Hiking Around Mbeya


Friday, June 7 through Monday, June 10

Mbeya, Tanzania:  The Karibuni Center


    We're on our own again, and about to embark on our first attempt at travel by public transport.  Yussuf and Mr. Mosha took us to the Iringa bus station, purchased our tickets for us, put our luggage in the office, and left us to eat lunch and wait for the bus.  The bus was supposed to leave at 2:30, and the ride should take about four hours.  We figured this was perfect; we had been warned, by one of my students from Africa, not to travel at night, so we figured we'd get in right before sunset.  As we're waiting in the very small bus company office, a Tanzanian guy comes up and asks where we're from.  We tell him, and when I tell him I'm from the U.S., he immediately asks if I'm an American Jew.  I tell him that I am, and wonder nervously where this is going to go.  Somewhat to my surprise, he tells us that the Tanzanians love the Jews, that he's an Evangelist, and he embarks on a long and rambling, but incredibly energetic, sermon on race relations, multi-national corporations and the wages that they pay local people, and the value of hard work, among other seemingly unrelated topics.  Unfortunately, the bus was about an hour and a half late, and we were a captive audience.   Emanuel had just purchased a very large floor mat made of a thick grass, and using a razor blade, cut us each a small piece of the mat, about three inches square, so we would have something to remember him by (not that we were likely to forget any time soon).  We tucked the mat squares into our packs, and every so often we would come across them, remember Emanuel, and laugh for a long time.


    The bus finally arrived; Emanuel escorted us on, and made sure that we got what he thought were the best seats:  right behind the driver.  The first couple hours were uneventful.  We entertained ourselves by looking out the window and watching a bad West African music video over and over again.  Rest stops, we found, took too long if we stopped where there were facilities, so most busses just stop on the side of the road.  Our bus was following another, and the two stopped at the same time.  To keep some semblance of order, as we jumped off the bus, the conductor directed men to the bush on the left and women to the bush on the right.


    As it started to get dark, we noticed between the dirt on the windshield and the glare, there was no way the driver could see where he was going.  Luckily, there were not a tremendous number of vehicles on the road, but there were tons of people walking and riding bikes on the sides of the road.  All of a sudden, we heard a crash and could see that the driver had hit a pushcart and knocked the wheel off it.  We traveled a little further and stopped.  The conductor jumped out to survey damage to the bus (not to the pushcart or anyone around), determined that it was OK, and we moved on.  Not too much later, when we stopped to let some passengers off, we noticed a large crowd on the side of the road.  When we looked more closely, we could see a teenage boy with his hands tied behind  his back, and the crowd was beating him.  We later read that vigilante justice, especially when theft is involved, is a rising problem in Tanzania.  By now, we were ready to get off the bus.


A popular, and accurate, bumpersticker



    We arrived in Mbeya after dark, finding the bus station crowded and chaotic.  We jumped in a cab, and headed for The Karibuni Center, part of a Lutheran mission, which had come highly recommended by the Lonely Planet. Not only did our room have down comforters on the bed, we had our own bathroom with a hot shower, and a small, comfortable sitting area right outside our room.  All this for about $6.  The only problem was that we had missed dinner.  The night watchman dug up a loaf of bread for us, and offered us beer, which we gladly accepted.  Only later did we find out that every time we asked for a beer, he had been running down the street to the local store to get it for us.


Interesting person, critter, or bug:  Emanuel the Evangelist



    The next morning we discovered that not only are the Lutherans excellent hoteliers, they are also excellent cooks.  Breakfast, for a dollar each, included toast and jam, tea or real coffee (oddly enough, instant is pervasive in Tanzania, even in the areas where coffee is grown), and eggs cooked very dry, just the way I like them.


   Mbeya is a small city with no real tourist attractions to speak of, but is recommended for some good hiking in the area.   Our first day, we decide to hike on Mt. Katuwe, located directly behind the city.  Mbeya sits just below 6000 feet and has a delightful climate:  warm and sunny during the day, cool and crisp at night.  The guidebook tells us the trail starts just beyond the hospital, but not much more than that.  We can see the top (at about 8700 feet) because there is a large antenna on top; we figure it can't be too hard to find.


         Our first day out on our own, we were overwhelmed by the friendliness of the local people and by their interest in us.  On our way up, we run into loads of school boys (it's a Saturday) who greet us, mostly in English, ask us where we're from, and want to hear our feeble attempt at Swahili.  Quite a few of these boys are wearing clothes with names of North American sports teams.  I see one boy wearing a T-shirt with Georgetown, my alma mater, on it.  I say something to him about Georgetown.  He looks at me blankly.  I point to the logo on the shirt.  He continues to look at me blankly.  I then make what I think is the international hand signal for basketball -- dribble and shoot, dribble and shoot -- while saying Georgetown over and over again.  Now he looks at me like I'm crazy.  Finally, I get it.  All of the clothes sold in Tanzania are used, mostly from North America, Europe, and Australia, and no one even looks at the sayings or logos that are on the vast majority of these shirts.  Throughout the trip, this point is driven home over and over again.  Among many others, we see a guy wearing an Arthur Anderson shirt, and another one with a T-shirt from Family Fun Day at some Jewish Community Center on Long Island.


    We ask directions of a young woman, and as I approach her, the baby on her back lets out a wail.  Through much gesturing and pointing, we determine that, in fact, we're the first white people that the baby has seen, and he's scared of us.  I back off, and he seems to calm down. 


