Apparently, green mambas have three scales between the eyes, whereas the harmless grass snake has four. This is one of the first things I remember learning when we moved to Dar, probably from one of the bigger boys. It was only later, once I’d carried a young cobra to the biology teacher’s house for identification, that someone thought to tell me that I should never get close enough to count.
For all the things that I loved about life in West Sussex, life as a child in Tanzania was bigger, wilder and more free. School ended at half twelve and then we were free to roam until the sun set at six. We lived on the secondary school campus and nowhere was off limits to us: not the askaris’ huts with their poisoned spears and arrows, not the diving pool with a leak but plenty of tadpoles if you could reach the bottom. Not the low roofs of the classrooms, on which we would play and ride our bikes, nor the flame trees into whose branches we hammered planks and made dens. I know, now, that we were safe, watched over by all the adults in the place, but back then we didn’t care. We were just kids, immortal and invincible, teasing scorpions behind the art room.
So many of my memories of that time are about animals – the baboon that stole the potatoes from my plate, the one-tusked elephant that hung around Mikumi Lodge, the rats that swam up through the toilets and ate our candles and plastic tupperware. Bright birds, in cages or tethered by one leg to a stick. Bush babies and monkeys for sale. Monitor lizards, appearing suddenly out of storm drains.
And driving to see more: lions and cheetahs, impalas and hyenas and giraffe. Tanzania is a huge country, and we thought nothing of driving for a day or two to get somewhere, see something. We saw black rhinos in Ngorogoro Crater, and swathes of flamingos shimmering on Lake Manyara. Wildebeest stirring up the landscape of the Serengeti, and hundreds upon hundreds of crocodiles in the Selous. We also drove out of the country, to Kenya, Malawi, and Zimbabwe and, when my parents wanted a little luxury, we travelled to the Old Town of Zanzibar, or to Swaziland, or to a tiny private island where we and the members of A-ha were the only residents for the week.
I’m not sure whether our Datsun pickup, shipped in second hand from China, had a tape player, but if it did I don’t think it worked. I can’t remember ever listening to taped music in that truck. What I do remember is my dad singing. He would sing Green Finger, and Wimoweh, and other songs from the sixties. Most of all, though, he would sing Kiss Me, Honey Honey, Kiss Me, and at the vital moment it was our role to come in with the much-anticipated uh-huh? I’m sure we must have squabbled over space in the back seat. I’m sure it was a little stressful driving with several jerry cans of fuel in the back, and hundreds of kilometres between mechanics. We broke down a lot, with one immortal repair in the form of our exhaust being stuck back on with chewing gum, but what I really remember is the singing, and the wildlife, and the possibility of it all.
In 1984, Tanzania was to all intents and purposes unchanged from the accounts I read about in Roald Dahl’s Going Solo. The minibus would drive us past his house on the way to the lower school site, and I’d look at the huge baobab in his front garden and not be the least surprised that nothing had changed. I haven’t been to Tanzania since 1999, when already the country I knew and loved was beginning to morph into something else. Every so often someone asks me whether I’d like to go back. The truth is that I couldn’t, even if I wanted to. The Tanzania of my childhood simply doesn’t exist anymore. It’s been engulfed by our new, globalised world. It’s a place where you are always connected. It’s not that I think progress is a bad thing. It’s just that I’d rather hold onto my memories as they are, wild and free and undoubtedly rose-tinted. Those first five years there were a time when anything could happen, and when I learned that that in itself is a wonderful thing.
PS – What about you? What form do your early years take, once they are distilled? And what song would you choose to summon them up? Let me know in the comments – I’d love to hear.