On Hating Beets (Travel Diary: Bagamoyo, Tanzania)

The Port

I stand by the gate, hesitant, and call out to the guard.

Naweza kuingia?” I ask. Can I enter?

Ingia, ingia,” he ushers me in.

It’s dark, but the beach is busy. A crew of about thirty men wades back and forth through the shallows, carrying sacks from a truck to the dhow, loading the boat for Zanzibar. There are no docks here, no ramps or vehicle bridges over the water. The boats can’t come all the way to shore without beaching themselves in the sand, and so loading means wading, sacks above heads.

Salaam aalaykum,” a man rasps as he walks behind me.

Waalaykum assalaam,” I respond to the greeting, but pull my scarf close around me. It’s a polite greeting, but I can’t help but tense at the sudden appearance of a voice so close behind me. Late night, dark port, new city, and I am the only woman. 

The scene is so foreign, but the feeling of it so familiar. There is no moon, just a few lights along the shore, and the noise is split between the quiet collapse of the waves and the voices of the crew as they heckle each other and laugh, in the way that twenty-year-old men across the world do. I can see faces written with thought, those who clearly just started working and want to impress. Those who have loaded many boats and wonder what else they might do in the future. Those who have given up hope, and those who still hold it close. Those who are serious, intense, thoughtful. Those who splash and are joyous, the class clowns of the nighttime sea in Bagamoyo.

My original tension dissolves when I see that, only to be replaced by the guilty tension of having ever felt tense at all.

The Fish Market

The next afternoon, I walk to the fish market, from the old road down into the tarry blackness of the cooking shacks, where big metal pans on open fires sputter out piles of fried fish, stinking and cooling on wooden boards. I know better than to buy my fish from here, pre-cooked and pre-rotting. Everything is black with soot, and I pull my scarf over my face.

Fresh ni wapi?” I ask a woman, stewing a bucket of tiny silver fish. Where is the fresh fish?

Enda hapo pwani,” she directs me down a narrow walkway, towards the beach.

Fish doesn’t smell when it’s still fresh, and on the beach, the market hardly smells. Tables with umbrellas, and men stand next to the options. These mostly aren’t the fishermen, but middlemen. Big fish, little fish, long fish. One fish, two fish. An octopus. 

I know nothing about fish.

I ask a kind-looking man to approach a table with a fish I like, and ask how much it costs. To avoid the foreigner tax, I ask him, and he laughs. He walks over, asks the merchant the price, and then waves me over.

Elfu kumi,” he repeats the merchant’s price, his eyes sparkling as we watch the merchant catch onto our game. Ten thousand shillings — about four dollars — much less than what I would have been quoted had I asked myself. We negotiate to eight thousand, and I agree to have the scales removed “professionally,” bringing the price back up to nine thousand. I buy a cloth shopping bag for a few hundred more (plastic bags are illegal in Tanzania), and sling my purchase inside, the tail sticking up into the air.

I buy charcoal on the way back, from a teenage boy seated outside an old colonial building. I am unaccustomed to carrying home an entire fish in one hand and a bundle of charcoal in the other, and I am buoyed by the joy of a completely new errand accomplished in a foreign country.

Monday Market

The other women glance at me as I approach the pile of secondhand shirts, but pay me no further attention. I settle onto a corner of the tarp, and join the movement of shirts from one side of the pile to the other, searching for something.

Mia tano, mia tano,” the owner of the bale calls out. Five hundred, five hundred, and he tosses me a shirt. It’s a secondhand import from China, and I toss it aside. I’m larger, and the tiny sizes they send from East Asia never fit me. I look for the Arab styles, from Saudi, which seem to come in larger sizes. A woman sitting next to me, an older lady, holds up a shirt in suggestion, like my mother would do. Amusingly, also like my mother’s clothing suggestions, I hate it, and can’t help but smile as I shake my head.

Chicken and Chips

I storm out of the hotel, frustrated. Shakshuka is supposed to be mostly tomatoes, not beets. I can’t decide whether I even like beets, but I definitely didn’t like them just now. I hate beets, I decide, and step into the street, off to find some actual food. Fancy hotel food didn’t fill my stomach, and there were too many beets! Hate beets. Hate them.

