In case you did not know, you cannot live comfortably in Tanzania if you do not know Kiswahili, even for a day. Ugandans who have shunned East Africa’s archetypal language as if it is the plague, would get rudely awakened when all of Kiswahili’s importance comes crashing down on them like a waterfall, the day they suddenly drop in the middle of Tanzania, without any acquaintances.
Many Tanzanians speak only their mother tongue and Kiswahili. Frustratingly, only a few elite speak English.
It’s thus a slight breather that there is at least, one town in Tanzania where as a non-Kiswahili-speaking Ugandan of Bantu origin, you will not appear as lost as a village chicken caught up in the middle of the Jinja-Road-stretch at Lugogo where cars race past as if some cacodemon is fast chasing on their heels.
Similar native language
Six hours, 300 kilometres and Shs20,000 away from Kampala, down South West, on the western shores of Lake Victoria, sits Bukoba town. It is right in the middle, entrapped between two very rocky hillsides, taking in as much of the sea breeze as it can. And it is there that the Ugandan in you will find solace - a place where while at a restaurant, you order for matooke and beef in Luganda, or any of the dialects from western Uganda, and still get through to the other party.
Bukoba town is home to the Haya people, a Bantu ethnic group that speaks a dialect so similar to Runyankore you would think the two languages are cousins. And so it is that in the confusing cloud of the mixed Kihaya-Kiswahili conversations that fill the air in the town and beyond, you will pick out a few words that will sound comfortingly close to home – like “nasiima munno,” to mean “thanks a lot.”
If the inability to communicate in Kiswahili had disoriented you, engaging a local in conversation will more than summon back your nerves to their tether. That, and the general warmth, affability, and charming pleasantness of the town’s folk will give meaning to the phrase ‘a home away from home’. It is a town of beautiful people too, a feat that you will witness more often as you head farther into Tanzania.
The fast paced life of the big cities has somehow not yet invaded little simple Bukoba. There is still a slow pace to things – in the gait on the streets, in the car speeds on the roads and even in the way business is transacted. It is not yet noisy, even at roads by the side of the bus-park, where the motor-mouthed passenger touts raise hell all day long.
Unlike Kampala, the town’s centre is built out of a sort of paddock-system-like-architecture of its streets, making navigating around them a simple feat. All along the streets, traders lay their mats and sheets down, and place an assortment of merchandise like battery cells, torches, kettles and lamps on top. Most of the streets were an open-air market on the day we visited.
Bukoba could as well be the only place in East Africa where all bodaboda cyclists within sight carry two helmets, one for the rider and another for the passenger. The regulations say so, and the riders obey. Similar regulations exist in Kampala, but they are regulations that are more adhered to in the breach than in the observance. In Kampala, the few times you will see a bodaboda passenger wear a helmet, chances are it will be a white tourist doing the honour.
Bukoba is not an exactly tourist centric town for the straightjacket tourist who wants big hotels and vast expanses of game-rich savannah. There is a national park on an island on Lake Victoria, one of a few typical tourism points. At the lakeshore, is an expanse of sand for a beach that could use some maintenance and investment because it is largely unattended, save for a few hotels further ashore.
The town has a museum, just north of the airstrip. The collections at the site will show you just how similar the traditional lives of the natives in the town are, at least as compared with those in Bantu-speaking Uganda. The collection of tools used by the areas’ natives in past times, say the baskets, look similar to those used in central Uganda, and are similarly called ekibo. The long wooden trough cut out of a tree trunk used to brew local beer (mwenge bigere), is similar to those used in many past Ugandan communities.
So bad is the elusiveness of the English language in Tanzania that even the tour guide at the Bukoba Museum did not speak any herself. The bodaboda rider who spoke Luganda saved the day when he offered to translate. That, however, did not bring the mood down one bit.
One of the most typifying sights in Bukoba is its rocks. They are perfectly curved grey large stones that you will start seeing tens of kilometres away as you draw near the town. They clutter on both sides of the road, all the way into the town.
They are piled on top of each other in a rare state of delicateness, with some tilted on the edges in such daredevil fashion they make you fear that they will come tumbling down any minute. They form such a fantastic romantic spot where the breezes from the sea come to make it an even more blissful heaven. If you love taking hikes or long walks, these rocks nourish that need beyond measure.
The urge to return
Bukoba is a usual stopover for Ugandan businesspersons heading to Mwanza. This is largely because the Mwanza – Port Bell voyage is seldom busy today, with MV Pemba and MV Serengeti, (all Tanzanian lines) as some of the few remaining lines plying the route on un-predictable schedules. A ship, the HMS Victoria, sails from Bukoba to Mwanza thrice a week. It is this that Ugandan traders use.
Because it is the nearest major town to Uganda on the route, some of its residents have lived and associated with Ugandans. A few thus know Luganda. A lot of the warmth you will experience will surface in those uncomfortable times when upon running into someone with whom you cannot communicate, they do not just shove you past but will stand by and seek a way to make you understood.
And you will not fail to get impressed by this unsolicited kindness that reaches out to embrace you from nearly every local you talk to. It will manifest itself in the Luganda speaking bodaboda cyclist who upon riding you to a guesthouse, helps you bargain for a fair price.
Or, the motorist who will show you where the cheapest foods can be found. And when you raise him on the phone to come ferry you to some place, the sheer humility with which he will convey his thanks for allowing him a chance to make some money will melt you away like butter before a fire. It will place Bukoba, and its people, in a special place in your heart. And it will make you want to go back as soon as you can.