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Saturday, March 31, 2007

What the Fuck Have I Done – One Year Later

  • Today is my blogoversary. I wrote my first post (What the Fuck Have I Done?) one year ago.

    When I wrote that entry I was scared out of my mind. I had just agreed to jump into an abyss. I was preparing to move to Tanzania.

    I would be lying to say that I didn’t have any idea what would be ahead of me. I had a vague idea that ex-pat life can be nice and the child care would be cheap. I had heard a constant refrain that Dar es Salaam was a family-friendly and safe post from a whole choir of people who knew someone who knew someone who lived in Dar.

    I also had some friends who were pretty unhappy living in Tanzania.

    So I didn’t really know what to think.

    I was obsessed with the things that would be missing from my life in Tanzania… friends and family first and foremost, of course. But I was also focused on material things – like tampons and blue cheese salad dressing and Elmo DVDs.

    I spent a lot of time calculating how many Super Plus, Super, and Regular tampons I would need to last me two years.

    The answer is, more than I thought.

    But guess what? It turns out they have things like tampons here. If I run out before my post is finished, I’ll buy some.

    I can also find blue cheese salad dressing (although not my preferred brands), an infinite supply of DVDs (although not Elmo – but the kids have long since decided that Elmo is too juvenile for their advanced age of 3 years 3 months) and almost anything else I might be searching for. (But with one caveat – I might have to go to 3 stores and 2 markets before I find what I want.)

    Before you think that all of my concerns were material – there were other things I was worried about….
  • Malaria
  • Sunburn
  • Exotic wild animals
  • Really large bugs
  • The 24 hour airplane ride out here
  • Living well among poverty (and all the various dimensions of that)
  • Electricity
  • Finding adequate housing
  • Finding a decent preschool and nanny for the kids
  • Making friends
  • Getting our friends and family to visit us here

    And the most dominant concern: Whether or not I had lost my mind deciding to leave FHI after 13 years for a mega company like AED.

    It was a giant leap into an abyss. I wasn’t (and still am not) a risk taker.

    (Don’t tell me I am because I decided to have kids on my own. That was more of a biological/emotional/physical/need for a legacy thing – not really a thinking decision to leap. I only realized I jumped into an abyss AFTER I was pregnant.)

    On March 31, 2006 I was way way way outside my comfort zone.

    What the fuck did I do?

    I made a decision that turned out to be wonderful for my family. The kids are thriving, our life is semi-exotic and semi-adventurous, I have all the help I need to be the best parent I can be, and finally, 11 months into this adventure, I am actually enjoying my job.

    And to do my job I don’t have to leave the kids and travel for two weeks every three months like I did before we left.

    That’s not to say that there haven’t been challenges.

    I miss you all so much.

    And the 7 months of no electricity was no walk in the park.

    But we survived. And we have thrived.

    And I also discovered (maybe really rediscovered) writing and my creativity. I like it. The act of keeping a blog has been good for me and helped me stay in touch with you.

    This is my 67th blog entry. I don't know that I've ever managed to stick to something so religiously for so long. I'd like to thank Liz (Mom-101) for the inspiration.

    But really, today is less the anniversary of Mahlers on Safari, and more the anniversary of a decision well made.

    It was a great fucking decision.

    Thanks for coming along with us for the ride.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

And I Thought I Had Staff Problems....

If you’ve been following my blog then you know all about my staff and the various dramas we’ve had along the way.

But I have to say, the last few months have been pretty calm. (I just threw salt over my shoulder.) We haven’t had any knock-em-out fights and everyone is (sort of) doing their job.

Raymond – the gardener cum pool guy just finished learning to drive (thanks to my Mom who paid for classes). I’ve got my fingers crossed that he aspires to a career driving a taxi and will eventually leave. At the moment, he mostly just keeps the guards entertained and when pushed will plant a flower or two. I suppose that – for now – that is enough.

Paul – the driver has only offered to come visit a friend in her hotel room on the weekend (off hours) once. His Jaden is growing well – but looks nothing like my Jaden. Recently he asked to borrow a million shillings – about $1000 - to help him start to build his house (on the land he finished buying with his X-mas bonus). At first I couldn’t believe the nerve! I thought, where does he think I could get that kind of money from? And then I realized – shit – I do have that kind of money. But he could never pay it back in the lifetime of my contract here. Instead I offered him $200, which will take him four months to pay back. If all goes well… I’ll loan him $200 more, etc.

