•October 27, 2009 • Leave a Comment

As far as the journalistic practice of creating giant tabulations of “the best” things goes, Good Magazine’s list of “the most important, exciting, and innovative people, ideas, & projects making our world better (http://awesome.good.is/good100/good100.html) is actually ridiculously informative. More than half of the things on it I’ve never heard of, nor do they seem deliberately obscure or mostly trivial. Among the list of things I learned about: domestic microfinance, Passivhaus certification (a super-rigorous German form of LEED), the Center for Land Use Interpretation, and Google’s Project 10^100, for which, sadly, it is now too late to submit my idea of “putting dry cereal in one bowl and milk in a different bowl”.

But, since we can all tacitly acknowledge that good things are good, I would like to articulate an obscure unease that grips me whenever I encounter social entrepreneurship. There is something simultaneously very exciting but also rather obnoxious about “world-changers”. Three examples of what I mean: 1. idealist.org, 2. worldchanging.com (which is kind of an awesome website), 3. the above-mentioned Good Magazine.

I once read this book called Generations, written in 1991 by corporate consulting types / Capitol Hill advisors William Strauss & Neil Howe, that outlined an incredibly contrived and convoluted historical model of “generational cycles”, in which American history is divided into 4 sorts of generations, each with its own clearly apparent personality type and internal trajectory. These sorts are said to cycle over and over, leading to a theory of history that has a set pattern of resonances which is almost totally implausible but really fun to pretend is true. So for example, Generation X was sort of a late-20th century echo of the disaffected artsy expats of the Lost Generation (the Hemingway & Gertrude Stein crew), Baby Boomers have been a new iteration of Puritans, and people born between the years 1982 & 2003 are slated to become the new “Greatest Generation” (paradoxically both as great & greater??). This last one, the book predicts, will be a flock of kids who are explicitly concerned with engineering sweeping solutions to global problems — high-energy, practical, optimistic in the face of massive obstacles, and eager to build new types of institutions.

Sometimes I feel like books like this actually create what they purport to be describing, because this book is far from the only instance that today’s 20-somethings have been informed by politicians, college deans, and leaders of today like Strauss & Howe that they are on their way to becoming the “leaders of tomorrow”. So even though 18.5% of the leaders of tomorrow are starting their illustrious careers with chronic unemployment (http://www.bls.gov/news.release/youth.nr0.htm) maybe it shouldn’t be too surprising that Strauss & Howe’s personality diagnosis of certain kinds of people of my generation seems sorta kinda true, especially for something that was written when the oldest of us were only 9.

The idea of the social entrepreneur is now fully born. The social entrepreneur is someone who, to paraphrase Bunny Colvin, a character from The Wire, comes to do good and stays to do well. This sounds cynical, but it doesn’t have to be — there are people who want to do cool stuff who also want to lead lives that are somewhere in the general ballpark of “middle class”. Nothing is necessarily wrong with this. Much of the time, privilege is understood both as a sort of springboard for the moral imperative to do good works, and as a practical prerequisite for doing them effectively. In a world where “nonprofit” is apparently now a name for a career trajectory, where Social Justice & Peace Studies is an actual major you can get, and where the Peace Corps or other volunteerism looks awesome on a law school application, too much self-sacrifice in the pursuit of goals that are fundamentally other-oriented is perceived as pretty damn foolish.

And with the professionalization of “caring”, well-educated people of roughly our age bracket seem to have developed a sort of semi-ironic unofficial consensus about the notion of good. Good Magazine is Exhibit 1 of this attitude. Its tagline – “for people who give a damn” – posits a fundamental divide between people who do and do not care. What these 2 comprehensive groups do or do not care about is left to us to imagine. But this blank space contains a phantom – the thing that some people give a damn about, and others don’t, are things like locovorism, greywater, carbon sequestration, the reinvigoration of local community, benign techno-innovations, ecological footprints. The ironic undertone of Good as a title comes from an acknowledgement, via blatant simplification, that a class of incipient historically specific technical and social innovations cannot be comprehensively labeled “good” without it being partly silly.

But what gives Good Magazine’s marketing strategy its edge is its haha-but-no-really division of the world into those who care and those who do not. It is this self-congratulatory position of populist philanthropy that gives me a great deal of pause, that reaches far beyond the bounds of this one little publication.

Populist philanthropy is what I call (as of like 45 seconds ago) the idea that anyone can be of some benefit to everyone. Some DIY/open source enthusiasm + old-fashioned entrepreneurial spirit + an acute awareness of social and economic inequality = the belief that simple ideas and actions can transform complex situations. Example: the above-mentioned Project 10^100, to which 150,000 people submitted “ideas to change the world by helping as many people as possible”. For some reason I feel the need to appeal from authority: after spending a year and a half living and working in a devastated neighborhood in New Orleans with thousands and thousands of volunteers from colleges all over North America, I’m confident in my belief that this kind of thinking is not just a thing from the Internet, but is active in the real world.

I believe my vague discomfort comes from the ease with which this ethic converts a world of perceived haves and have-nots into a world of cares and care-nots. “Good” is equated with caring – or that creepily secularized expression, “being passionate” – about a socially transformative cause. To endure this double-classification, the middle-class citizen-activist finds a new way of positioning themselves at the top of a social hierarchy: the havers and the carers in one. Money and good intentions become the primary qualifications for personal virtue.

What this recipe means for our collective quality of life in the future remains completely unclear. It seems a little much to congratulate ourselves for being in a position to do good and – gasp – actually doing it. And especially so when the very people whose lives you hope to improve are potentially the same people you scorn as not giving a damn.


