Friday, 29 May 2009

A Case of the Fridays

Friday afternoon in Dar. I thought I'd fire off a post before I leave for my webless weekend.

A bunch of us went out last night to a cool event called Dar Alive, a weekly live-music series that takes place at this beautiful beach bar on the bay. I got some pictures but haven't uploaded them yet -- will do later. Last night they had three supposedly-famous jazz musicians from the US and the Netherlands, who performed with local artists in a 9- or 10-artist ensemble, right on the beach. A few local poets read their works (English, not Swahili) while the artists played background music behind them. I'm not really a jazz person, but the whole show was pretty good. Anything's fun when you can drink beers while standing barefoot on the beach.

Dar Alive kinda got me in the mood for Tanzanian music, which, I'm discovering, is excellent. Tanzanian music encompasses a lot of musical styles: traditional, R&B, rap and calypso-ish music. One of my co-workers, Dave, gave me a few hundred songs this morning from his collection, so I'm set for a while. I'll post some favorites next week so you can sample the good stuff.

I have some good plans for the weekend: tomorrow, a few of us are going to Bongoyo, a small beach island just North of Dar (not as far as Zanzibar -- it's more of a local place). On Sunday, I'm flying to Mwanza then driving to Bunda, a small district capital in the cotton-growing zone. I'm going to spend about a week with the farmers learning about their business. I'm looking forward to getting out in the field and seeing how cotton works. We're about five months from harvesting so the farmers will be hard at work.

I hope I can use my time in the North to go on a weekend mini-safari, since the area around Bunda is also home to Tanzania's two most famous national parks: Ngorongoro and Serengeti NP. These reserves are the incredible places you imagine from seeing safaris in the movies / watching the Lion King. They're packed with elephants, giraffes, hippos, wildebeast, and monkeys. Also, some of the herds are apparently in migration season right now, so millions (literally) of herd animals are moving along the Grumeti river. Safaris aren't cheap (I'm not even sure I can make it happen) but if I'm already nearby, it seems sad to miss out on the chance to see giraffes, elephants and other hard-to-spot beasts. I'll pack my white safari-esque hat just in case.

And speaking of rare creatures: the postcard is a dying breed. Too bad, because everyone likes to get them. So, limited-time offer: if you want a postcard from yours truly, write your address in a comment to this post and I'll get on it.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

The Other Other White Meat

Warning: don't read this if you have a weak stomach.

I heard a fascinating news clip on the radio today when I was stuck in traffic. Apparently eleven people were arrested in neighboring Burundi for murdering (or serving as accomplices to murder) a number of albino youth. The murderers were chopping up the albinos into pieces and selling the flesh across the border in Western Tanzania for human consumption (particularly in soups and stews).

Apparently there's a superstition in that part of the region that black albinos (not Caucasians -- whew) are magical, and that eating food prepared with their body parts can give you special powers or make you rich. This article discusses the phenomenon some more: It's a major problem because there are so many areas where people cling to bizarre superstitions, and because there are so many albinos in sub-Saharan Africa. Albinism is incredibly rare among Caucasians, but is more common (1 in 3,000) among black Africans; I saw albinos quite regularly in Senegal and Mali.

The current situation is sad. The people who purchase and eat the albino flesh are obviously ignorant and barbaric, but those who kill the albino children to sell their parts for profit? Surely it doesn't get much worse than that.

The Mamas and the Pappadums

Another gastronomic update from your African correspondent:

I went out last night with some people from work to get Indian food. We went to this place called the Patel Brotherhood. Although the name suggests a shadowy network of Gujurati arms dealers, it's actually a social club for Indian people. There are a few clubs like it throughout the city, since Dar has such a large Indian population. A lot of the Indians here are second- or third-generation immigrants, but other have been there even longer.

The Brotherhood was a huge place in the city center, with a sort of mini-hotel, squash courts, patio seating for 200 people, and a giant screen for watching cricket and European football matches. We bought a so-called visitor's pass for $1, which ain't a bad price. Last night was the Champion's League final, so the place was packed with people speaking real elevator-quality Hindi mixed with English and Swahili. The four of us ordered tons of appetizers, breads, rice, main dishes and beer and it only cost $10 a person. The real prize, however, was the bread. I'm a bit of an Indian baked-goods snob, but I have to say that both the butter naan and pappadum were the best I've ever eaten, hands down. I really want to go back, assuming I can ever find the place again.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Lost in Tanzania

Don't worry, folks. I'm not actually lost in some remote place in the West. I have, however, gotten back into Lost (the TV series).

