14 December 2009
I live in Namanga, a mostly Tanzanian neighborhood just down from the mostly expat peninsula. Looking out from my balcony, the neighborhood is an ocean of corrugated tin roofs, palm trees, dirt roads, and small cement dwellings.
My apartment building
The view from the balcony
Though people sit by the side of the road all day long all the time in Dar, like this pair of guys who hang out with the guard outside my gate:
...something struck me as odd about this makeshift gathering: the men weren’t eating or drinking or playing cards, or even talking much. They were just sitting there. When I came home to the same scene the next day, I began to worry: is this permanent? How can they just decide to block the road? And why are they just sitting there?
As happens with so many things (!) I hadn’t understood all or even most of the story. It turns out they weren’t just sitting. They were there for a funeral. A woman had died in the house behind the store front, and scores of men and women had gathered around to mourn her. I don’t know her name and I’m not sure why she died. Her death could have been natural or brought on by any of the many diseases and afflictions that kill people in this country. What I do know is that she was 48 years old. That may seem young, but it is only a little bit younger than the average age people are expected to die here (55 years old).
You see signs of it everywhere—sickness, death, mortality. A taxi driver with elephantitis; a man who lifts his pant leg to reveal an open, mucous-covered wound; a woman so thin she looks like a skeleton; wood workers who peddle in coffee tables and caskets; and very public funeral processions.
There are so many sicknesses, just like home, except here, the tragedy is how much of it could be prevented, but is not. Like stunting. People who look too young and too short for their age, who never received the vitamins and minerals they needed as children and so are permanently and irreversibly damaged, physically and cognitively. And malaria, that deadly—and preventable and treatable—fever that is the leading cause of death for children in Tanzania. And then there’s diarrhea, borne from dirty water, dirty hands, dirty fruits and vegetables, which only takes a couple of days to kill you, but is easily treatable with cheap oral rehydration salts and antibiotics.
My roommate who saw the ceremony described it as modest. A priest in a white robe said a prayer. Heads were bowed. A hymn was sung out in the open air. Flowers were gently placed on a wooden casket.
And then they sat. Not just for a half an hour, but for days. For days they were just there. Present. Maybe they couldn’t do anything. Maybe the small donation of money they gave the family (which is custom) isn’t enough to cover the financial loss that the death of a working adult brings. Maybe their assembly won’t stop others who are sick from dying. But they were there, with them. The family was not alone.
I felt sheepish afterwards. The road is obstructed! What a thing to complain about in the face of a woman who has died. But then, the truth is, I’m not very good at dealing with inconvenience. And I'm guessing that this makes me a little bit like you. We are, none of us, but especially Americans, very good at dealing with things that interrupt the quantifiable order of our lives.
And nothing is as disruptive as death. Maybe that's why we keep it so hidden. When, after all, was the last time you saw a graveyard in a U.S. city? It’s probably been a while because they are located in far-out, hidden places, so we don't have to be reminded of the unpleasantness and uglines of loss, sickness, and grief.
But in Tanzania, it's out in the open. Which makes it all the more interesting—how easy it is to miss things (like I did). Even when they are right in front of your eyes.
The now empty store front where the funeral was held
09 December 2009
Why did I come? Why—originally?
Because there are very poor people in the world and we must help them. Because they are sick, many of them, and very often dying—and all because of a stupid accident: the accident of where you happen to be born. It’s not fair. Nothing can explain it. It must be made right.
When I was a little girl growing up in San Diego, at the southern tip of California, I would go sometimes with my dad across the Mexican border into Tijuana, where he helped build homes with a local NGO. We’d drive south down the I-5 in his blue pickup truck, an old clunker that was perpetually breaking down. Past downtown San Diego with its yacht-lined bay and glittering high rises, through the banal stretches around Chula Vista—strip malls, billboards, fast food restaurants—towards San Ysidro and the discount stores, used car lots, and signs advertising cheap Mexican car insurance.
Once we crossed the border, we’d turn east, towards the dusty, crackling foothills, blown by brush, slithering with rattle snakes and scorpions. Kids chewing on fried tortillas ran around dirt roads dotted with cardboard dwellings, and Mexican men in cowboy boots talked quietly with my dad about where to build the houses, and how many, and how soon.
The fence was only a few miles north. Thick concrete slabs that towered over the men, women and children who—desperate, adventurous, brave—lined up each afternoon to steal across into the no man’s land beyond the border.
