#fridayfaces – the happy, cheeky kids of Magara, Tanzania

Is there something in the water of the rift valley? – not only are the kids in Magara adorable but they all seem to have big cheeky personalities and the smiles to go with it.

IMG_4061_800Photos of the faces of people I come across in my travels take me right back to that time and place.

#fridayfaces my daughter by another mother in Magara, Tanzania

I’m not one to come over all maternal very often, but it was hard not to form an immediate bond with this shy and charming young girl in Magara, Tanzania. Fortunately she had a happy family life with a father and mother who also befriended us, so I didn’t get to come over too Angelina. As a family, they represented everything we came to love about this village while we worked on renovating the local school.

shy girl, Magara, Tanzania 2010
shy girl, Magara, Tanzania 2010

Photos of the faces of people I come across in my travels take me right back to that time and place.


My Top Ten Tanzanian Safari Moments

Cradling my camera carefully as we bounce along the corrugated dirt track and wishing I’d worn a serious sports bra, I’m getting painful bruises under my arms where I am clinging to bits of the open roof of the 4-wheel drive. We are coated in a potent mix of suntan lotion, dust and sweat, and are grinning maniacally as we lurch to a stop as we spot a family of elephants just emerging to our left.

Tanzania is a world-class spot for seriously impressive animal spotting, which is why we are all standing upright and clinging on for hours on end in the heat – we don’t want to risk missing a second by sitting down.

Tanzania safari Lake Manyara hippo
Tanzania safari Lake Manyara hippo

On my previous visit to Tanzania in 1992 I traveled through the Serengeti, Ngorongoro, and Mikumi national parks. This time I am visiting Tarangire, Ngorongoro and Lake Manyara, and it strikes me that animal numbers in the national parks appear to have increased dramatically in the intervening years, which is very encouraging. We have quickly determined a pecking order of what gets our attention. We have seen so many monkeys, antelope and wildebeest that we barely stop any more – it’s the elephants and giraffes and any big cat, hippos and rhinos that get us excited now. Here are a few of my favourite moments.

    1. The Hippo Pool at Lake Manyara. We are pinning our hopes on the promisingly named Hippo Pool in Lake Manyara, and boy does it deliver. Dozens upon dozens of hippos resting into a series of shallow pools, climbing in and out of the pools, lolling around in the mud, with a backdrop of hills and zebras and great colonies of storks. And then one right in front of me does a huge yawn and I am as happy as a hippo watcher can be.
    2. The large herds of Elephants in Tarangire. We are awestruck watching a column of elephants come towards us through the tree line, 50 or 60 in number, about a third of them young ones, striding three or four abreast. They tower over us as they cross the track just in front of us, ignoring us. Over the next hour we see at least three more herds of similar size, all within a few km of each other. One herd is running, stampeding (luckily not in our direction), and we watch them steer and protect their babies as they thunder by.
    3. Spotting a Leopard in Tarangire. Just on dusk, on our first evening drive in Tarangire, Peter pulls up and points to a large acacia tree, two or three hundred metres away, and says “leopard” . At first we can’t see a thing in the waning light, but as I extend my zoom lens and follow his direction – up to the first large horizontal branch sticking out to the left, pan along it, suddenly it comes into view. Magnificent, stretched out along the branch. We joke that it’s a stuffed toy planted by the guides to fool us, as the leopard hasn’t moved. Right on cue, it stands up, stretches, moves a couple of metres further out on the branch, and lies down again. It’s a small spot in the distance, but as we assess the size of the tree and the relative size of the leopard, we start to realise it is indeed big, it has to be at least two metres in length, and we stay there and stare at it till it is just too dark to see any more.

      Tanzania safari Tarangire leopard
      Tanzania safari Tarangire leopard
    4. The very self satisfied teenage lions in Ngorongoro Crater. The epitome of self assured adolescence – nine or ten teenage lions and lionesses having an afternoon seista on a sunny hillside. One male sits to the side as a very casual guard, the remaining males are all flat on their backs, limbs spread akimbo, baring their contented bellies to the sun. The lionesses are similarly napping, albeit in a slightly more conservative pose. We get the very strong message that these lions don’t have too many worries at all.
    5. The sole Rhino sighting in Ngorongoro. I can’t help wondering is it is still the same rhino that I saw in the same place eighteen years ago, I like the idea that it might be. Last time I saw it a lot closer as it charged our jeep (which had stalled). This time it doesn’t charge anyone, and while I tell myself that is a good thing, I am secretly a little bit disappointed.

