Politics, religion, and the local brew

Another reason to learn Swahili: It keeps the cops on their toes. Sunday I hired my friend Kelly to take me to Marangu, a little Chagga town on the way up Kilimanjaro. A lot of people who hike the mountain start at Marangu, and there’s a little park there with a pretty waterfall I’d heard about, and a run-down exhibit on Chagga culture. Kelly hired his friend Ima to drive us.

On the way there, we were waved to the side of the road by some white-uniformed traffic police who were standing in the road — a common occurrence here. A guy came up and talked to Ima and then circled around to my side to have a look at me. “Habari za asubuhi,” I said. “Nzuri,” he replied.

In a questioning voice, with a skeptical look on his face, he said, “Mambo vipi?”

“Poa,” I said.

“Habari za leo?” he asked.

“Nzuri,” I said.

It was just a few basic greetings, but my response time is improving, and I gave the usual answer in each case, so I suppose I did okay.

The guy let us go, and Kelly couldn’t contain his glee. “He hear you say, ‘Habari asubuhi,’ he think, ‘This guy know Swahili!’ Ah, he know what I say! I no ask for chai! Ha ha ha!”

From what I hear, officers often pull you over here in hopes of making a little money for “chai” or “chakula” (food). Often they’ll trump up a charge, but if you give them a few shillings, they’ll let you go. In this case, Kelly said the guy was afraid to ask for a “gift” because he thought I might understand him.

On the way there we talked about changes in the Muslim culture in Tanzania, and about the upcoming elections. Kelly is worried that fundamentalists are corrupting the minds of young Muslim boys, and as if to make his point we passed two women in head-to-toe black robes with only a slit for their eyes. Kelly and Ima shook their heads.

There’s an election later this year, and it seems that a guy named Lowassa is the people’s choice at this point. He’s a former prime minister who stepped down after scandal a few years ago. It sounds like he might not have been involved but fell on his sword for the sake of his party — the CCM, which has ruled the country since independence in 1960.

The other issue on people’s minds is Zanzibar, which is primarily Muslim and has some autonomy, with its own government as well as the national government, unlike the mainland or “Tanganyika,” which has only one centralized government. There’s an independence movement in Zanzibar, and some people on the mainland are afraid it will become more fundamentalist and potentially breed terrorists who will join Al Shabab and Isil and Al Qaeda.

I don’t know much more than that, but there does seem to be a significant fear that the country — which has been internally peaceful, although lagging in development — might eventually see the kind of religious conflict present in Nigeria, Kenya, and elsewhere.

We got to Marangu and saw the falls and the park, and I decided to buy them nyama choma (roasted animal) for lunch. On the way to town they were telling me about “mbege,” a local brew made of millet and banana. I had seen some people drying the millet when I was on a bike ride with the students, so I was curious, especially when a drunk or crazy guy came up and started scaring me by getting a little too close and asking unintelligible questions.

“Do they make it here?” I asked. Ima and Kelly said they did. “I want to try it,” I said. They looked at each other and smiled. I asked if it’s strong, and they assured me it wasn’t. I asked if it’s safe, and they assured me it was.

At the restaurant, Kelly told the waitress we wanted mbege, and she brought a guy to our table who was dressed in a Winnipeg Jets cap and a Maasai shawl. He looked a bit sketchy, like he might’ve been homeless or a beggar — or too fond of mbege. I gave him 2,000 shillings ($1.10) and he came back with about a half gallon of liquid in a plastic tub. We filled our three glasses and there was still half of it left, so I told the guy to pass it around to anyone else who might want some.

It looked like some weird grain beverage you might drink on a fad diet or “cleanse.” It was gray and thick with millet husks or something, and it tasted sour and grainy, like a witch’s brew of bad booze and compost. But I got used to it, once I figured out how to strain the solids with my teeth and stick them against the side of the glass with my thumb.

Ima, whose dad is from the local Chagga culture, said mbege was traditionally drunk socially. It was always tasted first by the person providing it to show that it wasn’t poisoned, so I had accidentally followed protocol by asking the guy to pass it around.

He also said it’s used as an offering to the ancestors by followers of traditional Chagga spirituality. People pour it at the end of the ancestor’s grave to ask for a job, or money, or a spouse — or more mbege, I suppose.

Today after class I was invited for chai by some gatekeepers and gardeners. After most of them left, it was just me and Alfred (my gardener, not my roommate) and Ndekirwa. To fill the silence I said, “Jana nilinywa mbege,” “Yesterday I drank mbege.” Ndekirwa laughed so hard he almost spit out his chai, and Alfred thought it was pretty funny too.

I asked Ndekirwa if he likes mbege, and he said no. Then he asked me to come to his house on Thursday, and I said I would.

Alfred said, “Mbege ni tamu.” “Mbege is sweet.”

I don’t know I’d go that far, but at least it didn’t kill me.

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