The Flavour

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Footsteps, yarns and little fibs

An attempt to show what a trip to the villages was like during the time we were there.

The Flavour

Of course the flavour of a country the size of Tanzania, East Africa differs depending wherever you happen to be. For this journey we’re going from a suburb of Arusha to the village of Mkonoo… mkono means hand or arm… nobody thought to explain the extra o in the word, nor is anyone concerned about it. Arusha’s only three degrees south of the equator, but elevated 1 400 metres above sea level, it’s not as hot and humid as it is on the coast. Day temperatures hover around 25 - 28?C and harsh sunlight is partially blocked out by the haze of wood or charcoal smoke from cooking fires, the smoke isn’t apparent on the ground as it is when flying over it. A country is nothing but for its people and there were thirty five million of them at the time, so there was nowhere we could go without someone hovering around at any time of the day. The Mkonoo village is south of Arusha, sitting on a broad ridge, but there wasn’t a township there, just a school, the water reservoir, and scattered farm houses.

Leaving Arusha, the road is still tarsealed as we drive around a roundabout or keepilefti, which Americans probably don’t understand because they drive on the other side of the road. There are short reddish plants on the perimeter of the roundabout, but as a garden it isn’t well tended. To the left as we go around is a grassed area, not a sportsground but where various events can be held. This area is Unga Limited, so called after the flour mill. There are sheds, like railway or goods sheds each side if the very wide road and here we encounter the dust, the ever-present dust. Also there’s the ubiquitous blue plastic bags, not pristine blue as new ones are, they’re faded and ripped, blown about on the wind like a flock of starlings. Wherever there’s a market, there’s the plastic. Various wholesale businesses have been set up in the sheds because the railway has not functioned for a number of years. The trucks, mainly single axel vehicles with a canopy over the back are coming, going or loading. There’s always an extra guy with the trucks, he sits in the back, helps to load and unload, guards the goods, because the trucks go slowly and it would be easy to hop aboard and help yourself. He also has a large rock or heavy piece of timer, which is the handbrake… he hops out quickly and chocks a wheel because the handbrake in the trucks haven’t worked for years. The concrete plastered buildings a grimy as are the trucks and the men… they put in a solid day’s work! There are youths who push barrows, or maybe I should call them carts… they’re two wheeled, with recycled car wheels, wooden structures maybe two metres by one and a half and instead of wheelbarrow handles, there is a bar across them so more than one person can push them. They’re loaded up and used to deliver all manner of goods around the town, it’s obviously hard, physical work and often the boys are bare chested and sweating.

We cross a rusty rail line and turn to the left to follow it a short distance. There’s a lot of foot traffic, some of them soiled workers, others, people from the villages heading into town, dressed to the nines and worried about losing the shine on their shoes, because the track is dusty, it’s no longer tarseal. There are high slabwood fences, the posts not necessarily cut off at the top, we can’t see beyond them, but there’s a market there. Turning to the right and heading south we pass by the mtumba man selling his secondhand clothing, there are stalls catering for hungry passers-by, maybe roasted maize cobs when they’re in season, or half-cake, a sweet, yellow cake that’s been cut in half revealing the yellowness of egg yolks. There’s the wholesale bread stall, and some small dukas, shops that sell soap, sugar, margarine cooking oil and rice. The stalls are made of unpainted timber, bleached by the sun and covered with dust. The stall holders seem to be able to keep their wares clean… I was happy to buy from them.

We travel through an area where the urban poor live. Some buildings are made of concrete plaster, others roofing iron, while others are wattle and daub. Some have seen a lick of paint, but not recently. Women cook outside on small jikos, the small charcoal-fired stoves. There’s the smell of burning charcoal, sometimes wafts of cooked rice, but more often ugali, a porridge made from maize flour. Turgid water flows down a shallow ditch beside the road, and young kids play there. Grubby urchins, they laugh and seem happy. Householders have to carry water from some distance away, and there’s no sewerage nor is there rubbish collection so those are smells that pervade the area too. Sometimes rubbish is burnt on the track adding to the atmosphere and invading the nose. The kids wear mtumba clothes and the women the traditional and colourful kangas but the colour has been washed out of them as they are in their ‘working clothes’ at home.

Beyond the housing area, there are small farm holdings where there’s greenery, some low hedging and a few indigenous trees with houses dotted throughout. Houses perhaps better cared for and of varying materials, although mostly wattle and daub with corrugated iron roofs. Around here is where we see the beasts of burden, the humble donkey. Well-laden but placid animals led by women who appreciate them, yet carry a stick to encourage them. I’m not sure where they went to sell their produce, because I never saw donkeys in the town. The donkeys also carry water, a forty litre container on each side. We always gave way to them and the women would reward us with a smile. Often their front two bottom teeth are removed when they’re young, so when people smile the gap is obvious, the reason is vague… for beauty or so water can be administered easily if they become unconscious with dehydration. Most of the cultivation in these smaller farms is done by hand in this area, mainly with hoes for growing beans or sunflowers.

