According to the source of all knowledge, Wikipedia, mzungu is a term used by Bantu language speakers for people of European ancestry. Interestingly, its 18th-century origin is in reference to Europeans who were always traveling the world; literally it means “someone who roams around” or “wanderer.” I like it. We are, after all, travelers roaming around the world, and besides, there’s nothing like arriving in sub-Saharan Africa to remind me that I'm white.
Arusha is the title of my first novel (2010 Lambda Literary Award finalist; check it out!) The climactic scenes are set here in Tanzania, and ever since I first visited in 2001, I’ve always wanted to come back. To trek Mount Kilimanjaro, sure, but also to see the country again, do a bit more independent exploring this time. East Africa is still the most different place I’ve ever been.
First of all, there’s the white thing. As many of us have learned, it is possible (though not desirable) to live for many years as a white person in a white-majority country and not ever really think about it. I don’t want to digress into an earnest race relations discussion that is probably beyond me, but surely one of the traumas the U.S.A. is currently undergoing has to do with it becoming a white-minority country. Not that I, or indeed many white Americans, think that there’s anything wrong with that at all, but perhaps it is this that makes some people finally realize that their race/color has affected their lives—something I suspect non-white people learn much earlier. I defer to an African-American friend who once told me, “My being black has made a profound difference in my life. In a perfect world, it wouldn’t.”
So drop this white person into a place where 99% of the population is black African, and I feel like a neon sign. Not to mention I’m obviously a visitor, someone with enough money to travel from another continent, and therefore, by the standards of most Tanzanians, a wealthy person. Kids feel free to just ask the mzungu for money, without any preamble. They aren’t beggars. They’re going about their business, herding goats or whatever, and think, Why not give it a shot?
The first person who called us mzungu, though, was one of the lovely hotel receptionists in Moshi, our first stop. We thought she was saying that, because we were mzungu, touts would constantly distract us at the bus station, so she was going to get us a car there for 3,000 Tanzanian shillings. We thought this was odd because we’d just walked to the bus station the day before and it was very nearby. Then her colleague explained that she wanted to escort us personally to the bus station, “because”—she hesitated a second—“you’re white.” She said it almost apologetically, the way you might tell a friend in the ladies’ room that her dress is stuffed into the back of her pantyhose.
“Well,” I said, “can’t do much about that. Although if I’m not careful in the African sun, I’ll be pink soon.” She laughed as if this were original.
So our friend from the hotel walked us to the station, found a bus going to Arusha, and made sure there were two seats on it and that we got in them. It was for this 81-km journey that we paid only TZS3,000. Which is about a dollar and half. By “bus,” I mean a Coaster bus, which seats 30 people. The way it works is you climb aboard and people try to sell you things through the window (unless you shut it). When every seat is full, the bus leaves. There are perhaps 50 a day on this route. Once you’re in the seat, you can’t really move, but it’s not that uncomfortable for a short journey, I thought. (I was very glad to have locked my duffel bag, i.e. for the Kilimanjaro trek, up at the hotel for my return to Moshi. No way would it have gotten on the Coaster—our backpacks were on our laps!)
You might notice that we are all standing on the side of the road in T’s picture. That’s because, somewhere past the turnoff to Kilimanjaro airport on the Moshi-Arusha road, the driver stopped the bus. We hadn’t noticed anything wrong, but after he stopped, smoke began coming out, and we deduced that we should all leave the bus. What happens in these situations, apparently, is that the driver flags down subsequent buses and they take one or two passengers or whomever will fit, until all his passengers are taken care of.
Problem was, the vehicles that did stop all stopped in different places, so we weren’t sure where on the side of the road to stand. I passed up a rather large lady who obviously couldn’t move as fast, but when the next bus arrived, there she was in front of me. She actually patted me and giggled as she boarded the bus, the way a tennis player raises her hand after creaming her opponent with the ball.
Needless to say, we were the only two mzungu, and the last people to get a ride! But it all worked out. A nice car stopped and the bus driver arranged with this gentleman, who had a large cross dangling from his rearview mirror, to give us a ride into Arusha. Our ride then switched on video screens in the back seat so we could watch music videos! Did I mention it was a really nice car? Take that, Tanzanian lady!
The cross gave me some assurance that we weren’t about to be dismembered, although I’m not sure how seriously to take Christian symbolism around here. Seemingly every bus and dalla-dalla, and many shops, are adorned with pictures of Jesus or Mary and slogans like PRAISE THE LORD (or, occasionally, CHELSEA FOOTBALL CLUB). Our bus was called the Lion of Judah; evidently Ras Tafari was not as good at taking care of vehicles. My favorite of these talismanic names, so far, has to be the El Shaddai Agro & General Supply Store.
Our driver was friendly and lives in Arusha. He was on his way from Dar es Salaam, which is a long drive. I should mention that the road between Moshi and Arusha is an excellent road by Tanzanian standards, smooth and paved. And the prospect of such a road excites drivers so much that constant speed bumps have had to be put in, to deter speeding. After malaria and AIDS, road accidents are the most common cause of death in Tanzania. Well, we did ask our hotel friend if the little buses were safe!
We wondered, but didn’t ask, how our driver had such a nice car (one of the nicest I’ve ridden in anywhere). He said he worked for the government—turns out he is a soldier. He even dropped us at a hotel, not that we were staying there, but it was at the end of the road where we were staying, so we figured we could walk to our Airbnb (it being daylight).
We could, but the road is a total mess. All dirt, with a deep ditch dug in the middle of it. They’re putting in drainage for some swish new building that’s going up. Arusha, like Moshi only on a much grander scale, is a city of contrasts: really nice places behind gates and fences, to keep out kids who would steal your laundry. Sad, but that’s the way it is.
My conclusion is that you get what you pay for on a Coaster bus. Still, we can’t say we were ripped off. We rode with the locals, who seemed at once from a different world and yet familiar: most of them were on their mobile phones just like passengers in Europe. We celebrated with really good coffee in town (the slopes of Kilimanjaro grow the best in the world) and some Swahili food. Nyama choma with grilled bananas and salad. It was better than it sounds.
I love TanZANia, as the locals pronounce it. I love how friendly people are. Yes, some of the street sellers can get a little aggressive, following us around, but it's not dangerous; it's a different way of life. Like bartering. It's not my culture to be told the price of a thing and then argue it down. But if I hadn't been raised in North America, I'm sure compulsory "tipping," as practiced there, would feel alien and wrong to me too. It's not a tip if you're making up for an employer's crappy wage!
Still, I'll be tipping on Kilimanjaro, even though I'm assured my trek organizer pays its guides and porters fairly. I'm not going to protest the system by cheating some hardworking Tanzanians. Just don't expect me to buy any beads.