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.

Stained Glass Ceilings (Hargeisa Airport, Somaliland)

I arrived so early to the airport, I was the first one there. I was so early, the security guard’s name is Ayaan, and we got into such giggles during the security screening that the male guard asked if we knew each other.

At immigration, the officer asks me which guesthouse I stayed in. I tell him I was working here, that I had a house here. It’s always strange, the first time you articulate a change. The first time you use the past tense.

Past security and immigration, the terminal is quiet. The roof is stained glass, with a second floor balcony, framed by wrought iron railings. The gate between the terminal and the tarmac is wrought iron to match, with golden flowers along the top, and great flowering bushes of deep pink on either side. A clock shows the time in Dubai. A small coffee shop makes espressos for a group of men, and for a moment, the sputtering of the coffee machine is the only sound. Nobody is wearing masks.

The stained-glass ceiling of the Hargeisa Airport.

For a moment, I cannot help but feel that this is not an airport, that I am waiting for a tiny cup of coffee instead of an airplane to take me out of the country. For a moment, it feels as though I am staying, as though I will relax by the flowers and the stained glass and then return to my house.

There are still four clothespins on my clothesline.

But I will not return to that house. I have already been stamped out of the country. Airports are a one-way stream of people, pushing us towards the beyond, towards the tarmac past the gate, to the collapsible staircases leading us to the great flying machines. For the moment, I know my fate. I chose it. The bird will swallow me, and spit me out across an ocean.

Getting on the plane in Hargeisa, headed for Addis Ababa.

Lemon Juice and Fleece Blankets (Hargeisa, Somaliland)

There is no conductor on the bus, no ticket collection — only a Zaad number, written on the roof in permanent marker. We send our fares without acknowledgement or question to the driver, a cashless society. 

As Salat al-Maghreb approaches, the air loosens around us. We drive with the door open, rolling down the street with the city beside us, traffic to thick to allow for enough speed to close it. Gas station, bakery, computer shop, pipe fitter, tyre supplier, supermarket, bookstore.

A man scatters water from a bucket to hold down the dust. White people with laminated signs in Somali stand in the intersections, palms outstretched. The driver says they’re from Syria. Fifty men gather around bundles of imported cast-offs, holding up tailored shirts and jeans to their hips while the merchants shout about discounts. Two women sit on white, plastic chairs, the hems of their jilbabs fanned out against the ground. A old man in a kofia and perfectly-circular gold glasses sticks his head out of the front passenger window of a bus, grinning. A woman sits on the corner, holding up a piece of paper with her Zaad number, hoping the phone will buzz from a stranger’s kind deposit. Businesspeople in dress clothes walk home from the office, holding binders and briefcases.

Inside the mall, across from an eight storey hotel covered in glass windows, there is Cookies Time. Three booths and two tables, nestled next to a glass case full of bakery and cheesecake. Three women order a plate of cookies and flip their niqabs up over their foreheads to eat. The table on the other side of us is four young men, wearing black sweaters with gold letters, and immaculate tennis shoes with dark skinny jeans. I order an Americano, which comes in a pink ceramic cup, and a lemon juice.

Outside, we get a rideshare and go to Cali Jirde. 

You can hear the music from the street, on Wednesday nights at Cali Jirde. If there is a place to see and be seen in Hargeisa, this is it.

Onstage, one man beats the drum, one plucks the strings, and one belts into the microphone. There is no use describing Somali music in English, but still — like waves, crashing and endless and somehow taking you home, wherever you are from. When they get tired, a woman comes to sing. When she tires, a group of teenagers in white, gold, and navy blue costumes comes to the stage to dance. Women across from men, they line up and dance across from one another, each daring the other’s next move, spinning so fast the fabric billows up like parachutes.

A man stands and takes the microphone, delivering and impassioned speech about the importance of dance and music and culture. The crowd applauds, as we are those who have come to see these things. The performers return to the stage, and we listen as we eat dinner, seated in our chairs, wrapped in fleece blankets.

As the end of the evening approaches, the music and dancing expands from the stage as the beautiful people of the city introduce themselves. An old woman in a gilded yellow hijab grabs everyones’ hands and plays match-maker, dragging couples together relentlessly, not in the slightest discouraged when her offers are declined.

But, at exactly midnight, the music cuts, as though we are all Cinderella. The lights go up, and the place empties within minutes, the crowd vanishing into taxis and ride shares and vehicles with private drivers, to be redistributed to houses across the city. The next call to prayer is in five hours.

If you’re in Hargeisa and would like to attend Cali Jirde’s music nights, these happen every Wednesday evening, from 8 o’clock (ish) until midnight. You can read more on their website.