He's My Brother by Binyavanga Wainaina
I landed in Dar es Salaam so numb from grief that I felt detached from everything. Tanzanians amaze me - they have a languid self-assurance I have seen nowhere else. It really goads us Kenyans - we like to feel that we are a progressive people who have left all this communal African nonsense and acquired a hard-nosed get-with-the-programme attitude.
In which other African airport can you get real assistance? I walk from one official to another, irate that my luggage seems to have disappeared. Everyone is hugely supportive and soon the entire airport seems to know that my luggage is missing and I am headed for a funeral. I am overwhelmed by assistance.
The lady at the Air Tanzania office is nearly in tears because she can't organize a flight for me to make my mother's funeral on time. She makes me coffee, supplies me with two mandazis and sends somebody to terminal one to see if there are any charter flights leaving for Nairobi early in the morning.
The smell of earth and life is carried from the ground by the moist air and I feel almost consoled. I have been wracked by visions of a coffin and a deep hole - and a vast silence emanating from it that I can't break. My mum had such a distinctive voice, like bells wrapped in cotton wool, but I can't hear it.
I sit on the airport's vast veranda and inhale Dar's humid air. There is a smell here that is so mingles in my mind as a smell of Africa; I feel home-sick. The want- to-lie-down-and-lick smell of cold concrete, rising up; and above, a soup of damp air smelling of seaweed, fresh honest sweat, and lifebuoy soap. There is no plastic airport smell, no smell of fine leathers and strong perfumes, and all those South African cushions.
Some of my luggage has been found the rest seems to have gone to Entebbe. It is 11pm and I seem to be the only passenger left at the airport. The taxi drivers congregate around me and I am suddenly afraid. How am I going to get a hotel room? Won't it cost the earth to go searching for one by cab? I have never been to Dar before. Eventually I settle for the least pushy taxi driver. The special-branch policeman who helped me get my luggage is obviously waiting for a tip. I give him some rands. He looks offended and returns them, telling me that I should buy him a soda in the morning.
We take off in the taxi. I go straight into negotiating mode but the driver calmly tells me the fare is fixed. Nevertheless he takes off 1 000 shillings. It is quite cheap, but I am worried he might charge me more if we have to drive around looking for a bed. He tells me the truck in front of me is full of stowaways who were caught trying to hide in The Alliance Air cargo hold. Both sides of the road are filled with people. Shops are open and bars are cooking with live rumba bands. Everybody is outside escaping the heat. I feel like joining in - a cold beer would be paradise now.
The driver suggests that, since I haven't been to Dar before, he drive the scenic route alongside the sea. And he promises not to charge me extra. We sit in the car, parked by the harbor, for 15 minutes. The sea smells like fresh crayfish. My tension ebbs away. It is after 2am by the time I get a bed in a guesthouse after searching all over Dar. My concerned cab driver insists on checking the room for hot water and towels. I haven't the heart to tell him that I would happily sleep on sawdust.
I ask at the reception if I can get anything to eat. The kitchen is closed. The cab driver insists on taking me to find something. We end up on a street full of open-air traders. We sit on plastic chairs under the stars and I eat the best chicken tikka and chips I have ever had. There are five sauces that accompany it, all made at the restaurant. Thank God I rejected his offer to take me to one of the South African franchises. Why does paradise always have to be poor?
There seem to be no fences and everybody mingles freely. People chat without anxiety. I ask the driver if he has locked the car as my luggage is inside. Surprised, he says nobody would steal it. We talk and talk as I flex my Swahili. Everybody here speaks it as a first language - Indians, Africans, Arabs. I ask Kesho, the driver, what tribe he belongs to. He is surprised and tells me, but laughs and says that we Kenyans are so tribalistic, no Tanzanian would ask him such a question.
It transpires that the restaurant will not accept dollars or rands. Kesho pays the bill. You can sort me out tomorrow, he says.
He takes me back to the hotel. We agree to meet at 5.30am.
The phone rings at 5.20am. Apparently Kesho was worried that he wouldn't wake up on time so he has slept in the car. We have coffee and head off to the airport. I have been anticipating dawn, but find to my surprise that I am more interested in seeing people than the sun. Almost everything I can do as a traveler in Tanzania is better in Kenya. The hotels are bigger, more established. The tours more glamorous, the country more sophisticated. The drawing cards nearly identical: Mt. Kenya/Mt.Kilimanjaro, Serengetti/Mara, Blixen/Selous, Zanzibar/Lamu. What makes me, a Kenya want to travel here more is the welcome. There is no better welcome to the best about Africa.
Kesho apologizes for not taking me to his home to spend the night. He says he thought I was suspicious of him and so did not make the offer. His wife will be upset that he let a brother away from home spend the night in a tourist hotel. The lady at Air Tanzania puts her kettle on the moment she sees me. I feel like an old friend. I buy sodas all round, and find the special-branch person has bought samosas. I can't win.
Within an hour I have a ticket to leave at 10 am to Mombasa. I have been pushed up the waiting list.
I give Kesho all my Tanzanian money and tell him I will be back. Soon.
See all travel writing by Binyavanga Wainaina.