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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Eliza (and Kelly)

I love to get phone calls from my friend and former colleague at MTV in London, Georgia. When the phone rings, and Georgia is on the line, I know that my life is about to get interesting.

So at the end of May when Georgia called to say that she was coming back to Tanzania (and so soon after she was just here in early April) I knew that something exciting was coming my way.

Georgia is the head of MTV’s global HIV initiative called Staying Alive. Staying Alive now has a foundation that gives small grants to amazing young people doing HIV work in the developing world. Some of their grantees are here in Tanzania. And when Georgia was in Tanzania in April I introduced her to a young Tanzanian woman I thought she had to meet… Eliza.

Eliza is someone who has had 100 years of hardship in 20 years of life. Eliza was born in Iringa – a region whose closest parts are about 8 hours by car from Dar es Salaam. Her father abandoned her mother and his young children when Eliza was just a baby. When she was 12 her mother “sold” her to a family that wanted to use her as a house girl. The family promised that Eliza would go to school, but that never happened. In Tanzania a “purchased” house girl is the equivalent of a modern slave. She makes little (or most often) no money in exchange for a place to live. In this case, Eliza’s mother got some small money and was then freed from having to worry about one more mouth to feed.

When Eliza got to Dar her life was hell. The family worked her seven days a week. When she was 14, the wife of the family went out one day and left Eliza home alone with her husband who brutally raped and beat her. Bruised and battered, Eliza went to the police station to report what had happened to her, but the police refused to open the case without a bribe. As Eliza was leaving the police station, the wife and husband showed up and claimed that Eliza had been stealing from them. Eliza was thrown in jail for six horrendous months.

The day Eliza was released from jail she somehow found her way to Hyena Square. Hyena Square is a neighborhood in one of the poorest communities of Dar. It is called Hyena Square because it is, “where the people who are like the hyena – feeding off the scraps and terrorizing the neighbors come to work and live.” That same day she met a young woman who invited her to stay, brought her to the guesthouse where she lived, and taught her how to sell her body for sex to men.

Hyena Square was one of the first places my colleagues took me to when I moved to Dar. USAID has asked me to show around a NPR reporter who was in town doing a news story, and so I asked my colleagues to take us to a place where there was sex work happening, and thus we arrived at Hyena Square. It would not be a lie to say that it was one of the most intense, overwhelming, and memorable (in a bad way) days of my life. (And truth be told, I’ve been to a lot of intense and bad places.) The square was filled with drunk and high people. Women were preparing injections of heroin in the alleyways. Men and women were meeting up in the squalid bars and guesthouses and retiring to the filthy beds in back rooms to have sex. There were some women who had several partners during the hour that I spent in one particular bar. And to top off the scene, outside a fire and brimstone-type church was blaring a sermon by a preacher who was screaming into the microphone. It was front row of a concert loud. You couldn’t hear yourself think. You couldn’t talk to the person next to you. And I guarantee you there were no conversations about condoms or safer sex that could happen in that environment.

Eliza managed to live and work in those conditions for about four years – and somehow – by a miracle really - managed to stay off drugs. And despite all the horrors of Hyena Square there were good moments, too. Eliza has a photo album of some of the stolen happy times – a group of girls sitting on a motorcycle, or hanging out with some friends in her room. When Eliza shows you that album now she points out all her friends who are gone – most of them dead from AIDS, malaria, drug overdoses, or the many other diseases that come from living and working in such conditions and from being addicted to heroin.

One day Eliza met some outreach workers from a local NGO that had put up a counseling booth for people in Hyena Square. She was inspired. Eliza started visiting them everyday, and eventually they invited her to join them in their “rescue house”. Eliza left her room in the guesthouse and she stopped having sex for money. She started to think about her future. And before long, Eliza was the woman in the counseling booth, reaching out to her former colleagues with advice and help to “get out”.

