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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

When You Are the Only Jew for Miles Around

I don't know about you, but I always feel most Jewish when there are no other Jews around. When I'm NY or even Washington, DC I don't walk around thinking "hey, I'm Jewish". But when you are in rural Tanzania and no one knows that you are Jewish but all assume that you are Christian - that's when I feel my Jewishness most profoundly.

It is not like anyone would care. Seriously. Most of the American Jews I know think that the whole world is against us. But frankly, that's a very Jewocentric view of the world. The truth is - and I know this because I've traveled the world - most people don't even know what a Jew is. I don't walk around with my Jewishness on my shoulder because it would just be confusing for the people I'm working with. Seriously. Let me give you an example of a conversation between myself and our fabulous nanny, Secunda. Mind you, Secunda is pretty with it for here. She speaks excellent English and even spent a year living in Arlington, VA with an Embassy family that took her back to be their nanny.

Secunda: "Hally, do you and the children go to church on Sundays?"

Hally: "No. We don't go to church. We are not Christian."

Secunda: "Don't go to church? [Confused] You mean you are Muslim?"

Hally: "No. We are Jewish. Instead of church we go to a synagogue, which is like a church but it is where Jews go to pray."

Secunda: "You're Jewish? I don't understand."

Hally: "It's another religion like Christianity. But it is different."

Secunda: "So you believe that Jesus is the Lord Savior?"

Hally: "No. Jews don't believe that Jesus was the Messiah. But actually, remember, Jesus was a Jew."

Secunda: "No. Jesus was a Christian."

Hally: "Actually, Jesus was a Jew who taught about a new way of thinking and living. After he died some of the people who followed him created a new religion called Christianity."

Secunda: "I don't understand, Jesus was a Christian. He assended to heaven. They never found his body"

Hally: "It's OK. What religion we are doesn't matter much. What only matters is how we live our lives and treat others, right?"

Secunda: "Yes. You are right. That's what Jesus taught. That's why he's a Christian. So you don't believe in Jesus?" [Even more confused.]

Now, my friends, I'm sharing this with you only because I've had the exact same conversation probably more than 100 times over the past 10 years. And what I've learned is that Jews just aren't on the radar screen for most people in the world, especially here in Africa. Perhaps that will reduce some of our paranoia.

But every now and then I have moments when I'd like to open people's minds. For example, yesterday I was at the Word and Peace Organization (WAPO), a Pentecostal denomination here in Tanzania which has a VERY dynamic Arch Bishop who is head of the Tanzanian Council of Bishops and also a Tanzania AIDS commission officer. I've become extremely found of Bishop Sylvester and I think that he has become fond of me. We are going to fund WAPO Mission to do some work promoting partner reduction and they have a huge reach of several million people. We've been meeting several times a week - along with my Tanzanian counterpart, Abdulrazak. Now Abdulrazak is not Christian, but the Bishop is fond of him, too. And when we are in meetings together, especially when other WAPO officers are around, the Bishop teases Abdulrazak in a very lighthearted way about being Muslim, and Abdulrazak reciprocates. Just last week we were in a meeting in his new rural center with 20 or so people planning for the launch of our joint campaign and the Bishop once again pointed out partner reduction is for everyone, except for maybe his friend, the Muslim, Abdulrazak. I responded with a note to Abdulrazak:

And they think there is only one non-Christian in the room. We've fooled them, huh? :)

Now everytime we go to the Bishop and he teases Abdulrazak, the non-Christian in the room, Abdul and I share a knowing glance. As for me, I'm waiting for the right, most impactful time to share with the Bishop that his assumption of my Christianity is just that, assumed. And it makes me smile to think of the conversation we will have - about Jesus being a Jew and all. And I'm enjoying it all the more, because I'm sharing the secret with my Muslim colleague.

Just yesterday I was about to "come out of the closet" when another colleague asked the Bishop what was going on in the building next door, where there were a bunch of handicapped people lined up.

"Ah," said Bishop Sylvester, "that is where we cleanse people who have been taken over by demonic forces."

Abdulrazak and I exchanged glances again - both thinking the same thing. Perhaps I should wait a bit longer... :)

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Settling In Allowances

Some of you have asked me what I'm doing to settle in to my new fabulous, exotic African life. I've decided to oblige and have created this list for you. It is not conclusive, but it is representative.

