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Thursday, September 28, 2006

My Life As An Illegal Alien

I’ve been keeping a secret from you for the past two months.

This secret has forced me to live on the “down low” (not in the sexual sense, thank you).

I’ve avoided situations where I could be stopped by the police or where ID would be required.

I haven’t been able to claim all the services and privileges I might have the right to.

I’ve been doing illegal things – like working under the table. I’ve been skittish at work, worrying that we might be raided by immigration.

I’ve been living on the run. Working illegally. Risking jail and deportation.

It sucks. But I’ve been in search of a better life here in Tanzania – and so it was worth it.

It is not like this is the first time I’ve done something illegal in my life. Although most of you might consider me a “good girl” I’ve had my share of illegal risk taking. Just last week I made an illegal U-Turn in the center of the town where I grew up. And I’ve paid a babysitter or two without paying towards their social security. Scary.

But seriously, I’ve smoked more than my share of weed both in the US and in Jamaica (especially in Jamaica :), performed “acts” illegal in 30 states and most countries of the world, and even (in my youth) written a few checks that I thought just might bounce – maybe.

I didn’t intend to be working here without a permit. I did everything I thought I needed to do.

I sought the visa that gave me 6 months on business – but the Immigration officials only gave me 10 days! (A scam to make you come back to Immigration and pay more money to extend your visa – I think.)

I had my visa extended twice.

But at the second extension, the Immigration official made a mistake. Instead of giving me another month, he gave me a month and a year, unintentionally writing June 28, 2007 instead of 2006.

I didn’t realize the mistake until the end of June when I went to get my visa extended again and someone pointed out that my visa was still good.

I knew it probably wasn’t. But someone in my office said it was. I let them “win”. I guess I was tired of going to Immigration.

I continued as usual, thinking that my official work permit would come through before I needed another visa (work permit trumps visa). But it didn’t.

And then in late August I had a panic. I realized that Jaden and Rowan’s tourist visas were about to expire. A colleague took our passports back to Immigration to get those extended and the person who looked at my passport realized the mistake right away.

He invalidated my visa.

He crossed out June 28, 2007 and wrote June 28, 2006. This happened on August 30, 2006. He didn’t date it or sign it. It was a Friday afternoon.

I was now in Tanzania illegally. So were the kids.

And so when my colleague returned to Immigration on Monday, the official wanted to know why I was in the country illegally. He wanted to know if I was working, because if I was I shouldn’t be. I could be deported.

And so began 18 days of uncertainty. Working on the lamb.

Multiple people told us they could fix my situation for a “fee” - an under-the-table fee. They could take our passports to the Kenyan border and have their friend backdate a new entry stamp. Or their cousin had a cousin on their other side whose best friend’s sister is a senior person at Immigration and could fix everything. It wasn’t very expensive. Most offers came in at around $600. But of course it wouldn’t be a reimbursable expense.

Finally, my colleagues hired a lawyer. I don’t know how they did it, but after almost three weeks of ducking and paranoia, they got us visas for another month. Just in the nick of time… because we were about to leave for the US and I wasn’t so into being arrested with the kids at the airport because we had overstayed our visas.

And I really wanted to get back in after my vacation. After all… all my stuff, by life accumulation, has been here at the Port of Dar es Salaam in shipping containers for 3 months, awaiting the awarding of my work permit. I am trying to start a new life. Save some money. Take care of my family.

And lo and behold… when I arrived back in the country two days ago, I was met by an Immigration official who had in her possession my work permit. (Why the work permit took so long is a whole other debacle – perhaps one to be left undocumented – rather than to bore you again with my complaining.)

On Tuesday night at the airport I was ecstatic. I was legal.

I have permission to work for two years. Thank you Tanzania.

Let my new life officially begin!

