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My typical day

Research is going slowly but surely.  This past week was supposed to be our first full week of work, but due to rain (July used to be a dry month but seasons here shift on a 30-year cycle so it’s in the process of becoming a rainy one) and illness (my field assistant’s malaria, not me) and miscommunication (between me and the drivers), we didn’t accomplish very much.  My field assistant/master translator is very bright, very outgoing, seems genuinely interested in the project, but he’s also a pain in the ass sometimes–I’m not big into being the bossman, but he definitely tries to boss me around and it drives me nuts–but altogether he is quite hilarious.  Another researcher who was his employer before was telling me a story about when one of their other assistant’s wives had twins; Sabiiti, my homie, was super impressed and said, “Surely, I would not manage to do that.”  Ok so that’s a story that does not transfer well to the online, but trust me, it’s funny.  He is also super motivated to have as many pictures taken of him as possible, often in poses that are supposed to convey the seriously scientific nature of his work. 

In addition to Sabiiti, my staff consists of two motorcycle drivers for transportation from farm to farm whose English goes no further than hello and thank you; my Rutooro (the local language) goes just as far.  The three of them wear red helmets and I wear blue, and I imagine that we are an altogether stunning fleet as we zip around the countryside.  It is colder here than I was prepared for, but so so beautiful.  My favorite time of day is around 7:30, 8 in the morning, when the mist (we are at a tropical rainforest, I am perpetually surprised to remember) and the angle of light brings out all these different goings-on in the distance–hillside farms, tea estates, forest fragments, people winding around the hills on foot and bicycle and motorbike and car, the Rwenzori mountains in the distance.  I’ve been trying to take good landscape photos, but it’s so hard with equatorial light.  My plan for our next work day is to take a video with my camera as we head out of the park, because that is when I see some of the best views around. 

A typical day starts when I wake up around 7, although I am trying to push it back so we can get more done in the day.  Amy (the Masters student from UF) and I have leftover beans, potatoes, whatever, for breakfast on the front porch of our little house.  I put on some reasonably clean clothes, pack peanut butter and bread and little bottled waters for lunch, wrap long bars of laundry soap in newspaper as tokens of appreciation for the people I interview, then rush to shove everything into backpacks because James the motorcycle man is much more punctual than I am.  Before we get going, James says, “Ok, we go?” to confirm that my ass is all the way on the back seat of the motorcycle (all the bikes here are equipped to seat a driver and passenger quite comfortably and two passengers without too much difficulty), a ritual that I instituted after I nearly flew off the back a few times on the first day during surprise take-offs.

We go meet Sabiiti and Richard, the other motorcycle man, in the nearby trading center, which is a short block of cement buildings with corrugated tin roofs.  I have a small fan club of snot-faced toddlers who usually run out to the road, chanting, “Omujungu!  Omujungu!”  (“Honky!”  “Honky!”)  Sabiiti and I confer briefly about what I want to accomplish for the day (“Um, ok, let’s talk to more tea farmers!”), and then we sort of just take off–I don’t usually know where to until we get there, and then it doesn’t really matter anyway because there are so many similar-looking villages on similar-looking roads that I am in a constant state of disorientation. 

We go from home to home of local tea farmers, where Sabiiti introduces me in the local language, Rutooro, and explains that I am a student and not interested in taking anyone’s land or whatever people might think.  Sometimes they ask me inside to doily-adorned parlors, but usually a child appears with wooden benches and stools.  We sit down and I ask them all kinds of stuff–how they started growing tea, all the costs and revenues associated with the business, any problems and worries they have with their tea, whether proximity to the park is a problem for tea versus their food crops, and on and on.  Interestingly, tea has been promoted by the government, the park authorities and NGOs in the area as an effective “buffer zone” crop, good for planting at the perimeter of the rainforest, because the crop-raiding baboons and elephants and duikers and whatnot have no interest in it.  However, as far as I can figure out, no one has studied whether it actually helps prevent crop-raiding or is just resistant to crop-raiding itself, or even whether it is environmentally sustainable at the forest’s edge.  On the other hand, the park authority has planted the perimeter with stands of eucalyptus, a non-native, water-loving species, so that just makes no sense, although it does a good job of providing the woodfuel that people depend on and have difficulty getting enough of. 

The average interview takes about an hour.  I’ve noticed that if the subject is an older person, well-educated, English-speaking, it can go way, way longer.  I talked to one man whose daughter had attended college in Florida and who had visited New York, DC, LA, Philadelphia, Ann Arbor; we were there for about 2 hours.  On Saturday we spent 2 hours with another such gentleman who told me all about how he plants trees to commemorate special occasions–presidential elections, visits from researchers (he said he would plant one for me that evening), papal visits, even the day that the world’s population hit 6 billion.  He gave me all kinds of colonial history and theories about maximizing profits from commodities and whatnot.  Many of the older people sell their tea to the grower-owned factory, which has been getting shadier in the way they deal with their outgrowers, so that is also interesting to hear about.  Many of the older people also talk about life under Idi Amin, the brutal dictator of the ’70s who is depicted in the movie “Last King of Scotland.”

