Karibu Tanzania

***Deutsche Version***

When we arrived in Tanzania, the border official greeted us with a broad grin and asked: “Do you know what ‘Jana’ means in Swahili? Yesterday!” Laughing, he handed her back the passport and said, “Karibu sana Tanzania”.

Protected culture shock in Dar es Salaam


Luc, the boyfriend of Dominik’s former fellow student, welcomed us at the airport. He invited us to stay in his beautiful beach house for the first few days and take our time arriving.


Luc had warned us that police officers would probably stop us along the way. Only five minutes later, a policeman asked us directly and bluntly for donations. Luc was used to such situations, and instead of Swahili, he spoke to the policeman in English. The officer didn’t understand English, so we could drive on without a “donation”.


When we arrived at Luc’s house, we were greeted by a typical Dar es Salaam power cut. Therefore, we could only inspect the house properly the next day. We woke up to the sound of the sea. The house has no windows, so there is always a pleasant sea breeze in the otherwise very hot Dar es Salaam. There are a few palm trees in the garden, perfect for hanging a hammock and watching the local fishermen in the bay.


Although Dar es Salaam is the largest city in the country, it is not the capital. Unlike the cities in South America, there are no public squares or pedestrian zones. Everything is wild and loud and exudes an entirely different atmosphere. Luc guided us through the busy streets and gave us an insight into urban life and a crash course in Tanzanian culture. He also organised cash and a SIM card, so we didn’t have to worry about these typical travel activities for the first few days. We couldn’t have imagined a better start on the African continent. In the following days, we immersed ourselves in research for our upcoming adventures in Tanzania and beyond in Africa. As part of our acclimatisation, we took a trip to the picturesque island of Bongoyo off the coast of Dar es Salaam.

Mafia Island—a paradise under and above water


Our first real trip without Luc’s support took us to Mafia Island. The island is a hidden gem that enchanted us with its beauty and fascinating wildlife. Anyone wondering whether the name has anything to do with the Italian Mafia, you’re mistaken. One explanation could be that the name comes from the Suhaeli “mahali pa afya”, which means “a healthy place to live”.

The island is located south of Dar es Salaam and can be reached by propeller plane or ferry. However, the ferry departs from a remote location four hours south of the city. We also learned that the ferry had broken down in January 2023. There was no information on whether the problem had since been fixed. Given this information, we decided to take the plane. With the low ceiling, Dominik could just about sit upright. Every movement could be felt, and we had a direct view over the pilot’s shoulder. We enjoyed the 30-minute flight with a view of the sea and the surrounding islands.


We spent the first day soaking up the scenery and visiting the small fishing village. In the evening, we enjoyed a delicious meal at the large table of our hostel with all the other guests and chatted long into the night. Many decided to go to Mafia, as the underwater ecosystem is much less frequented than in Zanzibar.

 A large part of the reef is now protected and intact thanks to the Marine Park, making it home to some rare marine life. On an all-day excursion through the park, we visited a hidden blue lagoon and a lonely sandbank that only appears at low tide. Alone, surrounded by turquoise blue water, we prepared freshly caught fish over the fire. We then went on a discovery trip to explore the hidden world of the coral reefs.

The highlight of our stay on Mafia Island was undoubtedly our encounter with the majestic whale sharks. These gigantic sea creatures are mainly found there because of the abundance of plankton. We were briefed in advance on how to behave in the water, but when the first whale shark swam straight towards us, we froze completely. After a few seconds, the animal disappeared into the blue void. Just a few minutes later, we were given a second chance. We had the unique opportunity to glide side by side with the whale shark through the glittering water. The sea was only about four meters deep at this point and crystal clear. This allowed us to marvel at the whale shark in all its glory. The gentle giant fascinated us with its calm and graceful movements, the dotted pattern on its back, the giant mouth and the small cleaner fish that accompanied it. It was a moment of pure awe as we swam at a safe distance from this imposing creature and realised how small we were in the vastness of the ocean.


