It’s amazing how quickly change can happen. I am walking down a busy street in photo (1)Arusha on a bright, sunny day. A little girl smiles at me so I smile and wave to her. Within seconds, I am lying in a corn field, holding onto my laptop bag as my assailant drags me, pulling harder and harder on the strap. All the while I am thinking, you are not getting my bag. But then he does.

I stand up and run after him, but corn fields can be disorienting and I don’t know which direction I’m facing. When I finally get out of the field, I see him for a split second, far away. Not only strong but fast.

Then, just like being in the corn, I’m not sure which way to go so I run after him. There are lots of people around, outraged for they have put together what has happened, but no one can offer me any information.

Finally, a wonderful Maasai man named MC stops to help me. Thankfully, he speaks English well. He walks me back to the corn and dials my cell phone number. I remembered that it was in my hand, not in my bag, so together MC and I follow the sound of the ringing.

MC walks me to the police station. We have to walk back up the hill where the thief ran, so I start eyeing every man I see. He is no where to be found. What I do find is a lot of nice people who know what just happened, word travels fast here, plus my clothes are filthy. They all offer me a sad, “pole pole.” This is loosely translated as, “I’m sorry this happened to you.” I am able to eke out a few “assante sanas” (thank you very much) but I really just want to sit and cry.

A few miles down the road we reach the police station. It is nothing more than a cinder block box. There is a police officer sitting inside; he takes my information. He asks what was stolen and writes a list in his notebook, using a sheet of carbon paper to make a copy. He tears a small piece of paper from the notebook. It is stamped with the precinct’s name. He writes a case number on it. This is my police report. He takes my phone number and sends me on my way.

I am only a little hurt. A few bruises, some cuts where my bag’s strap cut into my 20140518-125621.jpgwrist. I am sore. I am feeling all of my 47 years. My clothes are stained. My laptop, Kindle, raincoat, keys, license, credit cards and eyeglasses were in my bag.

Mostly, I am angry. Not only angry that this man took my laptop but, like every person something like this has happened to, I am angry that he has taken my sense of security. I came to this country with a lot of apprehension. Friends and family warned me about the dangers, but over time I realized that it’s not as bad as what I was being told. Most people are friendly and honest. And if this had happened in a deserted area, I know that I would feel differently, but it happened on a road I have walked at least three times per week, in broad daylight, for the last five months.

So now what? Do I go back to sheltering myself behind the fortress walls, or do I go on as I had been before this incident? I guess it’s too soon to say, but I hope that as the soreness I feel fades away, so will the fear that is lodged in my chest and the pit of my stomach. I hope that I can move on and try to enjoy my last thirty days here. After all, It would be a crime to waste them.

Mango Seed

Mangoes and a Possible Wedding

My Mango Tree

Mango Seed


This is the seed of a mango. It was planted in a small starter pot shortly before I arrived at JUAf in January.

Mango Sapling

The sapling was given to me by the people of JUAf to plant as a remembrance of my time at the farm. I planted the young tree on the edge of the JUAf property, overlooking the stream that supplies drinking water to some of the villagers in Maweni. The stream starts somewhere near Mount Meru (which I feel has been looking over me, both physically and spiritually, even through clouds). The water is fairly murky and not very clean, but it’s all the locals have and it sustains them.

I am truly honored by the gift of this tree and I feel happy knowing that it will be providing shade and fruit long after I have left Tanzania. This is the best gift my friends at JUAf could have given me. I mean, really. Who gets to say that they have their own mango tree growing in Africa!?

Wait, Did I Just Get Married?

Last week, we celebrated the 5-year anniversary of the first loan given to a member of JUAf. I love a celebration and, when Asha mentioned that the farm was approaching this milestone, I thought it was strange that they didn’t plan to celebrate. I insisted we have a party (and didn’t have to twist many arms to get others to agree!).

Tanzanian Party Food

During the celebration, which was attended by 20 members (past and present), 8 staff members, and 6 young students, songs were sung and speeches were made. Food was served, most of it cooked over firewood by the members. We ate some amazing fried potatoes and plantains, tomato salad, chipati (similar to a pancake), and bagiya (a small piece of fried bread, like a donut, but not sweet). We drank a concoction that is a local favorite. It’s made from corn and milk. I had a hard time with this one. To me, it was nothing more than kernels of corn sitting in sour milk. Was it a drink? Was it a meal? Who knows!? I sipped while others guzzled. In short, heavy carbs were heartily consumed by all.

Cake Ceremony

The anniversary party also included a cake ceremony. The two visitors who were in attendance were called to the front of the room. This included me and the village chairwoman who originally welcomed JUAf to the village of Maweni. As is tradition, the chairwoman handed me the cake (something resembling a birthday cake; purchased from a bakery in downtown Arusha). It was explained to the group that if I was a selfish person, I would keep the cake. If not, I would offer the cake to the whole community. (Don’t they know how long it’s been since I’ve had cake? They took a huge risk!) But, of course, I shared the cake. As a result, I had to be fed a piece by the chairwoman, and I had to feed her a piece in return. (After the ceremony, I checked the local laws and confirmed that being fed cake does not mean you are now married. I wanted to be sure. She seemed nice enough, but the language barrier would have made things impossible.)

Cake Feeding as part of the Cake Ceremony

Man, that was good cake!


You Say Tomato…

Picking started at 9 AM. The kids were at school, the animals had been fed, the houses cleaned. There were six women, all JUAf members, colorful sarongs wrapped around their waists. Some wore polo shirts, some t-shirts that were covered in the logos of American companies. They picked all day, hunched over their rows, bent at the waist. I kept wanting to yell, “bend at the knees!”. But their bodies are used to these positions, having worked on farms since before bending was necessary. They wouldn’t understand me anyway; they speak very little, if any, English. I speak the same amount of Swahili.

