(I've changed the name from "Rants" given that I can't really rant about many things that frustrate me here, at least not without getting into some sort of trouble. As such, you'll have to wait for the book.)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Something Fishy Going On

One of the nice things about being in Dar es Salaam is living by the ocean. Growing up land-locked, I never even set foot in the sea until I was a teenager. It wasn't until about two decades later that I would actually live by the ocean in Monterey, California. It was a wonderful thing, I have to say. Even though I still generally prefer rugged mountains, the ocean is quite a magical place – the physical beauty that always seems to be changing, the ocean air, hanging out at the beach, swimming, snorkeling, diving, etc.

And then there's the food. Life in Monterey gave me an appreciation for seafood that I have maintained ever since. Over the past five years of living in Tanzania, most of which has been spent living next to the Indian Ocean, I have continued to take advantage of what the sea has to offer. Off the coast of Dar es Salaam there are well over 400 species of fish, many of which are edible.

lunch on Bongoyo Island
Recently, however, I found out something disturbing about this wonderful fish that I've been eating. One of the challenges in selling fish in the tropics is that the heat makes the fish go bad quickly. Also, due to the challenges and cost in accessing ice and refrigeration, other means are being sought to keep from tossing the rotting catch of the day if it's not sold within a short time. In the newspaper a few weeks ago there was a story about fisherman in Dar es Salaam and the Coast Region using formalin to preserve fish. When I read this, it didn't sound good though I wasn't sure exactly what formalin was. Enter Google. Formalin is the aqueous solution of formaldehyde, a highly toxic chemical compound famous for embalming dead human beings. Yes, you heard it right folks; we're eating the stuff they put in corpses to keep them fresh enough for us to say good-bye to them.

  the Dar es Salaam fish market

Allegedly users are directed to use one cupful of the chemical diluted in a ten-liter bucket of water used to store about three hundred kilos of fish. In doing so, the fish can stay for at least three to four days without decomposing. Then, when the fish is sent to the market, it has to be washed and soaked in water for at least one or two hours before being displayed to buyers.

Though this is new to me, this is not new. Other countries are apparently aware of this practice including a similar scandal in Vietnam in 2007. Here in Tanzania this could be all conspiracy theory but based upon what I know about some other business practices, it does seem to make sense.


formalin free

At first glance you might be saying, how bad can it be? I mean maybe this is a good thing. Maybe this is like "botox for the rest of me." Maybe a regular dose of formalin will keep you feeling young for centuries.

Alas no. Medical experts say formalin causes disorders in the oral cavity, the gastrointestinal tract, liver, kidney, lung, heart, and the central nervous system in the early phase of reaction. The scary part is that with light dosages, you don't get sick right away. It can apparently accumulate in the system over time unbeknownst to you, the effects of which can cause health problems years later.

Great. So now I'm off fish. I'm sure there are all kinds of toxins coursing through my veins already but this one doesn't sound like much fun. Pass the mutton.




Monday, February 15, 2010

Fire Follow-up

Yes, the fire turned out to be legit. It gutted the travel agency on the ground floor. The good news was that the cement walls of these structures limits the ability for the fire to spread. A wood-framed building would have been a different story.

So there wasn't much danger of the building collapsing or anything. The biggest concern for our offices, and the biggest concern about going back in the building, was smoke. In ended up being smokier in the stairwells than I thought and I did feel it in my throat the rest of the day. I'm removing necktie from my list of authorized breathing masks.

There were two theories about the cause of the fire: faulty wiring or insurance scam. This time it seems to be the former.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Never a Dull Moment

I always try to plan my days in advance – what I'm going to do and when. And it's generally a useless activity. As much as I try to organize myself and guide the direction of things, the obstacles that come at me on any given day defy prediction. It's more unpredictable in the field but even in Dar it has its moments.

On Monday we arrived at the office about 6:45am as we normally do. The Finance Controller and I ducked off into our respective offices and I began to address the hundreds of emails and various other tasks that I was unable to finish over the weekend. After about an hour and a half in the office, we got a call from our Logistics Officer who was downstairs telling us that there was a fire and that we needed to evacuate the building. By this time other staff had arrived in their offices and we all slowly started to make our way for the door, unsure whether or not this was for real. I took my laptop just in case.

As we filed down the stairs we began to smell smoke and I was starting to think that there may be something legitimate about this little evacuation. Sure enough, the lobby was filled with smoke and staff from offices throughout the seven floors of the building had already gathered outside. The smoke was coming from the left side of the building but it was hard to pinpoint exactly where. This biggest surprise was that a fire truck had already arrived and men dressed up as firemen were scurrying around. I'll refrain from directly giving them the title of fireman since, though they looked the part, I didn't actually see anyone appear to do anything that might contribute to putting out the fire. In fact, I was told that the fire truck didn't have any water. Now I don't claim to be an expert on fire fighting and I realize that an empty fire truck gets much better gas mileage than a full one, but that load of water would seem to come in handy when the men dressed as firemen confront an actual fire. As it was, I'm not sure what they were planning to do. 

