Thursday, September 15, 2011

Pied biker of Kilimanjaro?

Ahead of me, the roadside lookout issues a clarion call: ‘Mzuuuunguuuu’. The cry is taken up by another voice far away on the limit of earshot. And then a swarm of black specks, transported urgently on stick thin legs, are scurrying through the recently harvested maize fields, converging on me from all directions.

It can be disconcerting to become the centre of so much unsolicited attention. But it is a fundamental facet of Tanzanian expat life; and the black specks, when they eventually converge in a throng of curious faces lining the side of the track, carry nothing more dangerous than a smile.

  Uninhibited fascination – a local child investigates my cycle-computer
Mzungu means white person in Swahili and Tanzania is largely free of the political correctness that would forbid loudly defining an approaching stranger by their skin colour. Perhaps more surprisingly, such forthright dialogue is not the sole preserve of children. Even close to town, where European tourists are two for a Tanzanian Shilling, adults often greet me with, “How are you, white person,” spoken in Swahili.

Before, I appeared on the dirt track, the children had all, ostensibly, been gainfully occupied. Some had been watching the family’s goats; others were scaring birds from recently planted fields. The unlucky ones would have been fetching water or taking laundry to the river.

But the unexpected arrival of a bicycle riding Mzungu was akin to the circus coming to town. An exotic creature making a majestic (if rather sweaty) entry into their unpretentious world: fluorescent shirt and cleated cycling shoes perched atop a sleek, shiny mountain bike, which bears little resemblance to the two-wheeled beasts of burden that local people use.

Dirt road north of Moshi
When I ride out on weekend safaris through the maize and banana plots that spread upwards towards the summit of Kilimanjaro, the children who flock to the roadside have never strayed far from home and rarely see a white person. Most will have attended primary school, which may be an hour’s walk from home, but that will probably be on the outermost edge of their world.

But I do know local children who have seen more of the world than my own global-citizen offspring, though not the beaches and cities of travel brochures.  Neema, our ten year old neighbour whom my daughter has befriended, appeared one morning at school-run O’clock.  In her hand she carried a broom made from course straw bound to a rough stick.  Yes, she was going to school, she said.  But today, she was going to sweep, not to learn.  Maybe next term, after helping her family through a rough patch, she will be able to afford to take her place at a desk again.  It is unlikely that she will ever travel more than 10 kilometres from her birth place but she is already well acquainted with the world’s darker territory.

Those who dodge such hardship suffer uncompromisingly strict teachers who, armed with canes and chalkboards, teach them English phrases, which they are keen to practice – will a real Mzungu understand these strange words? “Good morning sir,” they chorus as I peddle past in mid-afternoon. “How are you; I’m fine thank you sir; give me pencil,” they repeat parrot fashion, before moving on to a phrase from the advanced class, “Give me money.”

5000 Tanzanian Shillings is about £2
This last plea exposes a saddening, social blight that is deeply lamented by my successful Tanzanian friends. On the whole, I am humbled by the determined independence of Tanzanians. Young men hauling heavily laden hand-carts; old men with stone-hammers breaking rocks into gravel; women walking 10km into town carrying 30kg of bananas on their heads; and of course Neema, paying her way at ten years old; all working for barely a dollar a day.

But on the other hand, I am often asked for ‘loans’, which I know will never be repaid. And there are those who say that Tanzania is held back by a continual, institutionalised dependence on donor support. It’s sad to see young children already subscribing to the idea that a rich benefactor will distribute handouts.

Roadside butcher: no electricity so no refrigeration!
 I have learnt to cry ‘Mafrica’ (African) in a tone that matches the excited cries of ‘Mzungu’ that herald my arrival. I also learnt enough Swahili to explain that it was afternoon, not morning and that I didn’t have any money. As my Swahili improved, I challenged the children to chase after me and asked them to give me money. Later, I tried asking for bananas, beer or a haircut. All such requests met with the same shy giggles and an expression that said it all: Mzungus really are the strangest of people.

This post is adapted from a despatch written for the BBC.  You can listen to the original braodcast here: From Our Own Correspondent

You can read other cycling stories in two separate blogposts:

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  1. Jon, well written as are all your posts. As a soon-to-be (first time) expat from the San Francisco Bay Area and about-to-be-relocated Californian to Dar es Salaam I really enjoy reading about your life in TZ. I look forward to reading more, so I hope you continue to find time to write about wazungu life. If you want, you can read my blog posts at

  2. Thanks for leaving a link and comment. I enjoyed reading a page of your blog and look forward to exploring the rest. Best wishes; hope the relocation goes smoothly!

    I’ve recently started work on a new writing project, which will, I hope, eventually feature San Francisco as well as other locations up and down the West Coast. The opening pages are here:

  3. Hey Jon, found you through TBEX and enjoyed your blog! I've never been to Tanzania (though it and Kenya are #1 on our Must See Destinations list), but my best friend spent time there in the Peace Corps, where he taught fish farming. Your story of being greeted as a Mzungu totally reminded me of the letters he used to send of life in the villages where he worked. Looking forward to reading more of your stuff!

  4. Hi Bret, glad that you enjoyed reading this and that it struck a chord in your memories. I hope I can inspire you again soon.

  5. Great post. Fantastic photos and interesting news. The best compliments. Greetings from Italy.

    1. Glad you enjoyed reading and thanks for taking the time to comment.