A Coffe Tour in Tanzania
This is probably the strangest title I have ever used on a travel article. The strangest combination and yet, this trio made for a perfect day out exploring the countryside in the southern slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, a village called Materuni, where banana and coffee beans grow as neighbors to each other. I was on a coffee tour in Tanzania.
BANANA BEER NIP
Our guide asked, outstretching his arm to me with a 1 liter plastic green cup in his hand, shared by everyone.
I don’t like beer but I like banana. Though I don’t need to please my taste buds to try something new. The reason is intertwined with why I travel in first place, to see and experience what is it that the locals live for. (Okay except for that one time I was offered goat’s blood, raw, fresh and clotted… and I instinctively had a carrousel inside my stomach, not a nice carrousel, so that one time it was a polite no, thank you).
But Banana beer, it looked and felt flakier and thicker than I expected. Smelled like banana, but it didn’t taste like beer. It tasted worse. Like a very ripe banana: soggy and left to ferment in increasingly more alcoholic juices. Not filtered whatsoever.
The locals, a tribe so called Chagga people, love it. I could tell just by looking at their friendly faces that they had had a few mugs already and it wasn’t lunchtime yet.
With the banana juices flowing so came the singing. The guests and the owner of the bar gathered, like a big family in their 50’s, to sing for us. A capela style but in a louder and happier African way. The women moved their tongues side to side so quickly, in a way I found impressive! A high pitch hiss of furor, intensifying the drama of the lyrics, sang in their own tribe dialect. The men were alternating from spelling the lyrics and shaking their heads rhythmically, blowing air with tight lips, letting out a scary “boo” sound, with R’s and saliva flying out their mouths. It was intense. Especially when we were all invited to join in the circle with arms around the shoulders of each other. They looked happy to have us and so was I.
The bar where we ended up looked nothing like a bar. Right in the countryside, in the middle of a coffee bean field and banana trees, by a dirty road, this old traditional house with a roof thatched with banana leaves has a door open and nothing to say it is actually a bar. Or so I thought. As Rufano, our guide explained on the way out, the little tree plant, rooted outside the bar’s door is the giveaway that this is a communal establishment.
This plant: Dracaena Afromontana, is highly respected by the Chagga people. More than just a plant, it is used as a fence, to delimit the lands from different families and it is also used as an amulet, in a symbolical way to ask for apologies. For example, Mr. Regretful wants to own friendship back from Mr. Hurtful, Mr. Regretful then folds a leave of this plant, a symbolical way to fold his heart with regret and leaves it at the door of Mr. Hurtful’s house. Mr. Hurtful has then the choice to take it and open the leave, like opening Mr. Regretful’s heart, so apologies are accepted. Or he can leave it on the floor and ignore it. So apologies are not taken.
I found it such a beautiful analogy, to substitute meaningful words by hearts wrapped up in leaves, a way to show true regret. Such is the respect for this plant among this tribe.
Besides growing Bananas, this slope of the Kilimanjaro Mountain is very proliferative for coffee beans. Coffee is the actual main business of the Chagga people. Each family has their own piece of land, so each family grows and harvests their own coffee beans and sells the coffee to a Union located in Moshi. The Union then sells it to international exporters that eventually deliver the exotic coffee from Tanzania to the supermarkets shelf, as we know it so well. Which means that there are no big investors in this area.
From picking beans to pealing, roasting, grounding and sipping, I was able to experience it all in the Chagga way: with lots and lots of singing, of course!!
“It is a very tedious job to ground a big amount of coffee, but not when everyone is singing”, explained a Chagga man. He was right! So we all took turns in this rhythmic dance that consists in grabbing the wood log and softly throw the tip in the wood bowl, pick it up as it bounces back up and repeat and repeat and repeat… Until the coffee was grounded to dust and our souls were lifted by the happy music and physical transformation of the red coffee beans into a powder ready to change the color of hot boiling water into a black taste of Robusta coffee.
I’m not a coffee lover, but I certainly know how to appreciate when I am upon the origins of what keeps many western souls moving. Even more, for the Chagga love and pride in what they do, and they do it well.
Up and down mini-valleys, across ridges, through narrow splashing streams, with occasional stops to learn about the fauna and appreciate the view that extended to the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro, finally I could hear it.
I could hear the water falling before I could see it! And suddenly a wave of euphoria impregnated my tired and glowing body (a.k.a. sweating). The hike was meant to be more leisurely than strenuously, but the ball of fire in the clear Tanzanian sky turned a one-hour hike into a much hotter task.
To the sight of the 90 meters high Materuni Waterfall, my dress came off quicker than light. The rocky path to the pool done on barefoot was an obstacle accomplished with no pretty catwalk. The feet made the first contact with the water and my glowing skin automatically dried covered in goose bumps. The water was icy cold! My brain was however awesome at ignoring this little detail and I found myself plunging in. Every single organ of my body suffered the “brain-freeze” effect. But it was worth it.
No longer than 5 minutes later I was out. I sat on a rock and admired from afar this little corner of heaven, slowly recovering the feeling on my joints and sipping on a hot cuppa.
Waterfalls are impressive, you need to be away from it to feel it’s grandiosity, but under it to feel it’s power.