A Program in Ruins

Wednesday rolled around and I was still in denial about the program having ended four days prior. Shaye, Abby and Liz had recently left for home. That still left ten students in Tanzania, three of which were on Kilimanjaro and three of which were now busy showing visiting family and friends around. Undaunted, I took Brennan and the four who were still hanging around campus on another “field trip” to see the ruins at Mbwamaji as well as the Southern Beaches.

A few weeks before this, I had traveled with Brennan, Hani, and Lauren to investigate the remains of a similar 16th century Arab settlement, the Kunduchi ruins, near the Northern Beaches. This had been my fourth trip to Kunduchi but my first visit to the ruins. I had wanted to stop by them on each of my three previous visits but it had never worked out. The first time I was alone and took to heart the advice of every guide book I had owned saying never to go there by yourself due to muggings that were known to have occurred there. Other beach areas were notorious for the same thing: the stretch along Ocean Drive downtown, as well as Coco Beach/Toure Drive on the Peninsula, and I tended to heed these warnings (ok, I had walked alone along Ocean Drive in 2010 during my visit to the ACM program but I had learned a lot since then). My second and third visits to Kunduchi benefited from our safety in numbers but each time we were in a rush to get to an offshore island, Bongoyo and Mbudya, respectively, and were then too exhausted to care upon our return from the islands. Our first Sunday back in Dar following the field program had thus been a perfect time to take a core group of “tomb raiders” to visit the Kunduchi ruins.

That afternoon, Brennan and I met Hani and Lauren on the beach near the Marine Science Center of UDSM. This beach was just a beautiful and pristine as that which fronted the adjoining Kunduchi Beach Hotel but had the added advantage that you wouldn’t be thrown off of it if you were not some high roller. We swam for a bit near where we had put in each time we had taken a motorized dhow from this location, but soon noticed that the belongings we had stowed on a sandbar were soon to be engulfed by the incoming tide. We either had to more our stuff the 100 yards to the beach proper and continue swimming or pick it up and head for the ruins- so we agreed on the latter undertaking.

The ruins were found a quarter of a mile north of the turn off for the Science Center in the middle of a deserted clearing. It looked like someone had recently built a washroom near the site, perhaps representing the very beginnings of some tourism-devoted infrastructure, but it was unclear if this was an up-and-coming effort or if it had been simply abandoned. The first ruins that were apparent to us were the “pillar tombs” dating from the 18th-19th centuries that filled the clearing. We had seen similar tombs in Kaole, south of Bagamoyo, many containing an enclosed cement structure similar to a personal mausoleum, topped with a stone pillar. Hani took some rubbings of the Arabic writing on these tombs, while I took some pictures (we later had Nidal translate the Arabic for us). Just northwest of the clearing we found some less elaborate but much more recent graves, some had apparently been used quite recently, still containing names written in Arabic that we guessed may have belonged to the descendents of the original settlers. The last thing we found was the mosque itself, reportedly dating from the late 15th or early 16th centuries, and typically representing the first structure built by settlers to the area. The thing that interested Hani, our budding archaeologist, the most about the Kunduchi ruins was the intricate carvings as well as the presence of blue and white Chinese porcelain built into the structures there. The porcelain may have indicated the relative wealth of a tomb’s owner and clearly demonstrates the expansive trade network that existed at this time.

We continued north from the ruins until we reached a small river, whereby we turned and walked back along the beach until we returned to our original meeting place. Along the way, we came across the largest jellyfish I had ever seen washed up on the beach, a good sized fish was still wrapped in its tentacles. Farther on, we found a puffer fish being pushed by the waves which had also somehow met with an untimely end. Now that the tide had mostly come in, we swam some more before hopping on a dalla dalla and heading for home.

