People scatter outside. Some burst into our restaurant, knocking the hot stew from my hands to my lap. It’s still hot. It burns. I run to a tap in the corner and splash water onto my pants.
What on earth? A madman on the rampage, I think. No, must be a rabid dog or something, that’s Robbie’s idea. Curiosity draws Jordan from his seat toward the windows.
He shouts and drops to the floor.
Pandemonium. Another wave of fleeing people surge into the restaurant like a tidal ripple. Pushing. Pulling. Crushing. Some stand on Jordan who’s still lying on the floor. I’m flustered; all the commotion. All I can think is that my leg still burns. I have to get more water.
“Down!” Jordan motions with his hand.
“What?” I say, peering out the window.
Another man runs inside shouting “Crazeee, crazeee”, then scoots down and lies flat. Suddenly I see it. An open back 4 x 4 filled with men in plain clothes, masked by turbans. They’re waving semi-automatic rifles in the air, taking pot shots. As they speed round the corner, I drop, and gunshots crack through the air.
“Sheet, sheet!” the man screams next to me.
For the first time in my life I understand the meaning of the word scatter - as people duck and dive for cover.
It’s not only us. Everyone seems confused. The language barrier doesn’t help. Our questions are answered in Swahili or with the shake of a head.
We decide. We grab our bags and slap a 50 shilling note on the owner’s table. “Thanks!”
“No, no, you no go outside.”
For a second I stop and think about his words.
Obviously Robbie thinks about them too, and they’re not sufficiently persuasive. “Well I ain’t staying here”, he says, and leads the way.
The front door is too close to the road, so we exit out back, through the kitchen, dodging pots of rice and smouldering fires. Other people come too. We all run low, but everyone goes every which way. Some run with us, others run past us. I drop my cap and snatch back to get it. When I look up, I’m almost lost. My eyes quicken. Robs! I follow him.
Down a tight alley way that leads nowhere. We stop and hide behind a concrete wall. On it, in bright white writing, is spray painted “I love you beer”.
Two locals duck in with us, and behind the wall we’re all in hysterics. A mixture of laughter and insanity. Madly amused. Us at the wall, the locals at a clumsy friend, who they now point at, trying to scramble over a wall nearby. He fails miserably, as his legs obey gravity and topple over his own head. A few seconds later he’s up again, and bobbles off into the distance. We’re all laughing.
When that subsides, the local guys leave, walking casually in the friend’s direction. We stay put. We don’t even know where it is we’re going. Suddenly more people run past the entrance to the alley like quick rectangles of jagged black and white film. The soundtrack is shouting, some screaming. Pandemonium rises again.
What the hell is going on? I pull some water from my backpack, gulp, and lie against the wall. Things go quiet. After a few minutes of silence, people begin creeping from their hiding places. Then they’re spilling, people everywhere, spectators drawn towards the danger like fools. We follow, perplexed.
Twenty minutes ago we’d been crossing the border from Zambia into Tanzania. Five minutes ago I was enjoying chapati with meat stew. Now I’m crawling around a foreign city dodging men shooting AK47’s.
Just as everyone’s coming out, another van comes rushing towards us. This time it’s the police; firing random tear gas. Into the main street, down the narrow alleys. It’s chaos again. We turn quickly back to our hiding place.
A little boy runs past, holding his pants up with one hand, his bare feet flicking up stones. In the distance smoke blooms and bellows. It can only be burning rubber. A black cloud of shouting floats over the town coming from the same direction.
Back in our hideout, I drink some more water. Looking up, I see a head pop around a door. “Pssst, pssst” a hand beckons us inside. We go. What do we have to lose?
I sit opposite a tall Ethiopian-looking man with thick sideburns. He’s wearing a smart lounge shirt with slick jeans and takkies. The restaurant walls are a classic two-toned blue and cream covered in hand marks. The plastic decor is fitting in the grubbiness. The man clicks his fingers at me and looks down his nose: “Where from?” I explain myself, and he does the same in a very manner of fact way.
His name is Allen; he's originally from Nigeria but he’s stuck in Tanzania since Zambia refused him a visa. His wife and daughter are in Spain. He’s trying to make some sort of 'wheeler-dealer' success, without much luck, it seems. His English is poor, my Swahili is poorer, but in a way we are similar. Neither of us is a customer of this shop; and we’re both foreigners, somewhat, in hiding.
Robs, Jordan and I pull out a deck of cards and start playing rummy. “I know this game”, Allen says, taking the pack and dealing us five cards each. Clearly not rummy. We play his game for a while. It’s something like ‘crazy eights’, but with a cultural twist. He wins every hand, and victoriously slaps down his final card down, shouting, “Last-ie card-ie”. Triumphant, each time.
We grow tired of Allen’s gloating and turn our attentions back outside. There’s still teargas bombings, episodes erupt at ten-minute intervals. The atmosphere seems hostile, but the reality is difficult to gauge. Locals constantly switch from blood-curdling screams to roaring laughter. After a few more games of ‘not rummy’, we come to the conclusion that the Tanzanians, like people everywhere, are simply enjoying the occasional drama. Or at least the majority are. And in an area void of TV’s, what’s better than this? It’s all live.
Nevertheless, the matter is being treated with a certain level of seriousness. Padlocks and long-bolts barricade the doors of our restaurant. Intervals between blasts have become shorter and the broken windows are no defence against the gas. We’re coughing with the rest of Tunduma, eyes watering profusely. Police parade the streets with a megaphone. Allen says they’re ordering everyone to remain indoors.
With Swahili as the national language, we get our information in dribs and drabs. In broken English we eventually discover the fighting is between Christian and Muslim groups. Allen translates. “Moosleeems ees hate Christian. Always wantie fightie. Even Nigeria, same same.”
While the Tanzanians continue to enjoy the game of cat and mouse, the Zambians are not as amused, closing their border gates and preventing our retreat. With the road before us still deemed unsafe, we decide that the little no-man’s land between the two borders is our best bet. We're also glad to scoop a free night without the mission of setting up a tent in the middle of nowhere. The truck drivers have been forced into a similar predicament, and we're invited into the inner circle to enjoy some strong black coffee.
A white South African man is the ring leader, playing the role of boss boy, fluent in four languages. He really is no higher than any of the local drivers, but seems to rule the roost through sharp humour and attitude. He’s clearly accumulated wide respect through his many years of driving which have allowed him to understand many cultures. He even gets the Xhosa men eating salad, playfully mocking their apparent disregard for nutrition.
In the morning we’re up early in the hope that the rioters will be sleeping in after their long, hard work of the day before. It’s pretty quiet. There are a few policemen roaming around. The street is littered with the remains of burnt tyres. Otherwise it’s deserted.
But soon we’re being marched out by an army of thirty or forty school children. They’re fascinated by our trek; we’re walking into the middle of ‘nowhere’, just a single bag on our backs. Some imitate us, stretching out their strides to look older and cumbersome. They all giggle at the mimes.
More and more people begin to surface. They don’t greet with the usual, “Mambo-jambo”, but only nod and smile briefly with their eyes. They all cough a lot, the cloud of tear gas still sits heavy over the town. Everyone is disguised, wrapped in cloths protecting their mouth and nose. To me, it looks like the Muslims won.