Heart of Darkness Failure: Reading Reader's Africa on the Central Line to Kigoma
"There is no joy in the brilliance of sunshine."
—Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
Tabora, Tanzania—Jan 31, 2009
Not a good start. It was me and Jess’ last night together before we split ways. After our Mbola site visit, her and the Spicer flew off back to Nairobi. I’m traveling solo by land to meet up with them in a week or two in Malawi. Our hotel in Tabora (Orion) becomes the happening place in town last night. There was a live band that was actually really good. We ate the usual bad food, drank cheap wine and danced with the locals.
Late into the night I realized I forgot to take my malarone. I took it, and there was no water to swallow it down with so it sort of lodged in my throat. Shortly after I was sick. I managed to fall asleep, then woke up realizing I should probably take another malarone as it didn’t have enough time to digest. I took another and it made me queasy again, but I was able to hold it down.
Until morning and I was sick again. Not sure if it was (a) bad tandoori chicken, (b) the cheap wine, (c) the malarone, or (d) all of the above. Jess, the Spicer and Walt Willet left for Dar and beyond, leaving me to suffer on my own.
I had to check out, though the train further west didn’t leave til evening. I hung around reading Reader’s Africa, and walked into town for the last time. I was going to walk to Livingstone’s house, but it was threatening to rain and I couldn’t afford to get my clothes wet then stuff them in my bag. At least Jess left me with her blackberry, which became my only connection to the outside world.
Nothing works here. Probably one of the most dysfunctional places I’ve ever been. Worst than Kenya. And hardly anyone speaks English. Which only inspires me more to learn Kiswahili, which I’ve been trying to do here and there.
The train doesn’t leave til 6 PM and even then I’m not even sure I can get a seat as it’s coming from Dar es Salaam and you can’t book ahead. You just need to wait to see if anyone gets off. There’s a lot of unknowns and connections to make that make me anxious. You can’t plan anything ahead or find out schedules. You just need to sort of be Zen about it. "Hakuna matata," as they say.
Notes on Reading Reader
So yeah, I’ve been “reading” Africa: A Biography of a Continent, which is this monstrous 800+ page book with everything you’d ever want to know about Africa. Jess got it because she asked Jeff Sachs if there was one book on Africa he’d recommend what would it be, and he said John Reader’s. It begins all the way back, in the beginning of time. Everything began in Africa. Before there was life there was Africa. Geologically it was the continent at the core of Pangaea that spun off all the others. And then life emerged first in Africa, the earliest fossils. And human beings emerged in Africa. As the Chemical Brother’s say, “It began in Africa-ca-ca.”
The book goes into all that. There’s no sense in me recounting any of it. If you are interested in understanding Africa though you should read it, the book. Or better yet, read the continent for yourself.
One thing Reader says though that I’d dispute: “The sensory system evolved in response to the need to both find prey and avoid becoming the prey of other organisms.” My take is that our senses came first, and our bipedal bodies evolved in response to our senses’ need to explore, to move our eyeballs around for to see. He does however say that the earliest representations of humans were nomads. As will be the last, so I say. I consider myself nomadic. I don’t know where we live or belong. I’m not sure where my flock is. Or what my flock is for that matter. Maybe this explains my goat fetish. In a previous life I think I was a goatherd.
A lot of these early fossils were found in Tanzania and Kenya up by Lake Baringo, which I blogged of before. Being in these places made it interesting to read about after the fact. Another thing Reader says that made me think: “This capacity to visualize things that do not yet exist has been seen as the fundamental hallmark of culture, imagination.” Along with our big brains, our bi-pedalism and our efficient cooling systems. More than a book on Africa, Africa is a comprehensive book on life as we know it on this planet.
Living on “Swahili Time”
Now I’m at the mosquito-infested train station squatting on the dirt floor with all the other nomads and refugees. Here’s what the station looked like when I first got here.
Now it’s darker and more crowded. Who knows when or if the train will come. Everyone has a different story. Some people say it’s not coming until tomorrow and that I should go home. Some people say soon. Some people say the middle of the night. But people are gathered and gathering in numbers so surely something will happen, you'd think? I have nowhere else to go anyway except back to that hotel with all the cats, tortoises, smelly rabbits, guinea pigs and parrots.
