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Memoirs of a Junior Bwana M.A., B.Litt. (Oxon) or By the Indian Ocean How I Lost my Pants.

27th June 2022 1233 views


Lapped by the Indian Ocean west of Zanzibar lies Dar es Salaam, ‘Haven of Peace’. In 1965 Dar’s go-to pleasure beaches a bit north of the city were Silversands and Inn-By-The-Sea. At Inn-By-The-Sea black tea was strong and corrosive and the accompanying sliced tomato and buttered stale white sandwiches were simple fare, all be it beyond the purses of black persons.

To rectify this inequality, locals sometimes lay in wait in the long grass behind the beach to rush down and steal your neglected shorts plus contents while you were off snorkeling the colourful coral reefs just offshore. Thus did unwary young bwanas pay beach tax, obliging a long hitchhike in bathing trunks through the blazing sun ten miles back to the university to collect a spare set of car keys as well as some khakis to cover peeling red flesh.

In Swahili a bwana was a Mister with a bit of money (and a Bwana Mkubwa is a Big Boss Mister). Hierarchies were important. Competent turbanned Sikhs and Aga Khan Ismailis ran everything as a middle class, along with some Hindus. Black persons mainly were proletariat/peasantry. My admirable lady professor Molly confessed, when clapping her hands to signal to her 50-year old African ‘Houseboy’ to commence dinner service, that she sometimes felt a bit embarrassed to call out the old boy’s name, thus: “Tayari, Mtumwa!” “Ready, Slave!” For indeed the  man-boy’s family name was Mtumwa which means Slave. A heritage name, one might say.

I divert here for a heartfelt shout of admiration for the career of Professor Miss Molly Maureen Mahood, then head of Literature at brand-new University College, Dar es Salaam. Prior to Dar, Molly had securely established Eng Lit during 9 years as Prof at Ibadan University, Nigeria, where her students included future Nobel Prize winning superstar Wole Soyinka, a master of the English language. Soyinka’s ethnic Yoruba wasn’t a literary possibility because Yoruba has 40 million differently dialectal speakers but its standard form is a slightly stilted compromise.

Born in Wimbledon, educated in suburban Surbiton—this sounds like a poem by John Betjeman—Molly became an Oxford Fellow. After establishing the faculty of Eng Lit at Dar following upon her success at Ibadan, Molly moved to the University of Kent in Canterbury as Professor and, after her ultimate retirement, as an Emerita meriting lovely fuchsia robes. After retirement, surprisingly Molly proceeded onward to a university  degree in Biology, to back up her innovative big new book about poetry & botany published by Cambridge University Press. Wow. (No jokes about flower presses, please.) And she didn’t cease until the age of 97. (How young I feel now thanks to Molly, being merely 79!)

Molly recruited me in 1965 at a solo interview in a poshish restaurant in Oxford’s Summertown, where I recall that the starter was avocado vinaigrette (exotic cuisine for me back then). This was a bit like old boy recruitment into a secret service. I’d done okay enough as a Scholar of Balliol to collect a First followed by a research degree by thesis (about the influence of 19th Century French writers upon aesthete Walter Pater, perfect preparation for East Africa, eh?). Thus I had expectations, yet I was still a bit of an oik from the North and Oxford didn’t much want me in their academic midst. Solution: send me to the colonies!  Or at least to the post-colonies. Tanzania had just become independent, however we all know full well by now how powerfully neo-colonialism functioned in ex-Brit and ex-French Africa to control these new states economically and also what happened if the former colony didn’t play ball. Sékou Touré, murderous dictator of Guinea-Conakry, told General De Gaulle that he would rather his country was poor but truly free. Therefore within eight weeks all the French departed from Guinea-Conakry, taking every single light bulb with them as well as burning medical supplies plus the plans of the capital city’s sewers, which I’d say was shitty behaviour.

