About Me

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Author of Safari Jema, A Journey of Love and Adventure from Casablanca to Cape Town http://tinyurl.com/owdwvrp I write about travel and adventure from my home in California and from Africa. I've sailed a catamaran from California to Hawaii, trekked in the Himalayas, worked as a construction manager on a bridge project in Zambia, hiked 500 miles of the Camino de Santiago, (http://bootsbedouinsandabridge.blogspot.com/) and traveled in over 100 countries and all seven continents. Indie Book Award Winner for Best Memoir of 2012, New York Book Festival Honorable Mention for Non-Fiction, San Francisco Book Festival Honorable Mention for Non-Fiction, Travelers Tales Solas Award for Best Travel Writing Honorable Mention for My Gambian Husband. Indie Book Award Finalist - Best Travel Book 2013. BOTYA Honorable Mention 2013 - Travel Essay. Member of The Explorers Club since 2013 You can follow my current 2013-2014 expedition across Africa, this time in a 1973 Land Rover Series III 109 on http://teresaokane.blogspot.com/ and on facebook https://www.facebook.com/safarijema

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Dancing Bridge at Kamunjoma

“Mwauka bwanji!” greeted the Nsenga woman as she shook my hand and curtsied. She doesn’t curtsy just for me. Everyone greets one another with a respectful dip.

It was our first morning in Kamunjoma Village and the beginning of our bridge project. Well, not our bridge project. The community, led by the indomitable headmistress of Kamunjoma Elementary School Diana M’wanza, contacted the non-profit Bridges to Prosperity for help in building a pedestrian bridge between the village on one side of a seasonal river and the school and clinic on the other. B2P provides an engineer and volunteers to a developing country to oversee and teach, but the village takes ownership of the bridge from its inception and is responsible for gathering all the materials and labor. Most of the funding comes from grants from local rotary clubs partnering with rotary clubs from around the world. Though not big fans of many NGO’s or charity organizations in Africa, this one sounded unquestionably worthwhile to Scott and me and we finally got our chance to volunteer this summer. I mean, anything that can prevent kids and sick people from being washed away during the rainy season and keeps girls going to school all year can’t be a bad thing, right?

We met Candice, an Engineers Without Borders volunteer, over breakfast in Lusaka after an epic 18-hour bus ride from the Zambian border. Candice is overseeing the four bridge projects under construction in Zambia this summer. Later that afternoon, we met Zoe the B2P country director who said brightly, “This is full immersion for you!” as she handed us a manual before leaving to spend a month in Italy. “Have fun!” she added as she drove off. The next morning Candice showed us a fifty-foot long “demonstration” bridge in Lusaka built by B2P. As a local woman walked from one side of the suspension bridge to the other she complained, “It dances when I walk on it!”
“She should try walking on the 350-foot span you guys are going to build!” said Candice. She drove us to the Shoprite grocery store where we bought supplies -camp stove, food, wine (you can take the girl out of College Park, but you can’t take College Park out of the girl!) then drove us 400 kilometers to Kamunjoma village in Eastern Zambia 5 kilometers from the Mozambique border.

The bridge site at Kamunjoma is 45 kilometers from Petauke the nearest boma (town) but it takes four hours on a bush mini bus, or two hours in a Community Council vehicle, or three and a half hours in a land cruiser (more specifically the land cruiser of former premiere national soccer team player Joseph Manson) which has no brakes – or starter motor, a proper fuel tank, springs, or the sufficient amount of lug nuts to keep a tire in its place – to get there. Kamunjoma village has a population of around 50 families, has no running water, no electricity and is way out in the boondocks over very rough dirt roads. It’s perfect! The only thing lacking are elephants. The extent of wildlife out here is bats (flying out of the hole in the ground we use as a toilet), and the goats, chickens, cows, pigs, and enormous spider (Eek! almost too big for the toilet paper roll it climbed out of) that wander through our camp.

We set up our camp under a tree just across from Kamunjoma School. The compound consists of four classrooms in two buildings and five tidy teacher houses behind the school. Because there are only five teachers for 316 students, the students attend class in shifts all day from 7am to 5pm. The teachers are delightful, hard working, and earn US$ 400 per month.

At 6:30 each morning students – some who have walked more than 5 kilometers – begin sweeping the entire compound with knee high brooms made of twigs. After the grounds are swept, the Zambian flag is raised and classes begin. Subjects are Geography, Science, Math, Civics, English, History, and a couple of other subjects I can’t identify by their abbreviations. The classrooms are bare except for desks (shared by two), a sweeping roster, and a blackboard. I have yet to see a single book. Though the children all live in huts made of mud and they walk to school over dusty paths they always manage to look sparkling clean, tidy and spotless in their pressed school uniforms and ties.

