Mwanza airport, bound for Kigoma.


Mwanza is Tanzania’s second largest city after Dar es Salaam…. with an airport terminal like 1950s Broken Hill.

It’s like everything in this part of the world – utilised to the maximum, showing its wear and tear, but achieving its purpose – although the absence of a luggage carousel created a near riot as bags were shoved through a slot on the wall to a crowd of impatient and jostling travellers.

But amazingly it all worked. I’m in the jump seat next to our pilot, Augustine, in his single engine Cessna “grand caravan”, hoping this vantage point will prove good for filming. All the while I was thinking “gee, my Dad would love this!”, being the aircraft enthusiast he is. It really is something else seeing the landscape from the air, from the grassy plains to the rolling hills and jagged mountains giving way to the sculpted shore of Lake Victoria – the human eye does a much better job of it than any camera through the perspex windows can.

Kigoma airport appears scanter still, if that’s possible. We don’t even enter the building, ushered instead to a waiting car that takes us to the local refugee management headquarters where we go through the necessary protocols. “We were expecting you last night so that we could start early today”. “Yes, we missed our plane, so have to make the most of what time we have. Our charter flight leaves at 3.15 pm, so we must be swift.” “But the camp is two hours away.” Oh boy, nobody had told us that. It’s already 10.30, the formalities haven’t concluded yet; by the time we hit the road and arrive at the camp I’ll have barely half an hour of filming before we have to return.

Twenty minutes more and we were finally on our way. Our driver has made this journey more times than he has said “jambo!”, knows every rut and pothole on the road, and doesn’t hold back. Who knew Toyotas had such pace?! We arrive at the Mtabila refugee camp an hour and a half later, just after 12.30, flying through the gates and down a dusty track, past mud huts and kids playing, past a UN truck unloading food supplies – all potentially fantastic vision except for the fact another round of formalities has to be completed before I am allowed to film anything. I had hoped for at least 10 minutes of uninterrupted shooting so that I could get scene setting vision for my story, but the camp administrators have arranged four refugees for interviews.

The Mtabila camp, home to some 38,000 Burundian refugees, is scheduled to close at the end of December, as the Tanzanian government winds back its role as the region’s safe haven. For the past 40 years Tanzania has given shelter and safety to citizens of neighbouring countries fleeing violence, and believes that improvements in regional stability mean it can say it has done its duty. Tanzania is well into a program of systematically winding back the camps, working with the United Nations to relocate or repatriate most citizens, and offer Tanzanian citizenship to others. After 26 years of operation, Mtabila is the next to go.

(A shipment of donated goods is a big event in the camp. This load appears to contain guitars. musical instruments are prized, with many making their own from whatever’s at hand.)

As I set up for the interviews I manage to film a couple short sequences of Perth police officer Don Emanuel Smith, who’s over by a UN truck getting to know some of the camp’s children. Don is the Officer in Charge of the West Metropolitan Crime Prevention and Cultural Diversity Office, based in Mirrabooka, home to Australia’s largest concentration of Africans. Years of working in remote Aboriginal communities have given him a genuine ability to identify with people of all backgrounds, and a special affinity with children. His ability to laugh and joke and win their confidence transcends any challenges of language and culture and soon he’s surrounded by a gaggle of children and adults alike.

I wish I was filming closer, picking up the colour and sounds and emotion of the moment, but my patient interviewees await. It is not an easy thing to share your life story with a total stranger who has a camera trained you, and I deeply appreciate the efforts of the camp staff in finding people willing and able to speak. It would have been unforgivably inconsiderate to not give them my full respect and attention, no matter how tempting the filming opportunities over their shoulder.

(Don Emanuel Smith, 2011 West Australian police officer of the year.)

I begin recording and it comes tumbling out – the stories of bloodshed and persecution, the struggle to flee, the gratitude for Tanzania’s generous gift of a safe haven, the uncertainty of their future after the camp’s closure, and their desperate fear, fuelled by deep trauma, of being returned to a home they no longer regard as safe, despite the assurances of authorities. One man tells how he is the only survivor of his entire family, having witnessed the killings of his parents, his siblings, his wife and his children. Another has just the vestige of a nose, having been shot in the face. Here’s one with relatives in Australia, but his efforts to join them there have been unsuccessful, leaving him isolated, disconnected, despondent.

It is the story of refugees the world over – the heart wrenching decision to flee, the search for safety, the insecurity that even as you eke out a temporary existence in a camp someone could track you down, the desire to return home quashed by a mountainous dread of the potential consequences, and the exhausting, often disappointing process of trying to find a land that will take you in and give you opportunity. The air here is imbued with doubt. Those refugees without other options who do not agree to voluntarily return home face repatriation under Tanzania’s Immigration Act. To say emotions are taut is an understatement.

(The scars run deeper than those you see on his face.)

As I’m recording I feel I’m already letting these people down. Only a fraction of what they share with me will make it to your TV screen, such are the time constraints of news services. More will make it onto radio, and hopefully, online. But even news is driven by demand and is acutely attuned to the turn-off factor. I wonder whether our global society has become desensitised to the plight of people in such desperate need?

In Australia for instance it appears to me that there’s an element of active resentment of refugees, of outright opposition to those seeking asylum, and none too subtle racism against new arrivals trying to rebuild their lives in a strange land. I so desperately want to gather up all the naysayers and bring them here for a month in the hope they may begin to truly understand what it’s all about … I know it could be argued that I have some degree of opportunity to do just that through my reportage, but the fact is that no-one else’s interpretation, no matter how skilled the reporter or incisive the footage, can match actually being there and experiencing it for yourself.

