Tidbits from Tanzania

By Jonathon Van Maren

My first update was posted here. Second update, this time from Tanzania…


Certain cultural standards can be confusing at times. For example, Charmaine informed me that we could not hold hands in public, as that would be seen as inappropriate. However, male friends can hold hands in public at any time, and any trip on a Tanzanian “bus”—actually a cube van known as a “dalla dalla” and packed to the gills with people, chickens, and any goods the passengers happen to be lugging about—allows one to become close to the point of intimacy with the local population. For example, while I was crammed into one of these vans, squished next to Charmaine but definitely not holding hands in order to avoid offending local sensibilities, a middle-aged local woman was squeezed in by the conductor. She must have felt that the lack of armrests was problematic, because she plopped her hand on my knee and used my leg as an armrest for the duration of her trip.


Traffic is completely nuts here, with the dalla dallas honking angrily at anyone in the immediate vicinity and “piki pikis” weaving in and out of the snarl of vehicles. Piki pikis, Charmaine informed me, are what people call the motorcycles people use to get everywhere—you simply flag one down, let the driver know where you want to go, and you hop on the back. I found this inordinately amusing (Charmaine snorted at me) because I felt you had to be extremely un-picky to take one of these motorcycles, especially since you spend the next several hours honking into napkins to get the fine African road-dust out of your nose.


After a few rides on a piki piki, I asked Charmaine why there weren’t far more accidents between the motorcycles and other vehicles. It turns out that there’s quite a tribal loyalty amongst the piki piki drivers, and when the driver of a car accidentally hit a piki piki recently and seriously hurt the driver, his fellow motorcyclists chased the car down, pulled the offending driver out, burned his vehicle to the ground, and beat the snot out of him. So I can see how that would be a bit of a deterrent.


It’s hard to get used to how relaxed everyone is around here—no one seems to be in a rush to get anywhere (until they get into a vehicle, that is.) Charmaine and I decided to go to a nice restaurant for a lunch date, the Blue Heron in Arusha. I ordered a coffee, and about twenty minutes later started to wonder where it was. I finally flagged down the waitress to ask about my coffee, and was told that they had no milk at the moment, so one of the staff had been sent to the store to fetch milk for my coffee. As one friend told me, in North America, time has us, but in Africa—you have time.


I have made sure not to write a stereotypical white-person-in-Africa blog post—you know, the article you’ve read a million times about traveling to a country where people live in tiny houses and have much less than you and you’re super thankful now and embarrassed about what you were like before? Of course, all of that is true to a degree because that’s how clichés happen—when you’re staying in a village where the water is routinely cut off and has to be packed up the hill and the electricity company occasionally decides its time to conserve power and shuts everything off without warning, you definitely get a lot more grateful about what you have at home. But one thing that really stood out to me and made me feel quite small was a brief visit Charmaine and I paid to the Upendo Leprosy Home, run by the Missionary Sisters of the Precious Blood. Sitting around under the trees, chatting to each other with enormous smiles on their faces, were men and women missing legs, fingers, and other appendages. There was not a trace of self-pity, not a hint of gloominess, and their cheeriness reminded me again how trivial and stupid most of the things that irritate me actually are.


Charmaine and I stopped at a few markets in Arusha, and I noticed that celebrity culture is alive and well here. Giant pictures of Jay-Z, and P. Diddy were featured on a number of dalla dallas, and one girl was trundling down the street with a t-shirt featuring a list under the heading “What I Want to Be When I Grow Up.” Crossed out were doctor, lawyer, and fireman. Prominently selected: “FAMOUS.”


Our politics have not gone unnoticed, either. Displayed at the very front of one bookstand, amongst biographies of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcom X, and Nelson Mandela, was the just-released tell-all The Truth About Donald Trump. A Muslim storekeeper at another shop informed us that Donald Trump had been selected by the Republicans because he was super-rich, and the rich ruled everything. He then wished us a very happy Christmas.

To be continued…

3 thoughts on “Tidbits from Tanzania

  1. Jennifer says:

    I am really enjoying your updates and little glimpses into Africa. I’ve only been reading your stuff for about a year, so forgive me if I missed this: you write as if Charmaine has particular insight into African culture. Is that something she has studied, or does she have a personal connection?

    • Jonathon Van Maren says:

      Charmaine has worked with a centre for street children in Tanzania since 2011, and has lived here for three or four months a year for the last several years!

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