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Thursday, November 23, 2006

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Out Damn Cold

Over the years I’ve noticed that illness in Africa just catches up with you. Unlike in the States, where you might notice a stuffy nose or a wee bit of exhaustion a day or two before you become outright sick, in Africa there is no preamble. You are healthy one second, sick the next.

I am on my fourth cold since arriving here. This one didn’t come from the kids, and the kids don’t seem to be getting it. It is just my personal burden for the week. It is, of course, better this way, because when the kids get sick I’m obviously burdened, too. But I’m sick of being sick. And sick of getting sick without a good indication that I’m about to be sick. You know me, I’m a planner. If I’m going to be sick I want to schedule for it.

Nobody Likes Me. Everybody Hates Me, I’m Gonna Eat Some Worms…

Two weeks ago the kids and I had a very lovely Sunday evening at Barbeque Village, a local restaurant that features a kid’s play area and very nice Indian food. As Jaden and Rowan ran around in the sand with about 10 other kids belonging to people we know, I sat and enjoyed an interesting conversation and great palak paneer. There was enough food left over at the end of the night to bring home a doggy bag.

But it turns out that isn’t the only thing we brought home.

Fast forward 10 days. Rowan comes into my room in the middle of the night saying that her foot hurts. She is restless and keeps rubbing her feet together. In the morning, I take off her socks (yes, because the air conditioner is cold the kids sleep with socks on in tropical Africa) and find four red streaks, slightly raised like blisters about 2 inches long and thin on the skin on the bottom of her feet. Rowan tells me she stepped on a rock. I think, well, it looks kind of unusual for a scratch, but I put some Neosporin and an Elmo Band Aid on it and send her out to play.

That night, I look at her feet again. The marks had moved up and around the top of her foot – making about an inch of progress. There were at least 3 more as well… one wrapped around her big toe and two on her other foot.

Oh shit, I thought. Something's alive!

In the morning she had even more… and they were clearly moving during the night. Between the top layers of her skin something was alive. And as a bonus prize, Jaden had one, too. And now Rowan had one on her hand!

We were at the doctor’s office when they opened the door in the morning.

“Ah… zeee veerms,” said Dr. Pierre. “Zey are noot uncoomen ere.”


Yes worms. Hookwooms.

Not uncommon? Somehow I didn’t get the memo.

Dr. Pierre showed me a French textbook on Parasitology. These hookworms live in dogs intestines. When dogs poo (shit, crap, whatever) in a wet and sandy environment the hookworm eggs develop in the sand. When humans step on them, they bury into their feet, 10 to 14 days later larva are born, and they crawl around looking for food. Lucky for us humans, we are not their natural host. They spend 4 – 8 weeks wondering around aimlessly under the skin and eventually die and get absorbed by the body. In the meantime, they itch like hell. You can’t cut them out. You can encourage them to die more quickly by using a special cold spray (like the one they use to burn off warts) and an anti-parasite cream.

It’s disgusting. But like Dr. Pierre said, “noot uncoomen”. In fact, he told me, they automatically de-worm fall kids for intestinal worms (using the same anti-parasite cream as an oral medicine) once a year. They don’t test for them. They just assume that all kids have them and treat them presumptively. Lovely.

I went home that morning and, putting my epidemiology training to work for the first time since my public health comprehensive exams, began the painstaking analysis of where Rowan and Jaden could have picked this up. We hadn’t been to the beach during the period in question. The kids play in a sandpit at school, but then other kids would have had this (I checked with their teacher), and I imagine they could have gotten it by walking on the road in front of our house barefoot… but they almost never do that.

And then I realized, ah ha, they I got it at Barbeque Village.

But there were so many kids there. I checked with everyone, and none of their kids had hookworms. Humm…

Later that night, however, I found the smoking gun. I was uploading photos and found pictures I took on that fateful night. All the other kids are wearing shoes. Jaden is wearing socks. Rowan is barefoot!

So much for preserving their shoes…

This was our first tropical illness. A right of passage, I suppose.

But I can guarantee you one thing. There will be no more palak paneer at Barbeque Village for the Mahlers.

No more worms.

Monday, November 13, 2006


In the so-called “Western” world we take so much for granted. We know that in general our traffic lights will work and be synchronized during rush hour; the city water will flow into our sink, tub and toilet – and we can even drink it without getting sick; that potholes in the road will eventually get filled in (even in DC); and that someone from the city will be by to pick up our garbage during the week.

And most importantly, we know that excepting a major storm or freak power grid accident, the electricity (umeme in Swahili) will work 24/7.