      Tanzania safari Ngorongoro rhino
      Tanzania safari Ngorongoro rhino
    6. The black and white beauty of the zebra. We see what seems like thousands of zebra. We also see  what seems like thousands of wildebeest and quickly get bored with them, but the zebras remain fascinating. Even though they tend to turn away from us when they hear us approaching, so we end up seeing a lot of zebra arses. Its the contrast between their funny donkey-like shape and the graphic beauty of the black and white markings, no two ever the same.
    7. The soda lake pink flamingos and the soaring storks. I’ve never been a bird watcher when I travel, but even I am impressed when there are huge flocks of birds. A solid pink carpet of flamingoes  in a lake in Ngorongoro, or vast flight of storks forming intricate synchronous flying patterns, soaring around in aerial displays by Lake Manyara.

      Tanzania safari Ngorongoro flamingos
      Tanzania safari Ngorongoro flamingos
    8. The teenage giraffe argy bargy. It is so hard not to endow animals with human behaviours and motivations. As we do when we see three male teenage giraffes, two of them engaged in a bit of friendly pushing and shoving, for all the world looking like a couple of footy players trying to establish a pecking order, the third giraffe looking like the try-hard hanger-oner
    9. The Masaai village. It’s easy to imagine the Masaai get really annoyed with us for treating them like just another animal sighting – pointing our cameras at them, wanting to capture their ‘colour’, wanting to look into their life’s. Imagine if a horde of tourists descended into your house and workplace every day doing the same to you.  To control this, near Ngorongoro, in the Serengeti, there are a number of Masaai villages which have been built specifically for tourists to visit, for a fee. Here we get welcomed with traditional dances, get shown into traditional Masaai huts, visit a school room, and have the opportunity to buy some of their intricately beaded jewellery. And we are allowed, indeed encouraged to take photos of everyone and anyone. That’s because these are ‘theme’ villages, the Masaai only work there during the day, and go home to their real villages in the evening. This is a job for them, and they get paid for it. Some tourists object to paying an entrance fee, object to it not being a real live village. I wonder when we decided we have the right to invade peoples lives and expect them to perform on demand for us for free, in their own homes. Good on them for setting up a cultural performance, of finding a way to manage the interest in them and earn an income off it, while putting a boundary around their real lives.
  1. The monkey that tried to steal my lunch. Sometimes I get a good reminder that I can be a dumb tourist. This was one of those days. After an early start and a full morning in Tarangire I am looking forward to our packed lunch. We’ve stopped in an official picnic spot, sitting at the tables under the trees, a river valley teeming with zebra, wildebeest and giraffe below us. A few cute little monkeys playing on the fence yonder, one a mum with the tiniest baby monkey clinging on to her under her belly. I start pulling out items from my lunch box – sandwich, samosa, juice, chocolate bar – with a big loud “yum”. One of my fellow travellers yells “watch out”, and out of the corner of my eye I see the mother monkey with baby still attached  doing a giant leap through the air from fence towards my unpacked lunch box. My brain flashed ” oh no, you’re not getting my lunch” and I somehow managed to sweep all the contents into the plastic lunchbox and slam the lid on in a split second, just as the monkey’s claw grabbed one corner of the box, about 2 mm from my hand, and yanked hard. I yanked back and pulled it out of her grasp, the plastic breaking off into her claw as it went – she sat back and snarled at me, looked like she was considering attacking me, and then turned and retreated back to her fence. Only then did I remember that I’d decided I wouldn’t need a rabies shot before I came on this trip, that her claws had been only 2mm from me and strong enough to rip a plastic lunchbox and that any sane person would’ve just let her take the sandwich.


The stain of Slavery in Stonetown, Zanzibar

I walk into a light, bright, white wooden building, sunfilled with soaring ceilings, in Stonetown, Zanzibar. It is now seemingly an art market for tourists, but was previously a hostel and orphanage.

Zanzibar slave history hostel
Zanzibar slave history hostel

However a quick walk down the steps into the cellar and a different history emerges. Here is one of the few remaining pieces of physical evidence of the slave trade that prospered in Zanzibar, particularly in the 1800’s. Although the building is more recent, these cellars were reputed to be used as holding pens for slaves on ‘market day’; from here they could be quickly dragged up into the slave market directly overhead and sold. The cellars are low, dark and claustrophobic, and contain examples of the chains that were used to tether the slaves.

The slave trade was reputedly started by the Portuguese and then grew further when Zanzibar came under the control of the Sultanate of Oman in 1698. Initially slaves were captured or purchased from deep in the African mainland, chained together and forced to carry ivory to the coast, and then those that survived were transferred to Zanzibar to be either put to work in the spice plantations or sold. From Zanzibar most slaves were shipped to the Middle East, with some also going to the former french colonies of Reunion, Mauritius, Seychelles and Madagascar, or to North America.

