At the age of 18, I took my first long bus trip 600 km from the northeast highlands of Tanzania to the coast. Without enough money I couldn’t afford a seat, but for a village boy being on the bus traveling to an unknown place, all I could feel was adrenaline from the adventure. Every single kilometer was breathtaking for me. The Pare and Usambara mountains have a slight valley division in between them that became my geographical highlight for the trip. These green mountains, which I later came to learn, are known as ‘Arch Mountains,’ a chain of mountains that start from Taita on the Kenyan side and wander across Tanzania from Pare, Usambara, Uluguru, Udzungwa and give way to lake Nyasa/Malawi. It is said that they are older than the world-famous Kilimanjaro and Mt. Kenya, comprising of endemic species which are still being discovered.
I have had a few chances to visit these mountains and it is an adventure to go to these mountains by bus, but I find that the people who are living there are still, to some extent, hiking up and down the mountain and through the valleys, rivers and forest. So what I thought was extreme adventure to hike Mt. Klili or Meru is just daily life for these folks.
Four days before the end of 2012, the chance to hike the Usambara mountains materialized. With two other friends, we set off from Arusha. About a four hour bus ride took us to a place called Same. Same is a small town in the foothills of the Pare mountains. Our original destination was Mnazi in the foothill of both Pare and Usambara mountains. We had planned to take a bus to Same and then drive behind the mountains into Mkomazi valley. We thought that would reward us with the opportunity to observe the wildlife while traveling along the boundary of Mkomazi National Park. Unfortunately there was no bus till evening hours so we didn’t get to Mnazi.
The challenge of traveling this way is dealing with the tiresome local processes. The bus ride itself is an adventure which requires lots of patience and flexibility. Getting the right and reliable information is difficult because there is always a bunch of middlemen who want to overcharge you for tickets. First they claimed that the bus would take us to our destination in Mnazi, but after paying another guy came in to say that the bus would not reach there but instead somewhere close. One of the strangest things I have come across is the way people have lost the value of being honest. The middleman overcharged us and I knew this because I asked the fellow passenger how much he paid and he wouldn’t tell me. I think he was scared by the threat of the middleman who was cooperating with those working for the bus. This was the same for the bus that serviced the small towns and villages. The middleman squeezed passengers together to seat six where there are supposed to be five. I thought about this situation since people pay more than enough, but the irony is that while their own people steal from them and treat them harshly, they also transport them with little safety. The system which is used here is the same that was used in colonial times. Those who have little knowledge and sense of ownership threaten the people. Centuries of a system that breaks the collectiveness of the community has very visible results today. It is frustrating to see how people have a lack of courage, confidence, dignity, respect and self-worth. Lack of necessities and insecurity keeps this vengeance cycle.
We squeezed together with others who also have little option and we got to Kihurio the village in the valley dividing Pare and Usamabra mountains. Between here and our destination is about 30 kilometers of shrub plains. The only option of transportation was motorcycle or sand/stone truck. We hop in the truck with me sitting on the top absorbing the clear blue sky to the horizon of undulating mountains above lush green bushes. The road is bumpy and sandy with acacia branches overhanging . On the way we pick up villagers who walk 12 to 15 km from the mountains to the market in the plains or farms . These people are not used to the vehicle. Before we get to Mnazi strong winds break from the mountains, fifteen minutes later warm rain washes out the dust.
Mnazi is on the foothill of Usambara mountains named after the coconut plant which stands tall and proud into rice paddies. We had coconut rice with beans in the street stalls served by a quite happy mama. At night it was less hot and humid after the rain. Frogs, crickets, bats and mosquitos sing us into a deep sleep before we are awoken by the muezzin arguing that ‘Allah is Great’ so everyone should wake up to praise him.
