Cycling through Tanzania isn't just about eating rice, seeing colourful street scenes and braving dirt roads. It is also navigating between the twists and turns of human traffic, with its stereotypes, projections, expectations, opinions, misunderstandings and mutual amazement. A fascinating and complex world.
Along the way I see how the people we meet like to place us. And if they don't find an explanation about why we are here, they're confused. So you're not on safari? And are not interested in excursions. Do you work for an NGO? No, not at all. We're just on our way by bike. Aha, as part of an investigation? Uh, no, not really. And we are not the average world cyclists who cross the continent in the most primitive circumstances, who put up their tent somewhere behind a hill, try to get into difficult countries without a visa and move a good 150 km a day without blushing. We're not heroic enough for that.
In fact, we just want to experience the daily life in Tanzania by bike, live together with the locals and be inspired in that way. It is too vague for many. And the fact that I speak Swahili seems to make it all even more confusing. If you can't be placed in the above categories in Tanzania, if you voluntarily go to a local hotel and leave the luxury resorts aside, then most people can't seem to get a grip on you.
What most people agree about is that we are rich. And compared to most people we meet along the way, that's true. Whether the wealth that is attributed to us, also corresponds with reality, does not matter. The effect is that especially in the more touristy areas we are addressed by the children and sometimes also by adults with a sentence that starts with the words 'give me...'. Sometimes it's a pen, sometimes a candy, sometimes rice, often money, often water, and sometimes we even get the order to donate our bicycle. It seems to be a kind of conditioning. If you see a pale nose, you ask a question. It doesn't matter if you are thirsty at that moment. If water is the first thing that comes to mind, then you ask for water. And preferably with sufficient certainty in your voice. Sometimes we indeed give some water, to the shepherds in remote dry areas for example, as travelers among each other. But just as often we just give our smiles, we react with humour, or we tease the children a bit and eventually we have a lot of fun together with them....
We are often approached with remarkable respect, as if we were from another, very important planet. In the simple hotels in the small villages, where they are not used to 'mzungu's' (westerners), the restaurant owner or hotel owner feels honored that we are his guests. We get an extra friendly reception. During our stay we regularly check to see if we are enjoying ourselves. He puts himself at our table to have a chat. And when we say goodbye everyone wants a selfie with us, and telephone numbers are changed.
Sometimes the people seem to attribute a kind of untouchability to us. If you're a mzungu, you've got it all figured out. So when I'm in the waiting room of the local doctor with a bronchitis, a 17-year old boy asks me, with amazement in his voice and big eyes full of disbelief, if I'm sick too. As if that wouldn't be possible.
In all these contacts, we find it particularly important that we contribute to a pleasant meeting. We do our utmost to achieve this. A friendly atmosphere makes our trip pleasant for everyone. She also makes sure that we feel safe, because as soon as we have made a nice contact with the population, the mutual trust has been installed, we get help to carry the panniers to the room, everyone wants to share local facts with us, we are reassured that we can leave the bikes in good hands, and so on... So with a shy look we take the first initiative to say hello in a friendly way. And often the face breaks open completely and a broad smile appears.
In every new situation we put on our social footsteps and explore what's appropriate. In the first place, we want to build a bridge between ourselves and the population. By means of subtle reactions we try to feel how much reality someone can handle. If our reality seems too threatening, too strange or too disruptive, we sometimes choose to change it a bit. Sometimes we truthfully tell them that we've been on the road for a year. But sometimes that reality is so far removed from the life of the population that it creates a gap and an uncomfortable situation. Are we fooling them?', we see them thinking. So we often say that we are cycling for one month, until the next big city for example. That makes it more comprehensible and usually leads to a further fine exchange of information.
Also, the phone number or home address we give when people ask for it, is usually not quite right. And when asked how much our bikes actually cost, we mention an amount that may still be somewhat understandable for them.
Sometimes we also say that we are married, so we can sleep in the same bed. The other time we have children, because childlessness is often associated with a curse and seen as a threat. Another time we say honestly that we don't have children and in a rare case we add truthfully that I can't be pregnant. It all depends on the context, the duration and intensity of the contact, the open-mindedness of the person we are talking to, the extent to which he speaks English, etc.... Although it still remains gessing what is possible or not.
All these lines between us and the Tanzanian people, the glances, the universal language of the smile, the raised hand or thumb, the mutual scanning, the moving towards each other, reassuring each other, the waving whether we are welcome, the making together of fun, laughing at the similarities and even more laughing at the strange twists of each other, in short, all these encounters form a journey in itself, which enriches, challenges, touches, intimidates, sometimes frustrates, sometimes confuses me. But the latter, to be honest, usually has more to do with whether I slept well or not, than with the situation.
And sometimes, when that complex social game gets a little too much for me, I run away from the human world for a while. Then I look at the clouds, at how they quietly glide by. Or to a huge baobab tree on the side of the road, which is just standing there firmly for a hunderds of years, without a doubt. 'Ah', I then say. 'Just cycle a little bit. That's all you have to do'. And with that in mind, the waving hands and curious glances turn into a kind of musical murmur in the background. They become part of the colourful stage of our trip through Africa, just like the whimsical fire-red earthquakes in the landscape and the warm glow of sunset.