Beyond Ordinary


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The Flancesca Chronicles Part VI | Tanzania

Hello all,

This email is temporally close to the previous, but I’ll just tell you right now, I’ve got quite a bit to say.  So let me not waste time with whimsical banter and get right into the meat of the story…

Last weekend we went to Lake Rukwa, again.  This is about a 2 hour drive from Sumbawanga and Rob likes to take us out there to buy fish and do some hiking around in the mountains.  So Libby, me, Rob, and three African locals (one Brother and two people from the hospital-workers, not patients this time) hopped into the Prado and headed toward the lake.  This time, we even ventured to take a little boat ride, past the 50 meters of reeds that surround the lake, and out onto the water in a local wooden fishing boat.  Sounds majestic, and it was, especially on a Sunday when a third of the fisherman were drunk. We pulled up to this small village on the lakeshore and twenty people came out of their temporary houses, constructed from reeds, to catch the wazungu that had just arrived.  This is not a tourist village by any means, and I doubt they get any visitors all year, but there we were.  At the water, the younger drunk man invited us to choose from any of the seven boats in that little bay, all ranging from small canoe-ish vessels to a large, maybe 50 feet long, boat that had little baby boats inside of it.  We chose the large one of course, not so much because we needed the space but more out of our curiosity as to how they would navigate it out of the shallow reeds.  Before I knew it, one of the villagers had picked me up and was wading out to set me in the large boat.  Libby was next, followed by the men and around 15 local village men, full of beer and marijuana with nothing else to do (church was already over).

Before I knew it, one of the villagers had picked me up and was wading out to set me in the large boat.

To get the boat out onto the water, the three young men in the bow (that’s the front of the boat) pulled on the anchor rope, which they dropped where the reeds hit the open water, to slowly guide the boat back into the deep.  During this time we got a really good presentation from the super hammered guy in the Pikachu cut-off t-shirt displaying the types of karate moves he was capable of pulling off on the gunnels of the boat.  There were no seats, but there were a few cross beams that served us well.  Once we got deep enough to start the 40hp engine, we headed out to putter around on the lake for as long as the 5 liters of gas would let us.  There are apparently tons of crocodile and hippopotamus in this lake, but to get to the areas where they are most numerous would have taken a few hours, and we didn’t have that kind of fuel.  We did see one hippo though; that was neat.  

After our little tour, we ran an “errand” with the fisherman who dropped off some lumber and a couple smaller boats to an adjacent village.  I have no idea how they can find the right places to go with their boats given that everything is hidden by a vast field of reeds and looks the same from out on the lake.  Impressive, I must say.  As we came back into the reedy bay of our departure, the front man dropped the anchor, once again at the reed line and ended up swinging around and backing this massive boat into a tiny space between two others.  Once again, impressive, especially considering intoxication levels. 

Back on land we went on the prowl through the temporary reed huts for some fresh fish to buy.  In our search we came upon a “restaurant” that consisted of a wooden bench inside of a four-foot-tall reed hut where two African women were frying up some fish in a big pan of oil. We all filed into the restaurant, where we were warmly greeted and then served a single, large fish in a bowl, fried, with a pile of salt on the side.  Who could want more?  One of the cooks sat next to me on the bench as I was very close to the indoor fire where the fish were being fried.  

The food was good, the atmosphere screamed authenticity, and the price was fair for an 8 inch, meaty Rukwa fish (500 Ts per fish, or about 30 cents).

The food was good, the atmosphere screamed authenticity, and the price was fair for an 8 inch, meaty Rukwa fish (500 Ts per fish, or about 30 cents).  Then we went to another hut, bought 120 fish for 20,000 Ts (about 14$ and they threw in a smarmy-looking catfish thing), loaded them into a big plastic bag, said our goodbyes and headed toward home.  This was one of those experiences that you will never find on a vacation.  It’s so far off the beaten path that it is one of those days that spontaneously materialize into something a little more cultural from a little curiosity. 

Now, a quick note to the mothers (especially my own).  You are probably not even consciously reading this email anymore after being worked into a panicked frenzy over the description of Libby, Rob, and myself putting our lives into the hand of drunk locals.  

Let me tell you that I was very comfortable with this situation for five reasons:

  1. These people are in the middle of nowhere, with few recreational activities so are probably seasoned veterans when it comes to drunk boating.
  2. The boat cannot go fast and there is nothing but reeds to collide with.
  3. Fishing is their livelihood and timber is getting scarce and expensive because of deforestation.  These people would never jeopardize their boat, that would be suicide. 
  4. Crocodiles are only dangerous in the shallow water where they have leverage from the bottom of the lake (a little off topic but I really just threw this one in there because I thought it was a neat tid-bit. The locals swore by it.).
  5. We were with Rob who has become a great companion and pseudo guardian in this country and has traveled enough to know people and have a good sense for danger.  He would never let anything happen to us.

