Sometimes goodbye is a second chance.
When I was twelve years old I learned that my family was going to be moving from the little town of Campbell River “Salmon Capital of the World” on Vancouver Island to an isolated village in central Tanzania called Mgololo. My father who had worked in the pulp and paper industry had gotten a job at the Mufindi Pulp and Paper Mill.
My mother, who had spent the entirety of the 1960’s working as a nurse in Malawi and travelling Africa on her own, was also well accustomed and eager to support my father in this new chapter. However you can imagine as a pre-teen who had spent most of her life in a majority white hockey town that moving to Tanzania was terrifying not to mention kiboshed my plans to marry the captain of the local hockey team. My dreams of cruising the Ironwood mall in his sweet ass Letterman jacket was totally ruined by my selfish parents who had the nerve to move me across the world. The only hope of staying in touch with friends was by writing now seemingly archaic letters and tossing them in those specialized airmail envelopes via snail mail.
Riddled with teenage angst and bitterness my pleas went unheard and I found myself on a plane from Vancouver all the way to Dar es Salaam- the capital of Tanzania. When I touched down I had my first taste of a real third world. Prior to this, I had traveled to Mexico and Jamaica and thought I had seen poor countries before. Aside from those places, the only exposure I had to Africa poor was from my moms old photo albums of her early years. And lets not forget the terrible World Vision commercials with children covered in flies and swollen bellies standing naked in the dust.
Contrary to those commercials that is not what I actually encountered when landing in a real third world country like Tanzania in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Keep in mind during this time there were significant economic, health, and political issues rattling the continent of Africa with complicated social and political unrest.
At this time, HIV infection, AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases would become a major disaster with far reaching repercussions. The HIV infection rate at that time was between 5 and 15% in urban areas and from l to 15% in rural areas but that in Bukoba town the rate was about 30% among adults. Country-wide some 800,000 people had HIV infection and the adult mortality rate tripled.(Wangwe 1997, Booth 2003).
Access to education in the rural regions had begun to expand with illiteracy falling rapidly from 63% in 1970 to 35% in 1991. The gender gap in education had also narrowed with primary school enrolment rates for girls now being more or less the same as for boys.
(Wangwe 1997, Booth 2003).
What my little pea head brain managed to observe upon arrival was the impact of the inappropriate aid programs and inadequate aid co-ordination ran by a corrupt government that left its citizens poor but resilient. Shipping containers filled with free aid and supplies would be seized and sold to its countries own citizens. It angered me and changed my views about NGO’s from then on.
I remember saying to myself “Where did all the Unicef money go from all the Halloween’s where I loyally toted that little box next to my candy bag?
I can still here the sound of loose change bouncing around as I eagerly ran from house to house. And I could see no evidence of how my coins had helped.
While I processed my own disappointment, it didn’t take long for me to feel better because everyone was smiling. It’s like they didn’t even know they had gotten totally gipped?
We drove through the crowded chaotic streets, avoiding gigantic potholes, and coming across strips of half paved roads where it was evident that they had ran out of concrete or it had gotten stolen or resold. The smells of raw sewage, street markets filled with dried fish and exotic spices filled the air, drenching my clothes with a thick layer of “welcome to Africa.” The scent of my Exclamation perfume I had gotten for Christmas was no more and really no match for the pungent smells that awaited around the corner that I ended up growing to love.
After some time in Africa, my nose evolved as I began to identify the hypnotic scents of the varying wood that would be soaking and carved often in the streets. The essence of Ebony, Acacia, and Baobab wood replaced the familiar aromas of Cedar and Hemlock trees I had grew up around. I often place my face against the Masai carvings up until this day that we had collected and can be instantly transported back in time by its smell.
Having given my parents a pretty hard time for a solid 3 months prior to moving, they had made some efforts to acclimatize me to Africa upon my arrival. They took me to Bahari Beach, an African “resort” along the Eastern coast of the Indian Ocean. You can imagine my confusion when it was not the kind of resort I had been taken to before like when they took me to Disneyland a couple years prior. The only characters that met me along the way to the bathroom was the humongous Baboon Spider that had spun their webs between the stone columns. The entertainment that night included 12 ft long Python whereby they would continually drag the beast by its tail as to ensure it didn’t slither too close to us. Every now and again they would play around and put the Pythons head in their mouth to awe the audience with danger.
