Book ID 891
Klinkenborg, Verlyn A Tanzanian highway, in darkness and in light, July 3, 2006
Extract Author: Verlyn Klinkenborg
Extract Date: July 3, 2006
ARUSHA, Tanzania I want to tell you about the road that leads out of Arusha, a city not far from Mount Kilimanjaro that is well-known as a place where tourist safaris begin.
There is nothing special about that road, except that I was recently on it twice - driving into the city and driving back out again a week later.
There are roads like this one everywhere, going into and out of cities around the world. The scenes strobe past, and the only problem is finding a frame of reference.
The plane landed after dark and so the first time I was driven down the road into Arusha I had to imagine everything that lay beyond the reach of the headlights.
I was riding with a French photographer, whom I had just met, and we spent the next 40 minutes watching our own blindness. Sometimes we could see tassels of maize just beyond the ditches, sometimes a tree in dark blossom. Again and again, the lights caught people walking along the side of the road - past the edges of the fields and in the dusty track beside the asphalt.
They were not hastening. Some wheeled heavily loaded bicycles. Many carried five-gallon plastic buckets. Some were dressed up, with surprising formality, for the evening ahead, although why the formality surprised me is a good question. They came into view for a second or two and then vanished.
As for the country beyond them, it might have looked like anything - like savannah, like forest, like the canals of Mars.
For many people, the road into Arusha is their first glimpse of Africa, as it was mine. It is, if nothing else, a reminder of the power of artificial light to shape our idea of the world around us.
That entrance in the dark isn't meant to be symbolic but it perfectly echoes the state of what I knew when I landed at Kilimanjaro International Airport. I had only a few scraps of information, a few familiar images, to set against a darkness that is simply the blankness of my own experience.
A week in Tanzania doesn't really change anything, of course. But it does allow time for the lights to go up a little. A couple of days ago, I got to see that road again in the afternoon sun. The thin arterial life I had imagined was nowhere to be seen.
In daylight the roadside was a city in itself. Around some places - a café with a television and a chalkboard outside saying England/Ecuador - a crowd of men stood talking and waiting for the World Cup match to begin.
Here was a stack of boards and poles under shelter - a local version of the lumberyards on the far side of Arusha. Here were zebu cattle grazing along the road, as well as lean Holsteins tethered by the nose to a stake in the ground.
A small plantation of bananas stood beside a yard for making cement blocks, which neighbored a butcher shop painted over with images of the animals to be killed there, which neighbored, in turn, a gas station called "House of Lubricants."
I knew, from flying over Arusha, that this long thin strip of asphalt leading out of town was merely the confluence of all the footpaths that trailed away into the fields and, ultimately, the bush.
The highway gave the illusion that people were walking and hauling carts in a long line, grateful for the directness of the main road to Nairobi. The reality, I suppose, is that they merged and exited on foot and that the real directness lay in their own purposes.
If I could, I would tell you, one by one, the names of all the shops and businesses we passed - those that had signs. I would explain, if I knew the answer, just why the women who had set out their vegetables for sale had set them out just there, in a spot where it looked as though no one would ever come by.
I'd like to know where everyone was going and why they were going there, and what they were talking about as they sat beside a stream that came down from Mount Meru.
I'm going to think for a very long time about the difference between the gazelle I saw a cheetah kill and the young goat that strayed onto the highway and was killed by a car, while the flock stood in the ditch and two young boys looked wildly at each other.
I know now that there are three men in every truck in Tanzania, and that each truck has a name across the top or bottom of its windshield.
My favorite is a tanker I saw. It was called "Breaking News," and behind the three men in the front hung an American flag.