Friday, February 15, 2008

The Queen and I, feedback loops, a place named Bububu, and dala dalas

This entry had been lying around my hard drive for a few months now, and never got around to posting it until now. Enjoy!

“After two months of rest from my blog, I have returned to update you all on what has been happening on this side of the planet from a hotel room in Kampala, Uganda. The power has just been cut due to a rolling black out, and I’ve just returned from dinner at a local bar that consisted of goat and chips, washed down with a beer. Great time to sit and bring you up to speed.

“After spending lots of hours slaving away at creating project briefs for AKF Tanzania, which included merry-go-rounds of comments from people as far away as Geneva, I was asked to go to Uganda to help AKF put together briefs advertising the Madrasa Pre-School Programme (see my June entry for an explanation of what this is) that will be used to inform visiting dignitaries and other delegates of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting of the work AKF is doing in early childhood development. The meeting is happening later in November, but the whole city is behind schedule in preparing to host the conference. My driver from the airport pointed out one large hotel that was designed and built solely for the purpose of this three day meeting, and was suppose to have been finished last month. The roof was still missing and the interior was still one giant concrete mass, at least from what I could see as our car sped by. Local papers have also reported other delays. Fiber-optic wires for high speed internet are still being laid, and pot-hole filled roads are still being refurbished, and telecommunications lines are still being installed. The arrival terminal at Entebbe was still under construction when I arrived, still in need of signs to help visitors navigate the terminal. The whole city is cramming to get everything done before 52 heads of state arrive to promote trade and co-operation between Commonwealth countries. The Queen is also supposed to attend, but the local papers speculate she will not be amused at the current rate of progress. I can’t help but think I’ll be joining this rush effort by assisting AKF create these materials.

“Prior to this trip I have just been leading a bland, 9-5 lifestyle in Zanzibar, with my actual working hours being more like 8-7. Originally sent to me by my room mate as a joke, it reflected my internship experience perfectly, which is incredibly sad and scary to think I can now relate to Dilbert:

When not waiting for comments from Geneva (all AKF communications documents must be signed off by the AKF world head quarters before publication), who by the way weren’t wild about the font and colour of a few briefs I sent in for review, I have also spent time settling into my new digs in Bububu. It's a satellite community of Stone Town and is named after the sounds a train running through the area used to make.

Myself and the other interns decided to move because of the cheap rent and location in a local neighbourhood. We were getting tired of the wazungu wafting around Stone Town with their cameras and questions, which was annoying made things feel claustrophobic. So we moved into a gorgeous home in the suburbs, hiring two guards to keep the peace during the day and evening times. We’ve been happy ever since. Being the only visible foreigners in the neighbourhood, we stand out as obvious targets for malicious beings looking for a house to break into, but given the tranquility of the area, and that one of our guards does a kung-fu-style work out routine every morning in the back yard (I think he’s ex-Zanzibar KGB), I doubt we’ll be hit.

The 20 to 30 minute commute into work by dala dala is also interesting. Last night I talked with a Masaai merchant who was decked out in full tribal garb, about why he moved from Arusha to Zanzibar (money), and what it takes to become a Masaai warrior, to which he responded ‘kill a lion and snip snip’. The latter referred to male circumcision, which is done at the age of 15, when Masaai men become Moran worriers and assume larger household responsibilities, like looking after cattle, the main tribal currency. He was shocked that I didn’t own any cattle. To him I was poor. He had 100 grazing the grass lands somewhere in Arusha tended to by his distant family.

The other night I chatted with a man who claimed to be a free lance journalist. He was in the middle of writing his first novel, “Kiss on the eyes” that was about an adulterous wife who broke her husband’s heart by “prostituting” herself. It was apparently based on a true story, his, and he became quite angered at the thought of the whole experience when I asked for further details. He told me he was currently in the market for “a nice wife” and had sent somebody to Pemba on his behalf to find him something appropriate, “Mungu akipenda” (“if God wishes”). I bit my tongue and wished him luck in finding a wife that could put up with him, to which he laughed in great amusement.