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Still Here - Over There

Hello everybody,

I'm sure you've been wondering where we are. Well... we are again on safari, but this time to the US. After 28 hours of pure hell - which involved an unanticipated 12-hour lay over in Amsterdam (at the airport) and fabulous drug administered to the twins which helped them sleep the entirely of two 8-hour + plane rides - we made it safe and sound to NY.

Actually... it is almost time to turn around and go back to Tanzania. This visit was too short - but then again, we are only allowed to spend 35 days a year in the US without losing our non-resident tax status, so it is important for us to stay away as much as possible.

Now, with just a few days to go, I'm faced with decisions about what to bring back with us. What is it that we miss so much I am willing to shelp it back? It is not as easy as you might think to figure this one out, a fact elucidated by my one moment of culture shock, which happened last week.

You see, I've been taking Swahili classes. And ever since the first Swahili class I've been scouring Dar for index cards. I've looked in every stationary store. I've sent my driver out to every market in town. I've asked numerous people if they have seen index cards ANYWHERE. I have been willing to pay top dollar, but no one wants my money.

Obsessed about index cards? (I hear you saying now.) Yes, index cards. Even though obviously I could make my own by cutting up some paper, it is just not the same. I need that perfect weight paper stock. I need the blank paper on one side and the lines on the other. I've been missing index cards. And I (in part) blame my lack of significant progress in Swahili on the fact that I don't have index cards so I can't effectively study outside of class. Really. (Go ahead. You try to study a new language without index cards!)

But the truth is that I didn't have index cards on my mental US shopping list. At least I didn't have them on my list until I walked into the local five and dime store here in Larchmont and spotted out the side of my eye five full shelves of index cards. And oh my god, there were so many choices.

I could buy yellow index cards.
I could buy pink index cards.
I could buy green index cards.

There were index cards with lines.
There were index cards without lines.

There were small, small/medium, medium, medium/large, large, and extra large sized index cards.

And in the face of all that I've wanted and searched for for all these months I just stood there. Mouth agap. Looking at all my choices.

But after five stunned and overwhelmed minutes, I realized that the choice was not really about which index cards to buy. Rather, it was about whether or not index cards were so important to me that I was willing to schelp them back to Tanzania. Since space is limited in our bags, the choices are index cards or Grape Nuts? Index cards or NY bagels? Index cards or blue cheese salad dressing? Index cards or that educational game that promises to have Jaden and Rowan reading at a sixth grade level in three weeks?

Are index cards that important?

I don't know. I can't decide.

Do you know? Help.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Like a Tanzanian Nicole Richie - Famous by Proximity

I just had a weekend like the kind I used to have when I was working with MTV – but Tanzanian style.

For you readers who are not friends and family, before I moved to Tanzania the organization I worked for, Family Health International, used to collaborate with MTV on their global AIDS campaign called Staying Alive. I was the manager and technical advisor for this project, and so in addition to making lovely friends and colleagues at MTV in London (a shout out to you Georgia – I know you are reading), from time-to-time I got to rub shoulders and the rich and famous.

For example:

Bill Clinton
Tony Blair
Richard Gere
Rupert Evert
Wyclef Jean
Ashley Judd

There were a few other “B” listers I won’t bore you with.

It was always fun having these contacts, and even more fun telling others about them. (Yes, I’ll admit it, I liked telling people about what seemed to many to be my slightly exotic life.) But none of it was real. It wasn’t my life. It was this crazy life I glimpsed at from time to time when Georgia saw fit to bring along her funding partner. I always thought of myself as living Georgia’s life for brief moments in time.

I loved that work. It was fun - even though more often than not I was the stooge who had to tell MTV that USAID couldn’t fund such-and-such PSA because it showed correct condom use to – gasp – teenagers (who we all knew were sexually active or about to be). President Bush wouldn’t appreciate it. And you know me; I’m always keen to follow the President and his fabulous life-affirming policies. You could say that I sold out, but I actually always believed that there was a way to meet the needs of young people even within the parameters we were given – which was better than not reaching them at all.

I don’t know. Perhaps I was delusional.