Here in Tanzania you can’t take any of that for granted. The traffic lights are often out, my water is shipped into a cement tank in my front yard once a week (and drinking it will give us cholera), the potholes on my street will never be filled unless I pay someone to pile some dirt in there – although it will all get washed away during the next big rainstorm, and the rich (myself included) pay for special garbage pick up while most others burn their garbage in big rubbish heaps in the evening.

And you never know when the electricity will be on or off.

Here everyone calls it “the umeme problem”.

The problem is that without umeme it is damn inconvenient and uncomfortable. Businesses have a hard time operating without expensive generators and most people can no longer keep food in their refrigerators, or keep their fan running during extra hot afternoons.

It hasn’t always been so bad. There used to be a lot more electricity in Dar, even as recently as last year.

Depending on which newspaper you read the reason we have so little electricity in Tanzania (and Dar in particular) is because:

  • There is a drought in the center of the country where there are several hydroelectric dams. The dams are so empty of water there is no electricity.
  • There is a problem with the turbines at the electric plant. A turbinologist (no kidding – that’s the word one paper used) is here from Finland trying to fix the problem at this very moment.
  • Tanzania bought an electricity generating plant from a company in Aruba that went out of business before it could deliver the goods.
  • Tanzania bought an electricity generating turbine from an American company that later the US Embassy claimed doesn’t exist in America. Turns out the people are from Aruba and they went out of business before they could deliver the goods.
  • The main turbine at the main electricity plant blew up because Dar needed too much umeme. There was no one here who knew how to fix it so they rented a specially fitted 747 to come pick up the machine and bring it back to Norway where it will be fixed and sent back on the same plane and then reinstalled.

I don’t know if any of these excuses, or all of these excuses are true.

I just know that there is no excuse for having no electricity 6 days per week.

And if you ask when the umeme crisis will be over you’ll hear anything from next month to never. Most commonly we are told that the problem will be fixed by January.

I ain’t holding my breath.

Back when I first moved here there was no electricity every other day. Then they decided there would be no umeme during the week, but we’d have it Friday to Sunday. Then they cut off Saturdays and just kept the umeme on Friday and Sunday – God’s days if you are Muslim or Christian (but obviously they forgot about us Jews). Then all of a sudden during the week of Eid we had 6 days straight of electricity. Now we seem to have it only one day a week (they decided for the Christians), but they also instituted evening time brown outs twice a week.

All these changes, it is so hard to keep up.

And I am one of the lucky ones. I have a big ass generator sitting next to my swimming pool that can run the electricity in the entire house – sometimes better than the “normal” electricity that comes on most evenings around 6 PM.

It has made my generator the most valuable thing I “own”. I spend $30/day keeping it running. And I freak out when there are even small problems – like Saturday afternoon when Raymond and one of the guards decided (brilliantly) to clean the generator with water from a hose and it was reported to me that sparks flew and the machine shorted out. I wasn’t home when that happened, but I threw a big fit when I got home to the 95 degree, 100% humidity afternoon to find the generator was broken.

My life was briefly over.

But then Paul, our trusty driver and problem solver, found a fundi who knew just what to do. When the generator turned on an hour later, I went out to kiss it. My baby. My darling. My one and only $12,000 generator.

I’ve been meaning to write this blog about umeme for some time now, but I’ve had a hard time figuring out how to make you understand just how much I love my generator, and just how much Dar is debilitated by the lack of electricity on a daily basis. I also lacked a good story to “bring it home” until this evening.

A few hours ago my friend and former colleague, Matthew, came by for a visit. We were talking about some colleagues from FHI’s office in Kenya who were just here, and then the topic of the continuing umeme problems came up.

“It’s funny,” Matthew told me, “that the Kenyans said they don’t use the same Swahili word for electricity as they do here in Tanzania.”

“What do they use?” I asked.

Matthew said, “I don’t know what the word they use for electricity is, but they told me that in Kenyan Swahili, the word umeme means gonorrhea!”

And that, my friends, just seems to say it all. The Tanzanian government is avoiding umeme. Like a good public health person I should be helping them avoid it. But given the dire circumstances we’re in, I’m hoping they’ll catch umeme soon

Thursday, November 09, 2006

When the Rest of the World Rejoices

I nearly jumped out of my pants at 6:30 AM this morning when the BBC Radio Africa Service announced that the AP was reporting the Democrats had won the Senate. After years of disillusionment I’m feeling that perhaps the political process can work.

And thank God, because right now we have a maniac President set to destroy our national image and reek havoc in the world (in my humble opinion), and we desperately need a check on his evil powers.

