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Back from the country

Saturday night finds me back in the comfort of St Dominic’s after my first foray into Sukuma country. I haven’t told many people this but last time I was in Mwanza, two days after meeting Baba Lau I changed all my travelers cheques into dollars and lent them him to buy a Landrover. I suppose many people would call me crazy but I had no doubt that I could trust him and sure enough the money was returned to me in full a week later.

I think the reason I trusted him so readily was that I knew where he lived and I saw how he lived. I saw the intricate web of loyalties and give and take that bound him to his people. Knowing where someone lives, knowing who their father and mother are makes a difference and some where in there is the clue to what is most precious about the traditional Sukuma culture and what is under threat as the country scrambles to develop itself.

I have so many impressions from these last few days its hard to know where to start. Baba Laurian is an Mzee, an elder of the Wasukuma tribe and he and his family own land in kisesa and Bujora as well as farmland upcountry. Ostensibly he is a doctor and a surgeon and his work in Kisesa involves treating the sick and wounded of the town but his role goes deeper than that. As a farmer he has strong links with the people who work the land, most of whom will be related to him in one way or another and on a weekly basis he will be organizing harvesting or planting or selling produce belonging to himself or his family. On top of that there is another role which is harder to define and harder for me to discover because it is tied to the traditions of the wasukuma. In Sukuma land Baba Laurian is my “uncle” or older brother. It means I travel under his protection and that he will settle any debts incurred by me. It also means I am answerable to him and that people know where to go should I happen to cause a grievance. As his younger brother I am immediately related to a tribe of young men and women who call me brother or uncle or Baba Robi depending on their age. Some of these young men and women were the same children who used to play together on Laurian’s Shamba last time I was there.

Much of our time is spent sitting around talking, smoking and sampling the local medicines or dawa. Food appears on a regular basis and the young men come and go on errands. A regular gang of feral children hang around- particularly now the funny wazungu is here. They are welcomed and treated kindly. People wander by just for a chat or because they need something and food or drinks will appear again, business will be done. Everything happens oh so slowly. deep within me I can hear my western soul screaming with the sheer boredom and monotony, the difficulty of getting anything done quickly- but I sit back and relax into the pace of live and very soon it just seems the natural way to do things.

The first day I spend there Laurian and I go out drinking and proceed to get very drunk on the local brew. He tells me about his campaigning during the last election two years ago. With massive support from the Sukuma heartland he says he could have won but his 1.5 million campaign fund was dwarfed by the money the ruling party was able to throw at the campaign. Next time he believes he’ll win easily because he just went and joined the winning side. He’s not interested in the bigger picture of politics-just getting representation and development money for his people. With his bandanna wrapped around his head and his big bushy beard he looks like an African freedom fighter and that’s certainly how he’d see himself. He wants freedom for his people and their traditional way of life but he wants to see money for development too. I wonder if the two things can work together and if he really has an idea of what the world has in store. Despite his modernity Laurian of all his friends is the most rooted in his tradition.

Unfortunately during our increasingly drunken wanderings through the dark I leave my wallet at one of the houses we stop at. We go back to fetch it and the wallet is still there but the money- (about 5000 schillings or £2.50) has gone. Laurian is outraged and swears he will never visit this house again. He thought they were friends how could they not look after this. Word of mouth seems to work like magic because we are suddenly surrounded by our gang of young men, Serega, Cos, Emma and Pauli and heading towards the house of the already suspected and accused thief. When we get there the woman goes into a huge and slightly crazy rant that leaves everyone entirely convinced that she was the one who took the money. But there is something a bit strange going on between her and her husband and we leave without the money but with the knowledge they will really not be any better off tomorrow for their actions and at the very least they will have lost future custom at their shop. Laurian is devastated and blames himself. Maybe he is not the best person to look after me.

The next day we head out to Laurian’s farm land. One of the rice fields has been harvested and is ready to bring to town to sell. I happily cough up a fiver so we can hire a Landrover and a driver for the day and the gang and I head up country in the open wagon. The shamba is situated in marsh land that drains the softly rolling granite hills into the lake- its a bit like the Weald on the Sussex coast- except of course the Weald lacks papaya, banana and mango trees, sisal and rice.

When we arrive at the shamba I am delighted to realize that I know the farmer Cos from my last visit. Not only that I remember his neighbours because they were all members of the dance troupe who stayed with Lau last time I was there- and they remember me! They tell me that my timing for the Bulabo is perfect. It starts tomorrow (Sunday) and continues every night for the next two weeks. We load 15 huge bags of rice into the wagon and of course there is a lot more sitting around and greetings and a while later we head back the way we came, 7 of us clinging precariously to what ever perch we can find on top of the cargo and getting off to walk when the Landrover had to make a particularly precarious maneuver. I am treated to a display of some of the best driving I have seen. You would not believe what it is possible to do with a Landrover and just how far they can lean without falling over. This is in no way a straight drive from a to b. There are frequent stops, to cool the engine, once to change an axle.

