20 December 2010

If You’re Ever In Juba... (A Patchwork Restaurant Guide for Travelers in Africa, West Africa Edition)

See the original guide, with recommendations for Bujumbura, Dar es Salaam, Nairobi, Addis, and of course, Juba, here.

Monrovia

The aid business is booming in Liberia, a country recovering (remarkably well, many say) from fourteen years of civil war. As with any aid boom capital, Monrovia is overrun by expats, and if there’s one thing expats do well, it’s gather for evenings out after long, exhausting days fighting poverty.

The restaurants in this list may be wazungu mainstays (said my spindly old taxi driver one night on our way to Rozi’s, his phone ringing off the hook: “it’s a busy night for white people”), but they’re good. And if you’re ever in Monrovia, be sure to check them out.

Tides: Tides is a newish bar/restaurant on the waterfront in Mamba Point. The entrance is up a badly lit stairwell in what looks like an abandoned building, but do not be deterred: upstairs is a sweeping wooden deck and comfy couches—the perfect place to sip a gin and tonic and watch the sun go down. One tiny caveat: 100-or-so feet down the beach is a slum. You know the scene: low-lying crush of cardboard and tin, piles of trash, kids playing football in the dusk. When the sun goes down, the slum disappears, swallowed up by the dark. The drinks at Tides are good, but with the other (i.e., non expat) reality of Monrovia in your face, they can be a little difficult to swallow.

The Palm: This open, breezy rooftop restaurant is a sharp contrast to the hot mugginess of the dusty streets below. A great place to unwind—good pizza and beer—to the sound of ABBA in the background (what is it about ABBA in Africa?).

Mamba Point Hotel: The Rick’s Café of Monrovia, it’s like a transit lounge, where aid workers mix with business types, hard-to-place security guys, and wealthy locals. The deck overlooks the ocean, and framed by palm trees, it’s like a scene out of a movie: a tropical paradise. With a great selection of Lebanese dishes, pizza, Indian, and sushi, the Mamba Point restaurant is good spot for long, meandering, wine-soaked dinners.

Rozi’s: This cute restaurant in Sinkor serves a variety of dishes best described as Liberian-international fusion (pretty vague, I know). I recommend eating in the garden.

The Lounge at Roberts International Airport: If you are forced to leave Monrovia, I recommend grabbing a Club beer in the airport lounge. Surrounded by plastic-covered tables and chairs and enormous fake sunflowers, it’s an ideal spot to recap your trip and wait out the inevitable storm always passing over the airport. Even better when in the company of secret agent Pavignani if you can manage to nab him.

Dakar

What is one of the best things about USAID missions to the field? Per diems, of course. Per diems are what made it possible for my colleague and I to sample some of Dakar’s fantastic (and fantastically expensive) restaurants.

Let me say that this city is not like other cities on the continent where I’ve worked. Tree-lined avenues, charming apartment buildings with balconies draped in bougainvillea, women in skinny jeans and high heels (a bit too fancy for this hippy, I’ll be honest). Dakar feels like Paris (although I’ve never been to Paris). So go, and enjoy—and if you make it before December 30, you’re in time to catch the World Festival of Black Arts and Cultures. Attendees include none other than that beloved Libyan man of the people, Muammar Gaddafi.

Radisson Blu Hotel, restaurant and seaside lounge: This sleek hotel, halfway between centre ville and the towering Monument to the African Renaissance (which is, incidentally, right across the street from a small, humble graveyard) oozes hip: there is an atrium and infinity pool, and the décor is an urbane mix of whites and grays. Munch poolside (but steer clear of the complimentary olives—they are doused in mustard and orange, a truly disgusting combo) or check out the restaurant next door, which has a fine fish selection and wine list. The lamb is also excellent.

Restaurant La Calebasse in Mamelles: On the top floor above an African Art shop, the Calebasse restaurant is a nice mix of local fare (Yassa fish anyone?) and French-ish food. The terrace is breezy and spacious, and the ambiance wonderful, thanks to the musician who strummed quietly on his kora while we ate. The sound is hypnotic, mysterious, like walking down a narrow path in a market you’ve never been to, like light reflecting in crystal. Good food, wine, music and art. A lovely way to spend an evening out.

La Lagoon 1: A friend who lives in Dakar (a French friend who lives in Dakar) told me upon arrival that this was his favorite restaurant and it’s not hard to see why. Nestled on the beach not far from President Wade’s house, this is a restaurant on stilts that juts out over the water. The fish and wine are great, but be sure to sit outside: indoors it’s an over-the-top nautical theme, with air conditioning blasting.

Chez Loutcha: For some Cape Verdean fare check out this cozy restaurant in Centre Ville. The plates are enormous—enough for two or three people—and the atmosphere, decidedly low-key. SO low key in fact that you may have trouble getting the servers to pay attention to you, and when they finally do, it is reluctantly, eyes glaring. Tough love at Chez Loutcha.

Terrou-Bi Terrace Restaurant: A good treat, but as with all the upmarket beachside hotel restaurants, this place will cost you. The fish was good and the service excellent.

A Home-Cooked Meal at Chez Camara: Better than any restaurant, this dinner at the home of a Ministry of Health colleague was the culinary (and social) highlight of the trip. The Camaras served couscous smothered in gravy, with chicken, carrots, raisins and nuts, a traditional dish to celebrate Tamkharit, the Islamic new year. (Incidentally, this was also the evening of the Senegalese version of Halloween, where children march through their neighborhoods, beating tin drums, in search of goodies or money.)

Sitting on the floor of the Camara's living room, their children, nieces, nephews, sisters, uncles and other unidentified family members playing and talking in the room next door, our host showed us photos from a trip to Illinois, joked with his wife of ten years about who really runs the household, and explained that he does the work he does because of a belief, deep down, that he is responsible for other people, that we are all responsible for each other. I guess that included us, his guests. When we entered the house, he spread his arms wide and said: You are welcome. You are home.

The lights went out about midway through the evening meal and the house went pitch black. It was ok, though—there were voices of family all around.

17 November 2010

The Aid Workers

There was a map of South Sudan on the wall behind his desk. The lines demarcating the boundaries between states were drawn in clear black ink against the smooth ivory paper. Near the bottom, Juba, the capital, was nothing more than a solid black dot.

I had arrived the day before with a few reports about Sudan in my suitcase and a few ideas in my mind of the story I would write. Touch down and lumber across the tarmac in the glare of the midday sun; shuffle through the sweaty crush of immigration; then down a dusty road cut with craters, past slopes of mud huts and charcoal fires, to my pre-fabricated hotel. Internet is out so I can’t confirm interviews. Drop heavily to sleep. Early morning departure, but we’re lost and running late. By the time I arrive at the small compound of the international NGO whose country director I have come to interview, I’m exhausted.

From inside his spare, cement office, sunlight flooding in through the room’s single wood-framed window, I take out my notepad and ask him about the program I’ve been sent to write about it: do you think it will work in South Sudan?

He smiles. “On paper it’s so easy. When you get here, it’s not.”

***

It takes an enormous amount of vanity—to drop into a country for a few weeks and think that you can capture the reality of a place. Because of course you never can.

Aid workers are like soldiers fighting in a war the public back home has forgotten about or doesn’t understand. Distrust of outsiders runs deep, but they want to talk too, to vent, to plead: This is what it's really like.

***

Kim is wearing jeans and tennis shoes and though she is young, she has dark circles under her eyes. Her office is just like everyone else’s in Juba: spare, except for her computer and a gigantic map of Sudan on the wall, marked with red pins where the international NGO she works for has projects.

She tries to explain the basics of their contract with USAID, functionally, how it works. She pulls up spreadsheets and all kinds of official documentation. It becomes a tutorial. Most contracts run about 12-18 months, she says. Barely enough time to get programs up and running, especially because nothing ever gets started until six months after it’s “launched” anyway.

And the donors require NGOs to come up with exit strategies. It’s insane, really: in one of the most underdeveloped countries on Earth, they have to explain how they plan to turn over operations (such as running health clinics) to local authorities once the contract is up.

—We know we won’t be able to and the donors know it too. So, we make it up.

***

He was one of the first aid workers I ever met. A salesman, he ran a USAID-funded HIV/AIDS project in Southern Africa in the heyday of Bush II’s big push.

One night we had dinner with some American aid workers in Lusaka. Gathered around an outdoor fire, drinking and smoking cigarettes, he expounded on the process people from Washington go through when they come to the field for the first time: the initial whiplash of being face to face with extreme poverty; a sort of guilt-laden depression; and then, the moment:

—They look up at me and ask: what can we do? His eyes were glowing like embers as he spoke. “I say: Follow me!”

A salesman and a savior.

***

Time is different here, fluid, flexible. Arrive at Medair’s offices, on the dusty road near the airport, around 5 p.m. Jospeh, a twenty-something from Kenya who in the space of one week has become not only my driver but also my fixer—the man knows how and where to get anything—beeps the horn and we wait in silence for several minutes at the dilapidated metal gate.

I used to ask Joseph to come back in one hour, but the assumption that my interview would start on time and last roughly 45 minutes was all wrong. Sometimes the person I’m supposed to interview doesn’t show, and other times, they ask me to stay for dinner. I remember arriving thirty minutes late to meet the country director of an international NGO, an unforgiveable sin back in Washington, and was dumbstruck when he acted as if I was right on time. It didn’t throw off his schedule, it was just part of the rhythm.

***

The compound where Chuck stays is a fortress. Thick concrete walls, enormous coils of jagged barbed wire, a massive and heavily guarded gate. But inside it’s like summer camp: cottages scattered along winding dirt roads and grassy hillsides.

It’s 3 p.m. on a Thursday. We grab beers and popcorn and sit beneath the shade of a eucalyptus tree. The rustle of the leaves is so pleasant that for a moment I forget it’s pushing 95 degrees out.

Chuck is a straight shooter, a veteran. He knows the problems with aid and isn’t going to make excuses. “Exit strategies are bull shit,” he says. “But changing a system that is so politically entrenched is very difficult. We must be realistic about what we can do.”

Later, I ask him why he came back to the field late in his career after a return to the United States.