Our camp is comfy cozy with two chairs, a table, and of course, the hammock we brought from home is slung between two branches on the tree. Each morning at dawn a family of chickens join us for breakfast. They cluck and scratch outside our open tent door while we sit inside sipping coffee, and dipping and eating Rusks (rock hard buttermilk biscuits). A brand new shower enclosure built just for us is 20 paces away and the clean and odor free brick enclosed long drop toilet – hole in the ground – is 60 feet away. I can’t figure out how it is that they have no odor. Except for the bats, spiders, and occasional mouse, they are as pleasant as they get. At 6:45, the bridge workers begin arriving by foot or bicycle from their villages. Sometimes a few ox carts or cowboys pass by our tent window. Cowboys are boys who tend cattle instead of going to school. They get paid after five years of service – one cow.

The school is located along a ridge with soft shallow valleys dropping away on either side. We are able to watch the sunrise in the mornings and see it set (just over the toilet enclosure) in the evenings. The harvest is complete and farmers are busy burning off the maize fields – all that smoke in the air makes for spectacular sunsets. Sometimes Manson comes by for popcorn, a glass of wine, or a cup of tea we serve with shortbread cookies called Eet-sum-mors. You can never go wrong offering someone food. There are two seasons here: the “harvest season” and the “starvation season”. Right now everyone is in a good mood and there is lots of laughter because bellies are full. There is loads of the staple corn meal (sheema) to eat and ground nuts aplenty.

It is full dark by 6:30 and the school is deserted so after cooking and eating dinner we usually go to bed. Most nights we can hear drumming and singing coming from distant villages.

There is no phone service and no cell coverage, except for in two spots. One is a two-kilometer walk away on a well-worn path that leads to a tree overlooking another pretty valley. The villagers call the fifteen square foot spot “The Network”. The first few times we walked to The Network children had to show us the way. Now they just come with us for fun. They run and bounce and laugh with absolute delight when we talk to them or show them their photos on the camera screen. Everyone, even the headmistress, bursts out laughing when they see their image. Some have never seen a picture of themselves so friends have point to the screen and say, “There’s you!” in their language, Nsenga.

The other place we can get cell service is outside the head mistresses office at school. But you must face classroom number 1 and hold the phone way above your head. Conversations are never possible (unless you are 6’7’’ like my brother Sean) but texting is – though this only works between dusk and dawn, and only if there is no wind. Despite the inability to make phone calls regularly there are signs on one-room shops or stalls from Kamunjoma to Petauke that read, “Top Up (your call time) Here!”

Candice stayed with us on the job site for only one day. She (thankfully!) confirmed that
the foundation holes had been dug in the right spots and were approximately the right dimensions. Together we confirmed that the sand-to-cement proportions the block makers were using was correct and that there were the required three huge piles of rock and river sand next to the bridge site. We weren’t exactly handed a bridge manual and told, “Good luck!” but almost. As she left, Candice told us, “Don’t worry! There will be a Zambian man who works for B2P joining you in a few days. Boston knows everything!” Boston never showed and a week later we received a text that he was no longer on the job. Maybe he had gotten tired of waiting for the project to actually begin.

Bridge construction was scheduled to begin on May 15th while we were transiting through Africa. On May 15th in Egypt I said to Scott, “We’re missing out on the beginning of construction! I hope we get there before it’s completely finished.” Scott, ever the realist, looked at me and said, “Are you kidding? We will be lucky if the project has begun by the time we arrive!” We had the same conversation in Sudan on June 15, in Ethiopia on July 15, and on August 1st the day we arrived in Zambia because construction had been routinely delayed. Apparently the village had been too busy with the maize harvest to worry about a bridge. But by the time we arrived most of the fields had been cleared and they were completely committed to the project. (Maybe that was because of the three-page letter from B2P threatening to build a bridge elsewhere unless the village started assembling materials.) Anyway, Candice drove away and left Scott and me with a manual, two holes in the ground, and a crew of men, women, and children to build a 350-foot bridge. “Holy crap!” I said to Scott as we dove into the project headfirst. We set centerlines and corners with the masons (a frustrated Scott continually saying to the masons: “It must be a square, not a parallelogram”) and began studying the bridge building manual. We know construction but we’ve sure never built a bridge before – especially in a developing country with people who have never even seen a structure over one story tall and who don’t speak or understand English. Of the three masons working on the bridge, Boma Banda is 86 and really doesn’t see very well. The second mason, Grandwill Pheri is not quite that old but he had to quit after a week because of a swelling in his groin (every time I ask the crew, “How is Grandwill today?” they begin giggling uncontrollably.) The third mason is Patrick Chirwa. He is a little older than Scott and savvy about bricklaying but still bewildered about what “level” means. (Though we had a breakthrough the other day when he used a tape measure to make sure one of the tiers was square.) The masons get paid four dollars a day. None of them speak English.