Now We Have Become the Teachers

•May 23, 2007 • 4 Comments

Bongoland is the street name for
Dar es Salaam – “land of brains”. Sounds like
Zion for zombies, but it just means you need brains to survive in a city where 3 million people are under the impression that there are resources for which they need to be competing. The bizarre irony of trying to find your life in a city like this is that despite all the amazing ingenuity of people doing all sorts of things to get some sort of livelihood, very few of those same people realize that compared to the villages they escaped from, committing themselves to the city life has only increased their chances of finding misery. Ingenuity and futility accompany each other everywhere. Thus, after 48 hours of continuous rain, the men with milk crates come out, hammer them apart, and try to sell the wooden sides to passersby, so they can use them to float across foot-deep puddles. Rastafarian artists sleep on the street – they can sing, dance, paint, and play 5 instruments, but mostly they practice the museless art, theft. Men sell sketchy firewater out of slum alleys to feed their children, whose ever-changing mystery ingredients have occasionally caused entire drinking parties to collectively drop dead. Nobody seems to want to get the hell out of here and go back to growing peanuts. I still can’t figure out why.


The second meaning of bongo can be “puzzle” – the city as a breeding ground for mystifying situations that cannot be understood just by getting more knowledge, but by learning to think differently, to think like the people who make those situations happen. The city is an invitation to upgrade the number of things you learn about life from 4 to maybe like 1,000. I decided I could go for at least 6.



Some of you may be wondering why I haven’t blogged in like 2 months. Well, bear with me as I pretend that I have an audience of more than like, 1 person, and say I have one fuck of an excuse for you!

In the past few weeks, I have narrowly escaped a face-stabbing, become homeless, lost $1,000 and not one but two cellular phones, been literally pursued Tom & Jerry-style by not one but two insane sluts, and slept in every sort of place ranging from Dar’s most notoriously unsafe slum, a condemned garage next to a chicken coop, a converted stable, the mansion of a 50-year-old German development expert working for the Ministry of Justice and his multinational cohort of supposedly Platonic girlfriends 30 years his juniors, a home belonging to the President’s sons, and of course, that time-tested impromptu sleeping location, a concrete lot inhabited only by starving cats. Time-tested for 5 hours. Result: no.

What the fuck is going on with my child?!!? you may be saying, completely forgetful of the fact that I am not, in fact, your child, or even related to you in any way. But your question is a reasonable one. Homeless in a third world city is not exactly how I saw my post-gradu — oh shit wait, yeah it is. Hmm! You too can achieve your dreams, kids.

The forthcoming entries will attempt to detail the completely retarded events of April 27th to whatever forsaken date today is. The beginning of April was in general pretty uneventful – nonstop rain, I got really tired of a whole lot of things, I had unprecedented access to nice food & internet for 3 weeks while the person from work in whose house I lived was on holiday, I started really missing home, and I just spent a lot of time online, reading books, and writing the equivalent of 3 15-page papers a week for my job. I beat myself up a little for having failed to conceal from myself my mounting irritation with many aspects of Tanzanian life, but I knew it was just another stage to go through, that my will to explore would soon come back to me.

Nevertheless, I came to realize in that time, during which I fell into the company of some fellow expats, that my strategy for living here was quite different from theirs. I knew only Africans, I ate only African food, I attempted very hard to enjoy the overwhelming futility of getting any basic endeavor of human life to go according to plan and even succeeded about 50% of the time, and, most unusually of all, I talked to Tanzanian strangers. Moreover, I was mystified by how anyone else’s experience could have been otherwise. By the time the expat club noticed my existence, I was already well past the point where I could have completely isolated myself from all local people and activities, as they had somehow done. My one attempt at bringing together the expats and the African street youth over dinner was the most colossal failure of social engineering since that one time I tried to switch personalities with a friend – nobody talked to each other, the Germans complained bitterly and with genuine rage about the 15-minute delay of their $10 sushi platters, and the penniless Tanzanians were utterly shamed and baffled by the concept of food, half of them getting up, announcing apropos of nothing, “We must go to purchase a fan,” and literally running away.

In other words, I pushed my luck on all available fronts. Considering the length of my stay here, it was only a matter of time before my general life philosophy of openness to the universe’s many clusterfucks violated some unspoken metaphysical mandate of common sense, and the cosmos decided to teach me a much-needed lesson. The lesson began on April 27th.


In completely unrelated news, today I discovered, on some guy’s literature blog of all places, that my dad has had a scientific phenomenon named after him. It is called the Yakobson Paradox, which sounds to me like the name of a made-for-TV action thriller starring Johnny Depp’s cousin and Mia Sorvino as two renegade flavor chemists on the run from Mia Sorvino’s maniacal ex-husband, played by Patrick Warburton, whose involvement with a top-secret government project has given him the power to reverse time. However, to maintain his power, he must constantly feast on the neural ganglia of innocent women, though once he reverses time, it is as if he never feasted on them at all.

In any case, please behold this link, which will explain the Yakobson Paradox in language a baby can understand, and by a baby, I of course mean a scoliotic Chinese nanophysicist who has spent 11 years calibrating a simulation engine that can recreate the tensional dynamics of a carbon filament subjected to seven different kinds of angular flexion.


See ya!!

