Archive | February 2012

“We’ve stolen from our children”

“There is a saying”, Jane Goodall says, “about how we don’t inherit the earth from our parents but rather borrow it from our children.”  “But we haven’t borrowed it at all,” she continues in her thunderous voice, “we’ve stolen it from our children”.

Last night we all packed into the Little Theatre to meet this seemingly fearless woman who set out for Africa by herself on a ship in 1960, who doesn’t know how to turn a blind eye to the mess we have created of this planet, and who, at the age of 77, still speaks to audiences 300 days of the year, trying to inspire us all to do something, anything to make the world a better place.

After screening her documentary, Jane’s Journey, Dr. Goodall took a few questions.  My favourites were from the wide-eyed children in the audience, who asked her whether she is ever scared, whether chimpanzees really like vegetables, and where she calls home.

Towards the end, a small boy of about eight gripped the microphone and said, with shocking eloquence, “I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say thank you for everything you have done”.  We all laughed, surprised at the open sentiment of his words.

I hope that small boy does speak for all of us, but sometimes I have my doubts.


The dull moments

Someone asked me recently, somewhat facetiously, if there is ever a dull moment in Dar.  In between weekend trips to Rwanda, riding whale sharks, climbing the highest mountain, and getting hit by a bus on my way to work.


There are no dull moments in Dar.  Not yet.  Not for me.  I’m still turned upside down by the beauty of this place, by the bright blue ocean, the flashes of colour on the street, the pineapple season that never ends.  And lost in the crush of the heat, the electricity that doesn’t work, the pipes in my apartment that are bone dry.

My life in Dar is punctuated by the extremes.  All at once I am happy infuriated thrilled angry upset.  There is beauty in the familiar, but that is not the beauty of my life in Dar.  There are no moments in between.

I have yet to settle into the rhythm of the seasons.  When I arrived in September, the temperatures were starting to climb into the upper range of stifling.  There were months of unbroken heat.  And then, two days ago, perhaps in response to a signal I am not yet able to hear, my neighbours started preparing for the rainy season, sweating under the midday sun to clear summer weeds and a season of garbage from the gutters that line the streets.

It rained last night.  This morning the sky was iodine blue and the air smelled like water.

I haven’t seen what comes next.  After the oppressive heat rolls away and the sky changes colour.  Maybe if I was here next year this scene would unfold again, the blue of the sea would no longer be a surprise, and I would learn to navigate the maze of things that don’t work.  Maybe my life here would become a pattern rather than a series of Staccato notes, with the dull and the predictable alternating between the joyful and the frustrating.

But I won’t be in Dar next year.  I have one month left here, which is not enough time to watch the rains fade back into the heat and to be able to know what comes next.

My internship officially ends at the beginning of April and I’m planning on spending the next five months working remotely and traveling around Africa.  On my own.

My first stop is Uganda.  The second is Madagascar.  I don’t know what comes after that.  But I don’t think it will be dull.

Not yet.

How to curse in Swahili

I haven’t learned any real Swahili swear words yet.  Unsurprisingly, my Swahili teacher has been less than forthcoming with this information, choosing instead to concentrate on the eighteen different noun classes and their associated grammatical rules.  So I’ve made up my own: umeme.

Umeme means electricity in Swahili and, given the frequent blackouts in Dar, it is a word that I’ve come to associate with frustration, anger, and despair.  And it rolls off the tongue in a satisfying kind of way to convey irritation in a variety of different contexts.

Umeme it’s hot today!

Or, shouted loudly to the guy who follows me around Mwenge Market, asking repeatedly if I am married.  Umeme!

And, to the taxi driver who speeds up to kill me when I try to cross the road – umeme umeme umeme!

Today has been an umeme kind of day.

Yesterday was hot.  Unbearably hot.  The kind of hot that makes you want to take a shower every three minutes, plan a trip to the North Pole, and climb into the freezer.  All at once.

So its not surprising that at about 4 pm, just as I was trying to decide whether I still had the will to live, the electricity went out and my ceiling fan squeaked to a stop.

The temperatures in my apartment quickly ascended from uncomfortable to intolerable.  I began to hunt for the generator key.

I have a small generator that I use very infrequently.  I think I’ve only spent about $6 on petrol in the last five months.  This is because turning the generator on is usually more effort that it is worth, and the machine is not big enough to power a fridge or even all the lights in my apartment.  It can, however, keep my fan rotating if I turn off my lights and unplug all of my appliances.

At 11 pm last night the temperature was still well over 30 degrees Celsius and I knew any attempt to sleep without the fan would be futile.  So I coaxed the generator on and fell asleep to its steady hum.

