It was the weekend before the October 28 General Election. On this early Saturday morning, 26 women from Dar es Salaam and I set out for a hike on the outskirts of the city.
Perhaps we were running away from all the hype and scandal of election season to be soothed by nature, welcoming a chance to mingle with strangers and sample patriotism more authentic than the one we saw on headlines.
Thankfully the roads were clear as I hurried to reach Mlimani City Mall on time. I asked the guard at a nearby petrol station to watch over my car for the day.
Inside the mall, the other women were waiting, ready for a day outdoors dressed in sportswear, running shoes and the quintessential backpack. Soon the bus we were waiting for pulled up, a little before 7am, and we got in ready to experience what Pugu Hills Eco Cultural Tourism (PHECT) had in store for us.
Our destination was Pugu Kazimzumbwi Nature Reserve, one of the oldest forests in the world, located in southeast Dar es Salaam. For many of us, it was our first time to visit the area despite being residents of the city. And sure enough we were in for a cultural shock.
“I knew I loved nature since I went to boarding school in mountainous Lushoto in Tanga. I established PHECT after finding the job market difficult. My previous jobs at times just wouldn’t pay me or otherwise offer horrid working conditions. Plus, the jobs were all indoors, and I am more of a creative outdoors person. I wanted to employ other youths, and work hands-on with society," said Sairis Lucia Bugeraha, the founder and co-ordinator of PHECT. She holds a BA in Tourism and Cultural Heritage, and established her company in 2018.
On this Saturday we had signed up for a "soul sister hike" and, as I found my seat in the middle of that minibus, I already knew this was going to be a unique experience.
In the bus were women of varied backgrounds who you wouldn’t normally find socialising. There were Bohra Muslims in Rida dresses, women in their late 40s next to college students, young mothers, and from all age groups. Conversations at first were about familiar topics, but by the end of the day there was a spirit of togetherness.
We arrived at Pugu Hills and got ready to climb. “So this is what healthy people do…shouldn’t we stretch…so now we do this for relaxing?” were some of the first reactions.
Sairis, small in stature with a cheerful attitude, led us on, with her assistant Otilia at the back of the group. We soon realised this was a true test of our fitness levels, as immediately thin sweat that would later turn to pools on fabric, visibly shone off our skin.
The trail begins on the border of the Kazimzimbwi forest with Pugu residential areas, inviting you in with its lush green and forest sounds that percussively drown out the city’s bustling activities.
The Pugu reserve is one of 66 of Tanzania’s coastal forests left that have natural vegetation. The forest has more than 103 coastal East African native plants, including two that are endemic — the Mpugupugu and Mnaki trees. It has over 80 small animals, including endangered birds like the Sokoke Pipit Anthus, as well as butterflies, a bat cave and a native bamboo forest.
Already the structure of the hike had us breaking out of our comfortable cliques to start casual conversations with other members.
As our hearts picked up their pace, the trail became an effective ice breaker. Our first challenge was a steep decline in which I had to use both my hands and feet so as not to topple over. As each person descended, the others would cheer them on with claps and encouraging words.
We took a break at an opening with benches to sit on. One woman envisioned her wedding taking place here, in the tranquillity amidst bamboos tall enough to create a cathedral-like experience.
Soon the group broke in two, with the first batch going for an even more challenging hike that would see them reach the ‘Msolo’ peak that is 277 metres above sea level. I stayed with the second group that went to the nearby lake for some quality time with the surroundings. Here we had a chance to sit down; I even saw what looked like a golden Sokote Pipit building a nest.
Behind me, fellow hikers Violet and Furahini were sharing their appreciation at seeing young outspoken women who are invested in their own well-being on the hike. They were giving each other tips on how to stay strong in the workplace as women. Violet is an architect and Furahini is a doctor and medical researcher. They were the older members of the group and were good role models to listen to.
Soon we heard all about the hike to Msolo peak that involved using a rope to climb.
After some had returned from canoeing, we were served an authentic Swahili meal, with fried chicken, plantains, kachumbari, beef stew and spicy rice. Turns out it was also Sairis’s birthday, so there was cake too.
On the bus as we were heading home, we learned that among us were entrepreneurs, a caterer/pharmacist, marketing gurus, employees of a global consulting firm, farmers, a copywriter, businesswomen and others from all walks of life.
As we made our way through the traffic getting back to the city’s grind, I felt hopeful that despite the country’s headlines of discord, here were citizens choosing to break barriers and hear each other out in a peaceful manner.
PHECT also offers other packages including exploring the Zaramo culture through local cooking lessons, traditional dance lessons and other activities.
Sairis said she’s happy that local tourism is on the rise. She also was thankful for the support she gets from the Board of Tourism under the Ministry of Natural resources and Tourism in Tanzania.