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Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Education of Hally Mahler

Tonight the kids and I are flying back to the US for 12 days. In the run-up to returning “home” (to my parent’s house in NY) I have been thinking a lot about what I’ve learned during the past almost 8 months since we moved to Tanzania.

In my business there is a premium on people who have lived and worked in developing countries. I always resented that. Last year, I would have told you that living overseas was not really important to my work, since really what was needed were people who knew how to fly in, work with strangers from a different culture on some of the most sensitive issues imaginable, get the work done, and get the hell out.

This is still true of people who are providing short term technical assistance. But I understand now why when USAID is evaluating candidates for a posting overseas they are looking for people who have done it before. The truth is, this life, with all its bells and whistles is not for everyone. From the outside, from the perspective of someone who flies in and flies out, or from the viewpoint of a friend or relative, it is indeed a pretty enticing prospect. The “package” comes with big houses, lots of household help, beautiful gardens, exotic locations (safari, Zanzibar), tropical weather, and interesting people with whom to socialize.

If you wanted to, you could envelop yourself in the expat world so completely that you would hardly know where you were. There is a group of South Africans who live like that here. They come to Tanzania seeking the inequalities that made the years of apartheid so much fun for them. Here, their economic superiority and their clannishness enable them to live in a bubble – a throw back to 10 years ago when Africans had their place (working to serve) and Europeans had theirs (watching the sunset at the Yacht Club).

Of course, this is an extreme example, and it has made me digress from the point at hand. Most expats live a mixed reality – where we have all the luxuries, but also many of the challenges of developing world living. And believe me, these challenges are not for everyone.

You see, we are living in a different culture, a different society. Here, people struggle to get by. Even the rich and upper middle class have tremendous burdens unlike those we face in the US. Here, the more money you have, the more you HAVE to give away to your relatives and friends. This situations turns even very well paid people into virtual paupers. With no government safety net, family is it. My colleagues typically pay for 4 or 5 siblings or cousins to go to school, and help their parents and their aunts and uncles pay their daily expenses. Here, even going to a family wedding costs money. In Tanzania, wedding invitees pay for their “tickets” in advance of the wedding – not to mention gifts and travel to/from the event.

So given what I’ve just told you, it might seem reasonable that people would resort to extreme measures to have enough money to keep up. Before I came to Tanzania I was told by several people that while there was corruption and fraud here, it was pretty limited compared to other places.

I don’t believe that anymore.

Everywhere I look I see fraud perpetrated along a continuum from petty to severe. From my workplace where I’ve seen thousands of dollars misappropriated during procurements that clearly ended up in the pockets of our former leaders (how else would they be driving brand new Mercedes SUVs and Land Rovers with salaries significantly lower than mine and in a country where there is no financing); to the fruit vendor on the street who charges me the “white man’s tariff” when I buy my mangos (charging me twice or three times as much as a local).

You might think that some petty fraud is reasonable. After all, who can blame the vendor who sees a white face and knows they can get a little extra cash out of her? The problem is the slippery slope. At what point is it not ok to skim a little bit off the top? The more money you make the more burdens you have, and also the more pressure you have to live like “the big man”.

I wish I could tell you that the example from my workplace was extreme. But it is not. What I’ve learned over the past 8 months is that every single workplace faces similar problems. No accountant, operations manager, or procurement officer can be truly trusted. And scams, where they exist, are usually pervasive. They involve many people. They involve people you thought you trusted and respected. They involve people who you called your friend.

And, as a foreigner, you are almost helpless to stop it. Unless you go and double check all the bids for the December office stationary yourself, you have no way of knowing if the bids you got were all legitimate, or if they represent a carefully planed scam, giving both your staff and the stationary dealer 10% off the top.

If only this stopped at the workplace and in the markets.

I’ve been lucky in that, as far as I can tell, there has been no major fraud within my household, although you already know the story of the missing money. And did I tell you what one of my guards was also steeling diesel fuel from the generator? Well… he was. And I fired him.

But with the household staff, the problem is more about where to draw the line. They come to me asking for things all the time. Oftentimes I cough up the money immediately. Margaret had malaria and needed medication. Robert had a death in the family and needed help getting his relatives back to the village. Paul wanted to “borrow” the extra mattress I bought before my furniture came so that his new “nanny” (a cousin from the village) would have a bed to sleep on in his one room “apartment”.

No problem.

But Paul also wanted an $80 bicycle to get back and forth from work. Raymond wants $100 to take driving lessons. Margaret needed $50 to take English classes. And my landlord’s fundi wanted $100 to take driving lessons, too. (I was kind of pissed that he came to me rather than my landlord for this. I gave him about $20 towards the lessons and told him to never ask me for money again. Was this mean? I just don’t consider him my responsibility.)

