Friday, October 29, 2010

Democracy Shmemocracy: Party Politics in Tanzania

Despite a handful of predictable disputes in the voting process, election outcomes, and the fairness of the Electoral College, the US is a democratic country. Even if it’s not a PERFECT democracy—if Wyomingans are over-represented and some voting districts slightly Gerrymandered—there are still certain democratic aspects of our government that we can always count on: We will ALWAYS have an election the second Tuesday of November. The candidate declared the winner will take office, and the loser will peacefully and respectfully leave office. An opposition candidate running for public office isn’t in danger of being assassinated by the incumbent party’s not-so-secret pack of AK-47-wielding thugs. Voters are not threatened or intimidated at the polls, and our votes are confidential so we don’t fear reprisal for voting for one candidate over another. And, most importantly, we assume with pretty much 100% certainty that the number of votes counted is equal to the number of votes cast, and that the outcome of the election isn’t maliciously rigged to ensure an incumbent party victory.

On the other hand, there’s Africa. Here, elections are postponed indefinitely without reason by an incumbent who fears being ousted. When long-awaited elections actually happen, sometimes people’s votes aren’t secret and the government forces are scary enough that everyone votes for the incumbent out of fear.  If an incumbent leader happens to lose an election, he stays in office and appoints the actual winner of the election as Prime Minister (Kenya in 2007, Zimbabwe in 2009). Opposition candidates, party leaders and organizers, and vocal individuals who speak out against the government’s policies or management are “disappeared” (kidnapped and killed) or assassinated. And, in many countries, so-called “democratic” elections are more for show than anything, held only to prove to international donors like the US that the government is “trying” to democratize and is therefore worthy of aid. (There’s also an outside chance that a democratically elected leader will be assassinated by an outside force…like the CIA. Ex: Patrice Lumumba of the Congo in 1961.)

Tanzania is a great example of the strange incarnation of “democracy” in Africa. The country held its first post-independence election in 1961, shortly after independence from the British. In this election, Julius Nyerere was elected as the first president of Tanganyika and Zanzibar, which he combined into “The United Republic of Tanzania” (“Tan…ia” for Tanganyika and “…zanz…” for Zanzibar…get it?). Nyerere and his Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM, Party of the Revolution in English) wrote the constitution and established the foundation for modern politics in Tanzania, including the systematic suppression of opposition parties. Nyerere held the presidency  for 24 years until the country’s first “multi-party” democratic elections in 1985. Ali Hassan Mwinyi (President 1985-1995), Benjamin Mkapa (1995-2005), and Jakaya Kikwete (2005-present) have all been member of the CCM political party, and Kikwete is expected to be re-elected again this year.

On paper, Tanzania is a democracy. The country has a democratically elected leader voted for by the entire 18-and-over population of Tanzania, and elections are held every 5 years on the last Sunday of October. Opposition parties are allowed to form and operate without official legal repercussions, and the constitution allows Tanzanians the freedom of association with any party they choose. (Currently there are two serious opposition parties: CUF and Chadema. Chadema is the largest opposition party on the mainland, and CUF on Zanzibar.) On election day, people go to the polls and vote in privacy, and votes are sealed in their boxes by officers of the law before being transported to the nearest vote-counting station. The person with the most votes takes office, the other candidates are the losers. Et cetera.

But, in practice, it’s a lot more complicated…and a lot less democratic. Voters are discouraged from registering to vote or kept from voting by tactics similar to those used on African American voters in the 1960s. The CCM uses government funds (a LOT of government funds), government airplanes, government buildings, government workers, and government media and television outlets, and other government resources to promote itself, but the CUF and Chadema have to fund their campaigns through private donations solicited largely from a population of impoverished Tanzanians. There’s even rumor (though somewhat more substantiated than rumor…) of CCM officials buying the voter registration cards of under-35’s for as little as $4 so that they can’t vote for Chadema come election day, or “losing” entire pages of registered voters names at the polling stations. (They have two sections for voting: under 35, and over 35. Since it’s under 35’s who tend to vote Chadema, by losing just one page of voters’ names it’s very easy to eliminate non-CCM votes.) In rural areas, police (who are government employees under the CCM government) intimidate uneducated voters by hinting that their safety could be jeopardized if CCM left power, and on election day they stand outside polls with their automatic weapons so that nobody forgets who holds the power. Candidates who draw attention to CCM corruption or Kikwete’s failed policies end up in jail on “treason” charges and are no longer eligible to run for office; others running for local offices mysteriously die of “natural” causes. This year, the government announced that colleges and universities (which are usually closed until after the election) would open 3 days BEFORE election day, meaning that the largely Chadema-supporting college population will be away at school instead of at home to vote on Sunday, and there’s no option like absentee voting. And then, even if all the CCM-favoring election-skewing plots prove ineffective, there’s always the fall-back option of just tampering with the votes before they’re officially counted. After all, it’s the polling station workers (hired by CCM) and police officers (hired by CCM) who are responsible for securing the votes and certifying their validity.

On Thursday afternoon I attended a Chadema (Chama Cha Demokracia na Maendeleo, or Party of Democracy and Development) political rally for Doctor Slaa, the most popular opposition presidential candidate on the mainland. Despite the fact that he never showed up (TIA, right?) and that I only understood about 40% of what various candidates yelled crazy-African-preacher-style over the loudspeaker, it was a really interesting and enlightening experience. I made friends with two high school teachers and we discussed (in Swahili!) the election, the history of Tanzania, and the platforms and promises of various parties and candidates.

At one point, I asked them if they thought Doctor Slaa would win on Sunday and they both laughed at me like I was ridiculous. They were there to show their support, they said, for any kind of non-CCM change, but it has to happen gradually. Five years ago, an opposition rally like Thursday’s NEVER would have happened. Candidates would have been afraid to speak out against CCM, and people would have been afraid to show up to such a rally for fear that their businesses or families would be harmed as a result of their participation (or just their curiosity). “Chadema isn’t campaigning for 2010, they’re campaigning for 2015. We’re all here to show other people that if they, too, can support another party and not be killed.” They said that if on Sunday they vocally vote for Chadema and then aren’t punished by the CCM, maybe their CCM-fearing friends and neighbors will consider voting for someone other than CCM in 2015.

