Giving, A Unique Cultural Experience


The sun is already high in the sky as we set off through the ankle deep talcum powder dust. A woman holding a little basket with a small wet rag in the bottom leads us up the hill. Carefully wrapped in the little wet rag is a precious little eye drop bottle in which is an important clear liquid.




We walk up to the first house and where we are warmly met by kids with shy smiles each of who wants to shake our hand, and then turns around and giggles. The old “Koko” or grandmother sits on a small stool in front of her hut holding her grandchild. Two scrawny cows are eating the left over corn stover that has been brought in from the fields. No chickens are running around today and we greet everyone in turn.

“Koko takwenya”
“Iko”
“Mama takwenya”
“Iko”
“Layoni sobia”
“Eba”
“Karibuni” and we are welcomed.


We proceed. While the woman deliberately unwraps the little bottle from the wet rag and unscrews the cap, a little boy climbs up into the chicken coop and grabs the first chicken. His mother takes it from him and holding it one drop of the precious liquid is squeezed into the chicken’s eye. We’re only there for two hours but we’re having fun and we’re having an amazing experience with people welcoming us into their homes.





Nearly 100% of unvaccinated chickens in Tanzania die every year from a virus known as Newcastle Disease. The nutritional impact of this on rural peoples is harrowing. Yet, a precious bottle of vaccination costs 2800/=, about the equivalent of $2.15, and can vaccinate 400-600 chickens.

We move on to the next house. The chickens are inside the hut and a small window provides amazing light as Nicol squeezes in the door opening, trying not to let any chickens out. She gets some amazing photographs and everyone is lining up to have their picture taken with a chicken.


The woman with the little bottle charges 50/=, the equivalent of 3.8 cents per chicken. Of course on our tour we pay the $1.30 it costs to vaccinate the 35 chickens our neighbors own. On this first round in the village, the 50/= will cover her costs but in the future, she may charge up to 100/= per chicken which will bring her income. Even at 50/= per chicken, she can make the equivalent of $30 per campaign. I’m reminded of the saying “give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime”. The knock-on effects of this simple vaccination program are really amazing.

We walk back to the house in silence. As a guide, providing a genuine cultural experience is difficult. We didn’t set out with that in mind, but it has turned out that way- and in a far more real way.









All photos by Alyssa Nicol www.nicolragland.com

Avoiding Crowds in the Ngorongoro

I took Nicol to the Ngorongoro Crater. She wrote to me about an article and wanted me to change that part of the itinerary because of the crowds, but I wanted her to see it. I likened it to being 30 miles from the Grand Canyon and not going to have a look. It was a risk, because I know how busy the crater gets and how awful it can be with traffic jams, but its still an amazing place- a caldera with the highest densities of animals found anywhere in the world.

The morning starts before the sun has risen- drinking coffee and trying get warm we huddle into the vehicle and start our descent into the crater. The fog is lifting out of the crater, the dust from the previous day’s chaos has settled as we make the first vehicle tracks of the day. We end up watching the animals nearly alone and as we exit the crater heading for our next destination, I’m hoping that it was worth it. I look back and can see 20 vehicles congregating along a short stretch of road where lions have just killed a zebra. Its what we wanted to avoid, and we did.





I take a left at the Ngorongoro airstrip and head towards a small village where I will attempt to drive down a new road that I walked 10 years ago with a friend of mine when it was just a donkey path. It’s another risk but Nicol wants to get off the beaten track as I do. I’m a little nervous because I know that 13km of road on a map can be hours of low range four wheel drive clambering and I just hope we’ll get to camp before dark. The road is steep with loose rock in places but the Landcruiser makes easy work of it even when it seems that the road is sliding out from under us, or one wheel is in the air.


Occasionally, I stop the car and admire a leopard orchid, or for Nicol to take a photo of a baobab with her Holga film camera. Trickling through one of the valleys is a clear stream and I remember cooling my feet in it when I walked down. I park in the shade and we grab the picnic basket and walk downstream under some magnificent fig trees and we sit barefoot on rocks in the stream, eating pickles and making our own sandwiches with avocado, tomato, smoked beef and home-made bread and cheese.