I have a childish desire to stick my tongue out. I might be hangry.

Left and left and there’s the spot, some plastic tables and a bit of hot oil, a glass case of chicken and fried potatoes lit up on the edge of the street. A young man greets me as I approach.

Karibu,”  he says.

Asante,” I reply, and order. “Wote, tafadhali.”

Everything is chicken and chips, with both salad and sauce. He nods, and steps over to prepare the order, while I settle at a plastic table in the corner, back to the corrugated metal walls. I like sitting like this, settled slightly into the shadows, observing while avoiding being observed. Perhaps it’s because I’m a foreigner, perhaps it’s because I’m a woman, but this position, and the periodic escape from attention it provides, is a relief.

He brings the food to the table, piled onto a single plate, with no utensils. I wash my hands from a bucket tap next to the street, and then dig in hungrily. Golden fries, thick with spicy tomato sauce and cabbage, fried to a softness that hasn’t quite lost its crunch. Two enormous pieces of chicken, rich and oily. I’m sure it’s no good for me, but I’m hungry, and this feels like honest food in a way that the hotel’s overpriced egg boiled into a tiny pot of beets never will. I eat, and it feels like home in my stomach.

I hand my host a 5,000 shilling note, and toss my scarf over my shoulder as I begin walking up the hill, back towards the hotel. I pass a group of men, seated around a box television. The sign advertises a schedule of football matches, but there is no cheering. The TV is tuned to a Swahili broadcast about the war in Ukraine. The group of men is silent, thirty faces fixed on the screen. I stand back a few feet, in the street, also taken by the coverage. Images to disturb you from your daily reality, thrown in so casually, as though we should swallow them like dessert.

Soon enough, though, a few of the men notice me, and heads begin to turn, tugged in my direction by my foreignness and femaleness. I steal a few more moments of news coverage as I adjust my scarf, and then head back, dipping in and out of shadows.

Americans: If You Want To Watch A Movie About Africa, Watch “Binti.”

From what I’ve seen, too many “African” films (about Africa, but with heavy foreign involvement in the production team) seem to rhyme. As shown in these movies, African people have Difficult Lives because of an African Problem (usually something like Poverty, AIDS, Female Genital Mutilation, Armed Conflict, or Forced Marriage). The movie is about overcoming their specific African Problem, and then they have a Good Life. It is all too simple, and for American audiences — who seem to be easily convinced that African problems are easily solvable — continues a dangerous narrative. Audiences learn that African Problems are different from Our Problems, that African problems can be solved with such readily available silver bullets, if only anyone bothered to Do Something.

Furthermore, the characters are never developed — they don’t exist except to showcase these “African Problems.” Audiences don’t really get to know the characters, and for American audiences accustomed to a lifelong diet of these “African” movies, the collective perception becomes that Africa is a continent of forgettable individuals and Big Needs.

Can I suggest an alternative? Check out “Binti” — Netflix’s first Tanzanian film, created by a completely female team.

“Binti” (2021, directed by Seko Shamte) is a Tanzanian film about four women in Dar es Salaam and the struggles they face — a woman reconciling the pain of family history and hopes for independence with the burden of debt, a woman struggling to imagine herself beyond the reach of her abusive boyfriend, a woman forced by infertility to reimagine her vision of her own family, and a woman whose marriage and sense of self are challenged by the trials of raising a child with special needs.

Each situation is dealt with, although not quite in the ways the women had dreamed of. It is painful and frustrating to watch. There are no soothing resolutions, no happy endings, just another step forward. These are not inspirational stories; these are honest portrayals of the pain and frustration of being a woman, and it hits hard.

So, for my Americans trying to find some sort of education about Africa through film, don’t bother with “Blackhawk Down” or “Blood Diamond.” Search for “Binti” on Netflix, and welcome to the frustrating concept that African problems can look very similar to American problems, and there’s no silver bullet to solve the pain of being a woman.

