Archive | October 2011

Neighbourhood Football Match

They played until the moon rose high into the sky and the sounds of the choir practicing in the nearby church faded to silence.


Friday (Part 2)

Another Friday and today there is no electricity.

Electricity is a serious problem in Tanzania.  TANESCO, the governmental organization responsible for the generation, distribution, and sale of electricity, officially imposed electricity rationing throughout the country in early 2011.  Although power cuts are supposed to be rotate around the city in blocks of time no longer than four hours, different neighbourhoods have been affected disproportionately and some face constant power outages that last for as long as 12 hours. In Mikocheni, where I live, the power cuts are usually for short periods of time in the morning or the early evening.  In Kinondoni, where I work, power cuts occur every other day and stretch from mid-morning until the end of the working day. There is widespread frustration that the neighbourhoods where government officials and the wealthy live have less frequent power cuts than the poorer neighbourhoods.

The government’s position is that the current power crisis is a direct result of the drought in East Africa.  Tanzania relies heavily on hydropower and the water levels in Tanzania’s hydro-electric dams are currently very low.

The Tanzanians that I have spoken to, however, blame the power cuts on government corruption, the mismanagement of government resources, and the failure of the government to adequately prepare for the drought.  Power outages are often referred to as “a Negeleja”, after William Negeleja who is the Minister of Energy and Minerals.

The power cuts are a source of anger and embarrassment for my coworkers.   As in Canada, the lawyers in the legal aid centre where I work rely on computers for their everyday tasks.  Everything grinds to a halt when there is no power.

Last week, the legal aid centre used some of its funding to purchase an inverter to help insulate us from the frequent electricity cuts.  An inverter is much less expensive than a generator and runs on battery power.  It can’t be used to power an air conditioner or light the whole office, but it can be used for smaller appliances and computers.

This morning I was working on a grant proposal when I heard an explosion followed by screaming.  The inverter had exploded into a ball of flames.  Everyone ran outside to escape the building.  Thankfully, nobody was hurt and the damage was minimal.

The smell of burnt rubber and melted plastic lingers in the air.  We are all packing it in early and heading home to get some work done.  That is, if the power is functioning in our respective neighbourhoods.


Today is Friday and there is electricity.

J, one of the lawyers that I share an office with, is particularly happy about the electricity.  J was called to the bar last year and is a source of entertainment in our office, with his loud and unrestrained sense of humour.  J also has a fondness for technological gadgets.  He has three cell phones, and usually has one pressed up against his ear while the other two ring in his hand.

On days when there is electricity, J also has the remote control for the office air conditioner in hand, which he adjusts to lower and lower temperatures until we are all shivering and my other officemate, L, intervenes.  A battle for the remote control usually ensues.  L usually wins.

Today is Friday and there is electricity and L is not in the office.

This morning, J was perplexed to find me sitting at my desk with the air conditioning off and the window open.  Megan, he said, today is Friday and there is electricity.  I love Fridays.  Life is too short to sit here in the heat.  We must turn on the air conditioning.  We must seize the moment.  All too soon the work day will end and we will have to go home and there will be no air conditioning and we will be hot all weekend.  Okay?

Okay, I said.  And I wondered whether L would be back in the afternoon to rescue me from the sub zero temperatures.

Kiti Moto

Our landlord recently purchased a bajaj for her nephew, C, so that he could make some extra money.

C is in his early 20’s, walks with a small swagger, and lives in his own one-bedroom house on our landlord’s property.  He had initially offered to drive ER and I to work every morning, but clearly enjoys sleeping in far too much for this to be a realistic option.  The first and last time we attempted this, ER and I hovered by the front gate until our landlord yelled for C to hurry up.  Several long minutes passed until C emerged from his house.  He was still buttoning up his shirt as we pulled out of the driveway.

A few weeks ago, C offered to drive ER and I to the Kariakoo market to pick up some supplies for our new apartment.  We were on our way to the market when C twisted around in the front seat to ask us whether we had ever tried kiti moto.  When we replied that we hadn’t, C announced that we were taking a detour and pointed the bajaj towards the nearest kiti moto restaurant.

We said, what is kiti moto?  C replied, kiti moto, kiti moto, don’t you know kiti moto? You don’t know kiti moto, you don’t know kiti moto, you really don’t know kiti moto? And then he threw back his head and laughed.

The bajaj pulled up to a small wooden and metal stand surrounded by a plastic chairs and tables.  C gleefully asked the chef to show us the kiti moto and the chef grudgingly produced a slab of raw meat for us to inspect.

It turns out that kiti moto is a dish that is made with very fatty chunks of pork that are fried in pork fat.  It is ordered by the kilogram.

Apparently, kiti moto, which literally translates to “hot seat”, is used as a code name for the popular dish because Dar has a significant Muslim population that is prohibited from eating pork.  In 1993, during riots that are attributed to heightened religious tensions, restaurants that served kiti moto were targeted and burned.  Stalls that serve kiti moto are now designed to be inconspicuous and are frequently tucked away behind larger restaurants.