Then there was the man who invited me to his mosque after I tried to describe what being “agnostic” means in broken Kiswahili when he asked about my religious beliefs. He looked rather disappointed after listing to my explanation. To him I was probably a lifeless, lost soul in need of redemption and guidance. If I see him again I’ll follow him up on his offer out of my own curiosity…until then, I’ll be at the bar sinning by enjoying fine, imported brews!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Smile if you're Sad

So I was en route to Entebbe airport in Uganda one day, flying with Air Tanzania, and we stopped in a city called Mwanza to refuel (it was featured in a horribly biased documentary, which was some how nominated for an Oscar, called “Darwin’s Nightmare”). While looking out the passenger-seat window to get a better view of the UN aircraft parked on the tarmac (they do flights to the refugee camps located near the Rwandan/ Burundi boarders in Kagera district, near Mwanza), I noticed this:

Yeah, that wet stuff surrounding the left wing it is jet fuel. It had just poured out moments before I took the shot because someone forgot to stop pumping it in. As a result, fuel literally burst out of the wing and began pooling on the tarmac, spreading underneath the plane and filling the cabin with nauseating fumes. Shocked, I looked out the window to observe the reactions of the ground crew, expecting them to take my panic seriously and run about madly in an attempt to immediately fix the problem. Instead they stood in a small group and looked on with big smiles, laughing happily.

This mzungu was shocked.

I guess the fact that highly inflammable liquid had doused the left wing and spread underneath our plane didn’t strike anyone outside as being dangerous. Maybe it was a ‘routine breaker’ - something that could literally light up a dull week by throwing an amusing sound and light show, starring burning engines accompanied by a chorus of screaming passengers.

My mind started to carelessly interpret events through an “us vs. them” lens. I was tired and had not eaten breakfast.

How dare "they" have the audacity to act so carelessly and laissez-faire towards a potentially dangerous situation! If this happened in Canada, “we” would do something about it immediately or heads would role big time and public humiliation would follow on the 6 o’clock news! No one would dare laugh, but instead be uptight and serious!

Flustered, I sat back in my seat, shut my eyes and thought about the training session in cultural awareness I received in Ottawa in June. One of the seminar leaders talked about how body language and facial expressions mean different things in different cultures. For example, people in Thailand apparently smile if they are in pain (maybe a Thai reader could verify the accuracy of this statement) and confuse any non-suspecting Westerner who may think they’re just extremely happy.

His observation in Asia offered an interesting perception on things. So with it in mind, I began to perceive the ground crew as stressed, shocked and ridden with anxiety; their laughter reflected a cultural norm to ward off anxiety during times of duress. This was much more pleasant than “they want us to burn, burn, burn because they’re bored” interpretation, and so I stopped hating them.

Surprised at my sudden change of heart, I started to think of other things I could analyse through this new perspective. I thought of a comment made by a visitor to Zanzibar a few months ago, who remarked on how happy people looked, especially the street beggars, despite the apparent poverty in which they lived.

To instead think those 'poverty smiles' reflected the pain and misery stemming from life lived in miserable, dollar-a-day conditions, and not a happiness found through a minimalist lifestyle (sorry to the Saddus and Buddhists reading this) put an interesting spin on things.

Smile if you're sad.

A fire truck eventually arrived and someone casually sauntered over from the group and grabbed the hose to spray down the plane with water, with a smile in tact. We finally left some time after and arrived at Entebbe two hours late, much to the chagrin of those waiting for our arrival.

They were frowning, which I guess was a good thing.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

"It's Alive!"

Since it has been over four months since my last entry, I thought I should attempt to revive my blog after it apparently died. Why the neglect? I ended my last entry in September stating I’d contribute more articles after my eyes stopped hurting “from staring at computer screens all day long.” The truth is my eyes never stopped hurting after that entry. I decided that sitting at my desk after work when I’d normally make a post was not healthy. Instead I desired to go home early and relax by watching a movie, or visiting the pub the the ocean to have a beer. So that’s what I started trying to do, but as it turned out, really couldn’t. This post will describe “why” in 682 words by briefly summarizing the past four months.

In November I spent a lot of my free time (and I admit, some work time) researching and applying to grad schools on the net. It was time consuming but got it done, so "go future". I was also summoned to Uganda to help the AKF office in Kampala prepare briefs for the Commonwealth Heads of State Meeting (CHOGM).

How was that, you ask?

I can’t remember much because my eyes were glued to my computer screen all day and night long, on which I pumped out stories describing the good work of the pre-school madrasa programme in Uganda and Kenya, and also made brochures and posters. I mastered MS Publisher and learned the art of graphic design in 12 hours, and became familiar with the business centre at the Serena Hotel when sending documents to Geneva for review (despite the Government having supposedly laid high speed internet cables all over the city for CHOGM, I could only access a high speed connection at the Serena [a fancy 5 star hotel with a great lobby pianist who comes on at 5pm weekday evenings], formally the Nile Hotel, where Idi Amin’s goons tortured many throughout the 70s).

