Tales & images from life as me…

Archive for April, 2012

TIA Tales – power cuts

Power cuts are very much a part of life here in Tanzania and can cause some pretty hectic situations.

Believe it or not there have been days at a time where the entire country has been without power. I can tell you, you’ve never seen anything like the absolute blackness when it all goes down at once. It’s an eerie soot-soft silent blindness that descends, followed almost instantly by the thunderous sound of hundreds of generators all roaring to life at once.

Of course the vast majority of people in this country have neither running water nor electricity, let alone a generator, and so it doesn’t affect them much, but living conditions are improving all the time and the strain on the electricity providers is beyond what they can handle. Suffice to say we have a lot of power cuts.

When a storm brews up over the lake we all know that sudden click is coming, that’s pretty much inevitable, but it’s the one’s you never could have planned for that really create the situations.

For my first example I have to mention the school play. Try as you might to have thought of everything, you cannot anticipate 40 kids on stage in full Lion King costumes, mid-song and accompanying dance routine when the power goes out. We had the generator on standby but someone had to change it over and that person had chosen just that moment to disappear!

It was only a minute, but it felt like twenty and two things stand out for me. First, the audience never flinched. To be fair they tend to talk right through performances here anyway, but no one moved, or panicked or raised their voice, they simply waited – that’s how used to it we all are. And second, the students simply carried on singing! Ask them now, a few years on, and hardly anyone will remember that power cut, but as the director, I do! Thank goodness no one fell off the stage or knocked over a large piece of set (though it would have made a good TIA Tale!).

OK, so for me that was pretty tense. Now imagine you are in the pub watching the finals of the Rugby World Cup with all your mates, everyone’s dressed up in their team’s colours. The action has just begun again after half time and everyone is shouting at the screen. Oh yes, that’s the moment it picked to cut out. The groan went up from everyone in unison and we were forced to rely on updates via magical internet phones for a very stressful 20 minutes before the TV was reinstated via a generator.

I thought that groan was loud, but I had not heard a thing until I heard the same groans echoed from pubs all over town when the power cut during a Man United, Liverpool game. Now I don’t get football, just not a fan at all, but Tanzania loves it and they especially love the British teams so this was really taken seriously. Not least because many of the smaller local pubs would not have access to a generator.

Some of the funnier occasions where the power has dropped (Tanzanian English creeping in!) have included shopping in our tiny supermarket where one second everyone is wandering the little isles and the next some kid has plunged into magazine stand completely disoriented by the sudden blackness! Or the time when a guest of the school was giving an especially long and tedious speech. The power went and an involuntary sigh of relief went up from the assembled students. “I guess that’s my cue to sit down then.” He quipped when the microphone was reinstated. The silence in response was cringe-worthy!

Of course I’ve mentioned the seriousness of power-outages for major hospitals (see my piece on the mystery deaths in TIATales – hospitals) but mostly there are good contingencies. Either a generator is set up to automatically kick in, or the hospital doesn’t have power in the first place!

It’s the little things that often catch you out though. Like putting your phone on charge and going to sleep, then leaving for work to find it’s about to die – the power was out all night. Or recording your favourite TV show, sitting down to watch it and discovering you only have the first ten minutes. Stuff that you know in the grand scheme of things really isn’t important, but you still curse it at the time …and then feel ashamed of yourself afterwards. Actually a lot of the time power cuts just change the course of your day – you can’t do one thing, so you do something else instead – and I quite like the shake up of routine and the fact that everyone accepts your excuse for things you couldn’t get done! It reminds us all of how lucky we are to have electricity at all.


