M is for Mzungu! – Tanzania, Zanzibar and Kenya

NairobiNairobi, Kenya

The day I arrived at the border town of Nakonde, Zambia I was confused. It was 4am and pitch black outside. I looked out of the bus window and wiped the morning dew from my eyes. All I could see in the darkness was hordes of men standing around the bus waiting for passengers to exit, so they could assault them with questions and make a few dollars providing assistance. I took a chance and went outside to brush my teeth and use the toilet.

Once I stepped off the bus three men pushed toward me saying they will take me to the border. I refused their offer, but they became persistent and reached for my backpack. Again, I refused. I could see they were becoming visibly agitated, so I walked back to the bus and returned to my seat. One of the three came on board and kept asking me where I was going. I leaned back and closed my eyes, ignoring his persistence. I thought I should wait for the sun to rise before I made my way to the border.

Moments later, two Zambian women on the bus spoke up and told him to leave me alone. I felt saved from his pestering. The older woman told me he only wants me to go with him because he wants to rob me. I could sense this, but having these ladies stick up for me was a relief. Daylight was breaking as I left the bus station with the two women. They told me to ignore all the men shouting “mzungu! [white man]” as we escaped down the street toward the border. I obliged and walked forward not making any eye contact whatsoever.

The two ladies walked on both sides of me, protecting me from one particular man who followed us the entire way. I reached the border and they passed me along to a bus driver heading to Dar es Salaam, which is where I was planning to go. I was forced to the front of the long queue waiting for entrance stamps into Tanzania. I was told I had to hurry or the bus would leave. I got my entrance stamp and was pushed into the bus. I headed straight for the back with all my gear. Many others followed and next thing I knew I was crammed in the aisle with dozens of people in front of me, blocking the exit.

A sense of claustrophobia washed over me and I panicked. I couldn’t move. My backpack was weighing me down and someone demanded I take it off. But I hadn’t yet payed for the ticket. At this exact moment, the bus started moving. I didn’t know what to do. I pushed toward the front of the bus, and people pushed back. I was asked for money and refused, saying I wanted off. I made my way to the front after a fierce argument with the guy who forced me on to the bus and when he realized I wasn’t going to pay, I was kicked off!

I knew Mbeya, Tanzania wasn’t too far away, so I crossed the highway and caught the next mini-bus (called ‘dolla-dollas’ in TZ) into town. At Mbeya, the New Millenium Inn was located directly in front of the bus station, so it became my oasis from the chaos. Quite the welcome to Tanzania. The country which, in a few weeks time, would become my home for the next little while.

DarA 14-hour day-time bus from Mbeya into Dar brought me to the third-fastest growing city in Africa, and after a few hours there I was enchanted. I wrote a Facebook status update saying: “This city is starting to grow on me. It’s like a mini-Cairo with some Delhi thrown into the mix.” This is an accurate portrayal of the mix of this city; African, Indian, Arab. It’s quite the sight, and uniquely Tanzanian.

I used Dar as a jumping off point for visiting Zanzibar. Don’t get me wrong, Dar has a lot to offer, good Indian food and a great nightlife, but there’s a certain charm to Zanzibar that draws tourists from around the world. Stone town, Zanzibar is really something else. I caught the ferry over to spend a weekend on the “Spice Island” as Zanzibar is known internationally. I fell in love with the Arabic ambiance of Stone town once I stepped off the boat.

Walking through its winding, medina-like streets, brought me back to my time traveling through the Middle East. At times confusing, Stone town is so small that you can always find your way back to point A. The hostel I stayed at is called Manch Lodge, and it was a relief after spending time in Dar at Safari Inn, which is what you’d expect a “roach motel” to look like. Literally, cockroaches climbing up the wall around the bed. I actually had to sleep with the lights on because I feared them crawling too close to me as I slept.

Back in Dar, I caught an early morning bus up into Kenya. Along the highway I saw a sign that read “zebra crossing” and reminisced about the bus trip into Dar when my bus passed through a national park. In the distance I spotted elephants, lions, warthogs, zebras and giraffes. It’s such a common thing here to spot these exotic wild animals, while tourists visit the safari circuits and pay big bucks to do this, while I was getting it for free. I felt blessed having seen these animals in their natural habitat, but felt strange knowing that I was on a highway that cut directly through their grazing land.

In Kenya, my first stop was Diani beach, where a friend I met in Zambia told me about the hostel he owned there called South Coast Backpackers. I rolled off the bus, napping after the border formalities, a little disoriented. I knew the beach was to the east, but I didn’t realize how far it might be. I hopped into a mini-bus (called ‘matatus’ in Kenya) and payed a few thousand shillings (a few dollars) to go to the hostel. Nobody on the matatu had heard of it, but I had a feeling it was near. I always trust my instincts.

I got out of the matatu, threw on my pack, and walked in the blazing afternoon sun toward the hostel entrance a few blocks away from the beach. It was a clean, welcoming place, where drunk Norwegianssouthcoastbackpackers were in the majority. Unfortunately, I couldn’t do much drinking because I started feeling sick to my stomach. Traveling non-stop for over a month will do that to you!

But I felt comfortable at South Coast Backpackers, where I spent the next few days lounging in their pool recuperating. Next up: Mombasa and Nairobi.

More ‘mzungu’ tales to come…

Adam Bemma is a journalist, humanitarian, and media consultant based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

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