(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.)

Sunday, April 25, 2010

When Writers Overuse When

I try to read one of the Tanzanian newspapers every day. I don't always get it done but I'll usually catch up on the ones I missed over the weekend. Other than the information that is directly or indirectly tied to my job, it's important to know what's going on in the world around you and what issues are important to the citizens of the country. One trend I've noticed over the past couple of years is that some of the writers are overextending themselves. There's one lady in particular that works for the Guardian that writes the drippiest prose I've ever read. Her style might be better suited for trashy novels rather than news. Or maybe she should change occupations altogether.

There's also this constant temptation to begin titles of articles with "When". Ugh. Someone must have seen it and thought it was clever. Then it caught on and now it's spreading like cholera. 

Union Day

Monday is Union Day. It's a holiday here so I will celebrate by working from home. I've blogged about Union Day before. It's sort of a weird thing in that I don't know anyone who gets very excited about it. It does commemorate the day, 46 years ago, that mainland Tanzania (at that time called Tanganyika) joined with Zanzibar and became Tanzania. I think there'd be more enthusiasm if there weren't so many people on that beloved island who would like to bail from the union. With all the talk and movement towards an East African Community (Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi), seems like independence wouldn't be worth the trouble. Anyway, there will be a show of celebration downtown with speeches and so forth. Most people I think are just happy to have the day off. 


My first sip of coffee this morning contained something that felt a bit like a soft bean, like from a bowl of chili or something. I was concentrating on problematic emails but as my lethargic morning brain caught on that this was a foreign object, I removed and inspected it. Sure enough, a brownish colored beetle had somehow made its way to my cup and eventually my mouth. I was in the office so I was drinking filtered coffee. One advantage to this is that most little critters get boiled and/or filtered before they would ever get to the pot. The only thing that I can think of is that the unsuspecting beetle chose this particular cup, though stored upside down, as an unfortunate resting place during the night. While my tainted morning coffee was my annoyance, it was his kiss of death.

The rainy season brings out the bugs. Mosquitoes seem to be on the increase. Cockroaches as well. A few weeks ago I was retrieving something from underneath the kitchen sink. It was evening and the cupboard was dark. As I reached into the cupboard I saw something dart towards the shadows in the back. Never without ammunition, I whipped out my beloved can of Doom (clever name for highly toxic bug spray) and aimed it in the general vicinity of the little monster. Within seconds of the spray, dozens (I kid you not) of roaches of all sizes came pouring out towards my feet. The Doom had apparently sent them choking in search of clean air. It was a creepy scene. I practically emptied the can as I blasted the little creatures (some not so little) left and right as they came out of their fox hole. Some managed to get by me and I chased them down to make sure there were no survivors. In the aftermath, corpses strewn across the kitchen, I had to abandon the battlefield. The thick stench of the chemical warfare meant that it was time for me to seek out breathable air. The battle is won but the war is far from over.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Visit by the High Commissioner

One of the enjoyable aspects of my current position is the ability to meet and interact with interesting people from all over the world and at different levels in the food chain. This past week, the Tanzania refugee operations received a visit by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres. First of all, who UNHCR? It is the massive UN agency that deals with refugees and other displaced people from around the world, currently in over 110 countries. In Tanzania our organization works with a number of other organizations under the umbrella of (and a good deal of funding from) UNHCR.

As to who is Mr. Gutterez, he's actually a pretty interesting guy. He was the Prime Minister of Portugal from 1995 to 2002 and was appointed High Commissioner for Refugees by Kofi Annan in 2005. His visit to Tanzania, his first since 2006, was to last less than a week but he would cover a lot of ground. He started off meeting with the TZ Prime Minister among other important government people. It's always important to start off with such visits, not only as a matter of courtesy but it's also good to sort out some of the sticky issues. It's obvious that with an organization who is overseeing thousands of people living in a foreign/host country, there will likely be something to talk about. Gutterez later said that the topic foremost in the minds of the government was the presence of 36,000 Burundians who are refusing to return to Burundi. It's been foremost in my mind over the last three years as well.