But, I better not say anything more about that because technically I still work for the President – even though now my job is to push condoms.

Ladies and gentlement, the point I’m trying to get at here is that I thought my work with world leaders and famous singers and actors was over when I moved to Tanzania. So I was pleasantly by the past few days.

No… J-Z and Beyonce were not in Dar this past weekend (although J-Z will be soon). President Clinton didn’t stop by on his latest multi-country touchy-feely tour. This was purely celebrity Tanzanian style.

It began with an overnight trip to Tanga, Tanzania’s third largest city, which is really not much more than a sleepy fishing village with a smattering of German colonial architectural reminders.

I traveled with colleagues to see the Mwenge (also know as Uhuru) Torch Races. This is a national event that for 4 months every year involves a group of runners carrying a lit torch (a la Olympics) to every single district in Tanzania. The torch represents all that is fabulous about Tanzania – so they tell me. When the torch arrives, all the district comes out to welcome it. There are lots of speeches. There is a huge party and people dance and drink (and likely have sex) into the wee hours of the morning. My agency managed to get HIV messages added as one of the three official topics of the Mwenge, but they are usually delivered as part of hour-long speeches. Boring.

So to spice things up, we have been bringing two comedians/singers with us to about 30 of these events. My colleagues told me that the crowd loved what these guys were doing. But until this weekend, what I didn’t understand is that these guys are huge! I don’t think the crowds would have been as excited by Diddy and Bono. And for me, the funny part (as an outsider) is that they are such unlikely stars.

One guy, Mr. Small (and he was indeed very very small) was short, fat, old and wore a red fez everywhere he went. He is a famous actor who has been on many of the big Tanzanian radio soap operas for the past 30 years.

The other guy, Mesonge, is like the Robin Williams of Tanzania. He has the most expressive face, a huge range of “voices”, and he also sings. He has a very popular song – on the Tanzanian charts – about HIV. But he is also short, fat and old, AND he has brown teeth and buggy eyes. His “act” requires him present in torn shirts, unmatching fuzzy slippers, a Kermit the frog baseball cap, and a tie on backwards.

I took one look at these guys and thought – no way.

But the crowds loved them. They screamed. The girls swooned. The cars we were traveling in were mobbed by admirers. And there were nearly stampedes to get near the stage.

And I was cool, too, being part of their entourage. But more than anything I was tickled to find myself in the middle of the whole celebrity experience. My favorite part was when we went to dinner. Not only did the entire place come to pay their homage to these guys, but their phones rang non-stop with past and would-be lovers. Women just called and called.

My colleague told me that Mesonge ends up sleeping with two to three women on most days they are on tour. At first I was a bit horrified at that concept (the picture in my mind of him loving up some woman, but also that he was promoting AIDS prevention for us). But then I remembered, in this job we are promoting condom use. So as long as he has plenty of Dume (our condom brand)…

That was Tanga on Thursday and Friday.

Then yesterday we launched the new “faithfulness” campaign (yes, we are doing that, too) that I mentioned to you all previously with the giant Pentecostal church here. The Archbishop managed to pull off a fabulous event with 9000+ people in his open air church. And the guest of honor (besides me, of course)? President Kikewete, the President of the Republic of Tanzania. I got to shake hands and chat with him for a minute. He was nice. He made funny jokes about how the best way to prevent HIV is to follow the righteous ways of the church by staying abstinent or faithful. But, he said, if people fall from grace, they can always turn to the unrighteous ways of the government and their condoms. I liked that. And even the Assembly of God pastors were laughing.

And so there you have it.

I’m sure you don’t think I’m as cool as I was after the Bangkok AIDS Conference when I had dinner with Richard Gere. But, it was fun neverthless.

