Chaga, pt. 4

At our hike’s end today is supposed to be a waterfall. I’ve been to waterfalls before, so this destination does not particularly compel me to press on. It is the beauty of the hike – the journey – and the not knowing what wonder will be around the next bend that makes me put one foot in front of the other. A wonderful chameleon. A cluster of sweet berries. An awe-inspiring lookout. A group of friendly youngsters. Indeed, the beauty of this trail and its surprises would have been payoff enough.

But as we saw from a distance … then hiked down to … then experienced up-close the seemingly untouched waterfall which was our destination, all my categories and boxes and definitions for “beauty” were annihilated. Cold, clear melt water cascades over a craggy cliff into a pool 200 feet below in thunderous fashion, its mist serving as a natural air conditioner for the entire valley. Along the waterfall’s path and around its eventual resting place were trees and plants of the deepest green. No wonder, I thought, so many Chaga had set up farms in this fertile valley, where drought and oppressive African heat could not threaten the soil that has sustained them for so long.

The Chaga have occupied the southern and eastern slopes of Kilimanjaro since the 11th or 12th century. The home of the ancestral Chaga, however, is the nearby North Pare Mountains, where nomadic, Bantu-speaking groups from other parts of the continent settled. Soon, however, population growth in the North Pare Mountains led some banana farmers to seek new lands, and the new Chagaland soon became the nearby and mighty Kili. Today, there are an estimated 1.5 million Chaga on and around Kilimanjaro, as well as in Arusha and Dar es Salaam, making the Chaga the third-largest ethnic group in Tanzania. Even today, some overpopulation on the mountain has forced some Chaga to relocate to low-lying areas and cities.

Oscar heartily greets every person he sees as we walk back on the trail toward our truck. He laughs and bellows out jokes as if he’s known the person his whole life, which he very well may have. The Chaga, like most Tanzanians, take greetings very seriously. One would never think of passing by another Chaga without happily acknowledging his presence, making sincere small talk, and parting with well-wishes. Older people are greeted in a particular way which bestows honor on them, because they are believed to be closer to their ancestors.

We experienced this first-hand with a group of four or five siblings playing outside their house. The oldest could not have been older than nine, the youngest a toddler. They called up to Oscar and Maggie, the two Tanzanians who were with us, greeting them with honor. Maggie explained that even though the rest of us were white – mzungu – we were older and therefore worthy of honor as well. The oldest sibling, a little girl, not only greeted each of us as she would an older Tanzanian, but she invited us into her house to eat leftover food from the night before. When asked what her mother would think of such an invitation, she replied in Kiswahili, “My mother won’t care. She isn’t home.”

We kindly declined her sweet offer, but filed it away as another example of the beauty of this mountain.

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