Venturing Tanzania's land of brave, home of the Maji Maji war

Namanga border point.  [Peterson Githaiga, Standard]

The first thing that grabs your attention at the Songea airport, southwest of Tanzania, are the rolling hills that ring the space, like lazing lions. There is no immediate menace, though, besides the aggressive immigration officer who clings on to my passport and demands to know what I’m doing in his region.

“Conference? Are you the one teaching or are you attending as a participant?” What’s the difference, I ask, mildly irritated because other two foreign nationals are waved on with nothing more than a glance at their documents, while he clings on to my light-blue East African passport.

Nearly 20 years ago, I was on assignment to establish if protocols signed by technocrats in Arusha, under the East African Community, had led to free flow of goods and services between and among the member states.

Now here I am, attesting first-hand that signatures on pieces of paper had not changed the bureaucrats’ mindsets. I’m about to ask the man if he is aware of the East African Community, but I restrain myself. After all, my profession, as indicated in my passport, is journalism, even though I now more invested in inventing narratives than reporting the real ones.

This part of the world is known as Mbeya and the neighbouring region is Ruvuma, which produced the Maji Maji rebellion, where a local medicineman, Kinjeketile Ngwale, mobilised locals to resist the Germans in 1905, after they imposed forced labour to produce cotton.

Kinjeketile produced a concoction that he said would transform German bullets into water. And many of his followers believed it, and the resistance flourished for two years.

The rugged hills around Mbeya reflect the spirit of the land. There is a certain defiance that we soon experience at the hands of our waiting driver. The thoroughfare from the airport places a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour, but the driver simply zooms off.

But not for long. The main highway, the Tanzam Road that connects Tanzania to Zambia and Malawi is gridlocked. The driver simply goes against the grain by driving on the wrong side of the road, apparently because one massive truck is crawling uphill at snail’s pace.

That’s not all. It’s drizzling, dusk is approaching and on either side of the road are the sudden deeps into the abyss.  Many other motorists join the beeline, as our driver dodges incoming boda bodas, escaping collision by the skin of his teeth and honking his way back. A particularly aggressive truck driver honks back and maintains his pace, forcing our driver to back down. “Huyo jamaa ni kali,” he smiles.

I had seen a similar response from a taxi driver in Dar, who kept his palm permanently on his horn. “Dar huendeshi kama wee ni mwoga,” he repeated calmly. “Dar huendeshi gari kama wee ni mwoga.”

We make it to the hotel in one piece. The place is unpretentious but comfortable. One piece of towel is availed, and they don’t change linen very often, while a light switch is connected to a noisy fan that purrs furiously, dimming any prospects of listening to a podcast while showering.

Perhaps bathrooms here are strictly used for serious business only, and understandably so. Arriving from a balmy Dar, Mbeya is refreshingly cool, and I sip the smoothest coffee I have tasted in a long time.

The coffee is grown plentifully within the region, and it could be what prompted the Brits, many years ago, to try growing peanuts to augment Britain’s national supply of margarine, after taking over the “trusteeship” of then Tanganyika, from the Germans.

Once again, the land refused to yield anything, even though some £1 billion by today’s value was reportedly sunk in the project. Once again, the contrarian spirit of the place had successfully resisted European attempts at controlling the locals, or what the land could produce.