The rock paintings of Kondoa Irangi part three

Connections to the south

There’s no road here, just a narrow track.

We pass by a couple donkeys and the flies that are their constant companions follow us for a while.

It’s hilly country.

We pass by small farms, little villages of small brick houses.

Children wave, “jumbo mzungu!” they call out.

It’s slow going, I try to wave the flies away but you can’t move too much when you’re riding on the back of a motorcycle.

A couple weeks earlier, on Pemba, I took a motorcycle taxi for the first time, holding on tightly with both hands. 

I’m more relaxed now, I don’t hold on anymore. I sit there, perched, trying to move with the bike, my hat in one hand so it doesn’t blow away. 

Not entirely relaxed though, every so often we take the highway, it’s a paved road, but a steep one, of s-bends and vehicles travelling at very different speeds, a two road where there’s not that much traffic and people in land rovers pass busses and trucks in the oncoming lane. 

In Tanzania, they call mototaxis pikipikis after the sound of the motor. Onomatopoeia seems to be popular in Swahili. In Zanzibar, they called the railway the bububu. Elsewhere in East Africa, mototaxis are known as bodabodas, also after the sound of the motor. Guess they got slightly bigger models. Ironically, the one form of transportation with an onomatopoeic name in English, the ubiquitous tuktuk, doesn’t have an onomatopoeic name in Tanzanian Swahili, they’re bajajs, named for one of the main manufacturers.

On the descents the driver kills the engine and we coast down. There’s something about that that scares me.

We drive through a town where school children are reading books outside, where two policemen in plastic chairs guard a government building of some sort. 

I want to get a motorcycle, I am tired of riding on the back and the men here make riding look easy.

They gave me the choice, 4x4 or motorcycle. I didn’t even stop to think, motorcycle of course.

I’m glad I did, not even a 4x4 could take some of these narrow paths.

It’s my second day visiting the rock paintings of Kondoa Inragi, in northwestern Tanzania.

There is a routine of sorts, we drive for 45 minutes or so, then walk for around 15 minutes until we come to the cave where the paintings are.

There are two styles of rock art in the region. 

The most famous is that of the “Bushmen,” hunter gather people who are, most likely, the ancestors of today’s Sandawe and or Hadza people. 

Their paintings are made with red ochre, perhaps mixed with blood. They painted with brushes.

The paintings depict animals – sometimes in stunning detail, sometimes just the outlines – and people. Though the people are always cruder than the animals.

This is the oldest art here, some of these paintings may be up to 40,000 years old. It’s also the newest, Sandawe men were still making similar paintings until the early 20th century.

But there is another style of art here too.

White paintings, most likely made by Bantu people who arrived here some 2,000 years ago.

They made their paintings with their fingers. There are few animals depicted here, they drew shapes, geometric patterns, people with long arms, a man with six fingers.

The Bantu were farmers. There another possibility, perhaps these paintings were made by pastoralists, people who lived like today’s Masai and related groups.

One of the things that makes all of the paintings here so enigmatic is that there has been little research done since the 1950s. Legendary anthropologists Mary and Louis Leakey, who were working in the nearby Olduvai Gorge, studying our earliest ancestors, did some research here in the 1930s, when the site was first being studied.

Of course, colonialism, conquest and Christianity have worked to erase the stories behind these paintings.

It reminds me of something. 3,000 kilometres to the south, in the modern countries of South Africa, Lesotho and eSwatini, people also made rock art.

The rock art of the San – or Bushmen, as they were also called – is red, made of ochre and eland blood, and painted with a brush.

It depicts people and animals – and, sometimes, people turning into animals.

Like the Sandawe and Hadza languages, San languages have click consonants. The San were also hunter gatherers.

The rock art of the San was deeply related to a dance that involves entering a trance state, where people could turn into animals, enter the spirit world and bring the rain spirits into the physical world. 

In some places, where San people became assimilated into farming and pastoralist communities, people of San descent continued to be rainmakers.

Like the San rock art, the rock art of the Sandawe and Hadza are believed to be linked to a trance dance, called Simbo, where dancers communicated with the spirit world.

Genetic studies, however, have shown that these peoples have been separated from each other for around 70,000 years. I can’t help but wonder whether the rock painting traditions go back that far.

