Hakuna Matata

Means no worries… sort of. You have all seen the Lion King. Great story (although I will readily admit that I cried tears of grief and terror when Mufasa was brutally crushed to death by a stampede of wildebeest; bit traumatic for a three year old) and great songs make one of Disney’s finest latter day productions. There also some words of Swahili used in the film that was inspired by the great African savannahs of the Serengeti and Masai Mara in Tanzania and Kenya. Rafiki the wise Mandrill is your friend in the lingua franca of East Africa and Simba is simply a lion. But hakuna matata…

 

“I am porter rafiki, hakuna matata hakuna matata. I am porter.”

I have been in Tanzania for almost two months and this is the first time I had heard this phrase, either from a Tanzanian to a Tanzanian, or to a tourist. I managed to buy a ticket for the Zanzibar ferry without any unwanted help, but now after I asked where to take my bicycle onto the ferry an unsolicited helper took my bicycle without asking and there was a feeling of inevitability about the scene. When we got to the ferry entrance my porter repeated again “Hakuna Matata” and then asked for 20,000 shillings ($10) for an unnecessary favour. I gave him 3,000 when 2,000 produced a hangdog expression, but I have developed a deep suspicion that hakuna matata really means gimme gimme.

 

And so it proved to be. On Zanzibar itself I went to see an old Omani mosque that was badly neglected, covered in moss and badly discoloured and cracked from weather damage. Two men lounging in an unmarked shack assured me, “Hakuna Matata, we are official hakuna matata, we are official hakuna matata,” then charged me over two dollars to see a ruin that nature was retaking in a country where a meal can cost as little as fifty cents. I should have negotiated the price or flat out refused to see this shabby monument, but the cheek of it and the use of this fabled ‘no worries’ just made me laugh. I handed over the cash and tried to explain my skepticism for this phrase, but they were not listening in the slightest.

 

So what was this phrase that Tanzanians appeared only to utter to tourists as they ripped them off? A Zimbabwean friend told me it was ‘Kitchen Swahili,’ a bastardised and ungrammatical version of the language spoken in Kenya. A quick scan of the internet and Google Translate reveals that it roughly translates as ‘There is no troubles here’ (although bizarrely ‘matata’ as a stand alone word in Google Translate comes back as ‘dreadful’).

 

But still nobody says it. I was then informed that the more common phrase was ‘Hamna Shida’ and I started to pick this out of people’s conversations with my extremely limited Swahili (greetings, food and numbers seem to help me get around OK). Finally in Arusha, the largest town near the plains of the Serengeti, a man saw me looking for directions on my bicycle and asked me “You looking for safari? Hakuna Matata rafiki.” I snorted in derision and told him that was tourist nonsense and that he should speak Tanzanian and not Kenyan Swahili. Unsurprisingly, he was not really listening and started vigorously protesting that the Kenyans learnt their Swahili from its birthplace in Tanzania. True, but besides the point, so I just rode off laughing.

 

Still my Tanzanian friends’ attempts to squeeze a few pennies out of me were not the most egregious abuses of the word. There was a hostel in Malawi called ‘Hakuna Matata’ run by a virulently racist South African man. He would openly declare his contempt and hatred for black Africans and Arabs, while using a phrase from a mixed Bantu-Arab language as an advertising slogan for his business.

 

So if you are in the area and someone utters the phrase, put on your cynic’s hat. You can feel smug about your meagre language skills and see through the attempts at phoney sincerity by someone who wants your shillings. And for your future and hypothetical thanks, I say hamna shida.

 

This article was first published in Flycatcher Magazine

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Why Church Is More Fun Than The Pub

Your feet can feel the rattle of the speakers. You can hear the speakers being rent in two in the crackle emanating along with the trashy pop music. Two friends and I are in a village pub in Malawi with empty plastic bottles of the local maize beer Chibuku strewn on the floor, casually dropped and with no one of a mind or deputed to clean them up. The occupants of the pub are exclusively men, sitting with their backs to the wall, staring straight ahead and entirely ignoring their fellow drinkers with the music so loud to make conversation a laughable proposition. The one exception is an extremely drunk patron in a santa hat who does a sporadic jig and refuses to leave us alone as he slurs and snarls incomprehensible nonsense.