She also tested HIV positive. She was devastated at first, but eventually realized that with HIV drugs and “clean living” that she was being given a new lease on life. She joined the women’s soccer league. She started doing more work to reach out to young women in similar situations. I found her because I saw a film a NGO made about her life. It was pretty inspiring.

So now, in her early 20s, Eliza is an amazing role model. The Staying Alive Foundation is funding her to go back to Iringa, the region she came from, and work with young women and their parents to help them understand what happens when they send their daughters to be “house girls” in Dar, and to educate them about the dangers of HIV and the devastating consequences of sex work.

So… when Georgia called to say that she was coming back to Tanzania to officially give Eliza her grant, and that she would be accompanied by international singing sensation, MTV Staying Alive Foundation Ambassador, solo artist, and multi-platinum group artist (and member of Destiny’s Child), Kelly Rowland, I must admit to thinking…

Oy vey, another famous artist on a fact-finding tour. This is just the thing that Africa needs.


Or maybe…

Kelly was coming, after all, to film MTV’s World AIDS Day program for this coming year, which will feature - in large part - Eliza’s story.

And isn’t Eliza’s story something important to get out there? Besides the obvious inspirational qualities of her story, shouldn’t the privileged young people of the world – including Tanzanians whose families pay $80/month for satellite TV – get some insight into what life is like for millions of young people.

But the best part was that Kelly turned out to be just the loveliest person. Georgia told me she was, but I didn’t believe it until I spent the day with her. She was thoughtful, and interested, and empathetic. Kelly asked great questions, and had just the right touch of indignation (and rightfully so) when the journalists at the press conference announcing the Staying Alive Foundation grant to Eliza asked cynical question after cynical question about the funding and the selection process instead of about the goals and objectives of Eliza’s work and the horrible situation of other young women just like her in Tanzania.

Kelly held Eliza’s hand as she told her story. She stood by Eliza’s side as Eliza gave her an unabridged tour of Hyena Square. Kelly got down on the ground to look into the eyes of a shy young woman with a baby engaging in sex work for money and drugs. She shared that she, too, grew up in a household with no father and understands that loss, but also believes in the power of faith and perseverance to create a better life for herself – just like Eliza. .

Kelly is beautiful on the outside, and she seems to be pretty lovely on the inside, too – just like Eliza.

In fact, the two of them – the American international pop sensation and the Tanzanian former sex worker – had more in common than you might think possible.

But isn’t that just the thing? Two people, from anywhere in the world, with the right dose of empathy can connect with each other at the most basic human level for the purpose of doing good.

Got hope?
I do.
(Photos below... Kelly and Vanessa (in yellow), MTV Tanzania's VJ talking with Eliza and a young woman still involved in the sex trade. Me and Kelly. Me and Georgia!)

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Banking on Obama

Ever since the democratic primary season effectively ended last month, local news about the US presidential election has slowed to a trickle. The savory (and sometimes unsavory) spectacle of the Clinton-Obama fight was front page news all over Africa. Here in Tanzania, not a day went by without a Tanzanian – friend or stranger – asking me who I was supporting in the US election. And I must admit that conversations about why I was supporting Clinton over Obama were sometimes uncomfortable. I’m not sure that many people understood that the color of Clinton’s or Obama’s skin, or their sex, had nothing to do with my choice of who to support in the primary. I voted with my brain. I have no regrets. I think that Hilary was the better candidate. But she lost. And I am over that now.

As Dr. Stroll, my European History professor in Paris, used to say, “Kid, the “what ifs” of history – they just don’t count.”

