A Rock and Hard Place

I didn’t know what to expect when I hopped on the chicken bus and headed towards Omdurman. 

To be completely honest, I don’t know that I remember the extent of my expectations. At the time, I was somewhere caught between a rock and a hard place. I had spent the better part of 4 days queuing outside the Egyptian Embassy in Khartoum ‘begging’ for a Visa. I even employed my Arabic in negotiating with the guards, and ‘brokers’ that guaranteed a successful visa application. Unfortunately for me and them, my dollars were limited. Every mile I had imagined on my year long journey had a budget attached to it, I absolutely could not afford to flex my pockets any further. You should’ve have seen what my sleeping arrangements were.

I persisted day in and out. Taking breaks by drinking Chai and fried dough on the side of the street.

Suq-ul-Arabiy

The lines at the embassy were exclusively Sudanese citizens seeking work and education opportunities in Egypt. And then there was me and a couple of international students from Sierra Leone. My presence, my hair, everything about me ignited curiosity. Many of the locals assumed I was either a professional soccer player for Al-Khartoum or bound for illegal immigration to Europe in search of good fortune through the Libyan Mediterranean coast.

The former assumption was flattering. I had grown up in admiration of the style of football Al-Khartoum brought to the regional cup. Direct and speedy! It was a welcome strong commentary on my physique, I guess I looked direct and speedy. Even Jaffar, the inn-keeper at the the pension where I wrestled myself into sleep, wired on bottomless cups of sugar-tea chai, had pre-occupied himself with arranging a tryout with the team.  He swore that he was connected.

The latter assumption reopened my ears to the conversation about the African refugee and immigration crisis. First as an indication of the humanitarian deficiencies and economic hardships that continue to be obstacles to the development and  of well being communities across the continent. Then to the plight of those that flee and the inevitable challenges they face that are not limited to racism, xenophobia and the ominous threat of death and enslavement.  The plight of those who are caught between a rock and hard place.

 

I hopped off the chicken bus, and weaved my consciousness through the masses of people in Suq-ul-Jullut towards the arena. I have never felt quite at home and wrestling has never felt so real. Even the crowd was fully  absorbed into the event that was about to unfold. They sat, they sang, they stood and the children play wrestled in the middle of the sandy arena.

Then the whistle went off! And the crowds roared! BATISTA! BATISTA!! The embodiment of masculine strength and physique.  BATISTA! BATISTA! 

He emerged from a circle of his peers and grabbed two fistfuls of dirt in his palms. He then raised his arms straight in front of his chest and let the earth fall from between his fingers. CLAP! CLAP!

 The dust almost absorbed him. It was glorious

Batista- Champion Wrestler in Omdurman

BATISTA! BATISTA! 

That image has stuck with me.

I think about the symbolism embodied in dirt. Whose origin is undoubtedly between a rock and a hard place. 

 

 

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Lamu, Octopus and Ass

A man ties down the mast of his mangrove hewn Mozambique dhow.

Along the Swahili coast, it is not entirely strange to encounter a man bent over, repeatedly waging war with the white and gold sands against a back drop of a crystal blue-black evening ocean. Whip! Whack! Whip! Whack! His weapon; a three foot, eight tentacled octopus recently drawn from the ocean and soon to be dinner.

I had never been to Lamu before. In fact, up until then the town only existed in a vivid imagination drawn up from descriptions that dated an excess of eight years prior. I had also never cooked octopus, let alone eat a full one all by myself. But never say never.

I arrived in Mokowe in a convoy of buses and police escorts at five o’clock in the evening. Nowadays, getting to Lamu is no walk in the park. I am told that it once was. Before al-Shabaab, you could leave Mombasa or Malindi on a bus headed to Lamu at any time of the day. Now, all the buses are required to depart these towns at the same time every day and are escorted by administration police a few miles before Mpeketoni all the way to mainland Mokowe, a couple hundred kilometers from the Somali-Kenya border. The risk of al-Shabaab is omnipresent but life goes on. For the coastal people that ply these route, the extra security is appreciated but deemed unnecessary. I ignored numerous adverse counsel to refrain from visiting Lamu for security reasons. Counsel formulated solely on opinions gaining prevalence with regards to travel along the Kenyan coastline: Opinions driven by travel advisories. 

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As I stepped off the bus, my face was bent in a grimace inspired by a persistent stomach ache and the discomforts of a journey that lasted the better part of 8 hours hours. A journey punctuated with police road blocks, ID checks and a dirt road that squabbled with the bus. The whole trip, my body was rammed by the bus’s seat as I played nanny to a six month old child that belonged to a set of two.

