Chapter 4 - The Ferry


Lying on a beach waiting. Almost six hours, and the initial hype of our arrival has died down. The beach is littered with dry sugar cane chewings and the odd broken slop or plastic bottle. Naked children, darting in and out of the water, play in the shallows. Their dark bodies glisten in the sun.

A young Muslim boy, in his traditional white dress and fez, asks us to name different things he points at, then proudly repeats the words with great vigour. Ten minutes pass and the game becomes wearisome. So boats become dogs, and dogs become trees. We laugh as he cheerfully picks up an oar, looks at us and says, “Man!”

Our midday taxi ferry arrives long after sunset, and we clamber on the 30ft wooden boat. Our backpacks make us top heavy, and the rocking makes us feel like more of a spectacle than we already are. We dip and weave; a circus act for all the locals, who in turn dance to the front, huge loads balancing on their heads.

The ferry takes about twenty minutes to fill, each new passenger excitedly commenting on our presence. Above us stars sit bright like many moons, the water reflecting their light is golden. In the distance storms roll past, creating what seems like great walls of water. Lightning bolts slap the surface of the lake like flint on steel. Our bags are lifted off the floor, away from the wet, and blankets are handed to us to aid against the cold breeze. People share their food, and offer us bags of beans to sit on.

The whine of the motor stretches across the water and pulls us closer to our destination. Kipanga, a single light in the dark of a distant horizon. Silence. It lingers. Then nervousness. Then chit chat. The captain stands up. Proud. “Hakunamatata”, and picks up a giant plastic drum of petrol. The whine returns, this time comforting.

We turn around the point, the open water ruffled by the wind. The sky spits at us and the water joins as the boat hits the oncoming waves. Chit chat dies, and babies are wrapped in blankets and passed to the rear of the boat. The ride gets rougher and then gradually calms.

The clear water turns brown as we start travelling up one of Lake Tanganyika’s many tributaries. A motherly woman tells me not to dangle my arm over board. “Mamba”, she says and claps her arms.

The skipper skilfully parallel parks his boat next to all the others and we're told to get out. We shuffle across the floating boats until the ‘ground’ beneath us stops moving. Land. It’s so dark we can’t even see our hands in front of our faces let alone the ground.

The dark makes me think about life, but that doesn’t last long. The skipper, now drunk after swigging on beers the whole trip, tries to charge us triple what we paid, “The first price is for one people”. It’s not the first time someone’s tried this, and we tell him to go to one of the many moons above us. He doesn’t understand, so we empty our pockets under his cell phone light, proving our poverty. He mumbles gruffly. We give him the last of our sugar cane. He leaves, annoyed.

We don’t know where we are, let alone which way to walk. The ferry is leaving along with the friendly passengers going to further villages. We are in the middle of nowhere, lost in the world.

We stand in silence for thirty seconds. It feels like an hour, and I think about being eaten by crocodiles. Wondering where to go and what to do, we see a light bouncing toward us. Its owner is dumbfounded to see us, almost frozen in amazement. “Wait, wait.” And the light bounces off, then returns after five minutes, the one ‘English’ speaker and his brother in tow.

His accent is strong and his vocabulary limited. Our story is translated into the local dialect many times, as he and the other villagers try to make sense of our being there. Our conversation feels like a children’s game of broken down telephones. Apparently we're the first white people ever to come here and everyone seems shocked. We explain that we've come to buy a boat and just want to sleep the night. Yes, this is the village that makes boats, but why we've come all this way, and why we want to sleep here is incomprehensible.

After what seems like an hour of explaining, the English speaker says his home has an empty room. Although touched by the generous offer I find myself sceptical, knowing an empty room in Africa is hard to come by.

As we approach, I can see the clean white walls shining through the doorway. I scold myself for my scepticism. We enter. The room holds the most intense smell of fish I have ever encountered. Looking down I see two small, shrivelled 'Kapenta' fish lying on the floor. We've been given a drying room to sleep in.

Suddenly knowing the torture Jonah faced in the whale’s belly, I settle down, thinking that if he survived so will I. We put up our tent, as protection against the mosquito hordes, and I wrap a scarf around my nose to help against the smell. As I fall asleep my stomach rumbles and I pass it off as hunger. Mid way through the night I wake to the sound of a zip opening. Then the sound of someone being violently sick. My stomach rumbles again and I flip sides thinking I’d better get as much sleep as possible. My turn will be up soon.

In the morning we try put on a brave face, in between splurges of vomiting and diarrhoea. We sit in the shade closest to the long drop, sipping on bottles of water, trying to stay hydrated. Even in our sick state we have an audience of about thirty children as no one has school. Fascinated by our every move we try act as human as possible, secretly not wanting to ruin their first impression of white people.

The children’s confidence has grown with the day, and the circle of bodies edges closer as time passes. A young boy, in the corner of my eye, with a pot belly and snotty nose seems particularly intrigued. I watch his hand reach out and quickly touch my knee. After his successful test landing, he gently places his hand on my knee again, this time it lingers and he smiles.

My smile back signals safety and cues the tiny mob to follow suit.