After a breakfast of strong tea and chapatti, we set off to tackle the mountain in front of us. The day before we asked for information and a route, which I had previously assumed existed. Locals claimed that to get to Lushoto, the town in the middle of mountains, by foot will be very difficult. It is the light rain season so the river may be flooded, and secondly, it is steep and the path to it too complicated. The good thing here was that the information varied: some was encouraging, while some was discouraging. The hike started like any other kind of hike on a tropical mountain, from savannah vegetation changing to more dense mountain forest. There are a few indigenous trees remaining, but locals are desperate for fire wood, charcoal and fertile land for farming. Farming is done without any precautions, farmers are farming in the steep slope of the mountain without contours which means all the fertile soil it washed down when rain comes, or is blown by wind in the dry season.
The panoramic view grew more stunning as we hiked higher and higher. There are still plenty of birds. Diversity of other wildlife has gone with population growth and only remain in the small forest reserve. On the way we encounter several villagers most with catapults/sling-shots for hunting birds. One of them, who I interviewed, claimed to have killed 100 birds so far.
The hike was so exciting that although you feel your physical limitations your mind is arguing to push a little bit more. The environment is so calm with only the noise of the water in the river, birds and roosters. The true, humble and genuine characters of the people, which is expressed through greetings, welcomeness and smiles, was overwhelming and emotional but inspiring. At midday in the village of Mbaramo we were given a warm welcome though we were total strangers. A big plate of rice, Saladin and vegetables was made for us. Locals look upon us as young heroes who leave the comfort of the city to embrace their life, which is considered as primitive and backwards even by their young folks, who have abandoned all and disappeared into the urban world. This also happened again in the other village where we overnighted. My friend was offered a bed while I pitched my tent in the back yard.
The pressing issues for me in these villages were:
Environment degradation, which is due to the lack of knowledge and requirements such as the need of energy. A certain percentage of forest and indigenous vegetation still exists and this is the natural ecology which has sustained life here for centuries. Farming and other activities still rely highly on nature. There are so many wild fruits. At some points I saw that locals do little to attend to some of their crops such as Banana. They seem to leave nature to take care. There is no alternative energy so trees are disappearing. Farming into the steep slope without contour in some places is just lack of knowledge, while in other places it is just irresponsible and avoidance of hard work. The existence of natural forest and other natural vegetation is due to huge respect which these people have for nature. Despite the fact that missionaries and other religious agents have been converting these people to their Gods and condemning local beliefs, there is still remnants of local belief. In the riverine forest, in the overhanging rocks and cliffs and deep into forest there are shrines. The shrines are sacred places for these people. These places are out into nature, which indicates the respect of the nature. It is known that when locals lost this value for their environment it was the beginning of environment degradation. I found other examples of this in the communities of native Americans.
The other pressing fact was the labour division. I’m not sure if most of man live in the towns, but often you will see women and children working in the farms and carrying or collecting firewood. At one point, I saw this man sitting down with who I assume to be his wife collecting firewood, even though I know it is culturally normal to make a joke and be harsh to the man who sits down. I told the woman that she should have amazing love for her husband because she is working and he sits. It is quite a scary sight watching two kids, who look like sister and brother of 6-8 years, carrying huge bundles of wood. They looked tired and felt the pain of the load.
Cinnamon and Ginger are the only cash crops in most villages. Forest products, such as timber, are another way of making quick money. One man has broken the cycle and planted 2,000 trees which he will harvest within 7 to 10 years. He gave us a tour to his farm which seems to make quick changes compared to the other places without trees. There is potential for agricultural farming: coffee, banana, timber, potatoes and existing ginger and cinnamon. This can be done in sustainable ways to protect the fragile ecology, which has lots of benefit especially beyond this mountain region.
The challenge is for government and civil society to assist these people with knowledge, awareness, tools, infrastructure and marketing. These are the goals of Millennia Development Goals (2000-2015), it is very sad to see that few achievements have been reached so far, especially goal number 8; ‘Ensure Environment Sustainability’.
Our village to village trek, with very little modern remnant brought us at Lushoto town, the town in the middle of the Usambara mountains. From here we took bus back to Arusha.