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Monday, June 29, 2009

Speaking of Misconceptions About Africa

True conversation with a Bank of America customer service representative just minutes ago...

Me: I live in Tanzania in East Africa and I have discovered some ATM fraud with my bank account which I’d like to report.

Service Rep: (With VERY strong southern accent) Now tell me, is it just beautiful over there?

Me: Parts of it sure are.

Service Rep: My mother-in-law has been trying to convince me to go over there to visit with her. She says she wants to run naked with the natives, but I told her that I’m not so comfortable with the idea of being naked with natives.

Me: Uh…I don’t think you’ll find people running naked these days. In fact, they are probably better dressed than you.

Service Rep: (Confused hesitation) Well… my mother-in-law died a few months ago anyway.

Me: Well good. Then perhaps I can report the ATM fraud?

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Survival Skills

I am in the US on “home leave”.

When I tell random strangers in America that I live in Tanzania I often get back a look that has now become familiar. It is actually more of a question than a look. The question is, “That girl, she lives in a hut?”

Just a few days ago I was at the bank in my childhood home of Larchmont, NY trying to explain to a teller why I needed to get a new ATM card early (my current one expires in 6 months). I told her that because I live overseas, in Africa, it will be difficult to get me my new one without a lot of headache (and since I don’t have a bank account there I am entirely dependant on the card). The teller and other people working behind the counter – and even some of my fellow clients - immediately began to pepper me with questions about my life there.

In particular, people always ask me about the amenities. On this day, the staff and clients of Bank of America couldn’t believe that I have a house not all that different than a house in Larchmont (ok, slight exaggeration – but when the water and electricity are working that is essentially true). They couldn’t believe that I live in a suburb that has much in common with Larchmont (again an exaggeration – but Larchmont has overpriced restaurants and supermarkets and one single movie theatre – just like in Dar).

I assured them that I do not live in a hut, I have indoor plumbing (five bathrooms on my property, actually), and my life is comfortable and mostly secure.

These revelations always blow them away. And I leave these discussions feeling a wee bit superior, patting myself on my back for having done my public service for the day – like I’m a walking Schoolhouse Rocks.

But actually… perhaps I am really doing them a disservice? What do I really want them to believe about Africa and my life there?

How can I explain the conundrum of the life I lead as a rich person in one of the poorest nations on earth without sounding smug or insensitive? How can I make them understand that if I had to live in a hut, I wouldn’t be there either? How can I explain that I want to make a difference, but not at the expense of too many of the creature comforts I’ve also worked hard to be able to afford myself?

Even writing this makes me feel trite. It is the clash of my development guilt vs. my inner JAP.

In my thesaurus search for words to describe the incongruity of my life as an American in Tanzania I come up with: paradox, disagreement, opposition, inconsistency, ambiguity, and conflict.

In truth I feel all of these feelings more profoundly when I’m back in America – when I am forced to explain how I live and what I am doing. When I’m in Tanzania, it all seems quite natural. I’m surrounded by people of all nationalities living the same way as me – in our bubble on the Peninsula.

In Tanzania, if you let it all in, you go crazy. I’ve seen it happen to many people.- and when it does, they can’t survive there. They had to go home, back to the West, where they can dial up or down the amount of global suffering they let in based upon how much international news they watch or whether the gossip magazines are covering a story about Angelina Jolie’s lasted humanitarian jaunt. Re-reading this paragraph I sound kind of snarky. I don’t mean to. I totally understand it. It could easily be me – especially if I wasn’t distracted by work

But I don’t want to go home yet. Or rather, since I feel at home in Tanzania, I’m not ready to leave my home of the last 3+ years. Not yet.

At the bank they also asked me when I plan to come back to America. That seems to be the most frequent question I get when I’m on leave – and not just from my mother. When I tell strangers and friends that I’m not sure when I’ll be done overseas they go sort of glassy-eyed. I don’t know what my exit-plan is. I know it will come – but just not yet.

I guess I am ok living in a state of ambiguity. I’ve become talented at dealing with the paradox - good enough that the guilt and the complete lack of fairness and equity in this world doesn’t hit me as hard as it probably should until I’m actually outside of Tanzania.

This is certainly nothing to be proud of. But it is how I have survived and thrived.

My house, not long after we moved in. It is nicely landscaped now.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Getting off my Butt - Trip to Iringa

The Baobab Forest

About six months ago I changed jobs. As Chief of Party (wish it were as fun as it sounds) for a new initiative, I have been working hard in Dar es Salaam to get the project up and running. My staff have pretty much spent most of the last six months in the field – mostly in the region of Iringa – the place in Tanzania with the highest HIV prevalence (about 15%) and a region which is spectacularly beautiful (mountains, tea plantations, and lakes) but requires an eight hour car ride on the perilous Tanzanian National Highway if you want to get there.

