Tanzania was my first glimpse into the immense and mysterious continent of Africa. In many ways, it was exactly how I imagined and in many ways it wasn’t.
I was twenty-one years old when I visited Tanzania, and I visited with a bunch of other nineteen/young twenty year olds. I still remember that very first night when we landed in Kilimanjaro airport. My classmates and I had just spend about twenty-four hours on several planes from New York to Amsterdam to Arusha and finally to Kilimanjaro. But as exhausted as we were, we were also ECSTATIC.
Nothing can describe the sense of awe I felt when I first stepped off that plane and felt the warm midnight air. Glancing to my left, I saw the silhouette of an acacia tree for the first time. It looked just like the ones on National Geographics. It was surreal.
Soon we were picked up on a mini bus to our first destination, a school located in a small town called Moshi. Moshi was a tropical town located not too far from Kilimanjaro. The climate was warm and humid, but cold in the mornings. There were a lot of banana trees growing everywhere. We stayed at a school that our university had a partnership with for ten days.
We took Swahili lessons, got to know the staff, and spent time with the orphans in the school. It was suppose to be a time of total cultural immersion. But to be completely honest the world inside of our compound and the world outside were very different. Inside our compound, we had electricity, hot meals, warm beds, mosquito nets, fresh drinking water, and hot (well sometimes) showers. Outside however, people had to walk miles to our compound everyday to get clean water, and any type of contact with the outside world. Needless to say, I think we all understood what the word “privilege” meant a lot more after that.
My favorite memories of our ten days in Moshi include the walks we took around town with the children in our school, the walks we took as a group through the hills by ourselves, the many cups of chai tea and toast with plum jam we ate every morning, learning to make batik art from the school staff, and of course the trek to the first level of Mount Kilimanjaro, afterall it was the tallest mountain in all of Africa!
During our second week in Tanzania, we stayed at a hotel in Arusha, the second largest city in the country after Dar es Salaam. Now this was a completely different experience from Moshi. Arusha was a city, a small city but very busy. Tourism was gaining foot and everywhere we went we were bombarded by touts. They would wait outside our hotel and come up to us as soon as they saw us. We didn’t feel any animosity from these sellers, but after a few days it grew tiring to fend off people every time we went out. Most of the time, if we didn’t have anywhere to go we spend our time exploring our hotel. This included sneaking up onto the hotel rooftop, peeking into unused hotel rooms, checking out random storage closets, drinking at the bar, and of course hanging by the pool. As a result, we learned a lot about the people who were in the hotel with us. If you were in Arusha you were either:
a) on an international business trip
b) in the medical field training in a health program
c) a journalist writing international news
d) a filmmaker shooting some kind of documentary
e) here to climb Kilimanjaro
f) a Christian missionary
g) in a secret affair (true story)
h) studying abroad
And that pretty much summarized our week there.
In our third week in Tanzania, we traveled west to a tiny town called Mtu Wa Mbu, which translates to River of Mosquitoes. Not a very appealing name for a tourist destination but actually the mosquitoes were not too bad there. The reason why we there though was because it was where our professor had spent decades studying the pastoral group called the Masaai. And because of that we had the privilege to meet and stay with some of them overnight in their compounds, which are usually closed off to any non-Masaai members.
The Masaai are a group of semi-nomadic people who are indigenous to northern Tanzania and southern Kenya. Traditionally they are pastoralists who herd goats and live off of their milk. In exchange for their hospitality we brought them a few pounds of beans, rice, and sugar. They welcomed us with handcrafted jewelry as gifts and the children helped us carry our bags. At night, over an open fire we shared a meal with chai tea and goats’ milk, and they shared with us stories about their families, their struggles to keep traditions alive for their children, and the pressure they are facing from the Tanzania government to conform. They shared with us about how they felt about the world that’s quickly changing around them, and they asked us many, many questions about our lives. The night ended with them dancing for us and then us joining them under the very bright moon. It was a very special night, a night that I will never forget.
During our fourth and final week we visited the Serengeti National Park, the moment that we’ve all been waiting for. If you don’t think of the Lion King when I say this, you are lying. This park was not park. It was an open grassland with animals in their natural habitat. I don’t really know how else to describe it other than that it was like stepping into the Lion King.
I can try my best to describe to you, but I think I will just let the pictures do the talking.
A personal favorite memory of mine fro
m this part of the trip would be the night we camped at the park. We slept in tents under the open sky with no fences or nothing to protect us, well except a guard with an AK-47. We asked him what he was going to protect us from and he replied, “The monkeys from stealing the food”. Then we were told that at night the coyotes like to wander in and sniff around our tents. Now I don’t know how true that was, but I made my roommate go to the bathroom with me in the middle of the night, and when we heard a noise outside the bathroom we almost peed in our pants.
Tanzania was truly a special place and one that I will never forget. People often say that Africa changes you, and I can definitely say this was true for me. It was where I learned how little I knew about our world, how similar people are to each other no matter how different we looked, and how really there is no limit to where you can go.