A bit about Tanzania

Trip Start Oct 21, 2006
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Trip End Mar 21, 2008


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Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Tanzania is a much more interesting place than you might think based on the amount you hear about it in your everyday life.  Quite often it just seems to get lumped in with all the other countries located between Egypt and South Africa.  Ethiopia is famous for famine and big concerts on its behalf, Sudan for civil war and Bill Clinton's 1998 bombing of it, and Kenya for marathon runners.  Uganda has recently popped up on the radar thanks to that movie about Idi Amin, Zimbabwe has displaced white farmers and a nutjob dictator, and Rwanda had a helping of genocide to push it into the news.

But what do you ever hear about Tanzania?  About as much as you hear about Botswana, Mozambique, Congo, Madagascar or any of two dozen other anonymous African nations.  There might be a brief news clip from some khaki-clad foreign correspondent about a rigged election in Nigeria or a baby adopted by Angelina Jolie in Chad or a new monkey-borne disease discovered in Malawi.  

But then the entire continent fades back into global obscurity, much less important than the nuclear wavering of the world's attention-grabbing despots, stock exchange fluctuations or Paris Hilton's latest nightclub escapade.

For me the coolest thing about Tanzania is its justifiable claim as the birthplace of humanity.  Human fossils have been discovered in Olduvai Gorge that date back 3.75 million years.  (Actually, depending on when you read this, that may have clicked over to 3.76 million years, but it's a long time either way.)  We seem to consider anything BC as "ancient" and what we call civilization has only been around for a few thousand years.  And then you think that humans, admittedly in a dopey, hunched-over, knuckle-dragging kind of way, were living and evolving as far back as 3,750,000 years ago - right here in the country I am living in now.

Then you have all the animals - lions, giraffes, elephants, hippos, rhinos, wildebeest, hyenas, zebras - that you have only ever seen on Discovery Channel or in The Lion King.  Tanzania has protected over forty percent of its land in some form or another, the highest proportion of any country on earth.  This is great for the animals, birds and plants, of course but also really good for tourism and therefore the country's struggling economy.

Even without all this, there are so many exotic and evocative place names that add to the country's lustre.  Zanzibar, Kilimanjaro, Serengeti, Usambara, even Tanzania itself, all roll off the tongue and conjour up amazing images.

Tanzania has an interesting past, with periods of Portuguese, German, British and even Omani rule, and now independence.  Prior to European involvement this area had been home to the Swahili culture, a mix of African, Persian and Arab elements, from which the name of the language is taken.  The Portuguese, via Vasco da Gama, 'discovered' Tanzania in 1498.  The Omanis then sailed down the coast and expelled the Portuguese in a series of early seventeenth century battles.  For them the area was a valuable resource for their burgeoning slave business.  The British tried for many years to stop, or at least slow the slave trade and engaged in a lot of diplomatic dance moves with the Omanis.  

Up until the nineteenth century no one from these colonial empires had really ventured inland.  A series of explorers bushwhacked their way through to places like Kilimanjaro (the magical mountain that has snow in the African summer!) and Lake Victoria, the elusive source of the Nile.  Stanley presumed and Africa was opened up to European map-makers.

In the 1880s the European powers, in a typical display of colonial arrogance, divided the continent of Africa amongst themselves and Tanganyika (as it was then known) was awarded to the Germans.  They were met with resistance at almost every turn.  The coastal slave traders were pissed-off because the Germans intended to abolish their livelihood and rose up in arms.  Inland, the local tribes were pissed-off at the 'mzungus' trying to burst in and take over their land.  At the completion of World War I the British snatched Tanganyika from the defeated Deutschlanders.  Britain already controlled Zanzibar, having wrested it from the Omanis in 1890, so they had the rule of all of what is now Tanzania.

World War II came and went and left a worldwide resentment towards colonialism.  Tanzanians felt bitter because they had fought for the British and received nothing in return and the independence movement sprung up from there.  Julius Nyerere became the figurehead for the movement.  The British realised that independence was inevitable, felt they could trust Nyerere and backed off.  Tanganyika became an independent nation in 1961 and joined with Zanzibar in 1964 to form Tanzania.

