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Monday, April 30, 2007

A Tour of My World

As much as I'd like to share a witty, insightful story with you today - I just don't have it in me. I'm working on it. Come back in a few days.

Meanwhile, I was playing around with Google Earth (one of the coolest things on the web in the opinion of this former geographer) and I realized that I've never really told you much about where I live.

This is a map of Africa. You can find Tanzania in East Africa - the bigish country on the right center (there is a very small yellow pin in the middle of it). Tanzania borders Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Congo, Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique - making the border police very busy, I'm sure - but also meaning that Tanzania's ports are a very important strategic asset - both for business and other more nefarious ventures.

This map highlights the various regions of Tanzania - and you can see a little bit better where Dar es Salaam is located - right on the Indian Ocean coast in a hot and humid (and when it is not raining - dusty) spot.

Here you can see Dar up close and personal. I live on the Msasani Pennisula - which is in the northern part of Dar es Salaam. Some people call "the pennisula" an expat ghetto. It is true that the majority of expats live here... where there are cooler breezes, more Western-style amenities and less malaria than other parts of town. Many people feel embarrassed about living in this sort of ghetto, but not me. I didn't come to Africa to "slum it". I'm here for the lifestyle. (And to "contribute" in the human-to-human sense.)

Here I've tried to mark some of the more important places I visit regularly on "the pennisula". You can see the Sea Cliff Hotel where the kids and I spend every Sunday at the pool, and right next door the Sea Cliff Village, where I go when I'm in the mood for a Subway sandwich (just like Jarred). I've also marked the George and Dragon, the English Pub where I've spent way too much time the last few months (but haven't confessed it to you until now). You can see the Oyster Bay Shopping Center where I shop in the Italian deli and buy my fruits and vegetables fresh off the farm. You can also see where my house is - as well as the Slipway shopping center where you can find me having a pedicure on many Saturdays.

Here you can actually see the roof of the house where Jaden, Rowan and I live. Notice that I'm just one block from the beach. (That strech of beach is the Yacht Club where South Africans try to relive their glory days of apartide - but also where you can get the best pizza in Dar.) This photos was clearly taken before my landlord built my roof deck. You can see that most of the roads are unpaved - and in fact now that it is the rainy season - a current photo would show giant potmarks!

This photos shows you my office - where I slave away every day to ensure that Tanzanians, and Randall Tobias, can have multiple sex partners "safely".

This photo also gives you perspective on my commute. It only takes about 20 minutes to get from my house to my office (on the lower left). About half-way between the two, right on the beach, I drop Jaden and Rowan at school every morning.

And lastly I just wanted to show you where Zanzibar is in relation to Dar es Salaam. As you can see... it is pretty close - a short 2 hour ferry or 20 minute airplane hop away. If you come and visit us like Jane, Marija, Ilco, Rob, Kent, Damon, Laura, Amy, Jamy, David and Lisa will be doing in May and June, I would send you here for a wonderful and exotic beach vacation.

Will we be seeing you soon?

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Club Formerly Known As Book

I like belonging to things – but I’ve historically been disdainful of belonging to conventional “groups”. In elementary and high school my best friend, Liz, and I used to rail against “the man”, which in the late 1970s and early 1980s meant Izod shirts, the color pink, upturned collars, and (the worst thing of all) Preppies! This disdain for preppiness wasn’t so easy to sustain. After all, I grew up in a town that was actually mentioned in The Preppy Handbook. Nevertheless, Liz and I decided to hate the preppies (we called them goody-goods) and all they stood for – which meant belonging to the Yacht Club, going to Ballroom Dancing class, and being on the field hockey team.

We were the baddy-bads. Or rather Liz insisted that she was a baddy-bad, but I was too good to be a baddy-bad which made me a baddy-good, which was better than being a goody-bad, but not as superior as the aforementioned baddy-bad.

So you can see I belonged to a group. It just wasn’t the goody-goods – who did everything by-the book until they were in late high school and started snorting too much cocaine.

But that’s another story.

Being that I’ve never been a full-fledged baddy-bad, and that I like to belong to things, as an adult I’ve sought out groups of people like myself, who weren’t quite the conventional “most popular” types but who were cool in their own right. Cool by virtue of not being too good.

That ruled out sororities – at least where I went to college where there wasn’t an Alpha Kappa Delta Pi-esque sorority for fat girls or engineering students. (And here I’m thinking of those fabulous girls in Kentucky (or was it Tennessee) who fought back against their sorority kicking them out for being “average” in looks and above average in brains.)

I joined the College Democrats (during the Bush I years) and hung out with the anti-establishment kids, and marched for abortion rights (Bush Stay Out of Mine). Not very exciting, I know. I guess I was still afraid to give myself over completely to the baddy-bads.