They also laughed when I asked if Tanzania had ever had “free and fair” elections. According to the Carter Center, which monitors this kind of thing, Tanzania’s 2000 election was fair, but 2005 was rigged in favor of the CCM, and regional elections on the island of Zanzibar have never been fair. But my teacher friends (and most everyone else I talk to about it, including Tanzanians, expats living here, and second- or third-generation immigrants) say that the country’s never had a democratic election. The concept of democracy is simply too new for anyone to trust its effectiveness and safety, so they just vote like they always have, even when CCM was the only party in the race. One of the teachers said he suspected that only about 30% of votes cast for Chadema would actually survive the ballot box long enough to make it to the official count, and that CCM had decades of experience in buying votes, fabricating ballots, and in their own special kind of less-than-impartial vote counting.

Even if this ISN’T true (which, honestly, who knows?), it’s frighteningly undemocratic that the people of Tanzania have so little faith in their trustworthiness of their government, and so little belief in the importance of their vote, that this kind of belief even SEEMS believable. Whether it’s true or not, if you were worried that you might be killed, injured, denied a job, or punished in some other way for voting for an opposition candidate, and were 70% sure that your Chadema/CUF vote would be thrown away anyway, wouldn’t you just vote CCM, too? It’s amazing to me that people still run for office on a non-CCM ticket, or donate to non-CCM political campaigns, or show up to non-CCM political rallies to show their support for NOT the CCM. (There’s no free food at said rallies…but sometimes there is at CCM rallies.) If there was complete political freedom in Tanzania, how many more people would support Chadema over the CCM?

Anyway, it’s something interesting to think about as we near Election Day in the US. When you cast your vote next Tuesday (and please do…especially if you’re a Democrat), you’ll be doing it without fear for your life, and you’ll be confident that your vote counts for something regardless of who you vote for. That’s a right (well, we consider it a right) that most people in the world simply don’t have, even in so-called “democracies.”

Chadema is an approximate acronym that stands for Chama Cha Demokrasia na Maendeleo, or The Party of Democracy and Development. Chadema is the largest opposition party in Tanzania (on the mainland at least), and this is their flag.
Chadema supporters holding up peace signs to show their support of Doctor Slaa, the main challenge to the incumbent President Kikwete in Sunday's election. The sign there translates to "Doctor Slaa--You are our only hope. We believe in you, and we need Chadema!"
Vuvuzelas have taken over the world! This guy is also wearing a Chadema flag as a shirt and his sweet dance moves kept me entertained during long speeches I only partially understood.
A little boy toting around a pro-Chadema sign at the political rally on Thursday afternoon. It translates as "We believe in you, we need you Doctor Slaa! Doctor Slaa is the lion of the war!" And then there's a sentence I can't read because all the letters are crammed together.
The HQ for the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party for the Iringa Region. That guy is President Kikwete.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

What's newsworthy, anyway?

As part of my ongoing quest to reconnect myself with the developed world, I’ve been checking out and downloading NPR podcasts and trying to compensate for 2.5 years of being out of the current events loop. In the last month, I’ve learned about the suicides of gay teens in the US, the kidnapping and subsequent release of an aid worker in Somalia, earthquakes and tsunamis in Southeast Asia, the rescue of 33 miners in Chile, an outbreak of cholera in Haiti, a Pennsylvania woman who allegedly killed her 4 children, etc. These things matter.

But right next to those stories I see others about Lindsey Lohan’s most recent “tweets” about her drug problem, rapper TI’s parole violations (he tried to buy several machine guns from the trunk of an undercover cop car in a grocery store parking lot, got out on parole, and then rolled up next to a cop at a stop light while smoking something illegal...), $8000 bejeweled i-phones, and all sorts of things that are of absolutely no consequence to 99.99% of the world.

And I start to wonder: Is this really NEWS? And, more importantly: WHO CARES? Aren’t there more IMPORTANT things going on in the world?

Then yesterday I stumbled across the most recent annual report of UNAIDS (the UN Agency for AIDS) at the UNAIDS Blog ( Arguably, AIDS is a little bit more important than Sandra Bullock’s most recent beach vacation with her adopted baby boy (especially since it directly affects at least 35 million more people than does their vacation) but stories about HIV/AIDS aren’t really news anymore. And I understand why…it’s depressing and showing no real signs of improvement. Since the “discovery” of the virus in 1981, there have been very few changes in the world of HIV: developments in anti-retroviral drugs that slow the progression of the disease, increases in funding and efforts by humanitarian organizations and governments to thwart the pandemic or mitigate its impact, countless failed vaccine trials and curative drugs for the disease, and a steadily increasing rate of infection with the largest concentration in Sub-Saharan Africa.

But, for the 33.4 million people in the world currently living with HIV, their friends, their families, and their communities, it’s a pretty big deal.

As Americans, HIV is something that we’re able to easily write off as being someone else’s problem. We believe that it’s something that affects people who have casual sex or use drugs, or affects poor Africans that we have no relation to whatsoever, and most of us don’t know anyone who is HIV-positive or who has been affected by HIV in some significant way.

In reality, though, it’s something that affects everyone, not just gay men and drug users and prostitutes you’ll never meet. It affects women who are raped in the Congo. And children of women who are HIV-positive. And people who undergo traditional blood-letting ceremonies as rites of passage, during which they’re cut with shared razor blades. And it affects people of all races, all religions, all nationalities and ethnicities, and in all countries.

Here are the statistics I found most sobering:

There are 1.4 million people in North America living with HIV, and an estimated 55,000 people were infected in 2008 alone. In 2008, there were 25,000 AIDS-related deaths in the US. Though the adult prevalence rate is only 0.4% in the US, some cities (like San Francisco and Washington, DC) have rates higher than those of African countries.

Since the beginning of the epidemic in the 1980s, 60 million people have been infected with the virus, and 25 million have died of AIDS-related causes.

Each year there are an estimated 2.7 million new infections in the world, 40% of which are in young people aged 15-24. Another 430,000 children born with HIV each year.

