Controlling my inner Angelina


magara kids
“oh, I just want to take them all home” I cry,  as I am surrounded by a dozen gorgeous smiling tanzanian children in Magara village. Until now, I can safely say that adopting a child had never crossed my mind at any time in my life, and suddenly I am coming over all Angelina Jolie and starting to think that adopting in the plural might be the way to go.

Luckily for the children they are not orphans, they all have extended families and siblings, and while they and their families might live at a fairly subsistence level, while they do not have an easy life, they give every sign of being happy, fed, and well cared for – these are far from the ‘starving africans’ that we grew up hearing about on the news. And if some of their hand-me-down clothes are a bit dusty and worn, well, so are ours. Some shy, some cheeky, some ‘too cool for school’, we can’t go anywhere in Magara without getting excited cries of “Jambo’ from these kids as they wave, run towards us, follow us around, and plead to have their photo taken so they can see it in the viewer on the back of the camera. This part of Tanzania doesn’t see much tourism, so seeing mzungu, ‘white people’, is still a novelty for many of them, meaning we often get to feel as if we are indeed visiting film stars, such is the reception they give us.

So as a tribute to all these energetic smiling kids, who added so much fun to our stay in the village, here is a gallery of some of their photos. And I hope they enjoy the big envelope of photo prints making its way to them by snail mail, so that they and their families can have a physical photo and not just a brief memory from the back of the camera.

Magara – painting the town (school) cream


Magara school project
We breath in thick red dust as we bounce over the corrugated tracks at speed, we ford rivers with no bridges, we hold our breath as the wheels almost bog down in the mud and exhale again as we pull free without having to get out and push, and we close our eyes as the driver executes a three point turn on a steep hairpin blind corner as he realises we have missed the turn-off. Its only about three hours from Arusha but as we drive into our camp site in Magara it already seems like another world. Our tents are under a canopy of tall trees, next to a waterfall cascading a couple of hundred metres down a cliff side into a natural rock pool surrounded by a sandy riverside beach. Magara is a town in the lee of the Great Rift Valley, past the southwestern end of Lake Manyara. There are no national parks, game drives, or luxury lodges here, therefore little tourism or tourism dollars to benefit the locals.

Voluntourism in Tanzania

We are here as ‘voluntourists’, one of those weird made up words that I had never heard until a few months ago. What it means is that twenty of us are here, at our own cost, to spend a few days of our holiday providing basic manual labour to help renovate and maintain the Magara secondary school. We haven’t been “sponsored” by our friends, we are not part of any charity organisation, we are paying our own way, and we will be directly donating our own labour as well as contributing cash to the purchase of building materials. We will be working alongside teachers and students plus skilled local labour. None of us are builders or carpenters, and our ages range from 14 to 68 – seventeen aussies, one kiwaussie, and two canadians. We have no idea how we will actually be useful, but we are all excited to be here and wondering how on earth we will be put to use.

Getting to work in Magara, Tanzania

Having been warned to bring our oldest clothes, likely to be wrecked, stained and destroyed over the next few days, we are a motley looking crew as we set out on our first ten minute stroll to see the school we will be working on. We split ourselves into three crews – two will be painting crews (with a subset team of trainee carpenters to make wooden tables from scratch – no ikea kitsets here), and one to lift rocks and sand bags and water pails to construct solid bases on which 5,000 litre water tanks can be installed.
Magara school project

It takes a couple of hours to really get started on the first day. We want to make sure we are doing the tasks that the school headmaster and the community think are the highest priorities, which are not necessarily the tasks we think need to be done. So some time is needed to negotiate, to discuss, to get consensus. The second challenge it how to carry out our tasks. Our tour company has purchased and delivered the core materials on our behalf – bags of concrete mix, tins of paint and brushes, planks of wood. But we quickly realise that the devil is in the detail. The school has no water supply, and no power (there are solar panels for the one PC but they are currently broken). There are no rags to clean off the paint brushes, no old icecream containers to turn into paint trays, none of that paraphanaelia we all have in the back of the cupboard at home. Any such items are already in daily use in the families in this community, there is no spare “junk”. We easily sacrifice a few of our t-shirts to make rags, some of which get tied to branches to make “mops” to try and brush or wash the dust off the walls we will be painting. Plastic handled paint rollers that we have supplied are also tied onto branches so that we can reach the top of the 3 and 4 metre high walls of the school rooms. We have only one square of sandpaper, which the ‘table makers’ will need, so we search for flat stones with a straightish edge to use as a tool to scour the old peeling paint off the walls and try to create a smoother surface. The school ladder, itself homemade, is pressed into duty to carry the large rocks that need to be collected to help build the concrete bases, the ladder allowing six people at a time to spread the weight of each rock. Some water is trucked in, some is carried bucket by bucket from the neighbour’s well. Improvisation becomes the name of the game.
Magara school project

