We spent a couple of unforgettable weeks in Tanzania for our Christmas holiday, this year. Our family of two adults, one ten-year old and one fourteen-year old spent a few wonderful days in the Serengeti, Ngongoro and Lake Manyara national parks, followed by a few equally wonderful days in Zanzibar.
It wasn’t the first time Richard and I had been to this part of the world. Twenty years ago, we spent part of our six-month honeymooning backpacking round-the-world trip in Tanzania. We had dipped into that country as part of a safari tour of the Masai Mara – buffalo skulls marked the border – crisscrossed it on a Tanzara train and then, on arriving in Dar Es Salaam, sort of stumbled on the port and decided to go to Zanzibar: the Lonely Planet East Africa guide said it was a wonderful place and we were completely free agents. So we went, and I fell in love with the place totally and irrevocably.
I think that part of the reason I succumbed so quickly was the charms of Stone Town – I guess it was the first “old” or “traditional” Arab town I had visited (I hadn’t travelled to Northern Africa or the Middle East then) and I loved everything about it. The famous Zanazibari doors, the fact that you got hopelessly lost but always ended up where you wanted to go, the enchantment of the Forodhani gardens after dusk, with all the vendors selling street food, the friendliness of the people, the superb beaches, the obligatory spice tour, the sheer exoticism of the place, all these things entranced me.
We both loved it so much that we returned three years later, with a very different budget, back in double-income-no-kids-yet mode. Zanzibar was as magical as ever, and boasted a few welcome additions: there was paving rather than dirt in some of the roads in Stone Town, electricity had reached certain villages on the East Coast. I’ll never forget all the people crowded round a television screen in Jambiani’s main street, cheering the Croatian football team. We were told they were fancied for the forthcoming World Cup that year and we remembered the Jambiani football fans when we went to the third-place play off in the Parc des Princes a few months later…
Last December, there were four of us and for me, the excitement before the trip was tinged with a little low-level anxiety: would it be as good as I remembered it? I’d heard that there had been considerable development, in terms of hotel construction, around Zanzibar and although I was confident that the archipelago would still be a magical place, I did wonder what 18 years had done to it.
It was SO much better than we remembered. The parks first. We saw such an abundance of amazing scenery and wildlife that we all felt nothing could ever quite measure up to it again. And this time, we did what we had not been able to do, as funds hadn’t quite stretched to a tour in a 4×4 in 1995 – we had travelled in a group in a combivan – which is compulsory for entering the Ngorongoro crater, surely one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Our very knowledgeable guide made sure we absorbed a lot of information and took as many photos as we liked. I won’t attempt to describe this wonderful place, it’s just amazing.
A huge bonus was how prosperous the country looked, how far it seemed to have come in the past twenty years. I felt almost angry: truly, we only hear the bad news about Africa. Here, everywhere we looked, there was evidence of infrastructure development; we were lucky enough to be able to stay in nice hotels; guests were locals as well as foreigners. I never heard a Tanzanian waiter say “Sir” or “Madam” to a fellow country man or woman in even the lowliest hostels and fleapits we stayed in 20 years ago.
It felt like a middle class had sprung up in our absence and the entire country seemed to us to much more spruce, more organised and in generally in better nick than we remembered. I’m not kidding myself, I’m sure that Tanzania has its problems and severe poverty subsists, especially, I suspect, in rural areas. I remember briefly locking eyes with a woman, as our Landcruiser sped through a township just outside Lake Manyara national park. She might have been my age, and she was bent almost double under the weight of a huge stack of sticks on her back. She remains in my mind a vivid example of “there but for the grace of God go I”. But depressing though it is, this is not going to be the main thing we will take away from our trip, because we really rejoiced to see so much positive development in this country.
I did notice one change in Zanzibar that made me feel nostalgic, but not for long. One thing I remembered well from my earlier visits was the popularity of the bao board game, a version of the mancala seed game, widespread in many parts of East Africa. Richard and I learnt how to play it, with the help of printed rules, but mostly from watching endless games being played just about everywhere you looked. We bargained for and purchased a small board. It turned out to be a worthwhile investment: long train trips were our favourite mode of transport and a few games of bao were a wonderful time killer when we got bored with the scenery…
This time round, and it took me a few days to work out what was nagging me, and then I got it: I didn’t see a single person playing bao. Twenty years ago, people were playing it everywhere, anywhere, whenever they were hanging around or waiting for something. Today, bao boards have been replaced by smart phones. Everyone seemed to have one and, as in Europe, everyone seemed to be glued to them. Who am I to begrudge people smart phones, even if part of Zanzibar’s fabled culture seems to have more or less disappeared? I was discussing this with a friend who said that it was a bit like some Americans who are disappointed when they come to France and see no one wearing berets. She is so right. I remember talking to an American gentleman in the queue we were both in at St Lazare train station in Paris; he was asking me where I suggested he visit in the South of France. He had a couple of days for a trip somewhere special and he hadn’t made up his mind where to go. I suggested Arles, a favourite of mine and the lady behind me agreed enthusiastically. Warming to the task of selling Arles, I extolled the virtues of the Roman ruins, the wonders of Saint Trophime, the light that had bowled Van Gogh over and so on. The gentleman thanked me and asked: “Will I see people wearing berets?” I can still see his crestfallen face when I explained that he might see someone wearing a beret, but not to count on it, berets were worn mostly by my grandparents’ generation and occasionally by rugby enthusiasts…
So, the game of bao may be sliding into oblivion or at least be far less popular than it used to be. But, given that a computer has now beaten a human at the game of go, it is clear than humankind has moved on to other things, including smart phones. How can that be a bad thing?