Archive for the ‘Africa’ Category

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.


Chaga, pt. 3

The homes were fewer in number the further we hiked, often standing alone amid tall banana trees or bunched together in a cluster. Oscar points to a ridge on the side of a hill facing us, indicating to us the beginning of Kilimanjaro National Park. “Beyond that line,” Oscar says, “no one can live.” We were approaching the highest inhabitable regions of Africa’s tallest mountain.

The higher altitude huts and communities were perhaps the most fascinating to me. The dirt trail we were on is the only physical connector between these people and a market, pub, or pavement, even. A trip into the lower elevation communities to sell a basket of bananas or maize could take a whole day, the majority of which would be spent hiking to the main road. These people advertise their various goods and services, as well as make community announcements, in Kiswahili scrawled in white paint on the front of a tiny wooden pub. Sort of the East African version of the Dow Jones ticker.

Given the simplicity of the lives of the Chaga, one could imagine our surprise to discover electricity this high up on the mountain. A simple wooden gutter catches runoff water, which continually flows over a simple water wheel made out of an old bicycle rim. The wheel turns, creating an electrical current that travels to an adjacent hut through a thin copper wire. The current this contraption produces likely only powers a single light bulb, a radio or maybe a cooking surface, but the ingenuity to create such a functional – albeit simple – generator this deep in the Tanzanian jungle still amazes me. One does what one must, I suppose.

Chaga, pt. 2

While much of the western world walks down shiny aisles of supermarkets and chooses from six different brands of celery salt, the Chaga depend fully on the soil they walk on. Living off land replete with natural resources that Kili gives them, the Chaga grow maize, sweet potatoes, yams, arums, beans, peas, red millet and bananas. When the harvest comes, they share with their neighbors, but not for profit – they share because that’s what neighbors do. Chaga families run their kihambas – or plots of land passed down from generation to generation – using advanced irrigation practices, terraced farming techniques, and continual fertilization have survived millennia, making the Chaga one of the wealthiest people groups in Tanzania.

Recreation comes packaged differently here as well. Children keep a wooden top spinning in the dirt by slapping at it with a whip. Other children simply play the universal game of “stick and wheel,” a toy reminiscent of Puritan America. Adults enjoy lively conversation in small, wooden pubs drinking the local mbege beer, in chairs underneath a banana tree, or while working in the fields. DVDs, iPod and Xbox are foreign concepts here – unnecessary, even.

My ears pop as we climb in elevation. The trail winds along with deep greenery on either side, switches back to descend into a shallow valley and then becomes steep to climb again. Each climb yields inexplicably beautiful vistas: sun-drenched terraced farms on an opposite hill, rail-thin waterfalls that seem to trickle thousands of feet down the mountain into the fertile earth below, and Moshi town and the vast, flat expanse of land beyond. The air now has a slight chill to it, though slightly diminished because of the labor of our hike. For those who think all of Africa looks like The Lion King, one step onto this trail pretty much shatters that misconception in a heartbeat.

To Be Continued

Chaga, pt. 1

Clinging to the side of mighty Mt. Kilimanjaro‘s fertile southern slope, a people group thrives on practices of living that have survived millennia.

Their simple homes, easily entertained children, kind smiles, and sweat-inducing field labor — not to mention their almost complete lack of “modern technological conveniences” — speak to a society that exists in a way so diametrically different than those of the western world, yet is somehow surprisingly sustainable in a globalizing world.

As we followed the tiny dirt trail higher on Kilimanjaro and deeper into its lush jungle, we were introduced first-hand to the Tanzanian people group known as the Chaga. Our guide was a young Chaga named Oscar, who leads short day hikes and has served as porter for foreigners who come to climb the tallest free-standing mountain in the world. His clothes are simple, his footwear simply sandals made from old tires. He has a boyish face, his skin is dark and his smile is wide and white.