He shrugs: I get bored back there.

***

Some where along the way I realized I didn’t feel normal anymore unless I was getting on a plane every other week. Airplanes became my taxi, and I met a lot of people who traveled much more than I did, for longer periods of time, sometimes years.

I remember being at a dinner one night “at home” in Dar es Salaam. Looking around the table, I realized that each of my friends had just come back from another country or were getting ready to leave. There was Laverty, just back from Joburg, stopping in Dar “for a drink” then on to eastern Tanzania. Mark, on his way to Kinshasa. Alix and Jean were in Nairobi, another about to meet his wife in Kampala, another on her way to Kigali. I too was back for 24 hours, about to head to Liberia.

It’s like a drug. The motion, movement. It’s like noise, drowning out other voices. And for some, it acts like the tide does against the cliffs, chipping away at relationships. It can take real exhaustion or depression (or lots of alcohol) to make you feel quiet again, still.

***

I used to think it would lessen with exposure. Eventually, I thought, you'd get numb to the shock of poverty, you'd find a way to live with the fact that you're a millionaire compared to the people you have come to serve, to write about.

One morning in Monrovia, I set out with Wilson, my 40-year-old driver who waited out the Liberian civil war by flitting back and forth from Guinea to Cote d’Ivoire doing odd jobs. His contract with the World Bank was a new gig. Each day I needed him, he had work: $5 a day. (I was wracked with guilt on the weekends when I decided to save the $100 a day and use taxis.) When I left, he'd be out of a job.

As we set out he asked if the NGO down the road needed drivers, and if there was someone there I knew whom he could talk to. In an instant, something in my stomach went hollow and queer. I knew his situation, I knew his daily wage, knew it was decent, and I’d met lots of people worse off. But it isn't right—that existence should be so precarious, that distances between people should be so far.

You never get used to it. That obscene fact—that life isn’t fair—stares you in the face everyday, and it is grating and persistent and devastating.

I told a friend about it later. He asked if I felt guilty. No, I said, not guilt. Anger.

***

Nights in foreign capitals can get lonely. A disappointing meal, not feeling well. Non-descript hotel room, just like all the rest, suitcase on the floor, heap of dirty clothes in the corner, the BBC flickering on the television screen.

Some colleagues in town from Washington, and me, flown in from Tanzania, get to Havana late, looking shabby and tired after a long day’s work. We slump onto the leather couches like puddles, faces blank. After a few beers and a handful of peanuts, we get up to leave, all save one.

“He has a girl here,” a colleague tells me. “Don’t look so surprised. You know the story. Unhappy marriage back home, and it’s so easy out here.”

I meet her one night, out at a club playing pool. She is young and beautiful, in an outfit—black leather boots, a short, backless dress with abrasive metallic detailing—that belies her unassuming manner. She smiles shyly, says she likes my dress. Thanks, I say, I like yours too.

More details emerge as the night wears on: She has a diabetic uncle who our colleague helps to support. She has a day job too, earning money for her family.

"He says they’re alike. He says she’s a survivor."

***

A colleague and I meet for dinner at Afex, a compound for U.S. contractors on the banks of the Nile. Grab some food (it's all you can eat) and sit down beneath the pale pink and purple twilight sky. Below, the silvery blue iridescence of the Nile is glowing in the half light like the inside of a sea shell.

We talk about work—she's been in the country for more than two years and is a wealth of information—but as the night wears on, and we become flushed with humidity and beer, the conversation trails off like smoke.

—Sometimes I wake up and I’m just angry, she says. I find myself being short with people, almost for no reason. There’s no where to go here, no freedom of movement (international staff cannot have their own vehicles; too much of a liability for the agency), and no one stays. Friends leave.

She speaks expansively—about where she grew up, about her family, and, after some prodding, about a boyfriend in the States. The day before I'd accidentally interuppted their call one afternoon, and overheard his voice on the line saying: I love you I love you I love you. She'd laughed and covered the receiver with her hand.

There are so many late night dinners out with friends, colleagues. Every conversation is the same. They say: put yourself in my shoes.

01 November 2010

Memory (Dispatches from Liberia)

It’s 5:30 p.m. on a Saturday at Mamba Point and business is slow. The Lebanese-owned hotel is one of the oldest in Monrovia, perched on a hillside across the street from a beach lined with palm trees, like a scene out of a movie, a tropical paradise.

Except foreigners don’t go there. It’s the locals’ domain, where Liberian boys play soccer, where trash is dumped, where, in some places, people go to defecate. And there is no security along the stretch of sand, so best not to walk there, at least not alone, some say. The hotel has a pool instead, surrounded, like everything else in Monrovia, by thick concrete walls and enormous coils of barbed wire.

Four waiters are sitting on bar stools in the dim half light, talking to the barman. The theme is Irish (who knows why): dark wood paneling, bottles of Jameson along the wall, an Irish flag hanging overhead. There’s a football match on the television; the crowd roars and the waiters look up in unison, eyes fixed on the screen.

In the lounge, a pair of aid workers—a young girl with a pony tail and her older, frumpy colleague—are sitting on the couch with laptop computers glowing in front of them, working. The polished director of an NGO just in from Washington strides into the restaurant where another polished man is waiting to meet him.

Outside, some of the regulars are sitting on the deck in the growing dusk. Three young girls, drunk from an afternoon of white wine and hummus, giggle in the thick night air, faces shiny and tired. A pair of beefy guys with military haircuts pay their bill and eye the girls as they get up to leave. And a fat, bald man with a moustache and his lanky compatriot smoke cigars solemnly, watching the smoke waft through the air in front of them and disappear.

***

Though it’s right next door, Mamba might as well be oceans away from the hustle and flow of the streets. Life in Monrovia has improved dramatically since the civil war came to an end, but it’s still rough. The streets are littered with the charred carcasses of buildings, dark as coal. Ramshackle houses are built atop the jagged black rocks that jut up out of the ground all over the city, like gigantic claws.

The old presidential office speaks of grander days lost: a wide, elegant half-moon driveway, a towering building on the edge of the sea. But it has been empty since a fire broke out inside soon after President Sirleaf took office. Now it stands rusting, derelict, some people say haunted—by evil spirits maybe or simply the past.

***

Fourteen years of civil war tore Liberia apart. It made paupers of an already poor population and traumatized everyone. Per capita GDP declined by 87 percent between 1980 and 2005; in 2009, more than half of the population lived on less than US$1 a day and about 80 percent were unemployed.

And the repercussions of sustained violence, of years of persistent threat, appear as cracks, shockwaves. They come out in bursts, unexpectedly, like a car backfiring: stress, outbursts full of rage, panic, fear.

In the car one morning, on our way to a health clinic, I ask James, a Liberian doctor who lived in Monrovia before, during and now after the war: what was it like to be here in those days?

He shook his head and half smiled, looking down at the floor: “We fought for food,” he said. Then his phone chirped and he took it out of his pocket and typed a message.

I looked out the window, into the spit of morning rain, at the people at the market and all the things they were selling: umbrellas, shoes, soap, brooms, mattresses.

A few minutes down the road, James began again suddenly: “Wars were fought on these streets.” I turned to face him. He was staring out the window too, but not at anything in particular. Just looking out past everything, at some secret thing I couldn’t see. “We fought for food.”

***

Up a dark stairwell, in a row of decaying buildings across from a cliff of rock flecked with shacks that look like they were carved into the face of them, is Tides, a bar on the waterfront. The deck is lined with comfy chairs and expats sipping drinks to the throb of the pop music playing inside.

Just down the beach is a slum. If you grew up on the beach like I did, and are accustomed to beach-front property being the exclusive domain of the rich, the beach slums of Monrovia are jarring. The colleague who met me later, a young Liberian raised in the U.S.—the only one of six siblings to come back to the place he was born—said some 70,000 people live there: 70,000 people in that low-lying crush of tin and cardboard that look as if it’s been smushed flat down against the ground.

There are kids playing soccer there, and a boat is docked in the sand beside several enormous piles of trash. Beyond, a factory, the port, and beyond them, a lightening storm is brewing in the deep purple and gray sky.

They say that President Sirleaf takes her cabinet on tours of the slums. They go to the dirtiest, most squalid places in Monrovia, and she says: Look! We are the government of this.

***

Things have gotten better, though. Under the watch of a legitimate government backed by a UN peace-keeping operation, the country is enjoying a period of steadily improving peace and stability. Power was restored to the capital, massive amounts of debt have been cut, and the economy is recovering, thanks to investments in physical infrastructure, hefty sums of donor aid and a gradual improvement in security.

Everyone has an explanation for Liberia’s relative success. Strong presidential leadership, trust of the donors, the character of the Liberian people.

I ask a friend one evening: How is it possible—for life to be one way for so long and then start being another? “Take the ex-combatants. Some studies show they reintegrate into society really well. How does it happen?”

—That’s easy, he said, smiling mischievously: Magic. “In some countries they have a ritual before war. Soldiers have a spell cast on them and from that point on their bodies are inhabited by the god of war. At the end of fighting, there is a cleansing ritual to cast out the evil spirit.”

It's an appealing story, I say, but I'm unsatisfied.

—So do people just forgive them?

***

There’s a night market for locals who can’t get to the markets open during the day. The streets are slick from rain when I go with Charles, a Liberian with gray hair whom the World Bank has charged with looking after me when I arrive. I’d called him in a panic: my computer is about to die! Where can I get an adaptor?

—Ay be right over, he’d said.

The streets are lit by the yellow glow of the kerosene lamps burning on the side of the road, and the market is packed, bustling, a maze of people.

We pull over and Charles tells me to stay inside. As he gets out, a man limps up to him and they exchange a few words. Then the man comes to my side of the car and tries to talk to me through the glass. He is spindly thin and missing an arm. Charles returns and the man approaches again and they talk for a little longer this time, and I’m confused: it seems they know each other. And before getting back in the car Charles reaches into this pocket and gives the guy a little cash.

Back inside, Charles starts the engine and gives me a wry grin: “They used to be our masters,” he says.

The man had been a fighter during the war. People feared him. Now he’s on the street, begging for money.

“Things change pretty quick,” Charles says.

