Well here we go... as promised from the last post, this one will focus on the villages we visited in the Usambara Mountains. This post will also feature my best attempt at capturing some of the just epically beautiful views that the area has on offer. As always, the pictures do no justice for actually being there, but I've done the best I could. I hope you enjoy it!
Mambo: this is the village that brought us here... a village and its views. The best thing though is that what we really ended up falling for were not just its idyllic setting but Mambo's people, the very thing that make a village exactly what it is.
Mambo is small, and Mambo is rural. The main highway can be seen a few thousand feet below in the sprawling plains, and Mambo sits above in its mountain perch, about as far as you can get from Lushoto, which is the main access point to the Western Usambaras.
Mambo is beautiful, but Mambo is poor. The village is obviously impoverished. There is that charm there too that somehow seems to go so easily with poor communities in idyllic settings, and that "charm" makes any conscientious wealthy person feel tremendously guilty. There is also an authenticity of life there that is just impossible to replicate in any large urban area. That's the nature of the charm in my opinion, but it's only those lucky (i.e., wealthy) enough to not live in such conditions that can afford to see it unfortunately. Mambo is also in an almost unbelievably beautiful setting...
This is a typical landscape vantage from the village. As I said, a beautiful setting.
My friends and I stuck out like sore thumbs... we spent pretty much all of our time outside walking or taking in the views. The best part about this was that local kids would randomly yell out to us with the call of "mzungu," which means roughly "one who wanders aimlessly." Mzungu is a term that East Africans use for foreign travelers, particularly those of European descent. The best was that the kids would yell from across these huge valleys, and we would hear them and then barely be able to make their tiny waving figures out. It was so touching in many ways.... first that they made out our pasty skin from such a distance and next that they knew we would hear them, search desperately to find them, and then respond by waving back at them. It was so sweet and brought about an instant endearment for the people around town, especially the kids.
A lot of this post will be photo-heavy... I'm guessing that won't be a problem. What I'm trying to convey with those is: this place is freaking beautiful.
If you can't tell already, Mambo is also very rural. Agriculture dominates the landscape. There are few places around that are untouched by human hands. Even most of the trees you see are fruit trees that have been planted to supplement the diet. However, trees are a hot commodity in Africa... most people still cook every day over open fires and heat their homes with fireplaces. That reliance on flames combined with the exploding population has been devastating for East Africa's already scarce forests.
Like much of Tanzania, the population of Mambo is also predominantly Muslim. Many of the women around town wear the hijab.
Wandering around the village is rewarding. At any time of day, you are offered views like this... incredible combinations of sweeping views and human development.
And then there is the normal aspects of modern human society... like the Nido Cafe: a small, locally owned cafe selling locally grown coffee an tea.
One thing not to be missed is Mambo on market day. Mambo's market erupts in the main village square once a week. It is humble but rich. It is exactly what people have been doing for thousands and thousands of years. The Usambaras have market days rotating around different local villages on pretty much every day of the week. People descend on the market towns from all around with their fresh produce or recently acquired goods to buy, sell, and trade.
Even better than the market was the school visit. Our local hiking guide, Ally, asked us if we wanted to visit the school on the way back from a hike. We enthusiastically let him know that we would love to. At the end of the hike, we walked to the school. Ally first brought us to the principal's office to ask permission for us to visit one of the classes. The principal was a very nice older man who welcomed us and told Ally which room to take us to. We walked in on a math class with what looked like a group of approximately 10 year olds. We said hello to the children, who definitely seemed interested in learning about us. We ended up drawing a rudimentary world map on the board so we could show them where we came from. The kids were just fantastic and very well behaved. The teacher also let us sit and watch the rest of his lesson on long division. He was impressive, and the kids definitely were learning a lot from him. Seeing all of that was a priceless experience.
I already mentioned that Mambo is a poor village. One of the clearest signs of that poverty is the seemingly ever-present sight of people hauling water from the few wells and pumps back to their homes, which clearly do not have the luxury of running water brought to the home by some kind of plumbing system. So, you are often greeted with sights like this one of people carrying 50 pounds or more of water in buckets on the top of their heads. One afternoon, I ended up helping a group of the local kids taking water uphill back to their homes. The kids were very, very amused by my effort. These little guys, about half my size, made it look effortless to pop these heavy, awkward buckets up on their heads and then walk up hill. I managed to get it up there, though balancing it like that is hard as hell and tough on the neck. Those kids are strong. The whole time too, I was so worried that I'd drop it and spill their water! I made my delivery though, sweaty as I was after the effort and with a small herd of giggling kids following closely on my heals.
Like I said, this is something of a common sight. This is one of the major factors in poverty and how to alleviate it. Many of the world's poor spend a significant amount of each day going to collect water for drinking, cooking, and washing. This is time that could be spent on other, more economically productive activities if only they had running water coming into or very near their homes. I wont even get into the negative economic impact from unsafe drinking water and how much time the workforce is inactive while ailing from water-borne digestive maladies.
Mambo's soccer field could use some work. It's not tremendously level, nor is it very soft. However, the kids tear around on it in bare feet nonetheless. The field seemed like it was almost perpetually in use. The kids loved it, and they obviously loved the game!
There are some spectacular views around town... I mentioned in the last post all the hiking we did in this epic landscape, so I won't spend a lot of time on that here. It is needless to say though that the hiking is amazing around there.
I talked about this in the last post too. The area is mostly farmers... most of the views look like this. Humans have claimed these mountains for themselves and done their very best to tame them by chopping down and burning down the native forests and planting whatever they feel best serves their dietary and monetary needs.
The agriculture does lend the place that warm, rustic quality that is so hard to find nowadays. So often you are met with views like this... the place is idyllic in so many ways.
