Off The Beaten Path - 12/20/00

Kilimanjaro, white sand beaches, Safari - we'd had the quintessential East Africa experience and enjoyed every minute of it. But then we were ready for something different. We followed up on a tip from Simon, “the vicemaster”, and hired a guide to take us hiking in the Mt. Meru foothills. Two weeks on the beach can really cause havoc with one's physical fitness. We're sweating, huffing and puffing, while eight-year old village boys are passing us on the steep slope while carrying heavy sacks of grain on their heads. Damn show offs.

Its amazing how quickly the scenery changes once outside of the city. We were in Warusha tribal land with rounded mud huts, fields of corn, and a little bit of jungle. We were constantly greeted with childrens' shouts of "Mzungu!" (white person) and my favorite "Good morning Teacher!" (independent of time of day). The children followed us everywhere, and I'm sure they were very impressed with my ability to count to 10 in Swahili. We covered a lot of territory and were sufficiently exhausted by the end of the hike. It was good practice for what was to come.

We had discussed doing a trekking safari - but then we saw the prices. We found out about a new program of cultural tours designed to give tourists a glimpse of village life, and the money paid goes directly to the village for any project of their choice. We decided to try the new Barbaig program. The Barbaig are a tribe of semi-nomadic people still living their traditional lifestyle near Mt. Hanang (i.e. in the middle of nowhere).

Getting there was half the battle. Our bus ride was the definitive study on the compressibility of the human body. The buses in Africa are NEVER full; a 100 seat bus can easily hold 200. Combined with the rough road, it was our toughest journey yet. And we were only half way there! We stopped in a town called Babati and met the program coordinator, Joas. We hiked to Lake Babati and met some fisherman who took us out onto the hippo-infested lake in their dugout canoe. The local fishing technique is very interesting. First the fishermen lay a net. Then a large wood plunger is used to scare the fish into the net as well as to soak and muddy the tourist. Next, the world's smallest fish is caught and gets added to the pile at the tourist's feet. Finally the tourist is brought back to shore due to balance/water/hippo issues. It was pretty fun!

We then boarded the bus to the small town of Katesh with our guide Hamade. The road was even rougher and the 70km ride took four and a half hours. In Katesh we were greeted by our second guide Samuel who was very nice to his weary travelers. The next day the four of us set off on a 20km hike into the bush for our stay at the Barbaig village, Dirma. Neither Geoff nor I knew what to expect.

Downtown Dirma is three rough stone shops. There's not a house in sight and we soon found out why. The Barbaig live in the bush and the bush is a dangerous place for cattle (lions, hyaenas, etc.). So the Barbaig live in bomas, an enclosure made from cut thorn bushes. It makes great camouflage too, which is why we couldn't see any from the road.

We were to stay in the home of Mr. Gafachu, a schoolteacher and village elder. There were three homes inside the boma, one for Mr. Gafachu and one for each of his two wives (yes). The homes were made from sticks and mud with thatched grass roofs. The poor second wife shared half her house with the goats. We stayed in the first wife's house (which was also the kitchen) on a bed of sticks covered with goatskin. A true adventure!

Things started out a little akward; nobody knew what to say to each other and the children just stared. We spent the afternoon visiting the neighboring bomas. At the first one we went to, the men put on a mock fight for us. It felt a bit staged and strange. Then my brilliant husband suggested a two-way question and answer session. What fun!

The villagers had no idea what life outside Dirma was like. Most of their questions centered on how we keep our cattle. Cattle is the most important thing to the Barbaig and it's their form of wealth. I'm sure we have thoroughly misrepresented the cattle raising process in the US, but for two city kids, we tried our best. The other important thing for them is water. Currently, the women have to walk 8km to fetch drinking water! A project to bring water was started, but somebody ran off with the money. Education is a distant priority as most of the people do not have an income and cannot afford the school fees (public school is not free).

It was a very educational afternoon for us as we began learning about Barbaig customs. We learned that men pay the dowries for their brides (hah!), female circumcision still takes place, they bury their dead sitting upright, women do all the work, and killing a lion will get you the babes. We also watched our dinner (chicken) being purchased and slaughtered. Luckily, that had to be done by Hamade, a Muslim. Otherwise they probably would have made us do it – they couldn't believe that we've never killed our own food or even seen it done.

I like to think it was also educational for them. They were most amused to learn that Geoff does the cooking - it practically made them blush! The globe we brought for the primary school was received with fascination. They also learned that there are black people in America, there is no dowry, you cannot force a woman to marry, and my favorite "You mean the snow falls from the SKY!?!" (from someone who had seen pictures of snow covered places on a TV).

Back at the boma of our host, a special honor was in store for us. They brewed 20 liters of honey-beer in preparation for our visit. All the village elder men came to drink, and so as not to offend our hosts, we drank too. After a couple of glasses you lose the fear of what you're drinking. It was a doubley special honor for me, since women aren't normally allowed to drink or hang out with the men. After a few cow horns of brew, the men began singing for us. It was wonderful chanting music honoring their ancestors accompanied by rhythmic snapping, tapping, and clapping. It was fantastic.

The trip turned out to be a lot of fun. Geoff played drums for the family, the kids really warmed up and 11-year-old Charles wouldn't leave my side. Even sleeping in the hut was much more comfortable than I ever thought possible. The hike out was long and the bus ride to Arusha was even longer (the 5 hour ride took 10 due to heavy rains turning roads into rivers), but the bus was quite a sight! Accompanying our backpack on the roof were three chicken coops (with chickens), two dozen chickens (without coops), bales of tobacco, sacks of maize, and a goat (oh, I wish I had a picture of the goat loading!). I am continually impressed with the resourcefulness of the African people.

We went straight to Nairobi, Kenya (map), where we spoiled ourselves with luxuries like "Charlie's Angles", fajitas, and toilet seats before catching our flight to India. On to Bombay!

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Maasai market in Maduli village

Geoff gets way off the beaten track

Maasai women

Lisa's loyal following

A village home on Mt. Meru

Geoff goes fishing

The Barbaig put on a show

Barbaig woman

Hamade prepares lunch

Preparing ugali, an East African staple made from maize

Our host family in Dirma

The local honey brew, made especially for our visit (uh oh)

Serenaded by the village elders (post honey brew)

Dung beetles - just like a nature show!

Saying good-bye to our friends at the boma

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