After enduring hours (I lost count) of self-financed economy-class flights, 2 friends and I landed in the middle of Tanzania for a couple of weeks of fact-finding and filming for an all-volunteer nonprofit I’m part of, Friends of Imiliwaha.
Imiliwaha is the rural outpost, a “campus” where just 400+ women who have taken love-of-God vows serve their people. That was our first destination.
Road travel in this part of the world is nothing like the driving I do for my “real” job, filming families and youth experiencing homelessness in the US. No, this is both death-defying and inspiring.
Death-defying because of the constant presence of hazards — humans on motorcycles, pedestrians weaving between snarled vehicles, explosive petrol tankers, and a constant flow of trucks lugging produce and commodities to destinations large and mostly small.
Inspiring because of the hopefulness of people striving to make a living or get an education — amidst the hectic pace you can see people laughing and chatting as they head off to work; kids with sagging backpacks trod purposefully to and from school; overly ambitious drivers cram people and product onto bicycles, three-wheeled vehicles, motorcycles and oxen-pulled carts; and determined walkers make their way with bulky loads balanced atop their heads.
With apologies to the Tanzanian travel bureau, let me offer this visitor’s core assessment of this land — foibles and features.
- Air quality sucks. Smoke from burning trash and whatever taints the air in most of the places we visited.
- Water — luxury. When one of the Sisters, my friend, said, “Our water is bad, don’t use it,” she wasn’t playing. She handed me a plastic-wrapped case of bottled water. Water to power hydroelectric plants is fickle trickle during the arid season contributing to irregular electricity. From observation, the water flowing under the countless bridges probably leaves much to be desired.
- Housing. Towns/villages are a collection of what first world residents would call huts and shacks, some with electricity, some not. Some with running water, many not. We spotted a few upscale houses. Most of the places we stayed lacked operating electrical and water systems. But they offered more in hospitality than anyone could imagine.
- Electricity — you can count on it to not be flowing when you need it. Even the major airport in Dar es Salaam experienced multiple power failures while we were there one morning. Alternative energy, a logical solution, is mostly a dream.
However, features of this fine land are plentiful, more so than the down side. I won’t attempt to list the tourist stuff. Kindness, hospitality and selflessness abounded. I’ll just unequivocally say that the resourcefulness and resilience of these stalwart denizens matches their beauty.
Driving by countless gritty vendor operations as our driver slowed to a well-enforced 30 kph, I could see the tree limbs fastened together, providing the framework for tattered tarps which comprised their “store,” to sell fruits and vegetables grown in this agricultural paradise.
As we flew into Mbeya, I noticed all the little plots of hand-harvested land and mused how it kept families busy and productive as opposed to the mega-farms of America. These humble tracts mean something — life, purpose — and until the predators come in, as they always do, all is well.
Hand-crafted furniture displayed along dusty roadsides with vendors flailing with primitive brooms to scatter the dust. Hardware “stores” with stacks of everything from lumber to household goods loom impressively among the collections of businesses which also include print shops, barber and hair salons, and post offices.
Along the sparse but well-traveled two-lane roads, bicycles bear full loads — multiple passengers and/or ambitious hauls of 2x4s or sacks of freshly-harvested potatoes and other crops. Motorcycles, an understandably popular mode of transportation due to outrageous fuel costs, weave precariously, most packed to the gills with fruit of their labor — huge sacks of crops or bundles of branches — headed to market.
What I haven’t seen:
slick subdivisions of modern houses, chain stores of any ilk, fast food purveyors, pawn shops, or quick loan stores, to name a few. And I haven’t missed them.
This isn’t a shit-hole. The so-called civilized world could learn lots from those who make do with so little. We could also demonstrate a lot more respect, and less exploitation, of our sisters and brothers in these economically struggling countries.
But that would require global leadership sorely lacking in the country boasting of greatness. I’ll respect those who deserve it — and the people of Tanzania have certainly demonstrated their worthiness.