Allen Varney, writer and game designer


African Dispatches

Allen Varney's letters from Africa (2 of 5)

[On June 9, 1998, my lady love Beth Fischi and I arrived in Nairobi, Kenya, to begin a seven-and-one-half month journey across sub-Saharan Africa. From Kenya we travelled by bus, train, and occasionally hydrofoil ferry down to Tanzania and Zanzibar, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Namibia, and finally South Africa, flying out from Pretoria in late January 1999.

[Along the way we found that Africa is getting reasonably wired, and we rarely lacked access to e-mail. Before our departure we had created a mailing list of friends, "African Dispatches," and we posted periodic updates to the list throughout our trip. - Allen Varney]

Date: Thu, 13 Aug 1998 (Tanzania and Zanzibar)

AFRICA TRIP DAY 66: Standing on Zanzibar

Last week I was making good progress on a letter about the misadventures Beth Fischi and I have had while travelling here in Tanzania. I planned to write, with genial and effervescent wit, about how Americans have never heard of Tanzania. Then on Friday morning I walked out of my hotel room and found the lobby packed with people staring silently at CNN. Over the last week, most everyone in the world has heard of Tanzania daily, in the wake of twin terrorist bombings that destroyed the American embassies in Nairobi (Kenya) and Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), killing over 200 people, wounding 5,000 more, irreparably damaging the Kenyan economy, and devastating American policy interests in East Africa. But I hasten to add that for Beth and me, safely ensconsed on the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar, the tragedy did no harm other than screwing up the pungently amusing lead-in I'd planned for this letter. To do my part against giving in to terrorism, I will righteously present the original beginning, just as I'd planned it before the bombing (take that, terrorist scum!):

"Praise Allah!" calls the muezzin in Arabic, five times a day here in Zanzibar as in all Islamic societies. "Come worship Allah! There is no god but Allah!" In times past these officials shouted from the high minarets of their mosques, but nowadays they use public address systems. When you stay in one place for a while -- and Beth and I have been relaxing here for ten days -- you notice that a given mosque uses different muezzins to give the call to prayer, or may offer an audition to what is evidently just some everyday worshipper off the street.

Sometimes the call is beautiful, a haunting cry across 14 centuries, as timeless and compelling as the Arabian desert. Sometimes it's not. At the mosque near our hotel, one morning's tryout went to a fellow utterly bereft of holy fire, who obviously had never taken two steps up a minaret any day in his life, whose halting, mealy-mouthed call to prayer sounded like the assistant principal fumbling his way through a junior-high assembly: "Uh -- is this on? <tap, tap> Uh, Allah is okay -- that is, it's worth your time to come and, um, worship -- or, you know, whatever you want, really..."

For my friends who aren't science fiction fans, my letter's title comes from John Brunner's monumental 1967 novel about overpopulation, Stand on Zanzibar. None of the story actually takes place in Zanzibar; rather, the title references the idea that if each of the six billion-plus people alive in 2010 had one square yard of Earth, they would all just fit on the isles of Zanzibar. Personally, I might like the square yard of the Zanzibar Public Library where I'm writing this paragraph. It has easy access to the history shelves, and also a chair. But I suppose I'd have to pay toll to everyone standing between me and the bathroom.

Brunner missed a bet by not actually using Zanzibar, a deeply interesting place. It's easily our favorite place in Africa so far, not that that says much. Before leaving America we told everyone, "We're planning to be in Africa for seven months, but if we hate it, we'll be back in two" -- and we hadn't hit six weeks when, in the Tanzanian cities of Moshi and Arusha, we started to think about coming home.

