Thursday, November 30, 2006

Why Tanzanians don't like to have their photos taken

On the way back from the cultural tour last Saturday, a colleague tried to take a picture of a school yard full of children from the car. Chaos ensued. Children screamed, ran, ducked and covered, and the teacher clanged the school bell to try to restore calm.

We asked the driver why people don't like to have their picture taken. Here is his explanation:

"There are many Muslims in Tanzania, and sometimes they bomb the schools. The children are told to watch out for strangers because they are afraid of Al Qaeda since September 11."

Now, if you ask me, it is highly unlikely that Al Qaeda is going to think that some tiny primary school in the backwaters of Tanzania is a threat that must be eliminated. And people didn't like having their photos taken back when I was there in June 2001 either. But make of it what you will.

It reminded me a bit of when I was in Egypt earlier this year. Every time a tomb had been defaced in some way, the tour guides marked it down to Christian vandals. But just as likely it could have been Muslim fundamentalists many years ago, who believed people should not be represented in images. There are scapegoats and iconoclasts in all societies, I guess.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Cultural tourism. Bah.

I spent last week in a conference in Arusha, Tanzania, which explains my absence.

On Saturday I had a free day, and I decided I ought to get out and explore a bit. After all, Arusha is the heart of Africa's tourism country, and is the launching point for safaris to the Serengeti, the Ngorongoro Crater, and Mt. Kilimanjaro. Every morning I watched with envy as excited tourists from around the world headed off on what could be the trip of a lifetime.

And I know from experience just how great this place is - I spent two weeks travelling in Tanzania in 2001, and it was an unforgettable trip. If you can only ever go to one place in Africa, make it here.

I didn't want to spend a lot of money or time though, so I thought a walk around the lush hillsides of Mt. Meru would be perfect. The travel agent seemed completely confused by my wish to just walk around, and not actually visit anything (like the snake farm...) So the alternative given to me was a "Cultural tour" of the village on Mt. Meru, with some walking involved.

We set off at 8:30 and drove sloooowly towards Mt. Meru (even the chicken buses passed us). Stopped at a school, a church, heard about the plants. Then, after lurching up steep, pitted roads that were probably the worst I have ever been on (and that is really saying something) we ended up at the Momala Cultural Tourism Center. There, we were asked for another $20 for the privelege of taking a walk on the hillside. We balked at the high price, so instead paid $10 each for the normal tour.

The tour consisted of seeing their cows in the backyard, watching coffee being shelled and roasted, and seeing where they made the cheese. All this for the low price of $50, once you factor in transport. Grrr.

I realized then that I should never again let myself get suckered into these things. I already know a great deal about what village life in Africa is like, and these sanitized visits add nothing to my understanding. I was also a bit annoyed at the woman who ran the place, because she behaved like a caricature of an African woman. When we arrived, she hugged us all as if we were old friends - a handshake is more the norm here - and then when we left she pranced around the yard singing. It looked a bit like a money dance, really.

(That's not me in the picture, by the way. But she's roasting coffee)

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving!

There will be no turkey for me today, but I just wanted to wish everyone a very happy Thanksgiving Day from Arusha, Tanzania.

I am thanksful to be healthy, happy, and finally achieving some small measure of success in my career! I hope that everyone who reads this also has many things to be happy for.

Some pictures from our Thanksgiving celebration on Nov. 18th:

We had turkey, sweet potatoes, stuffing, mashed potatoes, continental vegetables (my family will understand), carrots, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce, brownies, key lime pie, and apple crisp. Yum!

Friday, November 17, 2006

Thanksgiving preparations

This year I will be in a workshop in Tanzania on Thanksgiving, so we are having our turkey dinner tomorrow, on Saturday.

You may be surprised to hear that we can find turkey here in Malawi. And it’s frozen, imported, plastic-wrapped turkey. We will even be having gelatinous cranberry sauce from a can. It doesn’t get more authentically American.

A friend offered to bring me a live turkey from the town he lives in, where they roam around free. I can imagine the poor turkey sitting in the backseat of a Landrover, terrified, on its way to its execution. In my experience (of which I have plenty now) freshly-killed poultry is a bit too tough. And they make your whole house smell of burned hair, because the feathers sticking to the bird after plucking need to be burned off. Needless to say, I declined the offer.

One of the nice things about Malawi is that you can get just about everything you need. It can be quite expensive (our 10-pound turkey cost us almost $25) but you rarely feel deprived of anything major. I’d love a good fresh chevre, and a carnitas burrito (maybe not together) but overall, I can’t complain.

By the way, in preparation for our first official to-do, we are having the living and dining-room painted today. The paint cost $65 dollars, whereas the labor is only about $15. That’s typical here, where labor is so undervalued. Still, I guess I’m not complaining about that either.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The dark side of the rains

It rained again yesterday afternoon, and it was lovely.

Until I got home.

Apparently, the side effect of the first rain is that all the termites come out like a swarm of locusts. When I got home my front doorstep was covered in dead termites, and once I got inside they were crawling all over the window screens, like zombies trying to get in.

My husband, who actually took a class on insects once (he even has a certificate on basic entomology or something) told me that the termites live in the ground during the dry season, then they all come out once the ground is saturated with water. Their wings are temporary, and the termites grow them just for this one special moment, when they get out of the ground to find a new place to live. Then they drop their big wings and settle down to find some wood to chew, presumably. So all the wings that I thought were attached to dead termites, were actually just evolutionary litter, and the very-much-alive termites are probably eating my house now.

But you have to take everything my husband says with a grain of salt. He once told me that Maple trees explode if their syrup isn't tapped. He heard it on NPR so he knew it was true.

We looked it up and he was right - it was on NPR. On April 1st.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

First rain of the season, and first blog as well

Shortly after waking up this morning, I heard a rumbling sound, as if the neighbors next door were gunning their truck engine again. But as it grew, and didn't stop, I realized that the very first rain of the season had finally arrived.

The radio said that this rain was actually a rain that should have come last October, but was late. They said that the October rains are normally lighter, and help the farmers to prepare the soils for the real rainy season, which begins in November or December. How they can tell that this particular rain is different from the "normal" rains, I have no idea. It all looks like water falling from the sky to me.

It is my 4th month in Malawi, and my 4th job in Africa. But this is my first blog. I figured it was finally time to start one, as even the head of UNHCR in Sudan has a blog. When a man twice my age, who could get in a lot more trouble for airing the details of his work, gets a MySpace account, then I know I'm behind the times.

Plus, I finally have a decent internet connection. Well, it's slow, and unpredictable, but at least it's not dial-up.

So now I am in my office. In a few moments I will be interviewing a potential new employee at the NGO (Non-Governmental Organization in foreign aid lingo) that I work at. But for now I am just enjoying the coolness of the air now that the rain has washed out the months of accumulated heat and dust. The red soil here soaks up the water like a sponge, and leaves the air filled with a metallic smell of iron.

I find it interesting that so many women in this country are anaemic due to a lack of iron in their diet, when the soil is so rich that it is red from the iron ore. There is a phenomenon known as geophagia, which commonly occurs during pregnancy, where women feel a compelling need to eat dirt. There is a theory that this occurs because the body knows it needs iron for the baby, so it drives women to pull big chunks of soil out of the ground and eat them, mostly in private, as this isn't really dinner-party sort of behavior, even in an African village. The irony is that the women then pick up intestinal worms from the soil they have eaten, and the worms then make them even more anaemic.

So there you have a clue as to my own work and interests here in the "Warm Heart of Africa".