Sunday, December 18, 2011
I spent the first part of last week in Dar es Salaam conducting interviews with the few government officials who consented to meet with me at short notice as well as a few other close observers of the education sector. Then on Wednesday I hopped a flight to Mwanza, a.k.a. Rock City, so named not for any connection to KISS but for its numerous and impressive rock formations. (Side note: KISS may not have any connections to Tanzania, but Queen does! Freddy Mercury is from Zanzibar, where his legacy is divided between those who celebrate his musical career and those who were less down with his being gay.)
Just prior to leaving Dar I had the somewhat surreal experience of interviewing a prominent, young Opposition Member of Parliament in the Dar es Salaam Airport VIP Lounge. He was on his way back to Dar just as I was preparing to leave so it seemed like the easiest way for us to meet. Getting into the lounge was something of a comedy of errors… I had to fight with the guy at the check-in counter, who did not want to let me in. So I called the MP and explained my plight and he told me to tell the check-in guy just who I was planning to meet in the VIP lounge. I dutifully and somewhat guiltily name-dropped and it worked! After he left I was allowed to stay and enjoy another hour of crushed velvet, air-conditioned luxury before boarding my flight to Mwanza.
The flight itself was a bit less luxurious – it was a small, noisy plane, and the air conditioning didn’t condescend to start working until about 30 minutes after takeoff. But immediately upon arrival I had the pleasure of meeting “Jammy,” the taxi driver sent by my hotel. When he learned that I was from California began rattling off a list of his favorite West Coast rappers and lamenting that hip-hop really hadn’t been the same since 1996.
The plan in Mwanza was for me to meet with one of HakiElimu’s “Friends of Education” (member of their grassroots network of activists) who would be my guide in the region, introducing me to other Friends in neighboring districts so I could interview them and learn about their activities. Due to some miscommunication I had thought I would be making these visits on short day trips from Mwanza so was surprised when I met my guide the next morning and he informed me that we had to hurry to catch the 9AM ferry to the first district and that there was no way we would get back to Mwanza that night. And so, my plan for two easy day trips turned into a rather exhausting – but extremely interesting – four-day whirlwind involving multiple trips by boat, bus and motorcycle. To round out the experience I picked up a stomach bug, which I suspect comes from drinking a glass of busara (“wisdom”) juice in a village in Serengeti – a yeasty concoction resembling thin gruel. Not bad, actually, but somehow did not agree with me.
There was only one point at which I actively feared for my life (this morning, when the bus back to Mwanza began veering off the muddy road, getting stuck at a precarious angle and forcing all the passengers off. After two hours of futile efforts to right the bus and get going, we caught another bus and made our way bumpily back). But perhaps if I’d been thinking more rationally there would have been others. Tanzania’s many wonders do not include a network of safe roads. That said, our route this morning bordered Serengeti National Park, so I got to see loads of zebras as we bumped along. I was slightly the worse for wear by the time we got back to Mwanza after 8 hours on the road but since my flight (on the ill-named Precision Air) had been delayed, I decided to rally and called Jammy up for a quick tour of Rock City.
I am now waiting in the decidedly un-VIP waiting lounge of the Mwanza airport, hoping that my flight will actually leave at some point, since I have a pretty packed schedule back in Dar tomorrow. Fortunately, the fact that it is nearly Christmas has made it difficult to schedule meetings for the end of the week, so I should have a few days to relax and work on my tan before heading back to the States. Or rather, work to undo my newly acquired T-shirt tan. It’s a tough life.
