Sunday, 7 June 2009

Cottoned on

[Kinda delayed post. This is the first time I've had internet since Thursday, but here goes...]

Businesspeople talk about doing things 80/20. Right now, I'm 20% blogging, 80% swatting the swarms of mosquitos in my room in Musoma. I believe this is probably because the holes in the window screens are large enough to accomodate a small bird. Statistically, my chance of contracting malaria tonight is quite high, but I'm not too worried. As John and the lovely Steph will recall, we managed to emerge disease-free from a night in a mosquito-infested hostel in Brazil... during a dengue fever epidemic. If I can get through that, malaria should be no biggie, right?

But back to the blogging... I started the week off in Bunda, a small town where everything happens at one (hectic) intersection. There's isn't much to the place, but it's very beautiful since it's at the foot of a huge boulder-mountain. Actually, it's less like a mountain and more like a giant pile of boulders (some at least 20' in size) with trees growing on it. Distant memories from Grade 9 geography tell me that the rock formations are gracier-formed.

I stayed at a place called the "Spice Rite Hotel." Yeah, the name doesn't make sense to me either. The ol' Spice Rite is actually a pretty happening place. I was using the dining room as an office earlier in the week and ran into some funny characters. Among them: five septagenarian Baptist preachers from the Southern US who speak perfect Swahili, some morning beer drinkers, and a loud-voiced East African Parliament representative who talked our ears off about Tanzanian electoral policy. I also had some food that was decidedly not foreigner-friendly: mchemsho, a sort of groundnut and chicken-liver soup with goat peppers. It really looked disgusting but turned out to be pretty decent, and it reminded me of Ecuadorian food for some reason. Perhaps it was the spice.

I've spent the better part of the past few days in the areas where they grow cotton, or dhahabu nyeupe (white gold), as they call it here. One of my colleagues spends most of his time working directly with the farmers, so I joined him on one of his back-country trips. I went with him to learn how cotton farming works and to conduct a bunch of interviews for my summer work. I've had some good experiences in the villages (I've gone to seven so far, with more to come). The villages (vijiji, lit. 'little towns') are much smaller and more compact than the Wolof and Pulaar villages I spent time at in Senegal -- I'd say that 150-400 people is a typical size here. The town layout is pretty similar in the places I've gone: small village center / office of the ruling political party with a village meeting place, one or two small stalls, lots of small mud-brick homes, and outhouses. Even in cotton country, most houses plant cassava, maize or millet, or raise goats and chickens. Almost none of the villagers have cars, but people ride two or three at a time on rickety bicycles.

The villagers, for the most part, have treated me with a lot of respect. Most of the youth (and even some people my age) greeted me with shikamoo, a greeting normally reserved for older or well-respected people. Each time we attended a town meeting (usually held under a large tree), the village leaders offered me the nicest, tallest chairs to sit on. The first time it happened, I felt awkward and sat on the ground instead, but I think it offended people. After that, I gave in and took the nice chair when I was offered. One of the farmers invited us to his homestead to have a traditional lunch, which was fun. The appetizer was a giant dish of boiled groundnuts that tasted like chickpeas. The main dish was roasted whole chicken (I got extra liver bits -- yay) and ugali. There were definitely some people who laughed at me or were disrespectful, but they were mostly groups of kids who seemed interested by the novelty of a white guy walking around their village. The couple of times they got out of hand, one of the adults chased them away with a switch. Haha!

Today, we met up with some government officials who were filming a sort of reality TV show about life in the cotton fields and the correct cotton-picking method. I picked some cotton, which was fun for, oh, a minute. It's actually pretty fascinating how the plant opens up and already has the fibers fully formed in the cotton boll (which looks oddly like a cotton ball, but still has the seeds in it). Hands-on agricultural experience for the summer: check! Me with some of the villagers in Tegeruka:

My evenings have been relaxing and quiet. After a long day in the villages -- speaking Swahili, meeting new people, giving presentations -- I'm usually pretty exhausted. I've gotten in the routine of eating a light dinner around 8 pm, drinking a bottle of tonic water (quinine, y'all!) and reading or watching DVDs. All very dignified and adult-like. I got through a collection of nine J.D. Salinger short stories the past week. At the rate I read back home, that would have taken me two-three months. I did have a disappointing incident with Lost this week, I'm sad to say. As I mentioned before, I'd really been looking forward to sinking my teeth into the incredible fourth season. Turns out, the disc titled "Lost: Season 4" should have been labelled "Lost: Season 4, excluding the last two thirds of the season." The stupid disc only had 8 episodes on it... which left me stranded at the end of a cliffhanger episode. I have some choice words for the movie vendors back in Dar.

Up next: safari adventures in the Serengeti...

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