Amarula cob cottage north west

Today I am pleased to share some pictures with you. We have finished our building in Mnenia and it is ready to be occupied. I found it difficult to take adequate pictures: the house is small but feels spacious. Photographs can’t give you the feeling of the light breeze, the sound of the birds, or the cool inside on a hot day. We very much enjoyed staying in the house and hope to return.

In the beginning of the project we set out to build with mostly local materials. I can now say that the stones, sand, clay, bricks and sticks all came from within 1 km of the building site. We hired people to make door and windows in Kondoa, the closest town. Cement and Lime were produced in Tanzania, near Moshi. The many hands that helped were also mostly from the village, except our dome ‘fundi’ Petro Omala, Goodluck Omala, and a few short term volunteers.

Have a look and let me know your thoughts!











Everyday actions are learned as we grow up, by observation, copying, failure, trying again and getting better little by little. Depending on our home place and culture of origin we learn very different skills: it may be using certain tools in the garden or on the farm, techniques for handwashing clothes, cleaning house even how to do shopping for food.
When, as an adult, you switch home place for a while and immerse yourself in a different culture its time to adapt and re-learn some things. This can be both challenging and very much fun.
A example is haggling over prices. In North America and Europe we are used to walking into a store or market and buying things at a fixed price. Here in Tanzania (and many other places of course)there are situations with fixed prices , such as supermarkets and larger stores, but in many places you have to negotiate for a good price. As visitors we first are given what we call “mzungu” prices: very much inflated and nothing a local would ever consider paying. So we haggle back and forth and sometimes leave without the item, otherwise having arrived at an agreeable price for both parties.
More recently I’ve been practicing carrying things on my head. Here we see young girls transporting buckets or sizeable bundles on their heads gracefully and without touching them with their hands.

starting young

I asked Saum to help me learn and she showed me  to roll up a kanga and place it on my head which cushions and supports the bucket. The weight immediately settles the head and spine into a straight (strong) line. A little steadying by one arm holding the edge of the bucket helps me keep it there and prevents sudden movements. I have to learn to walk slowly and evenly, both strong and flexing all the time keeping a balance between the movement of my feet and legs and the slight movements of the water in the bucket.

years of practice

During a work party with my friends of the Twiga group we were carrying buckets of clay, and great excitement stirred, when I picked up a bucket too. It works much better than our way of carrying off centre and one-sided. Do try it sometime! I was most impressed by the older women in the group working tirelessly and powerfully.

Zaruna laying stone

While some of the group were digging and moving the clay, others were building the stone foundation for the small cob cabin that we are building here at Amarula Camp.
And like every good work party we had food together at the end. Happy about what we achieved and feeling good to be working together again.

Soon we will start cobbing- if you’re in Tanzania and looking to learn cob building, please contact me. There’s always room for help.

Driving from Arusha to Mnenia brought back memories from just over a year ago: then I was sitting in the passenger seat of Seppo’s aging Land Rover with growing amazement at the changing landscape while the vehicle negotiated the endless bumpy road-construction stretch  between Arusha and Babati.(see Kijiji means village) I remembered the beauty of the country road of red earth on the other side of Babati, lined by large trees and populated by village people here and there.

The picture is different now: the road to Babati is mostly finished and traffic moves very fast, but now construction is underway on the other side. Just like in Bagamoyo a few years ago,  I witness the massive impact that better roads have on the natural environment and can’t help but wonder how this will change  remote villages like Mnenia, where we’re going.

Returning to a place means seeing it with fresh eyes and I was a little anxious as we approached the village and camp. Would it still hold the magic that I felt there last year?
The season is just a little later this time and everything is green and trees are blooming. All the fields are planted or tilled and ready. The sky looked heavy with rain when we pulled into Amarula Camp,the campsite of the Rock Art Project. Daniel, our translator last year, was there and his beaming smile showed his surprise when he saw us. “The women keep asking ‘when will Mma Matumaini  come back?'”, he said. That’s what they call me here; matumaini means hope.
The Camp is looking much more finished: the nice banda with attached kitchen is complete, there are three covered Safari tents, another kitchen, a shower building and a structure for the dry toilet. The grounds are being kept by the staff, and it looks like they’re doing a good job.
We sat around a fire that evening under an almost full moon. And I felt again the peace and the sense of ease that overcomes me when I’m there.
For the next day Daniel arranged for us to meet with the Twiga women around 3 in the afternoon. “After they are finished with their work on the fields”.  Of course- this is a very busy time for them.

