It should probably be a sin to have so much fun and adventure in life… But with my travels for Comfort Aid International, there are no shortages of escapades. Alhamd’Allah.
So, thus this Blog, on my recent travels through 5 African countries spanning Senegal, Sierra Leone, Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. I hope you enjoy reading this, as much as I did, visiting and writing about my experiences.
With Aunty Corona spawning deep fear and financial carnage all over the Dunya, I am a bit nervous when several passengers, mostly Chinese, show up to board the Dubai – Dakar flight with masks donned. Many, including me, give them a generous berth. It’ll be a good 14 hours of travel with the stopover in Conakry, so it’s a relief the seat next to me remains unoccupied all the way. Except there is pin-drop silence when a woman sneezes and coughs a few short sharp barks. The ‘new’ airport at Dakar is crummy; some people are laughing all the way to the bank and beyond, I’ll bet.
Joining me in Dakar is CAI colleague Sohail Abdullah and Africa representative Murtaza Bhimani. We have not much to do in Senegal except drive to Somb where the final touches are being applied to a massive brand new school benefiting children from 8 very poor villages who will finally get an opportunity to break out of their poverty through a quality education insha’Allah. The next stop is Freetown, Sierra Leone.
Sierra Leone saw one of the bloodiest civil war in recent history and CAI is eager to give the poor children a shot at education. After a stop at Lomé, we land in Freetown, which is a copy of any west African country, except for some breathtaking beaches. And they understand English, although their spoken version is with heavy Creole. Freetown city is across the water from the airport so we have to take a rickety fast boat across the sea and I glimpse the tail of a shark diving; I pray the boat holds. Since the land for the school is donated by the government, we have to adhere to frustrating and timewasting protocol. Lo! I am attired in my travel shorts and I’m certain the Minister of Public Works turns a shade dark in ire when I show up to pay my respects with my team donning bare (recently surgery shaved) legs and loafers; I’ll bet this is a first for him. The donated land is in the same vicinity where CAI donors recently aided a community devastated by mudslides, and a modern 7-classroom school will soon grace this location insha’Allah. The children of this area are dirt poor and I’m excited CAI donors can help them break out of grinding poverty through education.
The next stop is Nakuru via Nairobi, joined here by a strong supporter and well-wisher Nabeel Adam Ali. Both these cities are chilly so our sweaters are out. CAI has several water-well projects in the vicinity and an economic empowerment project for poor farmers in Busia, close to the border to Uganda. We meet up with our partners, Sharing is Caring on the ground in Nakuru. Fehmida Fazal’s wholesome and yummy homemade dinners are a welcome change from the standard hotel fares of fish and french fries. After inspecting the water wells, approving another one sponsored by Ella Baker school students in NYC and the poor farmers whose widows will soon insha’Allah benefit from milk-producing goat rearing project, we reach the Kenya – Uganda border.
There is madness at the border, with miles of trucks wanting to cross over. Thank Allah the driver has ‘arranged’ a contact at the border who ‘makes’ our vehicle cross over without too much pain. The exit from Kenya is a non-event, but entry to the Ugandan side is maddening. Although all of us have pre-approved e-visas, Uganda’s immigration systems and equipment are as cooperative as a jilted spouse on a bad day. The fingerprint machine cannot read my finger maps, so the guy tries another method and this is where it gets comical. He switches on the computer and looks at the monitor as if this is the first time he sees it. He looks at me, back at the screen again, raises his eyebrows to the heavens and roughly satisfies an ear-itch with a pinkie which he eventually pulls out to examine closely. Not finding particularly interesting, he cleans it on his sleeve and tries to coax the computer again. It does not cooperate. The guy, a young twenty-something, stares at me blankly, obviously at a loss what to do next.
Is there a problem? I ask, frustration evident on my face and in my voice.
The guy raises his eyebrows to the sky in agreement. I feel like slapping him silly.
What is it? I hiss.
He looks at me again, says nothing, his brains in overdrive, as if trying to find a solution to the Aunty Corona dilemma?
Iti is noti working. He says in a typical manner that Swahili people speak English in E. Africa.
I swear I want to jump through the barrier separating us to strangle him but his heavyset boss with a massive belly walks in and saves him. Perhaps? They process my admission manually and I’m through. Sohail and Nabeel also encounter issues but Murtaza, who is Tanzanian does not require a visa, breezes through.
We get to visit a poor village about 24 miles from Mbale in Uganda and meet with the local poor community. Here also, a CAI donor school will soon sprout and these children will soon be going to a modern school insha’Allah. We interact with the local Jamaat and Bilal in Kampala who has agreed to help our mission. Happy and content with our tour thus far, we head for Tanzania where more adventure and happiness await.
Dar es Salaam is hot and steamy and uncomfortable and full of tropical fruits, so we grin and bear it. We have sooooo much to eat in Tanzania that both Sohail and I have some serious issues turning into classical dhabbas. We have several projects in Dar that we visit the next day. We do that, and give due respect to the abundant fruits, foods, especially sweet-passion (snot fruit), kuku na chipsi, nundu, mishkaaki, samaaki… Yum. Burp.
The cost of us 5 (Mohsin Nathani from Nyota joining us in Dar) traveling from Dar to Tanga, Pemba, Zanzibar and back to Dar is the same as chartering a tiny 5-seater bumble-bee Cessna with the pilot at our disposal. We are off the next morning in the cramped aircraft piloted by Mujtaba Dhalla, a 23-year-old amiable young man. I want to ask him if he has said his prayers this morning; I want Allah to be pleased with him; Mujtaba is good. The aircraft is so small and uncomfortable, you’d think we were all in a compromising posture the way we are seated.
Tanga is home for me, this is where I grew up. The first stop is the Blue Room where we stuff ourselves with nylon bhajias and better than K-Tea Shop kababs, according to Nabeel. We have desks, school toilets, and rehabilitation of crumbling school projects and our prized Abul Fazl Abbas Elementary School that we visit. Wonderful, proud and gratifying projects and moments.
It is while we fly to Pemba that yesterday’s bhajias come to roost. Someone lets of a silent bomb and there is immediate suffocation in the tiny cabin; for a while, I think Mujtaba is going to lose control of the bloody aircraft. He flips open his window and so do I, seated in the front next to him. Flying at about 5,000 feet, the cool wind gushes in and chases out the toxic intestine fumes; phew!
More projects in Pemba and Zanzibar that day and the next. We return to Dar spent of energy, burnt to a dark walnut from the fierce E. African sun. It is the birthday of Imam Ali (a) (and mine), so the Khoja mosque in Dar later that night is packed kama sardines. The speeches after the lecture are tedious and pointlessly long. Nabeel, Sohail and I decide we are too hungry to wait for niyaz (pulau served at 22:30) so we escape to Natasha for pilipili samaaki instead.
I long for home and my family. But first, I have to head to India, where Aunty Corona is creating havoc as I tap this Blog. The stock market is in a freefall, India has stopped visa holders entry and the US has suspended all European flights into the US. Yikes! I hope I make it home safe starting tonight. Mumbai – Dubai – Orlando.