I will Touch you, and I will Sully you

•April 1, 2007 • 4 Comments

I’d like to begin today’s disquisition on Africa and its Varied Peoples with an observation about Kiswahili. Often in man’s torturous path through history, language has been spoken. As a person, I have often studied language, and learned of its many words, badly. In my studies, I have made the following discoveries. In Spanish, leaving out a tilde over the “ñ” in “años” when saying, for instance, “I am 23
years old” will somehow magically yield the sentence “I have 23 anuses”. In Russian, an incorrect emphasis on the word for “cowards” will give you the word for “underwear”. In Hindi, a retroflex instead of a dental “d” when ordering lentils at a restaurant will cause you to order the abstract concept of a political party. With Kiswahili, however, we have a potentially very serious minefield: In 6 weeks, I have found not one but FOUR hugely embarrassing gaffes just waiting to happen:
1). “Kumi” means “10” whereas “kuma” means “cunt” – thus, when saying the price of something is “elfu kumi” (10,000), you can instead find yourself saying that the price is “1,000 cunts”. I’m pretty sure this is even more likely to happen after you’ve been sensitized to the possibility.
2). “Fua nguo” means “wash the clothes” & “vua nguo” means “undress”. This is why I do my own laundry.
3). “Kunywa” is “to drink” & “kunya” is “to shit”.
4). And finally, the possessive construction in the past & future tense. “Nilikuwa na mbwa” is “I used to have a dog” and “Nilikuwa mbwa” is “I was once a dog”. Thankfully my vocabulary is too limited to fully explore the ghastly possibilities of this one.

So basically, stay the hell away from this language, and not just because you’ll be obliged to utter things such as “wewe”, “sisi”, “bububu”, and “na nini nini”.

Last week my job sent me on my first field trip, a week-long excursion to Iringa. Iringa is a region in the southern highlands of Tanzania (there are 26 regions, like our 50 states – Dar is its own). The drive there is about 300 miles due southwest, and some of it occurs on a road. The rest of the drive takes place inside what is actually a vast prime-time Thursday night SUV commercial. You know how they have those great big 4×4’s leap gloriously from majestic promontories, lashed by mighty tides of churned earth, then land with all the terrible gravity of a thousand painfully masculine burdens upon some dessicated, primitive outcropping, chiseled chassis heaving like the magnificent final breath of some post-coital hill ogre, only to then, without missing a single beat, carve a ruinous automotive swath through a virginal panorama of desolation whose hostile wastes are clearly penetrable only by the unflappable car-cock of the Mazda B-Series?? Well, driving through the countryside of Africa is the situation in which that actually happens. The times when it’s not happening, you are inching your SUV along winding mountain paths so forsaken that I was immediately reminded of Frodo Baggins’s approach to Mordor.

In fact, the resemblance of this part of the country to the domain of some malevolent earth-spirit is astounding. It rains 8 months out of the year, and there are constantly huge, black clouds so low-hanging that at times you will see a conference of thunderheads being held in some distant valley, weirdly stuck to the ground, like a piece of the sky got lost. Everything is mud, and you begin to realize the power of mud as a substance, the respect of which mud is deserving, and which we never give it because, at most, mud functions in our lives as the most temporary of blights, the most basic & mundane of possible pollutions. Here mud is king, and it will touch you and it will sully you, and after a while, you will feel thankful, as here mud is the mark of something which belongs, which has stopped indulging that comical presumption that the hard lines & precise colors of the clean and crafted world are the neutral environment from which all others are but deviations. When it rains, that huge emptiness of valleys fills with an incongruous din, and there is a terrible dissonance with how alone your eye tells you you must surely be, and the perpetual crash of rain on rock, which is loud enough that you can’t help but conjure some abstract something that surely must be there and you simply can’t hear it for the rain.

We traveled through such places, taking 5 hours to drive 50 miles. We encountered half a dozen lorries stuck in the mud, with 20 men from miles around having come to dig them out. We crept slowly through a waist-deep mud tunnel, a foot away from a giant drop into a vast green valley. The situation must have been dire even for this part of the world, because my 3 colleagues on the trip began getting out of the car and taking photographs on an hourly basis.

The impact of roads like this on the economy of the rural areas in Iringa is predictably not good. In Makete, the main town of the district bearing the same name, which was our first destination, the power goes out at least once a week on account of rain, and it takes 2 days for an electrician simply to arrive in town to fix the problem. So though the place has had electrical lines for probably 30 years or more, in practice it pretty much has no electricity.

Makete and its “neighboring” town (over 4 hours by car) Njombe are places of unbelievable bleakness. Crows circle over a few ragged lanes of tin-roofed shacks. In every direction, there is a huge panorama of valleys and mountains, with similar shacks here and there, white spots on a green carpet, like little mushrooms. Clouds brush over the treetops and move faster than I’ve ever seen clouds move before. When it rains, the rain beating against the ubiquitous tin sheeting produces a deafening racket, which led at one point to the most hilarious formal interview I’ve ever seen, with 3 people bellowing violently at the top of their lungs until we had to take a break because one of them lost his voice, and I couldn’t stop laughing. At night, the darkness is a kind which one simply cannot experience in any kind of suburb – there is simply no light anywhere, period. If you go outside, you can’t see your own hands. Inside, during the power outages that usually are in progress, we would walk around with oil lanterns dangling from our arms, and one night we got a coal burner and roasted maize, building a friendly little oasis of yellow light in that black and rainy pit high in the mountains.

All the buildings in Makete are covered with huge red X’s, one of Tanzania’s few immediately obvious manifestations of the sort of questionable governance that has made Africa what it is. The reason for the X’s is that the government is solving the just-described road problem by constructing a new road through the district, which is, unfortunately, slated to pass directly through the currently positioned cluster of shacks understood to be the central town. So, the town has to be “moved” – to make way for the road that is supposed to go there! In case your entire soul has just turned into a giant fucking question mark, I provide the following soothing information: the red X’s have been there for about 10 years, and the government has yet to actually do anything to improve the road situation, irrationally or otherwise. Any day, though, somebody could come to level the town and move it down the mountain. Perhaps the roads aren’t good enough for them to get there.

