Two Directions from Town

Two Directions from Town

There are two seasons in Tanzania: mud and dust.

I arrived in early June as the rain sputtered to a stop, in the brief period of reprieve when the roads have dried enough to drive down, but not enough to spiral into the air and onto your clothes, into your home, into your lungs. But after a couple of weeks, the second season made good on its promise. Dust is everywhere, and I got closely acquainted with it when Joelle and I and a few of her friends went on a small adventure.

About 100 km west of Arusha lies Lake Eyasi. “Lake” Eyasi is a very shallow seasonal salt lake on the floor of the Great Rift Valley. The six of us rented a “lakeside” house at the edge of the “water”, which is not actually water but just squishy, slightly damp sand. Three weeks into the dry season, and the lake had already receded into a dramatic puddle, its water's edge now some kilometres back from its rain season shoreline.

The drive to Lake Eyasi takes you first down a long flat road through Maasai country, grassy and vast and beautiful. Then up a long winding hill and back down its western slope through countryside that vaguely resembles southern France. Past the small, baboon-filled forest of Manyara, through a town so thoroughly covered in bird shit that it's difficult to breathe through it, and into the deep red dirt of Karatu town. From Karatu, it's a 60 km dirt road through one of the driest regions I've ever been to in my life.

The light is white and blinding as it reflects off of the bone dry sand. Maasai kids in leather sandals herd goats and cattle down the side of the road and into distant pastures. The homes slowly transform from concrete to corrugated iron to wood and dry mud, from densely populated to incredibly sparse. A satellite dish is affixed to the thatch roof of a mud hut. A herd of young goats rest in the shade on a family's front porch.

With the car windows open, you choke on dust every time you pass another vehicle and they kick up a small tornado in their wake. Joelle jokes that car washing is Arusha's principal economy.

In a region this dusty, cleanliness is a socioeconomic indicator. Not only can you afford a car, multiple pairs of pants, some closed-toed shoes, but you also have access to enough water to keep them clean.

The effort required to keep the dust at bay takes some getting used to, and in this regard, I wouldn't say I'm a quick learner. When I showed up for lunch one day with my boots covered in a film of fine dirt, my Tanzanian friends offered some amused yet stern criticism.

“You mzungu don't know how to wash your shoes or what?”

Our main reason for going to Lake Eyasi was to visit the Hadzabe, a hunter-gatherer tribe numbering just under 1,000 that lives in small family groups in the region. While tourist visits to Maasai villages have become popular to the point of being cheesy, the Hadzabe remain relatively untouched by Tanzania's booming tourism industry.

For 40,000 Tsh per group, just shy of $20 USD, and another 40,000 Tsh for your translator, the men from a few Hadzabe families will let you join them on a morning's hunt.

We woke up at 5 am to drive the 40 minutes down a bush road to their camp, over bumps and potholes, through dried stream beds, and past the cacti, acacia trees, and baobabs which illuminated themselves from the darkness in the truck's headlights.

When we arrived, the men from the Habzabe were huddled on a rock in a small group around their morning fire, getting very, very stoned. Seriously, these dudes smoke hella weed. Rumour has it they only started accepting tourist visits to get a little cash for weed when the government stopped letting them grow their own.

They're wearing tattered Western clothes and animals furs. One young guy is a wrapped in a fresh skin from yesterday's hunt, still dripping sticky blood into the back of his T-shirt. A mze (old man) dons a pair of worn jean shorts with “New York City” printed all over the denim and a zebra's fur wrapped around his shoulders.

Once they're sufficiently baked, they pick their bows and arrows up off their hanging place on a giant baobab, and head off into the bush. Our guide lets us know to follow.

When the Hadzabe hunt without tourists, they'll go until they get enough meat. Sometimes that takes the entire day, sometimes 2-3 days. But when tourists arrive, they're hindered. We can't run through the bush like they can, we make too much noise and scare the animals, we're not willing to run into the bush and not return for 2 days. So today they'll make a little money but they'll come back by noon without much food.

