Despite this being a tiny flight, we were told in his best hostess manner that for those passengers in transit we shall be on the ground for twenty minutes and please do not leave the plane. So while he busied himself with the two passengers disembarking and the one coming on, plus the several boxes of paperwork which had to be offloaded here, I sat back and looked around the airport.
I’ve already said that this was a UNHCR flight that services the refugee camps. Kibondo is close to some of the largest. The camps have been there so long that few really remember why they were set up. I have seen malnourished people in Africa everywhere; the distended bodies of children who have had too much sadza against fruit. Many Africans I have met have been lean but impressively strong; their taut bodies not honed in gyms or sport’s clubs, but from the balance between a minimalist diet and manual work. (I have also seen many overweight Africans, men particularly, who take it as a sign of their manliness to have a paunch). But here, the children were different. The four porters at Kibondo were all adolescents; somewhere between 13 and 18 I would guess. But they had quite stunted growth, rather like slightly elongated 9 year olds. And they had the faces of old men. They had seen sights and experiences horrors that nobody, whatever their age, should have been exposed to. They were truly undernourished.
And twenty minutes later, I flew away from this place, forever.
“You have an important job to do, Co-pilot”, the pilot said to me. I dished out the Chocolate eclairs again.
The flight was just as exciting second time around, and I noticed that the landscape began to change. Soon after we took off, we started flying over some forested area. Below, I saw a grid iron pattern with tin roofs nestling in among the trees. This was one of the refugee camps, not so much the transient camps I had expected; tents and queues of people, but a rather settled, ordered, civilised city sheltering from the heat of the sun under a softening canopy. However, one thing that did surprise me was its size. We flew over it for a couple of minutes. And finally when we reached the end, the remaining bush betrayed no sign of the human suffering behind it.
The GPS on the dashboard continued to wink away, counting down our journey time to Mwanza. The haze of the early morning did not lift, and from the plane it was difficult to make out what was land below. Blue areas to the north looked like lake, but then dissolved to reveal more bush. Then, finally great inlets of a huge lake, Victoria, struck into the bush beneath us, and we began our descent towards Mwanza. Mwanza, the main port on the Tanzanian coast of Lake Victoria and one of the largest cities in the whole country, nestles on a series of peninsulas covered in bare rock, so that from a distance, the city looks much larger and grander than it really is.
Below us, the shallow Lake Victoria, although clogging with water hyacinth still manages to sparkle blue, and several large ferries were plying in and out of the harbour.
From a distance I could see the large tarmac runway, on a levelled piece of land perpendicular to the coast. And on the runway were….some workmen, extending the strip just before where we were to land. To the right, the terminal building with a few small planes. We descended in a non-linear fashion, buffeted by the occasional wind off the lake, and he brought us down to the tarmac just beyond the workers. It was when we reached the bottom that I thought we were safe, but when he reversed the engines, the plane skidded to the left and only because the runway was wide did we not fall off. He kept us on our toes to the very last minute.