Tomato Picking - Alyssa O'Mara

When their big plastic tubs were full, the women hoisted them onto their heads, sometimes wincing from the weight. They carried the tubs to a large tarp that was spread on the ground. The tomatoes were dumped to form a large pile; they will separate it later. There is no “my pile” or “your pile.” Everyone works hard and everyone shares equally in the harvest.

Tomato Pile - Alyssa O'Mara

Once the rows have been picked, the sorting begins. It took me a couple of harvests to figure out how this part works. The tomatoes are sorted by color, then size, then by the amount of blemishes. If they are not sellable, due to having too many blemishes or end rot, they will be distributed to all those who work on the farm, and to the occasional person from the village who has come to beg (usually older people who have walked the four miles to JUAf because they know they will get some food).

Tomato Sorting - Alyssa O'Mara

The different kinds of tomatoes are evenly distributed in the tubs, a few gorgeous reds, some greens and some with a few blemishes in each container. The most beautiful fruit is positioned on the top to make the tubs look good for market day. There is some negotiation about how high to fill the tubs, sometimes heated, but eventually everyone laughs and a compromise is reached. I have no idea what they are saying!

Tomato Sorting - Alyssa O'Mara

End Of the Day Picking Tomatoes - Alyssa O'Mara


The tubs are wrapped tightly with old sarongs. Sometimes they run out of old cloth and the women remove the sarongs from their bodies (don’t worry, they always wear pants underneath!). The tubs are hoisted into a van and, in the morning, will be driven to the market. It is now about 7 PM and the women have been working for ten hours. They have to walk home, make dinner, put their kids to bed, and go to sleep since they have to get up early the next day to go to market.


The first week was great. The women earned about 50K TSh (Tanzanian shillings; approximately $30 US) per tub! They paid JUAf a percentage (to cover costs) and kept a nice profit for themselves. The next week, their government let them down. Big time. The market was flooded with tomatoes from Kenya and the prices plummeted. The same amount of work was done, but the tubs only brought in 15K Tsh each (approximately $10 US).

Buckets of Tomatoes - Alyssa O'Mara

For many Tanzanians, farming is their only source of income. They work long hours, all manual labor except for the few who have cows to help till the soil, and a very select few who will rent a power tiller for a day. Most use heavy hoes that get clogged due to the thick, clay-filled soil. Once the ground has been planted, they all till manually. They should not have to compete with other countries for good prices at the market.

Taking Tomatoes Home

The market was still filled with Kenyan tomatoes after the third harvest. But something interesting happened: the tubs from JUAf brought in 40K Tsh each while other tomatoes were only bringing in 15-20K. Why? JUAF’s partnership with USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) paid off…literally! USAID had advised JUAf to use special seeds, hybrids, that produce hardier, bigger, better-looking tomatoes. The buyers, locals who act as middlemen and sell to other locals, grocery stores, and restaurants, could see the value in the JUAf tomatoes and were willing to pay the higher price.


The Littlest Picker - Alyssa O'Mara

The Littlest Tomato Picker!

In the end, JUAf will probably break even on its first successful crop of tomatoes. They learned that tomatoes are an expensive crop to grow due to the labor needed in tying the plants to keep them off the ground. But the members were able to make some money, and that’s why JUAf is here!

Updates: I have not eaten tomatoes this good since I was a kid! I don’t know if it’s the (non-Monsanto) seeds, the rich soil, or the presence of many of the pesticides that I worked so hard to keep out of my body in the US. Or maybe it’s because, every once in a while, I go into the fields and help tie, weed, or pick the tomatoes. Food always tastes better when you have a hand in growing it.


My Little House on the Prairie viewing (now I call it training) came in useful: I was able to spot the beginnings of a locust outbreak that would have devastated the crops. Thank you, Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Locusts - Alyssa O'Mara


The Tale of the City Mzungu and the Country Mzungu

mzungu – noun, (in East Africa) a white person miz-oon-gu

tout – noun, a person soliciting custom or business, typically in an aggressive or bold manner

A Mzungu in the City of Arusha

I have white skin and blonde hair. Therefore, in East Africa, it is assumed that I am wealthy. When I am in the city, I am constantly stopped by touts. I am greeted and asked where I come from. Often, the person (almost always a man) knows someone who lives in the U.S., a brother or a cousin. After some small talk, I am asked to look at the rolled up paintings that he is carrying under his arm. He has painted them himself, but they look exactly like the paintings I was shown by a different man last week! I understand that this is how some people make money here, and I’m glad they are doing this instead of taking my wallet but, after the tenth time (in a day!), it gets a little old.

An exciting update: Last weekend, I was approached by a tout with his roll of paintings. He said, “Are you from here? You look like you are.” My game face is working! I stopped and looked at his paintings, just because he paid me that compliment.

Then there are the guys who just want to meet me…

Me: Quiet. Walking home or waiting for a ride.


  • Hi, I’m Joseph, how are you?
  • What is your name?
  • Where are you from?
  • How long have you been here?
  • Where do you live?
  • Where are you going?
  • Why don’t you give me your cell number? Maybe we can go out sometime.

I have to say, for someone who has always been fairly invisible to the opposite sex, this is an eye-opening experience for me.

The other day, I finally had enough of this. I played along with the questions, making up a new location and name, like I usually do. When he asked me for my cell number, I lost it a bit. I tried to explain to him, calmly (ok, maybe my voice was elevated a scoch), that the questions he was asking were very invasive and they made me feel uncomfortable. I asked him if he understood. He blinked, smiled, held out his hand and said, “Maybe we should just say goodbye then.” I felt like a bit of a jerk; I don’t think he understood why I would interpret his actions as anything but friendly.

I have met some nice, not-so-pushy guys along the way as well. There is Cosmos, the security guard who went to school to become a safari guide and wants to start his own company. I gave him some website advice (it was a long walk). Then there’s the guy that works at the cement factory; he really loves his job. The guy on the Dala Dala schooled me in proper Dala etiquette (warfare). My neighbor, Simon, would like to show me around the city. All super nice guys that I’m glad I took a few minutes to chat with.

