That’s a Bingo!

Just down Ali Hassan Mwinyi, past Viva Towers and the Greek Embassy, backed up against the crispy dead expanse of the gymkhana golf course, lies an unassuming little place called Upanga Club. Every Friday night, local families, expats and travelers assemble at Upanga Club, order drinks and food, and then wait patiently. They are casual and familiar and happy and waiting patiently because they know that soon the game will start. Because at Upanga Club, every Friday night is Bingo Night. And Bingo Night is freakin’ lit.

A sporting club since way back, Upanga Club’s clientele is mostly Tanzanians of Indian descent. In the courtyard, families with kids sat at outdoor tables, interspersed with older couples and a few large tables of mostly men at the back. Small groups of expats kept mostly to themselves at their tables while ogling the other Westerners, wondering where they were from, what they did, and if they were single. The bar had reasonably priced beer that was plenty cold and a solid kitchen cranking out the Indian and Chinese dishes that have made their way into the culture of the Swahili coast. My buddy and I drank and ate and waited on our friends, making big plans for our future endeavors.

Eventually, everyone made it, and as the dadas passed out clipboards and pens for our bingo cards, we pushed together some tables and made what introductions there were to make. A giant, light-up board with numbers 1-100 on it was set up at the front, with a young Tanzanian manning a giant switchboard that illuminated the numbers. Literally, a board of switches, cobbled together on plywood from 30 some-odd household fixtures bolted down, their corresponding numbers inked in with permanent marker. The caller sat at the front, microphone on, glass of beer close at hand, and a plastic juice pitcher full of tiles at the ready. With very little by way of introduction or ceremony, we were off—the caller shaking the plastic jug vigorously, the loud racket of tiles ringing out in the courtyard, no more knives and forks scraping or conversation bubbling as everyone suddenly became very focused. It was bingo time.

The game moved quickly, numbers ringing out for quick-fire, five in a box, any one line, two lines in a box, first full house, second full house. The heavy accent of the caller often confused some of the group, but we relied on the light board to set us straight as the pace kept pushing. The caller had some favorite phrases: 11 as “two skinny ladies” and 88 as “two fat ladies,” 1 as “Upanga Club, by itself, number one!” and 20 as “a duck with an egg.” The first game passed quickly, with winners whooping out and making their way to the front to have their numbers and cards checked quickly over the speakers. Mistakes were booed. The next game’s boards came around, the buy in moving from 2k to 5k, the prizes getting bigger. We ordered more beer. During the second game, the caller admonished those talking in the crowd to quiet down. This was serious business, of course. He did it again, more insistently, and our group did our part to cut out the conversation and respect the game.

As we moved into the third game, things got more interesting. The caller admonished the crowd again. Seriously. He reminded the noisy people that they weren’t members. That if they kept talking, they’d have to leave. We started to realize it wasn’t us. Then, all hell broke loose—an insult was lobbed from a table in the back, a group of men at a long table who had been drinking and talking too much. Some members took issue, now standing up at their tables, towering above their families, yelling and gesturing at the loud interlopers. Soon, everyone was up from their tables, yelling and arguing, the caller yelling into the mic about the police, two Tanzanian men in staff shirts sidling up to the group, men whose size only meant they could be security. The bar staff stopped serving. The waiters paced. The kitchen staff pressed against the glass. Families shook their heads. All the while, voices rose, tempers flared and the arguing continued. Our table, across the courtyard, turned to our beers, to our conversations, to pretending like we weren’t fascinated by this train wreck. We gave in and watched. The cute couple in their seventies at the table next to us provided hilarious commentary, contributing their light abuse to the chorus of voices.

Then, it was suddenly all good. Apologies were made. A couple guys left. The bottom dropped out of the escalating tension and there was a slight lull. My buddy immediately broke into applause and others joined him. There was a bit of laughter and some relieved murmuring. There were some ruffled feathers, but play resumed. The manager came out to call the game, injecting even more humor into the calls, encouraging people to come turn up and dance on the tables any day of the week, but to respect the bingo, dammit. As rounds got progressively more expensive, we slowly but surely dropped out, focusing on beer and small talk. There were some great folks out that night. The crowd dwindled and we kicked it into the warm, temperate night, now suddenly very late, hours slipping past ten, eleven and into midnight.

We ended up at a couple big tables, the last of us, talking with the manager, shooting darts. He introduced us to his kids. He made the bar keep serving last rounds of beer. He mocked the drunk guys who had started the ruckus—they couldn’t hold their liquor. We were casual and happy and familiar. It was late, and we faded one by one, calling Ubers and taxis and making hazy plans for the rest of the weekend: We’ll do something. I’ll call you. We’re around. Bingo.

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