14 December 2009

A Funeral

At first I was annoyed. “Is there no one in charge of regulating the roads in this country?” A friend and I had just pulled up to the apartment building where I live only to discover that half the road had been obstructed by our neighbors, who had put up a tarp, held by thick wooden sticks, and gathered twenty or so plastic chairs underneath it, in the middle of the road. There were men sitting there in the shade and others milling around.

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

Lines and Shadows

Sometimes I forget why I’m here. I’m so tired, so skeptical (but I’ve only been here two months). I don’t think about poverty that much, except as an abstraction, an issue to be discussed, a paper to write. It’s my job.

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

I Don't Believe In Riches (But You Should See Where I Live)

A friend of mine in Dar, a fellow expat, fell in love recently. I mean with a house. A beach house. If you met him you would agree that he really should live in a beach house. A cross between an Italian gangster and a southern California surfer, he’s like your groovy uncle David—always a little unshaven, a little shaggy, in board shorts and slightly unbuttoned shirts that show off his tan. In between sips of bubblegum pink Hibiscus iced tea, he described the Moroccan-style villa he’ll begin renting in January: high white walls, archways, gardens. Nestled among palm trees on a secluded stretch of beach in the south of Dar, the house sounds like it might have been airlifted from Marrakech.

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

Thanksgiving Celebration

The gang

Michael and Irish Steve (the lone Irishman at our gathering, God bless him)

Would you believe that these guys have serious jobs?

And here we are again