Wednesday 28 August 2013

#006 Bagamoyo Blues

Experienced African expedition specialist Stu Westfield offers a uncompromising, unflinching and potentially controversial view of life and the winds of change in a small town on Tanzania's Indian Ocean coast.


Ten a.m and the streets are still and deserted, save for the odd boda boda forlornly scouting for a fare. Rustic mud brick houses, slowly falling back into the alluvium sand from which they were made, regularly punctuate those still in habitation. Trees and bushes now growing through empty windows, an age gone since human eyes looked out of the gloomy interiors.

Hand painted signs advertise the Poa Poa Restaurant; food at 'cool cool' prices. Dusty side streets and blind alleys lead to single room homes, just off the rough main thoroughfare where artisans ply colourful naïve oil paintings of Masai, giraffe and the odd pastiche of Livingstone himself.

Its a sleepy backwater surrounded by mosquito infested papyrus swamp on the inland side and golden sand beach on the other. The quiet rhythm of life having ebbed and flowed like the tide since Livingstone, then Stanley, stepped ashore nearly 150 years ago. Starting one of the greatest search and rescue stories that can be told. The sign above the entrance on one building boldly declares in yellow paint that 'David Livingstone passed through this doorway'.

Livingstone stands high amongst pioneering explorers from the Golden Age of Discovery. But as a Christian missionary he was spectacularly unsuccessful, with only one lasting convert. Although perhaps this is unimportant, given his ultimate legacy. He became such a thorn in the consciousness of the slave trade he despised, that he is ultimately accredited for initiating the movement to end the devastating traffic in African lives.

But, within the slumber of Bagamoyo is an undercurrent of anticipation. As if awaiting the resurrection of Livingstone to bring the promise of progression, like the great missionary himself once did. Maybe Bagamoyo's rise to salvation will be the coming of the tarmac artery linking a new port to major towns to the west and Dar in the south. European and Chinese investors have spied lucrative profits to be snatched from under the noses of the unwary with the collusion of the corrupt, while the World Bank cannot part with its money quickly enough in their belief that African's are incapable of helping themselves.

Then there's the ubiquitous presence of NGOs, all with promises of doing 'good work', but in reality enshrining a dependency culture from which Africans will be lucky to ever escape. In Uganda, I was frequently accosted by children with outstretched grasping hands, already conditioned to demand with a precocious sense of entitlement "Where is my money. Give me my money!".

Is this the new slavery, under the guise of 'worthy deeds'? Our perception of material inequality wrestled away with conscience salving direct debits by giving "Just £3 per month" the poor helpless African..."to provide urgently needed"...fill in the blank. Cut to a close up of a child's face with wide innocent eyes, tear stained cheeks and flies feeding on the pap in the corner of its mouth. Every day NGOs pay huge sums of money for these images to cover our television screens, chiding us into guilt, to pay money, so that they can drive white £44,000 Toyota Landcruisers around the continent at eighteen miles per gallon.

Surely it is trade without exploitation, if such a thing exists, is what African governments should insist upon, on behalf of the people that elected them. Not the rape of its resources with aid drip fed from NGOs in return.

But has Bagamoyo really got it so wrong, whilst the developed world rushes headlong into a modernity where we spend our hard won remuneration on plastic tat that makes us feel transiently better about ourselves and our own predicament of bonded labour to a glass screen and qwerty keyboard?

With the exception of the odd tourist hotel with thatched bandas, under which a chilled soda or evocatively labelled Serengeti beer can be sipped in the shade, the last 150 years on Bagamoyo beach have changed little. Dhows with white raked back sails still skim the horizon under a blue sky punctuated by clouds promising rain but rarely delivering more than a few drops. Palm trees overhead rustle in the breeze which picks up with the incoming of the tide early this afternoon.

'Mister Cheapy Cheapy' obscures my turquoise view while he tries to entice me to buy a wooden carving of a rhino or a bead bracelet at 'good price'. Later, a man in ragged trousers carrying a sorry looking sand covered fish swaggers up to me. I cannot decipher the Kiswahili from his treacly bass voice save for the words safi samaki, fresh fish. I counter with a hapana asante, no thank you, and he moves on.

Other beach peddlers pass by. The freshly cut coconuts on offer seem a little better bet than the dubiously chilled ice cream from a box on a tricycle with an ineffective umbrella on top. Mostly I'm left in peace, nestled into the cool silica grains under the shade of my palm tree. I'm invisible to the few other wazungu uneasily strolling barefoot on the soft white sand. Frequent glances back to the safety of their hotel exposes a straight-off-the-plane insecurity which ties them with invisible shackles. I can't help but think that trousers which end at calf-level are never a good look, no matter how exotic the location.

Fishermen land a meagre catch from rustic boats and dug-out canoes with outriggers bob towards the shore. Some of them look seaworthy. A subsistence living, yes possibly, but one which has endured the rise and fall of sultanates and empires.

Some of the fish are descaled and gutted on the beach just outside the fish market. At the end of the afternoon the sand glistens with pearlescent flecks and a pungent smell clears the nostrils before the tide once again cleanses the beach. Two white collar ravens caw above the palm fronds and egrets fly overhead. The sea, a giver of food in all states of life and decay.

A young woman sits down and leans wearily against the next palm tree. I saw her earlier, asleep on the sand, face covered with her green kanga stretched over her head. I think she has probably been here all night. She looks tired and hungry.

More dhows are now weighing anchor and further down the beach is busy with locals. I stand up and dust off my khakis. I love the heat of the African sun but hold no enthusiasm for toasting myself to lobster colour in a basing of cancer protecting white gloup.

Without drawing attention, I offer my uneaten fruit to the young woman as I walk past, with a few words of broken Kiswahili which I hope conveys respect. She takes the food with a cupped had, expression unchanged. I walk down the beach wondering, in light of my cynicism about NGOs, if I have just been a hypocrite.

I step over and under several mooring lines tying the nearest dhows to thick palm trunks growing high on the beach. Chippy chatter of bartering and deals being struck now fills the air, mixing with the odours of a working fish market. I turn inland and the sand is now a greasy grey consistency, coagulated by centuries of raw fish oil. Under rows of rough hewn timber roofs the serious business of fish processing goes on.

Over fiercely burning charcoal fires the catch is vigorously fried in great bowl shaped pans, the fat bubbling, spitting and popping. It seems to be a culinary insult to fresh fish, but much of it needs to be preserved for it will travel inland to the markets of Moshi and Arusha.

At the end of the market is a handful of stalls with domestic products for sale. From a mosque which also advertises itself as a hostel, call to prayer warbles from a minaret. Any tune is killed by the poorly amplified speakers. These mu'addins just ain't what they used to be. A few hundred metres away a prominent cross of the competition silently intrudes on visitors to the other end of the beach.

I carry on with unbroken stride, back through the juxtaposed dilapidated and newer block built homes. I find the Poa Poa Restaurant and sit down to what turns out to be a good but appropriately mis-spelt cafe late.

After a few sips, I wonder how long Bagamoyo will continue to wait until the late Livingstone's second salvation. Another saviour which Bagamoyo neither wants, needs, or asks for.