Mambo Tanzania: Pt. 1

Editor’s Note: What’s Up Yukon co-publisher Mark Beese recently embarked on the adventure of a lifetime—an assault on Tanzania’s fabled Mount Kilimanjaro. This is the first of three articles about his adventure.

Mambo! That’s not true Swahili. “Jambo” is the informal Swahili greeting equivalent to “hello”.

Mambo… well, that’s the colloquial greeting that most closely translates to “What’s Up?” So I guess it’s appropriate to call this series “Mambo Tanzania”?

My journey started as a quest to summit the highest mountain on the African continent, immortalized by Ernest Hemingway’s novel, The Snows of Kilimanjaro.

Based out of Moshi, Tanzania, I would use the eight-day Lemosho Trail (longer, but with more acclimation hikes to combat altitude sickness, and a higher success rate than any other route up the mountain).

While the summit was the purpose and focus of my trip, it turned out not to be the highlight. The people I met there were definitely the high point of my journey.

While the 15 others I hiked with—sharing a bond that’s only forged on a venture like this—will remain friends of mine forever, it was the people of Moshi and the surrounding villages who had the most surprising and memorable impact.

The welcoming nature of the people of Tanzania was evident from the first drive into our resort. Welcoming smiles were everywhere and a wave from inside the van would be returned with a smile.

I was most impressed by the entrepreneurial nature of the people I met. Never have I encountered a larger and more persistent (and effective) sales force than the vendors and “independent” salespeople on the streets of Moshi.

As a salesperson myself, I may be biased, but I would definitely say I was the one member of our group who most enjoyed the efforts of the street vendors and got the most attention from them

Musa was probably the hardest-working of the vendors I met. I encountered him in his “store”.

I put quotes around that because, as I gained more experience as a consumer on the streets, I learned that the salesman you’re dealing with at the stall may not actually have anything to do with that store.

More on that later.

Musa found out I wanted a hat, a “Just done it” T-shirt and a Tanzanian football jersey. However, the store didn’t have either of the shirts in my size.

I negotiated what I thought was a good price on the hat, but left without the shirts. Musa was urging me to come back, swearing he would have my shirts. Because I had negotiated a good rate on the hat, he expected me to pay his price.

I made a mental note to avoid that store and find my price and size elsewhere. That wouldn’t happen.

“Victor, the best of our town-tour guides in Moshi.” Photo by Dan Belhassen

Musa found me not once, but twice more—the first time with my “Just done it” shirt, for which I had to pay “his” price.

A half-hour later, across town on the third floor of a commercial complex, I ran into Musa, holding a Tanzanian football jersey with the XXL tag I required.

(In the end, it fit my 12-year-old son, not me. Buyer Beware is an important concept on the streets of Moshi.)

Factoring in the level of effort Musa put into finding and selling me that shirt, it is likely my favourite overpayment of the entire trip.

One of my favourite experiences was running into the same three street vendors, not only in town but also across from the resort when we were leaving for the mountain.

I found myself in the midst of more than one selling scrum, which I am certain I can attribute to my good friend and travelling companion, Dan Belhassen (either that, or a chalk mark on my back).

While some may see these as intimidating confrontations, I saw great negotiating opportunities. On Day One I purchased “handmade” Mambo and Kilimanjaro wristbands, three for $10.

In the end, by working the scrums, I was buying them as low as two for $1 and an average of about $0.65 each.

My kids have a ton of them to give away, so if you see them, just ask for one.

The funniest encounter was the young man who assured Dan that the official Tanzanian football jersey he was selling he had made by hand the night before.

“Hamisi, a man with a disproportionately large heart.” Photo by Dan Belhassen

So… back to the “his” store explanation.

The street vendors sometimes had goods of their own to sell but, just as often, they would try to bring you to their stores, which invariably donated 10 percent of each sale to the local orphanage (if you believe that, I have a land deal to talk to you about).

After a while, I figured out that these guys had nothing to do with that store. The store owner would allow them to sell their product and collect payment, except that the price they negotiated was higher than the store owner’s asking price.

The practice was so common that never once did I ever see a price marked on any of the products. I don’t know the financial agreement between the store owner and the independent salesperson, but the value of the salespeople to the stall owner was significant. They definitely drew traffic!? The local people I got to know best were the guides from the resort, for both the hike and the town tours.

Victor was one of the best of the town-tour guides. He took us to a couple of local eateries and shared his story openly. His support of local orphanages ended up to be legit, which I learned on a post-hike visit to one.

Victor came from a poor family and didn’t have the education needed to climb the ranks of guiding opportunities in Tanzania. He spelled out the time and money it would take to fill in the gaps in his education, and how guiding tourists in town would help get him there.

Granted, this was part sales pitch to get a bigger tip, but I was convinced it wasn’t all bogus.

Victor was good friends with Hamisi, one of the assistant guides on our trip up Kilimanjaro.

Hamisi is a man whose heart is the most disproportionately large in comparison to his size that I have ever met.

While his efforts on the mountain were incredible, it was his offer to Robbie that most impressed me.

Robbie was one of the guests on our trip up the mountain—a big guy, about 285 lbs at the start of the journey—with more heart and drive than anyone else on the hill. He was an inspiration to everyone in our group.

On a day when we were all battered and beaten by the hill, Robbie was struggling more than the rest of us.

Hamisi, this little guy, asked, “Mr. Robbie, would you like me to carry you down the hill?”

You could just tell that if that is what Robbie had needed, Hamisi would have lifted Robbie right onto his back and carried him as far as it took.

“Our lead guide, Mike, is working to build a chicken farm to supplement his income.” Photo by Arlene Hengel

All the guides had this undying level of effort to make sure we got where we needed to go. I’ll talk another time about Julius 1 and how his quiet strength carried me through some of my most difficult times on the mountain.

Our head guide was Mike, who led a team of 61 (yup, 61 people to support the 16 of us going up the mountain).

While he spent almost all his time well behind the rest of the team, hiking with the slowest of the guests, he had an incredible handle on the needs and condition of all of the hikers and commanded his team perfectly.

He handled the diversity of our group with endless patience and treated the most stressed-out clients with an even temper that would put a Tibetan monk to shame.

The lead guides work as contractors, not employees, so the competition is significant. While Mike certainly got rave reviews from all of our team, he was also working towards building up a small chicken farm to supplement his guiding income.

As I noted on the comment form at the resort, I would gladly put my life in Mike’s hands with confidence again.

I could easily go back to Tanzania and Moshi, not necessarily to climb a mountain, but just to spend time with some of the incredible, entrepreneurial people of that country.

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