Dar Samachar (News from Dar-es-Saalam)

From 2005-2007, I lived in Tanzania and worked for a non-profit organization. During that time, I sent a series of long e-mails to about a 100 friends in Canada, India and elsewhere. My e-mails became an important way to communicate and reflect on my experience. Later I posted them on-line as a blog archive.

“Nothing makes the earth seem so spacious as to have friends at a distance; they make the latitudes and longitudes.”~Henry David Thoreau

Dear Friends and Family,

This beautiful Thoreau quotation (sent by a colleague) is my tribute to all of you. You have been a great audience- intelligent and supportive; thank you very much, merci beaucoup, asante sana and bahut, bahut, shukriya! You have infinitely enriched our Tanzanian journey; some of you through your eloquent silence (!), others through pithy responses – frequent or otherwise, and yet others through lengthier musings.

I had no plan as such to write a such a detailed public journal when I left for Tanzania. But once it started, it acquired a life of its own, as things that are written down and communicated tend to. You received it as an e-mail insert and now I am putting it on-line too. I have really enjoyed putting these new media to personal use.

Though Dar Samachar is almost dead (do I hear some sighs of relief?!) I fear I am going to try a blog back in Canada. You will hear about it! I plan shorter entries. Time to go brief in the land of short attention spans and “no time for anything.”

Here we are then, in our last week in Tanzania. There was the customary farewell party at my office at the end of March where 13 of my colleagues sang my praises! The common theme: I was “dynamic” and had kept them on their toes, always following up on things they had to deliver to me. I was even considered inspiring by some; among positive traits mentioned were enthusiasm and friendliness. I was much thanked for my contributions, including putting in place some measures that will help the organization long-term, like a bank of good quality photographs to use in our publications and messages. My initial stint as manager was also appreciated.

I made a speech too, extending thanks and good wishes. I decided to let go of things that had gone less well and celebrate the others. Time to move on. I do have a strong and pleasing sense of completion.

The trouble with Mary

This sub-title is inspired by a whacky, Alfred Hitchcock film called “The trouble with Harry”.

Mary is our good maid, a woman in her early 30s, an altogether lovely person, hardworking and smart. I am telling her story because it parallels, in some ways, my relationship with Tanzania. And because this is quite a typical tale.

Mary walked up to me in August 2005 (she had been working as a painter in our building) and asked me to employ her as my maid (in Kiswahili of course). She came sans references and everyone I knew had warned me not to take on anyone “unknown.” I was desperate to find a maid and I had a good feeling about her.

Since that time Mary has been there for us, cooking simple meals, cleaning, sweeping and swapping, washing, ironing, vegetable shopping, spraying cockroaches (!) and doing a whole host of things that are central to running a house, and particularly so a house in the tropics.

I have come to really like her, though there is a language barrier. This is not the first time I have a maid, since I grew up in India, but Mary is special. I have never hired a maid before, as it was always my mother who did this. The Indian maids were “different”. I did not question their status or mine, nor did I feel responsible for them in the way I do for Mary. I could communicate fluently with them and knew something about their world.

When Mary first started working for me, she was a single mother of two children, eight and twelve. She also had a sister, Tina, ten years younger, who lived with her. We wanted to give her some lasting skills so we offered to pay for cooking, English or sewing lessons. She went for English classes for a few weeks, but then she became pregnant through her new boyfriend. This guy dumped her as well. I recall being furious that she could have got herself pregnant in the first place (and what of AIDS?) Contraception is available here for free. Then I wondered why she did not go for an abortion. She is Catholic but is she that devout? Possibly.

We paid her well by local standards; and she worked half-day on weekdays only. I urged her all along to find a second, part-time job and for Tina to find a job as well, but nothing happened. It was understandably hard for her to make ends meet, particularly after the third child was born. We hiked her pay once by including transport money and later threw in some money, for a few weeks, for milk for the baby. We didn’t want to give her handouts and create “dependency,” but we did end up supplementing her income in small ways and giving her advances, which she duly returned.

When Mary was on pregnancy leave, Tina came and worked for us. We got to know and like her too. I had hoped that Mary would learn Indian cooking from my mother when she was visiting Tanzania for two months. I had thought that this could be an asset in finding a job with an Indian or even foreign family. But since she was pregnant at the same time as my mother’s visit, this did not materialize.

Friends told me that coming from the Morogoro region as they did, Mary and Tina belonged to a tribe, which was inherently trustworthy. Attitudes to maids here generally leave something to be desired. And that goes for attitudes towards employees in general. There is a general lack of trust and respect on part of the employers which is mirrored by the “irresponsible” behaviour of the employees.

Next thing, Tina was pregnant with twins. When I expressed incredulity to Marc-Antoine (why had she not waited to have children?) he asked sensibly, “What else is there for her to do?” It entered my thick skull that I was judging these women by middle-class, career-woman standards. Totally unfair. Indeed what else was there to do? The one thing that probably made them feel respected was motherhood. But how were they going to feed and clothe all these kids? They expected to manage somehow.