Kilwa—Africa at its fullest


After a beautiful stay, we made our way south towards Kilwa, a small coastal town on the mainland. Our departure was scheduled for 3 am. We didn’t even notice the ferry was late as we fell asleep as soon as we took our seats. The locals didn’t seem to mind either; they spread out the towels they had brought and made themselves comfortable. A Bollywood movie was playing at full volume at the front, drowned out only by the even louder radio. Later, we realised this was not a radio but a voice-over translating the film. It seemed as if only half of the conversations were being translated. Luc later remarked that an entirely different story is often told.


When we docked in the small town of Nyamisati, we were immediately confronted with the cultural differences. Everyone rushed off the boat, heedless of the others. When Jana queued up at the ladies’ toilet, the women kept pushing into the toilet cabin in front of her. If a young woman hadn’t taken pity on her and stood protectively in front of one of the toilets and pushed her in, she would probably have waited there for hours. Waiting in line is not part of the culture, as we learned. In Tanzania, you have to fight; otherwise, you will get completely lost in the crowd.

We bought two water bottles and asked the vendor about the bus station. He closed his kiosk without further ado and accompanied us. In the middle of the village centre, he pointed to a small bus with a massive crowd of people in front of it. Everyone was trying to squeeze into the vehicle, and we immediately realised we could never get on this bus.


A young man on a motorcycle approached us and asked where we needed to go. The salesman translated that he would take us to the village on the main road for 12,000 shillings (about CHF 4). We looked at each other in disbelief. Firstly, it was more than an hour’s drive; secondly, there were two of us. After a brief discussion, we decided that this was probably the only option for several hours to get at least a little closer to our destination. The driver strapped Jana’s rucksack around his waist, and we sat behind him on the bike. Our driver grabbed two helmets for us along the way and drove safely and carefully. You could tell he was nervous and wanted to do everything right. The journey took us along unpaved roads with red earth. On the way, people kept cheering us on, waving or looking at us in disbelief. Two white tourists on a motorcycle with a local was definitely not an everyday sight.


It was only with great difficulty that we made it up a hill with all our weight, rolled down the other side, and stopped. We had just run out of fuel and already saw ourselves walking along the dusty roads for hours. However, after two minutes, we got relieved. On the roadside, a man sold petrol in PET bottles—how handy! We continued our journey and reached the main road after another half an hour.


We had just missed the big bus, but before we knew it, we were sitting in a rickety Daladala without air conditioning, surrounded by locals. There wouldn’t have been any more room on the bus, but as flexible as Tanzanians are, a child was taken on the lap, and a passenger sat right at the front next to the bus driver. But the bus was not only completely full of people but also chickens and countless food baskets.


During the journey, the people around us stocked up on dried fish, which seemed to be a very popular snack. We were offered a taste but couldn’t bring ourselves to try it on our empty stomachs. We slowly approached Kilwa—our destination. But the bus driver decided not to drive there after all but to let us off on the main road and refund us some money.


Looking like lost sheep, we stood there, not knowing how to get to Kilwa. Then another man came and indicated that we should get into a car. A little sceptical, we followed the invitation, and other people quickly joined us. However, the car’s capacity still needed to be fully utilised. We kept stopping, and more people squeezed into the back seat next to us or into the trunk. We covered the distance to Kilwa correspondingly slowly and after another hour in cramped conditions, we finally made it. Now, we were only a tuk-tuk ride or bajaj, as they call it in Tanzania, away from our hostel. More than 12 hours had passed since we left Mafia. That was definitely Africa at its fullest. 

The next day, we went on a tour to visit the ruins of Kilwa and marvel at the underwater world off the coast. Our expectations weren’t too high when we set off an hour late. This feeling intensified after we chugged to the ruins in a very slow boat for around two hours. Surprisingly, we were then given a grand tour of the site, which is now overgrown with giant baobab trees.

After lunch, we went straight into the water—just as we had learned from our moms. The guide transformed from a historian to a marine specialist. While snorkelling, we discovered colourful corals, exotic fish and a fake seahorse. We rounded off the varied day in the evening with a cosy campfire.