Magara Tanzania school presentation day

The plan is to be in Magara five nights, working hard for four days. In the end we only work three days, as our visit co-incides with the end of term school presentation day. And a long day it is too, slowly, slowly, ‘on africa time’. Our initial frustration that we can’t get even more rooms painted is quickly humbled on the realisation that we are being given an opportunity to share an important day with the local community. We get to plant saplings each, representing that we will always now be children of the Magara soil. The students perform traditional dances and enthrall us with their singing. The parents of the students arrive dressed in their best and brightest finery. The head of the parent representatives cajoles and shames the attending parents into donating more money than I suspect they can afford to help the school. Local dignitaries attend and make speeches. The library which we have just painted, and for which the new tables have been made, is officially opened. And about four in the afternoon, we join the parents and dignitaries and  teachers in a big communal lunch. I remember the look of confusion on the face of the lady sitting opposite me, parent to one of the students, when we realise that we are exactly the same age, and she has nine children, while I have none. She wasn’t just surprised, she was unable to visualise how that was possible. (And I probably looked as incredulous at the thought of nine!)
Magara school project

Memories of Magara Tanzania

So many memories will stay with me. Learning that it cost 20,000 shillings (approx USD$20) pa for a child to attend secondary school, a price most families can’t afford. Knowing that each evening I was spending 2,500 shillings a time for a nice coldish bottle of beer. The pure pleasure of about 60 seconds of warm water pouring over my head in the tiny bush shower every night. The deliciously cool water of the pool under the waterfall. The spicy bite of the pre-dinner soup the crew cooked up each night – my favourite was hot cucumber soup. Knowing that on average each class had to share two text books per subject between the whole class, as textbooks cost around 10,000 shillings each. The satisfying tiredness of eight or more hours of solid physical labour each day, and seeing the results of our labour. The happy screams of dozens of local kids who would come running from hundreds of metres away as we dragged our tired bodies home each night, their smiles lighting up as they begged to have their photo taken so they could see themselves in the screen on the back of the camera. The hard working crew who made basic camping way more comfortable than I ever remember it being before. The warmth of twenty wonderfully diverse people sharing a unique experience but with a common purpose – to help out in a very small but very direct way, to do something practical, forming a bond that will last a long time. All good cliches come about for a reason, and so it is with this one – we gained so much more than we gave.

And the icing on the cake? On the last evening, having completed our tasks, and said our goodbyes, we are back at camp showered, relaxed, cold beer in hand. A loud large truck comes revving into camp at high speed, carrying a big black plastic 5,000 litre water tank, and lengths of guttering for the library roof. With loud cheers we get to deliver them up to the school, roll the water tank onto its freshly prepared base, and know that come the next rainfall the school will start to have its own water supply for the first time ever. Thats my definition of euphoria.

Note: I travelled on a World Expeditions Community Project Tour

How to travel without luggage (even if you start with some).

Precision Air Mark I.

As usual we all mill around the luggage conveyor belt as it creaks into action, and the first bags start coming around. The first bags get grabbed up quickly, then… nothing. After a couple of minutes of nothing, a guy sticks his head through the opening next to the luggage pick up and very quietly he says “thats all there is, we left the rest on the tarmac in Nairobi, go see the office” and ducks out again with a brief wave at an office on the other side of the room. He is so quiet that not many people have heard, and those that have are all looking at each other questioningly, seeking reassurance that we haven’t just heard that. Then, as it dawns on us that he did indeed say that, we sprint for the lost luggage office on the other side of the room.
lost luggage

For about 20 minutes we queue at a closed window in Kilimanjaro Airport, until a staff member appears. He bravely stands on a chair to talk to the crowd. “We had to leave 88 bags on the tarmac in Nairobi, because the flight was too full, the plane was too heavy” he starts, to the sound of hope expiring from about 70 people. “There are no more flights tonight, but your bags will come on the flights tomorrow and will be delivered to you. Please line up here so that we can take the reports of your lost luggage and get them back to you tomorrow”. Pandemonium breaks out as he ducks into the office and shuts the door, reappearing at the window.

At this point we discover that he has to take the lost luggage reports from us one by one, and that only he could fill the form in, we are not allowed to fill it in ourselves. This is going to take a while – 45 minutes to be exact, and I am only the fifth person in the queue. The fun part is trying to point at the picture that looks the “most like” my missing luggage from a large laminated poster that obviously gets frequent use. We are also asked to list the contents of our lost bags, at which point I am glad I have no valuables in it, it feels like we are giving some-one a target list! None of us believe we are going to see our belongings the next day, if at all, based on some sound crowd reasoning:

  1. Our bags are in Nairobi, not known as “nairobbery “for nothing
  2. Tomorrow’s planes will be full as well, so to fit our bags on (almost a plane load in themselves) they will have to leave the next load of passengers bags behind and so on, repeating it for every flight – who would choose to compound the problem like that.
  3. Just about every one on the flight is only staying overnight in Arusha before heading off first thing in the morning – for their safari, for their climb of Kilimanjaro, or in my case to join my voluntourism group doing renovations to a school. The bags will never catch up with us.