I didn't wait long. Having been out of the office for several weeks travelling to the field, I was obsessed with getting my work done. I told my colleagues to keep me posted and walked up the road to the Holiday Inn to hammer out some emails for a few minutes. I figured I'd come back, it would all be over, and we could all get back to work in our offices.

As I entered the hotel, a TV switched to CNN International blared the results of the Super Bowl (something I was going to try to avoid the entire day so that I could watch the game that night without knowing who the victor was). I settled in, did some work for about 45 min. and then headed back to the office. Upon arrival I noticed that the smoke was now coming out the other side of the building and there was still no sign of water or anything that might serve to extinguish a fire. Realizing that this was going to be a while, the Finance Controller and I decided that we'd go work from home. Before leaving, however, I was hoping to get some paperwork from my office. I noticed that every once in a while someone would enter or leave the building with their mouth covered so I figured that I could probably do the same. So I covered my mouth with my tie and our Operations Manager, John, and I headed in. Power was out in the building and we were using our cell phones for lights. The stairwell was rather creepy as it was filled with this horrid smoke and darkness. After making our way up the two flights of stairs, we arrived at the office door and, once inside, were protected from the hallway smoke. I grabbed my things and we turned to go back down. By now the smoke was making me a bit nauseated and I was looking forward to getting out of the building. We opened the door and sped down the stairs, passing one of the men dressed as a fireman.

Once outside, clothes reeking of smoke, we headed to the car. The rest of the team would keep me posted but they seemed confident that eventually the fire would be extinguished and they'd be able to re-enter the office. They were right and by afternoon they were back at work. My work day took a few other weird turns which had me running all over the city so it turned out to be irrelevant whether I'd waited out the fire or not. Never a dull moment.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Back in the Heat

I'm finally back in Dar after a long trip to the field. It's been busy but a good few weeks of meetings, working with staff, emails, etc. Not much time to relax, even on weekends, but that's how these trips are supposed to go. I'm not in the field all the time so I need to take advantage the time that I'm there. But I'm exhausted.

One of the things I was doing was checking out our construction in the village of Makere. With the beginning of our operations in the Congolese camp (Nyarugusu), we needed to construct offices and housing to accommodate our staff who will be stationed there. 

Makere sits a couple of kilometers away from the camp and makes it easier for staff to get back and forth to work. Our field office is well over an hour away and less time on the road not only saves resources, it's safer. Random banditry is a concern out here near the border and it's always good to spend less time on the road.

The camp has increased to around 63,000 people. It's the last remaining refugee camp of Congolese in the country but they don't seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. Repatriation has come to a standstill and there are signs that people are still trying to make their way here. Violence in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continues and moves around preventing people from returning to their homes.

Blow Out

The flight back was actually quite nice. We were on time. The weather was good. We had a hot meal. No one annoying next to me. All was good. Until the landing. I was jotting some notes down in a notebook as the plane touched the ground. The sound of the landing was louder than normal and the flight attendant was immediately summoned to the cockpit even as we were still speeding down the runway. Upon touching down we'd blown a tire and the pilot's sensor went off. He was having her go do a physical check. 

The plane is a 50-seater Bombardier Dash 8. The landing gear consists of a pair of tires on each side that are retractable from the wings. As we got out of the plane, and started crossing the tarmac towards the terminal, I stopped to look around to the other side of the plane to check out the tire. To my surprise, both tires were flat. We'd been rolling on rims and the pilot had done a pretty skilful job of keeping control of the plane. The discussion in the baggage claim seemed to point to one tire blowing on touchdown and the second eventually giving way between then and when we stopped. Keeps things interesting.

Onward Home

I shared a lift home with the head of another organization who also works with refugees. He's a very cool Scandinavian guy that lives near us and I've known him since I lived in Kibondo. As the driver skilfully navigated the Dar traffic, air conditioner on high, we chatted about the refugee situation. Times like this are valuable for information sharing. As is often the case, he knew a lot of things I didn't and vice versa. It's a difficult line of work sometimes and it's always good to empathize with one another.

Breathless after the humid march up several flights of stairs with my bags, I opened the door. After a few weeks away, I immediately scanned the apartment looking for dead plants or flooding and sniffed for the pungent smell of something rotten. Overall, all was well. Good to be home.