Unfortunately tragedy struck and Tina lost her twins. We had monitored Mary’s pregnancy and had thought at one point that we would pay for a c-section if need be. Tina, being younger, seemed healthier. I had expected her pregnancy to go well. We were not asked for help either.
Finally all I could do was pray for her loss at a peaceful little outdoor shrine at a nearby Church, which I have come to like a lot. It was very sad. A first hand brush with deprivation and its terrible consequences.

Death strikes suddenly and comparatively frequently here. So many of my colleagues seem to take off quite regularly to attend funerals of relatives who often seem too young to die.

Thwarted expectations

We had told Mary a long time ago that we were temporary residents in Tanzania. As the time for our departure loomed, we asked her to focus her efforts on finding another job; we would adjust our timing to her efforts. We also talked to her through a friend who was fluent in Kiswahili that she should start planning her future, which could perhaps include a small business. We told her that we would leave her some money, and she would get some of our household goods. I talked about her and Tina to colleagues at my office in hope of finding them jobs. Some people were interested in having a full-time maid at home and Tina fitted the bill.

But her doctor said that she could not work for two months. I urged Mary to go and visit the prospective employer with Tina, nevertheless, to secure an agreement. One person seemed willing to wait for her. But nothing has happened so far; it seems that both sisters will be unemployed when we leave. I find myself rather put off by what I see as a lack of drive. Of course these women have a very raw deal indeed, but could they be doing more to help themselves?

HakiElimu focuses on the inadequate education system here. This seems directly related to Mary’s story. She could have benefited from a different education system and more options in her life.

But keep trying…

The education system typically lacks schools, desks, books, facilities, resources, qualified teachers, homes for teachers, a decent pay for them, and so on. There are some achievements; primary school enrolment is nearly universal (96.1% in 2006) and many new schools have been built. The number of secondary schools has gone up from 1.083 in 2003 to 2,289 in 2006 but they only accommodate a fraction of students who pass their primary school final exam. Secondary school enrolment stood at a mere 13% in 2006. The government is currently focussing on secondary education, after having tackled primary education first, mostly through infrastructure inputs.

Primary school is the only education most children will get, if they do not drop out. Nyerere, well aware of this, tried to create a primary education that prepared people for life. (Schoolgirl pregnancy is one reason not to finish school, and gender based violence and discrimination in general certainly mars education efforts.) The system is authoritarian, based on rote learning and multiple-choice exams. Corporal punishment is common.

HakiElimu has been talking about these issues and promoting a higher quality of education is its theme for this year. We are asking: what life and job skills do we want children to acquire thorough schooling and what is the plan to impart them? Questions that the government does not seem to be asking itself very seriously; its focus is on infrastructure rather than outputs.

Language is one of the problems. The students learn in Kiswahili in primary school and switch to English in secondary. But due to poor teaching in general, and poor language teaching in particular, they do not have adequate English skills by the time they enter secondary school. Nor are the teachers competent to teach in English.

Right now Tanzania boasts the most fallible education system in East Africa. There are very few public universities here as well. There is a parallel private education system from pre-primary to higher education, which only the well off avail of.

The failing education system is certainly one of the causes for Tanzania’s underdevelopment. Kenyan and Ugandans are accused of “stealing jobs” even as employers cry out for qualified and competent staff. At HakiElimu I was happy to be able to develop a script and storyboard for an illustrated storybook on the quality outcomes issue. Last year I got to do a similar book on HIV AIDS.

The title of this Dar Samachar – “It ain’t easy to get an education” – refers not only to the tangible educational woes, but also the struggle that the donors, various levels of government and NGOs (local and international) encounter in getting to the root causes of the problem and facilitating positive change. HakiElimu firmly believes that citizen engagement is the key to change. And is a leading NGO in this regard in Tanzania.

Letting go

We spent the last two days at our favourite beach resort, not very far from home. The Indian Ocean displayed its most gorgeous shades of blue, green and silver; the water a perfect temperature; the waves gentle; the sand silky, the sunset resplendent. The picturesque profiles of dhows were etched on the horizon as fishermen hauled in nets to rousing cries. We were given a fond farewell by the Swahili coast – a shore imbued with romance, coloured by the intermingling of cultures, scented by the spice and the slave trades.

On our last night, we went to the edge of the beach, to return some corals we had been decorating our home with. As we put them in the water, we asked the eternal sea to accept the confused emotions we felt towards Tanzania. To help us cleanse ourselves of them. We wanted to be reminded that the world is always much more complex than one’s own projections of it. When we turned away from the black water and looked up at the starlit sky, we spied the faint wash of the Milky Way. Goodbye Tanzania. We wish you well.