Tanzania's Wild, Wild West

Wednesday, July 26, 2006 | Kigoma, Tanzania

The event that put Ujiji on the map.
On the road, life is always more interesting, so I probably shouldn't be surprised that this trip has gotten off to such a startlingly bizarre start. Sunday, after returning from Rubondo Island and frantically completing the final paper for my Ecology class, I went to an ATM to get some cash for the first leg of my trip. This being Tanzania, you would assume that a bank would give you Tanzanian money, regardless of who owns the bank. Well, I assumed so, anyway, and was proved quite wrong. When I asked the (apparently Kenyan) ATM for 40,000 Tanzanian shillings—about US$35—it instead sputtered out 40,000 Kenyan shillings—around US$500.

It being evening, no exchange bureaus were open, so the following morning at 4:00 AM, my stack of money and I hit the road (shhhh). I'd spent the night packing and hurriedly saying goodbyes to the group, who all optimistically wished me "Good luck... and don't die." (Thanks, guys.) Back in my
room, doom and gloom in mind, I scrutinized my belongings, guessed and second-guessed, packed and re-packed my backpack, and finally declared myself ready in time to catch my cab to the bus station for the 5:00 AM departure.

Good thing the bus left early. After taking off on time, it drove a mile down the road to the ferry stop, where it parked for two hours to wait for the 7:00 AM ferry. This is how it's going to be, I reasoned. Unfazed, I managed to nap, scrunched in my seat with my backpack, sweating in my full-length pants and jacket, the hood up and my hands pulled into my sleeves to hide from the mosquito swarms.

Following the ferry ride, the bus took off, barreling across the hills of northwest Tanzania like a run-away train careening off its tracks. The hulking metal monster rattled so loudly on the dirt road that I couldn't hold a conversation with the kid sitting next to me, and felt like I was inside a household appliance switched to the "Shake, Rattle, and Roll" setting. All I could hear was the bus's horn, blaring loudly at children, goats, and men pushing overloaded bicycles in the roadway as we charged through village after village, each town's residents stopping their work to stare at the hurtling iron monstrosity.

Between naps I read or bought bananas and cookies throught the window from the women who sold them at each station. At one stop, when I was using the village's bathroom shack, the door of which wouldn't lock, the bus horn blared. A fellow passenger, hurrying not to miss the bus, decided to jump in the stall and pee along next to me. I sighed and shook my head, stared at the wall in front of me, and remembered early childhood lessons about the importance of sharing.

When finally, twelve hours later, we arrived in Kigoma in the dark, and everybody tumbled out with their suitcases, children, and the watermelons, pineapples, sugar cane and chickens they'd bought along the way, I was more than happy to crash at the nearest grubby hotel.

The next morning I walked to Kigoma's port, on the northeast shore of Lake Tanganyika, to buy my ferry ticket for the following day. At some point during the previous day's 12 hours of bouncing, dust-sucking, and falling into the aisle while watching the pitiful progress we were making on the map, I had reconsidered my plans. The distance through Zambia to Victoria Falls was just too far. And though I had really been anticipating bungee jumping off the Falls later this week, they aren't going anywhere anytime soon. So I bought my ferry ticket for Kasanga, the southernmost port in Tanzania, from where I'll travel overland to Malawi, then onward to Mozambique.

* * *

My ticket squared away, I was now free to visit Ujiji, several kilometers down the lakeshore from Kigoma. On November 10, 1871, Dr. David Livingstone was sitting under a mango tree by the lake shore in Ujiji when a few locals ran up to him, yelling that another mzungu ("white foreigner") was arriving in a boat from across the lake. On that day, under that mango tree in Ujiji, on the banks of Lake Tanganyika, Henry Morton Stanley saw his search fulfilled. With the self-satisfied air of one posing a question to which he already knows the answer, he casually inquired, "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?"

After a great lunch at New Stanley's, Kigoma's best cafe, I enjoyed the afternoon swimming and relaxing at Jakobsen's Beach, a few kilometers down the lakeshore. Since none of the guide books mention it, for those of you who are wondering if, like Lake Victoria, Tanganyika also contains the dangerous bilharzia parasite, I should be able to tell you in a few days.

* * *

Today, I'll soon be back on the move. The ferry MV Liemba leaves this afternoon from Kigoma, stopping along the lake at a number of sites to unload and take on new passengers, as it's been doing for decades. The warship was actually built in Germany in 1913, disassembled and relocated to Lake Tanganyika by a series of trains, boats, and more trains. It was used by the Germans to control Lake Tanganyika during WWI, a task in which it eventually failed as the strength of the British forces in the region grew.

Coincidentally, on exactly this day (July 26) in the year 1916, when the ship came under heavy fire from a British attack, its German commander decided to scuttle the ship rather than allow the British to capture it, and it sank to the bottom of the lake. The story of those battles on Lake Tanganyika formed the inspiration for the famous novel The African Queen and its classic 1951 film adaptation.

Hopefully on today's journey, the ship—now resurrected and operating a weekly route throughout the lake—will not meet the same fate that it suffered exactly ninety years ago.

Articles with more info on the Liemba are available from The East African and Wikipedia.

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