The night outside my window is alive with sounds: crickets, night birds, a television from someone’s room, laughter from somewhere down below, and just now, a somnolent call to prayer. But underlying all of that, booming, throbbing from every direction, comes the sound of drums. Big, deep bass drums and a smaller backbeat, accompanied by big voices, harmonizing, and laughter, and the occasional joyful ululating cry of a woman, a virtual soundtrack from a Hollywood production of Africa.
It’s been like this every night since I arrived, my mind filled with warnings from well-meaning friends of the dangers of the African darkness. My first night here, I lay in my bed, my mind filled with images of what must be out there: I imaged some sort of primal ritual involving bare-chested, sweaty people beating giant tom-toms around fires. I sensed that something very tribal was going on, and that I needed to be a part of it.
I was torn. As a journalist, I know very well that the best stories lay on the other side of my fears. On the other hand, I had been warned that it wasn’t safe for a woman to be outside at night. I wasn’t quite sure what it was I was supposed to be afraid of: man-sized mosquitoes waiting to inject me with malaria serum or serial killers hanging out behind trees waiting to grab unsuspecting mzungus (the Swahili word for white people, of which there are very few in these parts).
I had hurried back to the hotel after the Internet café closed at dusk, trying to beat the clouds of mosquitoes that supposedly came out after dark here. As I stepped out onto the street, I noticed people everywhere – men, women, old people, children – probably heading quickly to the safety of their homes, I imagined. But they were not hurrying. It was quite dark when I arrived, and the mosquitoes never materialized.
Later, as I lay huddled in my bed under my mosquito net, listening to the commotion all around us, I ridiculed myself. I realized that probably the only people in town who were locked inside were Paula and me. I longed to go out and follow those drumbeats, to see where they led. But I didn’t yet know more than a handful of words in Swahili – enough to say “how are you,” “very well,” and “thank you,” but not enough to say “get away from me.”
Besides, Paula had offered to take me to a Catholic sunrise service, and she would be knocking at 6 a.m. So prudence being the better part of valor, as they say, I slept fitfully until just before dawn, when the drumbeat died away. My second night I worked until midnight writing stories from the previous two days. I didn’t imagine that, it being Sunday, a similar commotion would arise.
I was wrong. I felt the inexorable force of curiosity pull me out of my bedroom and I found myself asking Judith and Mulungi, the girls in the reception, about the noise.
“It is the night clubs,” Judith said, apologetically. “It is bothering you?”
“Actually,” I said, “I was thinking I’d like to go. What do you think? Is it safe?”
“You want to go?” The girls examined me incredulously, and then burst into peals of laughter.
“You want to go dancing?”
A rapid-fire exchange in Swahili between the two ensued. The next thing I knew, Judith was leading me by the hand into Lundi’s Night Club. Past a lineup of police on motorcycles, apparently keeping the peace. Through a cluster of men, a few of whom eyed me curiously but said nothing.
The place was packed. A Tanzanian blend between hip-hop and reggae, with some modern African beat mixed in, pounded the air from giant speakers; light flashed from slowly rotating disco balls, flickering on the faces of the dancers. The entire nightclub, it seemed, was a pulsating dance floor.
Judith held tight to my hand and steadily wove her way through the crowd to the back, where the wall was lined with sofas and a friend greeted her. Nelson was his name, and he flashed a brilliant smile, shook my hand warmly and invited us to sit. He was a short young man, but what he lacked in stature he more than made up for in style. He was oddly but carefully dressed, in a collared button-down shirt trimmed in brown fake fur, a Rolex-style watch over one long sleeve and a brown knit cap on his head. I invited the two of them to a “Kili” (slang for Kilimanjaro, the popular Tanzanian beer) and they happily accepted. At 1,500 shillings a bottle, it wasn’t something they indulged in very often, I could tell.
As I looked around the dance floor, I noticed several people had brought in their own drinks – boxes of mango juice from the nearby duka (convenience shop) seemed to be the most common. Smoking was not allowed, so the air was clear.
