Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Contemporary Tanzanian Christmas; Olde English Boxing Day

Six weeks ago, the brilliant blossom of flame trees brought splashes of red to the avenues of Moshi.  And like the sudden invasion of holly berries, marching through Northern Hemisphere hedgerows in their shiny red jackets, the sudden flush of scarlet-orange tree canopies heralds the start of the Christmas season here in East Africa.
Flame tree blossom makes East Africans feel Christmassy
Back home, the autumnal leaf-fall creeps south from the Arctic Circle and snow flurries herald the start of a season of cozy nights by the fire followed by frosty mornings scrapping ice from windscreens.  Meanwhile in Moshi, three degrees south of the equator, the temperature is rising and the view from my window suggests another summer’s day.

But that didn’t stop us from experimenting with mulled wine on Christmas Eve.  It required some resourcefulness to track down the ingredients - no-one sells handy kits for mulling with all the ingredients and instructions all together in one over priced box.  But the market had cloves and cinnamon sticks (my Swahili had to rise to the challenge because only the vendors of tourist trinkets speak English), oranges were easy to find (although unfortunately the home grown ones were not yet ripe) and we even turned up bay leaves in a small shop somewhere.

Later, for the first time in their lives, our children hung their stockings by a real fire place with a chimney that a slim Santa could conceivably wriggle his way down.  Yes, I know there is no such thing as a slim Santa, but if you will be picky, there is no such thing as any kind of Santa.  Since the weather is hot, there was no fire in the grate but I suppose our make-believe slim Santa would prefer it that way.
Annie and Fraser and the chimney big enough for a slim Santa
On Christmas day, there was no turkey or Brussels sprouts.  Instead, Christmas dinner was grilled on a friend’s BBQ and was more Antipodean than European.  After consuming an elegant sufficiency, we splashed on insect repellent and chatted on their veranda rather than sinking into a sofa to watch Christmas editions of the soaps or dusted off episodes of Dad’s Army and Blackadder.  And then, overnight, we turned back time.  I’ll tell you about that in a moment but you must bear with me while I digress…

10 years ago in Brunei, as the new expat on the block, it took some time to adjust to the idea of employing house staff.  I have become used to it now, which is not to say that I am no longer capable of doing anything for myself (that has more to do with being married).  I came to realise that although we could wash and iron our own clothes and scrub our own floors, if we did, someone in need of the income would be unemployed.

In Brunei and Bahrain, our staff were economic migrants.  Mostly they came from the Indian sub-continent and were there to carve out a better life for themselves.  Although their salaries seemed modest, they would eventually return home and retire in comfort.
Our gardener with his wife and two daughters
But here, we employ local Tanzanians.  They don’t have the opportunity to go elsewhere and neither is there a generous welfare state to pamper them.  Earning £40 / month as a house maid is a lifeline that they will cling to tenaciously.  If we treated them abusively, they would still work for us, which makes treating them well so much more significant. So we decided to mark Boxing Day in the spirit of days gone by.  We assembled boxes of staple provisions, together with a few treats, and wove our ancient Landcruiser along narrow dirt tracks to visit our servants’ homes.

Our house-girl is the poorest of them all.  We are slowly assembling small fragments of her life history into a coherent picture.  For the moment, it is enough to know that she lives, with her father and teenage daughter, in a one room house measuring barely three metres square and furnished with only a bed, sofa and coffee table.  Along one wall is their kitchen: a paraffin stove and three plastic buckets – one contains water; the others are used to store provisions.  A curtain divides their tiny home in two, separating the sleeping quarters from their ‘front room’.  There is no running water or electricity and they share an outdoor toilet with neighbours.  But each morning she walks some three miles to our home, always arriving on time, always immaculate and always smiling.
Boxing Day visit to our house-girl's family at their home
We had told her we were coming, although we hadn’t told her why, which resulted in a humbling irony: she had prepared a meal for us, even serving meat, which is an expensive luxury.  She told us again how grateful she was for her job and her heartfelt appreciation brought tears to our eyes.  She also told us with frank sincerity that we are always welcome at her home.  I doubt that she has read any Maya Angelou (she can barely write her own name) but she would no doubt agree that ‘among its other benefits, giving liberates the soul of the giver’.

