Into Africa

    An alumna takes us into the heart of Tanzania.

    By Lyndsay Hobbs on April 29, 2011

    An alumna takes us into the heart of Tanzania 

    There is a perpetual heaviness to the air in Tanzania. It is thick with dust and heat and the scent of vegetation and sweat. But last summer, as I stood underneath the canopy of deep green leaves at the base of the Sanje Falls, the air was clear and the temperature several degrees cooler than usual. Although a chill ran through my body, I knew I would probably only get one chance to swim in a pool at the base of an African waterfall. I hesitated for a moment, my toes curling around the slimy bark of a log balanced across the water, then I took the plunge into the falls and dove headlong into the culture of East Africa. 

    Sanje Falls

    Sanje Falls

    I had travelled to Tanzania as part of a month-long field course in environmental and conservation studies at the U of A, led by Naomi Krogman and Lee Foote. Our group was small, about 15 students, and the size and pace of the course encouraged personal reflection. Tasked not with typical assignments or papers or presentations, we were mainly responsible for observing and experiencing this remarkable country. 

    Open Hearts & Open Doors

    It’s easy to develop an intimate relationship with Tanzania. Storefronts, bars, restaurants and homes all open up onto the road, creating a vibrant street life, where neighbours always stop to talk and where music crackles out of tired, old speakers. Gates and fences are scarce, so there are no physical or emotional barriers between you, the tourist, and the real Tanzania. However, this means that the country’s social and economic problems — such as the vast gap between the rich and poor, the lack of infrastructure and access to education — are also on display. 

    This openness extends from the personal to the political in Tanzania, which openly struggles between western and more traditional values and models of economic progress. To the western eye, Tanzania may seem underdeveloped, but it has stumbled across a balance between traditional community self-sufficiency and big business, privatization and conservation. For each massive, foreign-owned sugar cane plantation — a major export and employer — there are hundreds of tiny family farms, where Tanzanians raise livestock and grow coffee, yams and bananas, employing traditional — and sustainable — methods. Not just some recent fad, sustainability has long been important to the farmers of East Africa, who have traditionally used natural pest control, such as boiled tobacco leaves, and raised diverse crops to prevent the risks inherent in monocultures. Likewise, within this country of vast national park space, there is a dialogue happening in each conservation area about how best to support traditional hunting and grazing needs and guard people from dangerous animal species, while still protecting the rare and exquisite biodiversity of the region. 

    Capital Experience 

    Our journey into the heart of Tanzania began at the Kilimanjaro Airport, where my classmates and I piled into a creaky, dusty bus for the drive through the centre of Arusha, the nation’s capital. Ensure that upon arrival you search the skyline for a glimpse of Mount Meru, an active volcano that can be seen from almost anywhere within the city. Besides a beautiful view, Arusha hosts the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, bringing employment and political representatives to the city since 1994. 

    Elephant spotted on safari

    An elephant wanders past tour trucks during a safari in Lake Manyara National Park.

    Although Arusha has a population of 1.3 million, this number belies the serenity that permeates its crowded streets. “Crowded” does not mean the same thing in Tanzania as it does in Canada. Being surrounded by hundreds of bodies that move with a languid, almost rhythmic lilt will lull you into a sense of security that is both unexpected and soothing. There is no notion of anticipation in Tanzania, only contentment with one’s immediate present. This becomes obvious while travelling through the country and watching carefully planned timetables crumble away. Learn to embrace the moment and let the country sweep you up and carry you in any direction it pleases. 

    Just north of the city lies Arusha National Park, the safari park that shattered my preconceptions of what a safari is. When I visited in the summer, the savannah was surprisingly lush and green. Alkaline lakes hosted flocks of flamingos so large that they created a seemingly solid pink surface on the water. And, glimpsing the curve of a giraffe’s neck rising suddenly from the nearby treetops, I was reminded of why conservation of the vast wild spaces in Tanzania is so imperative. 

    Down the Rabbit Hole 

    From Arusha, you can travel westward toward the Ngorongoro region, whose rich colour palate derives from the area’s dark red soil and stands out in stark contrast to the more jungle-like surroundings of the capital city. The Ngorongoro Conservation Area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that incorporates wildlife conservation and human habitation in a multi-use system, and its highlight is the Ngorongoro Crater, which was created when a large volcano collapsed in on itself two- to three-million years ago. 


    Wildebeest grazing on the crater's plains.

    Our long drive down into the Ngorongoro Crater, some 2,000-feet deep, was foggy and damp. Reaching the crater’s floor felt a lot like falling down the proverbial rabbit hole. My proportions were all off balance. The surrounding walls seemed to stretch up forever. And although I could see shapes in the distance I couldn’t tell how far away they were or what lay immediately ahead of me. It took the sun until almost noon to breach the crater’s edge, but, when it did, it illuminated the scene with the evocative blues and yellows that are synonymous with the Serengeti. The afternoon heat evaporated any trace of moisture in the air, and a mass of hundreds of slowly moving wildebeests blended into the grey-wash of the sky. 

    Sitting cross-legged in the grass on the base of the Ngorongoro Crater I felt myself — for the first time during my trip — to be an integral part of this incredibly diverse and exciting ecosystem. The same grass scratching my bare legs was — a few feet away — forage for water buffalo and gazelles, warthogs and waterbucks. The same wind carrying the scent of prey to lions was blowing through the tangles of my unwashed hair. And the dirt kicked up by herds of zebras was settling itself onto my skin. 

    Ngorongoro Crater

    The western rim of the Ngorongoro crater at sunrise.

    Breaking away from my group one afternoon, I walked down the road to a small market to catch a glimpse of daily life in Tanzania. Women were setting up produce stalls filled with coconuts, avocados and sugar cane — common to the Tanzanian diet — right in front of their homes, while their children played beneath their feet. The men ran their own small storefronts nearby, selling candy bars and soda, scolding misbehaving children as they ran past. For the first time since getting off the plane in Africa, I felt a part of the country. And if you are able to go there and adopt the relaxed pace of the people around you, you might find yourself feeling as much a part of Tanzania as any local, too. 

    Lyndsay Hobbs

    Lyndsay Hobbs is a recent University of Alberta graduate with a BSc in Environ­mental and Conservation Sciences. She is working at the U of A’s Office of Sustainability and will begin graduate studies in 2011.