Nyerere was a popular guy but his 21 years in charge was a turbulent time for the new nation.  Nyerere is sometimes referred to as a 'muddled Maoist' due to his well-intentioned but practically misguided attempts at creating a socialist society loosely based on that of China.  Ninety percent of Tanzania's population lived in rural areas, which made development very difficult.  Like Mao, Nyerere decided the solution was 'villagisation', bringing the rural people together into larger villages.  This proved to be an economic disaster because so many farms were left untended and corruption skyrocketed.  There was social benefits, such as access to clean water and a sense of national unity but the overall impact of the policy was negative.  Even the support of fellow socialist comrades like China, Cuba and the USSR couldn't prevent Tanzania sliding down the financial toilet.  

Things got even worse.  Relations with Kenya became so bad that the border was closed and then Idi Amin tried to steal a portion of Northwest Tanzania.  Tanzania retaliated and succeeded in sending Amin into exile but the $500 million war further destroyed the economy.

Nyerere resigned in 1985 and with him went the villagisation and the one-party system he had controlled.  Yada, yada, yada, here we are today with Tanzania still one of the poorest countries in the world.  Per capita income is under $300 per year.  Throw in AIDS, which peaked at around thirty percent of the population in the early nineties, massive foreign debt and a culture of corruption and embezzlement, and you have a right old mess to clean up.  Socialism failed and capitalism has failed to a large degree so people have reverted to what they did for centuries before all these newfangled isms came along - subsistence farming.

A paradox of sorts is evident here as it is in other developing countries.  Life expectancy is short (fifty is old age) yet the pace of life is so slow.  Some people work hard - particularly the women - but on any hot day you will see clumps of men just sitting around under a big tree for shade.  The average workday seems to be from mid-morning to early afternoon, with a two-hour break for lunch.  Compare this to many first world countries - high life expectancy combined with an urgent lifestyle, long work hours, lots of stress.  You have the situation where many westerners are living fifty percent longer and getting fifty percent more done in a day than their African counterparts, effectively doing twice as much over the course of a lifetime.

In his African travel book Dark Star Safari, Paul Theroux relates the story of travelling through Tanzania and seeing all the residents of a small village huddled tightly together under the village's only mango tree, for shade.  Despite the tree dropping seeds continually, no one had considered the idea of actually planting another tree to create more shade.  This example of a lack of forward planning repeats itself in many forms around here.  I don't wish to be too critical because I haven't been here long enough to appreciate the full story.  However, you can't help but wonder if the country's stagnant economy can entirely be blamed on foreign debt, AIDS and corrupt government or if it is perhaps partly a cultural issue.  There doesn't seem to be a lot of urgency or desire to work hard and improve your lot.  

Everywhere we see little businesses that could be doing so much better if the proprietor was not sleeping or sitting fifty metres away chatting with friends while customers are waiting.  The Pangani Library is always empty and there is a thick layer of dust on all the books.  Motivation and inspiration seem to be lacking here, as if they have been  sucked out of the people by the tiring heat and the apparently insurmountable pile of problems that the government faces.

"We need more tourists in Pangani", seems to be the motto of the man under the tree, but what is being done to encourage tourism?  Tourists who come here generally go and stay in one of the fancy resorts ten kilometres out of town and perhaps venture in to Pangani for a curious peek.  And what is here to greet them?  Cries of "mzungu!" and "give me money!" from the children and a bunch of lazy men staring from underneath a mango tree.  What about a sign pointing you to the beach, or some local handicrafts for sale, or a small map, or some kind of marking to denote the historical buildings?  What about a simple poster or brochure in the hotels of Tanga, Arusha and Dar extolling the natural and historical highlights of Pangani?  

"But these things cost money and people don't pay money to visit the beach."  No, but tourists need to eat while they are here, to buy drinking water.  Some tourists like to get a tour from a knowledgeable guide, some like to shop for bargains and some might even stay the night if they like it here.  Again, forward planning, cause and effect, some kind of plan to get tourists here and to give them something to do, instead of sitting under the tree blaming everything on the government.

And while I'm complaining, no one is ever on time here.  Now this is probably just me and my western bias but I am very punctual, even for a casual appointment.  Here - as in other developing countries - people are late, often hours late for everything from dinner dates to lessons to job interviews to business meetings.  The lateness is laughingly dismissed as just part of the culture - "Tanzanian time!  Ha ha!"  Is it just a coincidence that countries where punctuality is important (e.g. Germany, Scandinavia, Japan) tend to be more efficient, productive and successful, while those who don't care about being on time are struggling and can't work out why?