Our fearless and fantastic guide, Ally, followed by a pack of school kids.
Now onto what drew us in from afar: The Viewpoint
Like I mentioned above, Mambo is perched in the mountains above the Masai plains. Now, I'll offer the photographic evidence. Here it is... these pictures do no justice. However, I'm sure you can imagine that the views from our ecolodge, which are the buildings seen here, were simply epic.
Supposedly, on the clearest days, you can see Kilimanjaro from the viewpoint. We didn't see it at all while we were there. But that didn't really hurt anything... the views were still incredible at all times of day.
Looking in a slightly different direction, you see the light glinting off of distant lakes and highlands further to the northwest. Further that direction is Kilimanjaro, Arusha, Ngorongoro, and Serengeti.
The viewpoint offers this great rocky point that you can walk out on... somewhat like Pride Rock from the Lion King but a hell of a lot higher.
Now I'm going to do something that I rarely do, I'm going to discuss some of the finer points of our accommodation. The Mambo Viewpoint guest house, seen here on top of the hill, is an incredible place to stay if you ever find yourself in Mambo.
The guest house follows a very interesting and admirable model: put the locals to work and get them directly involved in tourism, promote local goods (like the cheese and honey and other locally sourced products), and promote local entrepreneurial endeavors. The guest house employees are locals. The guest house purchases locally produced goods and food and promotes locals to produce specialty products like cheese and honey. Furthermore, the guest house promotes locals to go into business for themselves and sends guests to them. An example of this is Ally's tour guide services; he operates his own business, independent from the guest house but benefitting greatly from their clientele.
One of the finer details of the view point were the birds, swifts, that swoop up and down the cliff faces. They just race along at super high speeds, and the sound they make as their aerodynamic bodies whoosh through the air is really neat.
Another nice detail for the early birds out there is the sea of clouds that greets you early in the morning.
I loved watching the sea evolve on this morning... the clouds were pouring over the mountains
So you have the sea of clouds for sunrise, but the sunsets are pretty amazing too.
Another nice detail are the clouds that grace the sky so often, which just seem bigger and more impressive than what you might be used to thanks to the great vantages afforded by the mountains. I'll just let these pictures speak for themselves.
Being a rural mountain area, the nature around Mambo is a pretty good too...
One of the highlights is the chameleons. These little guys are all over the place if you keep your eyes peeled. They aren't very big and are of course notoriously good at camouflage, so you do need sharp eyes and to pay attention.
In fact, keep an eye out for all sorts of things. There is quite often great beauty in smaller details that most fail to notice or appreciate at all.
Not all is idyllic of course... while we were there, we noticed often plumes of smoke rising above billowing fires. Those fires are the result of slash and burn deforestation for new fields. It seems insane to us, but this is a tactic used the world over to quickly clear a new plot for agriculture.
I've already mentioned the poverty, which is also obviously not idyllic. Chat with many of the locals, and you'll also hear about the corruption and frustration with the government and its false promises. One glaring example of this were the many, many empty power line poles running along the main streets. Supposedly, the government came in and put in the poles with the promise that power would be delivered to all. This of course was done immediately before a large election. After the election was over, the same corrupt politicians were in control and no power lines were every strung along all those empty poles. It was frustrating for me to hear this... I can only imagine what it is like for the locals who must suffer under such governments.
Then there is this cold, hard fact. Women do the majority of heavy labor around the area. They farm the fields, haul water, and collect fire wood. As the folks at the guest house described it: "women are the trucks here." The woman in this picture is hauling a bundle of firewood up from the valley below... that's over 1200 vertical meters (1.2 km, 0.7 miles). And she is doing that with a heavy bundle of wood carried on her head.
Let's zoom out on that... yea, she came up from way down there.
"Women are the trucks here" ... I can't get over that. Despite the beautiful, seemingly ideal setting, life is not easy here; it is not good for many. Supposedly, it was the local women that hauled up all the construction materials for the guest house. What's the glass half full picture here? Well, the women at least are tremendously hard working. Now if only they didn't have to spend half or all of the day hauling fire wood and water, maybe they could devote that work ethic to more economically beneficial endeavors.
Well, here is an example of that. There is much poverty around the area, yes, but there are more and more people being ingenuitive to take advantage of the tourism and the much needed money that tourists bring. This family made earthenware dishes and containers. Ally worked with them, bringing us by to see the goods and meet the family on the way to hike in the forest. We gladly supported these folks... I have several cups and bowls in use around my apartment.
Another treat on our itinerary was the visit to Mtae, which is Ally's home town. Mtae is approximately a 3-mile walk along the road from Mambo.
Mtae sits perched along the top of a long ridge line that runs out to a point... the one main street runs right along with the village's buildings hugging the terrain on either side.
Just like Mambo, Mtae offers more beautiful views.
The greatest treat in Mtae turned out to be one of the best meals I had in East Africa. This place offered nyama choma, or grilled meat, but we ended up having a vegetarian meal of fresh (and amazingly flavorful) veggies, rice, and beans. A meal that Ally told us was something that most people eat regularly every day.
And now onto the best part of these places... the people, and in particular, the joy and kindness of the children. The local kids would regularly yell out "Mzungu... peecha!" That translates to: "Hey white foreigner, take our picture!" We gladly obliged and showed the kids the results on our digital displays. Here are some of my favorites. I have printed all of these pictures of the local kids and sent them to the guest house to be distributed to them and their families too... I hope they enjoy them.
Amazing people, and this guy was the prime example. We had a great time with our guide and learning about his culture and home. Mambo might be poor in many ways, but it is so very rich in many others.