Yesterday, Paul even asked if he could use my car on Christmas to take his family around to visit friends.

The onslaught never ends. And because of it, you kind of need to develop a hardened heart. Now I know why there is a premium on seasoned expats. Because some people end up letting it all in, and frankly, they can’t really function that way.

I could let the fraud and the constant requests for help get to me.

Sometimes it does. I must admit to you that I struggle with it. But I also work hard to get past it. There are so many wonderful things about Tanzania, Tanzanians, and this lifestyle and adventure that I’m living. Most of the time the good drowns out the bad and I enjoy all that is fabulous about this place.

Before I moved to Tanzania I was a virgin who thought that because I had already gotten to 3rd base I wasn’t so virginal after all.

I was wrong. In the last 8 months my cherry has been popped.

The education of Hally Mahler is certainly not complete, but it is now well underway.

One of the lovely things about Tanzania. David and Hally in Zanzibar yesterday.
Mahlers On Safari will be on break until the first week in January. See you then. And Happy New Year everyone.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


December 1, 2006 is World AIDS Day. Do you know your status?

That’s what the ATM machine asked me at 8:25 in the morning on December 2, 2006 when I groggily stuck my card in the machine trying to get some cash before the work day started.

Why, yes, I thought. I do. But that wasn’t the reason I was smiling.

I was smiling because this was the exact type of HIV “intervention” I might have been conspiring to put into place back in my old life – the life where I sat in Washington, DC or traveled to London or South Africa scheming about how to make people in the developing world sit up and listen to the fact that it was World AIDS Day, dammit. So listen to what I have to say now!

Back in my old life, World AIDS Day was a big deal. For the 13 years before I moved to Tanzania I was always involved in World AIDS Day happenings. At FHI we’d typically have a moment of silence, read a poem, take a moment to reflect together upon the work that we were doing.

In the year leading up to World AIDS Day I would dubiously look at national plans from the various countries that I supported. So much money would be put into World AIDS Day plans – rallies, testing campaigns, t-shirts and caps. I wondered what the value of spending so much money on one day was.

Can one day a year really make a difference? And yet, what would the cost be of not participating in the hoopla? Would someone who could have been reached with a lifesaving message be lost if we used our money some other way?

For the previous five years, most of my/our (FHI’s) collaborative work with MTV would cumulate on World AIDS Day. In November we’d film a program with Bill Clinton, and December 1, voila, it would be broadcast around the world to nearly one billion homes. Folks, you can’t get much bigger than that in the media world. This was World AIDS Day big time.

So many people around the world put so much effort into World AIDS Day events. I always assumed that everyone everywhere was enveloped in learning about, hearing about, thinking about HIV on that day. How could they miss it with so much going on? Not with a rally on every corner? With every news outlet everywhere creating programming all on HIV!

And yet, it was December 2nd when I got that message. Somehow, here in Tanzania, I missed World AIDS Day.

That morning I stuck my card in the machine, got a message from the bank, and thought, “Yeah, it was World AIDS Day yesterday, wasn’t it?”

OK. I’m lying to you.

Sort of.

I knew we were coming up on World AIDS Day because at T-MARC we made plans to participate in some events in the field. (Turns out it was raining pretty hard that day in Mbeya and that the crowds were very, very small.)

Also, T-MARC was invited to participate in the Tanzanian national World AIDS Day event – all the way up in the northwest of the country - in a spot so far from Dar and so rural, that the government had to charter planes for the groups of government and foreign dignitaries (including the President of Tanzania and the American Ambassador) that shelped up to Musoma for the day.

I had the chance to participate in that, but I turned it down and sent a colleague instead. I just wasn’t that into small chartered planes and a day of speeches in Swahili.

And so on December 1, I got out of bed. I listened to the radio in the background as I got dressed. I went to work. I talked about AIDS, but World AIDS Day didn’t come up. I talked with my staff – both at home and at work, but World AIDS Day didn’t come up. I went out for dinner with friends, but World AIDS Day didn’t come up. I watched TV, but World AIDS Day didn’t come up!

On the morning of December 2nd, I stood at that ATM machine and wondered how the hell I could have missed it. And if I missed it here in Tanzania, where people are really affected by HIV, who else must have missed it, too?
Good question.

I want to think that the reason I missed it is because one way or another I end up surrounded by HIV all the time – it is my work, my friends are directly affected, and I’m living in a country where it is a serious crisis.

But I don’t think that is it. I think that the reason I missed it is because we (the collective “we”) haven’t yet figured it out. The ATM’s message was cute. And it made me reflect for a moment on December 2nd. But it still isn’t the answer.