(Scenes from the Mtabila Camp, not far from the Burundi border.)

Despite looking each of them in the eyes whilst shaking their hands and wishing them the most heartfelt ‘good luck”, I suspect they’ve heard it all before. It’s moments such as this I detest being a slave to the clock, but I’m being urged onwards, to be taken to see a choir perform. I’ve already visited Burundians who’ve made it to Perth and filmed their choir , as part of a narrative of the Burundian refugee journey. By now I’m literally filming while I’m walking. No time even to set the tripod on the ground, as I’m being shepherded towards the waiting vehicle. I get a quick picture of some children waving in the distance, and a shot of women awaiting under a large shelter to fill out resettlement application forms, but it’s too quick, filmed from too far, too shaky. I know my hopes of spending time with some of them in their houses, building a rapport and and bringing a greater insight into these suspended lives is a dream dashed.

(Youngsters getting water. In the background are the women wanting to apply for resettlement.)

Back in the car and we’re hurtling along a treacherous track, some places with half metre washouts, in order to get to the camp church. Too fast and too bumpy for filming out the window, though I try. Even a few seconds of clear footage is valuable now. When we arrive at the church, a cluster of kids greets us, and I figure if I’m going to do a quick wrap in front of the camera, this is the only chance I’ll get. But I hit trouble. Acutely aware of the clock ticking I just can’t get it right, my mind blanks and the words just won’t come. On the third attempt I’m almost there when I stumble. “dinghindignnnnrrrgh!!” Head in hands I vent my frustration, prompting a terrified plume of kids to scatter behind me, scared to bits by this crazy woman! I realise what’s happening and entreat them to return, promising I won’t do it again. It lightens the tension and the next take, though hurried, is useable.

I swing around the camera to set up to film the choir – but they’re not there. They are still fetching their instruments. But wait, these three men are choristers – one of them is the choir leader who turns out to be the man I’d earlier interviewed with the gunshot wound to the face – and they offer to sing. What a song it is. Their voices are instruments in themselves, requiring no accompaniment. This is my chance to film some of the faces in the crowd, and capture a glimpse of the spirit that sustains these men, women and children – people just like us – facing situations most of us simply cannot comprehend. I get the signal that it’s time to go, but there’s one thing I need and don’t have.

I turn to Don; “get your guitar, quick”. Don’s an accomplished songwriter and has lugged his beloved Maton all the way from Australia to share his songs with the camp. There’s no time for a proper performance, but at the very least I want to see him using the universal language of music to cement the bond he’s been forging here. It takes a few moments for him to find the key but soon magic happens, a melodic bridge has spanned from Perth to Mtabila. As they finish up, Don turns to the children and breaks into a rock’n’roll riff. Squeals of delight! Kids jump up and down and dance on the spot, a spontaneous burst of joy amidst a surreal situation in this limbo land.

(Don has a Maton, these boys have a made-one.)

(The three choristers are joined by a little girl outside the Mtabila church.)

But the fun can’t last. We have a plane to catch and barely an hour and a half to make the return journey. There’s no way we want to miss another flight, not after our tanzanite adventure, and it’s a case of pedal to the metal. Not even bothering now to slow for speed humps and bridges, our driver is determined to get us back in time. About 40 kilometres from Kigoma I think I can hear an unusual sound, something scraping, certainly different to what we’ve been hearing. I mention it to the driver but he assures me all is fine.

Even though I don’t want to cause any undue delays, I am sure I can hear something. After a few kilometres the driver pulls up and Don jumps out and does a quick inspection, but can’t spot anything untoward. Obviously I was worried about nothing. We’re back up to speed , pushing on the Kigoma when 5 minutes later flt flt flt ping flt rattle rattle rattle. This time I’m definitely not imagining things – it sounds like a handful of gravel has been tossed into the wheel well. We pull over and the driver says he can’t see a flat tyre – but then eagle eyed Don points to the rear driver’s side tyre which has all but stripped its outer casing and has flaps of rubber hanging off it with exposed canvas. Not flat, true, but not far from it.

Don takes charge. “Tyre change! where’s the jack?” as he pulls open the rear door. Within 30 second he’s loosening the wheel nuts to release the damaged tyre. The driver is crouched behind him watching. As soon as the nuts are slack Don’s manoeuvring the jack on the sloping ground. This is my chance to grab to brace and undo the nuts holding the spare. By the time the car is elevated, I’m ready to go. “You get that off and I’ll put this on”, as I heft this huge 4WD wheel off its mount and carry it around the corner of the vehicle. Amazing what you can do when you have to. It was the Aussie tyre changing dream team; both of us knew exactly what needed to be done and it happened like clockwork. Bung wheel stowed, nuts tightened, jack lowered and we were done. Tyre change in under 5 minutes.

(Thought I was filthy after the tanzanite mine yesterday? My clothes were even worse after this effort! Check the tyre tread – or lack of it.)

Pedal to the metal once more. We made it to the airport at 3.13 for our 3.15 flight! Augustine the pilot played dodgem with storm clouds to get us safely to Mwanza. A salad roll on the flight from Mwanza to Dar was the first food to pass our lips all day, but I can honestly say i don’t think any of us noticed. Thinking back to my first blog when Gwenda of Adelaide requested more food photos, well Gwenda, the culinary opportunities have been a bit thin on the ground! But we’re due to fly to Zanzibar tomorrow for a story on the spice trade – I promise I’ll do my best to post you some mouthwatering pics of that!!

PHOTO GALLERY: The Faces of Mtabila

(Karen Ashford travelled to Tanzania at the invitation of the Tanzanian government)

  • Posted on 11. July 2019
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