Our house-girl caring for baby Marcus

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Friday, November 19, 2010

Lake Ambussel - Camping and scorpion hunting in Massai Land

It was fortunate that the Swahili words for left, right and straight ahead were part of my limited vocabulary, because the traditionally attired Massai in the passenger seat beside me spoke not a word of English and he was guiding us on the final leg of the journey.

A spare seat in our 4x4 had resulted in my promotion to Leader of the Convoy.  The road was a dust track woven between thorned acacia bushes, a plant so fiercely barbed that the Massai use them to build their enkangs – tangled enclosures that serve as goat pens or protective rings around groups of huts.  Even lions will not attempt to breach such a vicious fortress.

We had already wound our way through the Lelatema mountains where the track had crept across rocky outcrops and dived down steep banks into dried up river beds.  But most of the way we splashed through deep, red dirt, which swelled over the bonnet in auburn waves when we plunged into the many deep, dust-filled ruts.

Our destination was Lake Ambussel, a 20 kilometre squared expanse of flat, salty silt, parched to a crunchy mosaic crust.  Once upon a time, I guess the presence of water, at least on a seasonal basis, must have given the arid salt pan its name.  But a change in climate, or simply a build up of sediment, has pushed the water table deep underground.  Now, although mirages glimmer far out on the baked surface and occasional, shallow sink holes suggest underground trickles, there is no water to be seen.

It was a bleak spot indeed.  We had seen little wildlife and it was over an hour since we’d passed a village.  Even insect life was sparse.  But, although there was not a green leaf to be seen anywhere, ornate blossoms decorated some of the small trees that peppered the landscape.

Tree growth here is perennially stunted by the scorching heat and parched climate but their incongruous blooms were clear evidence that this barren land would soon change dramatically.  Flowering right at the end of the dry season gives their seeds a valuable head start when the rains finally give the land a brief respite from near permanent dehydration.

This isolated spot was the venue for the 200th Kilimanjaro Dirt Road Hash, a fortnightly run through the lesser trodden byways of Moshi’s rural hinterland.  It was too far off the beaten track to drive back that evening so we were going to camp.  Not only were we in one of the least hospitable landscapes I had ever visited, a three hour gruelling drive from anything resembling civilisation, we were staying the night!

Why do we do such things?  It certainly makes no sense to most Tanzanians: with an average per capita income of less than a dollar a day, every journey has a clear purpose.  You go out to buy meat, fetch water or visit a sick relative; you don’t simply venture off on foot or by bike, much less in a car, for an excursion.

Which emphasises how fortunate we are.  Despite working hard on a day-to-day basis, we have the luxury of leisure, both in terms of time and pursuits.

And yes, the 200th Hash was fun.  We camped in the dusty and hopelessly inadequate shade of an acacia bush.  On the run itself we collected shells and bleached bones; relics from the lake’s fluid past and desiccated present.   Later, by moonlight and armed with sharpened sticks, the children hunted scorpions in a place where, fortunately, they were unlikely to find any.  Meanwhile, the adults listened nervously for yelps of pain whilst drinking and playing cards with a couple of Massai tribesmen.

If you've read this far then, like me, you are fortunate enough to enjoy the luxury of leisure.  Kuwa na siku ya kufurahi - have a relaxing day. 

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Monday, September 27, 2010

Fantasy versus Reality in the Pare Mountains

When I awoke on Sunday morning, the world had disappeared, which was really quite a shame. The previous evening, I had perched upon a deeply weathered boulder just below the summit of Kindoroko peak in the Pare Mountains.  African rhythms had drifted up from the valley far below.  Close by, a precipitously steep ridge rose towards the velvety green contours of an adjacent peak.  Deep fissures running down its sides formed dense wrinkly shadows as it caught the last of the afternoon sunlight.

The Massai Steppe stretched away into the middle distance where Nyumba ya Mungu Reservoir shimmered sleepily.  Far, far away, peeking over the horizon through its own orange haze, sprawled a seductively rugged-looking mountain range.  And beside me, an ornate, horned spider bided its time at the centre of a web strung between the bracken fronds.