Every car radio is simultaneously blasting a soccer game and every time someone scores all the taxi drivers sound their horns. I’m not even sure who’s playing.
Two different people today have called me, “Chuck Norris.” I think that means I need to shave.
This train station is kind of sketchy, but all these security guards have shown up now that it’s dark and more people have gathered. The rent-a-cops have taken an interest in me, they even asked if I wanted to sit at their post. One of them asked to "borrow" my Africa book. What could I say? So now I have nothing to read. He’s not really reading it, he just has it in his lap. He’s the gatekeeper, checking to see if people have tickets before they let them on the platform. People are rather hostile here. They don’t like when the guards ask for their tickets. A few guys start arguing with them to the point where there’s pushing and shoving going on, the beginnings of chaos, on the verge of eruption. As I'm writing this, a guy just ran through the gate and the guards took off running after him. While the guards were away, all those lingering in the periphery took the opportunity to storm the platform. There’s no order here, and in all these arguments, the security guards in their cheap starchy uniforms never win. The people always remain on the platform. I doubt the police or security have any power, and even if they did, people don’t seem to have any regard for authority here. I asked for my Africa book back and the guard asked me what else I had for him. As if my security depended on me giving him something. I checked my blackberry and some guy said he’d give me $300 dollars for it.
As I was reading my Swahili phrase book, I discovered that there’s such a thing called “Swahili Time!” They have their own time system. The day starts at 0 o’clock, mid-day is around 6 o’clock and the sun sets around 12 o’clock. Um, that would explain some things. If it sounds like some sort of perverse Einstein Relativity hypothetical (“you’re in a train station in Tanzania waiting for a train going west that departs at 6 PM Swahili time…”), it’s not. It’s, like, for real. So if the train comes at 6 PM, what that means to the rest of the world is that the train comes at Midnight. Not that things are even punctual here. It’s more like there’s only 4 times here: morning, afternoon, evening, or night. The train will come "in the night."
The train in fact came at 1 a.m. (to the rest of the world). Being that I had been waiting for some 7 or 8 hours, I was first in line at the 1st/2nd class ticket window. Not that that meant anything. When the trainmaster showed up and went into his office, he told me to wait outside. Then all his cronies and Tabora VIPs pushed past me to crowd his office. They handed him gifts and slips of paper with requests. He wrote out their tickets and kept telling the few plebeians outside his door to wait. At the bar the night before, some White Tanzanian miner redneck downing whiskeys offered to hook me up with an inside track to the trainmaster so I could get such preferential treatment. I was supposed to go to some gas station and talk to some Indian guy. Fuck that.
Finally I pushed my way into his crowded office and was handed a slip of paper that said 1161G on it. It was supposed to be first class, a sleeping compartment for two. When I got to 1161G, there was a family of 6 or 8 camped out in the room, with all their bags and chickens and who knows what else. They had a guilty look to them like they were castaways or refugees or squatters from 3rd class that took over the 1st class compartment. They had no intention of leaving. They told me to take another compartment, 1161E, that was empty. I was in there for a few minutes before a fully veiled Muslim woman came along and told me it was hers, somewhat in shock at the prospects of sharing a compartment with a man, let alone a mzungu (they segregate compartments here for men and women). I didn’t want to risk getting off the train, but I had to. Fought my way back into the trainmaster’s crowded office and he took my slip of paper, changed the G to an H and threw it on the floor at my feet. I went back to 1161H and there was a Congolese man in there on the bottom bunk, so I got tops.
They all laughed at him that he had to bunk with a mzungu. He ended up being really cool, and was playing good music the whole time (note boombox on lap, and that's his briefcase he's using as a pillow). He was a “business,” man that, after some more prodding, told me he sold antiques. He showed me a phone number of somebody he knew in the 212 area code. We talked in English, Swahili and French mixed together. I was happy to be on the train with my own space. Even if it felt more like the inside of a prison cell. The window was shut and when we left the station it was pitch black. I fell right asleep. I woke up a few times when it felt like the lurching was going to throw the car from the tracks. All I remember of the the night was that it was pitch black and smelled of urine. To the sound of the jostling train and tinny Congolese music (Konono N°1 Congotronics, no less) on failing batteries.