“This is my home,” Oscar tells us as we approach a tiny thatched hut. Dirt-caked children stop their playing and stare at us as we leave the trail and gather outside the home. Someone in our group disappears into an adjoining building to use the squatty-potty as Oscar offers a generic introduction to his family, in various states of busyness or play around their humble plot of land.

Oscar shows us some coffee plants that form a sort of border around his family’s home. He breaks off a couple greenish beans and rolls them around in his hand, explaining how the beans are harvested, the outer skin removed, dried out over many weeks, and shucked, before they are roasted for consumption or sale. It occurs to me at that moment that despite the fact that coffee is one of this people’s and nation’s largest exports, Oscar and his coffee plant are a long way – geographically and culturally – from the nearest Starbucks, where a pound of the mega-chain’s Tanzania Medium Roast is a hot seller at $12.95.

To Be Continued


Reading back through my post from a few days ago, I realize I made some very sweeping generalizations about an entire continent based on two weeks’ experience in one small land block.  I apologize for this.  As some of you said, lack of “forward thinking” and fatalism are obviously not the same everywhere in Africa.

I also didn’t mean to imply that Western missions hasn’t done good things in Africa.  Indeed, many of the advances on the continent have come as a result of missions and missionaries.  And for me to make generalizations about the state of the church in Africa is also probably a little journalistically sloppy, as I haven’t personally surveyed a cross-section of the continent’s Christian communities.  My information simply comes from those who have lived or traveled in a number of African countries.  Even so, as a journalist, this is sloppy and I apologize.

Third, reading back through the reflection, I realize it implies that our time in Tanzania was mostly negative.  Allow me to put to rest that thought immediately.  We had an amazing time in a nation with so much heart … beauty … spirit … and with smiles so white and so wide.   That said, we were told that we got close to “the real Tanzania experience” — the waiting around, the transportation mishaps, the getting ripped off, the slightly less-than-the-West customer service.  For this we were thankful — not disappointed.  If these kinds of things make up a large part of the lives of those who live in Tanzania (and who are “mzungu,” like our friends), then we were glad we weren’t spared from that reality.  The reality may be different in other countries in Africa, though, and this is where my generalization got me in trouble.  So I’ll just keep it to what I observed in TZ.

Over the next few days, I hope to paint a few vignettes of our time in Africa, all of them extremely formative.  Thanks so much for your readership and your comments, even when we here at are negative and unclear.  =)

reflections on life

In a number of ways, life “post-Tanzania” will not be the same as life “pre-Tanzania.”

For one, today is my first day working from home as a freelance writer rather.  That reality is both exciting and terrifying.  How do I begin?  What if I fail, and I don’t get paid enough?  Will I be able to manage my time in a responsible way?  I am entrusting these questions — along with the innumerable others — to God, who holds my life in the palm of his hand.  He is in control.  He will be my guide and provider.

Today is also the day I begin my work as the recreation coordinator at a local youth center.  Again, this both excites and terrifies me.  Will the kids like me?  Will my presence have any noticeable impact on them at all?  Will the activities I help plan connect with them in the least?  Will my lack of Spanish fluency hurt my influence in that place?  Again, these are out of my hands at this point. (except maybe the Spanish part … gotta get down to Central America for some language school!)

Third, I think we both have a slightly different outlook having visited Africa.  Those who have visited Africa know that it has consistently gotten screwed in its long history — crusaders and occupiers, corrupt leadership and government handouts, damaging missions and unhelpful Non-Government Organizations, to name a few.  The continent seems to be reeling from all this, and everyone seems to be out to take care of themselves.  Who can blame them, really?  Things just don’t work as smoothly, efficiently — read: “well” — in Africa.  Forward thinking is almost non-existent, and when it is there it is almost always self-serving.  In short, it is an all-around frustrating place for a person from the West to visit, let alone live.

