Butiama Bed & Breakfast

Butiama Bed & Breakfast

Sunday, 8 September 2013

On cycling, and the connection between strange hairstyles and the English language

I recently found myself at the beginning of a long distance cycling challenge, having talked myself into accompanying Ross Methven on his Edinburgh (Scotland) to Cape Town (South Africa) epic cycling voyage.

He is currently cycling though Tanzania and visited me at Butiama where during an evening of drinks (some of them not non-alcoholic) I gave him some route advice on how to get from Arusha (where he had left his bicycle) to Dodoma and onward to the southern Tanzanian border with Malawi as he charted the resumption of his trip to South Africa.

Before the evening was over, I (and probably with some influence from those not non-alcoholic drinks) had proposed an alternative route that began at Butiama, proceeded to Ukerewe Island, Mwanza and down on the main highway towards Dodoma and further to Iringa. I told him if he chose the alternative route, I would accompany him with my bicycle. He did and the story is still unfolding here.

Long distance cycling, I soon found out, has peculiar characteristics and considerations. First, it is a huge challenge. If riding several kilometres leisurely once a week can be a challenge for some then riding an average distance of 55 kilometres (sometimes as far as 80 kilometres in a day) would be a nightmare for most normal people.

Second, it is a mistake to ride in public with an unusual hairstyle. Several months ago, an old friend from Canada informed me that the 'afro' hairstyle has been back in vogue in Canada for some time. I had then just found a cure for my perennial dandruff problem (by eating a fresh orange every day) and was allowing my hair to grow longer. She encouraged me to "go for the 'fro'", as she put it. I did. Perhaps it could have worked in Canada, but was not the best decision ahead of cycling long distance in Tanzania. It is a huge distraction.

The fact that I am increasingly resembling Wole Soyinka does not worry me. The problem is this: with the large white rimmed sunglasses that Ross gave me when we began to ride from Butiama, most people we meet along the way assume that I am a foreigner. Ross rides ahead of me and when pedestrians see Ross and then I (with the huge white-rimmed sunglasses and a matching afro hairstyle) following behind they put one and two together and begin to address me in English.

Cycling consumes a lot of energy and after 50 kilometres of cycling, I normally try to avoid speaking to anyone in any language to conserve my energy on cycling. But, unfortunately, Tanzanians are one people who are always so eager to speak to foreigners. When in good spirits (which is rare when cycling for 80 kilometres against a head wind and trying to dodge rogue drivers who regularly force you off the tarmac) I respond to the greetings with: "Good afternoon to you." When not in a good mood I ask in Swahili: "Don't you speak Swahili?"
On the second day of cycling, with Bunda's Mt. Balili in the background.
Yesterday one of my uncles suggested that perhaps it's time I trim the hair to 'normal.' He made it sound like it was time to end the rebellion on whatever issue I had in mind.

I notice that, increasingly, when I engage people in conversation, rather than making eye contact, they look at my hair.

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