Crescent moon and star. The symbols of Lamu town.
Crescent moon and star. The symbols of Lamu town.

He had been handed to me when his twin brother needed a diaper change. An affair that concluded in a soiled diaper being skillfully hurled outside the window right across my face leaving behind an eternal whiff of baby poop. My heart sunk to unimaginable depths at this heinous act of littering. Still, the responsibility of holding young Awadh was bestowed upon be me for the duration of the rest of the journey. 

A welcoming brigade of starved tourist handlers and porters swarmed in to lay their claim at the jetty in Lamu town. In the midst of the shoving and jostling, in the midst of the frenzy, a hand penetrated the eager crowd vying for attention. A three foot octopus lazily dangled from the blacked hand.

One hundred and fifty shillings!” Cried the hand. As I fingered the octopus, inspecting her slimy tentacles and body, I cried out. “One hundred! One hundred only!” The hand ushered me to the side where money changed hands. Shortly after, with a few onlookers, I was bent over a golden white sandy beach that bordered a blue-black ocean, vigorously whipping and whacking an octopus to a desired tenderness.

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How hard could it be to cook octopus? The answer is that it is not hard at all. Getting the slimy thing clean is the hardest part. The rest is patience, a good boil and a sufficient amount of salt, spices and herbs to taste. A few hours after the darkness of the night had settled in, I sat atop sunshine hotel enjoying the sweet serenade of a muezzin, the glare of the full moon and an octopus dinner. I stared down at the narrow paved streets full of awe of the town’s history. I thought of the indefinable impressions of Swahili culture embedded in the people and their intercourse as they went about their ways below me. I reflected on the slice of heaven that is Lamu ; frozen in time but thawing ever so gently.

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In the few days that I spent in Lamu, I rediscovered myself as an ass guy.  I herded donkeys, enjoyed the unexpected glam of riding down the narrow corridors on their backs and hopscotched through the passageways scattered with dung.  

A week later I was in Zanzibar where my affair with the octopus resumed.

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Young boys kick playing football in Lamu town

 

The Hard Men/Women (Wagumu) of Kilimanjaro

#tbt

Tough! The essence of the word is illustrated in the bent backs of porters that look to the slopes of Kilimanjaro as a means to an end. In the mercy of the sun, their eyes bloody and their temples throb. Still they march up the steep sometimes treacherous martian-like inclines of Africa’s big mountain with resolve. Their fuel is largely their camaraderie irregardless of the numerous tour companies they are contracted too. Often they thrive ( survive ) on one meal a day that comprises of Sukuma Wiki and Ugali ( collard greens and maize polenta ).

In kiswahili, the porters are referred to as Wagumu (Hard Men/Women).

The town the most hail from is Moshi, Tanzania. Adequately dubbed ‘Mji wa wagumu’: The town of hard people. 

 

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Hotel Sardine

DSC_0066Yahya spoke with authority when he ordered his crew to draw in the boat in preparation for departure.  “leta boti twende tuwatege dagaa!!” (Bring the boat, lets go trap the Sardines) His sentences were delivered succinctly with a cadence much like the natives of the northern town of Tanga. Every so often, he rubbed his droopy, bloodshot eyes: Wrought with exhaustion. He staggered barefooted in the ankle high waters of the receding shoreline, wavering in obedience. There was a certain permanence to the grin on his face. And it exuded a blended air of optimism and worry when I asked him what he thought the odds were of bringing in a big catch the next morning. With his gaze still fixated on the dead fish market on the opposite side of the channel, he simply said, ” Twende tuwatege Dagaa” -Let us go catch some sardines. DSC_0093

DSC_0088The open Indian ocean welcomed the dusk in a heightened dance of waves as the sun sunk behind a pair of towering silhouetted Dar es Salaam skyscrapers. Yahya’s crew of six fisherman strolled in. They saluted each and rolled up their pants to avoid getting wet as they climbed into the boat. For them, it was business as usual. Every day, right before dusk, they gather by the boat before heading out to fish from whence they return at sunrise to sell their luck at the fish market that comes alive bustling with schools of fishermen, swarms of fishmongers and fleets of fishing boats that crush into each other in a rush hour’s frenzy. That morning, I visited Mzizima fish market and shores at Kigamboni all the while reminiscing on a time that has long gone when I gifted a friend the dread of rocking small boat and the smell of a thousand sardines for her birthday.  As I skipped along the shores dodging dead fish and ducking anchor lines I felt a mystic exhortation to check into one of these boats for the night.DSC_0083 DSC_0058

A couple of handshakes later I had reserved my spot as an extra free hand and guest on Yahya’s boat without having personally met the man. No currency changed hands, but I gave my assurance that my strength can prevail the night. I rushed across town to my hotel room in Manzese on Shekilango Rd to check out. Rona the caretaker was kind enough to safeguard my belongings on the guarantee that I would check in for one more night once I returned.DSC_0243 DSC_0105DSC_0146DSC_0118

The boat rammed the waves as it cut through the water heading for deeper waters. On deck, eight men (including myself) swayed as violently as the boat did. Yahya sat at the back of the boat steering with right hand and tapping a rhythm on the transom with his left hand. His eyes were glued into the disappearing horizon as darkness crept in.

