Model UN Advisor
26 July 2018
A country of wood, aluminum, and diesel.
Of clay and rain and mud-slickened boots
Of a thousand greens, of loam and “Mambo!”
Of bucket showers and smoke-dried clothing
Of strained muscles, rice, and the Call to Prayer in Lushoto
When we left the airport just before 6 am, dawn was just arriving. Cinderblock and mudbrick buildings defined themselves from the van windows, along with the motorbikes and quiet movements of the local population, some in sweatshirts, some in colorful hijabs.
And then through the too-seldom-parted clouds of this late rainy season, Kili’s silhouette drew itself against the horizon.
Tanzania is a country marked by moments like this one, something iconic or mesmerizing, unremarkable to those who live here, but noteworthy inasmuch as they foster an increasingly politicized tourism industry.
“Away from the hostels, we will warm ourselves by fires at a convent and German mission, well-cleaned leftovers of colonial years. I am embarrassed that I find their familiar lines and paned windows comforting.”
Of Usambara clouds and cold to the bone,
Of mosquito nets and motorbike horns,
Of sugar cane rum and ground millet,
Of chickens, plastic trash, and chameleons
We wrestle with water, coaxing a shower spigot to produce something beyond a cold wash. Gratefully, we abandon wifi and with it all news and distractions of home. (But we will make a World Cup exception later in the trip.) We chase salamanders from our washrooms. Our guide Shannon challenges our framing of experience, our expectations.
“Mzungu! Mzungu!” The calls of village children as our line of rain ponchos wends its way down the trail towards them. We are the white people come to these rural spaces. Away from the hostels, we will warm ourselves by fires at a convent and German mission, well-cleaned leftovers of colonial years. I am embarrassed that I find their familiar lines and paned windows comforting.
Our guide Chaz tells me that perhaps 2% of the Tanzanian villagers will ever travel as far as the 30 miles to Arusha. Their interests are their own: drying clay bricks, raising chickens and goats, sending their children to struggling schools. Our presence here, even Kilimanjaro and the Serengeti, are unimportant except as potential means for more government resources later.
Of overgrown trails and plastic lawn chairs,
Of more rain and mud and rice and wind,
Of cow-milking and 54 students to a classroom,
Of generations stretched against tradition and future
“Pole, pole.” My knees and thighs complain against another “short walk,” an ascent that lasts two hours. The traveler sicknesses that attack each of us double-down on my own intestines, and I stay behind one morning to talk with Hassan, a Muslim Maasai. He pulls down his shuka to answer his cell phone. When I ask him which of these lands belong to the Maasai, he quietly confides that “All lands belong to Maasai.” Politics does not interest him.
It is a slow morning, like each day we meet here. Across the valleys and hills of rural Tanzania, the work starts early, quietly, with these people carrying timber on bicycles, water and grains atop their heads, poverty through the villages. But there seems no want, little misery. Baba tells us that Njoro village needs clean water, and we believe him; the satellite TVs tell them all that more is to be had, but this sort of aspiration does not confess itself here.
Hassan reminds me that the indigenous Maasai choose their own future in this modern-ing world. They keep their dance, their pastoral lives and markets, their circumcision rites, and their celebratory slaughter of our fire-cooked goat last night, but they welcome schools and send their people to universities. They make business deals with tourist companies; they design websites.
In Selling the Serengeti, we read that the Western conceit is that the conservation of nature relies upon the removal of humans from the world of wildlife. The Maasai belie this idea, demonstrating that their lifestyle adapts to any environment. They have lived for centuries at peace with this wilderness: why should I doubt they can adapt to this new modern-ing, as well?
“When I ask him which of these lands belong to the Maasai, he quietly confides that “All lands belong to Maasai.” Politics does not interest him.”
“How long before I agree with them that the next walk is indeed short?”
Of mountaintop starfields and hazy clouds of galaxies,
Of cicadas and bush-babies, but every home a rooster,
Of baboons learned to thieve the lunches of our picnics,
Of leopards and lions grown bored by the idling jeeps,
A country of andante and drum, of a tempo gracious and satisfied.
Of the more than 100 tribes in Tanzania, each finds its way, “pole, pole.” My knees find their way up and through these hills the same way. Chaz tells me that he was watched me walk and calls me “strong.” I am skeptical. I know my legs have limits, but across the weeks here I feel my own endurance grow some. How long before I agree with them that the next walk is indeed short? At its own pace, Tanzania steps into a modern (if not always Western) world. I wonder at our own unwillingness to move, to choose direction, to adapt.