There are also 8 unpaid laborers who mix cement and move river sand and rock from an ox cart (if we are lucky to have an ox cart show up that day) to the wheelbarrow, and 4 other unpaid laborers who are detailed to make 2000 cement blocks. They all call me “Madam” and are thrilled when I remember their names. Last names are easy because there seems to be only 4 or 5 main clans in the 9 surrounding villages that are supplying labor and will benefit from the bridge: Banda, Zulu, M’lungu, Tembo, and Pheri. The first names are sometimes harder to remember. One of the block makers has a name that sounds like Onebagof Salt. Many have biblical names like Aaron or Joseph or Moses so those I remember but only after pairing their name with a physical characteristic like, Few Teeth or NYC Baseball Cap or Beautiful Smile, though that one is not as helpful since they all have beautiful smiles, even Few Teeth.

The women and children of the village work as well. The women and girls deliver river sand from plastic buckets on their heads and the boys, well, the boys do whatever the headmistress tells them to do.

The second day we were there, seventeen 12 to 18 year-old boys were detailed to build me a shower enclosure. Dressed in their school clothes – blue trousers, light blue shirt and blue tie – they constructed an enclosure near our tent made from tree branches and tall grass. It was all tied together with strips of bark. They even fabricated a hook from which we could hang our sun shower. When I stood in the nearly finished enclosure fully clothed and mimed taking a shower one of the younger boys said with a smile, “Yes. Be very clean. Yes, get all the details.” I thought he was too young to know all about the “details”, but apparently not.

Another eight boys were excused from class while they unloaded the 50 bags of cement that had arrived one day and, with regularity, the youngest boys suddenly pour out of class at a full run and pick up sticks to chase the cows, goats or pigs that walk through our camp. Today, a line of forty students, each one carrying a cement block that weighs at least 30 pounds, made their way from the spot where the blocks are being made to the bridge site, a half kilometer away. The girls – three of whom bring us buckets of water balanced on their heads each day each day – carried the blocks on their heads too.

Whenever children bring any adult or us something (oranges, lemons, a message…) they present it with both hands on bended knee. One day Scott asked the headmistress for a bucket so we could get water to do laundry and she said, “I will get one of the children to do it. The children here are free!” There are two other phrases Diana is fond of saying, “These children are strong!” and, “We teach our children to be self reliant!” And they are. There is an invisible boundary 40 feet from our camp where the strong children take a break from schooling or laboring or playing to stare at us. We were told that the last white person to stay here was when the school was founded in 1912. “How are you!” they sometimes call with impressive rolls of the “r”, but mostly they just stare and smile because we are the first white people they have ever seen.

The walls inside the foundation pits on each side of the bridge were completed within a few days. Eight men, led by Edwin the ever-smiling foreman who speaks English but doesn’t seem to always understand it, threw large stones into the pit and compacted and leveled the rocky mass. The masons applied a concrete apron around the rim readying it for the first of three one-meter-high tiers that will be built on top of each foundation. The main thing Scott and I have to do everyday is to keep an eye on the four guys who mix the mortar. Often there is not enough sand, or they are mixing it with cloudy river water instead of clear bore hole water, or it has been kept sitting too long before the masons are ready for it, or it has too much water. The other concern is, like I said, one of the masons is 86 and doesn’t see very well. His blocks are rarely level but because he is so venerated, no one, including us, wants to say anything because he still manages to climb in and out of a one-meter hole in the ground, heave blocks and rock around, and is sweet and nice and 86. Scott’s major frustration is that there doesn’t seem to be a word (or concept!) for “level” in the Nsenga language and of the 4 levels on the job site, only 1 actually works and that one is so scratched up it’s barely legible.

