Post Card from Africa: From Zanzibar to a Crowded Dala-Dala

October, 2018

Hello Everyone,

I’m back in Africa again for a couple of weeks already, but the first week was a bucket-list vacation: Zanzibar. The idea started with a group of friends who were on a mission to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. Eileen and her daughter Molly,as well as  Patti, Diana, Claudia, and Pam were the impressive women who actually did it. My friend Jane and I said, “Naahhh, not our speed,” so we went to Zanzibar and flew back to mainland Tanzania to meet them when they came down from the mountain.

I’m beyond proud of them, but Zanzibar was a blast. The exotic name has always intrigued me, and I had visions of tropical beaches and spice markets. Guess what? We never lounged on a beach. It was an amazing experience spending time with the locals. One of the highlights was a traditional drumming lesson at a music academy. We got about double the amount of time scheduled as the instructor, Harry, after our lesson taught us what we would learn if we came back another day. At one point, he decided a drumhead needed tightening, and proceeded to heat it with a burning piece of cardboard while I made sure we had a clear path to the door should the tuning get out of hand. I suspect the skin contracts as it cools, and Harry was satisfied with the result. Backing up though, when we signed up for the lesson, they said they would send someone to pick us up and take us to the academy. A young man arrived promptly as scheduled, and he did take us there – escorting us on foot!

We also signed up for a cooking class and were to meet the instructor at the main outdoor market in town where she would buy the ingredients for our meal. Leaving the hotel, another young man recognized us and offered to walk us across town to the market. There are no such things as parallel streets and there are no street signs, so maps are fairly useless and this was a much-welcomed offer. What we didn’t realize was that after shopping with the instructor, we had a long way to go for a tour of a spice farm and the class at the instructor’s home across the road and through the boonies. The mode of transportation was a very “un-touristy” dala-dala.

You haven’t lived until you’ve been crammed into one of these for a long ride with 24 other people and all their stuff. Seating capacity and personal space are alien concepts. This is a photo of one from an article – not even packed close to the sardine can we were in. It would have been impossible to take a photo of or from ours because 1) we were too jammed in to take a phone out of a pocket or a camera out of a bag; 2) we couldn’t see anything past the people squatting in the middle, blocking our view of anything; and 3) we would not have been able to turn our shoulders enough to take a picture out the side. You can’t stand inside if you’re taller than a 6-year-old, so if you are lucky enough to snag a seat, then as people jockey for squatting room, you might get some of their parts in your face. One young man was trying to board with his baby who looked to be about a year old. He gave the boy to a strange man to hold while he climbed in and then let that man hold the boy for the whole ride. The baby even fell asleep. Eventually the father got off the dala-dala, took his baby, and never a word was exchanged between the two men. After the driver decided it was full enough, he didn’t stop for more passengers, but he went slowly enough that men would run after it, hop on, and seemingly impossibly squeeze into a space or just hang off the back. I didn’t see any women try that move.

The spice tour was informative. The class wasn’t so much a class as the two of us helping by chopping vegetables and having an interesting afternoon with the instructor and a couple of her small children in her home while she cooked a delicious meal on little charcoal stoves in the well-ventilated living room.

I won’t go on about all the people we met and spent time with, but suffice it to say, I have never experienced a group of people who were so consistently kind, friendly, sweet and sincerely helpful. As an example, people didn’t just give us directions to someplace; they walked us there. The security guard at the hotel not only walked us through the winding alleys to a restaurant after dark, but came and escorted us back to the hotel afterwards, just to make sure we got back safely without getting lost.

As I mentioned, Jane and I flew back to mainland Tanzania to meet up with our friends. The next morning, they all headed for a safari and I headed back to my South African life. It was raining that morning on the way to the airport and the windows of the vehicle I was in were pretty foggy. The driver had a box of tissues on the windshield and could barely keep up with wiping to maintain a clear view ahead. It was a fairly new SUV so I was surprised he was having this problem. I pointed to the defroster and asked if it was working. He didn’t know what it was, and said he was afraid to touch anything he didn’t know about on the company vehicle. I said, “Watch this,” and turned the defroster on full blast. It took all of 5 seconds to clear the window. His reaction of astonishment was priceless. He said he would now have to tell all his friends how to do this. The icing on the cake was when I enlightened him about the rear window defogger!

So, onward to South Africa. Be honest. Have any of you ever switched your cell phone back on before the plane reached the gate? I usually wait, but this time I didn’t, and before the plane actually landed, the boys were calling. I tell them what day I’m arriving, but they have an uncanny sense of what time. To them, I’m not coming back; I’m coming home.

The Rent-a Wreck company sends someone with my car to meet me at the Johannesburg airport. The guy was happy to inform me that it was the same “nice” old Honda I had last fall – you might remember, the one the criminals broke into and removed the steering wheel to mess with the ignition but ran off when they saw me and my friends coming back. I’ve had enough car trouble that they give me free upgrades, if you can imagine this being an upgrade, and they swear they give it a thorough inspection to make sure everything is in good order.

The next day, I went shopping, came back to the car to drive home, and saw a guy pointing to the front of the car with a look of concern. Well… half the front bumper was hanging down. Someone must have rammed into it. Where’s a roll of duct tape when you need it? This good Samaritan then without my asking, got under the car and reattached the bumper as best as he could without benefit of tools (or duct tape).  He wouldn’t accept any payment from me. I made it home without any problem, but the fix only held until the next morning. I called Rent-a-Wreck and they sent someone out to do a proper fix, which he did. I’m sure mechanics hate this, but since he was there, I asked him to check the friction noise coming from the steering column. So he took the steering column apart and since he wasn’t prepared for this request, he asked me if I had any grease. Of course I didn’t. He said, ”What about Vaseline?” I said, “No. The closest thing I have to Vaseline is Vicks VapoRub.” He said, “That will work.” There are many uses for Vicks, but this is a new one. And it held up for a week, until the noises came back worse. This time they told me I could take it to a local mechanic and they would pay for the repair. I did just that. It turns out in the first attempted repair, something was reassembled backwards. Like the guy in the shopping center, the local mechanic wouldn’t take any money from me.

My guardian angels are working overtime again.

Marilyn Traugott

Marilyn is the founder and director of One Future at a Time (www.onefutureatatime.com), a tax exempt nonprofit organization that raises funds to support health, education, and personal empowerment in impoverished communities in South Africa, Uganda, and Rwanda. She spends a significant part of each year in Africa, where she is involved on a voluntary basis with projects and programs for local organizations as well as with individuals and communities at large. Over time there, she has become a mentor, mom, and friend to many children and young adults.

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