N the moss-covered rock face in front of me, three
small blue-violet flowers pushed out of a rosette of velvet green leaves.
There they were, finally: wild African violets, lovely examples of the
ancestors of one of the world's most popular houseplants. They grow
naturally only in the coastal mountains and forests of East Africa, and
I'd come a long way to see them.
"They aren't in bloom all the time," my guide, Abduel, was saying.
"Some people make special trips here, and never see the flowers. You are a
lucky lady, Mama."
For years I've struggled to keep at least one African violet in bloom
through Montreal winters, but it wasn't until I started working on a novel
about a Canadian politician and his Qu้b้coise wife who is passionate
about African violets that I began to wonder about the pretty little
flower's origins. In French one of its names is la violette d'Usambara,
and initially I thought it referred to Usumbura, now Bujumbura, the
capital of Burundi. But further reading revealed that the flowers
originally came from the East Usambara Mountains of Tanzania. Their story
intrigued me, and when I got a chance to go to Africa last October I
decided to check them out. I first took a flight to Dar es Salaam from
Nairobi, and left the next morning by bus for Tanga, 200 miles north on
the Indian Ocean coast.
Tanga is the nearest good-sized town to the Amani Nature Reserve, a
20,000-acre preserve in the East Usambaras, home to eight wild African
Two of them, S. confusa and S. ionantha, are thought to be the ones
from which the plants you find in any florist have been bred. (The one I
saw in bloom there was probably S. confusa.) Even though the wild plants
usually have only blue or violet flowers, the species are so marvelously
rich in genetic variations that plant breeders have been able to tease out
white, pink, dark blue, mauve, red-violet and green varieties.
In the past there was a rail connection not far from Tanga, but today
only freight trains use the stretch of rail. Scheduled airlines don't stop
at the town either. Unless I wanted to rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle
with driver, I was going to have to take buses. Not a good thing, several
people warned me: buses weren't the sort of transport someone like me
white, female and 58 should take by herself.
However, my contacts in Tanga and Amani assumed that I'd take the bus,
and recommended the Raha Leo line. O.K., I thought; let's try it, I
haven't come all this way to be timorous.
"No problem," the taxi driver in Dar es Salaam said when I gave him the
address of the bus terminal. As soon as we drove through its gates,
though, shills descended on us, shouting in Kiswahili. The driver
exchanged a few words with them, then began to roll up the windows of the
"What's happening?" I asked, in mounting panic.
"They say that the Raha Leo bus left at 8:30, and the next one won't go
until afternoon," the taxi driver began.
"But," said a man with his head and shoulders through the back window
just inches from me, "there is another bus which leaves in half an hour,
just as good a bus."
I looked beseechingly at the driver. "Do you think it would be all
"Yes," he said. "Probably," he qualified. And after carefully locking
the taxi, he took my suitcase over to the bus, made sure it was stowed in
the luggage compartment, and saw that I boarded.
Inside, to my surprise, I found goodnatured courtesy. The bus was the
size of a North American intercity bus, but with red-flocked velvet
wallpaper. All the seats already appeared to be taken by people dressed
for a special occasion, but the conductor immediately shooed a young man
from one so I could sit near the front. After two people made sure I found
my way to the (quite clean) restrooms when we made a rest stop halfway
through the four-and-a-half-hour bus trip, I began to think that traveling
in Africa when you're a certain age has its advantages: you get respect
you don't find in North America.
October is the start of the short rainy season in East Africa, and it
was drizzling when the bus set out. As the road turned inland, the rain
stopped. Clouds hugged the earth, as did smoke from fires set by farmers
to prepare the soil for the next crop. In places banana palms were
scorched where the flames had spread more quickly than a farmer wished. In
others women were already at work with hoelike mattocks, getting ready to
plant the small patches of land when the rains came in earnest.
In the distance were the East Usambara Mountains, which catch
moisture-laden breezes from the Indian Ocean. Lush forests are a result,
abounding in a rich variety of plants and animals. The Eastern Arc
mountain forests, of which the East Usambaras are a part, were recently
named as one of the world's biodiversity "hot spots."
The mountains were densely forested until the beginning of the 20th
century when Tanganyika became the centerpiece of German colonial
aspirations in Africa. The Germans, along with the British, systematically
exploited the forests, but also established a botanical garden at Amani,
experimenting with plants from all over the world. The scientific name of
African violets Saintpaulia reflects this German colonial past. Baron
Walter von Saint Paul Illaire found the plants in 1892, when he was
commissioner of Tanga province. He sent seeds back to his father, an
amateur botanist, in Germany, and within 10 years African violets had
become a horticultural sensation throughout Europe.
Recently Saintpaulia have played a key role in safeguarding what is
left of the East Usambaras' natural splendors. Most of them grow in damp,
shady places, and when the forest is cut down, they vanish. But commercial
logging continued into the 1980's, threatening many streams and forest
glades where Saintpaulia thrived, as well as rare species like the
Swynnerton's robin and a three-horned chameleon with eyes like Homer
Simpson's. To protect all this, some 250,000 acres of the mountain forests
have now been declared a U.N. Man and Biosphere Reserve. (The Amani
Reserve is an even more strictly protected part of the biosphere region.)