This bridge project reminds me constantly of something my dad always said, “Do the best you can with the tools you’ve got,” because the level is the only tool we have on the job site. I shouldn’t say that. We also have one wheelbarrow, two buckets, three shovels, and three trowels. But what we would give for a water level, a string level, a sieve, gloves, and a plumb bob! If fact, this weekend we are going to make an all day trip to the nearest town that has a hardware store (Chipata, about 150 kilometers away) to buy some or all of these items. In an ideal world we would have brought our own tools from home but since we’ve been on the move in South America, Spain, and Africa for four months it just wasn’t feasible to lug it around with us. The only “tool” Scott brought from home was his Leatherman. He thought at least he could us the pliers to wire rebar together but after carrying it more than 14000 miles, the only thing he’s used it for is to open a can of corned beef. Anyway, we don’t really mind going to Chipata. There is reputed to be a Mexican restaurant run by a former Peace Corps volunteer and his Zambian wife. Definitely worth 6 hours on public transport!

We’ve had one disheartening day when the importance of using correct amounts of sand, water, and cement was clearly driven home. The masons had finished the first bridge tier, measuring 11-square feet by one meter high. All night Scott had a nagging concern that the mortar hadn’t been mixed properly and wasn’t strong enough. In the morning he was able to knock down blocks simply by tapping on them. When Scott told the workers that the entire tier would have to be rebuilt they weren’t too happy. They thought it was a waste of cement. “It is going to lower your profitability” one man said to Scott. “There is no profitability!” said Scott exasperated. “These bridge approaches will be 4 stories high. The most important thing is that they are strong!” They were still doubtful. Also they have real difficulty picturing something they have never seen. “…Four stories…” But the tier came down so easily that there has been a lot more attention to detail ever since, especially where mixing mortar is concerned. Scott really knows his mud. One of Scott’s jobs in college was mixing mortar for mason extraordinaire, Al Giovanni and Scott was fond of saying to Al, “Whoever mixed the mud must have really known what he was doing!”

If I’m not on the bridge site by 7am each morning everyone asks, “Is Madam alright?” “She’s fine! She is with the block makers this morning,” says Scott. But the bush telegraph has already gone out that Madam may be sick and pretty soon I have women stopping by to mime that I should drink a little water with sand or dirt mixed in it and I will be fine. (Not a bad piece of advice actually. Pepto Bismol is always a fall back remedy for me when I’m traveling and it mostly consists of clay.) Anyway, so no one worries about my health I have to be at the bridge site first thing and greet each worker individually with a handshake and “Mwauka bwanji!”

Then yesterday the head of the PTA walked (there are no vehicles except for the once a day bush mini van within 35 kilometers of Kamunjoma) from his village to meet Scott. He said, “The block makers are lonely if Madam doesn’t come by to see how they are doing.” The bridge site is between the village and the school but the block making takes place near a well behind the school so now I have to make several trips a day back and forth between job sites. They all work so hard and it is important that we notice. “Zicomo quom beeli!” “Thank you so much for your hard work!” I say when I see them and their smiles could light the village.

We are having the time of our lives out here. Aside from walking between job sites, (“Madam! See how many stones we have collected!”) I spend my time with the children. Mostly they teach me words in Nsenga of which the most common words sound like Mocha, Beano, and Nacho (with a decidedly Italian inflection), or we take turns drawing pictures in the dirt with a stick, or they show me the trucks they have built from discarded wire, cardboard, and plastic bottle caps. One day Edwin brought me a flat lump of mortar that had sat too long. “This one is expired!” he said handing it to me. It made a wonderful bush blackboard.

Scott thrives out here. He gets invited to the huts of headmen in adjoining villages and is given live chickens as a gift. (When he returned to camp carrying the still live chicken by its feet I said, “What the heck am I supposed to do with that?” I hope the headman did not hear that we re-gifted it to the headmistress.) The other day we were the guests of honor (“Thank you for the invitation. Please, keep the chicken”) at a village Nyao Dance performance. I loved it that Scott joined in on the dancing and the frenetic gyrations of the masked Nyao dancers.

Most of all, I love people’s names –Innocent, Sweetness, Happy, Charity, Special, Godfrey... I also love hearing women sing, just for the heck of it. And the drumming. Oh, I love the drumming. And I love it that the village is throwing a party just for us. The children have been practicing all week what they will perform for us. I just love it.

Scott and Tris
Kamunjoma Village, Zambia

You can see photos at http://picasaweb.google.com/scottandtris

To read more about Bridges to Prosperity you can find their link at http://www.firstgiving.com/teresaokane

Next: The Kamunjoma School Fete, an Evening with Mr. Sky.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Avoiding Arrest on the Zambia Border- We’re not a Gang…. We’re a Club!

