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.
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.