Things are old in this part of the world. Near a rock art site in eSwantini, is the world’s oldest mine, worked for more than 40,000 years. 

The San used it for ochre. The Bantu used it for iron, as did the people who came later. It closed in 2014, though there has been talk of reopening it.

There is Bantu rock art in South Africa too, a tradition that lasted long enough that, in at least one place, there’s a rock painting of train and men on horseback with guns.

Thanks for reading Dispatches from Gauteng, you’ll get another dispatch in two weeks.

The rock paintings of Kondoa Irangi

Part two of three

No one quite knows when the people who lived in what’s now the Kondoa area of Tanzania first started painting in caves and under rock overhangs.

Just how many paintings there are in this area is unknown.

Who exactly painted them is still not completely clear.

Why they were painted and what the paintings mean is either a secret or a mystery.

The Kondoa Irangi Rock Paintings World Heritage Site consists of more than 100 document rock art sites, but this is a rugged, rural area of small villages and few roads, even many of the documented sites are only accessible by a combination of motorcycle and hiking.

There is also the question of how much has been lost. At many sites, you can make out faded paint, hints that there were once more paintings, that the paintings themselves were once more detailed.

How much was painted on other surfaces? Made of of wood or other materials that decay? Painted in places not as sheltered from the wind and the rain? Lost forever.

It’s early afternoon when I arrive in Kolo.

Three large rock paintings sites are not far from the village. We drive for a bit, on a wide dirt road and then a track so steep and rocky that the motorcycle can’t handle two riders and I get off and walk.

Then we hike.

The land is almost wild, but it’s not real, there are no large animals here, the giraffes, antelopes, elephants and rhinos that once lived here were wiped out, a side effect of a British campaign against the tsetse fly.

But they were here, the paintings are clear about that.

One picture appears to show a headless giraffe, is that because the paint faded? I ask. No, the guide says, it was painted that way, after the hunters killed the giraffe, they would have cut off its head.

Other scenes appear to depict more human conflict.

Three men fight over a woman, some interpretations suggest she is being kidnapped.

Are these stories from myth or scenes from life?

The rock paintings of the San people, in modern day South Africa and its neighbours, are mystical, religious. Many San paintings depict the links between our world and the spirit world.

But these are different paintings, different people.

I try to ask the guide about it, about the spiritual significance of the work, but his descriptions of the paintings are always grounded in physical reality, they are scenes of life.

These caves were lived in, he says, they are paintings on the walls of a home.

But other sources suggest these caves were not lived in, that they places of ritual, places where initiations took place.

Perhaps he’s right. Perhaps he knows more than he’s telling because I’m not supposed to know. Perhaps his view has been shaped by more than a century of colonialism and Christianity. Perhaps my view has been shaped by an occidental perspective that sees Africa as a place of mystery and mysticism.

But the paintings are mysterious, elongated figures, people with bizarre hairstyles or some sort of headdress.

Some scenes appear to depict scenes of life, like this one below of elephants caught in a trap. Though that doesn’t mean there isn’t a spiritual connection.

There are many animals in the paintings, they are more detailed than the people. The painters knew these animals well.

They were hunter-gatherers, the people who created these paintings, Bushmen, the guide calls them, but that’s a generic term. It is likely that the paintings were made by the ancestors of the present day Hadza or Sandawe peoples, indigenous groups that maintained hunter-gather traditions long after pastoralists and farmers arrived in the area.

While these paintings are believed to date back more than 2,000 years – and some could be more than 50,000 years old – there are reports of Sandawe men continuing to create similar paintings into the early 20th century.

The ancestors of the Sandwe, if it was them who painted these rocks, are not the only ones to paint here, though. There was another tradition of rock painting, a very different one.

And while the art of the Sandwe and Hadza peoples are very different from that of the San people of South Africa, Lesotho and eSwatini, a hunter-gatherer people who have also been called “Bushmen,” there are some evocative similarities. You’ll have to come back in two weeks to read more about that, though.

We finish the first day before sunset. I stand at the side of the road and wait for a bus from Kolo to Kondoa, where the nearest hotel is located.

It doesn’t come, other people flag down a passing car.

I get a passing tuk-tuk. A man is already in the back seat, holding a sleeping child.