Shooting the Central Line Jacked Up on Malarone
The train I was on was the Central Line, staring from Dar and cutting horizontally through the middle of Tanzania, ending on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, at Kigoma (my destination for the time being). It’s the only way to get from Tabora to Kigoma really. I don’t think we crossed a single road along the way. These rails serves as the lifeline to anyone living in the area. Every time we stopped (which was often), the train was mobbed with hawkers and mongers, not just selling you drinks or lunch or snacks, but produce and uncooked provisions. At one station everyone was selling their bags of WFP rice. The terrain is diverse and changes frequently, from forests, to savannah, to swamps to cropland. I didn’t see much in the way of wildlife though, just some hippos wallowing in a muddy river. They grow mostly maize in western Tanzania, but I also saw plenty of cassava, tobacco and sugar-cane. I had some fried fish and then I got a whole sugar cane stalk, chopped into four billy club sized pieces. Taking a cue from my Congolese cellmate, I ripped the cane apart with my teeth and spit out the fiber.
I should probably shut up now and show you some more pictures and video footage from the trip.
Hitting the End of the Rope at Lake Tanganyika
I arrived in Kigoma, a dusty town on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. It was Sunday so nothing was open. I was hoping I could get my ticket for the boat ride on the notorious MV Liemba down to Zambia, get my Zambian visa and then head off to Gombe Stream to see Jane Goodall’s infamous chimpanzees (or descendents thereof), but that would have to wait. Stayed at the Aqua hotel, right on the water, for like $7 a night. There was no sign for it really, I just stumbled across it, spotting the first mzungu, a Swede, I had seen since I parted ways with Jess and the Spicer. He showed me into this ramshackle house to find the "hotel" manager. There was some Hasidic Jew hipster kid sleeping on the couch under blankets like he was getting over malaria. He was watching Terminator on TV. The manager was roused from a deep sleep and showed me to my room.
The next morning I got up early, hoping to take care of everything and squeeze a visit to the chimps. When I got to the port, the MV Liemba was there, but I was told it wasn’t running this week. I was crushed. Evidently there wasn’t enough interest in it or some such thing. They couldn’t sell enough tickets to make it worthwhile.
And here I came all this way just for this. Major bummer.
I was sort of at a loss as to how to proceed. I stared out over the lake at the Congo, wondering if I could just hire a boat. No chance, way too far. I was walking on one of the janky dirt trails that make up Kigoma and saw (1) a used condom laying in the dirt, (2) a guy wheeling a load of large green bananas and (3) some roosters, all at the same time. Then I watched these guys playing soccer until someone scored. I took some photos of the train station until this guy started yelling at me and told me it was prohibited to take pictures of any public buildings. For some reason this is true in a lot of places in Tanzania I would discover. People don’t care if you take photos of them so much, they just don’t want you taking pictures of buildings. Weird. The Tanzania chapter I had ripped out of Lonely Planet wasn’t of much help. There was a dirt road running south, kind of parallel to the lake, but no bus service, and it wasn’t passable in the rainy season. And it definitely was rainy season. Everyone I asked told me to go back to Tabora or Dodoma or Dar even and head south. Or risk it and hitch a ride on a truck south to see if the road went through. If you look at a map, you’ll realize how absurd this is, having to back track to Dodoma or Dar. The idea of getting back on the train for another overnight trip back to where I came from didn’t sound like a good time. So I caved in and used my emergency $200 dollars that I was reserving for the chimp trip to buy a plane ticket to Dar. I got a taxi to the airport, which was just a ramshackle shack with a big UN plane parked on the runway. The train was a few hours late. It didn’t matter. I had Africa to read. The propellered bush plane finally came and I bid a hasty and turbulent retreat back to Dar es Salaam with my vestigial tale between my legs.