Don’t tangle with the Zambian police. They will search your bags, intimidate you, open a docket (which will become your Zambian permanent record), threaten to take you to jail, and will ultimately, as humiliating as this is to admit, make you cry.

We disembarked from the MV Liemba in Mpungalungu and passed through Zambian immigration with ease. They even accepted a photocopy we had printed out from the Zambian Consulate web site stating that as Irish citizens (yes, we're duel citizens), we would be exempt from paying $100 for a visa. They couldn’t have been more welcoming. They brought us into an office and gave us seats in front of a computer and stamped our passports. A half finished solitaire game glowed on the screen prompting me to wonder if the entire world plays solitaire. Everyone was so friendly! They all but offered us a Guinness. But when all the immigration formalities were completed and we were almost at the port gates we were abruptly stopped by the Zambian equivalent of Homeland Security. “Security Check!” a burly Zambian shouted and pointed us towards an open door where a well dressed young woman and three policemen were examining a deck of nudie playing cards that they had just confiscated from another passenger off the ferry. “Put your bags on the table! Where are your medicines? What’s in here?” demanded a policeman while prodding the compartments on our day pack. “Where do you keep your medicines?” He asked again.

I handed him the zip lock bag that holds our malaria tablets, antibiotics, allergy medicine, Pepto Bismol, and aspirin.

One of the policemen zeroed in on my allergy medicine. “This is Benadryl,a controlled substance in Zambia! Who do these belong to? Where is your prescription?” he asked sternly.

“They are mine,” I answered keeping my eye on two others who continued to paw through our bags. “I don’t need a prescription. I bought it over the counter in California. They are for my allergies.”

“Well, now you are in Zambia and here you need a prescription. This is a serious matter,” he said in a tone a TV cop would use when he was about to arrest a drug dealing gang member.

I wanted to say, "Well, that's just silly!" but I took my time before responding. You never know which way things will go with a cranky border official and I really just wanted to get out of there. I looked from him to the eight allergy pills in his hand. I could argue the issue, demand to see his superior and possibly walk away with my allergy medicine, but that would take far too long and we had a bus to catch. “Well, I’ve been carrying those eight pills for four months and haven’t had to take one yet,” I said with a smile trying to come up with just the right thing to say so he would let us go on our way. “I guess one option is that I hand them over to you. Or, I guess we could destroy them. That would be another option.”

“No”, he said even more brusquely. “The only “option” is that I open a docket and arrest you for drug trafficking”, he finished while reaching for a sheet of paper.

What? Was this some kind of joke? Some weird Larium dream? I looked over at Scott in disbelief. His eyes said, “be careful what you say.”

You could have heard a pen drop as the policeman recorded all my passport details and confiscated my passports. “I am sending for the chief of drug enforcement”, he said. “Come with me.”

We waited in stunned silence in the small office of the Zambian DEA chief. Did he want us to offer him a bribe? Should we? Or would that just get me in more trouble? I was becoming more anxious by the minute. I felt the situation could go south if I said or did the wrong thing.

Fifteen agonizing minutes went by before the chief entered the office. He sat down behind his desk and said that I was in “a serious bind.” He fingered the eight Benadryl and studied my travel documents. He asked how long we were going to be in Zambia and where we were going to stay. He made some notes and looked through every page of my U.S. and Irish passports. He put the Benadryl packet aside, put his hands together and repeated what the policeman had said, “This is a serious offense,” and since I was evidently being arrested in slow motion, he inserted a hugely pregnant pause before leaning forward and adding, “but,” he paused again, “when someone is trafficking in drugs, they usually have more than eight pills in their possession.” He said nothing else for a full minute. Maybe that was when we were supposed to offer the bribe, I don’t know. I do know that I was holding my breath. I was beginning to feel a little dizzy when he finally he concluded, “I think perhaps your intent was not to sell these.”

I took a breath. “That’s right. My intent was to take them for my allergies. See?” I said pointing to the label. “It says, ‘Benadryl Allergy’.” I thought of our African Trails pals Alice and Tom and how they had nearly been arrested a month earlier in a bar at 3am in Ethiopia and thought it might have been better if I were intoxicated like they were when they were taken in for questioning. Tom's defense was, “We are but humble travelers” though “humble” came out “hummel” I'm sure. In any event, they were released without charges. One of the policemen even paid the damages for the mirror they (allegedly) broke in the disco.

