Under African skies

Trip Start Oct 21, 2006
Trip End Mar 21, 2008

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Flag of Tanzania  ,
Friday, April 20, 2007

They say that you haven't really seen the sky until you see it in Africa, and it's true.  Our bus from Nairobi to Arusha zooms out into the empty Kenyan roads and we start to see the Africa we had dreamed of.  Vast, flat plans, empty except for the flat-topped trees, roll out as far as the eye can see.  Covering it all, like a massive white duvet, is the most amazing, never-ending sky of fluffy clouds. 
Every now and again a tall Maasai warrior will emerge into view, standing proudly with his walking stick and elongated ear lobes.  Sometimes we can spot tiny villages camouflaged into the landscape, half a dozen tiny bomas (circular thatched-roof houses).  It's just  like something from a National Geographic documentary and we are so excited to be here.
Arusha is a largish town in northern Tanzania where many tourists kick off their safaris or Kilimanjaro hikes.  It is also the Tanzanian headquarters of MondoChallenge, the volunteer organisation we signed up with for two months.  We are met at the bus stop by Andrew, Mondo's Country Manager or something.  He is a cheerful young South African chap who whisks us off to our hotel. 
"Sew", he asks in his clipped Seth Efrican accent, "wir you bithered by the tarts?" 
"Sorry?  The tarts?"
"Ja, the tarts, treying to sill you thengs."
"Oh, you mean the touts?"
"Ja, the tarts". 
Andrew explains in the taxi that the hotel was double-booked.  Instead, we end up at some Catholic convent hostel, complete with a Whoopi Goldberg in 'Sister Act' look-alike to welcome us.  It's a very basic room but comfortable and completely acceptable.  However, at US$14 a night, it's a little pricey for our $10 a day combined budget.
Andrew takes us to a touristy restaurant for lunch and goes through some of the options we have for our volunteering projects.  He is pushing this new HIV/AIDS thing in which small grants are given to families affected by AIDS and the volunteer works with the recipient to help them build a small business with the money.  Then there is your standard English teaching, computer training and a few other bits and pieces.  It sounds interesting enough but I think the lesson we learned from our Nepali volunteering is to check these things out first before diving in.
He encourages us to come and visit one of the existing AIDS projects nearby on Monday.  That leaves us with a couple of days to kill in Arusha, not one of the world's most charming or attraction-laden towns.  It has plenty of "tarts" trying to sell safaris and Kilimanjaro deals but very little else in the way of tourist infrastructure.  Arusha is one of those towns that you see in the movies - an intrepid American journalist wearing a sleeveless khaki jacket with lots of pockets moves about the shady bars looking for the big scoop on the corrupt politician.  It's dusty and busy; walking the streets is a constant game of dodgems with the Land Rovers, bicycles and pedestrians that rush past, in a hurry to get to somewhere that they can then stand around and do nothing for the next few hours.
Andrew informs us that all the other volunteers in the Arusha area are meeting tonight to welcome us.  Although we are pretty bushed, that seems like too nice a gesture to turn down.  The venue is Stiggy's, an upmarket ex-pat restaurant hidden away from the common folk.  There are about 10 other volunteers there, varying in age from early 20s to late 60s and in nationality from British to American to, well that's it really.  Individually they are nice enough people but the collective vibe we get is that they have their own little clique and we, as newbies, know nothing about anything.  We hear all about their selfless exploits in the community and their remarkable overcoming of adversity:  "Sometimes my shower doesn't even have hot water!"  "They have a different culture here, you know"  "You won't have all the comforts you're used to back home.  But it's sooo rewarding".  Thanks for the newsflash.
Towards the end of the evening, one volunteer stands to make a toast.  He thanks everyone for coming to say goodbye to one of the departing volunteers and also to wish Andrew a happy birthday, which just happens to be tomorrow, and then sits down.  So much for the gathering in our honour.  Not that we need the ego boost.
The other thing that bugs us, while I'm on the subject, is how everyone assumes we have mobile phones.  When Andrew met us off the bus he said "reyt, lit's teek care of the moost umportint thungs furst - chick unto yir hotil, find an ATM ind git you a sum card for your phone".  When we mention that we don't actually have cell phones, even in our real lives, he looks at us in open-mouthed astonishment.  "But . . . How do you contict people whin you're trevelling?"
"We don't really.  We e-mail but that's it.  Why would we want to be in constant contact?"
At the dinner, everyone assumes we have cell phones.  "Yeah, so I'll text you next time we go out to dinner.  There's a place that does a great fettucine alfredo". 
"Uh, we don't have cell phones."
Blank stare.  "Oh," they say, as if I had just announced that I enjoy eating human flesh.
Apparently, cell phones really are the only form of communication around here, given that almost no one has landlines.  Since cell phones were introduced here, less than 10 years ago, they have changed the lives of local people.  Even the most remote Maasai tribesmen have added cell phones to their don't-leave-home-without-it armoury that previously consisted of a shawl and a multi-purpose stick.
Despite being officially the least advanced people in the entire nation of Tanzania, we stick to our guns and refuse to buy a mobile phone.
On Monday, we meet Andrew in the midst of an early morning downpour, the likes of which supposedly strike on a daily basis during the rainy season.  Our first stop is to pick up Ben and Charlotte, two brand new English volunteers.  They are on a round-the-world trip, like us, and are also Travelpodders.  More importantly, they are nice people, without the know-it-all attitude that some of the long-term volunteers gave off. 
Andrew takes us out to Ngaramtoni, a small village near Arusha that is one of the centres of this AIDS project that MondoChallenge is heavily involved in.  Mondo selects 8-10 families who are affected by HIV/AIDS and grants them a small amount of money, between $50 and $90.  This money is to go towards the recipient (generally a single mother) opening a small business, such as selling vegetables or chapattis, and therefore being able to support her fatherless family. The role of the volunteer - which I would be performing down in Tanga - is to help a local community volunteer provide business support to the recipient and hopefully ensure the continuing success of the business.  It's a very worthwhile project that is already into it's seventh or eighth round of funding in Ngaramtoni.  The project is only at the beginning of its first round of funding in Tanga, so I would be involved in getting things off the ground there.   A semi-retired English chap named Jon, who resembles Antony Hopkins, has been here for six months or so already and he loves it.  He is very helpful, much more of a straight shooter than Andrew, and gives us some good advice about things.
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