Elephants in Tanzania

Monday, 8 September 2014

The Village Meetings

Rainbow light strikes pink flocks of distant flamingoes on plains of East Africa
This was not my first village meeting. In fact, I can’t remember how many times I have sat, surrounded by the Masai in their red shukas, discussing land, poaching, charcoal burning and conservation.

This was the first meeting, however, for Liz, my niece and protégé.

We had been called to Ol Tukai village to talk about our leased area and the conservation development work we are doing there.

We left Arusha to arrive for a meeting starting at 10 a.m. We sat outside the village offices, greeting the tribal elders, elected officials and the women as they slowly arrived over the next four hours.

Of course, we should have realized that a 10 a.m. start was flexible. The chairman and village secretary showed us the teachers’ houses, which were being renovated with donations from the camp we have here.

On African time

By the time we started, well after 2 p.m., we were seated on hard benches in the small, very hot and humid meeting room with less than 20 village members. On the dais sat the village chairman and secretary and representatives from Monduli District. Perspiration was not in short supply.

After introductions and a brief reading of the agenda, an elderly Masai gentleman walked into the room and a rapid and emotional discussion occurred in Maa, the language of the Masai.

We were then politely asked if they could postpone the meeting, as apparently a body had been found floating in the dam nearby. An exodus occurred, with the men heading towards the dam while myself, Liz, and a few of the women of the tribe waited outside the village offices.

We heard a man had been missing for a few days. The local theory was that he was heavily intoxicated and fell into the flooded dam late at night. A new date was picked for the meeting.

We try to meet again

Ten days later, having been called for an 11 a.m. start to a second meeting attempt, we arrived sharply at 11 a.m., minus Liz, and waited for the meeting to start at 2 p.m.

The day was heavy with rain clouds, massive downpours and flooded roads.

We gathered under the spreading branches of the village baobab tree, spectacular views towards Lake Manyara and the escarpment our backdrop, complete with smudges of pink flamingo flocks.

You get used to the seemingly endless waiting involved with these meetings. I use the time to let myself get distracted by the lovebirds burrowing into the office ventilation blocks, looking for nesting sites. Or by the herd of 30 zebra, thundering across the open pastures in front of us, intermingled with Masai cattle and herders.

And I observe all of this from a hard-backed kitchen chair, placed at the front of a circle of Masai elders, beneath a 1000-year-old baobab tree.

Talking conservation with Ol Tukai elders under a 1000-year-old baobab tree

Time to ponder

This area is a vital wildlife corridor between Tarangire and Manyara national parks. Its beauty, desolation, remoteness and astounding birdlife first attracted us four years ago, when small lakeside forests were being cut down for firewood and used by itinerant fisherman during the dry season to build shanties.

This meeting was well attended with more than 200 members from the community. The elders stood in a circle around our hard-back chairs, spears firmly planted in the ground. The women sat apart, in a group off to the right, outside the shade of the baobabs.

Whilst waiting for the ward officer, or diwani, from Monduli, the local doctor stood up to talk about pregnancies. The discussion was translated from Swahili to Maa.

He spoke about how important it was that wives having their first child should attend the local dispensary. He said women on their third and fourth pregnancies should also attend.

Interestingly enough, this discussion was held with the men of the tribe and the women played no part at all in the talks.

The doctor became overtly frustrated when the men asked him on numerous occasions how to tell if their wives were pregnant. Everyone made fun of a hapless elder who asked what to do if he lost count of his children!

During these discussions, Bernard, our operations manager, was in touch with the diwani. The dams overflow channel had risen from the 20 cm when we crossed in the morning to more than half a metro.

The diwani and the others from Monduli were on the other side, too nervous to cross in their Rav 4.

Bernard went to pick them up so we could finally start our meeting. Half an hour passed as discussions about the water level ensued.

Confident in abilities of our Land Rover, Bernard crossed the channel, collected the district officials and started to return. My own thoughts turned towards our trip home and how much more the water level would rise.


It was now after 3 p.m. After sitting here for four hours, and listening to the exhortations of the village doctor and the importance of not having babies in the mud huts, even if it is the third or fourth, I start to wonder about the heavily laden black clouds coming from Tarangire that were following Bernard as he returned to our baobab.

Greetings occurred as the district officials alighted. School bench chairs, such as I used in primary school so many years ago, were fetched from the school half a kilometre away. The meeting was finally about to begin!

Then fat, lazy raindrops started to fall — the really big ones before a storm. We grabbed our seats and were told to adjoin to the primary school classroom. Two hundred Masai, Bernard and one mzungu carried our chairs through puddles and mud.

We all crowded into the small classroom. Ventilation wasn’t a problem as there was no glass on the windows. Bernard, myself, the district and village officials sat in front of the blackboard.

The chairman stood to start the meeting, again going through the protocol of greetings. The tin roof vibrated with the sound of heavy raindrops, then there came a roar as the storm passed over and the rain pelted down on the other nearby tin roofs. It sounded like a freight train.

We sat there, unable to talk, and just stared at each other. One of the staff from our Ol Tukai camp was sitting opposite me. He laughed uproariously and took photos of me with his phone, completely enjoying the irony of the moment.

Baby giraffes on plains near Ol Tukai village, Tanzania

My eyes wandered to the wall posters of Swahili riddles and pictographs. “My home does not have a door,” read one.  Answer:  “An egg”.  I struggled with most of the meanings, trying to attach the drawings to the riddle.

A roof leak developed in a corner of the room and a steady stream followed, causing some movement as the chairman was in the line of fire. I watched the stream creep across the broken, cracked and pitted floor. I followed it with interest as the rain thundered down, a pool gathering in front of me where the concrete floor had been chipped away.

Homeward bound

After an hour, the rain eased and eventually stopped. We picked up our chairs and desks and adjoined to the rain-soaked muddy square that is the school playground.

It was now 5 p.m. Some of the women had already drifted away to prepare evening meals and I was ready to call it quits, too.

Again we tried to start our meeting, but now the district education officer wanted to talk about the school attendance rate and to berate the men for not sending their children to school and providing food on school days.

Ol Tukai, it seems, has the worst performing school in Tanzania, which is saying something, as there are more than 2000 schools. The officer made a special plea to make sure all children attended the forthcoming exam week. We were asked to donate 10 bags of uji (porridge) so the children had an incentive to turn up.

Six hours had passed by the time we finally get to the meeting agenda.

I was numb. It was dark and there were no lights, so it was impractical to continue.

Bernard and I followed the Rav 4 to make sure it didn’t disappear into one of the local water holes as we headed back to Arusha in the dark. We arrived 12 hours after we left, both of us exhausted.

There is a scene in the John Wayne movie, Hatari, where the characters are catching giraffe and zebras on black cotton soil. In the background, you can see an escarpment and, every now and then, the acacia forests that are Ol Tukai. There are a lot more doum palms nowadays and far less acacias, but it is a rare glimpse of what this area was like over half a century ago.

What's left here is worth saving. There will be more meetings in our attempt to do so.

1 comment:

chrisbradley1209 said...

I really appreciated you painting the picture for us. I laughed, but understood how frustrating it could be. I have to find the Hatari movie. I don't know that I've ever seen it, but it will be a preview for my ANP stop. chris