25 October 2009


Bagamoyo means "lay down your heart" in Swahili, and one explanation was that it meant "give up all hope" in connection to the slave trade, as Bagamoyo was often the last part of mainland Africa that slaves would set foot on before being shipped off to Zanzibar, twenty-five miles into the Indian Ocean, where they were then sold and taken to the Middle East.

(Slavery was abolished by the British in 1873 but continued in secret until much later, by some accounts, until the beginning of the twentieth century.)

Bagamoyo used to be the capital of German East Africa when Germans ruled in the late nineteenth century and remains the dhow-building capital of Tanzania today.

Since Dar took its place as the capital in 1891, however, Bagamoyo has been sliding slowly into obscurity. The upside is that it is on the shortlist to becoming Tanzania's seventh UNESCO World Heritage Site (as part of a major slave trade route), and the government is now working to restore some of the historical monuments.

As you walk along the narrow dirt roads, there are many crumbling buildings:

Beautiful old carved wooden doors:

And the feeling that the clock may have turned back a couple hundred years:

Incidentally, it has been really impressive to me how much Tanzanians carry on their heads. Women will have babies strapped around their back, huge buckets or baskets of fruit/appliances/you-name-it on their heads while holding the hand of another child walking along beside them. (The average Tanzanian women has six children.) I can barely walk along the dirt roads without tripping over myself.

Men selling snacks will balance gigantic wire baskets or cardboard boxes full of peanuts, chips, soda cans and candy on their heads. At the docks, you'll see men with four boxes stacked on top of each other on their heads loading the ferries. I've seen men, women and children carrying huge bags of twigs and branches on their heads and once saw a man balancing a thick wooden table on his head just walking down the street.

It seems like we non-head-carrying types could learn a lot from this practice (grace, for starters), as everyone I've seen, carrying everything from suitcases to bags of fruit on their head, has perfectly straight posture. When I catch reflections of my partner and me with our backpacks, I see us leaning forward to counterbalance the weight, resembling hunched-over turtles. It seems like carrying my pack on my head would be the solution, but I think I'll need a lot of practice.

Again providing night-and-day contrasts, we were able to visit a highly funded lab that had (what looked to me like) white marble bench tops and nicer facilities than they have at Harvard, where we got to see blood infected with the falciparum strain of malaria under a microscope:

And the next day, we went to a small village dispensary (a tiny clinic) about an hour away on dirt roads, which was one of the five (of fifteen in the area) to have electricity:

Here was the view from the back:

It was surrounded by coconut trees, mango trees, papaya trees, a dirt road and a few small buildings, but it served the 5000 people in the two nearest villages (about fifty patients per day), offered rapid diagnostic tests (RDTs) for malaria and HIV, and had a microscope they used when electricity was available, usually used for quantifying malaria infections.

This dispensary is a good symbol of Tanzanian life for me: it seemed pretty basic, didn't have a lot of the bells and whistles you'd find in their Western counterpart, but it did its job. I have been amazed again and again by how resourceful Tanzanians are. They don't have much money, they reduce/reuse/recycle by necessity, and they make do.

When I think of how wasteful we are as Americans with our electricity, our water, our resources, it kind of makes me cringe. Here, blackouts (scheduled and unscheduled) are common, about half of the population has access to clean drinking water, and people generally use their resources sparingly. So, my partner and I are trying to be less wasteful whenever we can. It isn't going to change the world tomorrow, but it's a start.

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