I settled in to take in the crowd; in most ways, it could have been a subdued and less racy version of a U.S. nightclub. The dancers were all conservatively and respectably dressed, and the dance moves were graceful and in some cases joyful, but much less suggestive than what I’d witnessed earlier this year in a Padre Island nightclub.
It was, to be frank, a little disappointing. I had hoped to find a live band, African drummers, some authentic remnant of the traditional culture. Instead, I found an all-black version of American Bandstand.
No matter. I determined to settle in and observe the crowd. As with birdwatching, one must be patient in the observation of nightlife, and one’s patience is often rewarded.
Judith invited me to dance, and I agreed. I was the only white person in the club, perhaps in the history of the club, but nobody stared. I was within inches of other dancers, but nobody touched. One young man caught my eye and invited me to dance, and I looked the other way; my refusal was accepted with good grace, and he moved on.
What a contrast to my experiences in nightclubs in Latin America, where a blonde woman without a male companion is guaranteed an occasionally overwhelming stream of piropos – catcalls, compliments and persistent pleading invitations. Here I sensed the palpable protection of respect.
We made our way back to our spot on the sofa, where Nelson invited me to dance. I looked at Judith and she urged me on with a smile. I insisted that she join us. Soon Nelson was showing off his fanciest moves. It didn’t take long to observe that Nelson had his own style – more Diana Ross than John Travolta, and it dawned on me that we were in very safe hands with Nelson.
I began matching his twirls and flourishes and felt an exuberant laugh bubbling up from deep inside. I was in the middle of nowhere, Africa, dancing with my hotel’s receptionist and a gay man, and we were all having the time of our lives.
Suddenly, a serious-looking man came up to Judith and pulled her aside. She’d been trying to reach a friend on her cell phone since we were back at the hotel; it seems this was him.
She came back and continued dancing, though less animated than before. Finally she tapped my shoulder. “Tracy, let’s go,” she said, grabbing my hand rather abruptly.
“OK,” I said, waving a quick goodbye to Nelson, and we were working our way back through the pulsating crowd. “What’s wrong? Is there a problem?” I asked, fearing that I’d been oblivious to some sort of menace, or had somehow overstepped my bounds. Was my dress too revealing? My dance too free?
“No, no problem.”
“Is your boyfriend upset?”
We were out in the parking lot now, and the boyfriend was waiting, unsmiling, at the edge.
“He’s my husband, actually … but it’s ok.”
I was shocked – she didn’t look old enough to have a husband. But then, I had to remind myself, this was Africa.
“Please tell him it was my fault, Judith. I don’t want him to be angry with you because of me. Tell him I needed your help, that I am doing research for a newspaper article…” It sounded lame, even to me. He launched into her with a barrage of Swahili. She tried to defend herself – I heard the words “gazeti” (newspaper) and “ingereza” (English).
“Tell him I am so grateful to you,” I said. “Tell him that I said you behaved as a perfect princess.”
She tried to suppress a smile and she translated, but he didn’t budge.
I intervened with every apologetic word or phrase I knew: “pole pole, (sorry sorry)” “pole sana (very sorry),” and “samahani (pardon me),” which usually produced a smile – but he wouldn’t even look at me. It was clear that nothing would assuage him. Finally Judith shook her head and grabbed my hand.
“Let’s go,” she said, and we headed back to the hotel. “Tanzanian men,” she muttered on our way back. “You see what we have to live with? They don’t understand that you can just go to a nightclub and have fun with your friends. He thinks it’s something bad.”
Back at the hotel, I apologized profusely. Judith shook her head.
“He is fine,” she said. “I’m glad I went. Everything will be ok, don’t worry.”
The next morning at the reception, Judith was her usual reserved, professional self. Nobody asked me about the nightclub. It was as if it had never happed.
But that night, when the drums began, I smiled. I now knew what was behind the sounds, and I wasn’t afraid. For the first time since I’d arrived, I slept like a baby. And for the rest of my time in Bukoba, day or night, I came and went as I pleased.