Moivaro country walk, near Arusha
If you go on a trek to climb Kilimanjaro, you could quite easily come home afterwards without getting much of an impression of what daily life is like for people in Tanzania. You only see the view from the main road as you drive through a series of villages to the start of the trek, and the same on the way back. The national park itself is empty of people other than those climbing the mountain - unlike British national parks, no-one lives there.
So when we organised the trek with Africa Travel Resource we readily accepted their advice to have an extra day at the beginning to acclimatise before setting off for the mountain. It would enable us to recover from the flight, but it would also give us an opportunity to explore the local area.
We arrived at Kilimanjaro International Airport on schedule around 8 pm and in the mayhem of the arrivals area found our driver, who took us out in the darkness to the landrover. A straight road led up to the main route between Moshi and Arusha, where we turned left (west) towards Arusha. The headlights picked out people walking along the roadside - somehow they managed to find their way in the dark. After about 40 minutes we turned off to the left, and down a bumpy unsurfaced road for another 5 or 10 minutes until we reached the high metal gates which opened up to let us through to Moivaro Lodge.
Moivaro Lodge turned out to be an excellent base for our trek. Situated in an old coffee plantation, the grounds now had a collection of guest lodges spread out around the main central lodge with a restaurant, bar and veranda looking out onto a large lawn and swimming pool. Apparently it was in Dutch ownership, and it seemed very well managed with attentive and friendly staff. Porters were on hand to carry our kitbags to our lodges. We were delighted with the comfortable and spacious accommodation, the beds protected by mosquito nets. Admittedly it took us a while to become familiar with the pathways leading through the grounds, and a few false turnings were taken in the dark on the first evening. Our head torches came in use from day one! It seemed a bit like a small tropical version of Center Parcs with the apartments scattered amongst woodland.
Next morning we enjoyed an excellent breakfast, sitting out in the fresh air, although it was cool with the morning mist. Then the sun began to break through and it warmed up. It might have been very pleasant to relax and read a book by the pool, have lunch and a beer, and then a snooze, but we wanted to get outside and see more of the place. We wouldn't get another opportunity. I asked at reception where we could go for a short walk in the vicinity, but they were quite firm that if we wanted to go walking outside the grounds of the lodge we would need a guide. They could arrange one and it would cost us $10 each. We had a brief discussion and agreed, asking if he could be there by 11.00 a.m.
When we were gathering to meet him, a German couple were making the same request and we suggested they join our group. It turned out there was another British group staying as well, and they were also joining the expedition (we would get to know them better on the trek over the coming week). It was turning into quite a party with 11 of us altogether now. Our guide arrived and introduced himself as Livingstone - how appropriate, except that he was local of course, not a Scottish missionary! And he looked like he was dressed up for a day at the office rather than a relaxing walk on a sunny morning.
After paying our subs we set out along the driveway - just 20 yards to the first stop, where we were introduced to a coffee bush and told how the beans were picked and extracted from the pods before being dried and roasted. Then we continued along the drive to the gateway and out onto the road, where we turned right (the opposite direction from where we had arrived the previous evening).
By now it was sunny, warm and pleasant. There were fields of crops and banana trees on either side, and a scattering of small, simple dwellings and little wooden shops. We soon reached a dip in the road where it crossed a stream, and a man was struggling with a stack of greenery on the back of his bike. Cedric stepped in to give him a helping hand.
Further on, when trying to take a photo of people busy outside a house, we were told to put the cameras away. This is always difficult - not surprisingly people don't want to be treated like exhibits, whilst as visitors we wanted to capture some images of what the place was like, including the people. We learnt how to exchange looks with people whilst holding a camera, to see if they were happy to have their photo taken. Whilst most people smiled and said "jambo" - hello - there was also a sense that here we were, rich white people, walking through their settlement looking for photo opportunities. There was no way that the people here could even dream of going as tourists elsewhere.
The roadway rose gradually and bent to the left, until we had a view across the green landscape on the left and could vaguely make out the lower slopes of a big mountain rising into the hazy sky. This was Mount Meru, second highest mountain in Tanzania after Kilimanjaro. We would manage to see the summit from the other side during the trek a few days later. Further on we passed a vast expanse of glasshouses on the plain to our left. Livingstone explained that this was another Dutch-financed project, growing roses all year round for the European market. Labour intensive, it employed around 3000 people, so it must be a big contributor to the local economy, but it made an enormous contrast to the smallholdings with mixed crops which made up most of the rest of the countryside.
The roadway began to descend and then we turned onto a narrow track between stands of banana trees. Livingstone stopped to point out papaya fruits high on a tree next to a house. Then we continued along the narrow track, passing some children in school uniform, one or two women carrying loads on their heads, and a few lively hens pecking around in the dust.
There was a slippery bit as we passed an irrigation channel and went through a thicker belt of banana trees, emerging on the other side near a couple of long, single-storey buildings. This explained the children in school uniforms - we had arrived at the Shangarao Primary School! We gathered around Livingstone and then he led us between the buildings into the courtyard. Children ran around us in their purple jumpers and Dermot was tempted to try and join in a football game. We were struck by the decoration of the walls facing the courtyard - there was a map showing the countries of East Africa; parts of the human body; a detailed cross-section of an eye; words in Swahili and English; and many more. Short of schoolbooks, the buildings themselves were used at teaching materials.
The head teacher showed us into a classroom of 11-year-olds. They would shortly take their exam to see if they would go to secondary school. There were over 100 in the class. They sang a welcome and "happy birthday" to one of our group before finishing off with "how old are you now?" The group of four from England (who came from Manchester) must have known they'd be coming here - they had brought pads of paper, pens and so on to hand out, and this was turned into a little ceremony whilst other children squeezed outside the doorway to see what was going on.
