Friday, May 2, 2008

On This Day Last Year...

After two days in little Dodoma, in the heart of Tanzania, I made my way one late afternoon to the train station for departure to Kigoma, from where I hoped to find a boat to take me north on Lake Tanganyika to Bujumbura, Burundi.

Kigoma is just north of Ujiji where Stanley finally got to ask his famous question, "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" From my dirty and tattered, Lonely Planet Africa, "Livingstone himself, searching for the source of the Nile, became so famously lost in the process that a special expedition headed by Henry Stanley was sent out to find him. Stanley cauight up with Livingstone at Ujiji near modern-day Kigoma after a journey of more than a year...." Thankfully it was to take me a substantially shorter time to travel from Zanzibar to Kigoma. And for the record, I was to find that there is little "modern-day" about Kigoma.

After securing a tattered bench in a four passenger cabin on the train, I wandered outside to await departure. The day came down and still we waited. A family had brought their grandmother to the tracks so that she could say goodbye to those who were traveling West. She was unable to walk and so thin and boney that two young men, perhaps grandsons, wrapped her in blankets and carried her, their arms under her like a seat. They placed her on a dusty concrete step by the tracks and she gummed a half of orange as we all stared at the sunset. The whites of her eyes were yellowed and I wasn't certain that she could see me sitting nearby. Finally the train made ready to leave and the young men hoisted her once again so that she could kiss her family goodbye.

The ride to Kigoma was more than 30 hours; another test of endurance that marks any travel in Africa. Train windows could not be opened for fear of bandits - the West of the country is notorious for lawlessness - and the air in the cars was rank and hot. For seemingly no reason, the train would stop and start, sometimes pausing for more than an hour.

I had no idea where I would stay as we pulled into the station after midnight. Everyone on the train warned me of being charged too much for a taxi. In the dark, I walked out onto the bustling, dusty area in front of the station, taxi drivers hounding me in broken English for my destination. As I had learned to do, I listened as hard as I could to what they were charing locals, to no avail. For the equivalent of $5 I found a man who would take me to a hotel. It turned out to be a short drive and he was extraordinarily happy with his take, begging me to let him come back the next day to give me a tour of Kigoma.

My room was relatively clean but swarming with mosquitos so I slept under a dirty net that night. There was no hot water and the toilet did not flush but a bucket was left in the bathroom so that I could dump water into the bowl to flush it manually. When I woke in the morning I found that my room faced Lake Tanganyika and the hotel had a private beach where guests could swim. As I wandered down to the water, I looked across at what must have been Congo. Down the beach, men were stripping to their skin and washing in the lake with hand-cut bars of green soap (the next day I was to see yard long bars of it for sale). The old men stood with their backs to me in modesty (or respect?), and the young men waved to catch my attention. In the coming weeks I was to learn much about the horrors of this heart of Africa, Western Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, and Congo. But on this day, when the bathers finished, I stripped down to my bathing suit and waded into the crystal clear waters of the lake. With water up to my neck I could still look down and see little fishes swimming around my toes. In my memory, the smell of clean water will always be the smell of a late morning swim in Lake Tanganyika.

The lake (and Lake Malawi where weeks later I was to enjoy more long swims) are notorious for their belharzia, a disease that is caused by a particular freshwater parasite in the water. I made a note to myself to see a doctor - when I found one - to get tested.



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