Moyo Wangu ni Tanzania

Every traveller has that one place. That one place that is so far from home yet strangely feels more like home than even home does. Of all the trips I’ve taken, I’ve never felt more like this than I did in Tanzania on my first trip. I’ve gone back three times since, so it’s safe to say it’s special to me – the people, the landscape, the food, the language, the smell, you name it. For me, Tanzania is home.

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I’ve spent most of my time in the city of Arusha, which is a bit of a dichotomy. There are so many things I love about it and plenty that I don’t. I never enjoyed ugali, the tasteless national dish that you get offered constantly, any more than I did washing it down with warm Fanta, which you will invariably drink daily even if you hate soda with a fiery passion. I also didn’t enjoy coveting toilet paper and hand sanitizer or seeing my personal hygiene plummet to new lows in record time.

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I could never get used to the dust and burning piles of garbage everywhere. I never felt quite safe using dalla dallas (the system of vans used for public transport which is not much of a ‘system’ at all). I never warmed to the annoying street touts, who some locals call ‘fly catchers’ for preying on foreigners day in, day out. And I could never overlook the scraggily wild dogs that roamed about looking for food all day and barked their little heads off. All. Night. Long. Most of all though, I could never reconcile how distended bellies and systemic poverty were commonplace and plagued these amazing people that deserve all of the things I have  in life but don’t, based solely on where they were born in the world.

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Despite these annoyances, I did relish in the culture – the music, clothes, food and pace – and soon became consumed by it. I loved the chaos of the markets, the vibrant colours of kanga, the irrelevance of time, and the Muslim prayer music that was played over a loud speaker EVERY single morning about 5:00am. Yes, I even loved it that early in the morning. I grew to tolerate all things banana (beer, soup, with savory, deep-fried, etc) and soon overlooked the cattle that commonly mixed in (and worsened) the traffic. I submitted to my morning bucket showers and stopped hatin’ on my dalla dalla commute whether I was crammed into a van filled with 30 other sweaty people or not.

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And it didn’t take long for Tanzania to change my opinion about everything that I thought mattered in life. The orphans I spent my days with – their wide eyes and even wider smiles set against the backdrop of abject poverty – had me question the notion of happiness and contentment. The random acts of kindness I witnessed by strangers proved to me that you don’t need to give things or get things to offer something significant to someone. And the Swalini slum in which I worked altered my definition of abundance and beauty and strength and surprisingly made me feel safe and looked after.

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For all its good and bad, Arusha is pretty unavoidable if you’re going to Tanzania because it’s the hub for most safaris, Kilimanjaro, Zanzibar etc. I don’t recommend spending all your time there, but if you are in town for a few days, give it a chance and you will find something pretty incredible. If you’re willing to look closely.

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If you want more culture than what Arusha offers, you don’t have to go too far out of the city to find it. A group of us once ventured about four hours into the middle of nowhere to visit a small village of Maasai, who are known to live a very primitive, nomadic life, steeped in tradition. I remember walking towards the huts and being suddenly engulfed by  about 40+ community members dancing and singing in unison. It was one of the most surreal experiences of my life, and I remember telling myself to never forget the feeling I had as I jumped and danced around with my newfound friends.

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After greeting each one of us personally, they sat us down, washed all of our hands and gave us what I initially thought was swampy fly water, but later found out was actually tea. It looked a bit sketchy but there was no way I was going to turn it down. They were such kind hosts and the gesture was beautiful, so I thought any communicable disease that I might get from said tea, would be a fair trade-off for the experience.

After we presented them with gifts of cooking oil and maize flour, they slaughtered a goat for us, which is a pretty big deal in Maasai culture. As every inch of the goat was sliced and diced, we were then offered to drink the goat blood that they had drained from the neck, another big deal in Maasai culture. Only four of us brave (and potentially idiotic) souls did it. I don’t know why I did, but since I tend to do ridiculous things others don’t while travelling, I thought why break with tradition? I must say it was not that bad, fairly tasteless but remarkably warm.

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The Maasai are also known for brandings and various face markings, which they offered to our group, no doubt because we were down with all the other crazy shit they threw our way. I was not about to get them on my face as so many of them had, but I did allow myself to get branded on the arm…twice. It didn’t hurt that much, certainly no more than a tattoo does. Speaking of which, one of the women saw the tip of my back tattoo, so when I showed them my full back they all went NUTS. They were all up in my shirt’s bidnis, chirping and bowing and kissing my hands, calling other Maasai over to gawk at the freakish mazungo. I think they might have thought it was a branding as well and that I was one hell of a bad ass. My tattoo is a dragon but when the chief declared loudly in English “eagle”, I didn’t have the heart to disagree with him, nor the energy to try and explain what a dragon was, so I proudly said “yes” and accepted the kudos for the big ol’ bird on my back.

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If you need more adventure than goat blood, you should definitely do a safari while there. I know you can do them in a variety of countries in Africa, but I am convinced that Tanzania is the Mecca for wildlife.

The first night we camped in the Serengeti and had a few men with AK-47s patrol the camp’s perimeter because accordingly to them, the wildlife was everywhere whether we could see it or not. We didn’t know if any lions lurked about as we slept, but we did see the shadows of hyenas skulking around in the middle of the night, sniffing, breathing on our tent and yes, giggling. The next morning’s game drive allowed us to see pretty much every animal you could imagine feet from our truck…lions, elephants, zebra, monkeys, giraffes, buffalo, you name it. As we roamed the park, I couldn’t help but wonder if any of the animals I saw were inches from my face the night before, picturing me in the goat-on-a-spit-position I had witnessed weeks prior.

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Next up was Ngorongoro Crater, which was formed by a volcano that at some point collapsed in on itself and settled into what it is today. Other than the harrowing decent into the crater, it was an amazing day because we saw a family of elephants feet from our truck, lion cubs getting a bath by their mom and the elusive black rhino sipping from a pool of water. That night we camped in the crater, but because it is so damn cold there at night (something I was warned about but never quite grasped until I experienced it myself), most of us got sick. It probably didn’t help that our tent collapsed at some point during the night, but since we were all too cold and drunk to do anything about it, we slept under a deflated tent in frigid temperatures. Classic amateurs.

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The last stop was Lake Manyawa which was probably the most beautiful in terms of terrain although we saw the least amount of wildlife. We did, however, camp far away from things that could likely eat us, so the downtime at our campsite was probably my favourite.

On a separate safari I visited Tarangire, which is much closer to Arusha and much less revered. Typically done as a day trip, it was surprisingly the best safari for elephants, which I have a slight, normal, healthy huge obsession with. We saw dozens and dozens of elephants eating, bathing and hanging out together, at what I can only assume was some sort of elephant convention or family reunion.

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Needless to say, Tanzania has everything – adventure, beauty, nature and culture. By far, the most significant thing Tanzania offers though is its people. Welcoming, resilient, affable, joyous people that teach you about life and in the process, make you forget about inhaling dust and warm Fanta.

Ninakukumbuka na nakupenda Tanzania…daima na kabisa.