MS TCDC, near Arusha (Pictures)

Hiya all you folks out there… hope you’re still having a blast…!

This is a follow-up to my post Zanzibar, honeymoon story. As things usually go, I fell from paradise to earth, and even seemed to be tumbling to lesser depths, for a few days back there. But hold on, for this story has a happy ending!

Woe Number One had to do with being forced to acquire a cell-phone. I typically bought the cheapest cell phone on the market (a Nokia no. something or the other for 70 American bucks) which someone later told me was probably not even the real thing i.e. a pirated version (it certainly looks cheap!)

There was no user manual for it (they had run out) but my guardian angel in Dar, Elisabeth – the Swiss cooperant colleague at HakiElimu I have mentioned before) had one.

These cell phones here have to be fed vouchers that they munch up gleefully in no time at all. So mine for e.g. seems to use up 5 bucks for 3 short local phone calls! Also, there’s the matter of feeding these junkies electricity every so often, even daily if you have them on all day.. (Yes, yes I realize this is all old hat to many of you out there in the real world, but still a shock to a cell phone virgin like me – and here I have to confess that another pal has provided that catchy coinage – cell phone virgin!)

At first I had no adapter for the local sockets. After I acquired one, I discovered that the switch was unreachable, tucked as it was behind my very heavy hotel bed. I instructed the reception to move my bed, but not too much, as this would have rammed it against the opposite wall and I’d have to leapfrog over the bed all the time, and you know what? I am too old for that! Finally, I was able to plug the adapter into the socket, and also the cell into the adapter, but not a peep out of my F+&^%$#@! phone. Meanwhile it was signaling me that it really, really needed an electric fix and FAST!

Next day my cell savvy colleague (and everyone and their dog and dog’s uncle is cell savvy here) told me I’d probably got a dud adapter from China. (I notice this guy has great contempt for Chinese products.) He advised me to junk the 500 Tsh (Tanzanian shillings) adapter, for a German or British 1500 Tsh gizmo. Anyhow, he managed to plug my phone directly into the socket and I discovered that this could actually be done if you took a ball point pen and kinda twisted it into the top hole of the socket which kinda opened up the lower two holes for the F*****ing plug to enter! Otherwise there was just no way of forcing the thing in. Why they make such impenetrable switches here, I know not, save perhaps to send us some sort of a message about reconsidering our neurotic dependence on all this STUFF??

It set me wondering if this fiddling with a ball point pen around a switch could perhaps, just maybe, lead to electrocution and trying to reminder what substances are good and bad conductors of electric current!

The parallel story to all this unfolds thus: did I mention already that my hotel was in a very lively part of town? That meant loud music practically every night. One night I got into bed at 10.45 thinking, oh, its soooo quiet today and I swear the music started up the next second! It’s good dance music – I will credit these folks with taste – but not really conducive to getting up the next day at 6.30 am (yes a night bird like me actually managed that for 2 weeks – oh what we will do for our so-called careers!). After the music dies down the mullahs start up, around 4.30 am, with their calls to prayer. All this had me seriously reconsider the freedom of expression, which I have defended now for decades!

My nerves were positively shaky with insufficient sleep, when Woe 3 stepped into the picture. This is the housing situation in Dar. It’s an unregulated market run by unscrupulous house agents- known as dalalis – and greedy house owners. At first Haki was trying to find a house for me through these dalalis. But having seen only one house in a far-flung suburb in the first week I decided to grab the bull by its horns. I marched to the Haki Media department and started scanning the English newspapers there for apartment ads. I wanted to live in a flat, not a house, as a house involves a night and day guard and a maid, which amounts to something like 250 US a month – the kinda moolah I don’t have. Coz it seems you have not only to pay this royal retinue, but also feed them, and pay for their medicine! This last bit really freaked me out, for in my mind’s by now paranoid eye, I saw this ailing, would-be guard doing me out of my small CUSO allowance!

Of course what the locals and the expats pay these folks varies widely and wildly and I was getting these “Oh, but how can you exploit these folks” and “But oh how can you spoil these folks” vibes from the two camps. I decided that I wanted to avoid these folks altogether – at least the guards – by getting a flat that has a common watchman, paid by the owner (tho. of course you chip in for him.)

I stepped into the brave new world of house hunting by calling the cell numbers in the ads which promised 3-bedroom budget downtown apartments. A dalali operates typically like this: He calls frantically on the cell, fails to identify himself and says: Can you meet me at Shoppers Plaza in 10 minutes? One of the things he omits to tell you is whether he means Shoppers Plaza downtown or in Micocheni. (An up-market suburb which could be reached from my office in 10 mins. only with a private helicopter.)

When you meet the guy at the aforementioned Shoppers Plaza, he walks you 10 mins. to an apartment building and then begins an endless wait for the key to the apt. he wants to show you. The guy with the key, who’s in a nearby shop, has disappeared, without telling anyone where he’s going or when he’ll be back. Interestingly, the guy cannot be contacted by cell ph. either!

If the key is available, you could be shown an aging apartment with rusty water pipes in the loo and no water in them, or a flat in an empty building, which is large, but unfinished, with wires dangling here and there, and sacks of concrete and junk piled up at the bottom of the stairs. You are told “The owner will finish the apartment fast if you want it. To which you want to say, “Hey bud, you got it backwards – YOU finish the apartment first and then I may want it.” But you say nothing, at least not at first. For all this, you pay for the cab rides between apartments and US 10 dalali fees.

By Day 2 I was already much older and wiser in the game, laughing when people told me they had a flat for US 500 in Kariakoo, telling them it was far too expensive and Karikoo was much too noisy anyway. I also asked them to identify themselves when they called. “No I could not meet them at Shoppers Plaza in 10 mins. I have work to do. Perhaps tomorrow?”