    We see barefoot old women carrying bundles of firewood on their heads up the side of the mountain.  We're in awe of the weight that the people, especially the women and even little girls, are able to balance on their heads.   


    After a long walk up and down, we head into to town for a bite to eat and stumble upon a little Indian restaurant that serves some of the best samosas that we'll have all summer.


    Over a delicious pizza dinner back at the Karibuni Center, we meet some interesting travelers.  There's  a German woman who is living in Tanzania working as a dairy consultant in a local village.  Not only is she teaching the farmers how to create dairy products and how to store and transport them safely, she's also working with them to create a market for the products because currently most Africans do not consume much dairy.  She's recently moved to Tanzania after spending about five years doing similar work in Papua New Guinea.  She's brought her dog, a dingo that she domesticated in Papua, and is hoping to also bring over her 15 year old son that she adopted there.  We also meet three Canadian college students who have recently finished a summer program studying and working in Malawi and are doing a whirlwind tour of Zanzibar and Tanzania before heading home.  On their program, they lived with Malawian families.  One girl lived with the chief in the village.  On the first day, he told her that he'd teach her all the Chichewa she'd need for her stay.  The words he taught her included spoon, pot, water, and broom, and that was about it.  He also tried to marry her off to most of the men in town.  The last person that we met was a Canadian guy traveling on his own.  He'd recently arrived from Dar Es Salaam where he'd been robbed.  Five guys approached him, told him that they were police officers, and pushed him into a car. They took him to a deserted area where they roughed him up a little bit and stole $300 from him.  Although we'd felt very comfortable in Dar, we were a little concerned when we heard his story.


Swahili word of the day:  Piri-piri manga (black pepper)      


Ngozi Crater Lake Randy and Happy The Mbozi Meteorite


    On Sunday, our plan was to hike to the Ngozi Crater Lake.  Before heading out of town to where the hike would start, we stopped off at the main bus station to organize our trip to Malawi.  When we asked where we could find the dalla dalla (mini-bus) to take to where the hike started, we were told that we should not go without a guide, and of course, the bearer of this information just happened to work as a guide.  So we set off with our new guide, Happy.  Our first dalla dalla experience was relatively uneventful.  While crowded, we still had room to breathe, didn't have to sit on any luggage or have any luggage sit on us, and didn't really have too far to go.  The hike was beautiful, through rainforest, to a deep blue crater lake. 


Faux Pas of the Day:  Back at the Indian restaurant (now our favorite), Randy, who had been reluctant to try any Swahili, decided to give it a try.  The waiter sneezed, and Randy, attempting to say "afya" (God bless you), came out with "asante" (thank you).  The waiter was confused.


     Since the direct bus to Malawi didn't leave until Tuesday, we had one more day in the Mbeya area.  Happy suggested that we take a trip out to see the Mbozi meteorite -- the fourth largest meteorite in the world -- described by the Lonely Planet as "one of Tanzania's more arcane attractions, and is seldom visited by travelers."  It also said that you will need your own vehicle to get there.  Happy, though, said we could take a dalla dalla and then walk from the road.  We decided we'd give it a try.


    We got up early to begin our trek out to see the meteorite.  First we had to take a dalla dalla about 65 kilometers south of Mbeya, fairly close to the border with Zambia.  The driver put us in the front seat, which was a real luxury.  He later asked us for a few shillings, but we figured it was the price we had to pay for the first class seating.  Another plus of sitting in the front seat was being able to hear the radio.  Up to this point the soundtrack to our trip was pretty much all Bob Marley , which suited the setting well, when all of a sudden we heard:  "Oops, I did it again," and there it was --  Britney Spears on Radio Free Africa.  No matter how far you go, there are some things you just can't get away from.


    We get dropped off and start walking down a dirt road.  Happy tells us that it's about a five mile walk each way.  The road is very pleasant, passing through some small villages and by quite a few schools.  Everyone greets us, and Happy teaches us some alternative responses, so we have something other than "Jambo" to say.  After a couple of hours, we ask how far it is.  Happy admits that he's never walked to the meteorite before, but it shouldn't be too much longer.   (Happy, by the way, was about six foot five and was taking one step for every three of mine.) We carried on.  A couple  hours later, we could see that even Happy was a little worried, and he started asking people how far it was.  We asked one guy if it was near.  He said yes.  Concerned that he did not really understand English, I then asked him if it was very far.  He said yes also.


    After about four hours, and probably about eight or nine miles, we reach the meteorite, which we'd read weighs approximately 25 metric tons.  I had visions of a gigantic, house-sized rock.  Instead, it was maybe fifteen feet long, and made mostly of iron, which accounted for the weight.  That we were disappointed was an understatement.  That there were no cold drinks for sale anywhere on this road or at the meteorite site was an even greater disappointment.  After about 20 minutes of admiring the meteorite, mostly for the benefit of the very friendly and solicitous caretakers, we started the journey back.  To his credit, Happy took us on a different route, off the road and on small paths winding through farmland.  


    On the dalla dalla ride back the woman in front of us had bought a bag of fresh, delicious peanuts and shared them with us and the rest of the people seated around us.  We occupied the ride back eating peanuts and passing the shells from person to person and throwing them out the windows.


Low point of the day:  Although the day was comfortable, the sun at the equator is deceptively strong; I ended up with a nasty case of sunstroke and crawled in bed for the night at about 6:30.




Copyright © Mimi Samuel 2002
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