November 12, 2015

Mirages: Illusions and Realities in Serengeti and Lake Natron

Alexandra Barrett
Two weeks ago, on the way to Serengeti National Park, I saw a mirage on the savanna. An illusion of a lake at the end of the dry season. I saw what wasn't there. What couldn't be there yet. The rains would begin to fall that week, but on that drive, what I saw was not reality. The fact that I knew it wasn't really there did not make the illusion go away.
In some ways, that experience sums up my experiences over the past two weeks. I hit the biggies of a trip to northern Tanzania: Ngorongoro Crater, Serengeti National Park, a Maasai homestay. These are the things most people think of when they think of Tanzania and going on safari. A trip to see the Big 5 followed by a cultural experience with the most publicized ethnic group in the region, and you're set.
The thing is, after two months of learning about the realities of Tanzania, I knew that this wasn't the whole story. There's a lot more to a park like Serengeti than the wildlife. There's the history of human eviction, the debate over the development of the northern road, the implications of a system that only exists to serve Westerners.
So even as I enjoy watching lions, elephants, and my favorite bird, the guinea fowl, I can't get these realities out of my head. I never stop thinking about what is reality and what is an illusion, or if there is really any difference now.
My homestay with my Maasai family in Ngarosero near Lake Natron was similar. Sleeping on a cowhide, drinking scalding hot but delicious tea, and beading for hours in the shadow of an acacia tree, I could see that I was in this weird between state. I had turned my head to see the entrance to the cave, but I hadn't actually made it outside.
This limbo became wildly apparent as I sat with my sisters beading and was handed a mama's baby as she ran to sell bracelets. But later, as I was going home for the day, she asked me to buy from her. I could understand the realities of her situation and speak with her in my admittedly limited Kimaa and Kiswahili, and yet I was also subject to the illusions provided to the tourists.
A couple of years ago, some of the students who participated in this program stayed in a cultural boma. A boma is simply the name for the house or group of houses that form the Maasai homestead. However, a cultural boma is a boma that has been created simply for the sake of tourists. When these students returned to camp at the end of their homestay, they told Baba Jack about their flush toilets. Flush toilets are not a part of the reality of Maasai families in Ngarosero.
As a student in Tanzania, I have been placed in this weird limbo. To say that I am a tourist would be to deny the all the cultural intricacies I have learned over the past couple of months. And yet, I am still seen as a tourist here. I suppose this is where my mzungu identity shines through. I will always be a mzungu.
I am happy that I have been able to experience Tanzania through the lens of a student. It has allowed me to go beyond the surface level and see the systems that operate behind the scenes. These systems are not always good: for people, the country, or the animals. But to know what they are has been incredibly important.