***

I guess I’m like everybody else: wooed by Liberia’s story of redemption, of coming out of darkness and into the light, as the U.S. ambassador to Liberia recently described it. It’s easy to get sentimental about this kind of story, but I don’t think it’s sentiment that keeps Liberians moving ahead. It is whatever it was in Charles that made him help a man who used to threaten him. It is whatever made James keep going all those years when everyone he knew was hungry and afraid.

Necessity, maybe. You move on because you have to. Or maybe it is anger—an angry refusal to stop believing that tomorrow can be different from today.

29 October 2010

Leaving Dar es Salaam

I spent my last afternoon in Dar hanging out with my good friend, Jean, eating Lays potato chips and talking about our respective plans and worries. Another friend, Steve, an engineer from Ireland, popped by—and we decided the thing to do was to have beers on the roof.

I went up just as the sun was setting, with Steve and Jean five minutes behind me. The sun was a gigantic orange and pink circle on a hazy horizon, blurry, like an object’s reflection in water. It dawned on me, as I watched is sink lower into the ground, how accustomed I’d become to the sun setting over land since I moved to Tanzania: the night before I’d been in Liberia, and sitting on the deck of my hotel I’d become suddenly disoriented when I noticed the sun was setting over the ocean.

I rested my arms against the wall and listened to the noises of Dar es Salaam at dusk. Horns honking on Kamana road down below. People taking the bus home. Boys playing football on the sprawling dirt field outside Biafra secondary school—yells, cheers. Down below in Morocco (which is what the neighborhood is called), a man filled a bucket with water from a tap in his backyard and a woman walked home with her baby asleep on her shoulder. Further east, high rises and cranes where new construction is bubbling up towered over the downtown skyline, and beyond, the sea: that beautiful turquoise Indian ocean, and the tanker ships that forever dot its horizon.

Then the call to prayer rang out from the mosque opposite the apartment building, and it so was beautiful and low and hypnotic it almost broke my heart.

Steve came up, handed me a beer, and we talk quietly. He asked what was my biggest regret about my time in Tanzania. I laughed: nice question, Steve.

But then I thought: isn’t it obvious? To not appreciate what I had when I had it. To not have been filled with a sense of wonder each day for being in this place.

I’m not sure it’s possible to force yourself to feel excited everyday about living in a foreign capital when it’s all you can do to keep your head above water, battling so many small fires, so many frustrations. But this is wondrous, I told him. It’s something like heaven being here….

***

After a rambling, meandering, wine-soaked dinner with friends, I dropped heavily to sleep that night. Woke up at 5:30 a.m., disoriented. For a few seconds I forgot where I was and where I was going.

Not too different from how it feels at transitional points, when you're in between jobs, in between countries, in between relationships. Just like looking out across the ocean in Dar on a stormy day: there's no line on the horizon.

18 September 2010

Unnecessary Facades

Last week, I was in Uganda to write a story about voucher programs. In development policy circles, vouchers are all the rage. The idea is simple: Vouchers are distributed to patients, either for free or a small fee, entitling them to certain services at accredited facilities (in the case of Uganda, services for pregnant women and for the diagnosis and treatment of STIs). Health care providers are reimbursed for the cost of provision, plus a reasonable profit, after delivery has been verified.

As always, I arrived with a pile of reports in my suitcase. Their uniformity was striking: voucher schemes, they say, Empower Patients to choose where to access health services and Spur Competition among health care providers, who must entice these free-to-choose patients to their facilities.

I’d never been to Uganda before. Got the 10:05 p.m. flight out of Nairobi and landed in Entebbe after eleven. As with all late night arrivals, I felt a tired, jittery vitality, like an insomniac. Peering out the car window, my face pressed up against the glass, I strained to see out into the dark.

***

The next morning, a team assembled in the vacant lobby of a hotel in Mbabara: two program managers; a donor representative; and me, the analyst. We drove all morning to reach the facility, strangers, trapped in a car together for hours. At first we talked about the program, our professional backgrounds, where we come from. After an hour, the conversation waned. Turned on the radio. A preacher was talking about sin and redemption.

We stared out the windows, lost in our own thoughts, watching the fields whip by, banana trees, ant mounds, men pushing bicycles weighed down with charcoal, and others laying gravel where a new road is being built.

Arrived at the health center midday stiff and a drowsy. Shook hands with Martin, the young facility manager, who was dressed in his finest suit and polished loafers. We were wearing “field” clothes—jeans, tennis shoes.

Inside his spare concrete office, Martin said he’s worried about the women who come for antenatal visits but don’t come back for the delivery. Others refuse to be referred to higher-level facilities, even when they have life-threatening complications.

Why would they do this?

They want to be comfortable, he said. They are used to the traditional birth attendants in the village. And with referrals, some are afraid of being cut open and operated on in a strange, foreign place, and who can blame them?

Even when they want to be referred, there is no ambulance, and the rocky dirt road we traveled down for an hour in Landrovers to reach the facility is difficult to traverse. The nearest health clinic is nearly 20 kilometers away.

***

At another medical center, I meet four women sitting in a row on a wooden bench in the shade, each in the final stretches of pregnancy. The facility manager is encouraging: ask them questions, he says. There are four of us standing in the sun in front of them, notepads and pens in our hands. I shift uncomfortably from one foot to the other. How many babies do you have, I ask? From where did you come?

Their voices are as soft as feathers, and they bow their heads as if in prayer as they speak. I have three babies, one says. I have five, says another. I have come from 7 kilometers away. I have come from further. There is no where else to go.

At another facility, another manager takes a delegation of six of us on a tour. This is the reception, he says, the lab, the children’s ward. Then he takes us into the labor ward, guides us around a corner and proudly points to a woman with bare legs in stirrups, who is heaving, moaning, about to have her baby.

When we wonder why patients sometimes do not return to the facility to deliver when they could do so for free; when we think it is illogical to forfeit the opportunity to come to a clean, safe clinic—to sacrifice so much by not returning—maybe the patients are thinking of all they sacrifice when they do.

***

Kenya also has a voucher scheme, and one afternoon I visited some accredited facilities in the Nairobi slum of Korogocho. There were three of them, close to each other. I could walk between them easily.

I asked the facility managers how they would compete with the other facilities to lure patients? They downplayed the idea: we work together, they said, we don’t compete.

But you are making improvements to attract patients, aren’t you?

They said they improve their facilities first, because they are strongly encouraged to do so by the agency managing the program, and second, as a way to ensure they will be left with something when donor funds for the program run out. Facility managers in Uganda say the same thing, and for them, the latter reason is even more pressing, since donor funds for the three-year program are spent, and come next year, their new patients and income may disappear.

***

We give names to what our programs do for patients. Empower. Catalyze. Choice. But assessing their views, their motives, and the effect we have on them, is more difficult than is generally assumed.

Maybe vouchers empower women. Maybe they don’t. Maybe instead they are a simple subsidy for particular services at particular locations. And maybe facilities aren't upgrading infrastructure and hiring new staff out of a sense of competition.

But what is wrong with this? Patients are still coming to facilities, where the safe delivery of their babies can be nearly guaranteed. And facilities are making improvements, which make them more comfortable and responsive to patients. Moreover, these programs serve as models for governments considering health insurance programs for the poor (which both Kenya and Uganda are) but are concerned about the mechanics of accreditation and reimbursement.

Plenty of thoughtful people have questions and concerns about vouchers—about the cost and complexity of administering them versus other mechanisms to increase access; about preventing fraud and monitoring facility quality, among other things. But overall, these programs are a good thing.

Why isn’t the way things really are enough?

If You’re Ever in Juba… (A Patchwork Restaurant Guide for Travelers in Africa)

Sometimes, let’s face it, expats are annoying. Some of us adopt pseudo accents. We occasionally (and with dramatic flair) blame our bad habits on the countries we live in (you’d drink too if you’d seen what I’ve seen). We act superior when we are home. An innocent trip to the grocery store can get you an ear full on overabundance and consumption.

Lately, I’ve been catching myself doing another such annoying thing, something that even annoys other expats. The conversations go like this:

Friend: Want to grab dinner?

Me: Sure. Where should we go?

Friend: Maybe pizza?

Me: But there’s no good pizza here. Let me tell you where you can get REALLY good pizza. Have you ever been to south Sudan? (At this point my friend has stopped listening because she thinks I’m being just a little show-offy.)

Annoying though it may be, in the spirit of eating well in far flung places, I’ve put together this handy restaurant guide based on the cities I’ve lately traveled to. Let me be clear: I haven’t spent long periods of time in any of these places, except for Tanzania, so you may find lots of phase 1 restaurants (i.e., the places where the wazungu go when they don’t know where the really good places are). If so, apologies. Pease add to it—consider it a public service for expats and travelers everywhere.

Dar es Salaam

There are many things to love about Tanzania. The sun, the sand, the gentle sway of palm trees in the moonlight. Quick jaunts to Zanzibar in tiny toy airplanes piloted by 26-year olds nursing blistering hangovers. Ficken.*

Yes, there is much to love. But the gourmet traveler may find Dar wanting. Nonetheless, here's a random sampling of some of my favorite places to eat:

Zuane—Okay, it’s all relative, right, but for Dar, this is pretty good Italian food. Dine al fresco on the veranda lit with lanterns and pictures of Italian people from the 1940s on the wall. The pasta isn’t the highlight: try the pizza. The Zuane is especially good. Also, this may be the one place in Dar that serves a FREE appetizer (bread with bruschetta).

Sweet Eazy—Also known as the Sweet Sleazy (for a certain, ahem, clientele that frequent the place in the small hours), this rooftop restaurant, with tables beneath a canopy of trees, serves a nice mix of sea food and has a sleek indoor club section with great live music on Thursday nights.

The Patel Brotherhood—Not as scary as it sounds, this Indian restaurant, situated alongside badminton and tennis courts, serves great, cheap Indian food. Most of the members and guests are local Indian families, and there are usually kids running around, and men sitting in far off corners smoking and talking quietly. Some nights, a projector is set up to beam cricket or football. You’ll also hear the call to prayer from a mosque nearby.