Our latest excursion, therefore, was somewhat of a comparative study. Mbwamaji, or “dog water” was the name that Arab traders gave to their settlement that was established around the same time as Kunduchi near the site of Gezaulole, said to be one of the oldest Swahili settlements in Tanzania. I also wanted to compare the Northern Beaches which we had frequented with those found south of Dar, which I surprisingly had not yet been to during my five months in Tanzania. Carla and Zoe joined the four of us experienced tomb raiders for the trip, which involved a short ferry ride from Kivukoni Front in downtown Dar. I had seen Kivukoni dalla dallas in Ubungo but had never boarded one. It didn’t look like the six of us were going to board one on Wednesday morning, either, at the rate we were going. We had allowed three of them to pass us by which we were confident that there was no way we could cram ourselves onto but we soon came to the realization that they weren’t going to get any less crowded anytime soon, so cram we did. It amazes me that, after five months, I was still setting records for most crowded dalla dalla ride ever!

The six minute ferry ride across the bay cost the equivalent of six cents and transported the rider a world away from the craziness of Dar. Although Kigamboni, the ferry terminal on the other side of the bay was just as busy and built up as parts of Dar, the area just outside of the ferry seemed like countryside. Since it took 90 minutes or more to drive around the bay in order to get to the area in question, it felt more akin to the other locales we had been to that were this far outside of the city- Pugu Hills, for instance, or the area surrounding Bagamoyo. We expected that it might be somewhat difficult to find a Gezaulole-bound dalla dalla from the ferry but this didn’t end up being the case. Other than going the wrong way (left) at a fork in the road so that we didn’t end up at the main dalla dalla stand right away, things went fairly smoothly, and our slight miscalculation was easily remedied. As we walked into the lot, an unmarked bus stopped and asked where we were headed. Normally, I tried to avoid answering this type of question at all costs so as not to enter into some private hire relationship with a dalla dalla crew, but this time we fessed up right away. The driver assured us that he was, indeed, headed in our direction before he backed into a parking spot in order to load with passengers. I was encouraged to hear the conductor calling out “Geza,” as we waited for the bus to leave- it seemed like they really had been headed there after all.

About 30 minutes later, the guy sitting next to me in the back of the bus asked me where we were headed so I showed him the sheet of paper where I had copied instructions to get to Mbwamaji. Moments later, he had somehow enrolled a man who was sitting in the very front of the bus to get off at the correct stop with us in order to guide us into the desired village. The main landmark I had been watching for was a gravel road branching off to the left with a sign-post for “Kim’s Kampground.” We passed this road and continued for perhaps another mile before “front man” told us it was time to disembark as “back man” bid us farewell at that point. As front man led us down a path amidst traditional mud dwellings with thatched roofs, I once again had a strong feeling of déjà vu. It was like Alexander was leading us on a short cut to Pugu Hills again, except that we had 6 people in tow this time instead of just Brennan and me. Soon we entered a small village where front man handed us off to one of his friends, who promised to take us the rest of the way. This young man, who didn’t look as if he was much older than the college students, introduced himself as “Black”.

Black spoke little English so we explained to him in broken Swahili that we were looking for the Mbwamaji mosque. He seemed to understand as he continued to lead us in the direction of the beach, where he soon pointed out the tiny hamlet of present day Mbwamaji, along with its decidedly modern looking mosque. We tried to explain that we were actually looking for the ruins of an ancient mosque but no one amongst us could remember the Swahili words for “old”, “ancient”, or “ruins”. Finally, as we walked down the beach heading back in the direction of Kigamboni, Hani remembered that he had a guidebook with him that had the word for ruins printed in it. When we finally started asking about magofu, a look of realization passed over Black’s face and he guided us for another quarter mile or so up shore before heading into the nearby underbrush. There, we finally came across the goal that we had been seeking- the ruins of ancient Mbwamaji.

Unlike at Kunduchi, there was no clearing surrounding the ruins, they were interspersed among various overgrown trees, bushes, and shrubs. The ruins also seemed to be less well preserved than those at Kunduchi, consisting of mostly crumbling foundations with no discernable pillar tombs associated with them. It was unclear whether we had stumbled across the remains of the 16th century mosque or the slave trading quarters associated with the same period, but it was nevertheless intriguing to explore the area. As we readied ourselves to go swimming, Black looked like he was hoping to be our guide for the long-haul. He took off his shirt, waded into the water, and was clearly planning on waiting for us until we were through. Since we had already seen the ruins and were fairly confident that we could find our way back ourselves, I turned to Brennan for help in terminating Black’s employment with us. As I handed Black some money, Brennan came up with the Swahili for “Thank you for showing us around, we can find our way back ourselves.” Hurray for 6 weeks of intensive language training!