It refreshing to be with someone who finds this fun and I expect that everyone probably does, but its easy to get caught up in worrying about what people will like or not like. As we finish the last bites of our sandwiches, it is as though we planned it, a herd of calves comes down to the river herded by some young Datoga boys and girls. Nicol calls it serendipity. The dust kicked up by their hooves disperses the harsh light and this noontime scene becomes a photogenic moment. While the cattle drink they ask to borrow a cup so that they can drink some water. Nicol takes some photos and the kids are happy. I share some bananas, but wonder what the implications of this innocent interaction will be.


Irony of Poison


I stop the vehicle, a solid mark four inches wide stretches across the road in front of me, and I step out, it is obviously the track of a big snake. The Hadzabe who are taking me to get some “mbuyu” or Baobab fruit jump off the top of the truck as my guest calls it. Their exclamations are obvious by the intonation of their completely foreign language of clicks. It’s a very fresh track and I ask if they think we can follow- “ndiyo” they answer and suddenly we are moving through the thick scrub following the track of possibly the largest snake I will see in the wild. They spread out and while one is following the immediate track, the others surge forward looking to pick it up further ahead. A couple of times we circle a thicket, an exiting track is not obvious and we peer into the undergrowth looking for the serpent. The track is fresh enough that it still shines and soon one of the bushmen sees where the snake passed and we are on its trail again. The interruption of bird chatter speeds things up and the keen eyes of the hunters spots a 16 inch section of thigh-thick python entwined in the thorny branches of an Elephant-football plant.





After a little searching we find the head, its tongue flicking in and out of the mouth. One of the shorter stockier Hadzabe places the end of an arrow against his bowstring- surprising me he asks;
“Niue”? (Shall I kill it)
“Kwanini”? Hua munamkula? I reply. (Why? Do you eat them?)
“Ha’a” (No)
“Mnatumia ngozi yake”? (Do you use their skin?)
“Ha’a” (No)
“Sasa kwanini unatakakumua?” (So why do you want to kill it?)
“Labda kwa ajili yako” (Maybe for your sake)

I don’t know how to answer his last words. “Maybe for you”?
Maybe for me?

I am not a hunter, but I have just enjoyed the hunt, following this animal without it knowing until we had found it. How easily we could have killed it- but to whose benefit? Maybe for me? Maybe for the photographer- I imagine the perfect arrow placement, the writhing 14ft of African rock python as it died. For me? The older of the Hadzabe adds, this snake is “mpole sana” (very calm).
“Our safari is blessed by this”, he finishes.

Our journey continues and we head up a valley. A couple of times the Hadzabe go into hunting mode when they spot a dikdik, but our goal is Baobab fruit. The massive trees stand out against the bright sky- something that could be out of Dr Seuss’s children’s books. Again I’m thinking about the light and how harsh it is as we walk up to a beautiful Baobab specimen, one side pecked with holes. “Tuchukue asali”, one mutters and starts picking up bits of Commiphora wood to start a fire. The other is cutting branches from a Grewia to make the pegs he will use to climb the tree. Nicol is busy watching and forgets that she has two camera bodies strapped around her neck. I clumsily try to light the fire with the Hadzabe barely encouraging more than a wisp of smoke, then sitting back to let him get on with it, it’s barely two seconds and he has a coal and then some smoke, and finally the blaze.

My mind wanders back to yesterday; arriving at the kopjie, the meat of a Lesser Kudu laid out across some sticks, everyone sitting around their little fires. Looking into the Kudu’s big black eyes I wasn’t as sad as when I’ve seen them in the back of a hunter’s Landcruiser. I know that every muscle, every sinew, and every organ of this beautiful animal will probably be used. I climbed up to where the men were huddled around the fire, the liver, heart and kidneys boiling in a small pot.


I remember the other vehicle arriving, the feeling of betrayal that my local contact had brought me to another “tourist trap”. Sitting with the men huddled around the fire, I am offered a kidney and some liver. I try to learn about the hunt, but only one of them mumbles a little bit of Swahili while the rest ignore me. I sense annoyance to my presence. I know that when they have meat they will not hunt, and now they are carving intricate patterns on their long arrows, adjusting arrowheads and guinea fowl feathers. Three of the men reluctantly get up and head off with the two tourists on the “hunt”. I sit and wait.