 

Sadly this depressing scene repeated itself across multiple pubs in small African villages. Men eyes glazed over as they drink themselves to an oblivion where the oft grinding poverty and boredom of village life disappear temporarily.

 

This scene was in marked contrast to a trip to church a few days later. My Israeli friend Shahar and I were invited to a Sunday church service in the Presbyterian church in the village of Ruarwe. Christianity in Africa has always inspired deeply ambivalent feelings in me. Missionaries may have been at the forefront of the movement to abolish the slave trade in East Africa but they were and continue to be the foot soldiers of cultural imperialism. Traditional African religions are in sharp retreat pushed to the margins of the deep bush or surviving as superstitions hidden in people’s official adherence to Christianity or Islam. Alongside this you have an onslaught of commercialism whereby shops sell nothing but soft drinks, villagers gaze with painful longing at my smartphone and women strive for an impossible standard of white beauty with skin-whitening creams and unflattering straight-haired wigs favoured over their own beautiful but difficult and unruly curly hair.

 

Combine these factors and you have a depressing picture of encroaching cultural monotony and loss of African identity. Yet for me to hector Africans on favouring second hand Calvin Klein shirts over traditional dress after the destruction of their garment industry by the flood of second hand clothes donated by the West is painfully patronising and condescending. They have had centuries of economic and cultural domination, they don’t need me to add to the chorus of white people telling them what to do. A Spanish friend who worked in El Salvador had the contradictions between missionaries and liberal atheist NGOs spelled out to him.

“I don’t understand you Spanish” a local friend told him. “First you came with the cross and now you want to take it away”.

 

With this in mind we entered the church to a warm and reverent welcome. We were offered seats along with the elders of the village which we declined protesting that we were too young and unimportant to warrant such an exalted position. The hymns, prayers and readings were almost exclusively in Chitumbuka but no common language was needed to gauge the atmosphere in the church. Young and old, male and female in their Sunday finest shone with smiles as the choir sang and danced with gusto through the service. Obviously for some as per religion everywhere this was merely a social performance for public consumption but there was no faking the feeling of devotion and communal spirit in the room.

 

The church is the fulcrum of the community. It fosters a sense of belonging and is a source of spiritual succour in a remote and infertile village in one of the poorest nations on earth. Sunday is a ray of light in people’s harsh lives, as we joined the choir and the whole church to practice our steps the church radiated a joy that was an eternity away from the apathy and frustration of the pub. Who are we to lecture people on the disappearance of traditional cultures and the banalities of western society to deny them such joy? The church was where the party was at. Now if they could just do something about those wigs…

This article was first published in Flycatcher Magazine

 

Going Downhill Fast

“Can I join you Marcus?”

Brian had a big grin plastered on his face. The American Christian engineers who were my fellow Mzungu* occupants of the Presbyterian hostel in Mzuzu in Northern Malawi were so damn polite. So American. In fact they were so earnest and nice they started to make feel like a real arsehole. 

“It’s a lot of fun the work we’re doing Marcus” Brian gushed. “Blessings is a ray of hope, he truly is.”

Brian and his fellow professor Tom and their students were helping a Malawian man build casts for generators and had recovered their sense of enthusiasm along with their lost luggage. As Brian enthused about their project it occurred to me while these guys did their best to improve people’s lives I had been riding a shoddy bicycle, bargaining for vegetables and telling small children to f*** off when they asked for money too aggressively or had a poke at my saddlebags.

 

Still the Americans seemed impressed at my trip nonetheless.

“You’re a brave man Marcus” Brian said with a disbelieving shake of the head. “I really admire what you’re doing”.