Margaret – the housekeeper is really getting good at English (again thanks to my Mom who paid for classes). She is now a little bit less shy and the kids have finally (after 10 months) warmed up to her. Now if only Mom will pay for Margaret to go to housekeeping school!

Secunda – the nanny cum cook is doing a great job and is only totally crazy/paranoid once or twice a month – a very sustainable situation considering all that she does for us the other 29 days of the month. Ever since I threatened offered to hire a part time cook Secunda has been busy reading my cook books and coming out with more and more fabulous (mostly vegetarian) dishes.

Robert – the security guard had been taking computer classes and recently enrolled in school full time. He is only “working” the night shift now. (I’m sorry. Really I mean he is only sleeping during his night shift now.) Between going to school, shooting the breeze with Raymond, and sleeping on his shift, I really don’t know when he has the time to study!

Sunday – the other security guard is the newest addition to our extended family. He has been here about four months – ever since I fired Douglas who was steeling diesel fuel. Sunday is so nice he couldn’t hurt a fly – or stop a thief for that matter – but he is harmless enough and so I keep him.

Sure, we’ve had our share of drama in the Mahler household over the past year. But I can tell you that really we are doing pretty well. I have friends whose household staff chased each other around the compound with machetes until the police came and arrested them, friends who have had jewelry and other valuables stolen from inside their homes, and even one friend who came home at lunch one day to find her housekeeper sleeping in her bed. (Alone, thank god.)

Really, I thought I had heard it all, until….

My friend, Alisa, arrived in Tanzania a few months ago and spent a long time looking for the right place to live. Just three weeks ago, she finally moved into a great ground floor apartment on the ocean with a housekeeper who is the 20 year-old cousin of Alisa’s Dutch bosses’ Tanzanian wife. During the past few months, the housekeeper was actually living with the Dutch guy and his wife, waiting for Alisa to finally settle in.

Thursday afternoon, the housekeeper came to Alisa and said her head hurt, could Alisa give her something for the pain. Alisa dispensed two Ibuprofen and told her housekeeper that she should go ahead and lie down and not worry about her for the rest of the day.

Two hours later, Alisa heard cats having a fight outside her window. She walked down her hall to get a better view and realized that the sound was actually emanating from her bathroom, not outside.

Aliza opened the door to the bathroom, only to find…

The housekeeper sqatting on the floor, and a newborn baby boy screaming his head off - on the floor of the bathroom. The placenta was still inside the girl at this point. According to Alisa, the bathroom was a mess (as you might expect). It is a scene she will never forget.

Luckily, her boss, Eric, is an MD. He raced over, delivered the placenta, had Alisa boil water to sterilize scissors and dental floss, cut the umbilical cord, and pronounced the baby a healthy, full-term boy. (He has since been named, Little Eric.)

No one had any clue this girl was pregnant.

Not Alisa.

Not Eric.

Not Eric’s Tanzanian wife – cousin of the girl.

Not Eric and his wife’s housekeeper who shared a room with the girl for the two months prior.

Jerry Springer… we have a show for you.

Instead of making light of this situation I should be taking the time to educate you about the situation of women in Tanzania. As fast as Tanzania is advancing in so many ways, it still has one of the worst maternal mortality rates in the world.

Perhaps it would be enlightening if I told you that when I told this story to my colleague Abdulrazak his response was, “that’s all?”

He thought the story was going to end in the girl’s suicide. After all, babies born in secret, and without antenatal care, and out-of-wedlock, and at home, and without anyone knowing the woman was pregnant at all is not so uncommon here.

Or so Abdul says.

He also says that suicides related to the shame of all of the above are not so uncommon either.

But I’m going to save the lecture on the state of women in the developing world for another blog entry.

For now I’m just going to tell you that I’m grateful that this didn’t happen in my household. As messed up as Team Mahler can be, so far we’ve managed to avoid a hidden pregnancy and secret bathroom birth.

However, if the Mahler compound is really like General Hospital, I need to be on the lookout for a weather changing machine or an alien invasion.

