Surrounded by some of the most fascinating and varied national parks in Africa, Arusha sits snugly on the foothills of Mount Meru in a wide expanse of high and fertile volcanic land. To the northeast the impressive silhouette of Kilimanjaro looms against the sky, while just a short distance northwest lie the plains of Maasailand, the mountains, rivers and lakes of Ngorongoro, Manyara, Tarangire and the plains of the Serengeti. Arusha even has its own National Park, tucked behind the wide coffee plantations that flank the Moshi Road, which spans a curious landscape of lakes and craters, including a large portion of Mount Meru, and provides a scenic and quiet haven just a few minutes’ drive from the town centre.
Skirted by a rapid haphazard growth of shanty stalls and housing, this old German garrison town in the middle of Maasailand is vibrant, colourful and thriving in its role as the northern centre for commerce and safari operations. Most international tour operators liaise with specialised operators based here for all explorations of the surrounding National Parks. Arusha was once the centre for the East African Community, an alliance between Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda; its Conference Centre is now the base for the War Crimes Tribunals being negotiated between Rwanda and Burundi, and remains an important centre for business and commerce in northern Tanzania. The Arusha National Conference Centre houses most major offices, and many tour companies.
As you arrive, whether by air or by road, panoramic views of the surrounding countryside reveal a fertile and well-cultivated land lush with plantations of coffee, maize, beans, and wheat, alongside greenhouses and fields growing fresh flowers for export. This productivity is reflected in Arusha’s markets and on most street corners, where astoundingly large avocados, tomatoes and maize cobs are among the crops offered for sale.
As a result of its prosperity, Arusha is very attractive to settlers, and its population has grown rapidly: from an estimated 5,300 in 1948 and 100,000 in the 1970s – today the population is probably closer to 400,000. There is a group of people still known as the ‘WaArusha’, a term which refers to a small group of people who originated from an area known as Arusha Chini, originally thought to have been a combination of Meru and Chagga tribes. In the trammels of time these people were conquered by the Maasai, and subsequently assimilated many aspects of Maasai dress, language and social structures, but it is said that their accents and physical appearance remain distinct to discerning locals. Today, Arusha inhabitants are a diverse mix of nationalities and backgrounds: Asian, European and African professionals, tour operators, street traders and shanty dwellers are all arrayed in distinct urban sectors radiating from the centre of town.
The town centres around the old German boma and clocktower, close to the AICC and numerous offices of safari operators. Businessmen and loud-mouthed salesmen thread through lines of Maasai women sitting shoulder to shoulder in shop doorways, making traditional coloured bead jewellery. Just a few metres away the small but motley population of homeless people and beggars joins the swirling crowd, and everywhere tourists are assailed by a constant stream of requests to buy batiks or another Swahili–English dictionary. The overall atmosphere is friendly and welcoming, and Arusha offers a cosmopolitan range of restaurants, good shopping and a number of day trips to the singularly impressive and varied landscapes that surround the town.
Arusha – History
The people of Arusha were established as a distinct tribe of pastoralists and farmers long before the colonial powers arrived. Influenced by their Maasai background, they kept a similar social structure, with status related to age, and a central warrior class. They were occasionally called upon to support Rindi, the great Chagga warrior chief, in his battles with other chiefs around Kilimanjaro, and when the first German settlers began involving themselves in these altercations the Arusha were no strangers to fighting.
On 19 October 1896, the German Captain Kurt Johannes approached the Arusha in an attempt to secure diplomatic relations with local chiefs, but the Arusha warriors, unable to forget a German raid of the previous year, attacked and killed two missionaries. Captain Johannes returned to his base in Moshi, and persuaded Rindi to side with the colonials and mobilise Chagga troops to retaliate. The Arusha were easily defeated by the punishing onslaught: their weapons and food reserves were confiscated and their houses were destroyed. They were finally forced to bow to German control.
In 1899 the Germans began construction of a strong fortification, a boma, and the Arusha were forced to build it. Maasai in Arusha today still remember the humiliation of this task: the new colonialists had a penchant for travelling around on the backs of the Arusha and Maasai men, egging them on with whips. One Maasai recorded in his memoirs how an unsurprising resentment at this form of transport grew; he was particularly upset to have an unusually heavy cargo. One day, passing the river with his charge set heavily across his back, his patience snapped and he tossed his ‘master’ into the water. The Maasai realised that the consequences would be severe, and a large number of them ran away into the bush. After a couple of days a Maasai chief was sent to find the mutinous group. He explained that he was acting as a mediator, and that if the group would return to work all would be forgiven. The runaways marched back into the new Arusha town in a column of about 400 men and, and as they strode down Boma Road, the entire troop was gunned down in the street. It is said that the mediator was promptly promoted. The fort was completed in 1900 and became a barracks for 150 Nubian soldiers, later it became the regional Government offices until 1934, when it became the Arusha Museum of Natural History.
