Lea Becker's excellent photos of Southern Africa show dark, elephant-skinned trees in bright-dry landscapes, so bleached out by the sun or the camera lens that they could almost be dusted in snow. I keep going back to look at them.
They reminded me of my own trip to sub-Saharan Africa a couple of years ago. I dug out these unfinished notes from a 7-day visit to Tanzania in late 2005 - they're a molecule-deep impression from an outsider, often (hypo-)critical, and definitely one-dimensional - there's no mention of the vibrant beauty of the continent, landscape, people, markets, flora... No argument is advanced, no conclusions are drawn, and perhaps they're no less fake than Raymond Roussel's Impressions d'Afrique, which were written not in Africa but in a limousine touring Europe.
Saturday and Sunday
We are going to visit W's brother N and his wife N. They emigrated to Arusha in Tanzania earlier this year and are making new lives there. There is much discussion of packing and binding techniques for the mountain of various things to take out them. We pack, weighing the bags regularly as we go - the Marmite is going to have to stay.
There is enough to take that our clothing is confined to the hand-luggage bags - this constraint feels very liberating. It's as if this trip has become more purposeful than the average holiday because we now have the status of couriers. Necessarily, we are efficient nomads.
When we get to Terminal 4, there's a big queue and no check-in staff. We decide to self-serve check-in our e-tickets from a machine that prints boarding passes very reluctantly and hides them safely in a metal cavity where fingers can't reach.
W sleeps immediately; I stare into the engine white-noise hours, eyes drying. I wonder whether it will be like Zambia, which we visited three weeks previously for the wedding of friends B and T. I feel a very slight fear of travelling, and perhaps of Africa. Sven Lindqvist, in asking himself "why do I travel so much when I am terribly frightened of travelling?", quotes Conrad: "Fear always remains...". Perhaps I am afraid of "Dark Africa", of the untamable, unclean, all-to-real, direct, un-technologised, black-white African fear-fantasy that the middle-class white European education hinted at, a mode that comes straight from Stanley (In Darkest Africa) and earlier.
We arrive in the heat. White man is often able to shrug off attentions of police and regulation - a bureaucratic droit de seigneur.
In Arusha, the dominant tools and technologies seem to be the handcart (wooden, with wheels from cars rather than bicycles) and the mobile phone. In contrast to the town, in rural areas the dominant tools are the bicycle with a load-carrying platform over the rear tyre, and the 30-gallon plastic drum.
Hardly anyone is begging - far fewer than you'd see in a British city. But everyone has something to sell, and they've all been to the same school: tell the mzunga your name, ask theirs, make a personal connection, tell a personal story, hunt for the sale. We Europeans are the migratory impala.
What N likes most about Tanzania is that there are no rules, no bureaucracy - that you can do what you want. There are few forms to fill, few councils and quangos to beseech, little regulation to enframe you. He can get on with designing his life, directly. (Yet this means that there's an inherent risk that others can easily ruin your idyll with their actions, eg land development.)
Social relationships between the black local population and the wazunga (the Tanzanian settler of white stock) seem to be enacted in two ways: hand-waving - happiness to see you; or seeing through you, not allowing themselves to see, perhaps to avoid emotions of jealousy/contempt. It seems inappropriate to photograph them, so we don't.
There is little that's hidden or implied. You're very aware that you're the rich white man with, relatively, unlimited resources at your disposal. The locals are the opposite. Nothing is abstracted or needs to be inferred, because it feels like it is being constantly being restated and underlined. It's in your face. It's as simple as black and white.
The advertising is similarly direct and open: "To be like me, just hold a Sprite" says the grinning, six-packed, black model on a billboard.
And accordingly, you can't get under the surface of life here. The kiSwahili language presents a barrier, and the culture does the rest.
[This phenomenon is why I ended up writing only about people and privilege.]
Some of N and N's friends come to dinner. One plans to create a kiSwahili-language Woman's Hour for radio in Tanzania, which seems an admirable aim, if she can get the funding together to pay to have it broadcast on the major radio networks.
