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Friday, February 22, 2008

Welcome to the Potty Zone

Jaden: [With a glint in his eye] Mommy, what do you want on your pizza, poo poo or pee pee?

Rowan: [Very serious] Mommy likes pee pee.

Jaden: [Big smile] No, Mommy wants poo poo!

Me: [Exacerbated] Do I have to have one or the other? Can’t I just have a plain margarita pizza?

Welcome to Hally’s wonderful world of four year-old twins!

Just when I got excited that the kids can finally hold extended dinner conversations, they entered the twilight zone of the poo poo and pee pee years.

This Mama Wa Wili is knee deep in shit.

At first it was funny. I even participated actively in the conversations, drawing on the Socratic method and learning strategies; I thought if these conversations are a natural part of growing up, at least I can use poo poo and pee pee to create learning moments.

Jaden: There is poo poo by that tree!

Rowan: No, there is pee pee by that tree!

Jaden: You are pee pee, Rowan.

Rowan: No, you are poo poo, Jaden, and that’s not a tree. Its a forest.

Me: Hey you guys, if poo poo falls in the forest and no one hears it will it make a noise?

Jaden and Rowan: [Together] Mommy’s poo poo!

They’re right, of course. It was crap to even attempt it.

I am amazed at the breadth and depth of the poo poo conversations; at the seemingly unlimited ability for pee pee to hold their undivided attention. At times I am even grateful for poo poo and pee pee talk – as they are moments when no one is fighting, no one is taking the other’s toys, and both children are usually smiling and enjoying each other’s company.

The poo poo and pee pee conversations have even gone so far as to get incorporated into their limited Swahili. For example, yesterday our housekeeper, Margaret, dropped a glass in the kitchen and a piece of it embedded in her leg. We rushed her to the clinic where she got 5 stitches.

Here, when anything bad happens, if someone is sick, or even if someone misses a bus, we say in Swahili, pole sana, meaning so sorry. You can also just say pole (sorry) for short. Naturally, we were pole sanaing Margaret all day yesterday until Jaden decided to pole poo poo instead – roughly sorry for your shit. Margaret and the rest of the staff were totally charmed, and gave Jaden the laughs and poo poo encouragement he seems to crave these days.

As for me, I’ve decided to try to relax and enjoy the age of pee pee. It keeps my brain young, even as my 40+ body is feeling old. But I do find myself wondering how far I should take this?

Should I encourage them to stop?

Should I let them talk poo poo and pee pee but not get involved myself?

Or should I participate - encouraging them to see the intrinsic value of poo poo as a substance used to help grow plants, start a fire for cooking, or someday, to run a car?

OK… perhaps that’s taking it too far.

I don’t want you to accuse me of being full of shit.

The culprits.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

A Bird in the Hand IS Worth Two Bushes

The madness started on Christmas Eve when I overheard a whispered conversation between two friends who work for the US Embassy in Dar.

Picture me on the patio of a large house decorated for Christmas in the tropics. I was dressed for the special occasion and sweating profusely.

I had spent the past five minutes trying to figure out where the kids disappeared to; searching the dark corners to make sure they weren’t torturing a dog with kindness or picking up giant millipedes with their bare hands. In my hot wet confusion I was standing behind a big plant next to the eggnog bowl when I heard…

Person 1: [Leaning in close to whisper in her co-conspirator’s ear, but not quietly enough that I can’t hear them from behind the plant] So, I hear you got stuck with the initial planning?

Person 2: [Almost spitting] Yeah. These VIP trips are all-consuming. My life is going to be crazy for the next few months.

Person 1: Are you kidding? Everyone’s lives are going to be crazy. Watch out Dar es Salaam…

Being the indiscrete gossip hoarder that I am, I jumped out from the shadows, to ask:

Me: [Excitedly] Yeah? So who exactly is coming??? Bono? Dick Cheney? Bill Clinton?

Person 1: [Rolling her eyes at me for my lack of discretion] I can’t tell you. But knowing you, you’ll figure it out soon enough. But I can promise you it is no one as exciting as Bono.

Me: Because if it’s Bono I have some brothels I want to take him to see.

Persons 1 and 2: [Eyes rolling] You and your brothels!

Now I’d be lying if I told you that I didn’t think about this conversation during the three weeks that followed as my family visited and we traveled around Tanzania. More than once I wondered who the bigwig was.

And then, the day after I got back from vacation, I got a call. I was urgently required at the Embassy. I needed to be there in an hour.

Let me tell you that as popular as I may be in Dar, being called into the Embassy urgently is not normally associated with positive outcomes. So it was with trepidation that I ran over to the Embassy compound where I found myself surrounded by the top people working in HIV.

