This is the story of a permit, or permits, or rather dozens of different forms and files and flagrant red tape that I attempted to navigate to shoot a documentary in Tanzania. It’s a very long story, but I’ll try to be as brief and unbiased as I can, though I don’t anticipate much success there.
I have now very nearly completed a project producing a low-budget documentary in the mountains of East Africa over this past summer. I’ve been organizing the logistics of the filming expedition to Kenya and Tanzania for well over a year. The initial idea was incipient over two years ago. These logistics include travel, equipment (both alpine and camera-related), and legal permits to film in the national parks of these two countries.
Filming in Kenya, in parks run by the award-winning Kenya Wildlife Service, famous for their anti-poaching successes and highly competent rangers, was a relative cinch. In a visit to the Kenyan Film Bureau, I pleaded my case as a poor student filmmaker without the coffers of National Geographic in the hopes that they would waive or reduce the fee for filming in the parks. Within 30 minutes, my permit was approved, and free. KWS examined it and passed it as well. They were fairly open and transparent about their systems and their intentions. I even secured an interview with the Chief Warden of Mt. Kenya and the Aberdares National Parks, the “Boss Kubwa (Big Boss),” as he was called.
Tanzania turned out to be a different story altogether. First, I’ll quote an earlier blog post when I was still fresh-faced and naive about the depth of the country’s bureaucratic ineptitude.
“My contacts at KG Mountain Expeditions were able to smooth over the process with the Kenya Wildlife Service and help get much of the fee waived, but the Tanzania National Park Authority (TANAPA) proved to be more tricky. There’s a lengthy application intended to suck large media companies like National Geographic and the BBC for all their worth (Kilimanjaro is a major revenue source for Tanzania). A tiny student production like mine shouldn’t even register, but I still had to go through the same process, which involved numerous trips deep into downtown Nairobi to visit the Tanzanian High Commission high in a dilapidated skyscraper to try and convince them not to charge me thousands of dollars that I don’t have.”
“At one point, they rejected my application at a cursory glance because I addressed a cover letter ‘To whom it may concern instead of ‘To the Tanzanian High Commission in Nairobi,’ despite having their exact address in the top corner. They wouldn’t even look at the rest of the application; they seemed to think that I was being arrogant and disrespectful. It was such a petty detail that I almost lost my temper before remembering that my whole film depending on not offending this particular secretary, so I humbly retreated and fought my way back through the smog and dust of downtown to change 5 words on a new 15-page form. Considering it takes up to two hours of standstill traffic to get into town, I had plenty of time to stew. After two more infuriating visits and several pleading phone calls, I finally walked out with a single piece of paper bearing their light purple stamp of approval, my ticket to Tanzania. The process depended on groveling to the sort of compensatory grandiosity that plagues African bureaucracy.”
After this frustrating encounter, I corresponded almost daily with my contact in Tanzania about the progress of our permit. He was being unceremoniously shuffled from one department to the next, from Arusha to Moshi to Dar es Salaam, always in search of the elusive person who woulc authoritatively sign off on our (now multiple) forms. Bear in mind that we had researched the permit requirements literally a year prior and had found none of these stipulations or offices. They have almost negligible presence on the internet and are uncommunicative by phone and email.
Beyond the standard $250 per day fee that most TANAPA parks charge for filming (this is the only information on any fees or forms available on their website, with no explanation as to how to secure the permit), we were suddenly asked for $3000 from the Ministry of Information, Culture, Arts, and Sports (they seem to have a lot on their plate), to “fast-track” an application that we had submitted months prior. Our other option was to move the entire expedition back by a month in order to only pay $1000 extra. Blindsided by this and thoroughly unable to pay these extra fees, we rescheduled the entire trip back by a month and my partner company graciously agreed to absorb the cost as they hadn’t anticipated the expense.
After I arrived in Tanzania, my contact, happy but exhausted, showed me the form he had acquired from the Tanzania Film Board explicitly allowing me to pursue a documentary film about porters and guides in Tanzania National Parks.
But the bliss didn’t last. Upon arriving in Arusha National Park and submitting the form, we were told we needed a second permit from TANAPA and needed to pay an additional fee to submit that, despite our hard-won permit from the Tanzanian Film Board itself. Already side-tracked and behind schedule, we decided to “accept” defeat and agreed to proceed up the mountain sans permit, where I would only take photos. Of course, I wasn’t so easily dissuaded and proceeded to film surreptitiously.