I take stock – in my day pack I have my camera, my passport, my money. But I don’t have any change of clothes, I have no malaria tablets, and I have no sleeping bag or camp mat – this is not going to be comfortable, but it can be done! At least there is comfort in numbers, another four people going on the same trip are on the same flight and have no bags either.

Precision Air Mark II

Having convinced ourselves we will never see them again, our bags arrive the next morning, on the same flight bringing the last remaining people for our tour group. However, their bags do not arrive. Ahh – the airline decided to go for the knock on effect after all! Those bags arrive a couple of days later and do get delivered out to our campsite some hours away. However one lady finds her hiking boots and camera have been stolen out of her locked pack.

Precision Air Mark III

I am flying Precision Air again from Kilimanjaro to Zanzibar. I carry on three large pieces of hand luggage with almost all my belongings stuffed in them, and check in an empty pack. I am sitting next to a very well groomed local businessman. I notice that all the flight crew are coming up to greet him, as are the other local business men on the flight. I ask him “Are you famous, everyone seems to know you?” He chuckles and says” No, not famous, I am just a businessman”. He hesitates for a second and adds “and I started this airline, my name is ***”. “Hi, I’m Vicki”, I reply. He then introduces me to the Tanzanian Finance Minister who has just come up to greet him. I sit there thinking that all our bags are probably going to turn up when we get off this flight. I am right, not a single missing bag.

Precision Air Mark IV

A number of us had independently decided to head to Zanzibar after our Tanzania trip, and a couple of days later we got together in Stonetown for a fun cocktail-fuelled reunion. The four women who had also been on my first flight, and had also lost their bags, had just flown in that afternoon. Three of them had done what I did, carrying huge amounts of carry on baggage. One didn’t. Their checked on bags didn’t arrive.

Lions vs Zebra – the Tarangire soap opera ( a pictorial)

Once upon a time, in a far away Tanzanian National Park, as evening fell, two lionesses rested under a large baobab tree.
Lions in Tarangire


Lions in Tarangire
One just lies on her back and stretches, the other moves to the front of the tree to show off to the landrover load of tourists who have just arrived.


Lions in Tarangire


Lions in Tarangire
Lioness A continues to pose like a professional, changing expressions and poses regularly.


Lions in Tarangire


Lions in Tarangire

Lioness B starts to wonder if there is anything of interest around.
Lions in Tarangire

Lioness B is now alert, something has attracted her attention.
Lions in Tarangire

Both lions are now alert, as a herd of zebra wanders across the landscape upwind from them.
Lions in Tarangire

As the zebra continue on their course towards the lions, both are now alert, tensed and ready to move.
Lions in Tarangire

The lead zebra, walking ahead of the herd, has not sensed any danger and leads them onwards towards the lions.
Lions in Tarangire

Lioness B moves through the grass low & fast, approaching the zebra.
Lions in Tarangire

The lead zebra is only about 30m away now. A low whisper of “kill, kill” arises from the landrover as the intrepid explorers encourage the lions to go for a great photo opportunity.
Lions in Tarangire

A small wind change, a gust, and the lead zebra senses danger and stamps its feet loudly and repeatedly as a warning.
Lions in Tarangire

The herd gets the warning and without panic, turns around and heads off purposefully in another direction.
Lions in Tarangire

Lioness B comes out of hiding and watches the zebra moving away.
Lions in Tarangire

Lioness B stretches with a large yawn.
Lions in Tarangire

Lioness B casually and openly follows the lead zebra, now protecting the rear of the herd.
Lions in Tarangire

Lioness B stops to take a dump, unconcerned that her dinner is trotting away.
Lions in Tarangire

Lioness B lays down to rest in the last rays of the days sun.
Lions in Tarangire

Lioness A stops watching and takes a stretch.
Lions in Tarangire

Lioness A saunters after Lioness B.
Lions in Tarangire

The lions re-unite.
Lions in Tarangire

The lions casually stroll off after the zebras, as though they are heading out for dinner and entertainment, and have all night. Pretentious photographer with massive zoom lens mourns the loss of her National Geo moment.
Lions in Tarangire

Getting back to basics with a cooking class in Zanzibar

I move slightly from one butt cheek to the other, as subtly as I can, hoping my face does not reveal my deep discomfort. I’ve been sitting on a solid wood stool only six inches high for the last two hours.  It is the best seat in the house, and as the guest getting a one-on-one cooking lesson from cook Afura, matriach of the household, I don’t want to look rude. Sweat breaks out on my forehead and trickles down my backbone in this midday heat. Afura’s home is in a very basic village on the outskirts of Stonetown, and we are cooking on a charcoal brazier in the packed earth internal courtyard, between the three small concrete-block rooms which form the house.

