Interview with a Witch Doctor

On our motorcycle ride over and around lushly vegetated rolling terrain, beyond small farms of coffee and cocoa, I was being driven to a destination that on one hand had nothing to do with this amazing nature, but on the other, was quite tied to it. We were visiting a man–not a waterfall or the famous natural stone bridge nearby. Yet he was the area medicine man, or, if you wish, a witch doctor.

After several miles on motorbike and another mile or two on foot, we met a compound of wood, mud, and brick structures. Inside the last building of the compound sat the old man…

***

This is what my mother warned me about.

“Brandon, they do voodoo over there!” was one of the things she said in protest of me coming to Tanzania.

Since arriving, I had inquired whenever someone brought up the subject of witch doctors. I was more curious than unnerved by the topic. I figured most of the eeriness people have about these healers is wrapped up in the unknown. Either way, I didn’t think I’d be able to find out for myself.

Then in July I came visiting to Tukuyu in the southwest corner of the country. While eyeing tourism outing packages from my guesthouse bulletin board, one caught my eye. It included plenty of the usual hikes and rides to the various geological splendors, but also started off with the chance to visit a witch doctor.

I called the agency and planned the tour early the next day.

This morning, I greeted a stunning Tukuyu sunrise walking from my guesthouse to meet my guide at the bus stand.

My tour guide, Michael, was a well-put-together man of 40 in a blue windbreaker and white Dallas Cowboys baseball cap. He was the owner of the tour company. I was lucky to get him and his English skills to take my smallest-of-possible groups out for a tour. We hopped on a rented motorcycle after a breakfast of tea and bread and readied to ride.

We were off for one of the richest nature-tourism extravaganzas I could imagine, seeing rushing rivers, immense natural rock structures, a gorgeous waterfall, and yes, that witch doctor with whom we spent most of the morning heading out to and interviewing.

Leaving the hilly city center, we cruised by outer neighborhoods:

After a few miles, we slowed it up for Tukuyu’s dirt road edges.

Dirt roads became little more than wide paths interrupting crops of banana and then coffee. (For this, I asked we stop for a coffee break.)

Coffee fruit on stem, coffee bean inside

Women picked and hoed. Children played and posed.

Just past the coffee trees, we parked the bike.

We were at the witch doctor?

Nope.

Time to walk. But it was a beautiful stroll.

Following my guide, Michael

Meeting and greeting a local

After the ups and downs of a steep hill or two, things leveled out.

And up here a driveway met our path. We took the left into the witch doctor’s property.

It wasn’t ooky or scary or even strange. With a variety of old to older buildings—some brick/plaster, some cement—wooden fence for a cow, a couple of trees growing in the dirt yard, and a couple of children around, it looked to me like the Tanzanian version of some tucked-in-the-woods rural properties of my native northern Minnesota.

Walking in the middle of it past two decaying building structures to our left, was a two-room building caked in off-white plaster and topped with a red corrugated metal roof. Outside it was an old man waiting on a chair and then a young woman with baby. Both patients in waiting, the old man was in no hurry and the lady went inside to make an appointment for a later time. We were free to enter.

We walked through the curtain for a front door to a space with little light, but much decoration. Clutter some might call it. Furniture, coffee table, shelving, and most of it with items–cups, books–atop. It spoke of a person who’s been here for some time, collecting their goods in ways only they would know the combination for which to find any certain item.

This attic-like space didn’t see just the floor limited, but the wall space as well. Taped up like wallpaper were posters of an interesting variety. The ordinary yearly calendar poster hung near a poster of the “World’s Worst Dictators”, featuring portraits of Stalin and Idi Amin above statistics of the number they were responsible for killing. One politician seemed to be favored by the medicine man: U.S. President Obama, whose 2008 campaign post of Change hung above the couch along the back wall. To the left of this poster was a large display of The Last Supper.

Michael and I were invited to sit on the couch. The doctor took an old easy chair. And we began our interview.

The man dressed in clothing not traditional or tribal but more resembling something my grandfather would wear.

His name was Wilisoni Anyosisye Nyondo. He was born here in Tukuyu in 1922. In 1936, he started learning from his grandfather the ways of the healer.

What does he heal?

“Big stomach,” he said to Michael who translated for me. “Problems with urination, losing sexual ability for both men and women. Women having problem getting pregnant.”

Such a healer tackles more than the human body. People also come when they are “confused.” And “many people have problems with demons,” he added.

“That’s my job,” said Nyondo.

People come to him with a problem. Cures will come to him in his dreams, he said.

He said medicines can include liquids to drink or to put into a bath. For demons, he sometimes cuts the person’s arm and rubs a liquid into the wound.

He gets his medicines locally, or from Zanzibar Island off Tanzania’s coast, and also from the country just 100 miles from here, Malawi.

“What are some medicines you use?” I asked.

Fish oil, shark oil, crocodile oil, ginger, onions, he said listing a few.

Do you do surgery?

No.

Recalling what I’d heard from other about witch doctors, I asked about a more controversial practice, “Do you use body parts from others?”

“No,” his crackly voice said resolutely.

Tanzania has a culture of superstition regarding albino people—of which there are more here per capita than in most of other nations. Stronger in the past, beliefs still linger that albino body parts are useful in spells or that the act of killing an albino will lead to better fortune. A few such killings have been reported around Tanzania this year. Chances are, there are other deaths unreported.

“What do you think of albino people?”

He said he doesn’t like the killing of them.

“Have you ever assisted in the killing of an albino person?”

“No.”

“Do you know others who have?”

“No, because they do it in secret.”

If he does hear anything, though, he said he has the number for the police. He said the last case he heard of in Tukuyu was in 2005. And for that, the police arrested a local traditional healer.

“I spent many years—never did that,” said Nyondo while showing  me his grey hair under his hat with little laugh.

“Why do people kill albinos at all?”

The belief, he said, is that “if you kill an albino, you’ll be rich.” He said some miners believe this.

While Nyondo is adamantly against the harm to albino people, he’s not without his belief in monetary magic spells. Continuing to share, he said there is “medicine from a cobra to protect your money.” Keep the medicine in your pocket, and no one will steal your money. He told me he has some of this medicine.

Further, if you keep in your home “water retrieved from the waves of the Indian Ocean,” it will keep burglars away.

Finally there’s the millionaire spell, which he called the “work of wizards”–though I wasn’t sure if that was a disparaging or respectful acknowledgement. For this, you rip the corner off of a 10,000 shilling note (worth only about $6-$7).Then you put the corner piece in medicine—a powder, I surmised. You make change for the 10,000 note with a millionaire. The millionaire is now affected. “He will be bankrupt, and you get rich,” said the old doctor.

As a result of these spells and beliefs, he has many businessmen visit him to protect their money.

After discussing spells and such, we went outside to show me his “medicine cabinet.” In a building that seemed the outdoor version of the room in which we spoke, he enter a naturally-lit space just as cluttered, but this time with old boards beginning to moss over, a leg from a bed frame, and old paper—and then were the bags of herbs on top.

Nyondo in front of his medicine room

He grabbed the bags and his grandson who had arrived laid them out on a large reed platform.

Nyondo said these ingredients–leaves, bark, and more–are useful for drinks that help with sickness and lack of energy.

Though some of Wilisoni Anyosisye Nyondo’s ways may seem odd or deemed useless to outsiders, he serves a crucial role in the ways of life of the people here. I don’t know if people coming to Nyondo is a statement about the power of alternative medicines or the power of placebo and belief. I’m not writing this to “get to the bottom” of it. I’m interested in the life he leads, the part he plays in this world, and the staying power of such a culture.

About the religious culture in this part of the world: there is widespread belief in Africa about notions of spells, curses, sorcery, superstition, and the supernatural. A businesswoman whom I’ve met in the town of Iringa thinks that her brother with muscular degeneration in his legs was the victim of another person’s spell toward him and his business success. And she’s Christian.

Christianity is strong all over the country. But rather than replacing this belief system of spells–albeit while working to eliminate some of its more egregious aspects  such as killing albino people–Christianity here seems to be a blended version of these two spiritual practices like the assumption of a region’s particular version of an outside language. As such, a well-known female preacher famously declared a few years back that she was to raise a man from the dead on a given date. As the date approached, however, she backed out due to supposed security concerns. Today, she’s in politics.

***

With the beliefs in such practices strong and the need present, Nyondo currently works with his three grandsons to teach them the ways of being the Tukuyu medicine man.

 

To Tropical Tukuyu: The Bus Preacher and Other Highlights

School summer break in Minnesota is school winter break in Tanzania. But truth be told, a long break from school during warm weather holds the two in common. And with my time off of school in July, I took advantage by seeing a new part of the country: the tropical southwest down to monster Lake Nyasa.