They told me:

A very important VIP is coming to Tanzania. (Their redundancy, not mine.)
The Embassy is in the process of preparing a program for said very important VIP.
I am not allowed to know who the VIP is or when the VIP might be coming.
This very important VIP is indeed very important.
I am not allowed to tell my colleagues about a very important VIP coming to Tanzania or that I/we might be somehow involved. If I do, we’re out.
If I lobby for this with anyone at the Embassy, we’re out.
And finally, I am requested to provide the Embassy with a write-up by the end of the day describing a site visit the very important VIP could make to our project that promotes faithfulness in marriage as a HIV prevention strategy called Sikia Kengele (listen to the bell).
And, oh yeah, there is a 99% chance that whatever I submit will not be selected for the very important VIP visit.

At that moment I knew. George Bush was coming to Tanzania. Who else would be interested in our faithfulness initiative when we are doing such great work with sex workers and brothels?

So I did my duty and submitted a write-up – but not talking about it was nearly impossible. Everyone in the American community – Embassy or not – had heard the gossip. In fact, I may have been the last to know. Whispered conversations over grocery carts and at the vegetable stand were abound. Did I know anything? They would trade me their info for my info. And much as I love to gossip – I think I did a pretty good job keeping my mouth shut – for me.

A few days later I got another call to come into the Embassy. This time, the Embassy people were joined by HIV prevention partner agency heads like myself.

Do you know who POTUS is?” they asked.

Of course,” I said. “I’m from Washington DC.” (I didn’t want to tell them that the real reason I knew was because of the West Wing - President Of The United States)

And do you know who FLOTUS is?” they asked.

Yes,” I said. (First Lady Of The United States)

Well,” they expanded, “we want you to rewrite your event for FLOTUS, not POTUS. And even though we don’t really have a natural place for your event, we want to try to link it with another event where FLOTUS will talk with 20 14-year-old Muslims graduating from a Madrassa HIV/AIDS education program.”

Right. Because there are close natural links between 14 year-old Madrassa students and a community mobilization initiative using bells as wake up calls to promote faithfulness in marriage. But true to the spirit of collaboration, I pitched this unnatural alliance from a lifecycle approach. We all knew it was bullshit. But we were trying hard.

Then I was told again:

Talk about this in public and it’s off.
Don’t tell your colleagues who the very important VIP is or it’s off.
The final decision belongs to FLOTUS’ people.
There is still a 99% chance this won’t happen.
Start to prepare.

So I went back to my office and told my top team that there is a very important VIP coming to town and we’ve been asked to prepare a Kengele event. I told them:

I can’t tell you who the person is.
I can’t tell you where the event is.
I can’t tell you what might be involved in the event.
I can’t tell you what days the event might occur (I still had no idea)
OK, let’s get started preparing…

So we began to prepare.

And in the preparation of an event that we had almost no information about, and for person whom my colleagues were totally in the dark, there was a level of exhilaration and novelty that was very exciting.

We were among the chosen few.

I was.

I was among the few people in Dar just ever-so-slightly in the know. People asked me questions and I told them I wasn’t able to answer them. It was powerful. I felt strong and connected; part of a secret society.

And I became invested – invested in making sure this thing happens. Invested in getting to meet Mrs. Bush. Invested in the 15 seconds of institutional fame that comes with having a President or his wife visit your project. Invested in having a project important enough to make the cut. And I even convinced myself that perhaps I would actually get a chance to meet the President himself.

I was totally, completely invested. Obsessed even.

And things were looking good. Slowly we had more information. I was allowed to tell my colleagues when and where the event would be. Every few days the Embassy people talked to the White House and planning continued.

By this time, about 200 of the 600 members of the Bush delegation were already in Dar. The press corps was crawling around – all of them looking to film skeletal people dying from AIDS for their reels - because that's all they can relate to when they report about AIDS. The advance team Secret Service guys were dressed in everyday clothes – not the suits and earplugs we are used to seeing. Nevertheless, it is easy to tell who they were. They have crew cuts and a certain familiar cockiness and swagger that is hard to miss.

My team and I were titillated. We were moving fast to print new t-shirts and banners for the event. We had a giant bell cast so that Mrs. Bush would have a fabulous photo-op ringing the bell of faithfulness. The Christian right would love it. At great expense I even had my mother DHL some new clothes to me since my wardrobe here is short on pantsuits a la Hillary Clinton. (Pantsuits or dresses are evidently the standard uniform for meeting Mrs. Bush, and I haven’t worn a dress in many, many years.)

Several nights in a row I woke in the middle of the night, “practicing” what I would say during my five minutes of face-to-face time, when I would have to introduce myself and the Sikia Kengele initiative to Mrs. Bush before inviting her to ring the bell of faithfulness.