Sub-Saharan Africa is home to 67% of global HIV infections (22.4 million people), and 91% of new infections among children, and the epidemic has orphaned more than 14 million children in Africa alone.

Less than 40% of people who are HIV-positive know that they are HIV-positive, and unless they know they can’t get treatment or protect their partners and unborn babies.

For every two people starting treatment for HIV, another five are infected with the virus.

Only 38% of HIV-positive children in need of treatment are currently receiving it.

One in three HIV-positive people also suffers from tuberculosis, which is the leading cause of death among HIV-positive people. (Yet TB is both preventable and curable.)

And it’s not just the 33.4 million infected who are affected: it’s the families that take care of them, the children they orphaned, the friends who have to watch them go through depression and eventual decline, the employers who suffer the effects of absenteeism, insurance companies that have to cover the cost of exorbitantly expensive anti-retroviral drugs, the communities that suffer in the absence after their death (especially in the developing world), and everyone else in the world who pays taxes to a government that provides aid for HIV-positive people. (That last category probably includes you.)

See, it’s way more important than Vince Vaughn’s slightly homophobic one-liner in his latest movie, which happened to be the second “Most Popular” story on sometime last week…right after “How to make your YouTube video go viral.” Hard-hitting, life-changing stuff, right?

And it’s not just the lack of caring about HIV that gets me, it’s also the KINDS of HIV and AIDS-related things that are deemed newsworthy. (And I’m guilty of it too in this blog post…) All the news is negative. It’s about failures and wasted money and deaths and new infections. There’s nothing about the fact that this year there are 10 times as many people on ARVs than there were just 5 years ago, which means less deaths and less orphans than before. Stories about the rate of HIV infection stabilizing in countries like Botswana and Lesotho are relegated to the bottom of the Africa section on, even though for Botswanans and Lesothoans that’s a big deal. Stories about people working to change the lives of HIV-positive children or NGOs that are making headway in preventing new infections are relegated to local newspapers even though those individuals and NGOs are a big part of the reason that the pandemic seems to be slowing in a lot of countries. And every failed drug trial or failed vaccine really is a step closer than the one before, but all we see in the news is that YET ANOTHER drug has failed to prevent/cure HIV.

So, yes, HIV is bad. It’s horrible. I actually can’t imagine anything worse than a virus with a 100% fatality rate that disproportionately affects poor women and children in developing countries. But every step taken against HIV is a step in the right direction. Every 15-year-old HIV-positive child who is still alive thanks to ARVs from WHO is progress. Every teenager who chooses to use condoms to protect himself from HIV infection like his MSF-funded summer camp taught him is one more person who will be spared infection. Every pregnant woman who learns her HIV status at her local free clinic and follows all the rule of PMTCT gives birth to one more HIV-negative baby. Many governments and international organizations, and countless NGOs and individuals are working hard on a regional or individual level, changing future of the pandemic a little bit each day. And researchers are much more familiar with the HIV virus than they were 30 years ago when this whole pandemic started.

So that’s what I call “news.”

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Laundry, faith, parasites, dresses, and more laundry

As I sat through 3 hours of Kiswahili examination on Friday morning, I realized just how far I’ve come since leaving Swaziland only 7 weeks ago. I’ve said goodbye (for now) to some great friends, spent 3 weeks on one of the most beautiful islands in the world, moved into a cute little house in the middle of nowhere in southern Tanzania, and gained a level of proficiency in Kiswahili far beyond what I thought was possible in such a short time. I’ve found a grocery store selling good South African wines and butter without any ingredients derived from plastic (this is an accomplishment in Africa), established myself as a “regular” at both the local internet café and the town library, and perfected the art of haggling for things like papayas and wax-print fabric. It’s amazing how the little things in life can make me feel productive and accomplished.

One thing that never ceases to amaze me here is how much time people—and specifically women (myself included)—spend simply trying to live. After an exhaustingly busy day in Africa it’s possible to have accomplished what would have taken just 30 minutes in the US. Take my host mother, for example. She wakes up every morning at 5:00am to start heating the water for the kids’ morning baths and to get breakfast started. She spends at least an hour grinding maize kernels into a fine maize flour with a mortar and pestle, and then builds a fire in the charcoal stove to make the breakfast porridge. After sending the kids off to school, she sweeps the whole house with a bunch of grass tied together with a string, and “mops” the floors by hand with a bucket and rag, then makes several trips to the river with a 5-gallon bucket to fetch enough water for laundry. She spends several hours every day washing the kids’ school uniforms (which she magically keeps white) and play clothes and everyone’s blankets and towels by hand with a bucket of dirty water and a smelly soap that leaves her hands dry and cracked. If she needs more vegetables or anything for cooking, she walks and hour to the municipal market in town, or catches a chicken in the backyard for slaughter. When it’s time to start preparing the afternoon meal for the kids, she beats stalks of rice against a tarp on the ground to remove the chaff before she can wash and cook it. After the kids have eaten and she’s washed all the dishes, it’s time to fold clothes and then start dinner and, which means more maize grinding or wheat winnowing or picking small stones out of bags of beans. Then, after more dishes and cleaning and sending the kids off to bed, she spends a couple hours sewing with her hand crank-powered museum piece Singer machine making dresses for local women, her only source of much-needed income (about $10 per week) to pay the kids’ school fees and buy their cheap laundry soap and charcoal and support her oldest son and husband’s fondness for beer. Sometime just before midnight she goes to bed to rest up before starting the whole process over the next day. No wonder few women in Africa have jobs…they’re too busy doing work.

And, honestly, it’s not been so long since women in the US lived the same sort of life. Things like indoor plumbing and water heaters that turn bathing into a 5 minute time commitment are relatively recent inventions in human history, and anyone over the age of 40 would likely be wholly unsympathetic to my complaints about hand-washing clothes because they probably had to do it too. But now, Americans have machines that clean dishes and wash and dry clothes and suck the dirt up off the floors, and to heat our stoves we just press a button and wait. We even have slow cookers that cook our food when we’re not home, or restaurants where we go so we don’t have to cook at all. If we want to cook, we drive our cars to the grocery store to buy already-butchered meat and pre-cut and pre-washed frozen vegetables and chaff-less rice, and then store everything in our refrigerators and freezers and cabinets so we don’t have to worry about running out of food for a while. All of the things actually required to live (hygiene, food, etc.) have become something we do in addition to our “jobs” in the US and we don’t consider it work, but here just LIVING takes so much time that women don’t have enough hours in the day to do silly things like study or have a job.

