Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Learning what it is I do - in Swahili

People in Africa really are as curious about us as we are, them.
Travelling in Africa taught me many things, and sometimes the lessons had to be repeated more than once for me to learn them.

The people there seem to have a real curiosity about others, a real desire to interact and learn about people from other places. 

I saw this on several occasions during a month-and-a-half, seven-country overland tour through East and Central Africa, but the most shining example I saw of this took place on the road in Tanzania between the Ngorongoro Crater and Tarangire National Park.

During our travels there, the main highway through the country was a dirt road; the only paved roads we encountered during our entire journey from one end of the country to the other was in the larger cities. We spent many of our nights bush-camping, either on the side of a rural road or in a schoolyard (with permission). 

Roadside or schoolyard, it made no difference. The minute we pulled up and began setting up camp for the night, local people would appear, almost as if they’d been invisible and decided at that point to show themselves to us.

Most of the time, the people would just would watch and smile. Occasionally they would whisper to each other, laughing quietly from time to time. I can only imagine what they were thinking about these strange visitors from another place who obviously were very well off – but who chose to cook on open fires and sleep on the ground in pup tents.

Every now and then, one or two would reach out to us – or sometimes we’d reach out to them – and a connection would be made. 

In most of these attempts at connection, we often found their English to be limited - but it was still usually better than our “phrasebook Swahili.” If I wanted to say anything other than a hello, ask for beer or thank someone, I had to look it up.

As it turned out, I found out how to say something in Swahili I never expected to learn – but I don’t want to get ahead of myself.

We always had plenty of interaction whenever we stopped to look at souvenirs produced by local craftsmen, and it was always lively, interesting, and entertaining - especially when clothes like hats, sneakers, and colorful T-shirts entered into the mix and became more valuable than currency, which they often did.

It is the nature of merchants to be gregarious, particularly in the bartering culture we encountered so many times during our travels through Africa. They truly enjoyed the interaction, the give-and-take, as much as making an actual sale. It was a social event. And I’m sure they often felt they got the better deal – just like we did.

On one particular day, we were driving along the road after leaving the Crater and saw several road-side stands that offered African carvings, shields and spears, drums, masks – everything that said “Africa.” The lorry we travelled in pulled over and out we poured, 20 of us from North America, Britain, Australia and New Zealand, ready to do business in the African bush.

The craftsmen had some wonderful merchandise, and the biggest difficulty was not finding something we liked, but rather limiting ourselves to a reasonable amount of goods. After all, we did have to transport this back to North America at the end of our trip. We already had accumulated quite a collection during our travels through Central Africa and Tanzania, so we had to try to exercise a bit of restraint.

No restraint? you end up with lots of Africa art in your home.

Myself, and my long-time travelling companion the Divine Ms. K, I found ourselves caught up in several negotiations for several different pieces. She is just as good a negotiator as I am, and once she set her eyes on a pair of Masai figures carved out of ebony wood, she was not leaving until she had them

But she had no intention of overpaying, either.

Once the man she was negotiating with realized this, once he figured out this might take a while, he motioned to someone, and a short, hand-carved wooden stool appeared by Ann’s side. He set it down, smiled broadly and said to her, “Here, this is for you – please, sit,” as he patted the well-worn top of the stool.

Sit she did, and then the bartering got really serious.

It was at that point that Russell, our tour leader, came over and said, “Some of the others want to go back down the road a couple of miles to another group of souvenir stands we passed. But it looks like you’re going to be a while.”

I looked at the negotiation, grinned and said, “Looks that way.”

“Do you feel comfortable being left here on your own for a while so we can backtrack down the road to the other stands? We won’t be more than 30 minutes, then we’ll pick you up on the way back to continue on our way to Tarangire.”

To be honest, I didn’t feel that comfortable. We were pretty much in the middle of nowhere, although there looked to be a few buildings across and down the road a bit, within walking distance. But Ann was having a great time and I didn’t want to be a spoilsport; however, I couldn’t keep the group there, either.

So I nodded, and said “Sure. See you in a bit.”

I had to fight down a bit of nervousness as I watched the lorry pull away, leaving the two of us alone at a roadside craft stand in the middle of the bush in Tanzania.

I overcame some of my nervousness by turning to watch the negotiations for the figures. It had continued unabated during my chat with Russell, and it had drawn quite a crowd by this point. Everyone was enjoying this entertaining new spectator sport: “Memsahib Ann” vs. “Trader Kwanza” in a five-round, no-holds barred, bartering spectacular.

(My occupation was showing. Again, more on that in a bit.)

