Friday, December 17, 2010

why taxi drivers are my favorite

if you read any of my old posts from other countries, you'll see a pattern of political engagement with the local communities that always begins and ends in a taxi cab. being as how most of my transport has been provided by our shy office driver, i thought i might miss out on my chance to do the same here in tanzania. but lo! on my way home from work yesterday i got off at the local shopping complex (to do a lil souvenir hoarding) and had to catch an independent cab on my way back.

as i slid into the front seat, the driver gave me the once-over and guessed (incorrectly) at my italian heritage. when i politely corrected his assumption and revealed my persian background, his eyes came to light. "so what do you think about this ahmadinejad guy?" he asked (no time wasted by this one). here we go, i thought: "hmm, interesting, why do you ask?" and that's all it took.

he promptly launched into an extensive soliloquy, punctuated by references to recent events and historical facts, about the domination of western influence in the arab world (many tanzanians like himself, he explained, are muslim and thus feel a kinship with those in the middle east) and the inability of anyone to stand up to the great satan and its cronies. until ahmadinejad, that is. the driver explained the extreme satisfaction that he (and, by extension, others like him) felt at the continual pricking of iran's thorn into the us's side. "it's about time somebody stood up to those guys!" he exclaimed, as he deflty weaved through the complex of dar afternoon traffic.

what was fascinating about this exchange wasn't his political bent (which is pretty common outside the western world), but rather the way he articulately laid out his thesis, carefully citing past events (the recent political events in iran - including correct names of all players - references to the 1982 invasion of lebanon, the war of attrition, and on and on) and making, in the span of a 12-minute ride, a clear and resolute argument for the demolishment of western power.

as we approached the hotel, i thanked him for the thoughtful conversation and quickly squeezed in a question about his own, tanzanian, which, this well-read and eloquent man responded: "bah!"

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

"real men get circumcised"

i know my work can be a bit mysterious to those of you outside the development world, but suffice it to say there are some aspects of what i do that are pretty clear cut. take male circumcision (pardon the pun there ha): whereas in the states it's purely a cosmetic/religious/cultural preference, here in tanzania (where an estimated 1.5 million live with hiv), circumcision can be a matter of life or death.

male circumcision is thought to dramatically decrease the likelhood of hiv infection among men (i don't want to get too scientific-y here, so feel free to investigate my claim on your own), and one of the programs i support here is aimed at providing circumcision among at-risk populations. this week i had a chance to travel to a field site and see our project in action (well, um, all but the sensitive bits, of course). in a remote district in northern tanzania (where circumcision rates are about 25%), we started offering procedures (along with hiv testing and counseling) to any/all males over the age of 18 months.

now, i know what you're thinking: who in their right mind and of their own free will would sign up to get snipped? i thought the same thing. which is why i was shocked to learn that not only is there demand for circumcisions in this area, but men's desire to fling off their lil turtlenecks is so great that the tiny 4-bed surgical center we set up is filled to capacity every day. in less than one month, more than 300 brave volunteers have offered themselves up (so to speak), and the project is racing to scale-up. all this without so much as a community-based ad campaign.

so what's the deal? the very mention of circumcision makes most men wince and clutch at their jewels. so what is it that's driving the demand here? well, i got to talking to some of the boys milling around outside the health center one morning and, it turns out, the answer is very simple: "real men get circumcised".

from what i was able to learn, the process of male circumcision is seen by these boys as a masculine affair, only to be undertaken by the most courageous of souls. once the ball got rolling (sorry again, puns, terrible..), it seems the whole community was caught in a high-stakes game of chicken. the social pressure is particularly strong among the younger ones (conveniently, also our target group), with adolescent boys taunting, almost daring, one another to lay their manhood on the line (geez, seriously, i'm not doing this on purpose).

now this is all i could gather from my brief, non-scientific-y chat with folks at the health center, but i'd say the phenomenon lends itself to closer inspection, which i'll hopefully get to do soon (research i mean..not..inspecting penises...geez...). until then, i'll leave you with some shots of the brave little warriors i met that morning. in case you were wondering, this is what real men look like:

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

the silence of the hens

[scene: in the dead of night, Ghazalrice Starling enters remote guest house room in rural Bariadi District, Tanzania, where she is doing a field visit. She lays her head down to sleep, and as she hovers the line between consciousness and dreaming, she’s jolted awake by a piercing cry. The excerpt below is an exchange between Ghazalrice and her antagonist]

Hannibal Lecter: I will listen now. After your posting to a remote area of Africa, you were lonely. You were thirty years old. You went to stay in a low-rate guest house in Bariadi. And...?

Ghazalrice Starling: [tears begin forming in her eyes] And one night, I just almost ran away.

Hannibal Lecter: No "just", Ghazalrice. What set you off? You started at what time?

Ghazalrice Starling: Early, still dark.

Hannibal Lecter: Then something woke you, didn't it? Was it a dream? What was it?

Ghazalrice Starling: I heard a strange noise.

Hannibal Lecter: What was it?

Ghazalrice Starling: It was... screaming. Some kind of screaming, like a child's voice.

Hannibal Lecter: What did you do?