Zanzibar slave history sculpture
Zanzibar slave history sculpture

In the words of Unesco, Zanzibar has great symbolic importance in the suppression of slavery, since it was one of the main slave-trading ports in East Africa and also the base from which its opponents, such as the renowned explorer David Livingstone, conducted their campaign against slavery. By the mid 1800s, the European influence was returning to the region and it was Livingstone, who based himself in Zanzibar between expeditions, who led the campaign. Another key opponent was Edward Steere, third bishop of Zanzibar (1874-82). Slavery was finally outlawed in 1877, although it continued illegally for some decades afterwards. To celebrate, the Anglican Bishop Steere built a cathedral (completed 1887) on what used to be the island’s largest slave market, apparently positioning the altar over the exact location of the whipping post. The Cathedral also has a timber cross carved from a branch of the tree that once hung over Livingstone’s heart, where it is buried at Chitambo, Zambia.

In the Cathedral courtyard there is now a graphic modern sculpture, by the Scandinavian artist Clara Sornas, of five slaves with chains around their necks, standing in a pit in the ground. Slightly larger than life, the slaves’ expressions convey a sense of sadness and futility. In a strange way I found this sculpture more moving and more confronting than the actual records of slavery, probably because there is so little physical evidence of the slave trade remaining in Zanzibar. I asked my guide Mohammed what he thought of his city forefathers being involved in the slave trade and he answered “its OK, it was a different time, it has nothing to do with us today. On Zanzibar we did not supply the slaves, we just supplied the market place.”

Zanzibar slave history sculpture
Zanzibar slave history sculpture

Tall Tales of Twiga in Tanzania

Doesn’t Swahili has the best animal names of any language?  Twiga for giraffe, Simba for lion, Tembo for elephant – to me these swahili words sound exactly like the animals look! Especially ‘Twiga’, which somehow manages to convey the tallness, the awkwardness and the beauty of a giraffe in one short punchy word.

Twiga were in every park we went to in Tanzania, we saw plenty of them, and each one looked so individual – even before they started pulling faces! And they certainly have expressive faces, even slightly absurd faces, I could watch them all day.

Twiga (giraffe) in the Ngorongoro Conservation area
Twiga (giraffe) in the Ngorongoro Conservation area


Twiga (giraffe) in the Ngorongoro Conservation area
Twiga (giraffe) in the Ngorongoro Conservation area


Twiga (giraffe) in Lake Manyara, Tanzania
Twiga (giraffe) in Lake Manyara, Tanzania

We saw some interesting behaviour from three teenage male giraffes. Like any teenage boys, two of them were enjoying a bit of pushing and shoving, a bit of argy-bargy, and the third one was hanging back and looking like he wished that he got to play too – it was fascinating to watch – playground behaviour of the twiga. Can I play too?



Spicy cooking secrets of Zanzibar

This is a full immersion cooking class. I’m quashed into the back seat of the dala-dala(local minivan buses), escorted by the chatty Heelal and the quieter Sa’id, on my way to Afura’s house on the outskirts of Stonetown.  Heelal is one of the people who have set up this network of mothers who take tourists directly into their homes and teach them staple Zanzibar dishes. It gives the family a new way to earn money and us a chance to experience a small slice of their life. I’m also marvelling at how a thirteen seater van can so easily accommodate twenty  two passengers.

Cooking class in Zanzibar village
Cooking class in Zanzibar village

A curry cook-up

Travelling through Tanzania provides many opportunities to try the local curries. The Zanzibar version has no curry powder or tumeric at all, it focuses on the spices that grow on the island, and I’m here to learn to cook it. In a large pot over the charcoal brazier, we add a sliced onion into the hot oil. I struggle to peel and roughly chop three potatoes and a small eggplant with a blunt knife, at least it is easier to grind a generous amount of garlic and raw ginger with the mortar and pestle – using at least half a handful of each, more if I want a strong curry. A further wrestle with the knife as I peel and chop three tomatoes and it’s all added to the pot over the hot coals. After five minutes of cooking weadd a peeled and chopped mango – firm but not green. A couple more minutes and we add 5 tbsp of tomato paste and then mix in a cup of water to get the right consistency.

The final ingredient is four small fried fish. We use sardines, crispy fried, but any small strongly flavoured fish will do it’s similar to adding fish sauce in other parts of the world. It simmers until the potatoes are soft, and then we take it off the heat and let it settle while we prepare the other dishes, including the chapatis to mop it up with.

Cooking class in Zanzibar village
Cooking class in Zanzibar village

Spicy samosas.