But just out of college a friend and I started a book club – the first of four I helped to found. In fact, I’ve probably belonged to one book club or another for 16 out of the last 18 years – two in DC, one in NC, and one here in Dar.

A book club is great – because it is an establishment act – but you can find anti-establishment people to be in it. You can read whatever you want.

But it is a lesson in group dynamics.

At the first get-together everyone has noble intents. They want to read interesting books. They want to get to know a new group of interesting people – often who have something in common with them. They want everyone to read the books assigned. They want to have stimulating and enlightening conversations. They want a book club to fill a perceived hole in their lives.

Book clubs seem like the answer.

But of course they aren’t. They only end up reflecting real life.

Annoying people join them
Conversation-hogs join them
Some people get upset with books that they didn’t pick out (and so I say they should have never been a member of a book club in the first place)
Some people chronically pick out bad books
Some only want to read fiction, others only non fiction
Most people have every intention of finishing books but almost never ever do on a regular basis

But also… people who become your friends for life join them. That is part of what makes them so cool.

Here in Dar, I co-founded a book club with my friends’ Eric and Laurie.

We had dinner one night about two months after I arrived and spent a lot of time talking about how there is a lot of surface conversation that happens in Dar. People talk about electricity, housing allowances, household staff, and tropical diseases – but it can sometimes be hard to have deep or intellectual conversation – perhaps because those little annoyances of life are so much closer to the surface here that they are almost always the topic du jour.

Our answer?

A book club.

We gathered 10 of the coolest people we knew at the time and had our first meeting at Eric’s house about 8 or 9 months ago. It was an awesome group of interesting and intellectual people. I was excited, motivated, ready to move forward. We decided on our book club “rules” – things like how often we would meet and how we would pick books and moderate the conversation. Onward and upward…


… you can’t get 10 of the same book here in Dar. And frankly, you can’t get very many interesting books at all. We were lucky to have 3 or 4 copies of a book floating among us in any given month. If we were better planners we could have ordered them from Amazon UK (which takes about 6 weeks and costs mucho dinero) or have friends bring them out for us.

But planning was not our forte.

And low and behold… our book club began to falter.

Last month we read White Man’s Burden. It is a perfect choice for a book club where 80% of the members work in international development. But boy… it was not easy to get through. I made it to page 80…. And I don’t think that anyone else in the group made it further. Come the third Tuesday of the month – no one was “available” for book club except myself and one other person.

I was minorly despondent. Was book club dead? On life support? What would I do without a “group” to belong to in Dar?

I sent out an APB and we all gathered at my place around the dinning room table over Secunda’s lasagna and Ayesha’s fabulous salad last week.

No one wanted to book club to die. But the patient wasn’t responding to the normal treatment. We needed to try something new, something still in clinical trials.

We are now officially, The Club Formally Known As Book.

Instead of reading books we are going to read articles (Laurie has CDs of the last 50 years of the New Yorker), watch movies (all bootleg, all the time), and talk.

We all want to belong. But we don’t want to read books anymore.

We are even going to meet every other week instead of once-a-month. We want to be with each other. We just don’t want to be burdened by books that are impossible to get or that we have to rush through in order to share with the next person on the waiting list.

I feel happy. Free.

Slightly unconventional.

We are a baddy-good book club. Just different enough to distinguish ourselves – but no so much as to alienate ourselves completely from goody-good book clubs everywhere.

This is familiar territory.

Sunday, April 15, 2007


I don’t want you to think I forgot you.

I’ve been busy entertaining my parents – who just left after two lovely weeks of frolicking in the sun and ocean of Zanzibar with the kids and hanging out at the edge of my local swimming hole – on a cliff overlooking the Indian Ocean.

Coming at this time of the year was a major sacrifice for my mother – since she has always been the family hostess of a lovely Passover Seder. In fact, in the lead up to two weeks ago, every time I said or did something that pissed her off she’d (in good Jewish mother fashion) try to make me feel guilty by saying, “I’m giving up Passover for you, the least you could do is…”

Such martyrdom!

Just like Jesus – another Jew who happened to enjoy Passover.

But given that mom was making a sacrifice of a sort – traveling from Jew York to almost Jewless Dar – I needed to rise to the occasion and make an effort to throw something together. Plus, several of my local Jewish friends had already called about Passover plans. It seemed I was the planner-in-chief.

Last year I wrote you about the out-of-this-world Passover that the Jews of Dar experienced when a group of Hassidic Rabbis were dispatched from the Congo via Brooklyn by the Chabad (the pseudo-evangelical wing of Judaism) to minister to the lost Jewish souls of East Africa and provide us with Kosher for Passover matzo. I suggest you update yourselves on this story here, since really, it was one of my best blogs ever.

