SUMMIT READY! #comeatmeKili #GoneClimbing #seeyainaweek
Following my last post, and the supper with the wooden vaginas, Mackrine invited some of the volunteers to join her on a visit to the Engarooji Maasai community. She has been working with the Engarooji people for a number of years to eradicate FGM. Only recently have the Engarooji birth attendants relinquished their circumcision instruments (in exchange for sheep), and our visit provided a reason to celebrate their progressive, brave decision.
I must admit, I was fascinated at the thought of journeying into the bush to visit a traditional Maasai community. As well as having the opportunity to meet some incredible women, I wanted to see the warriors; the jumping; the long hollowed earlobes; the vibrant robes; the big disc necklaces, the bomas (mud huts).
As our mid-last-century minivan hurtled off the main road, and lumbered cross-country over the soil and scrub, I let the dust sting my eyes to really soak up the experience. An hour and a half later, we were still chugging off-piste in our tin truck (sans suspension) in pursuit of the Engarooji village. The romance and mystique had just about worn off when at last some bomas materialised on the horizon.
We could hear their song as we approached, and yes, there was jumping (*squeals*). As we disembarked the vehicle, we were engulfed by a throng of about thirty Maasai women in bright red, blue and purple robes, and swept into the procession. Whistling, singing, dancing, bouncing; there were colours, sounds and tits flapping everywhere. Being a tourist, I was shamelessly videoing the entire reception, and even managed to capture the time I was hit in the face by a rogue Maasai breast on film. Priceless.
The women shepherded us into a clearing where the formalities would take place. Mackrine and the village elders addressed the group, and congratulated the former FGM practitioners on the courage it took to abolish the practice. We then participated in a Q&A exchange on women’s issues, shared some warm sodas, and enjoyed a bit more jumping and singing. The carbonated drinks encouraged a great deal of burping and farting from the Engarooji women, and I had to bite my tongue really hard not to laugh. I am hopeless. It was an insanely great afternoon.
I remember when Waris Dirie wrote her international bestseller Desert Flower and appeared on Oprah. It was the late 1990s, and the gruesome practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) made its way into the everyday vernacular, becoming a symbol of gender imbalance and most awful violation of human rights. The heinous tradition was slammed by politicians and celebrities; despised in op-ed columns around the world.
Yet for all their survivor interviews and dedicated research, the myriad of features published in the New York Times, Le Monde, and The Daily Telegraph failed to make any serious dent at a grass roots level. Nearly 20 years later, FGM is still prevalent across Africa. In Tanzania, an estimated 17% of women aged between 15-45 years have been mutilated, which in rural areas among certain tribes runs up to 100%.
Step in one formidable Tanzanian woman named Mackrine Shao-Rumanyika, who is actually instigating change. Since 1993, Mackrine has campaigned against FGM through awareness programs in remote communities. What does this entail? Literally hopping in a 4WD and driving for hours and hours across dusty scrubland to educate remote Maasai villages all over the country. Mackrine’s campaigns always begin with a presentation to community leaders and chiefs: the elders and warriors need to be on board, convinced that abolition of FGM will benefit the health and prosperity of their village, and then spearhead the change.
The plight to eradicate FGM among Maasai communities is a tough one. For centuries, female circumcision has been a rite of passage in the Maasai culture, and the traditional birth attendants (also the cutters) have long been respected spiritual leaders. Once they surrender their tools, they are sacrificing their way of life and changing history for the next generation. It is a significant gesture.
Progress is slow going, as the Maasai villages are numerous, small and often isolated. Mackrine might invest a great deal of time to abolish FGM in one village, only to see a young girl marry into another village that is not educated. She will then be mutilated, and the practice lives on for another generation.
Last week, Mackrine had a few of us volunteers over to her place for dinner followed by a beginner’s workshop on FGM. As we gathered on her sofas, full of spiced vegetables and chapatti, Mackrine provided an intro to her organisation HIMS (Health Integrated Multisectoral Services), followed by an exhibition of FGM: an assortment of wooden vaginas demonstrating the varying degrees of absolutely fucking atrocious mutilation. The casual workshop was not at all casual, but gave us ignoramuses a proper look at what FGM actually was.
From my previous posts, it may be evident that mzungu life for a fresher in Tanzania can be pretty intense. Way to relax and let down my curly hair? Hujambo S-A-F-A-R-I-!