But those things I think I could handle.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Idol Worship

When I traveled to Namibia for the first time – about five years ago – the entirety of Southern Africa was focused on just one thing. Who was going to win South African Idol? The show was all over the TV and radio. The final few, then the final two, then the winner – it was all front page news. I didn’t get it. Not at all.

Who cares about the winner of a singing contest? (I thought) When I heard that this was an export from Brittan it all made sense. Of course – smaltzy and stupid TV.

Then the Idol franchise turned up in the US. I boycotted the first season, but somehow got suckered into the second season.

(I probably need to apologize to my colleague/lunch mates who were forced to participate in lunchroom Idol conversations.)

I must admit that I was rooting for Ruben all along – but in retrospect it does seem like he was a really poor choice for American Idol. He sounded great all the time, but there was nothing exciting about him – like pretty wrapping paper around a box with nothing inside.

I got to thinking about American Idol a few weeks ago when I recieved an e-mail from Erin, the lovely young woman who was Jaden and Rowan’s Tuesday night babysitter back in DC. We shared an interest in American Idol, and if the show was still on when I got home from wherever (usually just roaming the city aimlessly because hooray – I had the night off) we would sit and watch together. It was nice having a partner in Idolatry.

The bizarre thing about Anglo-American culture is that you can never really get away from it. Why just last week, a South African version of Deal or No Deal – perhaps the stupidest show in the world – debuted. People here in Tanzania are buzzing about it - and there is media for it all over the place. It is not often that an African has the opportunity to win $100,000 US. But as Liz recently observed Deal or No Deal [is so damn lame that] the major dramatic question revolves around the riveting premise: Pick a number. Nope, guess again. Nope, guess again...

Liz… you’ve always had a way with words!

(BTW… I know you are wondering. Yes. The African host of Deal or No Deal is also shaved bald – it is part of the formula.)

Nevertheless, the South Africans have some major competition from the armpit of Africa (in a geophysical sense… not because it is any less lovely than anywhere else). The first season of West African Idol began a few weeks ago – and people are going nuts over the auditions. In fact, they are loving the audition shows so much that the cable TV provider here now has an all Idol-auditions, all-the-time, station going. So, if you are in need of some mind-numbing stimulation, you can turn on channel 37 and watch a full day of auditions from Abuja or Accra or Lagos.

Just shoot me now!

The judges also follow the formula. (They even sit in the same order.)

The “Randy” judge is a fat, jolly guy with an American accent (I just went online and found out that he is indeed American - but also a radio host in Nigeria) who likes to call people “dog”.

The "Simon" judge is a tough-ass queen – about as queeny as I’ve ever seen anyone here. He says nasty catty comments and generally entertains the others.

The only judge worth her post is the "Paula Abdul" replacement. She is a beautiful, exotic womyn with a capital Y! She is smart, sassy, and not nearly the dit-brain that Paula has become.

Interestingly, the contestants sing all the same songs that you’d hear on an American Idol show. I wonder why none of them try to sing African songs? Perhaps it is against the rules to be ethnic?

But then, just as I was getting into West Africa Idol I was channel surfing the other night and lo and behold, I found American Idol – running up against West African Idol on another station. The American Idol show is a few weeks behind where you are in the US. They were auditioning contestants in Seattle. On this side of the pond, they were in Lagos.

It was like Sophie’s Choice!

Which show would I choose? Should I have embraced my new African sensibility? Or was it better to stick with the show that might actually produce a global megastar.

Would it be Randy, or the Randy look/act-alike?

I couldn’t take the pressure!

And then, in switching between channel 37 (West African Idol) and channel 15 (American Idol), I happened upon E Entertainment’s coverage of Anna Nicole Smith's death/custody battle. Problem solved. For now.

In this blog I was going to complain that only the worst aspects of American culture end up in the media here. Between 50 Cent’s “eye candy” dance girls on MTV and Ryan Seacrest hosting both American Idol and E’s daily celebrity news program – what are the Africans to think?

I tried to comfort myself with the fact that we also get The L Word (several seasons old) and the British version of Dancing with the Stars (which I love – although I, like all other normal curious human beings, really want to watch this season’s Dancing with the Stars (American version) just to see if Heather Mills McCartney’s prosthetic leg flies off – uncovering the stash of Paul McCartney’s money she stuffed inside).

