We drive to the National Museum of Tanzania, through a mini traffic jam, and I see the first women wearing pants, as well as tourists dressed even more inappropriately than me. Along the water we see one naked man, shaking out his clothes to get dressed, and I presume they are the only set he owns. There are endless people waiting by the road. For what? Buses? I've read that when Americans see this, they usually interpret idleness, laziness, boredom, unemployment. But I don't think that. I think, how frustrating to have to wait on an uncertain timetable, maybe for your whole life. How annoying to not be at work when you want to - or to not be doing what needs doing. To not be caring for yourself, for your family, but to be waiting. Again and again.
The grounds of the museum are well kept, and beautiful even in the heat.
We don't stand out in Dar as we thought we would. There are some catcalls, some glances, but no open staring. There are tourists (you can tell by their clothes, not always by their race) from Asia, Europe, America. We ask our driver if there are a lot of tourists and he says, "Oh yes. Too many."
The museum begins with a bit of African bureaucracy, as Paul Theroux warned of. And while we're warning of things, let me warn you: Paul's Dark Star Safari has been my preparation, guide and still-current companion. Poor Meggie must already be sick of sentences that begin, "Paul says..." or "As Theroux tells me..."
Paul says the bureaucracy in African can be Rube Goldbergian. And here, we sign the foreign visitor registry, outside the gates, separate from the Tanzanian visitor book. It is manned by a serious government employee, and there a handful of his friends hanging around his glassed-and-barred-in kiosk. Then we go inside where it takes two more government employees to charge admission and fill out a lengthy handwritten carbon copy receipt, have us sign, and only then can we enter. No one else is in line, and we see no more than ten other (foreign) visitors in the museum. It's a nice winter Saturday, so this should be our first clue about the desirability of the destination.
It's heartbreaking. It appears that the printouts on old blue paper in Swahili and English are attempting explain everything under the sun that has touched Tanzania... but briefly, badly, and without real examples nearby. The history of the geology, geography, hunting, animals, artwork, human evolution, and AIDS are illustrated with pictures but few real items. Where an American museum would have prehistoric art, this museum has a bad reproduction of prehistoric art, or even worse, a picture of artwork that is surely housed in Paris or New York. The hunting display notes the use slavery in the ivory trade, and I tell Meggie to pose - she says she'll stand there but, "I'm not smiling in front of this!"
Our driver is very happy we're taking time to look thoroughly but he corrects us when we forget to take photos of things he believes we should be capturing. He is also very interested in our cameras, and puts me in front of the animal display and tells me to smile. I give a big, broad smile and he says, "Great picture!" while reluctantly handing the camera back. We're getting better at hearing through the Tanzanian accents, and as Paul would write it, he says, "Grate piktchuh."
I was not especially interested in posing in front of the saddest and most deflated examples of taxidermy I've ever seen (plus an elephant skull), but my low interest was not as powerful as my desire to respect and please him. So, as a result, you get this:
Through the museum, I continue thinking of the slightly adventurous breakfast and feel waves of nausea. Warmth. Worry. When we leave, he asks do we want to go one more place? No, I say, I better get back. Turns out, to spoil the next 36 hours' surprise for you: I do not end up getting sick. And Meggie reminds me later that jet lag is a full-body experience, and can include nausea, dizziness and that strange disembodied feeling.
- The display of human evolution;
- The bush artifacts display (and we'd go on to buy a basket exactly like the one on the right edge, making "artifact" a pitiful and angry joke to me, as these are still items in use everyday);
- An ancient bike, possibly with mud wheels;
- Plastic snakes in the biology "hall" (a small room). If you're going to have plastic snakes on display, why choose to keep the case so empty? Why not cram it full of things to label, write about, and look at?
The dioramas of rural life puzzle me. Like the sandals made of car tires that are described as something "someone might wear out of economic necessity". Like, you mean, someone I'll probably meet out in the street in a few minutes!?
In the first photo, those ropes - I didn't even notice until now. They increase my sorrow. Protecting a dusty display of manufactured plaster skulls and a peeling poster of the globe? I'll come to realize this is a pattern in Tanzania where I see an intense focus on the wrong things, in the wrong order. Not cell phones first but roofs. Not ropes to protect the gallery but a real historic display. Not matching school uniforms and a long school day but teachers trained properly and lessons that build on each other to achieve true learning.
I'm fascinated by the German automobiles displayed outside under an awning, the photo of a German Bwana being carried on what is called a "hammock" in the English description, and the metal Imperial coat of arms:
But the most amazing display to me is the one on HIV and AIDS. There is a photo of the current president of Tanzania, President Kikwete, getting an AIDS test. He's the first president to do so (!!!) and was setting an example for the country to follow. Most of the display makes little sense - including a few cartoons, showing (I think?) the increasing attention paid by the media and donor groups to AIDS. Can you explain either of these to me?
And then the AIDS chair, with the classic red ribbon...
It reads at the end, "Red colour was chosen to symbolize blood and danger. The tails of the ribbon pointing down was chosen to symbolize life flowing away."
That is the Tanzanian National Museum in a nutshell.