Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Bongo Series: Going To Moshi

Given all I had to accomplish in Bongoland, I kept a very tight schedule. Believe it on or not, once I landed in Dar from Iringa, I had to head out to Moshi the next day. Ouch! Nonetheless, someone had to do it.

Given my tight schedule, I had to make sure I had my ticket the day before my travel. Unfortunately, in reaching Ubungo main bus terminal, all the ticket windows were closed. I learned that the terminal leadership instituted strict rules regarding the operation hours of ticket vendors and other activity in the terminal.

Despite the terminal being closed, there were plenty of hustlers trying to dupe me into committing to this and that bus service. I really never studied how the entire bus operation goes in Tanzania, but I got a sense that there are plenty of players in the game looking for a piece of the action. So it is not a surprise to find unofficial salespersons that live on commission.

The worst part is how they would push by providing aggressive suggestions on the quality of the bus service, including departure time and arrival times. None of which were true. I just decided to settle for coming early the next day, when true ticket salespersons were available.

I don’t even recall the name of the bus, but it must have been Kilimanjaro something. For the fare, speed and the “free” sodas and cookies, I couldn’t have enjoyed the ride to Moshi even more.

Just on a personal note, I was going to Moshi to visit my father-in-law. I could have gone to visit him anyways, but this visit was a bit emotional for me, as my mother-in-law had passed on early in March.

Was there anything interesting on the way? Let me see…there was this cashew nuts vendor who boarded the bus in Chalinze. Well, I thought the guy was going all the way to Moshi, only to disembark at one small village along the road. I couldn’t help but wonder, how was the guy going to get back to Chalinze (if that is his base), board another bus?

Again, I have never been into roasted cashew nut vending business. Man, there are so many things in life to learn.

The kicker for me on this trip? Kuchimba dawa. There are some traveling “traditions” that you would think are long gone. Boy, was I wrong! Just as we were somewhere in Tanga region, someone got “squeezed” (what is the proper English translation for “kubanwa”?). As usual, the driver pulled over by the road side and made the usual “kuchimba dawa” announcement.

Well, folks obliged.

Quite naturally, I took advantage, along other passengers, to relieve myself. Of course I wondered why this tradition has not died, but as I watered my plants, I also pondered over the idea of whether this was pollution, fertilization or straight up indecent exposure….

I guess I will never know, as I can’t go back and identified my “dawa” which I “chimbered”. And on the indecent exposure part, I think I can rule that out. Man, the whole bus was doing it. Can’t the fact that “everybody” was doing it be an excuse in the court of law?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Bongo Series: The Cell Phone Effect

Life in Tanzania is full of inconveniences. Inconveniences, in this context, are purely from a western perspective. Let me give you an example. For the many years I have been in the United States, I have not warmed water on a stove; pour it on a bucket to take a shower. Well, while that could be a hustle if you are not used to it, it is all fine. Nobody has died in Tanzania for taking a bath from a bucket.

Despite getting used to the reality as it is, I am convinced that Tanzanians like little conveniences that technology could bring. One of them is cell phones.

Remember the story of a tractor driver who pulled up his tractor in the middle of the road? Well, the dude could have violated many traffic rules, but one thing is for sure. He was able to get whatever information he wanted instantly. I don’t know where the guy was going, but try to imagine this: what is the guy was going to pick up a load, only to find out that the owner had left two hours ago? Can you see the amount of gasoline the tractor’s owner could have burned for nothing?

So while in Iringa, this is what I encountered. We had hired a taxi to drop my host and I home. As I was leaving for Dar the next day, my host informed the taxi driver that we would like to enjoy his services the next day. What ensued were the negotiation of the taxi fare and an exchange of phone numbers. The cab was to come pick me up the next day. Deal closed.

As I watched my host interact with the taxi driver, I knew cell phones have transformed the way people live in Tanzania forever. What if the taxi driver didn’t have a cell phone? Were we supposed to walk all the way to the city center and bring back a cab to carry my luggage early in the morning?

In some ways, I am glad TTCL was horrible in offering landline services. Otherwise, Vodacom, Celtel and the entire gang wouldn’t have much to sell. Viva...err…whoever invented cell phones and brought them to Tanzania!

