But this is a modern kitchen!

“But this is a modern kitchen!” Shayo exclaims to me in response to my comment about the smoke, and the storage of firewood on a ceiling/shelf which itself seems to be made of kindling. “In my mother’s house, she would be sleeping there, the chickens would be there, and the cows would be there” he says, gesturing around the dung and mud walls of this chagga kitchen. My eyes are watering as Mama Shayo prepares me dinner. Bwana Shayo leaves, he is even more susceptible to the smoke than me it seems. “Cooking is a women’s work” he tells me.

“What can you do that your wife can’t?” I ask.

“Climb and cut down trees” he replies, confidently. The household cows, which live in a room next door to the Shayo’s bedroom, are fed on the banana trees that Shayo fells in the shamba. Despite my “modern” western sensibilites, I can’t help but feel that perhaps the division of labour here isn’t as unequal as might seem to be the case at first.

Somehow I found myself in Uru without the usual youthful entourage – it seems most of my friends have headed down to Tanga. I didn’t know and couldn’t contact them. So here I am, staying in this idylic mountain village, amidst the banana trees. I am wondering to myself whether I should ever have left the UK – my computer projects are falling dismally on their faces. At the same time I am asking myself if I can ever go back. Can I leave this society that seems to be without strife, without conflict, where elderly (and I mean in their seventies) ladies, drunk on the local brew, insist on escorting the 9usually sober) young men back home through the darkness. Darkness which is subtly relieved by the glow of the moon reflecting off the glaciers of Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest mountain. It can’t be photographed, something you only see with the people you are with, and try to remember.

This mountain, a dormant, but not extinct, volcano, is home to the chagga, a seemingly less exciting tribe than the maasai. Chagga dress as often in baggy jeans and t-shirts as the more traditional kangas – colourful sheets featuring cheeky swahili phrases like “Take your eyes off my ass!” The mountain is blessed with regular rain and fertile soil – it doesn’t take very green fingers to make things grow up here. But the chagga are renowned amongst agricultural developmentalists for their complex multicropping techniques which maximise the quantity and variety of food available year round. There is also the ruined irrigation system that was built hundreds of years ago and may have supported even greater numbers of chagga.

So I am here, watching Mama Shayo frying bananas, cutting tomatoes, beating eggs, while a black cat sits with it’s tail milimetres from the fire. “Paka mbaya” she tells me. The cat is evil. “Kwasa baba?” I ask – why? Because it is black she tells me.

A friend recently told me something I had never heard before about the chagga. Apparently chagga men are meant to have nothing to do with excrement. They must avoid any contact at all with faeces. Nothing at all to do with it. For boys to become men they had to have their anuses sewn up. Chagga men simply do not shit. Such was the initiation ritual. Not circumcision or other genital mutilation that usually has Europeans and Americans up in arms. But the initiation ceremony was much more interesting than that. The terrified young chagga boys would be taken off to a secluded part of the mountain, where they would await their ordeal in terror and anticipation.

And then the ceremony began. And the truth was revealed to them. Their anuses would not be sewn up. In fact this was just a trick. The initiation ritual in fact consisted of being sworn to secrecy, about the fact of the anal seaming, and that chagga men ever went for a “long call”. This leads to chagga men waiting till the dead of night so they can go for a shit. I asked a couple of friends about this. One laughed and told me he didn’t know that his father went to the toilet until he was more than ten years old. Another told me that this ritual still occured, but that the chagga don’t like to relate it. Maybe I shouldn’t be sharing this secret, but it is in an ethnography which I am desparate to get my hands on.

But disaster strikes – the avacadoes which have been brought down from the smoky loft are tiny. How can this be. It is the end of the avacodo season. THe last ones are coming down from the trees. They won’t be back till next April. I thought they would never end.


2 thoughts on “But this is a modern kitchen!

    • That’s right – this was written whilst living in Tanzania in 2003 – but I have been visiting Uru since 1991.

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