Tukuyu would be my base for the week. Lake Nyasa is the body of water just southeast of it.

I had heard much about the lush green hills, the clear, crisp lake Nyasa, and the small villages that surround it. First I had to get there.

Here are the photos and video I took of life along the way…

***

Leaving my home, Iringa, early in the morning, I was all settled down into my comfy bus seat in the second row passenger’s side. The giant front window spread before me from which to view the Tanzanian terrain, and I was anticipating a pleasant six hour ride along one of Tanzania’s best corridors.

Yep just sit and relax…

.

.

“Yesu!”

“YESU!!”

Who was saying that? What is “yesu?”

A man started declaring this word and many more to all the bus. At first I thought it was just a guy talking loudly on his cell phone while standing to put his things away in the overhead compartment. He was directly behind me, and I looked back briefly to see his head cocked to his left. Yep, must be on his phone.

But the conversation was going on and on, and he was evidently the only one talking. The bus conductor (the guy who collects money and oversees all the exits and boardings on the bus) was sitting near me in the front. With the man continuing to shout like he was barking orders, I tapped the conductor on the shoulder and asked if he could tell that guy to be quiet.

A passenger directly in front of me said of the loud man, “He’s just preaching.”

“Just preaching?” I thought. Apparently, preaching is given quite a wide range of permissible outlets.

But I dropped it.

The preacher, however, continued his loud, million-words-a-minute rants without pause. After a few more minutes of this, I tapped that nearby passenger on the back. This middle aged man in a cream-colored suit turned to me, and I asked, “Could you tell him to be quieter?”

The passenger offered an empathetic look, but told me that the guy will only preach for about ten more minutes.

Disappointed but malleable, I changed my gears to take advantage of this unique slice of Tanzanian life. I got up and walked past the preacher to the rear of the bus and took some pictures and video of the guy.

My fellow passenger was right. The man stopped after about ten minutes. Then he put away his bible, said a few last words, and started to approach people with their hands reached out. I suddenly felt silly for my complaints as these folks were evidently happy the man was there, as they paid him for his service. The preacher collected a half-dozen offerings. Then almost as soon as I sat back down in my seat, the bus slowed and then stopped into a weigh station, the preacher exited, and I thought, “What the world was that?”

It was this:

Oh, and “Yesu” is Swahili for “Jesus.”

Twenty minutes into the several hour journey and one Swahili sermon later, we were back underway. Hilly terrain defined the route–sometimes through trees; sometimes through open hills.

We passed Mafinga and the way to Mafindi, where the paper mill is.

We stopped a few times for passengers/rest stops.

Well into our way, I took out my map and asked the middle aged man in front of me where we were. We were nearing Mbeya, the capital city of my regional destination.

This man was a diminutive 50-ish guy with a dark brown fedora to top his cream colored suit. He looked to me like he was in education or mission work. I shared that I was headed to Tukuyu; he said he was as well. This was a pleasant surprise as now this gentle English speaker would be able to help me switch buses at Mbeya on my way to Tukuyu.

Indeed, we pulled into the main station at Mbeya–a large lot that lie just shy of the city itself. We disembarked, and my friend directed me to the correct dalla dalla (the vans that transport people on local routes).

Mbeya bus station

Dalla dallas at Mbeya bus station

Soon we found and boarded ours.

From locating to boarding our dalla dalla, and then even once we waited to leave the bus station while seated in our dalla dalla, several locals tried to sell us stuff–now through the windows. And this kind of aggressive salesmanship occurred the whole way down from Iringa to Tukuyu–first with our bus, and then with the upcoming dalla dalla stops.

Each time our transport slowed for a station, people there would run alongside to sell candy, drinks, and even produce to the passengers. For one such stop on our dalla dalla to Tukuyu, it was cabbages; the next stop, it was potatoes.

Salespeople at Mbeya bus station

It all looked something like this:

***

Now on our way to Tukyu, and despite the speeds at which the driver took us up and down hills and around corners, the views became evermore beautiful on this southbound road.

Tea hedges and banana trees

From open, dry highlands where I live; to the cool air and pine forests we drove through along the way; to the rich greens and warmer tropics of Tukuyu, Tanzania is known for its quick-changing climates. And we now entered one that had me feeling like I was in an entirely different country.

My friend got off at the stop just before mine. I got off at the Tukuyu main bus stand. Then I walked to a guesthouse whose signs directed me behind some of the buildings surrounding the bus stand square.

One of the businesses lining the Tukuyu bus station

My guesthouse, “Kivanga,” straight ahead

Down the alley and to the right, I walked down a couple steps to a dining area/bar. On the left side of the bar was the reception and hallway of rooms. On the right side of the bar was a hallway of more rooms. I got one of these. And for only 6,000 shillings (less than $4), I was delighted–though the bar would be noisy.

The next day I would hire a guide to show me around to three sites of Tukuyu’s famous geological splendor. My guide would throw in a fourth, an encounter I didn’t imagine I’d be making during my time in Africa–visiting a witch doctor.

Next week is all about that character.

For now, after getting my things put away, I walked about town. We end this post on some shots of Tukuyu, Tanzania:

Interracial Romance

Interracial dating is a topic with as much curiosity for some as attraction for others as distaste for yet some others. (And the distaste comes from those who ether don’t like the idea of taking part in such relationships OR from those who find the topic off-putting for even being brought up at all in 2014. “A mixed-race couple? So what? What’s the big deal?”)

While the topic in the U.S. isn’t the head-turner it used to be, I’ve yet found it an interesting area to write about in Tanzania if just because you’re dealing with a lot more than just differences in skin color. And, as I discovered right away, one gender seems to take part in dating the local Tanzanians a lot more than the other.

***

One Saturday evening way back in February, I was brand new to Tanzania and pleased to have made the acquaintances of four Peace Corps volunteers. I tagged along with these three women and one man all in their early-to-mid-twenties and each already several months into their two year volunteer commitments.

We walked into a sports bar and sat at one of the flimsy, plastic tables with plastic deck chairs. After several minutes of socializing, the wavy, dark-haired female volunteer said something along the lines of, “Yeah, my boyfriend can help get a phone working here.”

The topic of relationships in these volunteers’ circumstance is always interesting, because they’re away from home (so maybe in a long distance relationship with someone back home). Or they’ve partnered up with a fellow traveler in this unorthodox fashion of sharing in the experience of a new land. Or maybe they’ve met that special someone from the new land they now inhabit. The wavy-haired brunette was in the latter category. She had met her man from the village in which she works.

Later in the conversation, a different female volunteer with straight, dishwater blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail shared about her ex-boyfriend–also a local man. The combination of these two volunteers; my American colleague, Leah, who has herself a Tanzanian boyfriend; and the fact that I hadn’t yet met any foreign men who dated the local women got me to say, “hmm.”

And indeed, this lopsidedness in the dating game has been consistent throughout my time here in Tanzania.

As well, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the dating circumstances when I lived in China. Basically, things there were the opposite.

Spanning the summers from 2010-2011, I noticed in China a discrepancy between the sexes of the foreigners dating the locals. But there, almost all white men (and one black man I met) had active dating lives, whereas the foreign women had no interest. Of the dozens of single, straight, Western women I’d meet, only one all year dated (and then married) a Chinese man.

So based on these early observations in Tanzania and memories of China, here seemed to be the general deal: China (and all the other East Asian countries I visited) are to white men what Tanzania (and perhaps all of sub-Saharan Africa) is to white women.

The idea was interesting, but I needed to do some more investigation. So in April, while in Zanzibar, I started keeping track of the interracial couples I saw.

Here are the results leading up to the present day:

White Women/Black Men Couples – 22

White Men/Black Women Couples – 9

This was a lot more common in Zanzibar than the other way around.

And along with the numbers have been the general feelings expressed by young volunteers.

“Men here know how to dance,” said a 21-year-old female volunteer from Sweden.

There are many circumstantial factors at play in the numbers I accumulated. Perhaps I see fewer white men with local women because these men are more likely to take their partner back to their country. Conversely, maybe the foreign women are more apt to stay in Africa.

One Tanzanian safari guide married to a white American woman added to this notion by saying that, “men are safari guides” and “they know English.” Thus, they have an easier time meeting the foreign women. (It’s how he met his wife.) He then said that men tend to be the pursuers, that a local woman would likely not approach a foreign man.

And approach the men here do.

“I’m tired of being treated like some super model sex goddess!” said Jessica one day when venting with me about life here. The 24-year-old American woman with wavy, thick, light-brown hair wasn’t trying to be self-congratulatory. She’s comfortable knowing that she isn’t going to be on the cover of a men’s magazine back in the U.S.

