Monday, August 25, 2008

Bongo Series: The Shirati Experience

Though Shirati is my home, I have only lived there for less than 25% of my entire life. Regardless, I find comfort in knowing that the very reason I got out is searching for life. Amazingly, I still have this deep sense of belongingness. How else could I consider the place where my late father rests?

That is where I have the fondest childhood memories. This is where the kids in the neighborhood (almost all related somehow) would gather to play games on a bright moonlit night. That is where I got whacking by any adult for breaking societal “rules”. This is where I still have the best memories of my old Sunday school choir singing. This is the place I whooped the entire Sunday school class in memorizing Psalms 23, winning a box of crayons.

Since I partly attended primary school in Shirati, this is where my mom used to wait for me on a school closing day (typically late May and November) to find out what position I held in class (not bragging, but I used to kick some major butts, which means thee number one position was almost guaranteed). This is where as I poor kid I used to go to the local market (Sayote) to help my mom sell whatever – onions, dried sardines, fruits, etc – to make ends meet.

This is where my heart still beats when I approach the town. In a nutshell, I have strong social and emotional ties to Shirati. That is where I still draw some of my life aspirations.

So what does a man do when he lays his eyes on his mom after a long time? Of course he can’t just help but to embrace her, hug her and let the tears of joy run down his cheek. How couldn’t I? This is the lady who has sacrificed everything for me. This is the lady who, when there was nothing else she could do, just turned to prayers. This is the lady who put structure, discipline, love, wisdom and character into my heart and mind.

Well, let me get you off my emotional side.

The best part of my experience in Shirati was meeting on of my brothers. I had not met the guy for roughly 14 years. We just happened to have different schedules and life situations for that entire time. In celebration, something had to go down. One my cousins sold me a goat for some serious barbeque. If felt like there was nothing better than sitting under a well shaded guava tree enjoying organic barbeque roast.

Or by the way, I was told that I had just missed the mangoes’ season. See, we have about four mangoes trees at our compound. Boy, when you hit the right season, you could actually sit under the tree and enjoy your day, if you know what I mean. Papayas don’t go out of season, but I guess they are the fruits folks like me take for granted. So I really didn’t get excited about papayas.

I am trying to ignore the countless chickens that were gone just to entertain me. This is one of the things about my culture: when guest arrives, especially if the guest is somehow regarded as special, they have to get a special treatment. That treatment includes chasing a “jogoo” around just for the guest. It is almost uncouth to reject the meal, regardless of the similar stops you had previously made. What can I say; it was definitely nice to be treated as a king.

Adding to my fun’s list, I went to the open market. The town holds an open market every Monday at Obwere. In the old days, great soccer games would be scheduled on that day. Unfortunately, Obwere lost its allure and great soccer games are played at Sota, a lakeshore town. I was told Sota has improved economically and teams get more gate collection playing there. In the old days, you would see folks biking home with full-length sugarcanes. I think the story goes that to impress a girl in those days all you had to do was to buy her very long uncut sugarcane. Maybe folks got sophisticated that the hook is now prepaid cell phone vouchers.

I was just glad the open market tradition has not died away.

Along with the good times, it was also easy to be heartbroken. That is because there were numerous monetary issues presented for my resolution. The saddest part is that I couldn’t solve everything. I am not rich by any means, but I can lead a decent life. When I saw folks you I attended school with struggling to put decent clothes on their children’s backs, I had to be very humbled. I know I had to study and work hard for what I have, but seriously, who wakes up in the morning resolving to be poor?

Before I left I had an opportunity to visit a piece of land that my father acquired over 50 years ago. As my dad passed on when I was only three years old, I never knew him. Standing on the very property that he acquired long before I was born helped me see what kind of a man he was. And that is more of a visionary. Hopefully, someday my boys would look back and think of me in those terms.

Regardless, Shirati is where my heart is.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Bongo Series: Cell Phone Effect...(2)

As I had mentioned in one of my previous posts, cell phones have transformed the way people communicated and conduct a myriad of affairs in Tanzania. In addition to ability of folks to arrange with cab drivers on pickup and drop-off times, there are plenty of many other ways.

I landed in Tarime from Nairobi around 6/7am in the morning. Surprisingly, some traders in the local market near the bus stand had already opened up their stalls. As I wanted to take with me some items that I presumed my mom wanted, I simply called Shirati and my sister gave me the shopping list!

As insignificant as that could sound to some, that is a major shift from the old ways. Seriously, I could have gone all the way to Shirati unaware of what my family needed. I found myself appreciating the availability of cell phones in Tanzania. And I am sure the experience is the same for most developing countries.

I later learned that even traders in the outlying areas like Shirati who typically buy wholesale items from Mwanza do not make a trip unless they have called and verified the availability of goods. In some cases, traders don’t even travel. They simply call in, place their order, and arrange for bus services to deliver. Talking about efficiency? I believe that is it.