Despite its fascinating history, kiti moto is not very good.  ER surreptitiously fed little bits of the kiti moto to a cat that was curled up under her chair.  I stopped eating when I noticed a thick pig hair growing out of one of the pieces.  C poured himself two large glasses of Konyagi (Tanzanian cognac) to help with “kiti moto digestion”.  Don’t tell my uncle, he said.

We didn’t, but we did find alternate transportation home.

Yes we can

In Dar es Salaam, it is not unusual to turn a corner and find yourself staring at Barack Obama. Obama’s image adorns everything and anything, including kitenge fabric, clothing, backpacks, and lunch kits.

So far, my favourite Obama product is the Magic Obama strawberry flavoured bubblegum that I found at a market near our house.

Apparently, in Ghana there are also Obama cookies.

Mending Wall

This past weekend was a long weekend in Tanzania and I flew to Rwanda to meet my parents who are traveling there.

I arrived in Kigali late on Thursday night.  By plane, Kigali-at-night is a string of white Christmas tree lights wound around a series of thick, forested hills.  Our hotel was at the top of one of these hills and Kigali, with its red earth and small, square, brick houses, stretched out all around us.

In the morning, we caught a bus to Musanze, which is the departure point for gorilla treks.  Although Musanze is a vibrant and colourful town, it was cold and rainy.  At night, I slept in the down jacket that I wear during Edmonton’s winters and that I am planning to use when I climb Mount Kilimanjaro in December.

We woke at 4:45 am on Saturday morning and drove about 45 minutes up the mountain to meet everyone had been lucky enough to receive gorilla permits.  The leaders were to break us into groups of six or seven.  Each group would be assigned to a different gorilla family.

Locating the gorillas in their natural habitat involves a two to six hour climb up a mountain and through a jungle.  With rain, mud, and jungle so dense you sometimes have to crawl through it.  Trekkers are told to wear long pants, long sleeved shirts, hiking boots, a rain jacket, and gloves.  Despite this, one tourist from Germany showed up in a dress shirt, golf shorts, and shiny white leather loafers.  Two sisters were wearing jeans and cowboy hats.  Another woman was contemplating whether her canvas TOMS would hold up in the mud while a representative from the Rwandan Tourist Board tried to convince her to buy some rain boots.  A middle-aged man brought along a multi-coloured hoola-hoop.

Fortunately, we were assigned to the Titus group along with four appropriately attired tourists from Czechoslovakia.

The bright green slopes of the volcanoes, originally all jungle, have been deforested for farming.  The terrain is now grass, stone, and mud.  There is a rocky path that winds up the volcano to the jungle where the gorillas live.  On the way, we passed small houses and gardens with potatoes planted row by row.  Children ran from their houses to the side of the path to wave.  A curtain of mist crept down the narrow path to meet us and it began to rain.

My stomach had chosen the week before the gorilla trek to revolt against life in Africa, and by the time we began our climb on Saturday I hadn’t eaten in nearly four days.  This meant that the steep climb up the side of the mountain was pretty awful, made worse by the embarrassment of having to ask a porter to drag me part of the way up.

About two hours into the climb, we reached a tall stone wall marking the end of the farmland and the beginning of the jungle.  The wall is meant to keep the jungle in and the villagers out.  A line of boulders piled stone upon stone to protect the jungle from the hungry farmers, who would pull it up to grow another potato garden.  A man with a gun, in an official-looking uniform, was guarding the jungle, and when we arrived he helped us scramble over the fence and into the jungle.

The jungle wrapped itself around us until we were on our knees in the mud and tangled up in vines and roots and leaves.  There are no trails and our leader had to move ahead of us with a machete to clear the way.  I wondered at how the crumbling stone wall could keep the jungle from growing over it and under it and back down to the bottom of the mountain.

We waded through the jungle to the spot where the Titus group had last been spotted.  The gorillas were no longer there.  Captivated by the scent of eucalyptus trees planted by farmers in neighbouring villages, the gorillas had moved back down the mountain in search of the trees, had scaled the stone wall out of the jungle, and had reclaimed the surrounding farmland.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.

Back down the mountain and across the stone wall we turned to see several black objects in the distance, lumbering across the face of the mountain with a quiet, clumsy, grace.  There were nine of them in total.

When we caught up with the Titus family they were busy devouring the eucalyptus trees.  The blackback closest to me–body pressed against a tree and long black fingernails wrapped around its trunk–was gnawing at the eucalyptus.  The silverback was also nearby and was peeling bark from a tree in order to feast on the sap.  A pile of discarded bark an afterthought at his feet.

I blinked and there were gorillas all around. Climbing up trees.  Balancing between trees.  Rolling on the ground.  Sitting side by side by side.  Scampering through a neighbouring potato farm.