“Curves and extra fat are celebrated here,” she said, adding that the local men were mad at her when she lost weight due to malaria.

I asked Jessica if the attention was nice.

“It’s flattering when you first get here,” she said. ”Now it’s like, ‘Shut up.’”

And more than the physical attraction, Jessica says that men try to pick her up because they want marriage and hope for money and a ticket to the U.S.

Chemistry, kindred spirits, bah.

“Very shallow”, said Jessica.

Superficiality has also seemed to be a factor in why more Western women go for the black men.

I met Lucy, a 27-year-old Dutch woman working in Dar es Salaam. The fair-skinned woman sat with me at a coffee shop near her work and shared her own personal explanation for liking African men and, relating to my experience in China, for not liking East Asian men.

“When I see a Chinese man. I’m not attracted to him, because he’s short and skinny. He doesn’t look like he can protect me.”

African men, generally speaking, she said, “have a little bit of this macho attitude.”

“And it is sexy?” I asked.

“Yeah, the macho thing is sexy.”

Then from our booth along the wall, Lucy looked off to the center of the coffee shop. She focused on a point in the room and then said, “See that man? The way he put his hand there on his leg?”

She noted how confident he looked.

“More confident than white men?” I asked.

“Yes.”

I then asked about her thoughts on why white men don’t go after the local women here.

“It took me a long time to find a man who said ‘Yes, I like African women,’” Lucy said. “If I ask [white guys] if they find [black women] attractive, they say ‘No I don’t like.’ They say they are too fat. They don’t like the way they act.”

Then explaining  why white men like Chinese girls, Lucy said, “Those women are easier to protect.”

Lucy believes in the evolutionary reasons for racial dating discrepancies, and said that such needs are “something which is inside a human being.”

“I want to do my own things,” she added as a statement of her independence, of her coming all the way to Tanzania by herself. But conceded that “in the end there’s this feeling inside me that I want a man to protect me when the lion comes.”

Superficiality seemed to have come at a price for Lucy, though.

She shared with me about her former boyfriend, an African whom she lived with for three months before finding out he had been seeing other women.

But even besides the fact that he wasn’t faithful, she was disappointed in their lack of personal connection.

“They don’t look for chemistry here,” she said. “When I asked my ex-boyfriend ‘Why do you love me?’ he said because I would be a good mother for his children. ”

“Did you like that answer?” I asked.

“No. I wanted him to say, ‘I love you because of my personality, qualities, or something.’”

This superficiality leads me to my final point, which starts with a concession that the numbers I presented above don’t tell the whole story. When broken down further, a different picture appears.

In the older crowd, middle-agers or older, perhaps here for a second path in life or simply some enjoyable post-career volunteer work, the interracial dating numbers even out. Despite such people being the definitive minority of foreigners I see around here, four of the nine white male/black female partnerships were of this demographic.

And I think this is because the search for love is a human desire with which we modern humans wrestle to raise the bar beyond the basic needs (in this case, relationships merely for sex and procreation.) And in the shedding of the superficial in search for a strong, emotional bond, people don’t consider as heavily how well someone dances or their posture when sitting. A desire for a lasting partnership and a kindred spirit supersedes the flash-in-the-pan physical relationships we might be more inclined to in youth. And in such a supersession, race, too, becomes irrelevant.

It’s just two people in love.

***

On consecutive days on July, I was sitting at my regular internet cafe in Iringa. Outside on the benches surrounding the patio wall, I looked up to see a mixed-race couple with child. I heard the mother speak German on the phone. And we were in Tanzania. So I assumed her to be from Germany and him from here.

I was wrong on both. They were each from the nations adjacent to the south of my guesses. She was Austrian; he was Malawian; their boy was “Malaustrian”, and the family was beautiful.

The very next day, I was typing and clicking away at the same café when an older couple down sat by me. Unsure and curious, I asked them if they were married. They said yes, asked why I asked, and I told them my interest in why I see fewer white men/black women couples. I suggested it was because the men take their wives back to their home countries.

“That actually what we did!” said the white-mustached man with a laugh. He shared that he met and married his Tanzanian wife back in the nineties, settled in Norway in 1999, and now were back here to visit.

Just two people in love.
til next week,

-Brandon

***This is one of those articles where I had offer just a sampling of pictures, stories, interviews, points of views, and research, data, and theories from outside sources. It’s a topic that exemplifies the benefit of writing a book about my experiences in Tanzania. Look for it down the road.

Down on the Farm: Picture Stories from an African Corn Harvest

The corn stalks are high;

The kernels are yellow.

Rainy season says bye;

Harvest time says hello.

This one’s for all the farmers out there. 

***
My time in Tanzania has coincided nicely with the growing season. I arrived about six weeks into the rainy season (late January). Seeds are placed into the earth soon after the rains start to fall. When I took my first walks around the village, the seeds had sprouted and were now bright green toddler crops.

Like in the U.S., corn is king in central Tanzania.

And like people, corn grows up so fast.

As the spring months came and passed, day by day by week, the stalks soon became taller than the people.

And taller than a home

Corn is like man. When it comes of age, hair grows from its ears.

Soon it was time to collect that which nature so generously provided.

The harvest moon was upon us.

Late April in southern hemisphere Tanzania means it’s time to reap what was sowed.

***

The morning of April 30th, I put on my jogging shoes to run down to the river and back. On my way down the rough road, though, my jog was interrupted by a group of young men loading a mountain of ears into the bed of a truck. I had been seeing these super-sized trucks driving by here and there and filled to the brim with what must have been thousands of cobs.

Call me a fan of fate (or lazy and looking for an excuse to not exercise), but curiosity with this frame of Tanzanian life took over, and I approached the gang. There were about eight young guys from 30-somethings up in the cab and bed of the truck arranging the cobs, down to a few adolescents loading up the haul.

I offered a couple “habari”s (Swahili for “what’s up?”) and smiles. Then without saying another word, I started for the pile of cobs, leaned over and grabbed a handful, and started throwing them into the truck. Figured I could help and exercise at the same time. I started loading in the way I thought would be best: placing several cobs under one arm with the opposite hand. But I often had one cob drop for everyone I added. Not getting too far, I looked at how some others were doing it and bundled 6-7 together in a little corn cob pyramid and hoisted them in crane fashion with my two hands over the tall, rear gate of the truck bed.

Hearing the word “picha” (picture) and “mzungu” (white person) about seven times each, I looked up to see that some of the guys stopped working and started snapping shots of me with their phones. Since they pictured me, I figured it was safe to do the same to them. Before we finished, I ran back to the school to grab my camera. Returning back down the hill ten minutes later, I saw the truck sooner than I hoped as it was already bouncing slowly along the bumpy uphill path toward me. 

“Shoot!” I said, having missed my chance to capture them during their work. They saw me standing alongside the road and stopped for their own greeting toward their mzungu corn cob carrying helper.

After snapping the shot, I walked to the back and hopped aboard.

On the way up the bumpy hill, I tried to communicate. One guy with an engorged hat and the right amount and right style of facial hair prompted me to ask him, “Rastafarian?”

“Yes” he indicated with a nodding smile.

I gave him a peace sign and he offered his own pleased reciprocation.

When we got to Magulilwa town center only a mile up the road, I was told this was the end of the line. So I hopped out, said goodbye, and took a few parting shots.

These guys had themselves a nice pile of corn, but I knew this was also just a foundation for the loads these trucks could boast. And just a day or two later, this one stopped right in front of my school.

***

After weeks of being stripped of what they worked all season to produce, the stalks transform as do the leaves in a Minnesota fall. All the green is drained, leaving behind the parched, pale-yellow remains.

What to do with all this?

Phase two of the harvest: collecting the stalks. This work has been conducted starting in July and leading up to the present day.

Once again, I was on my way to jog down to the river. This time it was July 25th, and I made it all the way to the T in the road, where beyond this point men and women were collecting the stalks into those teepee-looking piles. Again, I had my exercise interrupted for a workout of local culture and their daily labor.

There were three in this plot, a young woman and man and a middle-aged woman. The stalks already hacked and collected into piles, these three simply took these unwieldy piles into their arms and walked them to the ever-growing, shed-sized upright mounds.

I thought to get my hands dirty once more and started in. It’s honestly a pleasure to help as the locals invariably get a kick out of it. And it gives me an idea of what this life would be like. I have to extrapolate the effort as I didn’t stay for too long. In all, I helped collect maybe 15 piles. In the process, needle-like seeds peppered my clothing by poking into the fabric of my socks, shoelaces, and shorts.

It’s all just part of the life for these villagers.

Soon, the hacker man came by, needing to stay a step ahead of the collectors.

There was no daycare for the young woman. Turns out that the mound of blankets I had seen off to the edge of the field, tucked in near some bushes, had a baby in it.