Despite all the good cell phones have brought along, my mother thinks cell phones are evil. She claims cell phones have increased marital affairs. I kind of smiled at that and negated my mother’s premise.

I can understand where my mom is coming from. But her argument is similar to the argument that folks tend to make about money. For instance, some would argue that money turns folks into liquor heads. Well, my argument is that money elevates your true nature. If one has a charitable spirit, the more money they get, the more they give. Likewise, if a drunkard has no money, they won’t drink. The more money they get, the more money there is for drinking.

I could be flawed somewhere in there, but that’s what I see.

With regards to cell phones, I believe they don’t turn anyone into a player. I heard of underground stories about cheating husbands and wives in Shirati before cell phones hit the airwaves. In a nutshell, a sneak is a sneak, cell phone or no cell phone.

If there is any negative I see in cell phones, is that they have caused in a shift in priorities. I mean, you I saw see folks with a $300 handset, while struggling to buy vouchers. I guess some people find status symbols in strange places.

Did I mention the fact that Celtel, Tigo, Vodacom and Zantel are killing Tanzanians? Try “talking” on a $10 voucher and see….
Credit credit: Food For Thought

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Bongo Series: The Nairobi Connection

After my short stay in Arusha, I had to fulfill my schedule. Shirati was calling. When in Arusha or Moshi, the easiest way to reach Tarime/Musoma/Mwanza, believe it or not, is through Nairobi. Though passing through Kenya is a long distance, the paved road allows for a quicker trip. I had to follow the crowd.

Being unaware of which buses actually provide a better service, I had to allow my hosts to do the searching. I don’t recall the name of the bus, but I was promised this is one of the best buses on my intended safari. Man, I learned very quickly that quality of service is all subjective.

For one, I had no guaranteed seat. According to the ticket office clerk, the Arusha office could only figure out seat availability once the bus landed in Arusha from Dar. When the bus finally arrived in Arusha, I was given the very last seat at back end of the bus!

Why do I talk about my sitting allocation? The ride from Arusha to Namanga was the bumpiest ever! The bus was “sophisticated” with seatbelts and all (I guess the bus owners knew what passengers typically go through and providing seatbelts would ease the pain a bit), but I had to hang on to bars on the seat in front of me, otherwise I would have even crashed my unmentionables.

So I had just to figure out what my hosts meant by this bus being “great”. It meant it got to Mwanza faster, but not necessarily safely. Since a portion of the Arusha-Namanga road was dusty, I wish I had a mirror to see how much dust my eyelashes had collected by the time we got to Namanga.

Crossing the boarder was uneventful. I just felt that the immigration folks at Namanga were bored going through the same routine, probably night after night. They spend very little time looking at passports, even temporary travel documents. I couldn’t figure out why the Namanga area had so many Somalis.

I have to admit, the culture in Kenya is way different from that of Tanzania. I think Tanzanians exude this aura of gentleness, while Kenyans a bit rough on the edges. On our way to Nairobi after crossing the boarder, we got stopped by the Kenyans police at one checkpoint. One of the passengers had to go, so they went behind the bus to ease the pressure. Well, a female Kenyan police saw him and grabbed him for “polluting the environment”. I thought that was crazy, given that there are no rest areas, both on the Tanzanian and Kenyan side!

We had to spend additional ten minutes or so for the passenger to be rescued. Given the culture in Tanzania and Kenya, I am sure some currencies exchanged hands for the release of this poor passenger.

We got to Nairobi close to midnight. I was hungry and I wasn’t sure if the bus would stop anywhere for a late dinner, given a sense of urgency the driver and other bus operators were exhibiting all the time. Luckily, they stopped at a restaurant where the owner spoke very good Swahili and accepted both the Tanzania and Kenyan shillings.

Trust me, everything could be an experience. The restaurant was a “self-serve” type of joint. You pick what you want and you head to the counter to pay. No one was waiting tables. I picked what I wanted and headed to the cashier and I was surprised at the way the guy behind was shoving and pushing me, competing with to get the cashier’s attention. I had to ask why he wasn’t giving me my personal space, and he just gave me a puzzled look asking me in return, “we vipi, nimekubana wapi”?

It just hit me that I was looking at life through different lenses. Personal space? I felt embarrassed for demanding a personal space in a situation where it was OK to breathe on someone else’s neck.

We got back to the bus and headed towards Sirari. Upon reaching Nairobi, I was fortunate enough to secure a better seat. I don’t recall much on the way to Sirari as I was dosing off. I only woke up when the bus conductor made the “passport” announcement. I obliged, getting off the bus to face a chilly weather in Sirari.

