kenya, scarring the surface of Kenyan society and running deep through the country’s veins and religious relations. Conversations with friends in Europe, though, revealed how little was being said about such issues in national media.
Now I find myself in one of the most isolated countries in the world, almost as far away as I could possibly get from my native England, but with enough cultural familiarity to almost feel like home: Australia. I now find myself on the perpetrator side of the spectrum. I’m the one that is realising my ignorance, and my own acts of carelessness in the face of global awareness.
I don’t know anything about the country in which I find myself, so far away is it from England, so far away it seemed in East Africa, and so neglected it is on the international stage. Bush fires abound, political scandals are rife and national pride is an everyday part of life, but I knew nothing of any of this before arriving.
Perspectives are, of course, not based purely on being educated or not, but on where you spend and have spent the majority of your time. Being born and raised in East Africa leads to an Africa-centric vision of the world, with inevitable exposures to British football, U.S. popular culture and Asian manufactured goods, but not necessarily more beyond that.
Growing up in the U.K meant I was entirely British-centric – or even worse, London-centric – and had very little idea what life was like on the other side of the world, let alone the other side of the country. Growing up in the 1990s meant I wasn’t exposed to social media from a particularly young age, and had to sift through broadsheets with pages bigger than my young self in order to find out what major world-changing events were going on outside of my comfortable little world.
A common question when I meet someone new in Tanzania or Kenya is “You live near Chelsea? Or Tottenham? Which football team d’you support?” I have no interest in football, but I know that this is one of the binding forces of our society that can unite people from all ends of the social, economic and geographic spectrum, and so I play along.
I’m lucky enough to be originally from the neighbouring London borough to Arsenal’s home ground, and so can roll this fact off easily to everyone’s great amusement. However, that is sadly where my knowledge of the matter ends, and I have to move on to less universal issues that my new acquaintance may not be so clued-up on: political leaders, British spending habits, national dishes and public transport woes, for example, come top of any British person’s go-to conversational topics.
East Africa may be closer to Australia than Western Europe is, but feels many worlds away from the sparsely populated and sparklingly clean mega-country on the bottom of the globe. It may be just across the ocean from Tanzania’s coast, but it is as far away as any country could possibly be, and you feel it when you are in Australia. From the food, to the culture, and the media interest, Africa might as well be further away than Europe, as the questions I get about the continent that hosts the cradle of civilisation and some of the world’s greatest natural wonders are almost identical to those I get about Africa in the U.K.
I read the news as often as I can, from British sources, American digests, and Australian local media, to try and get a good sense of the wider goings-on that I consider it important to be up-to-date on, but I have to scratch below the surface to get the low-down on the situation in Burundi, and the developments in those countries which are so small they seem insignificant (like Burundi, in relation to Australia) and those countries which are so far away they seem abstracted from reality (like Australia in relation to Burundi). Maybe the solution would be to live in the middle of the ocean, on a raft made of the day’s newspapers from around the world.
Alternatively, making a conscious effort to seek out the small stories, the ones that the media doesn’t want us to see because they’re not glamorous or groundbreaking enough, would also be a way to counter this general ignorance that we’re all guilty of. However, as already established, this is almost impossible; there are too many developments, too many assassination attempts, murders, coups, potential epidemics and suspected rigged elections.
What is a more reasonable, and realistic ambition, would be to be interested, pay attention, and ask the silly questions that we think we shouldn’t ask. When someone says “yeah, you know the political landscape of Mexico, it’s a complicated thing”, you can ask without embarrassment “Actually, I don’t know much about that, could you tell me a bit?” We’re often all too keen to hide the holes in our knowledge, which means they never get filled in (unless we remember to Google them on our way home).
Seeking out the lesser-known stories can make us bigger and better than the media that feeds us. Step away from the front page of the news website, stay tuned for the special reports after the main news headlines on the television, and you may get to see what’s going on in the hidden corners of the globe, even if you don’t get the chance to travel to Burundi or Australia yourself.
There doesn’t yet exist an animal that will grow, excrete or secrete money. We can always hope that this will one day be developed, but modest, well looked-after animals are already capable of providing the raw materials for products of great value, both nutritional and monetary, and yet in Africa we don’t break open the cow-shaped piggy bank that dairy farming and, in particular, cheese production offers us.
Dairy farming is an extremely profitable, and in some ways low-demand, form of agricultural income generation. The skills involved are not as demanding or technical as certain other types of farming, and not as weather-dependent as crop farming.
Milk is a key commodity, and one with a fixed price which is more likely to go up than down, meaning that if you (or rather, the animals) keep on churning out the product, the money will follow. However, milk consumption and production in Africa are much lower than in Europe, the United States or Australia, and the quality is not always as high as in these countries.
The leading African consumer of milk on the continent is Kenya, but even the Kenyans lag behind the WHO (World Health Organisation) recommendation of 200 litres a year per person, with only 120 litres consumed by each Kenyan over a calendar year.
Though some countries seemingly have a surplus of production the quality of such milk is often questionable. Most notably, Rwanda’s milk production (where authorities introduced a ‘one-cow-per-family’ initiative in 2007) has until now not been regulated by the government, and the raw product is often not treated, transported and processed in a safe and controlled manner. Legislation to control this is encouraging greater healthy competition between producers striving for higher standards of dairy farming. However, many other African countries are lagging behind and dairy farming is not commonplace.
The irony is that milk production produces by-products which can also be profitable and useful, either for the dairy farmers themselves or for the people they can sell the products on to. Whey, the yellowish, thick gloopy liquid which is produced when milk ferments, is used to feed animals, or as a protein culture in the cheese-making process. Animal manure can be used as a fertilizer, and fleece or skin can be put to good use if treated in the correct way. The animals can also be used for meat even if that’s not the original intention, and some dairy farmers make nice side-lines in selling their meat.
In Australia, artisan cheese-making is big business. As a writer, I’ve taken on a personal mission to learn about the cheese-making process in Southern Tasmania (Australia) and this has opened my eyes to the large amount of goods that can be produced from a small number of animals, and at reduced cost.
Grass is a natural product that costs nothing, but is a delicious treat for sheep, and they love supping some of the whey extracted from their own milk during the cheese-making process; a coincidentally practical circularity, which serves dairy farmers well. A sheep can give a good 360 litres a year, and a cow 12,500l over the same period. However, cows in Sub-Saharan Africa countries average a meagre 200 litres.