The head teacher told us how the parents have to pay 25% of the cost of the education, which is difficult for many of them, and there is very little money for materials. The children often come to school hungry and tired. She welcomed donations from tourists who visited. It was strange to see her wearing a thick fleece top when we were getting pretty warm in the sun.
If was all quite an event. We walked out around the buildings to a larger area of flat ground with a massive old tree providing shade, where a couple of children sat and watched. Dermot inspected the toilets and found them very basic, just a long drop. From the flat field we could look across the gleaming roof of the glasshouses. A new block being built near the school was apparently a nursery for the children of the workers.
The Manchester group were handing out some chocolate bars and I found a couple of lunch bars to offer to a scrum of kids. As we took photos, the children were amazed to see their images appear immediately on the camera screen. Pete and I were invited to sign the visitors' book, in the school office where the headteacher introduced us to a male colleague of hers. I gave her my Walking Stories card, promising to put the school on the site. It's taken a few weeks, but this is it. I'll be adding a gallery of photos of the school - and another one we visited the following week at Olduvai.
We wished them all goodbye and retraced our steps, accompanied by a posse of kids - we felt like pied pipers, and it began to look a bit like a mass child abduction. One lad was trying to teach Dan the Swahili words for different colours, and we were also told how to ask someone's name. One little girl in front of me was carrying her school exercise book in a flimsy little plastic shopping bag, and it fell out. She grabbed it back from the ground and returned it to the bag. I wondered what sort of future she would have.
[By a strange coincidence I was reading yesterday the Nobel Literature Prize acceptance speech by Doris Lessing, and she was recalling scenes of children going to school in northern Zimbabwe in the 1980s. Education was so important, and people wanted to read and to learn, but books were so scarce. She compared this to the attitude of people in the West today, where we value books much less, instead spending much more time on the internet - "How will our lives, our way of thinking, be changed by the internet, which has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that, once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free..." Be that as it may, the stories and picture of the children going to school struck a strong chord after having made this visit to a school in Tanzania. Click here to read Doris Lessing's speech (copyright the Nobel Foundation).
Gradually the children went in separate directions. We took a left fork to avoid going straight back, and climbed higher, with improving views of Mount Meru. There was a woman and her child, each carrying a plastic container on their heads, and another woman sitting outside her house, working at something. An old man was herding a few cows and goats along the track. We passed a couple of rudimentary shops with men outside trying to saw a plank of wood, then turned right down a narrower path.
Only a couple of the children were with us now, as we reached a large banana plantation then crossed a plain covered with crops of different types and sizes, often planted between rows of banana trees. Men were cutting canes on one side; a woman was bent over a field of salad crops on the other. The volcanic soil was so fertile here it could support more than one layer of crops. Climbing up the other side, there were even crops of tomatoes and maize growing amongst each other.
This took us to another dirt road, where we turned right and kept on a level, contouring along the side of the hill. There were two men stacking wood on a cart, one of them dashing off up through the trees to collect more.
Then we took another right, quite steeply, down a narrow path. We were starting to turn back, and the final couple of children said goodbye as they continued along the upper track. We didn't realise at the time, but the road we came down to after 30 or 40 metres was the access road to Moivaro which we had driven down the previous evening.
We were warming up and some removable trouser legs were unzipped. Livingstone's tie had been folded up and tucked away. He pointed out the local government office across the road, surrounded by grass and a low fence, with the national flag flying outside. This road had more houses along it, interspersed with fields and banana trees. Soon we reached our next objective - passing through a doorway into a cluster of low timber and brick buildings which made up the local banana beer brewery! We gathered around the next doorway as we were told the process by which bananas were mashed and fermented. There were buckets outside filled with bananas, whilst flies flew over and a dog sniffed around. I was rather nervous that we'd be encouraged to drink some of the end product, which local stomachs might be hardened to but ours certainly weren't!
We squeezed inside to see the wooden troughs and barrels with their liquid contents, then came out to enter the tasting room. A glass was filled with the local amber nectar, and it looked a bit cloudy. Here we go, I thought. But fortunately Livingstone knew the score, and said we shouldn't try any as we had a date with Kilimanjaro the next day. There were relieved looks all round, and smiles from our hosts. Livingstone slipped them a few notes as we left. We looked into the communal drinking area complete with it's own barbecue stove before returning to the road.
Continuing on, the next momentary highlight was a group of young men standing outside some high metal gates, laughing and joking. Some were dressed in colourful Masai cloaks, and equipped with poles. It seemed like they were waiting to be photographed, so I gave them a dollar and took some video and a still photo. We would get much better photo opportunities with Masai warriors the following week.
Then Livingstone stopped outside a little grocery shop which also seemed to double as a bar, as it had a poster outside advertising Kilimanjaro beer. A peculiar construction of bits of wood was balanced halfway up a tree on the other side of the road. Livingstone recounted the story of a local character, affectionately known as "Bob Marley", who had dabbled somewhat in marijuana and had been hounded by the police but eventually became a successful shopkeeper - opposite the tree house where he had lived previously.
There was just another couple of hundred metres to walk along this road, past a man pushing a cart laden with logs, and women carrying loads of one thing or another. Then we reached the sign outside the gateway for Moivaro Lodge. Not long afterwards we were out relaxing in the sunshine beside the swimming pool, reflecting on our brief exposure to what is probably one of the more prosperous parts of equatorial Africa.
Story posted on the site 9 December 2007
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