At the end of my mini-shift, mom came over to see about her little boy.

Now that he was awake, she wrapped him to her back and went back to work. Being a mom doesn’t slow these women down.

The next day from my room, I looked out across the road from my window. A group of women labored away on their own corn stalk teepee.

***

Finally, these teepees are collected. I’m told they become cow food.

But first, there’s one last run-through to get every last ear. And just two days ago, August 22nd, I bumped into these guys doing just that.

So, I gave them a hand to lend to their ears.

***

I’ve now been here in Tanzania from sprout to finish.

It’s been a process little altered over the years. It’s how they live; it’s how they make a satisfying life.

It is their agri-culture.

Getting Robbed in the Third World

Naturally, most posts about my time in Tanzania have been intriguing and warming. Sometimes, though, intrigue takes on the darker side of the things. And like any place, there are negative aspects of living in Tanzania–and they ought be known as should be the positive for a better understanding of life here; and, by comparison, life where you are; and then, life in general.

And let’s not beat around the African bush. This is the third world. A place of quiet, laid-back rural villages, but also of urban slum, the street poor, and a subculture of “income generation” which demands their customers pay big and receive nothing but heartache in return.

This last week, I’ve seen an unfortunate amount of this heartache.

***

“Something bad happened,” Zhou Riu said to me the afternoon of August 15th in the hallway outside our shared hostel room. The athletic, 27-year-old from China with a thick head of straight, black hair said this with more emotion on his face than I had seen from him in the last 48+ hours of occasional and pleasant conversation. We had just breakfasted that morning, talking over our bread and complementary egg about travel destinations and home countries. He even taught me a few more words in Chinese.

My first thought after he said these words was that our shared room at the YWCA hostel in Tanzania’s largest city, Dar es Salaam, was broken into. My fear of being robbed had been heightened since losing my cell phone to a thief not even one week earlier and also by speaking with the receptionist here who made it clear that we ought not walk outside with our valuables if we could help it.

She emphasized her point by pointed to a sign that hung in the entry:

However, our room wasn’t broken into. I was out of harm’s way.

But Zhou wasn’t.

“I was robbed.” he continued by saying just outside our door. Then he explained what happened.

That morning, just after our breakfast, in fact, Zhou was out walking along an open grass field near a golf course along the Indian Ocean coast. Near embassy row, and not suspecting anything would be a threat here, three men “come out of nowhere” he said.

They had knives pointed at him–two at his back, one at his throat.

As they jumped him, a car pulled up. The men had no problem guiding Zhou down into the back seat. And they all rode off.

“I had twelve hundred US dollars,” he said interrupting his story.

Maintaining a troubled, confused look down away from me, a grimace holding back emotion that wanted to escape, he then added, “And my camera was a Canon 6D. It was worth 3000 dollars. It had 3000 pictures on it.”

Finally after a beat, he capped it off with, “This country is really shit.”

Though visibly shaken, I was actually surprised he wasn’t more so. I think I would be despondent–or furious. Probably back and forth between the two.

Zhou resigned with, “Oh well, at least I am alive.”

He continued to explain what happened.

They rode in the car for twenty minutes. Zhou said he spent this time negotiating. “I said to them, ‘Take the money. I have twelve hundred dollars. But can I have my phone and camera?”

A man of “about 50″ was the “leader” of the group, said Zhou. This man sat in the passenger’s seat and agreed to allow Zhou to keep his phone and camera. But the driver of the vehicle, he was “sneaky,” said Zhou, and added that the driver must have kept his camera before they stopped to let Zhou out.

When they did so, a man in the backseat with Zhou maintained a knife at Zhou’s back while telling him to leave the car with instructions not to turn around once he gets out. This was to prevent identification of the vehicle.

Zhou did as he was told. And as the car sped off, he stood there in an unknown part of the large, sprawling city with a bag much lighter than it had been just several minutes before.

He found his way to a hotel catering mainly to Chinese guests. They contacted Zhou’s home bank, and he was able to get some money sent over to Dar es Salaam.In the year 1866 Arab leaders titled this city as such because they felt inspired to create a city that would live up to its name which translates into  ”a home of peace.”

***

A story is a powerful tool for illustrating a topic. At the same time, any such incident can happen practically anywhere–Zhou’s home China, my home U.S.A.

The kicker is how common this is here. It’s not so common that people don’t want to visit, nor too common that I was afraid to leave with my valuables or expected to have their ownership challenged. But it is common enough for our hostel to display that sign, and common enough for a depressingly long list of victims I’ve spoke to since arriving to Tanzania seven months ago.

Three incidences in my home city, Iringa, happened in one spot: a lookout point at the city’s edge atop a huge boulder for wonderful horizon views of the landscape. Each of these three hiking groups had a machete-wielding robber take their belongings. Once was a group of five Koreans, another time it was two European women, and then a group of eight young Englishmen and women.

Each reported the incident to police.

A 20-year-old American woman in Iringa had her belongings taken at rock point. The thief threatening to bash in her skull, she gave him her phone, she said as she emotionally recalled the incident.

Two teacher-training workers–a 30-something Englishwoman and Filipino man–living in a home in Iringa had their place looted and ransacked while they were out on a overnight trip working in another part of the country.

The most egregious story I’ve heard was about two German women coming here for a volunteer trip. They walked out of the international airport in Dar es Salaam and got into a taxi. He didn’t take them to their requested destination, though, but to a secluding location. It’s a convenient robbery when a victim gets off the plane with everything they have all packed away nicely for someone to steal. But, boy, that’s an ice-cold take. These girls were left with nothing but the clothes on their backs, had to find a way to call home, and then had some money sent over to get on the next plane back to Germany.All the money and planning and anticipation of their trip–and then the shock of having this happen.

Welcome to Tanzania.

There are too many other stories to note of pickpockets and other sneaky takeaways on buses and other hotspots in the country. For these examples, though, it is noteworthy that locals seem to be as victimized as foreigners, myself hearing stories and once seeing a Tanzanian businessman man lose his briefcase to another rider getting off the bus, walking up the aisle to disembark, and grabbing the man’s briefcase from right above his head in the upper compartment before exiting with the stolen goods right in front of us all. Later the man asked where his briefcase was and another rider had to tell him they saw someone else grab it and leave at an earlier stop.

The worst case of Tanzanian-on-Tanzanian theft? My own village about eight years back having their brand new water well pump stolen in the night. They had to use the river again until another pump was installed and a security wall erected.

***

It’s easy to be critical of the thieves as they make life awful for their victims.

Many observers dig a little deeper and see how the conditions they are in promote this behavior. Can’t argue with that.

But I also like to point out that the chicken and the egg debate goes both ways. Obviously, it hurts tourism and the prosperity of the country as a whole when crime keeps people away. But what’s more, most of the victims in the stories mentioned above came here as volunteers, not just spending tourism dollars in the country, but offering their time and labor at no charge to the country to make it a better place. And, some actually pay a few thousand dollars to a company to place them in an opportunity to volunteer. Voluntourism.

As a unit, then, the nation attracts people willing to help a country in need, and then perpetuates that need by violating those coming to help. Not to mention, it’s pretty hard to develop when access to healthy water is taken away by fellow Tanzanians.

And the issue is bigger than robbers.

From what I’ve heard from probably half a dozen victims, police will take a police report (for a fee for each item stolen), but don’t expect them to do anything. This isn’t for lack of knowhow. Indeed, the police may very well know who took your belongings–as one instance of off-the-books side police work revealed. The key is: will you pay the officers to speak to the thieves (they often know each other) to find out who took your items?

***

There is a lot more to share on this topic of crime and justice–neighborhood vigilante mobs, what jails are like, villages that function successfully pretty much under anarchy. I’ll do so for the book about my time here.

For now, this post was just a few brushstrokes painting the picture of life here. The image may not seem too uplifting, but let me end by saying that people are working hard to improve things. I was approached by an officer while jogging in Dar es Salaam last week. He told me to look out for criminal traps and steps I can take to prevent being a victim.

I believe increased pressure will be put on the police, politicians, criminals, and the general populous, and a purge of this activity will undergo just as we try to demand better of people in our societies.

And finally, in the spirit of learning by comparison, maybe you can feel a little more gratitude for the system in which you find yourself as you read this.

Safari Final: Elephants in the River and a Short Film on Our Day

Three hippos stood in the shallow water opposite the wide river from where our picnic table sat. These round, grey mammalian buoys were the first of a few we’d see this afternoon.

The animal sightings forthwith offered a few new species as well as some old ones a bit more lively than before. Most lifelike of all, though, I cap off these safari articles with a short film of the best footage from our day-long outing in the open African wilderness.

