Life in Nanjirinji – How Beautiful Cups and Mpingo make a difference

Nanjirinji is a village located 4 hours South-West of Kilwa Masoko, where Mpingo Conservation and Development Initiative’s (MCDI’s) head office is located. Its 7,500 habitants are surrounded by coastal forests, and the village’s name is taken from the river that runs through it. The main street where the market lies also delimits the village’s boundaries, as since it was considered too big for administrative purposes, it was split into two villages, Nanjirinji “A” and Nanjirinji “B”, each of them expanding on either side of the market.

Map op South-East Tanzania where MCDI operates.

During the day, most of the village’s inhabitants are in the fields working the  crops, such as rice, corn and cassava during the dry season, and cashew during the dry season. But when the night comes and there is no light to keep working the field, the market becomes a boiling spot.

There, everything that one might need can be found in little stalls laying on both sides of the road, from clothes and fabrics to home utilities and of course, food. Thus, it could be said that markets are the heart of the village, where villagers gather, chat, trade and eat; and so, they have to be in shape. In 2014, Nanjirinji constructed a sheltered market in order to fortify this bustling local trade. They were able to do this by using revenues generated through sustainable management of their forests.

Nanjirinji inhabitants’ diet is composed of a variety of foods. Chai (sugary black tea) and chapati are the protagonists during breakfast. Wali, maharage (rice, beans) or ugali (a paste made of cornflour and water) are amongst the classic Tanzanian dishes. They could be accompanied by mboga mboga (vegetables), samaki (fish) or nyama (meat). “Chipsi mayai” is another quite famous dish. In English it could be called “chips-omelette”, and as the name suggests, it is chips and eggs cooked in a pan. Tanzania’s climate also allows tropical trees to grow strong, and a wide variety of fruits can be found, such asavocados, papayas, bananas, mangos…

Nanjirinji market at dawn

But fruit trees are not the only trees that people benefit from. Amina, the village’s mganga, (usually a woman that has knowledge about African traditional remedies) uses five different trees as the main ingredients for the medicines she makes. Depending on the ailment, the mix of plants is different, as it is its preparation. For some diseases the bark of the tree is used, while for others it is grinded roots; some are beverages, others have to be inhaled in form of steam or taken in a bath.

A clear example would be the medicinal use of Mpingo, the tree after which MCDI takes its name. Its different parts are used to treat different ailments: a decoction of the roots is used to treat abdominal pain and prevent miscarriages, while a mixture made from the bark has strong antibacterial and antifungal properties, and is therefore used to prevent wounds from infection. The wood smoke helps to treat headaches, colds and bronchitis when inhaled, and the leaves can be used to relieve pain in the joints, or to treat inflammations in the mouth or throat through chewing. Food and medicine represent an important contribution of trees to people’s wellbeing. But they also provide shelter and shade and help to prevent soil erosion.

Nanjirinji’s “A”&”B” inhabitants are aware of the importance of preserving the forests that surround them, as life as they know it would be impossible without them. Thus, the villages have demonstrated their commitment to manage these resources sustainably by setting aside over 90,000ha of natural forests for long term protection. Besides this, they also plant indigenous tree species that are key for Tanzania’s unique biodiversity. Within a year, these villages alone have managed to plant 4,300 Mpingo seedlings, a clear demonstration of the communities’ engagement to safeguard this special tree which not only provides medicine, but a way of living for local people – the wood is the favourite for traditional carving, and it is sold internationally to produce musical instruments such as klarinets and oboes.

Mpingo tree planting

In addition to the healing properties of trees, in rural Tanzania, charms are another important part of the local culture and are often used to protect and improve the health of the wearer. For example, a pregnant woman would wear a specific charm made of herbs, spelled by the mganga for strength. When the baby is born, a different charm is made for her in order to be protected. The mother receives then a different charm with a specific spell that will help her to recover.

Although the mganga’s main job is to heal, sometimes her services are requested for other tasks. In Nanjirinji (as in many parts of Tanzania), when somebody dies, people pay a contribution to the family. The money then would be split between the family, the Iman and the mosque, but leaving a fourth part for paying the mganga to go and avoid the dead one to come and haunt the family members. But this would only happen if, and only if, the deceased hasn’t left any prior wish to be fulfilled with that money. Some rather to have a party on their honour than to pay the mosque. With that money, family members buy food and drink to share among the deceased’s relatives and friends, having a celebration day in their honour.

Rice and beans with spinach

Celebrations are an important part of community life. People gather together when important events take place, when a life is marked. As so, in Nanjirinji there could be a festivity as a “fare well” for somebody who has passed away, there are also welcoming parties, as when women gather together and bring presents for a new born.

Yoshua Ntalumanga, Nanjirinji’s “A” Secondary School second headmaster, explained the main festivity in the village. It takes place after the harvest season, usually at the end of August or the beginning of September. In this festivity, boys aged around 5 are circumcised as part of a religious tradition, and as Yoshua explained “ [circumcision] serves as their confirmation of their relationship with God”. After the ritual has been carried out, the villagers reunite to eat and drink, play music and dance. The cost of this ceremony is covered by friends and family of the family’s boy, who give a contribution to the later in order to buy what is needed.

Nanjirinji livelihoods revolve around trees and forests. From food, shelter and medicine to a source of income, communities would not be able to sustain the way they live, including their traditions and culture, without them. Thus, planting and managing trees sustainably is one of the best ways to ensure communities will be able to maintain their lifestyles.

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