A carpet of green covered the gently sloping hillsides, dotted here and there with rectangular, brown, mud and wood huts, with thatched roofs. The greenery was partly natural, partly a human creation. Apart from mango, coconut and a host of trees, corn, banana, cassava, millet and vegetables grew cheerfully on the slopes, on gently terraced farm plots. Streaks of a deep brown-red earth showed through some of the crops. Farmers, reduced to stick figures, could occasionally be seen, among their fields. Earlier we had passed a group working together, singing and shouting lustily.

A plume of smoke arose from the fields and the words “stairway to heaven” came to mind. One does not have to be a rock band member on designer drugs to get lyrical in so eye-pleasing a setting! The peaks around us were mostly rounded, but those around the highest point, Mt. Lupunga (2,650 m), which we were to see later, were quite pointy.

Dramatic, grey-white clouds advanced slowly, like majestic chariots, overhead, casting large, but muted shadows on the land: nature’s chiaroscuro. The slopes cascaded down to startlingly flat, sunlit plains, also verdant, displaying farms and the outlines of concrete city dwellings far away, somewhat hazy in the distance.

At the edge of the mountains was the large brownish Mindu lake; man-made, the guide told us, which supplied water to the town of Morogoro, which we had left behind just hours ago.

We had taken a bus to Morogoro, at the foot of the Uluguru Mountains, and two-and-a-half hours from Dar, on a Friday morning. Taking an out-station bus from Dar means braving the central, tout-infested bus station of Ubungo, which even turns a nice guy like Marc-Antoine positively surly!

However, since we knew exactly which bus service to use, we side stepped the touts rather skilfully and took a very comfortable bus that cost us 3000 Tsh each (under US $3) to Morogoro. A nice young man, who was heading in the same direction, helped us as well. He is a food science student at the Sokoine University in Morogoro; particularly know for its agriculture program. In fact, Morogoro is a university town. A branch of the Open University also resides here. This is not common in Tanzania, as there are a total of 3 state universities in the country, though there are many private colleges. The bus service, incidentally, is called Hood, which I believe is a Muslim last name, hence not to be muddled with American gangsters!

A large woman with a small, made-in-Korea plastic bag jumped on the bus at the last minute and spent a good 10 minutes talking about Chinese herbal medicine. Of course the spiel was in Kiswahili. At first it seemed like she had had little impact, but then we saw that a handful of passengers buying, at least, bars of lemon soap. And she in turn managed to bring forth quite a number of products from her small bag. Chinese medicine is gaining ground here. However, recently the press carried a government statement warning people about it; questioning its efficacy.

The enterprising lady jumped off soon, but there were other salesmen to contend with. Like in India, young men, bearing aloft trays of bottled water and drinks, packets of cashew nuts and crackers (biscuits), wooed the passengers at the infrequent bus stops. Some of them managed to jump on the bus as well.

At Morogoro, we headed straight to Sofia hotel, in the heart of town, where we had booked a room. The room was AC, with shiny, good-looking new furniture, and mountain views. This perked me at once since we had landed up at a much more rundown establishment on our last getaway, in Zanzibar.

Most hotels here provide mosquito nets; this one did not. The owners claimed that they sprayed regularly, but Marc-Antoine was up for four hours on the second night, a period during which he claimed to have killed 5 mosquitoes! (For some reason, mosquis make a beeline for MA.)

My eternally resourceful colleague, Elisabeth, had provided me with a write-up on Morogoro and the Uluguru mountains, written by two Swiss travellers. This had helped me book the services of Charles, a guide with the Chilunga cultural tourism program.

The Tanzanian government is consciously promoting cultural tourism. What it entails, at least in theory, is developing a tourism program in consultation with, and covering, local communities. Apart from offering conventional pursuits – “sight seeing”, hiking, camping, mountain climbing, safaris – run by locals, these programs also offer visits to local villages and communities, to see how people live.