Photo credit: Food For Thought

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Paul Kagame: Relevant Than Mandela?

My promise to bring you my experience in Bongo still stands, but I thought of sharing my reflections on Paul Kagame. I will tell you why in a minute.

My job requires traveling. As such, I get a privilege of reading news for “free”. I still don’t know why most hotels in the US have chosen US Today as their favorite newspaper, but I do enjoy a “free” reading anyways. So I just happened to pick my copy of the paper today and guess what was the main headline? “American finding purpose in hopes for Africa’s future”.

You can also find the electronic version right here.

The story has so many angles, but what caught my attention a quote from Rick Warren, the author of The Purpose Drive Life book and a pastor of the Saddleback Church, based in California. This is what he said about Paul Kagame: “He is going to be more important to Africa than (Nelson) Mandela…He's the George Washington of Africa. I don't state that lightly."

That is a statement that the entire African continent shouldn’t take lightly either.

In his own words, quoted from the US Today newspaper, Paul Kagame has described himself as a purpose driven man. But is he?

I have relatives who do business in Tanzania. In my recent visit to Tanzania, I had a chance to chat with them. Their extensive travel experience has afforded them an opportunity to visit Rwanda. In a nutshell, they were amazed at how Rwanda has progressed in a short-time, despite all the negative experiences that the country encountered in early 1990s.

I was unaware of this, but the current trend for the haves in Tanzania is to shop in South Africa. Well, my relatives told me at the speed at which Rwanda is transforming their country, Tanzania international shoppers will change direction heading west of the boarder. They were certain of that. And that could be what Rick Warren has seen.

I didn’t interview Rick Warren to understand why he views Paul Kagame as potentially more relevant to the African continent in comparison to Nelson Mandela. Nevertheless, I’m convinced I have enough understanding of the role Mandela played to get Pastor Warren’s viewpoint.

In so many ways, Nelson Mandela’s fight wasn’t a fight about internal forces (though he had to overcome internal struggles). His victory was over external, visible forces. His victory was over the apartheid system that was imposed on the black South Africans. He provided a model for resiliency. He provided a model for the power of having a vision and a dream. Mandela provided inspiration and the possibilities of victory even in the most difficult situations. He inspired folks beyond South Africa.

Nevertheless, Mandela’s victory over apartheid did not stop the emergence of dictatorial tendencies from Robert Mugabe, just in the neighborhood of Mandela. Mandela’s victory over apartheid did not provide answers to electoral problems in Kenya or atrocities in Sudan. In a nutshell, Mandela’s victory over apartheid did not do much to challenge or change Africa’s self-destruction.

Briefly stated, Mandela’s victory over apartheid just didn’t bring with it a new model for economic and social progress in Africa.

It is due to the failure of Nelson Mandela’s story to propel the creation of a new Africa that Paul Kagame could become a champion of a new Africa. I have always been of an opinion that in order for Africa to change, there must be a sense of personal responsibility and a paradigm change. I have always brought forth arguments on this space that white folks are not intellectually superior to any folks of the Negroid origin. It is just the western world has embraced certain development principles, both on a personal and national level.

Given lack of evidence that Rwanda has received more donors’ funds than other African countries, Paul Kagame must be doing something different.

I’m certain he has realized that certain principles, particularly development principles, are beyond culture, religion, history, time and space. I am sure he has realized that talking about potential is one thing, but realizing that potential is another. I am sure Paul Kagame has realized that the color of one’s skin, while has historically been relevant to certain experiences, does not stop one from building a brand new future.

Surely, Mandela has his place in the African history, but it would be nice to have a new direction for Africa. I just can’t wait for the day Paul Kagame will prove Rick Warren’s prophecy to be true. I can’t wait for the day that Paul Kagame will write a new chapter in the history of the African continent.

And why not? The guy has already built a country from ashes, while Mugabe has destroyed Zimbabwe.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Bongo Series: The Iringa Experience

One of the things that I found out about going home for vacation is that time is never enough. You always get a feeling that scheduling is difficult, especially when you have so much to do. Just for the records, I am not from Iringa, but my vacation involved visiting Iringa for some personal business.

