Monday 7 October 2013

o : Mafia Island, No. 4 (The President)

Butiama Beach
Mafia Island

Dear o,

At last, the president’s plane was spotted making a loop around the airport.  The stand-around crowd, of which I was part, flocked to the edge of the little plateau above the airstrip itself.  The schoolkids in their uniforms were first; and even those who weren’t snaked in between elbows and hips to bulge the united front a little farther forward, a little closer to Mr. President.  His plane pulled around, straightened out over the ocean for its descent, and took aim for the small clearing atop the ridge.  He better be good, I thought.  I’d been waiting for hours in a dirt field under a sunburning sun for this guy, and I didn’t even know his name.

Ever since my arrival on Mafia, rumours of a presidential visit to officially open the refurbished airport, new dock and widened road to Utende have floated around.  He was supposed to come at the end of August, then September, and then who knows.  On the date of his last scheduled visit, the gossip factory neglected to inform me of cancellation, and I wandered down to the airport and then the waterfront to see people walking, merchants trading, fishermen fishing and kids staring.  Maybe they’re indifferent to some chumped-up elected official in Dodoma; maybe he’ll bring his own background crowd in that big plane he’s rumoured to have.  Well, no, I learned later.  It seems that the Mafia Island Communication Network does indeed distribute news, and everyone seems to get their phantom copy – except me.

A few days before the president’s actual arrival, I received some accidental word that was a little more promising than a mere date: a government official was asking around at the lodges for space to host 30 guests for three nights just two days away, something that the lodges laughed at for the ridiculously short notice; some dignitaries had already started trickling in, driving fancy cars and wearing fancy clothes.  I confirmed the story at the New Lizu Hotel, where Mama Shiraz told me that she was doing the catering in Utende, and that yes, indeed, the president is coming.  Would I like to see the schedule?  Sure.  Oh, never mind, she can’t find it. 

Of course I was suspicious that the great event would ever take place, but there were other signs as well.  For each of the two afternoons before the president’s visit I heard the roar of dozens of planes landing at the airport (the average is 3-4 per day), one after the other as if in a convoy.  I got the sense that the whole island was turning into a giant school waiting for the principal to make his inspection: walls got cleaner, street vendors brought out their reserve selection, and the power stopped going out.  I saw new faces poking around Kilindoni.  They asked about prices, watched with keener eyes than normal, and bought up military-green shorts and samosas off the street in high frequency.  They looked different, too: the men had clean, button-up shirts, and the woman did their hair up without a flamboyant covering-scarf.  Some of them even spoke English to each other, though they laughed at every phrase.They must be from Dar, I thought.  Mainlanders.

On the morning of the president’s coming, I went out to the airport.  I’d heard this was his first stop.  After he’d visit the new dock (that’s why the lights were on for the first time last night) and then Utende, so I thought I’d give myself at least the chance for the full deal.  And something was astir.  Green CCM (Tanzania's ruling party) flags waved high in the sky.  A row of black and tinted Land Cruisers were parked and turned on and made one think of a movie about go-get-em government.  Huddled against the chain-link, razor-wire-topped fence were hundreds and hundreds of schoolkids in their white-and-blue uniforms, hanging on the metal, expectant, happy.  They waved fresh-out-of-the-box,standard-issue Tanzanian and American flags on sticks, and there were three or four times as many as the latter.  “Why do you have this flag?” I asked one of the boys who said he spoke English.  “To show the friendship between the United States and Tanzania,” he said.  “Which president is supposed to come?” I asked.  “Maybe both!”

I found a spot along the fence and hung out with the rest of my new friends.  It wasn’t long before a man with a white hat and shirt told us we could go through, and so we followed the fence to the airport entrance and joined the queue.  White-shirted invitees (who I would later learn got chairs), throngs of decked-out schoolkids, and the rest of us lucky-to-be-let-in plainclothed plebs lined up to go through the single metal-detector.  A soldier told us to file into a single line, and I laughed.  The man behind me asked what was so funny.  “It’s the first time in Africa I’ve been told to form a proper queue,” I said.  “Yes, but this is not just Africa – this is Tanzania!”  He could have been the president.

