Coastal Tanzania: A Westerners Perspective-Part 2 Rural Tanzania

December 27, 2013 10:53 am0 comments by:

In part 2 of my travel piece to the Swahili Coast of Tanzania I will be discussing the variety of events and experiences that made my trip so memorable. The reason I decided to break these testimonials into three separate parts is the vast difference between the urban areas, namely Dar es Salaam, the rural lanscapes, which I will discuss in this piece, and the island of Zanzibar, which will be the final installment of this submission.

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Chumbi children on main street

If Dar es Salaam was a pandemonium of chaos, then the rural reaches of the nation can be best described as a series of tiny areas in which the population gravitates, in between kilometer after kilometer of tranquil landscape. The populated districts could be defined as villages, but they more resemble a large conglomerate of markets, guest houses and restaurants where inhabitants from the rural spheres flock to maintain a connection to their fellow man. Calling some of these spaces villages would be a disservice to the reality. Most of the clusters that litter the roads flowing out of Dar in all directions are more of an African take on American strip malls. There are a variety of shops peddling everything from snacks to wood carvings to makeshift water bottle petrol stations. While these expanses remain a necessity to the surrounding agro population, the true gem of Tanzania is in its tiny rural communities, which I had the pleasure of visiting.

The project that our organization, the African Community Advancement Initiative, is undertaking is to partner with a local farming community to help them improve their livelihood by modernizing their farming techniques. This village, named Chumbi, is a cluster of grass and mud huts sparsely laid out across a large land holding. The most densely populated area, what could be called downtown Chumbi, held a single store and an open air fish and produce market with tiny fish from the nearby Rufiji River filling the air with an aroma of sea water and decay, mixed with freshly grown tomatoes and fruits. Children flocked to the dusty street to get a glimpse of the outsiders (including two mzungu) that were visiting their secluded town. Many of the children sold handfuls of local cashews, while others played a form of billiards on a makeshift table to pass the time. The various hand wells were also a popular place of congregation as women and children pumped water to fill the many containers they lugged to and from the water source.

Meeting with the local leaders showed just how strange our visit was. The authorites in the village, both men and women, took turns expressing their gratitude for the upcoming project we are implementing, as they explained that symbolically they felt that Obama was visiting their village to help with their struggles. Ultimately, throughout my travels, I have rarely met a group of people that were so lively and accommodating, welcoming us into their homes, introducing us to their families and being the perfect hosts to the foreign visitors. Chumbi was my favorite part of my trip to Tanzania.

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The ranger station at Saadani.

Later in the visit we took a trip to Saadani National Park for a safari. This part of my travels was certainly the most interesting and frightening portion. Saadani is one of the smallest, if not the smallest, national park in all of Tanzania. It is a short distance from Dar es Salaam, but due to the condition of the roads, the journey was taxing, taking approximately six hours to travel to the park. We arrived in Saadani after dark and stayed in a tiny village situated inside the park grounds. The guest house we stayed at had neither electricity nor running water, just a small candle and a bed. That night, through the iron bars of my room, I could hear the people of the village having passionate discussion into the night. At midnight, the sounds of conversations came to an abrupt halt, but the sounds that followed were much worse. They made me cower under my blankets as a goat screamed and a tussle of wild animals attacked each other right outside my window. I did not dare peak out my window as I knew that there were no fences between the village and the lions that supposedly hunted across the park. After the wild animals dispersed, I tried to settle in for some sleep. Unfortunately, as I began to drift off to sleep, the loudest and most obnoxious car horn I have ever heard let out a long, piercing blast. Like a torture mechanism, this car let out the same racket every five minutes. Just when I would think that it was finished and I began to drift off to sleep, another bellowing sound startled me awake. The next day, I found out that the culprit was a public bus taking people to Dar. Since there is no electricity in the town, the bus chimed in with horn blasts for a solid hour to wake the locals up to get on the bus. Needless to say I had almost no sleep before we ventured out on safari.