Rehobot—This is a great Ethiopian restaurant in the backyard of the woman who used to be the head chef at the other Ethiopian restaurant in Dar, Addis in Dar, but left to start her own business. (Snap!) It’s small (you literally walk through their living room to go to the bathroom), charming and inexpensive. Plus her husband makes great furniture.

Slipway—Now four months ago I would not have recommended Slipway to anyone. It always struck me as a fly-infested tourist trap. BUT, since the restaurant/bar renovation, I’m in love. Wide open tables, comfy couches, right on the water, it’s the best place for a drink to watch the sun go down. The food isn’t great, but watching the fisherman sail their Dhows in for the evening completely makes up for it.

Africafe—I bet some of you thought I was going to say that Epi DÓr was my favorite café in Dar, but you would be wrong! Granted, I spent every other day of my first six months in Tanzania at Epi DÓr—and the croissants are lovely—but they keep raising their prices and aren’t super nice to their staff. Go instead to Africafe up by Seacliff, where they have even better coffee, better music (not that I don’t LOVE Celene Dion and Michael Bolton on a loop) and occasionally, drum roll: free wireless internet. But only occasionally. When they remember to pay their bills. Don’t push your luck, ok?

New Kibo Business—If you’re in the mood for some local fare, try this pub nestled in the working class Kinondoni neighborhood of Morocco. Good mishkaki and beer, especially when there’s power.

*Chickens are often fed fish meal in Tanzania, which causes ficken, the dreaded by all experience of confronting a slightly fishy taste when you bite into your chicken sandwich. The horror.

Nairobi

Osteria del Chianti—Now there are two Osteria’s in Nairobi. You want to go to the one with the gelato shop outside, not the one in Westlands by the mall. This restaurant is the MOST charming, the COZIEST, the BESTEST Italian restaurant in Nairobi, with a smoldering fireplace inside and a warm glow of candles and lanterns outside. Good for long, meandering conversations over wine. Get the pasta with fresh tomatoes and basil. Delicious.

The River Cafe—Off Limuru Road, near Village Market, this place is also LOVELY. Really, really lovely. Tables nestled between gardens, grassy hills and a pond, surrounded by flowers and bougainvillea, the place feels like a bit of Eden in big, hectic Nairobi. Their breakfasts are delicious. Try the eggs benedict or eggs with grilled tomatoes.

Java House—Saying you like Java House in East Africa is a little like saying you like Starbucks in Seattle. Totally UNCOOL. But we’ve got to face facts: the coffee house chain is pretty damn great. First, most outlets offer free wireless internet. This is gold. Second: they serve Mexican food. Now granted, it’s Africa Mexican food, but hell. It’s been a long time. I’ll take what I can get.

Havana Bar—First question: why is there a Havana bar in every African capital (see Juba and Bujumbura below)? But to the point, this Westland not-so-divey dive bar is fun for a drink and people watching. Dimly lit and smoky, with walls painted cherry red, the music is loud, and the drinks are good. And if you get bored, there are a random smattering of bars all within stumbling (I mean walking) distance.

Addis Ababa

Lime Tree Café—Hands down, the best. Macchiatos to die for. Free wireless. Good music. And you can get a pedicure at the spa downstairs.

Top View—Up the hill from the Megenagna Roundabout, the view of Addis from this place is amazing (and the food is delicious to boot). The only place with a better view of the city is on the steps of the Orthodox church on top of Entoto mountain. Take a mini bus from the market, and slowly wind up and up the narrow road, through the foothills densely covered with eucalyptus trees, to the top of Entoto, over 10,000 feet up, in the clouds.

(Anyone have anything to add for Addis?)

Juba

Think fifty years of civil war are going to stop Juba, the capital of the soon-to-be-new-country, South Sudan from making the “patchwork restaurant guide” list? No way! South Sudan may be one of the most under-developed places on Earth, but they do have a few awesome restaurants.

Da Vinci—This mixed fare restaurant is expensive, but located right on the banks of the Nile, it’s worth it. Just down the river is the one bridge in Juba, which trucks traverse to bring goods in from Kampala in the south. At twilight, under the mango trees, when the Nile is silvery and calm, Da Vinci may be one of the most enchanting places in Africa.

Logali House—If you’re in the mood for something vaguely neocolonial, check out the restaurant and bar at Logali House, a charming boutique hotel definitely stands out amidst a sea of tents and containers in Juba. Their veranda is a great place to watch the game and have a glass of wine, but as with everywhere else in Juba, it’ll cost you. A burger runs about $18. The vege lasagna is particularly good and costs about the same.

Afex—This is actually a U.S. compound that started as a tent camp. They still have the tents, along with cottages for USAID contractors (that run about US$5,000-8,000 per month—hello aid dollars hard at work), but there is also a great buffet restaurant that is open to the public. Enjoy the burrito bar and mingle with some friendly neighborhood Blackwater contractors (I mean XE).

Havana—Right next door to Logali, this is where the Cuban-Jubans hang. A group of former Sudanese exiles—doctors, engineers, economists—started the place. They gather to share a bottle of whisky and talk, very often in Spanish, about the days when they were educated in Cuba during the civil war and. Havana has great pizza: try the pumpkin with fontina cheese.

Bujumbura

Rumors of coups and post-election violence hover like smoke over the tiny central African capital, but civil strife aside, Bujumbura is a culinary jewel.

Bora Bora—A Saturday afternoon at Bora Bora and you’ll consider retiring in Burundi. A stylish beach shack /bar/cafe/restaurant on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, you can chill out on wide couches by the pool and listen to mellow reggae tunes. Try the avocados with prawns.

Havana—This nightclub and lounge is sleek and stylish, the place to be seen on the weekends. Also a great spot to grab a beer and watch the game after a long day at the office fighting poverty.

Botanika—With candle light and palm trees swaying in the evening breeze, the quiet murmur of conversation and chink of wine glasses, this restaurant oozes intimacy, and the steak and chocolate mousse are amazing. (Alas, good wine is hard to come by in Bujumbura, but you will make due at this place.)

L’Archipel (and) Kiboko Grill—Both places have great Belgian fish dishes, with tables outside in the garden. Kiboko is set on the grounds of Ubuntu Residence, a charming inn on the lake, which has some of the warmest, friendliest staff in Bujumbura. Say hi to Blandine when you go.

Monrovia

TBD

01 September 2010

Groping for Relevance in Journalism*

It’s no secret that the journalism business—newspapers especially—is in the dumps. Profits are sinking, circulation keeps plummeting, and opinion polls show distrust in the media is growing: in 2009, the Pew Research Center found that only 29 percent of Americans say that news organizations generally get the facts straight, while 63 percent say that news stories are often inaccurate. (Read longtime journalist James Fallows chapter Why We Hate the Media, in Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy, for thoughts on why).

None of this is new. I remember attending a meeting when I worked at the San Diego Union-Tribune, in which one of the editors said that the simple habit of reading newspapers was “the only thing keeping this industry from a free-fall.” For a kid just starting out in the business (this was in 2003) it was crushing.

According to various studies, the number of newspaper editorial employees, which numbered more than 60,000 in 1992, fell to around 40,000 in 2009 (see CJR piece referenced below). Circulation has been on the decline since the 1940s.

Many blame the Internet, Google especially, for siphoning content, but Fallows disagrees: “If Google had never been invented, changes in commuting patterns, the coming of 24-hour TV news and online information sites that make a newspaper’s information stale before it appears, the general busyness of life, and many other factors would have created major problems for newspapers.”

“Journalism isn’t necessarily dying,” says a journalist friend at the New Yorker, “[but] the business model that supports it is. I don’t generally advise people to go into it. Most of my colleagues are thinking through their own Plan Bs. It’s a scary time.”

I don’t have the expertise to lay out all the various problems and potential solutions. For that read James Fallows’ June 2010 piece in the Atlantic, How to Save the News and the recent Economist interview with Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University and author of What Are Journalists For?

But let’s talk about reporting on Africa. The consensus, based on conversations in the dozen or so countries where I’ve traveled, is that it is woeful. Lazy. Inept. Misleading. Sensational. Cavalier. Dishonest. Out of touch. (There are notable exceptions such as Celia Dugger at the New York Times, The Guardian (UK) and others).

Weak international coverage is also not a new phenomenon (although hard financial times have seen newspapers trimming and/or closing foreign bureaus and an increasing reliance on syndication). This was, after all, what spurred Ted Turner to start CNN—to provide better coverage of non-Western countries.

But the bottom line is, in an increasingly interconnected world, coverage, particularly of Africa, is pitiful.

“I have no idea where I would turn to if I wanted good information on Africa,” says a journalist friend. This is a BIG problem.

But it is a problem that has spawned a sort of new journalism: Africa-hands don’t read mainstream newspapers to get their news about Africa (although we read them for fun and so that we can blog about how bad they are). We read the blogs of other Africa hands, and the kind of specialized reporting that I do for various international agencies and think tanks. In this space, there is a mix of content: some of it is great, a lot of it is mediocre.

Even if the new journalism was amazing, it wouldn't be enough. Trained journalists have a critically important civic role to play, holding those in power to account and providing information and analysis to help average citizens participate in civic life.

“Something is gained when reporting, analysis, and investigation are pursued collaboratively by stable organizations that can facilitate regular reporting by experienced journalists, support them with money, logistics, and legal services, and present their work to a large public,” say Leonard Downie and Michael Schudson in “The Reconstruction of American Journalism” in the Columbia Journalism Review.

Newspapers can, and will, find a way to cope with the challenges. For ideas on how to generate revenue, read Fallows and also Downie and Schudson, who recommend, among other things, that the IRS or Congress authorize independent news organizations that are “substantially devoted to reporting on public affairs to be created as or converted into a nonprofit entity or a low-profit Limited Liability Corporation serving the public interest, regardless of its mix of financial support, including commercial sponsorship and advertising.”

Shutting down print operations, as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and many others have done, is probably a good thing for many newspapers (think about the cost of making those enormous rolls of paper, shipping them, the expensive machinery that makes newspapers, delivering them door to door, and doing that everyday). They should also retain their reporting and editorial staff and pay them well—they are newspapers’ most valuable assets.

