Sunday, 13 May 2012
I was talking to a friend of mine last week. He’s Tanzanian. I met him in October 2009 when I left Ireland to go and work in Shu’mata Camp in Northern Tanzania, tracking and monitoring the elephants that live in the Maasai Steppe. I never got to Shu’mata. When I arrived in Tanzania, the camp was still under construction. I had been made aware of this prior to departure but I was told by the owners, Jörg and Marlies Gabriel, that it would only be a matter of weeks before it was up and running, and in the mean-time I could settle into life in Tanzania, in their more salubrious Hatari Lodge.
I landed at Kilimanjaro International Airport on the 1st of October, my birthday, and was met by a guy called Clinton, a local who was one of the driver guides working at Hatari Lodge at the time. He was a really friendly guy and we chatted away on the hour or so drive back to Hatari. The sun was shinning and I was delighted to be so far away from home about to embark on a new adventure. When we got to the lodge there was a herd of giraffe scattered around it, chomping down on the acacia trees, and a little family of warthogs running about the place, totally unbothered by the human presence. I could get used to this, was what I thought to myself. Clinton pushed me in the direction of the office to announce my arrival and I remember thinking it strange that he didn’t come in himself. Looking back though, I fully understand why. I was greeted very quickly by both Jörg and Marlies, before they dove back to their desks and buried their heads once more. It was about 3:30 pm and I was more or less left to my own devices. I wasn’t shown to where I’d be staying so I couldn’t unpack or even just off-load my bags. It was quite a strange welcome. Had it not been for the stunning setting, I would’ve been a bit put out, but given the spectacular scenery, I was quite content to just sit down and take it all in.
It was after 9pm when I was finally brought to my new home. It was a small house, known as the yellow house, in the neighbouring village of Momella, and it was where I would be living with the other European members of staff: A German girl called Nicci, who was acting as the stand in manager at the time; an English girl, Kate, who was teaching in a school that had recently been opened by the Gabriel family and another German girl, Marianne, who’s parents had some connection to the Gabriels and was there for a six month volunteering stint. At 24, I was the eldest in the house. When I asked where the rest of the staff lived I was given woolly answers. The rest of the staff were all local Tanzanian men and women, and it later transpired that they all lived in what was known as the ‘staff quarters’. It was very cramped and the facilities were poor. The yellow house was streets ahead. Nobody could, or would, tell me why we were segregated like that.
I was told to have a lie-in the next day and walk into work when I woke up. I arrived about 10:30 and went to the office to present myself for duty! I met Jörg as he was coming out of the office and greeted him with a cherpy ‘Good Morning’. I can still recall the reply I got as if it was yesterday. Seriously, and without a hint of irony or joviality, he snarled ‘You can’t be serious! The day is half over at this stage’. I was totally taken aback, mumbled something in reply and tried to forget it. What a lovely friendly start!
Things only got worse. Most mornings my alarm went off 6am, earlier if guests were arriving or departing before then, and I was at the lodge from 6:30 'til between 11 and 12 at night. I had no designated breaks or down time. Neither did anyone else. Everyone worked these crazy hours with no days off. I was told I'd have a week off after my three month trial if all went well, until then there'd be nothing in the way of free time. My job seemed to be to shout orders at the Tanzanians. Marlies told me to copy her tone of voice when talking to ‘them’. They were not to be trusted to do a good job and needed to be watched carefully. I’d say there were about 30 local people working there between the kitchen staff, the chambermaids and the waiters. From the get go they were always very friendly and I used to love chatting to them, getting to know them and learning about their culture and traditions. I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing half the time, I was given no instruction except the odd barked order from Nicci, so I always sought the opinion of the waiters. This was a ‘no-no’ in Marlies book. All interaction was discouraged. Chatting? Absolutely not. Having a beer together after work? Only if you want to be out on your ear.
Lunch for ‘us’, the owners and the European staff, was served by ‘them’, the local staff, in the dining room. ‘They’ ate in a separate building altogether, out the back of the kitchen. Often Marlies would bellow from her seat at the chef, telling him that the food was horrible and that he should have known that she wouldn’t want to eat this ‘rubbish’. All the meals served to us and to the guests at dinner time, were German. Jörg was German, Marlies German-Namibian. The cookbooks that the Tanzanian, Swahili-speaking chef was meant to use were written in German!
Amongst other things, one of my main duties was to guard the key to the dry store. This was the room that all the food was kept in. Johnny, the chef, needed frequent access to it but he had to call on me when he did. He was required to sign out the ingredients he wanted, and then show how he’d used them in the kitchen. This was to stop stealing. As a European, who had just arrived to Tanzania, never mind Hatari, this was a job that I loathed. I would often ‘forget’ and leave the key with him, trusting and knowing that he wouldn’t abuse it. Another job was to follow the chambermaids about, checking up on their work. If there was anything amiss, I was not to fix it myself, but to stand at the doorway and bellow until one of them appeared and fixed the problem. Problems ranged from a rug being 2cm off centre to a drip of water in a handbasin that hadn’t been wiped dry!
