Friends often ask me what I like so much about East-Africa as I keep going back and back. I fell in love with East-Africa when I first step foot on the continent during an organized group trip to Kenya in 2010. In 2012, I was enrolled at the Jimma University in Ethiopia to conduct soil surveys for my master’s thesis in Geology. During 2014-2015, I spent about 5 months living and working on Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania for my PhD research and I backpacked with my dad in Uganda. I returned to Kenya in 2016 to exploit the sediment record of Lake Challa, again in the framework of my PhD. Picking a favorite country in East-Africa is difficult as I visited several countries with different purposes. Nevertheless, I selected the 4 most memorable experiences from all those journeys.
1. Bird watching and paddling on Lake Bunyonyi (Uganda)
Lake Bunyonyi, located in southwestern Uganda, is a place where you plan to stay for one night but stick for much longer. The lake is surrounded by green hills and the crystal clear water is dotted with several small islands. The name refers to the rich birdlife enclosing the lake. I especially loved the active weaver birds that built their nest around our balcony.
We hired a dug-out canoe to explore the surroundings from the water surface. At the beginning, we paddled only in circles and we quickly attracted the attention of locals. After laughing, a local man was so friendly to give inside information to those ‘muzungus’ (people with a white skin). The trick is to paddle from the outside to the inside instead of paddling along the boat in order to rotate. Eventually, we drifted to several islands and enjoyed the gorgeous and restful green scenery. We were delighted when we encountered 2 grey crowned cranes (can you spot them on the photo?), the national bird of Uganda that features in the country’s flag. When we were tired from the water and needed some strength we tried crayfish, the local tasty treat.
2. Local cuisine in Ethiopia
The main staple in Ethiopia is injera, a kind of pancake made of the grain teff. The sour taste makes you either hate or love this spongy pancake. No doubt, I loved it. Injera is often served with a variety of spicy meat stews, called wats, but vegetarian options are widely available as well. The communal food platter is intended to be shared, so I highly recommend to head off to a restaurant with a group of friends. You eat injera with your hands, no need for utensils, by ripping off a piece of injera and soak it in the wonderful flavors of the diverse dishes. Before and after the meal, you will be able to wash your hands often in a wooden cup or bowl.
The streets surrounding Jimma University, where I conducted soil surveys for my master’s thesis in Geology, offered several opportunities to try a variety of dishes. My personal favorites were doro wat and timatim salata. Doro wat is a chicken stew and is typically served with a hard-boiled egg. It is, however, the sauce consisting of butter, onions and berbere spices that makes this dish heaven. Berbere is a red powder containing several spices including but not limited to cardamom, cinnamon, garlic and ginger that also flavors many other dishes in the locale cuisine. Berbere is a unique souvenir to take home. Currently, I am still enjoying the Ethiopian aroma by adding berbere to some of my home-made stews. It took a while before I discovered timatim salata, the local tomato salad. As all guidebooks recommend the motto “If you can’t cook, boil or peel it, don’t eat it”, I knew this dish should not be on my wish list, but already after a week I craved for a fresh and cold salad. The diced tomatoes, onions and chilies are seasoned with salt, olive oil and lemon juice and go wonderful together with injera. I was lucky, the fresh vegetables did not give me any stomach ache. I got, however, food poisoned twice in Tanzania, but that is another story…
3. On safari in Masai Mara National Reserve (Kenya)
The Masai Mara National Reserve is one of the most visited game reserves for a reason. It is a wonderful place with plentiful wildlife, including all members of the ‘Big Five’, and you drive through one of the most diverse and spectacular ecosystems of East-Africa. If you would be in Kenya around July-October be sure to check the wildebeest migration. The park is easily accessible from Nairobi and there is a wide selection of accommodation both inside and around the reserve. I went on several safaris, but the Masai Mara was the best wildlife viewing experience so far. I saw several birds, lions, antelopes, elephants, giraffes, monkeys, zebras, buffalos, crocodiles, mongooses, warthogs and a jackal. The highlight of the safari was seeing 2 lion cubs playing with each other during sunrise.
4. Going to church on my free Sundays at Mt. Kilimanjaro (Tanzania)
I woke up early that Sunday morning in my bunk bed in Kidia, on the lower southern slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro. I had slept well. The nights are very dark and silent here in Tanzania, so no disturbances like at home. After six long days of field work on the mountain, I expected to sleep much longer. I guess my body is already adapted to the daily routine of rising early in the morning and turning in early at night. There are regular power cuts and when the battery of your laptop is dead or your eyes are tired from reading in the candlelight, you go to bed early anyway. I got out of bed, trying not to get tangled in my mosquito net, and checked if the power was on. I was lucky this morning as power means a working toaster.
After my everyday toast with avocado, I try to enter the Lutheran church unnoticed. The first time I curiously entered the church everybody literally stared at me like they forgot they were praying just a minute ago. Nervously, I checked my clothes again. Long sleeves and pants are appropriate for a church, right? And I saw people entering and leaving from the open doors continuously, so I assume I am not breaking any ‘church rules’? After all this time, the locals still smile when I set foot in the church but I feel really welcome now.
I am always in a good mood when I participate singing (even if I don’t understand the words) and clapping in my hands. I think the energy in that building would attract more people to the church in my home town too! During more quiet moments, I like to observe the people from the wooden bench. I notice several kinds of colored skins: light brown, chocolate brown and very dark brown. Everybody wears his most elegant clothes! I like the colorful dresses and suites. I have to admit that I cannot persist as long as the locals and mostly leave the church after an hour of two with a big smile on my face. It fascinates me that people in Kidia spent almost the entire Sunday, their only free day, around the church. This little weekly routine made me easily feel at home at Mount Kilimanjaro.
What were your favorite moments in East-Africa? Which experience or destination should I add to my wish list? Please share below.
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