A Return Trip to East Africa

What does it mean to go back to a place?

I’ve been back a month now from my last big international travels, a month-long trip to Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda.

The trip was spurred by the fact I knew I needed to get the stories of African volcanoes into my current book project. It was the last big trip I wanted to complete the book, which will cover my travels to volcanoes on seven continents. The trip was also planned around the fact that I have been to Tanzania twice before and wanted to return to see some old friends—and the last time I was there was in 2010. Nine years have gone by in the blink of an eye.

Returning to a country after nine years was a travel experience all its own. Maybe if it was four hundred years ago, not much would have changed in the country itself, but here in the twentieth century, nine years is a lot of time. The cities looked about how I remembered them, but tiny towns have become larger. Dar es Salaam has a brand new bus system, though most people still get around in rickety minibuses called daladalas (called matatus in Kenya and confusedly taxis in Uganda). A lot more roads are paved since my last visit. Air pollution seemed to have gotten worse (there are also 9 million more people living in Tanzania since I was last there), and more cars and motorcycles are on the roads. The newborn baby of my friends I visited in 2010 is now an accomplished nine-year old who speaks Kiswahili and English and loves sports.

The Kinumakori waterfall, Kilimanjaro region, Tanzania, has changed over time. On the left from November 2008, on the right from July 2019.

Since my last visit in 2010, more people have cell phones, and more people with cell phones have smartphones, a trend of course in not just Tanzania, but in the USA and around the world. That brought with it the biggest change: there were ads and signs for mobile money everywhere. People can pay in restaurants and shops with even a clunky Nokia cell phone. (Read about this in Kenya here). Now shops that used to be painted with the colors of the main mobile phone companies of  Vodacom, Tigo, and Airtel are advertising their mobile money services of M-Pesa, Tigo Pesa and Airtel Money. In Kenya, it’s all about Safaricom.

The Safaricom mobile phone company competes with CocaCola for advertising space in Nakuru, Kenya.

Fashion looked about the same as I remembered, with Tanzanians smartly dressed in a combination of western clothes, some Muslim robes, and brightly colored kanga and kitenge wraps for women. However, the Zanzibar pizza I had at the Forodhani night market in Stone Town was not as good as I remembered. Was it that my memory had made it better in my mind? Was it a different recipe? Or the fact that I have been making my own version of the dish since that I am now used to?

The streets of Stone Town, Zanzibar looked about as I remembered them, but the Zanzibar pizza disappointed.

Part of the changes are certainly my own memories. Memories of places and travel do tend to get rosier over time, I think, and you have to realistically prepare for changes of a place when you go back to it.

I spent time catching up in Tanzania, but most of the trip was in Kenya and Uganda. As countries that share similar cultures—and sometimes even the same tribes—and are all part of the East African community, I was intrigued to see what was different and what was the same. Southern Kenya was so similar to northern Tanzania that I kept forgetting what country I was in as I traveled around. I was surprised how different Uganda was, however. Its precolonial history was much different than either Kenya or Tanzania’s (they had uniting kingdoms before the British takeover), and English was the lingua franca, not Kiswahili. While the landscapes in Kenya and Tanzania are quite varied, Uganda seemed mostly green highlands, a contrast from the plains and mountains of southern Kenya. I was happy to simply learn more about more parts of the world as I traveled.

I was also exploring the stories of East African volcanic landscapes while I was there, and this region offered a lot: the Great Rift Valley hosts many dormant volcanoes and the region is dotted with craters, calderas, cones, and tall mountains. There were also geothermal plants in Kenya, hot springs in western Uganda and of course Mount Kilimanjaro itself (which is in Tanzania, though you wouldn’t know it by the amount of times it appears in Kenya’s tourism ads). The mountain is just one example of how East African countries are linked despite the mostly arbitrary country lines drawn—landscapes know no nineteenth century colonial boundaries.

Hiking the Longonot Volcano in the Great Rift Valley, Kenya. Photo by Wen Huang.

It was nice to go back, nice to see some new things, and I am excited that it is the last big trip for the book. I am in the slow process of typing my journal and going through photos and videos before I get the first draft of those chapters and the book finished.

Stay tuned this fall and winter for more book updates and make sure you follow me on Instagram @bryannaplog if you want to see more photos—always with in-depth descriptions of #funfacts—of my travels.

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