Life in Arusha… and Reflections on East Africa

Elliott on Life in Arusha:

Stephanie and I like to think we’re well-traveled, but this trip to Africa was the first time that we had really immersed ourselves in a developing country’s culture.  As prepared as we thought we were, it was still a bit of a shock that we had to get used to.

The home we stayed in is definitely nice compared to many other dwellings we’d seen.  There are plenty of mud huts and shacks made of corrugated steel, but we were in a nice neighborhood in a concrete home with several rooms, a private gate, and a manicured lawn.

The infrastructure revealed some significant differences between life in a developed country and life in a developing country.  We were expecting the roads to be below the standards we are used to.  We were not expecting that the residential streets that led to our host’s home would be completely unpaved and made of dirt (not gravel), so badly rutted and full of rocks that it would take a half hour to do a drive that would take less than ten minutes back home.  In fact, before we left, our host had to take her van in for service for a broken tie rod.

Electricity has not been run to the entire area, so many homes there run off of solar power.  Maggie’s home has solar collectors which charge two large batteries that supply the house.  Since one battery had decided it no longer wanted to hold a full charge, when the sun wasn’t shining, power wasn’t working.  At night and even on cloudy days, we had no juice.  Maggie was all set up to have power run to her house, so she went to the power company to find out what the delay was.  She waited in line in the sun and intense hear for four hours, only to be told they had no power poles they could install, and she would need to wait several weeks before they would have the necessary equipment.

Because the house did not have full power, there was no refrigerator and no water heater.  That meant cold showers unless you were willing to boil water and sponge it on.  The gas range was powered by a large propane canister that sat right next to it in the kitchen, similar to a barbecue.  A week or so into our stay, the gas ran out, and we were unable to cook until it was replaced.

There was water service to the house, but the pipes ran to a 1000 liter cistern on the roof from which the house faucets received their water.  At several points during out stay, the cistern ran out; one time there was a broken pipe, and at other times the water was being rationed.  Each time it took about two days for service to be restored, during which no water came out of and faucets or shower heads.  We gathered water for drinking, hand-washing, and toilet-flushing, one pitcher at a time, from smaller reserve cisterns outside.

All these problems are so hard for us to imagine living as we do in a country where the infrastructure just works.  In Arusha, it was life as usual for everyone but us tourists.

In town, we also saw many sights that were alien to us Mzungu.  We found it charming that women carried shopping purchases or fruit or water buckets on their heads, but there was no denying that a lot of people carried a lot of things, and walked everywhere they were going.  At home, we Americans would just throw everything in our car, and drive it to our destination.

We saw so much resourcefulness wherever we went.  Whatever people need, they just make from whatever is available.  If you need to nail to pieces of wood together, just drive your nail through a bottle cap for reinforcement.  We saw single-axle carts that people pulled through the streets that were designed when let go to tip backwards onto strips of old car tires that acted as brakes.  We saw bread stacked in crates on the back of bicycles until they towered over the driver who would then deliver them.  We saw “local buses” which were minivans packed way beyond capacity with people hanging out of the windows.

While the sense of poverty was undeniable, there was no sense of despair or desperation.  Almost everyone we would pass seemed to have a smile and a greeting for us.  Spending a few weeks here really made us realize not only how lucky we have it back in the U.S. of A., but also how little one truly needs to be happy in life.

Stephanie’s Reflections on East Africa:

We visited just two countries in Africa on this trip: Kenya and Tanzania.  When people ask me to describe what it is like there, I have a tough time putting it into words.  Travel there was difficult; possibly the most difficult travel we have ever done.  And life there?  The best I have come up with so far is to say that life in East Africa was about as opposite from our life in the United States as one could possibly imagine.

My synopsis stems from things I noticed on the surface level when we arrived, as well as experiences we had during our time there.  On the surface, the differences appeared in things like people’s dress, the roads, the shops and the towns.  One difference of course is that we were in the huge minority with our skin color.  I was very happy to feel right away that even though I was now in the minority, no one really cared.  Notice was taken only in situations when locals knew I was a target to which they could sell things.

Driving through towns, we noticed many more people were out and about than you would see in towns at home.  These people were almost always walking, not for exercise, but as a means of transportation.  This is something you see rarely in the States. Many times they were walking in areas where it was obvious they had many miles to go to get to any type of destination.  There were often young children walking too.  And we never saw a single stroller.  Babies and toddlers are simply wrapped to their mother’s front or back using the garments a woman typically wears.

Then there were the colors – everything was so brightly colored.  From the clothing people wore to the hand-painted signs to the trucks and buses to the buildings and houses themselves, vibrancy abounded.  Driver’s are allowed to paint whatever message they like on the front of their bus, so we saw all sorts of things from “Run DMC” to “Bob Marley” to “Obama” to messages about peace, love and God.  I would close my eyes, picture a dreary day in a city at home, and wonder what the locals in Tanzania would think of such a gray, drab picture.

Elliott mentioned resourcefulness.  It was evident everywhere.  During our game drive, we noticed that when our guide put our vehicle into Park, it often stalled.  A few times he couldn’t get it to restart, so he got out, opened the hood, and started banging on something with a big rock.  It turned out the battery connector kept coming loose from the terminal due to the rough roads out in the bush.

He also mentioned the people, and what nice dispositions they have.  The people we met maintain an extremely positive outlook on life, and I find this to be an amazing feat in light of their struggles – struggles we can’t even imagine.  The infrastructure issues lead to additional problems when there is a lack of road signage and traffic signals; an example is the person we met who lost his mother when she was hit by a large truck while crossing the road!  This is not uncommon there.  There are so many problems in addition to infrastructure and poverty; problems such as extreme corruption at all levels of government, where it is not unheard of for a politician to disappear with millions of shillings, or for the common people to have to pay bribes to earn a driver’s license or pick up package at the post office.  (We realized after a few weeks that very few people have driver’s licenses, and we were told it is due to the “expense.”)  Health problems abound.  It is common to get malaria from the mosquitoes and end up in the hospital from it.  It is difficult to get clean water as there are not good systems in place to collect trash, and it gets thrown in rivers or burned in people’s yards.

There was never a time when I wasn’t thinking ahead to the future date on which we would depart.  This was unusual for me, and made me quite aware of the fact that we had, perhaps for the first time ever, reached the edge of my comfort level.  I was comforted by the idea that *we* could leave this place, and at the same time I was disturbed to realize I was relying heavily on that knowledge to maintain my own happiness.


2 thoughts on “Life in Arusha… and Reflections on East Africa

  1. Airtel is a mobile phone company. I’m not surprised they are everywhere in Africa.

    Land line phones are almost always government run monopolies in Africa. Corruption is the norm and nothing happens quickly unless you bribe someone. Mobile phone companies are almost always privately owned and have to make their customers happy in order to stay in business. They also don’t need a lot of infrastructure, and what infrastructure they need can be easily located to avoid the worst corruption. So, in Africa, mobile phone companies have taken off.

    I believe most African electric companies are also government run entities. Your host probably didn’t bribe the right people.

    Robert Guest, former Africa correspondent for The Economist, wrote a book called The Shackled Continent about his experiences living in Africa. I liked his anecdote about the Cameroonian beer truck.

    • Yes – Airtel is where we got our own SIM card in Africa! It just amazed me how much signage they had all over the cities in Kenya and Tanzania – often times their advertising dominated entire streets and store fronts. It made me sad that I did not get to see these areas before they were covered with cell phone ads, because they definitely changed the look and feel of many areas.

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