Not everybody went through – the smart ones stayed behind to jump up onto trucks for the best views of the whole thing, or to sell candy and ice cream through the wire mesh.  Those of us inside were made to feel like the party had started already.  The music was loud, people were dancing, groups of schoolchildren were being ushered to strategic locations around the ceremonial centre.  On the two sides of the sheltered, wooden speechmaking platform were lines of chairs with varying levels of importance (blue plastic, white plastic, white plastic with cushions), and behind it was a platform with chairs of other varying levels (white plastic, black metal with cushion, and a single, tall, wooden throne for you-know-who).  Anybody could dance to the African R&B in the middle space, though groups seemed to form by theme: freestyling youngsters had a go, then the political-looking types went up to “make fun” of the fact that they were dancing, and then the elderly women had the most fun of all, jiving their massive hips with supreme rhythm.  There was what I can only describe as a conga-line, there was cheering and laughing and people greeting others they hadn’t seen for years, and there was a sharp, bald, unsmiling American guy in a suit (I wonder if he got sweaty?) who made me think the Secret Service had already done their first sweep.  Maybe the president was coming, after all?

Maybe, but not just yet.  The sun got higher and hotter, and we seatless masses bunched up under the edges of the temporary shelters above the assigned chairs.  The MC eventually stopped the music and started the superfluous parts of the ceremony.  Schoolchildren came up in groups to sing songs, do group dance routines, show their rapping skills, and even host a mock debate in English which nobody could really hear about the “merits and demerits of infrastructure development”.  Needless to say, the “demerits” side, standing on the tarmac of a newly refurbished airport, said little more than “development is bad” while getting trounced by their classmates who made their best points to the tall, wooden, empty throne for you-know-who.

The MC ran out of things to do or say (and he had a lot to say), so he put the music back on and those people who weren’t dead to the heat started dancing again.  A terribly obese army commander, always followed by a cadre of skinny assistants, had finally got tired of taking photos with his silver iPad and slumped himself into one, or two, of the black cushioned chairs.  The sharp American dude had even stopped paying attention.  Maybe the president wasn’t coming, after all?  I found a ceremony programme and someone at whom to pose a few questions.  The reason for all the American flags was that the airport project was funded by a US development project, the Millennium Challenge Account – hence all the white shirts and trucks with the MCAT logo (T for Tanzania).  The flags were both a way to say thanks, and you can always send us more.  But they had stopped waving so fervently now, if at all.  Many were lying in the dirt.

Finally, the president’s plane showed up in the sky, and the flags, Tanzanian and American both, shot up into the air again.  Which president was this?  The best part for me and the kids was seeing the plane land, pull right up on the tarmac to the ceremony area, and come to a halt.  It was a good-looking beast, white with two big propellers and the single, simple word, “Tanzania”; it is perhaps the biggest plane to land on the island since the Second World War.  There was cheering and whistling as the red carpet was brought up to the door, and then a big rush of noise as the president stepped out, preceded only by his six-man security detail and followed by nobody.  He was still, calm, and regal, and was happy to wait a few minutes to receive a scarf around his neck before moving on to shake hands with many of the dignitaries.  The American Secret Service guy wasn’t so Secret Service after all, as he removed his sunglasses and gushed out a smile while pumping the president’s hand.  The procession went on, and many in the crowd left; they’d seen him, after all.  It’s not like he was going to actually say anything.  I wanted to hear him speak, though, even if I couldn’t understand a word.

The president’s speech followed on the heels of four other ones, three by petrifyingly boring men in suits and one not so bad by a bright, joyous, riled-up woman with a whole skeleton of political bones under her vibrant clothes.  When the president came up to the platform, his six-man team flanked out, with four forming a circle around the box, and a fat general (not the obese one with the iPad) stood behind to add some weight.  One of the bodyguards seemed to be staring right at me through his cool-guy sunglasses, though he many have long ago learned how to sleep standing up.  While he might have been sleeping, however, the president wasn’t a bore.  He knew how to use the pause and even silence, he knew how to stir his words without ever stirring his voice, and he had a good sense of humour.  When the DJ pumped up the tunes as the president approached and did a weird record-scratch to simultaneously show off his skills and show off the president as a rock star (he is not a rock star), the president laughed and brushed it off.  He was good, he connected with his audience even when, as a result of a very poor layout, his podium platform faced the open airstrip and only about 20% of the crowd (all the chairs were behind him, and the only ones he could see were those who gathered on the top of the ridge above the airstrip, the same vantage point to see his plane land).

So was Mr. Jakaya Kikwete worth the wait, the sunburn, and the 400 shillings for mystery-flavoured ice cream?  Not really, but I don’t think I came to see the president.  I came to see how Tanzanians welcome and relate to and respond to their president, and that was worth it.  Yes, there was that stupid chair of his, but there was also the informal dancing, the getting-together, and the lack of much seriousness at all beyond Mr. Secret Service and the sleepy security team.  I didn’t see a single gun anywhere.  The police truck was parked outside the fence, more for people to stand on and watch than to patrol anything.  Surely only a few would get to meet Mr. President, but he gave off the vibe that that was only because there was so many people.  So it was fun.  But the plane was still the best part.