A Cultural Tour of Lushoto and the Usambara Mountains, Tanzania

One of the most stunning regions of Tanzania has got to be the lush and picturesque Usambara Mountains. We spent a few days in the Lushoto District, one of eight districts that make up the Tanga region. It was wonderful to get away from the big cities like Dar es Salaam, and see a very different side of life in Tanzania.

Cultural Tourism Defined

My husband and I took a cultural walking tour of Lushoto and the Usambara Mountains to get a better understanding of the area and the local people. Cultural tourism is the up-and-coming income stream for the people of Lushoto and the Usambara Mountains. But what exactly is cultural tourism?

Cultural tourism is a way for travellers to engage in a country or region’s culture, lifestyle, history, art, etc. It includes visits to cultural resources, both tangible and intangible, and essentially visiting any country or region that is different from your own. (One could argue that culture varies even from city to city within one region or country.)

Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, here’s a bit of background on Lushoto and the Usambara Mountains:

History

Bantu, Shambaa, and Maasai people originally inhabited the Usambara Mountain region. These early people were farmers and pastoralists.

The first European to visit Lushoto was Johann Ludwig Krapf in 1849. Krapf was a German missionary and explorer who built the first Anglican church here. German colonists soon followed in 1886. They named the region Wilhelmstal in 1898, after the German emperor.

During German colonial rule, from the 1890s to 1918, the area became part of German East Africa. It was a favourite vacation spot for settlers and government administrators alike. The British took control after World War I, and German East Africa became Tanganyika. Tanganyika gained independence in 1961, and later joined with Zanzibar and Pemba to form the Peoples Republic of Tanzania.

Let’s start the tour in Lushoto first:

Lushoto

Lushoto is the largest town in the district of the same name, as well as its capital. The population in the Lushoto District is approximately 500,000, with about 30,000 living right in the capital.

Lushoto, Tanzania

You can still see some of the German-influenced architecture from those early colonial days around Lushoto. These historic European buildings include the former District Office and the post office, built in 1913. For the most part though, you’ll see modest red-brick buildings, crumbling facades and rusting tin roofs.

Lushoto street

Our guide for the walking tour was a young man who grew up in Lushoto. He took us through town, gave us some background on the area, as well as pointed out some of the local wildlife, trees and plants.

Lushoto Tanzania

He also explained that the money earned from operating tours goes towards building schools and other infrastructure. Something that seems to be needed quite badly, as the population is booming here in comparison to other parts of Tanzania.

Lushoto secondary school sign

Agriculture is still the main source of livelihood in Lushoto. Lushoto is 1,400 meters above sea level, giving it a cool, temperate climate, with approximately 1074 mm of rainfall annually. However, the lush, dense forests and rusty-red earth only give the illusion of soil fertility.

As it turns out, the nutrients in the soil get stripped away very quickly once cultivated. The German settlers, for example, tried growing coffee beans here in the late 1880s. Initially, the plantations appeared successful, with over 1.25 million arabica coffee shrubs planted on 600 hectares of land between 1886 and 1897. But yields shrunk quickly and plants died off. By 1914 the coffee plantations had failed, so they tried other cash crops. They planted quinine trees from Peru for their anti-malarial properties, as well as tea and fruit trees.

Corn, beans, tomatoes, cassava and potatoes are just a few of the crops that grow here today. They also grow sugar cane:

Sugar cane

This is a pile of shredded sugar cane. The locals process the sugar cane using a manual press to squeeze out the juice. The sugar cane juice is then left to ferment for about a week in order to make beer.

Pile of shredded sugar cane

Unfortunately, drought, unpredictable rainfall and soil erosion are just a few of the challenges to growing successful crops in the Lushoto district. Viable land is also scarce due to high population density, deforestation and soil degradation.

laundry hanging in Lushoto

As a consequence, approximately half of the residents live below the poverty line. Many people don’t have electricity or running water.

But many farmers have started to diversify their crops, opting for more drought-resistant varieties of corn and beans, for example, to improve their harvests. Livestock also helps to diversify their income as well as their diets:

baby goat

small chicken coop

These may look like rice fields, but they are actually tilapia ponds. Tilapia do well in shallow water and grow quickly, making them a good food source:

rice field in Lushoto

And, of course, one of the cheapest, yet most effective security systems used to keep your crops safe, are geese. These two wouldn’t let us get more than 5 feet from them or the property they protected!

geese as security guards

Here are some freshly made bricks, drying out in the sun:

bricks drying in the sun

Most of the buildings are made with bricks, or a combination of mud and wood, like this shed:

mud and wood house

Most of the people we met in Lushoto were warm, friendly, and welcoming. The children were especially outgoing and curious, often running up to us asking for candy. (We didn’t have any candy on us – and really, if you want to help them out, it’s best to donate supplies or books to the local schools). People smiled, waved, nodded, or greeted us with “habari!” – Swahili for hello. At least, many of them did. But not all.

Lushoto family outside their house

Some of the locals didn’t appreciate having tour groups traipsing through their town, and they made their displeasure known.

We encountered one elderly woman in particular, who yelled at us in Swahili and waved at our group dismissively as we passed by. She also shielded her face from our view. The only word we understood was, “No, no, no!”