The best part about this trip was that it was my first to Iringa. Given my relatively extensive travel, I didn’t have any jitters we typically get when travelling to a whole new place, instead I was excited. I wanted to see the town that Mjengwa calls his work station. I wanted to see all those high mountains folks talk about. I wanted to experience the chilly temperatures that some complain about…

The trip to Iringa was uneventful. I boarded Scandinavian bus. When I asked around for the best bus service, I was given a host of possibilities. For some reasons, some were knocking Scandinavian as outdated. If you ask me, I would still recommend Scandinavian. Despite their fleet being “old”, their drivers are actually very careful and cautious on the road. The driver of our bus to Iringa did not overtake any vehicle in front unless he had a clear view.

That gave me comfort and a reason to relax.

The care exercised by Scandinavian bus drivers, as I found out, is what irks some passengers. I mean, can you believe that some passengers actually incite drivers to speed up? Well, maybe I am old fashioned, but I’d rather get wherever I am going safely than never at all. The rate of road fatalities in Tanzania probably proves my philosophical stand a wise one.

True to the “complaints”, Iringa happened to be chilly. Just to my personal delight, the mountain scenes are just beautiful. Folks, let the truth be told, Tanzania is just beautiful. Can I brag a little?

I have no idea where Iringa stands in terms of local economic performance. Regardless, I just felt the region has plenty of potential, if the region can fully capitalize on the natural resources endowed to her. I know that sounds like a political cliché, but I am just giving my take.

For all y’all who have never been to Iringa, Iringa is a mini-Mwanza sans the lake. I liked that about the town. The town has also the Dodoma feel, especially the occasional winds that sweep the dust off the ground to pedestrians’ faces. Other than that, it is just another third-world town, with the majority of the roads still lacking the durable tarmac coating.

I had an opportunity to visit Tumaini University. Given the size of most universities in America, the campus is relatively small. Nonetheless, I was impressed with the general environment of the campus. I have one question though. Why is it that Tanzanians like to create “panya roads” on grass grounds? I mean, here you have a beautiful campus, but with plenty of “panya roads”!

I can’t comprehend it. Personally, it just irks me.

One phenomenon that I observed is that many Tumaini students do not live on campus. Some rent houses close to campus. That to me was an investment opportunity. Given my experience in an American university, I understand how apartment developers make a killing. That is due to a steady demand of customers, with only limited supply. While Tumaini University offers dormitories, these dormitories are expensive and offer little in value compared to what students can get elsewhere. So how does a developer make a killing? Offer amenities that both TU dormitories and local houses cannot.
Well, there you go. I have given you useful information.

Just one thing before I let you go. Early in the day, my host and I were walking to the town center from the dwelling quarters. It just happened that there was a tractor coming our way, pulling a cart. The driver’s cell rang. The guy calmly stopped the tractor, switched the tractor’s engine off and started conversing with the other party.

There was absolutely nothing wrong with the guy stopping, switching off the tractor’s engine, and conversing with his caller, except for one minor detail. He stopped right in the middle of the road!
I am too westernized? I wondered and still wondering.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Bongo Series: The Reality

It is very easy for folks to regard you as a pretender when you first land in Dar. There are funny little things that you could do. Excluding this latest trip back home, I had gone to Tanzania in December of 2004 and my brother had come to pick me up from the airport. Knowing that I could not drive in Dar, I had slowly headed towards the “passengers” side. I didn’t realize what was happening, until I saw my brother’s wicked smile!

Please raise your mouse if you can relate. Sometimes, your brain just goes on auto drive. So this time around, I headed towards the true passengers’ side. I had learned my lesson in 2004!

On our way home, my brother-in-law, who came to pick me up from the airport slid a question to me: What tells that one has finally landed in Dar?

I had decided to enjoy my trip this time around. I learned that opening a critical eye all the time could spoil even moments that should be savored. But here I was, being asked to compare and contrast between my daily experiences in Columbus to that in Dar-es-Salaam. To keep the conversation going, I had to give my response.

