Friday, June 06, 2008

Rural bliss

I've just returned from a fascinating trip to Tanzania. I joined a group of a dozen men from Chabad of Hendon to climb Mt Meru, Kilimanjaro's neighbouring little cousin (Meru's about 800m shorter than Kili).

Climbing a mountain is an extreme experience. I've been hiking before, but this was beyond anything I could have anticipated. In the tranquil setting of unspoilt nature, pushing your body to the limits, your mind opens to little truths about life that are worth bringing home to suburbia.

These last few days back home have allowed me a chance to reflect and unpack this amazing experience- full of insight.

Living in South Africa, I thought I was prepared for the African experience. But, northern Tanzania is far more rural than anywhere near my home and the simplicity took me by surprise.

Our guide collected us from Kilimajaro airport and zipped us along the one road that leads into the town of Arusha. Both sides of the road are mud paths, cluttered with bicycles (many veering into oncoming traffic), loads of pedestrians and a mix of boney cattle, goats, donkeys and chickens.

Tropical vegetation lines the streets, banana trees are everywhere. Beyind that, shacks and squalor.

It seems that Arusha's population is generally destitute. A fraction of the community benefits from the thriving tourist trade; the rest live off the land.

Back home we always hear how poverty causes crime. Nobody warned us against muggers or armed robbers in Arusha.

Besides which, the people were so friendly. Everyone greeted us with the traditional Swahili "Jumbo!", they all smiled. Over the whole week, I didn't see any road rage or arguments, our driver didn't even lose his cool when his Landrover packed up half way up a 4x4 track at Ngorongoro Crater.

There were no taxis available on the day I had to head home, so our tour guide arranged a friend to take me to the airport. He took me- all the way in, insisted on carrying my bags, and wouldn't leave until he knew I was going to make the flight (several big-deal motorcades had blocked the roads and we ran very late).

When I asked him if people were generally poor in Arusha, he assured me that my analysis had been accurate.

"So, if they are all poor, how is it that everyone looks happy?" I asked him.

"Because they are happy," he replied, simply.

"How can they be happy? They have nothing," I pressed him.

"Nothing?" he was surprised, "They have peace! We have had no conflict in our country for decades- that is why we are happy."

Simple, isn't it? Money doesn't buy happiness; peace does.

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