Africa Notes #2
First impressions of a new city – a new continent – emerge slowly. Our hotel breakfast showed remnants of British influence –the nice pot of tea with proper cups, the jam and toast with the eggs… but walking into the street, Africa became real for us. East Africa is a blend of tribal people, immigrants from the Arab lands and India, and a variety of people of European origin who now call Africa home… each with their own clothing styles…robes, loose togas with bright reds and yellows - intense patterns, western clothing, tall Arabic head dresses , scarves Sikh turbans… The street people were quick to recognize us as foreign and swept over us with all manner of goods and services to offer – and our first lesson of the day was how to develop a firm but non-hostile response. We quickly learned the difference between those who were aggressive sales people and those who were genuinely friendly and curious about us.
Native markets in many parts of the world have a similar feel – people selling vegetables, crafts, and white elephants… The wood workers – the iron mongers – the weavers… Part of the market experience is the spectrum of smells – from roasted meat and bread, flowers and spices, rot and smoke… The Arusha market is a bewildering maze of narrow walkways over moldering piles of vegetable waste, spilled fluids, past great piles of tiny silvery dried fish, live poultry, mysterious vegetables, broken cement… and tidy merchants who sweep clean the area in front of their shop. If we expressed the least interest in an item, we draw a crowd, and the bargaining begins. We have bargained before, but here it is a serious business – the first asking price is often totally unreasonable – followed by a generally good natured back and forth process, but serious too. Some merchants even follow you down the street repeating their best offer and assurances of “top quality”.
Evening finds us gathered in the hotel patio with fellow travelers, sharing half liter bottles of Kilimanjaro lager. An easy relationship develops when those who have good stories to tell share their day’s adventures. A family of 4 from Belgium had just returned from a 5 day trek to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro – it was the fulfillment of a life long dream of the mother who had recovered from serious medical problems as a child. The family was joyful in their success – and it was great inspiration to share in their victory. People gladly share ideas to help each other in planning their next day. E-mail addresses are exchanged along with invitations to visit.
Day 2 in Arusha – I am reminded of a great truth – “If you want to understand another culture you must avoid using the standards and expectations of your own culture. “ We went this morning with a young Masai man on a daylong trek up from the town, through the Masai village market area, along narrow pathways into the hills and valleys above. Our guide stopped and spoke to many – the style of the people was easy going and friendly – Our vocabulary of Swahili is growing to perhaps 20 words… and there were was much laughter and hand shakes as we made our way past the market stalls and homes. Each culture of people has their own understanding of what is required for a good life, how much money is needed, how time is spent, relationships, what a nice home should look like… Masai concepts are clearly different from North Americans… but we feel very much at ease with the people here. In every case when we meet someone, male or female, there is a special 3-part handshake – lingering holding hands for an interval. In our day we passed only one party of 3 Europeans … the children seemed to find the presence of us in their village a point of interest. We walked past corn and banana fields, vegetable gardens, cattle, new cement block homes and traditional huts. Our young Masai regularly guides up Kilimanjaro and he set a steady pace – We ate a fine lunch spread out on the brilliant red garment brought by the Masai. ( I also got a lesson in how exactly to wear the robe properly )n Judy decided to stay at a high overlook while the guide and I walked/climbed down the treacherous way to the river below –where due to the thick plant growth, we walked upstream to the base of a great long waterfall – never have I seen such exuberant fern and liverwort growth. The climb out was – challenging… We encountered a nest of intense stinging ants that climbed very rapidly up my pant legs before choosing a spot to bite. I learned today that the old Masai way of life is changing – there are some that cling to the old way of keeping cattle and living a migratory life – but many have become educated and work in town, or have established profitable small farms. It is interesting to note the similarities of these people and this environment to the people living in the hills of Oaxaca Mexico – both corn and banana based – both small land holding – both with similar concepts of home, village, and human relationships.