A couple of years ago, I got really into Lost. I'm not a guy who watches shows every week (I just never find the time), but I do like to watch them back-to-back on DVD. I discovered Lost about a couple of seasons after it first aired. I watched seasons 1 and 2 in a series of red-eyed late night sessions spanning three weeks. There's something addictive about that show that just makes you want to watch... just... one... more. Then, halfway through season 3, I started traveling for work and kinda forgot about the show for a while.

My show and I were reunited this week over lunch. There are a couple of regular DVD-and-music salesmen who walk around Jackie's, our regular lunch spot, trying to drum up business. They carry everything from badly-subtitled classics, to pre-release versions of action movies, to curiously-titled adult titles. Their prices are excellent because the residents of my house have a sort of bulk purchasing agreement with these guys that goes back five months. They even offer a money-back guarantee if the disc is faulty, no questions asked. I guess the treatment is reasonable; we probably account for about 20% of their revenues, since someone in the office buys one each time we go.

I had casually asked about Lost last week and the sellers had copies of seasons 3 and 4 yesterday. I bought both, in anticipation of some (potentially) quiet nights in the northwest of the country (I'm heading up there on Sunday). Of course, I couldn't really resist watching them last night, so I knocked off 5 episodes in season 3 back to back. Just good, addictive fun with me, my laptop and the survivors of flight 815.

I'll probably post again before I take off for Mara and Mwanza. Stay tuned!

Sunday, 24 May 2009

It's in the Baga

I thought I'd write a little bit about my weekend -- it was awesome.

Friday night, I took the plunge into Dar's large expat scene. I went out with a group of people celebrating the birthday of another American girl. We drove out in SUVs to this semi-underground place called Sissy's Mexican. Supposedly it's the only Mexican food available in Dar, and it's not easy to find. The food is served by torchlight in the back garden of a gorgeous mansion in Kawe owned by a South African lady. She and Sissy, who's American, serve inauthentic but delicious Mexican food for ex-pats on a referral basis. It's not quite invititation-only, but people only really find out about it from other expats. In hindsight, it's not too surprising that place is flourishing -- as followers of Stuff White People Like will be aware, white people love 'secret' and 'underground' eateries.

After dinner we went to Irish Bar, which is not an Irish bar, it turns out. It was, however, a fun place with live music and an outdoor patio looking out across the Indian Ocean. I listened to some music, had a few drinks and met a bunch of cool people. The expats who end up in Dar seem like a pretty cool group. A lot of them work in NGOs, for the UN or World Bank, or do some sort of development-related business. A few work as consultants, investors, and teachers. Everyone seemed very laid back, maybe because they chose to live in Dar, which is a pretty chill place. There was something a little bit surreal about how small the expat community is here -- people all seem to know each, go to the same dozen restaurants and half-dozen bars, and hang out together. It's welcoming and fun for me, since I'm just here for the summer, but I wonder if it would become irritating after a long time.

After Irish Bar, I was really looking forward to getting out of the city and seeing a bit more of Tanzania. Saturday morning, Chris and I left for Bagamoyo, a small town fifty miles north of Dar, and once the former capital of German Imperial East Africa. Fifty miles sounds pretty close, but it took us a while to get there. The northern bus stand, Mwenge, is pretty far from where we live, so we took a ride on a Bajaji -- an Indian-made, three wheel auto-rickshaw. I'm pretty sure these are also common in South Asia. They're good here because they tend to be cheaper than car-taxis and can go offroad to skirt traffic and potholes. This is one:

We got stuck in traffic for over an hour, and I got to see the micro-businesses and itinerany salesmen around the city. Very entrepreneurial stuff, but I'll write more on that stuff later. From Mwenge, we took a medium-distance daladala (shared mini-van) up the coast.

