The Times of Tanzania
Eastern Africa News Network, Breaking News Tanzania

President Nyerere’s Dangerous Crater drive and how it ‘saved’ Ngorongoro

Aloyce Songai started out as a tractor mechanic during in the late 1950s during expansive wheat farming in Karatu District, Arusha Region. It was through tampering with those agricultural machinery that he also became conversant with automobiles.

And as he drove John Deere and Kubota tractors into Asian owned estates, the outspoken Songai never dreamt that one day he will get to drive a very important person. The President.

In the early 60s, Songai came across a paper advertisement calling for qualified drivers to work at the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. He submitted his application and landed the job.

His first assignment in Ngorongoro area was to drive a pick-up which delivered supplies. He later on got promoted to chauffeur the first indigenous conservator of the Park, Solomon Ole Saibul, .

Songai replaced Steven Ngereza who used to drive Ole Saibul. Ngereza had just retired.

At that time the Transport Officer at Ngorongoro, who was of Somali origin conspired with the head of accounts department and both of disappeared with a large amount of cash that they had gone to collect in Arusha and which was to be paid as salaries for more than 40 employees.

They took off in one of the organization’s cars.  From then on, the Ngorongoro management would be very cautious and watched the employees with reservation not entrusting any of them with high positions. The Transport Officer’s position for instance, remained vacant for a while.

In 1969 Nyerere was forced to visit Ngorongoro following the incident in which, the Ngorongoro conservator, Mr Solomon Ole Saibul became at loggerheads with the Regional Commissioner for Arusha, Mr Aaron Mwakang’ata. 

It was alleged that the governor had forced his way into the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority refusing to sign the official guest book placed at the Park’s entrance gate.

Driving in a government car, a Peugeot 403 Station Wagon, with registration numbers GT 519, Mr Mwakang’ata sped past the NCAA entrance after snapping at the guards to open the gates and then proceeded into the park where he, reportedly, was to negotiate a business deal, some foreigners at one of the lodges.

The then head of security, Mr Samuel Maida, surprised to see the car zoom past the gate without stopping, reported the matter to the Chief Conservator, Solomon Ole Saibul. 

Learning that the Regional Commissioner had forced his way into Ngorongoro, refusing even to sign into the visitors’ book, the conservator, Ole Saibul, took the register from the gate and went to confront Mr Mwakang’ata at the lodge  where he was meeting the foreigners, demanding to know why the RC ignored the regulations.

Ngorongoro Crater Lodge in 1953 (Not part of this story though!)

“I am the Commissioner, in charge of the whole Region,” Mr Mwakang’ata retorted before dismissing the conservator with a wave of his hand.

Ole Saibul was not about to be put off easily. He  took out the register, leafed through the pages and slammed the book on the coffee table showing the RC a page on which Nyerere had earlier on signed at the gate a few weeks earlier when the President was passing through Ngorongoro on his way to his Musoma home, from Arusha.

 “If the President himself can sign in our book, then who are you to refuse?” shouted the clearly angry Ole Saibul before storming out of the lodge, promising to take the matter further. 

And he did, the opportunity presented itself a month later when President Nyerere was presiding over a meeting in Moshi (Kilimanjaro).

That misty morning, Songai was instructed, to take Ole Saibul to town where he intended to consult the President. Saibul was granted audience with Nyerere. “I remained outside in the Land-Rover,” Songai told the Tanzania Times, “While the conservator went in to meet the Head of the State.”

The Ngorongoro Conservator, Ole Saibu, asked for an audience with President Nyerere who agreed to seem him despite such a short notice. 

The guards at the doors searched the conservator and found him with a pistol under his belt. “You cannot take this inside,” they told him.  Saibul showed Nyerere the register and told the President; “With due respect, if you, the Head of State can sign our visitors’ book, how comes a Regional Commissioner, appointed by you, should regard the official act of signing in the same book as stooping so low?”

The President then decided to end the misunderstanding amicably by telling Mr Mwakang’ata;” You see this conservator is right because even in our Zanaki culture, you cannot enter a man’s ‘Boma’ (house) without first greeting him and getting his permission.”

Pleading his defense, the commissioner explained that he was in a hurry, rushing to inspect a very important tourism development project that was to be executed in Ngorongoro.

The roads into and around the Crater used to be in pathetic condition

The President then asked both the Regional leader and the Ngorongoro conservator to shake hands and forget their differences, promising to personally visit the Ngorongoro Conservation Area after concluding his Moshi meeting. 

It turned out that, Nyerere was also curious to find out more about the alleged hotel project which Mwakang’ata was preoccupied with. 

On the day that Nyerere visited the crater, the Head of State arrived in Ngorongoro being driven in a black Jeep.

But during the time to descend into the Caldera, it was discovered that none of the drivers in the President’s motorcade had ever driven into the crater before, taking into consideration that the roads were also bad those days.

In the end, it was decided that Mwalimu Nyerere should be driven down the crater in the Ngorongoro Conservator’s Landover 109 Station Wagon, which had a more experienced driver to negotiate the steep, wet and slippery terrains.

That is how Aloyce Songai, found himself driving a President into the crater.

However, the vehicle needed some hasty modifications as it lacked an open roof top, a necessity so that the President would enjoy gazing out into the wild during the trip.

Fortunately, the shells of the old Land-Rovers were usually made of sheets of steel riveted together, making it easy to unscrew the entire rooftop replacing it with similar one taken from another Land-Rover but which had an open hatch on top.

“The adjustment took less than an hour and soon we all set out down into the crater,” says Songai.

The downpour had drenched tracks. It was very slippery; Saibul rode in front and served as the guide. Nyerere’s vehicle, driven by Songai followed. The President sat in the second row with a bodyguard. Other guards sat behind them.

The protocol was broken as Songai who was the only one who knew the crater well and he led the motorcade.  Almost all other vehicles got stuck in the muddy roads including the State House Jeep which had also tagged along.

That was how Songai earned the name “Wangu-wangu” eventually working his way to the top of his career as the Head Transport Officer, at the NCAA a position he held until his retirement.

After the visit Nyerere declared that the post of the Chief Conservator at Ngorongoro would be a presidential appointment, to give the holder more power and authority.

 The Ngorongoro Conservation Area thus became an autonomous authority as far as management of its resources, thanks to the dramatic showdown between Ole Saibul and Mr Mwakang’ata.

The President also put a stop to the proposed hotel which was to be built in the crater, terming it ‘destructive to the caldera’s environment. The project, was to be undertaken by a hotel group from the Netherlands. 

Nyerere also ordered the removal of the fuel pumps that were previously installed in the heart of the Ngorongoro crater.

To date; no hotel, camp or petrol station exists inside the crater. The unbroken caldera remains Tanzania’s leading tourist attraction sucking in an average of 500,000 visitors every year, ahead of the Serengeti, from which the NCAA was annexed, which lists around 350,000 tourists annually.

Songai is now a retired pensioner who has chosen to devote his time in preserving the environment as green activist in the adjoining Karatu District, heading the “Hifadhi Mazingira Karatu” (HIMAKA), organization.

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