Today we are going to the African Bush to visit and camp at the villages. We are borrowing tents from the hotel, the tents have been sent all the way from Arusha, in the North of Tanzania, luckily they have arrived and are waiting for us. We set off early at 9 and meet Jasper Makala and Jonas Timothy at the MCP office in town. I’ve been particularly looking forward to meeting Jonas, as he was so good in the recordings from the last programme. It seems there are one or two formalities to sort out before we can go into the bush. This part of the adventure is quite amusing and just a bit stressful. Firstly we visit the District Forestry officer to gain permission to go into the forest, we sign his visitors book – Martin plays him his flute – this part is all very jovial. We then have to go on to meet another official, we queue in a line huddled on a couch. I’m beginning to feel a real need to speak more Swahili, - at least somes Swahili, I’m getting very confused by the variety of different greetings I have heard so far. I get my small phrasebook out and practise saying ‘What a beautiful day!” “Ni siku nzuri sana!” The man in the queue next to me laughs at my attempt.
The Official we are waiting for is delayed so we head off to the market to buy some food for the trip, however, before we get there we have a call telling us to go to the immigration office to have our visas checked – the mood here is different – much less jovial. They take a look at our visas and tell us we have the wrong type. Luckily I am carrying a copy of our application for a press permit – the one that both Alan and I have made various trips to the embassy with back in the UK. They tell me we’ve done it wrong and if we want to continue we have to pay $200, we hand over the cash fill in yet another form, they hand back our passports (phew!) and then we’re on our way.
The market is in a large shed like building – there are lots of different stalls selling rice, and vegetables, there are lots of flies. We buy plenty of food and then head to another shop to get some tins of sardines, tuna and corned beef – plus plates, cups, thermos. We are heading back to the car when I get a call from Katie in London saying the mattresses we ordered haven’t been included in our tent packs. This is quite funny there’s been so many emails flying back and forth about this arrangement – luckily there are some spare at the MCP so we return to the office to pick them up.
Finally, we are on the road - after about 30 minutes Jonas points out a rather uninspiring looking tree by the side of the road – mpingo! We get out and view it, We then go on to an unmade road which is really rough – the 4x4 dips and rolls through more dense woodland, some areas are scorched by fire, some bereft of trees. But much of it is lush and it’s a very beautiful place to be. We go though several small hamlets until we arrive at Ruhatwe Village.
The village consists of several converging roads lined with houses mostly constructed of mud and wooden poles. As we drive through everyone stops and stares, some people wave. We stop in what seems to be the centre of the village and get out of the car, we are immediately surrounded by groups of inquisitive dusty children, we head to the house of the village chairman who takes us to the village meeting room to meet for the official welcome and signing of the visitors book – all the children follow us in – I get my recording equipment out and they are very excited but very well behaved however and sit in lines at the feet of the chairman at his command. I do a short interview with the chairman about mpingo with Jonas translating and then ask if I can speak to some of the children, 2 of the older of the group speak to me, they are extremely charming.
After this we go to set up camp in the school grounds. Once the tents are up we return to the centre of the village and take our food to the woman who will be cooking it for us later. Again we are instantly surrounded by the children. Martin goes to take out his flute, I rush over and rather sternly warn him not to play without permission as I had a sudden realisation on the way, these villages are conservatively muslim and this is holy month – Ramadan, so people are fasting. I have remembered that sometimes this also means not playing music! (good time to plan the trip Nina!!!!)
Anyway we ask Jonas and he says it’s ok – the children enjoy the playing and we have a small sing-a-long.
Jonas suggests a walk around the village, all the way around we are followed by the children – I am trying to learn some of their names there are 3 in particular stick very close. I think they must be about 5 years old. We view the waterpump – and see some women getting their water for washing. Apparently the water for drinking is another 30 minutes walk from here across a field. They have plans for a new well, closer but they need to raise the funds. We also see the dispensary. The sunsets and we make our way back to the centre. There is no electricity in the village, so it is very dark save for the light of candles at the doorways of the houses and the cooking fire where a group of women are cooking our food in the open-air.
My trying to remember the names of the children is rapidly growing into a schooling in Swahili. I am surrounded by about 15 children, I am trying to say ‘What’s your name?” Jina lako nani? And ‘My name is Nina” ‘Jina langu ni Nina’ for some reason, probably as I am overwhelmed by the experience and very tired I am finding this unbelieveably difficult. The children press into me as we repeat the words over and over again, there is much laughter. One boy in particular becomes my teacher, by the light of my head torch it’s as if he is pressing the words into me through his emphatic and expressive pronunciation, he hisses the words, quickly repeating ‘again, again, again… very good’ I think I will remember this lesson and this boy as long as I live, what I can’t quite believe is I don’t remember his name. He said he would like to be a teacher when he is older and I think he has given me an insight into his own schooling. I laugh at my feeble attempts at learning his language, he says ‘sister, why do you laugh!’ ‘ Because I think I am not good at this’ I say.
I am summond from the crowd of laughing children for dinner, we sit on a mat by the house and eat our rice, sardines and cabbage washed down with really tasty ginger tea.
After dinner Jonas tells me that our suspicions about music being restricted during holy month is right, but the singing group we have come to visit have agreed to perform after dark far away from the village. So we walk by moonlight to the corner of the school football pitch, as we approach a fire is visible it has been lit to warm the skins of the drums.
The music begins, their songs are accompanied by dancing, drumming and ankle bells. It’s really magical in the moonlight. After about 4 or 5 songs they stop and Martin is invited to play, this is equally magical and the group our spellbound. They ask questions of each other and then one of the men in the crowd come forward and plays the flute, he’s really very good. The best we’ve heard so far. Apparently there is a tradition of playing bamboo flutes in this village. After he stops Martin reveals the flute he has made especially for this trip and gives it to the flute player as a gift. Everyone is delighted. We head back to camp and I interview Martin about his experiences, he’s really impressed with the people here and the simple way in which they live.
During the night there is the sound of drumming and singing from different parts of the village – apparently this is the sound of people visiting different houses breaking their fast. It’s very atmospheric, and could in another situation seem a bit scary – but I feel safe in this village, the people have made us feel so welcome.