Tanzania – Part 2: Immersion



Running Log, 12/26/10 — about 4 miles, out and back from L’Oasis

Our first full day in Arusha was in many ways, as remarkable and memorable as any we experienced during the trip. And yet, when I describe it, it sounds commonplace. I woke up, I went for a short run, we went into town to the market, we visited Oju’s family’s house. We returned to the hotel. Why was it so extraordinary?

I had gone to bed the previous evening listening to loud voices and music from the alley behind our hut, and in the distance, the barking of dogs back and forth in the night. When I woke up, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was actually morning and that I had slept through the night. The wild barking of the dogs had been replaced by the reassuring crowing of roosters. Without stopping long to think, I pulled on my running stuff and prepared for my first solo run in Tanzania. It was Sunday morning, and I figured that there wouldn’t be many people out and about this early. I figured wrong.

I had planned to follow the same route that Joni and I had run the previous afternoon, going a little bit further this time. I went down to the gate and stepped out into the lane, trying to pretend that it was just another run. The first thing I noticed as I took my first tentative steps was that I was not alone. Someone was already walking along the lane. I took my first turn and there were more people walking, plus a bicyclist. After a couple of hundred meters I turned again onto a slightly wider road and was amazed to see people of all ages walking in both directions, some heading down to the main highway, others coming back. Sometimes a bicycle or motorcycle would go by, sometimes a truck or car. This was at 6:45 on a Sunday morning.

I ran down the road avoiding the pedestrians, bikes, and vehicles, and at the same being careful not to stumble on the stones and ruts. I had to keep reminding myself that Tanzanians drive on the left side of the road, not the right, and I tried hard to stay well out of the way of the few motorists. I reached the main highway and decided to turn East, out of town, instead of West the way Joni and I had gone the day before. There were lots of people walking or standing on the side of the road, many of them waiting to catch a ride from a dala dala, one of a motley fleet of minivans that seemed to run at all hours. I’ll have more to say about the dala dalas, but I had not yet ridden on one and knew nothing of their ways.

Although there were some stretches where I had to be cautious, for the most part I was able to progress more or less unimpeded by running on the shoulder between the pedestrians and the lanes of traffic. I started running faster, but soon felt a tightness in my lungs. Even at this early hour, the air was foul with the black haze from diesel trucks, buses, and the dala dalas, as well as from the smoke from open fires. After a few days, all of us would find that being in the city left us with persistent sore throats and hacking coughs. When we blew our noses, the tissues would be black with airborn pollution.

I ran for about a mile and a half, reaching the top of a fairly long rise where a wide dirt road came in from the side. This seemed like a good place to turn around if I didn’t want to miss breakfast, so I headed back. Ten minutes later I was feeling pretty pleased with myself as I made my turn off the highway onto the dirt road, and ran confidently up the hill. The smaller road that led to the hotel was around here somewhere… but suddenly I was passing buildings I had never seen before. For a moment I felt complete disorientation — like waking up and not recognizing the room you are in. I had a moment of panic thinking that I had no way to find my way back, but then regained my composure and realized I had only to backtrack a little bit. Retracing my steps for fifty meters, I saw that I had passed right by what now seemed like an insignificant alley between two houses. This was, in fact, the lane back to the hotel. How quickly that hotel had come to seem like home!

After a breakfast of eggs, toast, cereal, and plates of fresh pineapples, bananas, and mangos, our party — Joni, Loren, Ann, Peter, and I — set off for a walk into town. For the second time that morning I headed down the hill. By now there was a steady stream of people walking or riding bicycles, occasionally moving to the side of the road to let a car pass. We reached the main road and turned West this time, and then continued for another mile or so until we got to downtown Arusha.

Unfortunately, I have no pictures that convey what the downtown area was like. There’s a picture of Loren and me, on some quiet street outside some nice building, but it only makes me want to turn the camera in some other direction away from the calmness. Maybe the absence of any photos with grit reflects that fact that we were feeling uncomfortable at being so obviously from somewhere else; maybe we thought we would be insulting the inhabitants by taking pictures of what we found unusual — the street vendors, the teeming market, the garbage in the streets; or maybe it just didn’t occur to us to try to capture the hot, hustling, unwashed heart of the city. Whatever the reason, I have no images other than the ones in my memory that capture the feeling of that first walk into downtown.


It soon became obvious that what we were doing was following Joni, who led us through a series of errands. Much of the cityscape was familiar — big, modern buildings, with well-dressed men and women coming in and out, billboards for cell phones and coca cola, traffic lights and uniformed policemen. But much was exotic and unexpected — the women with full baskets of fruit on their heads, the men pulling impossibly heavy wooden carts filled with produce.