Tuesday, September 6, 2011
Thursday, September 1, 2011
After an 11-hour bus ride (2 hours longer than advertised) I arrived in Njombe last night for the final phase of my Summer o' Research in East Africa. I wrapped up my work in Kenya last week and arrived in Tanzania on Saturday morning (somehow managing to get booked Business Class,). After picking up a Tanzanian SIM card and stopping by the bank (the Tanzanian shilling is worth about an order of magnitude less than the Kenyan shilling, so I’m still getting confused) I hightailed it to the offices of the Tanzanian opposition party NCCR-Maguezi to interview a young, enthusiastic Member of Parliament. The interview was related to some side consulting work I’ve been doing, but offered me some useful insights into Opposition politics at large in TZ. The MP I interviewed (David Kafulila) had been a member of the main Opposition party Chadema until he was essentially driven out when he advocated for democratic competition within the party structures. At least that’s the way he tells it. The interview was fascinating from a Poli Sci nerd point of view but by the end I was thoroughly exhausted after a 5 A.M. wakeup to reach the airport in Nairobi and an ill-advised glass of champagne on the plane. (Gotta take advantage of Business Class perks!) I spent another few days in Dar catching up with friends, relaxing and generally getting my mzungu on.
This was my second visit to Dar since I’ve been back in East Africa this summer and while I haven’t found Dar all that different from how I remembered it, my perspective on the city – and my life there – has changed significantly. I really feel that in the three months I stayed in Kenya I got a much better sense of how the average person actually lives than I ever did in Tanzania, despite staying there for over two years. Working and living in Kenya this summer, I had many more opportunities to “get down with the people,” as my Aunt Barby would say, than I ever did in my Dar es Salaam bubble. (An example: I was at a dinner party the other night where a crusty old Britisher declared that if it weren’t for the yacht club, there’d really be no reason to stay in Dar…. Clarification: I didn’t spend the majority of my time in Dar hanging out with crusty old Britishers at the yacht club, but I did spend a fair amount of time hanging out with other wazungu doing mzungu-ish things).
So, while I enjoyed having a few days in Dar, and am looking forward to spending more time there, I’m also excited to have gotten an opportunity to see more of the country. I will be spending the next 10 days here in Njombe, in the Southern Highlands of Tanzania, scoping out a potential topic for future research - piloting a survey, and interviewing some local government officials. (“Soaking and poking,” as we grossly like to say in Poli Sci.) Specifically, I will be looking into the work that an NGO called Daraja. Daraja encourages people to send them text messages monitoring water access, which they then forward to the relevant authority as well as local media. It’s an exciting project, particularly at a time when mobile phones have become ubiquitous in this part of the world. That said, my work in Kenya made me less convinced that SMS is an appropriate tool for government monitoring in this context given low literacy levels and cost barriers, but I’m still excited to see what I will find. I’m also really enjoying the process of designing my own research project, after working to implement someone else’s research program all summer. Lest I sound ungrateful, I learned a huge amount through that experience, and I’m eager to have an opportunity to implement what I’ve learned directly in a new context.
So anyway, Njombe is cold. As in, I’m currently writing this under my two blankets, wearing socks, pans, a long-sleeve shirt and a fleece jacket. I think it’s going to get down in the 50s tonight!!! But the people I’ve met here thus far are very warm. Especially the Pentecostals. Allow me to explain. As I mentioned, the bus ride here took 11 hours and in preparing for it I had charged my iPod and loaded it up with podcasts. But I didn’t end up taking the iPod out of my bag once, since I got so engrossed in conversation with my seatmate, a lady pastor named Asnath, who travels the country and the world trying to achieve her “vision,” preaching to people and working to heal them. A former nurse, she left a good job when she felt her calling was too strong for her to ignore, and she’s been doing her thing ever since. I really appreciated that she didn’t try to impose her beliefs on me even once in our conversation. She was fascinated to learn that I was Jewish, asking me what “Shalom” means (whew! The one word of Hebrew I actually know) as well as how much a Jewish prayer shawl costs, since she thinks they look neat. She promised to teach me how to make pilau when I’m back in Dar and I promised to buy her Dentyne Ice when I’m back in the States (and who knows maybe a prayer shawl!). Then at my hotel I was eating in the TV room with another very friendly Pentecostal, who was very patient with my clunky Swahili and insisted on buying me dinner. He also didn't proselytize, and was similarly fascinated by my Judaism, though a bit concerned that I didn't have any place to pray here. Still, unless they've been using stealth tactics, there have been no concerted efforts to save my soul just yet.
