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The Lizard, the Witch Doctor and the Wazungu – Moshi and Zanzibar, Tanzania

The Lizard, the Witch Doctor and the Wazungu

Moshi, Tanzania

I wasn’t sure if I should write about all this but the owl says it’s cool to talk about the jellyfish. So here goes…

I spent the last year living in Moshi, near Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Last year for New Year’s Eve, I was going to take a bus to a town called Tanga on the Indian Ocean Coast for a big party at a friend’s house. Just as I was at the front of the line at the station to buy my ticket, my phone did a-start a-beepin. I looked at it and there was a message. It read, no lie, “Hey Ted, this is Sophia and Jacque’s friends Dean and Caz and we have one spot going to Tanga tomorrow in a car. You wanna come?” I called them and said yes, yes I would be taking that spot.

Turkish Delight. Gotta love it.

So the next morning, I caught a taxi into Moshi town to meet up for the ride at a local watering hole. I sat there enjoying a rare moment to sit in town, relax and people-watch. While I was there, a midget in an African robe on crutches came over and greeted me. We shook hands and we traded pleasantries. He went over to another table and talked in Swahili to some other folks – everyone in the place seemed to know him. Mini-buses drove by with Gari boys hanging off the side yelling out names of places they claimed to be heading.

So then they showed up and off we went. The road to Tanga from Moshi is the same road that goes to Dar es Salaam. It runs along the Pare and Usambara mountains on one side, along plains and fields on the other. The ride out there is just beautiful.

I was staring out the window at the mountains when Nigel, the dude driving, swerves and says “Holy shit, did you see that?!?” So we were all “What?!?”

The Lizard in the Road
The Lizard in the Road
So he turns the car around and we drive up to some kind of 4 foot long lizard thing that had bee struck by a vehicle and was laying half dead in the road. So we stared at him for a while; he was just kind of staring into space and would occasionally flex his claws and open his mouth.

We all stood for a few minutes with these “What do we do with this thing?” looks on our faces. We discussed putting him out of his misery but no one quite knew how to do it humanely so we pulled him by the tail out of the road and took off to Tanga.

So further on up the road we got a flat tire and we sprung into action and changed that tire like a pit crew at the Indy 500. Nothing could stop us now. Nothing except of course a second flat tire when you have already used your spare tire.

We were only 90 kilometers from Tanga when the second tire went. The first one had disintegrated, obviously a bad retread. This one just seemed to just go flat. To make matters worse it was now dark and raining and we couldn’t really get far enough off the road to be safe. The road from Moshi to Tanga is straight, well paved, sparsely populated and trucks, minivans, busses and cars fly at ludicrous speeds.

We took off the spare and we flagged down a minivan heading back to the town we passed about 15 kilometers earlier. I stayed in the car with another passenger in the dark and rain. I mentally prepared myself that I might be spending New Year’s Eve in this car; I figured at the very least we could hitch a ride to the small town we passed earlier and have a party with some new friends. The beach house in Tanga would obviously be a finer destination, but the chances of changing a tire in the middle of Tanzania in the rain on New Year’s Eve didn’t seem too good.

After only an hour the tire returned with our teammates intact. I was rather happily surprised, I must confess. We saddled up and hit the road, Jack, to hopefully not come back, for a couple days. We arrived in Tanga giddy to have made it by 10:00 p.m. I won’t go into the details of the party but I think you can imagine 50 Tanzanians and foreigners with copious amounts of food and medication.

So after a couple days of fun in the sun, we packed up the van and got ready to head back to Moshi and start our New Year. We were all a little paranoid in the vehicle as you can imagine, tired and hoping to get home without any problems. We were hoping to meet up with some other friends coming from Dar es Salaam to caravan back to Moshi and that made us feel a little better about our chances of arrival.

So we met up with our friends, stopped for a bite and traded stories of our festivities. We then hit the road; night settled and the car grew silent. Our friend’s car was nicer than ours and they frequently sped ahead. We lost site of them for a while, then saw them pulled over up ahead right around where we had seen the lizard. We stopped to see what was going on.

