by Jim Gladstone
Four-wheeling into the orange-brown plain of the Serengeti,
the tiny airstrip where Id landed faded into the
distance. I saw no buildings, no roadways and no signage.
There were no automobiles other than the one I was in,
driven by Aloyce Moshi, my guide from the Singita Grumeti
a breathtaking 350,000-acre swath of wilderness.
Clear sunlight pressed down, the earth
pressed up, and everything in-between felt fragile.
So many visual and cultural guideposts that inform our
everyday lives in urban America are rendered moot in
Tanzania. Here, thousands of acacia trees punctuated
the dry, grassy terrain, their spindly branches spread
wide atop narrow trunks. It was easy for me to imagine
that they were reaching out to one another, trying to
make connections in the incomprehensible vastness.
Aloyce stopped the vehicle and lifted
a pair of binoculars to his eyes, slowly turning his
head from left to right. There. He set the
binoculars down and pointed into the distance. A
cheetah. Thrilled at the prospect of spotting
my first big cat in this epic environment, I followed
his finger with my gaze, only to take in the same endless
roll of grass wed been traversing for the past
Can you see? Aloyce gestured
with his nose, as I tried to shift my head to match
his line of vision. Between those two trees. Shes
laying down with her head up.
There are hundreds of trees where youre
pointing. I felt a defensive whine within me, but it
wasnt nearly as loud as another inner voice that
said: There must be something wrong with you. Why cant
you see how he does?
I put the binoculars to my eyes, trying.
I saw nothing. And nothing. Then I blinked, and suddenly
there was the cheetah. Perhaps 50 yards ahead. Right
where Id been looking all along.
Its was like an inter-brain version
of those visits to the opthamologists office,
when you stare into an enormous black apparatus as the
doctor click-click-clicks an array of somewhat blurry
lenses past your eyes and then suddenlyWhoa!
your vision snaps into focus.
Over three weeks in Tanzania last summer,
the clicking rarely stopped. Moments of clarity struck,
and often disappeared just as suddenly. Many of this
trips greatest rewards came when I let go of my
need for instant comprehension. Allowing myself to relax
and accept disorientation, my mind, however fleetingly,
was able to see beyond its accustomed boundaries.
Before venturing into the Serengeti,
I spent a weekend in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzanias
center of commerce, visiting American friends whod
moved to Africa less than a year prior to work for healthcare
organizations. Meghan and Andrei sent a driver to bring
me from the airport to their shared rental house because,
as Andrei put it, It will be impossible for you
to give a cab driver directions. There arent really
street addresses outside the downtown area.
Even downtown Dar is a slapdash affair.
A port city, with a harbor on the Indian Ocean, its
small cluster of office towers (the tallest comes in
at 21 stories) quickly cedes to a pothole-pocked maze
of alleys of small businesses, many run by merchants
from India or the Middle East, and then sprawls toward
exurban areas along four-lane roads lined with makeshift
markets of tabletop retailers selling produce, dry goods,
and ubiquitous coils of chewy local octopus, grilled
and rubbed red with ground annatto seeds.
Like the vast majority of Africas
53 nations (with the notable exception of South Africa
where human rights policies have long incorporated sexual
orientation) Tanzania does not recognize same-sex relationships,
legally bans same-sex sexual activity, and has no laws
against discrimination based on sexual orientation.
In this sprawling, subsistence-farming-based nation,
where 80% of the people live in rural areas, Dar seemed
the only likely place for me to gain any first-hand
experience of Tanzanias gay life.
As it turns out, even in Dar, a Tanzanian
willing to identify as homosexual can be as challenging
to track as a cheetah in the Serengeti. Meghans
Swahili instructor, Musa Kitonge, turned out to be well-connected,
a lifelong resident of Dar rather than the typical rural
relocator. (Last names of most Tanzanians in this article
are withheld by request). After an e-mail exchange a
few weeks before my arrival, he told me he would arrange
for me to meet some local gays.
We met at the Southern Sun hotel,
an oasis of calm in this chaotic city (www.southernsun.com).
Peacocks strolled by while I sipped a cocktail on the
lounge patio, which borders botanical gardens. It was
8 P.M. on a Saturday, but what Id expected to
be a night on the town ended up feeling like an espionage
We walked to a main road and elbowed
our way into a curbside throng awaiting the arrival
of daladalas, the rickety, privately- owned vans that
serve as local buses. At times, more than twenty people
lined the wooden benches inside the van wed jumped
into, thrown side to side as we sped toward the outskirts
of the city, hurled forward as we jerked to unannounced
stops. Musa was taciturn, his English rudimentary at
best, yet Id made the decision to put my faith
in him. I had no idea where we were headed.
We jumped out on the shoulder of a four-lane
road, lit only by passing headlights, and the oil lamps
and candles of vendors' stalls. I hustled to stay close
to Musa as we moved through the crowd. I had little
pocket money on hand, no working cell phone, and no
meaningful Swahili vocabulary.
