Homecoming post, waaay belated

Is anyone even reading this anymore? Probably not. But I feel like writing a bit, so here goes…

Suddenly I realize that I’ve been back in the States longer than I was away. And yet I haven’t posted photos, as I promised I would. This is probably because getting back to my “normal” life hasn’t been that easy. A friend of mine said that Africa stays with you, and she is right. I can’t go through a day without having a dozen of the strongest memories about Tanzania–the sights, the sounds and smells, the people. A lot happened over there, and I’m still trying to process it all. This all sounds so dramatic, but I don’t know how to explain it except to say that the experience changed me in many ways.

Since I’ve been back I’ve thought a lot about a T.S. Eliot poem I love:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

So I leave you to ponder that. And I leave you with pictures, the first of which is a shot of where I lived in Tengeru. I still dream of this. I probably always will…

The road home, with beautiful Mt. Meru rising above the clouds

The road home, with beautiful Mt. Meru rising above the clouds


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Off on Safari

It’s hard to believe that my time here is coming to a close. My last day as a non-tourist is tomorrow.

This little spot in Africa has become my home away from home for the last six weeks. I have made incredible friends, met amazing people, and hopefully done a little good.

There is so much more to write about…and I probably will on returning stateside. But for now, it is off on safari with my mom, who is on her way here as I write.

Stay tuned for pictures and hopefully more stories.

Thanks for reading and being a part of this incredible journey.


<<Here’s a few safari photos…>>

Elephant family crosses the road in Tarangire NP.

Elephant family crosses the road in Tarangire NP.

Giraffe in Arusha NP.

Giraffe in Arusha NP.

Inside Ngorongoro Crater

Inside Ngorongoro CraterRidiculous hyena

Fresh kill

Fresh kill

Sunset in the Serengeti

Sunset in the Serengeti


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Isaya: Maasai Bad Ass

I introduced Isaya in my last blog entry. He is a friend I met through the program here. What I failed to mention is that Isaya is famous.

As pastoralists, the Maasai are wanderers. They herd cattle and goat all over the steppe. They travel so far that they require no passports when crossing the border between Tanzanian and Kenya. They are free to roam.

Out in the area where they live, the land is harsh and water is hard to come by. Water is scarce in Tanzania, period. But in the steppe, it is a really rare resource.

A few years ago, Isaya met a man from England who was running a bare-bones environmental NGO in Arusha. Together, the two of them hatched a plan for Isaya to raise money for a bore hole and pump system for his village. The venue they decided on was the London marathon.

So last year Isaya, his brother Ngufu, and a few other Maasai made their first plane flights to London. It is said here that Maasai are inherently trusted because they want nothing from anyone. They have no need for possessions–there is no materialism in Maasai culture. They are also hired as guards since they are honest and brave.

I can only imagine these stereotypes of Maasai made their way to the transportation security authority because–for whatever reason–Isaya and his friends carried their spears, shields, and knives onto the plane. No one stopped them.

Once in London, they had no qualifying times, so they joined the race as non-professionals. And they completely stole the show. No one remembers which Ethiopian or Kenyan one the marathon that year. The only thing they remember are the five Maasai who ran it–in full traiditional clothing.

They ran in their shuka wraps, beaded anklets, bangled arm bands, tire shoes, and spears and shields. The spears and shields alone must weigh 20 pounds.

And every mile or so they would stop to sing and dance for the crowd. Then they would run flat out some more. Despite the constant breaks, they finished the race in a little under four hours (a ten-minute mile). These Maasai are the greatest athletes I have ever seen. The marathon judges appeared to notice this too because after the race, Isaya and his friends were asked to come to the officials’ tent where their spears and shields were weighed. It was determined by the judges (as well as the Guiness Book of World Records) that had they run the race without stopping, in running clothing, and without the extra weight, they would have busted the world marathon record.

The Maasai were the talk of the town. They were all over the news and–better–the reason they were running was all over the news. People were now vying to provide funding for water projects. They currently have three different government aid agencies slobbering over themselves to be the one to provide the cash.

As if the funding wasn’t good enough, the judges–flooded with media requests–asked who Isaya and his friends wanted to meet in London.

Isaya’s response: “I want to meet Wayne Rooney and Manchester United.” And so he did.

After that, they said, “Who else do you want to meet?”

He said, “The Queen.” And so he did.

Isaya sat with her, drank milk, and ate croissants–the only food he ate while in London. They discussed Maasai culture and the similarities between being a chief and a queen–apparently there are several.

