07 January 2010

Foggy Illuminations (Thoughts on Three Months in Africa)


I woke up at 4 a.m. to the sound of the call to prayer. The low melodic voice wafted up to God like smoke from burning incense, lonely in the black night.

My sleep had been turbulent, full of dreams. In one, I dove into a pool and descended through the cool watery depths to touch bottom. Then up, and up. But I can’t seem to reach the surface. The harder I push, the further away it seems. I’m running out of breath. Not sure I’m going to make it. Then finally I pierce the surface and wake up with a shock, gasping for breath.


I knew it would be hard, moving to Africa. Intellectually, I could anticipate the challenges. But Gabriel Marcel* was right: there are certain thresholds which thought alone can never permit us to cross. An experience is required. After three months in Tanzania, experience taught me that I didn’t have a clue what I was getting myself into when I came here.

Everyday life—work, phone, internet, groceries, exercise, banking—all of it is hilariously challenging. My friends and I began to feel like a band of refugees on some desert island, shipwrecked, thirsty, slowly cracking up.

And then there was the robbery. My finances had taken a hit, along with my sense of security, and my ankle is still healing.

I turned off my alarm, got out of bed, and took my suitcase outside to wait for the taxi to the airport. My neighborhood, normally a carnival of activity, was vacant—and as quiet as a cathedral.

The cab driver made small talk as we drove, but I was impatient, eyes fixed on the road. I looked out the window at the asphalt rushing furiously beneath the car. That’s how I had begun to feel: like I was spinning round and round. I felt pursued, hunted. Something like a drumbeat was behind me, spiraling closer, until I thought I couldn’t handle one more day, one more hour, in this town.

I boarded the plane to Johannesburg like it was the last flight out of Saigon.


The first time I came to Africa, I met a woman named Linda. A slender blond in her fifties, Linda lives in Zambia with her husband, who works for an international NGO. One day she took me to the community center she runs in a poor shanty town in Lusaka. She showed me around the school for orphans and the rooms where women make purses out of plastic bags, which she sells in the United States (the profits fund the center).

Linda seemed edgy that day; she walked quickly, with her head down. As we left, she said suddenly: “some of these women are just lazy.” Her words were short and choppy, like bullets flicked through the air. “They don’t appreciate any of this, you know?” The women had fallen behind on the bags they had agreed to make. Linda wouldn’t have enough to send back with me to the States.

When we got in her truck and pulled out, she rolled down her window and snapped at the young man who was supposed to be manning the gate. He waved a hand in apology, but she hissed: “Quit standing there and do your job.”

When I returned to Washington, I told friends about the places I’d seen and people I’d met.

—What about the expats, they asked?

—They are like barnacles, some of them—hard and cynical, but they’re not going anywhere.

I was thinking about Linda.

I didn’t realize that after only three months in Africa (Linda has lived here on and off for thirty years) I’d sometimes feel the same way: frustrated, at the end of my rope, done being polite, politically correct. I didn’t realize that there was much more going on that day than what I could see.


From Johannesburg I drove to Swaziland to spend three weeks on holiday with my good friend, Lou. It was a welcome contrast to Dar. Mountainous and cool, smell of pine and eucalyptus, and smaller, less frenetic. The streets are smooth and wide, there are sidewalks and playgrounds and dedicated bus stops. Homes, even in poor rural areas, are tidy and attractive. And with the bustling South African port city of Durban just a few hours away, there are grocery stores full of nearly everything you could want (including Mexican-style beans!).

Swazi felt like a development haven compared to Tanzania.

—If I had to be poor in Africa, I’d live in Swaziland, I told Lou.

I hadn't heard much about Swaziland in Washington, but Tanzania was consistently hailed as the golden child of Africa, a development darling. When President Kikwete came to town, members of Congress and the cream of the development policy crop would roll out the red carpet, and talk of new programs and new possibilities. There was much patting of backs and self-congratulations. Aid can work, people would say.

Which is why it was such a shock to arrive in Dar and find so much that was still a mess: horrible roads, constant power outages, lack of sanitation and clean water, few public spaces. I loathed Dambisa Moyo’s book Dead Aid (see my unconventional review of it here) but in Dar es Salaam, I found myself asking questions like hers’: rich countries have poured billions of dollars into this country in the last decade, and what has been gained?

I confessed my confusion to a colleague who has worked in Tanzania for decades. He nodded quietly in agreement then said:

—You’re right, but look, if you had been here in the nineties, things were a lot worse. This country has made huge progress.

And in Swaziland, despite good roads and grocery stores, there are other realities. In the capital of Mbabane, Lou took me to a site where he is conducting a survey on male circumcision, one of the interventions to slow the speed of HIV/AIDS. Swazi has the highest adult aged HIV prevalence rate in the world—26.1 percent.

It doesn’t help that the king, one of Africa’s three remaining monarchs, is a polygamist who made waves in 2001 when he married a 17 year old (he has 14 wives). Jobs are hard to come by, even for the educated, and being a woman compounds the problem. I asked the Swazi girlfriend of one of Lou’s colleagues what she wants to do after university. She said: get out of Swaziland.

The juxtaposition of Tanzania and Swaziland was a reminder, again, of my limited vision. I had known intellectually before, but now could really see, that each African country is making some progress, and each is facing gigantic challenges.

Development takes time. And time is not linear.


I’d considered leaving Africa. Spend another three or four months in Tanzania, then go back to Washington or maybe London. Back to tree-lined streets and not being sick all the time, back to order and rules I understand.

But then I was on the road one afternoon, warm sunshine touching my face through the window. I was with friends: the doctor who tends to the sick and poor in Zambia; the aid worker who helps women access safe abortions; the statistician who evaluates donor aid programs. I was glad to be with them, glad to be part of the huge tide of people who come here because they want to help. And suddenly I didn’t mind that it isn’t easy—I didn't mind because it’s real.

And I knew then that I wanted to stay.

*Quoted, A. Gelin, Les Pauvres de Yahve, Paris, 1954, p. 57.


  1. Lindsay,
    I really enjoyed this post because I could definitely relate to it. I have only been in Ghana about 2 months, and I am having a lot of the same frustrations and thoughts, very similar to Linda's, actually. Like, you, I am coming to the same conclusion that development not only takes time, but it takes a LOT of time, and time moves more slowly here for every single thing.

    Changing culturally ingrained norms and mindsets seems to me to be one of the most important factors in actually making development sustainable in the long term, but it is precisely this that takes the most time and investment. We should discuss more, becuase I have some very good, recent examples from the health space. But don't fret. I always decide to stay, too!

  2. nicely written. But Dar is my home and I'm sorry it disappoints. You also remind me of how different it is from anywhere else - other coastal cities, other East African cities.

    And you made me laugh with your 'what a dump' section, because in many ways - let's face it - it is.

    Lots to think about.

    Now to you put you in my reader.

  3. Thanks very much for the comment, an honor -- love your blog.

    I don't think Dar is a dump at all (!) just that life here is not easy. And like I said, the discrepancy between the rhetoric in Washington and reality here is massive. It doesn't mean Dar is failing -- quite the contrary -- merely that donors in donor capitals have expectations that can rarely be met, and plan their programs without enough inoput from peope who are actually here.

    Anyway, big thanks again for reading my blog.

  4. Ach. I can't work out if dar is failing or not. Though stick in traffic at Ubungo with sadly alienated youths trying to sell one top up vouchers, one can easily think so. But it is unique and I'm a proud Dar advocate ultimately! And thanks for reading mine!