We spent 2 days in Makete interviewing a small NGO called Sumasesu, which sounds like a Kiswahili word, but in fact stands for “Support Makete to Self-Support”. Silly, but this is a pretty badass organization, as their headquarters are a shack with 4 staff members, and yet they somehow do outreach work in 20 villages, and are a pretty big presence in the community, which is saying something, since the very notion that this area has any serious human habitation is hard to believe. The purpose of the interviews was, in short, to evaluate the ability of the organization to implement its projects effectively, and to find out what kind of assistance they might need in doing so – but I’ll discuss my job in more detail in some future blog post. Accompanying me on this were 3 gentlemen, one from my workplace, and the other 2 from a local organization called TRACE, which is an NGO whose mission is to help other NGOs implement their missions. These folks were notable for being unbelievably awesome, and also for basically offering me a job. One of them, a South African Zulu, was an anti-apartheid activist, and has bullet scars to prove it, as well as fluency in 8 languages (say what you will about poverty this and lack of education that and all the usual business, but Africans almost as a rule are familiar with more languages than the rest of us can even name).

Our other destination in Iringa was a place known as Iringa town, which is a town of a little over 100,000, and inexplicably a pretty popular tourist place (I think it serves as a jumping-off point for some destination I never bothered to inquire into). It has over 100 NGOs, 3 universities, and miles of shantytown. The weather there is perpetually like the most idyllic spring day in North Carolina, which unfortunately feels like cryogenic containment to Tanzanians. There we interviewed Dhi Nureyn Islamic Foundation, a very impressive organization whose nationwide outreach efforts to youth on the issue of HIV/AIDS prevention are marred only by the tiny detail that they are a religious group, and thus believe that extramarital sex does not exist as long as Islam says so. Which interestingly is also why our organization is working with them, since the USAID money from the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief functions under the assumption that sex does not exist as long as conservative Christianity says so. USAID donors are the only ones these guys can work with. In case you’re wondering, Dhi Nureyn’s taking money from the U.S. has in fact pissed off almost every other local Muslim group. Sources say irony explosions have blasted several small craters in the Earth’s crust as of last Wednesday, and are hoping the United States government will not attribute them to al-Qa’eda.

Being in Iringa was also noteworthy for an outing to a pub during which I was approached by a fellow from New Zealand. Upon finding out I was from America, he expressed his deepest condolences, and announced that he had a friend with him who was from there as well, suggesting that we meet and bond over this tragic situation. Some time later, I find myself speaking to a girl from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, who has apparently been to Chapel Hill a good bit, and knows people at UNC’s St. A’s fraternity. It’s not long before words such as “Weaver Street” are uttered. I guess it’s not as weird as the time in India when I was looking for my Urdu professor’s old grad school advisor, and just before finding him in real life, found him in a copy of William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns…but still, it’s amazing how you can’t get away from home no matter where you go. I mean for real: Weaver Street. How can you respond to that other than drunken hugging??

Upon my return to Dar, I was overcome by the most horrible exhaustion I’ve ever felt, which lasted for a week, and as I’m sitting here on Sunday night, I’m hoping to god it’s finally over. I nearly actually fell asleep in the middle of a conversation, at work. I also met my very first fellow traveler with whom I’ve spoken for more than 5 minutes: She is from Norway, has lived in a shitload of places, and generally seems really awesome. We are going to start up an adventure exchange program, as I know only Tanzanians, and she knows only people from weird-ass places like Norway, which has led us to have quite different lives here despite being just a few minutes from each other.

Hope spring is treating everyone well. Later, hos!

Tan Lines, Prostitutes, & Proustian Injera

•March 15, 2007 • 2 Comments

Yeah, so umm, today I got a haircut and discovered I have a huge fucking tan-line straight across my forehead. Tee-hee – how embarrassing!

No but seriously, hello! It’s nice to be with you today on the Internet. Each night, I return to my spacious guest-house, & after my eyes adjust to the complete and total darkness which so often reigns there, I grope around to locate my computer, open it, claw the ants out from between the keys with my soiled, charred, malarial fingers, wring out the fetid dog-like sweat-lakes which have accumulated on my cadaverous and child-enervating frame & subsequently been sopped up by my plague-ridden & on fire polo shirt and/or tattered rags which I am wearing, and I collapse at once into the refreshing, almost sexual embrace of that amorphous glowing god, the Internet. Then10minuteslatertheInternetgoesdown, BUT IT IS TOO LATE – I HAVE ALREADY CHECKED YOUR AWAY MESSAGE!!!!! AND BOY WHAT AN AWAY MESSAGE IT WAS.

The past week, I’ve begun taking Kiswahili courses at the Russian Cultural Centre, a completely ridiculous place which is a martial arts dojo, ballet studio, music school, Russian-language library, & inexplicable hangout for small Indian children, who I’m pretty sure are there to study all 4 things at once. It looks totally out of place here, and the sudden faceful of matryoshka dolls, portraits of Pushkin, and little Slavic ladies playing piano in stuffy rooms full of Soviet books about African socialism is enough to make anyone completely addled, even if those things don’t remind them of chillin with their grandma when they were 5 & the world was puddle-wonderful. My job is paying for me to study there, which feels weird, because my personal opinion is that being given money to study a language is sort of like being given money to purchase several flour-sacks of crack cocaine, autographed by Axl Rose, bound by a red velvet cord beneath which is tucked a single tasteful card reading “For Professional Use Only.” And yet here we are. The class is attended by 2 old German ladies, and one old Romanian lady. They’ve been living here for 5 years, and still knew maybe half the Kiswahili that I’ve learned in 6 weeks. I was appalled, until I realized that most of their time here had been spent learning English, which they mastered from zero to perfect fluency. These old ladies are HARD CORE_ X.

