Thursday, Jan. 26
I awoke again before my alarm went off at 6:15 a.m. this morning. I made my coffee, said a few prayers, showered and finalized my packing. Our plan this morning was: (1) to visit the Geita Gold Mine, which has been a sponsor of the diocese’s orphanage for a long time; (2) to have a final lunch at the diocese; and then (3) to return to Mwanza, where we’d spend the night, before starting off early tomorrow morning for our two-day safari through Serengeti National Park. Fr. Matthew asked us to plan to take with us in the morning only what would need for two days and one night of the safari, and then to plan to give him in the morning the rest of our luggage, which he would transport to and leave at the hotel in Mwanza to which we’d return on Saturday evening after the safari. Anthony and Fr. Matthew weren’t joining us on our visit to the gold mine, so Fr. John, and the rest of us were able to fit in one of the largest of the diocese’s SUVs that Alex drove. Anthony went back to the vo-tech center at the diocese to make more progress with the vehicle maintenance and brick-making machine projects there, and Fr. Matthew went about his usual very busy schedule before he would later accompany us to Mwanza.
At a few minutes to 9:00 a.m. we arrived at the Geita Gold Mine, which is only about seven or eight kilometers from downtown Geita at the end of the main road through Geita. Security is very tight at the gold mine, and we had to wait outside the gate for a representative of the mine to authorize our entry. Once we got through the front gate, which appeared to be the only way in and out of the mine’s property, we had a good three- or four-kilometer drive to the mine’s HQ complex. The road starting from the gate rose up a steep hill for about a kilometer, topped out high on the hill and gave us expansive views of the mine’s property, which is extensive. The mine has two open-pit operations and one underground operation, and we could see the open pits off in the distance when we topped the hill. Then we had to drive down the hill to the secure access to the office complex where all the mine’s operations are managed and administered. We had to register as visitor’s, get magnetic passes to allow us through the security gate, and then follow a mine representative named “Musa” (Moses in Swahili) through the gate and to a conference room in a building in the complex. As we were registering, we saw that all persons exiting the complex’s gate were scanned with a metal detector.
Musa introduced us to a training officer named Jason, who gave us a 40-minute instruction with a Power-Point slide presentation about safety and training for all mine personnel and visitors. Then a staff geologist named Eric gave us a 45-minute presentation with another slide presentation on the history of the mine and its current methods of operation. The mine between 1936 and 1966 produced on million ounces of gold, by 1996 produced another million ounces of gold, and has now produced some three million-plus ounces of gold. In the open pit operations, the mine has to remove six tons of material to produce one ounce of gold, and in the underground operation, it has to remove 10 tons of material to produce one ounce of gold.
After the presentations we were taken back through the security gate outside the office complex, requiring each of us to empty our pockets, to have our backpacks or purses inspected, and to be scanned by the security personnel with the metal scanner. Then we were given our mandatory PPE (personal protective equipment), comprising hard hats, bright orange vests and, for those who didn’t have sunglasses, safety glasses. Then we were driven to the area of the larger of the two open-pit operations. A mine superintendent named Gilbert and one of his assistants met us at an office below the larger of the open pits and after asking us to don our hard hats and vests, accompanied us in a second SUV up a long road to the top of the pit. Interestingly, we saw our first African wildlife as we drove up the road to the top of the pit. A few baboons walked along the area around the top of the pit, and large stork-like birds called “bwana-afahs” (sp?) with long legs, long beaks and huge hanging gullets were standing around the top of the pit.
The pit is large on a scale beyond description and looks like a huge canyon. Large 250-ton and 150-ton earth haulers moving up and down roads that wind and switch-back up and down the walls of the pit on 10% grades looked like matchbox trucks from our vantage point. Gilbert told us that the mine operates 24 hours a day in two 12-hour shifts. (American union workers, of which I was one for seven years when I was young, would never accept that.). The earth haulers are equipped with electronic sensing devices to sense if the drivers seem to be driving erratically, indicating that they are too tired to operate the trucks safely, in which case they are called in to be questioned and possibly sent home to get more rest. One trip from the top of the pit to the bottom takes about 50 minutes or more, so a driver makes only about six round trips per shift.
The pit has security cameras around its circumference at the top, because the mine has a problem with thieves who try at night to sneak in though the surrounding forest or through tunnels in the walls of the pit and try to mine surreptitiously for and to steal gold from the mine. The pit also has a radar station set up at the top to monitor for and detect any vibration or movement in the walls, which are sometimes susceptible of landslides. When the radar senses movement of the walls in any area of more than a few millimeters within a minute, the pit is evacuated for the safety of the employees. We could see from our vantage point an area of a prior landslide, which had washed out the road on a portion of the wall where it had occurred. We all posed for several photos at the top of the pit.