I know I’ve been living like this for 2 and a half years now, but since I bought my plane ticket home a couple of weeks ago I can’t stop making comparisons between my life here and what it would have been like had I decided to return straight home 7 weeks ago. Today, for example, my “laundry day” would have consisted of dragging a bag of clothes to the laundry room, dumping them in the machine with a cup of soap, and pressing a button instead of spending 2 hours scrubbing things by hand. If I’d wanted to check my email or post a blog in the US I would have just sat down at my computer instead of walking an hour to and from town to use the internet. I would’ve just called Domino’s or stopped by a sandwich place for lunch instead of spending an hour making lunch if I was feeling hungry but lazy. When I get back to the US, I’m sure I’ll be much more grateful for things like Chinese take-out and vacuums, I’ll never complain about the $2.50 I have to pay at the Laundromat, and I’ll be just a little bit fascinated when I turn a knob and hot water comes out.

In addition to the mandatory hours of chores and classes I did this week, I also visited a local children’s home with my teacher Upendo as part of a “language out” (field trip) for Kiswahili. Daily Bread Life Children’s Home on the outskirts of Iringa is home to 36 boys and girls between 9 months and 13 years, and it was started in 2006 by a husband and wife team of Tanzanian pastors. It’s an incredible place. They’ve got two big dorm-style buildings for the younger kids (one for boys, one for girls), and a big house for the high school-aged kids that is comparable to an American home. Several house mothers take care of the kids, plus a full-time preschool teacher, a cook, and volunteers who help with homework and things. They’ve got showers and a modern kitchen and school-like cafeteria hall, a library where the kids do their homework, and a preschool for the 12 kids under the age of 6. They also have a small infirmary with a part-time nurse who takes care of the kids when they’re sick, and skills training courses in metal work and sewing for the older kids that double as a source of income for the home. It’s an incredible operation, well-run and done for all the right reasons. I was VERY impressed with the home (and with the home’s ability to raise money from American donors…) and also with the woman running it, with whom I practiced Kiswahili conversation with for about an hour.

One of the things that always amazes me about places like Daily Bread Life Children’s Home (and Pasture Valley in Swaziland for that matter) is that somehow witnessing the misery of children strengthens their founders’ faith in God. Example: The head matron of Daily Bread Life told me the story of a little girl they took in last summer. Her mother had died during childbirth when she was very small, leaving her alone with her father who molested her from the age of 4-6. When she was 6, she almost died of TB, and the government removed her from her father’s custody when she was 7. Now she’s a malnourished 8-year-old HIV-positive orphan whose mental development is so far delayed that she’s ill-prepared for pre-school. For the matron, this story was an example of God’s incredible compassion: He had sent this girl to her so she could live a better life, and so that everyone at the home could be touched by her story. This girl’s suffering had actually strengthened her belief in God.

And then, on the other hand, there’s my reaction to this story, which is basically the exact opposite. When I hear stories like this I’m pretty sure there’s no God. If there was, wouldn’t He prevent things like this from happening? Would He really let poor women die during childbirth just because they don’t have the money to go to a hospital? Would He willingly let a 6-year-old little girl suffer and eventually die from an incurable virus given to her by an evil man? If He really existed, couldn’t He punish the HIV-positive father who molested her instead? I’m pretty sure the all-powerful, all-knowing, all good God that Christians put their faith in and praise every day wouldn’t let things like this happen. It’s stories like this and all the human suffering I’ve seen in the last 2 and a half years that make me think that either He doesn’t exist, He doesn’t care about people, or He’s just plain mean.

Still, if someone is doing something good to reduce the impact of HIV or to improve the lives of children living in poverty, I can hardly criticize them for the root of their motives. After all, her faith is what drives her to work so hard to improve the lives of these kids and what gave her the confidence to start the home in the first place, and that’s a GOOD thing from any perspective. I just happen to do things for a very different, even contradictory reason. I do it precisely because I don’t believe there IS a God looking out for us. I believe we have to take care of ourselves and each other because nobody else is there to pick up the slack if we don’t. The only thing that makes me think that MAYBE there’s a God is that women like the head matron (and Peter and Michelle at Pasture Valley) exist, but if bad things weren’t happening to good people all the time there wouldn’t be any NEED for people like her, right?

Anyway, that’s what I think.

In other news, I learned yesterday that I have Schistosomiasis, a disease also known as Bilharzia or Snail Fever, that's caused by five types of parasitic flatworms or blood flukes (also, snail larvae) called schistosomes that set up camp in your spleen/liver and reproduce until you kill them. It's a mostly Africa thing, I think, and it comes from contact with freshwater, which probably means that there were snail larvae living in my bathwater in Swaziland. Cool! There are no symptoms or anything, and if I never treated it it probably wouldn't be a problem for at least 10 years, but I think it's kind of funny. There are parasites currently living in my spleen/liver/kidneys! It's a pretty unique souvenir of my Peace Corps service... (Maybe I should go to the pharmacy and get some Praziquantel to kill them.)

While I'm in town I'll also be searching for some ridiculous African wax-print fabric so that my host mother can make me a dress in the style of a picture I stole from the J.Crew website. It seems a little funny to use brightly-colored fabric covered in pictures of lipstick or skeleton keys or spaceships or something to imitate a $225 dress, but I’m a fan of dresses and I’m prepared to pay her more than the market price to make it for me, so everybody wins. (Excluding, of course, the people who will have to be seen in public with me when I wear my awesome African dress…)

So, until next time…

Justine (and her schistosomes)

PS: Sorry I’m picture-less yet again today. I’ve developed a pretty boring daily routine so it’s rare I see or experience anything photo-worthy, unless you think the inside of the library or the internet café are exciting (which they aren’t, I assure you). And I hate drawing more attention to myself by pulling out a camera in public, and think it’s rude to take pictures of people without their consent. But I’ll try to do something exciting this week.

