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On having no idea where you are, and that being OK, sort of, not really

Navigating in Tanzania requires an entirely different headspace from what we are used to. Here are some snapshots.

In 2013, on our first trip to Dar es Salaam after we arrived in Tanzania, we got lost. Badly. We had a map, but it didn’t help because most of the streets on it were unmarked, and we couldn’t figure out where we were on the map anyway. We had enough Swahili to ask people, but none of their answers appeared on the map either. They told us were ‘at the clock tower’, or ‘at the Gapco [petrol station]’.

People navigate by landmarks, not by street names, or even directions (north, south, etc.) The problem is, lots of suburbs have a clock tower, lots of them have a Gapco. But if you’re Tanzanian, that’s not necessarily a problem…

2 years later on our way out of Nairobi, we took a wrong turn and ended up quite far from the highway to Arusha. Again, we had a map, but this time we also had a Tanzanian friend with us in the car. He talked to people to get directions. Every. 500. Metres.

Asking for directions is just about asking for the next step, not about asking for the entire way. That’s important to do because ‘landmark’ doesn’t have quite the same meaning in Swahili as in English…

This weekend Arthur was one of the drivers for a wedding. He received instructions about where to pick the parents up: Come to X suburb, take the bitumen road, turn left onto a dirt road. Sounds vague, right? Where do you start from in the suburb? Is there only one bitumen road? Heading in which direction? Which dirt road will he know to take? So Arthur asks for a landmark. The reply showed he’d already been given it: Where the bitumen stops and becomes dirt.

Of course, this means that asking for directions is something you may do 10+ times on one trip. That is not embarrassing to do. In fact, it means allowing others, even strangers, to be involved. You can’t do it on your own, and that’s no cause for shame.

Even a taxi driver – someone whose job it is to drive people around – will frequently pull over to ask others where he should go next, without apparent embarrassment or concern that he might be ‘lost’. At times I have kept quiet when a driver goes in the wrong direction because of the awkwardness. To the driver, that I knew and did not say is mere foolishness.

There’s a Swahili proverb that goes Kupotea ni kujua njia which means ‘to get lost is to know the way’. That’s not saying it’s about the journey rather than the destination. It’s saying that there’s never really such a thing as being lost: it’s instead a chance to learn from others around you, and to glean information and know-how for future use. I can see the wisdom in that. The other day I had to replace a part on our water filter, and I knew where the shop was because I’d driven past it one day when I’d been lost.

And yet, the stress remains for us. We are yet to completely disentangle ourselves from the instinct to plan a journey, or the preoccupation with ‘being on time’. The uncertainty of navigation in Tanzania grates with this.

But there’s another layer to the stress as well. Being lost means feeling unsafe. Without knowing where I am on a map, or which street I’m on, I feel like I’ve lost my bearings. That can have very real consequences.

The first time we got lost in Dar, we had a part ripped from our moving vehicle. We didn’t know where we were; we certainly didn’t know which areas were safe or not. We hear stories of people being cut with razor blades at lights. Last week we were waved down by a pair of tourists whose suitcase had been stolen by a man on a motorbike as they stood by the side of the road. There are things you can do to avoid these kinds of situations: keep windows up, guard your belongings. etc. But a major one is knowing where you are, and where to stay away from. So being lost means being vulnerable.

The whole issue of navigation can be quite serious, and quite stressful, and it’s still something we’re trying to work out. But since we’re Aussies, it seems there’s only one way to end this post:

Categories: Tanzania Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

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