***

After our early-afternoon lunch, we four volunteer teachers hopped back into the SUV for a stretch along the river. As were our lunchtime companions across the way, animals of all kinds were found to be fond of this source of water in the park. This interest is concentrated when it’s the dry season. For as we saw last time, some of the rivers in Ruaha National Park are dried up.

With the river to our right in its slow, wide meander through the prairie, we crawled along the rising/falling river bluff road with the occasional and unfriendly (or there just to keep you on your toes) bump. After leaving all traces of civilization behind, we saw a few more hippos out in an open, but inaccessible river flat. They were taking a break from the water and having some lunch of their own.

Some impalas on the other side

“Their skin is sensitive to the sun,” said our guide, Fanuel.

Good thing their eyes and nostrils are atop their heads, then, allowing for maximum submersion in the water, as this hippo a hundred yards up river demonstrated:

Hippos live in the water. Elephants don’t. But we were lucky to encounter, just a couple hundred yards further, these other, massive grey African mammals using the river for their daily indulgence.

The bluff rose a bit before us. As we crept up the path rocking back and forth with the rougher road like what you might see on a jeep commercial, we were rewarded for our brave ascent with a proximate, lone giraffe eating off of a tree at the bluff edge–a lovely sight with the river beyond and below.

Just beyond the giraffe was a recess cutting into the bluff and mimicking a boat landing, the ramp of dirt graduating down into the river. Then in the prairie off to the left, a herd of elephants old and young made their way toward that recess. We had stopped just shy of the giraffe to watch the elephants make their approach.

Who wants to go to the river? “We do!”

The giraffe conveniently decided to move on, allowing us to take its place on the rise. From there, we viewed the elephants in the water.

Then we drove around to the top of the “landing” and viewed the elephants from a—debatably—better angle.

Indeed, they used this river as a toilet as well.

But some would turn and offer a profile pose of them quenching their thirst.

For a change of pace and animal family, we spotted this striking water bird in the distance:

Soon the elephants walked back on shore and dusted themselves off (or “on”, as the case was.)

Leaving the elephants to dust-frolic, we continued along the river.

Just after the landing, another dip in the road signified a little creek crossing beneath our path with greener plants accompanying its edge. At the bottom of the dip, we looked to the right and saw a hippo closer than any before. Unfortunately, it’s orientation made it more of a hippo-bottom-us.

It didn’t move.

“Is is dead?” I asked.

Our guide, Fanuel, noted with binoculars the scarring on its back.

“It’s in the sun too long,” he said reminding us of the hippo’s sensitive skin.

“Aww, poor thing,” said one of the girls.

Someone speculated it might have died trying to get to the river. Or maybe the scars were from an attack. Soon, predators would be on it, I thought.

Continuing to look, Fanuel said it was now moving. I looked through the binoculars to see it breathing.

Still, Fanuel was curious about its choice to lie in the high sun. These were animals that largely prefer being submerged during the day time due to their delicate skin.

“Let’s get out and push it.” I thought.

“Or why don’t the giraffes and elephants give it a hand?” I said aloud.

We continued on the path putting the struggling hippo out of our minds. We did so along the path that by now started to veer away from the river and into an apparent zebra/impala convention.

unicorn impala

“Let’s meet Friday the 6th at 3pm in the open prairie by the monster trees,” I’m assuming they agreed.

We didn’t register, but then we also didn’t take any of the complimentary food. All we did was steal a few shots.

A couple stowaway birds as well

We made a large circle and then back through the same river road. At that dip for the little creek, we looked out this time to our left to see about the poor hippo.

It was gone.

Wait, no it wasn’t. It was in the creek. We saw it dive down when we stopped. Every so often it would surface; I’m pretty sure to let us photograph it. ;)

I have no clue why the scarred up beast lie in the sun like that. Any hippo experts out there care to fill us in?

As this point, our largely isolated tour was interrupted by two safari cars requiring us to back up from our lane as it narrowed at this creek. It put the kibosh to our hippo viewing, but was a good opportunity for Fanuel to ask these guides about lions. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much luck for finding big cats—the one drawback from the day. But only a fool would focus on part of glass unfulfilled when our safari contained such a volume of amazing sights.

***

We drove all the way back to the big river bridge near the edge of the park. Like our stop for tea on the way into the park, we stopped along this rest area where this time our guides, Fanuel and his wife, Kathy, broke open a cool watermelon.

Curious about the croc we saw on our way in, we looked down over the wooden fence atop the bluff to see that it was still there with its mouth open in the current. Was it like this all day? From watching the giraffes stare at us for what seemed like unending amounts of time to the spiders I’ve observed completely still for similar seeming infinities at my village school, this crocodile’s contentment to just be in this same place/position for hours further solidified the idea that animals are patient and content with things as they are—strikingly dissimilar to the minds of man.

Looking down there one last time, I did catch a possible incentive the animal’s maintenance. I saw two foot-long, lizard-like creatures dart onto one of the river’s edge rocks and then chase each other under another rock and out of sight. They were baby crocs. And it was suddenly a very good thing that Fanuel warned me to stay on this side of the fence from the get go.

It was now time for us to get going.

[Fanuel and Kathy served as a wonderful team of guides. If you are ever in need of a safari guide in East Africa, look them up. They run Breakdown Safaris and can be reached at info@breakdownsafaris.com]

We drove the 90 minutes back to our home base of Iringa as dusk’s curtain fell on the spotlight of the sun.

Let me now turn on the lights, camera, and action with this video of the day, a day we spent seeing some of the most amazing animals and habitat on earth.

Safari II: Big Mammals Ready for Their Close Up

Wild dogs in the brush, a croc in the river, and some elephants and giraffes in the hilly distance. Not a bad way to start our day. And it was just a start.

Three other volunteer teachers (two young women from Oregon and another  from Austria) accompanied me on a day-long safari in June, the beginning of which I shared last week. This week, we pick up at those elephants having just crossed a bridge over a stunning river and leading into the heart of Ruaha National Park in central Tanzania, East Africa.

***

They were the first elephants and giraffes I’d ever seen in the wild. Lumbering along the hillside meadow, there was a surreal quality about seeing them in the real world–like seeing a movie star at the grocery store–to go along with their physical magnificence.

Yet we had to move on, for there was much more to see: trees, animals, colors, bigger, closer, louder.

We rode along the dusty, thinly vegetated hilly terrain, the four of us in standing room-only mode with our heads sticking out the top of the SUV and surveying the landscape for wildlife.

As was the case a few times already this morning, we heard from the mouth of Jessica, courtesy of her eagle eyes.

This time she spotted a larger animal in the brush. A deer—but what kind? It wasn’t an antelope as she was used to from her native east Oregon, nor a whitetail deer which I had seen plenty of in Minnesota. There are actually several deer-like species right here in Ruaha.

This lone animal walked just thirty feet off the road to our right. My adolescent deer hunting days kicked in when looking through the brush for a rack. I got a view, then I pulled up and fired.

Pointed horns, narrower face. Otherwise, Tanzania reminded me of Minnesota for a sec. So did the creature’s name.

“A waterback,” said Fanuel.

“What? Waterback?” I said. “That doesn’t sound very African.” Impala, Kudu. I was expecting a name like that. But Fanuel showed me the picture in his trusty book.

I turned back for another shot.

We continued on over the rolling terrain, and soon we came to a bridge over which we stopped short—probably because Fanuel knew what to expect below. It didn’t take long into the dry season for this rocky river bed to be completely exposed. And replacing the flow of water was the dotting of jumpy baboons.

We photographed feverishly out the top of the SUV at the dozen adults and babies frolicking beneath on either side of the bridge.

I wanted so badly to feed them. Fanuel said no. And cautioned that baboons are strong.

With a helping of primates in our safari buffet, we rolled along with our eyes open for more animals. Or animal sign. The vehicle stopped and the girls and I stood looking around as to why. Seeing nothing, we ducked back down into the cabin and inquired. Fanuel pointed out his passenger’s side window to a large tree whose trunk looked like an apple core.

Though we hadn’t yet seen an elephant up close, we got a good look at what the beasts’ tusks can do to a mighty tree.

Indeed, trees here were mighty.

The signature baobab trees were bold and appropriate punctuations to the safari landscape–oddly-shaped giants within this land of similarly described mammals.

We saw this one right after the elephant-marked tree:

Such wide trunks for their relatively modest heights

Our dirt path then began to turn right. And around this point, it was revealed that there were several routes a driver could take. At each intersection, animal-shaped signs pointed in directions and described the sights of that particular way. More than once, we amateur spotters abruptly alerted the others of an animal up ahead, only to be embarrassed as the zebra-shaped sign approached.

Soon though, we did see an animal yet novel to our first-time safari eyes. It was another deer. This one the graceful male impala.

