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.