Of course the hard work was balanced with some fun. After working late into the evening, I’d take joy rides on the backs of motorbikes Kampalans call “boda-bodas” just for the hell of it, ate Ethiopian food, danced the night away at an Irish Pub, and enjoyed the season finale of Big Brother Africa 2 (talk about drama) with some wonderful, AKF East African interns in a watering hole that felt like ‘The Metropolitan’ martini bar in Ottawa.

After leaving on the eve of the conference (interns don't get to stay for such events), I returned to Dar es Salaam where I was based for two weeks. I was asked to make posters and other communication materials for an early learning festival the local Ismaili community was hosting for the general public. This required more late nights finicking with colours and font sizes to make the posters look just right. It also involved hours of being stuck in Dar’s infamous traffic jams, melting in 35C heat in a taxi that smelt like fish (I avoided the dalas when I could to keep sane). I survived and returned to Zanzibar two weeks later for rest. My eyes were still very strained.

Christmas soon followed with a welcomed visit from my brother. We stayed in Dar for a bit with a local ex-pat friend and then booted up to Arusha to do a one-day safari. Long story short, the company we hired ripped us off by charging us park entrance fees that did not exist. They also showed up to work on the day of the excursion incredibly hung over, smelling of booze and cigarettes. If the urge to see wild animals in Tanzania ever strikes you, DO NOT contact Ahsante Tours ( You’re trip will be memorable for arguing with the accountant and not for seeing the animals.

January arrived and my eyes started feeling better after a good rest. The Champaign and rum on the beach during New Year’s Eve must have helped. But the sojourn ended as quickly as it had come, as I devoted most of my time to help my friend, Hemed, launch his company, Salama Island Tours. Check out to see what Zanzibar has to offer!

So it’s now January 31st and I have one month left before my internship on the spice island is over. I know it’s cliché but I’ll say it anyways: it feels like time has flown. This can be a blessing if you’re a Western business person who, used to the fast pace of life back home, lives in a place like Zanzibar, where time and space can slow to a near stand still. The "pole pole" ("slowly slowly") attitude of many (but not all) on the island and coastal region can turn decent, well polished foreigners into freak shows. I’ve seen it happen in Dar. Thankfully I’m not in that category (yet) and still have lots of flexibility remaining.

So that’s my excuse for ignoring the blog: strained eyes. But now they are no longer throbbing, so I’ll write again soon. Hopefully see you there.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Words of Wisdom

Here's the first entry in what could possibly become a series entitled "what I've learned while living overseas":

"A fast internet connection in an air conditioned office with pleather chairs, faux bois desks and an organogram of a large organisation taped to the wall will make any office space anywhere in the world feel like an Ottawa cubicle."

I'll try and post a longer entry when my eyes stop hurting from staring at computer screens all day long.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Land of Milk and Honey

So I’m having lunch one day at my favourite dive, the Passing Show (think greasy-spoon Montreal deli without the deli and waiters sporting black bow-ties) and this man comes over and sits at my table. It’s common to share tables during the busy lunch time hours, when seating is scarce. He is reasonably dressed and, with his many bags, looks like he’s travelling. So I ask if he’s going somewhere and discover he is planning to catch the afternoon ferry to Dar in a few hours time. Silence then falls over our conversation despite the noise of the bustling diner around us.

It is a mixed crowd, filled with foreigners who have disrespectfully dressed as if they by the pool at a Club Med, and local laymen and business people whose appearance is more conservative: collar shirts and loose fitting pants for men, and long skirts and shawls for women, with some also wearing the traditional bui bui, or black cloth that covers everything from the head to the ankle but has an opening for the face. They have all come to enjoy what Passing Show is known best for: excellent local food at cheap prices that are pre-determined by a menu instead of being calculated according to your skin colour – a common practice of one local restaurant that has a chicken and rice dish to literally die for but overcharges foreigners for the priveledge. To avoid this scam, myself and the other interns will either give money to our Tanzanian colleague who we'll accompany to the restaurant and then wait behind the wall of the restaurant compound so the owner can't see us, or ask the office assistant to go on our behalf.

Not wanting to eat in silence, I attempt to start a conversation by telling him I’ve come from Toronto to do an internship with the Aga Khan Foundation.

He scrunches his face as if I pinched a nerve.

I brace for a potentially critical response to the Foundation similar to ones I've heard in the past.

One time I was talking to a night wathman while waiting for a friend and upon hearing of my association with His Highness, made sure I knew that the Foundation only serves the interests of the Ismaili community and no one else, despite the global evidence of AKF programming in Africa and Asia benefiting people of all faiths. He occasionally worked at the Ismaili mosque in town and not being an Ismaili himself, let alone a Muslim, probably felt excluded from the communal love. Therefore anything related to the Aga Khan was not right.

