By Chike Pilgrim
Dust covers my shoes as I walk the city center. The city of Arusha, in northern Tanzania, has its share of high rise buildings, and is well paved, complete with concrete sidewalks. But I’ve walked an hour now, in the cool weather, from Njiro, and that part of Arusha is typical of much of eastern Africa, which means that pedestrians like me are battling dust or mud depending on the time of year.
Dust on my shoes and on the lower part of my jeans immediately classify me as a man without a car, and even without a piki-piki, the name for the motorbikes that buzz around the town like so many enormous flies. My dusty appearance may mean some trouble when I step into a more high-end store, until I open my mouth and speak my halting Kiswahili, effectively identifying myself as a foreigner and therefore someone who can most likely afford to buy the store’s items.
A Maasai, in full traditional clothing, strides past me. He may be on some sort of business. He may be headed to the part of the city where Maasai men gather to examine tanzanite, the extremely rare bluish-purple precious stone that Arusha is famous for. He may be on his way to work as a security guard for one of the wealthy United Nations expatriates that operate in Arusha. These “expats” usually work at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, a UN operation that houses many lawyers and technical staff. He may be selling nuts and cigarettes for all I know.
The Maasai have become part of the everyday experience for me, although in the first few months of my stay in Arusha, I was awe-struck every time I saw Maasai. With staffs, swords, ear-piercings, shaved heads and brightly colored Maasai clothing, Maasai seem to me to be defiant time-travelers from a long lost, Africa I romanticized. However cell-phones and cars mark them as regular inhabitants of the 21st century.
Most Maasai seem to walk though, to prefer walking, as I do. I have heard of those that would walk from Arusha to the neighboring city of Nairobi in Kenya during the period of one week – over one hundred and fifty miles. Their sandals, made from the rubber of used car tires, facilitate these treks, as do their physical endurance and how accustomed they have become to the relatively harsh landscape and the cold.
And Arusha gets cold for a Caribbean man like myself; twenty degrees centigrade in the day, falling even to eight and six degrees at night. Freezing really. Although close to the equator, this area is cold because of its elevation, and that is understandable. In addition, the highest free-standing mountain in the world, Mount Kilimanjaro, is quite close to Arusha.
Kili, as she is affectionately called, hides herself in fog most of the time, and I had to take an hour’s drive just to see her. She’s beautiful and breathtaking, but she is not to be underestimated; attempting to climb her can cost you your life. Even the wind that blows down from her is no joke.
A middle-aged Chinese couple and a young European man with a huge beard pass me on the sidewalk, stopping to buy pineapple slices at the side of the road. Their Kiswahili is not bad. In fact, it’s better than mine. Maybe they took lessons before they left their countries. Maybe they live and work here.
My experience here has taught me that judging people based on appearance is misleading, even harmful. My first guess would be that they are tourists though. Arusha does see more than its share of visitors. Some come to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. Some come to visit the Serengeti and watch the animal migrations. Some have come to Olduvai Gorge, one of the oldest archaeological sites in the world, made famous by the Leakys. Some have no clear aim, like myself: kizunguzungu, dizzy voyagers who have come to see “Africa” or for whom Arusha is simply another stop on a global sojourn.
Chike Pilgrim is a writer and historian from Trinidad and Tobago. He’s recently completed an MPhil at the University of the West Indies St. Augustine entitled “Black Helix: The 1970 Black Power Movement in the light of Pan Africanism.” He’s deeply interested in ancient History, particularly that of East Africa and the ‘Middle East’.