I suppose there is something admirable in the idiotic courage it takes to get on a bicycle whose gears clunk and thrash as they change like a teenager awakening for school and ride it thousands of kilometres through the middle of the world’s most undeveloped continent. I polished off my breakfast, strapped up the last of my gear and said my goodbyes. The Malawian ladies in the kitchen with wide grins, questionable wigs and big hearts said a fond farewell. The receptionist told me to tell my fellow Australians when I went home how hard life in Malawi was because there was no money. I smiled uncomfortably. Is this the message you want to send to the world I asked myself, that you are objects of pity who need rescuing? The Americans of course gave me a sincere, heartfelt sendoff.

“Safe travels!”

“Godspeed Marcus! Godspeed!”

 

I set off in drizzling rain, not ideal but actually preferable to blazing sun. I was following a blog post which described my route as “one of the best downhill rides in Africa”. Buyer beware I suppose. The dirt track undulated at a comfortable gradient, the rain cleared and just as I questioned the location of the turnoff to Usisya, a father-son combination appeared on a bicycle.

“We are going near Usisya” the father said with a cheerful grin. “Let us go together!”.

A great idea! We pedalled along in tandem and I marvelled at the monumental strength of the son who hauled the gearless bicycle up inclines with his father sitting on the rack wielding the extra weight of a hoe, a bag of maize flour and a container of oil.

 

The father missed no opportunity to point this out.

“He is riding manual!” he pointed out gleefully.

In between ramblings about his origins – it was unclear whether he was from the Congo or Zambia, or both – and professions of faith in God his conversation took on an exasperatingly circular quality.

“Let’s go together!”

“He is my first son!”

“He is manual! You are with gears!”

“Let’s go together!”

“We are friends!”

“Let’s go together!”

This started to grate but I truly squirmed when the religious evocations emerged. In theory I am your textbook liberal, all-tolerant of religions of all stripes and traditions, yet in practice public professions of faith still frequently make me uncomfortable. How do you know the person expressing the sentiments shares your at least theoretical tolerance? And so it proved in this case.

“God is with us. We are brothers” the old man intoned. “I do not like the Muslims. Are you a Muslim?”

I blanched considerably at this declaration of religious hatred. It seemed Islamophobia had reached the warm heart of Africa. He gave me a flat hard stare that rather suggested we would be decidedly less brotherly if I was a Muslim.

I blurted out a cowardly lie to cover my atheism. “No I am a Catholic”.

 

Well stuff him. When he showed no sign of even listening to my question as to why he hated the Muslims or my tentative attempts to explain that Allah and Jehovah were the same god, I resolved to leave him behind. At the first major hill I crunched through the gears and left them behind as they shared the duties of walking the bike up the hills. I barreled down the hills and scrabbled up them, in turn getting of the bike and walking when the rocks and dirt would not grip. I spied a lady selling bananas by the roadside and could not turn up the chance of precious nutrition so stopped to buy her wares. When I went to set off again my chain jammed in the derailer and my nether regions were sent flying into the handlebars with the bike going nowhere.

 

Left swearing vigorously and freely safe in the knowledge that no one would understand, I tried and failed to force the bike into gear. An old man rushed over to help.

“Ahh sorry sorry” he repeated multiple times.

He ushered me to his house and examined the bicycle. He asked me for a spanner which being a woefully unprepared, bumbling idiot, I didn’t have. After much head-scratching and fiddling by him and a younger friend there seemed to be no solution to the loose wire that was jamming the derailleur against the frame and blocking the chain from running. Then in a moment of inspiration the younger of the pair of my spontaneous helpers grabbed a dried up piece of corn shorn of its husks. He jammed the corn in between the derailleur and the frame and presto! The chain was running again. The Malawians and I exchanged wry grins and chuckles at the absurdity of the solution. I even gathered up more corn husks and left with bulging pockets in case the corn fell out and had to be replaced.

