02 November 2009

Who Needs Whom?

It’s two o’clock in the afternoon and I'm sitting in the World Bank mission room, trying to edit a report. But I’m drowsy and full of lunch, so I put down my pen and just sit. I watch out the window as some men load a truck in the afternoon sun…listen absently to some quiet chatter nearby….take a sip of tea that has gone cold at my desk. And I begin to think about my first month in Dar es Salaam, and some of the people I've met....

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.

The Criminal

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.

The Local

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.

1 comment:

  1. Lindsay,

    I am fascinated by your blog and your experiences! Very interesting, and very useful for my upcoming journey!

    I am a Boston Public Schools teacher of 6 years who has taken a leave of absence to travel and write. I've been voyaging around Southeast Asia (with a brief stop in Japan) for the past three months, and am hoping to head to Tanzania by late January, after a brief visit to a friend in the Middle East. I am eager to get any advice you could give on travel in Tanzania, as (though I have traveled extensively in Latin America) it will be a very different travel scene than I am used to. I have some follow-up questions of course, but wanted to make this intro first! Feel free to contact me at lil707lil@gmail.com .

    Many Thanks,