The following day, we headed back to Dar—as the locals affectionately abbreviated the city of Dar es Salaam. You can imagine what the bus ride was like. Shortly before Dar, our driver decided to take a supposed shortcut. An unpaved road next to the main road seemed tempting to avoid the gridlocked traffic. In an almost cinematic scene, we saw a car and two people stuck in their predicament on the road. Nevertheless, our bus driver decided to drive at full speed and passed them on the edge of the precipice. The two people could jump off just in time, but we got stuck ourselves despite the daring manoeuvre. At first, we didn’t even realise it, but when everyone left the bus, we looked at the whole situation from the outside. 

We started to feel a little queasy. One rear wheel was already over the abyss, and we became aware of the danger we had just narrowly escaped. Fortunately, no one was hurt. In the scorching heat, we then faced the challenge of finding a cab in a race with all the other travellers.


For the last two nights in Dar, we had the pleasure of staying at Luc’s place again. We enjoyed a fantastic barbecue in his garden, where we ate fresh fish and slightly charred potatoes—the barbecue master does not comment on this matter. This was the end of our protected start in Tanzania. Once again, a huge thank you to Luc for his hospitality and the great time!


Visiting the Mbingu children’s village


Once again, our journey started too early. The bus driver and driver’s assistant were instructed to take good care of us. To our dismay, we were, therefore, seated right at the front, giving us an unrestricted view of what was happening on the road that we would have preferred not to see. However, the seats also offered us an incredible natural spectacle. As we crossed Mikumi National Park, we suddenly saw giraffes, zebras and even elephants crossing the road. With only one (!) toilet stop on the 12-hour bus journey, we finally reached Mbingu, where the children, childminders and sisters welcomed us warmly with flowers and singing. This gesture was incredibly touching, and we felt welcome from the very first moment.

On the first day, we were invited to the annual feast of the patron saint of the neighbouring health centre. There was food, laughter and dancing, and we gained further insight into the culture and hospitality of Tanzania. At the same time, it was our first battle with food. We would both have liked to have skipped the meat, which still had the animal’s hair all over it and just helped ourselves to the delicious side dishes. But that would have been highly offensive to the hostess, and no one would have understood our aversion to the meat, as they thought it was the very best thing on the entire buffet. With the help of a warm beer—yes, most people in Tanzania drink beer unchilled—we choked down the tough meat. 

In the two weeks that followed, there were always moments when we wished we had pretended to be vegetarians from the start. As a sign of hospitality, we were always allowed to dine with the three sisters, and they really went the extra mile despite their simple means. There was meat daily, but everything from the animal, including the innards, was used. That made perfect sense, but we are not used to that back home. So, a meal could sometimes turn into a real fight. However, it was crucial for us to be respectful of their food culture.


The two weeks were then all about the children. Many of them were curious right from the start, hugging us and taking us by the hand. We immediately had the impression that they were happy to have other people besides the sisters and childminders. They wanted to play with us, fool around and, above all, dance with us. They clearly have the rhythm in their blood, and we were impressed by their dance moves. Over the two weeks, we practised a few simple dance sequences with the kids and constantly invented new dance moves. After a few days, they were really good at the choreographies, and as soon as they saw us, they proudly showed off what they had learned.

We also organised a scavenger hunt twice to show them what we used to do in our childhood. In the beginning, it took a few stations for them to realise what a scavenger hunt was. But after that, we could hardly stop them, and they found the Baobab candy treasure in no time. They were delighted with the “pipi”; the next day, they were already asking if we would look for another “hazina”. 

Some things also made us very thoughtful and reminded us of how incredibly privileged we are in Switzerland. The beds in the houses were always shared, and sometimes, up to five children slept together on one bed. There was hardly any money for nappies. Most infants were, therefore, wrapped in cloths, and a plastic bag was tied around them to prevent leakage. They ate together from large plates on the floor, and the walk to school took 25 minutes in the scorching heat. We were impressed by what the sisters, mamas and babas did for the children daily. As enriching as the time with the children was, it was also very demanding. But the older children already took on a lot of responsibility, looked after the younger ones and helped wherever they could. It really felt like a huge family into which we were warmly welcomed.


