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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.


Blogger suburban dyke said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

5:19 AM  
Blogger suburban dyke said...

Adventuresome post. Tanzania is home? That's what we've been guessing you might conclude.

5:20 AM  
Blogger Natalie said...

Glad to see you back online, Hally. You are inspiring me to write posts on my own blog. But then again... :) Keep writing - it is very entertaining!

12:54 PM  
Anonymous Georgia said...

Next time I come out, will you take me to Iringa?

1:58 PM  
Blogger Jamie said...

Hello there,
I found your blog online while search for "jewish community Tanzania". My name is Jamie Clearfield, and I'm currently working in Arusha with a small HIV prevention ngo. I'm trying to sort out plans for the holidays and was glad to hear that there is a community in Dar. I've spent time in Nairobi but never loved the community there...
anyway I'm wondering how i can go about getting on this "List" and other details about the community. I'm not often in Dar, but do have some leave coming up so would love to get details on holidays in Dar...


12:38 PM  
Blogger Mahlers On Safari said...

Hi Jamie. I'd be happy to answer your questiosn but you need to send me your e-mail address. Blogger doesn't show it to me.

11:57 AM  

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