The slow trickle of election news these past few weeks, for me, has left it somewhat out-of-sight/out-of-mind. But this past Saturday morning, as I was lounging in bed (the one blessed morning of the week when the kids and I don’t have to get up early and the housekeeper can watch the kids for a few hours), BBC radio played a great piece about Obama and Clinton’s appearance together in Unity, New Hampshire. The piece was totally inspiring… about how they chatted about both important and mundane things on the airplane ride up to New Hampshire, about how they were wearing matching clothes, about how he escorted her up the stairs of the plane by placing a gentle guiding hand on her lower back (and don’t gender bait me – I think that is sort of sweet), about how they both said favorable things about each other during their speeches, and finally about how recently both the formal rivals and their spouses pulled out their checkbooks and wrote the maximum contributions to each other’s campaigns. Barack and Michelle helped to retire Hillary’s debt. Hillary and Bill supported Barack’s general election campaign.

I was totally inspired.

I jumped out of bed and fired up my computer. Today was the day I was going to enter the presidential race. I just had to decide - how much was it worth to me to make sure McCain’s January 2009 visit to the White House would be in the role of Senate minority leader instead of President? $100? $200? $500?

I settled on $500. I could always donate more in a few months, I thought. $500 would be a nice donation from someone in my income bracket. It is a meaningful contribution, but not one that will break the bank.

But when the Obama for America website came up I was moved and inspired even more. There was a lovely photo of the Obama family and a great Kennedyesque Obama quote about his belief in the ability of individual Americans to change the country for the better. I was hooked. By the time I got to the donation page I couldn’t help myself. I felt the computer mouse moving away from the $500 box and click the $1000 box. Before I knew it I had filled in my check card information and pressed the contribute button.

It didn’t go through.

I pressed the back button and clicked the $1000 box again. I thought – what the fuck – my body clearly wants me to give this money to Obama. I’m gonna do it. Yeah… I’m gonna do it.

This time it went through. But my Obama frenzy wasn’t over – not yet.

How could I donate all that money but not own any Obama paraphernalia? So I went to the Shop for Obama page. There I found a variety of t-shirts and other items. I put two bumper stickers in my shopping cart, because, really, how cool will it be to have Obama bumper stickers on my car out here in Tanzania? Then I went to look at the t-shirts figuring I would buy some for the kids since these kinds of websites never have my size. Alas, there were no kid’s shirts for sale. But as lark I clicked on the Obama 08 t-shirts for women.
Lo and behold, they went all the way up to size 4X!

Now I was really enraptured. Obama loves fat people, too!!!!

Obama’s my man!

I bought two.

But I still wasn’t satisfied. I wouldn’t be able to begin my day without ensuring that Jaden and Rowan have their t-shirts, too. I Googled “kids Obama t-shirts” and came up with a site that carried 17,700 different designs!!! I spent another hour picking out the best of the best. By the time I was done I had identified 6 different designs I liked. Reason would have made me decrease the size of the shopping cart to two or maybe even four. But once again I thought – what the fuck – my body clearly wants me and my kids to wear nothing but Obama t-shirts for the next few months and so I pressed the “purchase items” button.

Realizing that I was out of control, I called my friends, Jane and Gunnar, to get them to talk me down from this manic shopping adventure. They thought my story was pretty funny, and in retelling it I pulled myself out of the frenzy. But just in case, they had me turn off my computer and step away from it, and go back into my bedroom - just in case.

The next day, Sunday, I sat back at my computer to pay my end-of-the-month bills. As I looked at my checking account balance I realized that something was off. I went to look at my recent transactions…

… I had donated $2000 to the Obama campaign.

Shit. I guess that that first time I pressed donate it actually did go though. But what a dilemma! I started to think about how much I dislike McCain. I thought about how the Supreme Court is going to hell in a hand-basket. I imagined what it would be like for my children to spend their earliest years of political consciousness in the era of McCain (possibly 8 years!) like I did under Reagan. I remember being 12 years old and afraid of nuclear war. I don’t want that for my kids. Definitely not.

On the other hand, $2000 is really more than I can afford right now.

I went back and forth and decided to call Jane and Gunnar again for advice. This time they weren’t laughing. They thought I was downright ridiculous for considering making a donation larger than that which I could easily afford. And then I thought, after all, would Barrack Obama want that for me? What would Obama do (WWOD)?