It’s kind of like being the Nicole Richie of Tanzania. I haven’t really done anything to make me famous. But it’s all about proximity, baby.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Hally the Diaper Rebel OR The 50,000 TZ Shilling Stooge

Kids in Tanzania are potty trained from the time they can walk. What with disposable diapers being so expensive and cloth diapers being so messy and creating so much work, there is little reason not to potty train. Plus, in many quarters here, it is perfectly acceptable to let your one-year-old run around with no bottoms, peeing and pooping at will. I see it all the time. I don’t know a single 2 year, 8 month year-old Tanzanian child who isn’t trained. And many ex-pats here take their lead and potty train early. Forget all that American nonsense about waiting for signs of “readiness”. We are potty wimps.

Jaden and Rowan have been potty training for the past six months. Sort of. The truth is, unlike many parents, I’m in no rush for the kids to be using the toilet. It seems like a lot of trouble to me – what having to worry about peeing and pooping all the time and rushing to the potty to avoid accidents. Not to mention, but many bathrooms are hardly clean around here. I can’t imagine putting Rowan’s pristine white bum on a dirty filthy toilet the next time she has to go. Not only that, but I can’t even bring myself to picture the 26 hour trip back to the US next week without diapers.

They are so easy! I love diapers!

I guess I’m just lazy. Plus, what will I do with the $1500 of diapers and wipes waiting for us at the Port of Dar – for the day when my work permit actually comes through? There are so many of them they probably filled a whole shipping container – at least they filled my whole living room before the packers came and sent them on their way to TZ. (Come to think of it, where will I store them in my teeny tiny little house?)

But my happy-go-lucky attitude about diapers came to an end on Monday when the kids started back at their first day of school. Secunda (who doesn’t seem any more in a rush than I am) informed me on Monday night that the teachers are demanding that Jaden and Rowan be potty trained immediately. They are in the “big kid” class now. It is time for underwear.

That actually pissed me off. Who are they to tell me when to tell my children where to pee???? So Tuesday AM when I dropped off the kids at school I went in to talk to the head teacher, Jenny. I informed her that Jaden and Rowan were not yet potty trained and that I could bring them in underwear, but they would pee and poop on themselves and that wouldn’t be any fun.

Jenny responded: “What, Jaden and Rowan are STILL not potty trained?” At this, all the other moms in the vicinity turned and looked me up and down… me, the mommy potty deviant. A quick survey of their children revealed lots of flat butts. None of them were in diapers.

Me: “Well… no.”

Jenny: “Just bring them in underwear and pack lots of extra clothes and we’ll train them for you.”

Me: “Well… I only have one pair of underwear for Rowan (Elmo) and two pairs for Jaden (one Thomas the Tank Engine and one Spiderman). I don’t think I can bring them in underwear until my shipment is released. I’ve got lots of Dora the Explorer and Sponge Bob Square Pants at the Port of Dar.”

Jenny: “This is Tanzania, not the moon. You can buy underwear here.”

At that, one of the other moms took pity on me and pulled me aside to tell me where I might find plain white underpants for both boys and girls.

But I spent the day yesterday with a heavy heart. I was convinced the kids weren’t ready.

Still we took a chance. We let them run around the yard in their underwear yesterday afternoon. Jaden took it upon himself to pee on a tree. I guess he may get that tree peeing is his God given right.

Then this AM, Jaden peed in the toilet. He said, “Mommy, potty.” And so he did it… well aimed and all.

(Although Rowan has asked to sit on the potty many times, she only rarely actually peed on it and had several accidents yesterday.)

But this AM I was so proud of Jaden! My big boy. I wanted to do something special for him so I went to a store near my office owned by someone who travels to the US and brings back things from Target. The store is filled with Avent bottles, Superman dinner sets, and NY Yankees onsies.

I bought Jaden a set of Sponge Bob underwear and Rowan a set of Dora the Explorers. So filled with pride was I that I didn’t even realize what I had done until I got home.

