Friday, January 25, 2008

Tabora Town: Kenya vs Tanzania, mosquito mania

Kenya: Chaos, an African perspective

The on-going political violence in Kenya has been on the front page of Tanzanian newspapers and on the tongues of the Tanzanian people. While waiting for a cobbler on the street to repair my Dansko sport clogs (all for 500 shillings – 50 cents!- and saving me the $110 of purchasing a new pair), I sat on a worn wooden bench with three older Tanzanian men. They were speaking animatedly in Kiswahili. I couldn’t understand all of what they were saying, but recognized enough to know that they were discussing Kibaki and Odinga’s strategies to end the conflict.

Today (my “lazy day”) I purchased English versions of two Tanzanian newspapers, The Citizen and The African and curled up in my sitting room wicker chair to read what they had to say about the situation in Kenya. The front page articles were quite opinionated, much more openly so than the western press coverage I have seen online (BBC and CNN).

Washington behind Kibaki’s arrogance,” proclaimed The African staff reporter.

The article proceeded to describe how US economic and political interests are pressuring the Kibaki camp to be more forceful in staying in power. A couple of professors at the university in Dar explain that Kibaki has been willing to give in to US interests of establishing a base there from which to monitor eastern and southern Africa’s “terrorist” activities. Apparently the US doesn’t like the fact that Raila Odinga (of the ODM party, the group in opposition to Kibaki’s government) has been building alliances with the Muslim communities in Kenya. Many folks in Kenya (except in the ruling Kikuyu, Embu and Meru tribes) generally see that as a good way to unite across tribal factions, which is one of the reasons Odinga has popular support.

From what I can tell, the Tanzanian papers have been criticizing Kibaki for inflaming violence, for not taking Odinga’s support seriously, and for not conceding to the popular vote – and at least a recount or revote. They view Odinga’s party as being more organized and more a representative of “the people.” They can’t see how the violence will resolve if Kibaki is stays in power.

Tanzania vs Kenya

I have often felt a subtle undercurrent of desperateness and restlessness in Kenya. Everyday folks have struck me as always trying to get on up, perhaps because of its long and deep history of wealthy wazungu (white people) colonizers. This subterranean anger manifests itself in all sorts of ways, and the current political conflict may reflect that.

On the whole, I’ve found Tanzania to be very different from Kenya, its Swahili-speaking neighbor. Royce and John think that it might be related to former Tanzanian president Nyerere’s principles of ujamaa, familyhood. Ujamaa was part of Nyerere’s African socialism and self-reliance: resettlement of rural households into centralized and collective villages. It brought different people together in a way that forced them to work with each other. Indeed, Nyerere, known here as Mwalimu (“Teacher”) and Baba wa Taifa (“Father of the Nation”), had the enormous task of pulling 129 different tribes out of the ruins of European colonization and uniting them into a cohesive African identity.

Sadly the policy turned out to be an economic disaster, as it left lots of fertile land unused and bred corruption probably like that I’ve seen in China. However, it served the function as nation-building- and folks here seem to some amount of access to education, clean water and health care. The literacy rate is over 90%. And people have less of the tribal and religious conflict I’ve seen in Kenya.

“We are very different here in Tanzania,” said Amos, one of the EGPAF officers and medical officers based here in Tabora. “Totally different from Kenya,” he emphasized.

Tanzanians are proud of this history, one in which people have learned to retain their tribal heritage but not become ruled by it; one in which people have seen the good that comes from collective hard work.

Mosquito Mania

I am putting 100% DEET on my hair and face at night. That’s BAD. The mosquitoes here in Tabora during the rainy season (as it is now) are numerous and aggressive. They have a strong will to suck my blood and make eggs and reproduce and suck my blood in increasingly exponential quantities. And they like my blood. I get huge welts as a result of bite, so you can imagine how ugly I get with 20 mosquito bites fighting for space on my legs.

All I have to say is: hurray for DEET, hurray for malaria prophylaxis!

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Tabora Town: going local

I am typing in my very own sitting room verandah in this small city’s only fancy hotel, the Orion Tabora. Outside are the intermingling sounds of people speaking Swahili at their bar, Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” (for the third time in the last hour), a man singing prayer at the nearest mosque, frogs, crickets, turtles munching on plumeria flowers, rain, and the crazy whooping and whistling of African gray mimic birds.

above: turtle munching plumeria flowers outside my front door

There are few barriers to life here: other peoples’ lives, nature, community. This is so unlike the isolated enclaves of the Coral Beach Hotel in Dar es Salaam and a world away from the bubbles in which most of us live in the US.

