Realities Created, Maintained and Destroyed, WHILE-U-WAIT!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Taking a walk tonight

I had trouble sleeping tonight. I had news from a friend who had a tragedy rip through his life recently.

I have been concerned for him since I heard the news, though he seems to be doing OK, and one thing leads to another. So I spent a good part of the night remembering things rather than sleeping.

Feeling the need to clear my head I decided to take a walk at about 3:00 am. It was cold, with a drizzle of rain drifting down, but refreshing.

It got me to thinking about a good number of things.

The first was how luck I am to live in a place where I feel comfortable walking around at night unarmed and by myself.

I have done that a lot in my life. I love walking, and a good long ramble is sometimes one of the best things there is to do. One of my favorite places ever for night time walks is Stockholm. When I was living there I don't think I ever rode in a car, it was always busses and the underground, and lots of walking. My favorite place to walk there was the Gamla Stan, old town where many of the buildings are older than my whole country.

One of my favorite things about Stockholm is that people spend time outside, much more than here in the States (at least in the summer) and the streets have an aliveness that you don't find as often here.

Here is an example of a day on the street in Stockholm.

People actually interact with each other rather than just hurrying from place to place. I have spent a good number of late nights/early mornings walking home from the clubs and such. Stockholm is nice that way, one of the safest, cleanest cities, with some of the nicest people, I have ever had the pleasure of roaming around.

My other favorite place to roam is at the other end of the spectrum, Arusha, Tanzania.

Arusha town sits at the foot of Mount Meru, and it is one of my very favorite places in all of Africa (note: with the exception of the one above, the pictures were taken by other people. All my photos are in storage in New York at the moment)

This is a shot of the main market in Arusha. My home was just a little less than a block from here. The market covers something over a block with both inside permanent stalls and shops, and a large outdoor area where local farmers bring their produce. From sun up to sun down this is one of the liveliest places in town. If you have never heard the sounds of a place like this, where everyone bargains and haggles down to the last shilling, it can be almost frightening at first. The sound is a constant roar of voices, almost like one huge living creature, sometimes purring, sometimes roaring in defiance or anger. You hear the last when the locals catch a thief.

This is something that is very shocking to most westerners. Thieves are killed outright by whoever is around. What you need to understand though is that conditions in Africa are very much different than in the West.

The courts are almost worthless and both the police and the judges are very bribable. A thief that is arrested in the morning will most likely be back on the street that afternoon.

So the people serve up justice themselves, in a way that seems very brutal to outsiders. A thief will be stabbed, or beaten to death with rocks, or burned to death if there is a handy tire and some petrol around. You do have to understand that a thief in Africa has absolutely no hesitation to kill someone in order to make their job more easy, so such rough justice as they receive is more deserved than one might think at first.

One of the things I love about the market is that you get truly fresh food and you most often get to talk with the person who grew it. Another thing I like is that you can get a mango as big as your head for a nickel or less. The market is the social heart of the town as well. People will sit in the market, visit, enjoy a cup of coffee or tea delivered by a wandering vendor with a huge urn heated by a basket of charcoals. Other vendors will roam the market with a tray full of cigarettes, roasted peanuts and candy, selling to anyone they can. They have a way of holding 20 or more coins in their hand and shifting them back and forth to make a loud rhythmic clinking to let potential customers know where they are. I found out that this roll of coins works as a convenient fist load in case someone tries to rob them.

Along the walls of the market you find the fundis, the craftsmen of one sort or another. Here we have a tailor and a shoe maker. You would go to the tailor, with his treadle sewing machine and tell him what you were interested in, say a pair of pants. He would take a couple of measurements, then tell you how much cloth you needed. You would get a couple of yards of wonderful Mgoromgoro cotton for two dollars or so then bring it back to the tailor. You come back in a couple of hours and you have a perfectly fitting pair of pants. If you have bargained well you will pay the tailor another two to three dollars.

this is the east side of the market (the far side from the first picture). As you can see, it is devoted to stalls filled with shoes and slippers. I cut through here twice a day on my way to and from work. At first the locals looked at me as if I were a little nuts. Whites don't much mingle in the every day life of the town. After a few weeks of me going past, some of the folks were curious enough to start conversations with me and a number of casual friendships developed around the market.

One of the things I love about Africa is that people take the time to stop and talk with each other, that their relationships with their friends are very important to them.

Most days, when I returned home I would pass a particular shop on my block. It sold electrical equipment, but most of its income came from money changing. The banks tend to "buy cheap and sell dear", so mostly one avoids the banks as much as possible. Tanzania has two currencies, the official, the Tanzanian Shilling, and the unofficial, the American dollar. Most large purchases are done with dollars, every day buying and selling is done with shillings.