Back in the 1970s, under pressure to “do something” about a spate of gruesome muggings and murders in those mesas and canyons, the San Diego Police Department established the Border Crime Task Force, a squad of rough and tumble police officers who disguised themselves as immigrants, and then in the black of night confronted the bandits who preyed on them. In his book about that (failed) experiment, Joseph Wambaugh describes the incongruity of the “twin” cities: “In one city, inhabitants still suffer from diseases considered exotic in the other: cholera, polio, typhus, tuberculosis, rickets. In the other city, separated by the former mostly by an imaginary line, lies some of the richest real estate in the richest half of the richest state in the richest country on the face of the earth.”
I remember looking out the window of my dad’s truck as we drove. Whip of telephone poles, gray seven-lane highway, cars snaking into narrow lanes to filter through the border. Federales in aviators would wave us through, and then, the assault: the yellow glare of sun, little kids darting in and out traffic to sell chiclets and glittery paintings of the last supper, the smell of sewage, and trash like a waterfall covering the hillsides.
You know how it is. You never understand what you’re seeing until later. All I was aware of then was a dim sense of bewilderment: but we are so close to home?
We were poor too, all things considered. Most of my parents’ friends were professors and academics, but my mom worked in a grocery store, and my dad, a perpetually out-of-work writer, floundered from job to job. He drove limousines for a hotel, sold art for a while, and did carpentry. Things got bad when they divorced. My mom’s income, though meager, had been stable; my dad had the bad luck of losing her and his job at the same time. We were renting a modest home in an upper middle class neighborhood in Point Loma. We tried to keep our struggle to get by hidden, but people from church bought us groceries a few times.
I remember not having toilet paper one night, and my dad yelling in despair: what do you want me to do? (So I went and bought some with money I had.) I remember coming home and furniture would be gone, sold. And I remember the insecurity I felt, that the ground beneath my feet was unstable. That there was no safety anywhere, and that if I didn’t take care of us we would be lost.
But there was a fire inside, too—an electrical current. One evening, eating a microwavable dinner and watching the evening news, images of children starving in Ethiopia flashed across the television screen. They were little kids, bony and bloated. It consumed me. I felt, with a kind of panic almost, that we must do something. With a mix of self-righteousness and fever, I would lecture my parents about responsibility and justice. My poor parents! They put up with me, even encouraged me. But then, maybe they were encouraged—by my fierce belief that things can be better, that our lives can change.
I’m not sure where the fervor went—that swelling of the heart, adrenaline rush, invincibility. It’s like I was walking along with a close friend, only to turn around one day and discover she wasn’t there anymore. Where did she go? When did I lose her?
It’s not that I don’t believe anymore—I do. But injustice and equity are less straightforward now than they were then. Once you start trying to get a hold of these big, complicated words, once you try to lasso them in and force them into something real, something tangible, it’s almost as if you stop feeling it as acutely. Maybe those feelings were possible because there was so much I didn’t know?
03 December 2009
My friend came to Dar to work in malaria. He’s part of a team trying to get life-saving medicine to poor people who need them. He told me he felt something deep inside when he saw the house for the first time. "Listen,” he said, “I'm not religious, but I feel blessed."
Maybe that sounds ridiculous—working in a poor country; living in a villa on the beach. Seriously? But his story is not that different from any of ours.
People from the West may endure frustrations (well-documented on this blog) when they come to countries like Tanzania to work, but most of the time, we are well taken care of by the institutions we work for. Compensation packages can be generous: hardship pay, per diems, massive housing allowances, shipments from home, the cost of education for your children (if you have children), cars, business class flights and other perks.
Not everyone receives packages like this, but many do. And even those who don’t, like me, still live behind walls. Protected from the outside. Weekends in the sun, the sand. Enclosed in our cars, distracted with our Ipods, busy on our blackberrys. Yoga after work, dinners out, Christmas shopping, a gym membership, the occasional pedicure, a massage….
The question is: is it wrong to live this way?
At a Thanksgiving potluck, I happened to sit next to a young man named Leo. Clad in a sporty green tee-shirt and sneakers, he reminded me of guys back home in DC. In the dim half light, while we listened to a leathery old Tanzanian guy strum some chords on a guitar, Leo told me that he originally worked as an electrician in Dar, but began volunteering with small European and American NGOs, and eventually, they hired him. Now he works with the volunteers they send over, helping them help Tanzania.
—What's the biggest thing people like me, who come here to help, do wrong, I asked?
Leo stretched his arms out and chuckled. —Well, he said, people get angry.
—What do you mean? I asked.
—They get impatient. If you come here, you have to live here.
But sorting out how to live here isn’t easy.
