By Alice Roberts
When Flaubert visited Africa he saw majestic palm trees, beautiful women and exotic sunsets – returning to France with “one small crocodile, Nubian, embalmed”. Evidently, presenting an account of an African country as a Westerner who was not there for very long can be presumptuous (or even hilariously catastrophic) – so, as a disclaimer, I do not purport to say anything authoritative about Tanzania or give a full picture of what life was like in the village I lived in – it would take so much more to do it justice. Instead, these are some brief impressions based on the paintings I did while there.
Dust. Wild dogs. Luminous rice fields. Mkula was situated high in the mountains; the air in the village was thin, which combined with the pale grey cooking-smoke caused a strange feeling of suspension.
Although warm, it was often overcast. The clouds had the effect of drawing attention to the solid planes of colour which under normal circumstances would form the landscape. However, at times these planes of colour would separate – when charcoal was being made white smoke would disperse through the foreground splitting the mountains from the fields – the mountains would remain purple, but assume the character of an island, retreating far into the distance, while the plane of neon-green was thrust forward. At night the mountains appeared much closer, like blocks of matter somewhere in the mid-ground, which could be reached and climbed and stripped of their ethereality.
When I was brushing my teeth I would sometimes see a pack of wild dogs. They came out at night, weaving through the thin tree trunks like ghosts, while always maintaining a safe distance from our house. Their skin was pulled tight, ribs visible – their curled tails picked up the light, and gave the impression that tiny spirals were following them. Aside from brief encounters such as these, and an occasional bark in the middle of the night, the dogs were so meek and silent you would hardly know that they existed.
Swahili time works on a twelve hour clock, with sunrise at 1am, sunset at 12am and then switches to ‘pm’ during the night. Just before sunrise (around 12pm) the village would begin to stir – first a bicycle or two, then the Mosque would sound, followed by a loud burst of music when the shops opened. This would soon be accompanied by the low roar of motorbikes transporting rice to Dar Es Salaam, the children on their way to school and women selling sambusa’s and vitumbua – these layers amassed one by one.
My host parents would leave at about two and walk for half an hour down the canal to reach their rice farm. One of the most distinct things about Mkula, the canal was three feet wide with a central stream of water (channeled from the mountains) bordered by two thin cement walls. About halfway to their farm was a clearing where we washed our clothes. Groups of children would pass by, walking along the thin walls in single file, often silent, only breaking uniformity when required to step from one side of the canal to the other, the open fields behind them, impossibly bright.
If anyone asked me now for the brightest thing I could imagine, I would have to say a Tanzanian rice field.
As a final image: the luminous green reached its peak at around mid-day.