When I ended my last post, I said my goodbyes at the Maasai Giraffe Eco Lodge. James and Timan were taking me by tuk-tuk to catch the bus to Wasso Tanzania. It is the same bus that I had started my journey a mere 4 days earlier. You remember, the crowded, hot, dusty Loliondo Coach packed to the gills with people, supplies, luggage, and even a live chicken. The coach makes a daily 8–10-hour trip from Arusha to Loliondo. I would be getting off in Wasso to go to Bright English Medium School where I had volunteered for a WorkAway.
We arrived at the bus stop in Engare Sero, James had to get back to the lodge, but Timan stayed with me until the bus arrived. Lidia from Bright School had pre-arranged my bus ticket and got me a seat in the first row next to the window and across the aisle from the bus driver. Next to me was one young lady and sitting on bags of rice in the aisle was one gentleman and then the bus driver.
I’m not sure what was behind the driver, but it resembled a wood or coal-burning stove. Luckily this was a longer-than-normal stop and most everyone got off the bus to grab a bite to eat so I was able to make my way to my seat easily. Timan gave my suitcase to the driver to put somewhere, and I put my backpack on the front window ledge next to several loaves of bread and various other paraphernalia. I took a minute to take in my surroundings and knew I was in for an interesting journey.
After 5 hot, dusty, bumpy hours on the bus, I arrived in Wasso. It wasn’t the most comfortable trip, but it was better than the ride to the Giraffe Lodge, mainly because of my seat position. Also, looking out the window and seeing random giraffes and dazzles of zebras along the way somehow made it almost dreamlike. I messaged the school inquiring if I should get off the bus in this small village called Wasso. Lidia said, “no, stay on and let me talk to the driver.”
Back on the road and about 15 minutes later, the bus pulled to the side, dropped me off, found my suitcase, and I arrived at my home for the next couple of weeks. When I said dusty, check out the photo of my suitcase when they took it off the bus and then after the ladies who cook and clean at the school washed it for me.
There were no children at the school as they would be arriving over the weekend to start the new semester. Approximately 200 children live at the school and about 300 attend. I was greeted by 6 other volunteers, representing Italy, France, Germany, and Austria, and shown to my room which I would be sharing with Sara from Italy. There is no running water at the school. This meant we would be taking bucket showers and using pails of water to flush the toilets. The location of the school which is between Wasso and Loliondo, Tanzania sits about 2° south of the equator and at an altitude of approximately 2000 meters (6560 ft) above sea level. Why is this important?
It is important because I arrived with flip flops and one pair of closed-toe Keen sandals, no socks, 1 hoodie from Zenira Camp and I think 1 long-sleeve shirt along with several t-shirts and some linen pants. 2° south of the equator in my mind meant hot. What I didn’t take into consideration was the altitude. The days were warm but breezy and once the sun went down it got downright chilly, even dipping into the mid-’40s (Fahrenheit) at night. This might be a good place to add that along with no running water, there was no heating and cooling system…and electricity could be sketchy along with cellular service. Before you ask, yes I was aware of the living conditions and somehow that actually enhanced the experience.
The other volunteers were busy doing things around the school, but I was given a hearty meal of chapati, potatoes, and a type of stew. After which the ladies who work there insisted I empty my suitcase so they could clean it along with any clothes I wanted to be washed. Everything is washed by hand even though they have a washing machine. They have no running water to hook it up and are hoping that will change in the near future. Next, a young girl showed up with a bucket of hot water so I could “shower” after my dusty journey. Around the dinner table that evening I had the chance to meet all the volunteers and they filled me in on what was happening and what to expect the next day.
I woke up on the last day of August 2022, to a cool, breezy, partly cloudy day. We would spend the day preparing the classrooms and dormitories for the return of the children.
My task for the day was to paint a world map on the wall of one of the classrooms. Others were painting desks and chairs, measuring windows for replacement glass, and organizing the dormitories. Part of the arrangement with WorkAway is that in exchange for room and board, you volunteer 3-4 hours per day during the weekdays. Many WorkAways provide room and board at no cost to the volunteers. At BEMS, we were asked to contribute the equivalent of $5.00, or about 12,000 Tanzanian shillings per day. All of this was funneled back into the school and also helps cover the cost of food for the volunteers. To put that into perspective, the school spends approximately 280,000 shillings per day to feed about 300 children, staff, and volunteers. This is the equivalent of $120.00.