I had not seen ‘our’ building with its roof (only a picture), so I was quite excited to find it in good shape and the women proudly in front. They all came to meet us- so many hugs, smiles and greetings- and then we sat down inside.
This was just a visit, a re-connection to see what is possible. We touched on some ideas but it will take more talking and thinking before something can be organized. So we enjoyed some sodas and each other’s company and of course some dancing.
I feel encouraged to go back for a longer time to continue the work in the village. Real soon!


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A week ago today we traveled back to Arusha: our time in Mnenia village was finished- for this time. The standing question of the last few days there was “when will you come back?”
Following is a sequence of experpts from my journal to capture my time with the women of Twiga group, building their store in the village of Mnenia.

Dec 4
In the village there’s not much available. Especially building supplies, either more expensive or not available at all.
On the 2nd day of each month there’s a bigger market in Kolo: there you can buy clothing, shoes, roofing, baked goods, vegetables, cookware, tools, livestock and more. One can imagine that this becomes an important event in the life of the villagers.
The next larger town is Kondoa- 25 km from Mnenia , and if you can’t get what you need there you have to travel 8o km to Babati. There are daily buses in both directions.
We tried to be very organized and purchase and load all supplies in Arusha when we went to pick up Sue and Sean.
A problem with the vehicle held us up on Tuesday so we didn’t leave until 4 pm.  I was glad to leave the busyness of the town and head back out towards the village. We stayed the night in Babati on the lake. Our hope for a visit by the hippos that night did not get fulfilled, so we hired a fisherman to paddle us out to see them in the morning. Still no luck- all we got was their sound – no visual.
Arrival at camp meant unpacking everything and setting up kitchen and tents . Just when we had everything tucked in a thunderstorm blew in and tested all our tents and setup with strong gusty wind and rain coming horizontally. All was well and we took a deep breath!

Thursday came and time for the beginning celebration. The women had prepared the site with colourful strips of fabric, flowers and a few palm fronds for decoration. In the morning we slaughtered a goat for the occasion that later was eaten with the pilau.
Official beginning of the event was at two pm or saa nane- eight swahili time.
The women started by performing traditional dances to welcome us into the community. The village dignitaries were present and a master of ceremonies.
He gave me the name Mma Matumaini-(that means Hope) and everyone liked that. I received a black shirt, kanga and string of white beads and was asked to cut the ribbon for the other small structure that had been built.
Next the group presented me with a few local traditional gourd and clay cooking dishes.
I spoke a little to them about my hopes for the project and presented a unity flag to Twiga group. With all formalities finished it was time to eat and finally dancing in the square where Sue and I joined the women for a few dances.

After such a good beginning I was very excited to start work the next day. Everyone showed up as agreed at eight with hoes and shovels to excavate.
But first we had to decide on the final positioning of the building. The door will face onto the square where the waterfountain is and you can see the porch from the workshop as well as the road, so that when things are displayed outside they will be easily visible.
With many hands the digging was done quickly. A tractor load of stone was delivered and we started to build a dry stone foundation.
Teatime offers opportunity for a little bit of “shule” some short talks about things around the building, structure and process.

Mama fundi: Zenia

Dec 10
Snapshot of yesterday morning.
We now work on scaffolding made from Sisal poles. Sara is is now pretty competent at cutting “corner”bricks and works with three or four others: someone getting udongo,someone handing bricks, someone on the scaffold with her to spread the mud and fill the joints. From the inside of the building you can hear Sue’s voice:”level?….level!” as she goes around checking level and plumb. There is another group on the other side also laying bricks and mixing mud. Everybody is engaged, occasionally visitors drop in and help out a bit.
Meanwhile in the backyard, a few women cook the day’s meal on a couple of small fires. This is also where people go when they take a short break and need some shade.
Rain has been a daily event lately. Sometimes in powerful thundershowers, then in long periods overnight. Last night everyone in the small tents got wet from a long downpour.
The river at the bottom of the land is high today. We can hear it rushing from the kitchen.
There was an upset in the village and we found out that someone very respected had died when a tree fell on his house. The women needed time out to attend the funeral. So we stopped after tea and went to Kondoa for roof materials.
The road from Kolo to Kondoa is part of the historic “great northern route” from Cairo to Capetown. It’s rough- damage from rain and earthmovements, broken bridges . Once again we’re grateful for the Land Rover’s power.
Massive Baobab trees mark the landscape and I wonder what their story would be if they could tell it.

see more here

Dec. 16
CM is here. His arrival was very much anticipated by the women and boys. At the end of the day yesterday I received a special gift of a fresh chicken with eggs inside that I was to cook for him. Saum help with preparing it and we cooked it in the earthen pot in the cob oven.
Today all the women showed up to welcome us. Seppo and CM brought three bicycles donated by folks in the Cowichan Valley and a sewing machine from Sue- items the women had wished for. Still more bicycles needed but this was a great start!
We danced to welcome CM and then went to work: plaster! We mixed lime and earth and many hands once again made fast work and by lunch time the building was plasterered inside and out.