But this year rumor had it that the Jews of Nairobi were the lucky hosts of the Rebbes from Flatbush… so we in Dar were shit out of luck.

Knowing that my friends at Nargila – a Middle Eastern restaurant – owned by Israeli Jews with king-sized personalities and a two-pack-a-day habit usually hosted Passover for the Jews of Dar I decided to stop by one night last month to pick up some hummus for dinner and find out their Passover plans.

“The ungrateful shits!” said Penina, the matriarch of the Nargila family, referring to the Jews of Dar es Salaam.

“I host them for Pesach; I host them for Rosh Hashana. Do you think they ever call to say “thanks” or offered to pay for themselves? Never! What should I do for them? Nothing!”

“Oh,” I said, like a deer caught in the headlights. I certainly wasn’t respecting this sort of response. After all, aren’t I a Jew from Dar? Didn’t I thank her for our Yom Kippur evening? Don’t I come to Nargila and pay for her over-priced (but delicious) food? Don’t I try to keep in touch? Aren’t I coming to her now?


(For you non-Jews out there, “Dayanu” means “It would have been enough”. It is a word that we repeat over and over at a Passover Seder to remind us that God went above and beyond the call of duty when “He” lead us out of slavery in Egypt, parted the Red Sea for us, gave us manna from heaven, lead us to the Promised Land, etc..)

“I will never host a Jewish holiday again,” said Penina emphatically. “The Jews of Dar are no community. Not like in Nairobi where they actually look out for each other!”

I bristled at being compared to the better Jews of Nairobi. I’m not sure why. I don’t know them.
But knowing that my mother was expecting me to come through for her I took another approach…

“Well… will you cater my Passover Seder?” I asked.

“Yes," said Penina. "For 30,000 Tsh (about $25) per person. But I don’t have any matzo. You have to get that yourself.”

We eventually discussed the menu and agreed on a catering fee. But I was left with the $64,000 question. Where would I get matzo?

From mom via New York was the obvious answer. The only problem was that mom was refusing to fly with Hebrew lettering in her bags. She was already outside her comfort zone – traveling to Tanzania on the considerably cheaper Emirates – the official airline of the United Arab Emirates via Dubai. She was not about to put products that identified her religion onboard with her. (And believe me… I tried to convince her.)

Meanwhile, Jewish friends called me about their Jewish friends who had no place to go for Passover. Could I take them, too?

Sure… bring ‘em on.

Before I knew it I was hosting 16 people for Seder – and the list was growing all the time.

Two people even came to me via Penina herself – Jews who called her looking for a Seder – who she then referred to me.

Was I going to be the epicenter of Jewish Dar? Could I play such an important role?

Me? Agnostic, semi-practicing, humanistic, my kids no longer go to the Temple pre-school me?

Well…. No.

Penina changed her mind the day before Passover. She called to say that there were too many people calling her and that she felt like she had no choice but to take her place as the convener of Jewish life in Dar.

But of course she still wanted me to pay for my 16 people. She’d cover the rest.

I agreed. It was worth it just to avoid the mess in my house.

And that same day my Mom showed up. And lo and behold, she brought forth matzo from the land of New York, and macaroons, too.

And that same day I found a huge supply of matzo in the supermarket. (Better than the supply at the lame Safeway up the block from my old apartment in Washington, DC near Dupont Circle.)

We had matzo. We had macaroons. And I even had a supply of matzo meal left behind by Jews who had already departed from Dar.


I told my 16 to come for pre-Seder drinks. We had a lovely time at my house, and then drove over to Nargila, where Penina, in her own personal style, managed to insult half the attendees by ordering them where to sit – banishing the “younger” attendees (meaning people in their 20s) to the far end of the table.

Nevertheless… it was pretty extraordinary. We were about 40 Jews (and one Catholic priest who wanted the experience), sitting at a table in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. We were about to embark on a sacred ceremony practiced by our ancestors for centuries before us, and hopefully centuries after us…

The Israelis at the table wanted to read the service in Hebrew. Penina handed my father an English copy of a seriously long Hagaddah (the service book) which he couldn’t really read without his glasses.

At some point the “younger” attendees at the far end of the table pulled out their own Hagaddah and in a coup d’etat took over the “service”. Then the Israelis fought back and started up in Hebrew again.

A couple of Israeli guys sitting next to me just make jokes in Hebrew throughout the whole service. I don’t think they heard a word.

It was total chaos.

But the food was excellent.

Three hours later my family left Narglia reconnected to our history – even if it was an imperfect evening.

I called the next day to thank Penina for the evening. She told me that she was feeling better about the Jewish community and maybe she’ll have a Rosh Hashana dinner this year after all.

Whatever she decides…