I have taken the trip many times – the first time being about 12 years ago. It never gets easier seeing the carcases of fatal car accidents on the narrow two lane highway that weaves itself dangerously up mountain passes and down along sheer cliffs that drop off into rushing rivers. Passing trucks and speeding buses pose the most danger. I never feel comfortable taking that trip – especially when I’m not driving.

Mind you, I have many many friends and colleagues who have done this trip and no one has ever been hurt or in a serious accident. But I sit at my desk in Dar and read the newspapers over lunch. The English papers are great at reporting on highway accidents (but other more serious news – not so much). Sitting there, month after month, I managed to work myself into a wholly inappropriate tizzy about going out to Iringa to see the fruits of my staffs’ labour. I’ve been delaying it and delaying it.

But alas... I could delay it no longer. It became politically necessary for me to go. It helped that I travelled with an excellent driver and interesting colleagues…but really… the best part of the trip was that I got to reconnect with Tanzania. Sitting at my desk I had kind of forgotten why I was there.

Thanks to Iringa, now I remember.

First of all, the trip was as beautiful as I remembered. To get there one passes through the teaming exurbs of Dar es Salaam into an area of arid farmlands and medium sized villages. About half way through, one enters Mikumi National Park where on a good day you can zoom along the highway and spot giraffes, elephants, buffalos, and sometimes lions. (I suppose on a bad day you would get a flat and have to change your tire in the presence of these same wild animals.) I wasn’t so lucky in that the grass was high from the recent rains and there didn’t seem to be many animals alongside the highway other than baboons and herds of giraffes on the distant plains.

After one leave the park the highway climbs over another set of hills and deposits you in the beautiful arid Baobab forest. The Baobabs in this forest are old and huge and absolutely everywhere. At night I’m sure the trees feel like them come alive a la Wizard of Oz, but during the day they are stark and startling and just plain fascinating.

Then it is time to climb… up into the mountains I described above. It can be slow and scary – but when I managed to catch my breath and appreciate the landscape it was also lush and tropical and beautiful. After about 90 minutes of climbing you reach the southern highlands plateau where the weather is finally cool and beautiful and the earth is a most beautiful colour of burnt orange. To get into Iringa town you have to again drive up a twisty hill filled with people dragging bicycles, produce and miscellaneous packages up a steep incline. On the early morning we left Iringa, the hills were swarming with women in colourful clothes carrying jerry cans of home brew on their heads, making the journey up the hill to the informal bars in town.

Once in Iringa I checked into the preferred hotel of most of my staff – a clean place with tiny rooms and the hardest beds ever known to man. (At least the hardest beds ever known to Hally.) I didn’t look – but I’m pretty sure there weren’t really mattresses under the sheets. Other than the hard beds, another inconvenience was the Pentecostal church next door where hundreds of parishioners were singing, praying and speaking in tongues (seemingly as if in my bed with me) at the bright early hour of 5 AM during three of the four mornings I was there.

Outside of Dar there isn’t much in the way of restaurants – and so you either eat at an informal street café (and play intestinal roulette) or spend night after night in the same restaurant eating the same dish of chicken (koko) and rice (wali). Chicken and rice twice-a-day for four days in a row is a hardship – but I tried to be up for the task. In the evenings I hung out with the rest of my staff… eating our dinners and drinking beer – lots and lots of beer, in some cases – which for many people is par for the course in Tanzania even on a weekday.

And oh yeah… I was there for the work. We were running two workshops while I was there. One was for about 40 health providers from the regional hospital to train them on how to offer and conduct HIV testing for their patients as a matter of normal course. The other workshop was for a group of small NGOs (many of them NGOs of people living with HIV) who are about to receive grants from us to do HIV testing with marginalized and/or difficult-to-reach people. Some of the people in the workshop were clearly very sick. You don’t see so many walking skeletons these days – not like two or three years ago – but there were one or two in this workshop and it was a stark reminder of the reason for our work. Other people just – well – stunk. Body odor is an issue for some people in Tanzania - so when you put 40 people in an enclosed space for hours at a time, it can result in quite the bouquet. I try to not let it affect the work – but the olfactory assault can be distracting.

There were also meetings with regional and district officials. The work they are doing is really commendable and I am honoured to be part of it. Spending all those months sitting in my office, and getting myself worked up about driving the highways, I forgot about how happy it makes me to be in the field – closer to where the work is being done. And I was very proud of what our team has accomplished in just a few short months.

Part of the reason I moved to Tanzania was to be closer to the field, but the truth is that in Dar es Salaam I’m still not really in the field. I left Iringa promising myself that I would get out more often - to better appreciate the wonders and challenges of my home, Tanzania.