A Mzungu in the Country

Being a white person in the villages outside of Arusha is a unique and wonderful experience.

Girl Running Maweni-Alyssa O'Mara

When I go to JUAf, I am driven there in a 22-year-old Toyota Land Cruiser. It’s big and it’s loud as it drives over (in) all of the potholes, so we often attract attention. Being someone with longish, curly (crazy curly at the moment) hair, I am spotted a mile away. And the kids come running! They yell, “Mzungu! Mzungu!” They approach with big smiles on their faces, waving like a windmill. If I see them and wave back, they laugh and jump up and down like it was Christmas morning. Even some of the parents wave and smile. Is this how the Pope feels in his Popemobile? It’s a real ego-booster; you should try it! (For you Love Actually fans…Must work on my wave).

Faraja 2-Alyssa O'Mara

Faraja – Now

Faraja 1-Alyssa O'Mara

Faraja – Our First Meeting

When I first arrived at JUAf, the children all stared a bit and smiled a lot but there was no real indication that seeing a mzungu was anything special. One day, 3-year-old Faraja, the granddaughter of the JUAf cook, was hanging out at the village. She was very shy around me at first and didn’t really know what to make of me. By the third time she saw me, she was feeling a bit braver. I was sitting on the front porch and she came over and sat next to me. She was wearing a white tutu and brown yoga-type pants, quite the fashion statement. She started poking my arm. Then she started rubbing my arm. Then she was rubbing my arm with force–it was heating up! She was trying to rub the white off of me!

I had a conversation the other day with one of the USAID workers who came to the farm. She said that the prevailing impression in Tanzania is if you can make it to America you will get rich. Africans think that all mzungus are rich. And, let’s face it, by their standards, they are right. The average person in the village where I work makes around $50 a month from working in the fields all day long! Sure, you can argue cost of living is lower here, but it’s not that low.

Hands-Alyssa O'Mara

So that’s the story of the city mzungu and the country mzungu. I am lucky to be a mzungu. I am lucky that all I have to do is stop for a tout and look at his work; I don’t have to walk around all day in the heat and try to sell anything. I get to sit in a car and be driven down a long road where strangers are happy to see me. And, at the end of the day, I go to my little house, with windows, running water, and electricity.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go reapply my sunblock.

The Maasai

Maasai Village- Alyssa O'Mara

On the last day of our safari we visited a Maasai village or homestead. We were greeted by a customary dance where the village family sings as they walk out of their village.

Maasai Welcome Dance- Alyssa O'MaraThey then circle around and ushered us in. As several of the villagers continue to sing, a couple of the women invited us to join them. As we were brought into the line of villagers we were fitted with Maasai dancing collars. Each village has their own particular design.
Alyssa in the Maasai Welcome Dance

We were encouraged to jump during certain portions of the song. I wonder if you can pick me out among the villagers? That was hard wasn’t it!
Maasai Dancer Laughing

This guy couldn’t watch me jump anymore. Not cool Maasai guy, not cool!

Maasai Welcome Dancer Jumping- Alyssa O'MaraThis Guy Was Just Showing Off.

Maasai Fire Starter- Alyssa O'Mara

Once all the singing and dancing was over (I was relieved!) we were invited to watch a demonstration of how they start their fires. They use a pointed stick to rub between their hands the point goes into a small indentation on another piece of wood. Inside the indentation is some dry grass and some donkey dung that they sprinkled generously. We were encouraged to touch it but politely declined. After several minutes of intense rubbing and a little gentle blowing, the fire was started.

Next they invited us, me and my two German safari companions Frieda and Kristina, into one of their houses, called a boma. The boma are made by the wives out of mud and cow dung and consist of 2 very small rooms, separated by a curtain. They only last ten years and the wife has to start all over again. There were only small slits in the walls for light and it took a while for our eyes to adjust. The main room included the cooking area and a very large bed.  The smaller room off the back contained a smaller bed. We sat on one side of the main room, while one of the Maasai men sat across from us and explained the Maasai way of life. This is when things went downhill for us.
Maasai Boma- Alyssa O'MaraThe Maasai explained that they are polygamists. They can have as many wives as they want; it just depends on how wealthy they are. Wealth is determined by the number of cows they own so can give to the girl’s family cows for a dowry. I say girl because typically Maasai girls wed at 15. Children are considered a gift and they try to have as many as possible, often marrying young wives to keep growing their family. Each wife has her own house and her husband sleeps in a different house each night. When the husband comes to her home, he will sleep alone in the large bed (unless, well, you know), while his wife sleeps in the smaller bed with all of the younger children. The older males sleep outside to guard the herd. We were all silent, but you could feel the outrage.

He went on to tell us that boys start herding cattle at a young age. It used to be a right of passage into manhood for a boy to kill a lion, but the Tanzanian government has outlawed this practice. Now I think there is just a ceremony where they drink cow’s blood.

We also learned that the Maasai only eat cow and they sometimes drink cow blood. They feel this makes them strong. I think the man might have said something about corn, but I was still trying to process the earlier information and didn’t hear the rest.

Once we left the boma we were encouraged to take photographs, and also to view their crafts, which they had laid out in a circle around the middle of the village. I took a quick look at the crafts, but decided I wasn’t buying that day and focused my camera on the village children.
Maasai Girl in Front of Boma- Alyssa O'MaraI had a great time with them taking their picture and showing them on my screen. They really loved seeing themselves in the camera and I was able to get some of them to smile after seeing themselves! I thought it was curious that I only saw girls but then realized that the boys start herding cattle at a very young age, so they weren’t in the village.

Maasai Girl Close Up- Alyssa O'Mara As I look into the eyes of these young girls I wonder if they too will be married in ten years or so, or if they will leave the Maasai culture, get educated and live a more western life. Will it be an improvement or am I just insinuating my western cultural beliefs on them?