It ran out of petrol at 1 am.  I woke up as soon as the fan stopped spinning, immediately covered in a thick layer of sweat.

It was a long and sleepless night.  I passed the time by counting down the days until the rainy season and by researching the temperatures in Madagascar, where I plan to travel in April.  At one point, I tried to sleep on the floor, where the tiles are cool, but it was too uncomfortable.   And I was worried about a nighttime encounter with a cockroach.  I turned on my shower, drenched my bed sheet in cold water, and wrapped myself up in it.

This morning I staggered around the apartment and wondered if I was dizzy from the heat or the lack of sleep.  I cursed TANESCO, the generator, and the empty petrol container.

The electricity was still out when I got home from work.  Not wanting to endure another hot and sleepless night, I decided that I would brave the rush hour and catch a bajaj to the nearest gas station so that I could buy some petrol.  As often happens in Dar, what should have been a simple trip to the corner gas station became an exhausting odyssey.

When I got to the BP station, all the lights were off and the workers were sitting in a circle, laughing and playing Tanzanian checkers.  They explained to me that they were all out of petrol, and suggested that I try another gas station a bit further down the road.  They were out of petrol too.  So was the next gas station I visited.

An hour and a small fortune in cab fare later, I was hot, sweaty, and irritated.  But I had a small plastic container with enough petrol to last the night.  I felt mildly victorious.

The electricity came back on as soon as I opened the front door to my apartment.

Umeme umeme umeme!

All those things that don’t change

I always know where I’ll be the second weekend in August.  Sitting on a green hill, high above a stage, surrounded by people that I love.

KL and I have been going to the Edmonton Folk Music Festival for as long as I can remember.  For four days in the heat of the prairie summer, we sit on a plastic tarp, packed between friends and family and strangers, and wave at the stars with our small, white candles.

When we were in high school, we danced late into the night on Friday and then woke at dawn on Saturday to line up at the entrance gate.  Competition for a good spot on the hill was fierce.  We never quite managed the front row, which always went to the girls who had the stamina to spend Friday night camped out in tents pitched right outside the festival grounds.

Times have changed.  Camping at the entrance gate is no longer allowed.  Line-ups before 7 am are also prohibited.  A disruption to the neighbourhood, they say.  And both KL and I have moved away from Edmonton.

But we still come back every year for our spot on the hill.

On Sunday night, the last song of the festival is always Ian Tyson’s Four Strong Winds.  We sing it together, all one hundred thousand of us on the hill, this song that reminds me of those things that don’t change.  And by the time we get to the part about how the snow flies in the winter, I realize I’ve come home.

This past weekend, far from home, I felt the same mix of familiarity and hope and solidarity that I always feel sitting on that hill in Edmonton.  Except this time I was sitting in a three-hundred-year-old fort in Stone Town, surrounded by new friends, Tanzanians, expats, and visitors from around the world.  We danced as a group from the Sudan sang about peace, listened as a Congolese artist dedicated a song to the 400,000 women who are raped annually in his country, and put our hands together for a Nigerian poet who stunned us all with lyrics about civilized armed robbers and modern slaveholders.

“We might get shot today”

It is a bit alarming when your colleagues turn to you and say, “we might get shot today”. And then put on matching white t-shirts and march out the door anyway.

Primary care physicians in Tanzania have been on strike since January 23.  The result is that thousands of Tanzanians have not had access to medical care for nearly three weeks, including emergency services.  Those who cannot afford the entrance fee to a private hospital, or a plane ticket to India, are dying.  Two days ago, specialists voted to join the primary care physicians and the doors of Muhimbili Hospital, the largest referral-based hospital in Tanzania, closed.

In early January, the government terminated the services of 229 medical interns who went on strike because they had not been paid in two months.  The situation escalated and the interns were joined by the country’s doctors, who are requesting an increased salary as well as improved working conditions.

There are approximately two physicians for every 100,000 people in Tanzania, and doctors say they are overwhelmed by the number of patients they are expected to treat. Basic equipment is in short supply.  More expensive diagnostic equipment is simply unavailable.

Faced with overwhelming demand, few supplies, and low pay, many physicians are leaving Tanzania to practice elsewhere.  It is often said that there are more Malawian trained doctors in Manchester, England than there are in all of Malawi.  I’m not sure where this statistic originates, but I’m sure the gravity of the situation is similar in Tanzania.

Two weeks ago, a colleague’s uncle died.  He needed heart surgery and had to fly to India to get it.  He made it onto the plane, where he collapsed and later died in the airport.  A story that is both starkly illuminating and heartbreaking.

In the midst of what can only be described as a national crisis, the Tanzanian government decided to give itself a raise.  Parliament recently voted to raise the daily sitting allowance for each legislator from 70,000 Tsh (approximately $42 CAD) to 200,000 Tsh (approximately $120 CAD).

