Muzungu in Africa: touts, dictatorships, and negotiations 2


A few notes on Africa:

First, I apologize for not posting more. I’ve been writing some stuff on my laptop, but haven’t run across a place with wireless for quite some time, in order to upload what I’ve written. And sitting in an internet cafe for a couple hours writing — and perhaps losing what you wrote on crappy computers — doesn’t appeal too much to me. And uploading pictures is completely out of the question with these internet “connections.” That being said, here are some notes. . .

· In Zambia and Tanzania, there has been a framed picture of the President in about every commercial establishment you walk into. Hotels. Restaurants. Shops. Hostels. Bars. Doesn’t really matter where you are, when you look up on the wall, there is an 8 by 10 framed glossy of President So-and-So staring back at you. That wasn’t the case in South Africa or Namibia and I didn’t spend enough time in Botswana to really tell one way or another.

It’s a bit eerie, frankly. I haven’t drummed up the courage to ask any of the workers or owners whether it is a required display, but given their ubiquitous nature, it must be. There is no way that these leaders are loved by every one here. Plus, it’s the exact same picture every time. It has to be mandatory to display it, whether explicitly so, or whether there is an implicit “display it to avoid trouble” understanding.

I didn’t do much reading at all about the political situation in either of these countries, other than to assure myself that they were both relatively stable. I did ask someone how long the Zambian President had been in office. Apparently the President (of quite some length of time, as is par in most of Africa) died in office and the Vice President assumed power and he recently won his first election in his own right. I’d bet that both of these countries are basically single party ‘democracies’ and that those same faces will be on the walls of those same places for years and years to come.

At some point, I’ll get off my lazy ass and do some research to back this up, but for the time being, I’ll toss it out there anyway. Here’s my current thumbnail theory on African governments: the quality and trustworthiness of their governments can be determined in an inverse relationship to the number of framed pictures of the President you see.

· I simply cannot get over the amount of touts. As I wrote earlier, in Zanzibar, the translation for the local phrase for these people was ticks. Here, in the Mount Kilimanjaro area, the translation for the local phrase is flycatchers. Both terms aptly sum up how you feel when you get in an area that they are operating in – they just buzz around you, never really seeming to go away.

Everyone is a guide, it seems. Everyone is ready to take you on a tour of the town, including showing you the inside story – the cultural tour, available in every town, no matter how much actual local culture they have. Although there seem to be less of these guys (and they are 100% men pitching you these deals) in Moshi than in Zanzibar Town or Dar es Saleem, there still are a good number of them. The Lonely Planet guide accurately sets out what areas of town they are mainly located in, but you can certainly count on getting mobbed at any train or bus station and any street area with a high percentage of tourist type shops.

Once you get used to getting constantly asked to take a tour, or use someone’s cab, or book your bus ticket or safari over and over again, it is not too incredibly annoying. No one has yet touched me, not even to lay a hand on my elbow or arm to guide me in the direction of their favored ticket stall. Although they really won’t take no for an answer (in certain locations, they will literally follow you for hundreds and hundreds of yards asking you if you want directions or what you are looking to find or buy or whatever), you can basically tune them out with a little experience.

The guidebooks do advise keeping your cool, staying polite and keeping the tone of your voice down. That advice is correct, though sometimes difficult to follow. Some of the guys are drug or alcohol addicts, obviously, or just a little bit off in the head, and its best to not provoke them in any way. Just a constant, “no thank you” or “I’m not interested in anything today” or “I know where I am going, thanks” as you keep walking seems to be the best way to handle it. Every once in a while you will get the ‘white guilt’ speech (“hey man, I’m just trying to make a living. Put food on my family’s table. You need to support those of us trying to work in this community. I’m not asking for a handout.”), but all-in-all its still not a horrible experience.

By the way, the word in Swahili for white person is muzungu. If you can memorize the Swahili phrase for “don’t give me the muzungu price,” when you negotiate, you might do a bit better on zambian kids posting for the camerayour budget. The kids run around and basically shout two things at you, “jambo” — which is hello and “muzungu” — especially if you have a camera out, when they want a picture taken of them.

But back to the omnipresent touts. On Zanzibar, I hung out with a couple Canadian guys for 4-5 days. One evening, we were eating in a garden area by the ocean, where dozens of food stalls set up every night to freshly cook seafood and Zanzibar pizza. There aren’t any public toilets in that area, so when Ryan and Joel needed to go to the bathroom, they decided to head over to one of the restaurants to see if they’d let them use theirs.

They came back from the bathroom after a while and said that they’d helped out a local woman while they were gone. Seems that as they were going into the place, a local woman was having an argument with some of the restaurant employees about paying to use the bathroom. She was saying that she shouldn’t have to pay to use the toilet because she was a local. Ryan and Joel went ahead and paid for her and for themselves – a total of about $2 U.S. dollars. The woman and her brother, who was also standing there, were so grateful that they offered to take Ryan and Joel on a local tour of their town the next day, to show them the sights from an insider’s perspective. When they came back and told us this story, they were quite pleased with their good fortune and excited about getting the authentic local experience.