It was the end of the day and my roommate and I were sitting opposite each other at the dining room table, the ceiling fan blowing round above us, talking about life in Dar.
She confessed suddenly: I feel bad.
I asked: about what?
—About the poverty, she said. I don’t know why, but I just don’t feel it.
We’d make good Catholics, every one of us, all the guilt we feel, trying to sort out what it means to live here, while living differently from the poor. Serious consideration for the things we have and the way we live can be a good thing—it means we’re aware of and grappling with the dilemmas and inequities in our lives.
But on the other hand, say we “live simply”—does that automatically afford us greater understanding of the poor in Tanzania? Does that make us more authentic, more in touch? No. Not in itself. Sometimes, all it does is make us think we have the authority to judge the commitments of other expats who have nicer houses and bigger cars.
The other problem with hair-splitting attention to what is the best, the most tasteful, the realest way to live, is that sometimes, underneath the concern is a pesky little idea, a feeling lurking in the corner of our minds, that says: We are not like Them.
My mom worked in a grocery store all my life and my dad earned money as a carpenter. If you're a doctor or a lawyer, does it take some special understanding, some sort of "coming down" to “where they’re at” to understand people like them? And are the people further up the economic ladder really all that different?
If the lady I buy tomatoes from at the dhuka outside my house were suddenly to become rich, would she spend time biting her nails trying to get "close" to the poor? Does she see herself the way we see her?
Maybe my friend with the beach house is right: we should work hard, be humble about what we know, and be thankful for and enjoy, without shame, what we have.
02 December 2009
27 November 2009
Yes, sometimes we are thankful.
But sometimes, we're just struggling to live here. In the furnace heat, horns honking and crush of the street. Haggling for fares, caked in dust and dirt, trying not to snap when the internet and electricity go out. Fighting stomach ache, a fever. When food is no comfort, and you’re itchy from mosquito bites. When the ATMs are broken, your clothes smell like mildew, and you can't remember that Swahili phrase you practiced yesterday. Feels like the engine won't start. Feels like banging your head against the ground.
Even at 7am, it felt claustrophobic, alone in my apartment. I needed to be around other people, to fight off the loneliness that had been following me around Dar like a stray dog. But the cafe was mostly empty when I arrived, and I sat down in a huff, frustrated that my ankle still hurt, frustrated at the money I was about to spend, frustrated with everyone.
When the waitress, Deborah, took my order, I was curt: coffee please. After she brought it, she stood against the wall in the shade. While I wrote in my notebook, she said shyly: excuse me, are you the one who was robbed?
I looked up. Yes, I said, it was me.
She said: I'm sorry, pole, so sorry. And gently: I hope you will be all right.
I stammered a little, embarrassed, and said: I'm fine. She brought me some cold water to drive back the heat of the morning.
I needed a break from the cafe where I'd been staring at my computer, so I walked outside into the sunlight towards the sea. Tangled in thoughts—regrets about the past, worries about the future—I didn't realize I was frowning at the people I passed. Then a hotel guard, a tall, thin Maasai I’d talked with once, called out to me from across the street, smiled, and waved a greeting. I thought: he remembers me? I smiled and waved back.
I was lost one morning, and carrying a heavy bag on my shoulder. I didn't want to ask for directions, so I kept on nervously. After a while I knew I'd never make it on my own so I cleared my throat: sama hani, I said to the man walking ahead of me. He stopped and pointed the way.
—I will walk with you? he asked.
—No, it's okay.
But we kept walking, nearly side by side. Eventually, he cajoled me into conversation. Where are you from, what do you do? On emptier, quiet stretches of road, I wondered if I should be walking with a stranger. Perhaps he will rob me, I thought.
But he safely dropped me where I needed to go, and left me with a "no problem" and a wave.
Sometimes, even in the sweltering symphony of an East African city like Dar es Salaam, it’s not the clamor and din around us that keeps us from seeing. Sometimes, like everyone, we're buried under the weight of our own lives.
But then, a catch at the back of your throat. A flash, like light in water. The kindness of strangers. The kindness of friends. Utterly undeserved.
And then I see it again—what Dostoyevsky said. That life is paradise. And "we have only to understand that and it will at once be fulfilled in all its beauty, we shall embrace each other and weep."*
*(The Brothers Karamazov)
25 November 2009
Around us, Tanzanian men and women sat on blue and red plastic chairs, some watching television, others talking quietly. They had greeted us warmly (and with amusement—we were the only wazungu around), offering us chairs in the shade, but Jen had protested. Little beads of sweat dotted her forehead, and her face glowed in the sunlight. “It’s worse in Washington,” she said. “I don’t know if I’ll work in development when I go home. I don’t know if I can be a part of that.”