Friday, October 22, 2010

More Kiswahili than you ever wanted to know

Fact: In Kiswahili, the word “yeye” (pronounced yay-yay) means both “he” and “she,” rendering it impossible to determine the gender of the person about whom you are speaking. And yet the language has 27 different demonstratives to mean “this” or “that.”

I sometimes wonder if some of the grammar rules of Kiswahili were invented just to confuse me, yet I still love the language. Here’s why:

Kiswahili (literally “the language of the Swahili people”) belongs to the Bantu family of languages indigenous to East and Central Africa, and is currently spoken by about 90 million people in Tanzania (including Zanzibar), Kenya, Uganda, northern Mozambique, and some parts of Somalia, DRC, Rwanda, and Burundi. (It’s the national language of Kenya and Tanzania and one of several official languages in Uganda.) Though the language has very African roots, modern-day Kiswahili has been largely influenced by the frequent movement of people throughout the region, by spice and slave traders traveling the coast of East Africa, by indigenous African languages of different dialects, and by colonialism. Today, about 25% of Kiswahili words are of Arabic origin, and there are quite a few recognizably Portuguese, Hindi, German, and English words in the mix, too.

Kiswahili is an “agglutinative” language, meaning that one word (a group of letters between two spaces) is made up of several different parts that take on a certain meaning when put together, kind of like a compound word. Take, for example, the following sentence (pronounce EVERY letter, including vowels, phonetically):

Ninampiga. (pronounced: nee-nah-m-PEE -guh)

This one word, which translates as “I am hitting him” or “I am hitting her,” is a complete sentence that can be broken down into the following parts:


Ni = I (subject)
na = am (present tense marker)
m = him/her (object)
piga = hit (verb)

Seems easy enough, right?

But then come the Noun Classes. In Kiswahili, every noun (person, place, thing, or idea) is assigned to a Noun Class, and each of the 7 Noun Classes comes with its own set of prefixes, pronouns, and complicated rules. For example:

Kitabu hiki ni kikubwa. (This book is large.)

Kitabu = book
hiki = this
ni = is
kikubwa = big/large

Because the noun “kitabu” (which is the subject of the sentence) starts with “ki-,” every subsequent noun or verb has to start with the prefix “ki-“ to make it agree with the subject. So if the subject (noun) changes, EVERYTHING changes. For example:

Kitabu hiki ni kikubwa. (This book is large.)
Vitabu hivi ni vikubwa. (These books are large.)


Vioo vimeharibika. (The mirror is broken.)
Kikombe kimeharibika. (The cup is broken.)
Mkono umeharibika. (The arm is broken.)
Gari limeharibika. (The car is broken.)

Basically, the word “broken” can be written any of the 12 following ways: ameharibika, wameharibika, umeharibika, imeharibika, limeharibika, yameharibika, kimeharibika, vimeharibika, zimeharibika, pameharibika, kumeharibika, or mumeharibika. Oh yes, there’s 12 different ways to say “broken” depending on what noun you’re saying is broken…and that’s just in the present tense.

And then there’re the verbs, which change depending on how they’re being used. There’s a reciprocal formation (“they are hitting each other”), a causative formation (“he caused her to hit him”), a stative formation (“he is being hit”), a prepositional formation (“he hit her with…”), etc., and with each formation the verb itself changes with suffixes. And there’s different rules for verbs that are “pure Swahili” and those which are derived from Arabic and those which are derived from English, for verbs with double vowels, for those with an initial vowel of “u,” etc.

Suffice it to say that it’s a complicated language. But there are rules to explain nearly everything, and there are only a handful of exceptions to the rules so it’s easy enough to remember them. And, for the most part, once you get the hang of it the language makes sense.

Another super complicated concept that actually makes sense is that of Swahili Time. The Swahili are, traditionally, an agricultural people whose day begins at sunrise. Since we’re right around the equator, sunrise happens around 6:00am every morning. So doesn’t it make sense that TIME (the counting of the hours) would start then, too? Thus, “saa moja” (hour one) is what WE Westerners would call 7:00am. “Saa mbili” (hour two) is our 8:00am. And so on. Noon “English” time is “hour six” Swahili time, as is English midnight. It’s not so difficult once you get used to automatically adding and subtracting 6 hours to whatever time people tell you or what you see on your watch. And, honestly, does it really make sense that the rest of the world starts the new day in the middle of the night?

Another sort of linguistic-cultural difference between English and Kiswahili that I really appreciate is the vocabulary used to describe family. While, in English, we have aunts, uncles, cousins, step-parents, half-siblings, etc., in Kiswahili this all changes. The sisters of your mother (maternal aunts)are ALSO called your mother, and you distinguish between “mothers” by stating their place in the birth order. Thus a person who would be called your “aunt” in English is either your “big mother” or “small mother” depending on if she’s older or younger than your biological mother. In the same way, paternal uncles are “big father” and “small father.” And, because you have lots of mothers and fathers, all of their children (which we would call “cousins” in English) are your brothers and sisters. “Cousins” are only the children of your maternal uncle or paternal aunt. And the word “ndugu” describes ANY family relation, whether it be your niece or your step-half-great-aunt. Family is family, and I like that.

(I also really appreciate the fact that Justine is a relatively common name in East Africa so nobody says “oh, like Justin Timberlake” when I introduce myself, and everybody knows how to spell it and pronounce it properly. Amos, my last name, is also a common first name here, so my name is easier in East Africa than it’s ever been in my life! It’s kind of nice. Strange, though, to hear people call my name when they’re not talking to me…that’s never happened to me before.)

So, now that you know more than you ever wanted to know about Kiswahili, here are some marginally useful phrases for you. Try to read them (aloud is easier) pronouncing every consonant phonetically. The emphasis in every word is on the penultimate (second to last) syllable, and vowels are pronounced like this:

A= “ah”
E= “ay”
I= “ee”
O= “oh”
U= “oo”

Jina langu ni Justine. (JEE-nuh LAWN-goo ni Justine: My name is Justine.)
Ninatoka Marekani. (ni-naw-TOE-kuh mah-ray-KAW-nee: I come from America.)
Mimi ni mwanafunzi. (MEE-mee ni mwah-nah-FOON-zee: I am a student.)
Habari yako? (huh-BAR-ee YAH-koh: How are you?)
Nzuri sana. (in-ZOO-ree SAW-nuh: I’m fine.)
Asante sana. (uh-SAWN-tay SAW-nuh: Thank you very much.)
Sasa nimechoka kujifunza kuhusu Kiswahili. (I’m tired of learning about Kiswahili now.)