As far as problems–mostly people gripe about how the costs of imported fertilizer and herbicides continue to rise while the market price of tea stagnates, the increasing difficulty of finding people to work their tea fields (it is a very labor-intensive crop, although not to the extent that sugarcane and cotton are, and generally only immigrants from other parts of Uganda are willing to work as a day laborers, as the indigenous tribespeople place a high value on land ownership and farming), the lack of support from the factories that buy their tea with regards to price protection and input supply and transportation (for quality reasons, tea has to go directly from the field to the factory).  But they keep growing it, dream of expanding their farms (although a booming population means that available land is getting scarcer, and money for new plants are hard to come by) and say that they would recommend it to other people, because it is an “everlasting” crop, and what margins they do make allow them to afford school for their children, healthcare, home improvements. 

At the end, I typically ask the person if they have any questions for me.  Usually they ask how the research will help them, whether I will return with the results (as so many researchers do not–but the project I am affiliated with has a tradition of holding community meetings where they present the information using flipcharts), whether I am enjoying Uganda.  No one has asked me for money, although I’ve seen people ask the other UF researchers for that; that’s probably because most of the people I’ve talked to have been fairly wealthy, as it takes a certain amount of money to maintain tea and then it also provides a relatively reliable income. 

The man on Saturday asked the question I dread most when I am in Africa.  He began, “So, you are not from Russia, where they are godless.  You are from America, where they are believers, right?”  Well, yeesss.  “So, do you believe in God?”  Well, I was raised Christian.  “Which sect?”  Methodist.  “What?”  Oh, I don’t know if they have that in Africa.  “Oh, well, I am Roman Catholic.  I believe in the infallibility of the Pope.  Well, not when he says it’s going to rain, but on heavenly matters, the Pope is infallible.”  I see.  Then I present the bars of soap, which Amy also gives to her interviewees; she has been getting rough reviews, but my peeps have generally been really pleased and delighted, so that we go through a series of thank yous and whatnot.  Then I offer to take their photograph and bring back the print before I leave, which is one of my favorite parts of the whole thing, and definitely more fun than asking the same damn questions over and over.  Sometimes they ask me to wait while they put on different clothes or gather various family members; Saturday’s man changed into a clean shirt, and added a nice blazer and an elaborate rosary.  We take the first picture in the African style: very serious–almost frowning, posed, stiff.  Then I ask them to smile, which they find hilarious; these pictures are my favorites, although some of the older (and more Westernized) folks have given me really nice, dignified half-smiles on the first go, so we stick with that.  I show them the pictures on my camera and then we say thank you and goodbye to each other for a good little while, and then we get back on the motorcycle and go to the next house.  I wave to people on the way, and sometimes they give me looks of confusion and go-away, but mostly people just wave back and smile.    

Recounting in my mind the different interviews I have had–how eloquently most people spoke of their problems, how perceptive just about everyone seemed to be about their external causes…  I think if I asked most people back home what they imagine poor rural African farmers to be like, the people I’ve encountered is not what they would expect.  Not that I buy into some variation on the “noble savage” theme–for sure, people in Africa can be real assholes, and selfish, and plain old dumb–just like some Americans.  Hell, if you ask most Americans to imagine an American farmer, they’d probably think of some dumb hick, and that just ain’t always true.

Last week, Amy, Gosia (a researcher from Poland who is pretty much the nicest person ever), and I were watching “About A Boy” with this girl whose father is one of the teachers for a field course at the research station run through Cambridge; at the end of the movie, she remarked that it seemed so silly to be watching a romantic comedy in the middle of the rainforest “where people are just trying to survive.”  I know she meant well, and, to be sure, there are some desperately poor people around who are on the brink of non-survival.  The people who are considered wealthy would not be even middle-class at home.  People here say that they struggle to afford schooling, healthcare; all kinds of stuff we basically take for granted, like electricity and running water in the home, are generally not even an option out here in the sticks.  However, I have not met any Ugandans or Tanzanians who are constantly preoccupied with “survival.”  People here plant flowers in front of their houses, argue about whether Manchester United or Chelsea are the superior football club, get drunk on homebrew, read the newspaper, gossip, cheat on their lovers and spouses, soothe crying children who are not their own, attend literacy classes, weave baskets, ride bicycles for fun, , yell at drunks and crazies for being creepy, repair roads and roofs, have parties for weddings and birthdays, talk on their cellphones too loudly at inappropriate times…you know, normal people stuff.  Not that I always feel completely comfortable and at home here, because that kind of peace is actually quite rare for me, but it’s definitely a mistake to think that people who are poor are people who live boring, simplistic, marginal lives.

Ok, class, lecture is over for today.

I wish I could post pictures but the connection is way too dicey…when I get back to the US I will rework the hell out of this guy and it will be AWESOME.  Oh my goodness, it ain’t that long before I’m on a plane from Amsterdam to New York (August 13)…

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BABOONANZA!