The human rights community in Tanzania has criticized the government for failing to take any decisive steps to put an end to the strike.  Some have called for the government to step down.

And so yesterday lawyers took to the streets in illegal protest.  An act of defiance in a country where all protestors are required to obtain a permit from the government.  An act of courage when one recalls the violent confrontations between protesters and the police in Kampala last spring.

Everyone returned safely, feeling that they had at least accomplished a small, intangible thing in the face of a disaster that is overwhelming.

Another protest was planned for this afternoon.  The police intervened, and as I began to write this post I received a message from a friend who was involved, telling me she is at the police station and has been arrested.

The jails are full while the hospitals sit empty.

More information about the doctors’ strike in Tanzania is available hereherehere, and here.

Words of wisdom

Dar is a dusty city.  I am usually covered with sweat and dirt at the end of each day and the white cardigan I brought with me is now a distant memory.  A few weeks ago, one of my colleagues remarked frankly that it was time for me to get new shoes because the ones I was wearing looked “old and dirty and ugly”.

Given this state of affairs, there are stalls set up all around the city, where shoe shiners are always at work sparkling, shining, and buffing tired leather.  I pass this shoe shine stall on my way to work everyday and wonder whether a poet, social critic, or political scientist works there.

Elephants of the ocean

Liberatus, a tall thin man who wears denim in thirty degree heat, moved to Mafia Island from Dar about twenty years ago to study whale sharks.  Since then, he has become the island’s enthusiastic expert: he works with a conservation group to tag the fish so that they can analyze population and migratory patterns, educates local fishermen about the importance of preserving current population levels, and runs trips for tourists who want a chance to swim with the sharks.

Shortly after booking a boat trip with Liberatus, he arrived at Mama Lizu’s with his laptop and a power point presentation.  The next hour was a lesson in the poetry of mathematics: whale sharks are the largest fish in the world and can range from 10 to 30 metres in length, their mouth is wide enough to swallow a human whole, spotting a whale shark in the Indian Ocean is as magnificent as spotting an elephant in the Serengeti.

Liberatus explained that approximately 100 whale sharks live off the coast of Mafia Island. On sunny days, whale sharks are drawn to the surface of the water where they can be spotted swimming and feeding.

When Liberatus first moved to Mafia Island, he approached the lodges about offering whale shark viewings for tourists.  Nobody was interested.  At the time, the lodges wanted to focus on promoting the marine park and the coral reefs to tourists.  Then one day, the story goes, a group of tourists spotted the whale sharks from the air as their plane approached the island.  They instantly became fascinated, and the lodge they were staying at contacted Liberatus to see if he could take them out on his boat.

Liberatus now owns three boats and employs his nephews to lead tours.  The animals are gentle vegetarians and it is possible to get out of the boat and swim with them.  It is important, however, not to touch the whale sharks.  They are large wild animals and, if startled, could unintentionally cause injuries with their powerful fins and tails.

Last Saturday morning was warm and sunny and we set out to sea in a small wooden boat. We were prepared for a long day, as Liberatus had warned us that it could take hours to locate the whale sharks.  It took half an hour.  Someone yelled shark and a large gaping mouth emerged from the water.  We jumped in with the shark, joking about how counterintuitive this felt and humming the theme song to Jaws.

Up close, the whale shark’s skin is grey and white dots arranged into an intricate pattern that Liberatus explained is unique to each animal, like a fingerprint.   The shark swam around us and under us, and we followed it as it moved around the boat.

I’m not sure how I lost sight of a 10-metre long shark, but somehow I did.  And then, before I could move out of the way, it was swimming directly underneath me, and then surfacing, and then I was sitting on its back.  Like that scene in Free Willy but much, much less graceful.  I screamed, a sound that was stifled by my snorkelling gear and came out sounding like a strangled sigh.  I considered whether I should crawl to the side of the animal’s back and try to jump off.  If I moved around on its back, would that make it more or less angry?  The shark retreated back underwater and I swam quickly towards the boat, where Liberatus’ nephews were laughing at me.

Later, back at Mama Lizu’s, we decided that Liberatus was right.  The whale shark is not beautiful, with its wide lips, tiny eyes, and ungainly body.  But it does possess a certain grace.  And spotting one in the Indian Ocean is kind of like spotting an elephant in the Serengeti.

Can you hear it?

I have been looking forward to Sauti za Busara since I found out I was moving to Tanzania, and I have had Nneka’s song ‘Heartbeat’ set to repeat all day.  Next weekend I intend to be in the front row when this amazing woman brings down the Old Fort in Stonetown.