A few days ago, my friend Kanyumbu, a Rastafarian agronomist (I never thought I’d be saying a sentence with even half these words in it), escaped from Tanzania. Kanyumbu is a Zambian, as I quickly learned when he first said words to me, I replied in Kiswahili, & his face promptly assumed the most despairing expression ever. He is also a member of the Tonga tribe, who are famous for an unusual phenomenon of genetic drift in which a sub-group of Tonga developed satyr-like feet with only two huge toes. I did not ask him about this, because I suck.
The experience of being black and language-less in Tanzania was clearly truly shittacular, as everyone of course assumed he was local. You could really sense the sudden suspicion and disappointment every time he failed to communicate. It was also really odd to meet an African tourist, in Africa, who was getting faceraped by mishaps at least 10 times as much as I was. In the brief five days that I hung out with him, he found himself embroiled in the following fiascos:

1. Having his passport & cell phone stolen after getting tipsy off 2 beers – then attempting to bribe the police into helping him recover it (the police here really don’t give a shit about ANYTHING other than devising clever methods to fleece bribes off people), only to discover that he had met the one police officer in Tanzania who firmly believes that attempting to bribe a police officer should be an arrestable offence. In the end, he may have been trying to extract some sort of meta-bribe that would allow the legal depositing of further sub-bribes, but we will never know, since Kanyumbu got the hell out of there before things got any more fucked.

2. Having a one-night stand with some random woman, who the next day tracked him down, informed him that she was actually a prostitute, and demanded an outrageous sum of money for the previous night’s sex work. When Kanyumbu told her that he didn’t even have enough money to feed himself more than once every two days, she reacted in the only way one can when prostitution is the only means of income generation they’ve got available: by calling her brother & telling him to please come and beat my friend’s ass. This entire scene took place right outside the building where I work – the woman screaming that she’d had her dignity stolen, the brother shouting bizarre accusations about how Kanyumbu didn’t deserve to have slept with his sister in the first place, everyone looking on in horror, and Kanyumbu trying to explain that, all the other potential objections to the whole situation aside, he simply couldn’t pay them. He managed to talk them out of an ass-kicking and into a trip to the police station – the same police station he’d run away from yesterday. There, he somehow managed to convince them that he would collect their payment by next week. Next week he would already be crammed upside-down into a Zambia-bound train with no food or water for 48 hours. Moral: I don’t know.

3. Nearly being arrested again because he had stayed in the country a few days after the formal expiration of his visa, on account of not having had the money to purchase a train ticket. I gave him the money to do this plus 5 liters of water for the 2- to 3-day journey.

In return for financing about 2 of his 16 misadventures, he gave me nearly everything he had on him: a bunch of Rastafarian paraphernalia (including the tooth of a lion, which I now wear around my neck), and 5 live mollusks, which he cryptically instructed me to “wash.” And then he was gone.

Tomorrow morning I am leaving Dar es Salaam for 8 days, first to travel to Zanzibar, and then to Iringa, which is a region 300 miles southwest of here (there are 26 regions in Tanzania, equivalent to our 50 states).

I’ve now been here a month. Today I ate at an Ethiopian restaurant, and it really made me think of Queen of Sheba and life in Chapel Hill. I was really taken off guard – I didn’t expect Ethiopian sponge-bread would ever serve as some kind of sentimental trigger.

I finally feel settled enough to really miss home…and to not want to go back.

Girls you better – watch out! Some guys are only – about! That thang, that thang…

•March 4, 2007 • 1 Comment

Hi friends,

It is increasingly difficult for me to find time to write things here, but I am proud of myself for having set aside this night to do just that. Life here contains more things in it than it ever has before. I’m noticing with increasing alarm that time for reflection is becoming an extreme luxury. Without time to actually narrate the events of life to myself in that distinct internal voice which perpetually translates for each of us even the most bizarre realities into something we can readily speak about, I begin to feel like a sort of empty vessel, frantically gathering fragmented bits of experience, and storing them away somewhere for much later, hoping very much that instead of just fading, they’ll undergo some magical synthesis, crystallizing forever into some amazing master structure. I can’t have total faith in that though – I’m still afraid that mostly we forget way too much for it to really work that way.

One of the most difficult things to get used to here is walking to places. I always use walking as almost a kind of sleep – I can think about things in exactly the way I want to when I’m putting one foot in front of the other, with the perfect mixture of process & repetition. Ideas will come and go without me ever making any sort of effort, like dreams, and when I’m done, I feel like I’ve worked through some sort of huge problem, even though I can rarely say what it is. It’s easier for me to walk than to not walk.

Here, however, I’ve had to say some serious farewells to all of that. The moment I set foot outside is the very moment when whatever private world I’ve painstakingly constructed for myself while brushing my teeth gets totally skullfucked. And all of this has to do with one simple fact: people here want to be BEFRIEND THE SHIT out of you.

I’m pretty sure the average Tanzanian spends 40% of their waking hours exchanging greetings. I have heard that among the Maasai, an exchange of how are yous can take upwards of 15-20 minutes. I’ve been told also that failing to greet your neighbors can sometimes be seen as an active signal of extreme enmity, and with the sort of population density we’re talking about here, there are a damn good lot of neighbors to not be extreme enemies with. Nearly 3 weeks into my stay, I am still hearing forms of greeting I’ve never before encountered. In one of the more bizarre linguistic developments I’ve ever seen, Kiswahili even features a special corrupted greeting form for white foreigners who are assumed not to comprehend what the “actual” system of greetings is; it’s sort of like if instead of teaching babies how to actually talk, we were like, “All right, fine – ‘thbpbbptt!!’ isn’t QUITE a word, but since it’s as close as you’ll ever come to one, we’ll just go ahead and stick it in the OED anyway…you dumb FUCKING baby!”