“Someone should sell tickets for this,” I thought to myself.

Eventually they reached an agreement, both smiling, both figuring they had got the best of the other – but not by too much. Helpers moved to wrap and package the figures she’d purchased along with the items I’d already acquired in the “preliminary bartering bout.” They thanked us, as other merchants tried to persuade us to look at their wares. However, at this point, we were done. Besides, we only had so many arms to carry all this stuff.

This South Africa market is a bit more upscale than the ones we found in Tanzania.

Now – where was that lorry?

Two or three young men of high school age had been watching the proceedings and enjoying the show. They saw that we looked a bit lost at this point, a bit uncertain about what to do next, since there weren’t any bus stops or roadside pullouts where we could sit and wait for the group’s return.
“We would very much like to buy you a Coke,” one of them said in Swahili-accented English. “We can go into that place over there,” he pointed across the road to one of the buildings. “You can sit and wait for your friends and have something cold to drink.”

Of course, ever the paranoiac, my internal alarm bells went off immediately. I was hesitant, a bit leery of accepting the invitation. Could this be one of those cases where we became a news story about two overly trusting white tourists being mugged in Africa?

I tried to hedge my bet, saying, “Well, I don’t know if we have time, the lorry might be back any minute…I don’t want them to drive by without stopping, they might forget about us if we’re not there by the road…”

Ann, of course, had no such qualms.

“We’ll be fine, they won’t leave without us,” she chimed in, still flush and elated from her trading frenzy. “We can probably see the road from the confectionary and run out if it looks like they’re passing us by.”

“Well, I don’t know…”

But as the conversation continued, we continued to drift down the road and then across it, with our new companions. I didn’t want to insult them if they were genuine, but I didn’t want to put us at risk, either – or tip my hand that I thought they were up to something, if they were.

“C’mon, I’m thirsty, I could use a Coke,” she said.

So off we went. Myself, a bit reluctantly.

“Well, at least I don’t have all my camera gear with me,” I thought. “That makes me a less desirable target.”

It turned out my fears were completely unfounded. Like the vast majority of people we met in small communities along the way all through Tanzania and Malawi, they just wanted to be friendly, to share their culture, and learn about us and ours.

They insisted on paying for the Cokes, refused to take anything from us.

It did come with a price, though.


They peppered us with questions.

“Where are you from, the United States?”

“No, we’re from Canada, it’s above the U.S. if you look on a map or globe of the world.”

“Where do you live in Canada?”

“We’re from British Columbia.”

“Is that near Colorado?”

And on the conversations went as we sipped our drinks. Suddenly, it wasn’t so important for the lorry to return so quickly.

The most curious and talkative one of the group, the one who offered to buy us drinks originally, asked me what I did for a living. At the time I was a sports writer, and I explained to him what it was that my job involved.

“Would you like to know how to say that in Swahili?” he said.

Of course I did.

He said it, once, then twice, as I tried to repeat it. We all laughed at that. He then wrote it out for me: “Michezo mwandishi.”

Better check that phrase book, again...
I can pretty much guarantee that you won’t find that in any phrase book.

We chatted a bit more, then before we knew it, the lorry had come back and was slowing down just past the souvenir stands where they’d left us to look for bargains elsewhere.

It turned out, we got the best bargain of all, and it wasn’t something you could wrap up in paper and ship home.

We said good-bye to our new friends and climbed aboard to head off down the road to more adventures.

Aside from learning how to say my occupation in Swahili, I took much away from that encounter.

All throughout our journey, we met people who had a hunger for knowledge – knowledge about the world outside of their own, a thirst for learning about other people, a craving to connect. That was never more evident than that particular meeting, where a young man - whose family probably made less in a year than I did in a month - insisted he treat me, a visitor, to a cold drink in the local confectionary.

And despite having so little material wealth, they all seemed to be so happy and so friendly and so eager to connect.

That human connection is so vital to our well-being - whether it’s connecting with someone in Africa, or just making a connection with your neighbor down the street.

It also taught me that the secret to happiness is not how much you have or how much you can buy or barter for, but how you relate to others, the richness that comes from sharing…sharing a Coke, sharing a joke, sharing language, sharing experiences.

At times throughout the years since, I’ve struggled to remember that, to maintain it. Sometimes I succeed, other times I fail. But when I’m in one of those downer funks, sometimes it helps me to think back to those young men in Africa, and how happy they were just to buy a treat for a visitor that they knew they would probably never see again.
Sometimes that helps lift me out of it. And I think how no price could ever really be put on that invaluable Coke I sipped in rural Africa so many years ago.

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