Under African Skies

Most people arrive in Africa full of preconceptions. Best look for the real continent, writes RÓISÍN SORAHAN, whose time in Zanzibar prepares her for a trip up Kilimanjaro.

AFRICA HAS been over exploited and over explained – usually in terms of what it is not. It has been described as a dark star and a heart of darkness. It is an absence to be filled and a dilemma to be solved. “The problem with Africa” is a line I heard repeatedly when I arrived in Tanzania.

Every traveller I met carried expectations to the continent and, in some cases, wandered until the Africa they had read about, or seen on the news, was dragged out of hiding. I met Chad, an aid worker who had arrived in northern Tanzania with a pocketful of cash. The project he had signed up for, which provides vocational training for orphaned girls, was not what he had anticipated. “This isn’t Africa as I had pictured it,” he told me. “I want to help, like, starving children.”

Women harvesting seaweed off Jambiani beach, Zanzibar. Photographer: Will Chin

I’m not sure why I wanted to come to Africa so badly. I wasn’t filled with a desire to do good and fix the continent, although my sense of Africa was as constructed as Chad’s. I wanted to make long journeys in bad buses over red-dust roads. I wanted to see the sun rise on Kilimanjaro.


I wanted to look at the women, bright as butterflies, in their colourful khangas. I wanted to get lost, lose track of days and sit by roadsides. And I wanted to follow this adventure with the American I had met on my travels in Latin America, who had already traipsed through the southern region before we met in Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania, to begin our travels through eastern Africa.


When I landed in Zanzibar I was greeted by a pack of legitimate drivers and wayward chancers who stalked the doorway, straining to snatch the sun-dazzled travellers. As I was taking stock the man beside me, who was welded into a plastic chair, lazily introduced himself as the head of smuggling, narcotics and international terrorism. He had my attention, and I was in no hurry to face the fray, so I settled my backpack and listened as he chatted about his two wives and six children, the strains of maintaining two houses and his plans to open a hotel.


Tourism is a serious business in Zanzibar, driven by the island’s great beaches, dilapidated Arabic architecture and heady scent of spices. Walking the narrow maze of Stone Town, in Zanzibar City on the western side of the island, I felt I had returned to medieval times, and half expected to see bandits around the next corner, or a bucket of slops to fall on my head. A scent of drama mingled with the smell of barbecued fish as clusters of men gathered in the cool of the evening at Jaws Corner, and an erotic draught of colour escaped from beneath the black shrouds worn by many of the Muslim women.


The conservatism of Stone Town recedes on the beaches that cover the coastline, as does the volume of shady traders slavering for easy dollars – though in Tanzania you are never fully free from either. Wherever I wandered I was followed by the strains of “My friend, my friend, where are you from? What do you need? I can help you, sister.” Most could be shrugged off; others, once it became clear you weren’t going to buy anything, were happy to point you on your way and welcome you to their country. The word karibu – the Swahili for “welcome” – is used liberally and sincerely throughout Tanzania.


I spent a few days on a beach in southeastern Zanzibar called Jambiani. About three kilometres long, and flanked by a village, it is a world away from the full-moon-party exuberance of the northern beaches. Still, it’s a very busy spot. The tide goes out before sunrise, followed by women who harvest seaweed.


The seaweed farms are created by grafting the plant on to string that is wrapped around wooden poles driven into the seabed. The seaweed is collected, dried and then sold to a Japanese-owned factory in the village. The work is back-breaking and the rewards slim. The women receive 150 shillings – less than 10c – for a kilo. The money gives the women a degree of economic independence, however, and often helps improve household comfort.


I loved the pace of Jambiani. The sea went out, the women harvested; the sea came in, the men fished; and all the while children played on the sand. I also ate some wonderful food.


I stumbled on a restaurant overseen by Ailish, a lively man of about 60. As we ate he entertained us with stories of life in Jambiani and the secret of good food and happiness. He is a farmer who met his wife on a neighbouring island. She was smitten by him on sight – or so he told us. “But of course it is much easier for the man to say: I like you, I want to marry you.”


She said yes, and, 26 years later, they have six children. She is clearly loved deeply, and with humour, by her wise husband. He told us that he has just one wife. His eldest daughter is a teacher, his son a policeman. Education, he believes, is very important. So are his wife’s cookery skills.


As we wiped our fingers after the fresh, meaty catch, he seduced us with tales of his dinner earlier that evening. Full as I was, Ailish caught the hungry look in my eye and gave a couple of shillings to some youngsters who materialised from the darkness. They disappeared, returning in time with leftovers from the family’s evening meal of steaming coconut-laced curry. His wife is indeed a wonder, and our host had many, many reasons to be content.

The snow-capped peak of Kilimanjaro. Photographer: Will Chin

The ease of Jambiani was a soft introduction to Tanzania. My plan was to soak my mind with sunshine before tackling Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain, in the north of the country. It was a crazy idea. I had spent seven months in front of a computer. My body was lazy. So it was with a mixture of grim foolhardiness and the confidence of the ignorant that I headed for Moshi, to start a six-day hike. My fingers began to tingle and my ears popped before we had even reached the entrance to Kilimanjaro National Park. It didn’t bode well.

