Sunday, March 7, 2010

Know when to say "no"

Tanzanians never say "no" to anything. They will never tell you that anything is not possible. Even a "yes" can simply mean "maybe." A Tanzanian  saying often used in lieu of a straight "no" is "inshallah" (god willing), which seems to be an African favorite in general.

Inshallah can mean anything from "this situation is really out of my control at this point, but I have done everything I can do to make it happen - and inshallah, it will" to "despite the fact that it is completely in my power to solve your problem, I have done nothing at all to help you, but god willing someone else will - or possibly God will grace you with a miracle and get it done so that you won't ask me again."

If s/he says nothing, smiles, and shakes his or her head "yes," then just pack up and go home. Whatever it is, it is definitely not happening and s/he hopes that you will leave soon so that s/he can stop smiling.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The dark of night...

I don't think I knew what darkness truly looked like, until last night.

We had spent the night at a colleague's house having dinner and drinks. Then we were supposed to take a taxi home, but a thunderstorm, with torrential rains, had begun outside. Taxis don't have 4 wheel drive in Kasulu. Also, the phone network often goes down in the middle of a sunny day - and always in the middle of a stormy night. Even if the taxi could have made it up the hill to us, we couldn't call one to try anyway. So, we decided to walk back to the compound - normally a 5 minute walk - and we thought we were prepared? Armed with headlamps, rain jackets and extra ponchos - we were looking fabulous, I am sure.

Around midnight in Kasulu, during a thunderstorm, the muddy streets were even more desolate than usual - and the cloud cover left no room for any moonlight. The rainjackets and ponchos made our field of vision even more narrow.

Every minute or so, there was a bolt of lightning that lit up the sky. Though it wasn't much help, as it never seemed to last long enough for our eyes to adjust to see what was in front of us. Even with the headlamps and lightning, it still felt like we were walking aimlessly around in a big and rainy black box.

We finally arrived at our gate and found that the guards at our compound had apparently locked it and left for the night. We don't have a key - and the phone network was down. I would like to thank the IRC guard in the adjoining compound for making this posting possible.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Congo and the status quo

I will not be able to understand what has gone on, what is going on, or what may happen in Congo by the time I leave Tanzania - possibly ever. Right now, the majority of refugees we work with here are Congolese, having fled generalized violence in southeastern Congo. Trying to understand the situation seems almost impossible, as the various group perpetrating the rampant violence change their group names, alliances, tactics, and locations seemingly daily.

Across Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania, the people are trying desperately to avoid the fate of all of its neighbors, including Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, even Mozambique - and most recently Kenya - each having experienced political and/or ethnic violence to some degree or another over the last 20 years. Preserving the status quo seems to be a fact of life here, something that Tanzanians are desperately trying to maintain for fear that change would only bring horrible consequences. 

When I was in Dar es Salaam, a young Tanzanian seminarian told me that if the ruling party has to go into some people's houses at night and kill some people, in order to sustain its grip on power here, that is better than many people being killed in many houses throughout Tanzania. 

At least the country is at peace?

One recent article on Congo, FYI, it is quite graphic, like every article related to Congo it seems...

Sunday, January 31, 2010


So, we finally got into camp this week. We received a slight reprieve from the Tanzanian government, who granted us temporary camp permits. Our time is up this coming Thursday, but fingers crossed that our hail mary pass - sending our country director to Dar es Salaam to talk to the government - will be blessed with success and we will have work permit exemptions in hand by the time our temporary permits expire, or at least soon thereafter.

I was in camp two days this past week, one day to observe my country director interviewing a refugee family looking to be resettled and another to conduct my own refugee interview. My observation interview was conducted in an approximately 8 x 10 ft room with high ceilings, a single fluorescent light, one operational plug, one laptop, one notebook, a table, five chairs, a bench and an open window.  I was in the room with my country director, a translator, and a family of ten from the Congo. The family of ten included a mother in her early 40s, looking closer to 50 years old, her three children from a previous marriage - including her two daughters, one in her teens and the other in her early twenties, and a son of about 13 years old - as well as the five year old son of the older daughter. Also there were the mother's second husband - the first was killed in Congo - and their daughter and three sons, all under the age of five.

There were a total of thirteen of us in that tiny room. It was difficult enough to try to keep track of who was who when I was in the room with them, so try to bear with my explanation.  First, on the other side of the room from the door, with his back to the open window, the father was seated on a chair holding his only daughter, who looked to be about two years old. The translator was also seated in a chair in front of the window, to the left of the father. To the right side of the father and his daughter, was the grandson of the mother - possibly about five years old. He was seated in the corner, on the end of the bench that was along the wall. To his right on the bench was the mother of the family. She was holding her youngest child - a pudgy baby boy less than six months old, sleeping soundly and wrapped in the original baby bjorn - a piece of brightly colored cloth. Next on the bench was her teenage daughter, the reason the family was there. She was brutally gang raped by a group of men in the camp and has barely spoken since. To her right was the mother and father's oldest son, who looked to be about four years old. He was seated next to the mother's teenage son from her previous marriage. On the end of the bench next to him was another of the mother and father's sons, approximately three years old. Lastly, seated on a chair in front of the door facing the window, was the mother of the little boy in the corner - the oldest daughter of the mother of the family. I was seated in a chair next to her and to my right was my country director. He was conducting the interview, typing the information given to him on his laptop.