So what are Africans doing differently from Australians? They have just as much sun, have access to the same quality animals on the international animal stock market, and to the same knowledge, in theory; however, accessing this knowledge proves more difficult for African farmers who don’t know about the latest developments in dairy farming, and sometimes don’t know the basics about good feeding and breeding practices, which you can easily find on Google if you know how to use it. This skills drain is being countered by initiatives such as the EADD (East African Dairy Development) project, run by Hiefer International, the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), Technoserve, the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), and African Breeders Services (ABS).
The EADD project explores the use of VFTs (Volunteer Farmer Trainers) who are trained by professionals over a two-day intensive course on essential feeding and management practices, before going on to pass these lessons on to other members of their communities, in their village, or neighbouring villages. This cascade method of training has been proven successful by the farmers taking part, as they saw their total sales volume go up by 102% over the initial three-year period. Given that the return on investment of a dairy farm is significantly quicker to come about than most other forms of farming, this stands any potential dairy farmer in good stead.
A big advantage on the part of the Australian producers is the prolific use of WOOFFers (volunteers working on organic farms for free). This cheap way of having willing helpers has revolutionised the smallholder farming possibilities in the country, allowing farmers to have free workers, who cost just the food they eat and the beds they sleep in.
All WOOFFers are provided with board and accommodation, but can do the equivalent of half the work of a full-time employee, on average. Having a group of four WOOFFers at any one point is therefore equal to having two full-time paid employees, but they cost a fraction of the price, and they’re there to learn about farming, spend some of their free time in a more productive way, or validate a visa. Whatever the motivations, the result is a huge support network for dairy farmers, and all farmers alike in Australia. The practice has not yet reached Africa, much like the milk-drinking and cheese-eating excesses of certain European countries, as well as the States and Australia.
In Australia’s top dairy farms, the average operating profit on a single dairy farm cow (the money earned from a single cow, once all costs have been accounted for) is $AUS832 ($US599) annually. Estimates would give a figure for operating profits in Kenya as $US1740, given the rarity of the product and the possible selling opportunities. However, the initial costs necessary to purchase a cow are prohibitive for too many people, and so investing in a dairy farm’s first cows is only able to be afforded by the lucky few who have $US2000 spare to buy a cow, then increase the stock, and build the necessary sheds and equipment.
In Australia, a staggering amount of the population are migrants who arrived in the country during its boom years of financial opportunity, and made their money setting up the country’s first major businesses and providing the necessary services for the influx of migrants. They have the capital to invest in a venture such as dairy farming, and keep it up.
Moving away from raw milk, we can address the issue of cheese, which isn’t being produced on a large scale in Africa and has yet to become a popular commodity. Cheese is a European invention, one which hasn’t quite reached Africa (or several other areas of the world) in a big way. Australia was colonised by the British, and not only that, but it was populated by them so that the coloniser population far outnumbers the native population, meaning that food habits and culture have been directly imported from Britain and the wider European community.
Cheese demands a lot of work to go from the raw milk, direct from the animal, to the hard, creamy, or oozing final product which anyone with any sense (and without a lactose intolerance) wants on their plate. At the sheep cheese farm I mentioned earlier in Tasmania, Australia, it can take up to 10 months for a cheese to go from the animal to a neatly-packaged block of cheese, and throughout this time the cheese is nurtured, loved, provided with a plethora of treatments and processes, and stored in exactly the right temperature and atmosphere. This doesn’t come cheap, or easy, and given modern-day cheese making standards, it’s not as easy as 1, 2, 3 “cheese” to mount a successful cheesery.
Some small-scale African cheese makers are making their mark on the world, most notably from cow’s and goat’s milk. The DRC is the home of one of Africa’s finest cheeses, made by the Masisi people in the east of the country. However, production remains small due to limited resources and craftsmanship, so the cheese never reaches the tables of cheese-lovers abroad.
South African raw milk cheese (made with unpasteurised milk, and therefore less complicated but potentially more troublesome to make without contaminating the cheese with nasty bacteria) is a world-renowned delicacy, which is paving the way for cheese revolutions elsewhere, as a part of the Slow Food movement, and adapting European techniques to local climes and ingredients.
Perhaps with increasing access to mobile data, international exchanges and community-based learning programs, dairy farming in Africa will tame the cash cow and crack the piggy bank to expose the riches that lie inside. In the meantime, it does no harm to pay more attention to which cheese and dairy products are on offer in different types of supermarkets and shops in Sub-Saharan Africa, and particularly, to note where they are produced. Let’s hope they’ll all say ‘Made in Africa’ some time soon.
An African in London has almost inevitably gone through many processes of migration, evolution, adaptation and adjustment, fighting against this or that tradition, longing for one place or another, and rejecting some or other throwback to the home land. But what happens when three young men – Londoners, artists, patissiers, visionaries, Africans – embrace their African roots in such a way as to turn it into something current, modern, even progressive? You get a London food movement called The Groundnut and you get swathes of intrigued foodies turning up to see what comes on an African plate.
Duval, Folayemi and Jacob traipse in and out of the kitchen, flitting between their cavern of wondrous creations from which warm, comforting smells escape and waft into the dining room. They make interested conversation with the diners who have come to see what The Groundnut is all about, all three of them trying to ascertain what their diners tastes are, what brought them here, and, quite simply, who they are.
After all, these 30 or so diners will soon be sitting down to eat the food which will be served from their kitchen, and borne of their origins and creativity. Sometimes conversation gets cut short as one of the three suddenly looks up and scoots off back to the kitchen to turn something on or off or round or down.
These three young men don’t look like typical chefs, nor do they look like African home-cooks. Their coy smiles, modest nods in response to compliments and genuine pride make them more approachable than anyone that normally inhabits a professional kitchen, and yet they’re developing a reputation as leaders in the rebirth of African cuisine in the UK, with their names even stretching across the Atlantic in a tendril of groundnut-infused marketing and online presence.
They wear bright colours on tailored jeans, afros on sun-deprived faces and have a vaster knowledge of Pan-African food than most Africans who are restricted to the cuisine of their country alone. They’ve travelled, read, eaten their grandmother’s food, and realised that the food of their ancestors has a place reserved for it on the London scene.
