Waiting for the MV Liemba in Kigoma

Trip Start Feb 20, 2007
Trip End Jun 2007

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Brian and I left Bujumbura on Sunday, with a little bus. The first half of the journey was wonderful, if a little cramped. We drove along the shores of Lake Tanganyika for an hour or so, lined with palm trees and lovely little villages, with mountains rising up beyond. After a while we left the lakeshore, and drove up into the hills, enjoying beautiful scenery of banana plantations, forests and more little villages. We arrived in Makamba, which is what I thought was the border town, as we had to pass through immigration, and were able to change our money there. After an hour of waiting around for our passports to be stamped we drove off again, but there was no sign of the border. I asked the people next to me in the bus, and they told me that the border was an hour away. Makamba is the last town in Burundi before the border, so the border post is located there. The road on from Makamba was terrible, just a dirt track, so our progress was slow and bumpy.

We finally reached the border, which was nothing more than the Tanzanian immigration building and a few little shops selling cold drinks. We had some trouble getting our visas, as the border guards had never heard that Irish citizens get theirs free. A few phonecalls were made, a superior appeared, and all was fixed, passports were stamped, and away we went. Transport from the border to Kigoma wasn't the best - a rusty little matatu was our only option. To make things worse, the sensible rule of "one person, one seat" of Rwanda and Burundi was gone, we were back to the African way - "squash as many in as you can". So we squashed ourselves into the back seat, which was a bad choice, as our legroom was subsequently used as luggage storage space. Eventually we managed to find positions that weren't agonizingly painful, and braced ourselves for the four-hour trip ahead of us.

The road, if possible, became worse after crossing the border. The problem with dirt roads is that in rains they become muddy and almost impassable. Those vehicles that do pass leave deep ruts from where they powered through, which then harden in the sun later on, leaving a very uneven surface. We had the best (or worst, I suppose) of both worlds in this journey, the bumps of hardened ruts, and there were also extremely muddy parts. Once we got stuck in the mud, our wheels spinning in the air without moving, smoke bellowing out of the engine. We all had to pile out and give a hand pushing, and eventually the matatu came unstuck, so we squashed ourselves back in, trying to recall in what position we had been that minimized the pain.

We arrived in Kigoma an hour after nightfall, having been on the road for thirteen hours at that stage, tired and a little grumpy. We spent the rest of the evening trying to find the Israelis and Danes, who had gone ahead of us, and eventually learned that they had flown to Dar es Salam that afternoon. To add to our woes, there were no hotels with two rooms free, or even a twin room, so we ended up sharing a tiny single room, with me on the floor and Brian on the bed.

Brian left for Dar es Salam on the train the next morning, and I was sad to see him go. Irish company is unique, there is a certain banter and craic that can nearly always be had with the Irish that is hard to have with people of other nationalities. Funnily enough, he is the first Irish person who I have met who is traveling in Africa. I have met plenty of NGO workers, a guy working in the hostel in Jinja, and also a Limerick man traveling to Cape Town on one of those ghastly overland trucks; I rather snobbishly do not categorize him as a traveler.

I booked my place on the MV Liemba that morning, the ship that would ferry me down Lake Tanganyika, to Kasanga, the last stop before Zambia, from where I would make my way to Malawi. The port was curiously not connected to the town by a surfaced road, only a little dirt track, which was aesthetically beautiful, but practically a little useless, I thought. The port is, however, connected by rail to the train station, so it's possible that most of the cargo for the ships arrive this way.

Kigoma is quite a dull little town, with one long street lined with little shops and bars, and street vendors selling the usual shoes, clothes, cigarettes and soft drinks. It is set in a lovely area, however, with hills rising in the distance, and the expanse of Lake Tanganyika stretching away on the other side. My hotel was set about two kilometers out of town, but I was able to get in and out of town very cheaply with matatus that seemed to run every two minutes or so - a little adventure to every day that I thoroughly enjoyed. I ate most of my meals in a restaurant run by an Asian man, with great food at very good prices. I struck up something of a friendship with the Asian, and used to spend some evenings talking with him. He was born on Zanzibar, and had lived most of his life in Dar es Salam, where his wife and children still are. He came to Kigoma about five years ago, to capitalize on the wars in neighbouring Congo and Burundi, because of the shortages of supplies, and the influx of refugees and the accompanying UN/NGO workers. He ran this restaurant, and was also in the palm oil business. I told him about the business plan the harbourmaster in Bujumbura had explained to me, and he said he would be very skeptical of it. For starters, he asked, why hasn't Malaysia, the world's biggest palm oil producer, gotten into this business? He also told me that the main problem with the bio-diesel produced from palm oil is that it turns into a semi-solid in any kind of cold weather, and so is not that useful.