The plans for the water network are just now being decided. But within a year, Isaya and 1,000 people around the steppe will have access to water.

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Night in the Boma

I met Isaya through work. He was a trainer on HIV/AIDS education and its connections to Tanzanian culture. He is traditional Maasai: he wears a shuka (checkered cloth), carries a herding cane, wears tire shoes (actually made out of rubber tires), and lives in the Maasai steppe on a boma.

A boma is a piece of land owned by a Maasai chief (Isaya is a 24-year-old chief). It is a circle enclosure made of high walls of acacia branches, whose two-inch thorns are enough to keep out predators. Inside the walls are a handful of small huts made from wood ash, dung, and hay. There are also usually goat and cow stables. Absent from the boma are all things modern. There are no computers, televisions, showers, or toilets of any variety.

This past weekend Isaya invited me and three other volunteers for a weekend at his boma. We began our journey by taking a two-hour daladala ride west of Arusha, in the direction of Lake Manyara. At a town called Monduli, we got off the dala and hopped on the back of an old Chevy truck, which took us another hour over unpaved roads, then another half an hour overland. Someone would shout from the cab when we should duck for oncoming acacia branches as we drove through the bush. Finally, we walked about 3km into the steppe.

Isaya’s boma is in the middle of nowhere. The only sign of modern life was a plane flying overhead.  Well, that, and somehow Isaya’s cell phone works out in the bush. Mysteriously, no one else’s cell phone worked. Personally, I think the man is magic.

Once we arrived, it was time to do as the Maasai do. Isaya’s friends lit a fire and they taught us all to dance, sing, and jump. Each man could jump easily three feet in the air from standing. They are simply incredible athletes (more on their athleticism in the next post). Sadly, the wazungu were a pitiful sight; collectively we jumped a foot in the air–tops.

After working up a sweat, we retired to a hut where we ate fresh ugali (a common Tanzanian food made from maize; it most closely resembles polenta) out of one communal bowl. Someone in our group had brought a bunch of vegetables from town, so one of the women cooked it all up into a vegetable stew. I was so grateful because had it not been for that stew, dinner would have just been plain ugali.

The Maasai have a very rigid diet: ugali, milk, meat, and blood. The concept of other foods is so strange to traditional Maasai that one of the men actually asked me, “How do you eat that?” That is, how do you eat vegetables?

After ugali and milk, we went back outside for more dancing, singing, and jumping. The stars were out by this point, and it was clear. I have never in my life seen a sky like this. Except for our fire and the stars, there was not a single light from horizon to horizon.

All night around the fire I kept noticing the men snorting some sort of brown powder. I asked Isaya’s brother, Ngufu (a derivation of the Swahili word nguvu, meaning “strong”), what it was. He said they just called it snuff. They make it by combining animal fat, salt, and the shredded bark of a steppe tree. Being a generous people, he asked if we wanted to try it. And not wanting to be rude, we all grabbed a pinch and sniffed away. All our eyes watered. We sneezed. And then we all felt ridiculously buzzed–drunk feeling, yet not drunk. I don’t know what to compare it to. It was definitely an upper of some kind. And it certainly made me understand how the Maasai only sleep four hours a night and why they still have so much energy during the day.

Aided by snuff, we all stayed up until two in the morning sitting in front of the fire and talking with our new friends. Then we crashed out on a Maasai bed: a pile of sticks covered with a cow hide. We all laid next to each other like matchsticks. The situation was fine for me, but unfortunate for the taller members of the group whose feet and ankles dangled off the end of the stick bed by more than a foot.

I was the first to wake up the next morning. It was kind of like being the first one up when you are camping. The morning was misty, and I felt like I was the only person around for hundreds of miles. Eventually people started emerging from huts, stretching out, and searching for the “bathroom.” The location was vague: “somewhere behind the cattle pen,” which meant you just squatted somewhere in the far side of the boma.

By 8am everyone was awake, meaning it was time to choose a goat for our slaughter. Yes, our slaughter. As guests of a Maasai chief, a goat would be sacrificed in our honor.

We selected a nice-enough looking goat, who we named Chuck. Isaya’s friend proceeded to suffocate Chuck to death, then skin him from the legs up. Working together (and with me occasionally holding a leg), Chuck was in pieces in less than 15 minutes. The internal organs were cooked in a big pot. The kidneys remained out, and were offered to us raw as an appetizer. My only real impression: salty.

