Day 1: Tanzanian Coffee and Villages

Wow! Today was an incredible cultural experience and there is almost no way for me to do it justice via words, but I’ll try! Our day started with a pickup by our driver and guide, Max, who took us up to see a coffee plantation and tour some of the villages that dot theslopes of Mount Kilimanjaro. The drive up the mountain was incredibly bumpy and I was certainly appreciative of the 4x4 safari vehicle. We passed some very small villages of local Tanzanians in the middle of their daily business, including gentlemen carrying the head of a freshly killed cow, kids going to school, and women gathering grasses to feed their cows. 

At the top of the mountain we parked and started a walk to one of the local waterfalls. The hike took us passed even more huts and small family dwellings where we had a chance to really experience the life of a local. Words cannot begin to describe how different this was from everything I’m accustomed to seeing in the western world, which made it incredibly powerful. For instance, most of the houses had limited electricity and flushing toilets were regional and shared by multiple people outside the house. I saw one radio (that was probably from the 1970s) and no televisions. Access to the internet and cellular networks is extremely limited. Most of the women didn’t have shoes and it was obvious that much of the wardrobe originated as a donation from a western country. For instance, we saw t-shirts from a Halloween party in Chicago and a lacrosse high school team and I’m 100% certain they were charitable donations that eventually found their way across the oceans.

While the waterfall we saw was spectacular and very pretty, the cultural immersion was far more powerful to experience. We had fantastic guides who were happy to talk to us about their lives. Here’s a sample of “fun facts” we picked up during the day:

  • A family here can have upwards of 20 children, although most will have more like 7 kids. Men who have many cattle are allowed to marry multiple wives.
  • A well-to-do family here will make 2 million Tanzanian Shillings a year. That equates to about $1,000 USD. Many families here live on less than $1USD per day.
  • While schooling in Tanzania is free, parents need to pay for books and uniforms, which can cost $50/year per kid. The economics mean many kids won’t get an education; a family living on $1 a day can’t exactly afford the fringe costs of education.
  • A favorite drink is a beer made from dried millet and sweet banana. We got to taste some and while the beer wasn’t exactly my favorite, they had a banana wine that I found more appealing.
  • The coffee farms here are hardly what we’d call a farm in the United States; it was a cluster of a handful of bushes and coffee beans were sold to a larger coffee company that distributes it worldwide. For the family we saw, this season yielded approximately 150kg of coffee, which is their only source of income for the year.
  • Many families will keep their cattle inside their house and have the house serve as the cage. This is so they can collect the dung for fertilization.
  • In Moshi, women sell a variety of things from shoes to pants. To advertise their sales, they will carry one of the items on their head - so we saw some women carrying a single shoe on their head. Apparently size isn’t an issue here either, you buy shoes because you like them, not because they fit.
  • Election season is approaching in Tanzania and we passed a pickup truck blaring some music and slogans. We asked and apparently the truck was driving around to remind residents to register to vote.
  • Coffee is a big cash crop here, but corn provides the major food source for locals.

After the hike, we visited the coffee farm of one of the local residents. Farm is a very generous term because it is not the sort of farm we are accustomed to seeing in the west. The farm consisted of a dozen small bushes that they pick the coffee bean from. Once the beans are picked, they use a hand mill to remove the bean from the outer shell and then wash the beans. Any beans that float are bad and have been affected by one of the parasites, while sinking beans are good. After they soak for a few days, they are set out to dry. Finally, they are roasted over an open fire for 15 minutes and then crushed (by hand) into coffee grounds. Watching the process as they made us a cup of coffee gave me a new appreciation for this drink and you can’t help but think that instant coffee makes these people furious!

Having a day completely immersed in the lifestyle of the local villagers who live around Mt. Kilimanjaro was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had traveling. Even my travels through the Middle East have been relatively “normal,” but seeing people who may not live to be older than 50 and who live on so little was truly eye opening. I almost felt guilty using a camera that cost three times their annual income to photograph them! Yet despite their situation, they never sounded sorry for themselves. Seeing people who have such a different view of the world and their lives is an experience that will stay with me for an eternity. 

Unfortunately the wifi at our current hotel is very slow, so I can only share a fraction of the photos I took of the adventure, so I’m sharing these to wet the appetite and more will follow when internet improves.

 The daughter of a coffee farmer sits on the mud step outside her hut

The daughter of a coffee farmer sits on the mud step outside her hut

 A woman who is probably in her 50's was shucking corn shells by hand while her sons work the coffee farm

A woman who is probably in her 50's was shucking corn shells by hand while her sons work the coffee farm

 Some village children sitting by the side of the road. They were very amused and curious to watch the white people since they see so few tourists.

Some village children sitting by the side of the road. They were very amused and curious to watch the white people since they see so few tourists.

 A woman carrying a bunch of grasses over her head as she walks home to feed her cattle. Many cattle live in the huts with the family, so the food has to be brought to the cattle. 

A woman carrying a bunch of grasses over her head as she walks home to feed her cattle. Many cattle live in the huts with the family, so the food has to be brought to the cattle.