Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Searching for Africa

In the past few days, I’ve managed to form a slightly more nuanced impression of Njombe. Turns out, when the sun is shining, it’s actually pretty warm. Not to mention crisp and beautiful. The landscape here is very different than Dar – huge expanses of pine forest, alongside rolling, grassy plains. In the morning everything gives off a hazy, light orange hue, as the mist rises from the fields. I’ve also seen more women riding bicycles here than any other place I’ve been to in Africa.

In order to flesh out my impressions of Njombe and its environs, I spent Sunday in tourist mode. Two friendly Daraja staff members (one who I know from my days at HakiElimu in Dar) accompanied me on my tour. We first went down to “bwawani,” a magnificent (man-made) lake, which reminded me of Lake Jordan in North Carolina. My HakiElimu friend explained that the lake was built by the nearby flower company, and was very popular with the few wazungu that work there and in Njombe. Sure enough, we encountered about 5 of them, in the “Members Only” boathouse. They kindly allowed us to park there despite not being members and we proceeded to walk to the other, seemingly less proprietary, side of the lake and watch one flower company exec’s intrepid wind-surfing attempt.

After watching him take a few tumbles in the water, we proceeded with our true mission: searching for Africa. Or rather, a natural rock formation that very closely resembles the African continent. I had heard about this on Thursday night, when I first met the Daraja crew over beers, and saw a picture on somebody’s phone. The last naturally occurring Africa-shaped apparition I’d seen had been in middle school, in the form of a classmate’s birthmark – a tidbit I shared with the Daraja crew, to their amusement. Needless to say, I was excited.

Finding Africa proved more difficult than we anticipated. Neither of the guys I was out with had been there before and the directions we’d been given were rather spotty. We gave a lift to one old woman from a nearby village and she promised it was “just up ahead” but her directions proved futile as well. Finally we called the guy who had driven the guy with the picture on his phone, and learned that we had to see the village chairman and seek permission to see Africa. By this time, it was getting late and I was beginning to think this might be more trouble than it was worth. But ultimately we found some guys who seemed to work for the village chairman in some capacity, so they called him, got clearance (so long as we paid an entrance fee of about $4), and jumped in our car to direct us. We ended up retracing our steps quite a bit but it was worth the hassle. The Africa rock formation was quite cool, and it was situated in a spot with beautiful views, enhanced by the fact that the sun was close to setting.

Our “search for Africa” also led to an interesting conversation about perceptions of Africa in the West. When we posed for photos “on the continent,” I stayed in Tanzania and South Africa, whereas my friends from Daraja both hightailed it to Libya. I had asked what they thought of the current situation there, and they said – echoing what seems like widely held opinion here – that they thought NATO had gone too far, the West should have respected Libya’s sovereignty, and yeah Qadafi was a dictator but maybe a lot of people liked the way he ran the country. I responded that I hadn’t made up my mind and was curious to know what people in the U.S. are saying about the situation there. To this, one of the Daraja guys responded by asking me whether people the U.S. even pay attention to what’s going on in foreign countries. He didn’t seem to resent American lack of awareness so much as take it for granted. He then asked what I had thought about Tanzania before I ever came here and I had to confess I wouldn’t have been able to locate it on a map, and might have thought it was an island due to some confusion with Tasmania. (Those who know me well know that geography has never been my forté.)

I’ve now spent a few days in the field piloting my survey and have seen an even greater variety of climate and ways of living in this area. The first village we visited was stark – very hot and dry – so I was completely overdressed as I had prepared for a typical chilly Njombe day. But then today we were up in the hills, with beautiful views and a cool breeze. And I’ve just been told there’s a waterfall here I must see before I leave… I am wishing I had a bit more time here, though I must confess am looking forward to seeing the Indian Ocean again before I head back to the States.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Njombe: Where the weather is cold, but the Pentecostals are warm...

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.