The Usambara Mountains and Their Secrets

Having spent several days on the Tanzanian coast, north of Tanga,

Indian ocean from Fish Eagle Point on coast

Indian ocean from Fish Eagle Point on coast

sweating in the high humidity while enjoying the beauty of the Indian Ocean just south of the Kenyan border, we are now in the Usambara Mountains. It’s hard to believe it’s the same country given the dramatic change in surroundings and climate, from energy sapping heat and scrub desert to dry, cool evenings and lushness in a few hours drive.

The Usambaras are a steep and rocky mountain range featuring rain forests and incredible productivity of crops planted in and among the trees. They are a world biodiversity site, although overpopulation in the Tanga region, the fastest growing in Tanzania, has led to rampant deforestation and little native forest remains. John, with whom I’m traveling and who attended school here, noticed the many denuded hills immediately.

We stayed at a small accommodation on the side of a gorgeous hillside reminiscent of a cross between the Swiss Alps and the jungle.

The hill above Swiss Farm Cottages

Clearly, the fellow who built this small hotel thought so too as he named it Swiss Farm Cottages.

The nearest town, Lushoto, is set in a lovely valley between mountains. Twelve kilometers from Lushoto is Soni, the infamous location of what used to be St. Michael’s, the boys’ boarding school run by the Catholic Rosminian order where John spent a harrowing six years from age 7 to 13 surviving the verbal, physical, and sexual abuse meted out by the sadistic priests under whose “care” the boys existed. The white African boys sent to St. Michael’s by their unknowing families had been raised in the “stiff upper lip” approach of the British of that period so never considered complaining to their parents, a custom the priests were aware of and relied upon to keep their secrets.

The rock above the school and the school below it

The rock above the school and the school below it

And the boys in Africa got the worst of the priests and the worst of the treatment, the Rosminians sending those who had been caught molesting children in England off to Africa to molest there instead, assuming that anything goes in those remote and uncivilized mountains. It was a reasonable place to hide their worst actors as they knew it was unlikely anyone would discover their abusive habits off in the African bush.

The site, which we visited, is now a secondary school for African boys, though we had heard it was a seminary. Given the lawsuit that John and 25 other of the victims have brought against the order through a barrister in England, John was concerned we might be stopped before having the opportunity to look around. After a 40-year absence, he had anticipated this return with both curiosity and apprehension but nobody noticed us as we wandered the campus snapping photos.

The church at what was St. Michael's

The church at what was St. Michael’s

After three years, proceedings in the case will be issued on March 4th. The timing is due to the conclusion of another case brought in England in which the church argued that it could not be prosecuted because the priests did not work for the church but instead were “servants of god,” and therefore not subject to any earthly laws. Shot down by the British courts as the babbling of criminals that it was, this allowed for John and his fellow victims’ case to proceed.

A BBC special, “Abused: Breaking the Silence” (on YouTube), that John and others were featured in last year, has also caused the church to be on its guard to avoid further publicity on yet another instance of the Catholics putting or leaving children in danger instead of removing known pedophiles from their schools and churches.

John in front of the room of  Father Cunningham, the priest who targeted him

John in front of the room of Father Cunningham, the priest who targeted him

Given that Pope Benedict has chosen to continue residing (hiding) in the Vatican, probably to protect himself in case the action brought to the International Criminal Court in the Hague to prosecute him for crimes against humanity gets status, it would be nice to think the forces of good have this institution of evil on the run but I am too much the cynic to believe that is really the case.

So, having bent your ear on that topic, I will end this blog with how we ended our time in the Usambaras. Noting that both of our back tires were looking rather half mast, we stopped at a small filling station in Lushoto to have them checked. Sure enough, one was punctured twice from two separate nails and the other one once.

How many Tanzanians does it take to fix a punctured tire?

How many Tanzanians does it take to fix a punctured tire?

After an hour of much attention by several Tanzanian men with virtually no equipment or tools, we drove off with plugs in the punctures hoping we could make it the 4 to 5 hours to Moshi that afternoon. The good news is, we did.

Hamna shida! (No problem!)

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Sauti za Busara (Sounds of Wisdom)

I’m back in Zanzibar, this time for the African music festival Sauti za Busara, an annual three-day event that features musicians from all over Africa. It attracts folks who love African music and who like to be at a fun event where everyone is running into everyone in Stonetown.

Burkina Electric, amazing dance and music from Burkina Faso

Burkina Electric, amazing dance and music from Burkina Faso

The festival is at night so days can be spent going to the beach, wandering the maze of streets, returning to an air conditioned hotel room to rest and cool off, and meeting friends for meals that are much tastier than on the mainland partly due to the plentiful fresh seafood.

Tonight is the last of three nights of music at the old fort and the headliner is the final artist, Cheikh Lo of Senegal (dreads to his knees), a protégé of Youssou N’Ddour, who is scheduled to go on at 12:15am but as the schedule seems to always be at least 30 minutes behind, it will probably be closer to 1am. We plan to show up to the fort around 10pm, hopefully rested, in the hopes that we can make it to 2am for those final, best artists.

Dried sea items including octopus, yumm!

Dried sea items including octopus, yumm!