A slow pace of life can be relaxing and enjoyable but you need to be able to ramp it up at the right times.  Part of the problem here is that those people who do have the energy and the drive to do things are hamstrung by the culture of those who do not.  If I am an ambitious and motivated Tanzanian businessman, I am slowed down at every corner by my suppliers or my partners.  Surely after a few years of delays, broken promises ("Everyone lies to each other here, all the time" says our Tanzanian roommate, John), unreliable colleagues and corrupt officials, it must be tempting to just join your mates under the tree and wait for an overseas handout.  

People tell us how important the volunteer work is that we are doing.  I hope it is.  Cynics complain that volunteers are all self-serving, here to feel as though they are changing lives when all they are doing is creating false hopes.  Donations go in to the pockets of politicians and as soon as the volunteers leave things go right back to the way they were.  Perhaps this is true.  Despite years of volunteers teaching at Kikokwe School, the teachers there are still using the 'chalk and talk', shout and repeat methods of teaching and still only know corporal punishment as a form of discipline.  Is this because previous volunteers have simply just come in and taught English to a few classes and then left or that they have tried to make suggestions to the teachers but have been ignored?

Paul Theroux is a good writer but savagely cynical.  He rants about the ineffectiveness of foreign aid, for example: "Where are the Africans in all this? In my view aid is a failure if in forty years of charity the only people still dishing up the food and doling out the money are the foreigners.  If all you have done is spend money and have not inspired anyone, you can teach the sharpest lesson by turning your back and going home."  The point the cynics miss is, would the situation be worse if there had not been any charities or volunteers?  If some medicine keeps a sick person alive for a few extra years, is that medicine wasted because it did not improve the patient's condition?  Although I do have a hefty dose of cynicism, I have yet to form a definite position on this issue.

Even if the $3000 we spent to be here is not solving Africa's problems, we had at least assumed that a good chunk of it is going towards needy projects in Tanzania, making some kind of improvement.  So when both the Country Manager and Africa Manager (the latter based in the UK) make a visit to Pangani, I ask them how much does go towards the projects we are working on.

"Oh, none of it", replies Joanna, the Africa Manager, quite bluntly.  "All of your money goes towards running our operations.  We have four full-time staff in the UK, plus various levels of administration in each of the countries we operate in, plus regional coordinators in each project location."  She says all this quite proudly, missing the ironic point that so much money is being spent on 'administering' volunteers like us instead of being used directly to help the people who need it.  

"You know", she continues, "we run the entire office on only 160,000 pounds a year".  I bite my tongue instead of pointing out that (a) this is a massive amount of money to spend simply on administration and that (b) this had included her plane ticket from London to Tanzania and back plus all expenses for her annual 'review' trip.  Besides, is it really necessary to have an Africa Manager, a Country Manager and a Regional Coordinator, not to mention whoever the Africa Manager reports to?  

I told them about our experience in Nepal.  "We volunteered through an organisation that was just one guy.  He hooked us up with our project and our fee [less than half of what we paid here] included all accommodation and food, a two-week induction, a week-long trek and a three-day jungle excursion."  Our fee here gets us a nice colour-printed briefing package - courtesy of the UK administration team - pick up from the bus station and use of the office here in Pangani.

"But we spend a lot of time and money getting closely involved with the projects", is Joanna's official line.  Well, there are millions of worthwhile 'projects', from the local school to the guy on the street who wants to improve his English, to the lady looking for small business advice.  The projects don't have to be complicated or involve a lot of planning or result in publicity for the volunteer organisation.

All of this cynicism should not detract from the great time we are having here.  We love going to work and we love coming home.  We love the chorus of Habaris we get from the locals and we love that we have made friends and acquaintances with so many people here.  We love our dinners at the Stopover Bar and we love being appreciated.  We even love the lazy attitude and the carefree smiles of the people, in a way.  Most of them are content in their idleness.  As long as there is some food on the table and a roof to keep them dry, who needs to kill themselves working?  It's a mindset so different from the one us westerners have drummed into us all our lives but who's to say whether one is better than the other?

It may be frustrating for a westerner to come here and find their earnest efforts hampered by inefficiency and laziness but it might be equally frustrating for a Tanzanian to cope with the seriousness and stress of living in America or England. 
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