Because I’m sure you are. Pole sana. (POE-lay SAW-nuh: I’m very sorry.)

Anyway, that’s a basic introduction to what I spend at least 4 hours every day speaking and writing and reading and otherwise studying. I’m halfway through the intermediate level course now and I’m finding I can understand enough of what people say to me to convincingly fake a full understanding of the language, which is really all you ever need.

I’ll write more about the goings on in Iringa slash my life in another Blog, to be posed sometime this weekend. For now, though, I’ve got 2 hours and 14 minutes of battery on my computer and I’m going to watch 2 hours and 13 minutes of the TV show Scrubs from my external hard drive. Afterwards, I’ll write a short summary of each episode in Kiswahili so I can count the whole 2 hours and 13 minutes as productive homework time. I have the kind of master procrastination skills that can only come from years of experience.

Halafu, sasa hivi… (huh-LAW-foo SAW-suh HEE-vee: So, for now…)

Baadaye! (buh-DYE-ay: Later!)

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Stories and skepticism

I know this may come as a big surprise, but I’m a talker. I strike up conversations with strangers, dogs, children, myself. About anything. Any time. Anywhere. And apparently I’m no less garrulous in Kiswahili, as my teachers Upendo and Steward found out this week. Since my class is one-on-one and tailored to what I want to do and what I want to learn, we spent the whole week practicing conversation before moving on to more advanced-level grammar, which I think was actually really helpful language-wise. It also gave me a great insight into some of the “history” of Iringa and an introduction to the local folk lore.

Folk tales and superstitions are a part of every culture. In American culture, it’s largely luck-related—broken mirrors, walking under ladders, black cats—and most people don’t take it too seriously. Tales of watermelon vines growing in kids’ bellies and the existence of the tooth fairy are something we out-grow by the time we celebrate our first double-digit birthday. In many countries in Africa, though, folk tales once developed as cautionary tales for children or as explanations for the unknown are still very much alive in the modern culture. In Swaziland I heard stories of a man-sized python in the Lubombo region that changed colors and swallowed up cars, held my host sister’s son while she used the toilet so as to not jeopardize his future chances of finding love, and was repeatedly warned against the dangers of star-gazing, which is the leading cause of incontinence.

Here’s one of the local legends of Iringa, as told to me by Upendo and adapted from Kiswahili by yours truly:

About 10 years ago, in a small village outside of Iringa, there lived a man who dreamed of owning a big general store. He desperately wanted to be able to buy his wife new dresses and wanted to send his son to university, but he’d been unlucky in business and, one day, went to an mganga (a traditional spiritual healer or so-called “witch doctor”) as a last resort. The mganga performed some rituals and explained to the man that to be successful in business, he would have to be willing to make some sacrifices, including some which may hurt his family. The man agreed, and the mganga took a few hundred shillings as payment and promised him that his life would soon turn around.

The next week, his healthy teenaged son died in his sleep. Desperately, the man and his wife took the boy to the hospital, hoping the doctors could do something, but to no avail: the boy was dead. Remembering what the mganga had said about needing to make sacrifices for money, the man was angry with himself for killing his son in the name of greed. The day he and his wife buried their son, the man confessed his role in the boy’s death to his wife, who promptly left him. The man fell into a state of despair. He let his hair grow long and spent his nights crying outside the hospital, praying that God would undo what he’d done in the pursuit of money.

After many months, the man went back to the mganga and asked him to bring his son back. The mganga gave him a piece of bark from a secret tree and told the man to keep it in his pocket, wrapped inside his money, but to never let it touch the ground and never let anyone else see it. The man followed these instructions to the letter for many years until, one day, he went to pay his bus fare and dropped all his money and the piece of bark onto the ground. He immediately yelled for everyone on the bus to close their eyes but his strange request begot more questions than compliance, and everyone began arguing over WHY they had to close their eyes. They were worried the man was trying to rob them.

But while they were busy arguing, the piece of bark lying on the ground started to grow into a person. It was a man, about 6 feet tall, with long-neglected hair, an unshaven face, and fingernails so long they were curling. He was completely naked and filthy.

When the people on the bus finally stopped arguing long enough to notice the man, they all ran with fright off the bus at the next stop. All except the man, who stayed on the bus staring into the eyes of his son, brought back to life.

Unable to believe his eyes, the man asked the bus driver to take them to the hospital immediately. There he had doctors and nurses look over the boy to see if he was really real. They cut his fingernails and hair, shaved his beard, washed him up, took his vital signs, and declared him both alive and human. He could breathe, he could walk, his pupils dilated properly in response to light, but he was mute and timid to the point of absurdity.

Then, every Thursday since, the man and his son have stood outside the Iringa Government Hospital to talk about the miracle. For 100/= Tanzanian Shillings you can see the son, who is very much human, and for 100/= more you can even shake his hand!

(When I asked Upendo if I could go and see the man and talk to him about his son as part of a language field trip, she said that several weeks ago the two of them went to Dar es Salaam to visit special speech doctors and figure out why he couldn’t speak, but that SHE saw him last year and can vouch for the authenticity of the story. My other teacher, Steward, confirmed the story and said that when the man and his son return from Dar we can go see them.)

Upendo and Steward went on to tell me that I shouldn’t use the bathroom at night because ghosts (who are the angels of hell) haunt bathrooms at night and will stare at me while I pee, and that that TANESCO (the Tanzanian government-owned electricity company) can’t run power lines through cemeteries because the spirits of the dead disrupt the power supply. I learned that a Chinese-run construction company that’s currently building infrastructure in the area works on roads during the day but on bridges at night because bridge building requires the help of wizards who are allergic to sunlight. They also warned me that if ever I smell the familiar cinnamon-cardamom smell of pilau rice immediately after a loud THUMP on the roof of my house, I should immediately stop talking so that the evil spirits (who dropped the pilau, I guess?) won’t find me.

