Tag Archives: tanzania


Here’s good news: the Arusha library is packed, PACKED, with middle schoolers diligently studying physics and chemistry of their own volition. Packed, library, middle schoolers. No joke.

Today I struck out on my own, hopping the dulladullas into town for meetings with the NGOs that I met on Saturday. Both are cool, but all that I can think to do is build websites for them:

Jatropha Agriculture and Nutrition Initiative Encourages farmers to grow a nut called Jatropha which (contrary to the org’s name) can’t be eaten. Jatropha produces a clear inedible oil which can be used as an industrial lubricant, a soap or a fuel.The plant puts down a deep taproot, which makes it ideally suited for Tanzanian drought conditions, and can provide drought-prone communities with cheap fuel or even crops for export.

Traditional Irrigation & Environmental Development Organization Builds irrigation pipes and helps farmers form democratic organizations to maintain them. Very cool, because water system maintenance is a mess and because they make sure that women are given an equal voice in what happens to the water.

When I met with the guy from this second NGO he was quick to point out that irrigation was INVENTED not far from the city of Arusha, and that it was probably a good idea to approach new water projects with an understanding of what’s currently in place.

Afterwards I wandered around downtown Arusha with an eye for libraries, the street layout and new words in Swahili. I found a thriving tourist hub, the largest in northern Tanzania, complete with a UN complex, jumbotrons, and more money exchanges than Boston has Dunkin Donuts. The town has the eerie wealth disparity you would expect from a 3rd world tourist hub, and the pickpockets and nonstop panhandlers were a reminder of the thin line.


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After yesterday’s discussion about water development Ezra was eager to take my on a walk to show me some water development in action. “These hills are littered with water projects that are dry” he said “but I’ll show you one that actually flows.”

We set out through ankle deep dust with the dog, Detu, to trek up the foothill where our water comes from. On the path were a steady stream of Masai, red cloth draped around their western clothes, carrying water and grain to and from their villages. Ezra greeted everyone he saw on the road enthusiastically, and stopped with most of them to converse in Swahili, which gave me a perfect chance to pick up some vocab.

Soon after starting out we came across a revine about 30 feet deep. When rain comes it rips through the soft soil creating these canyons. We hiked through to catch some shade and saw the goats and monkeys that had wandered too close to the edge and perished there.

We came onto the first junction of the water project, which was foreshadowed by a small stream of water trickling down the path and disappearing into the dust. Ahead of us was a large concrete box surrounded by women and children with buckets. On the front of the box was a faucet which flows at the rate of a kitchen sink. This faucet, Ezra informed me, is left running night and day despite the drought. Tired of waiting in long lines to fill their buckets at the tap, the local village had busted open the top of the concrete box so that they could dip their buckets in directly, buckets which had previously been resting in the cow dung while the children waited their turn. A hose had been inserted into the pipe which feeds water into the box to allow for even faster filling, and this hose was left running onto the ground when not in use.

The results were clear to see. All of the excess use left the output pipe running to a nearby village high and dry. Ezra grabbed the hose and scolded the children, explaining to them that the nearby village was suffering because of their actions, then jumped down from the box exasperated. “A big German used to go an rile up the downstream village when this happened, and it kept the system working,” he said “but now that he’s gone it’s just falling apart.”

We hiked up further, past fields of baby corn to a large concrete trough which farmers were siphoning with hoses to inefficiently irrigate their fields. “This was designed to allow cattle to drink.” Ezra explained “Now the population is too dense for herding and it’s all farmers.” An old man explained how the pipe had broken, and how he had warn out his shoe hiking up the mountain to repair it. We both thanked him and continued up the slope.

We entered a tree farm, and came across a group of four boys who had designed an ingenious cart. It had four wooden wheels, handles for six boys to pull it at once and a steering mechanism built out of sticks. We were so impressed that we helped them to push it up the hill, the eight year old engineer leading the way.

As dinnertime approached we stopped to rest and turned back to head for home. The dog kicked up dust racing through the trees and we enthusiastically followed, jumping off hillocks and landing in a cloud. “Every generation these fields get divided” Ezra mused, “there isn’t enough water and there’s already barely enough land. These people used to be herders, now there’s nowhere to graze.”

As we trekked home, I noticed a small pile of plastic wrappers and bottles swirling by the side of the road. In this vast, populated hillside with no waste management system the amount of plastic left lying around was roughly equivalent to what my apartment puts out in a week. Maybe plastic is just a holiday here.

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Nane Nane

Stop what you’re doing and spend a good 20 seconds just imagining dust.

Arusha is in the middle of a drought, so the smell of dust is omnipresent. One side of our mountain has rice paddies, where the peaks pen in the clouds, and the other is fighting. My cousin Ezra is too. Barely off the plane, he bombarded me with philosophical questions about string theory, economics and the nature of Truth as applied to combatting corruption, which is becoming his new consuming passion. Cops stop him on the road and he plays elaborate mind games with them, trying to get them to admit their folly if they ask for a bribe and shoving 500 shilling notes at them if they don’t.