But overnight, a chilly mist erased everything.  Our tents clung limply to the rough grass of an uneven clearing.  It was just before dawn and the hope of catching the sunrise had coaxed me from warm dreams and an even warmer sleeping bag.  I had imagined the first light of dawn cutting through the crisp morning air to highlight the distant pyramidal peaks of the Hanang range, but those hopes now lay in sodden tatters on the dew soaked turf.

What's more, it was cold in the high altitude mist and the porridge wasn’t ready yet so I retreated into my fantasy world where a crisply dressed waiter stood with a towel over his arm seducing me with the breakfast menu.  In my fantasy world, I had already enjoyed a warm shower in a bathroom sparkling with white porcelain; the newspaper lay half read on the table and the slightest nod was enough to summon fresh coffee…

As the waiter’s brisk footsteps receded, I indulged myself with a slideshow of memories from the previous day.  The truck had taken us up and over the Pare range on a road that gripped the hillsides like a twist of celestial spaghetti flung carelessly across the landscape.

Our drop off was Lomwe village, close to the birthplace of David Msuya.  It comprised an assortment of buildings scattered across a wide valley floor and lay confined beneath a ring of soaring peaks.  It took all afternoon to climb the calf-wrenching red-soil paths that led us through tiny farm plots until we reached the almost untouched woodland that thrives above 1800 metres.

An hour before sunset, we had reached the highest point in the North Pare Mountains: the tiny, table-top summit of Kindoroko, 2113 metres above sea level.  Bracken and small trees lay scattered across the peak and tiny paths led to secluded and spectacular view points.  The air was fresh and clear as I gazed out over a mosaic of banana, sugar cane and vegetable terraces crammed together on the steep valley walls.

But there was nothing to linger for the following morning.  With the tents struck and the porridge eaten, or rather drunk (memo required regarding oats to water ratio), we slithered off the edge of Kindoroko onto a treacherously steep path.  Damp leaves and perilous roots littered the knee-jarringly precipitous trail and the world was lost in an eerie, mist muffled silence.  But that was okay because in my fantasy world birds twittered and an escalator whisked me sedately down through a centrally heated, virtual mountain experience.

Then suddenly, the cloud lifted and the real world took centre stage.  I dropped back from the herd and as the thundering hooves of twenty trekkers faded into the distance, real birds started to tweet.  If I knew my birds, I may have been able to identify the call of an Olive Woodpecker, Moustached Green-tinkerbird or perhaps an African Hill Babbler – just a few of the exotic sounding species common in the North Pare.  But I happily skipped the twitcher’s checklist in favour of a rainbow of unidentified, colourful flashes flitting through lichen laden branches.

For the remainder of the hike, my fantasy world lay largely unexplored as our descent meandered through isolated small-holdings; chickens scurried off the path ahead of us, clucking their reproach and mud bricks lay baking in the sun or piled high waiting to be fired.  Eventually the trail levelled off and I tramped a dusty track flanked by the vicious spikes of katani (sisel) succulents, whose tough fibres are spun into course rope.

Finally we wandered the eroded dirt streets of Lembeni, a dusty hamlet straddling the Dar road.  A tiny grocery store bore the name ‘Simple Store’.  I wondered if the name referred to the stock or the merchant.  Or maybe only simple clients are served.  I didn't stop, just in case.  Parked nearby was a lorry with ‘Man to Man Truck’ emblazoned across the top of its windscreen.  Perhaps 'Man' is a place and the lorry plies a circular route.  Or maybe the driver offers more than just haulage.  I quickened my step, just in case.

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The Birds of East Africa: Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi (Princeton Field Guides)   Birds of East Africa (Field Guide)   Common Birds of East Africa (Collins Safari Guides)

Breakfast image sourced from Wikipedia and reproduced under the terms of the Creative Commons Licence.
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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A body blow for consumerism?

As our 16 year-old Landcruiser bounced along the corrugated dirt track, an altogether more decrepit vehicle was being pushed enthusiastically in the opposite direction. The young boy may well have made it himself: a piece of wood formed the chassis; four cans had been crushed into crude wheels and a stick provided propulsion.

Catching sight of the boy, our own children sniggered from the jump seats in the back. It was an entirely understandable reaction. All their lives, we had surrounded them with first-world greed. They had been bombarded by advertisements precipitating the capitalist mantra of buy-to-be-happy and had grown up amidst the sickening wastefulness of planned and perceived obsolescence. A child with a junk-yard toy was fair game as an object of ridicule.

But understandable does not equate to acceptable. And so their relative wealth was put into perspective and the boy’s ingenuity and uncluttered happiness earned their respect.

Which brings me to the sad story of a small bear:

A week before we came to Tanzania, Fraser lost Pooky. It was the second time he had lost Pooky. The first fist-sized incarnation of Garfield’s teddy bear had disappeared a year or so before. A replacement Pooky was eventually sourced and was treasured with equal gusto. Pooky the 2nd went everywhere with Fraser and it was this devotion that brought their relationship to a premature end. Inevitably, Pooky was left behind somewhere, never to be seen again.

Fraser missed Pooky terribly and often asked if we could get a new Pooky (third incarnations are not uncommon in teddy-bear karma). But one night Fraser told me that, although he still missed Pooky, every time he thought about it he remembered the boy with the toy car… Life in Africa has given my six year old something many adults never attain.

Not a body-blow for consumerism – Fraser is just one of the millions of capitalistically inclined children carelessly scuffing the delicate shell of our fragile Earth. But if you’re going to change the world, start at home with your own kids’ perceptions, right?

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Friday, September 10, 2010

A month in Tanzania

It’s been a tough month, filled with frustrations that I never anticipated. A single, all-pervading frustration, really. The largest free-standing frustration in the world, in fact.  Every day I see Mount Kilimanjaro towering above me, its summit less than 25km away. And every day I cannot climb it, at least not yet…

We’re living 900 metres above sea-level on Kili’s verdant lower slopes – volcanic soil and regular high-altitude precipitation preserve a fertile micro-region with abundant greenery.

My orientation week, which kicked off the morning after we arrived, was a chaotic whirlwind of information. But it culminated with what has proved to be one of the highlights so far: a staff camping trip to Lake Chala, an ancient flooded caldera straddling the Kenyan border. School organized and paid for the trip and families came too, although Nina opted to stay home with Marcus.

Now, four weeks into term, we’re beginning to settle into a routine. Each morning, Nina walks to school with Annie and Fraser, who often cycle the ½ mile trip, which follows a quiet dirt road. I usually leave a little earlier but often see the children during the school day.

We’ve bought a 16 year old, eight-seater Toyota Landcruiser Prado and hired Palina, a lovely Tanzanian nanny / maid who speaks only Swahili, which is providing a little more incentive for us, particularly Nina, to learn the native language!

ISM has an excellent OP (Outdoor Pursuits) programme and in a couple of weeks, I’m heading to the Pares Mountains on a two day trip before tackling a four day Kilimanjaro trek at the end of November – not to the summit; that will have to wait…

There is a fortnightly Hash here, which we were introduced to recently. It couldn’t have been better! We spent an hour or so meandering through banana groves, across streams and in and out of remote communities. Annie and Fraser forged ahead with a dozen other excited youngsters while Nina, Marcus and I brought up the rear. For large sections, we were followed by a crowd of chattering Chagga* children, excited by the sudden appearance of a herd of Wazungu*.

And then there are the bike rides and walks. Just behind our house, a river courses through a deep gully littered with boulders for the children to jump between. Beyond the river, the track slopes steadily upwards through coffee, corn, maize and banana fields. This is where I ride each weekend, with Kilimanjaro as the constant backdrop.

There’s a week long break coming up and we hope to finish unpacking, visit a nearby wildlife park and go back to Lake Chala for the day. There are also some hot-springs not far away which we may try. So much to see and do and all so close to home!

Each morning I walk 10 minutes to work along a tree lined track. I watch the fiery red African sun rise as I walk and when I arrive I glance up towards the majestic roof of Africa before settling down to work. The people are cool, our kids are really happy and the school believes in children as well as grades... all good, except when it's really good.
* Chagga are the predominant indigenous tribe in the Kilimanjaro region of Tanzania
* Wazungu is the plural of Mzungu, the Swahili word for a white person

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