A WARM wind tugs at the coat-tails of Reverend Urio as he rides his motorbike on a paved road circling the base of the world's highest free-standing mountain. Kilimanjaro rises out of the parched east African plain as only a volcano can, its icy peak towering three miles above a sea of yellow grass. The reverend makes the trip every morning and yet, blinded by the slanting sun, he seems surprised when the tarmac runs out. Bike and rider shudder as he turns on to a track of packed red earth that leads uphill. The breeze turns cooler and the land greener. Mountain streams feed farms and groves. The hooded heads of acacia trees become tangled like manes.
Halfway up the mountain, Reverend Urio switches off the engine and parks outside a church made from cement and corrugated iron. He removes his helmet and coat, exposing short-cropped hair and a dog collar. He says he doesn't mind the 90-minute ride from Moshi, the regional capital, to the village of Mshiri, where he was appointed pastor a few weeks ago. He enjoys overtaking the minibus he would otherwise have to squeeze into. "The only part I don't like is the rocky section where the paving runs out," he says.
Reverend Urio was born on this hillside and everyone knows him by his curious first name, Speaker. As a ten-year-old he received a Tanzanian government scholarship to one of the best secondary schools in the country. From there he joined the church, which sent him to university. Around here the church has a habit of pinching the best talent. It is better organised than the government, he says, brimming with confidence. The pastor has developed a fine awareness of power. He says the elders in the village call him "shimaku", an honorific, and that he knows who among them will be helpful.
After stints in Dar es Salaam, Nairobi and Kampala, he spent the past few years as a church administrator in Moshi and still lives there. But his ties to the village never frayed. He has returned out of loyalty, he says, "and for the view". With the enthusiasm of a schoolboy, the 49-year-old points at the peak above us, calling it an island in the sky. Clouds envelop it during the day but they have yet to blow in. The view in the other direction, down to the plain, is if anything more spectacular. Distant dust storms whirl like tumbleweed.
Reverend Urio walks into the church to check on preparations for the Sunday service. An assistant is hanging red banners above the pews. Another carries two wooden stands with numbered slots to the main door. They are filled with envelopes and worshippers are asked every week to put in money. A clerk collects it, noting the amount in each envelope on a score card. Following the service the pastor is handed a set of accounts, which he spreads out on his desk and studies. The suggestion that worship does not receive top billing fails to offend him. "We are flexible," he says and points out that the church is Lutheran yet the cross on the altar is adorned with a likeness of Jesus. "It was there when I came. So what if people think we are Catholics?"
The service starts with a hymn and ends with prayers, spoken in a mix of languages. Swahili, used nationally, is rapidly displacing the local Chagga. Ever more villagers migrate to the cities. Change is all around, says the pastor. The schools are getting better, but not fast enough. More is required from the government. During his first sermon he told the congregation that the track leading to the church must be paved. "We need a new road," he said. "You are right," they shouted back. He wondered what they might do about it.
On Sunday mornings all the radios in the village are set to gospel music. Why, asks Mshukuru Kimaro, his arms hanging loosely in an oversized jacket, does anyone bother going to church? "You can get the service at home."
The 17-year-old has just left secondary school and is considering his employment options. All his ancestors were farmers. Most neighbours still are. Techniques have changed little. Bananas are cut down with machetes fixed to long sticks. Millet is ground with a bucket-size pestle and mortar made from hardwood; most of it is malted at home and turned into beer.
The soil on the slopes is volcanic and needs extra nutrients. Since few farmers can afford chemical fertiliser, they keep cows and goats for the manure-but not many, since land is scarce. Animals are tethered and fed dry grass. The milk they provide was once churned to make butter in hollowed-out pumpkins but now the farmers use plastic containers. Houses have evolved, too. Before, people lived in conical huts, 15 feet high and made from grass, in which man and beast cohabited. Very few remain.
Mshukuru shares a two-room wooden shack with his mother. Mosquito nets cover the beds and clothes hang from a string under the ceiling. A second shack houses two goats and a fireplace with a blackened pot. Mshukuru's mother is the cook at the local primary school. She has been gone all day and Mshukuru is bored. He turns off the radio and notices a concert of birdsong and mooing. The range is symphonic. Animal life is always audible on the mountain, though mostly concealed by the plant life. Dwellings are dwarfed by surrounding vegetation. Corn conquers idle patches; flowers grow in rampant colonies.
Tomorrow it will be market day at the spot where the paved road starts, and Mshukuru decides to walk down to have a look. He calls out, "He's my friend," pointing to a youngster in the window of a house. Mshukuru asks him for a piece of chewing gum. "My friend works in a shop," he says, a faint realisation that he too will have to earn a living now flitting across his face. He is an only child and lost his father many years ago.
