analysisBy Lawi Joel
The collapse of East African Community in 1977 may have benefitted some people. But there were many others whose dreams were warped if not ruined.
One of them, a Tanzanian called Kassim Mchomvu, was caught off balance just as he was about to fly abroad to a promising future. Our writer LAWI JOEL talked to him and uncovered a twisted tale of a daring, gifted Tanzanian youth Germans loved in a foreign land.
Seated cross-legged in his house in the slums of Tabata at the edge of Msimbazi valley in Dar es Salaam, Kassim Haji Mchomvu reeled off a stimulating tale of how he rose from the dust to glory and back again to grime before he settled down with relative comfort.
Born to a farmer in Mabogini, Moshi in 1952, Kassim may have thought working for a police officer would be more secure for him away from home, but the result was quite the opposite.
What followed was a twisted fated that left him foretelling, with surprising precision, the results of horse races at Ngong Hill in Nairobi, the capital of neighbouring Kenya. On one occasion he told a gambler two numbers to buy because the numbers would be of the winner horses. "The man ignored me, but later wept when the tickets he had bought lost and those I had told him to buy were the winning numbers," Kassim explains.
Before the racing competition, Kassim had a guardian angel, which exposed to him in sleep the number of the winning horse. It was that vision in his sleep at night, which advised him to leave home for a livelihood outside his homeland Moshi. After completing Primary VII in 1967 Kassim, at the age of 9, Kassim had a vision in his sleep. "I was in the kitchen, boiling rice after mother had left the kitchen.
It was a star shining brightly and it told me to leave home and go out to look for a better life," Kassim says. Shortly later in 1969 he left home and for the three months worked for a police officer, selling for him charcoal for a pay of one shilling a day. "At the end of the third month he chased me away without paying me the 90,000/- he owed me, calling me a thief," Kassim explains. It was in the evening the policeman chased him away at 7.
A Somali, one Mohamed Jamal, who thought he was too young to be out on the street at that time of the night, gave him refuge in his house. Kassim, 15 then, related to his Good Samaritan what had befallen him. Kassim's sad story touched Jamal's heart and he gave the poor little boy the 90,000/-, which Kassim sent to his mother back in Moshi. Mr Jamal employed Kassim as his shop attendant, a job the boy did well, impressing Jamal a great deal.
Unknown to Kassim though, his adventurous journey had just begun. After working for Mr Jamal for a year, the star once again appeared to Kassim in sleep and told him to leave. He obeyed the visionary order. "The next morning I told Mr Jamal that I was leaving," he says. With a lot of blessing from Jamal, Kassim left for Nairobi that year, 1970. His Lilliputian size made the journey cheaper for him because, appearing as a child he paid only eight shillings, half the fair for an adult.
For three months Kassim was a chokoraa - a street child. He often visited the bus-stand of the Overseas Transport Company (OTC) "because the company had a bus plying the route of Nairobi-Dar es Salaam and I knew I would get some Tanzanians there," he explained. He ended up staying there as a parking boy. "I washed my clothes and wore them wet because I had no change," Kassim explains.
Hopeful, he knew his guardian angel would come sooner than later come to his assistance. One day two men walked by, speaking Kichagga. He went over to them and greeted them in Kiswahili, saying: "Shikamoo." The men appeared startled. One of the men got interested in him and asked him where he lived. "Here at the bus-stand," he answered. That answer and the way he looked touched the man's heart and he took him along with them to a hotel and gave him food.
The man he later came to know was a businessman called Hussein Khalifa took him to his house. Back home in Tanzania Kassim's mother had told him never to go into a house with a red carpet. Mr Khalifa had a red carpet in his house. Kassim refused to enter the house and spent the night in the car outside.However, Mr Khalifa had a fiancée with whom he was later able to convince Kassim that the carpet story was spurious.
"I was 12-year then," Kassim relates. Kassim stayed with Mr Khalifa for four years in a part of Nairobi with a high class people, an area where English was the common language. He learned it well. In 1972 Mr Khalifa gave him some money to take to his parents back in Tanzania. A year later he returned to Nairobi but stayed only for a short time because the man was transferred to Mombasa.
Somewhere in the slums of Mathare Kassim found fellow Tanzanian young men who did odd jobs for a living and put up with them, but soon their relationship got sour because they began jibing at him as a leech, who lived off other people. He stopped living with them and went roaming of the streets, mostly on empty stomach, doing anything for a living that Mother Fate brought his way. One day downtown he just walked into a garage he remembers as Jack'smonia Caltex Service station.