Three weeks ago today I was wandering around the East Village, doing last-minute errands, eating bagels in parks, enjoying overpriced Mexican food with Kevin and Christine with COLD beer—the last time that happened, I was in the capital city of Kampala…mmm nothing like a warm half-liter of liquid bread-style beer at the end of a hot sticky day in the field.  You know what though?  I’m being serious; that shit is delicious.

My only complaint is that all of this activity and fresh country mountain air and clean living and whatnot has, quite nonsensically, really disturbed my quality of sleep.  Everyone else is all “oh gosh I’m sleeping like a baby log,” but I haven’t woken up feeling really rested since…FOREVER.  I really dislike sleeping without David.  Last night was exceptionally ridiculous.  I woke up at some unholy hour (4 maybe? Couldn’t find my little clock) to what sounded like someone slapping our doors every 20-30 minutes for, like, TWO HOURS.  My first five minutes awake, I just knew I was at my parents’ house; something to do with being in a twin bed and its position in the room that felt just like my old bedroom in Cockeysville.  Evidence, such as my hot pink mosquito net (classy!), suggested otherwise, but I just couldn’t shake the feeling.  Took me forever to get back to sleep, between the spooky knocking, which eventually I decided was Congolese rebels seeking refuge (thanks to rumors of a firefight between them and the Wildlife Authority rangers in a remote part of park), a periodic hissing sound, which was clearly one of the many species of poisonous snakes in the nearby forest, and an urgent need to pee (too much watermelon at dinner, and I don’t even like it that much) that could not be satisfied amidst all of the guerillas and cobras and whatnot.  Did I mention that Joel keeps talking about safari ants chasing past researchers out of their house and old stories of treacherous swaths of the little beasts eating backpackers and all of their belongings in their sleep so that nothing was left…Ok, so with taking Lariam (main side effect: vivid dreams) and all the horrors peopling my spatial imagination, yes the persistent fatigue makes perfect sense.

The other big excitement this week has been rowdy baboons, left and right, in and out of people’s pantries and kitchens (which are housed in little stone huts behind the duplexes where we sleep and work)—a few days ago, one tried to get into the metal lockbox in our neighbors’ kitchen and bent the top into a valley shape when he couldn’t figure out the latch.  Earlier that afternoon, another one had been chased by a village mutt around the clearing at camp into the woods, where it sounded like the poor dog got whooped by the baboon’s buddies.  Yesterday, while we were having lunch at park headquarters on the edge of a crater lake (which are gorgeous but home to swimming cobras and I didn’t bring my swimsuit anyway), there were a few running around, gazing around on lookout duty, organizing to make off with avocadoes out of a tree—when bam, the huge branch came crashing down and they ran off without any fruit.  Abe and Joel chased one out of their living room yesterday (they leave the front and back doors open for the breeze)—it made off with a yet-unidentified object.  They are just bold, as Tanisha would say.

 

By far the best day of the week was Wednesday.  I woke up feeling pooped and not particularly excited about the long day we had planned on the eastern side of the park—group interviews with elders about the land use history in the area, reading to children and a big hoo-ha at one of the four libraries that Joel and Freerk and Gosia (two long-term researchers) opened through their non-profit, Foundation for Children’s Education in Uganda (www.booksopentheworld.org, go there to check it out and HELP OUT).  Turned out to be awesome.  We picked up Peace, the field assistant from that side of the park; we work with him in addition to Erimosi, badass field assistant of the year, because most people over there speak Rukiga rather than Rutooro—it’s so weird to be somewhere where, unlike Tanzania, people identify very much in tribal rather than national terms, although that’s the norm for much of Sub-Saharan Africa—but then I also picture a busy, multi-ethnic city when I think of S-S Africa, which is atypical as well.  Anyway, we headed over to the home of this old lady—must have been 70 or so—whose property is bounded by the park, less than 50 meters from her little house.  She was totally pumped to see us—Joel has interviewed her before—and the first 10 minutes we were there she greeted and amply blessed each one of us.  I couldn’t understand a word of what she was saying—I know almost no Rutooro or Rukiga—but it all sounded very warm and sweet.  I sat down next to her, holding hands—she kept examining my fingers and fingernails and making remarks to her various descendants, which was a little weird.  Then Abe and Joel started interviewing her, until her 50ish-year-old son butted in and started taking over with answering questions, which was obnoxiously patriarchal, although he was very nice as well.  At the end of the interview, she leapt up and asked to have her picture taken—Joel and Abe have a longstanding policy of taking family portraits at the end of household interviews and bringing back the prints at the end of the summer, which takes a few days.  Definitely my favorite visit so far, after the family we interviewed last week, where the older man took out a homemade lap guitar and sang the most beautiful song about the first Rutooro man to take an airplane ride—seriously gorgeous, Devandra would be jealous, and I can’t wait until I get my hands on an internet connection fast enough to upload the video.