1) I've signed up for satellite TV so I can get some of the exciting TV the South African cable conglomerate DSTV has to offer. Let's see... on Sunday I watched Will & Grace followed by Seinfeld. Last night, I caught a move, The Birdcage!

2) I've been shopping at one of the various overpriced supermarkets. Let's see... I bought Cheerios for the kids, and light mayo and Quaker Oats rice crackers for me to go with my whole wheat bread and slices of hickory smoked ham for lunch.

3) Tonight the kids, Secunda and I went to have dinner at Spur, a Tex-Mex themed restaurant that is the main place people here take their kids when they go out. The kids and I had quesadillas.

4) Over the weekend I was invited to the home of a lovely lesbian couple who have DI (donor insemination) kids. Turns out they are also Jewish and we talked about how to spend the holidays.

5) I've been surfing the internet for fun things I'd like to buy and reading my favorite sites... cnn.com, nytimes.com, washingtonpost.com, and people.com. (Not in that order.)

6) On Saturday I took the kids to the birthday celebration of a colleague's son. They had hired clowns, a bouncy castle and people dressed as Winnie-the-Pooh and Tigger, too.

So mes amigos, you can see that my life here in Tanzania is totally different than the one I led back in DC. I'm so missing my liberal/NY-oriented TV shows, Whole Foods, Cactus Cantina, gay Jews, easy access to the Web, and fun social events for the kids.

I don't know how I'll ever get used to it here!

Friday, June 23, 2006

Hey Baby, Come Here Often?

Here's the scenario:

I get an invitation to a beach party. I'm nervous. This is my big opportunity to meet someone special. You know, someone I can really spend my time with here in Dar. Someone who will listen to me when I'm down, play with my kids, be there for me when I need them. Someone to take away some of my loneliness of being a new girl in a new town.

I dedicate some time the day before trying to figure out what to wear. I want to project the right imagine. I want to try to fit in. Whether or not to wear a bathing suit is the biggest question on the table. Bathing suits don't really suit me. But what if everyone there is swimming?

Day of the party I stand back and scan the beach. Who do I find attractive? Who will help me meet all my aspirations above.

Finally, I find someone. I approach her.

Me: "So, have you been here before?"

Her: "Yes. I was here last year. And you?" [She's got a fabulous Russian accent!]

Me: "I'm new here, I just moved 3 weeks ago."

Her: "Wow, you are new blood!"

Me: "Yes, I am the new kid on the block."

Her: "And, [pointing at me] are those yours?"

Me: "Yup. I got two of them. Aren't they beautiful?"

Ladies and gentlemen... this is a real live story of the day I attended Jaden's and Rowan's end-of-the-year school party! I spent the entire day trying to "pick up" moms with kids in a similar age range with the hope against hope of making a new friend - or at least a playdate.

And I didn't do too badly...

I ended up with two phone numbers. This is much better than I would have done in an actual pick-up scenario.

And now, I'm waiting the requisite three days before I call. I want to seem interested, but not too interested :)

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Listening to the Dentist Finally OR How I Became More Like My Dad

This is a story of behavior change and personal transformation. It may not be very interesting to you. But I've been thinking about it a lot, and I thought I'd share.

OK, "personal transformation" might be going too far. But it is about behavior change. And I should know all about behavior change because... well... behavior change is my professional specialty, and it has also been the bane of my existence my whole adult life. So when I see myself making a big change (like when I gave up Diet Coke in 1999 - which lasted until late 2003) I figure it is worthy of a story.

There are two parts to this story:

Part One: Do you remember when your dentist first told you to floss your teeth? I remember it well because it was a shock to me as a 20-something year-old that managing to brush your teeth twice-a-day wasn't enough of an effort to maintain your glossy whites. For about 10 years I outright dismissed the mild pressure to floss. Believe it or not, I've got a small mouth. It is not so easy to stick my hands in there, and I hate the feeling of bringing the floss back up out from between my teeth with a twang. It wasn't my thing, and I wasn't going to do it. But in my 30s, and particularly in recent years, the pressure to floss from my dental hygenist has become more like a moral plea from a Pentecostal minister.

Sinner, change your ways. Floss or you are going to hell!