Unfortunately, the swimming did not go as well for us as it had at the Northern Beaches. Wading in, I stepped on something that felt like a pine cone but, upon further inspection, I brought a black sea urchin up to the surface. I soon realized that I was in a virtual minefield of sea urchins and, despite how shallow the water was, wading was out of the question at this point. Then, as I paddled out of sear urchin territory, I felt an intense pain up and down my arm which extended from my wrist to my elbow. As I returned to shore, I realized that I must have brushed up against a jellyfish. Lauren was back at the tide pools watching more jellyfish whose brothers-in-arms had managed to sting most of our group by this point. One consolation was that it probably could have ended up worse as Lauren soon came across a blue Portuguese man-o-war close to the shore where we had swum. Our embattled crew soon regrouped and headed farther north up the beach. Another quarter mile from the site of the ruins, we came across the Islamic Beach Club, which we then cut through in order to reach the gravel road that we had first seem on the dalla dalla. Another half mile traveling north on this road brought us back to the “Kim’s Kampground” sign.

As we flagged down a passing dalla dalla, however, Carla and Zoe made it known that they were planning to take a piki piki back to the ferry terminal. Of all the forms of transport available to us in Tanzania, even I had shied away from the dreaded piki piki and had managed to keep the students off of them as well as far as I knew. Piki piki is the Swahili word for motorcycles; these were reportedly the up-and-coming form of transport in Dar due to the increase in traffic as well as the price of gasoline. Just as the introduction of the bijaj had significantly cut into the taxi business by undercutting their prices by 50%, piki pikis were now doing the same thing to the bijajs. Procuring this transport was relatively simple- one flagged down a passing cycle and then rode behind the driver to one’s destination.

It was at this point that I had a startling revelation- there was actually very little I could do to dissuade the students from riding on a piki piki. After all, I was no longer ACM’s resident director of Tanzania 2011- I was just some guy traveling around Tanzania. Also, this wasn’t really a field trip we were on- it was just some friends spending the day together. It was this revelation that helped me to climb aboard my ferry-bound dalla dalla, leaving this particular pair of students to their own devices. They ended up being just fine- if there was ever a place to take a piki piki, it was the relatively deserted streets south of Kigamboni.

I thought of these students the day before I left Tanzania as I wandered alone through country roads near Makongo. I had ridden the lying dalla dalla there once again in order to prove something to myself. I had always assumed that the mis-labeled bus traveled down the gravel road from Ardhi U. to Bagamoyo Road, before turning left and continuing on to Bagamoyo. Looking at a map, I had confirmed that there was indeed a road which connected these two landmarks. Had we stopped just short of Bagamoyo Road? Did we really need to ride the 35 minute trip back to Mwenge, or could we have simply walked to the road in question in order to catch the correct dalla dalla? It’s stupid questions like this that I obsess over- sorry. After riding back to Makongo and walking for an hour in what I thought was the direction of the ocean, I had finally proven to myself that I was actually nowhere near Bagamoyo Road. The dalla dalla had apparently wrapped around campus in a northwesterly direction instead of heading due east as I had expected it to. After walking around these country roads in increasingly the wrong direction, I was exceedingly hot and tired. As I passed by a house with a piki piki parked outside, I headed up the driveway and hired the owner to take me back in the direction of campus.

As I gripped tightly to this complete stranger while riding on the back of his motorcycle through the dirt roads which wound through the village of Changanikeni, I thought of something the students and I had discussed concerning our imminent return to the United States. We realized that we would be asked “So, how was Africa?” again and again, mostly by people who were actually looking for no more than a one sentence answer. How could we even begin to cram all of our many experiences into some pat answer? We had thought about it and had actually come up with an appropriate sentence to use on the people who asked us that anticipated question. We would simply reply, “It makes for a good story…”

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One Response to A Program in Ruins

  1. Aarati Singh says:

    You should write a book Dr. You write very good journals.

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