After the family, we headed over to a group elder interview; nothing much exciting.  Lunch was awesome—we had the best mandazi, which are fried dough balls, made by the village chairman, I’ve ever had—I actually burned my fingers on one, which I didn’t know was possible—generally you see them sitting in glass cases for days, weeks…  We added strawberry jam, which tastes like a mix between strawberry flavor and generic red flavor, to make jelly donuts!  Awesome until the local obnoxious drunk of the day stumbled up and started harassing us, saying, “Muzungu, muzungu, I am here, I am here.”  I made the mistake of eye contact, and for the rest of the day whenever we passed through the trading center he was haunting he would lunge and grab at me.  Blech.  Chairman and another local dude finally chased him with long sticks.

 From the lunch spot, Joel and Amy and I hiked half a kilometer to KAFRED, a local conservation/eco-tourism project, for Amy to do her first project interview (!).  On the way we talked to a boy who said he was 13 but looked 9 or 10 carrying a big bundle of papyrus reeds—he said, “Give me a pen,” which is standard conversation from local children, but I said no because the one in my back pocket was the only one I had (and because saying “give me a pen” is not the best way to go about getting one)—the very same pen fell into a floor toilet not 20 minutes later.  Bah! 

 3:30 was the appointed time for my read-along at the community library.  I started hiking back to town at around 3:15 and as soon as it was in eyeshot—so were a million little kids and all of their mothers and all of the deadbeat dudes hanging around.  Allen, the librarian, packed us into a little backroom that just got hotter and hotter—no bigger than 10 by 10 feet, and there were at least 30 kids in there.  She handed me four books, mostly about different animals and the sounds they make and colors and such, which I read through about 4 or 5 times apiece.  I watched the kids getting sweatier and sweatier until Allen came back to check on us and moved us out onto along the main street.  We had a blast.  Turns out my rooster and sheep and pig impersonations are top-notch.  It was so ridiculous reading through these books about horses and sea lions and ducks—none of which are very abundant in East Africa.  It’s awesome that the Foundation has collected all of these books for the kids—but it’d also be nice if there was some appropriateness to the cultural context.  Joel and I talked about doing a book-making workshop for the kids so they could write their own stories in their own language, but there is so much else the Foundation is trying to do.

As I read to the kids, all of the adults watched and laughed and had a good time too—except for our dutiful asshole, who yelled insults from across the street.  It was exhausting though, and I was glad when Abe, Erimos, Peace, Amy and Joel showed up for the hoo-haw.  Allen had arranged for the local art class and a bunch of women to do traditional dances…I can’t do justice to them right now, because I’m running out of time but I have plenty of video that will show up someday.  The women’s dance was so moving…they all looked so happy jumping around in rhythm with each other.  I don’t know for sure but it seems like a lot of the women around here, as in a lot of Africa, are responsible for holding down the fort—not a whole lot of time for socializing and whatnot.  The women who live closer to village trading centers or who run their own market stalls get out more, but the farming women are always home, always doing a million chores.  So it was really neat to see them having the chance to celebrate and be together, and remarkable how their faces went back to poker-straight after they had changed out of their matching white t-shirts and traditional cloth skirts.  Being trapped in boredom, in a little tiny part of the world that never gets any bigger…

 Meant to end on an up note, because it really was a magical day, but time for lunch.  I can’t wait for everyone to see the videos!

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FIRST DAY OF CAMP RESEARCH

The rest of our Friday in Kampala was extremely pleasant and full of spending money.  We took bodabodas, the motorcycle/motor scooter taxis, everywhere that was far enough to justify it.  For the equivalent of a dollar or less, you hop on the back of the man’s bike and tuck in your knees and elbows as he squeezes between cars and goes the wrong way on one-way streets and all sorts of other perfectly executed maneuvers.  Our first ride was to the big grocery store, where we got all sorts of treats including Maryland brand chocolate chip cookies, which were a favorite of mine in TZ.  We spent the rest of the afternoon on souvenir shopping.  Even though I just got here I got a head start since I don’t want to do a repeat of my last week in Tanzania spent in frenzy at the arts market.  When we got back to the hotel I bought 6 meters of kitenge fabric to have made into a dress, a bath towel, an alarm clock and a copy of D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, all in the space of about 9 minutes.

Dinner was Indian food and my first Ugandan beer.  We met up with Gosha and Frerich (I’m butchering their names; when they get back to camp I’ll get the proper spelling), a married couple who actually met at the research station.  (Just tonight at the canteen some of the researchers were reminiscing about how Frerich brought an alto sax with him and used to play the same fusion jazz riffs every evening, to the great fury of some chimp researcher doing night work who would yell at him from the woods to shut the fuck up already.)  Anyway, they’re both really lovely and I’m looking forward to hanging out with them this summer.  They actually live in the house next to the one that Amy and I are moving into tomorrow. 