Another person tells me that you can't trust your staff and local employees here, that they lack any work ethic, and that if you pay them too well it will be perceived as a weakness to be exploited, and encourage them to steal from you. On the face of it, this would seem to be the very stereotype of colonial white disdain, black people as lazy thieves, the whites as the guardians of culture, providing a civilising structure. But I assume the story is less simplistic than this, and start to ask her whether you can't incentivise people by putting words, action and infrastructure in place so that employees and employers mutually benefit from success. But apparently this is impossible. Lindqvist's 'Exterminate All the Brutes' (1992) details the European view of Africa and Africans as a set of resources to be expended. Naipaul's North of South (1978) also gets at this.
The bed is locally made from a light softwood, bark-stripped branches. It is high off the ground - you climb up onto it - making you feel like Gulliver in the land of Brobdingnag.
We drive South-East past the airport, past Moshi along well-tarmaced roads, past Kilimanjaro hidden in the clouds, into the hills, past the miles of sisal plantations and down a bumpy roadway to the sea at Peponi beach. Along the way, locals are bicycling or walking the road. Manchester United, Man U-era Beckham, AC Milan and Real Madrid the obviously recognisable shirts. We see many election posters for the incumbent Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party, whose representatives are smiling and avuncular.
The bandas on the beach are fantastic. With the setting sun at our backs we run into the sea, which is bath-hot.
Population: 39,384,223 (July 2007 est.)
Median age: 17.7 years
Population growth rate: 2.091% (2007 est.)
Birth rate: 35.95 births/1,000 population (2007 est.)
Death rate: 13.36 deaths/1,000 population (2007 est.)
Net migration rate: -1.68 migrant(s)/1,000 population (2007 est.)
total population: 0.98 male(s)/female (2007 est.)
Infant mortality rate: total: 71.69 deaths/1,000 live births
Life expectancy at birth: 50.71 years
HIV/AIDS - adult prevalence rate: 8.8% (2003 est.), people living with HIV/AIDS: 1.6 million (2003 est.)
Major infectious diseases:
food or waterborne diseases: bacterial diarrhea, hepatitis A, and typhoid fever
vectorborne diseases: malaria, Rift Valley fever and plague are high risks in some locations
water contact disease: schistosomiasis (2007)
Ethnic groups: mainland - African 99% (of which 95% are Bantu consisting of more than 130 tribes), other 1% (consisting of Asian, European, and Arab); Zanzibar - Arab, African, mixed Arab and African
Religions: mainland - Christian 30%, Muslim 35%, indigenous beliefs 35%; Zanzibar - more than 99% Muslim
Languages: Kiswahili or Swahili (official), Kiunguja (name for Swahili in Zanzibar), English (official, primary language of commerce, administration, and higher education), Arabic (widely spoken in Zanzibar), many local languages
Economy: one of the poorest countries in the world. The economy depends heavily on agriculture, which accounts for almost half of GDP, provides 85% of exports, and employs 80% of the work force. Topography and climatic conditions, however, limit cultivated crops to only 4% of the land area. Industry traditionally featured the processing of agricultural products and light consumer goods. The World Bank, the IMF, and bilateral donors have provided funds to rehabilitate Tanzania's out-of-date economic infrastructure and to alleviate poverty. Long-term growth through 2005 featured a pickup in industrial production and a substantial increase in output of minerals led by gold. Recent banking reforms have helped increase private-sector growth and investment. Continued donor assistance and solid macroeconomic policies supported real GDP growth of nearly 6% in 2006.
GDP (purchasing power parity): $29.64 billion (2006 est.)
GDP - real growth rate: 5.9% (2006 est.)
GDP - per capita (PPP): $800 (2006 est.)
GDP - composition by sector: agriculture: 43.3%, industry: 17.7%, services: 39% (2006 est.)
Population below poverty line: 36% (2002 est.)
Distribution of family income - Gini index: 38.2 (1993)
I am imagining graphs of income inequality, Europe's being a shape far less extreme than Tanzania's. I have no idea whether this is true for either of them, but it's what my eyes and gut tell me. When I return, I read about the Gini coefficient, and learn that Tanzania is a more "equal" country than the US, and not much less "equal" than the UK. So perhaps I am thinking more of absolute terms, rather than relative inequality. Shows the power of emotion, or reveals the blinkers of my hypocrisy.
After dark we walk down onto the beach. The tide has gone out leaving a dhow on the sand, supported on its stabilising legs, and a camera-flashlit worlds of crabs and corrugated sand.