The man who over-saw the money Exchange was named Mushi. He was of the Chaga tribe, who have a reputation (a well deserved one) for being formidable business people.

Mushi had been Tanzanian Army Special Forces during the war with Uganda back when Idi Amin thought he could take over all of East Africa. In a sort of general way he was one of the scariest human beings I have ever met. I guess he would be considered a gangster. Black market money changing is frowned upon by the government, and people who run this sort of business are potential targets for thieves and there is often thousands of dollars of cash on hand.
One of the reasons that my block was such a nice place to live was that Mushi had put the word out that he would be upset if any crime happen on our street.

So every day I would pass by the shop, and if Mushi were around he would make a point of coming out and greeting me, almost always reminding me that "This is Africa my friend, here we have time to slow down and talk with our friends". We would spend from several minutes to an hour chatting about the news of the town and world, of family and friends and the new coffee crop. We would drink the strong tea from the roaming vendors and enjoy the day. All the while Mushi's men would be moving in and out of the shop making deliveries or picking up bundles of cash to take to one merchant or another.

This is one of the streets that end at the market. It is just after one of the heavy monsoon rains that hit from time to time, so everyone is inside for a change. This street would be quite safe to walk down during the day (at least safe for Africa) but at night it could be worth your live to be here if you were not African and local.

And this is the street where the school I taught at is located, it is about ten blocks from the market. It was odd at first to come to the school which always had a watchman armed with a shotgun out front.

This is one of the two landmarks in Arusha, the town clock on Sokone road. This is in the more affluent part of downtown. It is a more "tourist area". It is known as robbery central because bandits will often attempt to rob people as the visit the banks in the area, knowing that they have money with them.

And this is a whole different kind of market. This is the Maasai market on the outskirts of town. I would come here every couple of weeks to do business with one fundi who made Sime, the traditional Maasai short sword, and an old man who carved the best fimbo in all of East Africa.

This is a very dangerous place, even for Africa. Everyone you see in the picture is armed, men women and children. And if you were to do something wrong, or if they thought you were good victim material you could find yourself hyena food in an eye blink.

When I went to the Maasai market I never went alone, but always with a Maasai elder who was a friend. The first thing he would do when we got there was to hire about three young warriors, one to watch the truck and make sure that no one would try to break into it. The other two would shadow us and watch our backs.

This market is very much "old Africa". You will find all manner of traditional hand crafted practical items, food, livestock, and here is where you find the traditional healers with their herbal remedies as well. If you are not African you are an interloper here, and tourists have been killed for coming to the wrong part of this market more than once. There is one section closest to the town where tourists can safely come and buy beadwork and such, but the heart of the market is well away from that.

What does all this have to do with taking a walk?

When I was living in Africa you didn't take walks at night. You stayed safely home, or if you had to go somewhere you went by car. It was so dangerous to walk the streets at night we in the West can't even get our minds around the idea.

So I value being able to walk at night and not worry about being robbed or killed, something we take for granted here, but should not.




ksmaguro said...

I hope your friend can get through these hard times and keep living. Any tragedy to a friend helps to add a little perspective to our lives.
Thanks for sharing part of your history with us again, Mushtaq. I appreciate your world view.
Hope you are able to get some restful slumber.

Unsane said...

Ah yes -- mad Africa. But actually the streets of suburban Rhodesia were perfectly safe at night.

Anonymous said...

Sweden is wonderful! Though I didn't spend alot of time in Stockholm, I spent a summer living in Uppsala as an exchange student when I was 16. This was a long time ago, but I recall how I was able to be out in the middle of the night riding a bike around town, visiting friends and revelling in the absence of darkness in the far north. It was truly liberating to feel that safe as a young foreign woman and I think it helped inform my world view as being safe and friendly.

To live in a place with relatively little violence is a gift we should all appreciate. I sometimes think it lays a heavier burden of responsibility on us to push our own evolution in support of the collective because we don't have to worry as much about merely surviving the day or night.


Lloyd De Jongh said...

Hi Mushtaq

It's a good friend that has his friend's problem in his mind and feels for him such that it keeps him awake.

Living in Cape Town I can relate to how easily death can come here. I've faced it often enough. I know how unsafe it can feel at night, and even during the day, in Africa.

An absorbing post, with a lot of truth.

Hopefully I'll write more about life in Africa - and speak of the good too, I still call it home.



Tiel Aisha Ansari said...

...I remember that town clock. I'm amazed it's still there.

Michael Blackgrave said...

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. ~John Muir