Butiama Bed & Breakfast

Butiama Bed & Breakfast

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Letter from Butiama: Up to my neck in snakes

This is one of numerous articles I wrote for the Sunday News (Tanzania) column "Letter from Butiama" between 2005 and 2011.
Those who read my column in the Sunday News (Tanzania), Letter from Butiama, will notice I frequently write about snakes. I come across snakes so often enough that I cannot avoid the subject. I feel like they are all around me. I look outside my window, and there is one crawling on the wall (photo, below). One got into my bedroom and to where I would normally step onto my sandals when I got off my bed.
On another occasion, while getting out of my room one night into a dimly lit corridor, I unknowingly stepped over another and closed the door behind me pinning it between my bedroom and the corridor. I came back, found it devastated by being caught on two sides of a door but alive and I, with the help of an extremely long pole, carried it out of the house to its salvation and freedom. I was asked by someone: 'Why didn't you kill it?' I found an answer in my ethnic roots.

First, it could have been Muhunda, I told him, the guardian spirit of the members of the Zanaki ethnic group of Butiama (each of the eight or so Zanaki localities has a separate guardian spirit). Muhunda is believed capable of transforming itself into a snake, or a leopard, or a male baboon. Muhunda is not quite the equivalent of a deity in other cultures; the Zanaki still have a conception of a god and heaven.

I count for a Zanaki, even though I can hardly speak the dialect. I also am, according to tradition, one of the guardians of the ancestral forest, also known as Muhunda, where the guardian Muhunda is said to visit from time to time. How can a warden kill the very being he is supposed to protect, particularly when that being is also believed to exist to protect the entire community.

I subscribe to the belief that there are few creatures that will not attack another creature unless threatened, except human beings who will attack other creatures, including fellow human beings, even where such a threat does not exist. Most snakes will not attack unless provoked or threatened, so I still feel safe to conclude I have no reason to kill all the snakes that I see.

I remain intrigued why the snakes are seldom seen in other parts of the house except my bedroom. I told the person who suggested I should kill the snake I thought the snakes were attracted by the music from my radio. Snakes are reported to be sensitive to vibrations and, perhaps, the more well-arranged the vibrations (translate that into good music) the more likely the snakes will get close to investigate.

If the snakes shared my taste for good music, I reasoned, there was one other good reason why I should spare them. His response was I listened to soft music. What if my premise was correct and I happened to be listening to charanga he asked, a description Tanzanians use for the various genres of lively popular versions of Latin American music? If my assertion was correct I would be up to my neck in snakes, a not so pleasant prospect.

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Thursday, 8 January 2009

Letter from Butiama: Name change operation

During my student days in Canada, I shared an apartment with an ethnic Chinese student from Malaysia who had a Christian name.

I told him I found it strange that a Chinese should have a Christian name. I was expecting to hear something like Lee Kuan Yew. He was also surprised to meet an African called Godfrey, my Christian name, although I know from experience he would have had great difficulty pronouncing "Mwita Chacha Marwa."

A Zambian I know says he will campaign for reversion to the original name of Victoria Falls, which to the Kalolo-Lozi people near the falls is known as Mosi-o-Tunya, meaning "the smoke that thunders." For a location that attracts many tourists there is a risk that such a name change could reduce the number of visitors. I imagine a potential tourist to the falls struggling for several minutes with a travel agent who has not heard of the new name and gives up in frustration and decides to travel to another destination.

Sometimes it is best to use indigenous names for people, places, and businesses. At other times it is better to swallow some local pride and stick to the old names to avoid some confusion, although the confusion could be temporary.*

The gradual acceptance of Pin-Yin, the Chinese phonetic alphabet, especially after 1979 when the Chinese Government prescribed its use in all translated diplomatic and foreign language publications, as the official record used in the People's Republic of China signalled a commitment to promote the use of the Peking dialect as the national standard. As a result Peking became Beijing and Chou En-Lai became Zhou Enlai.

Peking was used outside China for so long that it took a while to get used to pronouncing Beijing. Beijing used to sound "foreign"; today Peking sounds "foreign." The more than a billion Chinese probably don't need to campaign to anyone to make themselves heard. They decided Peking should revert to Beijing and the world towed the line. More likely than not, with the passage of time, people will forget the old names. Fewer Tanzanians today remember that Mozambique's capital Maputo used to be Lourenco Marques.

If East Africans decide that Lake Victoria should become Nyanza again, one wonders what would become of UK-East African relations. When the British explorer John Hanning Speke saw a big lake in the interior of East Africa in 1858, he named it in honour of his sovereign, Queen Victoria. That fact of history may be more apparent to the foreign visitor, to the tourist, and to the primary school student who has to pass an exam. I believe that to many of the estimated 30 million people living around Lake Victoria, that historic link with England is unknown. When you mention Victoria to someone in Mwanza, what is likely to come to mind is MV Victoria, the ship, not the Queen.

I would lean towards adoption of indigenous or local names rather than adopt foreign names. A friend called me recently to tell me that her brother had finally found a job "in Scandinavia". I was pleased, having known the trouble she had gone through to find employment for his brother. I asked her which of the Scandinavian countries her brother will be moving to.

She said, "The company! The bus company!" She had been referring to the Scandinavian Express Services Limited, the bus company, with headquarters at Gerezani, Dar es Salaam. I had almost landed in Helsinki, Finland.

*It is also possible for the confusion to persist indefinitely. I recently met someone from Tasmania who says letters for Tanzania frequently end up in Tasmania. Although the context is slightly different, it underscores the difficulty of distunguishing names when we have been subjected to a longer period of using a particular name.

Saturday, 3 January 2009

Visitors to Butiama

Some of last year's visitors to Butiama included the contestants of the Miss Vodacom Tanzania pageant.
Their visit in July included a visit to the Mwalimu Julius K. Nyerere Museum, and Mwalimu Nyerere's Mausoleum at Mwitongo. The visitors were entertained by a traditional dance group called Egumba Ngoma Group which performed various traditional dances of Mara region. In the past, Egumba performed at an arts festival in South Korea.

The amazing effect of visitors anywhere in Tanzania is they make the hosts put on some of their best clothes and appearance. I have seen individuals who normally dress casually, but as soon as the arrival of guests is announced they change into their best clothes. The beauty contestants' visit elicited similar reactions.

Likewise, I cannot adequately describe with words the excitement across all age groups that accompanied this visit. And the interest was not confined to boys and men only; the girls and women were equally excited.

Outgoing Miss Vodacom Tanzania Richa Adhia was also in the entourage. In the photo (above), I pose with her with Mt. Mtuzu in the background. Mt. Mtuzu is also known as "Vodacom". That's where mobile phone operator Vodacom has its cell site.

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