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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Goat Races

A flyer for the Dar es Salaam Charity Goat Races

Yesterday I finally participated in a major Dar right of passage, the Annual Charity Dar es Salaam Goat Races. This is the fourth time the Goat Races have happened since I’ve been in Tanzania, but every other year I was on home leave in August when the event was held.

This year, not only did I participate, but I was one of the lucky few to actually sponsor a goat in the races. Two goats, actually. My rag-tag team of about 20 people included a goat for the kids (Hanna Goatanna) and a goat for the adults (Bobgoat Marley). Teams are supposed to dress up in costumes to support their goat. Our team wasn’t into doing anything too outrageous… so the kids wore Hanna Montana t-shirts and the adults (and some of the kids) wore knit Rasta-style hats.

(You should have seen the look of shear joy on the face of the guy from a stall on the side of a road selling knit Rasta-style hats when I pulled up and bought 17 of them on Thursday. Priceless.)

Because we were owners we got to sit and celebrate in a huge owner’s tent where we were served Tanzanian, Indian and Middle Eastern delicacies and beer, champagne, and other such delights under a very hot and humid midday sun. Everyone around us was happy and drunk. Because we were mostly Americans (and let’s face it – compared to our South African, British, Australian and Dutch counterparts who all seem to party hard and drink a ton at any minor or major occasion, we Americans in the development community are not nearly as much fun) our team was kind of boring and not the slightest bit buzzed. But the people-watching was good and the kids had fun – even if Jaden was disappointed because he had thought we were going to the Ghost Races.

On the hour, every hour, the merry reverie would stop and the masses would crowd around the goat track. Sponsors of the goats running in the upcoming heat would move into the center of the track and tell the audience why their goat was the winning goat and parade their costumes for all to see. Then the gun would sound and the goats would be off… Well… actually the goats needed to be pushed around the track with a giant bar, otherwise they wouldn’t run at all. But thanks to some hard-working goat chasers the goats would make their way around the track twice and a winner would prevail. The winning team would then make their way over to the podium where they would be awarded with a “big check” (you know, like Publisher’s Clearinghouse) and a big bottle of champagne.

When our heat came up – at 4 PM – it had cooled down a bit and clouded over, so it was nice to parade around the center of the track and look for familiar faces in the audience. When the gun sounded and the goats were off it was Bobgoat Marley in the lead for at least the first trip and a half around the track. But in the end Hanna Goatanna pulled out from behind and beat the field of 10 goats by a head. We were victorious!

On the winner’s podium, a lady from British Airways (the sponsor of our heat) handed us the big check for 1.8 million Tanzanian shillings (about $1500 US) which we promptly turned over to charity. Frankly we did it because we thought that is what we were supposed to do, but it turned out that we were the first ones to do it, and so the organizers made a big deal out of it and it landed us on TV. We kept the giant bottle of champagne which we drank back at my place a few hours later. That was fun, too.

Just after our heat they did the raffle. Up for raffle were two tickets to the UK, a beach weekend at a nice hotel in Zanzibar and all sorts of wonderful things. As they pulled for the first raffle prize of the evening I heard my name called and then all of a sudden people were telling me that I won, I won! I raced with the kids up to the podium to claim my exciting prize, which turned out to be a camping stove and lantern.

Not to be ungrateful or anything… but I would have preferred the all inclusive weekend in Zanzibar. (Sadly it has been about 10 years since I last went camping.) So now I think I’ll be holding a raffle for my household staff to unload the camping stove and lantern. They will actually have good use for these items.

In the end the goat races were fun enough, and truth is, it was nice to have something special to break up what feels like the monotony of my life these past few weeks.

Now I am Hally Mahler, mother of Kindergarteners (who has to wake up at 5:40 every weekday morning), Chief of Party (although HIV is no party at all), karate (instead of soccer) Mom, Sunday pool-goer, home-owner with limited electricity…

And now… Goat Race victor!

P.S. I have no idea, and don’t want to know, what happens to the goat after the race.




Wednesday, August 05, 2009

America the Beautiful and Strange

Rowan with Buzz Lightyear and Woody

We’ve been back in Tanzania for exactly a month now. The cooler “winter” weather and the quiet emptiness of Dar (everyone seems to be on home leave) has allowed me the time to re-enter into our lives smoothly while still having plenty of time to reflect on our five weeks in America.

Allow me to share some of my reflections.

If you are going to have a big accident, it is better to do it in NY than Dar es Salaam

The day after we arrived Jaden rode a bicycle into a stone wall – splitting open a big chunk of his face and requiring a frantic, bloody run to the emergency room, which was overflowing with Swine flu cases. Luckily my mother remembered that there was a paediatric urgent care centre the next town over and not only did Jaden get seen immediately, but they called in a tall, dark and handsome plastic surgeon to sew him up (who was a bit of an arrogant schmuk, but clearly good at his job). Medical service like this made me swoon (in a good way). But of course I am one of the lucky people with health insurance – so I’m not taking it for granted that this is typical American care. But boy did it make me glad I was there.

