A Night in Bizarro World

Somewhere deep in the thick bush of Africa… okay not really, more like in the outskirts of the most touristy town of Tanzania (Arusha), we were staying at The White House hostel. Bunk beds had been moved into the rooms of a large colonial white house in the middle of a Tanzanian neighborhood and named a hostel. This fenced off “mansion” of sorts felt out of place in the midst of the tiny tin roofed neighboring homes.

A part of the walk from the White House Hostel out towards the highway where you can catch a dala dala.
a “nicer” neighborhood in a town outside Arusha

We’d come to this hostel because of its high reviews and tantalizing promise of WiFi (a rarity in those parts.) The hostel turned out to be a not so pleasant place and there was, in fact, no working WiFi.

Years on the road has definitely taught us not to trust the reviews.

Nevertheless, we’d already booked ourselves a 3-night stay. 

It was 2020 and I was doing my university classes online, instead of in person in Taiwan. In fact, I met a good number of other European students who were traveling Tanzania while doing their studies online. “Why should we sit at home while paying for university?” one French guy told me. “We can’t be with our classmates, so might as well go have new experiences and new views like this one at the same time,” he concluded, waving his hand at the city of Arusha below our hostel windows.

Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

WiFi was necessary for taking my end-of-semester online accounting exam at 3am. (Hello, time zone problems!) Up until then, I’d been doing all my teaching work and schooling at a coworking space in the middle of Arusha. It was located in the only building I knew of that had a generator for when the power went out- which was usually several times a day.

The coworking space wouldn’t be open at 3am though of course. So, failed by the new hostel, I bought a SIM card (although sims were notoriously slow + difficult to get to connect) and prayed that it would load my MS Teams and send my exam through to my professor in those fleeting 5 extra minutes that online students were allotted to submit it.

Evening view from the coworking space in Arusha

It was 12am, midnight. I was sitting out on the porch on the second floor of the hostel. I had chosen this spot because it was the only place where I could both have a light on without disturbing anyone who was sleeping and get my SIM card to connect. 

A bit of nervousness began to set in. It was my first year of university and here I was taking a final exam in the middle of the night with testy WiFi in Tanzania. Oh boy.

My MS Teams loaded (phew!) and I was chatting with my other online classmates while doing some hardcore reviewing in the last hours before the exam. At least, studying was the intention.

A local girl who worked at the hostel and a group of young European hostel guys had bought a bunch of beers, turned up their music and were yelling and laughing and having a heck of a loud time, just outside the hostel, just under the porch I was sitting on.

I didn’t dare move from my precarious WiFi connection spot, so I simply figured they’d probably stop partying in a while- hopefully at least before the exam began at 3am.

It was 2:30am now and the rowdy group had finally gone off to bed. All was quiet, not even a peep. Ah, I would be able to concentrate on the exam in peace! What a relief.

3am rolled around, the professor released the exam, and a few excruciating minutes of slow downloading later, I had the exam questions.

Massive mosque in downtown Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaah, the call of prayer began. Somehow there was a mosque seemingly in our backyard with a speaker pointing right toward us. It wasn’t your regular call to prayer either. This one kept going and going and going…

Shut up, shut up! It’s not even Ramadan, go to sleep! I screamed in my head, as I continued to scribble down my accounting answers and click away on my calculator. All that yelling had better not make me start over on my calculations. There wasn’t time for that!

Was it 45 minutes later? or something like that, when the mosque minaret finally went mute.

It was around 3:45am.

The accounting exam was a lengthy one. I still had at least another hour of scribbling to go. But at least the screeching call to prayer was over. My teeth could stop sitting on edge.

It couldn’t have been more than 15 minutes later, I’m not kidding you. 4:00am: that’s when the “church”, which somehow also happened to be right in our backyard with a speaker pointed toward us, started up their singing, clapping, drumming, and guitars. 

I was flabbergasted. Stunned. What kind of joke was this? I wanted to laugh. I thought I might cry.

We were supposed to be in the middle of nowhere! In a rural neighbourhood! Why was there a mosque and a church at our back door? Why were their speakers so loud, so powerful?

And apparently 4:00am was worship time. 

How was that possible.

Now, while Tanzania surely has its fair share of real Christians, we were sorely disappointed to find that what is called a church in Tanzania is nothing close to being Christian. It was actually a strange mix of new age and witchcraft, but with lots of loud music and the tendency to broadcast their sermons on speakers, subjecting the whole village to hearing it.

There was no more peace during the exam. The music lasted well through the rest of it. Not until sometime after I had submitted my answers, maybe around 5:30, did the world go quiet.

I remember sitting there, on that porch exam finished, computer closed, eyes red and tired, just reveling in the silence and stillness that would soon break as people began to rise and get ready for the day. The sky was already showing a rosy pink and the glow of the morning brought everything into a soft light.

It had been a bizarrely noisy night. My focus was tested and tried, but that was alright. What really mattered was the little weak SIM card that didnt give up or give out. It got that exam in on time!

Done for the night (or done in, more accurately), I slunk back to the hostel room and climbed up to my bunk for an hour of rest before getting up, trekking out to the highway, jumping on a dala dala (a shared minibus), riding into town, then catching a bodaboda (a motorbike “taxi” that you can jump on the back of) to the coworking and taking the next exam and doing a day of teaching.

A little view from the back of a bodaboda on the way to the coworking space in Arusha

When thinking back on the memory of that insane exam night, I can’t help but laugh. The absurdity of the sequence of noises made me feel like I’d been, as my mom likes to say, in some kind of bizzaro world.

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