Archives for posts with tag: travel

From the front Passenger Seat

In the villages of Northern Tanzania, there is a certain Victorian courtliness that is very gradually changing regarding women and their place in the order of things.  I have tried to be respectful of that even as I chafe a little over it.  This order to protocol means that I am served with the men even as other women who have labored over wood fires to prepare meals serve us but do not sit with us for meals.  Another way this gets lived out is that when we are being driven somewhere and I am the only woman in a group,  I get the front seat!!  Since the roads were established for vehicles by the British, driving is more or less on the left hand side of the road and the front passenger seat is on the left side.

Riding in the front passenger seat is an adventure, not for the faint-hearted or anyone who suffers from the slightest motion sickness.  The day a bus was passing a bus and heading straight towards our Land Rover, seeming to accelerate, was the day I broke my habit of shrieking and or gasping when I feel in imminent danger.   I am mesmerized as this game of chicken is played out among 3 big vehicles, two buses and a Land Rover.  In addition, the motor-bikes with the colorful name of piki-piki, weave in and out and around both sides.  Ultimately, Amon our driver brakes, swerves and grunts,  the east-bound bus slows and the passing bus accelerates.  Over our frequent trips on the only tarmac road, I learn this happens at least two or three times each trip to the nearest city and it is why we have a driver.

The Moshi-Arusha road links with the paved road which connects major cities in Tanzania.  These roads are part of the infra-structure deficits that Tanzania struggles with.  The road was paved in the 1950’s and the number of vehicles has escalated dramatically in recent years.  Cars, buses, 4-wheel drive vehicles of all sizes, tractor trailer trucks(lorries-as they are known here), piki-piki and mini-vans which serve as the local transport all crowd the narrow two lane paved road.  The railroads are non-functional and air transport is extremely limited so commerce is severely restricted by this inadequate network of getting goods to market.  I have admired the avocados we are served regularly.  It is a treat for this Mid-westerner to eat avocado straight from the tree.  It is a fruit that grows well in the region.  When  I ask if they are exported to Europe or Northern European markets,  I am told that it is too expensive, difficult, and time-consuming to get the crop to the nearest port.  Once there,  refrigerated container ships are also in short  supply.  So, the short answer is, no not yet,  are they able to sell their abundant produce to more lucrative markets.  The same is true for the mangos, papaya and passion fruit that flourish here.  It is a great irony when we are served expensive boxed fruit juice packaged in South Africa while we sit in the shade of the mango tree.

Another view from the front seat is when we are not on the tarmac road, none the less harrowing, but a whole new set of hazards.  Vehicles are less common except for the local van/taxis,  dala-dalas, and the motor-bike piki-pikis.  Also, on the unpaved side roads are hand pushed wooden carts,  goats, cattle,  women carrying forage and water,  donkeys bearing water cans, children in uniforms going to and from schools.  From the front seat you can also see all the ruts, rock and hazards as the driver winds his way around obstacles, constantly changing direction based on the depth of the ruts or holes or size of rocks.   A major hazard on the dirt roads that form the majority of roads in the country are the village markets  as people carrying produce, charcoal, firewood, chickens, used clothing on their backs, their heads or on overloaded bicycles must also be negotiated.  Add to this lively mixture the incline of the mountain or the dried up stream beds of the south,  mix in clouds of dust and temperatures in the mid-90’s and you’ve got the picture!!  In our vehicle there is a handle on the dashboard for staying in your seat as you bounce along.  Sometimes the dust is so thick that the driver must slow down to see at all.  The driver is very skillful as he calculates the best route around all the hazards.

Most roads started out as either footpaths between farms or animal paths as they were driven to market.  Over time, as the communities have grown there have been attempts to widen and grade the roads  but the shape of the mountains, the path of the mountain streams and the long standing shambas make for a narrow meandering journey.  When your destination is announced it is always  stated in the amount of time it takes to make the trip, never the distance.  A journey of only 20 kilometers can take well over an hour if it is up the mountain or in a remote place on the plains.