Talking to the sisters, we learned some of the very tragic stories. Some children lost both parents or often the mother died immediately after giving birth. Tanzania is still very much characterised by old role models, and there are hardly any single fathers. Alcohol, drug abuse and domestic violence are also very prevalent, and several children were rescued from such precarious circumstances. Some have no evidence of their origin, as they were abandoned somewhere in the forest or street. Despite all these tragic fates, the children were bursting with joy.


The two weeks flew by, and it was time to say goodbye. That was hard for us, as the children had grown close to our hearts over this time. The sisters organised a wonderful farewell party and we also did our utmost to say goodbye. We baked two giant banana cakes, danced with them and at the end of the day, we went to all the huts to say goodbye. Our visit to the Mbingu children’s village was an enriching experience we will never forget.

At midnight, nine people accompanied us to the train station. When we arrived, it was pitch black due to a power cut, and we were happy to have an escort. Everyone waited with us for 1.5 hours for the delayed train, even though some of them had a 5 am start the next day. It was very touching, and when the train finally arrived, we hugged each other one last time and set off on our next adventure.

Train journey to Zambia


So it was almost 2 o’clock in the morning, and we stumbled through the carriages with our luggage and countless presents. It felt like the train would never end, and we had no idea in which carriage our compartment was. After what felt like an eternity, a train attendant ushered us into our cabin. Incredibly relieved, we wanted nothing more than to sleep. But as soon as we lifted the blankets, it felt like everything was moving. Welcome to 1st class! Before we finally got to sleep, we sprayed everything with our “killer mosquito spray” and almost suffocated ourselves. After that, Dominik immediately fell into a deep sleep, while Jana hardly slept a wink. It wasn’t just the thoughts of all the bugs that bothered her, but also the fact that the door knob of the compartment kept rattling, people in the carriage were talking loudly, and the train kept stopping. At some point in the morning, we realised we had only covered a measly 60 kilometres in the previous eight hours. At this point, we still had 1380 kilometres to go—it was going to be fun. We weren’t too worried because we were expecting a delay of around two days anyway.

We were really anti-social that day, had our waiter bring everything to our compartment and worked hard on our Ecuador blog. By then, the day was already over. We were woken up in the middle of the night. Of course, we arrived at the border with Zambia just then. We got to know our fellow travellers in the queue in front of the border post in the middle of nowhere. When it was finally our turn, we handed the Zambian official our 60 dollars. He wouldn’t accept one of the 20-dollar bills because of a mark. He insisted that we get another one from “our friends”. So what else could we do but ask the people we had just met for money. In the meantime, the train had left with all our luggage. Fortunately, a US American lent us a freshly printed bill, and we finally received our visa for Zambia. At sunrise, the procedure was finally over. We were looking forward to our compartment, which by now had been avoided by all vermin, even without the spray.


Somewhen in the morning, we were woken up again. This time, our waiter asked if we wanted to have breakfast. He had always cared for us over the days, and we were delighted to fulfil his wish to possess a new book. That evening, we wrote a note of thanks in the book “Marching Powder” about the San Pedro prison in Bolivia and handed it over to him. We then went to bed for the third time and hoped fervently that the delays would continue as before.

This wish did not come true and we were suddenly woken up at 4 in the morning. We were not about to arrive but had already arrived. Completely drowsy, all the passengers packed their things and were shooed off the train by the staff. So there we were: Kapiri Mposhi, Zambia, one of the poorest places in the whole country. With two Japanese women, two Koreans, a Turkish woman and the helpful American, we stood lost on the platform and were besieged by cab drivers. The thought of sitting in a cab and arriving in the capital, Lusaka, in around 2 to 3 hours was highly tempting. But the journey was expensive, the driver was unsympathetic, and we were no longer entirely sane after our 50-hour train journey. So what should we do?


To live up to our name DJ on Tour, here is a song that accompanied us every day in Tanzania. The kids in the children's village were unstoppable as soon as the song started playing—they all started cheering and dancing.


Logo DJ on tour

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