I was starting to panic, so I opened the car door and stepped out. As conspicuously as possible I walked over towards the traffic. A few soldiers were stepping down from the back of the truck that had pulled up in front of us. I thought they were glancing over at me and the Tanzanian Vice Prime Minister’s car, with bored and twitchy fingers eager to test the recoil of the Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders.
My friend Andrew, teacher Pam and headmaster Roger were still in the car. I wasn’t thinking much about them. I was focussed on making myself visible to passing traffic. That felt to me something that might reduce the chances of something bad happening.
We were all in Dar es Salaam to pick up a Land Rover. Back in Cumbria we had organised concerts, ran half marathons and gathered sponsorship to buy this Land Rover, put it in a container and ship it to Tanzania. It was to be donated to Uru Secondary School, a school high on the slopes of Kilimanjaro, with which my school had a recently established link. We were visiting the school for a month. Andrew and I had volunteered to join the Land Rover collecting party on its trip to Dar es Salaam. As well as Andrew, myself and the two teachers, there was Macha, the head of the board of Governors of Uru School, and McDonald Lemge , a pale skinned African with scottish roots – the chair of the local council in Moshi.
We’d set off at dawn from Uru in Lemge’s Land Rover, bumping down the most corrugated road I’d ever experienced – there seemed to be more hole than tarmac. The narrow back seat I had eagerly claimed had turned out the least comfortable, with luggage and myself sliding around and flung into the air with each major bump. I hid behind my walkman, and watched the alien landscape of mountains and plains roll past. After about 18 hours of driving, we started to hit traffic and better roads, and knew we were in Dar es Salaam.
The next day we recovered from the long drive, sunning ourselves on Oyster Bay beach. While the four wazungu chilled out, Macha and Lemge were busy making the most of the situation, and through contacts organised for us all to have dinner that evening with Mrema, the Vice Prime Minister of Tanzania.
In 1991, school exchanges between the UK and Africa were less common than today. Our presence had captured the attention of many people – we’d been dining as minor VIPs for much of the trip so far, although that often meant dining on blood soup and getting the finer cuts of meat such as heart, which wasn’t quite how we imagined VIPs were treated in the UK. To be invited to have dinner with one of the leading politicians in the country seemed a step up.
That evening we climbed back into Lemge’s Land Rover, and headed back out towards Oyster Bay to Mrema’s house, flood lit by fluorescent tubes and fenced off with metal gates and concrete walls topped with broken glass.
Mrema welcomed us into his home, much like that of other well to do Tanzanians. Family portraits glowered down on us. A child played with a remote control monster truck, then was quickly ushered away to bed. Mrema sat us down in his living room around a long coffee table. He sat at one end, and at the other was a large television which he barely looked away from during the audience. On the screen played a long series of trailers for Bollywood movies. I became accustomed to the plots. Boy meets girl. Boy and girl dance around trees in a forest, miming to shrill music. Girl is kidnapped by bald moustached villain in a hot air balloon. In seeking girl, boy participates in a number of elaborate dance routines in neon lit night clubs with a multitude of well choreographed extras. Boy find villain and takes extraordinarily violent revenge. Girl is rescued and dances with boy into the sunset accompanied by an even vaster dancing crowd.
Whilst engrossed in the series of vignettes, Roger and Pam were making small talk with Mrema about the purpose and values of the link. I got the feeling that, like me, the video was more interesting than this. Macha and Lemge had more pertinent matters to discuss – I later learnt they took the opportunity to stick the knife into some competitors back in Moshi.
Food was brought to the table – many plates of greens, ugale, meat stews, beans and stewed bananas. Towards the end of the feast, Marema introduced us to the servant who had been dishing this out – “This is my wife”.
The evening wound up. Mrema was probably ready to the move from the trailers to the main feature. Macha and Lemge had somehow already left in Lemge’s Land Rover leaving us with no vehicle. “My drive will take you back to your hotel”
Which is how we ended up in the Vice Prime Minister of Tanzania’s car.
As we drove back towards the centre of town, through the upper middle class suburbs, we reflected on the evening. None of us had been terribly impressed. I don’t know what we should have expected, but the nameless introduction to Mrema’s wife, the videos, and the conversation that had gone well over my 16 year old head had left us all with varying levels of culture shock, and we chit chatted on all aspects of our disappointment.
And suddenly, the drive pulled over, and said in perfect English “I’ll just be a moment” and jumped out of the car and ran into the darkness. Moments later, a large truck pulled up in front, The back of the truck was lined with soldiers, each with a large rifle slung over a shoulder. Roger said “I didn’t think he spoke English” and we all quickly regretted our idle talk. My imagination accelerated.
We are in the Vice Prime Minister’s car. Despite just possibly insulting him in front of his driver, those soldiers weren’t going to punish us. But why were they there? A coup in the night. Mistake identity. At this point I jumped out of the car myself, and made back towards the main road where traffic whizzed past. Andrew looked out at me incredulously. Roger looked green. Pam looked embarrassed. My heart thumped in my chest. I looked to the faces in the passing cars – please remember you saw me.
A few moments later, the driver returned and got back in. I sauntered back, and got in. “What were you doing?” someone asked. “I needed to get some air.”
Thinking back, we had stopped at a checkpoint, of which there were many at the time. The Vice Prime Minister’s car couldn’t just breeze through unannounced. The driver was just letting the check point know what was going on. But in my mind it had been a close call with accidental assassination, and on returning to Uru I regailed my companions with the story.
The experience spoiled me for the whole VIP experience, and a week or so later, I turned down the opportunity to have dinner with Julius Nyerere, preferring to build a barbecue pit – something I regret to this day.
A couple of weeks later, the Land Rover arrived at Uru Secondary School. It was symbolically delivered by Mrema. Whilst videoing this event, I had to jump out of the way as Mrema drove into the school yard to a thousand applauding Chagga.