Within a mile or so of the impala, our path made a slightly uphill, broad right turn. The bend revealed a couple of large trees just along the road.

As well, it revealed a couple of tree-sized giants eating them:

“Whoa!” someone whisper-yelled (could have been me) as this monster somehow suddenly came into view.  The vehicle listened to our startle with a sudden brake of its own. Settled after the SUV’s stop-jerk, we four stood and shot intensely between our wide-eyed stares at a trio of giraffes.

All the novelty of seeing that which had been only seen in media was all the more pronounced because this large beast was suddenly there and close enough to toss a football to. Yet the giraffes didn’t run. (Ruaha isn’t a zoo, but I did wonder what the animals’ response to vehicles would be if several didn’t drive by each day and stop and have gawkers whip out their cameras.)

These giraffes simply slowly, methodically chewed their leaves. One was pictured above, another was partially covered behind one of the trees, and a third was staring straight at us, not moving a muscle except for that rotating jaw.

It stared at us for a comical length of time. The girls laughed out loud and let out some “aww”s at its puffy cheeks and long eye lashes. “She’s so cute,” one added. Indeed it was a female confirmed Fanuel by the way its horns looked.

Watching them for quiet minutes, I looked at the body, the neck with mane, and the head. I concluded that giraffes are just big horses with extraordinary necks.

One finally started walking in their lumbering manner. Very un-horselike.

“They move like slow motion,” said Fanuel. “Even when they run, it’s like slow motion.”

At their movement, we decided to engage in our own. Kathy fired up the diesel engine, and we drove away.

But the excitement of big mammal encounters didn’t stop for long. Soon the brush and occasional tree gave way to a large, yellow-grass field. And a hundred yards away in a couple directions, we spotted elephants.

We saw one to the right:

Then we saw a few up ahead and along the road. So rolled up and stopped near this one:

“Look at its ears,” said Fanuel. “What do they look like?”

Looking at its right ear, I said, “Africa.”

“Yes, that is African elephant,” Fanuel stated proudly.

Exposure to media warmed up my excitement seeing these monsters in the wild. Media also told me elephants like peanuts. I happen to have some shelled ones that I brought along for myself. But I was willing to share.

“Fanuel…” I said sitting in my seat as I indicated to him my half-empty clear, plastic bag of peanuts. Then I rose and held them out the top of the truck. Our driver, Kathy, laughed as I shook the bag, calling out for the elephants to come. I even threw one lone nut at the ground to lure it. But the media lies, I concluded. The elephants paid no attention.

From this angle, Fanuel pointed out an interesting fact about the beast. Its front legs are much bigger than the rear ones.

***

After driving through the field, we encountered a more forested section, the cause of which was up ahead in the form of another river almost gone with the dry season. Almost. There was just enough water to keep things interesting.

The road rose to a stop atop the grassy bluff above the broad, sandy-bottomed, river groove. Overlooking the scene, just a couple streams of water ran through this bed like the veins on your forearm. Yet this lifeblood was adequate for a boast of animals below–baboons, impala, and a even a couple mongooses (too quick for my camera) sprinkled in the bed for a chance to drink under the warm sun.

On the bed’s edge yet green from the recent rainy season’s nourishment giraffes ate the tree tops and baboons chilled just to our left. The baboons did so in a nook of large, white/grey boulders which they rested atop; large, broad trees which they rested under; and park benches which they saw no use for.

But we did.

I was pleasantly surprised that we were able to get out to wander this area and view the gorgeous sights it afforded. Up until now, it had been a rigid “must stay in the car” policy.

To the left

To the right

Across the river

Jessica from eastern Oregon

Baboons nearer to us

I tried to toss the baboons some potato, but they were skiddish and just ran from the projectile. These primates were considerably different than those I have bumped into in parts of Asia that come right up and take food out of your hand.

After several minutes, we loaded up and started along a trail hugging the riverside. There were more giraffes, and soon some more elephants.

Freakishly big animals were matched by like trees:

We curled around and started to make out way back away from the river. Continuing this is open, occasional brush/trees terrain, we spotted a lone juvenile elephant eating leaves off a tree right next to the road.

I guess we took the elephant’s lead and decided it was time for our lunch as well. We headed toward the park headquarters, which was actually just on the edge of several buildings making for a proper small town. A park as big as Ruaha—the second largest of 6-7 enormous safari parks in Tanzania—requires quite a few workers. And those workers live, eat, and have their families here. This requires houses of worship and a school.

Elephants in the background of this school

We stopped at a restaurant that was actually part of the city social hall:

Fanuel ordered food to go. The girls and I got sodas. Then we made our way to the big river flowing generously at the town’s edge with a couple gazebos at its edge, one of which we ate within.

Before we started to eat, though, I looked across the river and saw a couple of large animals in the water.

Big, round, grey, but not elephants. Hippos!

We enjoyed our typical Tanzania meal of rice, beef , greens, and brown beans. The hippos hung out like hippos do.

***

More hippos, a herd of elephants having a good time in the river, and a healthy population of zebras would await us after lunch and will be seen on next week’s wrap up of the safari.

In addition, I’m compiling the best footage from the day to really bring to life for you next week this safari experience–the animals, sights, sounds, and landscapes–described and pictured throughout.  

Let’s Go Safari!

You knew this post was coming. Probably the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Africa (or at least African tourism) is a safari. But while we all have a good idea of what these excursions are like, I think you’ll be surprised (as was I) seeing what a safari is actually like.

I was blessed to able to go on one in June.  

***

We set off in morning darkness in the SUV. I got along great with these girls—part of the reason I came along this day, changing my plans for the opportunity to safari with the enjoyable (and economical) company of friends. They were three young female volunteers, two from eastern (got to stress the eastern, they’d be quick to remind me) Oregonians and an Austrian all working at the same school in southern Tanzania. I met them during the spring as they happened to stay at the same guesthouse in Iringa as I on a couple of occasions.

Heading out to Ruaha National Park, 75 miles west of Iringa, blacktop quickly turned to dirt. And soon we were able to see the level, brush-filled terrain we were traversing as the sun began to peek over the horizon as 6:30 rolled around. Small villages went by here and there, as well, and soon we were told that we had just passed the last little community before reaching the park.

From my middle row seat (the Austrian and I sharing this row and the Oregonians in the back), I asked our guide, Fanuel, sitting in the front passenger’s seat, about the threat of big game for these villagers close to the park.

“Do they attack?” I asked.

“It happens,” said Fanuel. Indeed, it is the main reason why lions are hunted–protection and retribution. But he also said animal attacks aren’t too common.

Soon I could understand why.

“This is tha buffa zone”, said Fanuel looking out his window as we drove through a long stretch of nothing but brush and sprinkles of trees to our right and left for as far as one can see. Ruaha safari park doesn’t have a fence; they have this thick ring of land separating man and the beasts within. Driving us was Fanuel’s wife, Kathy–a middle-aged American with thick, straight, shoulder-length black hair–who came out to Tanzania some years back and fell in love with this man whom she first met on a safari of her own. Past the buffer zone Kathy rolls our safari SUV (ubiquitous vehicles in this corner of the world) up to the park entrance.

“The entrance.” I thought to myself. “Will there be lions and giraffes right away on the other side of it?” We stopped to pay entrance fees and to use the bathroom—important, so nature didn’t interrupt herself on the meandering dirt trails ahead.

Exiting the men’s room, I walked out to see that Fanuel had raised the top of the SUV, allowing us riders the ability to stand for an elevated, clear 360 degree view of the park. But before getting back in, we stood outside of the truck for a picture.

Sarah, Jessica, Simone, myself, and our guide, Fanuel

Alright, let’s go safari!

Past the reception building, we were now officially in the park.

(“Okay, now where are the elephants!?”)

Of course, it’s not what you think of when you hear the word “park”. Certainly it’s not the manicured, terrain-changing definitiveness of a city park or even a Minnesota state park. This land simply remained flat, thin brush/tree blend with some hills off in the distance that defined the buffer zone.

The rainy season ended in May. It was now June 6th. There hadn’t been but a sprinkle or two in last three weeks, and already the land was showing less green and “compensating” with more dust caking the already-yellowing foliage. Not picturesque, but we had hoped this would offer the best of both worlds—rather than the worst which would be no beautiful plant life, but still enough dry leaves and grass camouflaging the wildlife.

***

One comes to Africa and hopes to set their eyes on the “Big Five.” This is what a safari-experienced friend once said to me, anyway.

Can you guess which animals are included in the “Big Five?”

I guessed these:

-Elephant

-Giraffe

-Lion

-Hippopotamus

-Rhinoceros

I guessed wrong.

