Post from Tanzania: A matter of choice

We almost made it to the Rwandan border by crossing Tanzania overland. We caught three ferries, five inter-town dalla dallas, eleven buses, a taxi and a pick-up. We tried to catch a fourth ferry and some trains but services were suspended. We travelled on the worst roads I have ever come across. I lost count of the number of times I feared we would crash. By the time our bus between Mpanda and Tabora broke down and the driver put us in the back of a cattle truck for the remaining five hours of the trip, we’d had enough. We chose to fly the last leg.

And we had that choice. Sure, it was expensive, and we felt a little like we’d cheated (there are travellers out there who do far more intrepid things than travel a few hours in the back of a bumpy truck), but after 13 hours on the road and 250 kms travelled that day, we did the maths. All those road trips – statistically speaking, we were due for something bad to happen. I pictured us careening off the side of a hill, barrelling through a crowd of school kids or tipping over on our side for swerving to quickly.

And we were angry. What kind of government allows its mothers and children to travel at breakneck speeds in the back of trucks down broken, unsealed roads as a matter of course? Why do the bus companies allow their vehicles to be systematically destroyed by the corrugation and the rocks? In the weeks leading up to Tanzania’s election, we wanted to know why, for nearly fifty years, Tanzanians kept putting these same people in power when so much wasn’t working?

So we bailed out. And we had that choice.

We met an aid worker who told us that, because the regional hospital didn’t perform operations, a friend of hers had just caught a dusty, rattling bus for eight hours to get help from the nearest private hospital. The only choice she had was between catching the bus and not having the operation. Even having the operation was something that she would normally not have had a choice about, except that a local missionary was paying for it. The aid worker who told us this story was hoping that the bus made it to the next town without breaking down; the last inter-city bus trip that she took ended up with the passengers walking the last stretch to their destination.

For the women travelling with us on the day we were put into our pick-up truck, nursing babies and small children; for the old man who had to be lifted over the side of the tray by his younger, stronger fellow passengers; for the hundreds of thousands of Tanzanians who have no other mode of transport, there is no choice.

I come from a time and place where freedom of choice is seen as a right rather than a privilege. I grew up believing that consumer choice and healthy competition gives people power. I’m not sure if it’s too great a stretch to say that for so many of the people in Tanzania, who can so rarely exercise any choice (whether it be what school they send their kids to or even if they send them to school, what food they feed their family, what jobs they take), it’s little wonder that the same government keeps getting elected to power. For a people who are unaccustomed to choice, is it a case of ‘better the devil you know’? Surrounded by neighbours who regularly have to cope with war, perhaps the choice is for peace rather than the riskier alternative of demanding more.

My partner and I had the means to make a choice. We stuck our hands in our wallets and chose safety over adventure. That may lump us squarely in the ‘precious, white, middle-class’ category, which is no god for our pride or our street credibility. But that’s our choice.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays