Mzungu!

Trip Start Jun 18, 2008
1
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Trip End Aug 17, 2008


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Saturday, June 28, 2008

Seven km north of Arusha lies the village of Ng'iresi, my destination and part of Tanzania's cultural tourism program.  I had signed up for a full day tour of the village, including a hike to a local waterfall.  I met my tour guide, John, at 9 am and headed to his village, Ng'iresi.
 
Actually John is Maasai, as are most of the six thousand people that also live in Ng'iresi. He explained that most of the inhabitants were modernizing due to their proximity to Arusha.  However, there were varying degrees as to which this had taken place.  Though developed by the government, this tourism program is managed by local communities as a way to raise money for their schools.  John and I began our morning by visiting the family who had implemented this tour.  Margaret invited us into their home, and we sat down for coffee.  Her home was nicer than most in the village, and we sat on comfortable couches while the TV played in the corner.  This was the first time I had been the only traveler on the tour, and John encouraged me to ask as many questions as I pleased.  From the onset, I knew this would provide the cultural exchange so missing from the Ngorongoro Maasai tour.
 
While drinking coffee John, at my request, began teaching me a few of the many Swahili words I would learn that day. When our cups were empty, we thanked Margaret and began the tour just outside the house. Margaret's house is one of only six in the village that uses methane from cow waste to heat their stove. It is part of a new program that may slowly move through the village. The cow waste slides down a chute and is then collected into a pressured tank underground.  The methane forms and is shipped by thin pipeline into the house where it is attached to the stove.  Their 3 cows produce enough methane to run the stove for 2-3 hours a day. Although not particularly eye appealing, it is an innovative and resourceful alternative to cooking over a fire outside or inside like most of her neighbors.
 
The air was still chilly and fog clung to the sides of the hills as we began our walk.  I felt like I was on the travel channel as my personal tour guide began to lead me through the village. And I believe I learned more in the first hour than I had in quite a long time.   Tall trees lined the road and John explained that many were exotic brought in by an international soil conservation group. Fifteen years ago, the area was having a potentially devastating problem with deforestation.  A major effort to plant trees ensued and has drastically improved the soil.  After spending five days in the safari vehicle it was wonderful to stretch my legs surrounded by the beautiful green farmland and rolling hills.  John showed me banana tress, potatoes, cabbage, coffee, and maize, and I noticed how many of the crops continued up the side of Kivesi Hill, an old volcano. A little more than halfway up the hill, the tree line began. John explained that the community banned crops above that line in order to hold the soil and preserve moisture.  In addition, most of the drinking water came off the hill, and this helped increase the amount of water available. A few animals grazed in front of each home, and I learned that most families have at least one cow, one chicken, and one goat (al though some have a few more).  Since these Maasai had abandoned a nomadic, pastoral life, having more than three cows is very rare due to lack of land.  
Shortly after leaving Margaret's we walked upon the secondary school, complete with four new classrooms, due to the Ng'iresi tourism program.  Adjacent to the school was a two-room medical facility.  Although no doctor is present, a couple of nurses work there seeing twenty to thirty patients a day. If patients have minor complaints they can acquire medicine, usually for less than $1 US. However, if there are more urgent medical needs, they must journey to Arusha.  In addition to the school and clinic, a Lutheran church stood behind the school as eighty-five percent of the village was now Christian. The remaining percent still practiced Pagan Maasai religion.
 
We continued the tour and as the fog lifted, I began to see more and more homes dotting the hills and valleys. Many people passed us walking and biking (the primary methods of transportation). Everyone we encountered said hello-usually Jambo (hello to a presumed non-Swahili speaker).  Children were everywhere, as the average Ng'iresi family has six, and they were quick to notice me.  Almost every time we passed children, they would stop what they were doing and yell "Mzungu!".  Technically Mzungu (moo-zoon-goo) means foreigner, but in practice it is used to identify a white person. The children would run closer and point at me still shouting.  I was a little surprised at this "greeting" as John leads Wazungu (Mzungu plural) on tours three to four times a week. I knew I was not the first white person these children had seen. Once they came closer they would say hello or more often "bye" as this was the most common English word spoken by the little ones.
 
We turned off the main road and headed down a narrow path lined by crops encountering a group of children singing "Brother John" in Swahili.  They giggled profusely when they saw me and several went to gather flowers. One by one, they handed me flowers and then stepped back to stare. Still giggling, they told me their names (most of them had English names signifying they were Christian), and then asked me to take a picture.  After the photo was snapped, the gathered excitedly around the camera to see the image.  Another girl, probably 9-10 years old, ran eagerly up to the group waving a large bush knife in her hand. I must have looked a little shocked as John reassured me that it was normal to see children with such tools as they were needed to complete their chores. She also looked at the picture, and then ran up the slippery path in her flip flops with the knife still flailing about. It still made me very nervous for her, but I reminded myself that I was in a much different place. John and I continued on with the children following us a short way before waving "Bye Mzungu" and turning back to their games.
 
Even though it was Saturday, women toiled the fields and those who were not farming were spending the day washing clothes.  Although a few men worked beside the women, most men were seen walking the path towards town or gathered at the tiny shops along the way.  About half of the houses in Ng'iresi are traditional, made of mud and sticks, while more and more families have or are building houses of brick. Bricks cost $1 US so people collect bricks over time and slowly, often very slowly according to John, construct their modern homes.
 
The morning's primary destination was the Navuru waterfall and after more than an hour's trek, we left the road and winded our way through fields of maize. I could hear the rushing water as we cut through a large grove of trees.  John pointed through the leaves at the two streams of water pouring over the edge of the cliff. He took me hand and led me down a very steep and slippery trail to the base of the falls.  I taught him the word "klutz" as I temporarily lost my footing and hoped I would not tumble to the bottom. The slightly nerve-wracking descent was well rewarded by the serenity of Navuru. Although it was not huge, the water cut through heavily vegetated cliffs, hitting the small pool of water before meandering away down the rocky creek.  Taking advantage of the relaxing environment, I rested for awhile before we returned to Margaret's for lunch.  
Awaiting our arrival, Margaret unveiled a huge spread of traditional food including ugali, rice, sweet potatoes, and bananas. Ugali is a stiff porridge made from corn or cassava and is the staple food in Tanzania. It really does not have a taste, so it is best to mix with whatever else is served. It's hard to dislike something without much flavor, but yet I really did not find it very appetizing.  However, I expect this will not be the only ugali I will ever eat.
 
Over lunch, I asked John if at 27, he was old to be unmarried (he had told me that I could ask him anything).  He explained that most men get married between the ages of 20 -30 while most women get married from 17 to early 20s. Although he had no prospects, he planned on being married by the beginning of 2009 as his house was almost complete. He felt it was bad to wait too long.  He then described the different types of ways people became married. He said the most common kind of marriage was through a cheating wedding. Essentially if a woman came home with a man for the night, they were considered married.  The next day, the man must go to her family and apologize. After a minimum of one year, but sometimes several years later, they would have to get the marriage confirmed in the church. Other marriages originally took place in the church or through a formal declaration in front of others. I asked him if he planned a cheating wedding or if this would upset his family. He laughed and said his mother wouldn't mind, as she wanted him married very soon. However, his father was a pastor, so a cheating wedding was strongly discouraged.  He told me that he actually had found a fiancÚ the year before, but never finished the extensive process of getting engaged. During this process, he provides specific gifts to the family including sugar, drinks, food and ultimately cattle. Essentially family members and perhaps even the fiancÚ will not directly state how they feel about the union, but reveal their feelings indirectly through their treatment of the family and their acceptance of the gifts. Unfortunately for John, his fiancÚ's parents were rude to his family signaling their aversion to the union.
 
After competing our meal and our long conversation regarding marriage, John and I were happy to see blue sky among the clouds. We strolled to another part of the village where a woman would show me her traditional home. On the way, I heard the now familiar cry of "Mzungu!" and up ahead an infant ran behind his other sister, literally crying at the sight of my white face.  John laughed while I felt bad, but as the child's tears ceased to subside, I had to chuckle as we passed. We climbed another hill and John pointed to our next stop. Although slightly similar in style to those in Ngorongoro, this family's homes were larger in circumference and height. Two identical round huts stood next to each other (one for each wife), while a small brick house belonged to the oldest son.  The woman stopped her washing and escorted me inside. The house was roughly fifteen feet and diameter with the kitchen in the center. It was separated by occasional sticks from the rest of the house and a stick shelf hung above for storing food.  A pot simmered on a mud-brick stove and the smell of smoke filled the house. A chicken pecked at my feet as John pointed out where the cow and goat slept at night on one side of the house. The smaller boys slept in the front of the house, while the mother and girls stayed on the opposite side from the animals. After circumcision (I believe roughly at the onset of puberty), the boys are removed from the house and essentially quarantined in a small structure for a while. From then on they sleep outside until marriage. It was unclear, but it seemed the father/husband chose where he slept, but it was more often with the older boys than either of his wives. I thanked the woman for sharing her home. It was very interesting to see the house, but again I felt uncomfortable with the "live exhibit" and was grateful to step back outside.

 
We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering the village. We stumbled upon a council of elders meeting to resolve some type of dispute as well as a community meeting regarding environmental conservation. We ascended Kisevi Hill to better appreciate the lovely views of Ng'iresi. Mt. Meru loomed in the background now visible in the sunny sky. Realizing there were fewer clouds than normal, John hurried us further up Kisevi to a good vantage point.  Just reaching above two hills the somewhat snowy peaks of Mount Kilimanjaro appeared. I was delighted to see the "rooftop of Africa" Apparently Kilimanjaro is almost always rung by clouds, so the summit is rarely visible. Always the geographer and knowing that global warming threatens to eliminate Kilimanjaro's snowcaps, I asked John how the mountain had changed in his lifetime. He responded that when he was a child there was at least twice as much snow.  As we took in the view, I thanked myself for choosing this tour. 


As the day concluded, John and I drove back to Arusha chatting like old friends.  As we slowly descended the muddy roads, children repeatedly ran up to the side of the car, giving me a thumbs up an yelling Mzungu!  John reminded me that I had a much more important and respected title that of "Mwalimu" (teacher).  I had already discovered in other Arusha encounters that teachers are highly respected in Tanzania. Although quite pleased to learn this, I hope I can live up to the expectation in Mwanza.
 
 
 
 
 
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Where I stayed
Arusha Naaz Hotel

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