Essay by Betsy L. Howell
The banging on the cab door awoke me. My watch glowed 1:00
a.m. and Yusuf, the Somali truck driver I had hitched a ride with, rolled
down the window. A man outside spoke loud, rapid Swahili. He
shined a light inside. Yusuf answered loudly. I understood nothing and
lay back in the darkened corners of the semi’s loft, fearing the man was
asking, “How much for the blond?” Eventually, he left, Yusuf raised the
window, and the African night returned to silence, but I couldn’t go back
to sleep. I was in a semi-truck on the side of the highway outside a
small village in western Tanzania with a man I’d only met that morning
who spoke little English. Before the knocking, we’d been asleep, me in
the loft on a foam pad and Yusuf slumped over the engine well. If my
parents knew about this, they would kill me, but I had departed weeks
ago from my African itinerary and yesterday left behind my traveling
companion. No one knew where I was.
It hadn’t been my intention to go astray. In Kigali, Rwanda,
however, there’d been no buses to Tanzania. My choices for reaching
Mwanza, on the south shore of Lake Victoria, included flying or getting
a ride with a truck driver. My guidebook recommended going to
Kigali’s “Stir Truck Park” to look for truckers headed east. It also
recommended finding a driver from Somalia.
At the park, men stared at my blond ponytail and giant blue
backpack. When I explained my needs, the attendant at the entrance
pointed to a red truck attached to an empty flatbed. “Ask for Yusuf,”
he said. On the other side of the cab, where bold white letters read, NO
PASSENGERS ALLOWED, I found Yusuf, a middle-aged African
man with a slight paunch, a beard, and a short-sleeved dress shirt
unbuttoned to his stomach. A young boy about fourteen was helping
Yusuf load bags onto the flatbed.
“Jambo,” I said in Swahili, then asked in English if they were going
to Mwanza. Yusuf nodded and smiled. His teeth gleamed like squares
of light within a soft, relaxed face. I requested a ride. Yusuf conveyed
with gestures and numbers spoken in English that he and the boy, Mangee,
were leaving for Mwanza in a half-hour. Yes, I could come along.
I returned to the attendant’s hut to wait and bought a Coke from a
woman pushing a wheelbarrow filled with ice and bottles of soda. This
is it, I thought. I will now be going off into something I can’t predict,
completely at the mercy of strangers. If I vanish, my family won’t
know where to start looking. These thoughts, while sobering, made my
body tingle with excitement as common sense attempted to prevail. You
could go to the airport right now, the sense said, and book a flight
over the unknown that looms between Kigali and Lake Tanzania.
The squeak of the wheelbarrow signaled the return of the little African
woman who took my empty bottle with a toothless smile. No, I decided,
I could not do that.
Two hours later, Yusuf, Mangee, and I were at the Rwanda-
Tanzania border. An unsmiling official with a uniform buttoned tightly to
his neck asked me where I was going and why. I told him my destination
and that I had come to Africa to look for a job. I’m a wildlife biologist, I
“You’re not a tourist?”
“Oh no. I want to stay in Africa. But I have to get to Mwanza as
soon as possible.”
The man made marks on a piece of paper then looked at my
currency declaration form. “Why do you have so much money?” he asked.
I’d been told not to declare everything, but if one didn’t and was
searched, the consequences could be bad. I shrugged. “I have a good
job at home.”
The man looked dubious. “You’re too young to have this much
money,” he stated flatly. “Your father must be helping you.”
The gray-green forests of northwest Tanzania rushed by as Yusuf
drove the semi over the flawless highway. Everyone had told me the
roads were terrible in this country but they obviously hadn’t traveled here.
Gazelle dashed across our path and warthogs, with tails sticking straight up,
ran through the swaying grasses. The blue sky above seemed endless. We
stopped for chai and chapatis in a village and I asked Yusuf if we would be
in Mwanza soon. He smiled and nodded. I looked forward to getting a
room and having a cold shower.
Yusuf and I didn’t talk during the ride. The noise in the cab would
have curtailed most conversation, even if we had spoken the same language.
Mangee, whom I only saw during stops, rode in the back with the cargo, so
I spent the hours reflecting on finally fulfilling a dream. Living and working in
Africa had been my life’s goal since I’d read Born Free by Joy Adamson as
a child. The wildlife, the wildness, the landscape all had painted my heart
with images of living in Africa’s hinterlands. I’d been in Kenya, Uganda, and
Rwanda for the last month getting a taste of the cultures, people, and beasts,
and traveling was fun but now I wanted to pour myself into finding work,
volunteer or paid I didn’t care, just as long as it took me into the African
As the daylight waned, I looked for Lake Victoria and the lights of
Mwanza. Instead, Yusuf pulled into a village of a few buildings, with blue-
green bulbs hanging from outdoor lines. He announced, “Ushirombo,” as
locals surrounded the semi. Yusuf and Mangee seemed to know many of
them and, before I knew it, Mangee had disappeared and Yusuf and I were
whisked into a restaurant where we ate beans and rice and drank more chai.