I thoroughly enjoyed the rocking of the boat albeit it being hair raising. I saw it as a welcomed difference from the bouncing on the back seats of worn down buses with aging shock absorbers on bumpy roads. The boat rocked violently but smoothly. It was the kind of rocking that was however, not for the wish-washy kind of person. Ali, one of the crew members had crawled to an empty spot in front of me holding a black plastic bag. He proceeded to warn me that at any moment, a big wave could clean out the insides of the boat. Smiling, he bent his torso over the side of the boat,  reached out his right hand into the ocean and emerged a moment later gesturing that he had clean hands. ” Do you want some ukoko? ” ” Do you want some dagaa?” I reached over the boat to wash my hands in the salty water. It was pitch black. The night had fallen.

Sardine fishing is apparently not rocket science.  As Yahya explained, all the fishermen come out to sea armed with floodlights and generators. Once they find a suitable and favorable spot, they drop their anchors and turn on the floodlights directing their beams downwards into the water. From our boat, one could count tens and tens of these floodlights scattered like low lying stars on the water.  They, the fishermen, then wait until around two in the morning to cast their nets. A couple of hours later they repeat the same process again.DSC_0053 DSC_0049 DSC_0009

It was about eight o’clock when we dropped our anchor and  turned on the generator to power the floodlights. Conversations marred by raucous blaring of the generator ensued. We talked about everything under the stars. From politics, to the state of the rivalry of Tanzania’s premier league teams. Most notably the rivalry between Simba FC and Yanga FC. When the chattering drowned to the lulling of the wavy sea, we took turns sleeping on the gigantic net that was piled up. I have never known a sleep so deep.DSC_0144 DSC_0170 DSC_0184

DSC_0199 DSC_0250 DSC_0264At two o’clock, it was time to cast the net. Like clockwork, the fishermen went to work and I availed myself. When nets needed hauling, I was there. When a rope needed tagging, I was surely there as well.  The fishermen worked with uninhibited grace.

 

 

 

 

The Vehicle’s Art

As I pushed my way towards the front of the daladala (public bus), I pointed my camera at the object of my interest. There, against the backdrop of a cloudy blue sky, the images of the slain Osama bin Laden and Muammar Gaddafi were plastered on the back window of another daladala; side by side.

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Placed side by side as if to suggest that they were messengers of the same word.

I felt a deep sense of betrayal as people piled into the bus one after the other with no regard to the ‘Vehicle’s Art’. 

What place do these two individuals have in everyday Dar es Salaam?
How is it that these slain individuals continue to live in broad daylight?

The clicking of the shutters of my camera further perpetuated my angst urging me to hop out of the daladala in an effort to apprehend Osama and Gaddafi, only to watch them speed off when the light turned green. I look forward to the next time I will spot the same Ubungo bound daladala on Shekilango Rd in Dar es Salaam.

What would you say to the driver and passengers of this dala dala?

Out of Place?

What is wrong with this picture?

A maasai
A young Masai man from Oloitoktok, Kenya working (Selling masai ornaments, wares and posing for pictures) in Diani Beach Mombasa. 

Arguably the most recognizable African ethnic community, the Masai of East Africa (Kenya and Tanzania) have for ages plied the plains of the savanna in search of pasture and water for their livestock. Today, the urban landscape continues to encroach on historical grazing grounds for such communities as population pressure rises. Many have ceded their nomadic inclinations as the dependence on livestock seizes to be a sustainable source of livelihood.

Their ‘culture’, highly admired and aggressively marketed for tourism incensitivizes many members of the Masai community to trade their acacia herding rods for Velcro billfolds. In nomadic fashion, they seek greener pastures in destinations similar to the white sandy beaches of Diani Beach in Mombasa where tourism flourishes.  And for a meager sum of shillings, a willing tourist ( and there are many, local and foreign) needs not travel many kilometers into the lands they call home for a sample of Masai customs and traditional systems.

What is wrong with this picture? Is something out of place?

 

 

Dark Arts in Broad Daylight?