A steady influx of traders and farmers into Arusha, notably Indian traders, private German farmers and immigrant Africans, created economic growth. Meanwhile the German administration had conceived an idealistic vision of a vast white settlement of their own construction, and attempted several schemes to import large numbers of settlers from bizarre backgrounds. The first of these plans backfired when the Boer farmers of German origin who had taken up the offers of farmland proved too uncouth for the ideal community; they were mainly squeezed out into Kenya. The grand scheme was revised: now they would import 10,000 German peasants from settlements around the Volga Basin and Caucasus in Southern Russia. The four families who arrived as a test project were painfully disappointed to discover that Arusha did not have four harvests, as they had been led to believe, and soon made their way to Tanga begging to be sent back to Russia.
The first school was constructed 1914, and called Boma School. It is now the site of Arusha Lutheran Church. The railway to Moshi was completed in the 1920s, and this boosted Arusha’s position at the centre of trade and development in Northern Tanzania, at the heart of the coffee growing regions. The population of Arusha continued to grow, and eventually the town earned enough status to earn its place in history as the site of the first president, Julius Nyerere’s most influential political dictates. His 1967 Arusha Declaration delineated his most influential policies for a ‘Model of African Socialism’, a confluence of rules and ideals that would influence the livelihood and outlook of the nation for the next 20 years.
Aruaha – Shopping
Arusha is an excellent town for shopping for art and curios from all over Tanzania. As the central town of the Maasai villages, Arusha is the best place to shop for traditional Maasai beadwork and jewellery. Buy directly from the Maasai women sitting along the pavement, or from numerous curio shops around the town centre. Robin’s Nest and The Deco Shop on Haile Selassie Road both stock a range of gifts and furniture. Craft shops between India Road and the clock tower stock a wide range of Makonde carvings, either imported from the Makonde Plateau in the south, or more frequently made by ambitious Makonde carvers who have moved northwards.
Styles have evolved to match Western demands, so look out for some interesting new pieces as well as traditional abstract and figurative styles. The most varied selection of all of these, in all shapes and sizes, is at the Cultural Heritage Centre a few kilometres west of the town centre, opposite Mserani Snake Park on the Dodoma Road. Their stock is slightly more expensive but the variety and quality makes it worth a visit, and they take credit cards. Batiks are also commonly offered in the streets, but you can usually get a better price from the curio shops, where you will also find a range of curios made from semi-precious stones, such as malachite, tanzanite and green tourmaline and rhodolite. Amethysts and garnets are also found in the curio shops, but not necessarily from the Arusha region.
The four main supermarkets are Kibo and Modern on Sokoine Road, Kijenge on the Moshi Road and Makwani on Swahili Street. The local markets are Soko Kuu at the crossroads of Market Street and Azimio Street, and the new Kilombero on Sokoine Road. For books, try Kase on Boma Road, who have a good selection of local ethnic and educational literature on their well-stocked shelves. New books tend to be expensive throughout Tanzania, but the range and choice, especially of non-fiction, is definitely the best here. Almost directly opposite the bookshop on the other side of the road is a second-hand stall with a good selection of well-thumbed novels.
Arusha – Cultural Tourism Programmes
An excellent new incentive executed with advice from SNV, the Netherlands Development Organization, has been developed to give tourists a chance to look a little deeper into the country that they are visiting, and bring the tourist dollar within reach of local people. These local projects remain mainly low-key, although each has developed at its own pace and all are different. The programmes introduce interested tourists to local people who have been trained as a guide, interpreter and source of information about their area. The programmes aim to fund major local requirements, such as irrigation, education or ecological work, and tourists pay a prearranged fee to these funds. The arrangement gives people the chance to meet, to explore cultural differences and interests, and the tourist experience is often immeasurably enhanced by local introductions and explanations.
Cultural Tourism Programmes near Arusha include those at Mkuru, Longido and Mto wa Mbu. Mkuru and Longido are projects organized with local Maasai tribes, and each requires at least a couple of hours driving from the town centre.