He led me to a tiny roadside shack,
a combination bar and liquor store, walls lined with
cases of beer and bottles of konyagi, the gin-like,
local spirit of choice. Was this a gay venue? A trio
of flashily dressed women strolled by. Prostitutes,
Musa confirmed. Sex workers are commonplace in Dar.
I ordered a beer and Musa gestured for me to sit with
him on a bench outside.
A few minutes later, a tall stranger
approached. He was over seven feet tall. Musa introduced
us. Hes Kilumba. He was going to be the
first Tanzanian in the American NBA, but then he injured
Musa wandered off and Kilumba sat on
the bench beside me. Was he a friend of Musas
who happened to be at the bar? Was he gay? I turned
to face him and tried to strike up a conversation in
English, but he was staring out at the road, speaking
Swahili on his cell phone. When his call ended, his
gaze remained averted. Ten minutes passed.
Where did Musa go? I wondered,
nervously. Hell be back, said Kilumba.
Im counting on that, I thought.
Kilumbas phone buzzed. He took
the call, then reached toward me with the phone. Its
Them? I took the phone. Hello?
Hello, replied a young sounding voice. Umm,
hi. Where are you? I was hoping we could meet and do
a little interview. Silence.
I handed the phone back to Kilumba.
Are they coming here? Do they know why I want
to meet them? Kilumba spoke to whoever was on
the other end for a few minutes, then hung up. It all
felt uncomfortably clandestine.
Musa rematerialized, and fifteen minutes
later, Mike, Fredi, and Hamis, all 22, and Bilal, 27,
strolled up out of the darkness. Musa, making his best
effort to serve as translator, explained that Id
need to buy the boys beers and pay them cab fare (not
that they arrived, or would leave, by taxi). The 22-year-olds
are roommates, college students whove moved to
Dar from the countryside and share a small rental flat.
Bilal is, in his own estimation, a celebrity.
Theyre initially bashful speaking
openly to a foreigner about their sexuality as an identity
rather than trying to use it as a means to economic
ends. I quickly realized that my American notions of
gay culture didnt make sense here.
We dont have a bar or any
place for us to meet, explains Fredi, matter-of-factly.
The government wont allow that.
I ask if any of them are in relationships.
We dont have boyfriends, explains
Mike, We have friends when we can find them, who
can help us get some money.
Hamis said that none of the roommates
parents had any idea about their sexuality, and coming
out, which I struggled to help Musa translate, was not
a familiar idea. We moved to Dar. We dont
need to speak to them about it.
I tell them how much I appreciate their
willingness to speak to me, how strong I think they
My family all knows, says
Bilal, shaking a wristful of metal bracelets, suddenly
the diva. I played with girls when I was little.
And now I support all my family.
How? I ask. By being
famous and fantastic, he replies, less than cryptically,
as he snatches my pen and scribbles an email address
that begins BilalSeductionSeduction on my notepad.
I describe the same-sex-marriage movement
in the United States, and ask them their thoughts. The
group shrugs, half perplexed, half indifferent.
They can get married if they want,
says Bilal, with a feisty snort. I dont
care. He stares at me, seeing with a perspective
so different than my own. We dont have a
hospital for us here. We dont have elders to teach
us about HIV. We dont cooperate with each other
because were jealous and competitive about getting
the next friend.
Theres not an organized gay community
in Tanzania, nor even public acknowledgement that significant
numbers of homosexuals exist. Many straight marriages
still involve parental spouse selection, and the exchange
of a dowry. The right for gays to marry is an utterly
foreign concept. In a country where the average worker
brings home less than $100 US dollars a month, its
hardly a high priority. The world is not all on the
Throughout the conversation, Ive
kept looking over at Musa, whose face is full of emotion.
I gradually realize that, despite having tapped his
social network to put this evening together, hes
never actually had an open conversation with gay Tanzanians
before. He confirms this to me when we finally get up
to leave, and says quietly, half-astonished, They
Then he turns around and hands each
of the young men a few extra bills from his own pocket.
One of my pre-trip correspondences was
with a Zanzibari hotelier I found via an international
gay lodging website. He wrote that he was uncomfortable
identifying himself or giving a formal interview. It
is illegal here to engage in gay sex. I cant really
publicly declare myself gay in the current situation.
My ex-partner tried to get me booted off the island
based on my orientation, so the subject is a bit sensitive.
Him being gay himself made the whole thing very nasty
Yet, in the same e-mail, the hotelier
wrote, I can say we are a gay-friendly environment.
Nobody on staff would bat an eye over two guys or two
gals sleeping in one bed.
Throughout my trip, I heard this sentiment
again and again: local laws may be unjust to Tanzanian
gays, but as a gay tourist, so long as youre exercising
the common-sense cautions youd take in any foreign
country (and not making out in public, which even straight
couples dont do here), you neednt be concerned
about discrimination based on sexual orientation. The
burgeoning tourism business is key to Tanzanias