Nevertheless, despite half-hearted efforts in the days immediately following a dental appointment, I never picked up the habit. I find better company among the flossing sinners than the saints who floss twice-a-day. (And in my old job there were always women in the ladies room at lunch flossing their teeth - which I found kind of gross in a public bathroom.)

Part Two: In the rest of the world, meat has copious amounts of fibrous strings. Most people don't really know about that in the US anymore because the meat we eat has been bio-engenered to be meaty and smooth. But everywhere else, you eat a piece of chicken and you get a lot of it stuck between your teeth. And if you eat beef... you could be picking at your teeth for days. Let's face it, even if you have long fingernails and no inhibitions about sticking your hands in your mouth to pick your teeth, you still need help getting the meat out. This is why God invented toothpicks. And toothpicks are present on every table here at restaurants fancy and cheap. Most people, mzingu (white folks) included, spend some amount of time with two or three toothpicks working out the pieces in the course of any given day. Unfortunately, there is a toothpick quality problem. The toothpicks here fall apart easily. And in fact, I had a toothpick splinter in my gum just two weeks ago. But in the end I was lucky and it worked itself out.

The Transformation: Today I can announce to you that I have found the mountain. I have flossed every single day since I arrived in Tanzania. It took a combination of fear of having to go to the dentist here (which I'm told I need to fly to Nairobi or Johannesburg to do instead of submitting myself to the local witch dentist) and the fact that every night, despite many minutes a day of picking my teeth with low quality toothpicks, I have a bounty of pieces of chicken, beef or whatever twanging satisfactorily out of my mouth. It just goes to prove that structural/environmental interventions work best for achieving behavior change. And in a strange way, this has brought me closer to my Dad, who has picked his teeth every day of his life much to the dismay of his family.

Dad, I get it now. Come visit me in Tanzania where you will be welcome (indeed encouraged) to pick your teeth as much as you'd like. Karibu sana.

And, if you are coming to visit me, I suggest you bring your own high-quality toothpicks - gum splinters suck.

PS I'm also working (in my head) on a blog about how totally annoyed I am with the field of public health and how I'd like to sock it to all the self-righteous health educators telling women they are terrible mothers destroying their children's future if they formula feed, and trying to make restaurants conform to their food ideals. I think they have gotten out-of-hand... empowered by their successes against smoking. Their attitude is just alienating the people they are trying to help. Screw them!

Monday, June 19, 2006

Send Me Your Love, Please

I bet like me, you are relatively new to blogging.

Well, did you know that one of the things that keeps bloggers like me writing away every day is the "love" we get back from our admiring public in the form of comments on blog entries?

It's true.

And over here in TZ, I have no idea if I'm writing for all my pals, or just my Mom. I have no way of knowing unless you send me your love.

So keep me motivated by taking a moment out of your day - on occasion - and writing a comment on a blog that makes you laugh, makes you cry, or that makes you think what the fuck is she doing over there?

Yours thankfully (in advance),


I Resign

Three and a half weeks into our two years in Tanzania I am already resigning myself to a few realities.

I'm resigned that Jaden's skin and the Tanzanian plants/air/animals may not be a great match. (At least the allergy medicine that he's on now has stopped him from itching all day.)

I'm resigned to sleeping under mosquito netting. Although it may seem romantic from a far, it is a big pain in the ass to climb in and out of bed and find the "door" in the netting when you are trying to pee in the middle of the night.

I'm resigned to not having my favorite lunch - a deli turkey sandwich on whole wheat with light mayo and Trader Joe's Red Pepper Spread. There is no turkey deli meat here. And there is no Trader Joe's Red Pepper Spread, although when the red pepper season arrives I might be able to re-create it. (BTW... we do have Subway here... and even though the Turkey Sub is on the menu in every store, there is NEVER any turkey. I find this insulting.)

I'm resigned to having to spend all day shopping for a simple item - like a non-plastic lamp for my bed stand. There is no such thing as Target here. Want a lamp? Visit 15 different markets/mini-stores until you can find something you can live with.

I'm resigned to never having a solid poop again. Although I haven't been sick, the consistency of things has certainly changed and based on previous experience, may not go back until I get pregnant again. (And there is fat chance of that happening.)