Hatari Lodge is an example of what good marketing can do for you. Marlies, the driving force behind its marketing, knew (and I suppose still knows) exactly what her potential guests were looking for. Hatari attracts mainly German tourists, and wealthy, well educated Germans at that. The majority of the guests I encountered during my time there, were well aware that the money they were spending on a three week safari holiday, taking in all that Tanzania has to offer, with private cars and plenty of game drives, is more than a local will earn in a year. Because of this awareness, they all seemed to have put a great deal of effort into choosing their tour operators and accommodations, knowing that their choices would have an impact on the local communities.
In order to be considered by this type of holiday-maker, Marlies and Jörg appear to have set up the Momella Foundation, which encompasses eight community projects aimed at giving something back to the local community. One of these, Mama Momella, is an initiative set up to help generate income for the local women through seam-stressing. They are provided with sewing machines and the clothes they make are sold in the Lodge. This all sounds great, except of the forty odd dollars that a skirt is sold for, only just over one dollar goes to the woman who made it. This was not information that I was meant to have access too. The Shu’mata Elephant Patrol, another of these eight projects, and the one that I was there to work on, didn’t exist. Watoto Momella, was however in operation, and that was where Kate worked as a teacher. More than that, I do not know. Gathering information on any of the other projects was difficult. However, having these projects advertised on the Hatari website, as well as displayed in each room, makes for good marketing and helps to generate business, especially in today’s world where people are becoming that bit more aware and conscious that their choices and actions have effects and repercussions far beyond the obvious.
I left on the 20th of October, 20 days after I arrived. Even that was fraught with problems. Leaving was not just a case of picking up my belongings and walking away. We were miles away from Arusha, the nearest big town. We were miles away from the nearest main road. There was a bus from Momella that went every morning, but it went through Arusha National Park and as a non-national, you needed a permit to be allowed though. These permits had to be pre-arranged. In order to get one, you had to get to the park gate. That was also miles away. Therefore, not only did I need Jörg and Marlies to let me leave, I needed them to help me to leave.
I spoke to Jörg, the slightly lesser of two evils. I first enquired about the opening of the Shu’mata Camp. Jörg and Marlies were off to Germany for a holiday in a few weeks and wouldn’t be back until nearly Christmas. I was told it would be opened after that. So, not weeks after my arrival, months after. I could nearly have put up with the place a bit longer, especially if Jörg and Marlies were going to be away, if there had been any elephants that I could observe and learn about, but there are none in the region near Hatari. I told Jörg that I found the atmosphere in the lodge to be stifling and unacceptably racist. I told him I had wanted to come to Tanzania to see elephants, not to work for a German Neo-Colonialist, eat German food and listen to stories of how great the German’s who’d lived in the area had been. He said he appreciated my honesty and would arrange a permit for me so that I could leave. I was pleasantly surprised with how it had all gone. Walking away from him that afternoon, I was delighted. I was smiling for the first time in days. Until then, I hadn’t realised quite how much the place was getting in on me. I had made the right decision.
I was due to leave on a Tuesday morning with the truck that went into Arusha for supplies each week. Jörg said he'd arrange my permit. However, on Monday night back at the yellow house, Nicci asked if I had my permit. When I told her Jörg was sorting it out she shouted at me not to be so stupid and that of course he wasn't going to arrange it for me and least of all, pay for it. Then she said I'd better not delay the truck in the morning and stormed off to her room. I was left frantically trying to pack and wondering if I'd ever be out of this hell hole. Luckily, and by total coincidence, Kate’s mum was coming to visit the next day and I was able to grab a lift to Arusha with her.
After I left, I heard that as soon as I told Jörg I wanted to leave, Marlies told all the other staff not to let me use the phone or the computers to help me plan my onward journey. She told the staff that I had been fired because I was trying to instigate an affair with her husband. Nothing could have been further from the truth!
I have now heard of over 30 others, some I know from my time there and some that I don’t, both locals and Europeans, who have fled the place in a similar fashion to me, all reporting mistreatment and severe racism as their reasons for leaving. The friend I mentioned at the beginning, is one of the lucky ones. He is a trained wildlife guide and mountaineer. He is brimming with enthusiasm and refused to let these nasty people bring him down. He left Hatari some time ago and is now in the final stages of starting his own company. His website is due to go live any day now. However, there are many others still there. They are still suffering under the oppressive command of Marlies and Jörg Gabriel, but with virtually no other employment in the area, they stick it out in order to be close to their families.