** a couple days later…

The Tabora Sound Band

The Tabora Sound Band has been rocking the Orion Hotel for the last three hours. They will likely play for three more hours – it’s midnight. My room is directly in back of their stage, so you can imagine that with their new ten-speaker system, it’s a bit loud. It’s a good thing they’re good musicians, and I like their style: lots of smooth Swahili singing and intricate guitar picking over a danceable bass. Very African, very fun.

Royce and I have cut a few tracks on their nice wooden parquet dance floor. Tanzanians dance very conservatively (at least among the older set): men dance with other men, women dance with other women, men and women don’t touch each other. It’s an interesting traditional-conservative + slightly homoerotic gathering. One night, a man grabbed Royce’s hand to come up to dance. I eventually joined them on my own (it would be scandalous for a man to invite me), along with four other of the men’s drunk friends. They are generally very respectful of me, keeping distance, until one mildly drunken moment of holding onto each others shoulders and singing together. I’m pretty sensitive to strangers’ touches, and only then did I feel a slight violation of personal space. On the whole, it’s a very tame scene.

Amazingly, I’ve been able to fall asleep while the Tabora Sound Band is still playing. I’ve been exhausted from my daily forays into the world of kitenge (colorful, patterned East African cloth) and tailor-made sewing projects. It’s a bit dangerous to put beautiful fabric and affordable tailoring into my hands. I’ve gotten the idea to make all sorts of craft-sewn items of my design; since I’ve always been limited by my lack of sewing machine skills, I can now hire tailors to make my designs for me. What luxury!

Arts ‘n’ crafts in rural Tanzania


a Tanzanian family’s home

Part of the fun is hunting for kitenge in the street market and bargaining in my recovering Kiswahili. The following comprises most of the Kiswahili I’ve regained so far besides “maji biridi” (water, cold):

Jambo, habari yako?

Nataka kitenge?

Ni bei gani?

Elfu tano mia tano? Ni gali sana!

Nitakupa shilingi elfu nne.

[Hello, how’s it going?

Do you have kitenge?

How much is it?

5,500? That’s too much!

I’ll give you 4,000 shillings.]

Yes, the vocabulary of a cheap market shopper. In the end, I don’t bargain hard (at least not like I do in China). They are a really good deal for me: 2 meters of gorgeous unique fabric for about 4 bucks. I have a sense of how much most folks pay on these fabrics, so I just ask for the general going rate.

above: detail from two kitenge fabrics and one kanga

So now a young woman named Petty is making a tunic dress and a skirt out of some funky purple and black fabric and an older man (whom Valerie knows as “the father of Omari”) is making a market bag (so I can accrue more fabrics, naturally) out of a deep turquoise and brown butterfly kitenge. Man, these kitenge and kanga designers are artistic geniuses!

Today I went to their homes in the national housing district by bicycle taxi.

above: Father of Omari with the butterfly kitenge and antique sewing machine from China!!

Now you may ask:

How in the world did I know whose houses to wander into?

And what is national housing?

National housing is apparently government-provided homes for Tanzanians who have served in the military or in public office at some point in their lives. I don’t know this for sure, but national housing might be a vestige of Nyerere’s socialist principles in ensuring that people have shelter, especially if they’ve served the country in some way. It seems to be very much a working class black African district: very basic, dirt roads, but still with permanent concrete dwellings, electricity and limited running water.

I spent the afternoon there with Valerie, her family, and her neighbors who happen to be tailors.

Valerie is a young woman who works at the small snack shop and internet café at the Orion Tabora Hotel. She was wearing a gorgeous dress made out of a kitenge this morning. I initially walked up to her to ask her about the internet access at the shop (which hasn’t been working for the last week) and then noticed her awesome dress. Petty had made it for her. When I enquired about good tailors she could recommend, she instructed me to purchase the kitenge I wanted to use, then meet her back at the hotel at 2 pm. I ran into town, found my kitenge, and went on a national housing safari (journey) with Valerie.

We took bicycle taxis along these crazy pot-holed dirt roads. Now these are not the suped-up boda boda bicycle taxis of Kenya. Tanzania’s per capita annual GDP is $100 less than Kenya’s, mind you. It shows. Tanzania’s bicycle taxis lack the butt cushion on the back bike rack and the little extra-rider foot rests. The combination of my boney ass + the naked wire bike rack + potholed roads + aggressive bike riding = very sore sophy bum right now.

By far the most memorable part of the trip was having lunch with Valerie’s family. Unexpectedly, she invited me to her family home after we dropped off the fabric and projects at Petty’s house.

“Come, let’s have lunch at my home,” she said.

Sasawa,” I said. OK!

So we went into an alley next to Petty’s house, past a bunch of chickens and a group of children playing in the dirt patch and thinking of clever things to say to me in English.