When Henry Stanley was sent to find Dr. David Livingstone in Africa in the 1871, he met him in Ujiji, a small market town about eight kilometres from Kigoma, and famously uttered the words "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?". Like a good tourist, I set off one afternoon to visit the memorial to this site. I was dropped from a matatu about a kilometre from the site, and walked the rest of the way through lovely scenes of village life. At the site I was greeted by an old man eating a papaya, which he shared with me, before giving me a little tour. The site was marked with a small monument, and two mango trees, apparently grafted from the tree that shaded the two men during their famous encounter. My guide recited the history of the place and the men, rather comically, as he completely changed his voice to a high-pitched squeaky imitation of an English accent, and it appeared that he had learned what he had said, verbatim, from a textbook. All the same it was nice to sit here, shaded by the trees, imagining these two explorers in their safari hats and bristling moustaches, meeting and talking of England. He showed me around a little museum with paintings of the men, done by local artists. I left a donation, and chatted some more with the kind old man before leaving.

On my way back to the matatu stop I noticed a drunken old man approaching me, waving a stick. I crossed the road and quickened my step, so as to avoid him, but it was to no avail, for a few seconds later he had confronted me. He demanded money, waving his stick at me threateningly. I quickly decided to give him something, as I didn't relish having to hit an old drunk in defense should he strike me. I gave him about ten euro cents, and he indignantly asked for more. I lost my temper then, and grabbed it back out of his hand. I asked him then if he wanted it or not, and he looked at me blankly. I shoved the money back into his hand and walked off, and he did not follow. I was annoyed to have been intimidated into giving him even this small amount of money. If he had struck me with his stick, however, I would have had to defend myself (or worse, run away), and I fear for what might have happened should locals have seen a mzungu fighting an old man. So, in retrospect, it turned out for the best. After two months of travel in Africa it is the first time I have been "robbed", so I cannot really complain.

Kigoma was full of UNHCR cars, and I asked around as to where their offices, or even camps, were located. Unfortunately there were no refugee camps nearby, as I would have loved to visit one. There was, however, a regional UNHCR office located just outside of town, so one morning I went along to pay them a visit, so that I could ask a few questions about their work. I was stopped at the main gate by a security guard, who asked me what I wanted. I explained to him, and he ushered me along to the main security desk, where I was questioned by three separate security officials as to what my purpose of visit was, and who I worked for, before I was finally issued with a visitor's pass. I was then shown into a secretary's office, where I had to explain myself once more. She grumpily agreed to arrange for me to meet someone, making it very clear to me that they were far too busy to be dealing with the likes of me.

After sitting for a while in a waiting room I was greeted by a Dutch woman, who introduced herself as the public relations officer for this branch of the UNHCR. She told me, in about ten minutes, a little about the work the organization do in Tanzania. In the areas surrounding Kigoma there are six refugee camps, housing about 280,000 refugees, from Burundi mainly, and also from the Congo. She said that Tanzania is home to Africa's largest refugee population; a few years ago there were 600,000 within the country.

The refugees are given proper houses, not temporary shacks, and are fed and clothed for free. They are also given free healthcare and education. The camps are more like little towns, with shops, schools and hairdressers. The refugees are forbidden from leaving the camps and Tanzanians are not allowed enter. If the refugees wish to return home at any stage they can be facilitated in doing so, and will be given transport. When home, they are helped to resettle, and if others have claimed their land they are given legal help in reclaiming it, or to get new land.

One of the biggest problems with refugee camps is that often the inhabitants do not wish to go home. They are well set up where they are, with far better facilities than they could hope for in their country of origin, and they don't have to pay for a thing. I asked the lady about this, and she said that I underestimated the basic human desire to return to one's home, if displaced. To illustrate this, she rather patronizingly told me that it was something I could not understand, as I hadn't lived away from Ireland for long enough. She, on the other hand, could appreciate this, as she hasn't lived in Holland for the past ten years, and could only ever settle there.

I couldn't help but wondering if her situation was not a little different from that of a Burundian refugee. For starters, I, who apparently cannot understand that which I have not experienced, only miss my family and friends in Ireland. For a Burundian Tutsi who was forced to flee his village because his Hutu neighbours were killing his family members, it is more than likely that what remains of his family is with him in the camp. There he has made a new home, and has lived in a safe community, where he is well looked after, for a long time - she told me that many of the refugees have lived in the camps for up to ten years. That refugee's "home" in Burundi is most likely a place that will only bring back black memories of murder and bloodshed. In that place he will possibly have to confront those who killed his mother, or father. Having lived comfortably somewhere else for ten years, would he be wrong in now considering the refugee camp to be his home?

The issue of refugee camps is very, very complex. It is important that there is an organization such as the UNHCR to help refugees, for otherwise who would take care of those that naturally arise out of our world's yearly conflicts? There are many problems with how the UNHCR is run - the best example that comes to mind is the camps set up after the Rwandan genocide. In these camps the genocidaires were allowed to regroup, and were fed and protected, while they organized themselves for further attacks on Rwandan Tutsis. Meanwhile, those Tutsis who had survived the genocide were now starving within newly liberated Rwanda, and were being given very little help.
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