“Hello Mrs. Bush, my name is…”

“Hello Mrs. Bush. Welcome to Tanzania. My name is…”

“Mrs. Bush, it is an honor to meet you. My name is…”

Over and over and over again. All night long.

Then, last weekend I was at the playground with my kids, chatting with an Embassy friend. She told me on the sly that it wasn’t looking good for us. Mrs. Bush’s people (we were allowed to use her name now), were not convinced. Mrs. Bush prefers intimate events. Her people weren’t happy with the fact that our event required a small crowd, and the link between the Madrassa graduation and ringing of the bell of faithfulness was not particularly clear to them either.

I was totally depressed. I wondered how I would be able to face my colleagues on Monday.

So I was completely surprised on Monday morning when the call came for us to participate in a run-through with the Secret Service. An adorable guy from DC via Mississippi walked through the event with my team and the Embassy people. As we went along he pointed out where he would station his snipers, his anti-assault team, and his anti-terrorism team.

Who knew a simple event required so many teams?

But it was at this moment that I knew that our event was really going to happen. I couldn’t help it. I was ecstatic! My adrenaline has been pumping ever since.

But my excitement begged the question, why?

I can’t stand President Bush. I’ve never before had any desire to meet him. I once met his predecessor, President Clinton. And back in 1991 I stood on the White House lawn as part of a “welcoming” group when the first President Bush welcomed Japan’s president to the Rose Garden. But never, ever have I wanted to be in the presence of this current president, whose policies and actions (99% of them anyway) I’ve held with disdain for the past eight years.

And before this opportunity I’ve never even given Mrs. Bush a thought. I have no opinion of her one way or other whatsoever.

So why was I so invested?

Well… the easiest answer is because I wanted to write you a fabulous blog post about the experience. That’s true. But it is also sort of a cop-out of a response.

The next answer is uglier. Anyone who knows me knows that I like to be in the center of things. I love the excitement. I like the attention we are getting from my headquarters office in DC and from other colleagues here in Tanzania. I enjoy watching my colleagues and their excitement. I like the feeling of working with colleagues towards a common agenda. I like being part of an elite group. And even, somehow, I am enjoying a sense of patriotism that is buoyed by the fact that I do believe that the President’s HIV initiative has been one of the few things for which he deserves some credit.

But also I want to look into this man’s eyes; my president’s eyes; and see what’s in there. I want to stand in his presence to see if I can see the good mixed in with all the ugly that comes to mind when I think about him under normal circumstances. After all, most people are complex. I want to believe that he is no exception. He may be ordering the bombing of Iraq by day, but is he a loving husband and supportive father by night? I want to know if I can see that part of him. I need to know. Somehow it has become important to me.

On Wednesday afternoon I got the call. Our event, scheduled to take place on Sunday, was canceled.

Mrs. Bush loves children. She wants to spend more time with the Madrassa children, leaving no time for ringing the bell of faithfulness. The Secret Service weren’t happy with her being outside, anyway. The White House press office was unsure of how photo-worthy newsreel of Mrs. Bush ringing the bell would be.

But there was a small light at the end of the tunnel. Two colleagues and I were still invited to attend the event. At the end of the meeting with the children we could have a few minutes to meet Mrs. Bush.

But then on Thursday morning the White House nixed that, too.
President and Mrs. Bush landed in Tanzania today.

I won’t be meeting them.

They won’t be ringing the bell of faithfulness.

I won’t be sweating away under the unforgiving equator sun in 90 degree, 90% humidity weather in my new pantsuit a la Hillary.

I’m no longer involved in the visit in any way, other than joining the masses who will suffer in the traffic jams that are sure to result.

Sure, I am disappointed. But the good news is I’ve snapped out of my Pollyanna-like trance.

I’m back to being my irreverent disdainful self. I remember now, I can’t stand President Bush or his policies.

I’m back to being disenfranchised and mad.

From Laura Bush's last trip to Tanznia a few years ago

Monday, February 04, 2008

So Close and Yet So Far

During the past few weeks I’ve been getting messages from concerned friends and family asking if the kids and I are OK given what is going on in Kenya.

In case you’ve somehow missed it (which, let’s admit, is easy to do in the US given our news networks’ proclivities against international stories that don’t involve the US going to war on false grounds)… the most recent elections in Kenya didn’t go so well. The incumbent won – but likely by nefarious means. And unlike the fraudulent elections in the US in 2000, the runner-up has not been inclined to drop his claims on the office for the sake of the nation. In Kenya, long standing ethnic and tribal issues (which were exacerbated by British colonial rule) have complicated the situation. There has been violence. Up to 1000 people have died in either clashes with the police or via small pockets of “ethnic cleansing” that bring chillingly scary flashbacks to Rwanda in 1994.