No. I decided that all the wonderful quotes on the website, and all the inspirational words at the event in Unity, New Hampshire were encouraging me to do my part, but not to overdo it.

I wanted until Monday afternoon Tanzanian time to call the Bank of America Customer Service Center. I got the most chipper, lovely lady. I’m venturing a guess to say that she was likely African-American. She had the most wonderful strong southern accent.

At this point it is important to note that really wonderful customer service throws me off these days. Customer service is really really really crappy here 99.99% of the time. So, I’m always ill at ease when I call a US helpline and get someone really – well – helpful.

But she was wonderful. I told her I was calling from Africa so we needed to make this conversation as short as possible. I told her my story about pressing donate the first time and since it didn’t go through I pressed it a second time. She told me that she could even tell (from her magic computer terminal that sees all) that the first transaction wasn’t completed properly. She asked me if I wanted to file a claim and I said that I did.

“OK, ma’am, can I just ask you to hold for one more minute while I process your claim? We will put the $1000 back into your account even before the dispute is resolved since you are a valued Bank of America customer. I know you are calling from Africa so please just bear with me….”

“Sure,” I said uneasily, wondering what the catch-22 would be for getting the money back before the dispute is actually resolved.

“And ma’am,” said the customer service rep. (I was ready to hear the catch.)

“Yes,” I said.

“Thank you so very much for your really generous donation to the Obama campaign. I think that is just really wonderful of you.”
I was thrown off…

“You’re welcome, I guess,” I responded. “I suppose I am just doing it for myself.”

“You are doing it for all of us,” she said. “We really need to change the direction in which America is going. And, ma’am, your claim is being processed. But meanwhile, you should try to call the Obama for America campaign to make the claim with them, too, since that will speed this whole process up. And thank you for calling Bank of America customer service.”

As I hung up I felt some regret. Perhaps I should have left my $2000 donation. Perhaps in a month or two I’ll donate that money again, intentionally. After all, by sending my money from my Bank of America account to Obama for America I’m banking on America being a place that I can be proud of again. A place where I want to store my most precious investments… Jaden and Rowan. And that is definitely worth more than $1000.

Hiatus Interruptus

Yes, it has been awhile since I last wrote a blog post. More than two months, actually.

I’m not really sure what happened. One minute I was feeling high, celebrating two years of blogging, and the next I couldn’t bring myself to sit down at the computer to write a post – not even a short one.

I wasn’t feeling burnt out.

And I had plenty of things to write about – and even composed several posts in my head. But I guess I just needed a break. Sorry. I’m going to try to do better moving forward.

I suppose the biggest news of my hiatus – and perhaps this has played a role in my silence – is that I’ve made the decision to stay in Tanzania for at least another two years.

It is one thing to commit to keeping a blog about two years of misadventures in Africa. It is another thing for that blog to become semi-permanent because you aren’t going back to the US anytime soon.

So then, are the kids and I still on safari? Or are we just living our lives the same as we would anywhere?

To tell the truth, I’m not really sure.

Back in April when the kids and I were in the US, I had to have that very hard conversation about staying two more years quite a few times. I know that we disappointed many. But most people also seemed to understand that life here in Tanzania is generally good for us and so it makes sense to stay for now.

But it doesn’t stop us from missing our friends and family. In particular, the kids miss escalators, Toys R Us and Grandma and Papa. I miss those same things, and also my friends, HBO, and a good roasted turkey sandwich.

And oh… I’m really really upset that I haven’t yet been able to see the Sex and the City movie. There are bootleg copies in town, but the quality of the sound makes the movie inaudible. And on top of that, just 10 minutes into the film someone must have pushed the camera – so that you can only see the top half of the screen. Basically it just becomes Eyes and Hair in the City.

But alas, these are the sacrifices we make.

I hope you can bare with me while I present to you the next several posts – a combination of presently inspired posts with some rehashing of the past two months.

Happy reading.