The irony, of course, is that she already IS a part of it. We all are. We work in various capacities in poor countries because we want to help—because we feel we need to help—but we are also our own fiercest, most merciless critics. Half in love with our own disgust for the community we are a part of, we derive a strange satisfaction from the assumption that while our particular projects are decent, not too bad, well-intentioned, all around us lie the wreckage of development failures.
—The bilterals are so pitiful it's funny. All politics, you know. Neocolonialism at its worst.
—It's the NGOs that really scare me. Some of these people--what qualifications do they have to be here except big hearts? Such a bunch of clueless do-gooders.
—I hate to say it, but the World Bank is the worst offender. A bumbling bureaucracy, totally incompetent. I mean the work you do for them is great, but really, as a whole, it's terrible.
It’s a mystery—how individuals can be so smart and well-intentioned, but put them together in a collective, make them into an institution, and they become arrogant, lazy, short-sighted villains.
The criticism is warranted. Donor assistance is often unpredictable and inflexible; redundant in some areas and feeble in others; driven more by the political/PR/security/economic interests of rich countries rather than by the needs of poor ones; under-evaluated and sometimes wasteful.
We all know this. But our bumper sticker criticisms are useless. They trivialize the complex, and are born out of a gnawing doubt, a nervous cynicism, a ragged despair that secretly wonders: maybe we cannot fix this.
One thing is for sure: we cannot improve aid by trying to change these core dilemmas. Like churches and democratic governments, there are lots of persistent shortcomings and corruptions, but that doesn’t mean the whole system is worthless.
How can we take these realities and produce better development outcomes—people who are healthier, who can provide for themselves and their families, who have more and better choices about how they live their lives? Here are a few suggestions:
Tell the truth
All of us should be more transparent about what we’re doing—what we spend, and what we spend it on (including compensation and perks for our own employees). As Owen Barder notes in a recent blog post: “Under current arrangements, donors publish details of their aid up to 23 months after it has been spent. Donors need to publish detailed information about their current and planned future activities so that governments, donors and the private sector can identify the gaps where additional resources would have most effect.”
We should also be more candid about our failures. Programs that don’t work ought to be written up and discussed just as much as success stories, and the people implementing programs on the ground shouldn’t have to worry that their funding will dry up if they actually show the donors just how hard to implement and messy and riddled with problems many of these programs are. (The World Bank, to its credit, will soon publish a story on such a failure written by yours truly. Stay tuned.)
Cross the ocean
There are oceans—literally and figuratively—separating development professionals working in the field from those working in policy circles in Western capitals. We need ways to facilitate regular and candid communication between the two.
No one really knows how economic development “happens,” but most are pretty sure it takes time. You can debate the motives behind and modalities of aid flows from rich to poor countries until you’re blue in the face—they are not going to stop any time soon. This is long-term redistribution at work, and the sooner we can make this reality a part of the foundation upon which our programs are built, the better. The United States is especially guilty of thinking about aid in terms of ultra-short time horizons.
Our sins are many—but in spite of them, aid can and does improve lives, and it can be made better. But not by simply wishing that things—that we—were different.
*For specific “what to do on Monday morning” suggestions, see Owen Barder's Beyond Planning: Markets and Networks for Better Aid, published by the Center for Global Development.
19 November 2009
17 November 2009
This revelation caused a stir—the New York Times wrote an article about it, David's blog received more than 10,000 hits, and there was a flood of Twitter postings.
What's all the fuss about? Steve Rosenzweig, another former CGDer who has worked for the past five months for a Kiva.org partner in Dar es Salaam says: "I really enjoyed reading David's blog, Kiva's response, and the Times article, but the whole thing is kind of funny because what he wrote about is something I could have told you after one week here. There, it makes big news."
Kiva has been refunding MFIs for already disbursed loans for the last two years, but clearly most users and supporters didn’t realize this.
But why do loans need to be “refunded”? Why not fund them directly? "Well," says Steve, “to wait for the loan to be fully funded on the Kiva website would delay the usual procedures for disbursing loans. When clients apply for a loan, they expect to receive it within two weeks, and they often depend on it to buy supplies… If they had to wait for the funding to come through from Kiva (which would require making the transfer, not just getting it fully funded on the site), it would cause a delay."
Even as the revelation caused a stir in the countries where Kiva lenders live, the debate doesn't seem to have reached the Kiva-funded MFIs themselves, where business continues on as usual. Says Steve: "It’s amazing. There is such a disconnect between the two worlds."
