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Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Abode of Peace or Port Charles?

It is no big secret to those of you who know me well that I used to be addicted to General Hospital (GH). From the time I was 13 until I was 37 I spent some piece of every weekday (except when I was traveling) with the residents of Port Charles, NY. I enjoyed following the twists and turns of character’s lives. I enjoyed the intrigue of the latest mystery adventure to hit the people of Port Charles. (Why was it snowing in July? Did someone create a new “winterizer” machine?) And I even enjoyed the drama of loves found and forsaken, lives lost, and new babies born.

I know it doesn't seem like the kind of thing someone like me just annouces freely. But I'm not embarrassed about the mindless escape that GH provided me for all those years - the stressed out urban up-and-comer.

Anyone who ever watched GH knows who the Quartermaines are. They are the anchor family (every soap has one). The Quartermaines were rich, rich, rich. And they had a lot of servants who often appeared in episodes. There was the butler who poisoned family members (and got away with it), the maid that helped hide fugitives in the house, and the cook who was terribly temperamental – especially at Thanksgiving time when inevitably the Quartermaines would break out in a food fight or burn down the kitchen and end up eating pizza instead of turkey. Goofy, I know. But it was a tradition, after all.

The Quartermaines made the life of the rich and well served look very exciting and almost sexy.

So why am I waxing poetic about General Hospital from here in Tanzania?

Well… one could make an argument that I am sort of the Tanzanian equivalent of Monica Quartermaine – that is if Monica were an unwed mother of twins doing HIV and malaria prevention work in Africa. I am queen of my house. I can throw out the riff raff (if any tried to move in) and I have a whole bevy of “servants” at my beck and call.

OK… here is where I stop being so glib and become more PC (politically correct) than possible in PC (Port Charles).

I actually have 6 (sort of 7 if you include the relief guard) interesting individuals working for me. They are:

Secunda: The nanny/cook, who is serious and moody, but takes great care of Jaden and Rowan and they just adore her even if her moodiness sometimes drives me up the wall.

Raymond: The gardener/pool guy/generator dude who despite the multiple job titles really pretty much does nothing all day but entertain the guards and occasionally the kids. (I’ve added child-walker to his job description – as he and Secunda take the children for walks around the neighborhood several days a week). Raymond is an aspiring rapper – and thanks to my friends Molly and Phil, Raymond just went to the JZ concert here in Dar and I think it made his life (so far).

Secunda and Raymond live on the property in their own little “house”.

Margaret: The housekeeper, is a pretty mediocre housekeeper, but a nice young woman so I keep her. In fact, I’m paying for her to learn English and I’m paying for me to learn Swahili, but still we seem unable to communicate in much more than grunts and pointed fingers. Nevertheless, she loves to do laundry – and who can complain about that?

Paul: The driver who the kids and I all adore. I’ve written about him before. And by the way, baby Jaden II is doing just great.

Robert: The security guards technically work for a company called Knight Support, but when you have the same person guarding your house every day or night for 6 months they pretty much work for you. Robert is harmless and sometimes sweet. (Last week I wore a new shirt thanks to Jane – the mule – and Robert noticed and told me I looked pretty.) But I’m pretty certain that just about any criminal type coming over the fence could “take” him within seconds.

Thomas/Douglas: The other security guard, currently Thomas, is newer (just a few weeks) and perhaps only a short-term replacement for another somewhat new guard named Douglas. Thomas, like Robert seems pretty harmless and helpless. Douglas on the other hand is one majorly pumped up dude. Turns out he is a boxer in his free time.

So why am I taking up your precious time telling you about all these people? When things are going smoothly in the compound, these are the people who make my life easier here in Tanzania. I am grateful for them all.

A few weeks ago when I was in the US, my friends Molly and Phil and their kids stayed at my house for two weeks. When I got back to Dar es Salaam (literally translated as Abode of Peace) they told me that they were so impressed by the fabulous team at my house.

That’s when all hell broke loose.

The next day, Secunda accused Douglas of steeling my big red cup (the special cup that no one but me usually uses, but was put into use by my guests – understandably and unknowingly).

Then Douglas accused Secunda of making Raymond and the guard on duty wait too long for dinner. And he accused her of being a cold moody bitch (not quite in those terms, but close).

There was a lot of yelling and screaming that day. So much so that it prompted me to invite my colleague, Abdulrazak, to lead an intervention for the staff. On a Saturday afternoon, they all sat in a circle in my driveway eating Pringles and drinking Cokes and Fantas, as Abdulrazak led them through a focus group-type process to talk about how they can all get along and how important it is to keep “Mama” happy.