Overall, I was a calmer, less frantic Hally

Unlike past visits which were punctuated by a frenzy of shopping for the things we don’t have here in Dar, I barely hit the stores this time around. To some extent, this is because we seem to have more and more of the luxuries of home available to us here (for the good or the bad – I’m not quite sure; but when you are in need of El Paso enchilada sauce it is nice to be able to buy the can rather than figure out how to improvise). But also I think that I’ve reached a level of acceptance and comfort with what we don’t have, and frankly none of it is so important that I have to schlep extra suitcases back to Dar. I didn’t even make it to the supermarket until the last week (thank you mom for taking such good care of us). Other than some semi-sweet Nestle's morsels, my bags were free from last minute supermarket shopping items. I didn’t even bring back bagels this time!

I suppose you could argue that I replaced these trinket items with the puppy I brought back to Dar – and you may be right. Once we picked up the puppy, who had time to shop and pack?

I can’t help but feel – it is nicer to be back in America with Obama as President

This time I didn’t have to spend a lot of time discussing Bush. That was a huge relief, because other than hating him personally and politically I often found myself in the unenviable position of having to defend many aspects of his health foreign assistance, which really sucked (although is obviously it is also a good thing). I can’t help but notice that all my friends and family were somehow less angry with the state of America, recession and all, although I’m sure this means that someone else’s friends and family are mighty pissed right now – which sits just fine by me. It’s their turn. Meanwhile, I am happy to report that it DOES make a huge difference to be an American abroad in the era of Barrack Very-Sane Obama – and an even bigger difference to feel proud about coming home to a country that makes sense to me again.

Disney World really is the happiest place on earth!

The very surprising highlight of our family trip home was the six days the kids and I spent with my brother and parents at Disney World. I’ve NEVER desired to go there, but my mother insisted and so off we went. It was unfortunately too hot – more than 110 degrees (Orlando was having a heat wave) – so we spent as much time by the hotel pool as we did in the parks. Despite my scepticism we had a lovely time. The kids got high off of dinner with Cinderella and the Fairy Godmother (and the mice). The cheesiness of the presentations and rides in the country pavilions at Epcot tickled me pink, and made me hope that some of the people “ooohing and ahhhing” at the Mexican pavilion’s diorama boat ride through a “typical Mexican town” actually make it there someday to see the real thing. And I was truly impressed by the parade and the sound and light show, and how well everything was run.

Seriously… thousands of people in the park and there wasn’t a single untidy bathroom stall!? The place was built 40 years ago but looks like it was put up yesterday. Oh, if only the folks at Disney would take on running a country (which they totally could) like say, Tanzania? I can only dream… (Yes, yes, I’m sure it would actually be more of a nightmare, but at least I’d have electricity and running water 24/7.)

Americans are extremely nice but also very lazy – even by my standards

I just have to state it for the record here. Americans really are just the nicest people in the world – and I say this with some credible experiences behind me. Everywhere I went people were lovely. The customer service agent might be stupid, but she was still lovely to talk with. At Disney, even when visitors were sweating their faces off, and the lines were long, long, long, people were just so nice, nice, nice.

(The fact that people actually waited calmly on lines was exciting enough for me to want to just go ahead and wait on one for fun.)

I never heard people exchange an angry word, or saw someone cut in line or push themselves to the front. It was all orderly, sweet and lovely… like the whole country was actually composed of Cinderellas and Prince Charmings. It was, in fact, very charming.

At first I thought that one of the reasons everything was so calm and orderly in the parks was because there were so many people with disabilities around. I was proud of Disney for their very pro-active handicap accessibility policies and that clearly they must have done outreach to people with disabilities because gosh there were soooo many people in wheelchairs all around. But when I sat down and took a good look at all these people in wheelchairs I discovered that the vast majority of people were actually able-bodied but just didn’t want to have to walk or stand in lines. It was clear that families were renting a wheelchair at the park entrance and then sharing it among themselves, so some of them actually got to sit and others push and then change places. It was a bit of a mind fuck for me – especially since my natural inclination leans towards laziness. But this was extreme.

And yes, America really does seems to be the fattest place on earth

For good or for bad, I’m used to being the fattest person in the room – both in Tanzania and in New York or DC. But if you figure the rest of the country into the equation I am downright average-sized, which even for me (someone who proudly believes in fat acceptance) a bit of a shocking thing.

You knew this already, but as a country we are really really really geography deficient

I’ve written about this already. And like I said, you already knew it anyway.

Hey can you find Tanzania on a map (or at least come close)?

It was great to be back home in America

There is nothing like the ease with which you slip back into your cultural homeland. Within a few days my hint of a New York accent came back. The salads and the Thai food were wonderful. The energy of New York, and even Baltimore, put a spring in my step. And I marvelled at all the wonderful innovations that have become commonplace in the past three years (especially the IPhone) that haven’t yet really made their way to Tanzania. (I thought I was cool now that I have a BlackBerry Pearl.) The kids pigged out on the Good Humour Man – every day – turning their faces the florescent colours of elaborate icicle pops. And being in the bosom of friends and family – people who have known me forever – felt great. I was happy to be there and felt engaged and at ease.

It is great to be back home in Tanzania

‘Nuff said.