I'm resigned to having this list grow over the next several weeks. But I'm hoping to counter it with an even longer list of all the wonderful discoveries I've made.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Its All Just Fun*di and Games

Everyone in Tanzania has a "Fundi". Actually, everyone has 3 or 4 Fundi's depending on what they are trying to get accomplished.

As best as I can tell, the Webster's Swahili Edition definition of "Fundi" is: A guy who can get any task you need accomplished completed. Note, a Fundi is always male

So for example, if you need your pool filters cleaned and you ask your landlord to arrange it, his response would be, "Oh, I've got a Fundi for that."

Or, if your air shipment arrived but your work permit hasn't been issued yet so you can't pick it up, your director of human resources might tell you on the sly, "I've got a great Fundi who can grease the wheels of the Ministry of Labour if you give him 100,000 Tsh to pass around."

But even if you need someone to pick up some bananas for breakfast, or show the spider in your living room to the door, you need a Fundi.

As it turns out anyone who can get a task done, no matter how important or menial is a Fundi. I found that quite confusing at first, but people here seem to get it and I guess that soon I will, too.

But now I'm wondering, what did I do without a Fundi all these years?

Oh Raymond, could you please be a Fundi and pick me up some bananas for tomorrow morning????

Rowan as Carrie Bradshaw

Who would have imagined that we would travel to Dar es Salaam, where it is a bare foot or Birkenstocks only ex-pat world, for Rowan to develop her girl-requisite shoe obsession?

The objects of her absolute obsession are a pair of black patent leather shoes - cheap ones I bought at Target. They have a little heal, which makes them perfect for her fantasy to tap dance as well as Elmo (which she does very well... actually... I think with some training she might amount to something on the soft-shoe circuit).

In DC she put them on from time to time... and even insisted wearing them to the park occasionally. Here, they've become an absolute obsession. She wants to wear them to school. She wants to wear them to play outside. She wants to wear them around the house. She much prefers to wear them with her one-and-only pair of pink frilly socks - and well - they do look better with those socks than with the orange and white striped socks that she sometimes puts on with them. And she is so insistent, I've actually let her out of the house that way.

The shoes are now getting pretty grubby, being that it is the rainy season, but she doesn't seem to care. At first I happily indulged her in her quirky desires, but when she started insisting on wearing them to bed I started to push back. I tried to convince her that they were too "yucky" for bed. But I lost that battle... and for the past week she has been wearing them 24-hours a day. (Only when I pry them off for the bath, with Rowan kicking and screaming, do I get a chance to clean them up enough for bed.)

I think these shoes are Rowan's way of staying connected to home. They are the shoes I'd be happily letting her wear to the Adas Israel pre-school next year, if she weren't knee deep in the mud at the Little Beaumont School here in Dar. And so, I've decided to let RoRo have her shoes if they are what she needs to maintain her identity as a Jewish girl from DC. Carrie Bradshaw would approve of this parenting move... and that keeps me connected to home as a nice Jewish girl (I know Carrie wasn't) from NY!

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Raising Kids in a Car Seat Optional World

Last week I was talking with a Dutch colleague who has lived in Tanzania for the past 10 years. We were doing the typical mom-meets-mom thing and exchanging our birth stories. She was telling me about how she went home to Holland to have her first child and was originally glad to be there because he was born with a serious infection that the Dutch doctors were easily able to treat. However, a small bout of post-partum depression, and the fact that her son spent 3 weeks in an incubator unable to be held by her, resulted in a decision to not breastfeed her son. This decision caused a wave of shock through the hospital... and caused her additional guilt and depression. She never imagined that she would go home to Holland only to feel the guilt of the parenting world on her shoulders.

I was already thinking about this story when Liz (a.k.a. Mom-101) wrote a blog about CompetiMoms. You know, the kind of mom you meet out and about with a child about the same age as yours who proceeds to "compete" with you over the resume of their child vs. your child - even if they are only several weeks old. Well... I was wondering if I would be coming across many CompetiMoms here in Tanzania, or start to feel the guilty conscious of the DC Urban Mom who didn't manage to get in her application to the top pre-school in town on time, when I made a timely observation - one that I think speaks to the level of pressure on parents here in Dar. No one... not one person I observed while taking Jaden and Rowan to school today... not one family had their under 6 child properly strapped into a car seat. I think I may have been the only one!