Not that Tanzania lacks attractions. The eight-mile volcanic crater Ngorongoro, one of the world's great natural wonders; Serengeti National Park; Lake Tanganyika, Earth's longest and (after Russia's Lake Baikal) second-deepest lake; and the miraculous Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest peak. Mountaineers dream of climbing the "Seven Summits" (the highest mountain on each of the seven continents); Kili is the only one accessible without special training or equipment, a 19,000-foot volcanic cone so regular that almost every footfall lands higher than the one before. Much of Tanzania's central highland region is also attractive, because it remains unsettled, kept pristine by an unlikely protector: the tsetse fly. No fantasy novelist would dare propose such an audacious narrative device to keep a wilderness setting unspoiled, yet it's true: The fly spreads trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness) among people and livestock, yet leaves wild animals immune. (Someday some misguided Sandoz or Hoffman-Laroche researcher, serving the Antichrist nine-to-five, will discover a trypanosomiasis vaccine, and a sudden land rush will turn Tanzania's heartland into one more African eyesore.)

Beth and I have felt safer in Tanzania than in Kenya, bombings notwithstanding, and (as CNN commentators repeated relentlessly) the country is politically stable, with none of the tribalism that threatens Kenya.

Our problem was -- well, where to start?

It's not just the appalling Stalinesque brutalist cement-box rust-colored corrugated-iron junkheap ugliness of most cities here. Nor is it the pedestrian food, fried chicken/chips/chapattis/samosas, all, ALL supersaturated with margarine. Nor have we suffered unduly from language difficulties, though constant pidgin-and-gesture conversations with countless Swahili speakers have fomented my own subconscious but real resentment that not everyone, everywhere, speaks English.

Our real problem was that, after a month in Kenya and a couple of weeks visiting the Tanzanian port of Tanga, the mountain resort town of Lushoto (misnamed "the Switzerland of Africa"), and the cities of Moshi and Arusha (bases for exploring Kilimanjaro and the western parks), we just hadn't found anything in Africa we could respect.

Nothing really works here. They don't build anything pretty, or display any craft except when carving ebony or soapstone tourist trinkets. No one except Muslims appears spiritually aware (as opposed to blindly superstitious), and the politics here alternate between laughable and disgusting. The government does nothing but run up foreign debt. Public institutions are worse than useless. (The Nairobi bombing brought this home: Local police, who are really only licensed thugs, stood cluelessly around the disaster site while ordinary citizens frantically tried to pull victims from the rubble.)

We've gone on three safaris, all run by Africans, none good value. We paid supposedly long-established companies for each safari in the early afternoon, with plenty of notice for a departure the next morning; in each case, we arrived at the office next morning to find that nobody had prepared anything at all -- that staffers seemed suddenly to realize they should hire a vehicle, arrange food, find a guide, get gas, all while we sat on our hands and waited. Our last and worst safari, with the loathesome Stonechat Tours in Arusha, crossed from incompetence to outright fraud, and we were stuck with lousy food, unspeakable accommodation, and unpaid guides, while the drunken operator pocketed our cash. We felt caustic anger throughout the safari, and I think I shall never recall Ngorongoro without a lingering distaste. Heartbreaking. (I did get to literally spit in the scumbag's eye, and however far back that set me on the Noble Eightfold Path, I still treasure the memory of that eye wincing shut....)

In this mood I happened on a 1988 travel memoir called Zanzibar to Timbuktu, by Anthony Daniels -- not the actor who played C-3PO, but a British doctor who spent a couple of years in rural Tanzania. He'd written a previous book about that experience, which he summarized in a foreword:

"I encountered" (Daniels writes) "the economic mismanagement, the omnivorous corruption, the unchecked demographic growth, the soil erosion, the petty tyranny of bureaucrats and party functionaries, the inflated political rhetoric which leaders were increasingly unable to distinguish from reality, and the disregard of education as anything more than a means of extortion from the ignorant. [...] I came to regard the sudden but irrevocable intrusion of ill-understood Western values and patterns of consumption as a disaster leading with the inevitability of Greek tragedy to some terrible Malthusian denouement."