“Hello, how are you?”

“Good day, Madam!”

“My name is Mfana!”

Valerie’s house is humble and friendly: concrete floors and walls, plain wooden doors, windows with hand-crocheted lace curtains and simple furniture adorned with crocheted doilies and hand-knitted stuffed animals. They have a tiny television and were watching some local beauty pageant on it when I entered the main family and dining room. Valerie’s uncle, older brother, two younger brothers, mother, grandmother and grandfather were all there. They were patiently waiting for Valerie to return home for lunch. They didn’t eat until we came in, and everyone made proper introductions with me. I bowed and said a shikamoo (respectful greeting to elders) to Valerie’s grandparents. Her babu (grandfather) gave a hearty belly laugh and held my hand warmly. Karibu sana. You’re very welcome.

We ate ugali with stewed greens and red beans. It was a perfect meal for me: fresh, vegan, hearty. And I liked their ugali. I guess that I haven’t liked it in the past because I’ve just had bad, soggy or cold ugali. Ugali is white corn meal mash, kinda like a super bland, super fine polenta. Eating this local food with my fingers and sharing it among people who so warmly invited a stranger into their home represented all things good in the world.

Afterwards, Valerie asked me if I enjoyed the meal. I told her that it is one of the best meals I’ve had. She laughed and told me that it can’t be true. But it is.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Karibu Tanzania! Assport Control and the Pilipino Double Delight

My arrival in Tanzania was a classic one. We had left a cold, gray, drizzly London the night before and landed in incredible tropical mugginess. I shed about two pounds of clothing in the process just to keep from sweating out all my fluids.

The visa application area was total chaos. A crowd of confused, tired and cranky tourists (mostly from Europe and Canada) and a few NGO workers milled around three random-seeming Tanzanian dudes who took our $100 bills and our passports and put them in a dubious pile. Miraculously, they called me to the processing window, took a digital (!!) photo of my exhausted face, and pasted a very official and clean-looking visa with my photo into my passport. And they didn’t ask for a bribe or over-charge me. Mission accomplished!

Next was the Assport Control. They forgot the pee. I breezed through this one too. It was my lucky day!

My three days in Dar es Salaam were in a bit of a jet-lagged haze. We had a couple of important meetings and a bunch of informal ones, but other than that, I had time to acclimated and explore.

Dar Adventure Number One: The Pilipino Double Delight

There’s nothing like 22 hours on a plane to make your body feel like total crap. Add wailing children and rude seat neighbors and then you feel like über-crap.

My first quest was to find “The Touch” spa. I saw a sign for it on Haile Selassie Road, on the way from downtown Dar to the Coral Beach Hotel, where we were staying. The sign had a little arrow pointing into what looked like a smallish dirt road. Couldn’t be that far, right? Wrong. I was on foot, stupidly carrying a 2-liter bottle of Kilimanjaro water I just bought at a nearby store. It was about 90ºF outside with a blazing sun and 80% humidity. Hellsa hot. But I am stubborn, and I walked. And walked. And walked. Even I, Asian female who doesn’t sweat, had big fat beads rolling down my face.

I found a big house with a sign “The Touch” at the gate. The askari (guard) was fast asleep, so I just walked right in. As I turned the knob on the door, out walks a tiny Pilipina woman, about my size. We were both shocked at seeing each other. After a moment, I asked “Is this ‘The Touch’ spa? Do you do massage?” She smiled and nodded and shooed me inside.

It turns out that “The Touch” consists of four Pilipinas who came to Dar seven months ago to set up this day spa. I asked for a back massage and decided that I’d have to save the “Gentleman’s Executive Relaxation” and “Pilipina Double Delight” for another day. That’s when you have two Pilipinas “working on” you at the same time. The whole thing was hilarious. The women there, especially Mimi, who gave me my back massage (and did a good job, thank you), thought that the whole situation was hilarious. I could hear them chatting and giggling up a storm in Tagalog while I was lying on the table in post-massage relaxation bliss.

Dar Adventure Number Two: Kariakoo Market Chaos

After our meeting with the folks at I-TECH in downtown Dar, I wanted to explore the Kariakoo Market. It is touted to be one of the biggest and brightest markets in all of Africa. I had to see it for myself. Markets are one of the best ways to catch some of the energy of the local community. Modest (our taxi driver, yes that’s his name) dropped Royce and me off a couple blocks away. The traffic was horrendous, so we decided to walk in.

We encountered a surreal scene. The market building had a bunch of its portals closed. No on was visibly selling market stuff on the streets. Debris was strewn all over. There was an agitated feeling in the air. Men were angrily milling all about without any directed purpose. The market seemed closed, but something was wrong.