Zambian policemen are apparently not so flexible. The drug enforcement chief picked up the sheet of paper with my Zambian Permanent Record to date, pushed back from his desk and relaxed comfortably in his chair. “We will take possession of these illegal drugs and keep a record that you brought them into the country without the necessary paperwork - in case there is any more trouble,” he finished ominously.

I felt a rush of relief. A few minutes later, I was in tears. Not because he had suddenly changed his mind and decided to arrest me – he didn’t. But after he dropped the charges, he started to act like all was forgiven, like he wanted us to friend him on facebook. He continued to keep us in his office and ask questions. He asked what the weather was like were we live, had we been to Zambia before, were we planning on doing any safaris while there We had already been detained over an hour and I wanted to get out of there before he decided something else in our bags, like my bikini top, or Scott’s Leatherman tool, was somehow contraband material. It was probably due to the small amount of sleep I had over the two previous nights on the Lake Tanganyika ferry not to mention the considerable stress of nearly being thrown into a Zambian jail, but tears suddenly began to roll down my checks uncontrollably.

Looking at me in complete bewilderment the chief asked, “Why are you becoming so emotional?”

I stood up and blubbered, “I’m very tired. We were on a ferry for three days and now we have an uncomfortable 15-hour bus ride to Lusaka to look forward to, which we have probably already missed. And gee, I guess being threatened with arrest makes me cry.” I wanted to say more but didn’t want to press my luck. I gave one last look at the allergy medicine on his desk, shot him a look of disgust, picked up my backpack and stormed out the door. He didn’t try to stop me.

I walked through the port gates and started up the road to the bus station muttering, “…corrupt official…. asshole…. I wonder how much he will sell my Benadryl for …” Scott caught up and gave me a hug. “That was pretty scary!” I said, blowing my nose and hugging him back.

After we had been walking about five minutes we saw a man standing on the side of the road next to a white sedan with an open trunk. It was the DEA chief. “Your bags look too heavy. Please allow me to give you a lift to the bus station.”

“No thank you!” I said without breaking my stride. I could tell he felt horrible but I thought maybe, just maybe, he’d be a little more understanding or at least not so excruciatingly unhurried, when arresting (or not arresting!) the next unsuspecting Benadryl carrying traveler. Though to be safe, if you are ever detained at a border or crack a mirror in a disco overseas, try the “We are but humble travelers” defense. It just might work.

We did manage to catch the last bus to Lusaka that day (one that took 18, not 15 hours though), and arrived at Lusaka at 7am the next day in time to have breakfast with Candice, the woman in charge of our bridge project.

A week later in Petauke, we had the opportunity to buy beers for a couple of Peace Corps volunteers, a tradition for us whenever we encounter them overseas. (We are celebrating our tenth year!) When I told them that my Benadryl had been confiscated at the border and that I had been threatened with arrest they said, “Oh yeah, we’ve heard of that happening. The Peace Corps gives us a document to show border or police check officials stating that we have permission to carry Benadryl. It has come in handy because there are lots of random police checks in Zambia.”
Scott looked over at me and said, “Wow, these guys really have a thing for Benadryl! Remind me to deep six that Benadryl mosquito after-bite pen we have.”

Kamunjoma, Zambia
Next: The Dancing Bridge

Time Travel on the Lake Tanganyika Ferry

It seemed like a good plan. Take a 12-hour bus ride from Nairobi in Kenya to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, and then ride a train for three days to Kigoma on the shore of Lake Tanganyika where we would catch the twice-monthly ferry to Zambia.
The first part of the plan worked like a charm. The bus ride was long (15 hours instead of 12), bumpy, and dusty but we arrived in Dar in one piece - always something to celebrate when traveling by public transport in the developing world. The next morning found us at the train station to book a sleeper only to find that the train would not be running any time soon due to a very specific reason, “many problems.” We had to be in Kigoma by the 27th to catch the ferry so we were suddenly scrambling to find another way to get there on time. Days and days on buses on horrible roads driven by sleep deprived men intent on passing on blind curves at unsafe speeds would be our least favorite option. Luckily, Air Tanzania, the only airline flying to Kigoma, had two seats left on the only flight with availability that week. We had a few days to kill in Dar but that was fine by us because Dar es Salaam is one of our favorite African cities. Even though it’s big, it manages to retain a friendly vibe. We even felt comfortable walking around at night.

