Panafrican News Agency

‘Malawi is my friend’ A PANA Feature by Raphael Tenthani

Dar es Salaam, Tanzania (PANA) - I arrive in Dar es Salaam at around 2am. Ordinarily the weather is supposed to be cool at this ungodly hour.

But not in Dar.

“It’s about 25 degrees Celsius,” announces a policewoman in halting English.

My travelling party and I flag down a taxi to take us downtown Dar es Salaam. He charges us Sh48,000. That sounds like a lot but I have given myself one rule of the thumb whenever I travel abroad: never convert any amount I am paying into kwacha to avoid heart palpitations.

We check in a US$65 hotel. Again that rule of the thumb! If the rooms did not have air-conditioners our blood could have turned into uwende, some say liwende, in no time at all.

“I thought Nsanje is big business when it comes to heat,” I muse to myself. “With this kind of heat Nsanje can as well be Iceland!”

Then I remember I am travelling to Europe in the next couple of days. The weather woman on CNN is all decked up, complete with a shawl around her neck, a wordless caution, warning me that the West I am travelling to the weather is diametrically opposite to what I am experiencing now.

I am particularly interested in one city on her digital map: Brussels 2 degrees Celsius!

Although Blantyre was not as hot as Dar es Salaam when I left, it was hot enough to make me forget to pack anything warm, not even a jacket. In fact I had mulled over putting on a short-sleeved shirt and short trousers complete with sandals. Why? I hate having to pull out my belt and take out my shoes whenever I pass through airports. The September 11 lunatics (you know whom) have really turned the search at airports almost into harassment!

So after doing the business that has taken me to Dar, a visa application to make myself welcome into the Schengen region, I step into the swelteringly hot and humid Dar es Salaam weather looking for something warm to make me survive the freezing European weather.

I decide to walk along the streets leisurely without keeping track of where I am coming from - or going, for that matter. I have the hotel address and thousands of shillings in my pocket anyway. (Never mind that a shilling is not worth that much in ‘real’ money.)

So I wander about, haltingly shooting back ‘Mzuri sana’ to a dreadlocked young man greeting me with ‘Habari yako’ and then trying to sell me kiti moto na ndizi (barbecued pork served with bananas), a woman decked up in a hijab enticing me to her stand of chipisi mayayi (fried chips with eggs) and an excitable young man in a Yaya Toure t-shirt beckoning me to sample his nyama choma na ndizi (goat braai served with bananas.)

As I wander about my mind wanders with me. I think about the ‘cashgate’ and resultant arrests and exposés back home. I wonder what I can do if the infamous Ifmis vomits K2 billion in my account.

“I can spend Christmas in Belize! That’s a real exotic place! Devalued kwacha or not, K2 billion is still a hell lot of money. It can take me to Belize City. No, I have to visit all the impossible places, Kiribati, the Christmas Islands, yes, quite appropriate this season! No, London…”

Some young girl clad in a multi-coloured kitenge cloth jerks me up from my reverie as she tries to bribe me with a free helping of supu ya nguvu (boiled goat) with plantains. Its smell tickles my nostrils but I remember a brief tutorial I got over a beer from a colleague who knows the nooks and crannies of Tanzania that supu ya nguvu is served at breakfast!

My legs are becoming sore. I realise I have been walking for close to four hours. Dar es Salaam seems to be ever congested and work in progress. Several buildings are covered in scaffolding.

They may have several taller buildings here than we have in Lilongwe and Blantyre combined but I find their city untidy and quite unplanned. I had earlier visited the Belgian embassy. The place is hidden in a high-density area close to a busy private hospital, unlike the pristine well-secured location in Lilongwe where we house the German, American and British missions.

But the hospital, named Aga Khan Private Hospital obviously one of the East African investments by the famous billionaire family, gives me some food for thought.

“If we had this idea back home we couldn’t be having TB patients being sold packets of Chibuku at the Queens,” I suggest to my travelling partner, Madalo, as I settle for a bottle of diet Coke.

We have settled in the hospital’s canteen. Her tea being served, Madalo agrees:

“Our hospitals should have canteens like these, that will save guardians and patients from unhealthy food.”

Three heavily pregnant women are busy gossiping (you cannot miss a gossip even if it is made in a language you hardly understand) as they attack a mound of chips. A young boy is wailing loudly as he tags at his mother’s burqa to buy him something but she has other business for the Sh4,000 the item they boy fancies attracts. (Everything is sold in thousands here!)

Back on the streets I can see the sun is getting down. My stomach announces that the omelette and boiled potatoes I took earlier at the hotel needs some replacements.

I beat off the urge to enter into a squeaky clean Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) outlet. I must confess, their price list scares me. Everything starts upwards of Sh15,000. (That rule of the thumb again!)

I therefore settle for a congested ally way where unkempt men are busy attacking bottles of Safari, Kilimanjaro, Bingwa and Kibo served by equally unkempt women. What has attracted me here is not the lagers these men are imbibing, no. I am here for the nyama choma na ndizi these women are serving.

I struggle to place my order. The woman in front of me does not understand any word I utter. I settle for sign language.

But that is not the end of my troubles. I am asking how much I should pay for that but this lady has no way with 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5. She is irritating me with modya, mbiri, tatu, m’ne, tano which sounds like Greek to me.

A young man who comes to her rescue is making things worse. In his wisdom, he thinks I am asking for more nyama choma na ndizi and pile them, six wires of roast beef and six pieces of roast bananas in all, in front of me!

I give up trying to make sense of anything. I know I have more than enough to buy the whole shabby eatery! I just fish out a Sh10,000 note. The woman gladly gives me back Sh4,000 which means the ‘Christmas’ in front of me has set me back by a cool Sh6,000 (never mind how much is that in ‘real’ money, remember my travelling rule of the thumb?)