Tanzania: A Traveller’s “Must-Know” Introduction

This spring, I’ll be spending approximately a month each in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. While I used to live in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania are new to me! I’m very excited about the trip, and will be channelling my excitement into some introductory blog-posts about each country. So, this post is a quick introduction to the “must-know” factoids about Tanzania.

Note: This post is not a travel guide to Tanzania, and doesn’t include logistical advice on travel — instead, this is a run-down of some common knowledge and household names you should really know if you’re going to spend any time in Tanzania… don’t want to be the ignorant tourist!

Must-Know Basic Facts about Tanzania

When travelling to Tanzania, there are a few basic facts which would be quite embarrassing to be caught in ignorance of, so let’s go over those first!

  • largest city: Dar es Salaam
  • capital city: Dodoma
  • president: Samia Suluhu Hassan (Tanzania’s first female president, in office since 2021)
  • currency: Tanzanian shilling (TZS)
  • official languages: Swahili and English (although there are 120+ languages spoken in the country)
Here’s Tanzania’s flag, so you recognize it when you see it during your travels!

Tanzania: An Introduction via Maps

Maps are a great way to visualize the basic information you’re expected to know about a country before you visit — major cities, borders, land features, general sense of “where exactly am I?” So, let’s check out some maps.

Tanzania in East Africa

Here is Tanzania in East Africa. Notice that Tanzania has a long coastline along the Indian Ocean, with the island of Zanzibar (part of Tanzania) along the northern coast. The entire country is located south of the equator, but it’s relatively close.

source: Ian Macky

A Basic Map: Tanzania’s Major Cities, Geographic Features, and Land Borders

Next, check out this map of Tanzania with some major cities and geographic landmarks shown. Here are a few you should take specific note of:

  • Dar es Salaam = Tanzania’s (and East Africa’s) largest city, used to be the capital city
  • Dodoma = Tanzania’s capital (since 1974)
  • Mount Kilimanjaro = Tanzania’s (and Africa’s) tallest mountain
  • Zanzibar = Tanzania’s most famous island, a popular tourist destination

In addition, take note of the land borders. Tanzania borders Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya.

source: World Factbook

A Tourists’s Map: Tanzania’s Roads and National Parks

Here’s a bit of a more detailed map for visitors, showing national parks and major roads (remember: major doesn’t mean paved). Here are a few things to notice:

  • Arusha is a major tourist destination, because of its proximity to both Mount Kilimanjaro and the Serengeti National Park
  • Notice the two islands along the coast in the north — Pemba and Zanzibar — two out of the four four islands in the Zanzibar Archipelago.
  • Notice Lake Taganyika, in the west. Tanzania’s entire border with the DRC runs along the middle of this lake. Before independence, Tanzania was known as the Taganyika Colonial Territory.
source: World Factbook

Size Comparison Map: How Big is Tanzania?

For any Americans reading, a size comparison can be a really helpful tool in understanding how big a country is. Here is Tanzania overlaid with the eastern United States.

source: World Factbook

Famous Tanzanians

Some Tanzanians are household names internationally, some are not. Regardless, here are some incredibly accomplished and well-known Tanzanians, who are definitely household names in Tanzania.

  • Julius Nyerere (b. 1922, d. 1999): Tanzania’s first president post-independence, known for his Ujamaa socialist policies, often referred to as “Mwalimu” (teacher)
  • John Magufuli (b. 1959, d. 2021): Tanzania’s fifth president, in office from 2015-2021, known for denying COVID-19
  • Samia Suluhu Hassan (b. 1960): Tanzania’s sixth president, in office since 2021, the country’s first female president
  • Abdulrazak Gurnah (b. 1948): author, known for books such as “Paradise” (1994) and “By The Sea” (2001), winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2021
  • Diamond Platnumz (b. 1982, Naseeb Abdul Juma): bonga-flava musician and recording artist, known for hits such as “African Beauty”

I feel like my list of famous Tanzanians is quite short — please comment and let me know who you would add! Happy travels!