But yeah. My walk to work is exactly 7 minutes if I ignore everyone & offend people, which I’ve only done once for purely experimental purposes. If I do it normally, it can take well over half an hour – note that this is before 7 in the morning. I see the same 15 people about 4 times a day, and every time, it’s as if we haven’t seen each other in like a week. Once you get used to it, it’s pretty nice, but at least once daily, my craving for even one empty street to walk down in oblivious, introverted silence becomes an overwhelming physical lust.

My friend K. has been introducing me to all the neighborhood “thieves”, so I can walk around at night without fear of trouble. One of the thieves was burning a giant pile of fish on a huge bonfire, & had a bunch of bones through his face! The bones said to me, “I am not impressed by your pitiful attempts at assimilation”. Still, though, you know a place has got hospitality down to an artform when part of the agenda involves formal introductions to the people who will in future be trying to mug you.

The part of life here that has managed to coalesce into some semblance of routine has proven quite difficult. I have to cook all of my meals, which is made a significant strategic challenge by the fact that when the temperature outside reaches a certain level – which it does every day – the city institutes a policy of rolling blackouts, announced ominously on neighborhood-wide loudspeakers. This can mean no electricity for anywhere from 1-6 hours a day, usually at precisely dinnertime. The idea behind these seems to be that semi-predictable scheduled blackouts are slightly preferable to completely unexpected ones due to an overtaxed power grid. I love power outages, but when I haven’t eaten for 12 hours, my love for them swiftly transforms into more of a sexless marriage where we stare at each other icily across a long dining table, in the dark, scornfully gnawing on raw ziti. Since I have to be in bed as early as 10 pm to be halfway functional in this heat, over half of my meager spare time is spent finding, preparing, and eating food. I have learned to eat like a soldier, wolfing down gigantic bowls of pasta in under 10 minutes. Those of you who have ever had the misfortune of eating a meal with me know that this constitutes a pretty comprehensive self-transformation. This is not because I tried to learn this, but because my impatience with the cooking process causes me to eat about once a day, and by the time I finally scrape something together, my hunger has generally acquired an unmistakable spiritual dimension.

Other simple amenities, like hot water, are nonexistent. Only in the rich white foreigner ward of a third world city is it possible to live in a house with wireless Internet & no hot water.

Last weekend, I attempted to go grocery shopping African-style, bypassing the two local supermarkets, which have been putting me off a bit lately with their $8 boxes of imported Frosted Mini-Wheats already made spongy by tropical humidity, sweaty grey wads of “Irish cheddar”, trays of pre-cooked goat sausage invariably defrosted from the last blackout, and tiny tiny little breast-implant-like sacs of milk labeled LAC-NOR. This involved going to a place called Kariakoo Market, which is widely understood by all to be Dar es Salaam’s most charming inferno. My American boss has lived in Tanzania for 2 years, and went to Kariakoo Market once during his 2nd week here. He has never gone back.

Kariakoo is a place which vaguely resembles Hieronymous Bosch’s famous tryptich of the afterlife, except with slightly less trepanation. The area is so clearly beyond hope for anyone who doesn’t know what they’re doing that I am pretty sure it actually has an event horizon. Once you enter the perimeter of Kariakoo, your best bet is to discover that it is a wormhole which, after an initial period of identity-shattering disorientation, will eject you unharmed into a totally different quadrant of the universe. Because if it’s NOT that, tentative outsider observations hint that a distinctly horrible demise is the only possible alternative.

Getting to Kariakoo involves 2 1-hour dala-dala rides. Zooming over crater-sized potholes at 50 miles per hour with the feel-good Swahili hip-hop hits of the summer blaring from crackly beer-can radio speakers (one song is about being pressured to have sex, another is about not worrying!); Maasai warriors accidentally trying to sit on the top of your head; women breastfeeding two children at once while hanging out the open door; sweat dripping down into your eyes and across your lips, so fresh it’s like pure mineral water; huge clouds of road-dust obscuring everything in sight… By the time you’ve arrived, all the squealing, desperate, terrible, triumphant, murderous fermentation of intelligent biological existence has clogged every thought-channel. One time long ago, we looked out at an empty earth, and somehow carved everything we have from that cruel mystery. These deadly tin cans careening through slums blasting G-Unit translated into African languages are comically chaotic, but they are no joke; people weren’t fucking around when they built this infrastructure, this entire world, and there is only this, and then the void. To quote a very frequent exclamation from one of my regular companions here, “This is how we livin, men!”

Kariakoo itself is more of the same sort of dense desperation, except stationary. The market was once famous for being a center of the American slave trade (one of the few not in West Africa). Most of the produce is located inside a gigantic warehouse made of 90% rags and 10% tin. It is absolutely sweltering, and every square inch of ground is covered in commerce. There are potatoes, chillies, dozens of varieties of rice, raw fish baking in the hot sun, big tender mango pods with monstrous flies alighting on them, licking the blushing rind with their fat tongues, Chinese men with huge machetes running everywhere and shouting in Hindi, giant trolleys with tubs of fresh milk blundering precariously down pitch-black, cattle-clogged alleys, vast mountains of pulses from all over India, little dwarf-like vendors hawking eggs with the chickens that produced them still milling around, the shells crusted with what looks like bird excrement, exhausted-looking girls hacking at cassava root and frying out the cyanide on open flames, extremely muscular men who must nevertheless be in their 70s scrambling to stop  avalanches of bell peppers…

After totally losing my shit for like an hour, I got it together enough to haggle my way through a few extremely basic transactions. Somehow I found myself with a pound of rice, a bag with 24 eggs, and a 12-pound sack of potatoes & onions. Quickly I realized that I had to figure out a way to carry all this back out & get it through the two dala-dala rides back home. In retrospect, the entire trip was so ill-conceived it almost qualified as Dadaist performance art. The good news is, whatever horrors you’re imagining didn’t happen. The bad news is, I don’t know how to cook 30 potatoes.