It’s a Heck of a Thing When a Dream Comes True- Safari!

Marlin Perkins Alyssa O'Mara BlogFlashback: It’s 7 PM on a Sunday night in Tolland, CT, in the early 1970s. I am positioned on the couch in our brown-paneled basement “rec room” (Did you have one, too?) with my cereal bowl of popcorn in my lap and, if I was lucky, root beer in a blue plastic cup (that I still own). I’m wearing my jammies–my brother’s hand-me-downs since nightgowns were (are) too girly–because bedtime is right after the show…Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Animal Kingdom! You can keep your Sesame Street, Electric Company, and Mr. Rogers; give me Marlin Perkins and his real-life adventures in the African wild.

Wild Animal Kingdom featured animals in their natural habitat. Animals that, living in Connecticut, I could only see at the zoo, in a cage, behind a high wall or a fence. Marlin showed us lions killing gazelles and other creatures. He would show them laying around the poor beast with blood all over their faces. It was exciting, it was real, it was a place I wanted to be.

Fast forward about 40 (or so) years. I made it! It’s not quite the same fantasy I had as a child. I did not dress in khaki from head to toe and drive around “the bush” in a small jeep with my camera team. Instead, my safari guide drives a large Land Rover with a pop-up roof so we can stand for a better view of the animals. We drive on roads, not off-road. We travel in the Serengeti, and to the Ngorongoro Crater, and Tarangire and Lake Manyara. Admittedly, I had only heard of the Serengeti before this trip, but these were all uniquely exciting places to view various wild animals.

Vervet Monkey-Alyssa O'MaraMy companions on the 7-day trip included two young dental students/volunteers from Germany, Frieda and Kristina, our guide/driver, Simba, and our cook, Chaz. We first stopped at the visitor center at Tarangire National Park. As Simba paid our entrance fee and checked us in, we viewed the skulls of the various animals that inhabit the park, and we read various plaques, the usual park entrance stuff. But then I caught some movement in the corner of my eye. I realized that there were a half dozen Vervet monkeys, some with their babies, just hanging out. SAFARI ON!

Warthog-Alyssa O'Mara

As we drove into the park we immediately spotted some cocky-looking warthogs. We called them each Pumbaa (from the Lion King) and they remained that for the rest of our 7 days. ‘The Circle of Life’ was my earworm for the rest of the trip. Soon after seeing the warthogs, we came upon a large baboon colony. My mind was blown. We stopped the truck and watched the baboons for a while. We humans really are 99% ape, that’s for sure! Can’t you just see some parent hanging onto his kid while the kid tries to hang onto the other parent?
Baboon Family-Alyssa O'MaraIt was in Tarengire that I had my greatest Wild Animal Kingdom moment. We were driving around and came upon a small pride of lions. It looked to be a mom and two kids, laying on a mound of dirt. Slowly, the Mom got up and stalked off to our left. We all fell silent. She crouched so we looked around to see what she was stalking. Enter the cocky Pumbaa, trotting right towards her. We looked back to the mom, she’s still crouching. My heart is racing because I really don’t want to see anything get killed. I prefer to pretend that they are all herbivores. We look left and the Pumbaa has turned and is trotting away. Phew, crisis avoided! Suddenly, the lion mom is crouching again, a look to the left reveals the Pumbaa is trotting back! Kristina breaks the silence with, “What the F*** is he doing!?” Eventually, the Pumbaa leaves and Simba, our guide, tells us that the warthog is not worth the lion’s time, he is only a snack. Soon after we hear screaming nearby and watch as the lioness and her children take off. We follow and find about 15 lions feasting on a different Pumbaa. Poor little guy.

Lion Pride-Alyssa O'MaraWe headed back to the campground for the night. We found our tents had been set up and a nice table was set for our dinner. Wine was served with the meal and we sat under the stars and talked about everything we had seen that day.

The rest of the trip was very similar. We would board the Land Rover in the morning and Simba would drive us to various areas of each park in search of something new to see. So as not to bore you with every detail of each park (visit me when I return home and be treated to the full 500-slide detailed report in person), here are some of the highlights:
Ngorongoro Crater Rim-Alyssa O'Mara

The rim of the Ngorongoro crater – Breathtaking is an often over-used term but, in this case, it really fits. Looking down into the crater was like looking at scenery from a space film.
Ndutu National Park – Seeing the herds of the Great Migration. Hundreds upon hundreds of wildebeest, zebra, impala, Thomson’s gazelles, and various birds like the Malibu stork and Secretary bird.
Cheetah-Alyssa O'MaraSerengeti National Park – Baboon, lions, cheetah, zebra, giraffe, and hippos. One rainy day the park seemed empty. We did a lot of driving around and only saw impala after impala (and, like they say, you’ve seen one impala…). We came across another Land Rover parked on the side of the road; the occupants were watching a cheetah! She was laying under a tree, staying as dry as possible. She was partially obscured by the tall grasses, so we had to let our imaginations fill in the blanks. It was spectacular for about three minutes until we realized that this cheetah was not moving. We continued down the road to find something else. We drove for another 15 minutes and, finding nothing, decided to turn around. We asked Simba to stop by the cheetah again. Simba would inch the truck forward as other vehicles pulled away until finally we were right in front. Suddenly, he decided to get up! She yawned and then peed, just like we do, and then started walking right towards our vehicle! Our patience paid off. This was definitely a highlight of the trip.

  • Waking at night in the open, unguarded, campsite, and hearing nearby hyenas.
  • Baby orangutans, baby zebra, baby buffalo and some young elephants!
  • A male and female lion, about 10 feet from our tuck, lounging in the grass.