02 November 2009
The Money Man
Johhny Lee is sitting alone on the rooftop of the Zanzibar Coffee House hotel, looking down at the computer in his lap, sunglasses on. Mid-twenties. American. My friends engage him in conversation: hey man, how's it going? He tells us he's on leave from a post with a U.S.-based consulting firm in Afghanistan. Our eyes widen and we lean in, like we’re gathering around a campfire. Wow, how exciting, we say. How cool.
He tells us about remote villages and tribal elders, about bombings and near misses, about cultural gaffes.
My friends say they'd like to go to Afghanistan, too. Like speculators in the wild west, they have ideas for programs and businesses. Johnny Lee is encouraging: there's lots of opportunity there, he says. And danger. It’s awesome.
We ask him to tell us about his job: what exactly do you do?
He tells us: I go from village to village with a duffle bag full of cash and hand out money to village leaders, as payment for their work/cooperation. They need the money, and we need them, he says, smilingly widely. And then he packs up his things and sets out to catch a flight back to Kabul.
He calls himself Captain Hajj. Rumor has it he just got out of prison. Hard to say how old he is. Clad in torn shorts and a beanie, he roams the beaches of Paje and casually introduces himself to unsuspecting tourists. You want to kite surf, to dive, to buy some pretty things for the family back home? Looking for a restaurant, a bar? Looking for drugs? Whatever you need, the Captain can get it.
Michael and Boris, it turns out, needed to go fishing. Michael is an American from Rhode Island just arrived in Dar where he is working logistics on a malaria program and Boris, an Australian, is in Dar on holiday. For a small fee (US$10 each), Captain Hajj helpfully arranges an early morning boat to take them out past the barrier reef where they can spend a few leisurely hours fishing (with real live Zanzibar fishermen!) and enjoying the view.
I'm in my room sleeping when it starts raining, so hard it sounds like bullets blasting through the roof of my bungalow. Pounding rain, unrelenting, drenches the beach.
Later they tell us how the deep purple storm clouds had approached quickly and with menace, and when the wind picked up and the sky broke open, tossing the small rickety vessel in the waves like a child's toy, they were afraid. But not as much as the Captain, who cowered in the corner of the boat, waiting for it to end.
The next morning we see him on the beach, approaching a man and woman strolling through the shallows. He looks as sweet and innocent as a poisonous flower.
Winnie Jonathan seems shy at first, tentative. A native of Dar es Salaam, she clicks and clacks in high heels up to the long, narrow table where we--a group of expats, one of whom is her co-worker--are eating dinner. All of us like her instantly and engage her emphatically. We are grateful to (finally!) hang out with a Tanzanian.
After dinner we go to the Sweet Easy for drinks and dancing, and that’s where I discover that Winnie is not shy at all. She leads me with command to the bar and orders us gin and tonic. She gabs about an ex-boyfriend, and about her work as an administrative assistant at an international NGO. We laugh and dance in the crush of the sweaty club.
At 3 a.m. we pack up to leave. An hour-long saga begins when I realize I'm locked out of my apartment. While we sort out another place to stay, she takes me to a 24-hour pizza joint in Oyster Bay. It's a dimly lit hole in the wall--the kind of place no foreigner would ever stop in the middle of the night (or even during the day). But the pizza is cheap, and even better: it tastes good. I thank her profusely, for her help and for the pizza.
The streets are emtpy when we finally make our way out again; the headlights of her Rav4 are thick yellow tunnels in the dark. She tells me about growing up in Dar, about friends who have left, and about feeling lonely in the city that his her home. She is grateful for our company, and wants to hang out again. Me too, I say.
31 October 2009
A friend ran out to the local pharmacy and got me some Coartem and oral rehydration salts. It was surreal—this is the stuff I had read and wrote about in Washington, and here I was having to use it. (Side note: the “orange”-flavored ORT tastes like death.)
But I still didn’t know if I actually had malaria. I wondered: should I just start taking Coartem, and treat myself presumptively, as some friends had done? It was tempting—going to the clinic would take too much time and cost too much money. Plus, I'd been there twice recently for my ankle and didn't want to start feeling like a "regular."
But I wanted to know for sure, so I decided to go to another, better stocked pharmacy nestled in a shopping mall in an expat enclave by the bay and pick up a rapid diagnostic test, or RDT. These handy little things, I knew from having read about them back in Washington, were easy and relatively cheap and could tell me in minutes whether or not I had malaria. Voila.
