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.
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.
Part bicycle, part car, part art-project, the vehicles are often decorated with bright paintings of Barack Obama, Jesus, and Che Guevera. Good company. The best have also been outfitted with sound systems, churning out cheesy R&B mixes and pounding rap songs, an inspiring soundtrack for my commute to work.
Three passengers fit comfortably in the back seat. Seven are less comfortable – three in the back, three sitting on their laps, and one up front with the driver.
Every morning, a series of negotiations with the drivers that pick up passengers two blocks away from my apartment. “How much to Kinondoni?…near the hospital?” An exorbitant mzungu price is quoted and outrage is feigned. I pretend to walk away until the driver yells at me to return.
Most of the drivers are adept at negotiating the worst of Dar’s rush hour traffic. When the parade of cars heading down Old Bagamoyo Road comes to a standstill, they jump the curb and barrel down the sidewalk, playing a game of chicken with angry pedestrians who jump aside at the very last minute. If there is no sidewalk, the drivers slip across the line separating the right side of the road from the wrong side, swerving from left to right to avoid the oncoming traffic. An hour long commute is compressed into ten minutes.
Frequent words of warning from those who grew up with a view of the streets from the back of a bajaj: never get in with a young driver, choose the older drivers instead, they usually have a wife and children and more to live for.
After more close calls than I can count, finally last Wednesday I looked up to the words CITY BUS and felt the crunch of metal. And walked away from a head on collision with a dalla dalla.
And now, new words inserted into my morning routine: pole pole (slowly slowy).
Last night my computer broke down and this morning I made the mistake of trying to make it to the computer store in Shoppers Plaza. I ended up knee deep in water.
It has been raining heavily for the past three days. According to media reports, the rains are the heaviest that Tanzania has experienced since 1961. Roads are flooded out, an estimated thirteen people have died, and hundreds have lost their homes. It’s scary.
This morning I made a quick trip to the bank in my neighbourhood and, when the roads seemed okay, I decided to continue on to Shoppers Plaza in a bajaj. I would have been better off in a boat. Cars were stuck, a bajaj in front of me had tipped over, and many people had parked their cars at the side of the road and were walking. The scene resembled a post-apocalyptic disaster movie.
I mentioned to the bajaj driver that I was worried about making it to the airport tomorrow. He laughed and said I had nothing to worry about. “The trip to the airport will be quick. There will be no cars on the road. There will be no roads, but at least you don’t have to worry about a traffic jam”.
Not terribly reassuring.
The sun came out for a few hours this afternoon, but now it looks like it is clouding over again. We all have our fingers crossed there will be no more rain tonight.
It happened again. Another weekend, another uninhabited tropical island, another boat almost missed.
Mbudya Island is a half-hour boat ride from Dar and the last boat back to the mainland leaves at 5 pm. When the boat pulled up to the island on schedule, four of our friends were missing, having wandered off in search of a more perfect beach.
We waited. And stalled. And negotiated. And explained to the boatman that our friends would be only a few minutes more.
The boat was about to leave when our friends appeared, explaining that the path to the more perfect beach had been unexpectedly treacherous.
At this point, I’m beginning to think that I am fated to live on a beautiful tropical island.
The past few weeks at work have been very exciting. Unfortunately, I can’t write about most of my work in a public forum.
Today is an exception. We had a big party to celebrate the launch of several publications that were authored by the legal aid centre where I work. The Minister of Justice was in attendance, and there was singing, dancing, and food. I was asked to trade in my lawyer’s robe for a camera and to take pictures of the event.
Here are some of my favourites.
People often complain that the pace of life in Dar es Salaam is too slow. Bureaucratic red tape, applications for residency that sit in an office for months before they are approved, meetings that don’t start on time, morning gridlock so bad that it can take hours to travel a few kilometers.
This morning, I gripped the side of a bajaj as it sped down the road to work, watched the buildings and trees blur into a rainbow of colour, and thought about how it is all moving too fast. Yesterday was September and I was just arriving in Dar and now suddenly it is December and I can hear Swahili Christmas carols playing outside my office window. When I get back from Christmas vacation in January, I will have a little over two months left here.