Near the edge of town, the tuk-tuk stops, the driver and the man get out, the man passes the child to the driver, who then turns to me.

“Can you hold my son?” he asks.

The child sleeps well on the bumpy road. I suppose he’s probably used to it.

I spend the night at the Kondoa Climax Annex Hotel, a place of mirrored doors and vinyl furniture.

In the market, I eat barbecued goat, using two toothpicks as a fork, and drink Safari beer.

The next morning, I will take the bus back to Kolo.

Come back in two weeks to read about that in my third and final letter about the rock paintings of Kondoa Irangi. If you haven’t already, you can subscribe, so you don’t miss it.

It’s a story that will take us through thousands of years of history – and thousands of kilometers south to the tiny kingdom of eSwatini.

Lingering in the Vienna of Africa

The rock paintings of Kondoa Irangi part one

Thanks for reading Dispatches from Gauteng, this week we return to the dusty streets of Northern Tanzania.

I stay in Arusha too long.

The touts around the tourist shops and safari outfitters offices downtown stop trying to hustle me, they just say hi.

“You’re still here?” one asks. 

Those are just the regulars, though. 

Men still come up to me. “Jumbo rafiki! What’s your name? Where are you from? What are you looking for?”

It’s cool, I say, hapana asante. No thanks, hapana asante, I drill it into my head. It is the most important phrase I will learn in Swahili. 

Sometimes the word are enough, sometimes they aren't and the men keep walking with me, keep talking, trying to sell me something, trying to give some directions in the hopes of a tip, trying to take me somewhere they will earn a commission.

I long for the quiet streets of Johannesburg.

Sometimes I make up increasingly fanciful stories about what I’m doing here, I tell them I am a vanilla dealer from Madagascar, sometimes I am involved in mining, I always keep things vague.

“Where are you from?” they ask.

“Nowhere,” I tell them.

Two men shout out to me on a hot afternoon. One of them tells me that in his village, the type of copper bracelet I’m wearing is believed to ward off poisonous snakes.

I don’t know if that’s true, that is to say, I don’t know if people actually believe a copper band can protect you from the most dangerous snakes.

I have, however, already come to believe in the magical powers of the bracelet, convinced myself that it will protect me.

At the gym in Johannesburg, I notice how many men wear talismans, gris-gris, fetishes. These are professionals, people who wear suits to the office and then go see a sangoma. It intrigues me.

The man asks me where I got the bracelet. His friend just repeats everything he says.

Congo, I say, Fungurume, near Lubumbashi.

He knows Lubumbashi.

“TP Mazembe! Moïse Katumbi!” he shouts.

I tell them I’m in mining, they’re miners too.

It’s getting hard to mine in Tanzania, he tell me, too many rules, the government is getting too strict. They want to sell me some gems, you can take them back to Johannesburg and sell them there for a profit, he says.

I’m not sure where to go next and there’s an article to write, a deadline for a Canadian paper. I need to talk to more people. So I send emails and make calls and I wait. So much of the practice of journalism is just waiting around for someone to call you back.

I’m wary of travelling, worried about the consistency of cell phone connections and electricity, ready to be somewhere else but not ready to travel.

So I stay at the Giraffe Lodge, where the electricity supply is pretty consistent and the wifi usually works.

Arusha is a nice enough town, the main streets are paved and there are patches of green space, trees. The jacarandas are in bloom. There are coffee plantations on the outskirts. 

The Vienna of Africa, they call it.

I eat curry, grilled meat with chips, and chicken with bitter leaves that have the consistency of spinach.

From my room, I can hear goats and children screaming, there are cows tied up in people’s yards, chickens, roosters.

It rains, a woman bathes in a puddle in the road.

The Vienna of Africa.

I try to make plans, but no one calls me back.

I wait.

Finally it all comes together. I talk to too many people for the article, I write it and file, I have a bus ticket out of town and a destination.

Kolo is a dusty town on the side of the highway.

One restaurant. Well, if you can call a fruit stand with a wooden bench and a woman inside a dark hut cooking rice and beans with spinach a restaurant.

There’s a small convenience store, the kind where you point out what you want and pay through a barred window. The man is rarely there, so you wait a minute until he runs across the road, unlocks the door and goes in.

There’s a bar of a sort with a pool table and plastic chairs. Men nap on motorcycles.