But maybe the biggest task is to convince people to believe, like we used to, that solid, trustworthy news is worth paying a small fee for. You give a little and get a lot.

But for this to happen, newspapers need to improve their content. In his Atlantic piece, Fallows recounts a conversation he had with the executive who started Google News. As the executive scanned tens of thousands of headlines a day:

“[H]e said that what astonished him was the predictable and pack-like response of most of the world’s news outlets to most stories. … their conventions and instincts made them all emphasize the same things… [which] indicated a faddishness of coverage…and a redundancy that journalism could no longer afford. ‘I believe the news industry is finding that it will not be able to sustain producing highly similar articles.’”

Newspapers must be willing to take smart risks. The New York Times has a gigantic global readership. Jeffrey Gettleman, their swashbuckling Nairobi bureau chief, writes about 80 percent of their East/Central Africa coverage. This means that, to the extent people get their news about Africa from the Times, one man is telling and shaping the story. News agencies must stop relying on the usual suspects and tap into the huge pool of hungry young journalists who are willing to put in long hours and work for practically nothing. They should broaden their reporting pool and publish unconventional pieces that are fresh, thoughtful, informative and interesting.

“It just seems to me," says Dean Nelson, a San Diego-based journalist, "that we’re in the same place we were a couple hundred years ago when there were dozens of newspapers in every city, each of them perpetuating the political voices that were supporting them. Journalism in America started out as pamphleteering, and now that everyone is a blogger/journalist, we’re back to where we were. Then, when the penny press came along and figured out a way to publish news more cheaply, things changed dramatically. We’re in that era now, where people are trying to figure out how to inform the public, protect democracy, AND make some money. In the meantime, a lot of journalism will continue to be done badly, with the exception of a few outlets who can stand to lose some money while it gets sorted out.”

*This title is based on Eugene Goodwin/Ron Smith’s Groping for Ethics in Journalism, a must read for any journalism student.

14 August 2010

The Believers

I’m sitting in the back seat of an old blue and white Russian Lada, looking through the drizzle flecked window at some wet goats standing in mud on the side of the road. The morning is gray and smells of petrol and exhaust and I have a headache from a bad night’s sleep.

The day before I’d showed up at the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital and asked to speak to its 84-year-old founder, Catherine Hamlin. I didn’t have an appointment, and was ambivalent about whether or not she would see me. I’d been travelling non-stop for three months, living out of a suitcase, eating with strangers. I felt dislocated and lost, weary of ideas, weary of writing.

But the hospital public relations manager, Feven, told me to come back in the morning at 9 o’clock and we could meet.

Now I’m stuck in traffic, and my driver, Fikadu, is creeping along the street like a snail. It’s okay, though. I need the time. Looking out the window—a crumbling church, an open market, masses of Ethiopians darting in and out of traffic—I try to think of questions for Dr. Hamlin. Usually, I have a list prepared for the people I interview. The questions have a logical, linear progression.

But when I think about Dr. Hamlin, my questions feel irrelevant, like abstractions (does aid work?) compared to her concrete reality (yes—these women were sick and now they are healed).

And when I arrive, ten minutes late, my mind, and notebook, are completely blank.

***

Feven tells me to have a seat while she fetches Catherine. I pick up a brochure, flip through it absently, then set it down and look out the open window. The morning air is cool and smells of eucalyptus. Nurses dressed in white walk along a corridor next to the admissions office, which, like the surgery and recovery ward, is nestled on a hillside among trees and flowers.

Then I see Dr. Hamlin, tall and conspicuous in a long white lab coat, walking slowly with a cane, Feven’s hand in hers.

Catherine Hamlin and her husband came to Ethiopia in 1959, after answering an advertisement in the Lancet Medical Journal, seeking an obstetrician and gynecologist to establish a Midwifery School at the Princess Tsehay Hospital in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. Fifteen years later, they established the Fistula Hospital, a place where women with horrendous injuries from childbirth*, women who have been abandoned, cast away to the margins, can come and be cared for, and in many cases made well again.

Dr. Hamlin's face is deeply lined and rosy, and as we sit down to talk, she tells me about the hospital, which provides fistula repair surgery to about 2,500 patients each year, and cures over 90 percent of them. They also care for fifty long-term patients, who are not able to be cured, and train local health workers and specialists. All services are provided free of charge.

In the opening pages of her book, The Hospital by the River, Hamlin says that she came to Ethiopia as an answer to the calling of God. Has her faith changed in the fifty years she’s lived in Addis?

—No, she says. There has always been good and evil in the world.

Do you ever get discouraged, I ask? Why did you stay when so many others have left?

—I was excited, she says. I was curing people.

***

One night in Nairobi, a friend and I had dinner with a young woman just arrived in Kenya to do research for her PhD. It was her first time in Africa, and in between bites of teriyaki chicken, she told us about the angst she was feeling, questioning the purpose and utility of development. Is it arrogant to come to a place you know nothing about and study it? Is it just another form of colonialism?

—Colonialism is underrated, my friend, M, interjected with a grin. The young woman laughed uncomfortably and shifted in her chair.

I frowned at M and asked her: What is the most defining thing about your first few weeks here? What do you feel most acutely?

She said: Guilt.

***

—Go easy on the newbie, I told M later in the car. I’ve been here a year, and I’m still pretty sure colonialism is NOT under-rated.

—I know, I know, he smiled, hurtling like a rocket through Westlands roundabout. But you can get lost in the debates forever. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think my job was important.

M works in conflict resolution and has lived in Kenya for three years. His job is to think about and work with groups most consider beyond the pale, outcasts.

—I choose to be here. I signed a contract. I know my work isn’t perfect. But I have to do the best I can with what I have.

***

Back in Addis, I’m sipping a macchiato with Owen Barder, head of aidinfo.org, an initiative promoting aid transparency.

He is, as usual, like loose electricity, overflowing with ideas and optimism. Where does this fierce belief in the power of shared information to change things for the better come from?

—I’m a hacker, he says, leaning over the table conspiratorially. I was shaped by the idea that information should be shared.

He tells me about a meeting he attended in Paris, in which donors who give about half of the world’s aid agreed to publish data more quickly, and in a common, open format, so that it is readily accessible, comparable, and easy to find.

Owen’s ambitions are massive. He wants to fundamentally realign incentives in the aid business, to change it from the inside out. How is a meeting in Paris going to do that?

—This is work, he says, undeterred. It’s slow and incremental. Over time, low key technical and technocratic changes will change the system dynamics, and hence the whole trajectory of the aid system.

***

It is easy, in the development business, to get caught up in words and ideas, to be mesmerized by doubt and uncertainty. But we must move on. People like Owen and Catherine and M believe in the work they are doing, not because they are under any illusions about its limits, but because they get up each morning and do the work. Because they try. Their dreams and hopes are grounded in responsibility.

***

As our interview draws to a close, I tell Dr. Hamlin: I don't want to leave! Your work is amazing!

She smiles: "They keep coming, though, year after year." The Fistula Hopsital gives women their lives back, but it does not solve the underlying problem of poverty and lack of access to basic health services that brings them there in the first place.

"But we're working on it," Hamlin says. She and her colleagues recently opened four mini-fistula hospitals throughout Ethiopia where prevention education programs are being delivered to communities and traditional birth attendants are being trained. They have plans for much more.

Outside, in the crisp morning air, Feven chides Catherine gently for being up and about so soon after hip surgery a few months ago. Catherine takes her hand: “There’s work to be done.”

*Obstetric fistula is a severe medical condition in which a fistula (hole) develops between either the rectum and vagina or between the bladder and vagina after severe or failed childbirth. A woman with obstetric fistula will suffer from incontinence and extreme social stigma.

11 August 2010

Dilemmas

One afternoon in Juba, I arrived at the headquarters of an international NGO to find that my interview had just left. I walked back to the car, kicking the dirt in frustration, then noticed, across the road, a sprawling neighborhood of mud huts tucked away behind a bamboo fence—a scene right out of rural Africa, in the middle of the capital of South Sudan.

I asked Joseph, my driver, if we could walk through the neighborhood. He was confused: do you want to interview people, he asked?

“No, I don’t want to bother them,” I said. “I just want to see it.”

He grinned, started the engine, and two minutes later we were at a pub down the road to pick up his friend, William, a soldier with the SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army) and part time bar-owner. William’s aunt lived in the neighborhood, and when Joseph asked, William offered to give us a tour.

“It’s called Tomling area,” he said as he led us down a narrow mud path, a labyrinth organized neatly along bamboo fences, around the neighbourhood of thatched-roof huts. We passed school children in navy blue uniforms on their way home from school; a woman in a pink and orange kanga hanging clothes on a line to dry; another woman stirring something in a steaming iron pot.

Tomling did not feel depraved, squalid—the words I used to associate with the word slum. But it was not all cheerful either. A middle aged woman lay in the dirt moaning; a man without a leg limped with a cane, barely able to cross the jagged mud road. Occasional bursts of sour air, the smell of human waste, wafted out of some of the structures we passed.

On our way out, I saw a young man in slacks and a polo shirt walking in front of us, out of Tomling, onto the main tarmac road. He had come from a mud hut, but now he’s walking down the street with everyone else.

I watched him: tall, back erect, book in hand, one foot in front of the other. He was not an image or an abstraction. Each footstep he took I imagined him looking back at me. In my mind he was saying: I am someone. I am someone.

***

In a recent New York Times op-ed, Slumdog Tourism, Kennedy Odede discusses the phenomenon of tourists paying to visit Kibera, the largest slum in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. He writes:

"...Many foreigners come to the slums wanting to understand poverty, and they leave with what they believe is a better grasp of our desperately poor conditions. The expectation, among the visitors and tour organizers, is that the experience may lead the tourists to action once they get home.

But it's just as likely that a tour will come to nothing. After all, looking at conditions like those in Kibera is overwhelming, and I imagine many visitors think that merely bearing witness to such poverty is enough.

Nor do visitors really interact with us. Aside from the occasional comment, there is no dialogue estabished, no conversation begun. Slum tourism is a one-way street: They get photos; we lose a piece of our dignity.

