In August 2013 I went to Southern Tanzania, Nachingwea in the Lindi region to be precise.
Briefly, the background to being on this trip was that my late Father had been involved for over 30 years with a local ‘link’ organisation between his local church of St. Andrew’s in Stapleford, Cambridgeshire and the church of St. Andrew’s in Nachingwea. He went to Nachingwea in the 1990s and the campaigns organised by the ‘link’ to support the community in Nachingwea had exercised his imagination and intellect. When my Father died in 2011 the expressions of affection that came from people he knew in Nachingwea were very moving and it was only then I began to understand his level of involvement with the area. When the ‘link’ announced there would be a group going to Nachingwea in 2013 I knew I had to go.
First impressions of Nachingwea in Tanzania
we’ve all seen Africa on television in numerous news reports, wild life documentaries and charity fundraising evenings like Comic Relief. Bouncing along dusty roads in a rattly 4×4, having just landed at Mtwara airport, surrounded by people pushing overladen bicycles, herds of cattle and feral chickens I felt I was in one of those documentaries. I have never before felt such an alien. Within an hour of landing I experienced that difference for the first time. When our little group of 3 stopped at a bank to acquire local money I stayed outside and decided to take my first photographs. In front of me was a bustling scene with stalls of produce, a dust and stickers covered bus loading passengers and various parked vehicles with groups of people huddled round. Weaving in and out of the flow of people were numerous motorcycles and chickens. As I raised the camera to my eye to capture this exciting, colourful scene people suddenly started shouting and waving their hands in my direction, at the same time turning their backs or shielding their faces. Intimidated I lowered the camera, waved back smiling and made a great show of putting the camera away. The fuss died down and it was a while before I tried to take another photo. I had to discover the secret of being able to take photographs with local people in, even if they weren’t intended to be the subject. Eventually I found out that the secret was to make conversation with the people around and ask permission to be allowed to include them in my photos. Its useful to have a Swahili speaker with you for this. Most were then more than happy to be photographed even interested. I found it particularly striking that in this society everyone interacts so openly with each other. To my ears and eyes it sometimes seemed rude or intrusive, but this is how people are and transactions conducted.
Changes in Tanzania
One of our group had visited Nachingwea 6 or so years before on a similar visit and was enthralled with the changes the area had experienced in the intervening period. Some roads were tarmaced, the town had a new water supply and the electricity was more or less reliable. Everybody had mobile phones and the countryside was dotted with masts. In fact, as we travelled hundreds of miles around the area, we found there were very few locations where we experienced loss of signal. However, apart from the ubiquity of mobile phones, the signs of modernity faded out beyond Nachingwea and I began to realise how much people rely on the land.
The contrasts were inspiring. The land readily provides bananas, mango, cashew nuts, coconuts and papaya. With cultivation it yields potatoes, cassava and maize and clay for bricks is dug from pits, it all seems very self-contained and almost idyllic. In contrast mobile phones keep everyone in touch in a modern fashion, motorbikes buzz around by the dozen and the Coca Cola trucks trundle into town with bottled drinking water as well as the ubiquitous product range. The schools were full and the town had a palpable vibrancy. It’s tempting to feel that areas like Nachingwea don’t need help but we were able to scratch beneath the surface, it was our purpose there after all. We found poor teaching materials in schools, lack of equipment and maintenance in the hospital and always the potential for people to go hungry if the rains fail. At home many of us try to reclaim a connection with the land by running allotments, others are paying more attention to food labelling but we can’t fully understand the issues of food security because we aren’t individually responsible for the crops to grow that will feed our families. Even in a sizeable town like Nachingwea almost everyone grows the majority of their own food.
Some of these contrasts come across in the photographs I took. I believe they portray a positive view of an African society. They are a collection of first impressions that are counter to expectations. Links like the one between Stapleford and Nachingwea, and there are many, are effective in both directly helping the people of Africa and also in presenting up to date impressions of the large areas of Africa that don’t come to the attention of mainstream media. I also believe our contact with Africa can benefit us, but in ways that are not based on material matters and are not readily definable. I would like to use my collection of images to help the idea of forging two way links achieve a wider appreciation and play a part in developing a modern view of Southern Tanzania if not Africa as a whole. I also want to return. I experienced August in the southern hemisphere when the harvest is in, their Spring and Summer would be very different.