Sunday, January 1, 2017

Ringing in the New Year's in Rural Tanzania

Looking at international news on New Year's Day, they are filled with the revelations of big ities around the globe.  The massive firework displays, the pulsing light shows emerging from skyscrapers, and the thronging crowds counting down in joy, the big city celebrations certainly deserve the coverages they get for their sheer scales, efforts, and mass participations.  Here in the little frontier Tanzanian town, the same, of course, cannot be expected.  But in its own, much more toned-down way, the people did go out to usher in the New Year, with drinks, food, and more reasonably scaled gatherings.

On the surface, the night was not so different from the average one.  Local pop music was popping while people were glued to the TV screens of various bars, checking out live telecast of the English Premier League games.  There were more drinking and eating (various grilled meats) than dancing in drunken torpor as the author has come to know some places for.  New Year's Eve, as it turned out, seemed to have been a time for socializing about (perhaps) the past year and (perhaps) the coming one with friends and colleagues while nursing bottles of local brew.

The TV screens did not display any countdown celebrations.  Between soccer game coverage, bouts of local music videos, and even some news programs, the minutes until 2017 passed without any particular note.  The local crowds did not mind either, talking and drinking literally up to the few seconds before the (supposedly accurate) clock (on their respective phones) was due to hit midnight.  And then suddenly the chants of (in English) "Ten, nine, eight, seven,..." echoed around the outdoor bar, and all tables, strangers to every other one til now, quickly joined in.

And with the (again, in English) "Happy New Year!" shouts from around the bar (and outside of it), people quickly walked around the now quite congested space, clinking glass bottles and plastic cups full of alcohol against those of others, toasting with complete strangers for that moment of welcoming the new year.  Phones started ringing non-stop as people sent and received "Happy New Year" messages from dozens of friends and family members.  Some even made one phone call after the other, just to shout "Happy New Year' to other people who are not there at the bar.

A moment later, the first minutes of January 1st brought the crowd back to the usual.  All went back to their drinks and grilled meats, and random chats at different tables showed no sign of dying down.  Bars, clubs, and even many restaurants were opening way past their regular hours, as patrons of the night showed no signs of departing any time soon even after the new year struck.  The staff were enjoying the extra business the new year has brought, and even on the normally dark and empty main streets of the town center, drinking and meat grilling stations were set up ad hoc to cater to the extra demand.

Amidst these extra traffic were probably the nicest lineup of cars the author had ever witnessed in this town.  Vans, SUVs, and 4X4s crowded both sides of the narrow dirt streets outside the bars, making the normally two-lane thoroughfare barely passable for one car at a time.  Looking around the crowds hanging around the bars, it was evident that New Year Celebrations out here is an activity reserved for the relatively well-off men of the town, who made no attempt to conceal their relative wealth to other members of the crowd.  Evidently, the joy of showing off compounds with more people seeing the wealth.

The new year will not suddenly change Iringa or any of its social scenes.  The rich men of the town will continue to dominate the bars at night.  Yet as more wealth gradually trickle down to the general public, the town's nightlife scene is slowly ramping up.  Even in the author's a year and a half in residence, the town has seen opening of more bars and more restaurants with strong emphasis on relaxed atmospheres.  More late-night food joints are in operation, with marginally more expensive but significantly better tasting renditions of Swahili classics.  It is hopeful to see 2017 continuing this trend.

And to be a bit more on the loftier side, maybe the new year will bring a more inclusive crowd at these new late-night places.  Who knows?  More expats, so isolated in their little communities today, can be bothered to go to these mainly local places to mingle with the who's-who of Iringa's rela Tanzanian community, and crowds of more diversified socio-economic and gender backgrounds can populate such locales.  Yes, it is  elusive (at least at this moment), but as the new year resets the clock, it is not too farfetched to also wish for a reset of community relations here in rural Tanzania.

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