Slums will not go away because a few dozen Americans or Europeans spent a morning walking around them."

***

Maybe tourists paying to walk around slums, to spend thirty minutes snapping photos of another person's life, another person's hardship, is distasteful, irreverent, and unhelpful.

There are many thoughtful people, though, who think that, on the whole, it is a good thing, the same way some thoughtful people think student "mission trips" are a good thing, even if they do little to help the poor in developing countries.

"It has to be done completely differently, but they should absolutely be done," a friend of mine said. "And yes, if even 99 percent of the tourists don't feel like doing anything about global poverty, but 1 percent do, I still think that is a net positive."

Maybe. I'm inclined to agree, but then I wonder: if it was me in there, in the slum, and someone with more power and chances and money came to look at me, in my rags and filth, what would I feel? Humiliated. Powerless. I would feel anger at their pity.

Is there a way to do development tourism right?

***

And what if you work in the development business? What if visiting slums is part of your job?

I was in Nairobi a week ago, working on a story on a program that sells highly subsidized vouchers to poor women, who can use them at accredited health facilities to safely deliver their babies, among other things. One morning, I visited three such facilities. They were located in a slum called Korogocho, less well-known than Kibera but nearly as large and just as poor.

After an interview, the clinic manager took me on a tour of the facility. This is the reception, he said, the lab, the delivery room. I nodded, jotted down some notes.

Then he turned a door knob to take me into a room where a nurse was counseling a patient being tested for HIV. No, I said, reaching out my hand to stop him. We don’t need to go in there.

The tours are all the same: exhaustive, intrusive, helpful, uncomfortable, and bewildering.

***

Maybe it’s debatable—whether development professionals like me should be here at all. (I happen to think that we should.) But we are here because, despite the imperfections and inconsistencies of our business, this is the job we have chosen to do. And to do it well—to change the way things are for the better—we have to get as close as we can to reality as it is. Needing to see and understand poverty, even though we are not poor, is a dilemma we have to live with.

(Thanks to M for your fierce sense of getting on with it.)

08 August 2010

Eclipse (Dispatches from Burundi)

Thirty minutes west of downtown Bujumbura, past the flat, empty swamp lands of Gatumba, along a little two-lane road, is the border between Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

When I asked the taxi driver to take me there, he asked why I wanted to go.

—I just want to see it, I said.

He faked a smile and shrugged.

Truth was I wanted to see something other than the Bujumbura the New York Times’ travel section describes as “a freewheeling city of palm trees and colonial-era Art Deco buildings,” an unexpected oasis for expats—great restaurants and nightclubs, charming hotels—smack in the middle of war-torn central Africa.

Burundi is at peace now, but flash back to 1996: for the third time in a decade the government is turned upside down: the president has been overthrown in a military-led coup, even as it is still reeling from the murder of its two previous presidents—one in 1993 and another in 1994. The coup prompts the international community to impose economic sanctions. GDP falls by about 8 percent. The Burundian franc plummets. The government institutes fuel rationing, and all over the countryside, civilians are caught up in a brutal and bloody battle.

Since independence in 1962, ethnic and political conflicts have resulted in five wars in Burundi, left tens of thousands massacred and close to two million displaced or fleeing to neighboring countries.

Burundi has enjoyed several years of relative calm since holding its first successful post-war democratic election in 2005, but at the time of my visit, the international press was describing the country as dangerously close to the brink.

The International Crisis Group, for example, warned that tensions could escalate in the run-up to communal, presidential, then legislative elections, which began in May and continue through September. Opposition parties face harassment and intimidation from police and the ruling party’s youth wing is dangerously volatile, the report said.

Looking out the window of the taxi, I wondered: Where is this Burundi? And if I get away from my hotel, away from the familiar restaurants, offices, and cafes, and just drive, what will I see?

***

There were—technically—two lanes on the road to the border, but my taxi driver drove straight down the middle. There are always streams of bikes and people, loaded down with mattresses, grass, charcoal, but it was more crowded than usual. The further we went, the thicker traffic became.

Then we saw it from the road: what looked like thousands of people were gathered around a huge stage on a grassy field next to Lake Tanganyika, many wearing tee-shirts and baseball caps with the acronym CNDD emblazoned on them in red. (The CNDD—National Council for the Defense of Democracy—is the political party of Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza.)

We parked and got out. It felt like the fourth of July. There were flags everywhere (not the Burundian national flag, but the CNDD flag)—fluttering outside shops, draped across the hoods of pickup trucks, strung down peoples' backs like capes, on tree branches and the sides of buses. Young men were talking into loudspeakers, cars were decorated with balloons, groups of men and women were running in step together singing. The rhythmic stomp of their feet against the dirt was like a drum beat. It was buoyant, electric.

I took off my sunglasses and tried to look inconspicuous, which was ridiculous and impossible, especially with a band of barefoot kids following me, giggling. People gave me sideways glances and whispered as I edged my way toward the stage and watched as a man in a black cowboy hat talked forcefully into a microphone, his voice rising and falling like waves in a storm. He began to chant, his fist in the air—Shirira! Shirira!— and the crowd started chanting too. Their voices carried like a shockwave through the open air, reverberated like an insistent, pulsating eruption.

I looked at my driver. His face was grave and strained.

We turned to leave, and in the car, I asked him about the slogan they were chanting. What does it mean?

—It’s to make people afraid, he said.

I shook my head: I don’t understand.

He scratched his chin, and looked out the window. “Comme allumer,” he said. “It means to light up. To set on fire.”

***

I called a Burundian friend back in town and told her breathlessly: We must meet! You won’t believe what I saw!

She was unmoved: Don’t be fooled by all those people, she said. They are poor, they are given tee-shirts and food. Just because they are there does not mean they support the CNDD.

She told me that “meetings” like the one I’d seen were a dime a dozen in Bujumbura—there was nothing special about the rally I’d happened upon. And this specter of violence I'd read so much about? Unlikely, she told me.

"This is the problem: foreigners come here, and they see things and are told things, but they don't know how to interpret it. Most of what you read in the newspapers is wrong."

The art of reporting is more difficult than is generally assumed.

***
It's twilight and I'm sitting outside my hotel room at Ubuntu, watching a pair of cranes prance across the lawn. The air is filled with the rustle of palm trees, the quiet murmur of conversation and clink of china from nearby tables. Lake Tanganyika is just across the street. Its cool, silvery vastness conveys a tranquility that belies Burundi’s troubled past.

Then I hear it again—the pounding of feet and faint, distant chanting. I turn my head but I can’t quite make out where the sound is coming from.

Beyond the lake, the Congolese mountains, normally a tower of massive gray solidity, are obscured in the clouds, hidden.

(Nkurunziza was re-elected for another five year-term in June, with 91.62 percent of the vote. Observers praised the calm surrounding the election, but the government was heavily criticized for limiting freedom of expression. All six opposition candidates boycotted the vote following complaints of fraud in district elections in May.)

05 August 2010

There's No Blood Thicker Than Ink? (Dispatches from Kenya)

Nairobi is a gritty town. Sure, it’s got the shopping malls, the fancy restaurants—but underneath the veneer, Nairobi is a coarse industrial machine, with money and labor pumping through its veins like crude oil through a pipeline. You feel it on the road—black plumes of exhaust, traffic jam, horns blaring, streams of men and women weaving in and out of traffic, some selling things, others just on their way somewhere. Pass by petrol stations, car lots, and factories—cement, foam, tires. Then by an ocean of slums, waves of brown cardboard and tin, and along their periphery, commerce: blacksmiths, spare parts, sheet metal. There are lorries everywhere. From the back seat of my taxi I watch a man seated atop one, riding there in the back in the early evening haze, his shirt flapping in the wind.

***

In December 2007, Kenya held presidential and parliamentary elections. Incumbent President Mwai Kibaki was declared the winner, but his opponent, Raila Odinga, contested the result. The election commissioner admitted he didn’t know who won.

People began to say that the election had been stolen and riots broke out. First in the Rift Valley, they spread like a shockwave to the streets of Nairobi, ripping, tearing, blasting apart the sense of solidity that the country (and the world) had of itself. Buildings were set on fire, demonstrators were shot.

—We locked ourselves in our house for two days.

—I lived across from Kibera [a slum]. Even in the house we had to wipe our eyes from the tear gas police were using outside.

—If the international community hadn’t come in, this place would have been gone.

—Sometimes I don’t even like to remember.

Over 1,300 people were killed and hundreds of thousands displaced. Such things are not easily forgotten.

Which is why Wednesday’s referendum, in which a large majority of Kenyans voted in a new constitution, was monitored so closely. No one wanted what happened in 2008 to happen again.

Reports from international news agencies preceding the referendum suggested that Kenya was on the brink of a descent to violence:

“Kenyans will decide on Wednesday whether to adopt significant changes to their constitution, but the vote may produce violence rather than reform.” —Reuters


There are “heightened fears of political violence ahead of 6 Aug constitutional referendum.” — International Crisis Group


“Once again, many Kenyans fear that the prospects for more violence are increasing as their country heads toward another politically divisive turning
point.”—The New York Times’ Jeffrey Gettleman


The reports did not match reality. Most Kenyans felt relatively confident (rightly it turns out) that violence was unlikely. So was this just another example of the press painting African countries as more violent and chaotic than they really are? One more example of cowboy reporters making things sound more dangerous (and exciting?) in the cities where they are based? (Yes, Gettleman, that one’s for you.) Maybe that is part of it.

But maybe the speculation was also borne out of the doubts that appear, like cracks on the surface of an ice-covered pond, when our sense of the inevitability of stability is broken.

***

The constitution contains many landmark provisions—a Bill of Rights, land reforms, and limits to presidential powers. No one is sure if it will usher in a new era, one less riddled by corruption, one defined more by equality and opportunity than sickening poverty side by side with ostentatious wealth. It is, after all, just a document, just words. And we rarely live up to our words.

But words are not meaningless either. They express what we hope for, what what we think we have it in ourselves at our best to be. Maybe that's why, all around Nairobi, in newspapers, on billboards and banners, on the radio, scattered like flecks of gold on the beach, are words like Renewal. Healing. Unity. They are words about leaving the past behind, about bringing fighting to an end and having peace.