Due to our fascination with and curiosity about the earth haulers (Jill in particular was excited about seeing them, because she used to operate a combine on her family farm in Nebraska), Gilbert called for one of the 250-ton earth haulers to be driven up to the top of the pit where we were. The truck actually moved pretty quickly and nimbly as it came up the road to our vantage point. The truck was just huge and looked like something out of a “Transformers” movie. The tires on the wheels, which were manufactured by Michelin, were taller by three or four feet than any of us. Gilbert told us that each tire costs $57,000 U.S., and that sometimes a new tire may last only one day, if the roads are wet. Gilbert let us all climb up the 15-foot ladder on the front of the truck to the platform outside the cab. The operator told us that he really enjoyed his job of driving the truck. We took many pictures of the truck, of us on the platform next to the cab, of us standing in front of the truck, and just of the truck itself. Then it was time for us to go. We watched the truck driver maneuver the huge truck easily around a sharp right curve from the top of the pit and down the road back to the operations office area. Then we went back to the operations office, thanked and said goodbye to Gilbert and his assistant, went back to the mine office complex, returned our personal protective equipment to Musa, thanked and said goodbye to Musa, and headed to the diocese for our final lunch there before leaving Geita for Mwanza.
At the bishop’s house Suzie and Jenny had another big lunch waiting for us, and after we ate, we had a final prayer there and said our goodbyes to Suzie and Jenny. I asked Fr. Matthew if it was appropriate and acceptable to tip Suzie and Jenny for feeding and serving us so well for all the days we were there, and he said it was. I gave each one of them what I hoped was a generous tip (incomes for Tanzanians generally are very low, and what we in America might consider a poor tip is significant to the Tanzanians), and they both seemed to appreciate the tips. I think a few others of our group also gave them tips.
We also said see ya’ later to Anthony, who had been forced earlier to plan to shorten his trip because of a business meeting on Monday he had to attend, which was scheduled after we got to Tanzania. Anthony was now going to have to leave on Saturday and start his long journey home, arriving at midnight Monday morning for his Monday meeting. Since he wasn’t going to be able to stay with us for Safari and the rest of our trip, Anthony decided to stay at the diocese for the rest of the day today and tomorrow and then go to Mwanza on Saturday to start his return trip home.
After saying our goodbyes, we were off with Fr. Matthew to Geita in Fr. Matthew’s Explorer and one of the diocese’s SUVs driven by Alex. Scott, Jay and I rode with Fr. Matthew, while Fr. John, Jill, Chris and Eleanor rode with Alex. The drive to Mwanza took a little more than two hours for us and a while longer for Alex’s crew, which had to stop for fuel in Geita, and which simply didn’t go as fast with Alex driving as we did with Fr. Matthew driving. On the way, our trip was delayed for short periods of several minutes, when we were stopped twice by police in different villages. The first time, a male police officer in his all-white uniform had a pleasant word with Fr. Matthew, shook hands with us with big smiles and then let us go on our way. We joked that he just wanted to shake hands with a bunch of mzungus. The second time a young-looking but very stern-faced female officer required Fr. Matthew to show her his vehicle’s registration papers, his driver’s license and a fire extinguisher, which Fr. Matthew pulled out from under his driver’s seat. (Apparently vehicles in Tanzania are required to carry functioning fire-extinguishers.) The officer never smiled or asked to shake hands with us mzungus. We speculated that she had been hoping to find some violation for which she could fine Fr. Matthew and was disappointed when she hadn’t. Fr. Matthew told us that when drivers are stopped for any violation of the traffic laws in Tanzania, they have to pay fines on the spot to the officers who stop them. He said the practice was a source of corruption, as many fine payments were likely kept by the officers.
Our trip to Mwanza could have been even longer, but we managed to get to the ferry at Lake Victoria just as one of the ferry boats was arriving on our side of the lake. We had just purchased our tickets and entered the waiting area at the terminal when it was time for us to board. Fr. Matthew’s Explorer was the second of the passenger vehicles in line to drive onto the boat, which squeezed one line of passenger vehicles on next to one line of large trucks. Fr. Matthew told us that sometimes, with heavy traffic, the wait to board the ferry boat could take as much as two hours, so were grateful that we had timed it favorably.