“Did you see that guy in the road?” asked our Tanzanian friend Sam while he smoked a cigarette outside the car.
“What guy?”
“That dude in the road.”

There were a couple of other cars pulled over. We walked over to see what was going on. As I grew closer, I saw a shadow on the ground that turned out to be a man who had been hit by a car and left in the road to die. As the light from my flashlight approached him, a large area around him reflected back up at me. I walked up and looked down and saw that it was blood.

The beam from my flashlight illuminated his face and I could see that it wasn’t good. It looked pretty bad to me – I’m not an EMT but I thought he was beyond help, especially in Tanzania. He would roll around from time to time a bit and groaned some but was basically unconscious. So we stared at him for a minute, not sure what to do. Scattered pieces of plastic from car headlamps were spread around him on the road. The blood around there was dried so I figured he had been here at least a little while.

So Nigel spoke up first. “We can’t leave him here.”
“Dude, you can’t touch him. The police will arrest you and say you hit him.” said Sam.

We all discussed the best options for a few minutes. I thought moving him could hurt him worse if he had a back injury. One of those situations arose for a few minutes where the three foreigners wanted to put the guy in the car and take him to a hospital and the locals said you would end up in jail and we should just leave him. I’m not Tanzanian so I can’t say they were wrong about the police – I’ve long since learned that police in Africa may not always be your best friend. I went back and looked at the guy again. So we all decided to go get the police up the road and bring them back to get the guy.

We carefully rolled the guy on to a tarp and moved him out of the road. Trucks were roaring past and there was a chance he would get hit again. The other vehicle went and got the police. We continued back to Moshi in a very quiet car. Everyone was concerned for the guy. We didn’t know what the police would do with the guy, if they would really help him, if anyone could help the guy.

The ride between Moshi and Tanga
The ride between Moshi and Tanga
The entire time we were handling the situation and on the quiet ride home, I had an odd thought in my head: This dude was the lizard.

I blocked it out because for a time because I needed a clear mind to handle the situation. Also, I felt like it was disrespectful of this guy’s suffering to think that way. None the less, the thought wouldn’t leave my mind as we left the scene; this guy did voodoo, turned himself into the lizard and when he got hit, his powers weakened and he turned back into a human.

In Cameroon, where I used to live, it’s widely believed that witchdoctors can turn themselves into animals. Some extremely educated, intelligent and well traveled people there that I respect very much would swear to me that it’s the truth. I think you need to live in that environment to understand. The thought just stuck with me but I didn’t say anything to Team Wazungu for fear of sounding loony.

A few days later, Team Wazungu met up again for some goat. We discussed what happened. It was after a while that Dean said, “You know we found the guy kind of near the lizard…” So then it all spilled out. Nigel was skeptical; I said I didn’t really believe it but also that I couldn’t get it out of my head. After the goat was exhausted, we went our separate ways.

I was traveling to Zanzibar soon and had to laundry that night. By the time I hauled my clothes to hang them it was past midnight. I walked outside and looked up and there was this huge owl sitting on the post for my clothesline.

We stared at each other for around 5 second but it felt like 5 days. Owls do have a very eerie stare about them, especially the way the head just turns and focuses on you. I think I can safely say the owl was 3 feet tall. My thoughts raced for something to say to the owl but my mind went blank. Somehow the first thing that popped out of my mouth was “Hey got any Italian in you?” which was a dumb thing to say, I know, but I was nervous.

The owl spread his wings, turned and lurched into flight. I stood there dumbstruck for a few seconds, until it became painfully apparent that I was standing in a pile of biting ants. If you’ve ever walked into ants, you know how painful it is.

The problem is that of all the animals frequently cited in Cameroon as a probable witch doctor, the owl was tops. The left side of my brain told me that Kilimanjaro is filthy with owls and it was just a coincidence that I saw one that night. The right side told me that I had just stumbled across a witch doctor on the road that he had later appeared to me as an owl and made the ants come out and bite me.

Anyway, in the light of day, it didn’t seem very worrisome. I did my job, ate my lunch, scratched myself and went home. The owl thoughts faded after a few days. I think that the fact that I was soon to be heading to Zanzibar, an tropical island, took over my thoughts.