 

I need not have worried. The bike was running and the corn fell out but the chain kept on rolling. I checked the wire and it had tightened itself under the mystical influence of the corn. Battling loose rock and dirt I pedalled on as it became apparent that the wild downhill ride mentioned in the blog post was only telling a small part of the story. Yet after some egg sandwiches and excruciating crawls uphill fighting for grip, the road was flattening out in anticipation of the final scenic and thrilling winding descent down to Lake Malawi.

 

Kerrrrrthunk! My heart sank. My chain was jammed again. This was a new problem, falling off the back cogs and becoming entangled in the wheel. With the sun now searing in a late afternoon flourish, I sweated and heaved as I wrestled with the chain. After two false dawns where I managed to reattach the chain only for it to immediately fall off, I again had the chain in place and went for an exploratory few metres to check the bicycle’s working order. A couple of deceptively smooth turns were followed by ominous crunching and stalling and then a sharp ping that had the ring of a death knell. I looked down in despair and the chain and back derailleur had become entangled in the spokes and the chain had snapped. The corn in my pocket could not play saviour now. I began to trudged down a road with almost no cars on it, facing the disappointment of missing the exciting part of the ride having hauled myself up epic hills, and the prospect of arriving in Usisya in the dark after a three hours of pushing a bicycle downhill.

 

A prospective rescuer rose into view in the form of a toyota ute. But it was overloaded with passengers and goods with barely room for a small child, let alone my bike, saddlebags and yours truly. I explained my predicament and the driver gave a rueful smile and apologised that he could not help. I plodded on but then a few minutes later a new helper came sprinting over.

“I can fix. I can fix.”

 

The latest Malawian to rescue a hapless Mzungu proceeded with a bent nail and large rock to set to work on the chain. The driver of the ute and other various helpers and curious onlookers gathered round as my Malawian friend sent pieces of rock flying. I am not entirely sure how but with a mixture of brute force and finesse he managed to shorten the chain and then tied up the dangling wire and the regulator. I thanked him profusely and slipped a note in his hand and hurried on with an eye on the fast descending sun.

 

It occurred to me that my bicycle might be a metaphor for the state of politics and society in Africa. Originally built and funded by African labour (in a bizarre coincidence i discovered whilst cleaning my bicycle  that it was made in Tunisia) for the West’s benefit and then handed back in an act of repentant charity in a fairly decrepit state and manifestly unsuited to local conditions. Yet through the improvisation and ingenuity of African people it keeps on running and problems are fixed in the most bizarre and original manner. Yet the solutions are only ever piecemeal and new cracks, punctures and fissures immediately appear to replace the old ones. So it keeps on trundling along, rickety and bent out of shape, never far from needing another handyman to move the gears this way and that for a small fee.

 

Or maybe I am an over-analysing and under-qualified backpacker who has been in Africa for three months and whose main interaction with local people has been riding past hordes of children yelling “Azuuuungo!! Givamee!!”*

 

I was smashing down the hill as the wild ride promised finally appeared, alternating between braking furiously over huge rocks and then urging the now gearless bike up small inclines only to find the pedals snapping and jolting against the resistance. I found myself jumping off the bicycle and running up hills dragging the bicycle in a horribly hunchbacked pose as the shadows lengthened. Winding down the ever steeper hill, Lake Malawi unfurled magnificently below me but I was too shattered from the exertions of the day and the effort of trying to pick my way down the treacherous boulders strewn on the road to appreciate the view.

 

My thoroughly battered bicycle made it down the hill with my possessions dangling out of my Royal Mail post bags that moonlight as cycling panniers and had developed a huge rip on one side. Careering down a road getting progressively more sandy, avoiding the villagers as they gave me cheerful greetings while I willed them out of my way, I cycled into the village of Usisya. I suddenly realised in all this frenzy I had no idea where the lodge was and with the village much bigger than expected there was no obvious indication as to where it might be.