So that’s how Africans get their groceries, and that’s how basic facts of life in Africa cause me to meditate on the nature of existence! Whee! Thank you!

The next few things – Meeting the Maasai people. The mystery of the Russian Cultural Centre. Tanzanite mining in Arusha. Rastas & migrant laborers. Tanzanian girls are weird & local gender relations are squirm-worthy. Life in the Swahili slum. Questioning the non-profit sector (a.k.a. what the hell I’m actually working on here). The bizarre mystery of the HIV pandemic. The perils of idealist humanism.

Attack of Everything in the World

•February 21, 2007 • 3 Comments

This weekend some things happened to me.

I was walking down Haile Selassie Rd., the main drag here in the European ghetto of Dar, when I encountered a fellow who calls himself “K.” Within 30 seconds of exchanging the innumerable array of habaris, nzuri sanas, mambo vipis, & karibus which are part of any self-respecting Tanzanian’s bottomless & tirelessly deployed arsenal of greetings, K. invited me to his home, announcing apropos of nothing really, “You must meet my father”.

Quickly I consulted my Western European Diffidence Checklist*:

1. Unsolicited gregariousness? Check.

2. Extreme income disparity? Check.

3. Unnerving lack of personal boundaries? Check.

4. Much greater knowledge of whereabouts? Uh, yeah!

247. Shrouded in a perpetual veil of spectral luminescence? Mmm…maybe…

248. Cthulhu? Nn..o…

249. Actually a gigantic void representing the fundamental emptiness of the Real? Not any more than anything else, haha, am i rite guys?!?!!?!

So of course, I said “Okay!”

To my relief, I discovered he lived about 3 minutes’ walk from me. With 105 degrees at 100% humidity, that makes 30 minutes of North Carolina walks. I could run away. I stepped into his home, a well-appointed edifice! Signs of affluence slowed my breathing to a classy pant. A picture of the Pope hung on the wall. There was a large TV showing American sitcoms. Children were smiling. The elderly were scowling, at me, until I said some Kiswahili stuff that I knew. It was gonna be cool.

So I sit around there for a bit, and meet his dad, a military colonel who looks EXACTLY like a black Christopher Walken, and is in addition the most well-dressed human being I have ever seen. I will allow myself 2 Africa generalizations per month in this blog. This is #2: Some people know how to wear colors you have never even seen before, & somehow look like that is precisely the only thing they could be wearing. All of them live in Tanzania.

So I sit around for a bit & chat with K. about his dream of going to an American business school & how currently he works in a car factory. Suddenly he proposes that we go downtown to visit his grandmother. So we all pile into their massive 4×4, & within 20 minutes, I find myself transported from an oceanfront paradise full of armed guards, electric fences, & dessicated expats, & into Magomeni ward, Ilala district – a sprawling tribal slum in the center of town. We head off to locate his grandmother. People are pointing & shouting “white!” at me. Friends, if you are hungry for attention, and you are also white, I urge you to come visit me in Dar es Salaam immediately. Please. Please get here soon.

And so then, I find myself surrounded by a huge throng of chanting Muslims, assembled on a prayer mat in a vast, rotting gazebo. K. had apparently neglected to mention one key detail about the purpose of our visit: his grandmother was dead, and this was her funeral.

By now I had walked through damn near the entire ward & acquainted myself with every human being on the premises. I will allow myself a third generalization, that will roll over into March. Tanzanians are an extremely welcoming people. You can get by entirely on knowing one word: “karibu”. That is pretty much all you will hear, all day, every day, every time you see anyone. It means “welcome” & they fucking mean that shit.

As I waited out the funeral, I sat on a dilapidated car with K.’s half-brother, Khamis. K. comes from what I think is a pretty strange family. Let me try to explain. His father & full siblings live here in Oyster Bay. They are very affluent Lutherans, & live pretty well even by our standards. They are close friends with Asha-Rose Megiro, who lives 3 houses away – that person is the Deputy Secretary-General of the UNITED NATIONS. I will “get to meet her” when she gets back from New York, apparently. Then, K.’s mother & her husband live in the Netherlands, and are both Muslims. They have at least 2 children. One of them is Khamis, who is 23 and a traditional healer who had never left his native village of Fuoni in Zanzibar until the day that I met him. He had not seen his dad since age 12. Another is this little guy who is like 6, who was born & raised in the Netherlands, & had also just arrived in Africa for the first time for this funeral. Everyone kept making fun of him for being Dutch.

Khamis explained to me for a long time how people live in Zanzibar, & how it was so different from everywhere else because nobody much cares about earning money. We talked about the radical changes that are affecting his village – how the more people see things like computers, expensive cars, TV programs, & “t-shirts with attitude”, the more they feel stupid & backward for not knowing about such things, & the more they want to acquire the wealth necessary to get them. He was resigned to globalization, & training to become a “European-style” medical doctor. But the lifestyle he described was really like something out of a slightly-too-ideological anthropology class: no private property, people eating mangos in the wild whenever they please…a community free of acquisitiveness for its own sake & perfectly content without “progress”, until the right fetishes are foisted upon them by the inevitable flows of media & capital. I wanted to shout, “Don’t you just want to kill some people?!?” but to my deep regret I’m just not the kind of person who can shout. Maybe later. This is my chance to get the answer to that, goddamnit!

So the funeral continued for many hours, and at the end there was a large meal of potentially toxic water (jury’s still out) & pulao, eaten with the hand of course. Giant jelly-like globs suddenly began raining on our food from above as we ate. Nobody seemed to understand that I really wanted to know what the fuck was going on. Apparently it was regurgitated parrot food – dropped, presumably, in the process of transmission to its young.

