Here in Tanzania, I ran into something completely unexpected: a welcome party for President George W. Bush. Elsewhere he may be one of the most unpopular political leaders in the world, but in Tanzania, George Bush has been welcomed as “the president of the world.”
I’ve spent most of the past two years riding around the world on my motorcycle, visiting 24 countries so far and riding more than 45,000 miles. For the last two months, I have been riding across Sub-Saharan Africa, journeying through Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Malawi and finally Tanzania. I had no idea I would be crossing paths with President Bush until last week when I went to the Julius Nyerere International Airport in Dar Es Salaam.
As I walked across the tarmac to take a short flight to Zanzibar, the richly historic tropical paradise just off Tanzania’s coast, I heard something oddly familiar but totally out of place. In full uniform the Tanzanian military band stood in formation playing The Star Spangled Banner. It was a bit rough, but they still had five more days to practice before they were to greet the American president.
Virtually everywhere I have gone on my journey, I have seen warmth for Americans, but dislike, and often resentment, of the U.S. government and, especially, of President Bush. Not in Tanzania. Or, at least not among the throngs of people who greeted him in Dar Es Salaam.
When I returned from Zanzibar on Saturday morning, I saw the extent of Tanzania’s preparations for Bush’s arrival. While Bush’s plane wasn’t due to land until early evening, crowds of Tanzanians were gathering in numbers on the greenbelt across the main terminal and along the roadside. More were riding bicycles, walking and taking taxis to the airport for a chance glimpse at the U.S. President.
Billboards flanked the road leaving the airport touting the relationship between Tanzania and the United States. “We Cherish Democracy,” read one billboard with a huge picture of a smiling George Bush. The road itself, which had been in deteriorating condition for the past several years, had been repaved. The median separating two lanes of traffic was decorated in banners with red, white and blue and the colors of the Tanzanian flag green, yellow and blue. The billboards alternated between English and Swahili, the predominant local language of Tanzania. Another promoted the relationship as “Unity: Tanzania and USA.” Still others touted Bush’s $600m aid package for Tanzania.
The passionately pro-America greeting that Bush received here in Dar Es Salaam is unlike anything I have seen elsewhere in the world. The people seem genuinely excited that the American president is visiting. These people like George Bush, although there is another name that keeps coming up as I talk to people here: Barack Obama. They want to know if the man who’s father was from neighboring Kenya has a chance to be the next American president to visit Tanzania. One can only imagine what kind of a welcome he would get.
While at the airport I managed to convince the folks at DHL to convince customs to release the tire (my second from Zambia) so that I could fit it on Doc this weekend and get onward to Mombasa, Arusha and the Serengeti. It cost me about $25 though the duty should have been about $10. But it was Saturday and as the DHL employee told me “I’m only trying to help you today. You can come back Monday and talk to customs.” In other words, pay the $25 now or comeback and fight with the government. Perhaps I could have and with all the Bush fervor I might have saved some money. But losing time? Nope. Africa is big and I’ve got a long way to go to Cairo.