Ghazalrice Starling: I went to the window, looked outside. I crept up to the curtain. I was so scared to peer outside, but I had to.

Hannibal Lecter: And what did you see, Ghazalrice? What did you see?

Ghazalrice Starling: Hens. The hens were screaming.

Hannibal Lecter: They were slaughtering the dinner hens?

Ghazalrice Starling: And they were screaming.

Hannibal Lecter: And you ran away?

Ghazalrice Starling: Um, no. First I tried to free them. I... I knocked on the window to distract the butcher, but they wouldn't run. They just stood there, confused. They wouldn't run.

Hannibal Lecter: But you could and you did, didn't you?

Ghazalrice Starling: Well, kinda. I took one look at the screaming hen, and I turned away as fast as I could.

Hannibal Lecter: Where were you going, Ghazalrice?

Ghazalrice Starling: I don't know. Back to my bed, I guess. I thought of leaving, but I didn't have any food, any water and it was very cold, very cold. I thought, I thought if I could save just one, but... I was so sleepy. So sleepy. I didn't get more than a few steps to the bed when I decided to call the guest house manager. The manager was so angry she sent me to live at the Lutheran orphanage in Bozeman. Actually, scratch that…she was pretty apologetic so she told the butcher to move his operations to the other side of the building.

Hannibal Lecter: What became of your hen, Ghazalrice?

Ghazalrice Starling: They killed him. And then I guess I ate him for lunch the next day.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

stone soup

so you may remember (assuming you have nothing better to do than memorize my blog entries) that in a post from india i noted my amazement at the way colleagues at the office in delhi do lunch. there, everyone brings left-overs from home, and sits around a big table (sometimes in shifts), sharing everything with one another.
it fosters a sense of unity, comraderie and openness that i have yet to see in any US office (we're lucky if we eat lunch somewhere other than at our desks).

in tanzania, they take the ritual one step further, and really make lunch a community affair: each day, every employee brings some grocery item (tomatoes, rice, meat, whatever they have)and adds it to the community pot - literally! taking the daily produce haul, the office attendant (they have a lady who basically does the cooking/cleaning in the office) adds a few spices, maybe some other left-overs from previous days, and creates a meal for everyone to enjoy together. and when i offered to bring in something to add, i was promptly informed that guests (like me) are instructed only to enjoy themselves. now that's lunch!

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Name that Expat!

as i ate my muesli and watery yogurt to the slow crooning of julio ilgensias' greatest hits this morning, i took a look around the dining room and played a game of "name that expat". from what i've been able to observe (with my highly untrained, non-anthropological eye), aside from the occassional german vacationer, there is a strange cast of characters that always accompanies me at the hotel's complimentary breakfast buffet in "developing" countries. here are some pointers to help you "name that expat" next time you're on the road:

the young ngo consultant: let's start with the (ahem) obvious. these people work for "the poor" and, as such, see fit to dress the part. you can identify the women by their messy pony tails, lack of make-up, cargo-ish pants/cotton rayon stretch skirts (sometimes with asymmetrical hemlines for added flair), basic tops and teva-inspired sandals. the men will be wearing the male equivalent, with cargo pants, linen button-down tops (always with one too many buttons undone) and "dress shoes" supplied by skechers.

the old ngo consultant: after years of "toiling" on behalf of the indigent, salt and pepper hair is not the only clue to their identity. if you see a white woman wearing a dashiki/kurta/other local garb with an anaconda of bauble-beads around her neck, you've caught one! and for men, just look for a local-print top, indiana jones-stlye safari hat and (they being more daring than their younger counterparts) sandals.

the boogey men: these are the gaggle of smartly-dressed white business men, gathered around black coffee and laptops, conspiring to pillage the very land and souls the ngo consultants are here to save. they're usually the only good-looking men in the hotel.

the asian invasion: as chinese commerical and industrial developers flip the script on old colonial hegemony, you'll see more and more of their business men also huddled together at breakfast, around tea instead of coffee and with business casual clothing consdeirably less smart than their more established white counterparts.

the oil looters: especially here in east africa, where there's a new oil discovery seemingly every day, you'll doubtless encounter this unsavory co-star at your morning debut. i kid you not, they ALL wear company polo shirts tucked in to blue jeans with cowboy boots/shit-kickers. the older ones sport mustaches and, if you're lucky, you'll catch one in a cowboy hat (i swear that's not my bias talking).

the military man: i'd rather not imagine what they're doing here, but they always come to the "mess" in a crisp uniform, terrible haircut and exclusively eat egg-whites or breakfast meats.

and, finally, my favorite one of all...

the "lifer": this is the moniker i've given to those expats who have committed the better part of their adult lives to working/living in the non-west and have basically been "in the field" a little too long. they're usually women with no-nonsense crop cuts as bad as the military men's, rough leathery skin, outdated ngo clothes, and a crazy glint in their eyes. she may be old, but she's got attitude and considers herself one of the "people," so don't get between her and the omlette station!

and me? i try to throw them all off by wearing linen pants, business casual tops, cute (but sensible) shoes and my ten-gallon hat to every meal.