Their cookbook stands on the mantelpiece near the doorway, containing many of the secrets of the aromas escaping form the wondrous cavern of culinary creations on the other side of the room, and some break the suspense and open the book, seeing how the trio create their groundnut stew, their fried fish, the plantain crisps they serve before every dinner and the vegetable concoctions which contain more flavours than any vegetable patch could ever aspire to.
This isn’t a restaurant; it’s a dinner, with a group of people, on one special night. However many times these dinners are held, each night has a unique vibe about it, the menu different each night and the people crowded round the tamarind water and blackboard menu never having yet experienced The Groundnut. With my two friends we’re therefore going through this for the first time, and all that we know we’re guaranteed is an array of African dishes served up, in South-East London, over the course of three taste-rich hours.
After serving the tamarind water (sweet and refreshing with not a hint of bitterness) and plantain crisps (natural and airy), and having made everyone feel at ease, our hosts invite us to take a seat and await the dishes that we’ve seen in words but want to feel on our forks. No introduction is necessary, and the food comes out from the kitchen on brightly coloured platters, black slabs and eye-popping utensils.
First we’re treated to a groundnut soup, which we all try to eat with the celery stick standing to attention in the pool of rich-coloured nutty goodness, before using a spoon to ensure no drop is left. We almost forget about the black-eyed bean akara (bite-sized Nigerian bean patties), until, that is, we taste them, and then we know that we’ll never forget them.
When the main dish comes out we realise that we need to gear up to swoop over East and Western Africa, dipping into countries and regions as the dishes guide us there, then zoom out to get a vision of Africa as a whole, as all the dishes come together in a complementary continental ensemble.
Fried mackerel that falls off its bones invitingly, Ethiopian berbere beetroot which taste of sweet, warm, edible earth, fluffy rice to soak all of it up, green coconut relish, glistening strands of raw green vegetables and black beans and smoked fish dip. The aftermath is groaning chairs, satisfied arched backs, belly pats and satisfied smiles from both diners and cooks.
A refreshing plate of green mango and iridescent pomegranate adorns each table, appearing from nowhere, along with groundnut milk to wash down the sweet, sticky, nutty homemade sweets it accompanies, that make our fingers stick together and oblige us to lick fingers and lips unabashedly. We all know that we’ve just eaten something special, and the chefs can now sit back and relax with us, enjoying the evening, and getting personal opinions on the many foods we’ve just eaten for the first time.
None of the ingredients The Groundnut cooks use are foreign or hard to come by; they’re all reasonably familiar, and perhaps often incorporated in our own dishes whether Asian, European or American, but never quite in this way, with colours and flavours mixing like on a modern artist’s palette. But unlike highbrow art, these masterful dishes can be recreated (to some extent), using the cookbook, and with a little help from the memories of the foods we had that night.
‘Prehistoric art of world-class standards, from the stone age and iron age, etched in granite rocks and now a World Heritage Site’. Sounds good, no?” Lawrence nodded his head at me, looking up from his sweet, milky tea to see how keen I was to discover these ancient artistic artefacts, and going along with my enthusiasm whilst biting down into a piece of bread and butter, our new favourite Malawian delicacy in the mountain town of Dedza. To call it a ‘town’ was to stretch the meaning of the word, but there was at least a bus station, and one place to get a decently filling breakfast.
According to the guidebook the best way to get there was by taxi, but having failed to find a single one around the town we went in search of the ubiquitous bicycle taxis which were dotted around the central stretch, by the bus stop, with their drivers leaning on their handlebars and chatting away in Chichewa. When we approached they assumed Lawrence spoke the same language as them and answered in Chichewa, only to be shot down when he carried on in English:
“Sorry, I’m Kenyan, I don’t speak Chichewa. Can you take us to Chongoni?” The small gaggle of men, each with their bikes, haggled for our business, but no one would go below a certain fee, which we assumed was really the minimum, so we chose two men who seemed particularly good at vying for business, and settled on a price a little higher than we’d managed to get it down to.
As we went off to buy bananas, bread and other snacks for the road, we left the two men to decide on the best route, and to prepare their bikes for the journey ahead, or so we thought. We climbed onto the small, lightly cushioned platform behind each saddle and perched our feet on the little spokes on the wheel built for the purpose, added onto the cheap Chinese bicycle frames which were never beyond repair.
The beginning of the journey was a flat, open stretch of road, the one leading northwards up the elongated lakeside country, We trundled along at a reasonable pace, Lawrence in front with the younger of the two bicycle taxi drivers, and me behind with the slightly older, leaner one, wearing rubber boots in the sweltering heat, for a reason I hadn’t yet ascertained.
It was about four minutes before the terrain became too hilly and rough to stay on the bikes, so we all got off and walked. At this early stage in the journey there were a few children walking along with goats, women with children on their backs looking at us from the corners of their eyes, wondering what we were planning on doing down this narrow dirt road leading to small community after even smaller community, framed by the rocky promontories and grassy expanses of central Malawi.
Lawrence and I discussed, as we normally did, the ups and downs of life, the future, funny stories from our respective childhoods and shared any knowledge we each had about nature, history and politics. The bicycle drivers, whose names we never found out, were becoming more and more sweaty and silent, despite no longer being able to ride their bikes, and instead pushing them in front of them, avoiding punctures and potential falls.
Lawrence and I looked at each other and I pointed to the bikes with my eyes and curled the side of my mouth up a little bit, and he assented, knowing it was futile to resist my idea.
“How about we take the bikes for a bit, and give you two a break?” I offered, raising the pitch of my voice to a slightly pathetic girly whine. Though at first a little reticent to let go of their livelihoods for even a short ride, they gave in, realising how welcome the break would be, to walk unburdened and standing up straight even just for a few metres.
We took our respective bikes and pedalled along for a bit, the earth sliding away beneath us in a refreshing change from the jolting, uneven steps we’d been taking for the past 3 kilometres.
Once the ground began to rise in front of us my feet pressed more intently down on the pedals to press forward up the hill, and I felt a sharp cutting on the soles of my feet, as if the force of my weight were fighting against me in pointed retaliation. Looking back at the original driver, I realised now why he was wearing thick-soled, knee-high boots. The pedals were just thin metal bars, and after only a few metres my feet were in agony, the thin soles of my flip-flops offering no protection.