This is scary shit. And it is happening just on the other side of the border from Tanzania.

But just so you are all at ease… The Kenyan border is a good 10 hour drive north – and the problems are not happening all over Kenya – but in limited pockets. Since I’m a big fan of geography, I can make for you the analogy that it is like sitting in NY watching riots Ottawa, Canada. It is pretty far away and in another country to boot.

Still… this is scary shit. And it is happening just on the other side of the border from Tanzania.

It has always bothered me when well-meaning folks, upon hearing that I’m living in Africa, say things like, “oh… that must be dangerous”, or “sounds unsafe”, or even worse, “hmm.. the dark continent, scary”. (Yes… more than one person has actually said that.)

Poor Africa.

Imagine the idea of a whole continent judged by the misfortune of sharing a land mass with a few rough places – like if we judged all of the United States by the violence and poverty of inner city New Orleans and Detroit. What about the beautiful savannahs? What about the jungles full of amazing creatures? What about all the wonderful people I’ve met in each of the sub-Saharan countries I’ve visited? (Eight so far!)

Africa needs an image consultant.

But Africa also needs some of our compassion and understanding. As a continent, it’s gotten a bum deal – what with all the colonial plunder of natural resources and mass murder perpetrated by the Belgians, British, French, Portuguese, Spaniards and others; and not to mention the slave trade to the Americas and to the Arabian peninsula, yada, yada, yada….
And then there is the shitty thing about how the beautiful forests and animals are also the source of deadly diseases like ebola, malaria, and maybe even HIV.

Talk about being screwed from both ends.

I started to write this post in response to good friend who sent an e-mail asking me to blog about what is happening in Kenya and my snotty – but intended to be humorous - response to her was… get a map.

Tanzania is not in Kenya. Tanzania is not Kenya.

I prepared my high horse (or is it my soap box?), ready to give you all (my readers) an education about how Tanzania was saved from much of the post colonial division that happened in other countries by a visionary first president, Julius Nyrere (look him up if you are a history or politics fan – he was a really interesting person and a national and regional hero) who decided to turn Tanzania towards a socialist, rather than Western, path and then worked to do away with tribalism by uniting Tanzanians under one language (Swahili) and one nation (Tanzania). As a result – the question of ethnicity or tribe is not part of the daily discourse here as it is in Kenya where Kikuyu help Kikuyu get ahead, and if you are Luo you definitely voted for the opposition. And today, even though the path is definitely back towards capitalism, the trick about uniting Tanzanians continues to stick. It makes Tanzania a very unique place.

But there is also a list a mile long of things that are just the same here as they are in Kenya.

Like crippling poverty

Like disenfranchised youth

Like the fact that death and sickness are as much a part of day-to-day life for most people here as Starbucks is to people who live in Seattle.

I don’t mean to be crass… but it’s true. Whenever I forget, there is always something that reminds me. Like the day last month when the kids and I saw three dead bodies in less than 24 hours.

Two of them were around the corner from my house. Two young men – security guards for the same security service I use - had been hit by an even younger man who was driving his new car drunk at 10 in the morning on Boxing Day. When the kids and I drove by the bodies were still in the street although they had been hit more than an hour previously. People were standing around them disinterestedly. The police were there just hanging out. There had been no attempt to get the guys to the hospital, no attempt to clear the scene or cover the bodies. They were just there in the road for the rest of us to drive around.
We saw the third guy the next morning on the highway as we drove west towards our vacation destination. Again it was a guy lying dead in the road. This time it was along a stretch of highway that was surrounded by savannah on both sides. There were two police officers standing over him – filling in a form, it seemed. No one else was around. It was unclear how he got there – although I imagine he was hit by a bus or fell off a truck. It was unceremonious. That’s how death often is around here.

I actually have a million stories I could tell you – and it would be cathartic to spill them out – like how my friend’s security guard had his second baby in the past two years die from malaria over the weekend, or how another friend’s nanny died of AIDS in her backyard a few months ago. But I’m going to hold back. You get the idea – I think.

But why am I sharing all this with you?

It is because we need this lens in order to understand what is happening in Kenya. You need to know that death is always close here. That in many communities people are desperate for food or for power or to survive the week. And many – especially the youth - have no grander plans to look forward to. When you hear about people hacking each other to death with machetes in Kenya it is not enough to assume that the reasons why or the solutions are simple politics.

Send in Kofi Annan and he can fix the situation, right?

Don’t turn away from what is happening. Don’t turn off the news. Africa needs us to pay attention and to care.

One month ago Kenya was one of the most prosperous and stable places on the continent. The ethnic politics made it different from Tanzania, but it was nevertheless growing and peaceful - just like here.

Tanzania is not like Kenya, right?

Or is the other side of the same coin?