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?