This is another dish adapted to Zanzibar’s plentiful spice supply, and easier to master than the chapatis. By this stage I have lost all feeling in my legs while sitting on a very low wooden stool. We peel four potatoes, chop into four pieces, boil till soft and then mash. Meanwhile we finely slice a red onion, and in the mortar we pound together two tbsp each of cardamon and cloves and two tsp of rock salt. All of these are added to the mash and set aside until the pastry is ready.

The dough is much easier to make than the chapati dough. Afura rubs 3 tbsp of soft butter into 2 cups of plain flour. We start adding about 1/2 a cup of water, bit by bit, kneading it in as we go until the dough is smooth, but not elastic like the chapati. We divide the dough into small golf ball sized balls. Each ball is rolled out into a rough rectangle about 10-12 inches long and 4 inches wide, and then cut into 3 rough squares. A spoonful of mash is placed in the centre of each square, and then the dough is folded in half diagonally over the mash, and the two unfolded sides are folded over again to seal the samosa. Now its time to cook in a deep pot of very hot oil – we test the heat by adding a small piece of spare dough first, if it puffs up and cooks immediately, the oil is hot enough. We cook in batches until golden brown on the outside, and stack on a plate to drain.

Cooking class in Zanzibar village
Cooking class in Zanzibar village

Eating the spoils of the cooking.

Lets face it, one of the best things about a cooking class is eating the dishes afterwards, and my mouth has been watering for a while over all these amazing spice smells we have been cooking up. So its time to rip off some chapati and use it to scoop up some curry, nibble on a samosa and wash it all down with cups of masala tea. Its all delicious, and luckily we’ve cooked large quantities which means the extended family all get to eat it as well. I sit cross legged on the floor with two of the men, Sa’id and one of Afura’s sons. I ask if Afura is joining us for the meal, and Sa’id tells me that she isn’t, as she is not hungry now. The penny drops and I ask if, as a Muslim household, the men and women always eat separately, and Sa’id tells me that they do. I ask then why am I eating with them, and they reply that it is OK for a female guest to eat with the men. I suspect they mean that they are prepared to ignore their customs when it is a paying guest, but it’s their house and their rules, so I tuck into my little feast, happy that half of each dish we have made has been taken to  the next door room where the woman are eating. At least I get to pay the pre-agreed price directly to Afura, for her to split amongst the others involved, so I leave hoping that in spite of the eating arrangements, she has some real control over this business.

Cooking classes are still an embryonic business in Zanzibar, so if you are interested in doing a cooking course you may be able to arrange it through your hotel, or I can recommend you arrange it direct with Heelal:

Heelal Tours & Safaris Ltd; Mr Denge, Manager;  Mobile +255 7733 20121;  email dengeramadhan@hotmail.com

Controlling my inner Angelina


Magara children, Tanzania
Magara children, Tanzania

“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. 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 to keep too.

Magara – painting the town (school) cream

Volunteering in Magara, Tanzania

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 we exhale again as we pull free without having to get out and push. We close our eyes as the driver misses our turnoff and executes a three point turn on a steep hairpin blind corner with sheer dropoffs.

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 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. It means that twenty of us are here, at our own cost and having paid a premium, 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 and we are not part of any charity organisation, we are paying our own way, and we are directly donating our own labour as well as contributing extra 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 to wreck, stain and destroy 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). The third team will lift rocks and sand bags and water pails to construct solid bases on which 5,000 litre water tanks can be installed.

It takes a couple of hours to really get started on the first day. First 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 is 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 before we paint. We also have plastic handled paint rollers which we tie onto branches to help us reach the top of the 3 to 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 as a ‘raft’ to carry the large rocks needed to help build the concrete bases. The ladder allows six people at a time to share 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 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.

So after 3 days of hard labour, day 4 goes very much on slow time. We are given an opportunity to share an important day with the local community, their end of school year awards ceremony. We are honoured to plant saplings each, representing that we will always now be children of the Magara soil. The students impress with traditional dances and enthrall us with their singing.

The parents 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 around 4 o’clock in the afternoon, we join the parents and dignitaries and  teachers in a big communal lunch.

I will always 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!)

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 for each nice coldish bottle of beer. Feeling the pure pleasure of 60 seconds of warm water pouring over my head in the tiny bush shower every night. Sinking in the deliciously cool water of the pool under the waterfall. Savouring 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. Embracing the satisfying tiredness of eight hours of solid physical labour each day, and seeing the results of our labour. Smiling at 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. Being thankful for our hard working crew who made basic camping way more comfortable than I ever remember it being before. Forming warm bonds with twenty wonderfully diverse people sharing a unique experience with a common purpose – to help out in a very small but very direct way, to do something practical. 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, and 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 follow the truck 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 capture its own water supply for the first time ever. That’s my definition of euphoria.

Note: I travelled on a World Expeditions Community Project Tour at my own cost