Fixated on the eucalyptus trees, the gorillas paid little attention to us, even though we were standing only several feet away.

Mesmerized by the gorillas, we paid little attention to the time, and our leader had to tell us several times that our hour with the gorillas was over.  We left them, backward glance after backward glance.

People who have gone gorilla trekking almost without exception say the experience is moving because they are able to establish a human connection with the animals.  And, yes, there is a flash of recognition – even understanding – when you meet a gorilla’s eye.  But to me the animals seemed more mythical than human.  So spectacular that even now, after spending a morning with them, it is hard to believe they are of this world.

So stunning that, as I lay in bed that night, I tried to convince myself that they were real and that the whole thing hadn’t been a dream.

Summersaults across the Indian Ocean

The ferry ride from Zanzibar back to Dar was slightly unpleasant.

Guidebooks warn that the crossing is very rocky and suggest anti-nausea medications.  However, the ride the previous day had been smooth and I dismissed the warnings as overblown and exaggerated.  ER and I  even went for a big lunch at one of Stone Town’s best restaurants immediately before the ferry ride.

Prior to our departure, the ferry attendants handed out sick bags to all of the passengers.  I interpreted this as a slightly ominous sign and began to worry that having a large meal may not have been wise.

The ferry began lurching wildly from side to side immediately after leaving the dock.  As if on cue, passengers all around ER and I vomited into their sick bags.  Attendants walked up and down the aisles and collected the little bags of vomit into large trash bins.  A soundtrack of Michael Bolton, Mariah Carey, and the Backstreet Boys played in the background.

In the midst of all of this, the man sitting in front of me decided to go out to the back deck for a smoke.  It was almost impossible for him to remain upright as he staggered down the aisle and out the back door.  I questioned the wisdom of his decision.  From my window, the deck outside looked like it was nearly underwater.  The TV screens at the front of the ferry began playing the Titanic music video.

Luckily, I do not get seasick.  I am, however, prone to paranoia and I worried that our boat would capsize midway between Zanzibar and the mainland.  I wondered whether there were enough life jackets for everyone and tried to recall the survival techniques that were employed by the characters in Titanic.  I heard some noises that sounded like the ferry was coming apart.  It didn’t quite drown out the sound of my fellow passengers retching.

Two and a half hours later we arrived (safely) back in Dar.

As we stepped off the ferry, ER said, this day is Canadian Thanksgiving and I am thankful to be off that boat.

Walk a mile

On Saturday afternoon, ER and I zigzagged between jewellery stores, clothing stores, and markets selling vanilla pods by the dozen, before turning a corner to end up in a small dark shoe shop.  The shoemaker, with his white hair and unsteady hands, offers custom made leather sandals for $15.  His designs decorate the four walls of his shop.

Although his own feet were bare, the shoemaker told us that anything was possible.  He offered to replicate any of the samples on display or any other design that we could imagine and articulate to him.

The shoemaker’s young granddaughters sat quietly on the front steps and watched expectantly as we walked around the store.  Slightly more wary, the shoemaker stood and gently prodded for a decision.

I found a pair of sandals available in my size.  The shoemaker knelt and measured and adjusted the length of the straps to make sure they fit snugly.  His son, younger and with stronger hands, helped by glueing the straps down and then forcing the needle and thread through the stiff leather soles.  The shoemaker traced ER’s foot onto the back of a magazine to make a pattern for the sandals she had chosen.  His son helped cut the leather.

We were told to come back the next day to pick up the completed shoes.  Unfailingly polite, the shoemaker-without-shoes stood to shake our hands and to suggest that we could stay in the guest room of his family’s house the next time we are in Stone Town.

Stone Town

Stone Town is a network of narrow roads, tight corners, and thick wooden doors.  I spent the weekend getting lost, retracing my steps, and resigning myself to the fact that I was more likely to arrive at my destination by wandering aimlessly than by plotting a route on a map or memorizing landmarks.

On Saturday afternoon Stone Town’s streets were crowded with throngs of tourists in their best safari-coloured outfits and vendors selling brightly coloured jewellery.  By Sunday morning the safari-beach-package crowd had moved on to the next destination, and the streets were quieter with only a few shops open for tea or fruit and the occasional child gliding by on a bicycle.

Zanzibar had me at the coffee

On Saturday, ER and I woke up at 5 am to catch the 7 am ferry to Zanzibar.  After checking into our hotel, I dragged ER to the first coffee house that I could find.  Nescafe is only edible when one is truly desperate and I have been without decent coffee for weeks now.

I took a sip of the coffee and fell instantly in love with Zanzibar.  Zanzibarian coffee is spiced with cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, and chilli pepper.  It is served in cafes nestled amongst Stone Town’s maze-like alleyways and by vendors who set up at street corners at dusk and pour their brew into little glass cups.

I like the spiced coffee best with a little steamed milk in a cafe that overlooks the Indian Ocean.