Myself, Justine and our Croat-Dutch mate Damyan purchased 3 safari hats from the local market, downloaded a Lion King/Toto playlist, found an AUX cord compatible to our khaki Land Cruiser, and signed ourselves up for a four-day expedition to the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater with a big game ex-hunter called Godson. Um. Yippee much?
People warn against having really high expectations, for fear of disappointment. Well. Sporting our safari hats, vests and binoculars, the three of us waved goodbye to Arusha in a state of euphoria that did not abate for a single moment of the following 96 hours. Imagine three goons waving their hands out of the popped roof of a 4WD, all to the crescendo of Elton John’s ‘Circle of Life,’ before we had even left the city limits. Poor Godson.
I must say, Godson actually coped with our love of cliché and ability to find our own company extremely hysterical very kindly. The relentless gags may have worked in our favour, as Godson discovered the only time we shut up was when he showed us some awesome animals. In a 48-hour period we saw the Big 5 (elephants, buffalos, rhinoceros, lions and leopards), cheetahs, a million zebras, gazelles, impalas, giraffes, hippos, topis, dik diks, warthogs (I once was a young warthoggg!), jackals, monkeys, flamingos, vultures/herons/stalks/ostriches/owls/too many other birds, dung beetles on dung, and wildebeest migrating. Yes that’s right, we saw some good, good, good, good migrationnnns!
As the afternoon sunlight began to fade on our last evening in the Serengeti, Godson must have been really fed up. Why? Because he thrashed our safari vehicle back to a lioness we had been tracking earlier in the day, and this time she was not alone. By not alone, I mean she had gone to pick up her twelve baby cubs to chaperone back to the main pride. May I repeat: TWELVE BABY LION CUBS. If there is anything in the entire universe that is cuter than twelve baby cubs scampering past you only metres away…I will change my name to Godson. Simba, Nala, and ten of their buddies. Right there. My life sort of peaked: I was breathless, melty, in raptures, intoxicated by baby animal.
After the ecstatic palpitations subsided, and the sky reddened behind the acacia trees, we headed back to camp high-fiving and exhilarated. The rice, curious stew, and squishy bananas had never tasted so good, and we crawled into our tents to a chorus of trumpeting elephants, cackling hyenas and lions roaring. Camping in the Serengeti doesn’t make for the best night’s sleep, but it’s certainly an experience. Godson has witnessed three deaths in his 13 years on safari (one 76 year old lady trampled by an elephant, one American tourist disembowelled by an elephant tusk, and one English hunter ripped apart by a buffalo), but all of these tragedies were due to various reckless behaviours. Inside your tents, the animals will not bother you. You just can’t take any food into your tent, go pee during the night, or get too close. The thought of an elephant outside stomping on my skull didn’t enter my mind more than 756 times. We whispered a lot of Hakuna Matatas to will ourselves into slumber.
After two nights of Bear Grylls’ style lodgings with the beasts in the Serengeti, we checked into a lodge at Ngorongoro Crater for our last eve of safari. Lodges in any of the decent game parks are cringey expensive, but hell worth every last dollar. That hot shower, leather sofa, and beverage on the balcony of the Crater rim were magic. Also knowing that there was nothing prowling by your sleeping head made for the best forty winks in the world. We blissed out.
Safari in Swahili means ‘trip.’ No kidding, We rafikis are still tripping about the week that was, and Damyan the baboon is still wearing his safari hat. Get thee to the Serengeti.
One day last week, I got the hell of my ghetto hood, and took the dala dala to visit my friend Justine at the orphanage she is volunteering at, around 45 minutes away at an oasis called Usa River. The ‘Cradle of Love’ is a baby home for newborns to three year-old infants who have either no parents, or parents who cannot take care of them for various reasons.
Back home, I like a good night out on the turps as much as the next person. I knew that coming to Africa I’d be drinking less, or have less occasion to drink, but I was looking forward to the healthful upside. Fewer calories, fewer hangovers, fewer terrible photos.
