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Karibu Rafiki Yangu!

I confess I was beginning to get blasé about the ease of access to the so essential accoutrements of modern life. I am bought sharply back to reality when 30 seconds before I press send on a very long email the electricity supply for the entire district goes out with a bang taking my email and the computer I am using with it. Uhuru Street is plunged into darkness broken only by the succession of candles that stutter into action in the small Dukas along the street. Only the Indian supermarket stays lit, its huge generator chug chugging into action to keep their freezers going until the grid is back in action.

I walk the half-mile back to St Dominic’s in pitch black. The stars are amazing. My hostel however is unaffected by the power down. I am beginning to regard this place with a great deal of affection.

I started my day this morning with a trip to see Musa, the guy I met on the plane at his place of work- the Regional Commission. He shares with me the details of the work he has been doing promoting solar energy in the Mwanza region (you can check out the project at http://www.solarmwanza.org/) They have been supporting the growth of the private sector by helping to set up and train the dealers and technicians who are the frontline in the market place and by providing grants to the end users. Most of the uptake has been by private households or what he calls productive applications where the owners use the electricity supply to provide services such as mobile phone charging or hairdressing. There is even a fish farm that uses solar power to oxygenate the water and this is the one I like best- a man who sells cassettes from a wheelbarrow and uses a solar panel to run his cassette player.

I leave Musa and decide to keep on with my mission to walk down every street in Mwanza. I make the long haul up to Capri point, past the Hotel Tilapia and the rather sad “museum” of stuffed animals and strangely- animal feet! (Ostrich leg lamp stand anyone?)

After hiking back I spent half an hour checking out the price of bicycles and then head back to the hostel for a couple of hours to avoid the intense heat of the afternoon sun.

Later I leave for what starts out as a quick jaunt into town and turns into another long trek, this time I follow Uhuru Road to the end and then zigzag across to the road that leads up to Bukando Hill and the main hospital that sits at the top there. The views at the top are amazing and as I sit to recover my cool I get talking to the guy sitting next to me on the rock.

Now I only have a very limited experience of African countries- I’ve travelled in Kenya and Uganda, Tanzania and Malawi but only spent a total of 3 months here- if you don’t count the three and half years I lived in Bwiru as a child. Its fairly safe to say though that every where you go in Africa you will make “friends” very quickly. It’s an inevitable consequence of the fact that you probably have in your wallet more money in loose change than your new friend will make in a whole month. The average wage in the Mwanza district is 20,000 schillings. That’s less than 20 US dollars, less than £10. Remember that is the average so there will be people on less than that.

The quality of your new friends however will vary greatly. In Dar as I soon discovered the friendly approach only superficially hides the desperate need for money in a big city. In Mwanza there are plenty of beggars, leprosy is common and the children who approach you with their abrupt demand of “give me money” are more often than not in genuine need. I carry a selection of oranges and bananas in my bag for just such occasions and the fevered scramble for the meagre offering of fruit I make is convincing enough.

But in the Mwanza I have got to know so far the offers of friendship are motivated much more by a genuine curiosity and an openness and generosity that is charming and disarming. John the security guard outside the hostel and I have struck up a warm friendship. He laughs at my Swahili and practises his English and we talk for half an hour every time I leave the hostel learning more about each other each time. Enoch a man 10 or 15 years my senior who approaches me on the street and offers to help me find my way could be taken for a tout or “tour guide” anywhere else but I sense quickly that it is friendship that motivates him. Jacob, another security guard outside the benki ya posti offers to take me to his home and we exchange numbers. Then there are the small acts of kindness. The coffee vendor who says “we are even” when I try to pay him, the woman in the market who shares a slice of melon. And of course the great service that Musa did for me my first day in Mwanza.

On Bukando Hill as I sit talking in broken Swahili to my new friend (whose name escapes me oops!) I realise from the gathering crowd that Wazungo (tourists, foreigners, white people) do not come here. It’s a long walk after all and the Bukando slums are the most renowned of the many unplanned ghettos that cover the hills of Mwanza. I am a source of amusement but I am not being laughed at. As I begin to walk down the hill, “M” (his name begins with M I remember that much!) walks with me and asks if I would like to come and visit his house. I think about it for a moment. I have been careful so far – not because I doubt his motives but because I am valuing my independence and I know that the only way to truly know a place is to walk it with your own two feet. If you follow a guide or allow someone to drive you around then you never do the thinking necessary to make your own way.

I follow M as he leads me deep into the Bukando slums. We pass groups of women and children startled and amused to see me there, amused even more when we go through the rituals of greeting. He invites me into his house and we sit around the table while a crowd of watoto fill the doorway. I meet his friends, his wife and his children and my rudimentary Swahili is supplemented by the considerably better English of Veronica a nursery school teacher from Kenya who lives next door. When she finds out I am not married she says “Ok Twende! Lets go!” and everyone laughs. “We are engaged now,” she says with a twinkle in her eye.

I make my excuses and leave promising to return on Monday. M walks back down the hill with me and we part company as friends. I walk back to town and to my favourite food corner on Bantu street for a meal of roasted Ng’ombe and then to the Internet Cafe where I write my ill-fated email.

Tomorrow I plan an early start and a trip out to Kisesa. I am nervous about it. It’s been a long time and I have no idea what reception I will get when I arrive- or even if Louis will be there. Still, whether its all the exercise I’ve been getting or the simple joy of being in a new place I am filled with a nice warm glow of satisfaction as I prepare to head to my kitanda (bed). Lala Salama Rafiki yangu.

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