And then there were the flycatchers. These were young men who hung around downtown waiting for white tourists to show up. They would then engage the tourists in English, Italian, German, or whatever was needed in a clever sales pitch for some cheap painting or trinket. If the victim tried to say hapana, asante — no, thank you, they would smile and pull out a slim English-Swahili phrasebook for sale. If the customer grew really annoyed, they would reach into a bag and offer to sell a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “I am a mzungu, no I do not want to buy anything.” The flycatchers loved talking to Loren, who would engage them in discussions of their favorite American hip hop artists.


Our plan for the day involved meeting Joni’s friend Oju, and taking a dala dala to his family’s house in a neighborhood a few miles from our hotel. Oju himself lived in the village of Monduli, about 30 kilometers from Arusha and the place where Joni had stayed in 2007. I will have a lot more to say about Oju. After buying some gifts for Oju’s family at the central market, we met Oju and found a dala dala headed in our direction.

Here’s how the dala dalas worked: each one had a driver and a “runner” who leaned out a window or the sliding door of the van to announce the destination and encourage people to get on board. At a stop, the runner would leap out of the van and make sure everyone and everything got in. We found out that dala dala carried not only people, but cargo, too — baskets of fruit or vegetables being popular. When we thought the van was full, it wasn’t. More people would get on. When it was time to pull away, the runner would bang his hand on the roof as a signal to the driver, and the dala dala would speed off to its next stop where even MORE people or bananas would get on.

There were dala dalas everywhere and almost every one sported an image or slogan to make that particular vehicle stand out among all the others. Some of these decorations were solemn — for example, references to the bible or Koran — but most of them were images or logos taken from popular culture. Some proclaimed their allegiance to American sports teams or English football clubs. Others had the face or name of a famous public figure — a hip hop artist or politician. Together they formed a kind of garish and bizarre art form, a series of glimpses into Arusha’s and our collective unconscience. Loren and I found them fascinating and hilarious.

The dala dala took us back in the same general direction we had come from, continuing on the highway that I had run that morning. I was surprised when we stopped at precisely the point where I had turned around on my run, and we all tumbled out of the van and collected ourselves.

We were at the beginning of another dirt road that snaked uphill into another recently built neighborhood of shops and two-room houses. As Oju led us up the hill, it began to rain. At first the rain was pleasant, making the heat less oppressive. But soon it was a full downpour and the dirt road was a river of mud. We took shelter under the porch of a low concrete building, while Oju and his cousin disappeared. Considering the heavy rain, I was struck by the lack of urgency to cover bins of produce or other things. Although activity slowed down in the street, it didn’t completely stop, and there were people and animals who simply continued to let the rain fall on them. In about ten minutes, maybe less, Oju returned with three umbrellas. We paired off and continued walking up the road, through the mud, two people to an umbrella, which was really like not having an umbrella at all. Luckily, the rain was already less intense, and by the time we reached Oju’s family’s house about a half mile up the road, the rain had stopped.


How can I describe what it was like to arrive at Oju’s house? It was a distinctly strange and wonderful experiences to step off the soupy dirt lane, duck through a gap in the trees and find ourselves in the open courtyard of their home. There was the main house with a room for sleeping and a room for living/eating; there was a separate structure for cooking meals, an outhouse, and a pen with goats. I think there might have been a chicken coop, too. When we entered this compound, we were treated like long lost relatives by this Tanzanian family. Although our clothes were now sodden and caked with red mud from the road, we felt like honored guests at a state dinner.

ojus_dadOju’s father, mother, nephew, and Oju

There are many local languages spoken in Tanzania, but only two “official” languages. One is English, which is used in higher education, commerce, and government. The other is Kiswahili, or as we say, “Swahili,” which is used for just about everything else. The CIA World Factbook refers to Swahili as the “lingua Franca” of Central and East Africa.

It was our experience that everyone spoke Kiswahili and knew at least a little English, depending on how far they went in school and how much their work required them to interact with English speakers. For example, our tour guide, Rob, spoke English quite well. The hotel staff spoke it adequately. Many of the other Tanzanians we spent time with — Oju and his family, our driver, our cook — had varying amounts of limited English.

By the time we arrived at Oju’s parents’ house, muddy and damp, we had been in the country for a little less than 24 hours. In that time the urge to speak and understand Swahili had become an obsession for me. Despite the fact that I had not yet mastered basic greetings, I was working hard to acquire more words and would repeat them whenever the situation plausibly gave me the opportunity to do so. With Oju, I had practiced some simple phrases, such as introducing myself and my family. Of course, with such a small repertoire, almost all our conversations ended a few moments after they began with me saying asante sana, thank you very much, and Oju saying karibu, you’re welcome, and then appeals for Joni to translate.

Thus, when we arrived at Oju’s family’s house, most of our communication was with smiles, gestures, and a word here or there, or sometimes a longer phrase directed at someone who would render it into the language that the listener could understand. This would be followed by nods, more smiles, handshakes, hugs.

