Mutual Estrangement: Of Flycatchers and Walking Dollars


By Martin Loeng (Editor)

"While some African men may have been able to enter the global economy on something like equal terms... most men have felt the weight of globalisation as poverty,"[i]

In Arusha and Moshi, Kilimanjaro Region, Tanzania, tourism is the bee’s knees to a degree. Tanzania, with Mount Kilimanjaro and the Northern Safari Circuit (with National Parks like Serengeti, Ngorongoro, Lake Manyara) being key attractions, has attracted more than a million tourists in recent years[ii]. With an ever-increasing quantity of tourists[iii], ‘flycatching’ has become a popular way for jobless or marginalised persons to tap into these flows of people, money and commodities[iv].

In order to succeed, however, flycatchers must cajole and coax tourists into parting with their money right on the streets. And for this they are universally despised. They are often accused of harassing and stealing from travellers[v], and between the traveller and the flycatcher exists a distinctly awkward distance. This distance is a buffer zone in which derogatory stereotypes, indifference and mutual alienation flourish. With this text I aim to explore this mutual estrangement, introduce some popular concepts and suggest a way of dealing with this inevitable clash [vi].

The word ‘flycatcher’ was originally taken to refer to illegal tour-operators[vii] but more generally refers to those who ‘catch’ tourists and travellers in the street, to those who are paid commission fees for directing free-floating tourists, safari companies and ‘peddlers’ who buy curios and sell them, rather actively, on the streets. The latter are usually the poorest, as safari-companies pay rather more than peeved tourists.

The image of the flycatcher is humorously based on the small, predatory bird- an insect-hunter, with all the relevant connotations of superiority over its prey. This metaphor seems strikingly apt when one observes the tourists’ tactics of evading the flycatchers, quickening their pace, suddenly veering off unintentionally into side-streets, escaping into cafés or pretending to be busy on the phone.

Moshi, Union Café: A family of travellers take a diversionary route past some cars. A flycatcher wearing a sunhat and holding a t-shirt reading “Kilimanjaro, if you can’t climb it, drink it”, does not pursue. When he gave up and walked off, he removed his hat.

However when the tourist enters exclusive premises, hotels, cafes or shops, the metaphor becomes meaningless. These moments reveal the unequal terms of their meeting, and the powerlessness of the flycatchers. Flycatchers are at the bottom of virtually all social ladders, many are without jobs nor feel they have particularly illuminating prospects. Faced with a daily struggle to fork out a living yet confined to the street,  they attempt to capture the attention of tourists on the street with all the persistence of necessity.

To the despair of many a visitor they patrol the streets, sometimes in groups, looking for foreigners or waiting outside known hotels, cafes or restaurants. Their tenacious tactics of personal interaction invariably makes the tourist feel his/her personal space has been invaded. One Dutch girl was left feeling unsafe and repulsed by her experiences, and shuddered disgustedly as she spoke:

"It feels unsafe, because you hear things. You're walking around with a lot of money in your bag, and they stick to you like flies"

Their strategies focus on clothes, language and manners. David, a flycatcher and Mt. Kilimanjaro guide, advertises himself with khaki trousers, hiking boots, a sun-hat and a Northface thermal top. He seems to represent familiarity, he told me, something they like. Another, Hassan, an informal flycatcher who just deals with any 'business' (see the case of the 35.000 con below) uses fashionable clothes combined with earphones to set himself above other, scruffier flycatchers. Curio-sellers make use of the internationally recognised motifs of animals, Kilmanjaro and ‘traditional’ Maasai villages to provoke a transaction.

The fist-bump, the handshake and the exchange of introductions and conversational blandishments forms a crucial boundary of personal interaction (which tourists are taught to avoid). When friendly terms have been set the business of getting personal can proceed. Particularly for curio-sellers if the tourist resists his initial attempts to sell bracelets or paintings they move on to deference and pity.

“The pity-thing is a huge problem. The ‘puppy-eyes’, they do it to me all the time.[viii]

Pleading for support for food, hospital bills or dying family-members is designed to weaken the sales-resistance of tourists. The blunt poverty and inequality of East African cities is punctuated by these requests and amplified as the tourist is drawn into direct relation to the poverty itself.

“If you come here, they force you to something which you are not used to, they get you personally. It's like «My uncle is going to die because you don't give me more money for this...». So it relates to you, and I think this is what pisses me off.”

A common method of coping with these guilt-complexes is to go ‘sociologically blind’.