Black Rhino-Alyssa O'MaraNgorongoro Crater – Black rhino! There are only about 5,000 Black rhinos left in the world and we saw three of them. One even got a little close; it was good that I had a longish lens. We also saw a huge flock of flamingos, some ostrich, a jackal eating a large bird, and the usual suspects – zebra, impala, gazelle. We got a closer look at some hippos resting in the water as well.
Elephants-Alyssa O'MaraLake Manyara – Elephants! We saw herds and herds of elephants. We drove around for hours looking and finally found them. We parked in the road and they just kept coming out of the woods! A pair decided to mate beside our truck, but I wasn’t in a position to see them. I think that Frieda and Kristina will never be the same. We even got to see some baby elephants. They are so cute!

Everyday, even when we were driving around in circles seeing nothing, I had to pinch myself a bit to believe I was there. I enjoyed every minute, even the not so pleasant times. I was living a dream. Now I need to see what’s next on the list!

Gallery-Click the images to make them larger

Some Safari Tips:

  • It’s hard to say for sure, but maybe 5 days would have been long enough.
  • If you are on a budget, by all means go the camping route. Most of the campgrounds were fine, some better than others. If you are not into squat toilets, you might want to talk to your tour operator about that.
  • If you go the camping route, and choose a longer trip, see if any of the campgrounds have up-scale tents and treat yourself a few nights. They have real beds and some have their own bathrooms with real showers and western toilets(a key advantage in my opinion!).
  • Make sure you tell your operator if you have food allergies or have special dietary restrictions. If you’re a vegetarian like me, you might even want to review the menu to be sure you’ll be getting enough protein.
  • If you have trouble sleeping on the ground, request a second mattress. Sometimes there is extra room in the truck.


  • If you want good pictures, rent a long lens and bring it with you. At least a 500mm, 600 if you can swing it. I used a 70-200 Nikon lens with a 2x (TC-203 iii for you photo buffs). Because I have camera with a large sensor, I am able to crop my photos to make it look like I was closer to things than I really was. I couldn’t rent a lens because I was already in Tanzania and shipping was prohibitive.
  • If you don’t want to take pics, invest in a good pair of long-range binoculars. Maybe you can rent them?


  • Pack all of your things in plastic bags! My tent leaked one night. It took days for everything to dry as we weren’t in one place long enough to let it hang.
  • Bring a towel, soap, shampoo, etc. You will have showering options even if you are tenting.
  • Pack your own sleeping bag if you can. The safari companies supply them, but they can be musty. Depending on the season, you may only need a sleeping bag liner.
  • Bring cash. This is a general rule for Tanzania. Hardly anyone accepts credit cards. You will need either US Dollars or Tanzanian Shillings. I use the ATM without a problem. There are also many Bureaus de Change.

My Work in Tanzania – JUAf

This report has been a long time coming. I had taken a small break from my JUAf work to go on a safari. That report will come soon; I have a lot of pictures to sort through first!

The entrance to JUAfJUAf is a village that was founded to empower women to raise themselves out of poverty, and their children through education. There are currently twenty women who are members of the community. To become a member the women must buy shares in VIKOBA, the village banking system. They are then allowed to take out loans (which are paid back with interest). The women use the loans to farm their land, or land that they rent. Many of them are the sole breadwinners in their households.

In addition to providing loans, JUAf sponsors educational programs that help the women improve their businesses and their physical and mental health. The village also has a small English Medium School (K-3) that currently enrolls six of the members’ children. Tuition for the school is equal to the cost of the food that the children eat each day (more on that below). To support the village, JUAf currently farms one acre of its land. This is all that its small well will support. There is another four acres on which the team would like to farm both plants and fish. Both of these endeavors require a bigger well.

The Farm at JUAf

The Road to JUAf

This is the smooth part of the road!

I started my work at JUAf three days after arriving in Tanzania. The farm, as I’ve come to call it, is located in a very remote village called Maweni, about a 45-minute drive from my base in Arusha. To get there, Asha, one of JUAf’s co-founders, will pick me up at my house, or sometimes I take the Dala Dala (mini bus) and meet her in town. We drive about 30 minutes outside of Arusha proper and take a right onto the first of two very rough roads. Do you remember, in my first post, that I warned about bringing your kids down the dirt road that my house is on because you would lose them in the holes? Well, apparently I had not seen a bad road yet because these roads make me miss my chiropractor. Traveling on them is like (I imagine) riding one of those mechanical bulls, your body contorting as you try to stay in your seat. I can’t tell you how many times I have banged my head on the side of the car. Okay, I think you get the picture.

I have several projects to work on while I am here. Some of the projects even draw upon my experience as a digital marketer:

Women doing Handwork at JUAf1. Website updates, blog posts, email newsletters and anything else I can think of that will either get the word out about JUAf or bring in donations.
2. Cultural Tourism Program – We would like to start a program that teaches tourists what it is like to live in such a rural community and how JUAf is helping to support that community.
3. Farming – There is often a need for an additional hand on the farm, and I’m happy to help out. The village team has planted one acre of tomato plants and I have been able to help them tie up some of the plants. Soon we will start to harvest. The money raised from the sale of the tomatoes (at the Wednesday market) will help immensely.
4. Handicraft distribution – Some of the women are very talented and make handicrafts (placemats, sun hats, beach bags) to supplement their income. However, without a place to sell their products, it doesn’t make sense for them to continue their work. I am trying to help them find those sales channels so they have a source of income during the dry season when farming is not practical.
5. Fundraising – I am looking for new ways to help JUAf raise funds for the digging of a new well, the creation of a fish farm, and the building of a secondary school. The goal is to make the village self-sustaining so it does not have to rely on outside donations, but we are not there yet. If you would like, you can Donate Here. I want to say a huge thank you to the Looking Out Foundation for its generous donation to our well project!