Just by happenstance I’ve been overseas for most of the major elections of the past 20 years. I am always intrigued to see how the rest of the world views our political processes.

In 1988 during the Bush vs. Dukakis campaign I was living in France, attending the American University in Paris. Back in college, when I was younger and believed that I could actually make a difference, I put a lot of energy into politics. In France I joined Democrats Abroad, a group dedicated to getting Democrats to put in their absentee ballots. I also participated in a school-wide mock vote. I still don’t understand how Dukakis could have lost so badly in America. After all, in Paris, among an international student body, Dukakis won 87% to 13%. For me, the highlight of the 1988 race was that several French TV stations came to report on the American University in Paris’ vote and I ended up in news segments on two TV stations saying, “Je vais voter pour Dukakis parce qu’il est mieux que Bush.” (I’m going to vote for Dukakis because he is better than Bush.) Not very articulate, I know – but it seemed to be just what the French press was looking for. An inarticulate American, just to prove their point!

The next election that stands out in my mind is, of course, Gore vs. Bush, Jr. in 2000. I woke up at 7 AM in Calcutta, India on Wednesday to watch the Tuesday evening returns in the US. When I left the hotel that morning, to facilitate a training workshop, Gore had just “won” Florida and Michigan according to CNN. I was ecstatic! My colleague, Irina, and I spent a fabulous morning in the outer reaches of Calcutta training a group of Girl Scout and Boy Scout leaders to talk about sex – and gosh were we happy. At lunch we asked one of the participants to translate for us. We wanted to ask some men who were working in the park (we were training in an open air gazebo in a park) to tell us what they heard on their radio about the US election.

We asked, “Who won?”

They said, “No one won.”

I said, “Huh?”

They said, “They don’t know who won.”

Irina said, “Someone had to have won.”

They said, “No one won.”

“How’s that possible?” I ask Irina and the workmen.

They said, “It happens here all the time. Corruption! Now America is just like India.”

Flash forward several weeks and I’m in Dakar, Senegal sitting with my friends Ibrahima and Babacar watching cross-eyed people in Florida examine pregnant chads.

Ibrahima says to me, “Hally, can you please explain again how it is that a person can win the popular vote but not become president?”

(I have to say that since 2000 I’ve probably been asked this same question 40 times by people in various parts of the world. It always challenges my understanding of the American Constitution and my French language skills, too. But I think that after 6 years I finally have a good explanation. I tell them the technical reason and then agree that, yeah, it is kind of fucked up.)

Babacar followed with the ever so popular, “How could America elect someone who seems so stupid?” (And Babacar could tell this even though he doesn’t speak a lick of English.) When asked this question I try to tell those enquiring about Bush’s lack of intellectual prowess that Bush fakes people out with the “common man” thing, and that the “common man” thing seems to appeal to really common people.

In late November of 2002 I was in Capetown, South Africa with my friend Jane. just after a mid-term election. We went on a tour of Robbin Island, the penal island where Nelson Mandela was held for 30 something years. Tour guides at Robbin Island are all ex-prisoners. Ours was a beautiful man named, Speech (because his father had made an important speech on the day he was born), who clearly still had a lot of pent up anger about having been a prisoner and victim of politics. He welcomed the group of about 40 people and then ushered us into a stark room with narrow wooden benches that used to be a prison dormitory. He then interrogated each person, asking where we were from. For every American he asked, “Are you a Democrat or a Republican?” Every single person in the room said, “Democrat”.

“How is that possible?” he asked. “Every day I ask the Americans who come here which political party they support, and only two or three times have I ever had someone say they were Republican. If America has a Republican president and a Republican parliment, why are there no Republicans around?”

My friends, you know the answer to that, don’t you? It is because there are almost no staunch Republicans in the developing world. Sure there are a handful of business people and a few political appointees during Republican administrations. But the among the people who wander the world, and certainly among those who choose to live in the developing world, there are just very few. Most Republicans don’t get out much. And if they did, I posit they might not stay Republican for long.

Now please join me back in the present moment, early November 2006 in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Yesterday AM at the kid’s school drop off, the American’s caucused to celebrate the victory for a few moments before our day began. It was nice feeling good about politics again, even if the moment will likely only be brief before it gets back to politics as usual in Washington.

Then when I got to work, my Tanzanian colleague, Johnbosco, walked into my office and said: “We won! The Democrats won the House!”

My Dutch colleague, Karen, said, “Finally, there will be a check on that imbecile Bush. I’m so tired of living under his regime.”

Notice how they were talking as if they were American? As if the election was for their president.