Today is Nane Nane, which translates to “8 8”, or “August 8th” and is a major agricultural and cheap plastic crap festival made all the more major by the lack of rain. I am thrilled at the notion of a culture which celebrates cheap plastic crap only once a year rather than all 365, sort of an inverse of America’s Earth Day. Tomorrow will reveal if the festivities in fact die down.

Nane Nane was packed, what seemed like tens of thousands of people meandering through a concrete exhibition area that’s part farmer’s market (with Swahili names thoughfully sitting on each pile of veggies), part agricultural convention, part open-air walmart, part bar and part zoo. With a sigh of relief I tracked down the most supple looking agricultural NGOs (one doing drought-resistant food/biofuel, another doing agricultural water efficiency), talked my way into the EDs’ offices and set up meetings on Monday. Now it’s officially vacation.

Ezra, Rebecca and I milled about admiring plastic flowers and deftly outmenuevering pickpockets. At one point someone practically jumped into Ezra’s arms, throwing one arm around Ezra’s back while another reached for his shirt pocket. Ezra responded by instantly dropping to the ground, leaving the pickpocket sprawled long enough for Ezra to grab his hat and dance it out of reach while the crowd looked on confused. Ezra skipped off and was still beaming when he went off to bed.

We saw terrified monkeys and a baby hyena boxed into tight metal cages which children banged on constantly. Behind glass there were poisonous snakes in sawdust; Puff Adders and Red Spitting Cobras. We decided to leave a half hour before dusk to meet a doctor and pilot for sushi, but an overturned truck kept us in traffic for close to 80 minutes. Around us people streamed away from the festival, purchases in hand. As the sun settled groups of 14 and 15 your old boys started striding by confidently. As they became drunker and bolder we saw three fights break out, saw them crowding around girls walking home. Once the sun had set they began to tap on our windows and try our door handles, which are kept locked as a matter of practice.

Over sushi, flown in fresh from the coast, we discussed gossip at the Arusha airport. It seems that pilots are pairing up, marrying and having kids, and tourist flights to Serengeti and other national parks have dipped severely with the global economy. A shining new hospital, built with money from Lutheran churches, is struggling to make it to the black in the face of the corruption that has become Ezra’s fixation. It’s survival would be a boon both to the community and to the medical flights that keep my cousin so busy.

We drove home over a new road, one which has been intentionally left unpaved so that cars can “pack in the dirt.” As we bumped and rattled dust seeped in through the cracks and filled our cab. Rebecca is pregnant. “When I have my baby” she says “we’ll put it next to all those other pilots’ babies and have a contest to see which is cutest. My baby’s gonna kick all those other baby’s asses.”

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Overnight in Addis Ababa

I thought that I would be sleeping on benches in the Addis Ababa airport, clutching my bags while I tried to sleep. It turns out that Ethiopian Airlines thoughtfully puts you up what is possibly the poshest hotel I’ve stayed at in my life. Giant hand carved wood furniture in all the rooms. Best Ethiopian dinner I’ve had in my life, and a guy making omlettes to order for breakfast. I killed the time comparing value systems with the evangelical missionaries also on my flight over from the states. They’re headed to Malawi, where the AIDs crisis has swelled their audiences to the tens of thousands. They’re pretty excited about this.

This morning I went for a run, got a glimpse of Adis Ababa’s corregated stainless steel fences and remembered that smell of poorly refined gasoline. As far as I can tell people in Ethopia are, pretty much gorgeous without exception, a fact which a nurse on my flight celebrated by talking about how nice it would be to adopt Ethiopian babies. White people in Africa are wierd.

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Live from Ethiopian Airlines

I don’t know what’s wrong with me.

I’m in DC, hoping to meet with some NGOs during my 10 hour layover. In my bag are books for some kids that live near my cousin glitter pens for their friends’ wedding and some high-end tea. I have spent the past several months going to intermational development parties and agressively networking my way to anyone who knows anyone working in Arusha, the city where I’m headed. Also in my bag is a data recovery kit. It consists of a USB port which plugs into a hard drive of either a laptop or desktop so that data can be recovered from a crashed machine. I have that and only two pairs of shorts.

I don’t know why I have such an urge to be useful when I get there. I definitely DON’T have some sense that Arusha needs to be fixed, or that my white ass could be even remotely useful in the 18 days that I’m there. I think I’m just fantasizing about connecting with people. 

When I talk to people who have been to Tanzania they urgently tell me about lions and giraffes, about safaris through ancient impact craters and hikes up Kilimanjaro, none of which feels like the thing that brought me on this trip.

I’m heading to the place where humans evolved, where people have been living (not without violent interruption) for our entire history. There’s got to be some wisdom in that, or at least some perspective in getting away from my SF bubble.

The trouble is, that wisdom and perspective seems easy to miss. I’m airdropping into a tourist hub, which means it could presumably be easy for me to walk away with my most powerful memories being of lions and giraffes and not of the friendships that I had forged, the things I had learned about myself or the connections I made with subtler aspects of the ecology.

If I want those connections then I need to steer clear of the tourist hotspots. I need to be prepared to wander towards opportunity at a monent’s notice. I need to find  reasons for people to talk to me, and that means making myself useful. So I’ve got my books, San Francisco contacts and my data recovert kit. Here goes. 

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