The next day they went to meet the sister and brother. The woman they helped out wasn’t there, but the brother took them on a three-hour tour. And apparently ‘brother’ in just a loose sense of the word – he was just a friend of hers standing around and like every guy on the island, willing to give guided tours for a price. By the time that Ryan and Joel realized that they’d basically gotten conned into a paid tour, they were already into it and felt obligated to finish it up. Fortunately, they really liked the guy and enjoyed the tour. He ended up charging them $20,000 Tanzanian shillings (about $15 U.S.) for a three-hour tour of Stone Town.

Like they said later that day, it wasn’t that they felt ripped off or scammed in any way – they thought they got good value for their money – it was just that it was ‘sold’ to them as something entirely different than it ended up being. Those sort of encounters, and just the constant hawking of stuff to you, do tend to get you a bit jaded, a bit quickly. You end up being suspicious of everyone’s motives, which is too bad, but also necessary.

· Buses don’t operate on a schedule, unless you call “wait for the bus to be entirely full before leaving” a set schedule. When you get to a bus station in a good-sized town, there are normally a few buses there going wherever you want to go. You walk around and ask people which bus goes to, for example, Moshi from the Dar es Saleem station, which is a complete mad house, by the way. Anyone you ask will try to take you to whatever bus line will give them a commission for getting you to their door. I do mean anyone – one of the uniformed security guards for the bus station tried to sell me a ticket.

When you get there to buy the ticket (its safest to just buy the ticket literally right at the bus door, so you know you are getting a valid ticket on to some bus), you normally want to ask two questions: (1) “is this the bus to. . .?” and (2) “when is it scheduled to leave?”

#1 is a vital question, but you can dispense with #2. The answer to #2 is always some variant of “right now – we are just about to leave.” By the way, don’t bother to ask when any other bus is leaving to the same location, because that answer is always “a long ways off. They don’t leave for hours. This is the only bus for you.”

The bus drivers will go to some lengths to convince you of their imminent departure. People will be loading their luggage underneath the bus and hopping on board, as the bus driver revs his engine. Engine revving, must be about time to leave. If the bus is close to full enough to pull off this routine, sometimes the bus will actually start backing up out of the parking spot a bit, as the ticket sellers start loudly instructing any reluctant passengers that they better buy the ticket now or miss the bus. After the ticket(s) are bought and the passengers board, if they bus isn’t 100% full, the driver will slowly ease back into the parking spot, waiting to leave until the last fare is aboard.

It pays to walk around, see what buses are almost full, and buy a ticket on the ones that appear to really be about to leave. This is another reason why it is another reason you want to buy the ticket right at the bus, instead of at some ticket office a ways away, where you can’t see how full the bus is that they are peddling to you. If you buy a ticket on an almost empty bus, you might be waiting a couple hours before you bus hits the road. If it isn’t full, it isn’t moving. Which leads to. . .

· Walking away is the best form of negotiation. And it works almost everywhere.

Bus fare on the first bus you go up to is $20,000 shillings, but you can see some other buses around. Try “OK, sounds good, I’m going to go check the prices on the other buses and I’ll be back if I want to buy a ticket on your bus.” Sometimes that sentence is all you need to knock $5,000 shillings off the price.

We were on Zanzibar Island during one of their down seasons, so this probably isn’t possible at a high time, but the van driver that drove us from Stone Town to one of the small towns on the other side of the island agreed to drive us to three different possible places to stay (I’m sure he had commission agreements with each of the three that he suggested), so that we could compare. We went to the first place, which was a very nice hotel. The guy behind the counter quoted us $50 U.S. per person. We said it was too high and we needed to check out some other places. As we left, he pulled the driver aside and told him he’d do $25 U.S. per person, if we agreed to stay at least three nights. We did the same thing at the next place, which was a nice house that the four of us were going to rent out.

We ended up going to all three places, walking out of all three places, then going back to the house we liked. By then the price had dropped to $60 U.S. a night — $15 per person. For our own house on the beach. And the owner brought over fresh bread and fruit each morning for breakfast. Incredibly good pineapple. Mmmmmmmm.

Africa takes a bit to get used to. . . but there is a lot of greatness out there to experience.


About Michael Hodson

I’m an attorney that took off on my birthday in December of 2008 to circumnavigate the globe without ever getting on an airplane. After 16 months, 6 continents and 44 countries, I made it all the way back home. Right now, I am back on the road writing about it all.


2 thoughts on “Muzungu in Africa: touts, dictatorships, and negotiations

  • Lady Robin M

    Love hearing these experiences. You’ll be unbearable when you return home, I’m sure of it =)

  • Melissa

    When I was in Kenya in 94, it was the law to have a picture of the President in the highest place in your business.

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