Because you see, when Bush is president of the United States of America, and when the Republicans run the Congress like it is their own personal fiefdom, everyone in the world suffers. Don’t be fooled. What happens in American politics has a profound effect on every single person on this earth. The world has given us their proxy (and not by choice). It is a massive responsibility that we all must remember when we head to the ballot box.

Otherwise, out here in the rest of the world, I'll have to answer for it.

Just a note in case I have Republican friends I forgot about, or some of my more conservative extended family members read this blog. Sorry for being so tough on Republicans. But let’s turn over a new leaf. What do you say we work together on common issues like immigration and minimum wage? :)

Thursday, November 02, 2006


Karen Blixon, in the book Out of Africa said, “I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills.”

Although I’ve never really wanted a farm in Africa, I’ve always wanted to say that line and have it be somewhat true.

Instead I can say, “I lived in a house in Africa, near the city of Dar es Salaam, just one block from the beach.”

Not quite as romantic, is it? Still, it beats saying I had a bungalow in North Carolina (sorry NC friends).


There were big changes for the Mahler family last week. Our sea shipment – the one that had been sitting in the Port of Dar for more than two months while my work permit situation worked itself out - FINALLY made it to my house – arriving in a massive shipping container that couldn’t even make it through the front gate.

This long awaited and much anticipated arrival of my shipment has led me to wax poetic about what it means to be at home. After all, home isn’t just within the confines of your house. Home can be a whole city. Home can be where your family or friends are. Home can even be an existential state of being – the place one is missing when having an existential crisis.

It is true that home defies definition. But one usually knows when one is there.

Before last week I thought that I was at home in Dar es Salaam.

I found a house.

I moved into the house with my kids. We set up shop.

We even made friends.

The house had big overstuffed leather couches and chairs and cheesy adornments on the bedroom furniture. It was very Tanzanian imported from China (where most so-called high-quality furniture comes from here). And actually, after five months of living in the house with this furniture I secretly started to dread the arrival of my sea shipment. After all, we were doing just fine like we were. And where the hell were we going to put everything anyway? We were living rather austerely by US standards, that that was just fine.

But alas, the stuff arrived, there was no turning it back. The furniture is not going back to the US until we do.

And as the 20 moving company workers unpacked the 200 boxes and 50 pieces of furniture and large toys, my anxiety grew and grew.

Where were we going to put the stuff?

How was I going to keep all this stuff safe?

It didn’t help that I had a keen eye focused on the faces of the people who work in my compound. They didn’t say it, but I could tell. They were totally overwhelmed, too. I’m sure however, they must have also thought it ridiculous. How could three people – two of whom are under the age of three – need so much stuff???? I wish I could have been a fly on the wall of their dinner conversation that night.

The biggest surprise for me, other than the fact that in the lead up to the unpacking I didn’t even want the stuff anymore, is that once it was here – in my house – I felt totally different.

My stuff is MY STUFF. It makes my home. It turns out I’ve been “waiting to exhale” all this time. I’ve been waiting for my comfortable furniture. I’ve been waiting for my beautiful (albeit Ikea) living room rug. I’ve been holding out for my pillow top mattress and the giant pile of kid’s toys. I have been looking at bare walls and just dying to having my colorful West African and Caribbean art work up. I just didn’t know it until it was all inside and unpacked.

There are some downsides. I was depressed to see all the boxes that were the contents of various junk drawers and closets I should have taken the time to clean out before I left (or at least put in storage rather than have them sail across the seven seas).

And really, I can write a whole other blog on white man’s guilt related to the amount stuff we seem to think we need to feel at home vis-à-vis the rest of the world. But, I’ll keep you on pins and needles for that one.

But overall… I must admit to feeling totally different about my home. And I think the kids feel different too. Now we can sit comfortably on the couch at night and read book after book before bedtime. Now Rowan can “cook meals” in her play kitchen and Jaden can play basketball with the big hoop.

Meanwhile, the house continues to provide new learning experiences. This week I had a very funny incident with the carpenter/wall hanging fundi my landlord sent over to help me hang my artwork. I spent two hours with him on Monday morning measuring out where I wanted each and every painting. Then I went to work. That evening, as I returned to the house with my boss and my bosses’ bosses’ boss (in from DC) in tow, I discovered that he had managed to hang all my artwork just inches from the ceiling. I felt like a midget! And after an initial mini-explosion (contained because of the presence of the bigwigs) I managed to see the humor in it. I just wish I had had the foresight to take photos of it before the fundi came back today to re-hang everything. I’ll let you know if it works out or if it all ends up just inches from the floor.

Dorothy says, “There’s no place like home.” And she is right.

Jaden, Rowan and I are now really at home. *exhale*