“Sometimes you're kind, but sometimes you have to not be kind. It's a dilemma. Well, for me it's not a problem. I just say Hello, I don't want anything, and then ignore them.[ix]

“Travelling in Africa has made me harder, and maybe that's bad. It's made me more cynical.[x]

These requests for money provoke a number of preconceptions and misgivings.

“I think paying up feeds a terrible mentality.[xi]

Firstly, flycatchers fabricate harrowing tales for the purpose of extracting money from visitors with good intentions. This is evident in Lonely Planet’s Tanzania guide where an interview a fly catcher is asked: “Do you ever lie?”[xii] Secondly, that flycatchers, if given money, will spend it all in one night on alcohol, drugs and prostitutes. These preconceptions are not wholly incorrect but most people are desperately short of an adequate understanding of the varied world the flycatcher.

As Mateo said:

“If I had money, I would not be a flycatcher” 

Mateo is 41 and looks weary. His t-shirt is worn and pocked at the shoulders. He lives with a wife and two children in a village outside Arusha. When not attending to the shamba (patch of farmland) or the family cow, he sells curios to tourists on the street. When he gets a bit of cash he might enjoy bottled beer in town and bring the rest home for his family. With the extra cash, they buy clothes and pay school fees for the children. But these moments of ease may be few, especially in ‘low season’.  Mateo is not addicted to drugs and does his best to make ends meet with minimum frivolity.

We can expect that there is a grain of truth in the stories of flycatchers, even if their technical details are improvised or embellished. There is a logic to telling stories that differ from, but still represent, their own suffering. It is a useful tool for creating a transaction without the discomfort of exposing themselves as vulnerable to complete strangers.

«Virtually every person I met in Arusha was consumed with pursuing business, but none was consistently able to get access to the... cash money that was part of the dollarized tourist and mineral economy»[xiii]

A product of the flycatchers' objectifications of travellers was a frustration with 'illegitimate interaction’. As one Spanish man exclaimed in exasperation:

“I don’t like it. I feel like a dollar with legs.[xiv]

An extremely common term for foreigner is mzungu (white or European person, but refers also to someone cultured in the West).

Nafati, an older Tanzania woman, was once walking with several volunteers through Njoro outside Moshi, an impoverished place. An enormously obese woman, upon seeing the entourage, leapt up, danced about and shouted out: “Njooni! Mama Nafati anatembea na Benki ya Dunia. Mifuko yake imejazwa na dola! (Come! Mama Nafati is walking with the World Bank. Her pockets are filled with dollars!). This is Tanzanian satire at its best, but has a flip-side.

The idea of ‘getting to know the local’ is the holy grail of travelling for many, an aspiration that is frustrated by being continuously harassed for money which makes travellers feel like, as one put it, “walking ATMs”. Travellers almost invariably get the impression that establishing “legitimate friendships” with flycatchers or even ‘locals’ is impossible because the disingenuous nature of their friendliness is revealed by the inevitable request for money or support. As a result of this visitors and tourists grow reluctant to go beyond the buffer zone.

But this ‘dollarized tourist’ is just a symbol in an urban sea of symbols whose meanings are yet undisclosed.

To the flycatcher, the tourist (breezing effortlessly into those towns’ most expensive places) is an image that signifies the mythic wealth of the occidental 'there'[xv], which seems to often become an antithesis to a politically corrupt and socio-economically underdeveloped 'here'[xvi]. The tourist symbolises ‘global flows’ and indeed create a space that flycatchers occupy.   Whereas images of ng’ambo (the West) is evoked through the symbol of the tourist, the tourist in return gazes past the flycatcher at a symbolic world of ‘traditional and wild’ East Africa.  Interestingly, their mutual estrangement derives partly from this tendency to make each other walking symbols of their own ideas of Otherness (African or Occidental).

Moshi: Flycatchers operate in a limited space of highly visible socio-economic disparities. The boundaries of inequity are often physically manifested by a wall, or as in this picture, a row of potted plants.

Flycatching as an economic activity is a ‘tributary’ to the global flow of commodities (curios), money and people, by connecting artist and buyer through themselves as middle-men. This necessary connection is realised in the highly charged moment of ‘catching’.

These global flows (particularly of imported media and images, from India as well as the US) deliver an abundance of images, expectations and promises of ‘development’. This feeds into established notions of masculinity and aspirations. They do not, however, supply the means to achieve these enticing ends[xviii]. Flycatching as participation seems to entail only intermittently significant dividends.

