27 April 2015

how do you get full without ugali? and other interesting questions.

The best stories come out of my rides on the daladala

The daladala is truly a microcosm of urban life in Mwanza, which is why I both love and hate it. I love marveling at the social intelligence of Tanzanians. The conductor is able to remember where everyone is going on his route, who paid and who hasn’t, who needs change… the list goes on. On the flip side, the catcalls and attention directed at me get old, especially when it’s 8am and I’m not really interested in talking to anyone.

But I have a pretty good story this time.

I got on the daladala after a long day of work and was already a little annoyed to see I had chosen a completely full car, which would mean standing next to sweaty, smelly fellow passengers for the next half hour.

Then, someone nearby said, “Come! Sit here!”

Now, I knew taking the seat meant entering into a conversation with whoever called out, as I was being given preferential treatment (not unusual for youngish Western women) but I wanted the seat, so I took my chances.

Who did I find across from me? An old Tanzanian man with bloodshot eyes and alcohol on his breath. Well, too late. I was already seated.

He started right in on the normal array of questions: What kind of work do you do? Where do you live? Who did you come here with? Where are you from?

I tried to be patient, but honestly, I was trying to avoid the man’s eyes as I answered. This routine happens All. The. Time. Drunk man and/or annoying teenage boy (sorry guys, but it’s always one of the two) thinks it will be funny to see how much Kiswahili this white person can really speak and how much they can get other Tanzanians to laugh. Half of the time, this is my daladala experience so you can imagine why I’m not the best version of myself when I step onboard.

After the normal routine, though, the tenor of his questions began to change. They became really thoughtful and he seemed genuinely curious about life in the United States.

“If you don’t have ugali in the United States, what do you eat?”

This white mound is ugali, the main staple of the Tanzanian diet. It's about as appetizing as it looks.
“Do people not know how to cook ugali or do you not have the right flour?”

“If you don’t have ugali, what do you usually cook? Do people get full without ugali?”

“I heard you don’t cook with charcoal over there. Why not?”

And as the questions (and hopefully, my answers) became better, people’s expressions changed. They weren’t listening in order to laugh at the white girl and the drunk guy talking. They were listening because they too wanted to get in on the conversation.

I explained to the man that since electricity and gas are readily available in most people’s homes, we cook inside instead of cooking outside with charcoal.

“What do you do when the power goes out though?” he asked. “Do you use charcoal then?”

I stated that luckily, we have a pretty good system of working electricity and gas so the power rarely goes out, maybe a couple of times a year during storms. The energy on the daladala was palpable. Those around us were itching to add their two cents.

“We could never cook inside in Tanzania!” one exclaimed. “They cut the power every day here!”

“Try every hour!” a young man yelled out.

The drunk man shook his head. “Power goes out a few times a year…” he said to himself in amazement. People started having side conversations with one another, discussing the frustrating realities of everyday life here in Tanzania.

My heart felt light and I wished the conversation could continue. For once, the attention was not on me - making fun of me, trying to trip up my Kiswahili, or ask the mzungu weird questions. The attention was on Tanzania and how people genuinely feel about the country. Michael and I know there is much frustration in this city. The growing population outpaces the building of infrastructure tenfold, basic human needs like clean water can’t be met, and the government is continually reported for corruption. Yet culturally, it’s so difficult for Tanzanians to complain or express unhappiness. It’s better for them to act as if everything is okay. Yet by doing that, all of this negative energy gets bottled up and comes out in other ways: aggressive driving, shouting and antagonizing foreigners, harassing women. 

Hearing Tanzanians express real disappointment with their country and government was amazingly refreshing. I felt I was finally getting a glimpse into how Tanzanians truly feel about the current state of affairs instead of trying to infer how they must feel. As it was happening, I knew it was a rare moment that would go as quickly as it came.

And I was right. The conversation went on for another ten minutes or so, until the drunk man got off at his stop. Then, the energy left with him. Everyone turned back to looking out the window or at their phones. The young teenage girls in the back teased the young man to my right to try to use his English on me. Then, I got off.

As I walked home, I marveled at what had happened. In the United States, a drunk man on public transportation wouldn’t be paid any heed. If someone like that started speaking with me on the subway, I would likely mumble some answers and quickly get up and walk to the other end of the train.

But in Tanzania, you just can’t do that. I mean, physically, the daladala is a shoebox so I would have had nowhere to go. But also, conversations are so culturally important that I would have been looked at differently by everyone on the daladala if I would have refused to speak with this man.

The anxiety I felt upon sitting next to this guy turned into true enjoyment of the conversation. I was sad to watch him go, thankful for (and surprised by) what he gave me.


  1. Great Post! Love those little moments. They are what keep us going, right?

  2. Great Post! Love those little moments. They are what keep us going, right?


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