Daniels therefore embarked on a long journey overland across central Africa, looking for a reason to hope. The resulting book makes interesting reading -- or rather, any given chapter holds interest, but you soon realize that the chapter devoted to each country (Tanzania, Zaire, Central African Republic, Gabon, Nigeria, Mali, and many others) reads exactly like all the other chapters. You could outline each one as follows: "Here's the corrupt customs officer I met at this border; here's the nightmarish hassle I had travelling to the disgusting hellhole capital; here's how things used to run well, until this strongman hijacked an election and ran everything into the ground; here's how corrupt cabinet ministers squander all the foreign aid; the citizens stole such-and-so from me here, and I cursed them in this violent manner; here's how I got out of this wretched country and how glad I felt." Daniels finds only the slenderest grounds for optimism, concluding that despite the miserable conditions of their life, Africans are not, in fact, miserable; that, in the face of privations that would make Europeans or Americans blanch, Africans somehow manage to be happy.

I can respect that, intellectually. Certainly I know a few pampered yuppies living idle lives amid luxuries the sultans never knew, who are nevertheless vexed, VEXED I tell you, by infinite daily annoyances at the supermarket parking lot or Olympic swimming pool. They could learn chastening lessons, I hope, from a quick airlift and parachute drop into the squalid shantytowns around Nairobi and Arusha. But here on the ground in East Africa, I honestly can't feel anything but disdain, because I saw something that started me considering ideas that, back in America, I had always considered ignorant and odious.

It goes back to my travels in northwestern India, during my first world trip (November 1992). Some of my friends may recall my distaste for the culture I found in India, the filth and apathy and inefficiency and insane bureaucracy and hordes of pushy beggars. And in Malaysia I saw more Indians who only confirmed my initial impression, for they were all doing menial tasks as shiftless day laborers for Chinese-run businesses. Recalling this, perhaps you'll be surprised, as I have been continually surprised, that all the businesses here in East Africa are run by locals of Indian descent -- and that they're, to a one, clean, industrious, and singlemindedly efficient.

The Lonely Planet travel guide for Kenya, by Hugh Finlay and Geoff Growther, gives some history: "India's connections with East Africa go back centuries, to the days when hundreds of dhows used to make the trip between the west coast of India or the Persian Gulf and the coastal towns of East Africa every year. In those days, however, the Indians came as traders, and only a very few stayed to settle. This all changed with the building of the Mombasa-Uganda railway at the turn of the century. In order to construct it, the British colonial authorities brought in some 32,000 indentured laborers from Gujarat and Punjab. When their contracts expired, many of them decided to stay and set up businesses. [...] Since they were an industrious and economically aggressive community, the Indians soon controlled large sectors of the economies of Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda as merchants, artisans, and financiers. They kept very much to themselves, regarding the Africans as culturally inferior and lazy." This, in turn, provoked black Africans to regard Africans of Indian descent (called "Asians" here) as clubby and standoffish.

Racial hostility beetween black and Asian Africans continues strong today, overtly expressed in public ways that would scandalize Americans (we prefer our racism silent and neurotic). But it has nothing to do with race. Though our Thought Police have (temporarily) succeeded in casting all such discussions as synonymous with stoopbrowed Bell-Curve David-Duke-style Klan bigotry, it has nothing to do with race. It's all culture and attitude. The same Indians in Agra who scramble to stick their hands in your face and scream for a handout, the same Indians who sweep out Chinese restaurants in Kuala Lumpur or run restaurants or motels in America, these are the selfsame Indians who have come to Africa and taken over. (More telling to me personally, given my experiences, is that the safari companies here run by Indians get great reviews. Had our circumstances allowed, Beth and I would gladly have gone with one of them, and would no doubt have had a better time than we did with the three companies we did choose, all stupidly run by black Africans.) It all leads me to wonder whether, once the Thought Police of Political Correctness meet the eventual fate of all tyrannies, there might be grounds here for some theory of cultural ecology -- a study of traits that suit a culture's members better or worse for life in cooperation or competition with other cultures.

