When we first moved to Tanzania, I had to dig very deep in search for ways to amuse myself while alone and unemployed. The fact was, I was tested to the limit. Be warned, this is a long blog post, fun to write – in a purging way, but quite understand if you don’t have the stamina to read. It’s kind of a snapshot of my life ten years ago but might have similarities to the experiences of other expats newly arrived in Africa. At that time I was so unworldly that it felt as if I had been beamed down from another planet.
When I arrived in Tanzania I was newly married. We left directly after our wedding and honeymooned in Zanzibar. It was dreadful. We were both sick almost all of the time, and it was the hottest time of year there versus the coldest in England, so the transition from Europe to Africa in February was hard. Before hand I had never experienced humidity, I had never been to Africa either.
Imagine sweating, mealy faced tourists looking frightened and that was us. In a Samsonite suitcase that we dragged from hotel to eco hotel (ie no air conditioning) were three tea towels, two side plates, two mugs a set of sheets etc. Among other things. Basically a starter pack for our first three months in Dar es Salaam. The suitcase was heavy and kind hotel porters threw it up and placed it on their heads. Porters in England would have doubtless shaken their heads and said, ‘Sorry love. Not lifting that. Health and Safety you see.’ but these guys in Africa wearing fezzes and long white embroidered gowns in Zanzibar were undeterred. Nothing was too much trouble.
I wasn’t expecting the lush greens and so much colour when I arrived. I had in mind dry savannas. It was busy and bustling, bicycles, minibuses, honking horns, street sellers. Women were either wrapped in brightly coloured kangas or swathed in black with only their eyes showing. Zanzibar was beautiful but on the way from the makeshift shack that was the airport arrivals terminal at the time, I was too sick to raise my head and look out. My husband was excited. For him it felt like going home because he had grown up in Mombasa.
I found everything utterly strange and not necessarily nicer. The butter was different (mainly Blueband), the bread was different (tasted stale and sweet), the eggs were different (pale yolks) and the milk was different (mainly UHT). In fact it was all incredibly different and I knew that we were very far from home.
Anyway, I digress. Once we had moved to a small room on the ground floor of a small cluster of low rise flats, I found myself alone. My husband bounced off to work in an ancient Landcruiser that, to start, required summoning all the grounds men on the complex and asking them to give him a push every morning. Unfailingly they were rewarded by a face full of black, choking smoke and a tip sometimes, but only if we could rustle together the change in time. I would wave at the door, then turn back inside and wonder what the hell to do with myself all day. And it was hot, hot, hot.
I didn’t have a car. We had no friends. Knew no one. There was some mix up over my husband’s work and the outgoing couple were unhappy about being ousted, so not friendly or helpful. What's more, I was suddenly Mrs X and felt I had no identity, whereas before I had had a whole life of my own; family, old and new friends, a good job, money, a bank account, my own place to live. When I had left it all behind it felt like truly escaping but to what?
Before we left, when I was back in England and thinking about what Africa might conceivably be like, I had imagined holidays in Greece and Cyprus and naively thought that Dar es Salaam would be similar; wonderful, balmy, slouching about in shorts, strappy tops and sundresses, barbeques – a spot of sunbathing here and there. But then I read the guidebooks and I learned that Dar was a strictly Muslim city. ‘Be advised; cover your shoulders, wear skirts below the knee or trousers but not shorts – wearing revealing clothing will be frowned upon and offend those around you.’
In fact, it was too hot to lie out in the sun; the atmosphere was hazy and damp. Anyway, who would want to stretch out when you are surrounded by hardworking people everywhere, sweeping, gardening etc. All with jobs to do, people who would not dream of prancing about in next to nothing catching rays. This was not a holiday. The idea of lighting a barbeque at dusk while malarial mosquitoes were rampaging, when it gets pitch dark before 7pm all year round, was laughable.
So I sweltered. In our large Samsonite suitcase was a hardback copy of Delia Smith’s complete cookery book, a wedding present. For want of an occupation, I worked my way through the recipes as best as I could, under the fan in our tiny room, gas oven blasting out more heat.
