HJ/EDEnterprise Dispatch, Dec. 19, 2005

Cokato woman fascinated with Tanzanian culture

By Roz Kohls
Staff Writer

Kirsti Raisanen of Cokato originally went to Africa to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. After she arrived in Tanzania, though, the culture of the local people fascinated her more than the mountain scenery did.

“It seemed like they were way back in time,” Raisanen said.

The Tanzanians, both men and women, wore elaborate earrings that were attached to necklaces, for example. Their family life was organized in unusual ways. They ate peculiar food, such as a fried mixture of smashed bananas and beans. Their clothing consisted of draped pieces of brilliant purple and red fabric. Some practiced polygamy or made their living begging, she said.

Raisanen, a registered nurse at Methodist Hospital, left the United States Sept. 10 and arrived in Moshi, Tanzania, on the east side of Africa. She went with her cousin, Jennifer Raisanen, also of Cokato; Ann Plough and Melissa Jacobson of Washington; and Bobbi Edwards of Minneapolis.

“We’re just all kind of in to adventures,” Raisanen said.

Plough had come up with the idea of climbing Mt. Kilamanjaro more than a year ago, but Raisanen had waited until July to decide whether to go because she wanted to be in shape. Mt. Kilamanjaro is tough on the cardiovascular system because it is 19,340 feet high, and the air at the summit is very thin.

“It’s hard to breathe,” Raisanen said.

The mountain was three hours from Moshi, and right on the border of Kenya and Tanzania. With guides and porters, they hiked up the western breech route, the long way, for nine days, and came back down on the ninth and tenth day.

Mt. Kilamanjaro wasn’t Raisanen’s favorite part of the trip, though. It was when she plied the guides and porters with questions about their culture and families.

“I’m kind of curious,” Raisanen said.

She learned that family members stay close together their entire lives. In the Meru tribe, for example, all the sons must live on their fathers’ land, even if it means dividing the land into tiny plots. The youngest son lives with the parents in their house, and takes care of them in their old age, Raisanen said.

The youngest son also is responsible for unmarried and widowed sisters that live at home, she said.

“I asked a lot of questions,” Raisanen said.

When the Tanzanians heard that most Americans leave their parents’ home and live by themselves, they were equally surprised. “They were just scratching their heads about that,” Raisanen said.

After they descended Mt. Kilamanjaro, Raisanen and her friends had the opportunity to see Tanzanians in their homes and villages. Raisanen was surprised at the sleeping arrangements in Tanzanian homes. Once a woman is past child-bearing age, she sleeps separately from her husband, Raisanen said.

The entire time she was in Africa she never saw anyone eat, except for a member of the Chagga tribe she once saw eat cucumber soup. The land on which they grow crops is very small, so they make the most of it. They grow corn and beans together, because the two crops have different heights, she said.

The Chagga also made beer from fermented bananas.

“It smelled like vomit,” Raisanen said.

Tanzanians live on the bare necessities. Even in the cities, they don’t have stores.

“You just go to the market,” Raisanen said.

Most of the people traveled by foot or by bicycle. There were a few buses, but the buses never went very far.

Raisanen noticed that in the hotel in Moshi, the waiters in the restaurant made $1.50 a day.

Large numbers of older people are blind or have poor vision because of an eye disease. Begging is a way of life there. Raisanen and her friends were advised by the government not to give to beggars because it discourages people from working and producing what they need to live, she said.

Raisanen and her friends next went into the bush or unpopulated parts of Tanzania to see the wild animals, and go where other tourists don’t usually go, she said.

They saw hyenas, baboons, zebras, lions, elephants, cheetahs, giraffes, wildebeests, gazelles and elands, a type of large antelope.

“It was so great,” Raisanen said.

But then again, the local people, the Masai, were more interesting than the animals, she said.

“They pretty much live off of nothing,” Raisanen said.

The Masai are tall, thin herdsmen. The young boys are taught to take the village cattle to government land and allow them to graze.

“They just wander around looking for something to eat,” Raisanen said.

The Masai aren’t religious but recently they have been introduced to Christianity. However, they are a polygamous group. Raisanen wondered if they would give up polygamy to become Christian.

“I’m so curious how that will go over,” she said.

One of their guides, who estimated he was 35 years old and ready for a second wife, proposed to her and her friends.

“They don’t have a clue how old they are,” Raisanen said.

Many Tanzanians also pierced both the top of their ears and their lobes with heavy earrings. Overtime, the weight of the jewelry stretched the holes so large the sun shone through them, Raisanen said.

They loved to sing. Every night the guides and porters sang songs in Swahili for them. All Tanzanians speak Swahili as well as their own tribal languages, she said.

Raisanen and her group were in Tanzania during the dry season, so even though they were close to the equator, it was always comfortable.

The final leg of their trip was on Zanzibar Island, on the east side of Africa in the Indian Ocean. They enjoyed the natural beaches there. “It was just awesome,” Raisanen said.

Raisanen returned to Cokato on Oct. 2. Raisanen wishes they could have spent more time with individual families in Africa. She and her friends wanted to live in Tanzania, at least for a while, maybe working in a hospital.

“It was just such a blast,” Raisanen said.

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