Sunday, October 26, 2008

Shock and Awe

Day one in Africa. I awaken at the guest house in Arusha remarkably refreshed. Outside there is a cool breeze and beautiful landscaping and vistas of the surrounding hills. After a simple breakfast of bread and cheese, we pack up Julia and Viggo's Land Rover and drive out of the guest house compound (most nice places in Tanzania have a tall fence around the perimeter and big iron gates with a staffed guardhouse at the only entrance/exit.

The narrow lane that led to the main highway was incredibly rough with big rocks and ruts that could swallow the average sedan. The Land Rover does fine, but it is a hint of roads to come.

As we drove out from among a set of walled compounds, we skirted a large open spot with a deep hole in its center. It is a quarry pit, 30 or 40 feet deep. Women walk up fromt he interior carrying baskets of foot sized rocks on their heads. There is no blasting. It appears that the rocks are sledge hammered from a vein of bedrock. Around the perimeter of the pit, about a dozen women sit. Each is located between a pile of the foot sized rocks and a small pile of gravel, maybe a wheelbarrow load. They sit with their legs straight out along the ground, often swaddled in old sack cloth. Using a one handed hammer, they chip away at the big rocks, converting them to gravel. No gloves. No seat other than the ground. No safety glasses. Children play nearby. Apparently day care consists of the kids watching mom break rocks all day. I didn't feel right about taking photos of the women in the midst of their drudgery. A few days later in Babati, Barbara, Samuel, and I discovered a smaller quarry near Julia's house. In the photo below Samuel is sitting on the big source rock. Around the perimeter are piles of gravel in process.

We saw lot of these gravel making operations. I suppose the gravel is used for building foundations for some of the better buildings. It seemed to be used sparingly on the mostly dirt roads that we drove on.

I knew that even a decent paying job in Tanzania might be a couple of dollars per day. I imagine gravel makers get less than that. It was still difficult for me to imagine that labor and life could be valued so low that gravel production could be done this way. It was one of those up close and personal encounters that helped me better understand the poverty in Tanzania.

We traveled on that morning to the main highway and a three hour drive from Arusha to Babati. The first two thirds of the distance was a reasonably well paved narrow asphalt covered road with drainage ditches on either side. No traffic signs, no burger joints, very few intersections, and a sparse collection of cars, trucks, and buses once we drove out of the city limits.

The biggest danger on the paved road seemed to be really fast buses and really slow trucks. Every few minutes we would overtake a slow moving vehicle and have to pass. Curves and hills meant that ocassionally we passed blind, hoping that nothing was hurtling toward us just around the bend or over the hill. We saw numerous breakdowns, especially of the huge trucks that run this road. The road from Arusha to Babati is part of the "great northern highway" and is a section of a large loop of highway that connects Tanzania's major cities. Primitive but servicable.

The driving was a bit scary, but it did not prepare us for the unpaved road ahead.

This photo was shot out of a side window of the Landrover. The Bao Bob tree is enormous and not uncommon. The photo doesn't reveal the scale of the ruts, the side of the bumps, and the thick layer of dust that was raised by each passing vehicle. The dry dirt and rock surface had formed up into a continuous washboard. Apparently the best approach is to drive quickly (50 miles per hour or more) so that the wheels and axles bounce violently, but the cab of the Land Rover simply vibrates and bucks a bit. Of course an unforseen large pothole can cause a violent lurch that sends everyones heads into the roof line of the Land Rover. That was especially true for whichever lucky two family members had to sit on the small sideways jump seats at the rear of the vehicle.

I was shocked that this was a main artery of commerce within Tanzania. There are a few dilapicated rail lines. There are bush planes. But most freight and passengers bounce along these rough roads through a sparsely populated, very dry and desolate expanse of savannah.

Periodically, along the side of the road people walked, often with large loads balance on their heads. There were quite a few bicycles as well. They were often loaded with water containers or carried a passenger on a little shelf mounted over the back wheel. Heavily laden bikes and even bikes without cargo generally had to be pushed up long stretches of hill. The ongoing mystery was where these folks came from and where they were going. There were miles long empty stretches between even small villages. Below is a pretty typical roadside scene when we came to a small village along the road.

Well, we haven't even made it to Babati yet, but I will have to break here and post more later.

Post a Comment