Another time was in conversation with a religious zealot over tea, chipati and fish one morning at a sea-side eatery. I stopped there on my way to work to get a quick bite, but ended up staying longer than anticipated after he launched into conversation about the immorality of the Bush regime, to which I gladly contributed. The topic eventually shifted focus to the Foundation, which he believed was too “modern” and therefore was losing touch with the fundamental morals and tenants of Islam. He asked for my number and I gave him my e-mail instead, not wanting to get too chummy after having second thoughts.

* * *

It turns out my lunch time companion at the Passing Show has no beef with the Aga Khan. Instead it is with Toronto.

“I use to live there once” he says, “in Scarborough, where all the aliens live.”

Ah, a Toronto basher who lived in Scarborough. Can he really be blamed? I disagree with the alien comment though. Although Scarborians are rather rough around the edges, they look more like humans than Martians.

The man talks of his wife and children, who currently live in Toronto. I ask him if he plans to return “home” and see them. He tells me bluntly that “home” is here in Zanzibar, where he was born and raised. Besides, he has no money to do that anyway, and it is this thought that triggers a statement I have never heard anyway say during all of my travels throughout the Global South:

"I left Canada to find work in Tanzania."

Tanzania, a country where the life expectancy at birth is 50 some-odd years, where those 64 per cent of the population who are not living below the poverty line of USD 1 per day make a average income equivalent to USD 800 per year (or like the teacher I just met in Pemba, USD 400), where 80 percent of the labour force works in the rural sector to eek out a living selling commodities for pennies (go rich world trade tariffs and climate change!), where national unemployment is not publicly recorded because of a largely informal and untaxed economy that makes defining such term rather difficult, or because the government is too embarrassed in admitting it is high. Although Tanzania’s a very beautiful country with a rich culture and (colonialist) history (of exploitation), it’s not generally known as a go-to country for jobs and opportunity. Those places are either elsewhere on the continent, like in South Africa or Nigeria, or overseas, like in Europe or North America.

But North America always ranked the number one for the place to be for a 'better life' in my numerous conversations with residents and students during my year at UDSM and month and a half as an intern here in Stone Town.

It is seen as a land of milk and honey.

After all, how could the streets not be lined with gold when the North Americans my conversants saw had laptops, iPods, fancy shoes, digital cameras, silver watches and spent the equivalent to an average monthly income on fancy meals not once, but many times a week? Surely anyone who can afford all that plus a plane ticket to travel halfway around the world must come from a magical place where money grows on trees and silk is used as bathroom tissue (apparently the women here are easy too and make excellent housewives)?

But for my lunch time companion headed to Dar, the reality of Canada was far from sugar coated. Instead his experience in this perfect land crushed his high expectations and led him down a path of depression, not happiness. It was something he regretted doing:

“Moving to Canada was the biggest mistake of my life.”

Fourteen years of mopping floors and scrubbing toilets is apparently a dream smasher. It also throws your sense of self worth out the window, especially if you have qualifications to do something more stimulating that interests you. For him, it is supplying shops and government departments with IT equipment. But to Canadian employers in this field, he was nothing more than an unskilled labourer from the Third World who lacked Canadian credentials. So toilet and taxi duty it was.

As he tells me over a colourful plate of chicken biriyani, his dreams of a happy life filled with riches therefore never materialized. Constantly rejected by employers outside of the custodial industry had its toll on his physical and emotional health, and soon reached the point where he decided to return home and start over once again, only this time feeling defeated. And adding to his misery, he would have to go back single because he couldn't afford to bring along his Canadian wife. But hey, looking on the brighter side of things, she never appreciated his “Swahili style of communication” anyways (if it resembles anything like the words he used to order his meal, it is solely based on imperatives).

So now he’s back home in Tanzania, where, as he tells me while washing down his meal with a soda, he belongs; working the daily grind in a culture and environment most compatible with his personality and skill set; making a living that allows him to support his family, who still live with the “aliens” in a dream country that refused him, and probably many other newcomers like him, the luxury of emotional stability and peace.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Salama Island

So here I am sitting at my desk with the evening calls to prayer ringing all around me - a sign that I’ve stayed at the office far too long. But that’s the price you pay when managing a blog, to go that extra mile and document your experiences and have something to look back to when my time here is long over.

I haven’t been active this month with my entries because I’ve had lots work to do. His Highness (the Aga Khan) is visiting Tanzania this week and major communications materials for all of AKF’s projects have to be finalized. That means I’ve been completing project profiles and making power point presentations highlighting the projects around the island, finicky work that at times is fun but for the most part is mind numbingly dull and painful. At least it’s something that is needed by AKF Tanzania and won’t, I hope, all be for nothing like past experience has shown. My plan is to finish much of these mini projects asap so I can make myself available for project monitoring and evaluation work or other tasks outside of the communications theme.