Whereas the children ate basically the same thing every day (porridge in the morning and rice and beans for lunch and dinner), the volunteers often got fresh fruit (oranges, bananas, watermelons, and avocados), spaghetti, rice, potatoes, and sometimes stew, and always chapati. It didn’t change much over the 2 weeks I spent there. Even contributing my $5 per day, I sometimes felt guilty about the food we received compared to the staff and children.
Sometime over the course of the day, I was approached by Lidia and asked if I was interested in going on a safari to the Serengeti the next day. Since the children wouldn’t be arriving until the weekend, it would be the perfect opportunity. The owners of the school, Baraka and Juliana Eliud also have a safari business, https://astrosafaris.com/.
Not only does BEMS sit 2°south of the equator, but it is 120 km (75 miles) from Serengeti National Park. I mentioned in an earlier post one of my reasons for choosing Bright English Medium School for my WorkAway was its location in regard to the Serengeti. Baraka offers this opportunity to volunteers at a rate much lower than you would expect to pay as a “regular” tourist. Again, after his expenses, (gas, etc.) all the money is put back into the school. On top of the fee we paid to Astro Safari, we also paid an entrance fee at the park, and we divided the cost of entrance for Baraka and his assistant (less than ours as they are residents) between the 4 of us that went. I know many people go on weeklong safaris, but our one day was more than I ever imagined.
Our day started at 05:00. Even though it is only 120 km to Klein’s Gate, where we would start our safari, it was about a two-hour journey over dirt roads and paths. It is an exit or entry point near the northeastern border of Serengeti National Park. Completely remote, it is utilized by those going to or coming from the Loliondo game-controlled area, a rural Maasai territory — with lake Natron on the eastern end. The gate and the route are seldom used due to it being remote and the Loliondo route being uncharted territory. Still, part of the area is a wildebeest migration route.
We witnessed a glorious sunrise and before we even made it to the official entrance to the park, we had wildebeest cross right in front of us. It was still part of the great migration season and seeing herds, properly known as a confusion, of wildebeest, was a remarkable sight.
Near to Klein’s Gate, we spotted a lion (bull) and two lionesses lolling in the grass. We stopped for several minutes just to gaze and then continued on to enter the park. Inside Klein’s Gate, we parked our safari vehicle, paid our fees, and then at a picnic table enjoyed coffee and chapati prepared for us by the school. When we finished Baraka had spoken to the park ranger and we decided to go back to where we saw the lions. Inside the park, you are not permitted to exit the paths designated for vehicles, but the lions were outside the boundaries of the park and Baraka was going to go off-road and see if we could get close to them.
Well, they were still there when we got back, and as promised Baraka got us practically within petting distance. We were within about five meters of the beautiful creatures. They completely ignored us, and we got amazing photos but spent most of the time staring in awe. Finally, we decided, we need to move on as we hadn’t even entered the Serengeti. Little did we know what the day had in store for us.
The Serengeti ecosystem is a geographical region in Africa, spanning northern Tanzania. The protected area within the region includes approximately 30,000 km2 (12,000 sq mi) of land, including the Serengeti National Park and several game reserves. The Serengeti hosts the second largest terrestrial mammal migration in the world, which helps secure it as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa, and as one of the ten natural travel wonders of the world. The Serengeti is also renowned for its large lion population and is one of the best places to observe the prides in their natural environment.
Over the course of the day, we saw many simbas (simba is Swahili for lion) including a pride of about 15 and a mother with 2 young cubs frolicking in the grass. Later on in the day, we had a lioness walk alongside our vehicle for quite a ways. So close I could have reached out and touched her. Leaving the park, the lions we saw first thing in the morning were still there. Then several minutes down the road, we spotted another lioness who appeared to be hunting.
It seemed like zebras were everywhere. I couldn’t stop watching them and photographing them. Luckily our driver had no problem pulling over and letting us just gaze. Also, our guide took some of my photos/videos so I could just watch. It is utterly amazing seeing them wander the savannah of the Serengeti. There were even some that wandered around the fields by the school.
In the vast plains of Serengeti National Park, the annual migration of two million wildebeests plus hundreds of thousands of gazelles and zebras is one of the most impressive nature spectacles in the world. The biological diversity of the park is very high with at least four globally threatened or endangered animal species: black rhinoceros, elephant, wild dog, and cheetah.
You can’t even imagine the number of wildebeest. To see them run across a field is a sight to behold. The 800-kilometer trek of the immense wildebeest herd is the largest mammal migration on earth. It is of the most sought-after experiences for wildlife and nature enthusiasts, the Great Migration is the ever-moving circular migration of over a million animals across the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem. The ecosystem supports two million wildebeests, 900,000 Thomson’s gazelles, and 300,000 zebras as the dominant herds.