We walked into a nearby ice cream shop and asked the man behind the counter about the market. Royce asked him directly, so I couldn’t hear much of the response, which was in broken Swahilish anyway. Royce said, “Oh, something happened to a small businessman…” which somehow I had heard as “something happened to a small child.” We left feeling even more disoriented and found a taxi.

I asked Modest about it that evening. “Oh, they are just cleaning up the market area with the small vendors. They should be open tomorrow.”

The next day, the front page of the Tanzanian papers declared, “Kariakoo Market Closed Indefinitely.” The news showed scenes of total chaos at the market with crowds of men toppling tall piles of market goods in the face of Tanzanian police officers. It turns out that the police are trying to crack down on the small vendors and won’t allow the market to re-open till the small vendors leave the premises.

The market probably thrives on these scrappy small vendors. Why on earth would you want to drive them away?

Check it out:

Thursday, January 10, 2008

London re-Impression

My first re-impressions of London:
-> Everyone smokes!
-> Black and brown people get seriously detained and interrogated by other black and brown people at immigration. (Self hate is deep!)
-> I get easily lost in most places. I blame it on my left-handedness and poor sense of direction. In London, I get ridiculously lost. Despite studying the map and memorizing the streets and asking people for directions, I got lost going to Harvey Nicks department store from my B&B, which is straight along one major road. How on earth did I do that?? It’s the London curse on the directionless.
-> I would starve here.

Welcome to the first world, Baby.

My plane ride from the first world (US) to the firster world (UK) was exhausting. I turned down the economy plus upgrade because it cost $119. Boy, am I sorry I did that. My seat was in the same row as a cranky 6-month old and a wailing 2-year old and big parents who used my seat space… in back of another two small children, and worse, directly in back of a snooty stale-cigarette-smelling young British couple who pushed their seats all the way back and proceeded to bounce around in them so that the seat in front of me actually hit me in the knees and head several times. Try working on your laptop in this situation!

But no medical emergencies on that 11 hour flight. Whew! I had been eyeballing a few elderly folks who didn’t look so good when I boarded. We all made it. Yay!

I am happy to be off the plane and in South Kensington. But unless I eat a sandwich for every meal at the Pret a Manger chain (because they have fresh veggie options), I may starve. My eating adventure tonight was at “Yo! Sushi” a chain of sushi boat restaurants. This one was the hipster one at the Harvey Nichols (or “Harvey Nicks” if you want to sound like you know something about shopping). I spent the equivalent of US$20 on dinner… and one hour later, my stomach is growling angrily at me! So after exploring all five floors of Harvey Nicks and finding absolutely nothing that I like (can someone explain to me why women will spend $600 on Jimmy Choo shoes?), the only thing I bought is a bag of parsnip chips for 75 pence. Apparently they were grown in Field Garden, Devon (the parsnips, that is) and fried by a man (or a manly woman) named Cliff. Parsnip chips are hella good. They are a much better value than the $7 for 3-pieces of stale crayfish and rocket maki that I ate for dinner. Unfortunately, parsnip chips only represent one food group: fats and sugars. Same with the Hob Nob cookies that I so love. So I will need to find something else to supplement my British diet.

If there’s one thing I love about London, it’s the museums. The fact that they’re “free” to the public and well-supported by the government and funders shows how dedicated places like London are to preserving culture and arts. Viva public art support!

In fact, the Victoria and Albert Museum, which is a five-minute walk from my B&B, is featuring a show on “Spectacular Craft.” It’s exactly the type of work I love to see and make: hand-made crafts discussing modern and environmental issues. Whoo hoo… field day for me.

Check it out:

Monday, January 7, 2008

Christmas & New Year -with Aloha- in O'ahu, Hawai'i!

Our Choi family holiday gathering was almost everything I could wish for: good family folks, fun holiday gatherings, good Asian food, warm and friendly strangers who took me in like their own, crazy kiddie escapades - such as naked time pee pee and the sugar special seen in the video below.... and the beach, sunshine, tropical storms, rainbows, adventures in Spam musubi and poi hunting, wiping out on a boogie board and eating sand, and then swimming with turtles in the ocean. The only thing missing was that not ALL of my good friends and family could be there. Besides that, THIS is what I call a perfect holiday!

Pupule (KrazEEE) Hawaiian Adventure Pictures to come wiki wiki (fast)!

Saturday, January 5, 2008

De-bunking third world myths with the best stats presentation ever!

Aloha from Hawai'i. I am being silly and exploring nerdy visual-design-data resources online while the sun, ocean, beach and valley beckon outside. Before I turn off this computer, I want to share this awesome resource with y'all (which my neighbor-friend Brian Sullivan sent to me):