Urban orchestra tuning into Tanzania
Tanzania, most people know, is the name of an African country. But only 10 or 20 years back, this word may have been met with confused looks, furrowed brows and head scratching. Serengeti, Kilimanjaro, Zanzibar, they're all part of it. Idyllic scenes of Masai warriors herding cattle across wild landscapes, snow white beaches massaged by the Indian Ocean, they're part of it.
This can all be had here, but what about catching a glimpse of something else uniquely African, something which indirectly puts the food on your plate at a Tanzanian lodge, something that is an integral part of just about everything you see and touch in this beautiful country. It's not something you're likely to be shown by any guide, although it's spectacular. See it once and it starts to jump out at you everywhere.
Behind the country's booming tourist industry, hides beauty no guidebook mentions. This beauty is Africa's ability to improvise. Discover this and add that final touch, that piece of parsley placed carefully on your grilled fish, that vital flavour to any Tanzanian experience.
On the streets of Arusha, a busy town in northern Tanzania, safari vehicles come and go, packed with tourists visiting the wildlife reserves. Manicured hands point digital cameras from Land Rover windows.
The Land Rover speeds past a man dragging a two-wheeled cart along the main road heading out of town, the cart's contents piled high. The cart driver, clutching the wooden grab rail, jogs along at a steady pace, undeterred by the line of traffic trying to pass him.
The world over, couriers, deliverymen or the "man with a van" as the English put it, ply their trade on the streets of busy towns, getting cargo from A to B. What differs considerably are their trusty steeds. Tanzanians have pulled together their own loading vehicle. Easy to construct, it costs nothing to run and can manage over a ton of cement, steel, wood or just about anything
even an entire wooden shop needing to be moved in one piece.
These mikokoteni or carts look similar to any conventional donkey cart. Lower the suspension, remove the donkey, fit a grab rail and a rippling athletic figure behind it and you've got the complete outfit.
Tanzanian streets are alive with people, livestock, taxis and, of course, mikokoteni. With a fuel price of over $1 (about R7) a litre, the carts are undoubtedly the most economical way to get things around. It's at a busy intersection in Arusha, that I bump into Luka L Thomas, pulling a load of steel re-enforcing to Njiro, a suburb about 8km away. Arusha's midday heat can be stifling, but he hardly sweats. He's having an easy day, he reckons.
"I've only got this one trip to Njiro this morning and a few short trips this afternoon," he says.
He tucks into another banana, shoving this biofuel down his throat before grabbing the rail and heading out into the traffic.
An urban orchestra of car horns and shouting follows him as he slowly picks up his pace and threads through a mass of stationary vehicles and people. The law in Tanzania prohibits animal-drawn vehicles from being used in larger town centres, making these human powered wagons the obvious alternative. The origins of these carts seem unclear though. "They've been around since I was a young boy," comes the voice of an elder sitting in the shade of a large fig tree.
Some say the economic crisis, which had Tanzania in its grips during the 1980s, increased the need to improvise and come up with alternatives.
Improvisation sets Africa into a league of its own. These carts are just one of a mass of ingenious concepts that have been born through a complete lack of mass production and availability of commodities, which many of us may take for granted. Third World ingenuity due to necessity makes it clear this improvisation isn't likely to disappear. In the case of the carts, keeping up and staying alive among an increasing amount of motorised traffic isn't easy.
Ernest Mmasi, who used to work at a lumber yard, decided to leave the timber trade and go into pushing carts. The money is better he says, but it's a risky trade. His cart was recently hit from behind by a mini bus, while pulling a load of timber.
"I just fell face-down onto the tarmac, the cart fell apart and rolled straight over me, it was the closest I have come to death.
"One man even died last year, when the push rail of his cart broke going at speed down Nairobi Road, he was pulling over a ton of cement and the cart went over him," Ernest explains, shaking his head.
But I soon discover the cart-pulling business isn't all about dragging giant loads though; it's a competitive trade fuelled by an ambition to rise to the ranks of cart owner, not easy unless you've managed to scrape together enough capital to build your own cart, which can amount to over 100 000 shillings ($100).
"To build a cart that's going to be strong takes many materials, but it's the wood that is difficult to find and often far away," Ernest explains. Planks, nails, scrap wheels, tyres and a solid steel bar for the axle are what's needed before any assembly can begin.
Once that's been collected from various parts of town by another cart, getting it all to work and not fall apart is a team effort that can take a few days. "The brakes are the most important," says a young cart driver at the Arusha Farmers Depot, a place which has seen action for over two hours already by the time I arrive at 7.30am.
Pointing to some scrap tyres, cut and nailed to the rear cross member of a cart, he adds, "That's the brakes". They may not stop a loaded cart dead in its tracks, but as long as the load is more or less centred, the preferred method of braking is to hold on and jump skyward, the back of the cart hitting the road and dragging itself to a halt on the pieces of rubber nailed to the back of it.
It wasn't long before the sound of dragging rubber on tar had pedestrians scattering as a loaded cart came grinding to a halt on the street behind us, its driver suspended from the push rail, his flip-flopped feet dangling in mid air. It's a crude safety method, but with new brake pads literally lying around and freely available, it's by far the most popular.
"What does the future hold?" I ask Juma, the manager of the Farmers Depot.
"Will we see carts on the streets of Arusha 10 years from now?"
He reckons the carts are here to stay. "This cart is now carrying 10 sacks of rice, each one weighs 120kg, to get this to the central market by pick-up truck will cost way too much," he says. The driver and his assistant grab the rail and lean into a load of over a ton, and the cart rolls slowly into the first of up to 30km of distance it may cover during the day. By mid morning, trucks bringing produce from farms and villages in the surrounding areas are empty, carts become barely visible under mountains of fruit and vegetables. This is survival; people need to eat and Arusha's central market, some 5km into town, is the place to buy. Cart drivers are making money, cart owners are making money, and market stalls are making money.
"I seldom get tired," states Luca the cart driver. "It's having no work that makes a man tired," he says. With a wife and four children to support, Luca has to keep pushing.
He's well into his fifties, still young relative to some of Arusha's more senior cart drivers nearing 65. Owning a fleet of carts for hire is still the pinnacle of any cart owner's career, enabling them to get off the road and reap the benefits of using younger drivers.
With each cart holding a basic hire value of 500 shillings (R2) a day and the average cost of a heavy delivery being around 5 000-10 000 shillings, a cut of which goes to the cart owner. There's money to be made from hiring. Only a few manage it though, with mouths to feed and children to school, raising money to build a cart isn't easy.
Tanzania has seen rapid development over the past decade; roads have been surfaced, communications have been made affordable, foreign investment has enabled many to find employment. Arusha is barely recognisable from photographs taken only 20 years ago.
So where does the future of Tanzania's mikokoteni lie? The much-used Swahili phrase suggests, "Hamna shida" (no problem). This is, after all the land of improvisation. If the carts go, something else will come. Who knows what. The guarantee is it'll be unique, it'll be Tanzanian and it'll continue to turn the heads of tourists from across the globe.