People colour a journey of book stops

Kenyan motorists drive in heavy traffic in the country's capital, Nairobi (Photo: AFP)

Kenyan motorists drive in heavy traffic in the country's capital, Nairobi (Photo: AFP)

Two years ago, my family and I decided to do a road trip from Nairobi to Johannesburg using public transport, most of which resulted in my latest book, Hardly Working. This year, we managed to convince author Niq Mhlongo to take the trip with us, this time with a twist: we would stop and read in as many towns as we could.

As we would discover on this trip, it is not so much the literary events that were most memorable in Tanzania, the first country we got to, fun though they were. Rather, it was the people, most of them strangers, who stick out when we recount the journey.

Our planned departure on July 16 happened without a hitch. We left Nairobi for Arusha, in Tanzania, on a Riverside shuttle, first experienced in 2016. Showing the manager a mention of their business in my book got us discounted tickets.

I was pleasantly surprised when I realised that Ananias, who drove us in 2016, was our driver on this journey. He did not immediately recognise me and I had to jog his memory.

Still, he treated us impeccably and was pleasant and solicitous. When I was slightly delayed at the Namanga border post between Kenya and Tanzania, I heard later that he calmed down the impatient mumbles of Westerners on their way to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. And when I apologised for delaying everyone, he made it seem as though my apology was unnecessary. At the end of the trip, showing Ananias his name in print almost got me a book sale. Until I felt guilty because I have an inkling of how much he earns, so I gave him a copy. An example, perhaps, of why socialists, unless leaders in the South African Communist Party, are not rich.

When we left Ananias in Arusha, we felt as though we were parting with a beloved family member. Perhaps that is what he has become, unbeknown to him.

Alas, it was also in Arusha where we encountered a hustler cab driver who tried to overcharge us for a ride to the hotel and argued quite strongly for his inflated rate.

Perhaps because Arusha and its neighbouring town of Moshi largely host international nongovernmental organisations and tourists, one will encounter hustlers who believe all travellers have money to dish out. Somehow this driver, Donald, whom my son later joked exhibited very Trump-like greed, took away the shine of Arusha, a city I’d hoped to explore and love more.

In Dar es Salaam, Merinyo — a dreadlocked man in a beautiful shirt — attended my nonfiction writing workshop and, the next day, Niq’s fiction writing workshop. It was only after the workshop that Baba Africa, as he became known to us, enchanted us with a story about his life. We learnt that he is not just a writer but also a musician and a fashion designer. His beautiful shirts were the works of his own hands. 
We received an invitation to his shop, where we found out we would probably never have enough money to buy all the clothes we wanted to buy.

We had booked a place to stay in Morogoro. Initially, we planned to be there for a day but at Motel 88, Rich, the manager, made us feel so special that we decided to stay an extra day. We used the time to visit a place that is of significance in South African exile history: Mazimbu and Solomon Mahlangu College of Science and Education (formerly known to ANC exiles in Morogoro as Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College).

Despite not having been given warning, the principal of the college, Professor Allen Lewis Malisa, seemed happy to see three passport holders from Afrika Kusini and their Kenyan friend. He gave us a guided tour and the history of the ANC in the area and at the school.

Near the college is a neighbourhood called Dark City, where we were told South African fathers and brothers left children whom they never returned to reclaim.

It was fascinating to watch Niq relate and react to Mazimbu as his last novel, Way Back Home, was partially set in the place, although he had never been there. He started musing about the possibility of a sequel to his book using his new knowledge.

On our last night in Morogoro Rich sent us a round of drinks for being great guests. Pleasantly surprised, we decided that we would find a way of returning his hospitality.

When we alighted from our bus in Mbeya, cab drivers were hustling to be the ones to drive us. But it was Johnson who, after we mentioned the place we were going, immediately told us where it was and quoted us a ridiculously low fare. We were surprised by how far it was when we finally got there. We immediately got his number so that he could pick us up for errands the following day.

After Johnson dropped us at a restaurant the next day, we decided to take another driver later who dropped us at the wrong place. We had to call Johnson to come to our rescue. When he arrived, he helped us without being as smug as he could have been. We later agreed that Johnson is the person to know and take us around next time we are in Mbeya. We finally left Mbeya bidding Johnson goodbye to make our way to the Tunduma border post and cross into Zambia.

Unfortunately, on arrival at the border, we found we would have to sleep over because the last bus had left at two in the afternoon. Ali, whom we had asked to drive us, took us to at least three lodgings where we could sleep without charging us extra. He negotiated our currency change from Tanzanian shillings to kwacha, took us to buy our bus tickets for the next day and, in the morning, he was at our motel at 4am to take us to the bus (after leaving us at midnight).

Although we gave all the Tanzanian shillings we had left beyond our quoted fare, we all equally wished we could have done more and parted with him as one does from a beloved friend.

And as the bus left Tanzania and crossed into Zambia, we talked of how, despite most of us not being as fluent in Swahili as we could be, Tanzania was a place we could live in because of its people.

Equally, we all wondered whether the Tanzanians could say the same about our countries. When they encountered our compatriots, would we be found charming or wanting? 

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