21 Days on the Road (Part I)
On August 24th I left Dar es Salaam for a 3-week trip to central Tanzania to train BRAC branches on Kiva in three other regions. Here’s a glimpse into the first 11 days of my 21 days on the road:
Seven hours on the bus from Dar es Salaam to Dodoma has kicked off with a traveling saleswoman making her pitch for soaps, toothpastes, and aloe vera at full volume to the entire bus for at least 30 minutes. Perhaps I would mind her hard-sell less if I were able to understand more than 1 out of every 12 words (I do learn, however, that “aloe vera” is the same in English and Swahili. Good to know). When I arrive in Dodoma I discover that the method used by the bus company employee to match bags to owners is to write in permanent marker on the front of the bag the seat the owner is sitting in. F-1 will forever be a memorable place for me.
During an evening battle with hoards of mosquitoes I get to talking with the Dodoma Area Manager, a Bengali beginning his 5th month of a 3-year commitment in Tanzania. He comments on the number of mosquitoes here and compares it to the mosquitoes in Bangladesh. I mention that I am trying to avoid malaria and am taking medication at which point he interrupts me—there is medication for malaria???? At first I think he’s joking (after all, there is malaria in Bangladesh) and then remember I’ve never heard him make a joke. Attempting not to appear shocked, I try to explain that there are these things called prophylaxis that one can take while in a malaria-infected area to try to prevent contracting malaria. Unconvinced by this idea, he maintains a puzzled look on his face and says “malaria is not so bad. I’ve had it many times.” After our conversation ends I walk into my room and promptly take my Malarone.
After a successful training for one of BRAC’s Dodoma branches, it’s time to head into the field to begin collecting Business Profiles for the Kiva website with some of the Community Organizers (CO’s). As we prepare to leave, one CO asks me with little optimism if I know how to ride a bike. I respond that I do. The entire staff finds this extremely amusing (I’m not exactly sure why, but one week later I will have the same effect on another branch office when they learn I know how to ride a bike). Within 50 meters of beginning our journey in the abandoned, desert-like neighborhood, locals come out of no where to call in wonder at the muzungu on the bike. A muzungu on foot is one thing, but on a bike is a true novelty. Fifty meters later, I break the chain on the bike. Way to look like a bike-riding expert!
I spend the day visiting groups in a region more remote than any I’ve seen. The uproar my presence creates amongst children and adults alike is a distraction from the meetings we attempt to hold. Our first stop is at the home of a client next to an elementary school. Within five minutes of my arrival, the elementary school has emptied and stands outside of the house. Trying to be sociable, I go outside to say hi to the children who are eagerly trying to sneak a peak, but I miscalculate. The entire student body runs away in fear at my approach. With the help of some local women I coax them back and am able to speak with the kids a little, but none want to come within five feet of me, unsure what will happen. The awe at my presence continues as we walk to another client’s home. A small child sees me and asks if I am higher than God. Not sure what to make of a white person and having never seen one before, this particular child isn’t sure if I am worthy of worship. The Branch Manager and I quickly assert that I’m just like him and not to be worshipped.
Have you ever wondered what happens when you go through your closet and donate bags full of old clothes and shoes to charities? Well I have your answer. They go to Africa to be sold by small-business owners. The second lives of these clothes often come with a very different owner. The line between men’s and women’s clothing is erased as I see manly laborers spitting and pulling up their sagging pants, only to look at their shoes and find they are purple flip flops with sparkles and flowers. Men wearing women’s jeans is also a common occurrence. Other unexpected items have cropped up reminding me of home and making me wonder where the original owners are. Today it’s a BRAC client in a Harvard University t-shirt. Then one of the CO’s creates a stir in the office while we debate whether her new shoes are men’s or women’s. This is the first I’d heard any recognition that there is a distinction. When called upon to state my opinion on the white loafers I realize that they do look a little like men’s shoes. But then again, what’s the difference?
The contrast between the types of businesses BRAC’s clients own is illuminated. Visiting one business I am confronted with a fruit and vegetable stand brimming with every variety of both. I next visit a client’s vegetable stand that is located in front of her house and consists of no more than four tree branches supporting two planks of wood and shaded by a potato sack. She has some tomatoes and five bunches of bananas for sale.