The South African-manufactured RDTs cost about 25,000 shillings (or about $19) for five tests. (Like the Coartem, which cost 16,000 shillings for a full adult dose, it is prohibitively expensive for most Tanzanians.) I went home and assembled the pieces on the kitchen table: lancet, pipette, alcohol swab, and the test device/strip. Then I realized: the buffer was missing. So I called the taxi driver back and went back to the pharmacy, where they apologized and gave me some buffer.
Round two. I assembled the parts, and my friend sat down to help me administer the test. He pricked my finger, but hardly any blood came out—the lancet was dull. We took another lancet and pricked another finger. More blood this time. He took the tiny plastic pipette and tried, as the directions instructed, to suck up enough blood to drip into the test device. But the pipette wasn't sucking anything—it merely moved the blood around on my fingertip. We kept trying for about ten minutes and gave up.
Now the chances that I have malaria are low. More likely it is some nasty parasite. But the lesson is: getting things like RDTs on the shelves is one thing. Getting them to work (even under the best of circumstances) is another.
*Tanzania has made huge strides in malaria control (see Paul Smithson's Down But not Out: The Impact of Malaria Control in Tanzania), but it is still the leading cause of illness in the country. Next year, the Affordable Medicines Facility-malaria will launch in Tanzania, which will subsidize the cost of effective malaria drugs such as Coartem, making them affordable for average Tanzanians.
30 October 2009
Some friends and I took the Thursday afternoon ferry to Zanzibar, that iconic spice island off the coast of Dar es Salaam. It dropped us at Stone Town, where we spent the evening winding through narrow alley ways and dark corners. The city is a sweep of minarets, latticed walls, the call to prayer, candles flickering in the dark, the crescent moon, fishing boats moored off the beach, the sharp white curve of the dhow sails, like arrows in the glittering blue water.
From Stone Town we headed east, to the small beach town of Paje, where we did the usual things—laid in the sun, took long walks, went kite surfing, read books drowsily in the shade. And then we collected ourselves for an evening out.
Now, economic development, if it’s working, can bring great things like jobs, roads, and schools, but it can also brings not-so-great things, such as drunken tourists at beach bars. Let me say up front that my friends and I were of course NOT those kinds of tourists—sunburnt and dehydrated, smelling of mosquito repellent, drinking Pina Coladas. Of course not.
After dinner and dancing, the guys decided to shoot some pool. Their opponents: Maasai warriors. No really. (The Maasai lost.)
20 October 2009
I had just left Epi d’Or cafe, an expat watering hole as cool and lovely as a garden, where I’d met a friend for lunch. She’d offered me a lift home, but I said no thanks. I’d walk. I packed up my bag—it held my computer, wallet, phone, a digital recorder and some papers and notebooks—paid the bill and set out.
Ten minutes into my walk and I was wishing I’d taken the ride—my bag felt like an anchor on my shoulder, and I’d forgotten to apply sunscreen. The road was quiet, and with each step I heard the crunch and crackle of dirt, rock and broken glass beneath my flip flops. I passed a man standing idly beside some concrete blocks. Crows squawked and scavenged among a pile of trash. Beneath the shade of a tree, a woman lifted her baby on her back.
Then a car is beside me, so close that the passenger door brushes against my skirt. A violent jerk and I’m on the ground. I look up. A man with sunglasses is staring back at me, expressionless. Then I get it: he has my bag in his hand. He is trying to steal my things. I clutch the strap fiercely. The car accelerates, dragging me along the road until I let go and watch them speed away.
Coughing, choking…dripping snot and tears…blood on my hands and face. Passerbys gather around awkwardly. Pole, they say. Pole sana. Poor girl. We are sorry for you. I feel seasick…my head is full of water…like everything is dissolving.
My first thought is: I have nothing. What am I going to do?
You must go to the police, someone tells me. I’d just finished canceling my credit cards and visiting the doctor, and all I wanted to do was sleep. But she was right. I had information: a witness took down the license plate number and make and model.
So a friend drove me to the Oyster Bay police station, across the road from the U.S. Embassy—the one they built after the original was bombed in 1998. It is a fortified compound of Soviet-style gray buildings (USAID is housed there too), with carefully mowed lawns, security guards and electrified wiring along the perimeter. Across Old Bagamoyo Road, the police station is crumbling and shabby, with a small dirt parking lot and scores of people milling about while boys play football on a field opposite the entrance.
I limped up to the outdoor counter where a uniformed man was writing in a ledger. He gave me a sideways glance and grinned while I told him what happened. I didn’t understand why he was smiling.