I observed the gathering of the biodata on the family, which included confirming the names of each of the individuals listed on the application, their ethnicity, age, religion, place of birth, etc...While my country director was conducting this part of the interview, I was listening to the questions asked and observing the family. When they entered, only the baby was sleeping. The mother was holding her sleeping child while watching her husband explain their family composition to the translator. 

Soon, the mother and father's oldest son - about four years old and sandwiched in between his half brother and sister - began to yawn, struggled to keep his eyes open, but soon drifted off to sleep. The parents' two year old daughter began to yawn as well and shortly followed her brother's lead. The grandson in the corner was busy picking his nose, but shortly was bored of that and dozed off. 

The teenage son was keeping an eye on his two half-brothers and the tattered documents the family had brought with them. The teenage daughter made an attempt to leave the room before the interview even started, but was convinced to return to her seat on the bench. She spent most of the time muttering inaudibly to herself as she sat mainly staring at the ceiling. During the interview, I had thought that her behavior was just the result of being a spoiled teenager, until I was told what had happened to her in the camp. The two year old daughter woke up a bit later in the interview, but continued to drift between sleep and wakefulness while her older and younger brothers continued to sleep -  one in his mother's arms - and the other sitting against the wall on the bench, supported by his half-siblings on either side of him.

All of this was happening as the father was explaining who was who, how they were related, names, etc...Unlike many of the refugees, the father had been educated, making the job of collecting this data much easier.  Many of the refugees don't even know what decade they or their family members were born, never mind the year, month, or date.  However, knowing this information and being consistent is vital to their credibility - and therefore their ability to be resettled.

The family took a break after about two hours.  At that point, I left them and began my interview in another room.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Sights and Sounds of Kasulu

I felt that I might be sugar-coating Kasulu a bit too much. So, I wanted to let you know some of the daily occurences that aren't nearly as much fun as sunsets, green hills, and yummy pineapples...

First, there is a family - pretty sure it is extended (aunts, uncles, step half-sisters, etc...) - of rodents living in the ceiling of our house. The nest must be just above my bedroom. This family fights regularly (squealing noises that border on hissing are common), chasing each other around in the middle of the night.  I think that I have actually been able to differentiate their squealing from that of the seemingly hundreds of bats that live in the trees outside my windows.  If you are lucky, the cascading waterfall of rain off the roof from the incessant downpours might drown out the the family feuds and bats feeding.

As for the rest of the house, there are large carpenter ants that love the living room; a leaky toilet, a leaky sink, a leaky pipe and plenty of pools of water that appear overnight - or during rainstorms - from each; ripe avocados and mangos - crash like incoming rockets on the tin rooftops - when the crows of Kasulu aren't dancing what sounds like the can-can there instead.

Then throughout town, there is mud - and more mud. Mud that makes traveling on the roads like walking on ice covered in slippery, slushy snow - only the snow is mud. And it is shades of red, brown, and tan - depending on the length and type of the rain that day.

At the office, there is also a family of rodents in the ceiling - though they are usually quiet during the day. Then there have been locust attacks; wasp nests; mosquitoes that just won't quit; bees; spider webs with big, scary, "never seen that kind of spider before" kind of spiders; swarms of flies; and tiny ants that infest office bathroom seemingly determined to separate the sink from the wall.

Finally, there are the people - small town Tanzania loves Mazungu watching. Favorite sport of the people. They especially love to stare just inches from your face. There is no such thing as personal space here. They walk and stare, stand and stare, even bike or drive and stare - right in step with you.  They can stare for hours, I am sure. I would never even attempt to enter a staring contest with a villager from TZ. I don't even think they blink. The best was when a waiter at a restaurant here sat down at our table after he has served us our food - and proceeded to stare at us while we ate. Apparently he had nothing better to do with his time than to stare at two white girls eating rice and beans...fascinating stuff.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

New Year, New National Park

I may have to try to spend every New Year's Eve in a new national park somewhere in the world. Celebrating NYE in Gombe Stream National Park in northwestern Tanzania was definitely one of the best New Year's I have had yet. About 10 or 15 of us, from Tanzania, Europe and the U.S., were on the beach at Lake Tanganyika, next to a campfire, and under a full moon to ring in the new year.

We spent three hours that day traveling by lake taxi (looks like a large canoe) from the regional capital, Kigoma, to the park. The water was amazingly clear and clean, a stunning deep blue and green color. The hills around the lake were lovely and green as well. The occasional sailboat passing by completed the picturesque afternoon ride. Though the political discussion heated up on the boat (rising in volume and increasing in participation as it went on) about an hour from Gombe, it was an amazing journey overall.