After dinner we hit nightlife jackpot.  At first we were going to get drinks at this ritzy place called Mateo’s, but the drinks were more expensive than we liked so we headed over to The Slow Boat.  We walk in and a young woman is up onstage booty-dancing like it’s her job…which it turned out it was: she was part of the Fabulous Squad, which pretty much put on a variety show.  After homegirl were a few men getting down to local dance music, including one dude who commenced his act by ripping off his shirt and then moved his hips with more precision than anyone I have ever seen.  It was terrifying.

The next act, a skit with lip-synch numbers, was more of a slow boil.  Only a few lines were in English: “Daughter, go home to your bed and wait and I will come to you,” “It will land in your mouth.”  Then, pay dirt with the arrival of the father’s new wife-to-be, played by a very tall, broad-shouldered man with a big ol’ fake tabletop booty and blackface makeup.  Ridiculousness ensued as the father sicced his new lady on his wife—all kinds of high kicks showing off his red panties (over black spandex shorts) and somersaults and ninja poses.

More karaoke dancing after the skit—two men came out to perform a ballad.  They’re onstage, singing…and then they’re walking off the stage…and then, oh shit, they’re pulling Amy and me up to dance with them.  I thought it would just be a few minutes of lalala, but no, we stayed and danced for the whole song.  And then two ladies came out and brought Joel and Frerich up for some serious boogying.  We have pictures AND video…some day.

Saturday, we drove up to camp.  It’s gorgeous.  There’s even a toilet box on one of the choos (rhymes with “those”).  Until Amy and I move into our own place we are crashing the peace formerly enjoyed by a nice British guy named Graham who’s doing stuff with a colobus community on the edge of the forest.  We basically just killed time until dinner, which we had at the home of the Chapmans, an academic couple from McGill who used to be at UF who have had a project here for 18 years now.  They have a specialty called “cheesy pasta” that was fabulous—along with local potato-bananas and peas and rice and all that. 

Hit up the canteen after that for beers.  There must have been at least 10 other researchers there.  They pretty much all knew each other, whether for weeks or years, which was intimidating on top of them being super academic and bright and, I don’t know, grown up.  I definitely feel I’m in a little over my head.  Just talking with Joel, the PhD student who did the last 2 summers at Kibale and is here now to help Amy and me get set up, about everything that I will need to do to make this project happen….ah!!!

Tomorrow is the first official workday!

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kampala, uganda

My rematch with Jomo Kenyatta Airport went surprisingly well yesterday.  Everything was on time, my bags were checked all the way through so I didn’t have to cart them around with me during the layover like I did on Sunday, Joel and Amy found me with no problem, even the airport itself looked and felt like a clearer, brighter, happier, less hostile place.

With the exception of one duty-free shop employee, the newest addition to my short list of enemies.  I was trying to buy an alarm clock (of all the dumb things to forget!) and he was being SUPER rude and acting like I was a total pain in the ass because I wanted to know how much something cost (nothing was marked).  So when some white dude came in wanting to buy a phone (for WAY more than would pay in the market), I gave him a heads up–and swiftly got a mega-dose of sarcasm to go with getting tossed out.

We got into Kampala around midnight last night.  The bar across the street from the hotel was bumpin (we could’ve gone “transnighting,” Ugandan English slang for going out all night) but we settled for HOT SHOWERS, bottles of water from the hotel bar and some E! network time.  I don’t even remember what we watched–weird celebrity countdown-type stuff.  Glorious.  (I have all these ridiculous synonyms for “good” and “bad” floating around in my head because that was the lesson I sat in on at the English class my last night in Tanzania…which I will have to write more about because it was AWESOME.)

Continental breakfast this morning–mistook papaya (which we decided tastes like “dirty spit” and “biting into wet toilet paper”) for mango, which was a bummer.  Today: money changing, SIM card buying, and other sundry errands.

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TOMORROW: KATE VS. JOMO KENYATTA AIRPORT, ROUND 2

And I am feeling rather intimidated about it, and yet I am strangely uplifted by the nutjob sitting next to me outside the Internet café going on about how he’s going to kill a Tanzanian businessman sitting at a table nearby; from the look of his gestures it looks to be a gruesome pistol/machete job.  I think he actually just mentioned the CIA, which should be commended for penetrating the paranoid ramblings of a man in Tanzania who has probably never left the country.

However, the more important thing is that TZ has been wonderful.  The jaunt to Zanzibar was kind of a bust as far as my original plans, but I got in some good sleep and some good food and it was good to be with a family, although that rather complicated my having a good post-arrival breakdown.  I didn’t get to take many pictures due to my aversion to Japanese Tourist Syndrome, including: a diagram of the alimentary canal (labeled as such) on the side of a school building and a field covered with fishing nets as fisherman repaired and sewed them together.

I came to Dar yesterday and have been hanging hard with Ally ever since, to the great amusement of the children who live in his building.  He has been catching me up on all the hilarious and bizarre anecdotes that have occurred since I left (Lewis, y’all threw a KEG party?  On the ROOF?  And you sat facing the other way and called Hill Park, Park Hill, in order to be REVOLUTIONARY?)  Yesterday we went to campus and it was just weird how much things have changed and stayed the same.