Generally speaking, life is pretty good after living here for one and a half months. I’ve fallen into synch with the Zanzibar lifestyle, or to be more precise my expat version of it, pretty well. I work the 9-5 in a beautiful heritage building that would look out onto the sea if the University of Dar es Salaam’s Marine Science Institute wasn’t blocking the view; I eat and drink at fine restaurants named after posh colonialists who “discovered” and tamed the wilds of this “dark continent” (these watering holes also provide stellar views of the Indian Ocean, especially of Zanzibar’s famous sun sets, my god!); I get chauffeured around town in a white SUV during the day to visit AKF project sites to collect information and interview beneficiaries; I sleep in a palace; I get someone to hand wash my clothes every other week, and her colleague serves me tea and biscuits every morning and afternoon at my desk, and her colleague brings me five daily newspaper around tea time so I know what’s going on around town. Life’s tough as an IDM-er, I know.

But it hasn’t all been selfishly pimping it up mzungu style. I’m also spending time helping my local friend Hemed launch his tour company, Salama Island Tours. "Salama" means "peace" in Swahili (and many other languages for that matter), and is also the name of his wife, who giggled ferociously when I suggested the idea at his home one evening. Personally I think it’s a great name, and so does Salama! Right now we’re creating a brochure and will begin work on a website shortly. Once those two items are complete, the communications side of things will be in place and Hemed will be ready to roll as an executive director and master co-ordinator. With an excursion list and packages already organized, the expressed interest of a few friends wanting to partner with the company, and Hemed's reputation for delivery quality tours, things look promising. Exciting times indeed. So if you have any advice for running a small tour company, please pass it along because Hemed and co. would be most appreciative. Also, if you ever want to come to Zanzibar, let us know and Hemed will make your stay unforgettable, but in the good way.

Anyways I must be off. It’s pitch black outside, my eyes are going cross-eyed from staring at this bloody screen for all day, and malaria-ridden mosquitoes are biting my feet. Ciao.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Kiti Moto Experience

One of the local meals I've developed a craving for here in Zanzibar is ironically something that is not readily available on this predominantly Muslim island: kiti moto. It means "hot seat" in Swahili, and refers to a magnificent meal of grilled or roasted pork bits.

I am told by local sources that the name was derived as a code word by Muslims who longed to indulge in the forbidden food, and wanted to tell other sinners about their experience. However, the meaning eventually caught on and it is now widely recognized across Tanzania, much to the disappointment of those few I'm sure.

While visiting friends in Dar a few weeks ago, I had the privilege to indulge in a kiti moto feast of my own. It was heavenly! Because this meal is too good to pass up when visiting mainland Tanzania, I've taken the liberty to list how one goes about experiencing this culinary delight, just in case you're ever in the neighbourhood:

First, find a kiti moto restaurant. They are usually located in discreet locations behind ragged looking buildings surrounded by palm trees (the reason for this is because mass riots broke out in Dar many years ago, started by the city's Muslim population who were scandalized at seeing so many pork dishes being openly served in public). You are in the right place if you see half-carved pig carcasses hanging from rusty meat hooks in what could be a butcher’s kitchen. Plastic tables, chairs and Coca Cola advertisements will also be scattered about the restaurant grounds.

Second, clang the metal bars that separate the kitchen interior from the outside world to get the cook's attention, and then place your order in broken Swahili. About three kilos should do if you are dining with a hungry friend, but ask the cook to cut off a meaty part of the rump, or else you will be served the bony part of the carcas. Pay attention to the pieces of raw meat that will fly off the cook's blood-stained machete when he's hacking out your dinner. It would be a pity to stain your clean white shirt.

Third, sit at a nearby table and order a beer. You may need two to help pass the time since kiti moto is best eaten after it has been slowly grilled to a crisp. When it finally arrives, chopped into bite sized pieces and served on an aluminum platter, breath in the sweet smell of grilled pork bits, and then dig in with your hands. Feel free to throw any bones and indigestible parts onto the ground around you. The stray cats hovering about will eat anything you do not.

Fourth, wash down the salty taste with more beer, and then chew on a chunk of grilled plantain banana to neutralize your palate. When finished, wash your hands with the clothing detergent provided by the waitress, who will pour water over your hands as you scrub. Undo your belt, sit back, and relax for another hour to let the two or more kilos of meat you just devoured digest.

That's the kiti moto experience.

A kiti moto delight as seen at Survey, Dar es Salaam.