The goat’s open ribcage, which was full of blood, was then offered up to us. We were to drink the blood from a Maasai’s hand. I was the first to go. The blood got smeared all over my face, but I got a nice long sip. It, too, was salty.

Blood drinking out of the way, it was time to roast and eat goat. We all sat around an open flame while whole limbs were grilled, then pieces sliced off and handed around the circle. We were all starving and completely polished off the meat in less than a half hour.

When I took a second to look at my watch I noted that I had watched a goat die, helped skin it, drank its blood, and then consumed it all before 10 in the morning.

We rested after feasting with hot glasses of milk, then packed up for our return to modernity.

But before going, Isaya’s brother gave me a Maasai name, Anganashe. He told me it meant “sister,” but I have since learned that it also means “beautiful,” which is such a lovely compliment given that Ngufu is probably the coolest human being on the planet.

Entering back into Arusha was an odd experience after the boma. Everything seemed excessively fast and loud.

Despite a vigorous washing, I went to bed that night smelling distinctly of the boma and the bush: slightly bloody, dusty, and overwhelmingly smoky.


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Public Transportation

Dala stop in Tengeru. This photo does not accurately reflect the chaos of the dala experience.

Dala stop in Tengeru. This photo does not accurately reflect the chaos of the dala experience.

The part of Tanzania I was most nervous about was navigating the daladala–the thousands of minivans that constitute the only form of local transportation.

There are no maps of the van routes–you just need to know where they go by the street you catch them on. Every fare for every ride is negotiated–a process that can sometimes result in yelling or brawling (not by me. I’ve just seen it). The dalas always run on empty, so it is quite possible that your morning ride could just quit midway to your destination. This happened to me last week, actually.

And then there’s the crowding. In a safety conscious world, these vans would hold 16 people (including driver and two people in the front seat). But no. They regularly hold upwards of 24. Plus bags of rice, vegetables, babies, animals, and farming equipment.

Last week a man asked me to stand up so that he could grab his pangas. I hadn’t even realized I had three foot-long machetes under my feet. Later that day I was riding home from work, when all of a sudden three chickens explode from underneath the seats. Chicken feathers everywhere. Their keeper just shoved them back down again. And then a few days ago I saw a man pull a goat out from the “backseat” of a dala. Backseat is in quotes because there is no backseat, only a one-inch deep area for storage and then the back seats begin.

As unnerving as my first experience was, I absolutely love my daily dala rides now. I take them at least twice a day. And each time I experience something new. I have sat on people’s laps, had babies and children on mine, held gigantic sacks of rice, been wedged into the most foul of armpits, had my limbs hanging out windows, and had a nun try to convert me.

Unfailingly, when I think a dala can hold no more people, a half dozen more manage to squeeze on. The van might ride a little lower and slower, but the music will still be bumping and the fare guy will still be shaking a giant pile of change in your face when it’s your turn to pay up. It’s all just business as usual on the dala.

The other day my friend David came up with the perfect description of the experience: “A dala is not a finite space.”


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African Birthday

One week ago today I turned 28. For being thousands of miles away from family and friends, it was still a pretty incredible day.

The day began by getting up early to go dig a new garden for an orphanage a few kilometers east of Tengeru. When we arrived we were introduced to Mama Nora, the orphanage owner, who takes care of the property, cooking, cleaning, and  of the children almost entirely on her own. She then introduced us to the orphans. I met two dozen charming children, but two really shined: I met a brilliant little three-year-old girl named Sereti who was dropped at Mama Nora’s doorstep when she was a year old. Sereti showed me that she knew the entire alphabet and could spell and read books that six-year-oldswould struggle with. But Sereti has a hard time speaking because as a baby she had all her teeth removed. No one can figure out why. This is not a Maasai tradition.

I also met a little boy–a teeny-tiny boy whose pants kept falling off revealing his butt–who cannot speak. Mama Nora thinks he may have been abused when he was younger. But he is incredibly intelligent and has the most amazing smile.

After meeting the kids, we were all so happy to do some work that would benefit them in some small way. The work was hard and long, but the sun came out midway through the day, so everyone was in good spirits. And all of us–feeling moldy and stinky–from two weeks of rain and fog, soaked up more rays than we probably should have. When we finished we played with the kids, sang songs and danced, went down their rickety slide, and took turns giving the kids piggy-back rides.

After about a half hour of goodbyes in English and Swahili (as well as multiple promises to return to see the kids again), we took our smelly and muddy selves back to Tengeru for an evening at our local bar, Tulivu, where everyone proceeded to buy me rounds of my favorite beer, and propose various toasts to becoming ancient (I am the oldest in the group by a long shot).