Problem solved, right? Wrong.

Three weeks later (just last week), Secunda gets hysterical one morning (I’m at work). She says that 500,000 TSH (about $400 US) is missing from her room. She accuses Thomas and Raymond. Raymond in return accuses Secunda of poisoning him. He says that he has been sick after dinner (which Secunda cooks for them) lately and that Secunda eats the best food inside the house and brings out the bad food for him and the guard to eat.

My Abode of Peace was shattered again.

When I got home from work that day all I could think was, what would Monica Quartermaine do? WWMQD? She has a household full of fighting servants and yet she handles every situation with grace. Well, sort of.

And all of a sudden I knew what I had to do. I decided to take a tough love approach. (Which in all fairness had also been suggested by more than one long-termer friend.)

I told them that I would have to fire them all if money went missing in the compound again.

And I told Raymond and the guards that they would no longer be getting dinner from the house if they kept complaining about it. If they thought the food was substandard, or wanted to eat before the kids were put to bed, they should spend their own money to get their own food.

That pretty much shut everyone up for now. And I’ve even heard that word spread through the nanny/house guy grapevine that I threatened to fire everyone. (One friend, who was told this by her nanny, actually called me up to ask if it was true.)

Yup. I’ve learned a thing or two over the years from watching the Quartermaines on General Hospital. With wealth comes power. With power comes a lot of headaches. Many of those headaches are caused by out-of-control staff. And sometimes, just sometimes, you need to lay down the law to get your estate to run smoothly.

I’m ready to return to my Abode of Peace and leave Port Charles behind. But I’ll be taking a little piece of Monica Quartermaine with me.

Thank you General Hospital.

Thursday, October 19, 2006


It’s that time of the year again. Ramadan is upon us.

(Actually… Ramadan is almost over, but it has taken me too long to finish this blog.)

According to www.holidays.net:

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Muslim calendar. It is during this month that Muslims observe the Fast of Ramadan. Lasting for the entire month, Muslims fast during the daylight hours and in the evening eat small meals and visit with friends and family. It is a time of worship and contemplation. A time to strengthen family and community ties.

We Jews have a Get Out of Jail Free card comparitatively. We are only required to fast for one day a year and all of our sins are wiped away.

Catholics are constantly revisiting and repenting for their sins and some even avoid meat on Fridays.

Many Christians give up a favorite food for Lent.

But Muslims… they do the whole shebang - a full month of fasting from sunrise to sunset. I bet your religion can’t beat that!

Being the sheltered American suburban girl that I was, my first real exposure to Ramadan (and Muslims in general) was in the 1990s when I used to spend a lot of time in Senegal which is about 92% Muslim. Somehow I always managed to plan a trip that coincided with Ramadan, and it was always an awkward time for me.

See, I wanted to be able to eat lunch every day… but my time was always so highly programmed and my colleagues always looked so hungry. By 2 PM they were tired and sweaty, and they were oh so thirsty. And although they never verbally complained, I could feel their pain.

But there was a light at the end of the tunnel, Eid. According to Wikipedia:

Eid ul-Fitr is a joyful celebration of the achievement of enhanced piety. It is a day of forgiveness, moral victory and peace, of congregation, fellowship, brotherhood and unity. Muslims are not only celebrating the end of fasting, but thanking God for the help and strength that they believe he gave them throughout the previous month to help them practice self-control.

Here in Tanzania I’m getting a different view of Ramadan than I did in Senegal. I think it is because I am closer to people here but also because Tanzania is a mixed society (about 38% Muslim, 60% Christian, 2% Hindu and .0000001% Jewish) and in a mixed society perhaps one is required to approach the tenants of one’s religion more stoically.

Take my main counterpart, Abdulrazak, and another colleague, Nassor. Both Abdulrazak and Nassor WANT people to eat in front of them. They say it makes their fast more meaningful. These are guys who are not particularly religious during the rest of the year. (Or at least that is my impression of them.) But now, Abdul seems to enjoy scheduling meetings during the lunch hour or late in the day, and he participates in them with gusto – so much so that it is easy to forget he is fasting and offer him a banana.