The African proprietress stared at my hair, now out of its ponytail and
hanging about my shoulders. Her fingers, like thick sausages, reached out
to trace a group of strands. We spoke little. Even with just a half moon
above us, the African night seemed greater than the African day, and, though
I wished we were in Mwanza, I happily drank my chai and later beer,
dreaming of having spent a lifetime under these stars. Sleep came easily that
night until the knocking on the door.
The next morning, as the eastern sky became a thin, red line, we left
Ushirombo. The highway turned ragged. Huge potholes swallowed the
tires and Yusuf began driving at a snail’s pace. Several hours later,
exhausted and caked with dust, I asked weakly if we were near Mwanza.
Yusuf smiled and nodded.
Suddenly, I realized that Yusuf’s smiling and nodding probably meant
he did not understand anything I said beyond “Mwanza” and was just being
accommodating. I got out the map buried in my pack. Dismayed, I saw we
were not on the highway around Lake Victoria, but farther south heading
away from Mwanza. I didn’t feel worried about my personal safety, just
vexed that clearly this excursion was going to take longer than expected. At
23, my goals were not about the journey, only the destination.
At midday, we arrived in Kahama, a larger village than Ushirombo,
but still a place forgotten, even by travelers seeking out-of-the-way nooks.
Streets made quiet by the heat and buildings made empty by the economy
greeted us as Yusuf parked the semi. Mangee vanished once again and
Yusuf walked me to the bus station and bought a ticket. Then we went to the
Kadeco Hotel, a square, gray structure, and Yusuf paid for a room and
pointed my way in response to the clerk’s questions. My anxiety mounted.
Much as I wanted to be seen as a worldly traveler, I really wasn’t. This was
my first excursion on my own but I’d also had traveling companions since
arriving in Africa. Leaving Kigali with Yusuf had been my most daring move.
And now my benefactor seemed about to leave me in the middle of nowhere.
We returned to the truck to get my pack. I dug out two bandanas for
Yusuf and Mangee and took our photos by the cab, all the while preparing
emotionally to be alone in a place I hadn’t anticipated and which was not
covered in my guidebook. Yusuf carried my pack to the hotel and pointed
to the ticket, saying only “5:30” and “tomorrow.” I nodded and tried not to
look pathetic. I also tried to pay him for the bus and hotel but he refused the
money. As I said goodbye, Yusuf pointed to his watch, indicating that he
would be back later to pick me up for lunch. My heart jumped. I wasn’t
After he left, I looked at the ticket. It didn’t say a.m. or p.m. and I
suddenly remembered something. Other travelers had told me about “East
Africa Time,” a method of delineating hours based on two 12-hour cycles
instead of one 24-hour cycle. The “daylight” segment began at 6 a.m. and
ended at 6 p.m., and the “night” began at 6 p.m. and ended at 6 a.m. So,
when people referred to 7:00, a.m. or p.m., they called it 1:00, and 8:00
was 2:00, etc. When I first heard this concept, I thought it madness, but I
had, in fact, heard people using East Africa Time. Looking at the ticket, I
wondered was 5:30 really 5:30 or 11:30? And how would I ask Yusuf this
complicated question? My previous anxiety turned to frustration; I just
wanted to get to Mwanza.
That afternoon, Yusuf took me to a restaurant where I met his cousins,
Rashid and Chama. They shook my hand and we sat down to beer and
fried chicken. Rashid, in his mid-twenties with the formal dress of a
businessman and the twinkling eyes of a young boy, spoke English and I
suddenly felt more included. He told me they all had come from Somalia for
“It is good to live where a man can work,” said Rashid, “and there are
many Somalis here. You can tell them easily from the Tanzanians.
Especially the women.”
“Somali women are very beautiful. They are tall and light-skinned with
straight, blond hair.” He took a sip of beer. “Like yours.”
“In the Miss Universe contest of 1986,” Rashid continued, “second
place went to a Somali woman. She was amazing! Now she lives in
France making a lot of money as a model.” Then Rashid changed the
subject. “What do you think of Michael Jackson?”
The four of us sat for three hours under the umbrella of the restaurant’s
outdoor table. I talked with Rashid and Yusuf seemed to relate to his
cousins the story of last night’s visitor, but most of the conversation’s details
were lost to me. I drank four tall glasses of warm beer and watched the
town come to life as the heat dissipated. Old women, with their
wheelbarrows and soda, rolled by and old men walked along the street,
holding hands and laughing. The children stared at me. The beer softened
the edges of expectation and my impatience to get to Mwanza faded.
“I want to go to Norway,” Rashid said, signaling the waiter for a fifth
round. As good as I felt, it seemed wise not to attempt feeling better.
“No more for me,” I waved, then, “Why?”