I don’t know what is.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Something Stinks in Here

Like most upper-middle class east coast girls, I was first introduced to the heinousness of really bad BO in the tunnels of the Paris metro. If you recall, back in the 80’s a hairy female armpit wasn’t the semi-chic statement it is often interpreted as today (in American circles, that is) and many of the French were not yet initiated to underarm deodorant.

In fact, I don’t think I had ever seen a woman with long straight underarm hair before venturing into metro at St. Michel my first day in Paris. Of course, the men had hairy armpits, too. It just wasn’t the fashion for them to share it.

But oh boy, could you smell it.

Summer stank like all hell down there. But alas, I thought it a small price to pay for being an American wandering around the City of Lights.

Since those years, I’ve become a connoisseur of sorts – of BO. During my many years of travel I’ve noted those places where BO doesn’t seem to be much of an issue, and those places where you really have to be careful who you are sitting downwind from. While the French may have largely changed their ways and started using deodorant, most of the rest of the world clearly hasn’t, yet.

Among the worst places were Greece and Spain (back in the 80s) and Kenya and Mali. But the absolute worst I’ve ever experienced was in Rwanda where I couldn’t get in a car with an FHI driver without sticking my head out the window, and where the American visitors would nearly come to blows over who got stuck sitting in the seat directly behind the driver.

It was deadly. Trust me.

Bad BO can, of course, be exacerbated by two important factors. 1) The local diet. 2) The naturalness of the fibers in the clothes one is wearing.

BO in India, Egypt, and Thailand all had their very own special smells... because of the spices that people cooked with. Frankly, sometimes people just smelled because they were excreting garlic or whatever their wife made them for lunch, rather than BO per say. But you will have to forgive me since it can be difficult to separate out the complexities when food and body functions are mixed to create the ultimate olfactory experience.

In my opinion, the worst BO is found in people wearing polyester and other “unnatural” fibers. For example, back in 1998 there was a lovely research fellow at FHI’s North Carolina office (during my NC years) who was from Kenya. He really was an interesting and intelligent man, but he was living away from his wife for the first time ever, and clearly no one was washing his clothes. – or the polyester suits that he brought with him from Kenya were so smelly already that there was no chance they could hold up in the NC sun. Nobody wanted to go near the guy and the people who had offices within a 40 foot vicinity were suffering badly. It wasn’t the first or the last time in my career at FHI that one of the poor staffers who were also unlucky enough to be MDs were dispatched to have “the talk” about hygiene and cleanliness with a visitor from overseas.

Soon after that experience, FHI added cultural expectations of cleanliness and body order to the general orientation that Fellows and other long term overseas visitors got. My understanding is that often it is accompanied by a site visit to a drug store for an introduction into the various products on the market.

I guess you could call being around BO an occupational hazard for someone like me. I should add it to my CV.

“Has experience handling difficult body order situations while maintaining a high level of professionalism.”

Actually… I just breathe through my mouth.

You may be asking yourself, “Where is she going with this posting?”

To tell you the truth, I don’t remember anymore.

I just know that I got into the car with Paul this afternoon and it was bloody friggin hot outside and Paul (who is usually pretty cleanly and dressed everyday in different clothes) stunk. Over the past 6 months I’ve been cognizant of the fact that Tanzania has not been among the stinkiest places I’ve worked, but it is not stink-free either.

And I thought, I should blog about this. I need to share.

And so I have.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Thanks For…. (Nothing, Something, Everything)

I’ve had a lot of people write to ask me how we celebrated Thanksgiving here in Tanzania. But to tell you the truth, I’ve been kind of avoiding the topic. People expect me to tell them that it was oh so wonderful. But my answer last Thursday would have been that Thankgiving was pure crap.

I hate to sound ungrateful, but on Thanksgiving Thursday there was no Macys parade and no college football. (Not like I’ve EVER participated in either of these.) Instead, on the Thursday of Thanksgiving I worked nine hours. It wasn’t a holiday here. And except for a pleasant Indian dinner at a favorite restaurant with two wonderful friends, it was an oh so crappy day... fiscally, professionally, personally and medically.

Fiscally: Remember my car? The one I just got out of the port after it sat there for 5 months? Well… just one week after having it at home I let my driver, Paul, and a driver from T-MARC, Steven, “service” it in my driveway. Steven says he is a mechanic by training and services cars on the weekends. So… silly me, I said OK. By the time the servicing was over the car had a major problem – it could no longer go in reverse and there were other problems. I had Paul take it to the Toyota dealer. On Thursday Toyota called to say that the gear box needed to be replaced and it would cost upwards of $2000 and take 6 weeks to order the part from Japan.

Professionally: One of my colleagues – one of my favorites – is a Kenyan. They don’t like Kenyans here. It is part of Tanzanian’s inferiority complex with their richer, better educated neighbors (Kenya and Uganda). His work permit got denied. I was forced to fire him that morning.