But if I have to be honest… I don’t really care so much what the African’s think – even if it is their cable provider. They’ll just have to deal.

I would miss the smaltz, and the dancing, and the singing, and the gyrating, and the gossip, and the girl-on-girl action, and the flying prosthetic legs if they didn’t carry those things.

But not the bald, shinny-headed game show hosts.

No deal.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Malaria, Malnutrition and Micronutrients

I seem to be on a roll educating you, my blog readers, about my work. From the individual e-mails I’m getting (so many of you still seem hesitant to comment on my blogs for all the public to see) you seem to be interested. So I will continue in this vain today.

AED, my “new” company (in quotes because after 10 months I guess I’m not quite so new anymore), seems to like me. At least the folks in Washington have a lot of respect for my work – or so I’m told. That’s nice. I’m still working on warming to them. Pole pole (slowly, slowly) it seems to be getting better. I’m hoping that by the time I reach my one year anniversary I’ll be feeling good in my new corporate skin.

One of the things that attracted me to this project was that it also worked in the areas of child survival and malaria – two things I knew little about – but technical areas that could come in handy someday down the road in the event that they ever find a cure for HIV.

OK… I’m not holding my breath for a cure for HIV. I imagine it won’t happen in my lifetime. But the truth is that annually many more adults and children die of malaria and diarrheal diseases than HIV. In the age of HIV and avian flu and SARS, childhood diarrhea has almost disappeared from the priority list. But never fear. We at AED are working on it.

Recently the senior VP in charge of my division (of about 400 employees) came to Tanzania to work with T-MARC and also to check up on AED’s other projects. I had the honor of traveling with her up north to Arusha to meet with major regional players in malaria, malnutrition and micronutrients.


AED has a project called NETMARK which is charged with (among other things) brining new technologies in insecticide-treated nets to the market. Tanzania has four large net manufactures – one of which puts out 600,000 treated nets per year. We went to visit the factory. Here are some photos:

These are the looms

This is where they are stitching the nets together.

Here are the nets ready to go. These were headed to a refugee camp in Darfur


AED has a project called A to Z designed to work on nutrition issues. There is a whole big field of nutrition people I never realized were out there. Mostly they do therapeutic feeding (when a child is so malnourished that their parent has to bring them to live for a month in a feeding center). We are evidently considering supporting a French nutritional product that is meant for the not-so-malnourished that they need to be in a feeding center set, but malnourished enough that they need nutritional intervention under medical supervision. Their product has the very gross-sounding name (to me) of PlumpyNut. Yuck.

Another project that I work on about 5% of my time is called POUZN. POUZN is trying to introduce zinc for diarrhea treatment for children. Believe it or not, the proper dose of zinc early in a diarrhea episode can decrease childhood mortality by up to 21%. That’s a pretty effective intervention. We will be introducing a new socially marketed product in June called PedZinc. We are working on the materials right now… but look out for marketing materials with happy, healthy, plumpy babies.


I bet you think that the reason we Westerners are so healthy (well free of the kinds of diseases that people here in Africa get) is because of our diets. Well, you’d be right. But it is not necessarily because we eat so many vegetables and drink the perfect amount of milk. A huge piece of it has to do with the fact that our food is fortified with tons of vitamins and minerals. Next time you have breakfast, read the cereal box and the milk. They put in extra calcium, vitamin D, various vitamin Bs, vitamin A, etc. Our food is filled with added vitamins and minerals, so much so, that most of us have no need to think about supplementing our diets with Flintstone’s multi-vitamins.
That was true for me until I moved here and our local pediatrician suggested giving the kids vitamin A drops twice a year and deworming the kids once a year - but that is another story.

Vitamin A deficiency alone contributes in a huge way to childhood mortality in Africa. Iodine deficiencies cause mental health problems. I’ve already told you about zinc.

In any case, AED has a project called Africa 2010 which works on getting flour, salt, and other basic products fortified and then working with factories to teach them how to use the technology involved in fortification.

It is so simple really, and has the potential to save so many lives.

So there you have it… Some other stuff that I'm working on.