The safari itself was interesting, if not a bit of a letdown. Knowing that I would be returning to Tanzania soon, I was not overly disappointed when the trip only yielded good peeks at giraffes, warthogs and baboons. The most interesting and sad part of the journey is when we found out that an elephant had been poached the night before. In the ranger’s office at least 15 men were seated on the floor, all charged with poaching the poor elephant. This may be my personal judgment, but I have a hard time picturing the need for 15+ assailants to take down one elephant. I also cannot imagine that the payout that is provided from the ivory of a single pachyderm can support 15 people. However, the park became inundated with soldiers searching for more poachers. I understand that the poaching war has become dangerous for most rangers, so overreaction is the likely natural reaction for those that feel threatened. The sad truth that I have learned while researching and writing on Africa and African security is that many of the upper echelon poachers are government officials.

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SUA landscape

The final trip I took during my stay in Tanzania was west to the small city of Morogoro. To say that Morogoro was the opposite of Dar es Salaam is an understatement. The rolling hills, flooded with greenery surrounded the sleepy town. The urban area itself had a much slower and less chaotic feel to it than the pandemonium of Dar. The motorcycle cabs drove at a leisurely pace, the people seemed less in a hurry and the streets were much cleaner. We stayed at a school run by the Carmelite monks. Their school and congregation for secondary students was immaculately clean with the students remaining supremely disciplined and the young children between 4-7 years old were absolutely adorable with their liveliness and enthusiasm to sing, dance and learn. It amazed me at this school that the children were already learning to speak, read and write English as early as four years old. This is something that is certainly lacking in the U.S. education system.

We also visited the agricultural university in Morogoro called SUA to develop a partnership for our agricultural project in Rufiji. The university had a beautiful campus that lay in a valley at the foot of some large and impressive mountains. Of course the university was littered with small and large agricultural projects, gardens and greenery, adding to the beauty of the institution and the town. The trip to Morogoro was a refreshing change of pace from Dar es Salaam.

The most disappointing part of traveling outside of Dar, and sometimes within, was the high amount of local corruption by small-time government officials. Traveling outside of Dar we were pulled over nearly a dozen times by police officers looking for handouts. A few times we were actually speeding, but for the most part we had broken no laws. The way the police pull people over is quite interesting. There are no police vehicles, but officers simply standing on the side of the road pointing at you to pullover. One particularly arrogant officer just vaguely stuck a cane out to direct us to the roadside. Once you were pulled over the negotiations began. The catch-22 about dealing with police officers in Tanzania is that you want them to keep a record of the tickets they write to avoid local corruption and assure that the money actually benefitted the state. However, if they write you a full ticket, the fine is much steeper than if you pay them an illegal bribe. Oftentimes they would simply walk away and make us wait until we caved and handed them a small bribe. It was generally a standoff to see who would break first, the driver or the officer. Other officials did similar things to generate small bribes. At Saadani a ranger held us at the gate insisting that he could not let us enter the park at that time. He continued to state that he would be fired if he did. However, after we gave him a few thousand shillings (just a few dollars), he instantly forgot his job security and waved us through. Also, a parking agent put a boot on our car in downtown Dar insisting we were parked in an illegal zone. The actual “no parking” sign however was nearly a block away and covered by a tree branch. A small bribe to him convinced him to remove the boot and let us on our way. These bribes are an unfortunate and rampant problem in the developing world. However, Tanzania was the worst that I had experience in my extensive travels. It was definitely the most disappointing aspect of our trip and will be an ongoing problem, especially traveling to and from our project site.

Overall the rural outreaches surrounding Dar es Salaam were beautiful, lively and fascinating and I enjoyed them thoroughly as I took in the peace and tranquility combined with the simplicity of live outside of the big city. Obviously poverty is a major problem there, but that’s why I was there in the first place, to make a positive impact by helping curb malnutrition and poverty. The rural areas are the Tanzania I yearn for on future visits.

To read Part one- Please click here

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