We didn’t see that many giraffes up close and personal. But when you are very near you can’t help but be astounded by their size. Vulnerable due to an observed population decline of 36–40% over three generations (30 years, 1985–2015). The factors causing this decline (direct killing and habitat loss) have not ceased throughout the species’ range. The best available estimates indicate a total population in 1985 of 151,702–163,452 giraffes (106,191–114,416 mature individuals) and in 2015 a total population of 97,562 giraffes (68,293 mature individuals). These elegant animals need around 30 to 60 kilograms of vegetables or leaves a day. Since they are quite choosy about their diet, they spend up to 14 hours a day eating. They have plenty of time because giraffes sleep just one hour a day!
We had several up-close encounters with the world’s largest land animal. Although our first sighting was a lone elephant in the distance on a hill. Even from a distance, it looked massive. Our second encounter was when one crossed the road directly in front of our vehicle. All I could do was watch. Which is why I only have a photo of the elephant’s butt. Then we got to be up close with several frolicking with a couple of young elephants too.
Elephant populations in Serengeti National Park have increased from 6,000 in 2014 to more than 7,000 in 2020, according to the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute (TAWIRI). African savanna elephants are the largest species of elephant and the biggest terrestrial animal on Earth. They are easily distinguished by their very large ears—which allow them to radiate excess heat—and front legs which are noticeably longer than the hind legs. It’s the world’s largest land animal, and seeing one in its natural habitat is simply thrilling.
The buffalo is considered one of the “big five” in the Serengeti. The term “Big Five” originally referred to the difficulty in hunting the lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, and African buffalo. These five large African mammal species were known to be dangerous and it was considered a feat by trophy hunters to bring them home. The Buffalo is among the most dangerous species of animals in Africa, with only a few predators, like lions. It is believed, that there are over 30,000 Buffalo in the Serengeti.
We came across several pools of hippos. The Hippopotamus is a two-ton, amphibious tank of Africa and the third-largest land mammal on Earth (elephants first, rhinos second). These rotund, water-loving behemoths can grow the length of an adult giraffe and can weigh over twice the size of an average sedan. Often found lounging in mud baths of their own refuse, hippos are not to be messed with. The hippopotamus is a name of Greek derivation suggesting them as a “water horse,” but hippos are far from equestrian. In fact, they might just be the strangest and most dangerous animal you will witness on safari, half-submerged sixteen hours a day along rivers in their groups, or “bloats,” of 10-20 hippos.
We spent 10 hours exploring the park. Although we didn’t see all of “the big five”, it was an awe-inspiring experience with the landscape being as captivating as the wildlife. The landscape of the Serengeti is mostly savannah. The savannah consists of grasslands, plains, kopjes, marshes, and woodlands. I was surprised by the diversity of the landscape which seemed to change every 20 minutes. Seeing the iconic umbrella acacia on the open savannah was beyond description. The day exceeded all expectations. Making our way out of the park at the end of the day, watching the sunset, and noticing giraffes behind the trees with the 3 lions still lounging underneath will be forever etched in my mind. Arriving back at the school I had trouble settling down for the night as I replayed the day before falling into an African dream.
Slept in a bit on Friday as there were no kids at the school yet. Sipping my coffee, still thinking about my safari it was soon time to continue work on the classrooms and dormitories. Soon Lidia came around and asked if anyone wanted to go to the Maasai Market. I jumped on the opportunity.
It is a weekly market where Maasai people from villages all over the area including Kenya gather to buy and sell goods and cattle. Currently, about 80% of the students at the school are Maasai. The Maasai are semi-nomadic people located primarily in Kenya and northern Tanzania. The Maasai are cattle and goat herders, and their economy is almost exclusively based on their animal stock, from which they take most of their food: meat, milk, and even blood, as certain sacred rituals involve the drinking of cow blood. Moreover, the huts of the Maasai are built from dried cattle dung. Despite the growth of modern civilization, the Maasai have largely managed to maintain their traditional ways, although this becomes more challenging each year. The ability to graze their cattle over large territories, for example, has diminished considerably in recent years, due to increased urbanization and the declaration of the Maasai Mara and Serengeti game reserves, which were all formerly Maasai grazing land.
The weekend arrived and students began to trickle in. And we kept busy playing with the children and continuing work around the school. One of the current projects going on at the school is building a new toilet and shower room for the boys’ dormitory. I had a chance to chat with the young man who is making the concrete blocks one at a time. He told me if needed he could produce up to 300 blocks per day. He has been doing this type of work for 4 years. The blocks he was working on were for the sewage/septic tank. Maybe because my brother deals a lot with the concrete industry, I was fascinated by the making of the blocks which take about a week to dry. The weekend flew by in a flurry of activity and on Sunday night the children had a small worship service in the dormitory. Monday brought even more children to the school and I was spending my days in the preschool classroom teaching the littlest one’s songs and dances.