Saturday, August 6, 2011
Thursday, July 14, 2011
Monday, July 11, 2011
Friday, July 1, 2011
Saturday, June 25, 2011
Wednesday, June 22, 2011
Sunday, June 19, 2011
Tuesday, June 14, 2011
Monday, June 13, 2011
Saturday, June 11, 2011
After three years I am back in East Africa, albeit in a different country and a different context. Despite these differences, some things remain constant. For instance: the dramatic and sudden sunsets. The alluring neatly stacked piles of tropical fruit at roadside stands. People’s strong allegiances to a particular local beer, despite the fact that all are made by the same company and taste pretty much the same. (In the four full days that I have been here I have already self-identified as a Pilsner drinker. Seriously, folks, Tusker?! It’s like Bud Light. Like having sex on a boat. I could go on.)
In addition to being back in East Africa, I have also decided to reënter (sorry, that was the New Yorker reader in me) the blogosphere, after an even longer hiatus. Granted, it may be taxing to be in the public eye again, but I feel it’s my duty to my devoted fans… In all seriousness, I intend to use this blog to keep any interested parties (hi, Mom) informed about my experiences in Kenya and Tanzania this summer. I also hope to use the blog to process those experiences, so I hope you will forgive or ignore any self-indulgent navel-gazing…
So anyway, what am I doing here, exactly? Well, other than rhapsodizing about sunsets and drinking Kenyan beer (Hint: there might be a correlation between those two phenomena) I am working as a research assistant on an evaluation of Uwezo-Kenya. Uwezo (“capability” in Swahili) is a four-year initiative to improve competencies in literacy and numeracy among children in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda through a civic-driven and public accountability approach to social change. The principal investigators on this project are a team of three professors from MIT and Princeton, one of whom was until recently at UCLA. I first became familiar with Uwezo when I worked in Tanzania at HakiElimu. HakiElimu’s founder went on to found Twaweza, which is the umbrella organization that oversees Uwezo.
Our assessment will cover two districts in Kenya – Rongo (where I am based) and Kirinyaga. In each district there is one American field coordinator and one Kenyan field coordinator. We will each be hiring a team of eight local enumerators and the next two weeks will be devoted to conducting surveys in a number of villages in each district. The local enumerators will be conducting household surveys and the field coordinators will be conducting surveys of local “elites” (head teachers and village leaders). After the survey period we’ll go back to Nairobi to work with Uwezo staff on data entry and then we’ll come back to the field for follow-up surveys and more observational and ethnographic research. I’ll spend the first two weeks of September in Tanzania working on some of my own research, and hopefully spending a few days at the beach.
So far I have spent four days in Nairobi, getting to know the professors leading the team and my fellow field coordinators. (And figuring out my preferred Kenyan brew. This latter task was a very scientific exercise, which involved a blind taste test.) I really don’t have much of an impression of the city as much of our time was spent in hotel conference rooms. I did notice some similarities with Dar es Salaam, but Nairobi does seem wealthier and English seems to be more of the lingua franca. When I told anyone I knew some Swahili after living in Tanzania they would say that I knew the “true Swahili.” Unfortunately, my “true Swahili” is not going to serve me so well in Rongo, where people are more likely to speak English if they speak anything other than the local language (Luo). But I’m keen to learn Luo so hopefully it won’t be too hard to pick up the basics.
We have a long day of enumerator interviews tomorrow, so I think I should probably sign off. I imagine I will sleep well in my Rongo hotel room, for which I fear words will not do justice. I will try to post a picture soon but for now just imagine my red wall-to-wall carpet, gold bedspread, and plush headboard inlaid with mirrors and speakers (?!). It’s like Austin Powers on safari.