Officially, Tanzania has a policy that all travelers entering the country carry a COVID-19 negative certificate. Murtaza Bhimani, CAI’s Africa representative brings this requirement to my attention a few days before I am to take off, putting me into a tizzy, trying to arrange a test. This is not so easy in Florida where the pandemic is working overtime and tests have a backlog, and results can take up to two weeks. I get the test done after a herculean effort, negative thank Allah, just in time and take off without anybody asking me to see the certificate. I am not asked for it while checking in at KLM for NY, not in NY for Amsterdam and not on to Dar es Salaam.
Yes, flying has changed, for sure. It is a pain in the butt having a mask on for hours. Imagine, I have to breathe stale stifling air for hours which drive me nuts; even having to burp into the damn thing. The KLM stewardesses, face expressions disguised behind the niqab, do not tire in reminding me to put the shield in place every time I try to cheat, which is quite often. It is also a challenge figuring out how irate they are with me, except for the fire in their eyes. The food served is as tasty as wilting tulips of Amsterdam and my server looks at me in aghast when I ask her for Tabasco to liven up my fare.
I join 300 other passengers in Amsterdam heading for Tanzania, many of them tourists undeterred by the rampaging Doodoo and mask-in-place imposition while in flight. The aircraft makes a brief stopover at Kilimanjaro International Airport where the local fire brigade gives us a welcome sprout of showers; this is the first KLM flight back to Tanzania in three months of COVID-19 imposed lockdown. I get a glimpse of my birth-town from the open aircraft doors when my steely blue-eyed tormenter relents and lets me out on the ramp when I tell her I was born not more than thirty miles from where we are.
The air about Julius Nyerere International airport in Dar es Salaam is pretty laid back. All I have to do is sanitize my hands and fill a health questionnaire. Not even the health inspector who points a temperature gun to my forehead has a mask on; he waves me through uncaringly. The immigration guy looks at my masked face and asks me to remove it for identification and photo-scan.
Hamna Corona kwetu, he says and gives me a toothy smile, kareebu Tanzania – No Corona with us, welcome to Tanzania.
So much for a mandatory COVID-19 negative certificate. Nobody, except a handful of mostly elderly guys I count on my fingers, wear a mask during my visit of almost two weeks, not in commercial capital Dar es Salaam, nor in my subsequent visits to Tanga, Pangani, Pemba, and Zanzibar. Indeed, people instantly place me as somebody from outside Tanzania when they see me with a mask on and are startled to hear me speak in Kiswahili.
How can a poor country like Tanzania beat the trend and be almost Doodoo-free when next-door Kenya and Uganda are still in lockdown with ongoing casualties? Even the tourists in Zanzibar roam about, eat at restaurants and frolic the beaches uncaringly. With all humanity milling about in mosques, churches, streets, and the packed markets, surely not all the damage can be hidden? Has Tanzania achieved herd immunity? Allah knows best.
I am concerned about my safety, naturally. I have my niqab on at all times I am out and about, except when stuffing my face with all the nostalgic home food that I miss outside of Tanzania. There are only pineapples, oranges, and tangerines – all suppa-sweet – for fruits in abundance since it is winter here; the more exotic ones will show up starting November. My hotel tries hard to social distance guests, but I’m skeptical. The elevators are about 5×3 with four spaces marked as to where to stand. I once share it with a massively pregnant woman whose belly almost touches mine; she smiles in apology. I smile back, but she can’t tell because of my mask. Boy, she looks like she’ll lay an egg anytime; I fervently pray the elevator does not develop a sudden illness and stop.
Why am I here? Is the risk worth it? Should I not be hunkered down in my townhouse in Sanford? These are the standard questions from well-wishers and skeptics alike. Perhaps. I refuse to sit on my tush however, hoping the Doodoo will disappear. Perhaps it will, most likely not. In the meantime, our projects all across the world need attention. It is one thing sending money for various projects to our partners on the ground, and we at CAI trust everybody; except we check and verify, without exception. As long as I am not rash, and take adequate precautions, I’ll be fine insha’Allah.
In Pemba, Tanga, and Zanzibar, accompanied by Murtaza Bhimani and Mohsin Nathani of Nyota Foundation, CAI’s local working partner, CAI hands over three toilets to schools that did not have any, officially opens an elementary school, gifts 30 desks to a poor school where kids are sitting on the floor for classes, hands over a renovated kitchen and dining room for a handicap school, takes on five deep-water well projects and begins the process of renovating two more schools – alhamd’Allah.
Now, back in Dar, I’m stuck. I was hoping to go to Uganda and commission the construction of an elementary school in a remote village near Mbaale but the country is in lockdown. So, I spend a few days here reconnecting to my roots, before heading home. Eating, writing, meeting people, eating some more, and burning off the calories at the Hayat gym adjacent to the Khoja mosque. The Hayat gym has cleaned up their act and is now better equipped. For US$2.50 (Khojas only, okay?) I can use the facility.
I am regular at the Khoja mosque, all three times pukka; it is a stone’s throw away from my hotel. I hear the azaan and start walking, reaching the mosque way before it ends. There are no masks worn here and no social distancing to speak of. The prayer hall has individual prayer mats spaced about four feet apart, however. This is the extent of precautions. There are losers who, still, disparage the house of Allah and the rights of others by lighting up cancer sticks immediately on leaving the mosque. I guess some things will never change, no matter what?
I get some much-needed solitude after fajr prayers every morning. Two cups of strong black coffee and two peanut kashatas from a passing vendor with an ancient coffee urn on a mobile charcoal burner. Not the most hygienic way to start the day but very delicious. I sit on the steps outside Gulam Bhimani’s Tronic business and wave a young hawker over. His name is Edee and he sanitizes the petite coffee-cup by rinsing it with a quarter cup of hot piping coffee.
Haaya Mzee, he says in highly accented English, it is now cleeni kabeesa.
Ordinarily, I would have sternly reprimanded him for insulting my age, but I forgive him since he tries to practice his limited elementary-school English on me. Over coffee and kashata, I get to know Edee and we chat about the life he lives and his struggles in a large city that will reward him only if he hustles. Learning about his struggles and hopes, as he smiles and laughs with me at my silly jokes is therapy not easily available elsewhere. The cost? Eighteen US cents. I leave him with a handsome tip, him scratching his head in pleasant bewilderment. Edee and I meet up every morning at the same spot, same time for the rest of my stay. Life’s small pleasures, no? Ahhh. All’s well. Alhamd’Allah.
I am waiting to deliver a CAI presentation to a group of local NGOs yesterday when the floor under my feet wobble, giving all of us jitters. Twice. We vacate the building. A rare 6.0 magnitude tremor off Dar shakes up the entire region, bringing the residents of the city into the streets; for supposed safety.
For some telling photographs of my visit to CAI projects, please click https://bit.ly/3izNeFa.