As our four wheel drive monster Land Cruiser left Arusha town, it was evident we were heading for tough times.
Our driver, a well built young army man warns us that the place we are visiting has features similar to those of the Kalahali desert.
Given the short time we had been given to be at the military training grounds, the driver decides to avoid the bumper to bumper traffic jam along the Dodoma road and joins the Nairobi highway which later links us back to the main road to Monduli.
The heavy traffic ends in Arusha and what remains visible in this part of Tanzania are passing military vehicles and Masai herdsmen dressed in their multicoloured traditional shukas.
This highway has gained fame for many reasons. It is the one that leads to among other places; the Ngorongoro national park, and the Arusha airport.
Monduli is not a new word in the military societies of East Africa. It is home to one of the region’s oldest military institutions that have stood the test of time.
Before Monduli, traffic policemen keep guard to check on speeding motorists who are ‘encouraged’ by the area’s flat terrains and well maintained roads.
This time round, the place hosted the first ever joint training exercise bringing together forces from the all the five partner states of the East African Community
The exercise sought to gauge the combined forces capability in responding to disasters and to share knowledge on the region’s challenges; in civil-military cooperation activities for peace support operations, counter-terrorism and disaster management.
The armies carried out several Civil Military Coperation (CIMIC) projects which included provision of medical, veterinary and infrastructure rehabilitation services to neighbouring communities.
After half an hour’s drive, we pull up in Monduli.
‘East African Community, Ex- Mlima Kilimanjaro 2009, Tanzanian Battalion,’ reads one of the small signposts that kept reminding us that we were now in a land of regional forces.
“All the countries have their military operation areas. They are separated by a distance of about four kilometres each,” says Brigadier Nobert Kalimba, Rwanda’s Defence Liason Officer at the East African Community secretariat.
Save for Burundi, all the other partner states contributed over three hundred soldiers to the Monduli.
The troops were grouped in battalions and the signposts standing along the highway, help in easy identification of their military bases.
During the exercise, the forces kept meeting in joint operations like catering for the sick and building houses for local communities.
Monduli has become a city of its own. Each of these five armies came with their own military trucks which ferry soldiers from one destination to another.
‘East African Community, Ex- Mlima Kilimanjaro 2009, Rwanda Battalion,’ another signpost welcomed us.
At the Rwandan battalion zone, two military officers armed with their AK 47 rifles stand on guard as one of them meticulously checks the underneath part of our car.
“These are journalists from the East African secretariat. They are covering this exercise, allow them in,” a senior military officer tells the soldiers, who while standing stiff, salute their boss before letting us in.
The flat terrain, dry shrubs and the dark brown dust are characteristic of this operation area where the forces are camped.
Army green military tents are raised all over the place, with some acting as classrooms for members of the Rwanda Defence Forces (RDF) who are taking on different studies of the exercise.
“Ex- Mlima Kilimanjaro 2009” is the name of the operation and the exercises conducted here compare well with climbing Africa’s highest mountain, located in Tanzania. It is hard and hectic living and exercising here!
A few meters away from the classroom, nurses and medical personnel are busy preparing their clinical equipment as a group of RDF military officers rests in a tree shade.
Here, soldiers are trained in different areas that include safety on the road. Before we set off back to Arusha, we were given a military police soldier to accompany us.
His work, we were told, was to monitor the driver’s speed along the highway. Every time, our driver sped beyond the right limits, the soldier, seated in the behind seat kept monitoring the car’s speed meter and reminded the driver of the high speed.
Another road that is similar to that leading to Monduli is the close to 300 kilometre Arusha – Namanga - AthiRiver road which was early this year opened by the five East African heads of state.
From Arusha through Ngaramtoni to Namanga border, the road is under construction and this renders it almost impassable.
Along the road, one can’t avoid looking at the Masai walking in dust caused by speeding shuttles and trucks heading for Nairobi. This nomadic tribe seems unbothered by this way of life.
Back in Arusha, their counterparts seem to be catching up with modernity. Many are now engaged in digging up Tanzanite, which has earned them nice cars.
“You see in every society, you will always see the same people behaving differently. It is not surprising that some Masai look at life in a different way,” says Mzee Mwamunyange Tadeo, a resident of the area.
Sights of Masai women and children ferrying jerry cans of water and firewood on donkeys will leave you wondering how this nomadic tribe manages to live in this land.
This highway is the busiest that links business from Tanzania to Kenya and vice versa. Shuttles, buses and heavy trucks are a common sight along this road.
The Namanga border is one of East Africa’s most porous crossing points.
Given the fact the Masai tribe occupies parts of Tanzania and Kenya, it’s not easy to differentiate which Masai comes from where. They don’t need passports to cross from one country to another.
This border is also home to some of the region’s master conmen. If a survey was carried out now, many argue that Namanga border is still home to those fake paper currencies.
“At Namanga, there are people who will shamelessly walk up to you and ask for money, saying unless you pay it, your travel document won’t be stamped,” says John Wesonga, one of the victims of the conmen.
Until I was conned of some money, I had never taken it serious to be careful with that group of boys who mill around innocent passengers.
Stand warned when you use this border crossing next time.