We returned the vehicles to their owners and continued on our way.
“How much further to the rock art?” Lawrence dared to ask, knowing that the answer probably wouldn’t be to our liking. It was already midday, and the day was evaporating fast, the sun reaching its highest point and stubbornly making it obvious that it wouldn’t stick around all day.
“To the turn in the road, maybe 5km. Then we’re not sure how to get to Chongoni. We’ll ask”. At this point we had seen no one on the road for the past kilometre or so, and we weren’t likely to see many. Asking for directions from a local would be like trying to talk to a deceased relative one last time to check they didn’t blame you for that terrible argument just before their passing; impossible, unless you believed in miracles.
We resigned ourselves to a difficult journey, and were relieved when a flat expanse of road unfurled in front of us, and our drivers signalled to us to board the bikes again. It didn’t last as long as we’d hoped, but our drivers decided to hazard a go at the downhill stretch which then in front of us, with the brakes lightly pressed to control speed. Lawrence’s extra 20cm of height compared to me, and his physical bulk meant the bike he was being pulled by careered in front of us, unable to make such efficient use of the brakes faced with the substantial weight of a tall, healthy man perched on its back wheel. The taxi driver was unable to control the movement as he almost caught his wheel in ours, overtaking us at an awkward angle, veering to the side whilst gaining speed, and crashing into the dusty slope of the road in an inevitable tangle of man, machine and twisted metal.
No one was hurt, thankfully, except for the bike, which anthropomorphised in front of our eyes into a wounded soldier, having lost the battle, and unable to keep charging forward and with very little hope of ever returning to the fight.
There was little option for us but to accept that driver number one had to return to Dedza town and see to his bike. We were then left to coordinate the logistics of getting three people back and forth from the Chongoni World Heritage site with one bike, and with dark storm clouds looming overhead. We agreed to organise ourselves like a courier service, delivering each one of us in turn to our destination (which we still weren’t sure the remaining driver had any geographical awareness of).
I was dropped, alone, by a fork in the road which we guessed was walking distance to the art we were trying to get to. I carried on walking, slowly, until the rain started. And when it started, it gained such force that I thought the hills would turn into puddles and the rock art would be wiped out forever, making our journey a wasted one, a prospect which I couldn’t bear to fathom.
I stood cowering under a rickety wooden structure where two small children and their 20 or so goats also realised they could avoid the worst of the deluge. Almost an hour later, two cowering men, all their machismo and pride stripped away by the pelting rain, trudged up to the shelter, the one in front holding my camera under his arm, wrapped in his t shirt, and the other bent forward, pushing a bike through the red mud.
We were stuck in an unknown location, with no road signs or map, no one who could speak any English, and a steadily growing group of small children who were staring at us from every corner of the wooden structure.
It was as good a time as any to polish off our banana sandwiches and jar of peanut butter, which ended up being split 10 ways, between the bicycle man, the two of us and the children who snatched it from our hands as we held it out, and then fought violently over each crumb. Soon, we were on our own again, the crowd dispelled and the bicycle driver insisting that we would find a different way back.
It was time to find the art we’d come in search of, and connect to the living memory of the agricultural communities of ancient Malawi. After a lengthy walk in a random direction we found a single, rusty, barely decipherable sign, confirming that we were indeed in the middle of a UNESCO World heritage site.
However, no matter how intently we searched and how many rocks we pored over, our hair still dripping rainwater onto the ground, Lawrence’s jeans still weighing more than the legs they surrounded, we saw nothing but natural formations. No art, no scribbles, not even a modern ‘Chris woz ‘ere’ for us to set eyes on.
This World Heritage site, with no budget to welcome visitors in style or signpost the site which was sold in the guidebook as a fascinating place of discovery, had stumbled upon the best way to protect its artefacts: make them undiscoverable, so that no one can attempt to corrupt or damage them.
As Lawrence and I rode back to Dedza on the back of a potato truck, clinging to mounds of rough, filed sacks as the bumpy road and bends tried to fling us off, we’d rarely been happier after a day spent exploring. We’d seen nothing of the history we’d set out to discover but we’d made our own little personal (hi)story in the hills of Malawi, and we lay back on our potato beds and enjoyed the ride.
Fancy trying to visit Chongoni yourself?
The Chongoni rock art UNESCO World Heritage site is within driving distance of Dedza, in Malawi, a few miles from the border with Mozambique. The best way to get around is by private car, as the site is around 12km from the edge of the town. You can rent vehicles from Lilongwe, or use your own if you’re on a road trip.
There are plenty of guesthouses in Dedza, with no need to book, and one or two eateries. The pottery centre is also well worth a visit, to see how they cook and glaze items which they sell on site and supply to national distributors. You can browse the pottery items afterwards or make the most of the manicured gardens and restaurant.
I pat my hair dry and comb it into what I consider to be the most respectable form that I’m ever going to achieve with my unruly hair. However it looks, at least it smells good – of patchouli and citrus fruit – and my shower gel, infused with vanilla, offsets it nicely. I’m clean, and I feel ready to start the day. I’ve even had hot water this morning, so I’m feeling particularly cocooned in a sheath of cleanliness and comforting warmth.
I buckle my sandals and put my bag on my back, waving goodbye to Priscilla, my host’s house girl, and set off for the day of meetings that lay ahead of me, down in the centre of Mwanza town. To begin with my feet float above the dust of the road and I feel sprightly and positive, almost invincible.
Sometimes those first few steps you make out of your front door are the most full of conviction and promise, and today was certainly one of those days. Precious and Mary, who I estimate can’t be older than about 8, wave to me from the other side of the road, heading up the hill towards school, as I head down towards town.
“Good morning, how are you?” They ask, as always, never awaiting a reply, but always just as proud to have asked me the question in their best English, and receive a friendly wave in return. They’re soon out of earshot, their little legs used to the climb and their morning chai giving them the force they need to conquer the hill in youthful speed towards another day of Tanzanian primary school education.
I hold my head up towards the sun, letting my hair fall down my back, and the shadows of the trees lining the road project their natural forms onto my face, making the sun create momentary works of art across my cheeks. The air smells of ‘mandazi’, and I can see the round doughnuts frying in the old lady’s pan further down the street, for young men’s mid-morning snack (for they start work at the crack of dawn, and when my day is just getting started they’re already in need of a break).
