Mto wa Mbu lies about 120 km from Arusha in the north of Tanzania, at the foot of the Rift Valley, adjacent to the Lake Manyara National Park. The beautiful park with tree climbing lions and many kinds of birds was named after the lake formed by the water streaming from the steep walls of the Rift Valley. Mto wa Mbu is also on the way to the Ngorongoro Crater, the Serengeti and Lake Natron – an ideal base or resting place for many safari adventurers.
The current population of Mto wa Mbu is approximately 33,000. The languages spoken are Kiswahili, Kiburu, Kipare, Kichagga and many more. The two main religions are Islam and Christianity. The name of the village means literally ‘River of the Mosquitoes’ and was given to the village because of the many small mosquito-attracting waterways.
At the beginning of the 1950s the area around Mto wa Mbu was quite dry and barely inhabited until the first steps were taken to irrigate the area. Within a couple of years hundreds of hectares of new cultivatable land were created. The news spread like wildfire through Tanzania and people came from all corners to try their luck in this village.
In the 1980s ILO (International Labour Organisation) had a flood control programme in Mto wa Mbu, supported by the district to further improve the existing irrigation system. Various channels and aqua ducts were built to ensure supply of water to the fields. At the edges of the irrigated plains there are serious problems of silting, caused by volcanic activity in the past.
Fruit and vegetables from the whole of Tanzania were introduced into the area. Within a couple of decades the dry plains had changed into a green semi-urban centre. The rapid population growth has made of Mto wa Mbu a melting pot of cultures. Nowhere else in Tanzania have so many different tribes (over 50) come together in such a small area. Most tribes still place great emphasis on their own traditions. The various types of production are a good example of this cultural diversity.
In the small town people from the Chagga tribe brew banana beer, a farmer from Kigoma makes palm oil with the methods he brought with him from the edges of the Tanganyika lake. The Sandawe make bows and arrows for hunting small game and the Rangi from central Tanzania use the papyrus plant that grows in the lake and rivers to make the finest mats and baskets. On neighbouring plains live the nomadic Maasai families in their traditional houses (boma’s) and the warriors roam with their cattle seeking grass and water
More than 90% of the people depend on small-scale farming. They mostly have 1-3 acres of land. Number one crop in Mto wa Mbu is the banana, of which there are more than thirty varieties. The banana is used in the town to eat, cook or for making beer. They are also sold, direct or via agents in Tanzania and neighbouring countries. The second most important crop is rice, mostly grown by families that are slightly better off, because of the relatively high investment costs. Most people also have some chickens and other small domestic animals. There are a couple of dairy farmers who work on a so-called ‘zero-grazing’ basis as they are afraid that the Maasai will steal their cattle (the Maasai believe that all the cattle on earth originally belonged to them).
Around 10% of the inhabitants of Mto wa Mbu have small businesses, maybe a little shop, or are employed somewhere. But there are many, especially the young, searching for a means of income: as a Tanzanite mine worker or agent, tour guides/carriers/cooks/chauffeurs and sellers of all sorts of souvenirs mostly in other places in Tanzania (Arusha, Moshi, Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar). Money earned here often partly goes back to families in the town.
Tourism is in any case an important source of income and the tourist sector is growing. Mto wa Mbu lies in the heart of all tourist attractions in the north of the country and is a real ‘hot spot’. Recently the road from east to west Tanzania (as far as the entrance to the Ngorongoro Crater) was asphalted by the Japanese which means that Mto wa Mbu is now much more easily reached. Many of the 575,296 (in 2002) tourists who come to Tanzania each year stop in Mto wa Mbu to go to the toilet, eat and drink or to buy souvenirs. 1,207 of these tourists last year followed a cultural town walk organised by the Cultural Tourism Programme in the town.
Just like in the rest of Tanzania, you can find many street children in Mto wa Mbu. Some are forced to live on the streets, some choose for this life. Often people think that children end up on the streets within a day, but normally this is not the case. Children do some kind of ‘feasibility study’ in the streets: they look for possibilities to work and get in touch with other homeless children. The reason to leave home is normally not based on one single event. Mostly it’s an accumulation of causes from multiple levels (2004, www.ILO.org, www.Mkombozi.org).
Long-lasting poverty and the everyday struggle to find a dollar for food is a heavy burden on families. This results in conflicts in marriages, alcoholism, domestic violence and physical and psychological child abuse. Employment is very low and the lack of income often makes that children cannot go to school. The streets in larger cities, with the possibility to make some money, often has an incredible power of attraction.