“…For starters, a culture and people that value relationships and the preservation thereof…”

 

Back in the day one whispered ‘ Mganga ‘ ( witch-doctor ) with a fearful and superstitious reverence. Their work, their sorcery was discussed in secrecy and brevity: Sealed behind closed doors. It seems like the times have tremendously changed.

The sticks: Electricity and telephone poles are still advertising prime real estate. The same goes for walls and alleys: The Stones. Now the occult have claimed their share of these spaces.

Simple Economics would lead one to a conclusion similar to my conjecture that there exists a handsome demand for the forces from the shadows to tinker with the seemingly impossible everyday life hurdles.

When diligence and religious consultations fall short of deliverance from said hurdles, where else should you look?

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Mganga (Witch-doctor) who purportedly has remedies for problems such as unemployment.

 

 

 

Problems this particular Mganga can remedy.

 

  • NGUVU ZA KIUME-  Male Strength / Virility …..  More specifically, Sterility
  • KURUDISHA MPENZI- Bringing back love
  • KINGA YA BOMA, MWILI AU SHAMBA-Home, farm and body protection
  • KUPATA KAZI, CHEO AU NDOA NA MAPENZI- Securing employment, a work promotion or love and marriage
  • TASA, ZEENA (correctly spelled zina) NA KUSHIKA WEZI- Infertility, infidelity and apprehending thieves
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Dr. Hasadi claims to be able to also remedy, domestic and business woes. (SHIDA ZA KINYUMBANI, BIASHARA)
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In his poster, Dr. Randari claims to be able to find and return missing or escaped persons. (KURUDISHA MTU- directly translates as ‘ returning someone’ )

 

 

You are probably reading this and finding it laughable; even pitiful. You are probably thinking that this further advances yet another African stereotype. That of juju, voodoo and other things cuckoo.

Upon your readership, I implore you to look at this with an open mind and empathy.

See it as I do.

For starters, a culture and people that value relationships and the preservation thereof.  (that’s a great place to start, what do you think?) 

 

 

Next Year in Wadi Halfa

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Wadi Halfa

It would have been nice to experience the festivities of ushering in the new year, complete with a midnight countdown, in Cairo. If traveling that far north was not a possibility, I would have been content with spending this day (31st of December) and the wake of 2015 gazing upon the silvery waters of the Aswan lake and the Nile. Sipping on hibiscus tea and… Better yet in the glare of Hurgada’s living moon, I would go swimming in the Red Sea on both sides of the year and … I can only imagine.

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I spent the 31st of December of 2013 eating mounds of crispy bacon, drinking whiskey and watching fireworks on Denver’s 16th street mall. It seems like the forces that be have willed that I meet this new year here. How can anybody forge an existence here. In stern dissobedience of the abundance sand, sun and nothingness. Where bacon is unavailable and whiskey costs 40 lashes.

There is not much in this town. Besides the  handful of buildings that are a couple of storeys high, the rest of the town is on a level plane, one floor high. A full appreciation of Wadi Halfa must warrant an intimate relationship with one’s own imagination.

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I am fully engaged. As the the calls for the last prayer of the day compete for air space. My eyes will dart from one tiny minaret to another. I will sip on my hibiscus tea that I will have ordered minus the sugar. I will gladly inhale the second hand smoke from apple flavored Shishas. And I will tap my fingers to the rhythm of music from my chai vendor’s transistor radio and count the stars in the sky. Who needs fireworks when the sky as bright?

Tomorrow morning, I am guaranteed entry to Egypt. (visa issued today at 1100 hrs)

Until then, I have surrendered to Wadi Halfa’s mystic allure.

 

 

The Face of Faith

Have you ever heard of Limalimo road?

Nov. 27th-Nov 31st

It is a ‘highway’ in northern Ethiopia between the historic city Gondar and Shire. It is famous worldwide for its treachery: With barely enough room for two small size vehicles to move in opposite directions without careful hesitation, it is convoluted around the Limalimo mountain with huge portions that are either in grave condition or under construction.

Nothing went according to plan that Thursday ( Nov 27th). My day started routinely at 4:00 am with a languid descent of three flights of stairs from my room at a decently priced pension conveniently located next to the bus terminus in Gondar. I had booked my bus ticket the previous day after back tracking from Debark where my efforts to secure a seat on a bus to Aksum via Shire were fruitless due to an overwhelming amount of pilgrims making their way to Aksum for the st. Mary’s day celebration.

I stepped out in to the murky street where a huge crowd was huddled around the station’s gate. At the stroke of five o’clock, the gates went ajar. Men, women and children flooded the bus station scurrying in obedience to the exuberant calls of bus touts or their forceful yanking.

After the dust had settled, the bus pulled out of the station.