They are, in fact:

-Elephant

-Leopard

-Lion

-Cape Buffalo

-Rhinoceros

But who’s to say what the Big Five are supposed to be? If you prefer, substitute zebra or one of the many deer species one might see or a cheetah or put giraffe and hippo back in. Those things are huge (I’d soon see). Or what about the ostrich? Or a crocodile? Why not just hearken to your American Midwest collegiate sports fandom and make it the “Big 10” instead?

In Ruaha, though, one will not see the official Big Five, because there are no rhinos. And actually, one isn’t guaranteed to see any animals, though I don’t think getting “skunked”—as we say when going out angling and not catching a single fish—has ever happened. Regardless, it’s important to keep in mind, Kathy reminds us, that this isn’t a zoo. And this differentiates a safari in a few ways: what you will see, how the animals can and will act, and the voyeur’s approach–we’re in their world on this side of the entrance (not that animals really care about artificial, unfenced borders.)

***

Trekking along now in the park, we passengers all stand up to see the animals. Unlike a zoo, this can take work. Our heads stick out of the roof and we scan.

Or pose:

And indeed, like they did actually know the boundary themselves, right away were some guinea fowl head-bobbing in the brush near the road.

Ha! Not skunked.

We stopped for a couple of shots and then continue to roll when no more than a kilometer later, Jessica spots another animal. “Hey stop!” she says firmly. Kathy does so, and I can see the movement of a mid-sized creature to our left. Kathy puts the truck in reverse and we roll back past a large bush to reveal a dog. A wild dog. A jackal.

“It’s rare to see these dogs here,” Fanuel says (which makes the find suddenly and magically that much cooler.) But it was cool, rare or not. I’d never seen a wild dog. We photograph it, soaking in every pose and angle as Kathy drove up just a few feet to allow us another viewing lane.

In those first minutes and first sightings, you really want to milk the experience and capture it all. By the end of the safari, you admittedly ignore that which you had recently been so excited to see. Like drinking water, quench is quick.

We move on and come to the first major terrain—a slow descent curving to the right and met at the bottom by a breathtaking sight of inanimate beauty: a wide, jogging, shallow river over a rocky shoreline featuring tall palms and other trees and brush.

We stopped a the riverside rest stop for morning tea and coffee. I wanted a closer look the river and hopped over the bluff fence in the picture above. Fanuel came right over to tell me to stay on this side. I listen—kind of.

I didn’t hop over the division again, but I did walk along the bluff until the fence ended and then walked around. While the others had tea and coffee, I found my way down to the river’s edge.

As well, I checked out a bird giving the U.S. feathered symbol a run for its money.

I walked back up and joined the ladies for tea. While sipping on some lemon grass blend, Fanuel walked up from seemingly out of nowhere and said, “There’s a crocodile!” (Even when out of the car, he continued as our guide.) My friends and I all responded physically with a jerk and vocally with “whoas” and “reallys?”.

He took us back to the bluff and pointed out a croc straight below us in the river’s edge (and right near where I was going to descend before Fanuel’s protestations.) The crocodile just sat there in the water. Not strange. What was, though, at least for someone unfamiliar with croc behavior, was that it had its mouth open in a small current. Was it trying to eat, drink, or clean it’s teeth? We didn’t know, and it remained in that position the whole time watched it.

In our “need to milk” mode, we all made sure to get several angles.

With plenty of pics, and our seasoned safari guides reminding us that we haven’t really even scratched the surface of the park, we hopped back into the truck and rode across the river valley bridge.

Now is when the fun really began.

This natural border felt like the entrance within the entrance. A hillier terrain waited on the other side, cuing us to stand back up, eyes peeled for the Big Five, Ten, Fifteen, whatever.

Things just felt more wild on this side.

Soon, Jessica (it was always Jessica) said “Hey!” as she spotted—way out in a distance meadow—a large animal. Indeed, it was as large as they come.

A real live wild elephant. Holy cow!

Kathy backed us up passed a couple of bushes to give us a space to see this (these!) animals a good three hundred yards away. Good thing they’re big.

We also spotted, way back there near the elephants, the other giants of the Tanzanian terrain–giraffes; the tall, graceful walkers; their stick necks in the distance gliding along upright. Both of these novel monster species were what I came for. My body indicated this with that feeling that brings to mind the notion of seeing something in real life that you had ever only seen before on television. Celebrity perhaps. And I was a bit star struck seeing these creatures lumber in the hilly distance.

Yet they were far away, so we continued with the hopes of seeing better views ahead. Our hopes would not be let down…

til next week, when I offer the lion’s share of our safari,

-Brandon  

Portraits of Tanzanian Villagers

In Tanzania, there’s more to camera & firearm comparisons than the verb used to describe using them and the fact that I wear mine on my belt.

Here, people react to a photographer by putting their arms and hands in front of their face in a blocking maneuver. Some turn away or use the nearby tree for defense. Some might take an offensive tact and get angry at the attack. “No picha!” Or, “Give money!”

And this has all happened to me when picturing public scenes like a market or soccer game.

But this just exemplifies a general trend—not every individual. I’ve also snapped many shots of people who were perfectly willing to have (and then see) their images taken on my camera. Seeing themselves. That, along with a familiarity with the picture taker, has been the route to open up the Tanzanian’s willingness to say “Cheese”—that is, if they choose to smile.

This post is about breaking through my village’s collective camera resistance shell, becoming their portrait photographer, and showing you the results.

It all started when I took my camera to the village center one day. I had wanted to photograph it for some time. The village itself is scene after scene decorated with red-tinted mud/brick structures, bright green crops in people’s yards (in the rainy season), chickens pecking and darting along, the occasional dog trotting by, and people always seemingly in one of these fashions: rugged, raggedy, worn work-wear or somehow-spotless suits and shoes for the men, and brightly multicolored wrap–around skirts, blouses, and headwraps on the women.

The village square is all of this concentrated, along with the addition of colorful produce and raw meat for sale and an air of social jollity in the after-work congregation. Walking along the village toward the townsquare this day, I reached this central cluster of wood, concrete, or brick structures with either metal, wood, or even straw roofs–a three little pigs offering. And in the center of this is an opening of a quarter-sized, dirt football field.

Entering this arena from a narrow break in the buildings, I took care to not photograph the activity, but rather the buildings and other less-controversial sights. At some point, though, one eager man wanted his picture taken. This happens every so often—an individual more allured than averse to the technology and wanting to see themselves on camera.

So I took the shot:

Then I thought to do something that some faculty I photographed at my school had requested and get him a hard copy. I told him this, and he was delighted. I then took the momentum and asked a couple willing women if I could take theirs.

People nearby huddled around me and pointed & laughed at themselves or their friends when seeing the results on the back of my camera. After these shots, I bought some peanuts from an outhouse-sized store and headed back to my school.

A week or so later, and having developed the pictures in the nearby city, Iringa, over the weekend, I returned to the village square. I approached a cluster of people around the produce stand, took out the photos, and asked where the people in them were. The ladies there crowded to see the images. If they had enjoyed seeing themselves or their friends on the camera, they really got a kick out of seeing them on a photograph…

…and now some wanted one for themselves.

I first reunited with a man I had met a time before whose first name I can’t recall, so will call him Grandpa Ndambo. He’s the father of the village chief executive, dresses like a common man, and knows a bit of English. After being asked for a photo by three women, I asked Grandpa Ndambo to translate that I’d need 500 shillings for the pictures–about 30 cents. Fine by them. One said she couldn’t pay me until the following day. Fine by me. “You pay when I bring the picture,” I said.

So I took theirs.

Others approached and asked about getting theirs done, and another villager nearby eagerly informed them, “Mia tano.” Five hundred. (Well, literally “hundred five.”) This information would most often then be followed up with an immediate nod and pose, which, despite the impression given by the ladies above, most often did not involve a smile. So I told them to do so by pointing to my own over-doing-it smile (with mixed results) as I readied to shoot. Then I’d count down from three and press the shutter. Finally, I’d show them (or they’d reach out to see) the results on the back of my camera, sometimes requiring me to grip it well lest they rip it from my hands to see these shots:

He came up with this pose on his own.

In all, I took about twenty-five portraits this time around, developed them in Iringa, and came back in two weeks with the results.

“Wiki mbili,” I said. Two weeks. Or literally, “week two.”

Coming back as promised, I returned to the square at the usual late afternoon hour with a brown paper packet waving in my hand. This time I found a vacant booth next to the produce ladies and laid the 25 pictures out on the uneven wooden surface. Villagers gathered, looked, and laughed as they passed them around. I wondered/worried if I might never see some of the pictures again. But they all made their way back to me, and then, to the people in them.