TIA Tales – flying

There was a pretty hectic storm last night, with thunder that sounded like heavy artillery and lightening that lit the whole room. This morning our road was completely washed away… again (see my piece on fundis!). Weather like that always makes me think of the poor people who happen to be in an aeroplane when it strikes for some reason, and that got me thinking about some of the pretty great little stories I have on the subject of flying. Particularly in light of the recent Air Tanzania crash – the last of the fleet as I understand it (thank goodness!).
Flying within East Africa is something we all do quite a bit, far more than the average European. That’s partly because we have to travel larger distances to reach civilization in this vast land, and also partly because the roads are crap (did I mention that before?!). Pretty much every time we go there is some sort of an adventure, whether it’s lost luggage, a crazy drunk guy repeating the one line of Shakespeare he knows (for two hours!), turbulence that leaves your stomach way outside the plane you’re in, or the wheels not actually engaging when you need to come in for landing!
Yes, it’s all rather more hit or miss than it ought to be. Now don’t get me wrong, the standards here are set at exactly the same levels they are anywhere else in the world and there are rarely any major, life threatening problems (I know I’ve mentioned a couple in the first few paragraphs but that was just for dramatic effect, honest!). The problems we do encounter are generally the sort that aviation standards may not have thought to consider. Take, for example, rain that it is so severe that the chocks holding the planes in their parking spots all floated away and the planes begin to skate around the airport! Who would have known that it could rain metres of water in one night?! Or the fact that cockroaches appear to have made their home in the panels of first class and like to crawl out at several thousand feet – maybe the pressure is hurting their little ears! How do you plan for that?
One of my favourite anecdotes about flying involves a trip from Dar I took recently. I ended up on the same fight as a friend of mine. He’s a writer, treasure hunter, jewellery maker, factory owner, you name it, and he carries a gun!
Right. I’m now going through the airport with a guy with a gun! (He’ll be reading this now amused as I managed to play it totally cool at the time!).
I’m telling you I had a whole new insight into the systems…
Surprisingly things go pretty smoothly, as he hands over his certificate and ammunition and the weapon is taken away for him to collect up on the other side of security. It’s once we’re through security that really gets me. We go through to a little room, once we’re all checked in, and a ticket is handed over to confirm it is his gun (he can’t actually take it on the plane so it is taken on board by an official and returned to him the other side). They then must secure the weapon in front of him. As they examine the empty chamber and take it apart and count the number of bullets that are with it, my friend points to the ceiling… It is full of bullet holes.
Evidently when checking them in the past mistakes have been made! “Yeah, he laughs, the day they shot the air-conditioning out they were pretty annoyed!” Seriously? …How has no one died?!

To be honest the whole thing has become a bit of a joke to those of us who have to live with flying over here. Flights are frequently cancelled and no one thinks to tell the passengers, and last year one airline launched a loyalty card. Brilliant! Except we live in Mwanza. One of the privileges is access to the VIP lounge. Ha ha ha! The airport is a building with one waiting room with the least comfortable metal seats you can imagine and two very loud TV screens which shout at each other from across the room. When you queue for customs you do so through someone’s office, and when you collect luggage (if you collect luggage – it goes missing fairly frequently) you help yourself to a pile, there’s no such thing as a carousel or conveyor! VIP Lounge? I don’t think so.
The main company here is Precision Air (you can imagine some of the sarcastic comments made about that name when they cancel flights with no warning or turn up hours late!). Actually their service and their staff have improved about a million-fold in the past five years, but I did laugh the other day when I received an emailed photo from someone who had just got off a flight where the two stewardesses were both fast asleep at the front of the plane – great service!
All the experiences I’ve mentioned so far are in the bigger planes (we have Boeings and jets here that are the common city hoppers – do I sound like I know what I’m talking about, because I really don’t!), but a lot of mwanza folk frequently take smaller planes if they’re heading to the mines or more rural destinations. I have no doubt some of you guys have some stories… do tell!

TIA Tales – Clothing (& competition winner)

Having just spent a few days with the beautiful (that is the right word I think, although they are warriors) Masai in Kenya I was inspired to comment in this blog on clothing here in Tanzania.

Whilst the Masai clothing is steeped in tradition and practicality, clothing across the country is a comedic, heart-breaking, wild mass of colour and influence and no one ever seems to bat an eyelid about any of it!