Bagamoyo is a bit less cosmoplitan than during its glory days; locals used both mji (village) and jij (city) to describe it. It still has lively dhow-based fishing business, a lot of manual fish processing, Tanzania's leading crocodile farm, a famous sculpture school, and some good beachfront hotels. The off-duty dhows floating in the harbor also make it a very picturesque place to hang out:

The dhows are traditional Tanzanian shore-fishing boats that can carry up to twenty people. The mini-dhows are surprisingly small and rickety, built for a single fisherman. The katamaran-style design makes them faster and more resistant to capsizing (although some of them do anyways). Here's one:

We stayed at a small beach hotel at the north of town. I went swimming and relaxed for the entire day, which was amazing. Some shots of the area around the hotel:

Sunday morning, we walked to an old Catholic compound with a museum, church and nunnery. The museum was unexpectedly good. I was excited to see there was a big display on the life of Dr. David Livingstone (of "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" fame). Livingstone is one of the historical figures I idolize most; he was a sort of bad-ass explorer/humanitarian. He explored vast stretches of East-Central Africa and also helped bring about the end of the Indian-Ocean slave trade. He also had great sideburns. After his death in Zambia, his servants carried his preserved body to Bagamoyo, where it stayed overnight before leaving Africa forever. Historians think he died from malaria-related illnesses, a tragic demise that could have been easily prevented by regular gin & tonic consumption. Let that be a lesson.

The museum also had some great finds from the German colonial regime. Among them: an East African German-language newspaper, published in the interior. Does anyone else find this weird and cool?

Also on display: German-era currency/Monopoly money. Sorry about the Gläre.

After that, we checked out the 'famous' Kaole ruins south of town. They sounded good on paper: 13th-century Arab ruins with lots of inscriptions, tombs, other stuff. Maybe I hit my Islamic-ruins quota last summer, but I found these ones kinda boring. For the ruin-lovers among you, though, here's a snap:

I liked the massive, thousand-year-old tree near the mosque. Check out that trunk!

So that was Bagamoyo -- a great first trip within Tanzania. On the minibus home, we met a guy from Zambia who works as an engineer for the TAZARA line, the slow, Chinese-funded railway linking Tanzania and Zambia. He was telling us a bit about his country, and it sounds like a fascinating place to visit and a possible travel option for later this summer.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Squeaky Clean

I started Swahili lessons this week. My teacher, Grace, comes over to the apartment a few times a week to teach me. We had our first teaching session on Wednesday and it was very helpful (and cheap – $6 an hour!).

Swahili is a blast. I mean, I like learning languages in general, but Swahili is more fun than the others. It’s a kind of regional lingua franca that developed through international trade. It’s officially a Bantu tongue (one of the main sub-Saharan language families), but many of the words are imports from other languages (31% come from Arabic, 6% from Hindi, English and Portuguese combined). The mix of the Arabic, African, English and Indian words makes it fun to speak. Not that I do too much actual speaking at this point, but I’m working on it. I had my first taxi-price negotiation in Swahili two nights ago – nothing improves language comprehension like bickering over money!

Work has gotten off to a great start this week. I found out that I’ll be working on two projects at the same time, both under the aegis of the overall cotton-farming program. I won’t bore you with all the details here, but the first involves developing a remote monitoring system to keep tabs on cotton farmers’ production and compliance with the terms of their sales contracts. The second is really legal work – it involves the Tanzanian regulations governing the production and sale of seed cotton (which are the little cotton balls, after they’ve been harvested). It’s shaping up to involve some close contact with the government and a bunch of travel to the cotton-growing heartland in Mara region. The travel to Mara is exciting, since the region is home to Serengeti National Park (read: giraffes).

In this week’s food section: I have started to balance out the heavy, vaguely unhealthy Indian food in my diet with heavy, vaguely unhealthy Tanzanian food. How’s that for food groups? There are a couple of local Tanzanian grills that I go to pretty often for lunch and dinner. They grill these beef skewers called mishkaki, which they serve with a starch of your choice: rice, fried banana, ugali (a sort of polenta made from corn maize), or chips. They are pretty darned incredible and, most importantly, provide an important alternative to biryani. I’m going to cut it off here, because I’m actually starting to get hungry and it’s 9:30 am.

I like Tanzanian people, but sometimes certain things get lost in translation. Chris and I have a helper who comes by twice a week to do the cleaning, allowing us to focus on watching pirated DVDs. Yesterday I was looking for a pair of shoes – my beloved gold suede sneakers – and I couldn’t find them after looking around for half an hour. I found them outside on the washing line – laces taken out, thoroughly scrubbed, their smooth suede texture turned into a weird crispy material. Hmmm. Good thing I didn’t leave my leather shoes by the washing! I’m sure this won’t be the last cultural misunderstanding, although probably the last one for those sneakers.

Up next: I’m heading to Bagamoyo for the weekend. It’s a mid-sized trading port sixty miles north of Dar. I’ll blog about that when I get back.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Great Expectations

Hi guys! I’m writing from Dar-es-Salaam – I’ve been here a couple of days now.

