It’s 11 am and people say that I will easily find a daladala (minibus) going to Kimbiji -a fishing village I knew from 40 years ago. And so I did, as the buses all competed for custom at Kigomboni by the ferry. One conductor seized me and thrust me into a minibus meant for 25 and already holding 40. I am pushed up into the centre isle and soon establish myself on smiling terms with those around me -you could never do that in England. The only thing is to hang on and keep standing.
Years ago I knew this road south from Dar es Salaam and that it might take me an hour to reach Kimbiji. “Of course you’ll get there” said the taxi driver in town “Roads are much better than when you lived here.” We passed Njimwema, Vikindu, and lots of village names now forgotten.
Eventually I got a sort of seat balancing on the hump of the transmission with my feet either side of the gear lever. Later I got a real seat and found that I was next to a young lobster and crab merchant who lived in Kimbiji and kindly agreed to be my guide in case things had changed. His name he said was ‘Julius Nyerere’ and as he looked nothing like the original I asked how this was, surprised that Mwalimu should be a model for the young in 1998.
JN seemed rather spivvy for the unspoilt village I remembered, so I left this topic and concentrated on the ‘road’ which had degenerated into a series of unplumbed pools. The bus plunged into these valiantly and its sort of bonnet often disappeared, to the accompaniment of clouds of steam rising within the cabin. Eventually we came to a worse pool than usual and upon a bus coming the other way which had foundered, blocking the way. The ‘conductor’ announced he was going no further.
How far still left to walk to Kimbiji? Perhaps half an hour I was told.
There was no going back, having endured 90 minutes of rough travel So, trousers rolled, Alfred Prufrock style, and in bare feet I stepped out with a few others, grumbling about the hidden coral obstacles that struck our feet as we went. Of my guide JN there was no sign But, as we neared the village a heavy road grader overtook us and there perched high up was JN with a slightly mocking look.
He hadn’t expected me to come to his remote village and had thought that, as a European, I would be making for Ras Kutani or some such tourist spot nearby. But from that moment this young man of 22 assumed responsibility for me and took me to meet Mwinyimadi Amor, father of the village chairman and various notables.
I had only brought a small rucksack with camera and swimming trunks and began to realise that no daladala would be going back to Dar es Salaam that day as it was now 4pm, and the road was still blocked.
But the village I had known -a compact village, a dafu’s throw from the beach -had disappeared. In the 1970’s I was told it had been ordered to move -was it Ujamaa or some illusory threat from the sea? And it had settled half a mile inland. A dark tangle of mango and cashew nut trees showed where the old village had been. A maritime Dunsinane!
JN and a band of young followers recognised my desire for a swim by shouting ‘beachi’ or more likely Bichi (raw, inexperienced) and I hope that didn’t reflect my state. We all plunged in.
Back to the village. Various gatherings outside shops or ‘soda’ bars waylaid me as the light faded. Soon over 100 people had gathered round as we sat on the ground and listened to the talk of 40 years ago. Not many, sadly, are still alive to remember it. “What colour was your Landrover?” Its number? And where did you find us meeting?” and so on.
I had been 25 then – the first District Officer Mzizima, as the peri- urban area around Dar es Salaam was known. One day I travelled out to Kimbiji as part of my work and found a TANU political meeting in progress for which no permit had been issued. A ‘meeting’ was more than six people and this had 50 or more. Retreating to get advice, I was told to return to the village, close the meeting and take details of the leaders. In due course they appeared before the Resident Magistrate and I had, reluctantly, to give evidence and the leaders were duly convicted and fined. The authority of the administering government had been challenged and had to be upheld.
Periodically after that I had to return to Kimbiji and I was able to help the people in various ways and so I was forgiven. One of my last acts, with their consent, was to excise two elegant blue and white cups, possibly 18’~ century, from the ancient chimney-like graves hidden in a close thicket near the sea and present them on the village’s behalf to the National Museum. Where are they now?
All these things were mulled over and when we talked about these hidden graves they knew I knew the place and loved it, even though this time I had arrived on foot, shabby and alone.
“Chakula vipi” called JN and I was invited to select my supper in the family house – very tasty rice and beef – and then adjourn to the unlit verandah in front of his father’s house. Old Fadhili seemed to be blind and had one distorted polio leg which had never been walked on. “He is an Mchawi” said JN but this was meant to be a joke – not a withdoctor, but a dabbler in medicine, as well as being a teacher.
The village was in darkness but I could hear noise from a generator powering a large TV in the village hall. It was CNN bringing us international football from West Africa. What wonderful propaganda opportunities CNN has on a virgin audience in rural Tanzania as TV spreads and silences traditional evening conversation.
Amazing! JN has given me his room complete with large bed and mosquito net. JN said he had his sister’s room as she was away. I will never know.
In the morning I would have liked another swim but JN wanted to be off with his lobsters and crabs to sell at the ferry as he did every day and didn’t want to miss the trade. Eventually the faded blue bus – of a type that operated in Dar es Salaam many decades ago – got started with a push from all of us and back we set out on the bumpy ride to the ferry. I felt that I knew almost every pool and corner by the time we had gradually filled up with passengers. This time, sitting close behind the driver, it was my job to hold and tip up the can of diesel being gradually sucked into the engine by plastic tube. Twice we ran out and had to fill up from assignments known only to the driver.
Time to reflect on my journey. JN told me that the whole unspoilt beach on which we had bathed had been sold to ‘Europeans’ for the further development of the Ras Kutani resort. Well, at least, I thought, that sale would have brought money and benefits to the village. But no, it seemed that the land had been sold by individuals for their own benefit. Strange ways the modern socialism of Tanzania have taken.
JN was not JN at all. All young men assume these soubriqets and so I said goodbye to Mansur Fadhili who had so naturally and unaffectedly assumed responsibility for me and left me to recross the ferry and return to his village.
And Kiinbiji? Perhaps in another 40 years it will be just a by-water village like Kunduchi, cut off from and ignored by the tourist trade surrounding it, with just a few yards of shore left for fishermen to beach their outrigger ngalawas and canoes and ply their own centuries-old livelihood.