Conservation and village life here are supposed to go hand in hand, and
today about 100,000 people live relatively lightly on the land gathering
no more wood than they can carry themselves and clearing no new fields
in small villages within the designated area.
It rained a bit my first morning at Amani, but the sun shone most of
the four days I was there. Despite being just 5 degrees south of the
equator, days were pleasant, in the low 80's, and evenings were cool; a
blanket felt good at night in the lodge at the reserve's headquarters
where I stayed.
The cement-floor building has small, spare rooms with single beds and
mosquito nets (and screens on the windows). It sleeps about 20 in single,
double and triple rooms, but I was the only guest most of my stay, so I
felt like a camper with camp all to herself. No camp I've ever stayed at
had food as good, though. The manager asked me what I wanted for each
meal, offering doughnutlike mandaazi, eggs, toast and cereal for
breakfast; curry-inspired meat dishes at lunch and dinner. Rice, pasta or
ugali (a corn porridge rather like polenta) rounded out the meals;
excellent fresh fruit was dessert.
The Amani guides are all local people, chosen after competitive exams
and then trained in botany, ecology and natural lore. The guide I got to
know best, Abduel B. Kajiru, is the first in his family to finish
secondary school. He knows the scientific names, the uses in traditional
medicine and the economic importance of a staggering number of plants.
In addition to that first, marvelous sighting of Saintpaulia in the
wild that he led me to, he took me on several long walks. We started off
with a tour of the remnants of the well-maintained old German botanical
garden (although there are no labels on the plants), with its
jacaranda-lined roads, century-old cinnamon trees and views of tea estates
in the distance.
The next morning we scrambled down into a canyon to see another nest of
Saintpaulia. On the far side of a stream, the damp rock wall was covered
with dozens of African violets. None were in bloom, but clumps of
salmon-colored impatiens, another East African native, brightened the
edges of the water course. From there we skirted a portion of forest that
hadn't been logged where we could look out on the dense canopy of
treetops. Then we climbed past patches of corn, banana trees and other
tropical staples like a kind of tuber called cocoyam, interspersed with
coffee trees laden with tiny flowers scented like orange blossoms. In the
nearby village, cardamom pods lay drying in the sun on mats; it was
Saturday, and that evening a constant stream of people paraded by the
Amani guest house on their way to a market-day celebration miles up the
The last afternoon was a golden one, and our walk took us past fish
ponds and stands of sugar cane and grass grown to feed cattle. At one tiny
settlement, three children ran out to show us a brilliant green and yellow
chameleon that matched the buttery light coming through the leaves of the
palm trees. Farther on four women invited me to help celebrate the birth
of a child. And as we walked, Abduel continually amazed me with what he
knew about the plants and animals of the region, so rich yet so very
Now that I'm back home, I have great hopes for my own domesticated
Saintpaulia. My plan is to juggle humidity and fertilizer, watering
schedules and shade to imitate conditions on the banks of streams in the
East Usambaras. Whether or not I succeed, I hope that Abduel and his
colleagues will be able to protect the mountains' marvelous ecosystems,
and that Saintpaulia will continue to flourish at home in the
Northwest/KLM has flights from North America to Amsterdam, with
connecting flights to Dar es Salaam. British
Airways and American Airlines flights connect through London. It's a
long trip the shortest routing takes more than 21 hours if you don't
make a stopover.
October and November are good months to visit. Air fares are usually
lower than in July and August and the dust is settled by the first rains.
East Africa has two rainy seasons: from mid-October to December and from
mid-March to May.
If you don't rent a car and driver, bus is the only way to get to the
Amani Nature Reserve. Raha Leo and Bembea Line buses, which leave between
6:30 and 8:30 a.m. from Dar, connect with either the Bin Seif or Jabwebwea
bus, which leave for Amani around noon every day from Muheza, a small
market town about 15 miles inland from Tanga. Ask the driver on the bus
from Dar or at the Muheza station about connections: the trip up into the
mountains takes about two hours. Bus tickets are ridiculously cheap: from
Dar to Tanga on the Bembea line I paid about $12, at 1,030 Tanzanian
shillings to $1. The second-leg bus trip from Muheza to Amani cost $1.
Where to Stay
The Amani Nature Reserve is also a bargain. Open year round, its rustic
wood-paneled lodge sleeps 20, with simply furnished single, double and
triple rooms and shared bathrooms. Full board three generous meals and
lodging is about $10 a night. The reserve also has cabins with private
baths for the same price at Sigi, six miles down the mountain, where there
is a visitors center worth a stop. For reservations contact the reserve
conservator at (255 2627) 40313; email@example.com.
Finnish government and European Union aid programs have been helping
Tanzanians organize both the reserve and the tourism program. The aim is
to provide income for local residents while safeguarding the natural
richness of the East Usambara Mountains. (The European Union's
contribution ended in March, and the Finnish aid will end in December.)
The Amani guides share the fees that visitors pay ($10 a day). I invited
Abduel to join me for lunch each day at the lodge, since meals are not
included in the guides' pay.
Mary Soderstrom is working on a novel, "The Violets of Usambara."
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