Driving from the airport into town last Saturday night, the taxi driver pointed out some of the changes that have occurred in Mwanza since I left last year. The airport road itself is being widened into two lanes, though the dala-dalas still swerve unpredictably onto the hard shoulder. The enormous Chinese-built ‘Rock City Mall’ is fully open, accompanied by a shiny new footbridge adorned with blue and green LEDs – “ni samaki” (it’s a fish) my driver told me (apparently the resemblance is more obvious from above). Then in my old neighbourhood, the enormous crater where the road collapsed into the stream has been filled and freshly tarmacked. And there’s now pedestrian lights on the traffic lights in the centre of town (one of Mwanza’s top tourist sights), though the logic of the light system continues to evade me.
Otherwise Mwanza is much as I remember it. Ramshackle houses clinging to the rocky hills tumbling down towards the serene surface of the lake, tiny maduka with handpainted signs lining the streets in front of gleaming new office buildings, chaotic dusty roads leading up to peaceful tree-lined slopes. Over the past few days I have been almost overwhelmed by memories. I have followed familiar paths, caught up with old friends, and remembered many of the things I loved most about Mwanza. The colourful bustle of the Sunday market, piles of produce gleaming in the sunshine – fat purple aubergines; small, perfumed mangoes; tomatoes, green peppers and oranges stacked in neat pyramids; bunches of tiny yellow bananas like the chubby hands of some cartoon monster; enormous mounds of striped watermelons; dried fish in desiccated piles; the juju stalls with their mysterious bundles of dried leaves and bottles of glutinous brown liquid. The welcome warmth of sunshine and clear blue skies after weeks of flat grey October London. And meeting members of my fieldwork team and exchanging complicated handshakes and greetings reminded me of the fun of successful days in the field. One of my fieldworkers reminded me of the nicknames we had for each other, conjuring memories of giggling in the back of the car with the radio blaring bongo flava tunes, modelling for Pascazia’s impromptu photoshoots, drinking cold soda on scorching days, and sheltering in goat sheds after being soaked through by sudden rainstorms.
These moments were all the more poignant for me because they contrast so starkly with how adrift I felt when I first started working in Mwanza. I was a fish out of water, a gobsmacked samaki floundering outside my natural habitat. I felt constantly on the back-foot, always fearing I had made some terrible faux pas, or caused major offence, or even just that the schoolchildren’s giggles were directed at me (this last one was probably true). In the office, at lunchtime, in the car, and in the field, I desperately tried to follow the thread of the rapid-fire Swahili swirling around me, constantly confused about the details of plans, and trying to gauge the tone of conversations in which sideways glances and muttered mzungu made me increasingly paranoid.
I also found it difficult to adjust to the Tanzanian work culture. While I have no illusions about the exhausting competition of life in London, with the constant pressure to be working or doing something productive, the change of pace was frustrating. At one of our first visits to the ward office where we were waiting for the village leaders to arrive, my fieldworker rolled her eyes at me; “No hurry in Africa”, she said, a slogan people would often to me over the coming months. We spent many frustrating days waiting outside offices for the right person to arrive, who inevitably would send us on to someone else, or demand that we produced a different letter of permission, or claim that the stamp we had wasn’t good enough, or simply patronise me for a while. I became painfully aware of my own impatience and rudeness escalating, while the Tanzanians brushed it off, “haya” they would sigh, “tuende” (“OK whatever, let’s go”). On particularly bad days, on which we would pick up and drop off several mysterious passengers, stop for chai and chapattis, find that our facilitator had gone AWOL, visit several households to discover everyone had gone to a funeral, and do a tour of the market in search of the best-priced rice or charcoal, only for my fieldworkers to declare that it must be lunchtime and we should probably just eat and go back to town, my internal monologue would reach peak Protestant work ethic. Inefficiency! Time wasting! Deadlines!
In time I began to recognise the value in having more patience and understanding, the reciprocal give-and-take that exists beyond contracts and payslips. I hope that I learned to be a little more patient, not to take things so personally, and not to jump to conclusions. I certainly began to appreciate Tanzanian pragmatism and humour in the face of challenges, from Pascazia helping to extract thorny branches from our tyres, to the focus group facilitators reacting to the filthy interview room (I had been assured it had been cleaned beforehand) by rolling up their sleeves and going to find a mop and bucket.
One thing I never really adjusted to was the awkwardness of being a conspicuously privileged person working in a conspicuously underprivileged setting. Many aspects of life reinforced the privilege of my life in London. Remembering not to drink the tap water and to charge all your power banks before the weekly Sunday power cut wasn’t too difficult to adjust to, and in fact I got to enjoy the novelty of showering by candlelight. But being sick and not feeling able to trust the medical advice I was given, together with the somewhat dismissive treatment I received, was probably one of my lowest points, and made me more grateful than ever for the NHS. Here, private clinics both prescribe and dispense medication, meaning it’s in the doctor’s interest to prescribe you the most expensive treatment (in my case, quinine injections into my bum for a week – not much fun).
But perhaps the biggest privilege I missed was the anonymity of London, the ability to go where I liked and when I liked. Not being able to walk even just round the corner after dark, nor wander into town without attracting comments, from the old lady scolding me that my skirt was too short, to the men asking for my number, to the children chanting “Mzungu! Mzungu! Give me my money!”. While I acknowledge the very privilege of complaining of this, that didn’t necessarily make it easier to cope on a day-to-day basis. The line between naivety and cynicism is difficult to tread and I failed on many occasions. A few misjudged interactions when I first arrived left me taking elaborate detours to avoid a guy who used to lie in wait for me at work, at home, and outside shops I had gone into. I worry that I then went too far the other way, beginning to ignore even polite greetings and questions out of fear that a response would be misconstrued.
During my research, I also had to balance annoyance at requests for money with the awareness that people were generously giving up their time for no tangible benefit to themselves. On this most recent visit, I had to bite my tongue as the village leaders told me that I should give them more money for attending the meeting, and that I should build new classrooms for the schools – they were sure I had the money. Part of me does feel that they are justified – my PhD funding could easily have built several classrooms which would arguably have benefited this particular community much more than answering all my questions. This was probably the part I found hardest about fieldwork – justifying the intrusion into people’s lives and the money spent, for the sake of research that may or may not have an impact in the long-term. Luckily the meeting in the more rural village was much more amicable, and the leaders seemed genuinely interested in what we had found.
Imperceptibly, over time my fish-out-of-water faded and I began to feel at home in Mwanza. Living in a different country, the smallest victories in everyday life can make you feel great – successfully negotiating a fair price with the piki drivers, identifying the best avocado for eating today and which should be left for tomorrow, finally working out which duka will have Vodacom vocha in units greater than 1000 shillings (around 30p). In London I miss Mwanza, and in Mwanza I miss London. For now, I am returning to my own pond, but if the chance to leap out of my comfort zone arises again, I would have no hesitation. Tutaonana baadaye, Mwanza.
- bongo flava = Tanzanian hip-hop. While I was there, this was alternated on the radio with Justin Bieber and Shaggy’s ‘It wasn’t me’.
- chai = tea
- chapatti = chapatti – East African chapattis are rolled and brushed with oil so are flakier and greasier than an Indian chapatti. Delicious for breakfast with a cup of tooth-achingly sweet ginger tea.
- dala-dala = minibus taxi
- duka / maduka = shop / shops
- juju = magic, witchcraft
- mzungu = white person, foreigner
- piki = motorbike taxi
- samaki = fish
- tutaonana baadaye = see you later
- vocha = mobile phone credit – remember the days when you had to scratch off the silver strip and punch in the long number to top up? Yep, that.