He called another officer over to write the incident report. “What did you lose?” the young man asked. He regarded my friend and I with mild annoyance.
“A computer,” I said.
C-o-m-p-u-t-e-r he wrote.
In between each question, he would pause to scratch his chin or flip through the newspaper. Someone would yell to him and he would wave hello and have a chat. I felt helpless, about to explode.
“The computer is how much?” he asked.
“One thousand five hundred U.S. dollars.”
O-n-e t-h-o-u-s-a-n-d f-i-v-e- h-u-n-d-r-e-d he wrote.
We went through each stolen item—the whole thing took about an hour—and he took a scrap of newspaper and carefully added up the total.
“One thousand eight hundred,” he said. His eyes were vacant.
Yes, I said, yes: I lost almost two thousand dollars, have a sprained ankle and some cuts and you don’t even give a damn.
Every year there are wildfires in California, where I grew up. One year they burned some expensive homes in the swanky neighborhoods in the hills around Los Angeles. No one was hurt but several homes were destroyed. Friends and I joked about it—those poor rich people, we would say. Geez, one of their mansions burned down. What a pity.
Of course we weren’t happy it had happened, but it was hard to feel sorry for them when they had so much, including, we assumed, insurance. We laughed because we thought: it’s an awful thing but they will be fine.
Everyone I talk to has an explanation.
—Crime is getting worse here, I tell you, a Tanzanian woman says. Worse, by the week. Be careful. Don’t walk outside. Try not to carry any bags.
—Well, these are poor people you know, someone else says, and poor people are sometimes driven to do this sort of thing.
—Poor? But they had a car! says another.
—Right, don’t be fooled. This is a business. There are networks; it’s organized. Kids in the compounds, some grow up and go into crime, others don’t. Who knows why?
—It is because there are no jobs in Dar es Salaam that young men turn to crime, says another. The donors should quit with their capacity building nonsense and build roads so there will be investment. If there are jobs this kind of thing will not happen!
—But the donors tried infrastructure and it didn’t work. Money was lost, things were not maintained. The problem is corruption. And the police? They are just as corrupt as everyone else.
—But the police are paid nothing, what do you expect? They probably don’t even make $2,000 in a year—what you lost in one day.
—You should feel lucky, it could have been worse. At least the police wrote up a report—you’re in Dar, so that’s not bad. And you weren’t hurt badly. It could have been so much worse….
There are a hundred ways to wonder at circumstance.
The morning after the robbery, I walk down a dirt road towards a taxi stand. I’m carrying only a notebook with a little cash in it, which I keep clutched in my hands beneath a scarf. My arms are crossed as I walk, like a locked gate.
There are, as usual, people hanging around on the side of the road, chatting with street side vendors, walking along on their way somewhere, or just sitting, letting the morning pass. To me, it all looks like danger. But these people didn’t steal from you, I remind myself. They are not going to steal from you. I keep walking.
Then I hear footsteps behind me and I turn in a panic to see three men walking towards me quickly—at least it seemed quickly. I feel terrible, guilty, as I cross to the other side of the street and watch them as they pass. Tears well up in my eyes—and I feel angry. And afraid.
14 October 2009
I was having dinner with my new friend, Cristina Broker. Cristina is a 28-year-old Boston native who arrived in Dar five months ago to work for Population Services International (PSI). In between bites of beef tibs, she told me about a social marketing campaign she and her colleagues are creating to help promote condom use and discourage concurrent sexual partners—one of the things helping to spread HIV in many African countries, including Tanzania. The campaign will spread messages, via radio, television and in print, that will encourage Tanzanians to engage in less risky sexual behavior by reminding them that it is in their personal, social and economic interest to do so.
It was the first time Cristina and I had had a chance to really talk one on one since meeting, so we covered the usual range of topics: work, where we are from, where we studied, what we miss about home, how long we plan on staying, and: Guys. I told her about a relationship I'm trying to wean myself off of and she told me about a similar situation in her own life. There was a lot of laughing and shaking our heads. We know what is best for us. We understand what it costs to keep on down the same road. But changing your behavior—even when you know it is in your interest—is hard.
05 October 2009
Up until this point, every time I’d get in a cab it was like the lottery: I tried to play but I knew I was going to lose. My first day alone I spent US$50 in taxi fare – for one day. A good sense of the exchange rate can help, but as with many African capitals, Dar is expensive, and you need insider information. And confidence.
It was about 1 p.m. and the afternoon sun was beating down on us like a spotlight, radiating heat. I approached in my flip flops and sunglasses; five drivers leaned against a wall and stared back at me.