Tanzania is the 11th poorest nation in the world.  We saw some incredible poverty.  Naked, dirty babies; crippled beggars; run-down shacks; mountains of rank garbage — the works.  How can we live the way we’ve been living with the knowledge — and the photos to prove — that this level of poverty exists?  How is sending a check to corrupt African governments actually improving the lives of the babies, the beggars, the single mothers?  (Answer: it’s not)  Are the Christian communities on the continent making any noticeable difference in addressing these issues?  From our experience and conversations with friends who live in Africa, I think the answer is again a general “no.”

The first Sunday we were with our friends in Moshi, TZ, we attended a local church.  The service started off extremely refreshing — joyful, loud praise music in Swahili.  Then the American got up to speak.  He spoke of his desire for the congregation to become “less African” because the gospel erases all racial divisions.  He spoke of the financial abundance that is triggered when a person writes a check for more money than they can give and brings it to the pastor.  He spoke excitedly about a church in Zimbabwe — one of Africa’s poorest countries — that had recently built a $10 million building to house its more than 12,000 members, saying that this church’s “success” came as a result of sacrificial tithing.  He asserted that the way of Jesus was one of power … of loudly voicing one’s beliefs … of “taking nations for Christ” — by force.

The whole sermon, which lasted far too long than it should have, made me extremely uncomfortable.  It was as if he was speaking an unintelligible language.  He was preaching an Americanized, charismatic prosperity message in a context that is so far from that it’s not even funny.  What if these people never leave poverty?  What if they don’t build a $10 million building or grow to 12,000 members?  Does that mean God hasn’t blessed them?  Did they not pray hard enough?  Is it OK for these sweet Tanzanians to be — get this — both “poor” and “blessed?”  I was pretty much sickened by the cultural insensitivity of this preacher and message, but luckily, I’m not sure it took.  In other words, I think he may have been just a little too “out there” to have any lasting impact on this little community of believers.  Thank God.

There’s no telling the damage that the West has done on Africa with its brand of Christianity.  Our friends there say with confidence that in all their travels on the continent, they’ve never visited an authentically African church.  Why is that?  Is it because the westerners can’t keep their grubby hands off of it long enough for it to be culturally appropriate?  Is it because Africans are made to believe that the Western faith is the ONLY faith, and those who don’t accept this aren’t appointed as leaders?  Is it a fear of syncretism with the local folk beliefs?  Might many of those in the mix not know any better?  I’m not sure exactly, but I would guess it’s a combination of these and more factors.

I’m thankful that our good friends in Tanzania are looking to break this trend.  More on how they are doing this in a later blog post.


This is late news, of course, but many of you will be happy to know that my brother’s band, Homer Hiccolm and the Rocketboys, won the Sound and Jury contest and played at last weekend’s Austin City Limits music festival!  They beat out 300 bands who entered the contest and were voted on by fans and a celebrity panel of judges to earn the spot.   This was indeed an amazing honor, but these guys are good for it — they’ve worked hard in the 2 1/2 years of being a band.  Go check out these great ACL 4-minute features about HHRB leading up to the finale, and go listen to their tunes if you haven’t.  Oh, and buy their new EP — “Sing, Bird, Sing” — from their mySpace page when it’s released on September 27th.

TZ photo essay

Now that the jet-lag has worn off (a little), we thought we’d share some of our favorite captured memories (photos) from our Tanzanian adventure. These are just our faves. (you may view these on Flickr by clicking here).

Captions (top to bottom): Chameleon on a stick in Lushoto, Tanzania; Children at the Church of Christ pre-school in Tanga are fascinated with my camera;A bull elephant at the game reserve on Lake Manyara; A hand-made dow (fishing boat) just off the coast of Zanzibar, Tanzania; The Holts, the Frys and Tanzanian friend Maggie enjoy the waterfall part-way up Mt. Kilimanjaro; The sun rises and the tide recedes on the east coast of Zanzibar as a woman collects seaweed from the beach.

To browse all 854 photos from our trip, click here.  We’ll likely be reflecting on our Africa experience frequently on this blog, so stay tuned over the next days and weeks. For now, it’s good to be back in the States. Peace.