Four hours later, after having withdrawn trying to be a fly on a wall instead of an intruder, we’ve already seen more than most see- normal life. The kudu skin is being stretched out in the sun to dry and I hope Nicol is getting some good photos. The tail is brought out and we watch as they skin it and then place the soft hairs on their bows- to tell the direction of the wind I’m told. I hold some arrows in my hand and ask about the poison, found half-a-days walk away but only 2 hours by car, one of the older boys suddenly speaks up in Swahili- if you will take us we will go make poison. We only have one arrow left each. One of my main interests is in plants and their uses and I want to go. They all run off in different directions while I open up the roof hatches, 6 of them want to come.



As we drive along more of them start speaking Swahili. It is obvious that the Hadzabe are having fun, and I wonder what the local guide thinks- sitting comfortably on one of the seats, his window rolled up- is he having as much fun as Nicol and the Hadzabe are? Nicol and I discuss the ethics of cultural tourism, its effects, of voyeurism, of intrusion, and whether can you take a photo without taking. We drive across an alkaline pan towards a small rocky outcrop blurred by a mirage. Its very hot and I remind her to put on sunscreen and stay hydrated.

“Hapo hapo” the Hadza shout as we pull up next to a hot spring. A couple Datoga herd-boys are washing in the “maji-moto”. The light is harsh and not very conducive to photography, but is more about the experience. The boys light a fire, pass around a smoke, and happily go about business. A branch is cut and sharpened as the pounding stick and Nicol is gestured to follow the two older boys as the walk up among the rocks looking for a suitable Adenium obesum (Desert rose) to use. I follow and one of the hunters tells me his ancestors and grandfathers are buried here. There are rock paintings on some of the rock walls. They are proud and happy. It’s not another show. After watching them cut branches from the poison plant, pound at the base and squeeze out the liquid into a sufuria, a Datoga warrior who has been watching too exchanges some words. Nicol asks me for translation because it is obvious that this is not a friendly exchange of words. I’m pulled aside by the guide from the village into a discussion. A Cultural Tourism Identity Card is flashed in front of me and I’m told that we have violated a Datoga sacred site, a Tambiko. We must pay a sheep and bucket of honey. The Hadzabe are defiant, the Datoga are aggressive and we watch and listen. I step aside to try to mitigate without involving Nicol. The Hadza don’t want me to talk to the man with the ID card. They tell the Datoga warriors that they are not being paid to make the poison, that they had asked if I would help them with transport. They quickly cut some more branches to take home and we head down to the car. They are determined now for Nicol to document the poison making with her photos and keep telling her to follow them. They place the sufuria on the fire and the evaporation process starts. Back at the car, they ask if they can tie the branches they are taking home with them on top of my car. The exchange is still heated, apparently the “serekali” has been called on cell phones and are on their way. The Hadza don’t care.
“Our ancestors are buried here, these are our paintings from before you came to this land”, they tell the Datoga.
“You want a fine because we have cut plants, but we have not killed them the way you do when you cut for your bomas. We have only cut branches, we have not taken roots or cut the whole plant.”


The older of the boys is most vocal and the Datoga threats change-
“You will be the last to run into the hills” they tell him.
He gets into the car and takes out his bow and arrows. He tells them-
“We are not people living in the bush, we are people of the bush. When you came to this land you found us here”.
The poison is starting to thicken and we head back to the fire. They tell me to translate for Nicol and explain how the poison curdles blood and when it gets to the heart it is the end, and how the poison they are making will be used on larger animals when the rains come. One of the hunters rolls the thickened poison into a ball using ash from the fire to stop his hands from sticking to the gob. He takes one of his new arrows and starts to shape it around it around the shaft of the arrowhead.


The next day at dawn, we are back with the Hadzabe. Nicol is happy, she’s seen a lot in our 10 hours with the people. The men sit around oblivious to me, smoking and eating meat they are animated about the day before. They laugh when they mention how quickly the Datoga retreated behind the car when they got their bows and arrows out. I wish I had a video camera and tape recorder to record their discussion.

I’m back at the base of the Baobab, the stocky Hadzabe is throwing down honey combs dripping with the clearest honey. The other bites into a comb full of bee larvae. It’s another good day. The experience has turned out well. It’s hard to plan a genuine cultural experience, but I’ve been lucky with Nicol. She is happy to wait and watch and be spontaneous. We couldn’t afford to visit the more remote Hadzabe on this trip- and I can hear some of the comments other guides might tell me about the genuine experience, its true it hasn’t been the romantic untouched hunter-gatherer experience, but Nicol and I have tasted some truth, not as sweet and clear as the Acacia mellifera honey that’s dripped from our fingers.