In Greek mythology, Europa was a Phoenician princess who was abducted by Zeus to the island of Crete, where she gave birth to Minos. For Homer, Europa was a mythological queen of Crete, not a geographical designation. Later Europa stood for mainland Greece and by 500 BC its meaning was extended to lands to the north.
We walk north along the beach and through mangrove swamps. The sea is knee-shallow for several hundred metres, and the mangroves push up barnacled roots through the sand, poking out of the water at low tide like tanks traps. White crabs on the sand make way for us as we pass through their territory.
Later, I lose a piece of my tooth - the one I had emergency-root-canaled two weeks previously, just before going to Zambia for a wedding. I try not to think about the distance back to dental care, or of the possibility of teeth exploding or imploding in the lowered air pressure of the plane back home. I'm afraid of the prospect of African dentistry. But more than I am of European dentistry?
I get ill in the evening. I think of Conrad's harrowing Congo diary, of man as a food-processing tube on legs... rest, water and Coke is prescribed. While I lie in bed feeling sorry for my self, W talks to N about a farm, his previous employer and a supplier to UK supermarkets, and the management techniques he tried to introduce. The farm ran on strictly Taylorist lines, the white managers goading a day's work from an apparently unwilling and untrustworthy workforce. N's simple innovation was to give the workers some respect, allowing them to give him some in return. But the farm couldn't sustain such a paradigm shift, and N eventually left.
Thursday and Friday
We're still at the beach, and I am getting better. We return to Arusha. Mounts Kilimanjaro and Meru are revealed. The snow capping Kilimanjaro has been in retreat over the last few years. 15,000 climb Kilimanjaro yearly. It sounds tourist-easy, but a few weeks later a friend will tell how she watched a woman our age collapse with a pulmonary embolism on the way back down, dying on a stretcher in front of two doctors.
We are spectators at a polo match. I watch a man gallop up to the fence and fling his polo stick at a black groom, who catches it before it hits him. The groom's job is to hand a new stick back immediately so that the polo may continue.
Some of the players treat their horses as mere polo equipment, though they remain more valuable than the men that groom them. They are uninterested in their horses' welfare - except whether they can ride them - and some don't even know their horses' names.
Dinner with J and G. Meet L and A, who run a coffee farm, and B, who runs a large fair-trade tea farm with several thousand employees. I discuss companies and work in Africa with B. In the absence of a state providing sufficient investment in social fabric, he has run health and AIDS education schemes for them for over five years. He has also built health centres for his employees, and pays 75% of the secondary school fees for up to four of their children. These programmes aren't unselfishly altruistic: they directly benefit his company, and he's honest about that, and interestingly they replace a previous bonus scheme designed to share the wealth - it just didn't work.
Ants invade the kitchen. We retreat and hold the terrace, the drinks cupboard a Maginot Line.
On a plot in the hills above Arusha, B is building an imposing neo-Georgian country house. It's perhaps one of the few built authentically since the mid nineteenth century, because, in an interesting reversal of the Western economics of mass-production and manufacture, Tanzania can't afford the machinery to production-line plastic mouldings, but does have a supply of very talented, very affordable craftsmen. The house is structurally complete, the ornamental lake is in, but there are several months work ahead still.
Looking at the building site, I imagined B's house a hundred years from now, in ruins, desiccated and crumbling like Satis, or Xanadu, or the towns being eaten by the Diamond Coast's dunes in Namibia. But I check myself: this is an idealised view of decline in which ignorant locals are blissfully unaware that they are braising meat on the library's lintel, and so on. A view implied in the paintings from David Roberts' Egypt visit in 1839-40 - the end of the Georgian architectural period. They document the then un-conserved ruins, with locals seemingly depicted for scale against the monuments, or to show that they didn't understand - or at least were indifferent to the cultural resonance of - the architecture they were using as a lean-to (cf Christopher Woodward's excellent In Ruins book).
So I then tried to imagine an alternate future, in which - rather than using neo-Georgian structures as goat-sheds or telephone cards as jewellery - the inhabitants have usefully repurposed the house and grounds. Perhaps cattle are herded around the lake and Alphonse Chayi is running a greatly expanded African Ikea from the house, but in fact it's more likely that any repurposing takes place with aims and in ways that I and the settlers' nostalgic mindset couldn't ever imagine.