“It’s much cheaper than the States.”
“You want to leave Africa?”
“For awhile. There is more opportunity in the north.”
“I think it might be very cold in Norway,” I said, finishing my beer.
“Yes,” agreed Rashid, “I will have to find a wife.” He laughed and I
thought about how differently black and white people laughed. White people
seemed to want to control their amusement, placing hands over their mouths
or quietly chuckling, while Africans, and African-Americans I knew back
home, held nothing back. Their bodies and faces all worked to project their
delight. I wondered if I could ever be so free.
Yusuf escorted me back to the hotel, saying he would return later to
take me to dinner. I wrote in my journal. The afternoon expanded like a
warm muscle and I didn’t know if it was East Africa Time, or just regular
western time, but the hours dripped by to where I felt like several weeks had
transpired in the course of one day. It was probably just the beer, but what
about Mwanza? And my plans? Still anxious to pursue my dream of finding
work, I looked forward to leaving in the morning, but I began to wonder
about this little town that had accidentally come into my life.
The gathering that evening looked much like the afternoon; however, I
drank Fanta instead of beer. The men had changed into different dress shirts
and I listened to them talk. My half-hearted lessons in Swahili hadn’t helped
much but I still carried around my “Teach Yourself Swahili” book. Rashid
picked it up.
“Is this helpful?” he asked.
“Somewhat. I know numbers and can say, ‘How are you?’” He smiled.
“But I can’t understand what you three are saying.”
“That’s because we’re speaking in Somali, not Swahili.”
“Oh.” I shrugged. “It wouldn’t matter anyway. I still don’t understand
Rashid looked intrigued. “Can I keep it?”
“Sure. It’s not doing me much good.”
Next Rashid wanted to see my journal. As he picked it up, papers in
the back fell out, including a small calendar that read, “Hallmark Datebook
1989.” He turned to February, where I’d been noting each day’s events.
“What’s this mean?” He pointed to the words below today’s date, the
“Valentine’s Day. It’s a holiday in the States,” I said, explaining the
celebration of love. I wondered if Rashid was attracted to me, with the talk
of blond women and wives in Norway and Valentine’s Day, but he only
nodded, tucking the Swahili book into his coat pocket. After another two
hours of sitting and talking, I said goodbye to the men and returned to the
The dark of the African night had melded into the dark of the African
morning when Yusuf came to escort me to the bus station the next morning.
His knocking came at 5:15 a.m. so it was good I had arisen, just in case, at
5:00. Walking to the bus, I felt like we’d been together a long time. Again,
I tried to pay Yusuf. Again, he refused. He wanted my address and made
writing motions with his right hand. We hugged and I got on the bus.
Six weeks later, I left Africa. After Mwanza, I had gone to Arusha,
Tanzania, home to the offices of the Serengeti Wildlife Research Institute.
I had divided my time between Arusha and Nairobi, Kenya, promoting
myself and my desire to spend the rest of my life in Africa. The work I
envisioned never materialized, however, and many years later I realized that
for all my dreams of a lifetime spent in the land of lions and leopards, I hadn’t
really known what to do with two days in a nowhere place doing nothing with
people I would never see again. I’d come to Africa for the wildness and
uncertainty and adventure, and just as these had found me, my only thought
had been the next stop. Yusuf and Rashid and the village of Kahama had
slowed my world to a crawl with the hours of conversation that seemed
without purpose. Later, feeling anonymous in the bigger cities, where no
one knew my name or asked me any questions and the bustle looked
strangely American, I realized that I should have stayed.
Betsy L. Howell has previously had essays published in the Oregonian,
Clackamas Literary Review, an anthology entitled The Back Road To
Crazy: Stories From The Field (University of Utah Press, 2005), and the
online journal Women in Natural Resources, and another travel essay is
forthcoming in Columbia College Chicago’s South Loop Review. She is
currently finishing a memoir that explores how the war experiences of her
great-great-grandfather and father affected her own life. Howell is a
wildlife biologist and writer living on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.
On “East Africa Time”:
Though perhaps a bit oblique, the quote from author Susan Ertz,
“Millions long for immortality who do not know what to do with
themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon,” is the theme in this essay
for me. Much of my life I have visualized some desired future
condition for myself while paying very little notice to the path I’ve
traveled to get there, or the experiences I’ve had en route.
Revisiting this part of my journey to Africa, taken what now seems
like a lifetime ago, was initially about exploring the out of the way
places I’ve accidentally found myself in. In the end, however, it
became much more. It helped me continue a dialogue with myself
about what I most want and about how I most want to be in the
world. My lifelong dream of living and working in Africa still
hasn’t come to pass, but I think that in writing this essay, the value
of that journey, by itself, has become more clear.
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Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of Contemporary
Volume 1, Number 2
Copyright © 2006
by Leah Browning, Editor.
All future rights to material
published in the Apple
Valley Review are retained
by the individual authors