So we arrived in Stone Town, the capitol of Zanzibar and decided we needed weed. The suggestion was made “Why don’t you call Culture (my Rasta friend back on the mainland) and see if he knows anyone in Stone Town?” It made perfect sense but retrospect, it was a bad idea.

There’s a scam in Zanzibar that happens frequently where a tourist will try to buy weed on the street, they will sell it to him then tip the cops (or fake cops) who take the dope and whatever money the tourist has then give the seller a cut. They may take the tourist to jail to shake him down for more money, they may actually arrest them – it’s 25 years for possession there. But I figured if it was a friend of Culture, it was cool. So I called Culture and he said “Go to the curio shop next to the surf shop below (some) hotel by the beach and ask for Oumare. He will take care of you.”

So we found the place and after some negotiations left with a small green purchase.

We did the Stone Town thing for a day then headed up to the white sandy beaches. We settled into our hotel room, then I hit the water. It was warm like a sauna, almost too warm. I floated around a Dhow and saw some of those spiky urchin things in the water. I’ve heard it hurts to step on them. “I better avoid them”, thought I.

I floated around some happily awash in the fact that I had avoided this bristly peril. It was just then that I was suddenly stricken with the most searing pain I had ever felt in my life across my neck and stomach. I was only in 4 feet of water so I lurched out of the water. My neck and stomach were on fire. I clawed at my neck and looked at my hand there was blue goop on my fingers.

Jelly fish goop.

My hand started to burn and I shook them off in the water and tried to wash the fucker off with sea water. I ran out of the water yelling a series of profanity. The cook at the hotel wandered out to see what was going on while a friend scraped some more blue goop off of my neck with a piece of coconut that had been fashioned into our room key holder.

I am pretty good with pain. I sold bone marrow, had a root canal, broke my arm and always dealt with it. Up until that point in time I thought the time I was dragged to “Patch Adams” was always going to be the most painful two hours of my life. This topped it. It was like burning and stabbing at the same time. Some of my fingers swelled up from where I had touched the jellyfish.

My Neck after the Jelly Fish
My Neck after the Jelly Fish
I went back to the room and tried to pee in my hands but I was dry. I went back outside and held ice bottles against my neck. My stomach wasn’t hit as bad so I could lay down some. Finally the cook came over and asked if I wanted some local medicine. “Yes please” I said. I sat there imagining some exotic Zanzibar papaya-hibiscus-aloe potion that would be sure to help. He came back, the stuff was applied and sure enough, it made the burning diminish significantly. “What is this stuff?” I asked.

“Soy sauce and lemon juice.” After a few hours it felt no worse than a sunburn.

We went for a walk on the beach late in the afternoon. There were jelly fish all over the beach. We could hardly walk without stepping on one. We stared at a few of them. They are strangely beautiful and disgusting at the same time; dark blue creatures laying on a bed of the finest sand in the world. I don’t know if jellyfish have a consciousness, but I imagined the jellyfish looking up at me, seeing the burn on my neck, and nodding approvingly. As it turns out, the jellyfish tide happens every year for two weeks in January at this beach.

The rest of the trip was blissfully uneventful. We met up with some other friends at a non-jelly fish beach. The beaches are the nicest beaches I have ever seen in my life. From 10 a.m. to 3-4 p.m. it is hard to swim because the tide goes out really far. But in the morning and evening the water is amazing colors, warm and buoyant.

So our last day in paradise, we were having lunch when some more friends we had met up with. A shaved-head Canadian dude had tagged along with my red haired friend Emma. He recounted a story about how while in Stone Town, police had grabbed them, accused them of having drugs, taken them to the police station, searched them, threatened them with imprisonment, and kept saying they knew they had drugs and were going to search his hotel room. Luckily for them, they didn’t have any and were eventually allowed to leave.

I looked at red haired Wendy, who had been me when I made my purchase, felt my shaved bald head and Wendy was nodding back at me. Had the dudes in the surf shop tipped off the local cops to look for a red haired woman and a bald dude? Probably not, but I figured I wouldn’t buy dope in Zanzibar anymore, even if the owl was looking for some.

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