Then as I turn in front of the school, the one at the bottom of the hill which is much better appointed than its higher-up competitors where Mary and Precious attend classes, I suddenly find myself retching. I can barely breathe and I feel my eyes, ears and mouth all clog up with a prickling and burning sensation that I can only describe as horrid.
Nobody around me reacts in the same way; all those who are walking down the same street as I am are oblivious to the internal horror I’m facing and I can’t understand why. And then I realise that I’m clearly not as used to it as they are, to the burning rubbish by the side of the road, which the very children who had generated the rubbish are cremating before classes start.
This is not a one-off. I have often come back to the house I am staying in to find a steaming pile of household waste behind the building, being burned by some do-gooder from the household who carries out what they deem to be their household duty of getting rid of the rubbish. But plastic wrappers and banana skins are not intended to be burned, their components don’t go onto the shelf of the shop or the plate of the diner with the dream of one day releasing all of their contents into the air in a toxic cocktail of fumes and harmful molecules.
The gases that are released don’t just stop at clogging my airways every time I walk past the local primary school. They stick to the lungs of the children who burn them. These same fumes will float around the land in which they’ve been brought into existence, having small but significant effects on the climate, the air quality and the health of the humans which inhabit that same land. Dioxins released by certain plastics are some of the most toxic fumes we could possibly wish to create, and we readily do it in our gardens, schools and roads, so that they can be absorbed through the lungs and the skin of those we know and love.
The reasons for this burning are strong and rational: if waste is not collected then it must be gotten rid of, and it is certainly more practical than letting it build up on the streets or in piles behind the house, attracting animals and scavengers.
However, in the many years that we’ve been burning rubbish to dispose of the evidence of our consumerist existence, we’ve learned some important lessons about our impact on the environment, and we need to bring these two schools of thought together into a more harmonious existence, and one each even brings some benefits.
Communities can take their rubbish into their own hands (not literally, as that may be a little smelly and pointless) and create neighbourhood landfills. Local NGOs can support in these projects and advise on the best place to do this, as national regulations for landfills in Tanzania are not as developed as we might wish.
Organic waste can be put to good use to fertilise crops or gardens, and it only takes a small wooden structure to keep the scavengers out. In South Africa, landfills are becoming so commonplace that the country is becoming a pioneer in the field across the continent. In Tanzania we still rely on burning, or carefree waste disposal in rural areas, with no system for the management of the associated gases or rehabilitation of the land following the dumping of such waste.
Tanzanians will have produced almost 47 million tonnes of waste this year, and much of this could be put to better use. In India biogas plants have been created which turn the gasses from everyday waste into useable energy for businesses and households. Plans to do this in Tanzania are moving along slowly but surely, but here’s hoping we’ll soon be feeding energy from our rubbish bins into the national grid.
Not only will this provide more reliable electricity but it will also cut down on the costs associated with powering electronic appliances, and no one can be against fewer power cuts and cheaper electricity. In a district of Chamwino, a town near Morogoro, the residents and authorities decided to implement an official composting facility so that cost-effective fertiliser could be acquired from organic household waste. This was a result of pressure from inhabitants and collaboration between people and power; this can be done elsewhere, Chamwino is not an exception, but an example.
The industrialisation of the African continent, and the globalisation brought about as a result of increased imports, man-made products and foreign-produced goods, means that we each have even more of a responsibility to ensure that the way we act on an individual level doesn’t increase this noxious presence.
When the power goes out I use glass bottles and jars to hold my candles. When I need a container for my water or fruit juices, I use the emptied and cleaned bottles I have in the cupboard. When I wrap leftovers up it’s always in ripped-open food wrappers and branded containers. My waste bin is small and my impact is limited, and I’m not doing anywhere near enough yet. There’s always more to be done, and there’s always cleaner air to be had, if we want it.
The bright green squeak and crack as the leaf is pulled from its staunch stalk never leaves me indifferent, especially when it’s being done in the name of a meal which I’m about to enjoy. The house was surrounded by them, so we never cooked too little. In fact, we always ended up with enough sukuma to feed the both of us for 2 days, or us and our friends and neighbours for one satisfying meal.
Maybe it’s not the leaf itself, but the mix of it with onions, tomatoes and ample seasoning which we added to it during the preparation. The leaf is the sturdy vehicle for other, familiar tastes which almost everyone, be they Kenyan Tanzanian, European, or nomadic, know and love. Whichever way I looked at it, I would have been happy eating it every day.
My Kenyan friends couldn’t understand me. Though they tolerated it as an accompaniment every now and again when it really was the inevitable choice of greens to accompany a roast chicken or beef stew, they would never choose it given other possibilities.
They had grown up in Nairobi suburbs being forced to eat sukuma wiki all week, and so it could rightly have just been called ‘all wiki’. They couldn’t even bring themselves to laugh about it, as it conjured up memories of harder times when there weren’t any other options of foodstuffs. It was either sukuma, or nothing.
The next day I wanted fish with my sukuma. Despite living by lake Victoria, it was surprisingly difficult to get fresh, whole fish cooked on demand. The last time I had gone to the fish market to pick myself up a portion of the day’s catch I realized that it was the fishermen’s day off, so I ate my sukuma alone.
That day, I went to one of my favourite hangouts, a pub-cum-restaurant, where the fish and the pork were both succulent, fresh, tasty and cheap, and the music was cheesy and consistent. When my tilapia came, with a side of sukuma and a satellite dish-sized plate of chips, I loosened my belt and prepared for the gastronomic onslaught. I was elevated a little closer to heaven with each bite of tender fish and salty sukuma.
My return to Europe just one week later brought me back down with a thud. At the supermarket I scoured the aisles looking for sukuma and asking the shop assistants if they could help me, only to be laughed at, and at one point even told by a Kenyan shop assistant “You can’t find that here my dear, here we have all of the good veg, no sukuma!”
At the fish counter the tilapia they had was dissected into bland, limp fillets which were barely recognizable, and they didn’t carry the traces of a lifetime spent in Lake Victoria, they barely remembered their brief cultivation in artificial fish farms.
Although it is a delicate-fleshed fish with a mild taste that lends itself well to most fish-based dishes, the tilapia fish is often rejected by the European market and is therefore not always the easiest to come by. It has one of the lowest import duty fees of all fish in the UK, and is also being increasingly produced in the south of the country, using artificial heat, or underground heated pools to grow them. Tilapia can grow to full size in just six months, allowing professionals to cash in in a flash.
