Travelling away from cliches


Heard of Dodoma? It’s the capital of Tanzania and has been since 1973 although Dar es Salaam is far larger and more accessible. Dodoma was chosen because it’s in the centre of Tanzania. But it’s very far from anywhere significant, up on a balding plateau – featureless except for granite hills that have long since given up the mystery of ancient rock paintings, now canvases for painted billboards advertising tires and condoms.

If you add the population of Tanzania’s prominent cities together – Mwanza, Arusha, Iringa, Mbeya and Dodoma – only then do you come close to the population of Dar. But this small capital buzzes. Taxis vie for space, bicycles weave between them, pedestrians pop umbrellas shading themselves from the sun. You can picture it, right? Actually, you can’t. What you have in mind is Nairobi, or a small section of Durban or Cape Town meant to look like Dar or Accra.

Because it’s easier to film in the likes of Nairobi, it’s often as close as we get to the Africa we are trying to portray in commercials – except for the odd venture into Lagos we swear never to do again. But you cannot capture Dodoma without granite hills.

Mwanza is nothing without Lake Victoria as Mbeya is without truckers and Arusha without legions of safari vehicles. Each of these cities is distinctly different, and so is their culture. Although we can’t cover it all in an ad campaign carpeting a whole country or region, time and research spent in Dar might give you some impression, but imagine the impressions you would get from people and places outside of the main hub.

We look at the market through the monocle of research often garnered in a conference room in a pricey hotel few of the target market would ever stay in, and we ask them pointed questions while a video camera’s red light flashes, letting them know we’re watching.

If we go “exploring’ into people’s lives, we make the mistake, once again, of shoving a camera in their face. Then, back at the agency, we watch European and American ads for inspiration or trawl the net for Africana. Inevitably, we apply Western themes to African ads and never really get to know Africa. We should step away from the filter of the screen and look around.

Obits vs ads

The TV in my cheap Dodoma motel room is a small Chinese LCD affair – not a wooden box set from the 1970s that many TV commercials lead one to believe. There is no cliche in this room, no art directed ensemble of doilies and corrugated bed spreads. I recline on what appears to be a hospital blanket, then I turn on the TV and watch the obituaries.

Here in Tanzania, you’ve got to vie with obituaries for ad space. Sounds easy to stand out but, even in the bar I find myself in, no-one changes the channel or turns away when the obits come on, not like they do for the commercials which are so extremely polar to the obits, news bulletins and political forums that you cannot get your head around, with their choreographed dancing, bubbling washing powder and beaming faces. Perhaps we should pay our respects and portray Africa, not as what we want it to be, but as it is. And it is, by no means, a horror story.

Real stories

In Mzuzu, Malawi, I met a young man who gets kids off the street by training them to play tennis. He started with a net strung between two chairs in a dusty parking lot. Now they play on concrete and he’s trained two Malawi champions.

On a trucking road leading up to a mountain pass in Tanzania, people manufacture and sell blocks of wood. They’re tapping a market in trucks so poorly maintained they often break down under the strain of the climb and the wooden blocks serve as chocks, preventing them from rolling downhill.

A young Maasai woman from the Loita plains of Kenya, Christine Malaso, has flown in the face of Maasai convention by not marrying and instead going to school and working harder than any man to become a safari guide. Her actions inspire other women to do the same. These are African stories. There are tens of thousands of them, but you won’t find them in a hotel room in the city.

In a small restaurant in Dodoma, the Italian owner, Massimo, greets me warmly. He has grey hair and glasses so thick they are kaleidoscopic. He came here as a doctor decades ago and never left. His wife, Sipe, is the namesake of the restaurant. A Tutsi from Rwanda, she has an air of confidence that belies a history I can only imagine, yet her smile is the brightest I have seen. Inside the restaurant, a bookcase is filled with books on Tanzania, most of them pre-1996, none of them touching on Dodoma except to remark on granite outcrops and a stop along the railway. The books could never capture the story that these two people can tell.

Over strong espresso one morning, Massimo expounds on the complex culture of this country he loves. I learn more about Tanzania than I ever thought possible – how this obscure city became the capital is a story of its own.

In every corner, in every person of Africa, there is a story that hasn’t been told. And it shouldn’t be filmed in Nairobi.

By Anton Crone

screen africa magazine – june 2013


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