So how did I find myself after dark inching a Suzuki full of six passengers and an 8-foot ladder through crowds of Tanzanians waving flags, screaming the name of a political party, throwing firecrackers, and slapping my car? It had to do with the water going out, the electric company switching up some circuits, and Tanzania's most hotly-contested Presidential election in decades.
Tanzania has a history of peaceful elections and transfers of power. The party in power now, CCM, has been in power for years, with no strong challengers among the other parties. Until this year, when Tanzanians are thinking that the Chadema party has a fighting chance. I haven't found much news coverage in English, but what I've read predicts that President Kikwete of CCM will be handily re-elected to a second 5-year term. Tanzanians have been charged up about this election for several weeks. I see people arguing politics at lots of the places where they spend time during the day. My Swahili being what it is, I don't understand most of what they say. A lot of people avoid the discussions, and quietly say they hope everything will be peaceful, as it always has before, but that this could be the year that something happens because people are so excited.
Halloween rolled around, and with it, election day. I was a bit nervous, but the voting was peaceful. K2 went to vote early in the morning, hoping to avoid long lines. He said everyone was relaxed and friendly, telling jokes and helping each other figure out where to go. But then began the tricky part, waiting for the results to be announced, which will take a few days.
Just as K2 left for the polls, I discovered that the one electrical outlet in the kitchen had stopped working. So I couldn't use the microwave, electric kettle, or toaster. Also, it controls the oven and one electric burner on the stove,which I also couldn't use. About two hours later, I tried to turn on the electric water heater and the lights in the master bathroom. Nothing. Bedroom lights, also nothing. But the lights were on in the rest of the house. And I felt quite whiney again. But K2 called Amua, his go-to guy, and asked him to find a fundi (electrician) and bring him to the house. (Click here to read more about Amua and how helpful he's been to K2 and me.) I scheduled both the cleaning and the electrical work for Monday. I figured Warda could help me translate if it was necessary for communicating with the fundi.
My friend Anna and I can't vote anyway, not being Tanzanian citizens, so we sequestered ourselves at Kigongoni Lodge, a few miles outside of town, and had lunch and lounged by the pool. I really enjoyed the bonus of flushing toilets in the restroom.
So at 5:30, Amua and his crew left on foot to catch the dala-dala. Warda and the girls and I loaded the Suzuki. We folded down one back seat and positioned the ladder from tailgate to dashboard. Warda took the front passenger seat. Jacque and Flora crowded into 2/3 of the back seat and the ladder occupied the other third. As we started off, Warda informed me that we needed to stop at a nearby pub to meet two of her old friends who had returned to ESAMI, a training college that offers month-long courses to students from various East African countries. I demurred, saying for about the thirteenth time that I was anxious about driving through town, especially now as it would be rush hour and dark soon and what-the-hell-could-be-going-on-in-town-already and I didn't want to lose any more time. She insisted, saying "only five minutes" (which I've already learned not to believe when either K2 or Warda says it). She kept assuring me the "situation of unrest" in town was a celebration and that people were happy and it would not be dangerous.
While she was still persuading me, we happened to pass her two friends walking along the road on their way to the pub. I pulled over and she introduced two nice young men, Fernando from Mozambique and Ezron from Malawi. She invited them to ride with us. I demurred again, saying we didn't have room. She said they should ride with us, because after I dropped her and the girls on the other side of town, these two men would provide company for me on the ride back through town in the dark. This was my first evidence that Warda was downplaying the situation so I wouldn't be scared. (I'd already suspected this, because it's a common dynamic among Tanzanians.) So Flora, being the smallest, climbed into the cargo area, Jacque shoved over, and two big African men crowded into the back seat. Later, I was really happy to have them in the car with me.
Not much farther along, still way out on the outskirts of town, traffic heading out of town became heavy. That's normal for this time of day with people heading home from work in the town center. But many people in cars and dala-dalas waved small red, white, and blue Chadema party flags and honked horns in a rhythm of three evenly-spaced beeps, pause, three more beeps (usually heard in wedding processions). We decided on a route right through the town center, because it would usually be the least congested at rush hour. As we drove slowly into town, traffic got heavier. Crowds of pedestrians materialized along both shoulders. The crowds were jubilant, flashing the two-fingered "v" for victory and yelling, "Chadema! Chadema!" Most of the walkers were young men. They were celebrating Chadema's just-announced win for parliament seats from Arusha.
We made our way to the first big round-about. Police directed traffic here and stood in a group. The crowd was thick, but not impeding traffic. We proceeded to the next round-about. First, a quieter stretch. Then, a big police van, with several officers standing nearby. That explained the "quieter" stretch.
Then, to a major intersection in a busy business area. No police presence. Wild crowds, spilling into the traffic lanes. Cars inching along in both directions, beep-beep-beeping and waving flags. One man playing the beep-beep-beep on a vuvuzela. Jacque and Warda were laughing and calling out, "Chadema!" Warda kept assuring me everybody was happy and there was no problem. I just inched the car along so slowly, pushing through the crowds, brushing by people, trying hard not to hurt anyone, but determined not to stop here. The American, the Malawian, and the Mozambican all were nervous, in spite of Warda's continued efforts to placate us. People slapped the car as we passed. Occasionally someone called out, "Mzungu!" (white person), which made me even more nervous. Two young guys on a motorcycle kept zipping between the cars and throwing firecrackers, each one of which made me twitch. Twenty minutes of this brought us at last to the Aden Hotel, where Warda and the girls and the ladder disembarked.
At this point, Warda dropped the pretense and advised me not to drive back the way we came. We settled on an alternate route. I nosed the car back out into the street and felt really happy to have two big African men in the car with me. As we inched through the crowds near the hotel, a man pounded on the car and shouted, "Wewe!" (you). I didn't stop, just kept inching away from him. Ezron assured me I hadn't injured him, just poked him with the side mirror as he stepped backward into traffic. We merged onto a highway that bypasses the town center and were able to drive a bit faster. Still huge crowds, but staying more to the shoulders. We were caught behind, then were able to pass a few jeeps and dala-dalas with people hanging off of them waving flags and shouting. As we moved away from town, the crowds and traffic thinned. I turned off the highway, heading back to Njiro and we found ourselves on a quiet, empty stretch of road. My sigh of relief must have been loud, because Ezron and Fernando laughed.
I reached home at 8:00, well after dark. I locked my gate and all the doors to my house and sat on the sofa with my nerves buzzing for an hour. Then I laughed a little. Then I offered up a prayer of thanks for making it home safely and another that no one would be hurt in town that night.
Ezron and Fernando are both African, but they were as foreign as I was in this situation. None of us were buying Warda's assurances. All of us agreed that a happy crowd can turn dangerous with little provocation. Although, as it turns out, Warda was right and it was a celebration and did not turn violent.
The next morning (yesterday), I heard a trickling noise from somewhere in the house. Yes! Water was running from the tap again! And since electricity had been restored to the water heater, I celebrated with a hot shower. Then I ventured out to fill the Suzuki with petrol and stock up on food and drinking water and phone credits, just in case. Oh, yeah, and toilet paper.
I hear there was more celebrating and marching in town yesterday afternoon, and heard a bit of commotion from the market area near here in early evening. But all appears peaceful now. We're still waiting for election results, so the excitement will continue for a few more days. As of now, Tanzania continues its history of peaceful elections. And I'm not driving after dark for awhile.
A final, unrelated note for my worried relatives and friends back home: my pneumonia has cleared up now and I'm healthy again.