But I am not here for the town.

This area is home to one of the world’s largest collections of rock art, the Kondoa Irangi Rock Paintings World Heritage Site.

In fact, no one knows just how many rock painting there are in the area - though more than 100 sites have been documented.

I’ll send you an email about it in two weeks. 

No fear, just loathing

Las Vegas and the American Dream

Thanks for subscribing to Dispatches from Gauteng. I hope you like what you’ve read so far. If you haven’t read all the previous editions, this holiday season might be a great time to catch up. There’s The bus, a story that’s really about Tanzanian pop music, a story about just how sketchy buying vanilla is in Madagascar and last week’s very special issue, A darkness in the west.

I’m not going to lie, I had originally planned for A darkness in the west to come out this week, but in order to stick with the regular schedule, I’ve got another special edition of Dispatches for you this week. This time it’s a letter from my first trip to Las Vegas, I wrote this one in 2015, it’s never been read by anyone before. Think of it as my Christmas present to you.

Thanks for staying subscribed to Dispatches from Gauteng, next time we’ll be back in Southern Africa.

They say Vegas is a journey to the heart of the American dream. To me it looks like a cross between the Jersey Shore and Times Square. 

At first glance there’s nothing seedy about it. The Strip is an outdoor shopping mall where you can drink. A Disney World with gambling and a hint of sex that doesn’t even compare to so many store windows in Montreal. 

Maybe not wholesome but family-friendly enough.

Fun for the whole family, isn’t that the dream in 2015? 

99 cent tall boys of Pabst sold alongside selfie sticks.

Consumerism sold as libertinism, yet oh so restrained in that classic Puritan meets Germanic way of the United States. A place where violence is preferable to sex. At least on TV. 

How quickly it turns to desert. There’s no grass. The medians are AstroTurf. The palms are all planted but they are real enough.

An artificial oasis.

I long for the desert. 

Sometimes you can see the strings. The hills. The fake plants. The greenness of the real ones. Off the strip there are none. So many people on the strip, none half a block away. 

What is the real Vegas? Is there a real Vegas? Times Square is a thing. An artificial place. Crescent Street too. Things surrounded by real places. This city seems to be nothing else. A suburb around the strip. Or?

The nice things are tacky. The tacky things are everywhere. 

The strip is an expression of freedom and excess of that only makes sense in an unfree nation. A place where the expression of freedom is defined by the choice of where you spend your money. Chinese tourists are everywhere.  

Selfie sticks and spending. 

A man is selling beer out of a small cooler in front of the Bellagio. It is a small hustle so American, one you see so much in Philly (one of my favourite American cities). 

He approaches a middle-aged man at the fountain. The man is friendly for a moment than, when he realizes what is going on, recoils in horror, takes his wife by the arm and pulls her away. 

They want their sin in a clean place. A sanitized environment between the Gucci stores and the Louis Vuitton. Their fear is my loathing.

In the absurdity there are hints of the real, the bail bondsman who shares space with a wedding chapel.

There is a deliberate blurring of public and private space. Of indoors and outdoors. The roof over Freemont Street, the indoor spaces that look like they are outside. Fake skylines. The green carpet on the medians.

I meet no one who is from here.

If I was not from Montreal, where even the doorways of stripclubs leave nothing to the imagination, perhaps I would be impressed by the hint of sex. The hint of fucking, really, there is nothing sexy or romantic here. Just gaudiness. The street hawkers constantly snapping the business cards of escort services.

Even the reputation is artificial.

I drink on the street. That is something I’ve always liked. A nice walking beer. They won’t let me drink on the bus, though.

Gambling bores me. Too many long nights in the Yukon losing hands of blackjack $2 at a time. It has no thrill for me. A horse race, that I can see. A game of dice in the alley, well count me in. But the slots just make me think of dead-eyed, slack-jawed old ladies. Cigarette in one hand, pressing the button with the other. You hardly notice the smoke here. 

I never got the idea of gambling as a sin. As a vice, sure, it’s a filthy habit but a sin? I’m from Canada where gambling is legal, accessible and government run. Where running bingo games was how sports and school trips were paid for when I was a kid. 

At 18, I went to the tropical-themed Club Regent Casino in Winnipeg. I suppose I expected glitz and glamour but I find nothing except for sad old ladies staring blankly at VLTs and a mediocre cover band.