On Monday night I was invited to drinks and dinner at a nice restaurant in Dar es Salaam to meet Mr. Guterrez and mingle with some other important folks. I hadn't seen the guest list but I'd assumed it'd be a large crowd. As it was, I was wrong. Only 12, including Guterrez's small entourage, would be in attendance. Very cool indeed. It was a rare opportunity to chat with the EU Ambassador (Head of Delegation), Guterrez himself and several other important people. Topics ranged from the refugee situation to some amazing and creative work being done with the disabled to the history of the Portuguese colonial effort. With Guterrez I took advantage of the situation to impress upon him that we need to re-start primary education in Mtabila camp, something that has been stopped for a year (two years for some of them). Not only is this a good idea for these kids, it happens to be one of those things we call a human right. I knew basically what he was going to say (it's complicated and delicate topic) and he knew that I knew. I still felt I had to say something.

After the dinner, we walked out towards the parking lot. One attendee asked me where my driver had parked. Though I enjoy the use of a driver while in the field, I am my own driver in Dar. I smiled, humbly pulled the keys to my Toyota out of my pocket, and drove the short distance home.

The next day we had a formal meeting. It was most of the people from the night before with at least a dozen others who are all stakeholders of some kind in refugee operations. When it was my turn to give a small briefing, I yet again mentioned the education-deprived children in my description of what our organization does (or wished it was allowed to do). I thanked him for the good collaboration our organization has with his (which is true) and told him that I looked forward to continued partnership with them in finding durable solutions for the remaining refugees. I refrained from mentioning that I appreciated the Tanzania team providing snacks at the meeting (rare for them) and that they finally got their air conditioning functioning. He should visit more often.


Sunday, April 4, 2010

Rainy Season

Rather abruptly, the rainy season has begun. My last evening in Nairobi, after some sedentary days working long hours, I was more than ready to go for a run. I walked out of the meeting room to find a driving rain. For some it would be disheartening. For me, it was invigorating. I said farewell to a few colleagues who were heading to the airport, hurried back to my room and put on my running gear. I asked the concierge for some advice as to where to go since I don't know Nairobi that well. The guy looked at me like I had something wrong with me to want to go for a run in this weather. He sort of pointed in one direction and, without much confidence in his suggestion, I headed out.


In spite of the rain, the sidewalks of Waiyaki Way were full of people, most with no umbrellas. I weaved in and out of the crowds focusing on the uneven "sidewalk" and trying not to twist an ankle. I was completely soaked within minutes but the exercise, cool air and rain felt good. As I got further away from the city center, the people thinned and I could spend more time taking in my surroundings. I think that Nairobi could be a great city if it could reel in the whole crime thing. It's a massive problem and locals tell me it's getting worse. Our security briefing at the beginning of the week sounded more like Afghanistan than East Africa. Nonetheless, it seemed to me that the bad guys were not likely to be interested in working in the rain and there's little to take from a sweaty jogger.

On the return, as I neared the hotel, I heard a loud honk from behind. I turned around and saw a small bus (matatu) headed straight for me on the sidewalk. People were diving out of the way, as did I. I'd heard that the police were cracking down on their crazy driving and in general I'd seen remarkable improvement since the last time I was in the city. Nonetheless, there are some that are still taking the liberty of using the sidewalk as the fast lane.

I was out for about 45 min. and arrived at the hotel drenched, muddy and happy. The concierge smiled, shook his head and opened the door. I apologized for dripping all over the hotel lobby and he just kept smiling and shaking his head. "Hamna shida," he said. No problem.


Now back in Dar, the rain continues. Long Easter weekend and, due to travel and exhaustion, Priya and I decided to stick around. The city seems quiet and it's a nice time to regroup, get some things done and prepare for another busy stretch from now until our summer holidays. The UNHCR High Commissioner arrives week after next from Geneva. I've met the Deputy High Commissioner but this is the HC's first visit since I've been in my current position. At the same time we're bringing on new senior staff and there'll be a trip or two out to the camps. I'm getting tired just thinking about it.