Peace Corps Writers
A Writer Writes
Read other short works about the Peace Corps experience Monsoon Time
in Tanga, Tanzania
October 2006
by Mark Hankins (Kenya 1983–87)


pied crow


IN THE MKONGE, a refurnished colonial hotel with grounds overlooking an old tropical harbor,Printer friendly version rain falls in torrents each night. Mombasa, a hundred kilometers to the north, is almost under water, and Kaloleni town is completely cut off by flooding rivers. The roar of night rain is broken each morning in a humid still, and I walk out of my room as poisonous vapors waft out of swamped gardens. Clouds of winged termites rise from the ground like snowflakes. The breakfast patio overlooks dhows on their way to sea; vervets watch us from perches on perimeter fence posts, and pied crows sit in the baobabs near the water. Water drips everywhere.
hijab      The turn of each day encompasses whole seasons. After the relative cool of morning, the equatorial sun blares through broken clouds, turning the green city into a hellish quagmire of red mud and bright reflected light. Inhabitants, dressed in skullcaps and hijab, seek shade, fans or air-conditioning. In the white glare of the streets, nothing moves. Lizards on walls flick their tongues, flies buzz, hidden birds caw. In the still heat, you can sense the growth of the underbrush, the naked tension of photosynthesis.

GASPAR AND I DRIVE across town each morning to the Vocational Education Training Authority (VETA) to teach a solar installation course. Through the neatly laid out town of 200,000, we pass the port, gardens, roundabouts and tree-lined streets on the way. There are old factories and warehouses — erected by Indian and Arab traders in the ’30s, nationalized by Nyerere in the ’60s, and privatized again in the ’90s — now working steadily. Billboards sell cell phones, toothpaste and hair gel. The railway passes the VETA and the cement factory on its way out of town.

PV = photovoltaic      We are teaching nine PV technicians from all over Tanga District. We start each morning at 8:30 and go until 5. We’ve been teaching this course for 15 years now, and it’s a routine: blackboard discussions of watt hours, in the sun with multimeters and solar modules. Battery acid, charge regulators, incident solar radiation. Tea breaks, PV prices. Etc. Etc.

buibui = black cover worn by some muslim women


     Late in the afternoon, back at the hotel. If you’re lucky, a breeze from the ocean kicks up and the miasma blows off. The city wakes up, breathes. Shaded spaces open. Bicycles and hand carts appear, women in buibuis & kangas walk to the market, men sit on stools in doorways talking. Muezzins amp up the mosque speakers, tuning in for prayer time.

elephant grass

     Lushness cloaks everything. Massive trees are everywhere – twisting vine-clad figs, ancient tamarind, medicinal neem, towering mangos, coconut palms, flame trees, citrus groves, cycads, albizzia, euphorbias. Thick growths of elephant grass. Here and there, ominous baobabs silhouette the skyline, bare of leaves, hanging bulbous seed cases. Invasive lantana thickets on the roadsides. The mkuyu, a tall white barked deciduous. Stately old msufi, bare of leaves and dangling cucumber-shaped pods that explode into puffs of cotton.


cumulus [cloud]


THE MKONGE HOTEL, named after the Swahili word for sisal, is out of town, towards the ocean. I take my run in the evening along the coast road leading out of the Pangani harbour, curving along the steaming mangroves. I pass the Lions Club bathing site, the yacht club, Indian drinking spots. Puddles from recent rain stand in potholes on the broken asphalt. The road turns south along the coast and passes sprawling walled compounds. Inland, baobabs loom out of the coastal forest — witchdoctors standing in the ocre sandy soils. Huge banks of cumulus ride in from the ocean. To the west, the setting sun shoots ripples of light against a bloodshot gelatin sky. I turn and run back the way I came. A stray cat crosses the road, turned to dirt on the outskirts. Near the signal lighthouse peninsula at the entrance to the harbor, a sunset wedding is being celebrated complete with blue-clad bride’s maids, brass band and taarab percussionists.
     Tanga is a sleepy mix of African, Indian, European and Arab cultures. This year Dawali, the Indian festival of lights, falls a few days before the end of the Ramadan fast, and Indians shoot roman candles from a cliff over the harbor. Things have temporary cleared up this evening — lights from signal lights, boats and residences shimmer off the water. Shrouds of the one big tanker in port are lit up, as if the ship is joining the festival. Firecrackers boom like artillery.

Mark Hankins, aka Markus Kamau, was a Peace Corps Volunteer science teacher near Mt. Kenya. His “secondary project”, training solar technicians to install and sell small solar electric systems, spawned the development of Kenya’s thriving solar energy industry. Hankins turned the secondary project into a career, and has since been working all over Africa to promote the use of solar energy. He has published three books on solar energy in Africa, and now consults for the World Bank, the United Nations and solar companies from his base in Nairobi. In his alternate career as a singer-songwriter, he has recorded three albums with African musicians. 
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