I am amazed at how little (by western standards) is needed to help. JUAf is not a large charity that needs millions of dollars to help a large number of people. This is a small community program that has the ability to help a whole village raise themselves up. They just need a small amount of money, and a helping hand.
Kids ShoesAs I mentioned above, JUAf runs a small school for the children of its members. There are currently six students, ages 4-8. The children receive breakfast, lunch, and tea before returning home. Some days these are their only meals. The classrooms are very simple, just some wooden desks, a blackboard, and chalk. There are two classrooms and an office for the two teachers. They also have a very small playground with a couple of slides. Despite having almost nothing, these kids have a lot of fun! They make up their own games at recess and all of the kids join in, the age differences do not matter. Their English is quite good which makes it easy for me to communicate with them, at least when they aren’t being shy! As an ice-breaker, I took some quick photos of the kids and showed them what they look like on my LCD screen. Boy was that game a hit! Now they pose for me all the time!

The other day the children performed some songs for me. They stood in a circle (like many of the games we played as kids), sang something in Swahili, and then called out one of the kids. That kid went in the middle of the circle, put their hands on their hips, and swung them until the song stopped. It was so cute to watch!

JUAf Academy Students

I feel really lucky that I get to be a part of this community, even if it’s for a short time. Sometimes my heart races when I think that I may actually be able to make a difference here. When I first got here, trying to adjust, I was counting the days until I could go home. But now I am counting the days I have left to do the work I set out to complete.

Shetani: The Angry Bird

Shatani the RoosterSomewhere around 3 AM this morning I remembered that I haven’t introduced you yet to my neighbor in the back. I was then reminded at about 4 AM. Then again around 6:30.  I have never met him in person myself, so I call him Shetani. This means Satan in Swahili.

Shetani has been greeting me at all hours of the day since I arrived. Not with that pleasant rooster crow that we hear off in the distance in movies. No, this is more like an urgent “You’d better get the F*** out of bed now!” kind of crow, directly in my kitchen window.

Listen for yourself (turn the volume down if you are at work!):

As I try to become a better Buddhist everyday, I am searching for a source of compassion for him. I mean, sure, he probably wants to be asleep at those hours too, but something inside him says that he has to wake everybody up. Now! And maybe he is old and his memory is fading. How many of us have woken someone up only to forget why?

If anyone has any thoughts on this matter, I encourage you to share them in the comments.

Me holding up Uhuru Peak


Let me start off this report by saying that I never really had the desire to climb Mount Kilimanjaro until after I spoke with a woman who had been to Tanzania. She planted the seed. I started reading about the climb and soon found that I really, really wanted to do it! I saw it as both a physical and a mental challenge. And when would I ever get the chance again?

So, on top of selling our house, moving all of our possessions into a storage facility, laying the foundations for a new business, and packing for a 6-month trip, I added on some training and shopping for the proper gear. I made weekly trips to EMS and REI, and any other outdoor store that has an acronym for its name, to shop the sales. I eventually acquired everything that was on the packing list, except for the rain gear. I would be climbing during the dry season and didn’t want to carry gear that I didn’t need (did you all note the foreshadowing here?).

I can’t stress enough how important it is to find a guide company with positive reviews, a good reputation, etc. I hired a new company owned by a man, let’s call him Michael, who came recommended by the same person who suggested I make the climb. And then the problems began:

  1. A two-month-long battle over a wire transfer because Michael gave me the wrong bank account number. In the end, it cost me about $100 to recover the money and countless hours on the phone with the bank.
  2. He provided me with the wrong start date for the climb.
  3. He phoned me the day before the climb to tell me that my guide would meet me at 4 PM that day to review the climb and check my gear. What he didn’t do later on in the day was call to tell me that the guide needed to reschedule for 9 PM.
  4. Michael didn’t inform my guide that I am vegetarian so I told him at 10 PM the night before the climb. This meant that I would be eating a lot of side dishes and very little protein.

I did eventually meet with my guide, Hodge, and he really put me at ease. He went through all of my gear and said that I had everything I needed except for a mat, a waterproof poncho, and snacks. He said that there had been a lot of rain on the mountain so the poncho would be necessary. He could arrange for renting the poncho and the mat and we would stop for snacks on the way. Trip on!

Kilimanjaro From Hotel

Kilimanjaro From My Hotel

I chose the Machame (Match-ah-may) route as it has the highest rate of success and is supposed to be the most scenic. You can choose anywhere from six to eight days to complete your climb on Machame (the length of time is different for each of the six Kilimanjaro routes). I chose seven days as it gave me an extra day to acclimatize.

We arrived at the gate around 10 AM. I wasn’t feeling my best that morning, I was tired and I had a dry cough from allergies, but I thought it would improve once we got underway. Once I was out of the van, Hodge told me to be sure I had everything I needed for the day as the porters would be taking my big bag up and I wouldn’t see it until the end of the day’s hike. I tried to keep my pack as light as possible so I didn’t add anything but the poncho.

Me at Machame Gate

One of the reps from the hiking company took me to sign in and make my final payment (the entrance fee is $700 USD). She and I then went into a holding area while the guides and porters arranged all the gear and got it weighed. Each porter is only allowed to carry 30 lbs. each so they weigh each bag. Once the bags are weighed and are cleared to go, the porters hike a short way up the path and reposition all the gear the way they want it at whatever weight they want. It’s pretty interesting!

Kilimanjaro Porters Weighing Bags

The Porters Weighing The Bags

I stayed busy by putting on my gators, packing the box lunch the rep had given to me, and filling my Camelback with 3 liters of water. When I started to adjust my hiking poles to the correct length, one of the sections pulled out of the socket! There is a saying on Kilimanjaro, “pole pole” (pronounced “polay polay”). It means pole to pole, or walk slowly. Because I now had only one stick to walk with, I would just say “pole.” “Pole” by itself just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

So we’re off and there’s no going back now! After about 30 minutes, I went from “isn’t this exciting!?” to “oh holy God, what have I done!?” I am a hiker. I enjoy a nice long hike in the woods. But this!? This is straight up. No reprieve. Seven hours. Straight. Up. After about four hours, it started to rain. Biblical rain. No problem for me though, I’m wearing my waterproof hiking shoes and I’ve got that waterproof poncho that was rented for me. When I removed the poncho from its package, I realized that it was basically the same poncho that you buy at Disney World but without the added pizazz of the bright color or the Disney character dressed in Wellies. I was soaked within minutes. Seconds even. I mentioned something to my guide about this and he said that it was because I was sweating under my poncho. I immediately flashed to Albert Brooks in Broadcast News. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, watch this movie. It is on Amazon Prime.) It was raining so hard that even my Goretex shoes were soaked. Remember when you were a kid and you’d walk in soaking wet shoes and your feet would make that squishing noise? Yeah.