Friday, March 02, 2007

A Picture Should Be Worth A Thousand Words of Blog

I know, I know, it has been two weeks since I posted. I'm actually working on three separate blog entries at this very moment - but work has been so crazy busy (spilling into my evening hours) that I haven't had an awake moment to sit and finish a blog.

So rather than sacrifice my high standards, I thought I would go ahead and share with you some visual images of the things I'm working on at the moment.

(Plus, my mom has been on my case to explain why I've been so hard to reach lately.)

We in the Communications Department at T-MARC are launching three new campaigns in the next seven weeks. The materials I am about to show you are still in progress, mainly because there are some graphic design issues to still work through.

Mama Ushauri

A week from today we re-launch a family planning radio soap opera called Mama Ushauri (Mama Advice). Mama Ushauri takes place in the fictional peri-urban community of Goromonzi where three storylines take us deep into the lives of one couple that is delaying their first birth, one that is spacing, and one that has reached their ideal family size. Perhaps it doesn't sound very exciting at first look, but trust me, I've applied my General Hospital credentials to this one. There's a lot of shit that goes down in Goromonzi, but no evil identical twins back from the dead.

This is the invitation to the launch event we sent out today. The wife of the Prime Minister is our Guest of Honor, as well as the Director of USAID.

(This is where I'd be showing you the invite - but I can't figure out how to turn an Adobe Acrobat file into a jpeg that will be accepted by Blogger. Come back and visit on Monday to see the read thing.)

And here is a poster advertising the serial drama. We are not so happy with it - but only had a week to put out a request for bids, award and execute this. They will be better next time.

(Same problem.)
Sikia Kengele

At the end of March we are launching a faithfulness campaign (values courtesy of the US government) called Sikia Kengele: Tulia na Wako - translated as Listen to the Bell: Stick to your partner(s). The launch will be in a community that is also a popular truck stop about 2 hours from Dar. Our guest of honor will be the retired President of Tanzania, Ali Hassan Mwinyi (we want Muslims to feel that faithfulness is for them, too), the pentecostal bishop I've mentioned several times before, the Director of USAID and others. This initiative actually has a really neat implementation plan. I don't have time to tell you about it now, but it involves commissioning a brass fundi (yes... they exist) to create a set of Liberty Bell-esque bells. Stay tuned for a future blog about bell ringers and giant bell shows.

Here are some of the posters from the collection. Targeted to men... the theme is: She takes care of you, don't bring home HIV. Be faithful. Listen to the Bell. Stick to Your Partner. It sounds better in Swahili. Trust me

Doesn't this make you want to stick around and get it at home instead of going out for it?

Vaa Kondom
And finally, the Communications Team hat trick is to launch Vaa Kondom (Put it on, condom) in April. We are still waiting for word on if the President will launch it for us, but we are hopeful. This is the biggest of all the three initiatives I'm sharing with you today. We are going to launch in Tunduma - which is way the hell out of the way - on the border with Zambia - so we will be chartering airplanes to get all the dignitaries out there. But, places like Tunduma, where truck drivers sit for up to one month waiting for their customs papers to clear before they can cross the border, is where we find our audiences for the initiative... truck drivers, bar girls, sex workers, mobile business people, police/customs officers, etc. We'll be implementing outreach to these groups and doing activities in bars, etc. HIV rates are very high among these groups. Where HIV is about 7% nationally, it is up near 78% among bar girls in certain regions.

Here are some of the posters/billboards from that campaign. They feature Tanzanian sayings and are meant to be discussion starters - for those long rowdy nights when you are hanging at the bar with a group of working girls and their tricks.

And finally, I just want to say that in addition to these new initiatives, work also goes on as usual. If you've lived or worked in the developing world you'd know that "life goes on" in a euphemism for "I attend meetings".

Here is a photo that appeared on page 5 of the top English language newspaper yesterday. The cameras here love me.

Or rather, they love my boobs.

What kind a photographer takes photos from this angle? Even Angelina Jolie wouldn't look good!

And there you have it. I'm busy. But I haven't forgotten you. Three fabulous blogs will be coming your way soon.

P.S. I hate the so-called "New Blogger". The settings keep changing on their own. This entire blog was written online. There should be no changes in line spacing. In the editor all the line spacing, layout looks great but then when I push "publish" it all changes on its own. Someone who understands Blogger, please help me figure this thing out. It has been driving me batty!