Tanzania: Swahili, mafias and 12-passenger sedans

When I first arrived in Uganda, I kept thinking I was in Rwanda and asking silly questions like “What is the local language called in Rwanda?” or “What are the most famous tourist destinations in Rwanda?” People just stopped and stared, wondering whether they should try to answer or ask if I really meant to ask that. Now in Tanzania I keep thinking I was in Kenya, and reflecting on all the stereotypes I thought I had of Kenya in light of what I was seeing and experiencing in Tanzania. It doesn’t help that I’m not sure how to inflect Tanzania; Tanz-EY-nia, Tanz-AH-nia or Tanzanee-AH?

They have a response to Uganda’s Waragi called Konyagi, but what someone says it it sounds like “cognac” and I got pretty confused when served a shot of gin. Its unclear to me why some people say or said English is an official language here, since Swahili or Arabic seem to be the only languages spoken country-wide. Even then, some areas only speak their local languages, and when I arrived at the border town of Ngara, I started to realize the potential problems I would run into.

I spent about an hour at the actual Tanzanian border, having just left Burundi and still 38km from Ngara. There were maybe 5 buildings there – the immigration building, a hotel, a house or two, and a bunch of shacks lined up in what seemed to be an empty parking lot or deserted marketplace. Three of the shacks were painted with bus company names like “Taqwa bus,” and each one had 5 or 6 men waiting in and around them. I approached to ask for a bus to Ngara, and each and every person there informed me that no such bus was coming until tomorrow, even though it was only 11 am and 38km away on a safe, paved road. Many also admitted, sheepily, they didn’t work for the bus companies, and that the offices weren’t really open since no tickets were to be sold that day.

Then I asked for a moto-taxi or a taxi, and it took half an hour to communicate that this was also impossible. As I stood there, puzzled and contemplating the time it would take to jog there, an old, beat-up Subaru hatchback pulled up and announced “NGARA NGARA NGARA!” I immediately took the front seat, thrilled that I would avoid spending a night at the border, and got comfortable. Then another woman got in the front seat. We would share. The driver would also share his seat. The backseat would take 4 people and 2 chickens. And the trunk? 4 more.

After an hour, we finally got to Ngara, bottoming out on all the speedbumps along the way and playing an intricate game of Tetris every time we stopped to let someone in or out. Ngara is a town on 2 intersecting roads, no bigger than those 4 blocks around it.


the Supermarket store front

There was only one bank and one ‘supermarket,’ and I could buy water and change money at the supermarket. The woman at the cashier was Arabic, from Oman, and spoke excellent English. Our initial interactions were testy – she tried to give me half of the going exchange rate, which I bluntly refused and quoted her the correct rate with confidence, saying she’d have to get closer to it. She smiled as she realised I was no fool, and probably appreciated the sight of another strong, independent woman infront of her. She gave me a great rate and then suggested the one hotel and one restaurant I should stay and eat at, 200m away. With the nod of her head and the snap of her fingers, the shop lights were turned off, doors shut and locked, and two men escorted me out the back door into a van. First, I thought she was kidnapping me. Then, I thought maybe she’s offering to drive me there, since it was hot and time for her siesta. We got into her air-conditioned, Japanese-speaking car and after driving the length of the town in a matter of minutes, I was invited for lunch at her home, in a similarly testy way.

Without saying more than “thats the hotel” and “thats the restaurant” and driving past them, we then turned into a sketchy side road where we honked to be let thru a gate. She lived behind 2 sets of steel doors, manned by 4 guards and a junkyard between, in a beautiful mansion teeming with children. I stepped out of the van, amazed I had found such hospitality from such an intimidating woman. Her daughters, cousins, and their daughters all unveiled at the comfort of me being a woman, and we ate with our hands around a regal, long table.

Sabrah, the Pacino of Ngara

After lunch she dropped me to the hotel, where I met a Canadian miner in town for the night. He was familiar with the town, since he worked 2 hours away in a nickel mine, and explained “Oh, I see you’ve met the legalized mafia!” Turns out, she owns the supermarket, the hotel, the restaurant, and virtually runs the town. Everyone works for her, buys from her, or deals through her since she’s a big piggy bank and speaks the local dialect, Arabic, Swahili and English fluently. Now that I had become her friend, her newly-extended circle of trust would mean I was safer than ever – everyone in town soon learned I had been with her, and Ive never been left in such peace! I could give money to no one, not even for the hotel room, and everyone wanted to help me… but only if it didn’t bother me.

2 thoughts on “Tanzania: Swahili, mafias and 12-passenger sedans

  1. Love this story!..a portfolio keeper fer sure eh?

  2. i am very sad to call my sister mafia

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