Adventures Awry: Tantrums in Tanzania

Sometimes, things don’t go as planned…

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I stood in the plane aisle, listening to sleepy passengers chatting in French and German. It was 10pm on the runway in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. I had been traveling alone for 2 days, fueled by a slim 2 hours of sleep and a black drip coffee in Zurich that somehow cost me $6.

This was the work trip of a lifetime. I was visiting CCBRT, one of the most incredible disability hospitals in Africa. I would be touring the hospital, getting a feel for the scale of the organization, and conducting patient interviews. I’d looked forward to this for months, but at that moment on the tarmac outside of the Dar airport, a delirious exhaustion was beating out my enthusiasm.

I rehearsed my boss’ instructions in my head, and flipped through my travel portfolio to find my visa paperwork. My instructions were:

1. Find a man with a beret and a machine gun in the airport. He’ll send you to immigration.

2. Give immigration $300. They’ll give you your visa.

3. Leave the airport and wait outside. Find Emile; he’s a legit taxi driver. He will have a sign that has your name on it. Don’t go with anyone but Emile.

Someone had mentioned that if I did go with anyone but Emile I would be kidnapped and they would never find me again. I still don’t know if that was a joke.

My first visual in Dar was a sign listing Ebola symptoms. I took a deep calming breath and went looking for a man with a machine gun. Sitting against the wall of Immigration were Indonesian migrants; they carried nothing with them, and looked almost as scared as I felt. Their sandals were worn out, their jeans faded and dusty. We were all a mess and awaiting processing. When I stepped into the muggy Dar air an hour later, I was met with a cacophony of noise.

Quick Kiswahili Lesson: I am a mzungu. That is a Kiswahili term for someone with white skin from Europe or America. It literally means “person aimlessly wandering around looking dizzy.” When dozens of Tanzanian taxi drivers caught sight of me (the whitest person most people have ever seen) they erupted into a chorus of ‘Hey mzungu!’ and a couple wolf whistles. I scanned the crowds, until I saw a man with a stony glare holding a sign with my name. I would have leapt into his arms, but the women in the crowd were wearing burqas with a 1-inch slit for their eyes. I gathered this was not a hugging culture.

“Emile, I’m Samantha. It’s good to meet you,” I said, extending my hand.

He pinched one of my fingers, and wagged my hand between us like it was a repulsive, ruminating dead fish. Ok. It’s not a handshaking culture either.

“Come with me,” he grunted. He nodded towards a car park with one solitary lamp flickering orange-yellow light. I followed, dragging my luggage behind.

“You know something,” he said as we walked into the darkness. “My name is not Emile.”

I stopped dead in the middle of the street. “Sorry, what is your name?”

“My name is Rodney. Emile, he no come.”

“What do you mean, ‘he no come’?”

“He had trouble, but its ok. He’s my friend. I take you.”

NOPE.

I wheeled my suitcase over to a shed that served as a parking attendant’s booth. A perplexed Rodney followed behind. The girl working inside the booth was maybe 90 pounds, 16-years-old. She couldn’t save me if Rodney hit me over the head and carried me off to sell me to some Somalian pirate sheikh in Zanzibar, but she sure as heck was going to be a witness to my demise. I set the suitcase down in front of her booth and sat on it.

“What you do?” demanded my befuddled driver.

“I wait for Emile.”

“He no come. I take you. We go now.”

It was at this point I lost the fluency of my native English tongue and started speaking like Tarzan. “No, we no go. Emile come here. Then I go. You call him.”

“I take you.”

“No. I no go.”

“I say, he have trouble.”

“Ok, I wait. You call him.”

I have never thrown a tantrum in my life. When I was a toddler, I did what I was told, ate my vegetables and anchovies, and took my naps without fuss. I never dared throw a fit, but there was something about being a young, single, mzungu woman in East Africa at night, alone, and without a phone that scared me into obstinance.

Ten minutes later, Emile appeared. I’m still not sure what happened to the original plan. He was all smiles and chatter, thanking his friend, and offering to point out all the landmarks as we drove to my hotel.

A note on driving in Dar with Emile: imagine driving through Manhattan at 55mph with the same amount of traffic but fewer rules. Traffic lights are just suggestions. Now imagine that weaving in between the cars are motorbikes with 2-3 people per bike. Consider that pedestrians do not have the right of way, and they are invisible until you hit them. When a blind man with albinism stepped into the street, Emile didn’t slow down. I swallowed my scream as we almost grazed him.

Then we got stuck in the infamous Dar traffic. Emile hates traffic, so he steered our SUV into the median between highways. Like a car chase in a Marvel movie, we raced between highways, weaving around storm water ditches, and tipping almost onto our side. As we teetered on two wheels, I looked down into a 15-foot-deep ditch, and thought “huh, so this is how I die. In a ditch. In Africa. Cool.”

I didn’t die. I was delivered to my lovely hotel with its lovely shower and soft bed. I climbed under my mosquito net, and slept for eleven hours.

I woke to a booming crash and my bedroom door swinging open. My first thought was “they’ll never take me alive.”  No idea who “they” were, but I was jetlagged and spunky. I fought my way out of the mosquito net, snatched up my metal nail file off the nightstand, and sprinted towards the door.

The poor maids standing on my threshold were mortified to see a barefooted, wild-eyed mzungu with bedhead running towards them in her slip weilding a nail file.

“Pole sana! Pole!” they shouted. “So sorry!”

“No, I’m pole!” I said. “I’m sorry!”

Good morning. And welcome to Tanzania.

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Samantha Bossalini