We watched bad Tanzanian music videos on the gigantic wood-enclosed TV. My favorite was a guy named Collie Buddz who sings/raps/slurs through a “song” called “When the Herbs Come Around.” The Tanzanians sure love their bangi

As a birthday present, I was also bought my first mahindi choma (roasted corn). It doesn’t taste anything like corn on the cob, but more like popcorn on on the cob. It is slightly hard and chewy with a distinct popcorn taste. I also had fried casava, and a donut fresh from the grease.

But as it got dark we all had to head home (nobody wants to deal with the night bandits here, so everyone goes inside by dusk and has both dogs and watchmen). When I arrived at home, my dadas had prepared my favorite meal, pilau–a combination of spiced rice with vegetables and meat mixed in. As well as watermelon juice, slices of orange, mango, and avocado. And they even bought me a cake that had my name written in icing.

There is a Tanzanian tradition to clap the number of years on a birthday, so I had to sit there, red-faced, waiting for the 28th clap. After, my dada Beatrice said I was old enough to have grandchildren. Uh-huh.

The rest of the weekend was spent at Arusha’s “only five-star hotel.” I put that in quotes because that’s what they claim. This is what we found: there was a tv, but not channels. There was a bathroom with hotwater, but the door handle fell off, locking my friend inside until the maintenance man came up to take the doors of the hinges. There was internet, but only if you paid for it (at the whopping price of 6,000Tsh per hour (that ‘s six dollars and about 500 times the price of internet everywhere else).

But the beds were comfortable, the breakfast buffet was great (with REAL–not instant!–coffee). I used the ultra-modern gym, caught up on CNN, the IHT, and then lounged by the “heated” (read: heated by the sun) pool until late afternoon.

All in all, a great African birthday.


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Kilimo Hai

In Swahili, sustainable agriculture is called kilimo hai or “living earth.” This is what I have been and will continue to be teaching local farmers until I leave in early August. For the past week I have been working on specific techniques on our shamba (farm), which was given to my program about seven years ago.

There are several types of sustainable agriculture. There’s traditional organic (use of natural farming techniques and inputs). Then there’s the crazy–but kind of awesome–biodynamic farming. (A technique in biodynamics might read something like this: take the horn of a goat, fill it with the blood of a chimpanzee, bury it in the ground until harvest, say some mystical words and blessings, harvest, repeat. Such practices apparently do something good to the soil.)

The kind of sustainable agriculture we do is called biointensive ag or BIA. We double dig the soil (about two to three feet down) into long rows about 1.5 meters by 6 meters. By the time you till all the soil and add compost, the bed appears arched and raised. This is the classic BIA technique. The extra surface area allows you to plant more seeds closer together–thereby achieving the same results as intensive agriculture, without any of the harmful chemicals or hyrid seeds that reduce biodiversity.

Perfect raised beds.

Perfect raised beds.

We also don’t use any chemical pesticide or fertilizers. Pests are kept away by planting deterrents–for example: lemongrass gives off a smell that pests don’t like; same goes for bangibangi (that would be pot–no joke). We also create natural sprays–made from things like chili pepper, garlic, and onion, that kill off worms, stem borers, and similar soil pests.

To help plants grow faster and with greater yields, we rely on compost. And then we employ companion planting. Some plants work really well together in the soil. Carrots and onions, for instance, have much greater yields when planted together than when planted alone.

I made that. It's compost.

I made that. It's compost.

So these are the just some of the techniques we go out into the community to teach. The demand is very high for this knowledge–for several reasons.

First, the local communities can’t afford artificial inputs. It is bankrupting them. So there is an economic incentive.

Second, the local farmers can rake in the money by selling organic produce to safari companies, all of which want to serve their western clientele something healthy and sustainable. Anything labe

led organic fetches a big premium around here.

Third, there is a huge need for more nutritious food here. There is a lot of malnutrition. By growing more healthier food, the local communities not only have more to eat but more to sell.

Today I had my first survey of a local farm. The beds were doing OK, but the farmers seemed to be missing some of the key techniques. Tomorrow a friend and I are going back to rebuild the beds of a man who is too sick to tend his own land. It will take us most of the day, but it will be well worth the effort. We think he’ll be able to sell enough produce from his farm to provide for his family and also buy the medication he needs to get better.

This was the result of a full day of labor. And this is the family that will benefit.

This was the result of a full day of labor. And this is the family that will benefit.


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