Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Searching for Africa

In the past few days, I’ve managed to form a slightly more nuanced impression of Njombe. Turns out, when the sun is shining, it’s actually pretty warm. Not to mention crisp and beautiful. The landscape here is very different than Dar – huge expanses of pine forest, alongside rolling, grassy plains. In the morning everything gives off a hazy, light orange hue, as the mist rises from the fields. I’ve also seen more women riding bicycles here than any other place I’ve been to in Africa.

In order to flesh out my impressions of Njombe and its environs, I spent Sunday in tourist mode. Two friendly Daraja staff members (one who I know from my days at HakiElimu in Dar) accompanied me on my tour. We first went down to “bwawani,” a magnificent (man-made) lake, which reminded me of Lake Jordan in North Carolina. My HakiElimu friend explained that the lake was built by the nearby flower company, and was very popular with the few wazungu that work there and in Njombe. Sure enough, we encountered about 5 of them, in the “Members Only” boathouse. They kindly allowed us to park there despite not being members and we proceeded to walk to the other, seemingly less proprietary, side of the lake and watch one flower company exec’s intrepid wind-surfing attempt.

After watching him take a few tumbles in the water, we proceeded with our true mission: searching for Africa. Or rather, a natural rock formation that very closely resembles the African continent. I had heard about this on Thursday night, when I first met the Daraja crew over beers, and saw a picture on somebody’s phone. The last naturally occurring Africa-shaped apparition I’d seen had been in middle school, in the form of a classmate’s birthmark – a tidbit I shared with the Daraja crew, to their amusement. Needless to say, I was excited.

Finding Africa proved more difficult than we anticipated. Neither of the guys I was out with had been there before and the directions we’d been given were rather spotty. We gave a lift to one old woman from a nearby village and she promised it was “just up ahead” but her directions proved futile as well. Finally we called the guy who had driven the guy with the picture on his phone, and learned that we had to see the village chairman and seek permission to see Africa. By this time, it was getting late and I was beginning to think this might be more trouble than it was worth. But ultimately we found some guys who seemed to work for the village chairman in some capacity, so they called him, got clearance (so long as we paid an entrance fee of about $4), and jumped in our car to direct us. We ended up retracing our steps quite a bit but it was worth the hassle. The Africa rock formation was quite cool, and it was situated in a spot with beautiful views, enhanced by the fact that the sun was close to setting.

Our “search for Africa” also led to an interesting conversation about perceptions of Africa in the West. When we posed for photos “on the continent,” I stayed in Tanzania and South Africa, whereas my friends from Daraja both hightailed it to Libya. I had asked what they thought of the current situation there, and they said – echoing what seems like widely held opinion here – that they thought NATO had gone too far, the West should have respected Libya’s sovereignty, and yeah Qadafi was a dictator but maybe a lot of people liked the way he ran the country. I responded that I hadn’t made up my mind and was curious to know what people in the U.S. are saying about the situation there. To this, one of the Daraja guys responded by asking me whether people the U.S. even pay attention to what’s going on in foreign countries. He didn’t seem to resent American lack of awareness so much as take it for granted. He then asked what I had thought about Tanzania before I ever came here and I had to confess I wouldn’t have been able to locate it on a map, and might have thought it was an island due to some confusion with Tasmania. (Those who know me well know that geography has never been my forté.)

I’ve now spent a few days in the field piloting my survey and have seen an even greater variety of climate and ways of living in this area. The first village we visited was stark – very hot and dry – so I was completely overdressed as I had prepared for a typical chilly Njombe day. But then today we were up in the hills, with beautiful views and a cool breeze. And I’ve just been told there’s a waterfall here I must see before I leave… I am wishing I had a bit more time here, though I must confess am looking forward to seeing the Indian Ocean again before I head back to the States.

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