Alyssa O'Mara Day 1 Kilimanjaro Trek

Me Day 1

 Without belaboring this tale, here is a summary of Day 1:

  1. Steep
  2. Exhausting
  3. Wet

But after 7 hours, it was over!

I had already experienced the physical challenge I was looking for. Let me tell you, I have never been so exhausted in my life! Luckily, the crew was on the ball. Hodge showed me to my tent. I climbed in, took everything off, and changed into my dry clothes. I snuggled into my sleeping bag liner and, within minutes, had some tea, popcorn, and a few chocolate cookies. I decided that the sleeping bag liner wasn’t going to cut it and added my sleeping bag. It took about an hour, but I warmed up. Dinner was delivered shortly after and I was feeling much better. I had made it through day one under less than ideal conditions. Hodge stopped by to brief me on the next day. He told me that day 2 is actually the hard day. Womp womp! I went to bed thinking that it was apropos that the name of this mountain sounds like Kill-a-man.

Machame Camp (1st Camp) Kilimanjaro

Machame Camp (1st Camp)

 Day 2

I woke up as the sun was rising. I had an okay night, but I had forgotten that sleeping mats are actually just there to fool you into thinking that you are sleeping on something cushioned. I only woke up twice to use the latrine, but since I had the woods next to me, I didn’t have to actually use the latrine. Good thing. I had used it that morning and found that the woods in broad daylight would have been better. Here in Africa, most of the toilets are what we call “squat toilets.” Yes, you get the picture. Let’s just say that the mzungus (white people) using these toilets did not have very good aim. Okay, moving along. After re-packing my bag, having some breakfast of porridge, an egg, and white bread with peanut butter, we were off.

Day 2 Kilimanjaro Trek Steep Climb

This Is How I Started Day 2

Guess what! It was steep! Six hours of straight up, wet lava, sometimes what felt like technical rock climbing, but it was fun! I was feeling physically ready for this day and I had no problem completing it. The sun was out for most of the day and I had dressed well (no, not the proper party dress, just the right amount of warmth). There was beautiful scenery all around. Fields of heather and some other gnarly looking plant-life. There were lots of people to chat with along the trail, everyone was in a good mood. Except for the porters. Those poor guys were grunting those parcels up the whole way.

A Kilimanjaro Porter Carrying Up His Load

A Kilimanjaro Porter Carrying Up His Load

The only problem I had was that my cough was getting a little worse. My guide kept asking me about it and I told him that it was just from allergies and maybe the dampness from yesterday. So we moved on and made it to camp by 1 PM, piece of cake. Lunch was french fries and a small portion of vegetables. Tasted good but not nearly enough protein. After a rest, we took a walk to the nearby Lemosho Camp. From there we had an incredible view of the Shira Cathedral, the first peak on Kilimanjaro, as well as Uhuru Peak, our ultimate destination.

Shira Cathedral On the Way to Lemosho Camp_3

Shira Cathedral On the Way to Lemosho Camp_3

As we were coming back from that mini-hike, the weather started to change. The wind picked up and the clouds started to form. It was getting cold. I got back into my tent and put my long underwear on. I got into my sleeping bag to wait for dinner. I could hear the larger groups around me having fun in their common tents. I was a bit envious. Dinner was served, a giant plate of white rice with a tomato sauce with green beans. There was tea and a small banana for dessert. I was feeling pretty tired from the day and my cough, so I decided to turn in early.

It was a bad night. The rain and wind pummeled my tent. I think the tea had the same amount of caffeine as a trente coffee at Starbucks, so I was antsy in my coffin-styled sleeping bag. And I was coughing. Seems like coughing begets coughing and that’s what happened to me. By the time morning hit I had little sleep, a raging headache, I was nauseous and my cough was wet. I knew this was it for me. When Hodge came by to check on me I told him about my night. He asked if I thought I could get through with the cough and I told him I thought my asthma might be kicking in. His eyes got wide. “You have asthma?” he asked. I guess I was supposed to mention that. I had contacted my doctor before signing up for the hike and he didn’t see a problem with it. Hodge felt otherwise and ended my climb.

The Porters Packing up Shira Camp-Kilimanjaro

The Porters Packing up Shira Camp

Once we had breakfast and I had packed up, we went over to the ranger station. There is a car road about a 45-minute hike away and he arranged for a pickup. They were busy that day. Thirty people in all had to come down. We had to wait an hour before we started hiking. As I was waiting, three more hikers showed up to be taken down as well.

The hike down was not strenuous, except maybe for the porter who had to piggy-back a girl with a mild pulmonary embolism (said her nurse friend). Once we got to the road, we waited another hour for the car. Nine of us climbed into a Jeep truck and were driven down the mountain. We were dropped at the Lemosho gate and waited for a second truck. This one took an hour to get us to the road to Moshi where we waited for our rides from our hiking companies. I was pretty ready to get all of my cold weather gear off as it was now about 85 degrees.

So, that’s it. I hiked Kilimanjaro for two days. As I write this, the other people making the same trek are most likely freezing in their tents, resting for their summit climb. I’ve added my itinerary below so you can get an idea of what the other days are like for this particular trek. I am glad I tried, not glad that I spent a lot of money for a 2-day hike, but I do feel better for the experience. Will I go back and try it again sometime? No way! But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t!