And then I remembered... I met people like this on my trip here last month... but I wrote them off as unusual and irresponsible - like the guy who told me he worked for "the Agency" (otherwise known as the CIA) who picked me up so I could interview his nanny with his three beautiful, blond and tan under-7s in the back seat. They were perched high in their giant SUV upon top-of-the-line car seats, but not a single one of them was strapped in. And they weren't on the way back to the hotel either.

So if I was ever worried about parent competition or parent guilt here in TZ I think I can rest easy. I'm going to be the bizarro parent whose children are always strapped in. If the rest of them - all of them - want to feel guilty about that then let them. Meanwhile, I'm going to enjoy this guilt-free parenting world for a few years.

NB: I was just observing the foreigners and upper middle class/wealthy Tanzanians dropping their kids off at J & R's school. While I'm sure that there are other Tanzanians who would like to have their kids strapped into a car seat - the price for even the cheapest seats would be prohibitive for the vast majority of families. Perhaps I've just discovered the need for a new NGO, CSI (Car Seats International)!

Monday, June 12, 2006

The Blog Is Back and Living in Tanzania

Hello all. Thank you to my loyal friends who have visited this blog over the past two months and then wrote to let me know that I haven't updated it. It was true. I went from being an enthusiastic blogger to being a blog failure. But at least I have a good excuse. I was in the middle of uprooting my entire life and the life of my family, flying in a tin can for an excruciating number of hours, and trying to find my feet (or my house) in a new country. But alas, I have an exciting announcement. WE HAVE ARRIVED IN TANZANIA! WE ARE SAFE AND SOUND. AND THE BLOG IS BACK!!!!

So... What can I tell you about my move that I haven't already told each and every one of you via e-mail. Mom, the kids and I spent two weeks living in two hotels (the first one albeit briefly before Mom put her foot down and demanded a higher degree of luxury). We trained two nannies and fired one for being really shitty with the kids. It is not that she was a bad person or put the kids at risk. Its just that they really hated her. And well... turns out that they get a say these days about who is watching them. I found a house... cute and small... with a swimming pool that has been enclosed with an iron fence. I've made such a big deal about not letting the kids near the pool that everytime the gardener cum pool boy goes into the pool area the 24-hour-a-day security guard leaves his post at the front gate and guards the pool entrance instead.

It seems that I'm now supporting a village. At any given moment during the day there is the nanny, the housekeeper, the gardener cum pool boy, the driver and the security guard all on the property. It seems that I'm also required to feed them all at least once a day. I'm trying to find a service to do this - since cooking is not my thing. If it were up to me, they'd all be eating egg salad on cinnamon raisin bagels for every meal :)

The kids are going to a really great school, but to get there you have to take a really bad road. The dirt road is full of HUGE - sedan sized - potholes. But it is also still the end of the rainy season. This AM getting to school was a really adventure in off-road driving. We passed more than one regular sized car totally stuck in a giant water-filled pothole.

My work is also going pretty well. I have a great staff. I like them. They gave me a nice office with real plywood office furniture. All is well in the world of T-MARC (the Tanzanian name for my company).

Now that I'm settled into the house, and I have what passes for high-speed internet (I call it low-speed, high-speed internet), I will try to be a regular blogger again. Stay tuned for more fun in the sun (well in the rainy season) from Tanzania!

We're Here. We're Queer. Get Used to it!

Even living in Washington DC, you never realize just how white you are. For me, it always takes a trip to Jamaica or somewhere in Africa to feel the full impact of my easy-to-burn skin. Well... for the past 13 years or so I've been in and out of my uber-pale feeling - always knowing in the back of my mind that it was not only my skin color that made me stand out, but also the privilege of being an American. (Yes, even with all the ugliness of being an American overseas these days it is still a giant privilege.)

Well... now it is all white, all the time. And there is never any forgetting that! As we drive by the roadside stands and the down the muddy streets we stand out like a sore thumb - not in the sort of way that I feel threatened at all - because I don't. But, I wish I could hear the thoughts of the people we pass... the assumptions they are making about us... the privileges they are assigning us... It is strange to be so queer, here. I guess I just have to get used to it.