Alright, is everyone back with me?  Good.  School has been slowly improving.  I handed back my exams and gave my class a stern talking to about how important education is in this country.  I said something to the effect that they have millions of people who can’t afford food, medicine, or a place to sleep and Tanzania does not have any government programs to ease this type of suffering.  Without an education they will be one of the hundreds of hungry people living on the street.  I was very clear that the choices they make today about learning English and applying themselves will create the type of person they are in the future.  I’m sure only about 5% really absorbed the message, but me and Libby have been stressing this importance for a few weeks now and the effort in our Form 1 students has noticeably increased.  This is a small victory.  

We are also very encouraged by how young they are. There is plenty of time to build good academic habits before they hit the higher forms, when it really counts.  Libby gave an essay assignment in English for her students to tell her a little about their lives and I would say, from the many that we have read, on average 60% of the students have either one or both parents who are deceased.  And that is a conservative estimate, many didn’t even write about them.  I, on the other hand, am still plugging away in Biology.  I actually resorted to grabbing my breast the other day when trying to describe the class “mammalia” by talking about mammary glands.  Please don’t judge me, it was a moment of frustration mixed with desperation compounded by access to an easy prop. 

Please don’t judge me, it was a moment of frustration mixed with desperation compounded by access to an easy prop.

This is a good lead into my next story, which also includes some embarrassing details about me.  I don’t know how to put this casually, but in the past couple weeks I have been a little backed up.  That is to say I stopped having regular BMs (if you’re still not with me, feel free to phone a friend for a more graphic explanation of a BM).  I wasn’t worried at first, but after 4 days I started to get a bit uncomfortable and wanted some relief.  I had tried increasing my water intake and exercising, but neither of these strategies worked well and fibrous foods are not readily available here, so I called Rob.  He said he didn’t know the name of a particular laxative, but he was confident that any pharmacy would have them and know what I was talking about.  Man was he wrong.  Bowel problems in Tanzania usually only come in one flavor: diarrhea.  They have millions of different things that do a great job plugging you up, but it's uncommon that someone comes in requesting the opposite.  Let me preface this story with a quick detail about pharmacies here.  You don’t need a prescription to get medication.  You need a scrap piece of paper with the name of a drug scribbled on it and an amount, the sloppier the writing, the more authentic it is. 

You don’t need a prescription to get medication.

We decided to go to this pharmacy in town run by an Arabic woman that owns a few businesses on the block.  We chose this place because we had been in there a couple times and she knew who we were (this is truly not a vain thing to say when you are one of the ten white people in town).  The main lady runs the convenience shop while her shorter, more portly sister runs the pharmacy, so in we went.  We greeted her in Swahili and then asked if she had a laxative.  She definitely did not understand the question and asked to see our note from the doctor.  We said that we didn’t have one and that he told us we could just come here to get it.  

“What kind of Doctor is that?” was approximately her response.  So this is the part of the story where Libby and me use every verbal and non-verbal skill we have to launch into a half Swahili, half obscene gesture explanation of a laxative to the amusement of both the lady behind the counter and a couple lucky patrons.  After letting us pantomime diarrhea for about a minute the lady said she didn’t think she had anything for us, didn’t understand, and that we should go next door to the convenience store to talk to her sister.

We left the pharmacy, went around the corner, into the convenience store where we greeted the taller, prettier sister and shyly launched into a similar show for her in an attempt to reach a common understanding.  She said she understood and gave a name to one of the many giggling store clerks of a product she thought we would want.  The girl brought us an antacid.  This only prompted us to launch into another series of obscene gestures to try to tell her it was actually the other end of the digestive system that I was having troubles with. Once again, she didn’t really understand and we got sent back around the corner to the portly sister.  As soon as we entered into the pharmacy she started laughing and still didn’t know what we were talking about so she waved us back behind the counter.  We went through the back of the pharmacy, out a door into a courtyard, and into the back of the convenience store where we were to conference about my issue with both sisters present, and three or four other employees.  So for the last time, Libby got down into her universal squatting position and repeated the phrase “siwezi,” (I am unable) while squatting and making gestures with her hands and pointing to me.

This time, the message got through and we all had a good laugh about the whole affair.  The sister at the convenience store (not a pharmacist) gave the name of a pill to the sister at the pharmacy (also not a pharmacist) to give to us.  So we returned to the pharmacy through the back entrance and watched as this portly, not-a-pharmacist sister dumped about ten little, yellow pills into her dirty hands and then brushed them into a paper bag.  On the front of the bag she wrote 4/4/2.  Just like that.  This was apparently the prescription she had arrived at based on the position of the stars or moon or something.  I was to take four that day, four the next morning, and two later that evening. Perfect.  I immediately called my mother to google the name of the pills to make sure they were truly laxatives and apparently the clinical use is to clean out the plumbing before a colonoscopy…Great.  So I only ended up taking four the first night and I will spare you the details and sum up this story by telling you that I am ready for a colonoscopy, should the need arise.

Hope everyone is in good health and spirits,


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