 

I think you know what is coming next. One final benefactor appeared. A woman in braids found me looking frazzled and bemused on the main dirt road and asked me “You are looking for the lodge?” and then led me down multiple goat paths. I began to get slightly nervous but let myself be led in the near dark, too tired to ask questions. With the bush gathering round us and a few more confusing turns negotiated the woman pointed to a final path and said “It’s through there” and then disappeared before I could utter a thank you let alone inquire as to her name. I navigated my way down and the outlines of three figures appeared out of the darkness.

“Oh hello there” a European-accented voice said in mild surprise.

“Phew!” I replied. “What an atrocious idea that was”.

 

*Mzungu is originally the Swahili word for “one who wanders” or “wanderer” but has come to be the common word for a white person in East and Southern Africa due to the perceived aimless nature of the earliest white explorers, traders, soldiers and missionaries in Africa.

*Azungo is a distortion of mzungu.

 

Bad Cops Bad Cops

When I was seventeen my friends and I went to see the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie. I was not much of a social go-getter as a teenager, so I would jump at every invitation extended to me. A movie? And there are even going to be girls there? The fact that the enjoyably silly romp of the first film was followed by a rather turgid second installment, I was in. Before we could indulge in the disneyfied world of pirates, the projector in the cinema broke. Then after that fourty five minute delay, we were treated to the three hours of execrably dull, nonsensical dross that is Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. Feeling disheartened, my friend and I trudged home as the movie had dragged on so long that the buses had long finished.

 

As we were walking home through the shopping strip we noticed police cars on both sides of the road, parked facing the wrong way. A clearly inebriated girl was being wrestled by a policeman onto the bonnet of the car, screaming “Whaddya f***en think ya doin”. We resolved to keep our heads down and remain inconspicuous but as we reached the train station a police car pulled up with a screech. An overweight officer with a look on his face akin to that of a snarling pitbull emerged from the car.

 

“Get the f**** out of here or you’re all arrested” he screamed. “If I see you in the area in five minutes you’re going in the divvy van”.

“But…”

“I don’t give a f****, no excuses, people are smashing windows and raising hell, get on the train and get the f**** out of here.”

Gesticulating at a poor soul on crutches being assisted by his friend “I don’t care if you’re limping get on the train!”

We tried again to remonstrate with him that we didn’t even live near the train but he threatened us again with an immediate and almost certainly unlawful arrest so we slunk chastened onto the train station to take a pointless train ride to the wrong destination.

 

I’ve had an irrational fear of police ever since, with a constricting feeling in my throat developing every time I see the boys in blue, despite my innocence of any crime major or minor. This in spite of plenty of encounters with perfectly reasonable policemen just doing their duty as best they can. When travelling this anxiety only gets worse in countries where laws and customs are unknown to you, language is a barrier and the integrity of a police force is seriously questionable. In Zimbabwe I find myself giving the police a wide berth, as expected the general populace are overwhelmingly friendly and helpful, but the authorities are frequently surly and unhelpful, with stories of police corruption swirling in my mind to keep me on edge.

 

I stumble out of the bus at the Harare bus station positively elated to be on foot after five hours in a bus from Masvingo which felt more like twelve owing to the terrible pot-holed road and my sizeable backpack jammed in between my knees. Determined to save the taxi fare and stretch my legs, I march through the rubbish strewn streets of Harare following google maps to my hostel. Ignoring the taxi and kombi drivers, having to literally palm off a particularly insistent beggar who is not even ten years old I am striding confidently through a cracked and broken and half-lit African city long after sundown.

 

There are no cars in site so I cross the road ignoring the red light and then realise halfway across there is a soldier with a large gun on the other side. Surely it’s OK? The most minor infraction if even that. But they are notoriously corrupt? And then…

“Hello my friend!”

He waves at me to stop.

“Hello” I reply with a nervous smile.

“Where are you going?”

“Err just to the hostel.”

“You live there?” he looks puzzled.

“No I’m just staying for a few days”.

“And then you go home?”

“No then I go to Mozambique.”

“You live in Mozambique?”

“No I am just travelling.”

He looks even more confused but his furrowing brow cracks into a broad grin.