I did find a good dalali in all this (he came recommended, save that my boss had got his name as John when his name was actually Sam) who would come and pick me up in a nice car driven by a pal, while another pal took a ride downtown in it, and who showed me one nice apartment which we are trying to secure right now. Sam was respectfully yes and no mamming me by day 2 with perhaps just a hint of sarcasm in this voice!

I was thrilled therefore to make my escape to the MS Training Centre near Arusha in northern Tanzania for my 3-week Kiswahili course. I drove up with Eric, Swiss NGO type, in a Ford pick-up. The landscape was varied and lovely. At first we passed through small towns and shambas (farms) large and small – growing corn, bananas, palm trees, sunflowers, fruits. It was wonderfully green and lush, the soil red and the road beautifully paved and straight.

Post lunch the landscape changed to more open grassy, bushy, land with the cutest of baobab trees here and there (these are much smaller than the giants we saw in West Africa) The land turned hilly as we entered the Usambara mountain area (we skirted the ranges) and the villages thinned out even more as we entered the Kilimanjaro district, when we started see some acacias and anthills, amid a hint to savannah. We passed mountains at times rocky, at times green, and always with was a fine, misty line of mountains, on the horizon. The landscape glowed in various shades of green, brown and yellow, under a sky full of chubby grey-white clouds.

Now we encountered an interesting phenomenon. The villages we passed through bore names, but these did not appear on our road map, and the names of the places marked on the map did not appear on the land! So we tried another map from the glove compartment, but it was the same. Yet the road was going in the right direction and there was only one, so we continued, but with some misgiving, as we had no idea how far we had gone. Finally I begged Eric to pull up and ask where we were (coz we know some men – but not the ones who are getting this e-mail of course – will drive to the North Pole rather than seek help!)

The folks by the road, who were nicely dressed and waiting for the bus, told us we were on the right track and about an hour from Moshi (east of Arusha, a large town we’d have to pass) and asked us for a ride. Our back seat was full of stuff and the back of the Ford was covered with stretched plastic to stop kids in Dar from jumping on and off. That is, the pick-up was such in name only. So we drove on – our middle-class priviledge unshared. I asked Eric if he would consider giving people a lift. We discussed it and decided that after some time in Tanzania, yes. But having recently arrived, we were feeling somewhat vulnerable.

The MS training center is a revelation. It was started by the Danes to train their development workers in Swahili and NGO topics, but has since expanded to welcome the world. The basic and intermediate Swahili classes have people from Britain, Spain, Germany, South Africa, Northern Europe, the USA, and a woman from Mauritius. The NGO courses – short and long – in organizational development, development studies, etc – are filled with a pan African crowd – Ugandans, Kenyans, Tanzanians of course, Angolans, folks from Mozambique, Somaliland, Sudan, Rwanda, etc. There’s also a Nepalese woman from a MS Centre in Nepal.

There’s an incredibly rich tapestry of accents, voices, ideas and backgrounds. It’s really quite exhilarating. The atmosphere is very friendly and welcoming. We are well fed (buffets featuring great veggies and desserts and even mango pickle (!), well taught and well housed, though at first they had overbooked the participants, leading to a lot of confusion. After two nights with a mother and baby in the next room, as well as a roommate (I had asked for a roomie to keep the costs down) I asked for a transfer (along with many others) to a swanky, ethnic-style lodge nearby, with a 100 US per person per night rate! Which came for free of course…

This is a beautiful, German-Tanzanian run place, with extensive grounds, complete with a swimming pool (tho. the weather’s like a Canadian spring, well maybe a tad less cold) a stream and mini waterfalls and a fountain, a variety of bright flowering plants and succulents, a small banana tree grove, a grassy, marsh where weaver birds nest and a pond with duckies. They also have guinea fowl, marabou storks and cranes roaming around. The story of the fowl is that a village woman brought three fowl eggs to sell to the hotel. These were incubated in the hotel kitchen, and voila, they now have 45 birds!

The male weaver bird, it seems, builds a nest which the female inspects. If she likes it she moves in. If not, she dashes it to the ground and the hapless guy has to start all over again!

Another fascinating thing was seeing these deadly red ants which really bite hard and who climb on top of each other to build a kind of a gauzy tunnel under which the worker ants scurry to and fro carrying food. The whole set-up has an efficient production line look about it, though it looks prettier (I think) than a typical factory floor.

The MS Centre itself is green and beautiful, with citrus fruit hanging from some of the trees, and vervet monkeys gamboling about. We have our mid morning and afternoon chai and Kahava (coffee) each day under a thatched roof. We had local drumming and dancing, and a bonfire last Friday, and then social dancing, to African music. I had unfortunately to retire at 10.30 pm as this male student was ferrying the ladies gallantly back to the hotel in his car and insisted that I go as well! (We have since relocated to the campus in small, but practical, student-style quarters.) Tanzanian music is rather mellow and not the easiest to dance to (unlike music from neighbouring DRC, etc which is more vigorous and seems very popular here)

In fact, given the unassuming nature of the Tanzanians, and the ever changing weather (this is because we are in the foothills of the Northern mountains here) I have a sense of familiarity…

I had a visit last weekend from the great CUSO officer in Tanzania, who lives in Arusha. He came with his two daughters who, after chasing the monkeys, zoomed in on the children’s playground here, and did not want to go home! Coz this place is tres child-friendly with children ranging from 3-month old babies to 13 year olds, accompanying wanafunzi wazizi (student parents, in Swahili tho. I won’t swear by the spelling of the last word as I don’t have my vitabu (books) here.

Ciao then and tune in next week for: Swimming in a sea of Swahili and wild life…