Today’s journey is to a parish in the far eastern district of the Diocese.  It is drought stricken, de-foliated,  and very poor.  An off-shoot of the Maasai tribe has become agricultural, tending it’s animals while trying to eke out a living from the land.  The drive begins on the tarmac road which early on a Sunday morning is relatively hazard free.  We are driving East and Mt. Kilimanjaro is clearly visible from the front seat.  After 15 km or so,  we turn left and head up the mountain on the unpaved road.  I have been here a while since I don’t think too much about it as we bounce along,  weaving from one side of
the road to the other to find the best ruts to follow.  Five or six km up the mountain we turn east again onto a cow path strewn with rocks.  This actually is not too bad since there is little traffic, except for the occasional piki-piki or wooden push-cart.  As we approach the church,  we find more people walking along the path.  If there had been any doubt about our presence it vanishes when Amon downshifts and we climb the hill to the church yard.  There is a great deal of maneuvering of people and vehicle to park in the shade.  Aside from the Land Rover the only other vehicles are a piki-piki and one pick-up truck.  98% of the parishoners walk to church.

After church, it’s back to the front seat for me.  The ride is down- hill now but there are a few added stops so it is not a reverse journey.    Amon,  leaves the track and suddenly, I am thrown forward as we dip into a deep shale sided ravine.  I hang on and shortly we are climbing the other side of the ravine.  Once we level out and I loosen my grip on the handle,  we are still bouncing through rocks and brush.  Our translator and escort observes from the back seat, “ I think Amon just took a short cut.”  Back on the wider, unpaved road,  we pass a bus going the other direction.  The dust blinds us for a minute but Amon is near home, he does not even slow down.  Further down the road a car is coming straight towards us with no attempt to move to the side.  Amon slows to a crawl,  he knows this car is driven by an alcoholic.  Eventually,  we arrive at our next stop.

Some time later we make one more stop on the unpaved road.  By this time my hair is thick with dust,  and I am on the sun side of the vehicle.  The alternative to dust is to roll up the window and there is no air conditioning.  So,  after some more swerves and bumps,  we return to the tarmac road.  Now,  there is much more traffic.

Amon pulls out to overtake a slow moving car and decides to take on the truck that is ahead of that.  Over the rise comes an oncoming dala-dala,  the local van/bus,  overloaded with people, the roof piled high with baskets,  bed-rolls,  bananas and bags of maize.  Who will give way?  Despite having some experience with this,  my stomach knots,  my grip tightens.  The dala-dala slows,  Amon speeds up and we pull into the left lane where we belong.

When we return to Usa River the unpaved road in this growing community is as bad as any we have been on.  A large truck is stopped on one side of the road.  A crowd of men are on the opposite side  pushing a car out of the ditch as we thread our way through to lurch up the road to the guest house.

Riding in the front seat is symbolic of life here in Tanzania.  It is thrilling, exhausting,  beautiful, dangerous,  physically hard,  sometimes fast, more often slow, bumpy, and sometimes difficult.  But with the help of others we reach our goal safely and together.  I pray that it might be so for these people who have become friends.


A Walk through Usa River

Usa River is a town in the Meru district of Tanzania,  East Africa.  It is a growing place with lots of new building.  It is also the homMe of the offices of the Diocese of Meru of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tanzania.  Walt and I arrived here Wed. night.  Yesterday passed with some brief official visits and a trip to Arusha to exchange money and check out what Shop-Rite has to offer European and American shoppers.