Hit with a stomach bug, I do little poverty alleviation today. I have spent my week in Dodoma in a guest room at one of the BRAC branches here. On this, my last day before moving to another city, the entire branch staff comes into my room every few minutes to see how I am feeling. Unconvinced that constant company is the best way to rest and recover I want to be frustrated but can’t help but appreciate that there are people concerned about my well-being. Us lone-travelers rarely expect anyone to know or notice if something is amiss. In this case, the week spent with this staff has fostered a close bond. That, and I think they are a little freaked out seeing a foreigner sick. They try to convince me to go to the hospital, in part because no one wants to have my death on her conscience. The cook is particularly concerned as he frantically tries to feed me more food, despite that he is deathly afraid that his food is the cause of my problems.
Another bus ride—this time from Dodoma to Shinyanga. The bus departs two hours late and the ride lasts 7 hours. I begin panicking at the end of hour number 1 when we hit unpaved road. Fearing this means 6 more hours of intense bumpiness and massive wafts of dust attacking us through the windows (which we had to leave open or else we would roast to death) I trick myself into falling asleep during the most uncomfortable part of the ride. I wake up two hours later when we rejoin paved road and am thrilled that I’ve found such a constructive way to kill physically uncomfortable time.
It’s the subtle differences from region to region that reveal variances in inhabitants’ standard-of-living. Some generalizations based on my experiences: group meetings of the 20 individuals in a large group are all held at the home (or more specifically, in the yard) of the group chairperson. In Dar es Salaam, we attend group meetings where all members are seated on chairs in a circle. In Dodoma, the group chairperson brings out a large, immaculate woven mat on which all 20 members sit. In Shinyanga, groups squeeze onto tattered tarps not large enough to fit them all. Differences in the dress of the clients bear similar contrast. In Dar, it is not uncommon for the members to arrive in dresses, both western-looking and locally hand-made. In Shinyanga many women wear a combination of Kanga (local inexpensive died fabrics) and discarded t-shirts from America. There is a relationship between mat-style, dress, and the monthly income for each of these women. As we complete loan descriptions to be posted on Kiva’s website we ask what their monthly profit is prior to receiving a loan. In Dar it’s almost always above 150,000 Tsh (nearly $150) and even goes as high as 500,000 Tsh. In Dodoma, the women I meet typically earn a monthly profit of between 50,000 Tsh and 100,000 Tsh. In Shinyanga, most women I meet do not earn more than 20,000 Tsh per month (or $20).
“How old are you?” the CO and I ask one small group leader in Swahili. She confidently declares “31.” We proceed. “How old are your children?” Pause. Blank stare. Women sitting around the small group leader begin to try to puzzle through with her to identify the ages of her 8 children. She takes a guess at her oldest: 23. I let it slide for now, even though it seems quite unlikely that both of the ages she has answered could be correct. From there she tries to remember for how long she was not pregnant before having her next child: “21.” Then she says “19.” She pauses for a moment and asks how many she’s listed. Several minutes later, eight ages have been listed ranging from 4 months to 21 years. I hate to harp on this obviously difficult question but Kiva and its lenders find it implausible when they see ages listed that require the mother to have been under 10 years old when first giving birth. So I ask, “how old were you when you gave birth to your first child?” This she knows. “18” she says confidently. Ah, “so are you 41?” Hmmm. She’s unconvinced. She looks around. The women around her remain engaged in helping her deduce the answer. Finally a light bulb goes off as one of her friends says “yes, you’re 41!” Mystery solved.
When first looking up BRAC Tanzania clients on Kiva you may be struck by something: almost every picture is a group of women standing indoors against a blank wall looking miserable. I came here wondering why this is so universally the case for BRAC’s clients, and today I’ve found my answer. I’m training my 5th branch and for the 5th time, I see that the CO’s have never before held a camera. I’m trying to illuminate the nuances of making the subjects smile and arranging them outdoors so that they look more natural, all the while the COs can’t for their lives figure out how to get in the viewfinder the portion that they are hoping to photograph (I guide their hands to tilt the camera up slightly). Natural-looking pictures will have to wait—for now I’m more concerned with the heads of the clients making it into the shot.
Now, onto the next 10 days! To see all of BRAC Tanzania’s currently fundraising loans, click here./>