(Nassor told me a really cute story about his daughter. She is about 6 and not required to fast yet, but she has decided to be “in training”. Every day she tries to push back her breakfast to 10 AM… but usually by 9 AM she is hungry and reminds her Dad that she is just in “training” after all…)

Then there is “Salima”. “Salima” is approximately 26 years old and is the youngest daughter of the first wife of one of Tanzania’s former presidents. During the rest of the year I would describe her as a hot commodity. She wears form fitting and sexy clothes with little stiletto heals that go clickity-clack as she walks down the hall. She flirts with the guys we work with and definitely makes use of her feminine charms to get things done. Call it what you will… she knows what she is doing and it seems to work for her.

So imagine my surprise when on the first day of Ramadan she showed up in a loose black robe with a black scarf placed “just so” over her hair. She’s been like this every day since, pious as can be, even though underneath is all the shoes are still making their clickity-clack down the hall.

I’m dying to see what happens when Eid hits.

But the point I’m trying to make is that is it is actually really interesting to see the different ways that different people (and different societies) respond to Ramadan. Some people make a 180-degree switch of behavior. Some struggle with making it through the day. As a side note, I’ve been wondering if one of the reasons Dar didn’t explode after the government edict banning the informal sector shops is that people were too tired from fasting to get mad. Who knows.

In any case, you can think of the Mahlers next Monday and Tuesday. The kids and I will be at the beach, enjoying the benefits of Eid for us non-Muslims – two days of vacation.


Since we are speaking about religion I could use your input on another issue.

As I’ve said, we Jews are just shy of 0% here in Tanzania. I am not expecting anyone to wish me Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas in December (although with all these Muslims that would be a nice nod to a multicultural society). I don’t expect to have T-MARC give me Passover instead of Good Friday as a vacation day.

But I realize that I’ve really come to appreciate that in DC at least, there isn’t always the assumption that every kid comes from the same religion or cultural background and there is at least a nod to diversity and different holiday traditions.

That said, the kids are allowed to borrow books from the school library every week. Last week Rowan brought home, Teddy’s Wonderful Christmas. I thought it was the bear on the cover that attracted her to the book, but really, it was all the wrapped presents depicted inside. All she could say was, “Look Mommy, presents!” She didn’t want to read the book. She just wanted to look at the fabulous wrappers and bows and count how many presents were on each page.

Instead of having a negative reaction to this, I thought, well OK, she picked out this book, no one forced it on her, she is enjoying it, so Hally YOU enjoy it too. And I did, sort of. Well… to the extent that I could.

But then on Tuesday I was taking the kids to school and we were late. I walked down the lane to the classroom and heard the telltale tune of Jingle Bells being sung by the whole class.

JINGLE BELLS???? In October? I mean I know that Macys probably has its Christmas decorations up in NYC, but here in TZ, during Ramadan, with plenty of Muslim kids in the classroom and at least two Jews, they were singing JINGLE BELLS?

Is it just me???

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Sometimes “Progress” is Assbackwards

For the past 8 days, people have been walking around Dar es Salaam like the nuclear holocaust just happened.

Locals are standing on the streets staring aimlessly at empty spaces.

Expats are gathering in supermarkets and restaurants – wondering how they will survive.

People are most surely going hungry.

Businesses have stopped working.

Personally, I’ve been very depressed. Life here has changed as I’ve known it.

And boy does it suck!

No… Dar has not exploded (although I can’t imagine why it hasn’t).

But the stupidest “progress” policy ever put into law by man has caused tremendous upheaval.

In a Guiliani-esqe move, the government of Tanzania passed a law 6 months and 8 days ago outlawing the informal shops, kiosks, stands, booths, and lean-to restaurants that – as far as I can see – have formed the backbone of economic society here. The law was designed to take effect 6 months after it was passed.

The government’s goal is to “clean up Tanzania”. They want these small business owners, who are just barely scraping by as it is, to move into formal shops. I suppose the government also wants them to pay taxes. I imagine they think that by cleaning up the vegetable stands on the corner, the newspaper kiosks down the block, and the lean-to restaurants keeping women from having to sell their bodies to make a living is modernization.

But my friends, I can tell you it is not. It is more like a war on the poor.

And the scary part is that it happened so fast and with no resistance from the people at all.

Last week, on my way home from work I asked my driver, Paul, why the vegetable stand at the busy intersection that everyone calls Four Corners, and that represented “town” for my neighborhood, was empty. Paul said they were getting ready to move. All the stores were getting ready to move. I didn’t really understand.