What Tanzania did to offend white western capitalism was to invite Chinese engineers and labourers to build a long railway through the bush from Dar es Salaam to Zambia to carry oil. White suprematicist Ian Smith, in league with boerish apartheid South Africa,  had unilaterally declared white-farmer Southern Rhodesia to be independent, and as a consequence black ex-colony Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, would grind to a halt without oil. A constant stream of lorries carried giant black rubber slugs of oil, nicknamed dar-es-salamis, at speed for hundreds of miles through the bush, inevitably colliding with wildlife from time to time. Judiciously I stopped my white VW one time when elephants began crossing the rutted murram road ahead of me, one of them hobbling with a broken bone sticking very visibly way out of its leg. The senior elephant eyed my car with considerable dislike which it displayed dramatically. So I went into reverse gear and slowly retreated, prepared to rush backwards if need be even if I veered off course. Tanzania and Zambia certainly needed the Chinese railway. Tanzania was punished economically for flirting with those yellow peasant communists. Later, the rag-tag Tanzanian army at great cost expelled from Uganda the intolerable tyranny of Idi Amin, “one of the cruellest despots in world history”. Getting rid of Amin was the decent thing to do for all of humanity, but Tanzania was neither thanked nor recompensed.

Upon first arrival in Dar, we found our flat already supplied with a more boyish houseboy than Molly’s, baptised Jonasi Simoni. ‘We’ was me and my first wife Judy, also from the savage North of England. Oikishly we didn’t want any houseboy.  But Jonasi had already arrived with wife and baby from Morogoro, a hundred miles inland

to reside in one of the rather horrid windowless little concrete hutches placed out of sight in a narrow canyon for those who serve. Jonasi absolutely needed the hundred shilingis a month which we would pay him, this being ten per cent of my own salary, ahem, for which I could have found a better use, but now I had no choice. So we arranged that Jonasi would merely prepare pawpaw (= papaya) for breakfast (simply slice open and scoop out the seeds, thirty seconds) and later cook lunch, his two competences being shepherd’s pie



or alternatively topside of beef, oh the horrors Mr Kurtz.

Still, the UK that I came from was no chef’s delight. When I was a student, Oxford had two Indian restaurants, not two hundred. The menu of the cheaper one which we favoured—the Moti Mahal down quaint St Ebbes (“the slums of Oxford”) since demolished—listed only prawn biyani, chicken on the bone, or—as a luxury—chicken off the bone for sixpence extra. If you were skint, you could just order white rice with curry sauce over it for one shilling total. Twenty shillings made a pound; sixpence was half a shilling. So in Dar es Salaam Mr Bohia’s little streetfront café was far out gastronomically with its Green Lasanga Pie. Mr Bohia was Maltese.

Unlike other houseboys, after lunch Jonasi could buzz off for the rest of the day. Undoubtedly by now he is long dead from malaria. One evening we asked Jonasi to take us to his local open-air pub in the mini-canyon where we sampled coconut beer. Served in a tin bowl maybe moulded upon half a coconut, the coco beer was drinkable whereas the alternative on offer—banana beer—looked, smelled,  and tasted like vomit. Not to be discourteous, we asked the brewmaster to fill a bottle with banana beer to take away. Once home, we hid this bottle in the fridge rather than pouring it down the toilet immediately. Result: the banana beer continued fermenting vigorously overnight and forced a bubbling stream of itself out of the fridge through the door seals on to and across the kitchen floor. By morning a busy export industry was on the go as a long double column of sugar ants carried away the bounty. Sugar ants are small and orderly but thousands of them can be daunting. You feel you don’t want to interrupt their work, and they might have tipsy warriors. At last, a suitably heroic job for Jonasi to tackle!

President Julius Nyerere was a former teacher, thus he was known popularly as Mwalimu, ‘Teacher’.  Our University of dreaming spires on a hill ten miles out of town gave many of its students unrealistic Great Expectations. When the Tanzanian government announced that henceforth after gaining a degree students must work for one year on nation building projects at the same pay rate as soldiers, they went on strike. Wearing their half-length orange gowns, they demonstrated in downtown Dar. Neither the students nor the police had any prior experience of protests. As a prelude, the police gestured for all the students to sit down along the street. All of the students obediently sat down neatly. Whereupon the police promptly fired tear gas into their midst, forcing the students to leap up and and flee chaotically in all directions.  Next day, Mwalimu visited the University, rebuked the students, and sent the strikers back to their family’s shambas (dirt farms) for the rest of term to reconnect them with the reality of the population at large.

There was a kind of innocence to Tanzania, compared with more cut-throat former colony Kenya. That’s because Germany lost its colony after World War 1 and Britain only could hold the ex-German territory of Tanganyika in trust. Compared with white-farmer colony Kenya, Britain invested little money in improvements prior to independence which brought the brand new university.

