As I’m chronicling the story of the library project I’m leading in some detail, it only makes sense for me to also document my experiences of Tanzania that I had outside of the KYGN School. Tanzania is a beautiful country, awash with beautifully varied terrain and landscapes, and friendly citizens who possess little in terms of material goods but an abundance of riches in character and moral fibre.
Unfortunately, Dar es Salaam does not create the greatest of first impressions. Gridlock comes rather easily on the dust-coated roads, giving hawkers and peddlers to chance to wander from vehicle to vehicle, selling everything from drinks and snacks to Hannah Montana clothing and garish, gold-framed wall clocks. I’m not making this up! The city, to my mind, is not a place to linger; of course, there may be some reading this who will disagree, but I found little of interest to keep me there for long.
The inhabitants of Zanzibar are fond of greeting visitors – often seasick from the bumpy boat ride over from Dar es Salaam – with the phrase ‘welcome to paradise’. For it is a place very well-known worldwide, perhaps the single best-known place in Tanzania. With its pristine beaches, jungle-clad hillsides and Indo-Arabian architecture, Zanzibar certainly has a touch of the exotic. Yet there’s a sense that much of its unique culture is becoming somewhat stultified.
For the fact is Zanzibar has become overrun with tourists: even the smallest children know to greet passing ‘Mzungus’ (‘white people’) with the Pidgin-Swahili of ‘Jambo’, and there are touts everywhere, trying to force on to you everything from ‘value’ tours and excursions to knock-off CDs. I have to admit that my first impression of this place were that it had squirrelled away its African soul to present a sanitised bite-sized version designed to exploit visitors for maximum profit.
But stray a little further from the main tourist areas and its true charms unfold before you. It may not be the exotic escape it probably was in days of yore, but simply wandering through the narrow alleyways of the Stone Town – lined with trademark carved doorways – is still a pleasure in itself. I spied delightful glimpses of local life in the simple act of people watching, from groups of men playing bao, to children kicking around an impromptu football made up of plastic bags and elastic bands, and women effortlessly balancing bundles on their heads as they nonchalantly strolled through the maze-like streets.
A couple of standout sites grab the attention. The Old Fort dates from around 1700, and houses a visually impressive open air theatre, even if you aren’t able to see a dance/show occasionally staged there. Spending the sunset hours at Forodhani Gardens opposite the fort is a treat not to be missed. Seeing the sun sink below the horizon of the boat-filled, crystal-clear sea as outdoor vendors cook up delicious-smelling local food is the quintessential Stone Town experience.
Venturing out of Stone Town to explore the remainder of the main island, the island of Pemba and smaller isles such as Changuu Island (a former prison island, now a habitat of giant tortoises) also help you get a flavour – or at least an approximation thereof – of the real Zanzibar. Here you get to see the traditional fishing dhows in action, and relax on the island’s many beaches…although as I alluded to before, beware the more-crowded and touristy ones.
Of course, the main reason for Zanzibar’s soaring popularity is that it is a place of natural tropical beauty married to a unique, traditional way of life that, in places, has been untouched by the passage of time. It is in making the effort to seek out those places yet to be consumed by rampant commercialism that one can, indeed, find a slice of island paradise.
With Zanzibar providing my idyllic archipelago fix, it was time to head north to Moshi, where the KYGN School is located. Naturally, it was my main reason for being there but, like just about every Mzungu you see ambling the streets of Moshi, I was also there to climb Mt Kilimanjaro. Most of the time ‘Kili’ is hidden behind a wreath of cloud, but on particularly clear days you just might be able to make it out, and your eyes will inevitably be drawn to it whenever it is visible.
Compared to places like Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar, Moshi is an easy-going, relaxed sort of place. Yes the streets are etched with dust, the bus (or dalla-dalla) station and market are hives of noise and chaos, and the “flycatchers” (i.e. touts) are definitely still annoying. But the town as a whole moves to a chilled out rhythm, with danger close to non-existent and authentic, charming shops and eateries lining the streets.
After some shopping around, I booked my Kili climb with a reputable outlet that provided a very good standard of service at a reasonable price. So I was all set to go…and then I was struck down by a very nasty illness, along with one of my fellow volunteers at the KYGN School. It was mere days ahead of our first day to climb, and I was so weak that I could barely walk, was sleeping almost constantly and…well, let’s just say unpleasant things were coming out of some of my orifices.
I was not only ill – I was very, very ill, and I was warned that it might be Malaria. It felt as though a dream I’d harboured for years would be snatched away from me, and the knowledge that many people had already sponsored me to climb Kili and raise money for KYGN in the process was hanging over my head. If it turned out to be just a very nasty bug there was a chance I wouldn’t make it. If it was malaria? I could definitely kiss the idea of climbing Kilimanjaro goodbye…