Tales of tree climbing lions and unique culture of the Maasai

21May 2018
The Guardian Reporter
The Guardian
Tales of tree climbing lions and unique culture of the Maasai

TANZANIA, known for its world-famous natural attractions, is a big beautiful country. You appreciate this when traversing this vast East African Community partner state by road. Its capital is Dodoma, not Dar es Salaam. Some people don’t know this.

Its beauty was, once more, exhibited during a trip last month to report about developments in the regional Assembly. I travelled by road on the new Dodoma-Babati Highway from Arusha (a major city in the touristic north east). The East African legislative Assembly had taken its first ever session to Dodoma. It was my second visit but the most illuminating.

My first visit in February was a fast paced affair as the MPs were conducting an on-spot assessment of EAC institutions and facilities on the Central Corridor (Tanzania-Burundi-Rwanda). We covered more than 3,000 kilometres by road, in less than two weeks.

Although we were slightly dampened when our friendly driver informed us that the ride would last seven hours, little did we know that, despite the long wearing drive, incredible scenery along the way would save the day.

Beyond Arusha’s plentiful charms, taking in all the sights of the Maasai– a unique community known for preserving their culture –villages and way of life, leaves a first time visitor in awe.

We certainly got some more insight into these people’s culture, traditions, and lifestyle. First there is the famous Maasai shuka, a traditional wear associated with the Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania.  The shukas – red robes – are strong, durable and very colourful. I couldn’t resist the pull to buy one. The Maasai love the colour red and most men wear a shuka while women wear colourful clothes decorated with beaded jewellery.

While red is the most common colour, they also use blue, striped, and check red cloth wrapped around their bodies. If you ask you will be told that the colour red is a symbol of Maasai culture. I heard that the Maasai, especially of times past, believed the red colour scares away lions. These people are said to be formidable, strong warriors who hunt and live closely with wild animals.

Then there is the amazing scenery. Lushun touched vegetation covers most of the Monduli region with its natural beauty and fascinating culture of Maasai community, and you’ll also catch a glimpse of the famous Tanzania Military Academy in Monduli. It is Tanzania’s top military training institution and reportedly one of the most respected and reliable military academies in the world, where many senior military officers from the region and afar have gone through.

Apart from the red-robbed pastoralists and patches of captivating evergreen forests, there are magnificent signs of wild life all over. At some point, our van came to an abrupt halt and we waited nearly three minutes as a tortoise leisurely crossed the road.

After saying good-bye to the turtle, we sped off but I couldn’t stop marvelling at the imposing Baobab, another remarkable sight. The baobab tree – also called the “tree of life” for it has several useful properties that can serve as shelter. The Baobab is a vast fleshy giant that looms over this region of Tanzania waving its branches above a bulging body.

In the heart of Masaai area is the Manyara National Park. Somewhere along this new highway, Lake Manyara appeared and conversation suddenly included tales of tree climbing lions in the nearby Lake Manyara National Park. Truth be told, I did not know that lions climb trees.

Later in the day, even with some mandatory stops, banter in the comfy charter minibus retreated as fatigue set in.

But back to Dodoma, the city of grapes, where most action was. Apparently, Dodoma is the main region in Tanzania where grapes are grown. We arrived late evening and straight away went through the routine accreditation formalities, for the next morning would be too busy. The next day, it hit me that like the many roadside barbecues, there are big fruit stalls almost every corner you turn. And so much more.

After nearly two weeks in Dodoma, a township with nearly 500,000 residents, our conclusion was that it does not have Arusha-standard tourist attractions. It is a small municipality. But very much set to change in the next few years, if not months.

On our last day, during Tanzania’s Union Day celebrations President John Magufuli elevated the capital designate, to a city status. The decision to move the capital from the coastal city of Dar es Salaam was first made by the country’s founding President, Julius Nyerere, in 1973, but it will now be fully realised by Magufuli who has pledged to have the entire government relocate to the new capital by 2019. Unlike Dar, Dodoma is centrally located and is seen as a capital that brings government services nearer to people.

The government, we learnt, has marked out a 12,000 hectare zone in a region called Ihumwa, 17 kilometres from the current town, where it will establish the new “Government City”.

Foreign diplomatic missions were given plots where to build their new offices. It doesn’t look like it will be hard work since the municipality has impressive flat landscape, and adequate room for development.

Meanwhile, though current Dodoma does not have much in terms of the usual tourist attractions, we found some interesting history, sites, architecture, and some more.

Word has it that before its naming, Dodoma used to be just a village full of trees until one rainy season when the Wagogo (plural), a Bantu ethnic group in the area inadvertently invented the name. There are different tales about how it happened. But the most common one is about an elephant that drowned – or got stuck in the mud – in the area. Legend has it that during one rainy season, an elephant drowned and stunned villagers yelled “Idodomye!” meaning “It has sunk,” in their Gogo language and that is how the area got that name.

Today, besides the culture and beautiful old mosques, Tanzania’s Parliament or “Bunge” is hosted there and if you gain right of entry to the grounds, you will learn another thing or two about the place, and country. You could, like me, come to love the Kaunda suit just by seeing how smart the MPs are in it. Due to its elegance, I wanted one but never got time enough at the tailor’s to decide on what colour or style works for me. The jacket is short-sleeved and designed to be worn without a tie, making it cool, comfortable and suitable for both casual and official wear.

Bunge is open to visitors during sessions and is worth a visit. But once there, don’t take pictures without authorisation. Also, don’t miss lunch in the big parliamentary cafeteria. If you are lucky, they will be serving the Mamung’unya, a type of pumpkin, and if you inquire, you’ll learn that there’s more to the pumpkin than meets the eye.

The University of Dodoma which, so we heard, is the biggest campus in the region in terms of landmass and student accommodation capacity, is a spectacle. In the campus grounds, dala dalas (public buses) are needed to travel between faculties, accommodation and administration buildings.

The hustle and bustle in the town also impresses. They’ve got cabs and taxi motos too. But I so often took pleasure in the thrill of rides in the tuk-tuk, an auto rickshaw widely used for urban transport. We used it to go see the statue of one of the most respected Pan-Africanists and liberators, Mwalimu Nyerere, in Nyerere Square, located in the central business district. The park is a very nice place to go and just chill.


For lunch or dinner, walk to the close Mtendeni Street and indulge in the choices at Chef Asili Café. The only craving they didn’t have was juice ya miwa, (sugarcane juice, this green coloured cane juice that isn’t just sweet and delicious but also considered to be extremely nourishing can be found in many other restaurants in town.

A walk through the busy bazaars was another treat of sorts. And, besides the plentiful roadside barbecues, it was also fun watching soccer at Rainbow Pub, arguably the best mishkaki – a Tanzanian version of the shish kebab (a popular meal of skewered and grilled meat) –place in town. The loud music there, especially on a night when Jürgen Klopp’s all-action Liverpool side was determined to thump AS Roma for dead, was earsplitting – we left early – but it is still a place to be if you love beer.

Unlike the cold Arusha, Dodoma features a semi-arid climate with relatively warm temperatures throughout the year. It has only one rainy season, between December and April, we were told. And, evening it is – at present – not in the same league with Arusha, the hub of Tanzania’s tourist industry; I liked it, especially for its warmth.