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Globetrotting
TANZANIA

by Jim Gladstone

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Four-wheeling into the orange-brown plain of the Serengeti, the tiny airstrip where I’d 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 Reserve (www.singita.com), 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 we’d been traversing for the past twenty minutes.

“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. She’s laying down with her head up.”

There are hundreds of trees where you’re pointing. I felt a defensive whine within me, but it wasn’t nearly as loud as another inner voice that said: There must be something wrong with you. Why can’t 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 I’d been looking all along.

Its was like an inter-brain version of those visits to the opthamologist’s 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 suddenly–­­“Whoa!”– 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 trip’s 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, Tanzania’s center of commerce, visiting American friends who’d 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 aren’t 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 Africa’s 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 Tanzania’s 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. Meghan’s 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 I’d expected to be a night on the town ended up feeling like an espionage adventure.

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 we’d 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 I’d 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. “He’s Kilumba. He was going to be the first Tanzanian in the American NBA, but then he injured his knee.”

Musa wandered off and Kilumba sat on the bench beside me. Was he a friend of Musa’s 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. “He’ll be back,” said Kilumba. I’m counting on that, I thought.

Kilumba’s phone buzzed. He took the call, then reached toward me with the phone. “It’s them.”

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 I’d 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 who’ve moved to Dar from the countryside and share a small rental flat. Bilal is, in his own estimation, “a celebrity.”

They’re 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 didn’t make sense here.

“We don’t have a bar or any place for us to meet,” explains Fredi, matter-of-factly. “The government won’t allow that.”

I ask if any of them are in relationships. “We don’t 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 don’t 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 are.

“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 don’t care.” He stares at me, seeing with a perspective so different than my own. “We don’t have a hospital for us here. We don’t have elders to teach us about HIV. We don’t cooperate with each other because we’re jealous and competitive about getting the next friend.”

There’s 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, it’s hardly a high priority. The world is not all on the same timeline.

Throughout the conversation, I’ve 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, he’s 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 are brave.”

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 can’t 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 and unfortunate”

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 you’re exercising the common-sense cautions you’d take in any foreign country (and not making out in public, which even straight couples don’t do here), you needn’t be concerned about discrimination based on sexual orientation. The burgeoning tourism business is key to Tanzania’s economic development.

Continued
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