There’s a large Euphorbia… candelabra tree, the white latex gum these trees have as sap can raise blisters on cattle’s skin, so it’s dangerous to break off twigs. The tree is growing just beside the bridge that spans a deepish river bed. The river is mostly dry but lined with green shrubs and a few struggling trees, but the rest of the area is brown and bone dry with greyish soil poking through the dry grass tufts… it is hotter out here. The bridge approaches are dodgy and the steel frame rusty, but we rattle across ok.

We take the left fork in the track, the other goes to Muriet where we built a chekechea, kindergarten, much later, the municipal council set up a landfill there… which spoilt the environs of the village. But following the left fork, the road passes an area of black and white pebbly material, which might have been a quarry some time because there are gullies and a sharp incline the track passes through that aren’t natural. It is just past this point I saw my first sisal plant and it was in flower. An Aloe, the plant has cactus-like blades and grows to a metre or more and before the plant dies it sends up a straight flower-head of perhaps three metres. The fibres of the plant are used to make ropes, carpet and anything else that’s woven, and in Mexico, tequila is brewed from the plant material – but not in Tanzania.

Here the farms grow maize, the staple crop, farms can be small, large or collective and depending on who owns the land, cultivation can be hand or by tractor. There’s an adage… women carry out the hand cultivation, but when a tractor turns up, the men do it… There’s some truth in the adage, but it’s not a full truth. The maize grow to over a metre and a half high, certainly we can’t see above it in our small vehicle. People are always on the track, coming or going, doing whatever’s on their mind. Some ask for a lift, so the vehicle always has passengers, we know these people. All smell of the smoke from their cooking fires, and the food that’s been cooked… because cooking is done indoors. There’s also the smell of the animals that are housed inside at night with them. And in the heat, people sweat… it’s the smell of humanity. Women might wear eye-watering perfume and men might wear deodorant if they’re going to church or town, but not for every day. Most use a perfumed a Vaseline-type product, at least on their hands, but elsewhere too because the dust is so skin-drying. Men wear shirtsleeves down and buttoned even in the heat, whereas in Kiwiland, we’d roll them up.

During the rains when the maize is sown, the track is a mission to negotiate, because the vehicle has marginal traction on the sticky soil, but people still need to go wherever they need to go. The maize once germinated grows quickly and some cobs are taken when they’re soft for roasting. In the households, stored maize will be running out so the new season’s roasted maize is an important signal that soon the maize will be ripe. When the plant dies off to a brown/grey colour, the maize kernels are hard, so the cobs are harvested by hand. Bread isn’t used as a cut lunch like at home, so when working in the field, the preferred food is loshoro… The hard maize kernels are pounded in a large mortar and pestle to remove the husks and then the clean kernels are boiled and sour milk added… Never turn your nose up at someone else’s food. The dried plant is stored away for cattle fodder during the dry months, I’m not sure of the food value, but it fills their animals’ bellies. At Makumira monkeys searched through the dry feed looking for the odd kernel or part cob that might’ve been missed, but at Mkonoo we saw no monkeys.

Mkonoo primary school is plastered brick with a corrugated iron roof, there are gaps for windows but no frame or glass, and not every classroom has a door. The buildings are grey, and stained by the dust with mud splashes a couple of feet up the wall because there’s no spouting. There are more than four hundred kids at the school, some in their blue uniform, some in faded uniforms because elder relatives wore them and there are those who couldn’t afford uniforms. They’re engaging kids, bright, seemingly happy, some with shaved heads because they’d caught ringworm from the animals they slept amongst. Senior girls have their hair in cornrows because their confirmation was coming up. And in those days the teachers kept control with sticks.

No trip I ever took in Tanzania was ordinary, there was always something to see, someone to give a lift to; an animal, insect, bird or tree that deserved a second look, kids wanting to talk; or the start of another adventure.


Submitted: July 21, 2021

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hullabaloo22

You really brought that journey to life with some fantastic descriptions, Moa.

Wed, July 21st, 2021 4:52pm

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Thank you Mama Hullabaloo. There are the five and maybe a sixth sense... one of the things I've never written about is ever-present cooing of pigeions in Africa. I know in cities and on farms they can be a pest, but the cooing sound is comforting. I haven't tried, but the sound will be on youtube... Usianguke

Wed, July 21st, 2021 1:06pm

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