Turns out that thanks to the unfortunate Tanzanian diet (starches, sugar and oil) coupled with the lack of places to run safely or wear exercise clothing in public, the Special K body I was hoping for hasn’t exactly materialised. Plus, as many days are so emotionally demanding, it is often an excellent idea to go for a drink and digest. The Tanzanians aren’t exactly known for their expertise in viticulture, so when the sun is setting behind Mount Meru and it has been a long day, the volunteers will meet for a few cold ones. Gin and tonics/vodka are very hard to find, and ice is the devil at many local taverns (hello, typhoid), so drinking beer from longneck bottles is the most trusty poison. Martinis and cut crystal coupes are a distant memory.
While I have sampled the portfolio of local lagers (Safari, Serengeti, and Kilimanjaro) and acclimatised somewhat to #volunteerlyf, one thing I have not yet embraced is the Arusha ‘nightlife.’ For one, it’s not safe and all mzungu volunteers have an 11pm curfew. This means if you want to get freaky-fresh and stay out late to boogie at Via Via (the local discotheque), you need to book yourself into one of the downtown hostels. Note the ‘s’ there. This doesn’t exactly appeal. I want to sleep under my own mosquito net, preferably without my cash strapped to my chest in a public dorm.
The only time I gave it a nudge (I was home before curfew) was one Thursday eve, at an electro concert hosted by the Alliance Francaise (ha!). I was an Australian in Tanzania, at a French club, chatting to a Tunisian chick, listening to an American DJ duo. The whole thing was quite bizarre, but the tunes were good and the United Nations vibe really grew on me after a couple of ales.
Nothing like kickstarting the day with a little bit of moonshine.
Introducing Bahati Bekuku, the Tanzanian Beyoncé of gospel music. She is a national hero and everybody loves her. How could you not, with those sensational outfits and hunky back up dancers. Insatiable stuff.
Typical days working in microfinance in Tanzania do not really exist. Although I’ve only been here five minutes, it seems that every hour delivers some new shred of intrigue.
Our week is structured around visiting six different groups of women living in vulnerable circumstances. We provide interest free micro loans and training to empower them with the skills and resources to start a sustainable business, and escape the vicious cycle often created by poverty. The end goal is that through small scale entrepreneurship, the ladies can create better futures for themselves. Lots of girl power vibes.
Although each group numbers between eight and twelve members, all have their own distinct identity. For example we have a group of young widows and abandoned wives; an older mentally and physically disabled group; a group of Masai women; and a group of HIV/AIDS infected women. In my first week here, issues on the table that affected women’s ability to work included homelessness, terminal illness, female circumcision and domestic abuse. And here I was thinking I was here to learn about the impact of microfinance initiatives in developing communities. I had a shitload to catch up on.
While I am still in the baptism of fire period, wondering what the hell is going on every day, I can identify some commonalities in my so-called routine. Meetings never start on time, though when they do get going, the format is never the same. There are always handshakes (but all different kinds of handshakes) and warm greetings in Swahili (me, I just smile back like a dumdum), sometimes followed by a cup of eye-wateringly sweet ginger tea or a strange snack. Like a frozen Swedish scroll from a nearby missionary, or some vitombwas (fried rice cakes).
Other times, one of the women will arrive with a tragic tale or wild scandal that will be translated in detail for us. Or half the group might have to attend a funeral, or go to the local court to settle some outlandish dispute. At some point we conduct the business of the day. We check the ladies’ books to ensure they are recording their revenues, expenses, profits, loan repayments and savings correctly, and then we do some bookkeeping or marketing training. Some ladies in the groups have never been to school and have absolutely no literacy or numeracy, so these tasks can be quite a charade. We chat about the previous week and the approaching week, workshop opportunities or concerns, and brainstorm ways to increase their earning potential.
More often than not, all the volunteers’ university education and work experience combined is completely redundant, as we have learned that for many businesses, a successful week is largely determined by the weather. When it rains, the ladies selling buckets of tomatoes and onions on the street do a roaring trade, as people can’t get to the market. When it’s fine, the ladies with dukas (tiny shops like milk bars) sell loads of soda and beer, and when it’s cold, the ladies hunched on the curb grilling sardines sell out. Seasons are also crucial. July is popular for weddings, so the tailors are inundated, and the lady who sells roasted peanuts looks forward to school holidays when the kids come flocking for her snack sized packets.
The mentality is if you don’t have any customers one day, it is no tragedy. It just means your friend must be getting business today; it will be your turn tomorrow. Not sure which quadrant on the SWOT analysis that falls into, but who really cares. The sisters are doing it for themselves.