Let me start with the Masai, since I have mentioned them already. There are several outfits a Masai might wear depending on their gender and stages in life so I won’t go into all of it, but I can’t possibly write about clothing in Tanzania without mentioning the brilliant shoes they wear made of used tyre treads, and the tartan or checked ‘shuka’ or blanket that the male warriors wear. These are always bright and generally red or purple. The main outfit consists of two cotton sarong like garments in the traditional colours and patterns each tied like a one-shouldered dress but on opposite shoulders, forming a short cover-all. For warmth, should they need it, they then tie a thicker blanket around their shoulders. Add to this ankle wrist and neck beads and you might imagine this would make them look effeminate – far from it! Take a look at my photos in yesterday’s post for a better visual.

The red blankets stand out dramatically against the soft browns and yellows of the plains and the cattle and their huts and manyattas and it is rumoured that animals have learned to fear that colour so it is a form of protection in itself. It is certainly striking and lends a certain majesty to these tall and imposing figures. So much so that many who are not Masai choose to dress in outfits like them.

Of course there are also their weapons and tools which are fascinating, but a subject for another day since I want to talk about more aspects of clothing here today.

You might drive down any street in the centre of Mwanza for example, and all in the same minute you would see women in kangas, men in shiny silk shirts and chinos, women in bridesmaids dresses, men in muslim galabaya (those very cool looking white dresses) and flat topped circular hats, women in arabaya (like a black burka), men in sports shirts for a team they may never have heard of and women in heels and office wear. It is an incredible mish mash of crazy fashion and abject poverty.

The kanga, which I just mentioned, is a length of fabric printed generally in wild patterns and bright colour (though a popular modern twist includes one with Barak Obama’s face at the centre!). The patters forms to two halves and the piece is cut in half. One part to be worn wrapped around a woman’s waist and the other takes on multiple uses – it may be tied in such a way as to provide padding for heavy goods being carried on the head, or simply as elaborate African fashion head wear, to support a baby on a mother’s back, to tie up everything that has been bought at market or as a shawl. A kanga tied over a pink shiny 1980’s bridesmaids dress is not an unusual sight.

The versatile material is also frequently sewn to create beautiful matching skirts and tops or children’s clothes, bags, cushions – you name it – by the fantastic fundis we have around here (see previous blog). Actually, that’s a whole other aspect of clothing in Africa – the fact that you can design whatever your imagination can handle and have it made in just a day or two. Love it.

Of course it’s easy for me though. For me the equivalent of two or three pounds buys me a kanga, and the same again will have it turned into an outfit – that’s cheap right? Well, not when that’s a week’s wages and you have several children to feed. One of the things that slowly dawns on you when you live here is that children tend to wear school uniform at all hours of the day and night. It’s when you see a group of them on a Sunday, still in uniform, that you realise they probably don’t have anything else to wear.

Education here is ‘free’ but to attend school you need a uniform, books and usually you must contribute to school maintenance, so once a family has forked out for a uniform, play clothes are a luxury for some.

Whilst we’re on the subject of children, I will never get over the sweat-inducing sight of little babies here. They are always swaddled to within an inch of their life in thick knitted hats, winter jackets or wooly blankets. I think it’s fear of the many illnesses babies can die of and a lack of education in child care but it always makes me want to set them free! To be fair infant mortality is high here and it must be a terrifying time, particularly if you have nothing and can’t afford hospital trips or any kind of support.

One of the reasons behind all the mis-matched madness is the diverse culture here – so many tribes, influences from over-seas and religions inevitably leads to all sorts of different clothing – but the other is ‘mutumba’.

Mutumba is the name given to the second hand stalls and all their goods. It’s like OXFAM gone mad. It’s a huge part of life here in East Africa and you can find just about anything there. Amongst these stalls are throwbacks from the past fifty years in every size and colour imaginable. Much of it arrives through charities and becomes a person’s livelihood. In fact, two clever Kenyans I know have built a business out of finding the designer labels in amongst everyone else’s stalls and cleaning them and selling them back to the foreigners! Anyway, what I’m saying is it’s a treasure trove of costumes for plays and even the occasional fantastic find for yourself, but does result in quite a wild array of outfits and combinations.

They also stock shoes. Of course they are second hand and only come in the size they are, no options. One little Tanzanian boy I know went to stay with some of his family in the UK for a bit and when he returned his mum asked him if he enjoyed himself. “Yes” he said, “and you won’t believe it, they have shops where you can find a shoe you like and then just order it in any size. They have a big room in the back and they all come in boxes!”