On day 1, we lazed around town, and made plans with Charles, who turned out to be energetic, lively, knowledgeable and helpful. Hailing from Mwanza, on Lake Victoria, he started working as a guide after finishing secondary school. He hopes to study international development, with an environmental twist, at university. We wish him luck!

We took an instant liking to this well-located, spacious town as well, and the people, who seemed relaxed, helpful and friendly. One often gets this feeling when one departs from a big city to a smaller one. The fact that escaped slaves, led by a Wa Luguru chief named Kisabengo, settled in nearby Simbamwenni, may have something to do with this as well. (The Wa Luguru is the dominant, if marginalized, tribe in the region.)

Our guidebook presents the Kisabengo story as legend, not history, and Simbamweni (meaning Lion King) has since disappeared. However, there is more to Morogoro history than this. The African National Congress (ANC) set up a base here, after Tanzania became independent, and ANC fighters were trained in the very same Uluguru mountains that we roamed. In 1969, the ANC held the Morogoro Conference, attended by revolutionaries from Mozambique, Angola and Zimbabwe. It was here that Oliver Tambo announced the beginning of ANC’s armed struggle against apartheid.

Having explored the orderly and well-stocked market, we headed to the touristy, wazungu joint – Mama Pierina’s, passing a Shia mosque check-by-jowl with a Hindu temple. Coming from an increasingly “communalised” India, where peaceful Hindu-Muslim relations are not a given, such a sight is always heartening for me.

Mama Pierina was an Italian woman, who is no more. She passed on her welcoming hotel, with a nice if buggy veranda, to her half-Greek daughter Dimitra. Dimitra was a talkative woman and told us she had been married at one time to a Brazilian. She warned us to take care at night, as crime was on the increase in town, mostly consisting of tourists being robbed at knifepoint. Later we were to meet another woman hotel owner, Zahra, from the Kilimanjaro region, the owner of Princess Hotel, located opposite out own. We tucked happily into a starter of tatziki, a dish that we had not had since leaving Canada.

Soon after we were joined by M, a Danish woman who had settled in London, and who had lived for 4 years in the high passes of Pakistan. (It was amusing to meet someone who used typically Brit. expressions in a North European accent!) She had been married to a Pakistani. Dimitra, M and myself, I figured, made a romantic and adventurous trio, all of us having “risked” foreign husbands. I also noted that mine was still around!

M was studying horticulture in London, and was in Morogoro to do some sociological research, on the new species of bananas being developed and disseminated at the university. Her aim was to find out what people liked (or did not like) about these bananas, how they cooked/used them, etc. I thought this was a good idea, as bananas are central to life here.

M agreed to come hiking with us the next day, but did not show up, nor was she answering her cell. So we set out without her.

Three hours of walking, from the foot of the hills, first on a gently winding, broad, dust track, motor able for a 4-wheel drive and then on steeper, narrower, paths, brushing against tall grass, going by an occasional stream, through villages with corn and banana fields and the inevitable children, greeting us and posing for pictures, we arrived at Morningside (1200 m).

In the lower parts, we met women and children, or youths, going to or coming from the market in Morogoro. They usually carried a load of vegetables on their heads on their way down and a big sack of corn flour on their way up. Some of them were fetching water in large, plastic buckets, also carried on their heads.

At one point, Charles had asked if we would liked peaks named after us! I had asked him the names of certain peaks. For the most part, he said that they were nameless. But for one peak, he gave the name Diana. Apparently, a mzungu woman hiker had asked the same question and finding the peaks “unclaimed”, had claimed one for herself! Charles seemed keen on a naming ceremony, so we suggested that he name the adjacent peak to Diana, Charles! I pointed to a small hill far below, on the plain, and suggested it be named after me. Marc Antoine modestly declined!

Morningside used to be a weekend retreat during German times. Now it’s a dilapidated building, with tumbledown vines and red flowers at the entrance. People come here for the view, which is lovely. And a group of people was already there.