I will spare you the excruciating details of the that journey that was halted hundred meters later when the engine of the bus imploded.  The details that would further describe the pains of waiting a couple of hours for a replacement bus that feigned death after half an hour of driving before finally throwing in the towel 100 km from Shire at dusk: Brake failure.

After being left in the darkness, and after chasing down a pickup truck that was supposedly two kilometers away, I made it to the next town accompanied by Dirk (German/Turk traveler). The next morning we got up early, boarded a bus to Shire before proceeding to Aksum where pilgrims were arriving in numbers.

 

The Face of Faith.

They  were there in numbers. They meditated and prayed. They slept under the blanket of the night’s sky or kept vigil chanting mantras and praying under candlelight. If patience is not the chief of all human virtues, then faith is: Decidedly.

St. Mary’s Day celebrations at the Church of our Lady Mary of Zion in Aksum, Ethiopia. November 30th, 2014DSC_0774 DSC_0821 DSC_0817 DSC_0808

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Welcome to Paradise

Nov 19th-25th

I remember his face eternalized in genuine concern guised in fear. I was standing on the edge and inching further: Trading solid rock for air. The thrill of a free fall was almost tangible right there at point Imet Gogo with an elevation of 3940 m ( 12,927 ft).

Semien mountains
Semien mountains

DSC_0437Perhaps he was also stupefied by the fact that I had left him in the dust in a sudden burst of energetic enthusiasm that was undoubtedly fueled by the revelation of an exhilarating landscape in a full 360 degree panorama. An enigmatic landscape reminiscent of the Arizonian grand canyon with peaks that loomed and haunted the horizon in the glare of the sun.

Young sheep herding boys in Semien mountains.
Young sheep herding boys in Semien mountains.
Sunset over Gich village in Semien mountains, Ethiopia
Sunset over Gich village in Semien mountains, Ethiopia

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From the myriads of waterfalls to the escarpments that unfolded and dropped steeply. From the villages that clustered to the livestock that peppered. From the pitchy clamoring of sheep herding boys that reverberated from within the dense patches of forest to the music from their flutes that soared from the meadows below. From the sinuous rivers that carved out the valleys and the meadows to the serpentine footpaths that connected things there and here, the view was splendid. Like a montage of a thousand postcards.

Gelada monkeys in Semien mountains
Gelada monkeys in Semien mountains

DSC_0153Perhaps this is what they (new acquaintances in Addis Ababa) meant when they said: Welcome to Paradise. But few of those would be able to comprehend my envy for the little moving dots in the distance. I am envious of their lives amidst the incessant excitements of mountains such as the Semien mountains.

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Semien mountains
Semien mountains
Welia Ibex in Semien mountains
Welia Ibex in Semien mountains

By the middle of the third morning trekking in the Semien mountains, me and my guide had not been able to communicate verbally. Not at all. He spoke no English and my tinish (little) Amharic was contextually handicapped. Nevertheless, we had successfully trekked 69 km. All along we had resorted to gesticulations when the desire to communicate arose. For the most part, we either walked side by side or traded the lead position. When stopped to rest, he would gesture for me to follow him which I did. He would then lead me to a look-out and after pointing in the he would say; Abyssinia Konjo. (Ethiopia is Beautiful)

At point Imet Gogo,  as I stood on the edge, I raised my straightened arms to my sides with my open palms facing downwards. I yelled out, ” Abyssinia Konjo !! ”  I quickly turned, stumbled in a momentary loss of balance, and was met with a look from my scout that was disapproving of my gesture of flight. He patted his stomach and pointed at me. DSC_0313 DSC_0359

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All I had had to eat the previous day was a small can of tuna and a piece of bread that I dipped in a generous amount of peanut butter. That morning, I had nothing to eat. Khalid had not eaten any of the food that I shared with him on the first day. I on the other hand had unknowingly eaten most of my ration within half a day of hiking.He reached into his bag and handed me a dry piece of bread that I had shared with him on the first day.

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DSC_0400On the fourth day, we sat atop mount Bwahit, the third highest peak in Ethiopia (14,557 ft), in unbounded gaiety. Patches of freshly fallen snow and an Ethiopian man with a basket full of bottled ‘Dashen’ beer, Pepsi and clay figurines surrounded us. The Ethiopian man was organizing his wares, in readiness for a swarm of German tourists that was making its way to the peak miles behind. As he went about his business he cordially chatted with my scout who was pointing out Ras Dashen, the highest peak in Ethiopia (and the Semien mountains) with his riffle. He then pointed to a village in the distance that was hard to make out and gestured that that is where he lived.

 

It took us two more days to hike out of the mountains and back to Debark.

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