This was where the fun really started, and how Africa can really hit you. One minute you are remote, you have the whole world beneath you and it is treating you to sights beyond your wildest dreams, and then it gets right back in your face, and Mwanza Airport did that for me.
I managed to keep up the pretence for a few minutes after landing. I thanked the captain for the flight and gathered my bags together. I then went into the UNHCR office at the airfield and went to find Margaret, who had my onward ticket to Dar ready. I found her easily enough, handed over the 90000 Schillingi and then came back out to find my aircraft. I was told I had to check in in the usual manner (this turned out to be a bit of a lie, nothing about this airport was usual).
The only way to check in was to go out, so I sidled with my computer, hold all and suitcase through a narrow metal gate and immediately found myself in the town. A few Coke stalls were set up around a shady mango tree and a whole bunch of Taxi drivers spotted me within a second. “Tsssss Tssss”, they spat “you want taxi?”.
I shook my head and tried to find the front entrance of the airport, which wasn’t easy. Eventually I came across a covered pathway with grills and benches down each side, and about a hundred people sitting in the way. Some were waiting for arriving flights, some waiting to depart, some were drinking, playing cards and smoking. Most were just trying to find a bit of shade in the mid morning sun. I shuffled my way through here, past the airways companies desks and to what I assumed was the check in hall. It was a small square room crushed with passengers queuing in front of a single check in desk. Beside the check in desk was one huge weighing machine, the sort with the large metal base and round dial. The dial faced the desk so no passengers could actually see how much their luggage weighed. I had already been overweight once that morning and was a bit short of Schillings now after paying for my ticket. Next to the weighing machine , a conveyor belt led a short distance down to a hatch that opened up into brilliant sunshine.
I parked my bags behind the queue of others and placed myself at the back of the human queue, which seemed to go nowhere fast. There was some commotion at the front, totally unintelligible to anyone not directly involved. We stood in the rising temperature, waiting our turn. Time seemed to stand still for the people in the queue, while the area around was a hive of near pointless activity. Several worried looking airport workers came rushing by, would look at the pile of bags on the floor, perhaps turn a couple of labels over and then rush off in a storming hurry. A man forced a label in front of me and pointed at my hold all. I filled out the relevant details and tried to wrap it around its handle, but it was ripped out of my hand before I got close and the same man tugged it into place. We shuffled forward a couple of feet.
I was behind a huge Tanzanian wearing a bright yellow shirt covered in sweat. When we got closer to the desk, I couldn’t actually see round him, so could not tell what our progress now was. From my ticket, I wasn’t sure what time my flight to Dar was, with whom I was flying and whether a plane actually existed that would transport me to Dar. Eventually I reached the desk. The bags were placed on the scales, I never saw the weight and a simple tag saying “DAR” was hooked around the baggage. It then joined the pile of baggage on the disused conveyor-belt leading out onto the tarmac.
I grasped my Air Tanzania boarding pass and looked around. I couldn’t find an exit, only an entrance. I saw a few of the people who had joined me on the flight from Kigoma in the room, one of whom was talking to an official who was taping up all her boxes clearly marking them “UNHCR”. I could see an airline desk, and the hole where the baggage was going. Looking closely, I could see that the luggage was shuffling down the conveyor belt by sheer weight of baggage loaded at the top end, falling out onto the runway, where a bunch of airport staff were loading it onto the same trolley, irrespective of its final destination. I suddenly had vision of working for the next few days in Dar with nothing but the laptop in my hand; no papers, no washbag, no clean underwear.