He went straight to the head mechanic he later knew was called Mohamed and said: "Give me an overall." Mohamed must have thought the boss, a white man had sent Kassim there for the gown and obliged. When Mr Jacksmonia came he was shocked to see a strange boy in wearing an overall in his garage. "But I looked him in the eyes and asked to talk to him in his office where I explained everything to him," Kassim narrates.
Owing to his good performance, Jacksmonia asked him in 1975 to leave Mathare slums and move in with him in the Eisteleigh suburb of the city. The same year he sat for an interview with Cooper Motors Cooperation (CMC), a German car company that offered him a jealous salary of 800/-, a house and a car. "Without a fault, I serviced 180 engines and was promoted," says Kassim with pride.
It happened then that the CMC wanted some young men to train Germany as their East African representatives. The CMC official sent in 1977 to Nairobi gave the 20 of them a grueling practical test. "There was a completely dismantled car engine I was to assemble in one hour," Kassim he explains. After the test he went home. His guardian angel still covering him under her godly wings, visited him once again in his sleep that night. "Dear Kassim," it said, "You are lucky.
Whatever you want just ask for and you will be given." The next day Kassim's photograph and that of his boss were all over, splashed in newspapers. He had passed the test with flying colours, coming second after a Singh. He would leave for Germany in October the same year. In addition, Kassim was also rewarded with a 3-week tour in Mombasa where he stayed at Two Fishes Hotel awaiting for the overseas trip date.
After that time, Kassim returned to Nairobi and was called to his boss' office. He was hopeful the time had come to fly to Germany. In the office, the boss gave him a letter. What he read told him to leave Kenya immediately. What had gone wrong? But many other foreigners were wanted out too. The East African Community had collapsed! Kassim's boss, however, gave him a good recommendation letter to the CMC branch in Arusha, back in Tanzania.
Nevertheless, the salary Kassim was offered in Arusha was a mere 500/- instead of 1,800/- he had earned in Kenya. For one year he stayed at home, taking stock of his fate. In 1978 he overcame the shock and went to Tanzania Planting Company (TPC) where the manager, one Mr Jensen offered him a job as a mechanic at 700/- a month. It was not much but Kassim wanted an opportunity to prove his worth.
And there, he reduced other mechanics to mere tenderfoots. What Kassim did not know was that by proving so good, he made himself some deadly enemies. The enemy struck when after he left went for lunch. Kassim had been assembling the engine of a car. Having done the job to his satisfaction, he walked out of the garage, leaving the car ready to be fired into life. He would prove to his boss that he was the best of the best.
When he returned and started it, the engine exploded with a shattering noise. Something had gone terribly wrong. But he had never failed! An investigation later revealed that someone had dropped a bolt for some part of a tractor into the Land Rover engine. Kassim quit work. For three days his boss pleaded with him to return to work, but he refused. "I just could not work at a place with such an enemy.
The next time it could be my life," he says. In 1980 got a job as a driver in Tanga where he worked for one year before being employed by National Coconut Development Programme under a German boss, who liked him a lot. Looking back to the time, he merely observes: "From 1985 to 1989 I had a good life. I drank a lot. I walked with such celebrities like Charles Hillary and Julius Nyaisanga."
If he had a guardian angel, Kassim also had a demon chasing him and in 1989 he just quit his work at the NCDP. By 1990 he was as poor as a church mouse. "I was broke," he says. For six years he remained jobless, down at heels. Kassim became so desperate to get a job that he went to see a medicine man for help. The amulet the medicine man gave him proved useless. One night he saw again the visionary star in his sleep. "Arise! Go to Tabora," it told him.
Shortly later Kassim went to Tabora where he did some successful business. But with his family back in Dar es Salaam, he was too lonely there and returned to them. For the first time Kassim's view of life became religious and he realized that he had rebelled against God and that must have been why he was undergoing so much misery.
The Almighty was angry with him. "When I returned to Dar I went straight to the mosque, my amulet in the pocket," he explains. "After prayers I went back to the house and threw the amulet down the toilet. The Almighty answered almost immediately. Not many days later a friend of his took him for an interview with a company he calls ULC. Today Kassim, father of three children, works with BancABC in Dar es Salaam with its administration section for a fat salary.