Such a theory could possibly derive from game theory, the mathematicians' austere realm of optimal strategies, payoff matrices, and zero-sum games. In the language of "cooperate" and "defect" strategies, everyone in (say) Switzerland would be following a strategy of strong cooperation, enriching the whole group because everyone pitches in. In America we clearly have a turbulent but still productive mix of cooperators and defectors (examples of the latter being the super-rich junk-bond kings who reap great benefits as long as everyone else cooperates). In Africa, everyone except the Asians is a defector, and so no one gets anything -- except foreign aid. The persistent image of Africa I will carry away with me is the omnipresent scene of one or two guys working listlessly at some task, while six guys sit watching from the steps of a building that's falling apart beside a road that hasn't seen fresh gravel in ten years.

Of course, I recognize the debilitating colonial legacy that Arabia and Europe left in Africa: the tribe-destroying slave trade that pulled tens of millions of people unwillingly across the world; a grotesque partition of the continent in the 1880s; the unnumbered catastrophes that Europe visited upon unwitting colonials. Not many Americans realize that the largest genocide in history, dwarfing the Nazi Holocaust and Stalin's purges, occurred in 1910-12 in Africa, a thousand miles west of here in the heart of the Congo River jungle. There the Belgian government, through disastrous neglect and malicious agents, systematically starved to death some ten million Africans.

And this dreadful legacy continues muted today, courtesy of the pernicious World Bank and International Monetary Fund. They don't enslave you now, they just indenture you unto the hundredth generation.

But, all that said, the Africans themselves have continually helped other powers extinguish any light here on the Dark Continent. Africans were always the shock troops for the slave trade, one tribe attacking and kidnapping the tribe next door. Every pressure in African tradition militates for the continent's unending succession of supreme presidents, dictators, emperors, and other jumped-up village headmen, all incompetent and corrupt to the marrow. They themselves piled up the foolish levels of debt that now leave them at the IMF's untender mercies.

I realize all this strikes very close to America's national neurosis, but if we are to achieve sanity and gain insight, at some point we must take a stand. And I've chosen to take my stand here on Zanzibar.

This magical island is the reason Beth and I remain in Africa. We had planned to come here shortly after I sent my last letter, but hot weather in Tanga compelled us to detour to the cool, rainy highlands -- Lushoto, Moshi, Arusha. Backtracking to Tanga, we took a Norwegian-built hydrofoil ferry here, arriving two weeks ago.(Warning: The seas off the Tanzanian coast get rough. On the open upper deck of the _Sepideh_ ferry, we watched everyone around us get helplessly seasick. One woman vomited into a small plastic bag, tied it off, and let it fall to her feet. As the ship rocked, the bag slid slowly across the deck, the sea breeze setting its tied handles sprrrrrattling as the bag's noxious ballast lurched drunkenly to starboard and port, first toward one passenger, then another, a Bag of Ill Omen from which people raised their feet as from a diseased turtle. And then the same woman threw up a couple more times, sending two more bags crawling forth to join their brother. On our next ferry crossing, we rode belowdecks.)

Zanzibar figures prominently in everyone's mental atlas of exotic places, and its famous Stone Town is all that: an immense labyrinth of low buildings of dressed coral, adorned with casement windows, balconies sided with intricate wooden fretwork, and massive hardwood doors splendidly hand-carved and studded with brass. Among these buildings twists a bewildering capillary network of walkways, so narrow you can often touch one building while standing on the doorstep opposite, with the pure blue sky marking a narrow river-band overhead.

At the bustling market, shouting merchants sell lentils, tangerines, coconuts, five kinds of rice in open wicker baskets, a gourmet's array of homegrown spices, cinnamon, cloves, pepper, ginger, turmeric, cardamom, nutmeg (forbidden in some branches of Islam as an aphrodisiac), as well as 24 varieties of bananas. Walkway shops sell silk, paintings, makonde ebony carvings, brassbound wooden chests, palm-leaf baskets -- in shadowed alcoves you see men carving doors with chisels, or foot-pumping some sewing machine that your grandma admired in the 1912 Sears Catalogue. Schools where hundreds of kids chant Swahili prayers -- bearded elders in white jellabas piloting tiny Indian-made Vespa motorbikes around tight corners, honking -- scrawny chickens scrambling over piled coconut husks under drooping clotheslines -- and always a fresh, heart-quickening breeze from the Indian Ocean, never more than a few hundred meters away.