I’m traveling with my friend John and yesterday, we visited the food and spice market in the morning and then took a tour of the old slave market, shut down in 1864. However, slave trading by the Arabs continued illegally elsewhere on the island into the 20th century. We saw an underground dungeon where slaves were stored and had to try and survive in their own waste – crushingly sad to imagine.

There is a memorial to the slaves there designed by Swedish artist, Clara Sornas, which is very moving.

Memorial to Slaves, Zanzibar

Memorial to Slaves, Zanzibar

Having grown up in Berkeley studying slavery in the US context, it is fascinating to see the history from the African perspective, although I find it difficult to keep the faith in humanity when thinking about what people did, and still do, to one another.

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Bananas and burkas

The heavily Muslim nature of this island is evident everywhere. The call to prayer over loudspeakers from the minarets, the madrasah schools on every corner with white scarved girls and white robed boys chanting and singing (“the sounds of brains being washed” as John noted), and women in full, black burkas with only their made up eyes and painted toenails showing, wandering around juxtaposed with white tourists, often scantily clad.

On Friday morning as we flew from Dar es Salaam, a group of Muslims in Dar stormed the police headquarters to protest their leader being jailed. So even in this country, proud and insistent of its religious and ethnic tolerance where I’m repeatedly told that everyone gets along, there is strife.

When we returned this late afternoon from the Zanzibar Beach Resort’s popular pool, where we had hung out at for the fee of Tsh 6,000 ($4) each plus a $5 taxi ride there and back, we walked by the waterfront on our way back to our hotel. Large numbers of boys and young men were flinging themselves off the boardwalk and into the ocean, competing to see who could do a crazier dive.

The plunge

The plunge

The sheer joy was fun to watch, despite the knowledge that they land in water that is also the recipient of raw sewage pouring into Stonetown harbor. It was fun to take photos but I won’t be joining them anytime soon!

I am publishing this now and then off to the festival to see the last three acts of the weekend. Wish me luck in staying awake until 2am!

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Save the Elephants and Meet Yustina!

Sega girls on skype call

Sega girls on skype call

Yesterday afternoon, Sega’s new Anti Ivory club held a skype video call with China and California.  This was a first for the Sega girls, most of whom have never heard of skype or seen it in action.  The club was just started a few weeks ago and I’m proud to say it was through a contact of mine that it happened!

I’ve never been able to get into the whole social media thing.  However, in this case, it did what it’s supposed to do. A professional acquaintance of mine now working with an elephant welfare organization, JulietteSpeaks, found me on LinkedIn last month and saw that I am working at a school in Tanzania. She contacted me about whether Sega would like to become the pilot school in Africa for their Global Youth Against the Ivory Trade project and now we are just that.

Killed in Tsavo less than 10 days ago

Killed in Tsavo less than 10 days ago, showing how much work there is left to do!

During the call, the technology wasn’t perfect and it was a bit hard to hear everything but it was still very exciting.  The girls spoke to Juliette West, age 17, who founded JulietteSpeaks and to Celia Ho, age 14, in Hong Kong who is also an elephant activist in the country whose citizens are the largest global consumers of ivory.  I look forward to watching Sega’s club, led by history teacher Enock Gray, contribute to this incredibly important effort to keep elephants from being wiped out.  The goal of the folks at JulietteSpeaks is for the girls to produce a video that will be taken to the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) conference in Bangkok next month, representing the youth voice.

Yustina John

Yustina John

One of the 46 girls who signed up for the Sega club is Yustina John. Yustina is in Form 1 (8th grade) and what follows is her story, mostly in her own words:

My name is Yustina John. I am 16 years old and I live with my mother, brother, sister and my young sister when I am not at Sega.  My goal is to become a botanist (I know from Yustina that she’d also like to be famous and she asked me if there is a famous botanist, a question that stumped me!).  My favorite school subjects are chemistry, biology, English, geography, history and bookkeeping.  I don’t enjoy math or commerce. In my free time I like drawing and to write stories.  In my life, I want to travel from one place to another like America, India, Australia, New Zealand.  The fruits I like most are apple, orange, mango, and banana and my favorite animals are elephants and lions.

Yustina introducing herself on skype

Yustina introducing herself on skype

I feel happy when I see visitors come to school and the volunteers that live at school and help us. I love them so much.  In my life, I like to say thank you to all the people who are helping the school.  I like to ask some questions about their country and why they come to Tanzania and how they feel when they are here.   I like to stay with my friends and talk.

On holiday when I am back home the first thing that makes me happy is when I see my family and all are fine and the thing that makes me feel so bad is when I hear one of them is sick.  In my life I like to go to church.  Before my father died, he went to church and he was a good person and many people loved my father so much.  Before he died, my father worked building roads. After he was gone, life became very hard.

Mary and Yustina

Mary and Yustina

When I am back home I help my mother sell sambusa and ice cream and every morning we go to sell at a place where there are many people.  Sometimes we sell little so we get little money.  With that money we want to buy uniforms, food, clothes, exercise books, pens, school fees but that money is not enough to buy all this so we buy only the things we can with the money we have.  The place which we live at home, sometimes when it’s raining, the rain enters the house.  So that is why I study hard because I want to reach my goal. I will change the life at home. I will change the place where I live. I will do a lot of things to change my life and I will help my young sister and brother.