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.

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