By a toppled tree trunk he encounters a girl in a blue dress. Their conversation is art deco christmas cards and leaves him grinning. "She is my friend," he says later, then stalls. "She is not my girlfriend..." He declares that he doesn't want to marry until he has a college degree. But how to pay the fees? He would like to find a job as an engineer in a city. When he has money he might come back to Mshiri. Or he might marry in the city. He stops in the middle of the track and declares after a moment's hesitation, "I believe, if God wishes it, I will become a rich man." His index fingers are pointing upwards. "If it happens, I will not be surprised. And if it doesn't happen, I will not be surprised either." He looks up to the peak of Kilimanjaro, briefly visible. "One day I want to go there."
At the bottom of the track, Mshukuru greets a friend of his mother. The man looks aggrieved. He says his 18-year-old daughter recently ran away from home. She said there was nothing for her to do in the village. Nonchalantly Mshukuru tells the man that his daughter will return soon and pats him on the back. Asked later how he could be so sure, he shrugs and says, "I didn't want him to go looking for her. Give her a chance."
The market is a collection of wooden stands. Many are already filled with produce from surrounding fields: carrots, onions, tomatoes, potatoes, avocados, ginger, garlic and watercress. Red coffee berries are sold to a co-operative for roasting. The previous night several stalls caught fire and burned to the ground. The men standing around the ashes blame an electrical fault. Still, their ire is directed at the fire brigade whose engine arrived an hour late, with no water in the tank. When nothing came out of the hose the crowd turned angry. Official neglect is seldom so obvious. Stall-owners smashed the windows of the fire engine while the flames still flickered behind them. The firemen tried to flee, and backing up the engine, they drove over and destroyed several motorbikes.
"The road is everything," says Mshukuru. His father died waiting for an ambulance
"We get nothing from the government," says Mshukuru. "It is the same with our road." He is walking back up to Mshiri. The free-falling equatorial sun lights the treetops. Men push wobbly wheelbarrows filled with fruit; women balance shopping on their heads. The minibuses that carry people along paved roads do not come up here. Mshukuru lists the many reasons why the dirt track should be paved. "The road is everything," he concludes. His father died waiting to go to hospital. No ambulance would come up to the village. Mshukuru stops to smell the lemony scent of a spindly eucalyptus tree by the side of the road. This is all the medicine we have, he says, worried about his ageing mother's health.
Reverend Urio consults the elected chairman of the village council in Mshiri about upgrading the road. Wilson Mosha is a retired school teacher and behaves like one. When asked a question he repeatedly asks for your correspondent's pen and notebook to give answers in writing. He has lived on his shamba, or smallholding, all his life. He inherited it from his father, who fought for Britain during the second world war in Ethiopia and Burma, and named him Wilson after a brother-in-arms from England. During his childhood the village road was barely passable. In the decades that followed the residents slowly widened it, in part at his urging. He has been an unpaid village administrator since 1972. "I pushed for houses to be connected to the national grid," he says. "It is happening but some are still without lights." If anyone knows how local politics works, it is him.
Within a week of the pastor's first sermon, Mr Mosha convenes a public meeting to rally support for paving the road. Several hundred villagers turn up, at least one from every family. Both men and women attend. Formerly only men attended but that changed when bequests of land to daughters became common in recent years. Horny-handed, they cram onto benches in the dining hall of the local school, chattering until elders walk in. The sudden silence is startling, as is the evident respect for authority.
Mr Mosha has invited officials from the local government. Villagers bow and scrape, addressing them as honourable minister or director even though they are neither. Every utterance is prefaced with profuse expressions of gratitude. Many villagers are practised flatterers. They profess agreement with the government, then demand a change of policy.
The meeting lasts two hours and also includes a discussion on leaky water pipes. The officials respond curtly. Anyone asking a tough question is accused of "lacking respect". The meeting is not a success. Afterwards Mr Mosha points out that villagers pay no tax; only the rich do. A neighbour responds, "Do you mean the officials don't have money for our road? Look at the expensive cars they came in." Accusations of corruption fly.
Mr Mosha tries a new tack. He teams up with the executive officer of Ashira, the village down the mountain where the paved road starts. Vicky Lyimo agrees to help. When it rains, muddy water runs down the track from Mshiri and floods her village. She persuades a higher official to take a look. He makes encouraging comments but offers no money. A local MP visits. He promises to look for funds but does not sound hopeful.
Some villagers suggest tougher action, perhaps a demonstration, but Mr Mosha says that, "protocol must be followed." Even at lower levels, bureaucracy is stifling. When your correspondent asks to meet Mr Mosha's brother, an official in the church, he suggests calling the local parish to get them to arrange it.