Looking at the picture with the potted plants, suddenly the boundaries that seem to exclude them, once invisible, now become tangible. This is not about participation in the life of a ridiculously overpriced café, it is about participation in a symbol-inundated 'imagined global community' perceived to be overflowing with wealth. The pain and frustration of flycatching is born between these fantastical images of the global cosmopolitan wealth and being constantly reminded of one's inability to fully participate in it[xix] and of being always at the boundary.

This pain, ironically, also comes to "greatly contribute to the subjective sense of connection to that worldwide community" [xx]. The allure of a more complete, more rewarding participation in the global economy is expressed by fleetingly dipping into the pockets of travellers.

Out of this situation, there forms a certain sub-culture of con-men that live by an illicit but moral economy, where it is the streetwise’s right to relieve the wealthy and gullible of their money[xxi]. A central tenet of this moral economy is “the idea of a zero-sum world, where all profit is understood to be someone else’s loss….” The rich, then, are rich at the expense of the poor. A second central tenet is an African tradition for a “moral obligation to share one’s earnings with one’s friends and family…”[xxii].

Successful conning through flycatching can thus be thought of as a method of redistribution, the momentary and victorious realisation of the flycatcher-metaphor.

The 'disjuncture' between expectations and the chances of realising them appears to fuel certain self-destructive habits. As many told me, “nakunywa kupoteza mawazo” (I drink to forget). Alcohol and drugs (sniffing glue, marijuana and injected drugs) for some serve to ease the stress of living in poverty, and so close to unmitigated displays of wealth in a culture that rewards big-spending men with power and prestige. The particular urban East African connection between having money, and romance and love makes being penniless doubly frustrating[xxiii]. A struggling flycatcher in Arusha replied, when I asked about the issue of girlfriends:

“Hey, yeah, 'no money, no honey'. Wanawake wasema 'Hakuna pochi, hakuna upendo'” (the women say, 'if there is no wallet, there is no love')[xxiv]

Some flycatchers have to sleep on the street beneath blankets huddled up against a concrete wall. Food can also be irregular, evinced by their often frail physical frames, and alcohol and drugs may be used to mitigate hunger.

An American male traveller in Moshi expressed interest in and was subsequently charged 35.000 TZS (Tanzanian Shillings[xxv]) for local kiroba gin – normally costing around 1000 TZS, while another American, an older woman, was charged 500.000 TZS for a handbag whose ‘local price’ was around 100.000 TZS. These audacious fleecings make much more sense once we have appreciated the perspective of the flycatcher. It is a product of inequality, up-close and personal, and is further fuelled by the alienating coping strategies of sociological blindness and human dollarization. Apart from the eradication of the Great Divide of socio-economic disparities, traversing this buffer zone, this minefield of stereotypes, is one of the things we can and I believe we should do.

[i]            Lahoucine Ouzgane and Robert Morrell, eds., African Masculinities (New York: PalgraveMacmillan, 2004), 7.

[ii]           World Tourism Organisation, “UNWTO Tourism Highlights - 2014 Edition” (World Tourism       Organisation, 2014),

[iii] ......... The money coming from tourism appears to actually reach the poor (an estimated 28% in 2007). From: Mitchell, J., Keane, J., Laidlaw, J., 2009. Making success work for the poor: Package tourism Northern Tanzania –Final Report.


........... & World Tourism Organisation, “UNWTO Tourism Highlights - 2014 Edition” (World Tourism Organisation, 2014),

[iv]          Women have other roles in these economic activities. More commonly they sell fruit,      vegetables or magazines and newspapers on the street, but rarely with the fervour of the          ‘flycatcher’. Women will, however, have a more nocturnal, informal participation in the       flow of people and money. Becoming sexually or romantically involved with travellers is a well-established way of effecting a transaction. This may range from explicit prostitution, with pimp and all, to less organised interactions. The sphere of women in this         regards is important        to dig out, but is a whole other category which here cannot be justifiable included – due to insufficient research   materials and space. I have therefore decided to stick with male flycatchers.

[v].............. Selasini, Edward. “Tanzania: Flycatchers Spit Venom.” Arusha Times (Arusha), March 22, 2008.

[vi]          All persons’ names are pseudonyms. All translations are my own. Additionally, all those   quotes            unreferenced were collected by myself.

[vii]............ Selasini, Edward. “Tanzania: Flycatchers Spit Venom.” Arusha Times (Arusha), March 22, 2008.

[viii]         Alex, seasoned Australian male traveller

[ix]           Riike, Dutch female tourist in Moshi

[x]           Alex, seasoned Australian male traveller

[xi]           Alex, seasoned Autralian male traveller

[xii] ............ Lonely Planet Tanzania 5th Edition, Lonely Planet Publishing, Oakland, CA. pp. 169

[xiii] ........ Weiss, Brad. Street Dreams and Hip Hop Barbershops: Global Fantasy in Urban Tanzania. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009, pp. 127.