Personally: OK… this isn’t really about me personally… but… At lunch time on Thursday I had Paul pick me up in the rental car (since remember, mine didn’t work) and take me to the brand new Game. Game is a South African chain a la Target. The very first one just opened here and I took advantage of having all the things I could possibly want in one space and spent quite a bit of money. After Paul dropped me off I asked him to go straight home with the new microwave, stereo, etc. Instead he decided to stop at the electricity company to get some umeme for his family and leave the car on the street. While he was in Tanesco (the electricity company), some thugs broke into the back window of the car and tried to steel the stuff. But Paul (I) was lucky. There must have been too many people around because they only stole a plastic bag containing toilet paper, tissues, and a bag of marshmallows. I guess they were pretty unlucky, nevertheless, I was stuck paying for a new window.

(Just a note, I’m not normally a marshmallow eater – but it was going to be Thanksgiving and I had designs on making a “traditional” sweat potato dish. I feel I need to clear that up.)

Medically: That same morning – before the ruckus with the cars and firing Nelson – I went to the doctor with Rowan so he would have one last look at her worms. While I was there the doctor heard me hacking away (I had a bad cough for over a week) and insisted that he listen to my chest. He was joking around before he listened to my lungs. But after listening he pulled away with a very serious face. “U hav zee nemonia,” he told me. “Zis es very serioz.” He brought me to another room, stuck me on a nebulizer for 30 minutes, prescribed 5 medicines, and gave me a lecture about how important it is for me, as a mother, to also seek help for myself. All with a fabulous French accent!

So as you can see… the Thursday of Thanksgiving sucked.

But as things are apt to do, they got better quickly.

Saturday night I had a big Thanksgiving potluck party to inaugurate the new roof deck. Forty-five people and children were there… everyone from the American filmmaker who grew up in India as the child of Missionaries but spent most of his life until recently in Zimbabwe, to the Tanzanian born but of Greek decent hotel owner married to my Dutch colleague. My nine months pregnant Tanzanian colleague got Secunda, Paul and all the rest of the staff dancing – and they had a great time, too. It was an amazing meal – replete with all the traditional foods, a few non traditional foods and even a giant turkey that had been alive in the morning and eaten by sunset. I hired a DJ and everyone danced the afternoon and evening away. We ate, we danced, we were merry. It was perfect.

And yet… I still wasn’t ready to write you to tell you about Thanksgiving. I wasn’t adequately thankful yet.

But that changed today.

Remember how I told you back in the beginning that there is a fundi for everything?

I guess Paul felt guilty about ruining my car and all. When I told him how much Toyota wanted to fix it, he nearly doubled over. Two thousand dollars is about nine months of his salary.

Paul with the car

On the Friday after Thanksgiving I took the car to another auto mechanic who told me that he might be able to get me a used gear box – but it would still cost me close to $2000 and take some time to locate an appropriate part.

The next day, Paul set out on a quest. He went to the crazy and huge downtown street market called Kariokoo. I should have told you about it before. It is Home Depot meets WalMart meets the Gap meets Whole Foods meets Best Buy meets G Street Fabric. Kariokoo is a vast market where you can find everything from plumbing fixtures, to microwaves to thong underwear to coconuts.

Kariokoo also has a fundi market - a place where you can go to find a specialist fundi for just about anything you might need done.

Paul went down there and found a fundi who specializes in gear boxes who said he could fix my car for $100.

When Paul first proposed the gear box fundi I didn’t agree. I was worried the car could end up in worse shape. But eventually I decided that it couldn’t get much worse considering I was now back to renting a car and was weeks away from getting mine fixed in a best case scenario. So I gave the go-ahead.

The fundi came and took out the gear box. He took it back to Kariokoo and fixed it. For two days his sub-fundi mechanics replaced the gear box in my driveway. (This was the most nerve-wracking part. It seemed like they would never be finished.)

But this evening at 5 PM, Paul came to get me from work, and he was driving my car. It worked perfectly! He even drove me around the T-MARC parking lot in reverse. Spectacular!

Who knew there was such a thing as a gear box fundi? Now I know better.

And really, it was a good lesson in life in general. You would never go to a family practitioner to treat a heart valve problem. Why go to the Toyota dealer – a generalist, when you can hire a gear box fundi – a specialist?

Today I believe in Tanzania again. And so I give thanks to the fundi of this country. And I wish for all of you that in the year to come that you will find the fundi to fulfill all your needs, as well. (Or at least a fundi who can save you $1900!)
P.S. I am also thankful for the upgraded version of Blogger which has allowed me for the first time in months to upload photos with my blog. Stay tunned... I think my blog entries will only get more interesting from here!