Making them real will require effort—mundane, unglamorous work. (For a good analysis of the challenges ahead, see John Githongo’s Fear and Loathing in Nairobi.)

But at least for now, there is a sense of possibility.

"Things change for the worse so quickly. They change for the better more slowly—but they can." --Bono

(With thanks to Matilda for taking the time to talk.)

30 April 2010

A Storm

There was nothing unusual about how it began. Mid-morning, and the skies were as bright as a flower—sunny and clear. Outside, peacocks fanned their feathers on the grass and a crow glided through the air, settling on the perch outside my window. My gaze returned to my computer screen; I scanned the morning headlines, and when I looked up a few minutes later, it was raining. The shower was cool and pleasant, and in April in Tanzania, fairly typical.

But instead of subsiding after an hour or so, it grew stronger and harder, and the drops became thicker and denser, until there were sheets of rain, and the sky was as white as snow and seemed to hover right on top of us. A colleague and I stared out the window in wonder until it was so blurry with water that we could no longer see through it.

It continued all afternoon and into the night and though the ferocity of the downpour let up, the rain itself carried on for three days. Paved roads became rivers. Dirt roads became thick with mud, impassable, with craters filled with filthy water.

Traffic jams lasted for hours. The day before the storm hit was a national holiday in Tanzania, and since most people took the day off, the roads were empty—it took about 12 minutes to get home. On the first night of the storm, it took nearly three hours to cover the same distance.

The next day at the office, colleagues compared traffic horror stories and tried to outdo each other with who sat in their cars the longest. Some asked: what will happen in the city next week, when Dar es Salaam hosts the World Economic Forum on Africa? How will the city cope with the extra traffic it will bring, plus the rain? Others shook their heads and said: the question is how this city will sustain itself at all, with more traffic, and more cars and more people every year (Dar es Salaam is one of the ten fastest growing cities in the world).

Meanwhile, we were informed that piped water in the city had been cut off because of damage to the pipes. It was not caused by the storm, but fixing the problem was made more difficult because of it. We went without water for two days at the World Bank, with acrid fumes of urine emanating from the bathrooms.

But at least we had satellite internet. While the storm raged and the taps went dry, much of the rest of the city also experienced disruptions of internet service because of a breakdown of the fiber optic cable that brings high speed internet to East Africa. It was like the whole city was on the blink, malfunctioning, haywire.

***

That was how about 30 percent of Dar es Salaam experienced the storm this week. The other 70 percent also experienced a storm, but differently.

Seventy percent of Dar es Salaam’s four million or so people live in unplanned settlements: no proper roads, no sanitation systems, no link in to water or power systems (less than 15 percent of the country is connected to the grid). This seventy percent didn’t lose power or internet because they didn’t have it to begin with. The roads in front of their homes became mud, and many neighborhoods were flooded. My three-hour commute was bad, but try doing it in a dala dala (i.e., a small Tanzanian bus)—squished, standing between five people, hunched over so your head doesn’t hit the roof, with no AC, just the choice of leaving the window open and letting rain splatter in, or shut, and letting the bus become a humid, foggy mess. For those who walk to work, the walk became harder and dirtier, and for those who sell vegetables, toilet paper and other sundries at little shops on the side of the road, business slowed.

The seventy percent don’t live far away, either—they live right next door. In the canyon between Kimweri road and Wonderwelders (a shop where expats go to buy gifts for friends and family back home) there is such a settlement, a community built along narrow alleyways; a sea of corrugated iron, of kids running barefoot in torn shirts. At night, little flames glow in the dark lit by tiny kerosene lamps.

The settlement is about five minutes down the road from where I and many of my colleagues stay, on Slipway Road, in million-dollar homes with lovely views of the water.

***

Two sets of people in one city, side by side practically, living different lives. One goes to eat and get her nails done and works out at places with generators, so most of the time, she isn’t even aware of how fragile the power supply is in this town. The other spends her nights in the dark. One treats herself to a 15,000 shilling sandwich and coffee at the sleek, urbane Kempinski hotel, and pays 10,000 shillings for the cab ride home. The other spends 1,500 shillings on a lunch of bananas and rice, and 200 for the dala dala home. One wears pretty scarves that she bought in New York. The other cleans them. One rents an apartment on Dar’s peninsula for $1,500 a month, while the other pays a kind of rent to the guy who “runs” the slum where her and her children live, except she doesn’t think of it as a slum.

The rain began to let up, but it was still sprinkling on the ride home from work yesterday. The director general of the Tanzania Meteorological Agency told The Citizen newspaper that the rains “might start to clear tomorrow” or “the situation might persist.”

Hard to tell.

23 April 2010

The Future Needs a Big Kiss

A year before coming to Tanzania, I had dinner one night in Dupont Circle with a friend. Both of us worked in development—him from the program side in southern Africa, and me from the policy side in Washington. Seated at an outdoor cafe, a bottle of red wine between us, we teased each other:

—Still trying to fight poverty by thinking about it in Washington, he asked?
—Still traipsing around Africa pretending you’re Jesus, I shot back?

While discussing development, my friend was as full of optimism and hope as a spring morning, but when the conversation turned personal—when we began to talk about our families—his mood darkened. He stared down into his plate, moving bits of fried calamari around with his fork.

Uncomfortable with the lull, I said brightly: I think I’ve figured out how we can change our lives.

My friend’s eyes lit up like a struck match. He asked:

—Do you think our lives can change?

I stared out at the sidewalk crowded with people on their way home from work, at the L2 bus zipping up Connecticut Avenue.

—Yes, I said, our lives can change. Tomorrow can be different from today.

***

The development business isn’t (ostensibly) about changing our lives. It is about changing other peoples’ lives. The question is to what extent those of us in the business (or anybody for that matter) believe that is possible.

But change how, you might ask? What is “development” anyway? Is it a moral duty, to save peoples’ lives, or help them live longer if we can? Is it increasing the number of choices people have? Is it transitioning entire economies and countries? Or is it simply a business—what aid agencies do?

Owen Barder, in his recent blog post Aid Policy Vs. Development Policy, identifies two types of development. On the one hand is the view that “development assistance should help to accelerate economic and institutional change in developing countries. The idea is that temporary support from the outside can be a catalyst for permanent changes.” This is what Owen calls development as transformation and it can be achieved with help from donors who support migration, trade, climate change, and other policies that help instead of hinder developing countries.

Another objective of development is what Owen calls solidarity. It consists of trying to improve peoples’ lives today (by, say, providing aid for health programs or schools) while we wait for the bigger, more fundamental and mysterious transformation to take place.

“I personally have my doubts,” Owen writes, “that aid makes much difference to the prospects for economic and social transformation. Countries change from within, through long, slow, organic processes, and it is hard to see how money and advice from outside can make much of a difference to that.”

***

My mobile phone says 8:02 a.m., and I wonder if the taxi driver will show. I’m always ready by 7:55, brimming to get out of the house, to get to the office, to have a cup of coffee and open my Gmail and the New York Times.

I grab my bag and walk down the dirt driveway to the road. There, another commute is taking place. Old women and young women, old men and young men, on foot, on bicycles, are on their way somewhere—to guard houses or clean them, to see a friend, or maybe to work at the hotels further down the road. I wish I could walk, like them, I think. I used to walk everywhere in Washington, DC—I’d walk for hours, even in the heat. But here when I walk I feel like a target, I’m always watching my back.

The ride in is quiet—I’m relieved the driver doesn’t want to talk. After seven months, I still know practically no Swahili, which I am both embarrassed about and resigned to. In the silence, I can just stare out of the window at the sea, which we drive by each morning on our way to town. The tide is swept out, so far it seems to recede all the way to the horizon. The tankers parked offshore seem to float just above the water, which is so dazzling, so glittering in the morning sun that it smacks me back into the reality that I’m in East Africa. That I came here because I wanted to come.

At the office a friend, a nutrition specialist, hands me a pamphlet put out by Uwazi, Tanzanian NGO, describing the state of nutrition in Tanzania. Though food fortification is a cheap and (relatively) simple way to save lives, the Tanzanian agencies responsible for moving the process along have spent most of the last decade in meetings and trainings, equivocating and delaying. So, this year, 43,000 more children will die in this country because they are malnourished, it says.

Later in the afternoon I meet a new colleague.

—What work do you do, I ask her?

—Private sector development.

—Oh really, how interesting. What’s happening with that?

—Not much.

And over dinner, a friend tells me that an agriculture program she is involved with, to help poor farmers purchase inputs like seeds, is in a shambles. “It’s just not working like it should. But obviously that doesn’t mean we’re going to stop it.”

***

That evening, I sit down on the couch and turn on the BBC. Headlines flicker across the screen: a funeral; an election; a flood; a truce. Then two advertisements play, one after the other. One is a general pitch for Africa, full of those familiar, sweeping panoramas of the Serengeti—a giraffe, some smiling Maasai, melodic tribal singing. The other is more somber. An NGO is encouraging viewers to donate money to their cause by panning in on a frail African woman lying on a cot beside a cement wall in a bare room. She is being fed by a nurse in all white, and we are told that this woman is sick but that she will get better. Because she has medicine, which costs only a little, she will live.

As I watch I think: oh yes, I remember. That’s how I used to feel about development.

***

No matter what you think development is, one thing is certain: it is hard. When we say change ultimately comes from countries themselves, what we really mean is that change ultimately comes from people themselves, and people are a messy lot, slow to change, a bit shabby sometimes, if well-intentioned.

So what you must believe, if you're going to be a part of the development business, is that your own life, that is, that you, can change. An enterprise, tired from false starts and disappointments, needs some new energy, and hope that we can be stronger and braver and better than we are. That's why a movement like Twaweza, a brand new citizen action initiative in East Africa, has caught fire so quickly: because it embodies this kind of optimism. Maybe its popularity is illustrative of the fact that, despite our collective fatigue, deep down we still believe change is possible. Who would have thought?

