Tag Archives: Africa

Tourists and Turtles

Baja SEE Turtles 073

Story and photos by Melissa Gaskill

This blog frequently covers travel that makes a difference – trips that incorporate volunteering, are culturally sensitive, support local businesses, and respect the human and natural environment – or all of the above. I wrote a guest post about such a trip about a year ago, Turtle Rescue on the Eco Side of Baja. More and more places, particularly in developing countries, see this kind of tourism as a sustainable way to protect sea turtles. At the 31st Symposium on Sea Turtle Biology and Conservation, held in San Diego April 12-16, several presentations reported on programs that have seen success, so I thought I’d share them here.

SEE Turtles, a US based non-profit, promotes travel that supports conservation, organizing its own trips to Baja California, Costa Rica and Trinidad.

“We know tourism can be bad for people and animals, especially when done in an unplanned and uncontrolled way,” director Brad Nahill told symposium attendees. “Or it can have positive impacts, including direct financing of conservation and research, reduced dependency on direct use of resources (such as eating sea turtle eggs), increased monitoring, and an increased local constituency. We use local businesses, share commissions, and do additional fundraising, education, volunteer recruiting, and advocacy.”
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Journeys with a cause

Tendai Joe pics

Many of you know I am currently in the process of gearing up for a year-long journey with a mission: to raise the visibility of the unsung heroes of Latin America’s environmental movement.  In the process I hope to build a well of creative ideas and inspiration through the new web portal I’m designing, a networking tool for the groups themselves and a sharp contradiction to the sense of hopelessness and cynicism about the future that has enveloped much of our population. I’m calling it The Esperanza Project, and I’ll be filling you in on the details in the weeks ahead.

Meanwhile, I’ll be taking the opportunity to highlight the journeys of other travelers whose journeys represent a larger purpose. Today I ran across the story of Tendai Sean Joe, a former street child from Zimbabwe who has become an advocate for disadvantaged children and youths. He has launched the Trail of Hope Foundation to provide a base for his advocacy work. Currently the group is raising money for a three-motorcycle trip through 16 countries to document the conditions of street children from Cape Town to Berlin.

Tendai Joe
Tendai Sean Joe

You can follow Tendai Sean Joe on his blog, on Facebook or on Twitter, and you can read his guest post in Deb Corbeil and Dave Bouskill’s excellent blog, Canada’s Adventure Couple, where I first learned about him. Deb and Dave (@theplanetd on Twitter) bring a great deal of insight to the subject, having biked from Cairo to Capetown to raise money for Plan Canada, another group that raises money for underprivileged children. Their blog also highlights journeys for a cause, and you can find a list of stories from their Giving Back, Travel the World and Make a Difference series at the end of Tendai Joe’s guest post.
Here’s one of many photos from Tendai Joe’s Facebook page, taken on a preliminary trip to one of the sites he will visit on his tour.

Cultural Safari in Tanzania

When I told people I was planning a trip to Tanzania, the first question was: “Are you going on safari?”

Well, I didn’t see giraffes and elephants and lions. But since “safari” is the Swahili word for “journey,” I can honestly say I did!

Look for the full story in the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News travel section, or just click here to read it online. Meanwhile, njema safari (happy travels)!

TANZANIAFor more stories from this incredible journey through the real Africa, from celebrating the election of Obama in hubub of Dar es Salaam to making new friends in the Bukoba countryside, see Tracy’s blog, Postcards from Tanzania.

BUWEA women thumbnailFor a story about the amazing group of women who drew me to this remote region, and how they are changing it, see From Texas to Tanzania: San Antonio network changes African lives.

Zanzibar thumbnailAnd for story and videos from an exotic little side trip to the legendary Spice Islands — a land of Omani towers, red colobus monkeys, sparkling white beaches and mahogany forests — see Hakuna Matata in Zanzibar.

Nighttime in Bukoba

The night outside my window is alive with sounds: crickets, night birds, a television from someone’s room, laughter from somewhere down below, and just now, a somnolent call to prayer. But underlying all of that, booming, throbbing from every direction, comes the sound of drums. Big, deep bass drums and a smaller backbeat, accompanied by big voices, harmonizing, and laughter, and the occasional joyful ululating cry of a woman, a virtual soundtrack from a Hollywood production of Africa.