Our guide translated her comments for us. The woman didn’t want us there, and she couldn’t understand why tourists were coming and getting in everyone’s way. She also didn’t want her photo taken, which was why she had covered her face. At this point our guide taught us the important Swahili phrase, shikamo – literally meaning “I hold your feet” –  as a respectful greeting when meeting elders. I don’t think the sentiment would have done much to please her, though.

It was a reaction we’d never experienced before, but we could understand her perspective. When you live in a big, metropolitan city, tourists tend to blend in with the crowds. But imagine living in the mountains, secluded, only to have a steady stream of tour buses hauling strangers into your village while you’re trying to go on about your daily business.

woman carrying bricks on her head

Cultural tourism here is a double-edged sword. While it brings money into the area, it is also disruptive and invasive. At what point does cultural tourism cross the line from wanting to learn more about a region and its way of life, to being voyeuristic and intrusive?

Not to mention the fact that the influx of tour groups can be potentially damaging to the sensitive biodiversity of the region. I just hope that they’re able to maintain a sustainable balance between tourism, economics, people’s right to privacy, and respect for the environment. That’s a pretty tall order, though.

On the topic of biodiversity, let’s explore the Usambara Mountains next:

The Usambara Mountains

The Usambara Mountain range runs approximately 90 km in length, with Mtumbi (2270m) and Kideghe  (2215m) being the highest peaks. The mountains are divided into two sub-ranges. The West Usambaras are higher, and the East Usambaras, which are lower, also receive more rainfall due to proximity to the coast.

The mountains are host to an incredible array of flora and fauna. In fact, scientists consider the Usambara Mountains to be one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. This means that the region harbours significant biodiversity, but it’s also under threat from human habitation and influence.

One of the coolest creatures we came across was this West Usambara two-horned chameleon.

West Usambara two-horned chameleon

Unfortunately they are endangered, as they are one of the most commonly exported chameleons sold as pets internationally. Their habitat is also under threat due to climate change and deforestation.

Interestingly, our guide told us that local parents often tell their children that these chameleons are poisonous, so they will be left alone.

We also spotted a few grasshoppers on our walk. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to identify these by name via Google search. So if there are any experts out there, please let me know more about these cool critters!

Giant brown grasshopper in Usambara

This one was particularly beautiful. Just look at the spectacular colours on its body!

Giant colourful grasshopper in Usambara

We even had this small gecko take up residence in our hotel room shower! (He seemed to have a dead spider stuck to his back foot). Eventually we managed to gently usher him back outside.

gecko

Aside from colobus monkeys, squirrels, skinks, bats, and numerous species of birds and insects, the Usambara Mountains also boast beautiful trees and flowering plants, such as African violets, and hibiscus:

hibiscus flower

Irente Viewpoint

Our tour of Lushoto and the Usambara Mountains culminated in a stop at Irente Viewpoint. The viewpoint is about 6 km from Lushoto.

This, my friends, was the view (using “dramatic” mode on my camera, because it made the clouds and layered mountain range pop):

Usambara Mountains

The viewpoint is approximately 1,400 meters above sea level, so you get some incredible views of the valley down below, too:

Usambara Mountains Irente viewpoint

These mountain ranges are still covered in virgin tropical rainforest. The Tanzanian government has designated protected areas throughout the mountains to prevent its destruction.

Usambara Mountains

In fact, there are numerous endemic species of plants, trees and wildlife here, not found anywhere else in the world. The East Usambaras have been compared to Galapagos Islands in terms of its diversity of endemic species. Protection, however, is not an easy feat, as the Usambaras are fairly densely populated.

Usambara Mountains

Other things to see and do in the Usambara Mountains include:

  • Hiking and biking
  • Mkuzi Forest Reserve
  • Shagayu Natural Forest
  • Birding safaris
  • Mambo Footprints and Mambo Caves
  • Mkuzi and Soni Waterfalls
  • Mkomazi National Park
  • Magamba Rainforest
  • Mtumbi and Kwamongo Peaks
  • Amani Nature Reserve

Usambara Mountains Irente Viewpoint

Overall, we really loved exploring Lushoto and the Usambara Mountains. While there is some question around the ethics of cultural tourism in places where it’s not always welcome, we gained great insight into this region and the people.

Getting There

Self-drive by car: From Dar es Salaam (6 hours), Arusha / Kilimanjaro (5 hours) and the port of Tanga (3 hours).
By bus: There are regular buses from Dar es Salaam, Arusha and Tanga.
By air: The closest national airport is in Mombo (1 hour drive)

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2 Replies to “A Cultural Tour of Lushoto and the Usambara Mountains, Tanzania”

  1. Darlene Post author

    Thank you! I think they are still navigating that balance between tourism as a new source of income while not disrupting their daily routines. The acceptance of tourists may be somewhat generational too. It was definitely a different experience to be shooed away and to feel unwelcome, at least be a few residents. But their concerns about what could become of their sleepy mountain villages with an influx of curious tourists are totally valid too.

  2. johnrieber

    Retweeted and pinned…a phenomenal story…the issue of tourism when the local people are not 100% for it a tough issue and I appreciate how you addressed it..I think that you brought money to the region – tourism can have a hugely positive impact on a local economy…however, cultural differences can also raise barriers as you note…thank you for sharing!

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