While I’m steadfastly skeptical about all things even remotely supernatural, I find superstitions and tales like these very interesting from a purely anthropological perspective. For most of these stories, I can imagine a situation in which they were told to teach a lesson (like how it’s bad to blindly pursue money) or to explain something inexplicable (like why the Chinese people work at night). One of the most fascinating things about these kinds of stories, I think, is how they combine traditional aspects of culture (like the mganga) with more modern concepts like hospitals, buses, and electric companies, to make them more relevant and believable, and how they evolve to include specific details like the names of communities and hospitals. They also combine Christian beliefs (like the man praying to God for help and the very existence of cemeteries where people are given Christian burials) and traditional spiritual beliefs indigenous to the culture, which is very much how Christianity works in Africa. (Both Upendo and Steward are devout Born Again Christians, yet they wholeheartedly believe these stories. When I ask how they reconcile the inconsistencies between the two paradigms, they laugh and say I can’t possibly understand because I’m an Mzungu.)

Upendo also told me about a mysterious but very serious illness that afflicts high school-aged girls in Tanzania. Usually at school, the girl falls to the ground and appears to be having a seizure. Her eyes roll back in her head and she begins to speak in an unknown gibberish language, apparently channeling the words of her ancestors or other important people from the world of the dead. Then, after a few minutes, she snaps out of it and has a new sense of spiritual devotion but no memory of the incident itself. The lucky girl then becomes more respected among her peers because of her special connection to another world.

While I’m personally very skeptical (couldn’t girls just be faking seizures to be more popular?), I find striking similarities between this “illness” and a similar condition I’ve heard plagues high school girls in Swaziland. I’ve also read in for a medical anthropology course about similar phenomena in Southeast Asia and some parts of Central America (including the disease “amok” from which the phrase “running amok” is derived). Is it more probable that each culture has developed a strikingly similar lie, or is it possible that it’s true? Does not believing in a such an illness, as Americans, make us immune to it and make believers susceptible to it?

Who am I to judge what is true? I still won’t walk under a ladder.

The best $4 I ever spent! Last weekend, after a night of particularly un-ignorable buzzing in my ear, I overcame my claustrophobic hatred of mosquito nets and got one. It was subsidized by USAID and PSI as part of the “Roll Back Malaria” project funded under PEPFAR (apparently), which is amazing. Since the short rains have KIND of started this past week, the population of mosquitoes in my house has reached epic proportions. One night this week, I woke up in the middle of the night and counted over 40 mosquitoes clinging to the outside of my net just on the section by my head. Without this net (and the malaria prophylaxis I’m taking) it’s a good statistical possibility that I would have malaria by now. Also, it doubles as a very convenient storage/display place for earrings. Thanks PEPFAR!
The Iringa Municipal Market. I spend a lot of time here talking to people in Kiswahili and buying once “exotic” fruits like mangoes and papayas for really, really cheap. The other day I refused to buy a mango for the equivalent of $0.12 because I thought it was too expensive, never mind the fact that in the US I’d pay like $7 for a mango at Whole Foods. This billboard says “Reduce the use of trees for charcoal by properly using your charcoal-burning stove” and has pictures illustrating the importance of little doors and whatnot to protect the flame. Most people here, including my host family, use charcoal stoves to cook. The gas stove that I have is so uncommon that I had to buy it from an Indian restaurant. Those big baskets in the lower left of the photo are the big baskets that all the fruit and veg sellers use to transport their produce. One or two of these big baskets is strapped to the back of a bicycle or Vespa, to the top of a dala-dala (mini-bus), or to a big hand-cart you can hire to transport stuff through the town, kind of like the flat-bed things at Sam’s Club but made of wood.
A vehicle for some political candidate from Chadema party (the largest opposition to the incumbent CCM in the Iringa region). These drive through the town blasting music (its trailer is full of speakers) and singing the praises of the candidate by loud-speaker, kind of like a parade except all the time. There are cars for every candidate, every party, and sometimes non-political things. Like the local church, which advertises the times and topics of its Sunday sermon this way while blaring really loud Tanzanian Gospel music.
The local river, which I cross a minimum of twice daily, is full of trash and dragonflies. (That little orangeish-red guy is a dragonfly.) I would say with 98% certainty that someday I will slip and fall into the river on my way to school. I’ve had some close calls already.

It’s a miracle anything grows here! The “soil” is straight-up sand in most places, and the only consistent water supply comes from the river, which makes terraced gardens like this one on the bank of the river necessary.

Saturday, I bought some nyama ya ng’ombe (beef) from the local butcher nearest my house. It was cheap ($0.60 per pound), but I’m pretty sure it had been hanging in the back of his little shop for many, many days. Those black parts are little bits of kidney that the butcher threw in for free, which I gave to a dog, and the newspaper it’s sitting in is what it came in. In the future, if a butcher shop is so full of flies that I’m afraid to speak for fear of inhaling them, I’ll refrain from buying that butcher’s meat. I cooked up these mysterious bits with a garlic, red onion, and peas, and then made a sauce for the meat with honey and broth. It was delicious, but I’m still waiting for the digestive consequences of this endeavor.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Anonymity and cream puffs

After an exceptionally sedentary Saturday spent staring at my Kiswahili books and reading a 372-page novel in its entirety, I decided it was time to start my long procrastinated plan of getting in shape by going for a run through the township. I dug out my long neglected running shoes and shorts, stretched my lower extremities, and started out at a pathetic beginner’s pace in the opposite direction of my daily route to school, excited to explore the unknown corners of the neighborhood. I ran past clusters of rickety shacks where wanawake (women) were selling vegetables, past a CCM political rally with speakers blaring musical praises of President Kikwete, past  vinyozi (hair salons) where women were having polyester hair extensions painfully braided into their real hair, past a cemetery/community garden where people can buy small plots of land for EITHER burial the burial of a loved one or for planting vegetables (maybe for one until you need the other?), past a small “grocery store” (that sells only booze) where a group of men was passing the afternoon with beer and WWE…  

And past and endless chorus of hundreds of children screaming “Mzungu! Mzungu!”