Here are my favorite images from the trip.

(If you click the first one you can see them all larger as a slide show.)

The Official 7-Day Machame Itinerary


•Machame Gate to Machame Camp

•Elevation (ft): 5,400ft to 9,400ft

•Distance: 11 km

•Hiking Time: 5-7 hours

•Habitat: Rain Forest

The drive from Moshi to the Mount Kilimanjaro National Park Gate takes about 50 minutes. The journey passes through the village of Machame which is located on the lower slopes of the mountain.

We now leave the park gate and walk through the rain forest on a winding trail up a ridge. Lower down, the trail can be muddy and slippery. Gaiters and trekking poles are a good idea here. We continue a short distance until we reach the Machame Camp.


•Machame Camp to Shira Camp

•Elevation (ft): 9,400ft to 12,500ft

•Distance: 5 km

•Hiking Time: 4-6 hours

•Habitat: Moorland

After breakfast, we leave the glades of the rain forest and continue on an ascending path, crossing the little valley walking along a steep rocky ridge, covered with heather, until the ridge ends. The route now turns west onto a river gorge. Time for rest, dinner, and overnight at the Shira campsite.


•Shira Camp to Lava Tower to Barranco Camp

•Elevation (ft): 12,500ft to 13,000ft

•Distance: 10 km

•Hiking Time: 6-8 hours

•Habitat: Semi Desert

From the Shira Plateau, we continue to the east up a ridge, passing the junction towards the peak of Kibo. As we continue, our direction changes to the South East towards the Lava Tower, called the “Shark’s Tooth.” Shortly after the tower, we come to the second junction which brings us up to the Arrow Glacier at an altitude of 16,000ft. We now continue down to the Barranco Hut at an altitude of 13,000ft. Here we rest, enjoy dinner, and overnight. Although you end the day at the same elevation as when you started, this day is very important for acclimatization and will help your body prepare for summit day.


•Barranco Camp to Karanga Camp

•Elevation (ft): 13,000ft to 13,100ft

•Distance: 5 km

•Hiking Time: 4-5 hours

•Habitat: Alpine Desert

After breakfast, we leave Barranco and continue on a steep ridge passing the Barranco Wall, to the Karanga Valley campsite. This is a short day meant for acclimatization.


•Karanga Camp to Barafu Camp

•Elevation (ft): 13,100ft to 15,300ft

•Distance: 4 km

•Hiking Time: 4-5 hours

•Habitat: Alpine Desert

After breakfast, we leave Karanga and hit the junction which connects with the Mweka Trail. We continue up to the Barafu Hut. At this point, you have completed the South Circuit, which offers views of the summit from many different angles. Here we make camp, rest, enjoy dinner, and prepare for the summit day. The two peaks of Mawenzi and Kibo are to be seen from this position.


•Barafu Camp to Summit to Mweka Hut

•Elevation (ft): 15,300ft to 19,345ft (and down to 10,000ft)

•Distance: 5 km ascent / 12 km descent

•Hiking Time: 7-8 hours ascent / 4-6 hours descent

•Habitat: Arctic

Very early in the morning (midnight to 1am), we continue our way to the summit between the Rebmann and Ratzel glaciers. You head in a northwesterly direction and ascend through heavy scree towards Stella Point on the crater rim. This is the most mentally and physically challenging portion of the trek.

At Stella Point (18,600 ft), you will stop for a short rest and will be rewarded with the most magnificent sunrise you are ever likely to see (weather permitting). From Stella Point, you may encounter snow all they way on your 1-hour ascent to the summit. At Uhuru Peak, you have reached the highest point on Mount Kilimanjaro and the continent of Africa. Faster hikers will see the sunrise from the summit.

From the summit, we now make our descent continuing straight down to the Mweka Hut camp site, stopping at Barafu for lunch. You will want gaiters and trekking poles for the loose gravel going down. Mweka Camp is situated in the upper forest and mist or rain can be expected in the late afternoon. Later in the evening, we enjoy our last dinner on the mountain and a well-earned sleep.


•Mweka Camp to Moshi

•Elevation (ft): 10,000ft to 5,400ft

•Distance: 10 km

•Hiking Time: 3-4 hours

•Habitat: Rain Forest

After breakfast, we continue the descent down to the Mweka Park Gate to receive your summit certificates. At lower elevations, it can be wet and muddy. Gaiters and trekking poles will help. Shorts and t-shirts will probably be plenty to wear (keep rain gear and warmer clothing handy).

From the gate, you continue another hour to Mweka Village. A vehicle will meet you at Mweka village to drive you back.

A Quickie Before Kilimanjaro

Hi Everyone,

I’ve had a busy week here, including 24 hours without power and a spent laptop battery! So, this week’s report is going to be brief.

I thought you might be saying to yourselves: I wonder how Alyssa does her laundry. So, without further ado, I bring you my washing system:


  1. I take water from the tap (on the days when the government sends us water) and fill the blue bucket, adding some liquid detergent (free and clear!) that I brought from home.
  2. When the blue bucket is full, I fill up the orange bucket, no detergent here.
  3. I then get a good handful of my clothes.
  4. I submerge the clothes in the blue bucket and go do something else for at least 15 minutes.
  5. I then scrub each piece of clothing (where it needs to be scrubbed), rubbing two sides of the material together.
  6. When I am satisfied that the stain or odor is out, I give the item a good squeeze and drop it in the orange bucket.
  7. Arusha Drying RackI then squeeze the items that were rinsing in the orange bucket to get out as much moisture as possible.
  8. I walk each piece over to my fancy dryer.
  9. When all of my wet clothes are on the dryer, I repeat steps 3-8 until all the clothes I want to wash are clean.



I’m not sure Mrs. Hughes would approve of this system.

I start my Kilimanjaro hike on February 10 and finish on February 15 with a summit on February 14. Wish me luck!