And there at that university, I ‘taught’ World Literature selected by Molly to be relevant to students in a new African nation. Accordingly: Maxim Gorky. Bertolt Brecht. And James Joyce’s Dubliners. (At the start of the 20th century, what is now the sovereign nation of Ireland was an exploited British territory full of peasants plus some independentist intellectuals and revolutionaries down in Dublin—connection of relevance.) As regards African authors: Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, and Camara Laye. Camara Laye’s classic was his autobiographical L’Enfant Noir, The African Child, but his work of truly staggering genius came second, namely Le Regard du Roi, The Radiance of the King (1954), a Négritude-cum-Koranic response to Kafka as epitome of European culture (read closely and compare!). I wrote a critical essay of staggering genius about this but damnably it got lost in a drawer. Camara Laye’s third book was published by Plon in Paris in 1966 while I was in Dar, so I promptly ordered it while it was still only in French.  (In English it became A Dream of Africa). Lo, it happened that Camara Laye’s brother was currently a student at Dar. He urgently wanted to read Dramous, so via Molly I lent him the only copy in Tanzania. After reading, brother locked himself in his room in a terrified depression at the likely consequences for his family at the hands of mass-murdering dictator Sékou Touré.

Gosh, I see that Camara Laye was translated by James Kirkup! South Shields lad, just over the River Tyne from me-that-was-once. Deep hatred of the British establishment, for which I don’t blame him. Good poet and memoirist. Notoriously, his poem about a gay centurion getting his rocks off on the crucified Jesus who had previously engaged in buggery with Pontius Pilate, was published in Gay News, bringing prosecution for blasphemous libel and a guilty verdict.

After Tanzania I went to Tokyo and my students obligingly went on strike for two-and-a-half years, freeing me up for other things. Amongst which… one day a week Kirkup taught at Japan Women’s University just up the road (Waseda Dori) from me. Kirkup was invited to spend a year in the USA at arty Amherst College, thus his job needed covering—by happy me. I did try to meet up with Kirkup at any coffee bar supposedly to talk (unnecessarily) about the job but he refused flat out because I was a lackey of the British Council… wait, this becomes a different story. Hwish lad, haad yer gob, leave till another occasion the Brit Embassy’s feeble attempt to recruit me as a spy. Back to Africa with our narrative!

Molly’s seventeen-ish nephew William came out to visit for a term and fell in love (reciprocated) with a slim sexy elegant stylish Hindu student who took the nephew on crocodile hunting expeditions from her parents’ home in Morogoro. Too soon, alas, parting was sweet sorrow, or at least I suppose so. Molly may have put her foot down, softly. (Or not!)  Lecturer B*b Gr**n dumped his country-cute (to misuse a phrase from Dubliners) young Leeds Britwife in favour of exotic Kikuyu Miss Gicoru (pron: Ki-shor-oo) whom he then whisked off to the University of London Ontario in Canada, a shivery life of exile thenceforth for her. (Or not.) The phrase ‘trophy wife’ does occur to me. (But this may not have been the case.)

Likewise, a preppy visiting US lecturer parted ways from his very pretty literature studentess whom he’d romanced as her teacher; I lent her my copy of Robbe-Grillet’s The Erasers (Les Gommes). Her malfunctioning male was an intellectually worthy scion of the Mellon dynasty, patrons of the arts and of universities. At least his name was Mellon. I think.

Hot in the minds of young African males was Muthoni Muthiga, a lovely name for a   beauty who lived in the flat above us. Sometimes a chap would be calling her name hopefully up the spiral fire escape located on the dark side of our little block of flats away from the road. But by now the Nairobi newspaper has published an obit: “…our dear mother, grandmother, sister and constant friend… returned to be with the Lord on 26 November 2016”. This was after her being a popular Dean of Students in Dar and maybe much more career that I simply don’t know about. Dear me, currite noctis equi. Muthoni may or may not have become the legendary Kenyan lady golfer of the same name. I may be seriously confused about this. While at Dar I sold to the literary London Magazine a story entitled “The Flags of Africa” based on enigmatic investigations into an enigmatic murder as reported by a local Dar newspaper, the Standard. This story was much influenced by Alain Robbe-Grillet. Oh do you note that the ‘Grille’ part of the French author’s name is rather suggestive of a jalousie, title of his most famous book apart from Last Year in Marienbad? I didn’t realise until now. Did Robbe-Grillet realise? Was he influenced?

