A day in Arusha

Friday June 17 2011

It’s the 1800s and the Scramble for Africa is on by European powers such as Germany, Britain and France.

In East Africa, Karl Peters, a German adventurer begins to sign treaties with local chiefs in what is present-day Tanzania despite the Sultan of Zanzibar considering himself the ruler.

By 1885, the German government announces its intentions to have a protectorate in East Africa and with it begins German rule that lasts until its defeat in World War 1 by the British.

Inching their way into the interior, the Germans reached present day Arusha a few years later. It was perfect for the new colonisers for Arusha lay at the foot of Mount Meru, Africa’s fifth highest mountain and close to the world’s tallest freestanding mountain, the mighty Kilimanjaro. The climate and the land were perfect for both farming and to settle in.

Wasting no time, they began to build a boma in 1899 – or rather a fortress to settle the army and its administration and Arusha – named after the local tribe Wa-Arusha - began life as a garrison town. The fortress that we visit was completed in 1901 and became Arusha’s first stone building.

Until then, the area was full of banana trees and homesteads of the local Wa-Arusha and also of the Wameru who lived around Mt Meru. Reading through the literature posted on the walls of the fort, the early conquerors weren’t the nicest of people.

Having taken over the land, Captain Johannes, the German commander, then forced the Wa-Arusha to build the fort.

Powerless against the might of the gun and the army, the once noble warriors were made to use their swords to dig out the limestone and to add further slight, carry it to site using their shields.

The young women brought banana fibres for thatching while the older women were forced to pound the mud with their feet and others ordered to fetch grass for the captains’ donkeys.

Many atrocities and bloodbaths were committed as in any land under forced occupation. The fort was used as barracks for 150 Nubian soldiers until 1934 when it became the Arusha Museum of Natural History.

It’s from this point that the town spread out. I’m with John Sibi-Okumu – yes THE John Sibi-Okumu who has heard enough of my ranting about wanting to visit the museum that he’s decided to accompany me to while away the few hours before we catch our flight home from Kilimanjaro International Airport lying on the foothills of the Meralani hills, the only place on earth where the Tanzanite is found. Discovered in 1967, the Tanzanite is one of the world’s rarest gemstones with a mine life of only about 10 years left.

Nobody needs an introduction to John Sibi-Okumu, arguably Kenya’s finest narrator who has hosted many shows and interviewed the Who’s Who besides acting in internationally acclaimed movies such as The Constant Gardener.

Done with the Boma, we stroll down the main street passing by the Arusha International Conference Centre - site of The East African Community (EAC), which we visited the previous day, as we are here to attend the 5th East African Arts Summit.

It’s also the site of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Two minutes later, we’re at the Clock Tower facing the Boma and the pointed peak of Mt Meru. A tiny plaque on the clock tower reads “Presented by Christos Galanos Esquire to commemorate the glorious victory of the Allied Nations 1945”.

Galanos, was a Greek millionaire who came to the then Tanganyika from Greece in the early 1900s and made his fortune – a rags-to-riches story. A few feet away is the milepost to different cities and the clock tower is supposed to be the halfway point between Cairo and the Cape.

A 1953 photograph shows the Clock Tower with a crown on top to commemorate the coronation of Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey in London. Tanganyika had come under British occupation in March 1916 when they expelled the Germans until Tanzania’s independence in 1961.

Early photographs of the Boma and the Clock Tower show little construction around the site unlike today’s traffic-filled roads and people and the multi-storied buildings that are sprouting around like our abode at the ultra-modern Kibo Palace Hotel.

Email: [email protected], Blog: rajuafrica.blogspot.com