The first couple of days passed in relative ease, however. I got to know our guide, Joseph, who was saving to send his children to secondary school. I came to recognise our porters, who wore ragged clothes and bounded ahead, carrying over their heads weights that I could not even lift off the ground. And I received daily instruction from our trekking companion, a boy-scout leader and US navy captain who was clearly in his element.


Then day three sneaked up and the route got steeper. One foot in front of the other. The hours passed. It was Monday. Talk of grey gloom and the Irish recession were far from my mind. Joseph chanted “ pole, pole” – “slowly, slowly”. We finally arrived at our camp for the evening, which was in the shadow of the snow-capped summit. It was beautiful. But the peak was really, really high, and I started to feel nervous.


On day four we reached our final camp before the summit assault. We had three hours’ sleep before we awoke in freezing cold to a cup of tea and a couple of biscuits. By midnight I had layered on every piece of clothing I had brought with me, and we set out for Uhuru Peak, Africa’s highest point, at 5,895m above sea level.


As we trekked through the night I heard other hikers softly singing. I was drawn forward by their gentle rhythms, like sirens in the mist. We arrived at the summit at 5.20am. The sun had not yet risen. The wind was whipping. My head was swooning from the altitude, and ice pearls formed on my eyelashes. Joseph had to secure my mittens on my hands, as I could no longer move my fingers. But when I reached the age-beaten sign that marked the end of my journey the geologist grabbed me in a bear hug. “You sure are one intrepid girl,” he boomed. I nearly burst with the euphoria.


I ran down from the summit. I had made it. I could do anything. Running was no bother.

I was at the start of my African adventure, and I had passed the test I had set for myself. I’m still not sure why I climbed Kili, and I’m still not sure if I would do it again. Each night on the trail I was riddled with dreams that whispered of failure. But when I reached the tent after the night ascent I slept deeply.


I woke up no wiser about where my path would lead me as I wandered through Africa with the American. But I was certain I was fit for the journey. I still don’t know what “the problem with Africa” is. But I do know its roads are as dusty as I had imagined, its buses tyre-worn, its drivers even wearier.


Throughout Tanzania I crammed with up to 27 other passengers into Hiace vans that smelled of flesh and diesel and semi-digested food. Yet while sweating on a bus, as I waited for it to fill up before it would move from its sun-roasted spot, I noticed, outside, a boy of about nine with his nose pressed against the window. He had given up trying to sell his cigarettes and was intently watching me. After a time he lost interest and left, but not before planting a kiss on the glass.


My Irish skin, long hair and khaki trousers marked me as just about the oddest thing that many of the people in the villages had seen this past while. There were days when I felt like the Pied Piper as clusters of youngsters giggled in my wake. Many I talked to wanted to be doctors or lawyers when they grew up. Most of the young adults dreamed of going to the US, the land of Obama.


I found myself in the midst of a new life with no guide other than my instincts. Each bend in the road offered another perspective, and every hill was a summit to be conquered as the bus I was on creaked and groaned towards its peak. It was a good life, with no signposts and no rules. I was on the road and in my element.

Where to stay, eat and go

Where to stay

Where to eat

Ngalawa: Zanzibar’s traditional canoe. Photographer: Will Chin

Where to go

Daranji Market. Off Creek Road, Stone Town, Zanzibar City. Pineapples, passion fruit, cinnamon, curry spices, lemon grass and vanilla pods spill off the stalls. Visit early, when the food is at its freshest and the bargaining is in full flight.


Old Slave Market. Stone Town, Zanzibar City. The memorial statue and slave holding cells, under St Monica’s Hostel, are a sobering reminder of the role played by Arabic traders across Africa.


Go there:


Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com), British Airways (ba.com) and BMI (flybmi.com) fly from Ireland to London Heathrow. Ethiopian Airlines (ethiopianairlines.com) flies from Heathrow to Zanzibar via Addis Ababa. ZanAir (zanair.com) flies from Zanzibar to Arusha, for a bus to Moshi.


Want to climb Kilamanjaro?


The children’s charity Barnardos is hosting a trek up Kilimanjaro in October. To take part, call 01-7080480, text TREK to 51444, e-mail trek@barnardos.ie or download a brochure from barnardos.ie. In the meantime, here are some tips.


Don’t listen to the legends. Yes, it’s hard, but of course you can do it. I met a woman who had scaled the peak to celebrate her 60th birthday.


Do listen to your body. It is impossible to predict how the altitude will effect you. Doing the hike over seven days lets your body adjust. Pack altitude medication as a precaution.


Women, come prepared. Altitude can mess up your menstrual cycle – something neither guidebooks nor your tour operator will tell you.


Bring lots of layers. It may be warm at the base of Kilimanjaro, but the summit is below zero. If you don’t have proper gear, use a guiding company that can provide it.


The meals served by the cook are full of carbohydrates. Eat them even if you’re not hungry, to keep your body fuelled and the cold at bay.


Ensure your boots are well broken in before you set out. Trust me, it’s not the time to test a new pair.

Article originally published by The Irish Times