A mixed blessing
Two roads run through the village of Ashira: a dirt one up to Mshiri and a shorter paved one to a girls' secondary school. Ms Lyimo, the executive officer, explains that her predecessor is responsible for the laying of the tarmac ten years ago. She spots him at the "First And Last" bar. Elialifa Lyimo (no relation to Ms Lyimo) is sitting on a plastic chair under a tin roof. He points at an empty beer glass and tells a waiter, "You know what I drink." A cigarette stub sits in the corner of his mouth. "This is the first bar when you come from the field and the last when you go home," he explains.
As a young man Mr Lyimo worked as a salesman for a shoemaker in Kenya. When he came back in 1985 he volunteered as a village administrator. He heard that the former headmistress of the girls' secondary school had been a classmate of the wife of the then president. "So I took the headmistress to State House in Dar es Salaam and asked for the First Lady," he says. They saw the president's wife and told her that schooling was difficult in the rainy season. The road flooded and many girls failed to turn up. "We didn't see the president and I don't know what the wife told him but soon after that they paved the road to the school. It is how things work."
Mr Lyimo is ambivalent about the effects of better roads. All his seven children have left the village. "They are building houses in the city and eating well. I suppose they may never come back. Perhaps when I die they will bury my ashes there." The prospect makes him spit on the ground. But he sees a potential upside to a paved road to the village. "They might at least visit."
Yet he says development is undermining ancient traditions. The Chagga people have lived here for half a millennium. Some families hire Mr Lyimo to teach them rites they barely remember: how to slaughter and divide a cow between mother, father and siblings to celebrate a betrothal. "Some things have improved, of course," he says. "In the past we believed children will never grow hair if women eat eggs during pregnancy. Now we know better. Still, my grandchildren cannot speak our local language."
Bow-legged, he announces he must go to a funeral. He walks out of the bar and along a banana grove. Above him the mountain is sheathed in cloud. Unprompted, he says, "Bananas are flowers, not trees." When he doesn't get a response he walks into the grove and starts pulling down leaves that are flapping like sails. By the time he is done, nothing is left of the plant. He says, "See, no trunk. Bananas are just rolled up leaves." When he returns to the track he says, "Bananas are radioactive as well." (A check online reveals he is right. Scientists refer to a "banana equivalent dose", a tiny measure of radiation similar to eating one banana.)
At the village cemetery Mr Lyimo sits down under pine trees. Only a few graves dot the grassy slope. Most people are buried on family land to ensure their children's right of occupancy. This makes borrowing money difficult. Banks will not accept grave land as collateral since they cannot repossess it.
"What else can you do in a village but dress up and die?" asks Mr Lyimo
After a minute's rest, Mr Lyimo joins hundreds of guests along the track to the house of the deceased. Some sit down on chairs under a marquee. Prayers are said over loudspeakers. Mr Lyimo belts out hymns. Then family members carry the coffin above their heads into a banana grove for burial.
Complimented on his starched shirt, Mr Lyimo says, "What else can you do in a village but dress up and die?" He and other guests are members of the ruling Party of the Revolution. They agree that the party is venal; MPs are leeches; national bosses are worse. "Every party is corrupt, and it didn't start today, or yesterday," he says. "Are you Christian? Well, after Jesus died on the cross they took him to a cave and posted Roman guards outside. Three days later he was resurrected. Do you think he got out without paying a fee?" The villagers giggle. The only people they trust are unaffiliated local leaders. "We know how they live," Mr Lyimo says. "We can tell their honesty from their house."
Damp stains the wall behind a tattered armchair. Mr Mosha, the chairman of Mshiri village, and his family live in two rooms held together by corrugated iron. They feed themselves from a vegetable garden along the road to Ashira. Three cows provide milk but no meat.
A month after the arrival of the new pastor the road looks remarkably different. The surface is smooth even if still earthen. Many of the rocks are gone. The sides are solidly squared off. Occasional vehicles pass each other easily.
After the government rejected calls to fund a new road, Mr Mosha visited all the homes in the village and solicited contributions of $13 each. Few families refused. He also contacted offspring who had left the village. Money came from as far as America. Within a week he had collected $10,000. "We can't wait for the government," he says. "We do it ourselves."
Money in hand, Reverend Urio phoned a local man who works in construction in Dar es Salaam. He drove his ten-tonne Caterpillar motor grader 350 miles to Ashira and ploughed his way up the slope to Mshiri. To save money he stayed with Mr Mosha. In one week he flattened eight miles of road.
Since then the villagers have dug drains to protect the road from downpours. They still hope for tarmac one day, or at least gravel. Some have even bigger plans. They imagine continuing the road all the way up to the summit of Kilimanjaro. At the moment the track thins to a grassy path above the village and then loses itself among bananas and corn.
The only way to the top is on foot. It takes a week. Mr Lyimo thinks it should stay that way. "In my 69 years I have never been up there," he says. "Why go? Where will these new roads lead us? It's beautiful down here, green and warm. Up there is only stone and ice."