I paid 50,000 TZ shillings, equivalent to $39.00 US, for six pairs of underwear that are about to be peed upon and shat upon by my 2-year-olds. That is more than most people in TZ will spend on underwear in their lifetime. And I am humbled by that fact. But I also feel guilty about all the pressure on them to go when and where society demands. After all, they have a whole lifetime to pee the potty. Why here, why now, when clearly I’M not ready.

Nevertheless, I guess this potty rebel is throwing in the towel. Bring on the TP, good-bye wipes.

I hear there is a great underground ex-pat market for Size 5 Pampers! I plan to donate $39.00 of the proceeds to Tanzanian children in need of underwear.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Rough Start At Expat Central (aka, The Sea Cliff Hotel) - Hally's First Guest Blogger

Friends. As you know I am so happy when I get visitors. This has been a special week because my friend and former everyday lunch mate, Alfred Nimocks has arrived. He is here for a whole month! Last night I took him on my very own tour of the Truman Show set (see my last blog) and then out for dinner at my favorite restaurant - and Dar's fanciest - The Oriental at the Kepenski Kilimanjaro Hotel.

It was over dinner that Alfred confided in me - something I never knew (although I've known him for 13+ years). He has the equivalent of a photographic memory, but for things he overhears. He claims that he can read the paper and hear all the details of a conversation at the same time and remember them both in full detail.

I'm impressed. I can't even remember the content of the e-mail I read 5 minutes ago.

Anyhoo, Alfred told me this in the context of relaying a story that elucidates the other side of the safari business and the other side of ex-pat life. So I asked him if he wouldn't mind guest-blogging for me today - and he told me he already wrote it up for his parents and would send it to me, too. And here it is. Enjoy. (Or rather, be horrified.)


A dreary, rainy morning in Dar es Salaam... looking forward to an afternoon and evening with my good friend Hally Mahler.

While waiting for the business center to open, I shared the lobby with a bunch of odd-looking Americans sitting in a different conversation area. Regardless of the distance, their loud, awful voices carried to where I was reading. I was floored: they were big game hunters back from the field -- one was bragging about having bagged a lion, leopard, and a cape buffalo -- a trifecta of sorts. Another mouthed off about having killed two cape buffalo in thirty seconds: claimed he shot them through their hearts, then pumped as many rounds as he could in them just to make sure they were dead.

Low and behold... and a dirty secret to me, Tanzania has parks set aside for hunters -- private reserves it turns out. I guess hunting brings in more foreign currency than observational safaris, and supposedly there is more game off of protected reserves in Tanzania than in all other countries in Africa combined.

(In fact, lions are increasingly eating people who live outside of protected areas: presumably because there isn't as much hoofed game as there used to be, and people easier to nab.)

Regardless, the fact that these big-bellied, loud-mouthed louts kind of represent my country here saddens me. They were so thrilled their "camps" had tents with floors, hot showers, and all the beer they could drink. What are their poor wives back in Fresno and Newport Beach going to do with bullet-ridden cape buffalo hides? I shudder at the thought of their ugly McMansions with stuffed heads greeting visitors in the two-story great rooms, with open kitchens, so convenient for grabbing snacks (nachos I suppose) while watching TV.

Grumpy sounding I know... must be the rain, so I'll continue. Breakfast was marred by Americans as well. An amazon woman was seated at the next table and soon joined by a mousey-looking couple. It turned out they were all visiting foreign service people who immediately began to whine at high volume about their posts, not getting promotions despite having served in Afghanistan (said it must take serving in Iraq and standing in front of bullets to get ahead), upping each other on how much they had bought (they had to go to town and purchase some extra suitcases to take home the loot -- complaining about the seven-dollar round trip taxi ride), and grousing about how little their post allowances covered -- how the educational allowances didn't completely pay for their daughters' tuitions in Switzerland. Between the hunters and the official representatives of our country, one wonders about the United States.

It seems the sun has now come out. Our Hally has no patience for my grumpiness, and writing out the two experiences has purged them from me. Off to new adventures in Tanzania.

Your Guest Blogger, Al Nimocks