It’s been like this every night since I arrived, my mind filled with warnings from well-meaning friends of the dangers of the African darkness. My first night here, I lay in my bed, my mind filled with images of what must be out there: I imaged some sort of primal ritual involving bare-chested, sweaty people beating giant tom-toms around fires. I sensed that something very tribal was going on, and that I needed to be a part of it.

I was torn. As a journalist, I know very well that the best stories lay on the other side of my fears. On the other hand, I had been warned that it wasn’t safe for a woman to be outside at night. I wasn’t quite sure what it was I was supposed to be afraid of: man-sized mosquitoes waiting to inject me with malaria serum or serial killers hanging out behind trees waiting to grab unsuspecting mzungus (the Swahili word for white people, of which there are very few in these parts).

I had hurried back to the hotel after the Internet café closed at dusk, trying to beat the clouds of mosquitoes that supposedly came out after dark here. As I stepped out onto the street, I noticed people everywhere – men, women, old people, children – probably heading quickly to the safety of their homes, I imagined. But they were not hurrying. It was quite dark when I arrived, and the mosquitoes never materialized.

Later, as I lay huddled in my bed under my mosquito net, listening to the commotion all around us, I ridiculed myself. I realized that probably the only people in town who were locked inside were Paula and me. I longed to go out and follow those drumbeats, to see where they led. But I didn’t yet know more than a handful of words in Swahili – enough to say “how are you,” “very well,” and “thank you,” but not enough to say “get away from me.”

Besides, Paula had offered to take me to a Catholic sunrise service, and she would be knocking at 6 a.m. So prudence being the better part of valor, as they say, I slept fitfully until just before dawn, when the drumbeat died away. My second night I worked until midnight writing stories from the previous two days. I didn’t imagine that, it being Sunday, a similar commotion would arise.

I was wrong. I felt the inexorable force of curiosity pull me out of my bedroom and I found myself asking Judith and Mulungi, the girls in the reception, about the noise.

“It is the night clubs,” Judith said, apologetically. “It is bothering you?”

“Actually,” I said, “I was thinking I’d like to go. What do you think? Is it safe?”

“You want to go?” The girls examined me incredulously, and then burst into peals of laughter.

“You want to go dancing?”

A rapid-fire exchange in Swahili between the two ensued. The next thing I knew, Judith was leading me by the hand into Lundi’s Night Club. Past a lineup of police on motorcycles, apparently keeping the peace. Through a cluster of men, a few of whom eyed me curiously but said nothing.

The place was packed. A Tanzanian blend between hip-hop and reggae, with some modern African beat mixed in, pounded the air from giant speakers; light flashed from slowly rotating disco balls, flickering on the faces of the dancers. The entire nightclub, it seemed, was a pulsating dance floor.

Judith held tight to my hand and steadily wove her way through the crowd to the back, where the wall was lined with sofas and a friend greeted her. Nelson was his name, and he flashed a brilliant smile, shook my hand warmly and invited us to sit. He was a short young man, but what he lacked in stature he more than made up for in style. He was oddly but carefully dressed, in a collared button-down shirt trimmed in brown fake fur, a Rolex-style watch over one long sleeve and a brown knit cap on his head. I invited the two of them to a “Kili” (slang for Kilimanjaro, the popular Tanzanian beer) and they happily accepted. At 1,500 shillings a bottle, it wasn’t something they indulged in very often, I could tell.

As I looked around the dance floor, I noticed several people had brought in their own drinks – boxes of mango juice from the nearby duka (convenience shop) seemed to be the most common. Smoking was not allowed, so the air was clear.

I settled in to take in the crowd; in most ways, it could have been a subdued and less racy version of a U.S. nightclub. The dancers were all conservatively and respectably dressed, and the dance moves were graceful and in some cases joyful, but much less suggestive than what I’d witnessed earlier this year in a Padre Island nightclub.

It was, to be frank, a little disappointing. I had hoped to find a live band, African drummers, some authentic remnant of the traditional culture. Instead, I found an all-black version of American Bandstand.

No matter. I determined to settle in and observe the crowd. As with birdwatching, one must be patient in the observation of nightlife, and one’s patience is often rewarded.