Either I was spotted by a ranger or the gate grew suspicious afterwards and radioed up to the supervisor of the first camp, because he demanded I come to his office late that night and hand over my cameras. When I presented my two DSLRs, they were non-plussed and kept repeating, “Hii ni kawaida kabisa,” or ‘this is completely normal.’ Clearly the park, like the High Commission, like the Film Board, like TANAPA, still thought I was National Geographic, with dozens of enormous cameras. Eventually the supervisor apologized and returned my cameras. I continued up the mountain, more cautious but still filming when I could.
I was beginning to get the impression that the moment TANAPA got wind of someone looking into the actual processes and infrastructure behind their natural resources, they became highly suspicious. As Clemence, an older mountain guide, explained to me, “In Tanzania, no one trusts each other. They all think you want to screw them.” His words, not mine.
How do I know they were paranoid? Because at 1:30 AM the night after I returned from Mt. Meru, the police knocked on my hotel room door and demanded to see my passport and visa. They claimed it was a routine immigration check, but I asked around the next morning, and mine was the only door they hit. I explained I was tourist, on a tourist visa, taking pictures for pleasure, and eventually they left.
Before we headed to Kilimanjaro, we decided to go straight to TANAPA headquarters in person to acquire the second permit in question. My contact in Arusha had already been working on this permit while we climbed Mt. Meru, but was repeatedly told that “the right man” wasn’t in the office. We decided to be more and more transparent about what we were doing, i.e. a student production for non-commercial distribution intended for research purposes only, but this only seemed to make things worse. The term “research” combined with “guides and porters” seemed a very touchy subject.
Eventually my contact received a letter that he thought had granted us permission to film as a student production, but on closer examination (his English wasn’t quite on point), we realized that it actually expressly forbade me from filming on Kilimanjaro. We were supposed to present this at the park gate.
So, after several days of fruitlessly waiting, we went directly to TANAPA and waited for several hours until someone finally agreed to see us. In a rather ostentatious office I sat across a massive oak table from the deputy commissioner and a brusque Indian man who wouldn’t say who he was and wouldn’t look me in the eye. They explained in rapid and terse Swahili that there was no way they could let me film because they couldn’t trust me (more specifically, that “they couldn’t know my heart”) not to besmirch the great name of Tanzania, which I clearly had no intention to do and had explained extensively in letters from myself, Belmont, and KWS. They continued on and on–again, without ever looking at me–their tirade interrupted by the occasional English words: “Youtube” and “reputable media organizations.”
When this course of reasoning didn’t satisfy us, they changed tactics and said that I had entered the country under the wrong type of visa and had overlooked a lengthy process of application through TANAPA directly (a process which doesn’t exist online or in any accessible resources).
Unsurprisingly, they didn’t like it when I inquired about this mysterious lack of information. At this point, the Indian man walked out of the room with a nasty look at me and the deputy commissioner told us to leave.
I left the building with the distinct impression that I was a public enemy to Tanzania.
As I ran this experience by my contacts like Clemence, it became clear that a paranoia runs rampant through the Tanzanian government, a fear of being held accountable for anything, a fear of back-stabbing and being fired. What frustrated me most was not their obvious inconsistency and blatant corruption but that by making life so difficult for anyone not associated with a major media corporation or interested in anything but taking pretty pictures of animals, they essentially shoot themselves in the foot and obfuscate the essential media coverage (and accountability) that their country so desperately needs. More than any other complaint, I heard from guides and tour operators that the Tanzanian government does not know how to advertise its myriad and remarkable natural resources. This failure and this pernicious fear affects average Tanzanians who need jobs in tourism, not the government elite.
Thus, feeling both angry and a bit emboldened, I consulted with my company and we decided to throw the letter away and proceed up the mountain as “normal tourists,” filming under the radar as we had done on Mt. Meru. We had no problem. After talking to several other journalists or videographers who have worked in Tanzania, I found that this was the unspoken but normalized practice.
As I expected, this wasn’t a very short story. But it was an integral part of my experience, although a frustrating one. I came to East Africa not just to climb and film but to see how these mountains operate, and what life is like for those who work on them. What I found was an optimistic resilience in the guides and porters even under an alternately arbitrary and antagonistic bureaucracy.
As my guide repeatedly told me, “Tanzania is Tanzania,” which says so much and yet too little.