Different: They have PAVED the bus station at Mwenge, so that when it rains you are not wading ankle-deep through serious mud.  And there are SIGNS that tell you which bus to get.  This is monumental and will be documented with a photograph asap.
Same:  The woman I used to talk to at the student canteen was still there and even remembered me.  Different:  The inside of Hill Park is now a formal dining room that is strictly forbidden as a shortcut to the choo.
Same:  A Tusker and some peanuts (they were out of cashews) out behind Hill Park is still an ideal way to spend an afternoon hour.
And so on.

HUGELY different:  They finished building a really Gucci mall/movie theatre combo that they had just started when I was here last.  There are stores with trendy clothes like Gadzooks or Forever 21 and there are stores with men’s suits and a Samsung store with nothing but high-end electronics and on and on. There’s a store very similar to Walmart with everything from beach towels to beer to bicycles to refrigerators and a wall of flat-screen TVs; took some sweet pictures but OF COURSE I don’t have my camera cord with so add that to the list of things I forgot to bring with me this morning.  There is also a grocery store that is probably the biggest and nicest I have seen in Dar with real butter (for $6 a pound) and RED BULL.  Stepping inside this air-conditioned monster is kind of like leaving Tanzania.

And I has said yesterday in my very short post, I have fallen quite easily back into the rhythm of negotiating everyday life in Dar.  Quite comfortable in my betwixt-and-between gender role as a white woman: in some ways I am treated like a man, in that it is acceptable for me to do things on my own, engage in intellectual debate, leave the house looking schlummy, and I am not really expected to assist with cooking, cleaning, childcare while at a friend’s house the way that a Tanzanian woman who is also a guest might be expected to.  On the other hand, my male Tanzanian friends certainly extend a certain protective chivalry.  It’s all very weird but somehow makes sense to me.  Other things that seem normal: all the smells of a lot of people living in a small area without adequate sanitary systems (although they are very mild in most of Dar), bargaining in Swahili, conducting myself in Swahili in general.  There are things that I am more comfortable with than I was when I left too, especially the whole mzungu thing; I just don’t give a crap anymore.  Maybe I had to leave and subconsciously process it for a year or so in order to get over it.

Last night Ally and I went to Innocent’s for dinner.  Joseph Jr. and I had a blast as usual.  I brought him a Spiderman math workbook, an army hat, and a weird flying disk thing from the US; he was delighted and kept asking me if I had more presents for him (in a cute, not-too-bratty way).  He was also in love with my camera and kept torturing everyone with his picture taking.  He is also very adept at the arm stretching self-portrait shot.  GOSH I wish I could post these pictures now.  It was sooo good to see them.

Innocent told me all about this very exciting program he and some of his friends from business school have launched: training sessions for entrepreneurs.  They ran a short commercial about it on TV and have already have offers to come to other towns with travel and everything paid for.  They have also already had a few sessions at Mwenge; the carvers were some of the first students.  The first session there were 15 students, then 25, then 30.  They are applying for a government grant to cover printing and travel costs so that the sessions can be free; right now it is 5000/= ($4.50) for a month of weekly sessions.  So far they have covered how to keep records, make a business plan, and the importance of being competitive and innovative rather than just copying other businesses.  Beyond the group sessions, individual facilitators visit the men at work and make sure they are implementing the tools correctly.  This program complements so perfectly the requirements of programs that make loans and grants to entrepreneurs—microcredit NGOs, government programs—that I can’t imagine they won’t get the government grant.

Ally also explained the hilarious hijinks that occurred when the Chinese exchange students tried to incorporate a Chinese lesson into the English classes at Mwenge.  Apparently, they kind of just started showing up and teaching Chinese (they were really proficient in Swahili) and all of the English teachers got pissed but couldn’t do anything because the students were interested in learning it.  Ally chaired a huge meeting to negotiate a scheduling compromise that gave the Chinese teachers about 3 hours per week (while extending class by about 40 minutes 3 times a week).  Pretty soon, though, the students realized that the Chinese was mixing up with their English (no kidding!), so NO one wanted them to be there but no one had the nerve to ask them to stop.  Essentially, manners and circumstance compelled the students to study Chinese against their will: what a dilemma, right?

Well I am late to meet Ajali at Mwenge.  Today we are going to be around 30 tingatinga paintings to mail back to the US so I can sell them at home to raise money for the scholarship fund.  Get ready to buy beautiful trippy African paintings done with bicycle paint for super cheap upon my return!

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3 June 2007: EL DIA DE DISASTROS

It is 8:00 pm, East African time, and I have slept no more than 2 out of the last 40 hours.  Today, intended as my lovely day of napping and lounging on a Zanzibar beach, I have spent 14 hours at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, Kenya.  I am so tired that I used an African-style toilet (link to picture) unnecessarily.  In the next half hour, Ally’s mother’s driver will be pulling up to the airport to pick me up from 6:50 flight and I haven’t even left yet.  I will sleep instantly on the plane but I don’t see a way that I can get to bed before midnight, and it’s bed-sleep that I am in sorest need of.