The five us are intermittently walking and jogging behind these three young guys and their dogs as they run across the sand, duck under acacias, scramble up small cliffs. They're in sandals, I'm in sneakers and struggling to keep up.

When they spot a bird or a squirrel, the three of them work together to get it, shooting arrows up into the tree to get a bird no bigger than a robin. When they've made their kill, they just tuck the bleeding animal into their belt and carry on.

After a few hours and a few birds and squirrels, we head back to their camp. We do target practice with the bow and arrows while the men bury the squirrels whole in hot coals for their lunch, then we thank them and head home for a decidedly more mzungu lunch of sandwiches and beer.

The Hadzabe are one of few strictly hunter-gatherer tribes left in the region. They grow no food, build no homes, erect nothing permanent. When the animals leave the region they'll leave too, the only marks of their existence in the area being those cut into the baobab to hang arrows off of, and the coals from their fires slowly cooling back into the sand.

 The Hadzabe men around their morning fire. 

The Hadzabe men around their morning fire. 

A two hour drive in the other direction from Arusha takes you to the town of Moshi, another dusty sub-Saharan town sitting at the base of Kilimanjaro. Like Arusha, Moshi's main economy is tourism, but since it's mostly only for the mountain and not animal safaris, there are noticeably fewer safari trucks parked all over town. You know, only two or three on every block instead of seven or eight.

Okapi and I drove out for a quick visit one weekend, when he had some time between clients and I needed a holiday from my holiday. We went to see his friend play reggae at an expansive outdoor venue on a wooded street outside town, but the sky erupted and the show was rained out. The dust briefly returned to mud as the three of us hid under the thatch roof of the bar, drinking konyagi (local gin) with the bartender and waiting for the cloudburst to pass.

In the morning we drove an hour out of town towards the base of the mountain so Okapi could show me where he worked as an 18-year old. At the side of the road, an enormous red rock mountain sits almost entirely hollowed out, a cliff face with an open mouth.

 Okapi heading into the hillside.

Okapi heading into the hillside.

The porous but firm red rock is the perfect material for making bricks, so over many years the mountain has been slowly transformed into a brick factory. These guys take broken steering shafts off of transport trucks, cut them into 3-foot sections, flatten them with a hammer, and wrap them around a large stick to make a rudimentary cutting tool – sort of like an axe with a long, thin blade. Then brick by brick, they cut into the mountain.

We scramble down the embankment and into the vast cave they've spent many years building, or deconstructing, however you see it. A mama sits up on the rock and two dudes are down at the bottom in their most recent workspace. The one guy is resting on a pile of oversized bricks smoking a cigarette while his partner works. The working guy is cutting into the floor he stands on, wearing nothing but his underwear, a pair of pink plastic flip-flops and a layer of sweat, with his jeans and shirt strewn across a nearby rock.

Okapi explains to them that he used to work here with his brother 15 years ago, the mze in the underpants says he remembers him. Says your brother's name is still carved into the tree at the top of the hill. The guy must be about 50, but his face looks 70 and his body, 18. Just pure wiry strength - he has abs defined where I didn't know muscles existed.

When they're done cutting bricks for the day, they count them and then carry them, one by one, out of the cave on their heads. The embankment they climb out is so steep I had to put my hands down twice to crawl up it. At the top, the bricks will be stacked and sold cheap, or passed off to the guy sitting at the top of the hill, who smoothes their edges with a machete for a little added value.

They've cut 5 km into the cliff face like this. When the cave gets too big, its foundations too weak, they load the roof with dynamite and blow it up, start again further into the hill. A decades-long process of human erosion, your homes built on the backs of an old man's sweat and a mountain's former glory.

“It's the hardest job I've ever had in my life,” Okapi tells me as we're driving away. “Honestly, I never want to work like that again.”

I ask him what those old guys must think of people who pay money to run on treadmills just to burn their extra calories, and he just laughs. “Suckers. I'd say they think those people are suckers.”

Safari Safari Safari

Safari Safari Safari

Arusha Town

Arusha Town