I got into the city late on Sunday night after what was a pretty grueling, 23-hour journey from Boston to Dar. I had to leave for the airport at 3:30 in the morning, so I didn’t get much sleep beforehand. The flights weren’t too bad, though, and I watched two movies: Clone Wars (nerdy, unentertaining) and Babylon A.D. (improbably good). The trip finished with a (predictable) battle with Tanzanian customs officials over visa documents. The problem, apparently, was that I had arrived with a black-and-white photocopy of my work permit, which made the headshot photo on the permit look black. The customs official insisted that the picture couldn’t be mine, because the picture was black, and I wasn’t. What? That doesn’t even make sense.

Ultimately, I managed to sort that one out and I slipped through. I had some general expectations about my life in Dar-es-Salaam, probably based on the time I spent living in Dakar. Those expectations were all way off.

Take housing, for instance. I knew that I was going to be staying in an apartment provided by TechnoServe, but I thought it was going to be a modest place in a less expensive part of town. I mean, we’re volunteers, after all. Turns out I’m living in a gigantic, 3-bedroom pad with a guard, chilling air-con, 2 full bathrooms, and a giant kitchen. Even has a fine collection of pirated DVDs – third season of 24, here I come! Instead of riding to work in a daladala (local, inexpensive shared transport), we have drivers to pick us up, ferry us to lunch, and take us home in SUV’s every day.

So things are shaping up to be a bit cushier than I expected, probably because my apartment, work and the nearest watering holes are all on the Msasani Peninsula, an ex-pat-heavy part of Dar located away from the city center and next to the pretty coastline. I’m not really complaining – I can certainly deal with the non-hardcore nature of my day-to-day routine if it means I have nicer arrangements.

On first impressions, I like Dar a lot. The Indian food here is incredible. I’ve eaten three massive Indian meals already. The first night I got here, Chris (my roommate) and I went out for a quick bite at a local restaurant. I ordered a chicken biryani, easily one of the better meals I’ve ever had an Indian restaurant. I suspect the trick involves adding large quantities of trans-fats and butter, but who cares? At the rate I’m eating naan and rice, I’m going to become either: a) tired of Indian food very soon, or; b) a fatticus.

Also, they have Masai valets here. I’m not sure if this is common in other parts of the country, but around here, there are Masai tribesmen (you know, those guys from Kenya with staffs who are tall and good at hunting) outside all of the stores and restaurants. They wear traditional robes and carry staffs, and they help patrons to park their cars and find taxis. When we came out of the restaurant last night, we saw three Masai crouching in a copse of the trees across the street. One of them came over and called us a taxi, presumably so he could get his cut. I think the valet system is a great idea, but it’s strange that these guys are all from one ethnic group, especially one from so far away. Apparently the Masai have a reputation for honesty (supposedly, they can’t lie) so people like to hire them.

I’ve also been hunting for a Swahili teacher so I can improve my skillz. Rosetta Stone has been quite helpful, but I think a teacher could teach me some local expressions so I can blend in better. Blend in better for a redhead, that is.

Friday, 15 May 2009


Jambo! Welcome to my blog.

I started this blog to write about my experiences this summer in East Africa. I managed to land a really exciting summer gig with TechnoServe, an organization that runs grassroots development programs throughout the world. I'll be working in TechnoServe's Tanzanian office, where I'll be trying to help small farmers in the local cotton sector. (More details on that when I actually get started). Of course, I won't be blogging just about work. I'm going to try to get to see as much of Tanzania and the surrounding countries as I can, learn some Swahili, and have some interesting adventures. I'm hoping I can squeeze in a safari, Kenya trip, or gorilla-tracking expedition at some point. I'm incredibly excited about the whole affair! The current plan is to post my thoughts on the ol' interweb every couple of days so you can share the fun with me.

I guess this is actually take two of my travel-blogging career. Last summer, I blogged pretty regularly about a three-month overland trip I made across Central Asia, the Southern Caucasus and Europe -- Before I left, I wasn't sure I'd have the patience to keep the blog going. But it turns out blogging is a pretty good option when you're stuck in northern Tajikistan for a few days! This summer might be more hectic, but I won't let that stop me.

I'm leaving from Boston tomorrow morning, getting to Dar on Sunday, and starting work on Monday (Tanzanian time). That means it's T-2 days, y'all.

Feel free to share with friends, post comments, or anything else. Hope you enjoy!