Tahona’s head is shaved — a ritual in the remand home that discourages lice but also creates an air of brutality.
I first met him among a pathetic assortment of juvenile offenders, stripped to the waist and lined-up outside the barred windows of the warden’s office. A cripple shuffles into place on twisted legs. Another has chest and arms covered by the festering scabs of a skin parasite. The nipples of a third pout like the breasts of a young girl.
Tahona, stiff and solemn on parade, is an obvious leader. Taller than the rest, his lean, hard body is unblemished except for pale patches on his forehead, elbow and waist —the scars from a road accident.
Dismissed from our official scrutiny and set to work with the rest, he quickly assumes command. He is subtle but deliberate. Using just a sharp word or a rough gesture.
But in court Tahona reassumes a submissive, respectful stance. He stands with his chest to the rail of the dock, wearing borrowed clothes less torn than his own. His hands clench and unclench behind him, head slightly to one side, eyes fixed on the magistrate. The charge is serious: theft, with the probation officer recommending two years detention. And Tahona has two previous convictions — for ‘Trading without a licence’ says the court report. Tahona is a businessman — he sells peanuts on the streets.
He has no friends in the courtroom. Even his mother doesn’t know that he’s in trouble.
He left his home in the Usambara mountains, far to the north, more than two years ago. ‘My mother tells us that me and my twin sister were nearly killed at birth’, remembers Tahona ‘Twins were a bad omen and my father wanted us dead. My mother saved us by running away’.
None of the family ever travelled farther than ten miles to the local market. Each morning Tahona watered the cows before the long walk to school. Most evenings he helped his mother on their tiny shamba — a patch of land on the hillside above their hut growing beans and bananas, as well as sugar cane to sell. ‘My mother carries the cane to market’ says Tahona ‘She would never tell us how much she got for it, but it couldn’t be much.
Money is very difficult to get round there.’
‘In the villages you start working at birth and keep on working. I’ve never thought of becoming rich, but I know that if you stay in the country, you’re lucky to have a hundred shillings in your pocket’ When Tahona left home he had less than a shilling.
Dar es Salaam, the city that he wanted to make his home, houses half of Tanzania’s urban population. Its handful of skyscrapers mingle untidily with the crumbling relics of German colonialism on the harbour front and the scruffy Muslim facades of the commercial quarter.
In Kariakoo the skyline descends to a single storey. This for most people is the heart of the city— and the place the migrants head for. Its central market place is surrounded by row upon row of brick and tin houses. Each one is a shop or a business or a restaurant. Sometimes all three.
People live around packed-earth courtyards at the back and work on tiny raised verandahs at the front. Here every local demand is met and every spare penny of factory or office wages is recycled. Shoe makers, tailors, bicycle repairers, motor mechanics — all work on dusty pavements, sheltering where they can from the withering sun.
It was the eager activity of Kariakoo and its noisy, drunken bars that first welcomed Tahona to the city. But it has entertainment too, and shops filled with things you never see outside. ‘You don’t want to go back to the village,’ he says, ‘when you have seen Dares Salaarn’.
Tahona had no chance of a job with a regular wage. There are plenty’ of factories, but each has a queue of idle men at its gates.
Or occasionally there is just a sign: Hakuna
Kazi — No Work. When I see that sign’, says Tahona, ‘I don’t even bother to go to the gate.
Tanzania has a desperate shortage of foreign exchange — never enough to meet the demand for spare parts and raw materials. And in the past years many factories have been laying-off workers. Machines in the shoe factory are silent because there is no rubber, in the cigarette factory because there is no paper.
With no school-leaving certificate in a country of free primary education, Tahona had to get wise quickly. ‘I can get space to sleep from someone who wants a skivvy’, he says. And he gets a few shillings from shopkeepers wanting their goods hawked —illegally — round the streets. But the rewards are meagre and the jobs thankless. ‘If you get caught by the police’ he adds ‘the employer says you’re lying and have stolen his money’. What he wanted was to work on his own.
‘I heard about the money you can make from peanuts. So I decided to try it. You need about 15 shillings (two dollars) for your first kilo of peanuts, and then you must find somewhere to prepare them. That means washing, salting, roasting in hot sand over a fire, then sieving and packing in small plastic bags. You can get about 40 bags from a kilo and each one sells for a shilling.’
‘Independence Avenue has plenty of customers,’ says Tahona, ‘but I like to find a place where I can sit and sell in peace.’ Sell in busy streets or with other boys and you are easily spotted. ‘Lots of people want to buy from us, but the city council says that we are dirty and cause health problems’. So selling peanuts is illegal. Most of the time the police ignore peanut boys, but once in a while there’s a clean-up campaign. Then they swoop.
‘If the police catch you’, says Tahona, 'You can try to give them money. But the best thing is to run’. Tahona ran away more than once. His favourite spot at a crossroads outside the Egypt Air office offers good trade plus plenty of escape routes. The first time he was caught he had only sold three packets — he didn’t see them coming.
The penalty was four strokes of the cane. ‘All your clothes are taken off, Then they put spirit on, cover you with a cloth and start hitting. It really hurts’.
Tahona could have gone home. He saved 70 shillings to send to his twin sister when she had a baby. And he talks about his’ responsibility as the only son. But he has found a way to live in the city — as a peanut boy and perpetual juvenile.
It doesn’t pay to count the passing years, when you’re likely to end up in court only his mother knows how old he is.
Now Tahona finds himself in the dock again. The woman whose house he lives in says he has stolen her clothes. She has two witnesses. Both say this is not the first time. ‘Why didn’t you stop me before?’ argues Tahona, angry with his accuser.
On each side of the magistrate sits an elderly assessor. Before them they have the Court Report ‘Tahona Silas. aged 14. Charged twice with trading without a licence. Found guilty and caned. The parents are simple peasants living in Lushoto District. The accused lives with friends and contributes nothing to their daily bread. Such a habit coupled with the city environment attracts him to crime.
As the magistrate sums up. Tahona straightens his head and slightly lifts his chin. The open courtroom is surrounded by the noise of Kariakoo traffic. Inside everyone is silent. A policeman steps forward to the dock. ‘Insufficient evidence,’ says the magistrate, ‘Not guilty’.
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