“Well enjoy your travelling my friend!”
Turns out he just wanted to know what was going down. Nice guy hey?

This article was first published in Flycatcher Magazine

Hitchhike Baby

Standing on the tarmac watching the sun rise over the Anatolian plain somewhere outside the Turkish capital Ankara, I held my thumb out wearily hoping for as swift a deliverance from hitchhiking purgatory as possible. In short order a truck driver pulled over and nodded when I told him my destination and off we went. With a sleepy expression and a neat moustache, the middle-aged to elderly truck driver was a man of few words, unlike other truck drivers who would chat excitedly to me in Turkish and use easily misunderstood hand gestures in a vain hope that the communication barrier would be shattered. On this occasion, my new friend simply asked my destination and “Nationality?” and was content with feeding me Turkish delight, delicious honeydew melon, and the salty yoghurt drink Ayran in lieu of verbal communication. He drove me over 450 kilometres. Almost absurd generosity for the pleasure of a companion dozing in the front seat and the delighted grin of the melon salesman when he saw the ragged and bleary-eyed foreigner peeking out of his latest customer’s truck.

 

I ended my travels with fervent dreams of reciprocating the kind of generosity I had encountered countless times in a wide variety of locations. Yet, my vision of my dilapidated but charming St Kilda share house as a traveller’s oasis was cut down by my housemate’s objections to couchsurfers; and wayfarers thumbing for a ride are thin on the ground in all directions on Victorian country roads. My unfulfilled goodwill for humanity was left rusting with the unused garden tools in the shed.

Six months after my return from wandering about Europe and the Middle East, I was barrelling down the Stuart Highway returning to Darwin from Kakadu. I glanced at a huddle of people fiddling with backpacks at the exit of a service station when, too late, I realised they were preparing to hitchhike as I zoomed past. Dammit! I had blown it. I resolved to pick up the next hitchhiker and miraculously ten minutes later, I spied a figure in blue with his thumb extended waiting for salvation. Giddy with excitement, I skidded off the highway onto the gravel to offer a lift. The figure in blue turned out to be a middle-aged man in worker’s overalls, with unfocused eyes and a rather pungent smell emanating from his person. This was a bit of a contrast to the youthful backpackers that I had envisaged, but undeterred, I asked him if he had much trouble getting a lift and we meandered onto the topic of why he hitchhiked. “I drink too much alcohol to drive a car”, he proclaimed in his thick accent. Well, at least he was responsible I suppose.

As I outlined my experiences in Turkey and beyond I was treated to a bit of my passenger’s own homespun philosophy. “We’ve lost our way in the Western world,” he declared. “We don’t take care of each other the way they do in other countries. I don’t know what’s gonna happen to us if we don’t turn it around and start to look out for each other.” He rambled on and repeated his mantra, “We need to look after each other”, and I was feeling slightly unnerved when he replied to my inquiries as to where to drop him off: “Anywhere in Berrimah, I’m going to go and sleep rough in the bush.
“And we don’t look after the environment. I try and do my bit by cleaning up and burning my rubbish so I don’t leave a trace where I camp.” I am not sure where he picked up his tips on how to be an eco-warrior, but I was under the impression that burning rubbish was not in the manual on how to cut down on your environmental footprint.

I dropped him off, relieved to be free of his company, and realised I had my possessions strewn all over my car and, to my eternal shame, gave the floor a thorough patting down for my valuables. They were all still there of course. This is coming from a man who once used cardboard in the absence of a proper sleeping apparatus. Later, I was to reflect on my prejudices and decided that despite my fear of my hitchhiker, I had done the right thing, and could return to an attitude of smug self-congratulation. I had a given a lift to the man least likely to get one: a smelly alcoholic in dirty overalls. I still keep an eye out for the pleading thumb on the highway, although I have to admit that I would like just once to chance upon the inspiring backpacker, rather than the down-on-his-luck philosopher dispensing his pearls of wisdom.

This article was first published in Flycatcher magazine on March 1 2017