Bukombe is a trip. It’s a diamond and gem mining town in the interior of Tanzania, on the road towards the Rwanda and Burundi borders from Nzega and Shinyanga. Because this region is built around the mining industry, it’s filled with young men from all different parts of Tanzania (and other East African countries) who are trying to make a living from the hard labor of mining. The presence of many young men with intermittent cash jobs creates a robust alcohol and sex work industry. And this, in turn, results in a high HIV prevalence rate, around 15-20%.
It reminds me a bit of the islands of Lake Victoria, where there are many young male fishermen who will get boluses of cash for the fish they cash, fueling an economy of bars and sex workers. Unlike these islands, Bukombe is on land and has decent infrastructure (a paved road! electricity! running water!) so it doesn’t quite feel as wild.
Working and living in a town of men with excessive drinking habits is not my idea of fun. But there is much work to be done here in the realm of HIV care and treatment. So here we are in Bukombe.
We are celebrities here. Or rather, Guy and Jenny, my white colleagues, are celebrities here. When they sit at a local bar drinking beer, men around them offer to buy them more alcohol. Children surround them and simply stare, with their mouths open in wonder.
“Oh, I am so happy to have white man here in Tanzania!” people shout. (I’m not kidding.)
Guy and Jenny are the King and Queen of Bukombe. I am the weird alien attachment. One particularly drunk and overly “friendly” man bought Guy and Jenny several rounds of beers. I don’t know how, but Guy seems to enjoy the attention. I made the mistake of joining their table and being part of their court. Maybe I’m their joker. So I also became an object of conversation.
“We are all under One God!” declared the drunk man. “Even the Yellow One!!” he said, slapping my leg.
He pressed his hands around his head, seemingly to shape an Asian hair bowl cut with his hands. “Even the Yellow One, like this!”
He pressed his fingers against his eyes, squishing his eyeballs in. “Even the Yellow One, like this!”
“Oh, even the Yellow Ones who have bad haircuts and can’t see – they are also under the same god. Wow, is that so?” I said.
“Yes, and even me, the Black Man. We are all under One God.”
He laughed and slapped my palm.