17 March 2010

Making Excuses

An American I know who works in southern Africa had girl trouble recently. The trouble wasn’t so much the girl as it was him: he’d pursued her hard, emphatically, then just when she’d started to warm to him, he backed off suddenly, dropped out of sight. The girl was understandably pissed, and in an attempt to explain his careless behavior, he told her this:

"Intense things take hold of you here in Africa when you least expect it or are prepared. You can say 'wow, I'd never do a thing like that' and you do."

***

It’s Saturday night, and everyone’s out, drinking at a local dive. Around 2 a.m. we gather to leave. In the parking lot, a young American girl stumbles in high heels to her car, fumbles for her keys, cheeks flushed from the heat and too many beers. She opens the door, gets behind the wheel and, laughing, says: “Man, I would never do this at home.”

***

Some friends and I are having brunch at a local café when an old expat couple walks in and stops to say hello. When they pass we exchange furtive glances and smile. The couple are friendly but quirky—they seem to have abandoned all the formalities associated with their former life in the West. Like other “lifers” they sometimes seem slightly unhinged, paranoid, and just plain weird. My friends and I joke about it: “That’s what happens when you stay in Africa too long.”

***

In his January 14, op-ed The Underlying Tragedy, New York Times columnist David Brooks, discussing the development failure of Haiti, suggests that the culprit, the thing that keeps some poor countries poor, is culture.

“It is time to put the thorny issue of culture at the center of efforts to tackle global poverty,” he says. “Most of the world’s poorest nations [suffer] from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences.”

Brooks’ solution is to find, “self-confident local leaders who will create No Excuses countercultures…surrounding people…with middle-class assumptions, an achievement ethos and tough, measurable demands.”

Could this be true? And is it this culture that drives us, expats, to such strange behavior when we’re here?

***

The danger is that we’ll say no too quickly. None of us wants to suggest that a country’s culture is somehow responsible for poverty, to imply that something about the culture is wrong, not as good as our own. Moreover, donors, painfully aware of the meager impact of much of our aid and effort, are keen to take the blame for development failures.

But even as our instinct is to take the blame, we are also just as quick to point the finger. Our constant griping about the frustrations of living here, for example, contains implicit criticism of culture.

—I walked into the post office and the woman at the counter just stared at me. I had to practically harass her to get her to help me…why’s it so hard to just do your job?

—I know what you mean. We’ve been trying to schedule a meeting with the Ministry for months—they don’t respond, they delay, they equivocate. It’s like we’re the only ones who care about this project.

—Don’t even get me started. My driver was an hour late today, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Tanzanian incompetence!

—At least you have a driver. With taxis, it's constant negotiation no matter how loyal you are to them. All I am is a dollar sign to these people.

—Yes, but what do you expect? It's just another form of corruption, and corruption is part of the culture.

We shake our heads in resignation, we huff and puff—but press us on the issue and most of us will tell you the same thing: if you need someone to blame for development failures, throw a rock in the air. You’ll hit someone guilty.

***

Brooks wasn’t wrong to point the finger at developing countries. They are as responsible for their own development (and its failures) as donors, and it’s a good thing to puncture a hole in the chorus of donor knee-jerk self-flagellation.

But even if there are things about living in developing countries that expats (rightfully) find troubling, it does not excuse our own mistakes. Donor aid that is 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—and expats who are reckless, who feel above the rules of the countries they live in, who are arrogant and careless—all these things are still our mistakes and we have a responsibility to address them.

Moreover, talk of culture, that amorphous word dripping with generalizations and contradictions, is often a sign of desperation, the thing you blame when you don’t know what else to do, when you’ve given up, when you’ve resigned yourself to ineffectiveness and failure. Culture is an excuse, in other words, for not dealing with the troubling fact that there are many things rich countries could do today to address poverty but are not. (For an idea of some of these things, see a blog post by CGD president Nancy Birdsall that offers ten actionable ideas for global development—practical things rich countries can do now to improve global equity and prosperity.)

***

Everyone who works in development will from time to time have to face the colossal disappointment of ineffectiveness. It's easy to be mesmerized by uncertainty, to sink into resignation and finger pointing, but we must move on. There are many things we—donors and developing countries both—can do now to improve the lives of poor people in poor countries—the question is whether or not we will try.

Interlude

Keep walking, though there’s no place to get to
Don’t try to see through the distances
That’s not for human beings
Move within, but don’t move the way fear makes you move
Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened
Don't open the door to the study
and begin reading
Take down a musical instrument
Let the beauty we love be what we do
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground

--Rumi

18 February 2010

A Safari (Adventure!)

There’s a scene in Out of Africa where Meryl Streep and Robert Redford are trekking across the Kenyan wilderness, tracking lions, when one of them suddenly bursts out of the bush with a ferocious growl and charges them. Streep instantly lifts her rifle and shoots it dead, then turns to Redford and watches in stunned silence as he comes to her side and gently wipes the blood from her mouth, where she had bit her lip in exhilarating terror.

Our safari was not like that. To start with, we did not carry rifles, nor did we wear khaki (I wore jeans—which are, it turns out, not an ideal clothing choice for safari). But it was an adventure nonetheless.

With my friends Kevin and Jean, I left Dar es Salaam Saturday morning in a spunky Rav4 (the expat car of choice—tougher than a sedan, but not as neocolonial as a Landrover), drove through the outskirts of town and up the Morogoro Road towards Mikumi National Park, a lesser sister to the grand game parks of the north.

Mikumi offered instant gratification: from the highway we saw an assortment of wildlife: elephants and giraffes, baboons and gazelles. We took some photos, went to the lodge, had a hearty dinner of macaroni and cheese, and went to bed, full of food and anticipation of the safari to come.

Early the next morning, freshly showered and optimistic, we set out into the park. With a map that identified points of interest, which helpfully corresponded to numbered markers on the road, we made our way 10 kilometers or so to the “hippo pool,” and saw, as you might have guessed, hippos sleeping in a crater-like pool of water. When we discovered that sleeping hippos don’t do all that much (and also that they smell), we returned to the car and set off down a road that lead 30 kilometers out and before looping back around to the main gate.

The sky was patchy blue and gray, the air was warm. The valley, dotted with acacia trees, swept out for miles, and far out on the horizon, mountains shown like shadows in the haze. With the windows rolled down, we watched with wonder as elephants led their young across the veld, giraffes stretched their necks to the tree tops, gazelles pranced and zebras grazed. Birds as colorful as a kaleidoscope flitted through the air and buffalo covered themselves in mud to fend off the midday heat.



Further along the road began to change. It became jagged and littered with tall, sharp grass, and the plains were swallowed up by high bush that surrounded us on both sides. We stopped seeing animals, and other cars, and the air outside was suddenly thick with horse flies. We stared out the windows, saying little, until Jean finally broke the silence:

—Dudes, this is BORING.

Kevin and I heartily agreed, but before we could find a place to turn around, we lumbered around a bend and were confronted with a steep embankment that led down to a muddy river. (Okay, river might be a bit of an exaggeration; let’s call it a healthy creek.)

Discussion ensued—to cross or not to cross. We decided to cross.

Now, looking back, one might say that there were various Signs that, had we paid attention, might have helped us to avert the fate that I am about to describe. There was the carcass on the side of the road near the hippo pool, the vulture, grim as a hangman, perched on a dead tree that watched us as we drove by, and the ash gray thorn tree that had fallen into the road, blocking our path (which we decied to drive around). Yes, perhaps the less adventurous traveller would have been deterred by these Coincidences—but not us!



We buckled our seatbelts, held our breath and descended into the water and up the steep rocky climb on the other side. Relieved and emboldened by our good decision (we made it!), it took us a second to notice that the “road” on the other side of the river/healthy creek was nothing more than grass and bush. So we turned around and crossed back, but this time, hit the water at too steep an angle, lodging our front tires in the mud.



Kevin stepped into the muddy water and tried to push the car to no avail. I got out, threw a branch across the water, crossed over and offered to push. (Kevin was hugely relieved to benefit from my added strength and resourcefulness.) We got down on our knees, braced against the oven-hot hood, and listened as the engine clicked, whimpered, and died. The battery was dead.

So there we were, three safari adventurers, up to our knees in mud, with a car nose down in a river/healthy creek with nothing but our wits to save us.

***

Our wits AND cell phones. Now you would think that the park paperwork (receipt, map, permit for the car) would have in-case-of-emergency telephone numbers on them, but you would be wrong. There were no telephone numbers. Our Tanzania guidebook had a generic Mikumi number, which we tried, but there were two challenges: first, reception was spotty and two, when, for a fleeting moment we connected, no one answered.

So we called a hotel instead, and got through to a receptionist who said she would send help. As a backup we also texted a friend in Dar, letting him know where we were and asking him to “do something” if he didn’t hear back in an hour and a half, since by then we wagered we would either be rescued or our phones would be dead. (*Handy survival tip: before heading out into the African wilderness make sure your phone is fully charged, and that you have credit.)

Assured that help was on the way, we had only to sit and wait. So we did the things that everyone does when they're stranded in the middle of a Tanzanian game park. We applied sunscreen and mosquito repellent vigorously. We found spots to go to the bathroom that weren’t too embarrassing. We made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. We told ourselves it could be much worse. We played games, drank water, and reflected on the meaning of life (ok, that last one not so much). We sunk into various stages of delirium.

After two hours, I asked the question that we had been trying to avoid: So guys, what if no one comes?

Silence.

Just as we began contemplating our options (walk back through the park and take our chances with all those cuddly animals we'd passed hours earlier, or stay in the car overnight), a white Landrover turned the corner, and out came two park rangers who valiantly resisted the urge to smack us upside the head for getting ourselves stuck in a river/healthy creek on a road that was clearly impassable.

They jump started the engine, dragged the car out of the water and escorted us to the main gate. It was unclear if the escort was for our own good or for theirs.

***

Based on our safari adventure, I would like to offer my fellow travellers three handy survival tips:

  1. When you encounter a steep embankment with a muddy river at the bottom and a high grassy impassable road on the other side, DO NOT attempt to cross, not even for adventure’s sake.

  2. Try not to take too many photos of your safari breakdown adventure when the park rangers come to rescue you. They find this a tad annoying.

  3. And finally, don’t test Africa. Africa always wins.