Apart from the heat wave, Dar provided me with a sense of chaos. I don’t remember the last time I heard random honking in Columbus. Probably, I never will. Not only that, but there are subtle cultural differences that speaks a loud welcoming language. One of them is the recognition of personal space. While it is a “crime” to crowd another individual in Columbus, it isn’t so in Dar-es-Salaam. It is OK to breathe on the other person’s neck while standing in line for the immigration check-out. Did I also mention those askaris walking aimlessly at the airport with sticks or clubs?

Another cultural difference is a sense of casualness from “professionals”. I was amazed at how the immigration officers acted as if the passengers, and even they, had all day. I can never imagine any office in the States (even government offices in the States which are notorious for laxity) that could to the extent you see in Bongoland.

I don’t know what my brother-in-law thought of my comments, but I had to be honest. But again, this is a guy who got his first degree in Australia and his graduate degree in Sweden. I guess he had forgotten the difference between those countries and Bongoland after assimilation!

For me, there were mixed feelings once I stepped into the Dar open air. There was a sense of freedom and belongingness. On the other hand, there was a feeling of strangeness. I felt belonging because I was among people who truly know me. There was sense of pride, as I just landed in the very country that gave birth to me. On the other hand, anxiety crept in. I knew I was getting out of my daily routine I was used to in Columbus. I mean, as strange as it could sound, it is an adjustment going to the bathroom squatting as opposed to sitting and reading a magazine. It is an adjustment showering using a bucket as opposed to a shower!

On the way, we stopped at a “super market”. I know some people hate free-market economy in Tanzania (I couldn’t blame them, as bad implementation of a good idea typically results in a resented outcome). Nevertheless, the existence of a “super market” in Mtoni Kijichi, as opposed to “affluent” places like Oyster Bay speaks volume of the positives that free-market economy has come with. Obviously, I am ignoring the fact that the majority of the goods in this wonderful store are not made in Tanzania (we could talk about this some other time).
Of the things that I didn’t like about Dar-es-Salaam, traffic jams tops the list. For those in the Diaspora, try to imagine going less than 10 miles in 2 hours. I am not kidding, less than 10 miles in 2 hours. Yep.

This is not to make a comparison between my experience in the West to that in Dar (though I have no point of reference other than the West, really), but it is more for my fellow Tanzanians. I was sitting in this super slow traffic, I couldn’t help but wonder: What about a business person in Mbagala who relies on commuting to and from downtown? How many trips can they make in a day? The saddest part is that even employed folks get up at 5:00am just to make it work at 7:30am or 8:00am!

The worst part is that having your car or boarding a daladala does not make any difference. It is not a surprise, then, that many people opt for walking. I was amazed at a long line of pedestrians climbing the Mtoni Mtongani “hill”. I later learned that pedestrians actually beat cars in short distances.

As I sit in the ride home and mesmerizing at my first few hours in Dar, I just couldn’t help but let my mind do the wondering: Was I ready to enjoy the City where pedestrians go faster than cars?

Despite of all things I still had to discover, I knew one thing for sure: I was so craving for organic chicken or beef barbecue. Nyama choma anyone? Ain’t anything better than a really good nyama choma and a cold Coke (Sorry Jeff Msangi, I don’t drink that hard stuff).

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Bongo Series: On My Way Home

Going back home is always nerve wrecking. It could be because it breaks ones daily routine. For me, I was probably anxious because of all the things I had to do and places to go. But above all, I think the main reason for my anxiety was that I was equally excited.

The flight to Tanzania, from New York to Dubai was uneventful. Obviously, just boarding the plane - particularly the Emirates flight that I took, brings the reality of stepping into a different place. That is due to the fact that the majority of the passengers weren’t Caucasian, but mainly of Asian descent.

It was refreshing to see a few (I mean a few) of my fellow Bongolanders and Kenyans on the same flight. Nonetheless, I was turned off by the fact that some of them were acting as if they are 110% African-Americans. That really gets to me. It amazes me how a fellow Tanzania can meet you in the USA and look at you as if you aren’t here.

I mean, aren’t we have access to the same JC Penney, Macy’s, Marshalls and Wal-Mart? So why would one think that wearing buggy jeans and Nike sneakers make them any better or special? Could it be that the reason I don’t dress hip-hop is because of a personal choice and not otherwise?

In a nutshell, I saw a couple of those Tanzanian “kids” in the plane.