Dec. 17
Last day on site. We have accomplished a lot. Walls are complete with plaster, the floor is laid and the door is hung. Costa will return in a few days to work with the group to build the roof. The model stove in the store room is finished and a few of the women feel confident to reproduce these.
I watched the women take on this project and my highlights were times when I stood back and saw everyone busy on the building- work divided by aptitude and energy level, and once scaffolding was involved, the older women stayed on the ground. They all mixed mortar and plaster, laid bricks and packed the floor. At one time all of them were inside the building singing and plastering. As they occupy this building they will always know that their own hands built it. It is my hope that they will take these skills home and perhaps do some needed repairwork .
We had a closing celebration yesterday with a few “speeches”, the presentation of the bicycles and sewing machine, and expressions of gratitude and hope for future cooperation. And one more round of dancing together. Good bye hugs and words and wishes for our journey and then it was done.

Now the faces of Zena, Sara, Zura, the four Hadijas two Hawas , Zaina, Fatuma, Fatima, Mariamu, Hafsa, Maimuna, Rehema, Sewatu and Zaruna are part of my memory of a very special time in their village.
My gratitude extends to Seppo Hallavainio for setting everything up and for being my “brother”, to Sue and Sean who stepped out of their comfort zone and joined the project without knowing much beforehand, to Daniel who gracefully danced between languages and cultures and to the village council of Mnenia for their support of this project.

Things will change here and I can’t help but wonder what it will look like a few years from now. Will it still be quiet and dark at night with the sounds of insects, dogs, the wind and the river and human voices? Will the women still wear their traditional dresses with Kangas and headscarves?
What of this lifestyle is important to take into the future and how can their standard of life improve?
Many questions to take with me and to ponder.

Nov. 23

Masai compound from road

It took hours to get out of Arusha; picking things up , shopping, waiting for people and traffic.
Finally, around 1 we left town towards Kondoa region. Along a new paved road it was easy driving at first. We were crossing Masai land, where round houses in clusters dot the landscape and herds of cattle move about. Occasionally we got dangerously close to a goat or a cow crossing the road as we sped along in the Land Rover. Donkeys are plentiful too: Masai 4×4 Seppo said.
Then the pavement ends and we drove alongside road construction for what seems like hours. Rough, bouncy, dusty- I was glad for the 4×4 vehicle and Seppo’s knowledge of the road.
The houses we drove past changed:  square little brick houses with small fenced yards lined the streets in the villages. In the distance the edge of Ngorongoro park.
On fresh pavement again: We reached the town of Babati. “No Mzungus here”said Seppo. There’s a lake and a hotel on the edge of it- green grass, tables, a bar. Feels like an oasis after the drive. We ordered two beers and stretched our legs. There are hippos in this lake , about 300 or so. Local fishermen will take tourists to see them by canoe.


We didn’t have time for that- another couple of hours to go before we would reach camp. But before  leaving town we went to the market for some fresh vegetables. Not much to pick from: Onions, potatoes, tomatoes and Mangoes. Dried goods in little shops surrounding the stands.
Leaving Babati the road becomes dirt road- good solid red earth. The rich color makes my heart sing. The road winding its way up through small settlements and rich treed landscape offering views in the distance of valleys and finally to the North the evening light on the Masai Plains. Breathtaking. Not much further ahead lies the camp also overlooking the plains and the Village we now are part of: Mnenia.
My excitement kept growing with every move. Seppo pointed to the tents and set me up in the big Safari tent- with a bed!
Soon it got dark and we sat with a few Kerosene lamps and a couple of solar lights. Costa, the builder who is here, made some food and then another surprise: Full Moon rising over the Eastern horizon. The beauty of the moment brought tears to my eyes.
Early to bed, the night was cool and in the morning I was looking for some warmer clothes. A few hours into the day the heat comes back and we look for shade again.
Morning visit to the village. Seppo has been working with a group of women on a project that will have them produce briquettes made from plant waste. They will also make paper and be able to generate some income from these.When we drove up there was great excitement.  And much laughter as we struggled with languages. We have a young interpreter with us who patiently relates what we have to say.
The building that the women are using is located next to a water tap. Village water taps are where women gather- carrying water in buckets on their heads.
Later yesterday we met again with the group and presented our idea for a small store next to the tap to have as selling point for anything they produce: paper, briquettes, pottery etc.
They loved the idea and got really excited when we suggested that we build it together without the fundi- the tradesman we always seem to be waiting for. It will be us and the women starting next week after two volunteers arrive.