I collected some money, kept the pictures of those not present, and announced I could take more. And I did.

brother and sister

I collected another 20 shots, and as I did the time before, said “Wiki mbili,” and headed back to Iringa the following day.

Finally came Tuesday, July 15th, my most recent visit to the village square. This time, after laying out this week’s pictures on the wood bench, I asked Grandpa Ndambo to come by to translate. I had an announcement to make. Through him, I asked the villager’s permission to use their photos for my writing.

I worried about this hurdle, but what had been a whole country of picture-rigid folks had now become a village warmed to their photographer’s efforts. In exchange for their permission, I gave the pictures away—including refunds to previous recipients. This added up. Plus, now more people than ever lined up for free photographs taken just this last Tuesday.

***

After each session, I have walked away thinking how special an experience this is—that I get to see these people so genuinely, get to capture and share the images of this expression, and most of all, get to bring joy to people doing something I consider so simple. I wouldn’t cut it as a photographer in the U.S., but here I’m a pro. I realize one has more to offer the world than they think, and I’m seeing how offering what I have can enhance the lives of those about me.

This fall I will return to the U.S. and put all these portraits into a section of my book that I’ll be writing about life and the lessons learned living here. In the meantime, I offer you some of the results of the service I’ve been able to offer the people of my village: Magulilwa, Tanzania, East Africa.

I cap off this post with a video. This is footage of the town square, the villagers’ reactions to the photos, and this picture-taking process.

The Other White People in the Middle of Tanzania

When I told my mother about going to Africa, she said, “Brandon! They do voodoo over there!”

I had to show her some videos of the school where I’d be teaching so she could realize that things weren’t as dramatic as the stereotypes she created from movies, The Discovery Channel, and National Geographic.

Another common belief, one that I held before coming here, was that I’d be the only foreigner around. That idea turned out to be as wrong as my mom’s voodoo belief (actually more wrong as I recently found out there is a thread of voodoo to the spiritual beliefs here. Never doubt Mom.)

This post is about the fellow foreigners I’ve met over my time here who’ve come all this way to explore, lend a hand, and get to know their world. Together, they reveal that coming here isn’t as crazy an idea as one might think–rather, it’s a darn good one.

Leah is my fellow foreign teacher at our village school. She’s also a fellow American—a Coloradan who came out here by herself 18 months ago for another opportunity working with wildlife, and when that work ended, came back out after discovering our school. She teaches biology and physics and started a tree-planting initiative on school grounds.

Leah

In the village, Leah and I are indeed the only outsiders–something never to be forgotten when walking around the dirt streets and hearing “Mzungu!” (white person) from the kids (and sometimes from the adults.) But 20 miles away in the regional hub, Iringa, I have discovered many others Westerners–some of whom are on vacation, others who are here for a temporary project, and others who’ve made this their home.

My second weekend in Iringa, I was at Neema Crafts, a restaurant/gift shop run by the Anglican mission and one of the more comfortable places in town. There, I met a young, blonde Englishwoman named Laura who was here in Iringa as a volunteer at the restaurant. She had plans that day for a weekly volleyball game that many of the local mission workers attend. She asked me to come along.

As soon as we left the restaurant I met Andy, a 50-something Englishman also here for mission work through the Anglican church. He was driving us to the game.

Andy shared that his work here centers around helping villages collect and access water.

He was also the first of a handful of foreigners I’ve met who are so settled that they purchased an automobile. I had questions about auto maintenance and repairs in this city. Turns out he does a lot of the work himself. (Another day I’d see him biking along one of Iringa’s dirt roads holding a drive shaft in his hand.)

We made it out to the game which took place at an impressive property with blossoming trees, landscaped grounds, meadows, and thin woods. It was owned by an English couple in their 50s-60s. Walking up to the scene, a tall, thinly bearded younger man in summerwear approached and shook my hand with a big grin–and said hello with a big southern accent. This South Carolinian was here with his wife and three small children for their church’s mission work.

“You brought your kids to Tanzania?”, I thought.

Yep, he and some others.

Laura with a backpack, the South Carolinian, the kids playing soccer, and the volleyball way back there.

It felt like a world away from the littered, dusty, ramshackle Iringa outskirts, which were just a few miles away.

While there, I also met these four American university students studying abroad for a term in Iringa:

This weekend set the stage for a half-year of introductions to the many foreigners who find their way to this part of the world.

Back at Neema Crafts the following weekend, I met these fine young folks:

They were Italian volunteers courtesy of an organization sending helpers to centers around Iringa housing disabled people and others with orphans. These volunteers come for about six weeks at a time, and I’ve met probably twenty of them by now.

Volunteers through the American program, the Peace Corps, stay a little longer, and I’ve very much enjoyed getting to know them as fellow common-culture individuals. Here’s one from Minnesota:

Megan from Forest Lake

She’s holding her new water filtration device. The Peace Corps volunteers are troopers. They stay two years often in conditions without running water and electricity. Clean water is enough to make them happy.

Here’s another Peace Corps volunteer I met this year named Ben:

The Michigander came out here and really took the rhinoceros by the horn. More than just his science teaching to adolescents at his village school, he started a tribal language dictionary so future volunteers can learn the local language spoken around Iringa. Now in his final stretch (two months to go) he’s overseeing a water pipeline project linking the well-supplied school to the not-so-well-watered local hospital.

In all, I’ve met probably 20 Peace Corp volunteers as well.

It’s not just Peace Corps, either. Here are Sarah and Jessica from eastern Oregon and Simone from Austria who volunteer through another organization in the south of Tanzania:

Sarah, Jessica, Simone, myself, and our guide, Fanuel on safari

It often seems people coming here for service work do so pre or post career. This older gent has honored me with several great conversations about life here and life back in America. It’s Louisiana John:

The retired electrician does mission work around Iringa and lives at the property behind him in the picture. Though uncertain about his decision to come out here early on (he told me he went online to buy a plane ticket to go home about two months in) he has since gotten used to things and even embraced the way of life here.

“I used to work all night in my dreams and wake up exhausted,” he said. Then added, “I sleep good now!–under my mosquito net.”

He credit the “pace” in Iringa, then capped it off with, “I like it here.”

I’ve also met a few post-career Minnesotans doing volunteer work through the Lutheran Church. Early in my stay, I got an email from a woman in Minnesota who had read this blog. She told me about a man, Randy, she knew living in Iringa doing mission work.

I met up with Randy–clean shaven, medium build, a good sense of humor, a youthful retiree–while he was dining with five of his peers who’ve all come to Iringa to be of service. One couple worked with getting technology to rural schools. Having been in the agriculture industry, Randy came out here to help local farmers with crop management.

After we ate, I walked with him back to his a three bedroom suite in a complex representative of the slow but steady development happening in Iringa. He was just a couple weeks away from going back to Minnesota. In the dark of night, but the warm, dry air of Iringa in February, he expressed his desire to come back.

I’ve always stayed at a guesthouse on my weekends in Iringa. This, not surprising, has been a revolving door of outsiders visiting. Recently I met Keld and Beathe, a Danish couple living in central Sweden.

When I say “central Sweden”, keep in mind that Sweden stretches well north of the continental U.S. These two live in the land of 24 hour summer sun. Some years back, they moved from Denmark to their small, mountain village during spring.

“We didn’t by a lamp until September,” Beathe told me. They didn’t need a light til then.

They were in Iringa because they work with an orphanage and a sister school of the school Beathe teaches at back home. Keld is a dog sledder–probably the last profession I thought I’d discuss in Africa. But we all had a lot to talk about: teaching, cold weather, living in a small town, activities in the snow, and Sven, Ole, and Lina jokes.

(By the way, Keld extends an invite to Sweden for any outdoor adventurer who wants to give dog sledding in Sweden a try! Here’s his email: keld.legind@ottsjo.com)

***

I could go on: Sean the lion conservation worker from Ireland; Sarah, the wildlife conservation worker from Colorado. Kathy is a retired gal from the U.S. who found love in Tanzania and now lives with her Tanzanian husband. I met a younger German woman who, too, married a Tanzanian. And together, they made this lovely girl:

This isn’t common. Most mixed race children here have curly, dark hair. Mom is proud of her special little girl whose two older siblings don’t sport the light locks either.

There’s Hessen, the development researcher from Holland; Ray, the English researcher; nursing students from Sweden; a host of medical students from the U.S. and England; teachers from Greece; and escaping the Western world, there have been the volunteers here from Japan and Korea.

You get the idea.

All these people indicate the interconnectedness of the world today, how even in this relatively unknown city in the middle of this East African nation, there’s a strong foreign presence.

Ultimately, this is about how anyone can pick up, explore, fall in love, live, and be of service in a number of arenas, capacities, and locations all over the world.

What’s your destination?  :)

 

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