You can't walk ten steps without seeing a tableau worthy of a National Geographic photo spread. It's considered rude here to photograph people without permission, but if I were here in Stone Town fifty years into a cybernetic future and had a concealed eyeball-camera (Hitachi-Intel Eyeminder(TM) amacronic retinal recorder model 3X, 10-800mm focal length, 2000dpi from far IR to low UV, requires 72GB for full install, 88Ghz Duodecium processor or better, Microsoft Brain '48), I'd use up all my file-storage space within a week.

Stone Town matches well with our Arabian-Nights image of Zanzibar, but the island's recent history has offered adventures of a more modern sort. An army led by a previously unknown Ugandan drifter, John Okello, overthrew the last Sultan in 1964. The Sultan now lives a modest pensioner's life in Portsmouth, England; Okello proved an embarrassment to the new revolutionary government, so they expelled him and he went back to doing odd jobs on the mainland. Few Western countries recognized the new government (it's been called "the most unnecessary revolution in history"), and so, to shore up its position, Zanzibar merged politically -- though never culturally -- with the mainland country of Tanganyika. The name "Tanzania" is the awkward, characteristically African result of this shotgun wedding (TANganyika-ZANzibar-IA). Even locals disagree on how to pronounce it; we've heard accents on both the second and third syllables.

Today the alliance is messy, restive, and probably short-lived. Zanzibar has this weird country-within-a-country arrangement that you can't think about for too long. It keeps its own President, ministries, and Assembly. Ask a mainland Tanganyikan to describe his nation's identity and ideals, and you'll probably get an amused shrug; but Zanzibaris recognize a clear cultural unity and direction, and for most of them that direction bears straight away from the mainland. The ruling CCM party kept power in Zanzibar only by fixing the last election (sound familiar?). The minority party, the separatist CUF, continues to gain ground, and the next election in 2000 will be run by international observers. With contempt for the mainlanders as "thieves," Zanzibaris are now negotiating Free Port status, in an ambitious attempt to become the Hong Kong of Africa. Don't laugh -- this place used to have the biggest economy in the southern hemisphere, back in the inglorious days when every slave captured across half of Africa went through Zanzibar for trans-shipment out to Arabia, India, or one or another British colony. Slave trading continued here in secret into the first decade of this century.

In the early Revolutionary days, Stone Town grew pretty dilapidated. A couple of years ago the UN finally declared it a World Heritage Site, and a German company came in to repave the grievously deteriorated alleyways. Now tourists and expatriates are bringing in money, which has prompted a piecemeal restoration of sorts. Energetic Arabs and Indians run spice tours to plantations around the island, dolphin-watching tours, day trips to the ruined "prison island," tours of the Jozani Forest where you can see the world's last red colobus monkeys, and constant trans-island shuttles to half a dozen beaches. Stone Town has good restaurants and even a few decent parks. However, no one has yet erected a monument to Zanzibar's most celebrated native son, Farokh Bulsara (1946-92) -- better known as Freddie Mercury, of the rock group Queen.

Each night we go down to the Jamituri Gardens, where dozens of young vendors set up tables and fry potato dumplings, debabs, calimari and octopus; sell candy and sugar-cane juice and carvings; or cook up "African pizza" (mantabali), a tasty hors d'oeuvre-like concoction of ground beef, chopped vegetables, a dab of cheese, and an egg, all fried together in a wrapping of thin fresh dough.

After a week here, Beth said she wanted to stay a month. So we dropped Zambia from our current itinerary (we had no great interest there anyway, especially as our guidebook called it "Africa with its rough edges intact"), decided to skip the ferry down Lake Tanganyika (which is now dangerous because of the expanding Rwanda-Congo-Angola conflict), reduced our planned stay in Malawi to two weeks, etc., etc. -- we made it fit.

