Approaching Lindi the road runs through forests of Baobabs, the ‘upside down tree’. Legend has it that God, in a fit of temper, hurled the tree into the ground and when it landed upside down he left it there as some sort of punishment – well, we can all have an off day. On Kilwa Kisasini some were over 450 years old and have huge girths.
As the Baobabs fall away, the road twists down to Lindi, on the edge of a palm fringed bay and a white sandy beach. This very african town is about half a mile square, criss crossed with long streets, red and dusty and each crammed with small shops, markets and stalls. There are very few two storey buildings and the only 21st century building is a white and green glass bank which must never see brisk business since 90% of the economy here must be informal.
The town square is overgrown with a tired looking clock tower which probably stopped telling the time 80 years ago, and a rather unconvincing cement model giraffe about 15 feet tall, not a fine example of African carving, badly painted and looking rather confused. Roger sees it as defining the innocence and naivety of Lindi, which is soon to be invaded by foreign workers, here to build the planned gas liquefaction plant. Hundreds of tiny shops and businesses maintain Lindi’s population like a machine of hand-crafted cogs.
Most shops are open onto the street, no more than a few feet wide, shaded by a dusty curtain or sloping roof, with a limited range of items on display. Bicycles, motorbikes, buses and motorbikes zip up and down and there is a continual stream of people bustling here and there, some women with full Islamic dress. There are stalls of western style clothes for sale which people buy from importers – they’re the clothes we dump into charity bags in the UK, and re-selling them is big business here. Mobile clothes shops are a common site: clothes rails attached to bicycles which travel, village to village.
Impromptu workshops operate on the pavement: the Hope and Light welding shop, the Speedy bike fundi (worker) who will expertly dismantle and rebuild for a few shillings the many bicycles that keep this town alive. Checking the pressure of car tyres involves finding a plumbing fundi who has rigged up some sort contraption with a compressor and a pipe tied to the roof with string. A man in a shady spot takes in ironing, flattening out the clothes on a cloth-coved table and filling his black metal iron with coal. The beautiful black and gold, foot treadle, Singer sewing machines that the West dumped 40 years ago are now doing big business in Africa. They are set up on pavements, or in a team of two or three inside windowless shacks where they glimmer in the dust. Yesterday I saw a man making some enormous and beautiful curtains at the side of the road – black and gold swahili print all bunched up on the pavement and the tie backs snaking out from under the needle.
Shopping here isn’t a matter of loading up your trolley, handing over a handful of money to the bored assistant and getting on with your day. Shopping here can take hours as you visit one stall for lemons, and another for half a bag of tomatoes, and then another for tea and milk at a stall with sacks of beans, dried fish and rice all open to the elements and a blizzard of flies. Before the transaction takes place there are various pleasantries , I am introduced (Roger has very many friends here, many people wave and call out to him as we pass), we then must ask questions about the item we’re buying like – is this a good price? When was this avocado picked and when will it be ripe, oh and how is your wife/children/ grandmother etc. For those of us rather averse to socialising, who scuttle in and out of the nearest supermarket hoping not to bump into anyone who wants to strike up a conversation, it’s quite a culture change. There’s no point in trying to rush things. As there only a few dozen ‘mzungus’ (foreigners) in Lindi, we are the centre of attention where ever we go. What a mzungu buys in Lindi instantly gives that item a certain cache: we are obviously arbiters of taste and know all about cutting edge fashion in all respects.
Today we are going to the fish auction on the sea front which has an avenue of almost ruined but beautiful German colonial houses built before they lost East Africa after the First World War. There are a couple of magnificent lodges overlooking the sea, and some large bungalows with verandahs and shady gardens. They are surrounded by rudimentary houses of red mud or brick where chickens and goats scratch through the dust.
A $15billion project is in the process of running enormous pipes all the way from Mtware (about 120 k away) to Dar es Salaam. BG Group (previously a part of British Gas) and the world bank are funding most of it, probably with Tanzanian money the country doesn’t have. The Chinese-built pipeline has carved a great motorway sized channel into the red earth from Mtware to Lindi and beyond. Very soon there will be a town of 6000 temporary workers living here – the ships are already on their way with the prefab accommodation blocks so I’m wondering if Lindi as we’re seeing it now will soon be a thing of the past. Reaching Lindi at the moment is incredibly challenging if you don’t have a 4 wheel drive car. Maps mark this 30k stretch of road as almost impassable during the rainy season but that puts nobody off. The mud is so deep during the wet months that children guide trucks and buses around the deepest potholes. Health and safety has clearly not reached Tanzania yet and the rainy season must mean good business opportunities for the locals since a stranded lorry or bus brings customers for light snacks, dried fish, sodas and plates of dubious sweets offered up to bus windows. At last however, due to the pipeline and an election next year the rusty road making machines are grinding into action and metre by metre hardcore, sand and Tarmac are opening the road and Lindi’s route to the 21st century.