After this, though I was dehydrated & starving (I hadn’t eaten at all yet that day, & that had been hardly enough) and being pelted by endless greetings from every single person in Magomeni, K. decided this should only be the beginning of our adventure. He wanted to introduce me to Tanzanian beer. This required us to travel from Magomeni back north to the peninsula, & this time we weren’t gonna have a giant SUV. This could only mean one thing: the dala dala.

I imagine every foreigner who comes to Dar & experiences the dala dala is forever fucked in the face. I will try to be brief. The dala dala is a thing which is labeled “city bus”, even though it is actually the size of my mom’s Honda Passport. The name comes from back in the day when 1 Tanzanian shilling actually equalled $1, and it cost $2 to ride the dala dala – hence, “dollar dollar”. Now it costs a flat fee of $0.15 to anywhere in the city – no bargaining, no trouble, at least as far as money is concerned. Unfortunately, in every other regard, the dala dala is like something out of Twisted Metal 4 played in God Mode. There are set routes, but no set stops on the route. You flag one down by praying to God. There are 15 seats, and 50 people. There is no AC. You can’t see anything outside, because swarming piles of sweat-sauteed human flesh block the windows. You get off by somehow managing to communicate to the driver that you, the guy buried under 6 people way in the back, are pretty sure that you may or may not be in the general vicinity of where you wanted to go, judging by, I’m guessing, the smell?? I really don’t know. Then you scramble like hell over everyone in your way – grannies, children, the dead, the undead, the praying-for-death, children who have been spontaneously aged into grannies by being on the dala dala, & the Divine Intercession of Yahweh Himself come to bring mercy & justice to municipal transportation in east-central Africa. Because if you do not scramble like hell, then just as you are getting out the door (at which point you also have to manage to pay the guy who is blocking the door), the dala dala will begin to move, and you WILL DIE. Thanks to my friend’s skilled crowd negotiation skills, I managed to make my way to the very front seat, next to the driver. In the midst of this chaos, I suddenly notice that he is not paying any attention to the road & pointing frantically at my leg. I look down. Has it been amputated by flying car parts? No. My pen is slowly inching out of my pocket. Ladies and gentlemen, Tanzania.

So there you have it, the only way to get around Dar that won’t make me very broke very fast. I suppose I don’t have to point out that I love it.

We make it back to the neighborhood in one piece & head to a local dive. There, K. plies me with a liter of Castle Lager until I am even more dehydrated, & quite a bit more drunk than I ever get even around people I know in countries of which I am a citizen. 3 of his friends show up & identify themselves as China, Mike, and Big Rappa (there is a woman here whose legal first name is “Astronat” [sic], so that’s a thing). The first of these gentlemen greets me by saying, “Muthafucka, say ya prayaz!!”, a phrase he would return to throughout the evening. We get into a discussion about Biggie vs. Tupac. They prefer Tupac. NO WONDER THIS COUNTRY IS SO BACKWARD KZLDISLD!!!! For the next 4 hours, I am drunkenly attempting to learn how to play pool.

After this, K. insists that we go clubbing and “pick up chicks”. “You are here for 6 months?! You cannot make it for 6 months with no chicks!” is his take on my situation. He ONLY calls them “chicks”. He is very, very afraid, for some reason, that I will be “alone and thinking too much”, which happens to be a pretty decent articulation of my worst fear about life. I try to explain how I am not going to be picking up chicks in an African country with 9-10% HIV prevalence while simultaneously working for an NGO whose chief aim is to get young people in African countries with 9-10% HIV prevalence to stop picking up chicks. It is not an easy battle. I feel like giving a Power Point presentation complete with stem-and-leaf plots, clip art of admonishing hand gestures, and a breakdown by Personal, Sociological, & Medical reasons as to why his plan just ain’t gonna work for me. Instead, I promise to pick up chicks some other day when it’s not my 5th day on the continent. So I guess my question to you guys is – among many others – should I go with Bulleted List or 2-Column Text??

By now it’s about 11 o’clock. I left the house 12 hours ago, with the intention of coming back 1 hour later. I had barely eaten, and hadn’t had a drink of (verified-potable) water all day. I’d had a bunch of beers & soda on top of that. I didn’t feel too bad, but was slowly realizing that I should by all means have died of dehydration at about 6 o’clock. I was covered with dust & smelled like a poorly insulated truck of salami after a long detour in hell. The power was out, as it usually is about 6 hours a day. I took a frigid shower in pitch darkness. Then I woke up at 6 am and spent all day reading about community-based non-profits.

The end. Now get to sleep, goddamnit it, or no storytime tomorrow!

*full checklist available upon request.

Looking West

•February 16, 2007 • 1 Comment

Went to my first party IN AFRICA. Not bad for day 4, I suppose. The expat community here is huge, & say what you will about neglecting the locals for the comforting familiarity of English-speaking Caucasians, this group is probably even more diverse than all of eastern Africa. I met 5 United States Marines – one of them was wearing a shirt that said “PUSSY” & upon entering the premises, bellowed “LET’S GET FUCKED UP!!!!” I was delighted. Also met a South African hip-hop producer with the most beautiful accent I have ever heard. He owns a studio here & works with a musician who plays breath-powered vodka-bottle flutes & raps in French about debt relief. Yeah.

Also met a Norwegian radio journalist & another Norwegian ex-military scuba diver. He was drinking cider at the bar around the corner from my house & was assaulted because large South African men think cider means you are a homosexual. Also, it is impossible to tell when someone is Norwegian. Be very careful.

Finally, I met a girl who went to Duke. She said, “Oh, you’re from UNC, we were thinking of not letting you in [lololl]!” And then I was like, “slooaj” & then I died.

Then there was sangria & that Kelis song about milkshakes. Also, I was solicited by prostitutes.

I said no!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!