It happened that we had befriended the owner of The Dolphin restaurant, an Omani Arab named Sayid Omar. Actually, we first tried to befriend the restaurant's mascot, an incurably insane African Grey parrot; our futile efforts to teach the parrot "spoon" roused Sayid's sympathy. We ended up renting an apartment he owns here in Stone Town, just off Harumzi Street a hundred meters from the Sultan's old palace, the House of Wonders (now CCM Party headquarters). Our month started this past Tuesday. And, oh man, did we get a deal!

This apartment -- hold me back -- is by far the most attractive, the most majestic, easily the COOLEST place I have ever lived in, or probably ever will. For two-thirds the price Beth and I paid in Austin for a humdrum two-bedroom apartment off butt-ugly Lamar Boulevard, we now have a magnificent furnished five-bedroom, two-bath, split-level rooftop apartment open to the gentle zephyrs across the rust-red roofs of Stone Town. Each morning we see a glorious tropical sunrise from the upper verandah; each evening the twilit city resounds with the call to prayer from two dozen minarets. Betweentimes, I make my way through Stone Town, a place so picturesque it makes the French Quarter in New Orleans look like a crackerbox '80s condo development. Each day I get lost, but each day I get a bit more of the city within my grasp -- a network of dendrites growing within my brain that, no doubt, resembles the winding streets of Stone Town itself.

We have a clothes washer, gas stove, potted plants; Sayid was even willing to throw in the parrot, which kind offer we declined. We may -- may -- get a computer, free, for the month. And yes, yes, our building is blessed with a century-old Zanzibari door, splendiferously carved. It creaks Transylvanianly. ("Come, Igor, you imbecile, and bring the brain!")

So, to our friends who worried after the embassy bombings, and especially to the people who querulously asked, "Why Africa?" I just wanted to let you know (and -- please! -- spread the word): I'm safe and healthy, living with the woman I love in a palatial penthouse overlooking one of the world's most attractive and exotic cities, a sense of rightness in my heart, with months of vacation still stretching pleasantly before me.

How are YOU doing?

-- Allen Varney

Date: Thu, 17 Sep 1998

Hi, folks! Allen Varney and Beth Fischi have reluctantly left Zanzibar after six wonderful weeks, and are now in Dar es Salaam (Arabic, "abode of peace"), the capital in all but name of Tanzania. It's quite a lot less hateful than we expected, not nearly as bad as the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. In fact, if you keep your expectations low, Dar actually exudes a certain dilapidated charm.

We are here through Saturday morning, September 19th, whereupon we take the TAZARA railway's "ordinary" train (i.e., not an express, meaning it stops everywhere in central Tanzania) all the way across the country to the southwest mountain town of Mbeya. We allegedly arrive (it says here) Sunday noon. We had originally planned to take the train across northern Tanzania to Kigoma, on Lake Tanganyika, and take the ferry down the lake. But there's a war on in the Congo right now, just across the lake from Kigoma, and the town is flooded with refugees. The crime rate is rising there, so we decided to skip it.

We spend a couple of days in Mbeya, a pleasant town by all reports, and then take a bus down into Malawi. We plan maybe ten days or a couple of weeks in Malawi, with a side trip to Mozambique's coastal island resort of Isla de Mocambique, and then move down into Zimbabwe. But we suspect, not to say dread, that we won't like these countries much (given our experiences in Kenya and mainland Tanzania), so we may well just move quickly through and down to South Africa. We've talked about maybe returning early to London and then knocking around eastern Europe or the Mediterranean, though the weather will be bad then. We'll probably love South Africa, especially Cape Town, so maybe we'll harbor there for some extended time, the way we did in Zanzibar.

In any case, our money is holding out well, we haven't had anything important stolen (knock virtual wood), and we're healthy. The food in Dar is pretty good, there's a couple of good libraries, and the Internet connection here is by far the fastest I've seen in Africa, maybe the fastest I've ever seen period!

Beth is working on a long letter, which she hopes to send before we take the train. Meanwhile, we just wanted to drop a note about our immediate plans and assure you that we really are seriously missing you all!

-- Allen and Beth