Cooking class in Zanzibar village
Cooking class in Zanzibar village

I get to choose four african dishes from a list, and I select curry, chapatis, samosa and masala tea – and if that sounds more Indian than African then welcome to the island which has been a trading post for Arabs, Indians, Asians, Africans and Portuguese for over 1000 years. We have already made the curry and are about to start on the chapatis. Daughter Sophia brings Afura a flat round tin tray with about 5 cups of flour on it, in a ring with a hole in the middle. We dissolve a couple of tsp of rock salt in a cup of water, and I add it drip by drip to the flour as Afura starts mixing and kneading it with her fingers. I stop adding water while it stills looks like a flaky dry mixture, and Afura adds about 100gms of soft butter, and kneads through thoroughly, using her thumbs for power, until the dough is very smooth and elastic. We separate it into five apple sized balls and knead each again until smooth.

Cooking class in Zanzibar village
Cooking class in Zanzibar village

More flour is sprinkled onto the flat wooden board and Afura rolls out the first globe of pastry until about twelve centimetres in diameter, and then rubs a tbsp of oil across the top to keep it soft. She folds it over and over into a strip about 2cm wide, tugging it gently longer as she does. After resting the dough for a few minutes, she stretches it gently again until it is about 25 cms long, double its original length. Lying it on the board, she rolls both ends into the middle, and when the two coils meet, she folds one on top of the other , like a double decker cinnamon roll, and then rolls it flat yet again. Finally it is thrown onto the hot oiled pan on the charcoal and cooked to brown flaky perfection.

Cooking class in Zanzibar village
Cooking class in Zanzibar village

In the meantime, my legs and rear have gone numb, making me unsteady as I try to rise to my feet for a stretch, giving the family a good laugh. Today is going to be delicious, but not so comfortable.

Zanzibar, the most exotic island of all?

An ancient, crumbling, Arabian nights fairytale island, surrounded by the brightest turquoise water I have ever seen. Once a major trade capital for spices, silks, slaves and more, it’s the original melting pot, mixing ancient Africa, Arabia and India, with the Chinese and then the Portuguese following in later centuries. It’s a very visceral history that you can see, smell and feel in the air around you.

And 18 years ago, while doing an overland through east Africa, I arrived in Zanzibar and fell for its many charms. In three weeks time I will finally return, and I am wondering how much it has changed or not? Here’s my memories from the first time.
Zanzibar

Getting to Zanzibar.

Catching the ferry, the morning one has broken down, wait a few hours and catch the mid afternoon one , take four and a half hours to get there, sitting on our packs on the deck, in the bow of a very full boat, towels over our heads to ward off the intense sun. The mad scramble to get off the ferry, through immigration and pound the streets to find a room – $15 a night for four to share, with very dodgy mosquito nets. My notes at the time said “the Sambusa, down an alley, past the rubbish dump – nice little room though.”
Zanzibar

Prison Island.

We took a dhow out to Prison Island, a tiny island with a little sand bar beach, just a few meters wide, extending out into the true blue water. There’s remnants of an old prison, and a small population of very old, very huge giant tortoises, who in spite of being very wrinkly, are very adorable. We sunbath in the hot sun and cool off in the water until the wind comes up and starts scouring our skin with sand. We head back to Zanzibar in a choppy sea and get drenched in very salty sea spray, and need a very good warm shower on our return.

StoneTown, Zanzibar.

We explored the Byzantian alleyways, the old fort, the sultan’s palace – the architecture was amazing, but most building were run down, worn out, peeling and in need of some renovation. We spent more time wandering the streets and alleyways than we did on the beaches, it was just so fascinating. We dined cheaply but well. Beers at Africa House, fresh coconuts on the beach, calamari for dinner at The Dolphin, and back for omelettes for breakfast. Freshly cooked seafood straight off the stalls in the marketplace, and calamari stew at the Floating Restaurant next to the market. Fish coconut curries and banana milkshakes at Caymur’s. I wonder if any of these places still exist? – apart from the markets, probably not!


Zanzibar

The Beach, Zanzibar.

We grabbed a ride in a jeep to Jambiani, a popular beach a two hour drive to the opposite side of the island to StoneTown. On the way we stopped off to see the endangered red colobus monkeys. What is surprising is that we didn’t also do a spice tour, to one of the spice plantations, given Zanzibar’s fame as a spice island – having grown up on farms in NZ we didn’t see anything interesting about visiting a farm. The beach was stunning – when we arrived the tide was out about 500m, and by late afternoon it was right back up the beach lapping our toes. The local kids were busy selling us papaya and coconuts, and were just gorgeous to watch.