If variety is the spice of life then things are certainly hot when it comes to fashion in Africa!

Actually, before I sign off I should add that, at the other end of the scale, there is in fact a thriving fashion industry in East Africa as events like Zanzibar Fashion Week clearly illustrate. I was at a fantastic fashion show in Kenya just last week, photographing some incredible outfits. And I remember my 6th Form students were always seriously stylish. It’s not that fashion doesn’t exist here, it’s more that not everyone can afford to think about and everyone accepts that – so you are entirely free to wear whatever you want. Well, as long as you don’t reveal thighs or cleavage, they’re considered a bit slutty round here!

Any comments are, as always, very welcome. I mentioned some time ago a guy wearing a pink t-shirt that proclaimed ‘I can’t even think straight, let alone be straight!’ – a slogan he clearly did not understand. Perhaps you’ve seen some other good ones? If so let me know.

One friend did tell me recently about a great one that read ‘I give up… Perhaps the Hokey Cokey really it is what it’s all about.’

AND THE WINNER IS… You may remember that about a month ago I posted a competition. Well I had some fantastic entries and you guys really helped with your amazing inventions for 2054. But the winner has to be my fantastic friend Gary Patterson, who came up with a whole series of brilliant ideas and will get at least one featured in the novel – with a thank you in the acknowledgements section. (Please do check out his blog too if you have time as he’s doing one hell of a cycling trip to raise money for charity: http://www.cycle4africa.wordpress.com). Anne Harkonen is a close runner up and will also receive acknowledgement for her excellent ideas. Thanks everyone!

Messing about in the Mara

I guess most of us are back at our desks after the Easter break now. Just to really shun the renewal of routine I’m going totally wild and crazy and posting on a Wednesday – woah! OK, truth is I just wanted to share some Easter holiday pics! I just spent four days next to the Masai Mara Triangle in Lloita Hills and had a pretty incredible few days, I thought you’d enjoy some of our antics and the wildlife – same thing?!  More TIA Tales on Thursday as I get back to normal again, I promise.

I hope you enjoy the photos.

Happy Easter

Hi everyone, I’m on the road this week, hence the delayed posting and temporary change of style. I’m not going to post a TIA Tale this week as I’m not even in Tanzania, the source of so much of my inspiration!

In fact as I type this Damien is negotiating the notorious escarpment section of the road (quite expertly i should add- he’s really good at Chinese burns!) between Nairobi and Nakuru, where I used to live in Kenya. We’re not going as far as up as Nakuru though, we’re turning off and heading for the magical Masai Mara.

Everyone in Kenya seems to make some sort of plan for the Easter break, hardly any of the ex-pats stay at home. There are so many places to see in this incredible country and with functional roads (you Europeans wouldn’t be impressed but compared to TZ it’s good going!) and really high quality places to stay it’s so easy to take a trip and have an adventure. Where I live in Tanzania we do have the Serengeti and Lake Victoria but there is literally nothing else, in terms of destinations, for miles and miles.

Here in Kenya the rainy season has just begun so the mornings start misty and cold and full of a mystical sort of beauty. The past couple of days have featured torrents of almost violent rain that it’s hard not to take personally somehow! Back at home in Mwanza it would be carrying roads away and forcing its way into people’s roofs, here it does bring down a tree or two and the traffic builds – just like all over the world, any change in the weather, even one as predictable as the coming of the rainy season in Kenya or snow in January in the UK, always causes chaos! But this morning is special, the sun has burnt through the mist and golden grasses are lit up either side of me, whilst the majestic Mount Longonot, a dormant volcano in government reserve land, presides over the vast space. It really is pretty sensational. The only vibrant colour is provided by the bright red of the Masai blankets worn by farmers herding huge horned cows or skittering goats. The only shade is provided by the occasional brave flat-topped acacia tree, iconically African.

Anyway, all this to say have a great break, wherever you are. I’ll show you some pics from my adventures in the next post! Xx