Today,  I feel we are truly beginning our stay.  Walt is off to a coffee auction with Emil Nanyaro in Moshi.  I chose to stay behind,  nurse my cold and get acclimated.  Our hostess,  Mama  Kyara,  had been prepared for my request.  I wanted to take a walk.  We knew from previous trips that it was not recommended for us to walk around by ourselves.  Because we are staying for six weeks on this trip, we had requested someone to accompany us on a daily walk.  Joseph the security guard, was assigned to this duty.  Joseph is a small man who seems to spend a lot of time in a hut near the gate to the guest house.  But he was very gracious about taking this aging American woman for a walk.  We set out on the dirt path/road that towns and villages are defined by.  Generally, there is one paved road in Tanzania that connects cities and important commerce routes.  In the villages and towns, the dirt paths  have been widened to accommodate  cars, trucks, motor-bikes,   Honda motorcycles,  push-carts and pedestrians.  There has been just enough rain here to harden the ruts into deep ridges.  Even our hosts say it is a hot time of year.  By 9:30 in the morning it was already over 90 degrees so it was time for me to get this walk in. Joseph and I set off, attempting to talk with his few words of English and my even fewer  words of Kiswahili.  The dust swirled around us.  I walked carefully, over rocks and into ruts.  Joseph seemed pleased with the change in his routine.  I was pleased to be out and to walk after 3 days of traveling.  The flowers are in bloom here and I wish I knew more names.  Bougainvilea,  bird of paradise,  a yellow flower that is quite common all border the dusty road.   The heat,  the lush greens and colorful flowers,  the roosters crowing and the barking dogs define tropical for me.

We had been walking about 5 minutes when it became apparent how exotic it is to take a walk for the exercise.  Everyone we passed had a very specific purpose for being on the road.  In past visits,  we have visited homes that are also small farms (less than ¼ acre),  but here in town,  everyone has animals,  is growing food and may have a small shop open too.  There are open channels that disburse the water of Usa River throughout the village.  Unfortunately,  the garbage also finds it’s way to the channels .  One discouraging mark of “development”  are the plastic bags littering the roadsides.  A cow grazes in amongst the garbage.    We passed some primary schools but our limited language didn’t allow for more information.  There are some signs, mostly hand lettered to identify places of business but not at one place that Joseph says is a school but it is walled and gated.  A private school I imagine.  Most people are outside.  Finding what shade they can.  Many are working the fields,  a few are in the shops. We pass a young man walking uphill pushing the roughhewn wooden carts that are common for transporting heavy loads.  This cart is filled with several 5 gallon buckets filled with water.  He passes us when his heavy load pulls him downhill.    In another yard a woman is collecting eggs.  Soon we have come to fish farms and rice paddies. This may be the edge of town where there are actual small fields but there are new houses under construction here too.     Something is going on in the fields but I am not a farmer.  Does anyone know if they are harvesting or planting?  The fields are flooded.

Many people greet Joseph.  I am certainly a curiosity but they are smiling and friendly  Mzungu, mzungu pepper their greetings.   What I have seen is a people who must work very hard to live.  They must grow their own food,  carry water,  get their children to school and find a way to earn some cash.  They do all this without what we consider necessity,  indoor plumbing, clean running water,  reliable inexpensive electricity,  easy transportation.    We sometimes are irritated by the pace of getting things done here but I am humbled by this glimpse of how industrious people are in tending to the necessities of life.  Asante sana Joseph!!



Little by little our baskets are filled,  is the rough translation of a Swahili phrase.  As we prepare to spend the next six weeks with our friends in Meru,  we have so many hopes and expectations.  Will we be prepared?  How will we be received?  What will we forget to take,  to do?  Who will we meet?  Who will we miss? Will our meetings be fruitful?  Will anything change or improve because we have asked the questions or listened to the answers?

Is this so different from any other year?  Do we always have hopes and expectations?  Some years bring more than I could ever wish for,  exceed my expectations. Other years I am glad that I did not know what they would bring for I would have been fearful.  Yet, here we are on the cusp of new possibilities,  with so many hopes and a few dreams.  We will only realize the hopes and dreams with patience and a day at a time.  As my Swahili translator says,  little by little.  So little by little I tackle my mental lists,  little by little we enter into the unknown, carrying the connections of all of you who support us, encourage us and wait for us to return.

So now,  should I pay my  January bills, do another load of laundry, finish putting Christmas away, write a position paper,  summarize a partnership, make a shopping list, clear off my desk?  Yes,  one of those so that kidogo, kidogo hujaza kibaba.