Soon the “Hello Friends” song I taught them was heard all over the school grounds. Another favorite was “Baby Shark”….not mine…theirs. Somehow the week disappeared. I want to point out that there are no televisions at the school, and children don’t have cell phones or tablets. Free time is spent jumping rope, kicking a mostly flat soccer ball around the school grounds, and just having fun. My days were filled with smiles and laughter. I had my laptop with me and downloaded several movies.
The next time you think you need a larger television screen, think about these kids (at one point about 60), crammed around my little computer screen watching “Lion King”. I eventually went into the small village and bought a small Bluetooth speaker so they could at least hear the sound a bit better. At the close of every school day, while some were waiting on the school bus, it was the same plea….Can we watch “King Lion”? Yes, they got it backward but every day my answer was, “of course, we can watch it”. Being in a remote area the evenings gave us epic sunsets and chilly nights.
How did the weekend get here? I had Saturday morning classes with the littles. The weekends were also cleaning up time. All the kids who lived at the school, washed their clothes (by hand), and hung them on lines or on bushes to dry. While the clothes were drying, they polished their shoes and played some soccer in between. I took a couple of nice walks on the roads around the school and bumped into some Maasai men tending their herds. I noticed the ground was full of crystal-like rocks, so I picked up a few to bring back with me.
The children put on a worship service Sunday morning complete with empty water bottles on overturned buckets for drums. The singing, dancing, and drumming were as good as any church service I attended.
The next thing I knew, my time at the school was over. If there is one thing I have learned during my travels, it is that goodbyes are never easy. It was time to make my rounds and say not only goodbye but thank you to the beautiful people who had become part of my life, my journey, and my memories these last two weeks. It has been an unforgettable experience. The happiness and love I felt there was almost indescribable, but I think you can see it in everyone’s eyes and smiles and you will understand.
My wonderful host and owners of the school presented me with a lovely letter and certificate but also a Maasai shuka which I will treasure. I was blessed with one last beautiful sunset. I had to be up the next morning at 5am to catch my bus for the 9-hour journey to Arusha followed by an hour taxi ride to my hotel in Kilimanjaro. I won’t be sad because it’s over, but happy because it happened. So, lala salama, and on to the next chapter.
Somehow, after everything I experienced the last few weeks, not only at BEMS but also at the Giraffe Lodge, made the long, hot, dusty, crowded, often uncomfortable bus ride was not too bad. I arrived in Arusha around 2:30 in the afternoon. Max, my driver, picked me up at the bus station in Arusha and it was a bit over an hour’s drive to my adorable guest house, Le Parlour which is near Kilimanjaro. I was greeted by Mama Angela, the proprietor who showed me around and made sure I had hot water for a much-needed shower. My first “real” shower in almost 3 weeks. It was heavenly. She then asked if I would like an early dinner so I could have a relaxing evening. She told me to be at the little red bungalow at 18:00. I was served way too much food…chicken, pasta, greens, veggies, and of course chapati. I told her I liked spicy food so she made sure her homemade chili sauce was there for me. I also met her daughter Eileen, who made all my arrangements to get from Arusha (Max had my name on a placard and whisked me away) to their guest house. I am sipping a G&T and can hear someone strumming a guitar outside. I think it will be an early night with my Kindle. No plans for tomorrow so I will just see what it brings.
After a wonderful sleep, it is my last full day in Tanzania. Eileen and Mama Angela prepared a beautiful breakfast. Chapati with avocado and scrambled eggs with homemade chili sauce, coffee, and freshly squeezed juice. My plan was to just relax and then take a walk. Which is exactly what I did. I will settle for seeing Kilimanjaro from the distance.
I spent the last of my Tanzanian shilling in the gift shop at the airport and then found out I could have a cheeseburger and a glass of South African Chenin Blanc….life is indeed good. Taking off for Ethiopia, our pilot made sure to give both sides of the plane an up-close view of Kilimanjaro. It was an amazing time in Tanzania, but I was ready to get back home to Warsaw.
It really was a lifetime experience and thanks to each and every one of you that followed. Again…count your blessings! Then remember these kids, remember how happy they seemed. I rarely saw them without smiles, they were happy with their meals and thankful for the time the volunteers spend with them. Maybe it is really them that are blessed. Peace my friends.
“Once you carry your own water, you will learn the value of every drop.”