For me, gambling seems so sterile. Like the government-run liquor store. There’s always a hint of the post office. 

I suppose you don’t have those associations when you’re a couple hundred miles from The Utah border, in a country where people still think of sin. 

There is a Cirque du soliel show at every hotel and casino. Montreal’s most profitable export. 

At 2 am I eat oxtail soup at the faded California Casino, off the old strip, with sad middle-aged Asian men, tired after a long night at the tables. 

The American dream? The land of opportunity where fortunes are made?

The next evening I will be eating steak and drinking unremarkable (but surely above-average priced) red wine where a man will tell me about how he asked one of the most prominent Silicon Valley venture capital funds for $10 million and how they instead offered him $30 million.

That’s the land of opportunity. Better money, probably better odds too. at least they’re not intentionally stacked.

Two men are sleeping under a highway on-ramp. They look at me silently, strangely, as I pass by. 

Is that the real Vegas? Who comes here for opportunity?

The cab driver’s from Boston. He wasn’t a cab driver there. Lot of work for a cab driver, though, in Las Vegas. 

He likes the warm weather. Lives out of town. Likes watching the sun rise on the mountain with a beer after his shift. 

Is that the real Vegas? I can see the mountains from my hotel window. They interest me so much more than this town.

A darkness in the west

In this very special edition of Dispatches from Gauteng, we leave Southern Africa for the darker, colder climate of the Western Canadian winter.

I’d forgotten how dark Western Canada is. The sun that rises at 8 am, sets at 4. The grey sky, big, but low, like some sort of dome over the city.

Even without a cloud, it still feels too close, oppressive.

My fingers dry up, the little hairs in my nose become staticky.

If African cities are dusty, the cities of western canada are defined by the muddy snow slush, cars that are never cleaned, will not be cleaned until spring.

Most of my memories of Winnipeg are after sunset, that is when everything happens, it has to, when you have 16 hours of darkness.

Winnipeg is a dark city. Edmonton is worse.

The snow justifies, when it is falling. The strange phenomenon - sundogs, light pillars, northern lights - a little magic in this colourless place. 

It is not yet noon and it feels like 5 pm.

I am always tired, never sure if it's the darkness or the jetlag. I'm always working on Eastern Time and I started to lose sense of the hour but it doesn't really matter. Noon is grey, afternoon is darker. 

The sky only seems to lift on the coldest days, when the sun shines brightly with no effect.

It’s a dry cold, we remind ourselves, it’s a dry cold, and the wind is never that bad, no matter what lies they tell about Portage and Main. 

You stay inside, separated by the snow and the cold and the grey. 

Everything is different in the summer but the summer is a different season and here, seasons could be different continents.

There are images and memories that filter back, disjointed, like they were dreamlike when first experienced and not just now. 

Of city busses that feel a little too warm when you get on because you haven't taken off your coat, of snow that crunches like styrofoam underfoot. 

I remember the different types of snow. The small flakes, the big ones, the snow that has a hard crust and when you step on it your foot breaks through to the powder below, the black road snow that is not quite solid, but not quite liquid no matter the temperature.  

There is only a dusting now. A little bit more. I will leave before it really comes. 

I forgot how cold cars are when you first get in. How they suck the heat out of you to warm the cold metal. Of waiting for the car to warm up. 

So many of my memories of Winnipeg are memories of being in cars in the winter, the smell of exhaust and faded junk food wrappers against the cutting smell of the cold.

When I was young, Winnipeg had its own TV shows, not just the news. A kids show on a network station that still went by its own callsign. Puppets that introduced the cartoons.

I’m sure there was more but I was too young to remember.

Winnipeg always was a city of local taste, of local celebrities.

Maybe it still is, it’s hard to tell when you don’t live there. 

I’ve never been to the West Edmonton Mall but it’s a place that looms large when I think about being a child in Canada in the early 90s. It may not have had a memorable jingle like Marineland but it was a place. I remember reading a children’s mystery story set in the mall’s Bourbon Street, the idea that it had a water park and roller coasters inside, the knowledge that the West Edmonton Mall had more submarines than the Canadian Navy.

We joke about visiting, we drive by, we don’t go in.

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