Last night on Kilimanjaro

For two weeks the temptress Kilimanjaro has kept me looking for her.  The mountain likes to hide behind clouds, but she’s revealed herself at several sunrises and sunsets and a couple of times at midday. Most people come here to climb the mountain—the highest in Africa at over 19,000 feet and higher than all but Mt. McKinley in the US.  It’s a gradual slope.  If you can walk, you can climb this mountain.  The hotel I’m staying at is close to the mountain, has a generator when the power goes out, two good restaurants and lower prices than most.  Most mornings I ate breakfast with a new tour group–from China, Korea, Japan, Germany and Sweden so far.  They stay a night or two before hitting the mountain trails. A few Americans have come and gone, but they’ve been rare. The hotel is owned by Lutherans and a few missionaries come and go too.


I didn’t come to climb the mountain.  I spent my days working with some really smart people.  They picked up cash flow analysis quicker than some U.S. business undergraduates. One lady, Hadija Abdallah, sitting on a boulder next to me, said she didn’t know how to read or write but was hearing it all and remembering it. We met outside under a shade tree which didn’t provide much shade when the African sun got low in the sky.  So we had to move our chairs now and then to get back in the shade.  Somedays we worked till dark and then many of them still had to walk or bike several kilometers home. We always met in the afternoon since they worked their fields in the morning.

They don’t have cars or TVs or refrigerators, but, boy, they have spunk.  For generations unknown they have kept the water flowing through an intricate series of canals to their small plots dug by hand on the lower reaches of the Kikavu River. Their population is growing rapidly and a town, Kikavu Chini, has developed near the bridge leading to the bottomland.  The bottomland was grabbed by the British to establish a sugar cane plantation.  The plantation is now owned by investors from the Seychelles Islands. The people of Kikavu Chini sometimes get jobs chopping sugar cane, but mostly they survive on their small plots of land growing rice and cassava.  After feeding their huge families, they sell the little they have left to middlemen who give them loans at planting and come back at harvest, offering barely enough to cover the loans.

To say they live in extreme poverty is not strong enough. Kikavu Chini looks like a refugee camp.  Its dusty streets are lined by shacks thrown together from scrap wood and mud brick. Most houses along the road offer a few tomatoes or eggs for sale. The town is a maze of narrow dirt roads. If you ask for directions enough times, you’ll find your way to the outskirts where some homesteads have bananas, avocados and coconuts. Every square inch is raising something they can eat.  If you make the right turns from there you reach the stretches of small plots planted to rice and beans and irrigated by their own canals.

A one lane road passes between these plots and heads up to the dam where the irrigation systems starts.  It’s a dead end road.  Above it is Kilimanjaro National Park and all the tourists. Yesterday we barely got past a huge truck from a nearby town picking up bundles of rice on the side of the road.  Since the villagers don’t have such lorries, nearly everyone just sells their crops in the field to middlemen who make all the profits.

Past this example of what we are fighting, the path abruptly moves up and we pick our way through the rocks to the top of an adjacent hill and the hamlet where we will set up for the session.  The hills around the valley are all rock and thorn bushes.  Cattle and goat herds–who are permitted to graze anywhere–insure it stays that way.   As the sun began to get lower, the cattle herds swept through the hamlet, but don’t try to get in on the training.

One of the leaders of the cooperative has chopped down a few weeds on the north side of his house.  Participants have bought in benches and chairs.  We tape some flip chart paper to the side of the car and we have a classroom.

Except it’s not really a classroom and I’m not the expert with all the answers.  Instead, I’m just a facilitator who is trying to help them plan, figure out what is blocking them, and get motivated for action.

We came up with lots of plans for improvement of their irrigation district and creating vegetable, cassava and egg enterprises with cooperative members.  I wish I could stay and help them create a marketing system where the profit comes to the farmer, not the middleman.

Most people come to Kilimanjaro to climb the mountain.  I do like the mountain, but I came to Kilimanjaro to help some smart, hard-working people create a better cooperative. I’m looking forward to seeing how much they accomplish by my next visit.  Maybe I’ll know a little more Swahili by then.


My work in Tanzania was supported by Catholic Relief Services and the USAID program Farmer to Farmer.  Contact CRS to help farmers in Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya.


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