The dead butterfly that got this cosmic shift started was the sale of one Kenya Airways ticket from Nairobi to Zanzibar for a 12:45 pm flight.  There is no 12:45 flight on Sundays.  I was informed that I was booked for a 6:00 flight (that turned out to be a 6:50 flight that recently turned out to be an hour-and-a-half delayed flight) and that my e-ticket number was not in the system so come back in two hours to pick up your tickets.  David was supremely helpful over the phone with looking up stuff online (the internet was down) but it didn’t change the fact that the flight didn’t exist.  I spent two hours hobbling through a painful exchange with a French-speaking Algerian man as a means of diversion, which was effective at the time but ultimately wearisome because by the time it was 6:30 pm and I was completely beat and headachy, I couldn’t tell him nicely that I wanted to be alone and had to resort to focusing intently on my novel.  Our biggest breakthrough was my understanding him when he told me that Egyptian culture is ancient because the sculptures there are thousands of years old, which, looking back, does not even make any sense at all really.

I don’t even know why I’m trying to write.  I am so wore out.  I feel like my station wagon the day that it was riding on a donut and the other 3 tires were all showing steel.  The ride to Zanzibar is short but going through customs and retrieving baggage and driving to the hostel will all be the longest process I have ever experienced in my life.  My mouth feels like a Petri dish at the CDC; I haven’t brushed since yesterday afternoon.  OH and I am so hungry (today I have had: a soda, cashews, 8 peanut M&Ms, a delicious raspberry yogurt; slept through free lunch in transit lounge) that I bought a chicken sandwich (the yogurt was not solving all of my problems) that I took one bite of before I realized what I was doing and threw it away.

I AM SO BURNT THAT I AM LEAKING METAPHORS.

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The wee hours of 2 June/3 June: AMSTERDAM TO NAIROBI, BLOW-BY-BLOW

AMSTERDAM TO NAIROBI, BLOW-BY-BLOW

While talking to one of my rowmates (sure that’s a word) on the plane, a middle-aged man who I believe is Indian by heritage but Kenyan by birth and Canadian by residence—a ethnic/national/pollitical—I looked up at the monitor that shows a little plane heading southward from Amsterdam, Netherlands, to Nairobi, Kenya, and saw that we were just a nudge into Africa…in a few hours the sun will be rising in Nairobi as my plane lands.  Hopefully I will not still be awake!  I have not slept in about 19 hours so I fear that I am developing a dastardly inability to sleep.  Hopefully, some relaxing this afternoon at the beach resort in Bububu (accent on the middle “bu”—yes, it is in fact the funnest word ever) as well as a big fish and pilau dinner with a few beers will send me to a restful night before too late.  Ah and then the day after I will see my Kaka Ally!

Rowmate and I actually had quite the pleasant coversation.  He was impressed by my love for Stoney Tanga Wizi and East African beer (which, thankfully for my wallet, forever ruined my taste for expensive delicate Belgian ales like Blue Moon and the such, as it is essentially a liquid version of my favorite food: bread).  We talked about his daughters, one of whom is studying to be a nurse—he had a sweetly great empathy for how hard she works and even wrote a paper for her this semester because he could sense she was getting overwhelmed—at a college, rather than university (I guess in Canada a college degree is similar to an Associate’s whereas a university degree is similar to a Bachelor’s—do I have that right, Angelina?)  Which led us to discuss the rapid standardization of higher education—that is, whereas our grandparents could create a middle-class lifestyle on a middle school or high school education,

WHOA just accidentally/luckily discovered the classic rock channel on the plane radio and am currently listening to…  FREE BIRD.  The part where it speeds up and he’s all like “why don’t you fly, free bird?”  Yeah.  I am on fire.

I am actually a bit anxious about hanging out in Dar Es Salaam.  My Swahili, as I attempt to review it in the privacy of my own mind, is straight up corroded.   I recall perfectly all the numbers and verb conjugations but HELLO, nouns and verbs are kind of important.  It’s like I have plenty of salt and pepper but no (fake) meat and potatoes   This is not really a problem, per se—I am feeling confident in my ability to get around and do stuff.  I just don’t want to embarrass myself in front of my buddies.  And, truth be told, I am nervous about seeing the buddies as well—my correspondence as been slipshod, and at this point we have been apart about three times as long as we had a chance to hang out.  Plus, my jetlag was not so bad going west to east as east to west last time but I am generally susceptible to crankiness anyway.

[Further exploration of previously unknown plane radio channels has revealed Belle and Sebastian to be on the Easy Listening channel.  Which makes a literal kind of sense but  the connotations discomfit me.  If David Bowie and Brian Eno and Tom Waits weren’t also on this Easy Listening playlist (and, say, Yani or Bolton were),that would just be real fucked up, huh?  And now Indigo Girls are playing “Closer to Fine” and the harmonic divergence on the title hook fills me with warmth.