The best part about Dar (besides Sunday Brunch at the Movenpick Hotel) was that we ran into Jo and Will whom we last saw two years ago in Cape Town. Scott was on his way to the Angola embassy to inquire about visas in case we had time to travel there before our trip ended. For whatever reason he decided to stop in at the City Supermarket shopping center on the way.

Walking through the arcade he heard, “Scott!” It was Jo, the awesome, bubbly, enthusiastic photographer who ran the photo safari we did two years ago and Will the driver was with her. “What a small world!” we said later to Will after hugs all around. (Weeks later in the garden of a small hotel in Petauke, Zambia we would meet and share a few beers with a Peace Corps volunteer who had taught my nephew Colin at Mitty High School in San Jose. “What a small world!” we all said. I love it when we connect with friends –Anne Marie, Alex, Maria, Conner…– at the oddest times in the oddest places- and it happens more often than I ever thought it would.)

The flight to Kigoma was wonderful. We had seats 1 and 2 on a 20-seat propeller plane - and a small plane is the only way to fly in Africa. You can make out people in the bomas below and sometimes, even spot animals. And, just like in the good old days, some kids on board got to meet the captain and co pilot in the cockpit during flight. We landed on a gravel runway and waited for our luggage in a baggage claim area that consisted of one bench and a plywood shelf. One by one, baggage was placed on the shelf while an airline worker called out the person’s name on the baggage claim.

After collecting our backpacks we walked outside to find a taxi so we could get to the ferry office in time to pay for our cabin and find a place to stay for the night. But, for the first time ever in all our travels, there were no taxis and no touts clamoring for our business. We contemplated walking to town when a well-dressed man, the manager of the Lake Tanganyika Lodge, walked up to us and asked if we needed help. Sam was picking up an American couple on tour and, after we explained that we needed to get to the ferry office as soon as possible, made us an offer we couldn’t refuse. “Allow me to drive you to my hotel via the ferry office. If you like my hotel, please stay. If not, you will have a free ride into town.” He nodded towards the couple waiting in the hotel van. “On the way, we will stop at the place where Stanley met Livingston on the shore of Lake Tanganyika.” That was fine by us!

The spot where Stanley first encountered Livingston is marked with a plaque under a mango tree, though the lake has receded considerably from the spot where first they made contact. Global warming, I presume? There is also a small museum with photos and drawings depicting Livingston’s life in Africa. We sat in the shade under the mango tree while a young man told us the story of Livingston; how he came to Africa to explore, fight slavery, bring Christianity, how he died in Africa and how it took his two faithful servants over a year to carry his body back to England.

It was an interesting lecture but it was being told almost in real time, and we were very anxious to get to town to secure our cabin on the ferry. Since the ferry operates only twice a month we either had to secure passage on the ferry leaving the next day or we would be forced to face four grueling days on trucks and bush taxis to get where we needed to be in Zambia.
Scott stood up and with a big smile said, “Livingston, what a guy!” putting a period on the lecture and heading to the mini van.

When we arrived at the ferry office, we were told that they had given away our cabin. After much discussion, they decided to put us in the family cabin, which is the only cabin on board with it’s own toilet, so that was fine by us! Then Sam said that if we stayed at his hotel he would not only grant us a late check out, he would transport us back to the ferry the next afternoon in time for the scheduled 3pm departure. He drove us to his hotel, which was just a short distance from where the MV Liemba was docked and the Lake Tanganyika Lodge hotel was beautiful so that was fine by us. We changed into swimsuits, ordered beers, and dove into the sparkling clean pool fronting the lake. The American couple, it turned out, was on their first trip to Africa and on their honeymoon. We toasted both their decisions and watched the sun go down over the lake together.

The MV Liemba is the world’s oldest continuously operating passenger ferry ship in the world and, Lake Tanganyika, bordered by Tanzania, The Congo, Burundi, and Zambia, is the longest lake in the world. Those two facts alone were enough to make us want to make the 3-day, 2-night trip south to the shores of Zambia. But the Liemba has an interesting and complicated history making it all the more enticing. It was built in Germany in 1912 and, in parts, was brought to Africa to be used as a cargo ship. During WWII it was enlisted into service as a German military expedition ship against the Belgians in the Congo, and the British in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia). The Belgians sunk it. Later the Germans raised it, took it to Kigoma and, after greasing the engine, deliberately sunk it again. (The story of the MV Liemba was the inspiration for the movie The African Queen where Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn sink the German cargo ship.) After the war, the British raised it and began using it as a cargo and passenger ferry, and that is still what it is being used for today. The captain, crew, and many of the passengers appreciate the age of the ship and treat her with the respect she deserves.