The way the guzzlers are discussing, nay, arguing, I guess it must be politics. I wish I could join in. Some opposition party has just fired some wayward officials in some power struggle. Politics is the same in whatever language it is played in.

I fail to finish my ‘Christmas’ and I do not fancy another round of language gymnastics so I just leave the shack of a restaurant and hit the streets again.

The sun is getting down. I am not sure when shops close here. My time is 16.00hrs which makes it 17.00hrs here. I remember I have to buy something warm for my impending trip to cold Europe. And I am not sure where I am but I know the name of my hotel and I have enough thousands of shillings stuffed in my pocket to take me anywhere in the port city.

I go to a taxi rank and ask the first taxi driver I meet where I can get something warm.

Another marathon of Tower of Babel duel.

“Umeteka jaketi au suti? Zote zipo hapa!” he asks, checking whether I am looking for just a jacket or a complete suit and challenges me that everything is available.

“No, not a suit, just a jersey…like a coat for cold weather!”


We are obviously going nowhere until an excitable young man arrives. He too is a language disaster but at least he grasps what I am looking for.

“Let’s go to Kariakoo!” he announces as he opens the passenger door for me.

“How much to Kariakoo and the Crown Hotel where I am staying?”

“Sh20,000, no waiting charge, no nothing.”

Despite my rule of the thumb my mental calculations tell me that must be some hell of a bargain.

“My name is Mbaraka!” he offers without me prompting him. I decide against offering mine.

“You remind me of Mbaraka Mwinshehe,” I say.

His name has reminded me of my favourite pastime - music.

“Great guy, this, but he died on the road in Nairobi a long time ago.”

I remember in my youth on holiday home to the village in Ntcheu uncles Sosten and Archangel humming along Mbaraka Mwinshehe’s music, craftily replacing the Swahili lyrics with Chichewa. A famous one for Uncle Sosten was: “Mwana mudogo anamuthawa asanasambe, he ih hee, mwanaka.”

Good old days!

Despite his language handicap, Mbaraka is funny and talkative. As he zigzags the congested Dar streets we talk about everything from women, entertainment joints to politics.

“If you want good girl, student…university, I take you to Concord! Nice girls, students! Sh40,000 just for chatting, but sleep whole night I can talk one for you…Sh60,000,” Mbaraka cajoles me.

Sh40,000 and Sh60,000, in whatever currency, sounds like a lot for a night of mischief with a student. And I am not ready to become a casanova anyway so I change the subject.

“Have you heard about Malawi-Tanzania wrangle over Lake Malawi?”

“That’s politics! We in Dar, no problems with Malawian. I love Malawian. Malawi is my friend.”

Mbaraka tells me Malawians and Tanzanians live side-by-side in Dar es Salaam and other cities.

“We have Malawian doing business at Kariakoo, no problem, in Dar many, many Malawian, no problem, Malawi is my friend.”

We are stuck in traffic. From where he picked me to the market in Kariakoo on a clear road we can do it five minutes. But this is Dar es Salaam where vehicles drive bumper to bumper all day long.

But with a talkative Mbaraka behind the wheel I am just fine.

“In fact,” continues Mbaraka, graduating from being a taxi man to a tour guide, “we have lots of Malawian in Tanzania. We have waNgoni in Songea, lots Malawian.”

But the journalist in me tells me to be probing. “But,” I ask Mbaraka, “did I not hear of Malawians being beaten up, some even being raped in xenophobia attacks?”

I struggle to explain what “xenophobia” means. I go nowhere but Mbaraka gets the drift somehow.

“No, that was police, immigration; those…no paper, chased away but criminals join in and did bad things to Malawian, not only Malawian, Burundi, Rwandese also. Too bad, I love Malawian.”

By now I am more than convinced Mbaraka’s love for ‘Malawian’ is not plastic.

Though not very learned Mbaraka is obviously not stupid. He understands politics. In fact lots of Swahili language newspapers are strewn all over his Toyota Carina.

“The problem is Membe,” he says of Foreign Affairs Minister Bernard Membe. “Membe, he talks, talks, talks, but President (Jakaya) Kikwete is a good man, no talk, but Membe talks, talks, talks!”

Mbaraka says Kikwete “loves woman Joyce Banda. He can’t fight woman, he is gentleman.” I am sure he wants to say “respects” – not “loves” - but political romance is acceptable in diplomacy.

Dodoma resuscitated the age-old border dispute over Lake Malawi, they call it Lake Nyasa this side of the border, to correct what they call “a historical injustice” following Holigoland Treaty of 1890 between Britain and Germany which gave the entire water mass to Malawi.

But for ordinary Tanzanians all that gung-ho talk is politics.

“I love Malawian,” says my good taxi man M’baraka. “Malawi is my friend.”

He helps bargain for my jersey. “If you no speak Swahili here they knows you foreign, you have them dollars, so them cheat,” he warns me but adds reassuringly: “But me go with you, rafiki yangu.”

Vendors are the same everywhere, I muse.

And Mbaraka proves useful in no time. “Sh35,000!” a vendors shouts after I try a jersey that tickles my fancy.

“Thief!” shouts Mbaraka as he yanks the jersey off my back and throws it back at the vendor who shouts his protestations, if not obscenities, as we trudge from his stall.

“Sh20,000,” announces another vendor as I try another jersey.

“Get it!” Mbaraka encourages me. “Good price! Add Sh2,000 for him!”

I oblige and we head for the Carina. “Should I get you the university girl?” he asks, a leering smile playing on his lips.

I guess he doesn’t need nor expect an answer. “I love Malawian,” he says as he negotiates his way out of the kerb. “Malawi is my friend.
-0 -PANA RT/MA 8Dec2013