The remaining drive to Mwanza after we got off the ferry was relatively short, but as soon as we got into the outskirts of Mwanza, we encountered crazy late afternoon traffic. New York City traffic has nothing on Mwanza traffic, which is difficult to appreciate until you’ve experienced it. Cars, trucks, buses, vans, motorcycles, hybrid makeshift vehicles with motorcycle-engine and front-halves and two-wheeled-cart back halves, and pedestrians fill the streets and roads with no delineated lanes. Sometimes the vehicles are three-wide in roadways or streets barely wide enough for two vehicles, as some drivers try to pass slower vehicles ahead of them. Children, people and dogs frequently run into the traffic and barely avoid being struck. Once we got into downtown Mwanza the traffic was even crazier, as streets went in every direction like a crazy maze, and making either left-hand or right-hand turns was quite interesting. There’s only one traffic signal in Mwanza (at which we managed to catch the light when it was red for us), and making turns through and against the never-ending perpendicular traffic at any other intersections is a matter of playing chicken.
It was now about 4:50 p.m., and we offered to let Fr. Matthew go to an auto parts store in downtown Mwanza, before it would close at 5:00 p.m., to swap out some auto parts for the Geita diocese’s vehicle repair program. Anthony had previously purchased the parts, but they turned out to be the wrong parts. When we got to the store at 5:55 p.m., there was no place to park, so Fr. Matthew double-parked the car outside some busy businesses and asked me to take the driver’s seat, so that he wouldn’t get a ticket. Scott and he went inside the auto parts store across the street, leaving Jay and me in the Explorer. I was rather uncomfortable sitting there double-parked and wasn’t anxious to have to move the car and drive in downtown Mwanza even just around the block. For that matter, I wasn’t sure there was a block per se around which I’d be able to drive. But Fr. Matthew and Scott came back to the car after only about 10 minutes, having accomplished their mission, and off we went to the Hotel Tilapia on the shore of Lake Victoria, where we were going to spend the night before starting our safari in Serengeti National Park tomorrow. The reason we weren’t going back to the Malaika Beach Resort Hotel was that it was located farther out by a half-hour from the Serengeti, and we were advised to stay closer to Serengeti, which was already a two-hour-plus drive from downtown Mwanza. Mehboob at Masumin Tours and Safaris recommended the Hotel Tilapia and was able to book enough rooms there for our entire group.
The Hotel Tilapia advertised Wi-Fi service, which we were all anxious to use, but when we got here and checked in, we had trouble connecting to it. The hotel owners, who appeared to be an Indian couple, were very anxious to please us, and the man worked very hard to get us connected. However, none of us was ever able to get connected. They also moved me from one from one room to another when I complained that the air-conditioner wasn’t working in my room. It was very hot and muggy, and I wanted a properly functioning air-conditioner in my room. My second room’s a/c worked fine, blessedly. The room was large and nicely appointed, and it had hot water in the bathroom, so I was pleased. However, there were small ants crawling into and out of the ceramic border of the shower stall where a piece of the ceramic was broken, exposing a cavity in the border wall. Oh well, at least they weren’t mosquitoes.
After unpacking my bags enough to be ready for bed later, I went out to the open-air bar by the water and joined Scott in having a Kilimanjaro beer, in order to wait for my a/c to cool my room enough to make it comfortable for sleeping. After eschewing beer most of the trip, I had been persuaded a couple days earlier by Scott to join him in one, and while I still don’t really LOVE it, the cold Kilimanjaro was refreshing in the hot and humid weather. Fr. Matthew and Fr. John were at another table having beers, and when he saw us, Fr. Matthew came over and joined us. Scott and I told Fr. Matthew that when we returned from Serengeti on Saturday for two more nights in Mwanza, we wanted to go back to the Malaika Beach Resort Hotel. Fr. Matthew asked if we should consult the others in our group, but Scott and I said no, that we were making an executive decision. So Fr. Matthew said he’d book rooms at Malaika for us and take our extra bags there to wait for our return on Saturday night.
Jay and Jill went ahead of us to dinner at the Hotel Tilapia’s restaurant, which offered a large and varied menu of dishes, and Scott, Chris, Eleanor and I got a table together a bit later. Fr. John and Fr. Matthew went to visit a sick friend in Mwanza, and we didn’t see either of them again tonight. The food at the restaurant was good, but the service was very slow, and we waited an inordinately long time both for our food to come and then later for the waitress to bring us our separate checks. By the time I got back to my room, it was after 10:00 p.m. I set my alarm for 4:00 a.m., thinking I would try to journal for a couple hours in the morning before we were scheduled to meet out safari vehicle and driver at 7:00 a.m. I was too tired even to shower, so I lay down on my bed tried to say some prayers, but I fell asleep too quickly even to finish a Lord’s Prayer.