But what do the East Africans of Europe do to satisfy the same cravings that I have? All too often they have to find alternatives. As with any migration, it leads to compromises and denial of certain key aspects of your roots. Chapatis you can cook at home, pineapples you can find in the supermarket (though they’re far blander and dryer than the home-grown varieties), but there’s no iconic ginger ale and sadly very little goat to be found, other than wandering the countryside.
Adjusting to a new country’s culinary customs is one of the hardest aspects of leaving your homeland and saying goodbye to the things you hold dear. Of course, financial struggles, discrimination, saying goodbye to loved ones and day-to-day difficulties outweigh this in importance, but not having your traditional foodstuffs can be one of the most all-invading and personal struggles, and one which brings together diaspora communities with the greatest fervor.
European and American expats in Africa often bulk-buy their favourite jams and cheeses on trips back home to last them the few months between trips, or make arrangements with luxury goods suppliers in nearby cities, but this isn’t always so easy to achieve when sitting on the other side of the migratory super highway.
Africans in Europe struggle to acquire home comforts in large quantities and there is a much smaller, less flourishing market for such trade. In London you can find ugali flour in certain specialist shops, but if you live in the north of the country you might have to make do with potatoes.
The system is one step short of asking for visas for food items, what with the amount of hurdles you have to jump through to bring edible goods in and out of certain countries.
As far as I know there’s only one true East African restaurant in the capital of the United Kingdom, which is a frightful statistic when considered in light of the fact that more than 200,000 Kenyans alone live in England (with the highest concentration being in the capital).
East Africa holds the secrets of an internationally unexploited cuisine, which remains a mystery to many. Tourists arrive in Kenya or Tanzania and almost without fail ask “So what’s the food like here?”
And often, though thankfully not in every case, “Do you eat, like, elephants and stuff?”
Certain chefs and independent restaurants are introducing East African ingredients or features to their menus, but there are very few examples of the area’s cooking traditions being pushed to the fore, and so the lack of native ingredients will continue until somebody says ‘enough is enough! Bring me some Lake Victoria tilapia and a bunch of sukuma wiki before I starve!’
It was one of my favourite late afternoon pleasures of a lazy weekend, and it was a rare moment of solitude and observational possibilities that I treasured. Though I was too fussy to put my feet in the water, I would more often than not purchase an ice cream from the man with the pedal cart.
I found out on my third trip that he was called Joseph and during the week he carried heavy loads for a national building material supplier. Sat on his bicycle ice cream vending cart he looked cool and collected and he usually enjoyed the sunset, like me, and all the other carefree weekend wanderers.
The sun was starting to dip at a steady, reassuring speed, and the skies were clear, announcing a perfect, complete sunset to melt even the sternest of nature skeptics’ hearts. Couples around me embraced, or licked each other’s ice creams in gestures of trust and love, a ritual of the courting process which they were in the middle of, so publicly.
I smiled at a young lady whose gentleman friend had laid down his jacket for her, even though the grass was clean and dry. She smiled back, aware of how soppy and romantic it seemed, but also of how perfect it felt. I turned back to face the sun, enjoying the experience of being able to stare at it square in the eyes without squinting or turning away in searing pain, as would happen during the day.
As much as I wanted to focus on mother nature’s bedtime unfolding in front of me, I couldn’t help but be distracted by the black-grey hulks of rocks beside me. I grew up partly in the mountains and so I’m more accustomed to stones and slopes than water and reflections, but these were something else, something other-worldly which I’d never come across anywhere else. I stared at them every time I walked past them and tried to crack the mystery of them without success.
“Do you want to know the story, lady?”
Slapped out of my daydreaming daze by the small child’s words, I didn’t immediately smile and respond positively. It took me a couple of seconds to realize that the young boy who’d come and sat himself beside me was gazing up at me expectantly and was clearly eager to tell me his story. I slowly gave him the smile he so wanted, and nodded, only saying “Yes please, tell me the story” after I’d acquiesced and he’d taken a deep breath to start his tale.
“But what’s your name?”
“I’ll tell you afterwards, lady, first the story”.
He knew he was being cheeky and tilted his head a little to show me he was aware of it but that he was going to carry on anyway.
“Before my parents were born, and before their parents, and their parents’ parents were born, there was a very strong, very brave but very crazy Sukuma man”.
The tribe inhabiting the areas in and around Mwanza is called the Sukuma, one of Tanzania’s largest tribes, and from my subtle nod he knew that I was following, despite clearly not hailing from Sukuma lands myself.
“He longed for a wife but because he was so crazy no woman would marry him. He was the best farmer in the land because he was so strong, but he was so, so unhappy that he went even more crazy. Then one day there was a dance for all the Sukuma. The women danced, the man danced, everybody was happy and making moves like Elvis.”
At this the young boy laughed at his own cultural reference, which he was sure I’d appreciate, and I did indeed laugh with him, as it seemed so incongruous for a 12 or 13 year old Tanzanian boy to be talking about his ancestor dancing like The King.
“Nobody wanted to dance with the man, so he went up on the rock and went dancing with one of the big blocks that he detached from the pile, swaying, rocking, like in a music video. He was swinging all around like a mad man, pretending this rock was a lady. He looked happier than all the other men, as in this crazy man’s head the rock was the most beautiful woman. He become so…”
At this point, my storyteller paused in his narration for a moment and waved his arms about manically, thrusting his legs into the air in exuberant and frantic kicks, so that he didn’t even need to use a word to describe how the man became.
“Mad! He became madder than anything, and he let go of his rock and fell off into the water. The water was far below, so all of the Sukuma heard him fall and cheered. The crazy man would no longer be unhappy because he had no wife. He was with the fish and the nature. And the rock, well the rock stayed exactly how he left it, standing up still.”
He pointed to the rock I had been distracted by when trying to catch every last ray of sun, and it did indeed look like a lady caught mid-dance, frozen in time forever and abandoned by her unstable one-night stand.
“Did you like the story? And it’s true, I promise.”
Still looking at the rock I nodded, satisfied with the magic and myth of the story, and I told him gently, “It’s a great story, do all children in Mwanza know it? Did your grandparents or your parents tell it to you?”