Mkuru is north of Mount Meru, not far beyond the Momela Gate of Arusha National Park. The people are Maasai, but this community shows its individuality in the development of a camel camp, assisted by Heifer Project International. Camels are ideally suited to survival on the semi-arid plains between Mount Kilimanjaro and Lake Natron, and there are now about 100 of these long-legged dehydration-resilient beasts in Mkuru. You can arrange a camel-riding safari guided by Maasai warriors, either for just a couple of hours or a number of days, travelling all the way to Lake Natron or Ol Doinyo Lengai. Any trek through this landscape will encounter plenty of wildlife and birds along the way, and the views of Kilimanjaro, Meru and the Longido Mountains provide a stunning backdrop. The Mkuru Maasai will also take you on bird walks, or on a rather more strenuous climb up the pyramid cone of Ol Doinyo Landaree. This last takes about two hours; from the top there are superb views of Mount Meru and Kilimanjaro and the plains between the two.
There are three ‘luxury’ cottages at the camel camp, each with beds for two. There is a tap inside each,
but the toilet is outdoors (and has an excellent view of Kilimanjaro). No food or drink is available at the camp, other than tea or coffee with camel milk, and tour operators (or well-prepared individuals) are encouraged use the kitchen with its energy-saving stoves to prepare food brought in on their own initiative. The project at Mkuru aims to build and run a kindergarten in the village, and will greatly improve local education.
Longido, 100 km north of Arusha on the Nairobi, has an interesting local project in a rural area with still apparent signs of its unusual colonial history. Heavy fighting broke out in this region between the Germans and the British during the First World War. The local stories tell how a single German soldier hid behind a rock, sniping at the English soldiers, until a Maasai warrior was bribed to creep up behind the attacker and spear him. The remains of an ancient graveyard, now mainly sunk into the depths of the bush, once proudly commemorated the German and British who died here. A nearby tree covered with ‘European drawings’ is not as exciting as it sounds: it has been crudely graffitied with the odd initial and some discernible dates, but the walk leads past bush huts used by boys awaiting their cleansing ceremonies, and through a changing and dramatic landscape.
The number of walks around Longido merit a full day trip, but the village can also be visited as a half-day or two-day tour. The cattle market takes place on Wednesdays, attracting colourfully arrayed Maasai from every direction of the landscape. One of the most fascinating people to look out for in Longido is the co-ordinator of the tourism programme Mzee Mollel, a local Maasai who studied sociology in Zambia and Australia. He is a font of information, and a delight to engage in conversation.
Longido provides a fascinating landscape to explore with the insight and knowledge of a local Maasai guide alongside. Unusual wildlife not commonly seen in the National Parks, such as gerenuk, lesser kudu and klipspringer antelopes, are common in the bush and mountains around Longido, as are other animals such as giraffe, zebra and gazelles. Your guide can point out birds, such as masked weavers, barbets and secretary birds, demonstrate the food and medicines the Maasai traditionally take from the bush, and take you to a boma to experience their tribal way of life and eat food prepared by the women’s group. Proceeds from the project are being put towards a new cattle dip to protect the herds against the numerous ailments that kill around 1,000 of their cows each year.
The Maasai guides at Mkuru and Longido are experienced at leading and organizing camel safaris, but their English is limited – although they are proficient in hand signals – so if you plan to stay for any length of time it is advisable to take a translator with you. Most tour operators will be happy to provide a guide to accompany you and arrange all the camping equipment and food that you might need. Before visiting either of these villages ensure that you are adequately prepared, with enough drinking water (three litres a day is recommended if walking in the sun) and food, sun protection, a hat, good walking shoes and thorn-resistant clothes.
At the town of Mto wa Mbu, on the road into Lake Manyara National Park, the local population is made up of an extraordinary spectrum of Tanzanian tribes. This unusual group has been attracted by the fertility of the land here, transformed from an arid and unattractive land for habitation by an extensive irrigation system implemented in the 1950s. As news of this ‘new’ land spread, so people came from all areas and settled here to farm and work the land according to their own experience. Fruits and vegetable seeds have been brought from all over the country, and people of different tribal backgrounds produce food according to their traditional methods. A visit to the tourism project at Mto wa Mbu can introduce you to local Chagga farmers who brew their own banana beer, and a farmer from Kigoma, Mzee Filipo, who makes palm oil from palm trees. Alternatively you might head to a waterfall 5km north of town, and see the papyrus lake where local Rangi people collect papyrus for mats and baskets, and the Sandawe families make their bows and arrows for hunting. There are a number of places to buy provisions in Mto wa Mbu, and a couple of basic guest houses for accommodation.
Further afield, programmes have been organized in the North and Southern Pare Mountains, and in the Usambara mountains. These are referred to in relevant chapters. More information about all of these, and perhaps more, is available from the TTB Information Centre, Boma Road, Arusha, Tel: 057 50 3302/ 3842/3.