But, really, a hundred-year-old ship? It couldn’t have been that great. It was! In 1970, the Danes provided a grant to refurbish it, the engine was changed from coal to diesel and the rotted out berths and benches were replaced. But the best part of being on the Lake Tanganyika ferry was the feeling of traveling back in time.

All along the shores of Lake Tanganyika are villages so remote there isn’t a single road leading to them. Just as it was hundreds of years ago, the lake is their lifeline to the outside world. We discovered this firsthand at 10 pm the first night when incredible shouting coupled with a slowing of the engine woke us. Outside our cabin we looked into the darkness to see ten leaky wooden boats powered by Yamaha outboards and a few dug out canoes (powered by oar) jam-packed with humanity and cargo all clamoring to get on board at once. At the same time from third class two decks below, an equivalent number of people and cargo were trying to get off the ferry and onto the little boats. Bananas, pineapples, sacks of cotton and rice, and mattresses, a lot of mattresses, were being thrown either up onto the ferry cargo deck or down into the wooden boats. Those who carried only a suitcase or sack frantically climbed up the sides of the ferry to our deck and made their way quickly downstairs before the crew could catch them. That sight and the fact that there was so much screaming had me worried at first that we were being hijacked (boat jacked?). You know how much I like pirates but this was a little unsettling. “Holy Crap!” I said to Scott as we watched organized chaos in action. It was like that for about half an hour. Then the wooden boats and dug out canoes laden with new passengers and cargo headed for shore and all was instantly quiet on the ship. Mothers on the cargo deck went back to breast-feeding their babies, passengers who had cabins retired to their bunks and everyone else (most of the 500 on board) found a little space between pineapples and bananas and 5-gallon jerry cans of palm oil on deck to sleep.

This same scenario was repeated every two or four hours over the three-day passage whenever we neared a village. If we were asleep, we got up to watch the spectacle. If it was during the day we walked around the top deck taking photos. It gave new meaning to the term ‘on board entertainment’. Most of the shouting came from the wooden transport boats as they approached the ferry at ramming speed. They get paid not only per passenger but also per piece of cargo so they raced to get alongside the ferry to be first because he who gets there first and shouts the loudest gets the most. We watched quite a tug of war between two boatmen over 3 plastic chairs. Unbelievably, bobbing amongst the transport boats were women in smaller boats calmly selling fish and fried bread to passengers on the ferry, even in the middle of the night. We didn’t get much sleep those two nights on the Liemba due to all the commotion but it was a window into the past. The people who live along Lake Tanganyika rely on the twice monthly visits of the cargo ferry ship for food and for transport just the way they have for a hundred years.

There were a handful of other western travelers on board most, as we were, in first class cabins. The beer was cold and the food in the dining lounge was good. Yes, there were cockroaches and probably a rat or two but there was plenty of interesting conversation. If you are meeting a westerner for the first time on the Lake Tanganyika ferry chances are they are well traveled and have a story to tell and our fellow passengers did not disappoint. A Dutch doctor had just finished his internship at a clinic in a small village in Tanzania. He was visibly shaken by what he had seen in the village, especially the deaths and suffering and amputations that could have avoided with proper medical care. He said the most upsetting thing was that people waited too long to see a doctor, choosing first to use the witch doctor or use herbs that often made things worse. What most upset him was watching the labor of girls too physically young to even be having children suffer horribly because of herbs they had taken to make the baby come faster. He could barely talk about his experience. He even had to leave the village a little earlier than planned, “I just had to get out of there”, he said emphatically.

Then there was the uber enthusiastic German geography teacher who had to pay a $50 fine for taking photos of the harbor in Kigoma and told us the story of the time he was nearly arrested for the photos he took in Cuba. But his students are sure learning a lot! An English couple in Africa for a year, and a well-traveled French-Chinese couple rounded out the table nicely. They all got off in Tanzania, one stop before we did to see the second highest waterfall in Africa, a four-hour hike in and out. We wished we could have fit it in to our itinerary. “Next time”, Scott said. We watched them disembark and leave the dock on the only transport around. In the back of a huge lumbering lorry they were packed like sardines with, again, pineapples, bananas, and mattresses but also bicycles and sacks and sacks of something. Suddenly we were the only two mzungus (white foreigners) left on the ferry, which is why my next update is titled, Avoiding Arrest on Drug Trafficking Charges at the Zambian Border.

Petauke, Zambia