In addition to Oju and his parents, the other family members included Oju’s brothers and sisters, brother-in-laws, sister-in-laws, a niece and nephew, and a baby. Among the adults of Oju’s generation, it was never clear who was a blood relative and who was a relative by marriage. To make things more complicated, the women in the family with daughters were not called by their given name; instead, their family called them “Mama” followed by the name of the eldest daughter. Thus, Oju’s mother was not called by her given name, but was referred to as “Mama Joyce” because Oju’s oldest sister was named Joyce. Another of Oju’s sisters had a daughter named “Pray,” and so she was referred to as “Mama Pray.”

After all of our greetings and after presenting the gifts we had brought, we were ushered into the larger room of the two-room main house, where we packed ourselves in around a low table. I sat between Joni and Peter on my right, and Oju’s brother Emmanuel (“Imma”) and sister Joyce on my left. Imma was gregarious and engaging. He had studied enough English to both keep a conversation going and be able to answer some of my questions about how to say things in Swahili. It turned out he also knew some French, so our conversation, which was mostly on his side, shifted from English to French, with a little Swahili thrown in. Throughout the meal, He also made it his personal mission to make sure I had seconds, thirds, and fourths, of every one of the delicious dishes put in front of me.


Peter, Joni, Jon, Imma, and Joyce. Imma is telling a story and plotting to get me to eat all of the avocados and bananas on the nearest plate.

I don’t know how long we sat at the table, passing around the dishes of rise, beans, vegetables, and fresh fruit. It seemed like many hours, although perhaps it was less. With our limited language skills, we did the best we could to express all that could be expressed, and especially our gratitude for the meal and for their hospitality to us and to Joni.

After our feast, we went outside and a decision was made to see the house of one of Oju’s sisters, a little way up the road. So we all walked to that house, went inside and sat down around another table, where we were served glass bottles of coke and Fanta. Although we were all quite full from our large meal, we would not have considered refusing this gesture of hospitality. Unlike Oju’s parents’ house, his sister’s house had electricity and a TV. For the entire time we were there, the TV played a music video showing alternating shots of a singer crooning away, some African drummers, and a line of men doing cheesy dance steps in apparently traditional tribal costume (think: grass skirts). The music was catchy, but the video was… well, pretty silly, actually.

(We would be surprised when the next day, we visited another Tanzanian home with a TV and saw another similar video playing over and over. It was hard not to think of these as some kind of joke, but they must have been very popular.)

When we had drunk our sodas, someone else had they idea that we should walk up the hillside to a ridge where we could see a nice view of the valley. So we walked out and up, under banana trees, past small garden plots of soft rich soil, and up a steep hill. Oju led the way, bounding up the steep grade like a mountain goat. By this time, everyone knew that Joni had arranged for me and Oju to go for a long run the next day, and as they saw Oju swiftly and effortlessly climb this hill, most of my family started speculating on how long I would last. Only Loren expressed confidence in me, saying that Oju looked like a sprinter to him.

The view from the top of the hill was spectacular and well worth the climb. Although we couldn’t see downtown Arusha, we could see far below us the road we had walked in the rain to get to Oju’s house. We took lots of pictures, and then walked along a ridge to try to get a glimpse of Mt. Meru, the second highest mountain in Tanzania after Mt. Kilimanjaro. I’ve included a picture of Mt. Meru that we took at the end of our trip from a different location, but on that day only the shoulders of the mountain were visible, and the summit was shrouded in mist.


Mt. Meru on a clearer day.

As we walked down the hillside again, the afternoon was getting quite late. We stopped again to admire the building site for a house that another one of Oju’s brothers (or brothers-in-law) was building. It was explained that construction on a house might start and stop many times, as money became available or scarce. We admired the foundation, but secretly worried that the house, built on the side of this steep hill, would wash away with the rest of the hillside if there was too much rain.

Then it was time to say our good-byes to our hosts, to take more pictures, to promise to print out some of those pictures for them, and to begin the long walk down to the main road, where we would catch a dala dala and head back to the hotel.

We began our walk with half the family walking with us, then one-by-one, they would stop and turn back. It was getting late, and there was less than an hour of daylight left for our journey. Both Oju and Joni made it clear that we did NOT want to be out after dark. With the sun setting, we reached the end of the dirt road.

A few minutes later we were on a dala dala, and a half hour later we walked through the gates of L’Oasis in the twilight. None of us were hungry, but we all gathered in the large common room of the hotel with bottles of beer to talk about and relive our amazing day. As we thought of our hosts and their home, we couldn’t help looking around at the hotel with its electric lights, its running water, its refrigeration, and its TV showing English soccer on TV. What had appeared rustic the previous evening, now seemed opulent.

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for more than thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. Sixteen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past ten years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. I've been writing about running for almost as long as I've been running, dating back to high school, when I would write meet summaries for the Amherst Record for about $0.33 per column inch. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. Until recently I also had a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. But I am now on what might turn out to be a permanent sabbatical. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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