Slipping And Sliding
Working and traveling for CAI takes me to numerous hot spots in this world and although most of them are dicey, uncomfortable, and sometimes outright dangerous, a recent trip to commission a completely renovated CAI donor-funded school in a remote village in Tanzania is one that I will cherish – for the luxury, comfort, and incredible adventure I experience.
Kigoma in western Tanzania, on the banks of the world’s second-largest and second-deepest freshwater lake, Lake Tanganyika, is a spectacular town endowed with abundant seafood, very fertile land, exceedingly friendly people, and breathtakingly beautiful. But as in much of sub-Saharan Africa, opportunities for quality education for the underprivileged, especially children of poor farmers, are woeful. CAI donors decided to completely redo a rundown school in the village of Igalula six months ago. The school is ready for commissioning, and I fly into Kigoma with CAI Africa representative Murtaza Bhimani in tow.
Mohsin Lalji, aka Sheni Mitumba, the head of Bilal Muslim Mission in Tanzania and implementor of the project, is at the school site, putting in the final touches to the renovated school. So, his trustworthy aid, Rajan, is at the airport to receive us. After a breakfast fit for Emirs at Sheni’s Hilltop resort, we drive five hours to the village of Igalula, where the school is to be commissioned tomorrow. There is a sense of frantic urgency within the team of workers as they try to put the finishing touches to the structure. Sheni remains convinced the task will be complete by 10 AM tomorrow.
From the school site, it is another hour of driving through some of the most beautiful landscapes in Africa I have seen. Rolling thick green forest covers the entire drive, peppered with poor villages and mostly women tilling the land. All of them, without exception, greet us as we pass through their villages, especially the excited children, who call me a mzungu, a white man in Kiswahili. I see a stooped elderly woman balance a tilling hoe on her head effortlessly; it looks like the hoe is part of her body, and she may not even be aware she has it on her head. The land they till is rich and bountiful, with corn, beans, rice, bananas, and palm oil making up the majority of crops farmed here. Sheni’s team has done wonders for the poor villages along the way, especially in providing thousands of impoverished people with clean, potable water. What bounties of Allah can we deny indeed?
We arrive at a landing strip where high-value tourists jet in to see the chimpanzees of Kigoma at the Mahale Mountain National Park. Sheni owns and operates the Mbali Mbali Resort, about an hour’s boat ride from here. Since the remote resort is accessible only by sea; we head there on a comfortable boat. A stiff breeze from the lake nearly freezes me to death and I am glad when the ride is over. The average cost per night at this resort is US$1,000 so Murtaza and I are in for some serious luxury accommodation and pampering – courtesy of Sheni, of course. We each get an opulent cabin that considers all my needs except a Wi–Fi connection and oxygen for me. Although the main dining area has a reasonable connection, the individual cabins are without data, Wi-Fi, or cellular link. I am so addicted to this necessity, I feel suffocation by not being in contact with the outside world. The area is so remote and safe, there are no locks to the super luxurious cabins, I shower without a door to close and poop with only a curtain separating non-existing prying eyes. Adding to the isolation is the continuous clatter from the surrounding jungle. Leopards, crocodiles, hippos, chimpanzees, and other predators are uncommon but they do lurk around.
We take a fiberglass boat the next day and this is more than twice as fast but not as comfortable. The school opening goes off as expected, with boring repetitive speeches from government officials who thank everybody underneath the sky who has contributed nothing to the restoration of the school but they must be acknowledged because it is politically expected. Since there are no flights to Dar es Salaam tomorrow, we must sleep another night in utter luxury. Except for the lack of oxygen, I don’t mind. Sheni treats us with a deep-sea expedition and both Murtaza and I hook our first deep-sea Yellow Belly fish and have it for dinner under a deceptive cloudless sky. Life is good, alhamd’Allah.
But Allah has other adventures in store for me. That night, an angry thunderstorm forms and moves through the lake, rousing lighting that blinds the eyes and deafens ears. It rains and rains and rains some more, making sleep difficult with the hammering of pouring water on canvas-made cabins and the lapping of waves so close to my cabin. We are supposed to go and observe the closest animal to us humans, chimpanzees, in the morning, but that is now shot as we wait for the boat to be readied for our trip back to Kigoma. The clouds on the horizon are dark and sullen and the waves, riled by a stiff wind, are choppy.
When we set sail, it starts raining in earnest, with the boat rolling to the waves. Thankfully, Sheni’s boat is well-equipped and sturdy, so it rides them readily. However, we don raincoats as the rain intensifies, pelting showers on us sideways in sheets and I eye the lifejackets warily as the rocking deepens. Will we have to put on these too? The rocking at one point gets so bad, I can see the top of the boat sideways as it lolls from side to side. For the first time in my life, I experience seasickness. Alhamd’Allah, the boat eventually steadies, behaves and we make it to shore after an hour of torture.
More adventure awaits as the Toyota Landcruiser struggles to navigate the rain-inflicted mud roads back to Kigoma. We slip and slide on several occasions, and the car dangerously tips to my side once, stopping it at an impossible angle, as the wheels jam in the muck; I seriously think that any movement from any four of us in the vehicle will tip it into the sludge outside. It seems to be an impossible situation but Sheni is an able and experienced jungle driver and hunter. With all the gears engaged, the vehicle whines, grinds, screams, and complains but is forced out eventually. We ultimately reach Kigoma, with much more slipping and sliding along the way. There were moments in the ride when I thought I was participating in the East African Safari Rally some fifty years ago.