We had met them as we had ambled up – an assorted group of adults and children. The adults were doing a Swahili language course in Morogoro. They were clergy, belonging to the Lutheran, Catholic and possibly other denominations. All where white, save for an Indian couple, from Bangalore, who were there as Catholic missionaries.

We ate some of the food we had brought along and were soon ready to go. We passed through Mgete village, where the guide paused for a chat with the headman, and an old woman, who were removing cob from a heap of corn, seated in a small clearing, in front of their house. They asked us to join them and soon, we were “cobbing away” energetically, having been shown the technique. (Yes, there is one!)

With Charles as the interpreter, the chief informed us that the poor rains had produced food scarcity, though they had continued to get water from a couple of sources in the mountains. Asked if any of the government food aid had reached the village, the chief replied, not yet.

Charles had promised to take us down by a different route, which would allow us a dip in the Ruvuma river. He had asked if we could handle a bit of a steep descent and we had said yes. What I had taken as a half-an-hour or so of downhill walking, turned into a strenuous 2-hour plunge into the valley, on a distinctly challenging path. I shudder to think how this would be after a heavy shower…

Already tired, we were also hit by the afternoon sun, which had been gamely hiding behind clouds most of the time, and ran out of drinking water. My cheap, new, made-in-China, walking shoes did not do too well, causing my nails to pinch, scrape and ache (as happens on steep declines anyhow). Every step was painful for the last half-hour or so… In fact, I developed a mild infection in the nails on reaching Dar.

Finally, we arrived at the river. The rocks had created a chest-high pool in which a group of secondary school students were frolicking. I was particularly impressed by the gay abandon displayed by a couple of 14-year-old girls, as free and exuberant female behaviour is not in evidence, at least in public, in these parts. We plunged in ourselves, not fully clothed like the locals, but in our swimsuits. The water was deliciously cool; the river bed sandy and pebbly.

We took care to stash our back packs where we could keep an eye on them, mindful or a rasta-type guy sitting up on the incline, staring down. (There are quite a few rasta guys here.) Later we learnt from Charles that our would-be thief worked for the government, had come to collect the tsh 1000 forest reserve fees, and in fact had hung around as a guard!

Another hour’s walk on mercifully flat ground brought us, at sunset, to a point from where we could take a cab. We had walked a total of seven hours! As happens at the end of almost every hike, we told ourselves that our travails had been worth it.

On reaching our hotel we found a note from M, saying that she had not come in the morning, because she had been robbed of her cell phone at knifepoint, the night before! Dimitra’s warnings had specially been directed at M, the night before at Mama Pierina’s, as M had been going out alone at night on her bike. M had said then that she had done this all along and never had a problem, citing London as a city not without danger.

We had made loose plans to go dancing at a hotel near Mama Pierina’s with M. that evening. However, we found ourselves rather tired after a hearty dinner at an Indian restaurant, and were wondering what to do next, when M appeared at our room door.

We received her with exclamations and condolences. She told us that as she was walking back to Mama Pierina’s, from a hotel just three doors down, at midnight, when a man jumped out of the bushes and seized her. He was young, strong and carried a large farming knife. He had only found a cell phone on her and had become quite frustrated. “Come,” he had said, after having searched her, at which point she had protested and he had shoved her away. She did not think that she would be able to identify him, nor could she have provided a description to the police.

The law and order situation in Tanzania gives cause for alarm. There have been quite a few armed bank, restaurant, money exchange bureau and house robberies, in Dar, in the past months. A notorious incident that provoked public outrage involved a highway car robbery, in which policemen in civvies robbed a man, who was transporting some money! He and the driver were killed. Other cops have turned robbers too. President Kikwete recently sacked the Commissioner of Police and is seriously looking at reforming the system. (I call K Kick-ass Kikwete because he is talking tough and really rallying his ministers and government officials to deliver.)