That is not enough time for this place where the banana trees rustle outside my window at night and the spectacular blue of the Indian Ocean is but a few steps away.
I told the bajaj driver to slow down.
Today, on my way into work, I was stopped by KK, who is a student intern at the legal aid centre.
KK is about 20 years old and he is both eager and determined. He wears a heavy black suit to work everyday despite the overwhelming heat and despite the fact that even the most senior advocates dress very casually. He tells me that he comes from a poor family in a rural village and had to work very hard to pay his school fees and get into law school. He tells me that it was almost impossible. I am sure he is not exaggerating.
KK tells me that he has set up a school for a group of children just like him. They live in a rural community just outside of Dar es Salaam and cannot afford their school fees. KK teaches at the school on the weekends.
KK tells me about the school and then says, can you tell me how I can get funding so that we can hire a teacher to work at the school full-time? Can you tell me how we can make the school sustainable? How we can increase enrolment?
KK waits for an answer. I don’t have one.
Over the past few weeks, I have slowly settled into life in Dar. I have found a favourite grocery store, made some new friends, joined a book club, and am able to find my way home from almost anywhere in the city.
Two weeks ago, haunted by the fear of being left alone at the bottom of Mount Kilimanjaro by AB when we attempt our ascent in early January, I decided that I needed to find a gym.
This was more difficult than it sounds. I tried Google, but the only result was the Colosseum Hotel and Fitness Club, a monstrous building on the peninsula that looks like it belongs in Las Vegas and that charges $140 USD per month for the use of its facilities. A friend recommended another gym, much closer to my house, but its monthly fees were also over $100 USD. This is much more than I have ever paid for a gym in Vancouver, and I began to contemplate the logistics of long runs outside on traffic congested roads in 35 degree heat.
On my way home from work that Friday, I stopped at the grocery store near our house and noticed that there was a gym on the upper level. A gym perched above the neighbourhood grocery store. It is called Genesis Health Club, and in addition to fitness equipment it also offers pedicures, manicures, and facials. I took a quick look around, asked to see the prices (much more reasonable than the other two gyms), and signed up for a monthly membership. I was proud of myself for having found such a seemingly good deal.
On Saturday morning, I decided to walk to the gym, which is about half an hour away. The Kilimanjaro fitness guides recommend lots of walking, based on the reasoning that the trek is really just a very long walk rather than a technical climb. I am highly skeptical of this — surely scrambling up 19,341 feet of rock cannot accurately be characterized as a long walk — but have decided to try to walk as much as possible anyway.
By 10:30 am the sun was bright and the temperature was high. When I arrived at the gym, sweat was running in rivers down my arms and legs. This is when I discovered that, unlike the expensive gyms, the Genesis Health Club does not have an air conditioner. Undaunted, I tried to convince myself that the extreme heat would lead to a better workout. There has to be a reason people do hot yoga, right?
The gym was quiet for a Saturday morning. I looked a bit out of place, as the most popular workout outfit appeared to be knee high socks and very short shorts. But I had my choice of machines and, although the treadmill was a little rusty, it worked fine. As I ran, I thought to myself that it was almost like I was running in a gym back in Vancouver. Except for the fact that I could see the chaos of Bagamoyo Road reflected in the mirror in front of me. And the fact that there was a small bird flying around above my head.
Things did not go as smoothly the following Monday.
By Monday evening, only five-and-a-half of the 17 cardio machines still functioned (one machine squealed so loudly that I cannot count it amongst the machines in working order). The small gym was packed with the after-work crowd, and there were approximately 50 people trying to get on one of the machines that still functioned. I waited and waited and finally it was my turn for the treadmill. Once on the coveted machine, I was interrupted every few minutes by people who wanted to inform me that they were next in line and could I please promise to give the machine to them when I was finished?
Although the staff at Genesis are exceptionally friendly, there is no indication that any of the broken machines are going to be fixed anytime soon. Alas, my daily visits to the gym mean at least a half-hour wait for a machine in a small room crammed with sweaty and impatient people. The small ceiling fan moves so slowly that I think it is mocking me. While I wait, I daydream about air conditioning.
If I wasn’t so afraid of Mount Kilimanjaro, I think I would spend the rest of my membership time getting pedicures, manicures, and facials.