Townships of Tanzania

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The road out of the Serengeti was barely a road at all. The jeep rattled, the windows vibrated, and the contents of my pockets shook themselves free and collected on the seat around me. “African massage!” Frederick shouted over the noise.

He was a confident driver and kept the speed up and steered sharply round any rocks which looked as if they might threaten the tyres. But there had been other confident drivers down that road. One was staring at a jeep upended in a ditch, looking bemused as to how it had happened. Another had abandoned his with the windows smashed, the roof stove in and every panel dented.

Frederick dropped us at a township, where we stayed the night. The stalls on the main street sold Tingatinga paintings to tourists on their way to the national parks: cartoonish animals and semi-abstracts of African ladies. There were rusty old bikes with no handgrips or brakes piled high with green bananas. On the side roads, women knelt and sold lettuces and tomatoes from plastic bowls. Little boys played pool on a table they had made by laying planks over upturned buckets. Their cues were canes and the balls were lemons and limes.

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I stared out of the window of the bus heading south in the morning. The country, at times, could almost have been European, except that the scale was all wrong. Nowhere in Europe would you find so much space unclaimed: a place where you can look to the horizon on either side and not see a town, or a farm, or a superstore.

The road passed through dusty townships with huts built from wattle and daub, or mud bricks topped with thatch, or tin sheets nailed to wooden frames. Some had windows, none was glazed. The business names alluded to lions (Simba Freight, Simba Concrete), acacia trees and – incongruously – Arsenal Football Club. Always Arsenal, never Spurs. I saw a “Gunners Supermarket,” an “Arsenal Salon,” an “Arsenal FC Bar,” and the Arsenal logo painted on walls, and on the side of trucks.

Motorcycle taxi drivers waited for custom on Chinese bikes. Men sat and played draughts with beer bottle tops on hand–drawn boards. Perfectly poised women carried jugs on their heads to the well. Children ran out and waved and shouted, except one who jerked up his forearm and gave me the middle finger. I taught him the British equivalent.

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© Richard Senior 2015

If You Meet a Lion, Just Pretend Nothing Happened

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If you meet a lion on your way to the toilet block,” I was told, “whatever you do, don’t run. Only food runs. And don’t turn your back on it either. Walk slowly, back to your tent, zip it up and pretend nothing happened. Just remember that you’re not their main source of food. And make sure you have your torch with you at all times.”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t want to face a lion without it,” I said.

The Serengeti is just south of the Equator and the nearest town is hours away, and when the sun sets it just drops from the sky and the darkness is suddenly total. The piercing whistle of ten thousand cicadas stole the silence, and birds sporadically cackled and whooped as I zipped up the tent and turned in for the night.

There was nothing to stop the animals coming into the campsite, no fence, no hedge, no one ready with a tranquiliser gun, just in case. Two separate herds of elephants had wandered through that afternoon and trumpeted, stamped and flapped their ears if anyone went too close with a camera. Buffalo and wildebeest grazed around the edges. Baboons were all over the place.

Something woke me up in the middle of the night and I made the long, lonely walk to the toilet block, surrounded by the buzzing cicadas. A glow worm would have been disappointed with the light my wind-up torch gave out. The oinking grunts of the wildebeest were close at hand but they were out of sight. They sounded to be inches away. If they were nearby then, surely, so were their predators. There might have been a lion a foot from me. Remember that you’re not their main source of food. Not their main source!

Don’t run…don’t turn your back on it…walk slowly back to your tent. It is easy enough to say; but if the yellow eyes of a 400lb lion had blazed at me through the night, I would undoubtedly have turned and run, in any direction but the right one.

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Baboons began barking. It is a horrible, heart-rending sound: a sound of terror, a sound of unbearable pain. Or so it seems, at least, when you hear it when out, alone, in the sinister East African night. “If the baboons are barking,” I recalled someone saying, “it means that leopards are close”. So leopards were out there somewhere, as well. The cicadas hissed, the wildebeest grunted, the baboons barked, a bird trilled, but still I saw nothing. I would not have seen anything, even if something was there. With my useless torch, I would have fallen over a leopard before I saw it.

The cicadas hissed, the wildebeest grunted, the baboons barked and something howled. Hyena? Jackal? I didn’t know what it was but quickened my step until I was all but jogging and reached the toilet block and shut the door and flicked on the light and met an enormous spider.

I got back to the tent and fell into an uneasy sleep, until I was jerked awake again by the gurgling roar of a territorial lion. I would, I supposed, get used to all this in time.

© Richard Senior 2015