M was understandably shaken up and had taken the decision to live in a hotel, for the year she was to be in Morogoro, rather than renting a house. We were happy to see her join us the next day, on a visit to the nearby Nugutu village. Here we were met by the articulate ALC, who works for a local NGO and who is a CCM (the ruling party) supporter.

Nugutu consists of about 300 people who are mostly farmers, growing corn, cassava, millet and bananas. Among these, cassava withstands drought best: a condition which the villagers have experienced for the past three years.

ALC told us of a reforestation scheme that is starting in these parts, in July this year. It sounds typically short sighted. Instead of working with the villagers who have “encroached” on the mountains to farm and developing an integrated community reforestation program, the government plans to relocate the villagers. They will be compensated and given land elsewhere, says ALC, adding that they must sacrifice for the national good. Another hackneyed idea that has failed in the past, globally.

Along with Charles, we tried our hand at making pottery. The silky smooth clay had been collected at a place on the mountain, we were told. “This is the clay from which Adam was made,” pronounced Charles, who has a proselytizing spirit. A devout Pentacostal, he had invited Marc-Antoine to go to church that morning, and had invited M to go again, after she had left half way through the service the first time. He had also tried to quote the Bible to MA, who had refuted him and joked, telling him he was a non-christian not out of ignorance, but from too much knowledge! Taken at another level thought his words are not so far from the truth, as Tanzania is undoubtedly one of the birthplaces of humankind.

Soon we turned to admire the handiwork of a carpenter who skilfully carved and split a block of camphor wood into a coconut scraper. These scrapers, which I had seen elsewhere before, used to be a speciality of Nugutu, but some other villages have started making them now. We hung out at the Maka Muzi, a traditional drinking club, which comprised of a couple of rough-hewn benches and tables, under a tree, sipping millet beer. The beer proved once again that alcohol is an acquired taste, since it may not be inherently tasty.

The Wa luguru are supposed to be a matrilineal society, where inheritance is from mother to daughter. A son may inherit from his mother, but upon his death, the land passes to his sister’s children. Nugutu is a mixed village, that is, people from different tribes and religions live here. As the Wa luguru men see patriarchal ways, this custom is being increasingly resented and questioned, said ALC. “The women have the land, but the men have the money,” he said, meaning that the men are the ones who are in the productive, cash-oriented jobs. One of things that they are trying to do, in the face of deforestation, said ALC, is promote non-traditional jobs among the men.

ALC was of the firm belief that with growing urbanization, and the mixing of tribal groups, the coming generations were going to lose traditional languages and practices. “That’s what the government wants,” he added. I suggested that perhaps tradition and language couldn’t be broken down and lost so easily, while Marc-Antoine suggested someone should record the languages the tradition so the Luguru’s descendants could have something to remember.

After the millet beer, we went back to the reception area, where we had been introduced to the dignified and quiet village chief. Here, among a gathering of the villagers, we witnessed music made with drums, xylophones, whistles, home made castanets and some group singing and dancing, by the village youth, children and teenage girls. Sitting under a “romantic sky” (it drizzled at some point) it was charming to witness the spirited dancing and drumming. Predictably, Marc-Antoine and I got into the circle for a short stint.

The last stop was lunch, cooked by a village woman, comprising of the national corn flour dish ugali, a chicken curry and vegetables made with potato leaves (yet another innovative green here) and okra and small, sour eggplant. This delicious, fresh repast was consumed under a pretty, blue sky.

The visit had cost us 20,000 tsh (a bit less than US 20)) and we were happy that the money had gone to the village. True the trip was “artificial” in one sense and M and Marc-Antoine wondered how “authentic” the old woman potter had been, but at least we had interacted somewhat with the villagers, even if through interpreters.

The piri piri (toffees) I had bought at the market that morning were distributed and gladly received. I was told that it was not often that visitors brought them gifts. An exchange thus took place, however mediated. We left Morogoro that evening, feeling sated.