“You need a taxi?” One of them came forward.
I squinted against the sun and nodded.
“Fifteen thousand,” he said.
“Seven,” I said. We stared at each other like river boat gamblers.
He took a deep drag on his cigarette and shook his head: “Mnazi Moja is far, seven kilometers. Ten.”
He laughed. “No, no. No less than ten. That’s the rate, no less.”
Now normally I would have said: "Okay great thanks, let’s go, and sorry for being such a pain." But I was emboldened with the knowledge of what this ride should cost, so I persisted: “Eight.”
One of the other men who had been sitting, listening in the shadows, suddenly spoke up: "What’s one or two thousand shillings to you?”
At dinner some friends were talking about the obsession some expats have with not living in the "expat bubble" (i.e., trying to avoid $3,000/month apartments and full-time drivers and expense accounts). The reason it’s important to them, my friends said, is partly because they want to experience whatever is the most authentic Tanzania, and they are pretty sure the expat bubble is not it. But it is also important -- to try to live with a little less rather than a little more -- because most Tanzanians they meet are astronomically poorer than they are. And the discrepancy is uncomfortable.
Eventually the driver agreed to 8,000 tsh. When we got in the car the gas tank was empty, so we stopped for petrol: 5,000 tsh. It barely moved the petrol indicator.
On the way we ran into some traffic on Ali Hassan Mwinyi Road. I had a bag in my lap with a computer, wallet and camera inside. Our windows were rolled down because of the heat, but when he noticed me clutch my bag as some men walked close by selling things, Michael, the driver, whose name I now knew, rolled up the windows and told me not to worry -- he turned on the air conditioning.
I asked him, with a sort of panic almost, to turn it off.
02 October 2009
01 October 2009
Heathrow is one of those weird places where everything and nothing is happening all at the same time. The buzz, clatter, motion, sound--people waiting in line for sandwiches, the BBC blaring across a gigantic screen, voices on cell phones, ladies at the duty free counter, families with strollers, four story high walls of windows, and outside, planes ascending into the gray spatter of rain.
I'd hoped to do some shopping while I waited (nine hours) for my flight, but unless you can afford Fendi and Aramani, forget it. The only thing I bought were two cappuccinos, some internet time, and a salad. Then I found a place to set down all my stuff, and I did what everybody does: I waited. While the din of Heathrow swirled around me like a tornado, I watched passerbys, stared off into space, and enjoyed that jittery delight of being on my way somewhere.
29 September 2009
And I pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself
I too much discuss
Too much explain
I guess I’m probably just like you. When someone tells me they’re writing a blog from Africa, part of me can’t wait to read it and part of me is, well, cringing.
I’m happy because I want to hear about their experiences, and, being a writer, I think words are a good way to communicate—a good way of keeping track of your life. More broadly, I think going to new places and seeing new things is a good thing to do.
But part of me cringes. This is partly because of anticipated guilt—I always begin with good intentions to read the blogs of friends and colleagues, but I always fall behind (if you are a friend or colleague who writes a blog, don’t worry—obviously I read YOURS).
Another reason I cringe has to do with something a colleague asked me recently. I had just returned from Zambia, where I’d spent a few weeks writing a piece on foreign aid, and she asked: “What makes you think you have the right to speak for them?”
By “them” maybe she meant Zambians, or maybe she meant poor Zambians, or maybe she was talking about the expat community. Who knows. I took her point, though. She was glad that I’d gone but the whole enterprise made her uncomfortable too, and I think it made her uncomfortable for the same reason lots of us in the global development business get uncomfortable from time to time: because our business is about telling other peoples’ stories, advocating for people we have never met, trying to make sense of places we are not from.
We understand the dilemmas. We know the potential for over-reaching, for forgetting the limits of what we can know, measure, quantify, explain. We worry, sometimes, that our own experiences and preconceptions—our own stories—get in the way of objectivity.
But each of our stories, is actually part of the story. And rather than Explain, I think what we try to do, each in our own way, is to describe, with as much honesty as we can muster, what we see in front of our eyes. We sort through the debris, we try to find meaning in the ambiguous heart of things.
Tonight I will board a plane bound for Dar es Salaam, where I will be based for the next six months to a year, writing stories about the people I meet—what they do, where they’re from, how they got to where they are, what they think about their work, what makes them laugh, what are their secret fears. And I’ll write about my own story too. Now this will probably get in the way of objectivity, but this blog isn’t going to try to answer any big questions about development or poverty or Africa. It will just be an attempt to tell stories. Like E.B. White said: Don't write a story about Man, write about a man."