While I realize that most people, especially children, don’t mean anything malicious when they scream “white person” as I walk past their house every day or run past them on the street or sit next to them in a dala-dala (mini-bus), after two and a half years of being constantly reminded of my skin color I’m REALLY tired of it.

As an ex-pat (and white woman) living in Africa, one thing that’s taken a lot of getting used to is the amount of attention I receive. Constantly. Every morning walking to school and every afternoon walking back home, I tell the same 150 curious people that I’m “nzuri” (good) because they always ask. When I buy vegetables at the market, everyone around me stops and whispers to their friends about what I’m buying and what I’m wearing and about my strange yellow hair. School children beside me on the dala-dala surreptitiously touch my hair and giggle. When I’m walking in town, people constantly stop me to ask where I’m coming from, where I’m going, where I’m from, what I’m doing, if I have a boyfriend, where my family lives, if I will pay for their kids to go to school, etc. If I walk into a shop and ask, in flawless Kiswahili, for two rolls of toilet paper, the cashier laughs and then repeats my request to everyone else in the shop as if it’s the funniest thing that’s happened all day.  

The attention I receive from men is even MORE ridiculous. If I sit down in the Iringa town park with a book on a warm afternoon, I immediately become a magnet for men begging for money, jobs, or a wife (or, most commonly, all three). Men sit down next to me in the internet café and ask me incredibly personal questions while I try my best to ignore them and focus on the pay-by-the-minute internet in front of me. They slow down in their cars or on their motorcycles to a walking pace so they can pester me for the entirety of my 20 minute walk back to my house in the evening (which I then have to turn into a 40 minute walk as I try to lose them so they don’t know where I live). If at any time any man approaches me in a restaurant, in the market, or in the internet café, 98% of the time this is the conversation that ensues: 

Him: “Where are you from?”

Me: (obviously annoyed) “America, but I live in Frelimo.”

Him: “You are beautiful. Do you have a boyfriend?”

Me: “I don’t want one.”

Him: “I will help you by being your boyfriend/Look how nice my body is./How do you control your sexual urges?”

Me: (firm, but polite) “You are rude, please go away.”

Him: “Give me your phone number so I can call you and we can get to know each other.”

Me: “No.” (usually I have to say this MANY times)

Him: “Well then give me money/find me a sponsor in America to pay for my schooling/give me a job.”

Me: “Go away” (in a less polite way, roughly the Kiswahili equivalent of “go screw yourself”)

It’s enough to make me long for the anonymity of being just another white girl in Kansas, or to make me fantasize about public transport in DC where nobody cares where you’re going or where you came from or what you’re doing. I dream of being able to walk down the street and not having a single person ask me for money, try to sell me something, and of going to shops where things have prices not determined by my skin color. 

Modest dreams that will be realized in just 89 days. 

That’s right, after two and a half years abroad, I have FINALLY bought a return ticket to the US! I’ll be leaving Tanzania on December 20 and returning to Swaziland to spend 2 more weeks with my friends and host family before beginning the 24-hour flight back to the US of A on January 6. I’ll arrive in DC on the morning of January 7 and will spend a day with Jess, Brittney, and any other friends who still remember me after 2 long years, and then return to Kansas the following morning (January 8) to be reacquainted with long-lost grandparents, parents, and siblings. 

To recap, I’ll be in…

Tanzania: now to December 19

Swaziland: December 20 to January 6

DC: January 7

Topeka, KS: January 8 to August 

When I get back to the US, I plan to spend at least a week eating all the things I’ve missed in Africa (cream puffs from Sam’s Club, margaritas, Guapo’s chips and salsa, strawberry-kiwi Snapple, gourmet cheeses, all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet, Dulce de Leche cheesecake from The Cheesecake Factory, Papa Murphy’s Pizza, chocolate silk pie from Perkin’s, etc.) and making up for 6 missed Christmas/Thanksgiving feasts and lots of missed birthday celebrations with family. Then, after getting a new driver’s license and a cell phone and finding a gym so I can lose all the weight I gain from eating half of Topeka, I’ll ideally find some sort of menial but magically high-paying job to occupy my time until I move to New Orleans in August. Woohoo!

Until then, I’ve decided that every time someone yells “Mzungu” at me I’ll stop, look confusedly around, and ask “wapi?” (where?). This makes kids laugh and run away, which gives me a chance to escape. As for fending off the men, I think I’ll ask my Kiswahili teacher to teach me some more offensive phrases on Monday.

The view of the township of Frelimo from atop the ridge by my house. Most of the houses are made of mud bricks or cinder blocks and have corrugated iron roofs which, after a year, become red with rust. All the streets are dirt, which makes it fun when running or walking because every passing car makes it impossible to breathe for a solid 20 seconds. Can’t wait for the rainy season in November, when the streets will be made of mud that I will, undoubtedly, fall face-first into!

The beautiful, allergy-inducing Jacaranda tree-lined streets of the town of Iringa. This is the main street (Uhuru Street) in town, and those vehicles in the picture are dala-dalas.

All around the Iringa municipal vegetable market there are billboards like these with health- or sanitation-focused message, which is something I definitely identify with and appreciate. This particular one makes me laugh. It’s a message about the importance of putting your rubbish in a dumpster to keep the town clean because if you don’t, kids will go through it and play with what they find. If you notice in the foreground of the center panel, a child is blowing up a used condom like a balloon. Yum.

Every morning on my way to school I walk through a big community garden area where people grow vegetables and keep banana orchards. There’s also a brick yard where a man makes and sells mud bricks to people who are in the market for bricks. I think it’s an interesting point of comparison between Swaziland, where the brick yards sell cinder blocks made of cement, and Tanzania, where the bricks are made with dirt and water and are beat into shape with a piece of wood. Welcome to the ‘hood.

This is the “butcher shop” closest to my house…the one my Kiswahili teacher recommends buying my meat from. (No thanks.) Butcher shops here that sell pork say “kiti moto” on them, which literally means “hot chair.” It took me a while to figure out why all the warm furniture stores sold pork.