Mwanza was a random shot. I had three more days left in Tanzania and looked back on almost two weeks of hiking along the Ngorongoro Crater, escaping angry elephant herds in Ruaha National Park, marveling at the blood-red Lake Natron from the air and cooling off in the waterfalls of the Udzungwa Mountains. However, I was still looking for an even more authentic African vibe, so when I found Mwanza on the map, I knew I had to visit “Rock City”: a gold mining town with little touristic attractions – located directly at Lake Victoria.
My trip to Mwanza started off with quite the paranoia. A guy who knew a guy was able to organize a round-trip ticket for me, while I didn’t have any internet access in the Ngorongoro Crater to book the flight myself. I was supposed to transfer him the money via M-Pesa, a mobile money transfer system, but when I arrived in Arusha, I went by the airplane office and tried to pay in cash out of convenience. The gentlemen at the airline office asked me how much I was told to pay for my flight to Mwanza, and when I told him, he silently shook his head and gave me a bill to pay at the cash register – US$ 60 less than my initial price. I was really happy about this, so I paid the ticket and went to the airport the next day, when I unexpectedly got a call while waiting in front of the gate. “Where’s my money? I need my money!”, the guy on the phone asked with a raised voice. That’s when I realized that it wasn’t just a little favor, but that I actually circumvented his hefty commission. However, he not only wanted the commission, he wanted me to pay the entire round-trip ticket (it was roughly US$ 350 in total!). I immediately checked with the airline desk at the airport and they assured me that no other ticket had been issued and that the guy didn’t have to pay a cent – my name wasn’t even registered in their systems (except for my actual ticket). So I didn’t feel too bad about it, but when he started to shout really loudly the second time on the phone “I WANT MY MONEY! LEAVE THE AIRPORT NOW AND GIVE ME ALL THE MONEY”, I realized that I wasn’t in the most comfortable position (especially in a foreign country): he knew exactly my round-trip flight information. So I called our middleman, the nice guy who knew that guy, and he said he would try to sort it out. So I ignored the request to leave the airport, boarded the plane and embarked on my journey to Mwanza with a very uneasy feeling.
Out of the roughly 140 passengers on the plane, about ten were foreigners: a German family, a few Caucasian mining engineers and two Chinese businessmen. So it would have been fairly easy to figure out who the “tall white guy traveling alone with a backpack” was. When I arrived in Mwanza, I checked my phone immediately: no news. I took my bag, ignored everyone at the exit of the airport and walked at least 50 meters down the road until I could be absolutely sure that it was a random taxi driver that took me up. I gave him the address of the hotel that I had booked by myself. We drove into the city center of Mwanza and I slowly calmed down, even though that same white pick-up truck was right behind us for at least 20 minutes. But then it finally made a different turn. I was aware that I was overly paranoid, but when it gets you, it just gets you. I could still hear the voice of the other guy on the phone: “What am I going to tell my boss? I need my money!”. I did not know if he was desperate or angry, but I was strongly hoping for the latter. An angry man is easier to predict than a desperate one. I felt really bad, and also angry about myself: I should have realized that I was killing off his deal when I had paid in cash at the airline office. But even after having figured it out, I simply didn’t feel like getting ripped off by US$ 350.
I didn’t see any tourists in the streets while we drove through Mwanza’s city center. In any other moment, I would have been excited about this, but as I said, this time it got me. My hotel appeared at the end of an unpaved road a few minutes from the city and I immediately checked into my room. And I stayed there. And I was going to stay there until I had certainty. Finally, after almost an hour, my phone rang. It was my friendly contact, who told me that he had sorted it out, and if I would be willing to transfer US$ 30 to the upset middleman for all his troubles, he would be happy. US$ 30 sounded a lot more reasonable than the initial US$ 350 that he had demanded, so I gladly agreed and less than an hour later, I finally killed my paranoia with a simple M-Pesa text message.
I’m aware that this was a long prologue to my actual story about Mwanza, but it’s important to me as this is what I had been looking for: an authentic experience. I knew that Tanzania was one of the most developed, safest African countries, but I had heard the desperation in the guy’s voice on the phone and I knew that for many people in Africa, also in parts of Tanzania, life was cheap. I hadn’t eaten for many hours and my stomach slowly relaxed, so I walked up and down the streets to look for a nice place to eat. After my pizza, Mwanza slowly warmed up to the city I had imagined it to be: a lively, bustling African lake city.
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After having had this rough start, I decided to visit Tanzania’s smallest national park for a relaxing afternoon: Saanane National Park. The little island just off the coast of Mwanza was named after a lonely old man who had lived there and ultimately had to make way for the national park. They imported zebras and made it a funny little picnic island that you could explore only on foot, while enjoying the view on Lake Victoria. Saanane National Park was a nice walk and kind of cute, but that’s about it. I enjoyed talking to the friendly and professional guide Patricia who told me a lot about Mwanza. From the island, you had a great view on the city to your left and its slums to your right. While one side of the bay was romantic, the other side was dangerous and desperate. Patricia told me that they had piles of old tires as toilets, where all the feces simply poured out at the end. She didn’t recommend to go there, and I agreed. Mwanza was very hard for me to understand. In many situations, I wasn’t really sure if I should be there or not. When I walked up a Capri Point with huge villas where well-dressed school kids directly asked me on the street for money, when I was followed by a curious guy when I climbed the Bismarck Rocks at the shore for some photos or when I entered the huge Kirumba Mwaloni fish market as the apparently only foreigner. I always went forth with the assumptions that people in Mwanza were simply shy, even if they did not smile or wave back at all.
I can’t judge if it really was an “African” vibe, but it clearly was a different vibe than anything else I had experienced in Tanzania. Mwanza did not have as much to offer in regards to tourist infrastructure – hotels and similar often felt tailored to businessmen. The people (obviously) did not seem to be accustomed to tourists in the same way as in other extremes, such as in Moshi or Arusha. As I mentioned before, Mwanza was hard for me to grasp, but it did spark my curiosity and I would be willing to return there again. But next time definitely with a friend with good local knowledge that could help me make better sense of Rock City.
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I founded Don't Complain Travel in 2010 with the goal to experience, document and share travel adventures from all over the world. From Zurich, Switzerland.