To get to the town of Kondoa (located in the district of Kondoa) from Arusha, Tanzania, you drive almost 300 km down Rte. A104. Google Maps will tell you the drive takes three hours and 47 minutes, but Google Maps is wrong. The journey takes closer to four-and-a-half, five hours.
I discovered this firsthand when I visited Kondoa—specifically, the conservation work we’re doing in Kondoa District’s Kolo Hills forests—in our Maasai Steppe landscape a few months ago. Eager to see the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) project firsthand, a Friday evening in July found me flying into Arusha from Nairobi, Kenya. By 6:30 Saturday morning, I was en route to Kondoa with two of my Maasai Steppe colleagues, Pascal and Raymond.
Ever the consummate professional, I had arrived in Tanzania having done no research whatsoever on where I was headed. I figured we’d be in the car for a couple of hours and then: Welcome to Kondoa!
So it was quite the eye opener when, during a mid-morning break that Saturday (where I discovered my love of chapati, a buttery, unleavened disc of panfried dough), Raymond informed me we would be climbing back into the AWF truck to drive 16 more km on tarmacked road… and another 86 km on dirt road after that.
Dirt vs. tarmac
The dirt portion of Rte. A104 turns out to be just wide enough to squeeze two cars side by side—though it’s not really an issue, considering vehicles are few and far between. The road is all packed-down, hard yellow dirt, peppered generously with rocks and pebbles. We zigzag frequently to avoid pits in the road. At one point, we hit a bump and I almost hit my head on the ceiling of the SUV.
“Next time you visit, it will be easier, because the road will be paved,” Raymond says to me.
Apparently, the Tanzanian government has committed to paving the entirety of Rte. A104, which means this part of the country will soon have an unbroken ribbon of asphalt running through Kondoa District and beyond. The African Development Bank, Japan International Cooperation Agency, and the Government of Tanzania have stepped up to offer financing. Electricity is also said to be on the way—the town of Kondoa is on the electrical grid, but many of the other villages in the district are not.
As we drive along, the road begins to incline. Trees rise up on our left. “This is the forest we are working to conserve,” Pascal explains, gesturing to the Miombo woodlands to the left. I experience an initial disappointment as I realize it looks just like the forests I would see in my home state of Maryland. I’d expected a mass of thick, tall trees with dark green leaves, in part because of the important role the Kolo Hills forests play in the Maasai Steppe landscape. The forests here form a critical water catchment area that provides water to the Tarangire River, which flows more than 170 km north to Tarangire National Park.
Pascal adds: “The land on the right side of the road used to be forest, too, but you see it has been destroyed.” I look to the right and see that the valley below is ridged with agricultural fields, the occasional crude brick house or lone tree marking the land, and see now the big difference between those forests that I’d initially written off as being ho-hum—and what can happen if all those trees are cut down.
Good for the community
Eventually, the land levels off. The dirt becomes red. The road here is smoother, the Chinese having already come through and compacted the Earth with gigantic road rollers. En route to Kondoa town, we see a few industrious road crews working with shovels and picks. No doubt paving will begin in a few months’ time. Even without the paving, it’s already a much more comfortable ride compared to the bumpy yellow road of a few kilometers back.
I later hear from locals how they’re looking forward to the road being tarmacked. They’ll be able to travel to area towns much faster. It’ll be easier to get their goods to the larger markets. More visitors will pass through the local villages, hopefully resulting in more commerce.
Indeed this road will be good for the district and, in the long run, hopefully good for conservation too. The road will give these isolated communities greater access to basic services, connect them to new markets and open up more opportunities. Poor communities that live in isolation are often forced to exploit their natural environment to survive—cutting down trees for fuel and for farming, hunting bushmeat for food and so on. Which, in a place like Kondoa, means we would end up with the kind of deforested land that I saw out of the car window earlier. Maybe with a tarmacked road, the forests will stand untouched, as people engage in other means of making a living.
Certainly everyone deserves to have dignified infrastructure that will improve their lives and provide new opportunities for income growth. While not all development is created equal—a tarmacked road open to commercial traffic shouldn’t run through protected areas, for example; nor should land identified as an historic wildlife corridor be given over to industrial agriculture—AWF has always supported smart infrastructure development. Because infrastructure development, when thoughtfully conceived and designed in a way that is sensitive to the needs of humans and wildlife, can be good for wildlife and people alike.
But as we journey closer to Kondoa town, where the local AWF office is located, I also see the giant mounds and deep trenches of carved-up red Earth to our left and right. Plants pulled up and trees cut down in preparation for paving. Nature forcefully pushed aside to accommodate wider roads. Breathtaking views across the savanna marred by piles of dark red dirt.
This road offers tremendous opportunity for communities, but it’s hard for me to reconcile that knowledge with the sadness I feel looking at the scarred land. It’s hypocritical, the way I feel. Back home in suburban Washington, DC, there’s very little unpaved Earth to even dig up, and I don’t feel at all conflicted about it—I’ve simply enjoyed the benefits of Washington’s infrastructure without it even occurring to me that it all used to be wild at one point long ago.
I remind myself that at least AWF’s involvement in Kondoa will work to keep the environmental impact of the road to a minimum. We are engaged with the government at the district and national levels to prioritize conservation. And we’re working with communities to provide livelihood alternatives to natural resource destruction or extraction.
Even so, as we bounce along the dusty road, it’s clear I’ll need the entirety of the five-hour drive—and then some—to come to terms with these conflicting thoughts in my head.
Photo: John Salehe
Mayu is director of content and messaging for AWF, responsible for AWF's print and online content, collateral and overall organizational messaging. At home, she divides her time between being a tyrant to her family and napping on the living room couch. A graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Mayu has nearly 20 years' experience in communications, storytelling and writing.
AWF Blogs bring you to the critical landscapes we work in, where conservation benefits both wildlife and people alike. The blogs are written by our staff - men and women who have dedicated their lives to Africa's wildlife, people and wild lands.