New Year's Day Kelly (visiting from Dar es Salaam) and I went hiking up through Gombe's lush hillside forests to see the chimpanzees. We hiked uphill for maybe 15-30 minutes before one of the guides ahead of us called to our guide that he had spotted chimps up ahead. We reached them pretty quickly and spent about an hour or so watching them at work and play.

There was a community of about 30 of them in the trees above us, a few adults, along with some babies, just enjoying the morning. A few built nests they would sleep in that night. There were adults playing with the babies at different spots in the trees and some babies just nuzzled up next to their moms - though not usually for long.

Some of the little ones started playing with each other, chasing each other from one tree to another, grabbing branches and swinging here and there. Even when they missed a branch and we thought they were certainly tumbling too far down to save themselves, they would find something to grab onto at the last moment - and they would be at the top of the tree again in no time.

At times, they seemed just as intrigued with us, as we were with them. We got a few photos of some of them just staring straight at us from less than 50 ft away. One mother crossed our path maybe 10 feet in front of us. She was off to join the others in the trees, with a baby holding on to her - just along for the ride.

After spending some time with the chimps, we headed down the hillside a bit and back into the forest. It had rained while we were with the chimps (who are not fans of the rain and curled up into balls as the rain came down). The ground was wet, but not too muddy. It is amazing how much water the soil here seems to be able to hold on to, despite the amount and frequency of the rain at this time of year.

We followed a little trickle of water back to a gorgeous little waterfall, one of two in the park, where we enjoyed the cool spray of the water and the scenery, before heading back to the beach.

We headed out of Gombe the next morning, but not before a baboon came into where we were eating breakfast after checking us out through the window on the balcony. He easily grabbed the door handle and walked right in, without hesitation. Luckily, Kelly speaks Swahili and was able to yell to one of the employees who chased it away a few seconds later - though it seemed much longer.

Groups of baboons had run by our room and across our path to the main reception area the day before. However that was not as heart-racing as being trapped in a room with one, knowing they can be aggressive - and have no fear of humans, at least in Gombe.

We left shortly thereafter, taking another lake taxi back to Kigoma, having had our fill of adventure for one vacation.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas and a convoy...

So, we made it on the convoy to Burundi earlier this week. It was a much longer day than I had expected - not to mention tiring, even though all we did was sit in a vehicle for most of the day. We received a much needed stamp in our passport from the Burundian government, without having to pay for a visa though (score!). So, IF our work permits continue to be delayed we will at least have a cushion of time on our tourist visas.

It was quite a bumpy ride once we crossed into Burundi, which may explain our fatigue at the end of the day. We were jostled all over the place, with no operational seat belts to speak of, in the UNHCR Burundi vehicle we took from the Tanzanian border to the reception center in Mabanda - just a few miles away. The roads almost immediately took a turn for the worse as we crossed into Burundi. There were deep crevices in the dirt road, puddles that had yet to dry up from the rains, and a few scary steep cliffs we were driving on the edge of to avoid more bumps. We tried to focus on the view up and out over the misty green landscape, instead of down in the deep ravines. The view was a amazing, but the bumps and dips were a bit heart racing at points anyway though...

I was again surprised at the appearance of wealth in Tanzania, even after a short trip inside the Burundian border. Tanzania has always seemed to be so much wealthier than Mali. From the time I arrived in Dar, the difference between the two major cities in each country (Bamako and Dar es Salaam) was pretty stark - even aside from the obvious differences in landscape (Mali is land-locked and Tanzania has a huge ocean border, plus the island of Zanzibar).

However, I thought that coming out to a western, more rural area of TZ, I would see more people living like people in rural areas in Mali. I thought I would see a lot of decaying or collapsing mud houses with thatched roofs throughout the area, particularly during rainy season. Instead, I have seen a lot of construction of brick houses and preparation for paved roads. I saw more of what I anticipated I would see here in TZ in Burundi though. This could be because of the status that Kasulu has received because of its hosting of international relief organizations though. A lot of money has been poured into this area because of the ex-pat "traffic" here, which will most likely dry up as soon as the refugee camps are officially closed.

Even though Tanzania, thus far, has appeared infinitely wealthier than Mali - or even the sliver of Burundi that I saw this week, its per capita income is actually less than Mali ($442 in TZ compared with $470 in Mali Anyone have any thoughts on that?

In other news, Christmas has arrived and it is a lot wetter and louder than I had anticipated. There is a rather raucous thunderstorm that appears to be passing now, but it just might be laying low for a bit before gearing up for another round. We'll see...

Christmas Eve was spent here in Kasulu with an American, an Iraqi, and a 1/2 Iranian 1/2 Dutch colleague. We were laughing at how unlikely it would be for our countries to be sharing a meal together, never mind by choice - especially with Aljazeera English and CNN in the background. : )

It seems that prayer call from the mosque downtown has called the rain and thunder back...I just hope the roads (and runway) dry up enough before Kelly's arrival in Kigoma.

The rains continue, unabated, on Christmas Day in Kasulu. Merry Christmas!