The next day I didn’t recognize Four Corners. All the stores, bars, groceries, and fruit stands were gone. Just gone. Some of these businesses operated out of shipping containers – and many of the containers had been moved (although not all). Other businesses occupied hastily constructed cinder block buildings – the shells of which were still on the corner. People we milling about, looking at the empty buildings and empty plots. But no one looked angry to me. They looked depressed. They seemed resigned to “progress”.

And the next day, even those structures were gone. During the night, bulldozers came through and destroyed the cinder block buildings and cranes removed the containers. All that was on the corner was rubble. And even that got cleaned up the next day.

Now there is no longer a Four Corners. In a few days it got wiped off the map.

And the scary part is – this same scene was repeated all over the entire city. All the informal sector is gone. (At least the part of the informal sector that doesn’t operate out of the few formal market settings in the city.) There is no place to buy a phone card on the corner. Good luck getting a newspaper. The little restaurant across the street from my office, operated by the lady who is blind in one eye, where all my colleagues ate lunch every day, was totally raised. It is no longer there.

I asked my Tanzanian colleagues and friends if they are angry about it and they say “no”. The government decided to do it. There is nothing they can do.

The expats like myself seem to be the only ones who are angry. What about the rights of the people? What about the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? What about the right to make a living? All these are such Western concepts. They don’t really exist here.

We expats are mad and confused. Where will get our vegetables and fruit? Our cheap beer? Our phone cards?

But the truth is we can go to the supermarket and get all these things. Even if we have to pay twice as much, we can afford it.

But most Tanzanians can’t. So how will they get by? Why aren’t they angrier?

I just don’t get it.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Snakes on a Plane - The Tanzanian Adaptation

I have a new movie I'm thinking of pitching called, Geckos in a House.

It features a pair of 2 year-olds stuck alone in a house chasing around geckos who've managed to get inside the house.

But in a terrible twist of fate, the toddlers mistakenly refer to the geckos as "mangos" and therefore rather than saving the children from the geckos the authorities run to the kitchen to cut up some fruit... failing to understand the seriousness of the children's predicament until it is too late...

But too late for what? You'll have to go to the film :)

P.S. Seriously, we've been overrun with geckos lately. Most of them are kind of bumpy and look more like lizards. But for the past few days, a gecko that looks exactly like the Geico gecko has been living in my bathroom. We all like this one the best. He and I must have really bonded because last night, while I was dreaming, we had a long conversation about how to decorate my house when my shipment gets unpacked next week.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Movie Madness

In my last blog I forgot to write about one other illegal thing that I’ve been doing. In fact, I did it as recently as this morning. I’ve been buying bootleg DVDs. Frankly, it’s not like I have any choice. It is simply not possible to get a legal copy of a movie here. Even the movie rental places only have copies of bootleg movies. So the choice is to pay 3,000 TSH per night to rent a movie (and risk running up charges if you don’t return it right away), or buying the damn film for 5,000 TSH and owning it forever.

So I buy.

A few months ago I wrote about my struggle with finding a copy of the DaVinchi Code that actually plays in English. See, most of the bootleg films here are made in China. Their quality varies tremendously. And they don’t always work in English. When the original voice version is available forget about using the English subtitles. They are totally gibberish… text inputted into a bad translation program spitting back not a single sentence that makes sense.

Because of this risk, I’ve learned to remember where I buy my films and the name of the guy who sold it to me. That way I can always return it. And I have several times.

But the thing that has been amusing me most about these films are the critic’s quotations on the covers. Clearly these are chosen off the internet and by someone who doesn’t speak English.

I did a survey of the 12 films I've purchased so far. Half of them had a bad review or a non-sensical comment on the cover. I thought it might be fun to share these with you here.

Crazy Movie Reviews on DVD Covers

You, Me and Dupree
: “Between you and me, Dupree is a dud.”

World Trade Center: “World Trade Center feels too much like it was made for nostalgia purposes: Hey, do you remember that? How you felt? Well, yeah, all too vividly, actually.”

Untied 93
: “A mesmerizing masterpiece of the underexpected!”

The Devil Wears Prada: “Their longtime family vacation home.” (Seriously that's what it says on the front cover.)

The Break Up: “There’s little enough real humor to call this woeful little orphan a comedy, and only the faintest glimmerings of romance.”

Jesus is Magic: “Enjoy yourself…. It’s loter than you think!”

The DaVinci Code: "The DaVinci Code is not nearly as bad as you've heard. It is a medium quality thriller that runs a bit long."

I suppose based on some of these reviews I should have not even bought the films in the first place.

But alas, it is worth buying them just to read the covers.