Let me just make it abundantly clear, I am terrified of snakes, and will become immobile from fear at the site of a snake on television. Sure enough, the entertainers smelled my fear or maybe it was my Exclamation perfume still hanging on for dear life- but they decided I would be the perfect “assistant” in the show. Sure enough they handed me the tip of the snakes tail and in .5 seconds I vomited all over the first 5 feet of the snake. It was from that point on that my parents prepared themselves for an additional 3 months of acute jaw clenching attitude coming their way.
With Bahari Beach in the distance we embarked on the two day drive across rural Tanzania on our way to Mgololo. There was so much to absorb along the way from the over crowded buses with families sitting on the roofs passing us equipped with musical horns that greeted us, to dodging cattle on the roads. Sometimes Baboons would jump on our windshield and try to mate with their own reflections and I was introduced to the male baboon reproductive anatomy on a more intimate level than I had wished. There is nothing more humiliating than having an enormous red willy ejaculating 2 feet away from you on the other side of the window while you sit next to your father. Every now and again my mom would break the tension with, “You can’t get much more exciting than this.” Had I not been 12 and a spoiled brat I would have agreed with her, and 42 year old me owes her an apology because she was absolutely right.
I was literally living in a national geographic magazine like the ones my mom used to collect and store in the pantry where she kept all her canning. They had created a life experience for me unlike any other kids life from Campbell River. In addition, nothing would bring me more pleasure than making my parents uncomfortable now with Baboon porn.
We drove by groups of Masai Warriors carrying spears and drinking goats blood to stay hydrated for their long journeys herding their cattle to areas of the country where grass would grow and they could hunt. I had not seen skin color like this before but now understood why I was always so drawn to the colors in my crayon box named Sepia and Burnt Sienna, because they were even more beautiful in real life under the African sun.
We stayed overnight at Mikumi Lodge, a wildlife reserve in Mikumi National Park. Entering the park we were flagged down to be advised that there was a “rogue” elephant in the area and to be aware. I remember thinking to myself how fast my father would be able to drive in reverse if we came across this rogue elephant. We later had found out that a couple days prior, a Japanese tourist had climbed down the escarpment to get a closer picture of the elephant. The escarpment acted as a kind of protection between the lodge and the African plains below that housed some of the most majestic yet deadly wildlife in the world. The eager tourist had approached the elephant who was getting some shade under a near by Acacia tree and did as a disturbed rogue elephant would do in the case he felt threatened, which was impaled the tourist with his tusk, shaking and dragging him about then tossed his dead mangled body into the Acacia tree he had used for shade. The elephant allegedly did not leave the area for quite some time where this Japanese tourists body just hung in the branches like a warning “don’t fuck with me.” I can assure you no part of me was even in the slightest curious about heading down that escarpment. I was quite content in my Kikaboga Suite where we were told proudly by the bus boy that the suite was where the President of Tanzania would stay when he came through, and where Queen Elizabeth stayed once. Now it was where I stayed safely with all my body parts attached exactly where they needed to be.
It was the rainy season during this time and the grass was high making it difficult to view the wildlife as we exited the park. We would return many times after that though and encounter elephant herds with small babies; and see zebras and giraffe. We were lucky to see a leopard hunting for impala on another trip, and of course the Baboons who were were always willing to whore it up on our wind shield.
We continued our lengthy treck to Mgololo, where I began to digest the reality of my new life surrounded by such an unfamiliar world in which the landscape would change around every bend. It was so surreal that I often felt like I was outside my body and looking down at this young girl immersed in a movie with no title yet. As we approached the tiny little village that stood on a hill housing a dozen expats, along with the mill managers and directors, the heirarchy was evident as the huts sat below in the grasslands. Our home was a tiny concrete house with a tin roof, and cool stone flooring. We had a papaya tree that was abundant with fruit in the front yard with a vegetable garden in the back that grew in the red clay dirt. My new home was a far fall from what I had moved from and lacked most of the amenities that I had been accustomed to while growing up in the western world. The shipping container that had traveled across 2 different oceans had not arrived and delivery was going to be standard African time.
I’m pretty sure I cried myself to sleep that night. It would take awhile for my 12 year old self to attain some maturity before I could recognize the gift that my parents had handed me. But so began the start of my life in Africa, and would not disappoint in terms of shaping much of who I am today.
I hope to continue engaging you all as I pluck away at the years and memories of my time in Tanzania and look forward to taking you on a literary tour of my experiences. Click Here to Read More.