Judith invited me to dance, and I agreed. I was the only white person in the club, perhaps in the history of the club, but nobody stared. I was within inches of other dancers, but nobody touched. One young man caught my eye and invited me to dance, and I looked the other way; my refusal was accepted with good grace, and he moved on.

What a contrast to my experiences in nightclubs in Latin America, where a blonde woman without a male companion is guaranteed an occasionally overwhelming stream of piropos – catcalls, compliments and persistent pleading invitations. Here I sensed the palpable protection of respect.

We made our way back to our spot on the sofa, where Nelson invited me to dance. I looked at Judith and she urged me on with a smile. I insisted that she join us. Soon Nelson was showing off his fanciest moves. It didn’t take long to observe that Nelson had his own style – more Diana Ross than John Travolta, and it dawned on me that we were in very safe hands with Nelson.

I began matching his twirls and flourishes and felt an exuberant laugh bubbling up from deep inside. I was in the middle of nowhere, Africa, dancing with my hotel’s receptionist and a gay man, and we were all having the time of our lives.

Suddenly, a serious-looking man came up to Judith and pulled her aside. She’d been trying to reach a friend on her cell phone since we were back at the hotel; it seems this was him.

She came back and continued dancing, though less animated than before. Finally she tapped my shoulder. “Tracy, let’s go,” she said, grabbing my hand rather abruptly.

“OK,” I said, waving a quick goodbye to Nelson, and we were working our way back through the pulsating crowd. “What’s wrong? Is there a problem?” I asked, fearing that I’d been oblivious to some sort of menace, or had somehow overstepped my bounds. Was my dress too revealing? My dance too free?

“No, no problem.”

“Is your boyfriend upset?”

We were out in the parking lot now, and the boyfriend was waiting, unsmiling, at the edge.

“He’s my husband, actually … but it’s ok.”

I was shocked – she didn’t look old enough to have a husband. But then, I had to remind myself, this was Africa.

“Please tell him it was my fault, Judith. I don’t want him to be angry with you because of me. Tell him I needed your help, that I am doing research for a newspaper article…” It sounded lame, even to me. He launched into her with a barrage of Swahili. She tried to defend herself – I heard the words “gazeti” (newspaper) and “ingereza” (English).

“Tell him I am so grateful to you,” I said. “Tell him that I said you behaved as a perfect princess.”

She tried to suppress a smile and she translated, but he didn’t budge.

I intervened with every apologetic word or phrase I knew: “pole pole, (sorry sorry)” “pole sana (very sorry),” and “samahani (pardon me),” which usually produced a smile – but he wouldn’t even look at me. It was clear that nothing would assuage him. Finally Judith shook her head and grabbed my hand.

“Let’s go,” she said, and we headed back to the hotel. “Tanzanian men,” she muttered on our way back. “You see what we have to live with? They don’t understand that you can just go to a nightclub and have fun with your friends. He thinks it’s something bad.”

Back at the hotel, I apologized profusely. Judith shook her head.

“He is fine,” she said. “I’m glad I went. Everything will be ok, don’t worry.”

The next morning at the reception, Judith was her usual reserved, professional self. Nobody asked me about the nightclub. It was as if it had never happed.

But that night, when the drums began, I smiled. I now knew what was behind the sounds, and I wasn’t afraid. For the first time since I’d arrived, I slept like a baby. And for the rest of my time in Bukoba, day or night, I came and went as I pleased.

From prayers to profits in Tanzania

ITHAWA VILLAGE, Lake Victoria Region, Tanzania — It was during a brief respite in a drenching downpour that Jonia Pastori greeted us, huddled under our umbrellas in the schoolyard. She beamed with pride, seemingly oblivious to the rivulets streaming down her face.

For the children who clustered around her, on break from classes, it was time for tea – the only sustenance that most of them would have until they went home. For Jonia, it was time to do business.

The children lingered as long as they could, taking in the spectacle of two blonde-haired mzungus, or white people, taking pictures and speaking in a strange language. Finally their teacher appeared to usher them back to the classroom, leaving Jonia to tell her story – a story that winds its way back to San Antonio, Texas, and an extraordinary network of women created there.

Keep an eye on the San Antonio Express-News SA Life section for the full story. For those readers who don’t have access to the print edition, I’ll post the link here.