All photos by Alyssa Nicol www.nicolragland.com more on her website.

Remote Tanzania: Katavi and Mahale National Parks

The small Cessna Caravan took off from the bush airstrip climbing over the Katavi plains. As we gained altitude, the features we had just explored looking for lion and leopard, and watching hippos, crocs, and elephants, took on a different beauty. The drying river course stretched across the plains, a bold black line against the yellowing grass. Hippo trails and other game paths that led to waterholes looked like the cracks leading from where a stone has hit a pane of glass. The herds of buffalo turned into black dots and giraffe cast long shadows in the grass. The different vegetation zones painted different colors and we tried to retrace where we’d walked from the air. We’d had a good four nights of special game viewing in a park that felt wild and isolated. One night we’d spent in tiny mosquito nets watching the stars. It had been the only night in the past months that it had rained. The plane lifted higher and soon we were flying over miombo woodlands heading towards the Mahale Mountains that dive steeply into the worlds second deepest lake.


The plane ride was short and soon we were descending over the peaks of the mountain to a small airstrip on the edge of the lake. The steep mountains added to the anxious anticipation of seeing chimpanzee, and there were only a few mutterings for the boat journey along the edge of the lake to the little cove where Greystoke camp hides.
Barbecued chicken kebabs, sweet potato chips with guacamole and fresh fruit satisfied our stomachs, but everyone’s real hunger was to see the chimps. We were barely given time to put our bags down before one of the guides came to tell us that the chimps were close by and we must hurry. We hurried off as a big group, not worrying to split into different fitness levels, everyone excited, and also hoping it wouldn’t be too far for the sake of one of the group who had sprained her ankle.


We saw the chimps and everyone was happy, and over the three days we were there saw them a total of four times. The last afternoon though was probably the most rewarding. The trackers had not been able to find the chimps in the morning and Nicol and I set off on a walk with one of the camp guides, content to enjoy the forest, trying to photograph the beautiful butterflies and get some exercise. Deep down we hoped to bump into the chimps and we climbed high to where we might be able to hear them call to each other. The radio crackled to life;
“The chimps are close to camp, and heading for camp”.
“Camp was at least an hour away but if we ran…?” We ran and in 20 minutes made it down the hill to camp. We got our exercise and arrived as the 5:30 golden light was shining through the autumn colored leaves. The males from the troop wandered down the path in single file towards us. It was the perfect moment and we followed and watched as they stopped to rest, lying in the path, while we listened to their quiet mutterings wishing we could understand.




The hour felt like ten minutes. That evening over cold white wine and fresh sashimi we watched the sun set over the lake.

More pictures from Alyssa Nicol of this trip below and on  www.nicolragland.com











Gorillas in Rwanda

The boundary of Virunga National Park is marked by a rock wall that keeps the buffaloes and elephants from getting into the potato fields that reach right up to its base. The ranger explains that it also helps to keep people from taking that extra foot or two when they plow their fields and thus protects the park. We clamber over the rock wall and head into the thick bamboo forest.

…Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed….


Today we have to climb for a few hours to see them. We’ve been allocated the most famous Sousa group of Mountain Gorillas and we climb high into the forest. Coming out of the bamboo forest we enter a thicker Hygenia forest where we start to see their signs. The trackers have found them and we push on, joining them back on the edge of the bamboo forest.

… He moves in darkness as it seems to me-
Not of the woods only and the shade of trees.


I am staring into the eyes of one of the worlds few Silverback Mountain Gorillas as he crosses his arms to scratch his shoulder, tilts his head, and watches me. There is a sadness in his big, dark eyes and the furrows on his face like those of a man in deep contemplation who has something he wants to share. Living in the thick dark rainforests of the 15000ft Virunga Massif at the confluence of three countries torn by civil war and an exploding human population. His deep and gentle stare distracts me from the stinging of the nettles we have walked through for the last few hours. We sit there in awe at this gentle and massive animal. The young ones play, seemingly oblivious to us, but they also keep their distance. A black-back sits with his back to us, occasionally glancing at us. Its time to leave soon, and we all wish we could stay a bit longer.



Poem excerpts from Robert Frost's Mending Walls.

This is a bit of an article I wrote about a safari in Rwanda. I hope you enjoyed.
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