Cooking meant finding groceries, so I walked to the nearest ‘imported goods’ supermarket, having to leave home before 10am as otherwise it was too hot. I bought only what I could carry. The flour had weevils, the yoghurt was thin and I obviously couldn’t get Delia’s smoked haddock or summer fruits for love nor money! There were nice things to on the supermarket shelves too, but they were so fiercely expensive that our budget would have been immediately blown. Imagine Shreddies for £18 per small box and you are getting close. On the way home I would stop at a roadside shack and get fruit and veg. The lemons were bobbly and green and the tomatoes funny oval shapes. There were always at least half a dozen fruits and veg that I did not recognise at all. Everything looked so foreign.
As I walked with heavy bags, (wearing long skirt with a cotton shirt or t-shirt) sweat would run in tiny streams down the backs of my legs. What cheered me was the beauty of it all. As I walked along the undulating dirt road I saw rambling bougainvillea over rusting chain link fences in brilliant pink, orange and red, huge poinsettia bushes, frangipani trees with their sweet scented flowers and giant leaves, flame trees and flamboyants with their long dried up seed pods. Huge blue skies and bright sun lit everything in Technicolour. Street vendors and passers by would always greet me, ‘Jambo Sister! Mambo! What’s up?’
I remember that in one place, there were men and women who, covered in dust, sat by a large pile of stones and were breaking them into small pieces of gravel by hand. It reminded me of the Victorian painting ‘The Stone Breaker’ by John Brett, only here we were in the wrong century.
When I got home I would make myself an instant coffee, in spite of the heat, in the mug with a picture of a cockerel that I had brought from England. I would then devour a bar of grainy Cadbury’s chocolate square by square that I regularly bought to give myself something to look forward to. It didn’t taste like the chocolate we got at home and had a whitish sheen on it.
I painted water colours, not very well. Mainly pictures of the beautiful flowers but the watery colours were never quite bright enough. I wrote long letters and hoped that what I wrote might come across as upbeat. I had very halting conversations with the ladies who came to clean our room everyday – and used my Swahili language book to help. The ladies always swapped about, so it was often a new face. I offered one helper a piece of freshly baked shortbread and she said thank you then began to make for the door with the whole box! We ended up having a bit of a tussle with me saying, ‘Wait, just one, OK then two!’ and physically wrestling the box back from her! How embarrassing that was!
I listened to Swahili language tapes but they were hard going. Often I watched silent re runs of our wedding day in black and white through the view finder of our new camcorder (we had no TV). I lay on the bed and read books too and watched the noisy ceiling fan whir overhead. I got a memorable electric shock from our bedside light, got skilful at swatting mosquitoes, watched gravity defying geckos darting along the walls and became expert at stamping on cockroaches (where does that green goo come from?).
I never thought of taking a local bus, perhaps I was too frightened – but I sometimes took a taxi to my husband’s office after walking for at least 20 minutes to find one. The taxi’s were always white Toyota Corolla’s with red plush seating and so broken down that you could nine times out of ten hear something scraping along the ground beneath. Taxis didn’t like coming to our place as the potholes were so huge along the dirt access road.
As late in the morning as the heat would allow, I walked to places where I thought other expatriates might hang out, but found no one. I wondered where they were hiding? I would scour my Tanzania guide book for things to do in Dar, look for expat hang outs and plan weekend excursions to visit places when we had the spluttering old car.
I would wait impatiently for my husband to come home. He came back for lunch when he could, simply to break up my day. When he arrived I would quiz him endlessly over every aspect of what he had been up to – who did he talk to, where did he go, who had he met? Predictably, this drove him crazy. We laughed but we also argued. It was hard work but I never thought of leaving. It was just very different and since I hadn’t known what to expect, I sucked it all up unquestioningly.
After a month or so I found a notice advertising Swahili lessons in an arts centre that turned out to be near my husband’s office, so I went straight there and signed up. 'This will change everything', I thought, 'now I will find friends'. I wanted to find young people with nothing to do, just like me. But things didn’t exactly turn out as I had hoped.