As I write this, I am sitting in a small room filled with plastic chairs and tables and Tanzanian men, all facing a small TV placed on top of a fridge freezer. Everyone is shouting because they’ve just announced that transport costs are going up and a heated discussion has started. I’m nursing a cup of hot fresh milk, a rarity in the land of UHT, and waiting for the order I made at the wooden counter in the corner of the room, below it a glass counter filled with mandazi that people are buying to dip into their heavily sugared milk.
I’m on the island Ukerewe, land of bicycles, fish and secret baboon forests. It’s a three and half hour ferry ride away from Mwanza. Sitting at the front of the ferry, early in the morning, eating vitambua and drinking chai from china mugs, you can have a very nice time watching the wildlife and other tiny islands go by. It’s orange season, so throughout the boat there is a lovely smell of citrus from the baskets of oranges placed everywhere, and as we plough through the water our wake is confettied with hundreds of pieces of orange peel. Everyone is feasting on them.
As I said before, Ukerewe is famous for its fish and you can get a good fish supper for only 1,000 TSH here. What it lacks for in appearance and presentation it more than makes up for in taste. I’ve ordered samaki was kukahanga na ugali wa muhogo – fried fish and ugali from cassava flour. When it comes it is hot and delicious. The ugali is more grainy and flavourful that its maize cousin and the fish is accompanied by a kind of veg broth to dip your ugali in.
Ukerewe is is incredibly rustic and beautiful. There are few cars and most people get about by bicycle, shops and rental places of which line every street. In between are tiny dukas selling cigarettes, soda, eggs and packets of Foam washing powder. Chips mayai stands are everywhere as are small “hotelis” or “mama atilie”, local places to buy the aforementioned fish and ugali. Lots of people come here to take bicycle trips around the island, to see the museums, waterfalls and stunning views. My friend Elly has set up his own tourist service in Ukerewe, offering fishing trips, bicycle trips, boat trips and other cultural experiences, so he’s helping me and some friends whilst we’re here.
So this evening, whilst sipping my hot milk, I’m also nursing an aching butt and am somewhat crispy after a day’s bike ride to see the baboon forest and other parts of the island. Whilst planning this, I’d remembered rather fondly how much I’d loved my little bluebird bike and how I used to spend hours bombing round the neighbourhood with my mates for days on end. “Five hour round trip you say? No problem…”
The bike ride was beautiful, off the main road, through tiny villages and forests of unfamiliar vegetation, past suicidal goats and children carrying heavy loads on their heads, always with beautiful views of the lake to the right. But goodness, it was an incredibly hot day. Somehow the inability to buy water in the bush had failed to be mentioned or lost in translation so we ended up begging people for an orange or three from their tree. Incredibly sour they nevertheless managed to keep us going as we biked round, trying to maintain our balance on the dirt tracks and avoid the lemming nature of the goats as we headed for the baboon forest.
Once we arrived we left the bikes with a local villager and headed up a hill to scout for troops of baboons. During our explorations we met the Bibi Lucia and her grandson Harry. She had positioned herself on a flat piece of rock, such a big part of the Mwanza landscape, jutting out, a platform for working with the most incredible view. She was beating (kuponda) cassava to make the ugali flour and whilst I didn’t envy her her work, I couldn’t help but admire the beauty of her workplace.
Sadly that day the search for baboons proved all but fruitless. The troops have been feasting on local crops so the villagers have been retaliating by killing them, decimating the population. Whilst we were there we saw only three or four and those were not the bold, brave baboons I had seen in the Serengeti but understandably shy and reticent to have a picture taken.
The whole trip was incredibly lovely but later that evening I remembered that, in the days of my bluebird, I was ten and not prone to the almost arthritic pains and aches that followed my day’s exertion, not to mention the lovely ruddy red colour my arms and face had gone.
The rest of my time in Ukerewe was spent walking round the local markets, eating, cycling and practising my kiswahili with anyone who was patient enough to listen. I was sad to catch the early morning ferry (which left an hour early and meant an attempt to buy oranges for the journey was cut short and followed by an extremely energetic sprint to the port, causing everyone to fall about laughing shouting ‘Go, mzungu, go!’
On board the 200 shillings I had left in my wallet wouldn’t cover the cost of a cup of chai or a samosa. But orange season came to my rescue again. Offering to buy an orange from a seller transporting basketsful from Ukerewe to Mwanza, he refused the money and gave us three. So, as I left the island, my peel too joined the hundreds of other pieces that speckled the wake of the departing ferry.