A South African woman enjoys the privileged life in Tanzania - polo, cheap servants - but would prefer to use her nursing/education experience in private nursing rather than in local practice - she finds the day-to-day of TB, AIDS and prescription compliance education difficult and unrewarding. This is perhaps fair enough - we're all entitled to pursue what makes us happy, but to my now hyper-sensitive radar this seems symptomatic of a general unwillingness to engage. She is the woman who instructed W to look at her horse but didn't seem too interested in it's health, not even joining W for the assessment.
The word "people" usually has a silent "White" prefix.
I am feeling tense and sick. I now know I couldn't live here. But it is a form of hypocrisy: I am immune to similar inequalities in my own land, or have developed the social tools to deal with it, seeing through and past the homeless. But I am thinking about it now. Travel, then, is a scratched mirror you hold up to your self, Tanzania is my reflection in the windows of the wheel house as I motor up the river to my Heart of Darkness. I seek Kurtz, but he is me.
I imagine the horses and the grooms forming an alliance of convenience, teaming together to overthrow their white masters. What kind of governance would horses be discussing, as they bent the white men to the yoke?
Lunch at J and X's place. They're the owners of the polo club: it is genteel, relaxed, luxurious. The staff serve with smiles. I talk to people there, to no great effect. However one man, T, ex-army and half-Kenyan, is very entertaining and I am sorry not to discuss Africa with him further.
The name Africa comes into Western use through the Romans, who used the name Africa terra — "land of the Afri" — for the northern part of the continent, as the province of Africa with its capital Carthage, corresponding to modern-day Tunisia. The Afri (singular: Afer) were a (Berber?) tribe who dwelt in North Africa in the Carthage area. The origin of Afer may be connected with Phoenician 'afar, dust (also found in most other Semitic languages). Leo Africanus's etymology - from a-phrike (meaning "not cold and horror") - is disputed.
At the airport, there's a baggage x-ray machine immediately, meaning that people say goodbye on the threshold of the airport, outside it even, before checking in. There's another one the other side of check-in.
Then an unannounced 10,000 shilling (or US $8) "safety fee", collected by KLM staff. (How does this make us safer? Is it paying for the first x-ray barrier? Or are KLM's local people being a bit... entrepreneurial?). Having neither dollars nor shillings in cash, I offer UK sterling. The fee collector asks what the exchange rate is, and an American voice behind me calls out "1.8", which I shrug at. After some discussed maths (is a pound 1.8 times larger or smaller than a dollar?) he pronounces it "6 pounds, to be on the safe side." My tenner, after further discussion, gets US $4 back in change.
Descending into Dar Es Salaam at night, the city twinkles and twitches industriously with insect motion. Like a colony of iridescing ants, like the ants I saw the night before holding us at bay from the kitchen at J and G's house. They left it all for the help to clean up. B has lived in Dar for 20 years: "it's a shit hole".
As we would be flying on to Amsterdam in the same plane, we're asked to remain on the plane and in our seats to allow the cleaning and inspecting to run smoothly and quickly. Lots of people check the same things over. Then during refuelling, an unusual announcement: please have you seat belt unbuckled and be prepared to follow any instructions from the crew immediately."
The news of Hurricane Rita (2m evacuated from Houston) reveals Tanzania to be in a small world of its own, a belljar. The white community not noticing the context of the black locals around them, nor that of the wider world. Polo, parties, a safe bubble.
There's an Tufteian archetype of a cloud over Amsterdam. Circling over London I feel warm pride and relief, as if I've returned from many years away and people will greet me as I walk up the street. Of course they won't.
At the terminal I quickly check to see if the personal notes I used in a story have changed on the message board - mostly, they haven't, which is sad. I flew, flow back to London but bits of me are left behind. Thus I am flowing across Leicester Square like a bag of leaves emptied into wind. At different speeds, not all here.
Looking into a glass at the reflection on the top I can see my face wobbling on the surface. If I move my eyes slightly, I can make the face grin on the meniscus, a rictus. Welles's screenplay for Heart of Darkness proposed Marlow's face, dimly and indistinctly reflected in the glass of the boat's wheelhouse.