Read Steinbeck’s Cannery Row today.  Antonia had lent me its sequel Sweet Thursday last summer of which I read twenty pages before losing it under my brother’s bed, so it seemed ideal to pick up a super lightweight copy at the airport bookstore for $6.  I was tempted to get Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (I think I am remembering that title correctly) because I have never read him but he is supposed to be sheer genius and I think out in the forest I will have the proper mental space and time for a literary challenge.  ANYWAY: Steinbeck.  Gorgeous.  The only thing of his that I’d read before was Grapes of Wrath and that was for a high school English class; as I recall, our interaction was a strange mix of extensive analysis during class and a fair amount of skimming on my own time—and as far as I can tell, that novel was a completely different kind of endeavor for Steinbeck than was Cannery.  Which was delightful and absorbing in that he didn’t dig too deep so much as he covered a lot of ground.  At times I felt annoyed and let down by his treatment of female characters but he is of that macho/bohemian twist generation of writers.  Overall, though, marvelous: within the first few pages a town shot up and throughout the “slim volume” it and its inhabitants flourished through rough spots and high points and poetical (rather than philosophical) musing.  I cannot wait to dive back in to Sweet Thursday—nor for the re-readings of Cannery I am sure to partake of this summer, as books will be much scarcer than leisure time made for exhaustion-friendly activities like reading.

LUCKILY I just switched the radio back to the Country & Western station in time for Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman”: featuring the hook, “Here’s to all my sisters out there keeping it country: lemme get a big hell yeah from the redneck girls like me.”  It seems like I’m poking fun but I actually think it’s a great song.  There’s a bit about buying lingerie at Walmart for half the price and still looking just as sexy—a warm, witty, earnest assertion of confidence on behalf of lower/lower-middle class yet mainstream women and a nice slap at the elitism of those who profess radical politics, which has never made sense to me except in the context of the greater truth that no one is perfect and rarely even halfway there.

I unplugged the airplane radio and am listening to my boyfriend David’s band The Deep and Holy Sea on my iTunes.  Shamefully enough, we sort of indirectly fight about his music sometimes because I can’t get over my jealousy that he has this beautiful means of expression that fits so perfectly with his abilities and passions and friends (whereas I am too lazy and lame and a classic case of not taking my own advice to buckle down and write something worthwhile and the only thing I would change about my essential, born-with-it self is that I wish I had the potential to sing loveliness rather than crappiness).  WOW it is weird to admit this gross envy to people other than David.  Anyway, listening to his beautiful songs is making me miss him in a way that is good but indulgent and I therefore probably shouldn’t torture myself too often.

According to the monitor, we are almost perfectly halfway between Khartoum and the Darfur Mountains right now.  Another one of shameful secrets is my complete non-participation in acting against the genocide in Sudan and the war in Iraq.  I can’t even claim to be even reasonably informed on either situation; reading “This Modern World” a few times a month does not really cut it.  Yet another instance of gaping hollows beneath my façade of education.

It’s 3:30 am, East Africa time, and you know what we passengers were wishing?  That they would just turn on the damn cabin lights and pass out some hot towels to commence our second in-flight meal ALREADY COME ON PEOPLE.  Awesome.  I know they promised us a continental breakfast (mmm we all know how delicious they generally turn out to be), but I’d say that very few passengers give a rat’s ass.  This is an early wakeup call even by Tanzanian standards (where I’d say somewhere between 5 and 6:30 is normal; sleeping until 7:30 or 8 is considered somewhat extravagant and staying in bed past 9 is pretty much unheard of).

I keep panicking about the adequacy of the gear that I packed (especially my sandally sneaker things that I brought instead of proper hiking shoes, because my right ankle still worries me).  My general tactic is to remind myself of a woman I saw on some kind of news magazine TV special who lives on a hill of a central African country (I forget which—maybe the DRC?) where she carries serious loads (e.g. 100 pounds of beans) on her back up and down rocky dirt paths traversing big jungly hills with nothing but cheap plastic flip flops that she generally removes because she is more surefooted without them.  For pittance, without her now deceased husband to help raise their several children, and guinea pigs running around to be sold as meat.  There are also shots of men sitting on huge rock piles handcrafting gravel…that often goes unsold so that they often go unpaid.

See, your life is awesome, right?  [link to wealth site]

Ha! maybe this is why I don’t get invited to parties very often anymore.

Hopefully I will grow into my dark repetitive thought and then my delayed adolescence (and with it my arch nemesis, adult acne) will finally conclude—you know, maybe before I’m TWENTY-FIVE.  (Not that 25 is old, but I think it is too old to indulge in self-righteousness and miscellaneous brattiness.)

PS: 90ish minutes until we land in Nairobi, and of course I’m just getting tired as it’s coming up on 10 pm EST.  That is depressing on a few different levels.  Quick nap for me, and maybe when I wake up I’ll have feeling in my long-suffering tailbone region again?  One must have hopes and dreams.

Of course I am a total brat: “Oh wah, I’m flying to Africa, my bum hurts from sitting on it too long, wah wah.”

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