I only had some minor car accidents during two years in Tanzania—none involving  elephants. Here is me being a fanboy of the East Africa Safari Rally.

On the Serengeti Plain after a visit to the Olduvai Gorge, a lurking mini-boulder  warped my wheel; but I had a good spare. Basically the only three brands that could cope with the roads outside of town were Peugeot station wagons, Land Rovers, and VW Beetles with their giant wheels. The following photo of serene Acacia Avenue in Dar shows models which wouldn’t survive up-country for very long.

Acacia Avenue, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, East Africa. Postcard published by Moloo Brothers & Co Ltd., Curios and Carpet Dealers of Dar-es-Salaam, the premises of whom we can see in this shot!

Then, as I was driving from the university towards town through land lined with flat mud and corrugated iron huts, suddenly a heavy lorry drove out of the bush at speed, turned on to the road ahead of me, blocking any view, and stopped dead. It had been raining just recently so the tarmac was slippery. I reflected that if I swung off the road at speed to go right around the lorry across bare dirt, unseen kids might be playing. So I braked and watched as my Beetle slid slowly towards the reinforced rear of the lorry, which badly crumpled… my empty boot at the front, because a VW’s engine was blessedly in the rear. After a while the Police arrived and assigned me blame for the accident because I was behind the lorry. I expected little else. The owners of the lorry didn’t demand any damage repairs because there wasn’t a scratch on their rhino of steel. I seem to recall that I was still able to drive my crumpled car onward to the VW showroom and workshop in town to incur hundreds of shilingis of repair bill. (There may be some false memory here—but not about the steep bill.)

Ah, and we nearly burned to death in the VW way out in the bush on the Mandera Bridge road—the main route to Kenya—when a bush fire started up on one side, then jumped the road, so that presently I was driving as fast as possible through a tunnel of red,  yellow, and orange flames. But I drove faster than fire itself! Much later I wrote a story about this called “Flame and the Healer”. (I just reread it—not bad at all, though not a full cigar.)

This memoir may by now be deviating too far from the Indian Ocean and coconuts. (Do the pods of Baobab trees qualify due to looking like coconuts? No, because they contain sweet yellow sherbet, not milk.)

Another time, I was speeding along when far ahead I spotted a branch lying across the road. On rutted red murram roads you have to drive faster than fifty mph minimum so as to glide across the top of the ruts. So as not to slow, I positioned VW to hit the branch symmetrically. At the last moment the branch reared up and struck at the windscreen. Mambas are the second longest venomous snake species. For a second or so I was face to face with a lethal black mamba. (Is this becoming too much like Wide World Magazine?) But then VW’s bonnet slapped the mamba back and down just as its fangs were within a foot of my face. I did not halt my race ahead across the murram. You never know when another fire might start. I’m very sorry I broke the snake, more lethally I’d say than a dar-es-salami broke the elephant’s leg. But if indeed I had halted and reversed and the broken mamba was still alive, what was I supposed to do next? Apologise to it? Administer the karate chop of mercy? Or somehow bundle the beast into the boot and race to the nearest vet a hundred miles away? There were no zoos anywhere nearby; Africa itself is the zoo.

The third, most trivial of the accidents, occured at night after we’d been playing darts and drinking Tusker Ni Bora (“Tusker is good for you!”) with Indian car mechanics in town, rather than attending any decorous dinner soirée. Tusker’s rival, City Beer, came “from the clear crystal springs of Kilimanjaro.” As Judy and I wended our way back in the VW into the campus a gorgeous newly arrived French lecturess decided to strip off for a shower in her flat without shutting her jalousies which would block any blessed breeze. Since both temperature and humidity hovered in the Nineties most of the time, buildings had jalousies instead of glass windows. All this is in keeping with the Alain Robbe-Grillet nouveau roman—see earlier up regarding The Erasers. This time we evoke Jalousie aka Jealousy (1957). Curious about French culture, I halted and reversed—and the car veered off the road into a storm drain. Fortunately, not all the way. I think she was called Mlle Lamadé—Reader, why do I remember her name? It’s implausible; it seems like Milady. Reversing is becoming another theme. Reculer pour mieux sauter! say I.

Yes, retreat! I declare the end of my struggle with memory and memoir. Kwa heri and Bye-Bye. Let me shut the jalousie. Here is Dar in the 1960s—and now:

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