“Oh, I just made it up. I can do another one if you want. But first, buy me an ice cream?”
To this day I’ve never found a satisfying explanation of how these unfathomable rock formations sprang up around the lake, and I’d quite like to believe that the only reasonable explanations are the ones that come from my young yarn-spinning friend, who I later found out went by the name ‘Mwongo,’ Swahili for liar.
Visiting Mwanza and its famous rocks
Mwanza's Bismarck Rock, as pictured, is located on the edges of Lake Victoria, on the outskirts of Mwanza, a short walk from downtown. Just head for the Kamanga ferry, and you'll see the rocks to your left, with the dancing lady of our story clearly visible from afar. This rock has been used in local advertising campaigns, and is a well-recognised symbol of the city. You can lounge on the grass, by Yun Long Chinese restaurant and take in the rock, the lake and the sunset any day of the week, and enjoy an ice cream on weekends.
Mwanza is a great city to discover, and is in the North-West of Tanzania, a 12 hour bus journey from Nairobi, or 16 hours from Dar Es Salaam. You can also fly to Mwanza with several national and international companies. It can serve as a base to visit Serengeti National Park, head on to Rwanda, or simply discover the lakes region of this most fascinating country.
I stumbled over a bag of shopping I’d forgotten to unpack that morning, and cursed my own laziness, whilst stretching out both hands in front of me, crouched down so as to avoid chairs and other bits of furniture I might have forgotten about. Inching my way forward I finally made it to the bed, slid under the net, tucking it in as best I could on all corners but feeling the uneven stretched fabric becoming dislodged at the opposite corner every time I pulled in any given direction. I’d clearly done it wrong, but I couldn’t see for the life of me how. But I knew why.
Living in the darkness is like that every day before the sun comes up, and every night when the life-giving ball of fire decides to call it a night. I was only doing this blackout role-play because my light switch was on the other side of the bedroom and because I was too lazy to go and buy a bedside lamp (it’s such a tedious task, buying useful home appliances).
But the people I interacted with on a day-to-day basis didn’t have this choice. They would have loved to have the choice of whether or not to go and pick a lamp for a few thousand shilling (the equivalent to a few dollars), or of just leaving the lights on at night out of pure laziness, as I have been known to do.
For the millions of people who lack access to safe, reliable energy across the continent, there are billions more who are unaware of their struggle. And as I almost fell over my own momentary blindness in the darkness of the night in my comfortable, electrified bedroom, I knew that I was one of the lucky ones, because I was aware of how fortunate I was.
When I started working for a solar energy company I knew very little, but I was aware that it was a necessary good which could have a far-reaching impact on the people we would work with and the wider international community. This never hit me harder than the first day on the job.
When we arrived at Paul’s village in Sengerema District, he first guided us through the centre of the community, past the mobile money shop, the grocery shop and the bike repair shack, and then we were out of the village already.
It wasn’t a long journey, but the route to his home wasn’t finished there. We veered to the right, and the dirt track turned into a dust trace, barely visible amongst the overgrown grass crowding in on either side. We filed along, one behind the other, like electric particles through a narrow cable to power one feeble yellow light. The sun was almost thinking of setting, so we had to hurry to be able to finish the job before absolute darkness fell.
Paul was up at the front, guiding the way, plodding along with pride at being able to take us to the house that he’d built for his family with his brother and his brother-in-law just 6 years ago. George was behind him, carrying the solar panels and equipment, piled high on his backpack and loading down his arms. I was in charge of the paperwork and tools, a lighter load, but I was scared of losing something important, so I clutched my backpack to me like a newborn.
A good 10 minutes later we arrived at a small homestead, where children stopped playing and stood in dumbfounded silence at seeing the unusual party approach their homes. Goats bleated at us and then turned away, disinterested in us as we didn’t carry anything edible or which even resembled greenery.
“Are we here?” exclaimed George expectantly, as he started to loosen the straps from his shoulders in order to swing it down from his aching back.
“Nearly, very nearly”, he was calmly reassured by a stoic Paul, who didn’t stop walking, and so it was difficult to read his face.
We carried on like this for a further 15 minutes. The closest electrical cables connecting to the grid (which actually passed over the village but were only connected to one house, owned by a local politician who had built a home here when vying for power) were so far behind us that I couldn’t even remember what they looked like.
My mind and vision were filled with yellow grass, rolling, flat-topped hills and the repeated movement of one foot in front of the other which it felt like I’d been doing since birth, though it had only really been 25 minutes.
And then I saw it. A perfectly-proportioned, ever so slightly wobbly mud hut with a corrugated iron roof and an outhouse with pots and pons, where Paul’s wife was sitting and scrubbing dishes clean, no doubt from that day’s ugali feast.
“We are here”, announced Paul, and almost pushed us into the house, eager to power up his new solar investment.
His 2 children sat on the ground by the entrance, and scuttled to the side to let us through, dirtying their clothes even more, and no doubt part of the reason why Paul’s wife dragged them off to throw buckets of water over their hot, dusty bodies once we were safely inside.
It took my eyes some time to get accustomed to the lack of light. I tried to open my eyes as wide as possible to be able to inspect the surroundings, but after a couple of minutes, I realized that it didn’t get any better.
One meager ray of dusky light broke its way in through the crack in the top layer of mud, and the doorway afforded some secondhand daylight, thankfully, so we could just about make out where Paul intended us to set up his lights.
Once we got down to work, it took us only about 45 minutes to power up Paul’s house. It would have been quicker but we had to keep flitting between outside and inside to be able to see which cables we were attaching to the other for fear of making disastrous mistakes in our inevitable blindness.
Paul called the family in to see the big switch-on. His wife, Rachael, came in first, followed by the 2 small children, Paul’s brother, his 3 children, a neighbor (who in reality lived a 10-minute walk away), his sister-in-law from his other brother and some children who could have belonged to anyone.
They huddled together in the small room, pressing against the dusty walls and chattering away in Sukuma, the language of the lakes region of Tanzania, at a speed and volume that made it impossible for me to even make out the tone of their conversations, and then they held their breath as I pointed at the lightbulbs we’d just fitted to the ceiling, and then pointed my forefinger and middle finger at my eyes, then their eyes, then back to mine, indicating that they should watch closely. I pressed “on”. The children covered their eyes, astounded by the brightness, and Paul smiled at Rachael, as she nodded back at him.
