'Tunapanda miti milioni moja - We plant one million trees'. For 2017-2018 this is the big ambition of the young university with the impressive name 'Sebastian Kolowa Memorial University' (SEKOMU), situated in the Lushoto district in North-Eastern Tanzania, in the center of the West-Usambara mountains. This university celebrates its 10th anniversary. Together with my Tanzanian colleague and good friend Professor Didas Kimaro I was invited for a colloquium about greening of uplands on 1st of March, 2018, and for a tree planting session the next day. I have been there before several times for project work, and each time I was impressed by the warm and also deep religious culture. And yes, they do their best to guide this God-forgetting mzungu back on the right track, but without fanatism.
The wazee, Didas and I, present our lecture as part of a long session full of ceremony, with an extensive presentation round, prayers, speeches and words of thank. The public is very alert and raises critical questions. Then we receive gifts (but how will these fit in my luggage?)
The session finishes much later than promised by the schedule, but who's got a problem with this? The lunch is organised according to well prescribed rules, but this does not prevent casual conversations and exchange of friendly jokes. Here, formality is not at all equivalent to stiffness. The whole day is a heart-warming mix of protocol, courtesy, timelessness and vitality, in the best spirit of Africa. My northern feel for briefness and pragmatism is seriously shaken.
The next morning an excursion is planned, a walk in the nature, to end with a visit to a village were trees will be planted. The process of coming together is a bit chaotic and the walk starts much later than the scheduled time. Once more I have to swallow my cold reflex of timing and planning. By the way, how nice the weather here compared with dark and cold Belgium at this moment. And around me there are flowers, birds, butterflies, green hills and cheerful Tanzanians. Deep inside, I reflect about the poverty underneath this green blanket, but also about the fact that the situation in Tanzania is peaceful compared with the smouldering tensions in neighbouring Kenya, let alone the tragedies in the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and other countries in Africa.
Just outside the SEKOMU campus there is a reserve of montane rainforest; a joy for the senses and a paradise for nature lovers. Stony and slippery paths wind between forest giants, tree ferns and lianas. Colobus monkeys shout alarm. On a hilltop, a mirador offers a spectacular panorama and a bit lower there is the 'Germany cave', a corridor cut 400 meter into the rocks. During the colonial period, early 20th century, the Germans prospected for bauxite, the ore from which aluminium is extracted.
So why tree planting in this area? Some decades ago far too much of the native forest was felled, turning the rural area in a treeless landscape, leading to soil erosion and increased poverty. In the past there have been tree planting projects which certainly have improved the environmental quality, but there is still space for massive amounts of trees. Not to forget the importance of the Usamabaras as fragile biodiversity hotspot, with remnants of the pristine forest. The more trees planted in the countryside, the better the remaining forests can be preserved, and the less the risk of illegal wood felling.
Luckily, the regional awareness of environment and ecology is on the rise. Organisations such as 'Friends of Usambara' are gaining impact (comparable with 'Natuurpunt' in Belgium). Religious instances, such as the Lutheran Church, of which SEKOMU is part, also have much positive influence on environment and well-being. Fortunately, the big religious communities (Catholics, Lutherans, Muslims) maintain good contacts and collaboration. SEKOMU wants to be at the forefront of environmental management carried out by the local communities. One of their many initiatives is the collection of erratic litter.
Finally we arrive in Nazareti, one of the places selected for tree planting. (Nazareti: like Italian, many bantu languages do not tolerate end consonants). For Nazareti, fruit trees were purchased: avocado, peach and guava. In other places trees for timber were selected or native trees in the frame of nature conservation).
Now, I imagine a short technical introduction, and hop, the trees in the ground.
Of course, completely wrong!
Some fifteen women are awaiting us, in colourful dresses, with twinkling eyes, all smiles, singing, clapping their hands, ululating and rhythmically rocking. Amidst this group I see Rev. Anneth Munga of SEKOMU. Then they lead us procession-wise into their new church, while they keep singing and dancing. We are invited to sit down in a prescribed order. And then the church resonates under the tune of Mahali ni pazuri, this beautiful song of German origin, but to which the Swahili words fit so well. A moving moment indeed.
The church leader (a female evangelist) invites us to listen to a prayer and then she reads God praising stories. The oldest lady of Nazareti is surrounded with much honour and respect; it was she who with her initiatives uplifted Nazareti. There are also some men of the village, but I am not sure about their role in this ceremony (they surely sing very well the third and the fourth voice).
Each of us is invited to present him/herself in standing position. This was the case in every meeting I attended. This is no waste of time (as again we Europeans might interpret), but part of a culture in which acceptance by the community and solidarity are so important.
Then the protocol for the tree planting is explained. Mine is the honour to plant the first tree. In a pre-dug pit in the meagre soil they already applied a layer of compost. I am watched attentively how I handle the tiny avocado plant, how I add soil with the shovel and pour water. My reward is the singing and the handclapping of the women.
Professor Didas Kimaro is a Chagga from the Kilimanjaro area. I like to compare the Chagga with the West-Flemings of my country: enterprising and with a sense of mission. He is the second to plant a tree. But as born teacher and orator he first, the shovel in his hands, starts a passionate lecture about soils, trees, environment and the importance of trees, also praising the Nazareti people for their initiative. After some ten minutes I am itching with the wish to give his arm a discrete pat. But everybody is listening respectfully, patiently and with interest.
So the pat is hitting somewhere between my ears. We from the northern part of this world are afraid of losing time. But here, the people are much more open for time blessing. The speech of Kimaro is making an impression. The Nazareti people are thankful for the advice and the support. This gives me munition against the cynics who declare all development aid as useless, all the aid resources disappearing in bottomless pockets. These young trees will be cared for very well by the local people and Tanzanian experts will keep providing guidance. This project will multiply itself and likely spread as a green wave through the Usambaras.
After Prof. Kimaro the other persons plant their trees. Then we walk back to the church, but before we enter there is the ritual of hand washing. In respectful pose a lady pours water over our hands. It really feels like a biblical scene. After another song and prayers food is served. I am guest of honour, so mine is the task and the honour to express the vote of thanks. In Tanzania I learned not to be too brief. So I try to do my best and say the right things, expressing my admiration for the village community, and thanking them for such a warm welcoming. Maybe I should have referred to God or to Jesus of Nazareth, but their religious feeling is so much deeper than mine, they could do so much better.
The farewell from Nazareti is a colourful happening with songs, dance, hand shaking and the formation of a human circle, hand in hand. Karibuni tena is one of the warm wishes we hear. Better days than this one are rare, very rare. Such human richness in material scarcity and amidst so much natural beauty. Let the trees grow quickly and produce plenty of fruits.