At around five o’clock in the morning there were actually ladies selling porridge and tea at the boarder. I guess they have been there long enough to know that there are customers who would buy porridge that early in the morning. Honestly, I didn’t care for no porridge, I was just anxious to get to Tarime so that I could find my way to Shirati. Furthermore, I was just glad to cross over to the Tanzanian side, it just felt comforting to know I was in a place where I belonged.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Bongo Series: The Arusha Experience

After my short stay in Moshi, I headed to Arusha. I had never spent a night in Arusha so the idea was so exciting for me. We had private ride to Arusha, so we didn’t have the whole “kuchimba dawa” experience.

Before we left for Arusha, my cousin, who provided the ride for me, had to do some banking in Moshi. Trust me; banking in Tanzania could be a whole day affair. I know folks in Tanzania can’t do anything about it; I could not help but wonder how banking is insufficient and a bottleneck in doing business. Long lines weren’t only at the counter, but even at the ATM!

I know this is just shooting some breeze, but why in the world isn’t any bank; especially locally owned banks, try to differentiate themselves from the competition by opening more branches based on the population served? Unless the banks make more money through what seems to me as inefficiencies.

On the way, we stopped to do some “grocery shopping”. I know I sound like a mzungu, but man, you have no idea the last time I saw ladies selling green peppers, avocado, onions, etc on the roadside in buckets. So cut me some slack, would you? I just wished I was living on those grocery prices here in Columbus. Man, the savings alone would have been enough to make a mini millionaire. Imagine a bucketful of fresh, cheap organic avocados!

My apologies if I made you hungry.

I had to give it up to Arusha municipality. The city is not as clean as Moshi, but at the same token way cleaner than Dar-es-Salaam. I couldn’t help but notice that the city had plenty of street lights. Well, wenyeji informed me that the lights were not installed simply because the city was so much in love with the taxpayers; the street lights were installed to impress the Sullivan Summit attendees.


To me this street light story made me think of what I have been saying all along on this blog. It is very hard to make progress unless Tanzanians make a paradigm shift. While it is a good thing that the street lights remain behind for the benefit of Arusha residents, I believe it is wrong mentality to erect street lights simply because wageni are coming!

Seriously, when was the last time you heard the city of New York or Washington DC is erecting street lights to impress Jakaya Kikwete? These cities do what they do for the benefit of their residents, nothing more.

Will we ever come to the point of doing wonderful things with ourselves in mind? Don’t we deserve the best of things?

Despite all that, I just enjoyed watching my Maasai brothers stroll down the streets in their traditional attire. Sullivan Summit or not, the Maasais rock!

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Bongo Series: Gold In Dust

The bus ride to Moshi was uneventful. I must admit this, and this is not to pull for my “mashemeji”, Moshi is probably the cleanest city in the entire Tanzania. I am sure the municipality has found a way to defy what is typical of Tanzania – ineptitude and lack of accountability. I was impressed.

I was accommodated at my brother-in-law’s lodge. The co-owner of the lodge is my brother-in-law’s girlfriend, who is originally from Finland. Why do I bring the lodge story up? I will tell you in a minute.

The next very morning I headed to visit my father-in-law. A cousin of mine, who is working in Arusha, was kind enough to drive that morning and accompany me.

And back to the lodge thing.

I truly believe that having an international exposure is adequate to open one’s eyes. I found it interesting that this Finnish girl, who is a co-owner of the lodge, found a viable business idea only after visiting Tanzania as a student. For ethical reasons I can’t go into details about this couple’s business model, but in a nutshell, the lodge provides accommodation for tourists, volunteers, and students in a bed and breakfast type of a venture.

How do you they stand their ground? By providing a little better service in a smaller scale compared to what typical hotels or hostels in the Moshi provide. Obviously, they provide other services in extension to what they have.

I learned all this while having casual conversations with this mzungu girl. And given her “success” in Tanzania despite her citizenship, I had to ask about potential moneymaking opportunities in Tanzania.

This is what I gathered from the mzungu: The fact of the matter is that the majority of local folks in Moshi, where she drew her reference, are poor economically. As such, what really drives the Moshi’s (and Arusha for that matter) economy and brings easy liquidity is tourism.

Despite the fact that most Tanzanians in Moshi depend to mzungu’s money, tourists and even “expatriates” find the quality of service offered by most Tanzanian businesses to be poor. For instance, she frequents certain shops, despite higher prices compared to competitors, simply because she would get what she wants on a timely basis.

She advised that the best way to succeed in the Moshi/Arusha area is to take advantage of poor services offered by other business ventures. Not only that, position your antenna towards the mzungus, who happened to have a stronger purchasing power.

Was this mzungu extreme with her expectations? I don’t think so. I had an opportunity to converse with an indigenous Tanzania tour operator who also complained about the poor quality of service in Tanzania.

I hope someone will pay attention to this information. If not, I might jump on it myself. I never thought poor service in Tanzania could actually provide golden opportunities, but I guess “tembea uone” saying has a true practical meaning.