2 months later we came back to Paul’s house. I would never have been able to find the way back, but George had a keen sense of direction, and was able to guide us. It was, essentially, a straight walk, but I’d been so distracted by my thoughts on how to give these directions to others, that I hadn’t even properly noticed them the first time.
Rachael greeted us, and brought us chairs. They hadn’t had these plastic chairs last time we had come. She explained that they had been making extra money since having the panels and lights, and had been charging the phones of members of the community in their homes, bringing enough money to buy the chairs. One of the children was outside, taunting a goat walking in circles round its peg. Where was the other?
It was a similar time of day to our previous visit, and the day’s last ounces of sunlight were being used up in a celebratory exhalation of vibrant yellow.
We walked inside, and instead of being plunged into darkness, as I’d expected, we hardly noticed a difference between the brightness outside and that which we found inside. There, in the corner of the room, by the lights, was the other child, sitting below the lights counting on her fingers and scribbling down answers to maths problems.
She smiled coyly at us and got on with her homework. Paul explained how her grades had improved since we’d paid a visit and delivered their new appliances. He gently tapped her head as we walked back outside, and then with that same proud, fatherly hand, he took my hand, held it between his 2 palms and nodded his head gratefully, though I had done nothing.
I was mesmerised by his parenting, the way he provided for his family and respected the members of his community in a way which made me ashamed for all the times I’d dismissed other people without a second thought.
As I got into bed that night after nearly tripping over a shopping bag, I looked as far into the darkness as I could, and saw just how much difference a little bit of light can make in a person’s life.
“I can’t hear you!!” I shouted desperately into my mobile phone, “Lawrence? Can you hear me?”
Though we’d been through the same rigmarole at least half a dozen times, I was still perturbed when Lawrence called me from a matatu. I always expected, when I received a phone call from my partner in crime, my loved one, the man who made me feel like I was the only woman in the world, that it would be to have a conversation.
But every time I received a call that consisted of a racket of noise and an impossibility to hear any human sounds or words, I knew that he was sharing his matatu party with me.
Every time, once I realized what the reason for the call was, I settled down, wherever I was when I picked up the phone, and rode away on a sonic dream into a Nairobi matatu to enjoy the deafening noise and existential numbness which Lawrence knew I loved.
But I hadn’t always loved them. The first time I took one I was ill, with feverish sweats, a painful throat and a nose unable to perform any of its normal functions. I was able to lie down on the back seats, a rarity on public transport, and attempt to let the pounding music soothe my throbbing temples, giving a disturbing counter-rhythm to the beat in my head.
It didn’t make me feel better, but it plunged me into surreal dreams, and meant that the bus didn’t just take me from one side of the city to the other, but to a world of turquoise waters, on a far-away planet where the sky was pink and winged horses flew down from the heavens and licked poorly young women’s faces. Fortunately, I didn’t awake to any animal or other living creature licking at my face, instead I was carried to my sick bed and left to rest for 24 hours being fed fresh fruit and plain broth.
A matatu is most likely the last place anybody should be when not feeling at their best, for there are few other places where you find yourself in such close proximity to other human beings, exposed to colds, flus and irrational behavior from all over Kenya and even further afield, cramped into tight spaces,sometimes with no room to breathe or stretch your legs.
I generally manage to slot mine into the cavity in front of me, though my knees go numb being pinned up against the seat facing me. Lawrence, however, tall and broad as he is, generally has to call upon all of his flexibility and endurance to get through a journey.
The longest journey we ever did in a matatu was 6 hours, and was more eventful than an evening out on the tiles. I managed to get 2 naps in, we had hawkers and preachers, a near fist-fight and a stunning sunset, all of that from Ngong to the centre of town. The music was barely audible in that matatu, which I remember noticing and noting how unusual it was.
Generally speaking, where there is music in a public bus in Nairobi, there is a deafening level of decibels. This lack of “thumpety-thump” left airspace for the God-fearers and the bible sellers who squeezed their way up and down the central aisle, and paused at strategic spots to address the commuter crowd, much to everyone’s amusement and frustration.
One traveller even replied that no one had any money today and that they should come back tomorrow, when they might have more luck. Everybody offered a weary smile and communal chuckle, and the matatu was a unit, a familial zone for honesty and solidarity, for one short moment.
I keep referring to ‘we’ because I rarely ventured out into the streets of Nairobi to complete a journey on my own. Lawrence had grown up in the capital and could navigate the streets and chaotic transport system with his eyes closed and walking backwards, whilst I on the other hand needed my hand held through the whole process, or I would undoubtedly end up in the wrong area, or even the wrong city.
I would often insist on having my hand held during the journey, both out of safety and reassurance, and because I had a specific emotional attachment to these unique vehicles, and wanted to feel that I was sharing the experience with Lawrence, and that we were there, together; joined.
Recently there has been a spate of projects to map the myriad routes and tangents of the system, including a pioneering technological project run by the University of Nairobi, MIT and the Rockefeller Foundation, called ‘digital matatu’.
This innovative system has enabled a map to be drawn up detailing all the routes taken by buses in the city, and also highlight the gaps and failings of the system, meaning pressure is being put on authorities to improve the services provided for Nairobians and visitors.
What these maps can’t show you, are the tunes played during your journey. Or the posters which adorn the ceiling, the window frames and the sides of the vehicles, enticing passengers to choose that matatu above all others.
A highlight during my time in Nairobi was an instant shout-out system, with a scrolling light display showing messages sent via SMS by individual passengers, addressing one or all of their fellow commuters.
One young man was brave enough to call for the attention of “the byootiful lady with the wavy hair and blue top in the second row” who “caught my i and my heart and I truly wanna hold your hand forever”. I don’t know what became of it, for she didn’t reply to the message being flashed up for all to see, but I sincerely hope it led to a happy ever after.
These aspects of matatu journeys can’t be summed up in a map or an article. They can be shared anecdotally, photographed, filmed or recounted, but all merely serve as an invitation to experience it, and savour it for yourself.
If you take a matatu every day, it may be easy to become tired of these garish excesses and the loudness, but it’s important to stop, listen to the music, drown everything out, and maybe even make a phone call, to remind someone far away of what they’re missing out on.