So let’s get to Dubai…

Nothing special happened there, except for plenty of airport workers who actually speak fluent Swahili.

Landing in Dar….

Nothing brings the reality of being home like landing at JNIA. For one, the whole idea of an international airport disappears. Though JNIA is all we have, it certainly feels like landing at an air field, especially if you have been through some true international airports.

It is not like this was my first trip home, but as I was checking out through immigration; I couldn’t help but notice a heavy stench coming from the toilets nearby. I know the answer already, but let me just ask this rhetoric question, why would one place stinking toilets close the immigration checkpoint?

After grabbing my bags, I headed to the customs area. I was actually impressed that no one asked me for a bribe! Honestly, one the things I expected were for someone to actually give me stupid runarounds for my few things. I was prepared to be patient though.

As I was about to hit the heat wave outside to meet my relatives after smoothly going through customs, a TRA guy stopped me. Amazingly, the guy asked for my passport. I had already gone through immigration and customs, so I was eagerly waiting to hear the reason for a tax guy to ask for my passport. Guess what the guy asked me? He wanted to know where my old passport was (as I used the new Tanzanian passports) and where I renewed my passport. I almost laughed.

Instead of being dramatic (as my relatives where eagerly looking and waiting for me), I calmly told the guy that I renewed my passport at the Tanzanian embassy in Washington, DC. As to where my old passport was, I kindly told him that it was somewhere in my luggage. But then I smoothly asked the guy to read my current passport carefully, I specifically drew his attention to the part where it reads that my passport was still valid for the next eight years!

If I were the old, unwise me, I could have slapped the guy. For one, I had already gone through immigration and customs, which means as a tax guy he had nothing to ask. Secondly, I had no time for senseless questions.

I didn’t ask the guy what he wanted, but I presumed he was looking for a loophole to pierce a hole in my wallet. I stepped out on the warm Dar-es-Salaam air to kiss and hug my loved ones; I couldn’t help but wonder how many of these senseless incidences my fellow Tanzanians go through on a daily basis.

And can you believe that the driver actually drove on the “wrong” side of the road going home?

Monday, July 07, 2008

Bongo Series: The Vacation Overview

In my last post I hinted that I was feeling burned out about this whole blogging thing. Unlike someone like Michuzi who could pull contents from his line of work, mine requires going an extra mile. Well, that extra kilometer sometimes tolls your mind.

I had to take a break.

However, I did also take a literal break. Where else could Bongolanders like me take a nice little vacation? ….You guessed it right.

So in the next few days…or weeks…I will open my diary for you. I will try to reflect on issues I saw firsthand.

Despite pressing family issues that I had to attend to, the vacation in Tanzania was wonderful. It opened my eyes to positive changes happening in Bongoland and negative things alike. Three weeks in Tanzania wasn’t adequate in my mind, but that time was enough to open my eyes.

So come along in the next few days....

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Condemning Mugabe: It Is About Principles

For a while I didn’t want to write. I didn’t want to think. Thinking drains, if you didn’t know. I just wanted to let the world go by. Besides, what I am accomplishing by blogging? That’s what I thought.

When something is your calling, it is hard to run away from it. You could find all the “logical” reasons to stop, but then when you see issues around you, something in you just burns…

I am back to this spot? I am not sure. I just thought I should something about this Mugabe thing.

Given the historical relationship between Africa and the West, I can understand why the African leaders failed to condemn Robert Mugabe. I can understand the sentiments that ordinary Africans are taught to hold against the West. I can understand the African leaders’ view, which equates condemning Mugabe to sacrificing a brother to fulfill the desires of the Western imperialists.

Nevertheless, if you take a grand view, ain’t there life and general principles that are beyond George W. Bush and Gordon Brown? I mean, ain’t some of those principles so precious that some countries like Tanzania have built their Constitution (e.g. All human are created equal) on? Aren’t those same and valuable principles that Mugabe has repeatedly violated?

So what exactly are the “unique” African principles that make Mugabe worth hugging and laughing with?

I knew African leaders were wimpy, but I never knew they could be wimpy to this horrible extent. I never knew they would actually have the audacity to sacrifice millions of helpless Zimbabweans for the sake of a useless crap like Mugabe.
Photo credit: Mroki