The next day I head out to Bujora and the house there with Seregal, Cos junior and Emma. We cook up a meal of fish tomatoes and rice before heading to the local disco. I buy my brothers beer and fags and we dance a while but its not really my scene and I leave for an early night up at Bujora . My hammock turns out to be very comfortable but I don’t get much sleep. I want to wash, to sort through some things, to do some writing but personal space is not a concept that is easy to get across particularly as our communication proceeds in a mixture of broken English, Swahili and Sukuma. Every time I try to do something on my own I am assisted by 3 pairs of hands and though I know they only want to help and its just their way to do things together I feel like I’m a helpless baby and I want to make my own way. To clean my own cloths, cook my own food and to sit down and write, to clear my thoughts and start afresh..

So this morning after waking and cooking up another batch of rice and fish I head down to Laurian’s Hospital in Kisesa and after a relaxing morning sitting around and eating yet more food I pack a small selection of my kit and head into Mwanza for much needed rest.

Tomorrow (Sunday) the Bulabo starts. It was such a magical time when I was here last and I wonder again how it will effect me. How much have I changed?


Food is sweet. We eat Sukuma style sitting round a shared plate of rice or ugali covered in a sauce of fish or beans or vegetables. Supu- a rich stock with chunks of meat and bone is a popular meal particularly as a pick me up during an extended drinking session or the morning after one. Fruit is plentiful and usually fresh from the tree that day or the day before. Big bowls of boiled cassava, a root with a sweet starchy flesh are eaten with beans or ground nuts. Fish bones and chicken bones are crunched and eaten, cow bones are cracked open and sucked and gnawed clean. Preparing and cooking food takes hours, Cassava has to be carefully peeled because the skin is poisonous, nuts must be dried, the heads of the little daga fish have to be removed, rice has to be carefully sifted to remove bad grain and bits of stone from the milling and everything has to be carefully cleaned- a neat trick considering water has to be carried from a pool half a mile away and boiled before drinking. But my digestive system is loving this diet and my more private moments have been blissfully pain free if you get my drift :-)

People rarely eat alone. They eat together and if you visit a house you will be asked if you want to eat. When we were cooking up at Bujora two feral children who were not known by any of the lads wandered into the compound and sat around watching us. No one complains or suggests they leave and as soon as the food is ready Seregal motions them to join us and they are automatically included .

Hygiene and Health

I guess there are two approaches to handling hygiene in these situations. The first is to make sure you follow all the rules, add iodine to the water and don’t touch anything. The second and my preferred choice is simply to make a total commitment to the local flora and fauna and accept that you might get ill for a while while you adapt. So far so good. And of course I am staying with the local doctor. Apart from a few scratches and the annoying fungal infection in between my toes I brought with me from England my main health problem is remembering not to knock back the local dawa as quickly as my friends. Laurian tells me that apart from HIV which like everywhere in Africa is on the rise the situation for most communicable diseases seems to have improved drastically. Malaria of course is endemic. Laurian has it at the moment as does Cos senior and Emma’s mother Rosaria.

It would be easy to condemn these people for what we would consider basic rules of hygiene. In place of our bacteria free marble kitchen tops food is prepared often on a plate in the dust. Scraps and dirty water are thrown carelessly where ever is handy. Washing before eating though de rigour is done with untreated water and usually without soap. And everyone eats from the same plate giving any bacteria ample chance to jump from one person to another. So why are we not all rolling around with stomach aches throwing up?

Watching the chidren play gives some clue. They eat anything including the dirt. Seeing some of the kids wonder through the undergrowth picking a fruit here a root there, crunching them happily between their teeth its easy to see the similarities between ourselves and our closer primate relatives the chimpanzees, bonoboos and the gorillas. My own little gang of children who shout Baba lobi when ever I pass roll around in the mud sporting cuts and bruises and bites that would warrant a good plaster and some antiseptic in England. I let them stick their fingers in my ears up my nose in my mouth and hold them close when they cry though I pawk a little when Sala one of the girls who had taken a particular shine to me attempts to stick a pin she has been playing with in my arm.

And something here is working. You can drop food on the ground because chances are that within ten minutes the pigs or the chickens or the ants will have carried it off somewhere. The squat toilets- which are actually remarkably clean and easy to use- fill with shit but there are plenty of maggots to turn the shit into flies and the flies are soon eaten by the multitude of birds that swoop around the compound- there are at least thirty weaver birds nests in one tree alone. People threw plastic water bottles on the ground when they have finished with them but within the day someone will have picked in up and be using it or selling it. A steadily mounting litter of plastic and paper clutters up the sides of the roads and I wonder how they will deal with this as the place develops more. I don’t think they realize how their habits will need to change as the road brings more and more plastic and metal.

Two mysteries I have yet to work out. Generally there isn’t enough water around for washing and people don’t bother. No one smells. Second there is no toilet paper and no water trough for cleaning in the toilets. I know how I handle this tricky problem. Roll of toilet paper and alcohol based cleaning gel carried in my pocket. How any one else manages I’ve yet to find out. None of the options I’ve considered are particularly appealing.

One more thing while I think about it. Laurian and friends are happy to fall asleep on the filthiest mattresses I have ever seen. In fact they fall asleep pretty much anywhere with no elaborate preparation or ritual.

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