[xiv]         Raul, early 20s Spanish NGO worker in Arusha

[xv]Ng'ambo in Swahili has the meaning of ‘across the sea’, or more figuratively, 'the West'

See also:

Appadurai, Arjun. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Carrier, James C. Occidentalism: Images of the West. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.

Ferguson, James. Expectations of Modernity Myths and Meanings of Urban Life on the Zambian Copperbelt. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

In my own conversations I have come across such an astounding variety of occidentalisms that puts 'the West' in schematic opposition to Africa. There are many 'scales' that people use. Using terms like 'third world' to describe Africa is not uncommon, as well as 'development' to measure progress towards standards of living or political transparency. One well-travelled Tanzanian woman broke out in a politically exasperated fury, exclaiming: «look at this place, why are we still third world?» Another Tanzanian woman claimed that the United States has no poor people in it.

[xvii]........... See, Caldeira, Teresa P. R. “Fortcified Enclaves: The New Urban Segregation.” Public Culture 8, no. 2 (December 21, 1996): 303–28, for an excellent article on urban segregation, spatial exclusivity and on the changing idea of ‘being in the street’ in Sao Paolo.

[xviii] ...... Appadurai, Arjun. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Ferguson, James. Expectations of Modernity Myths and Meanings of Urban Life on the Zambian Copperbelt. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

[xix] ........ Foster, Robert John. Materializing the Nation: Commodities, Consumption, and Media in Papua New Guinea. Indiana University Press, 2002.

Weiss, Brad. Street Dreams and Hip Hop Barbershops: Global Fantasy in Urban Tanzania. Bloomington:  Indiana University Press, 2009.

[xx]              Weiss, Brad. Street Dreams and Hip Hop Barbershops: Global Fantasy in Urban Tanzania.       Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009, pp. 128.

[xxi]............ See both these books on urban moral economies, street survival, con-artists and the socially productive aspects of ‘wasting money’ in ‘reckless hedonism’, which I am unfortunately unable to discuss here at any length.

........... Newell, Sasha. The Modernity Bluff: Crime, Consumption, and Citizenship in Côte d’Ivoire, 2012’

Simone, AbdouMaliq, and Abdelghani Abouhani. Urban Africa: Changing Contours of Sur vival in the City. London ; New York : New York: Zed Books Ltd, 2005,

[xxii]........ Newell, Sasha. The Modernity Bluff: Crime, Consumption, and Citizenship in Côte d’Ivoire, 2012, pp. 68

[xxiii]                 Put briefly, most urbanites expect that two people romantically head-over-heels for each                    other, as well as the more transactional and business-like relation, will exchange things. In          the case of the man he is obliged to give the object of his affections (or blind desire) moneyand gifts.

Here is a mini-bibliography for the very fascinating links and issues between spending     money, expressing love and being desirable in different parts of Africa:

Cole, Jennifer, and Lynn M. Thomas. Love in Africa. 1 edition. Chicago ; London: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Cornwall, Andrea. “Spending Power: Love, Money, and the Reconfiguration of Gender Relations in Ado-Odo, Southwestern Nigeria.” American Ethnologist 29, no. 4 (November 1, 2002): 963–80.

Haram, Lim. “‘In Sexual Life Women Are Hunters’: AIDS and Women Who Drain Men’s Bodies. The Case of the Meru of Northern Tanzania.” Society in Transition 32, no. 1 (March 2001): 47–55.

Lindsay, Lisa A, and Stephan Miescher. Men and Masculinities in Modern Africa. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2003.

Luke, Nancy, and Kurz Kurz. “Cross-Generational and Transactional Sexual Relations in Sub-Saharan Africa.” Washington, DC: International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), 2002.

Ouzgane, Lahoucine, and Robert Morrell, eds. African Masculinities. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Silberschmidt, Margrethe. “Women Forget That Men Are the Masters”: Gender Antagonism and Socio-Economic Change in Kisii District, Kenya. Uppsala; Somerset, NJ: Nordiska Afrikainstitutet ; Distributor in North America, Transaction Publishers, 1999.

[xxiv]        Daniel, Arushan flycatcher. There is also the maxim: mkono mtupu haulambwi (the empty           hand is not licked’).

[xxv]         10.000 shillings converts, at present, into £3.5.

35.000 TZS equals approximately £12