Archive for category Ramblings

“Africa does not exist”

Over the last month and a half while I was at  home in Canada and talking to people about coming back for the year ahead, the word ‘Africa’ was often used as the geographic reference. Makes sense, it is the continent of my destination. However, I read the introduction to a book a few weeks back that made me stop and think a bit about this and I thought I would share it with you in this post.

The term ‘Africa’ is used so commonly for the sake of convenience and in a sense is correct – but it is also an extremely, extremely broad term and simplification. My experience coming to Tanzania will certainly be much different than another person also headed to ‘Africa’ but spending a year in Egypt, Mali, South Africa, or Somalia. Different worlds really. But then I guess I could also say the same on a more micro level – my experience living in a major city such as Dar es Salaam is a completely different world than a rural village pretty much anywhere else in TZ. Reality is that simplifications are useful and sometimes necessary…but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be aware of it and making an effort to go deeper when possible.

Here is the quote from the author’s introduction to the book which got me thinking about this and probably does a much better job conveying the idea than I just did. Ryszard Kapuscinski is a Polish journalist who worked as a foreign correspondent in many parts of Africa since 1957 and the dawn of many independent nations and reported events and day-to-day life over the next forty years. The book is called “The Shadow of the Sun”.

“…this is therefore not a book about Africa, but rather about some people from there – about encounters with them, and time spent together. The continent is too large to describe. It is a veritable ocean, a separate planet, a varied, immensely rich cosmos. Only with the greatest simplification, for the sake of convenience, can we say “Africa”. In reality, except as a geographical appellation, Africa does not exist.”

Unfortunately, I didn’t get the chance to finish the book before leaving– so can’t add it to Dan’s Book Club reading list just yet. It is supposed to be one of the classic memoir/travel books in the Africa literature section. From what I got through, it had many interesting insights into countries and their citizens in the early days of independence and I look forward finishing it some day soon.

Tangent: The thing I find about travel books – they are cool to read when you are far away, or even just visiting a place – I highly recommend the strategy of reading fiction or non-fiction about or from a place where you are or will be travelling –even if its an all-inclusive resort in Mexico or something. But when it goes into rich descriptive detail for those who have not experienced it, describing riding the crowded (understatement) public buses or visiting the colourful market…it’s a lot less exciting to read about when its already your day-to-day life.

Anyways, when I read that quote it helped me realize that – despite having now lived and traveled on this continent for almost a year – I really have only experienced a small piece of it and can only really say that I now know some of Tanzania and flashes of Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa from the “epic” trip. It also underlined just how much of a simplification it is when we say – “yeah, I’ve been to Europe/Africa/South America…etc” as if we now have it checked off the ‘to-do list’ –  when in reality we have experienced only a small part of that world. I  hope to get to better understand Tanzania, this little piece of the continent, in the year ahead as I am sure I barely scratched the surface last time. I also hope to see and experience some new parts – Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, Mozambique are all on the current to-do list for the year ahead. Ethiopia, Sudan, Morroco, Egypt, Tunisia, DRC, West Africa…hell, really the rest of the continent….on the hope-to-see -maybe-someday list.

Even then though, as Mr. Kapuscinski so eloquently put, I don’t think I could really check Africa off the ‘to-do list’  - because that destination just doesn’t exist.

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Most sequels suck – but hopefully not this one

Hello again and welcome back to the another dusty foot philosopher blog!

First off, all apologies for the major gap since the last post. The last post came from Zambia during the self-declared epic trip down to South Africa for the World Cup. Certainly had every intention of making some more updates since then but surprisingly enough, finding an internet cafe and writing a blog post wasn’t so high on the priority list during the World Cup.

I don’t have such a good excuse for why there was nothing done in the month and a half spent back  home visiting -thats just laziness I guess. Had a much needed time relaxing and seeing family and friends back home though and very thankful for that opportunity heading into another long stretch away.

If you don’t know yet – I am back in Tanzania already for round II. At the very end of the last contract here I agreed to return to Tanzania for a one year contract beginning end of August. In the end, it came down to a great job opportunity here and experience that I don’t think I would be able to get elsewhere at this time. I would love to share more about the new job, but a few things need to clear up yet and I will try to keep this one relatively short so that will have a future post.

What Hollywood has taught me about life (besides the bad guy is wearing black, the high-school outcast can still get the girl, and that animals really can talk) is that, when it comes to sequels, they mostly suck…especially if they try to do the same thing.  The list of horrible sequels is not a hard one to compile; Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd, Jaws II: The Revenge, Star Wars Episode I – The Phantom Menace, Speed 2: Cruise Control, Son of the Mask….it gets ugly.

I definitely thought a lot about this before coming back – this year won’t be the same as last year and it can’t be the same. Probably shouldn’t be the same. Need to approach it with a different storyline, different expectations (or maybe no expectations?), and different goals. I mean, most obviously, Zach and I are back but we’ve lost the third musketeer. Who will the thieves target now that Jer is gone?…I think I am in trouble.

So, I guess what I am saying is….let’s make this particular sequel more of a “The Dark Knight” kind of refreshing goodness and a little less of a “The Next Karate Kid” failed imitation.

I am definitely planning on keeping up the blog again for the year ahead. I really didn’t like the idea of it at first – but have really come to enjoy sharing some stories, pictures, and occasional ramblings with the friends and randoms that visit. I have about 7 drafts of new posts either started here on my computer or sitting in draft mode in my brain which I hope will someday see the light of day. I can’t promise anything but I will try to make some more regular updates in this year ahead.

Until next time (but hopefully not too long),

Dan

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Some ramblings on “doing good” in this crazy world we live in and then what’s next for this guy

Alright, so the topic of this post was originally meant to be the very first or second post on the entire blog back when I had legitimate hopes that this would actually include some kind of deep and philosophical posts -hence the blog name. Well, that didn’t so much happen but I have still wanted to get a chance to bore you with these incoherent thoughts and I heard somewhere that the first shall be (almost the last?) blog post so here we go!

Disclosure: I do not and don’t claim to know what I am talking about when it comes to the hugely complicated fields of international development and foreign aid. What I know and what I will proceed to ramble on about is a little bit of my experience and personal feelings at the time of writing. I hope we are all cool.

Secondary Disclosure. This post is pretty much one fluid stream of consciousness and writing – pretty much raw and possibly not making too much sense. Once again my homies, I hope we are all cool.

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In the beginning…

How did I find myself here working in the international development sector? While, I think that  interest goes back awhile to a childhood growing up in Bolivia and some belief because of this that I wanted to have this international experience of my own – but that’s a whole different story. More recently, I found myself attending an international education conference in Los Angeles in April 2009 where Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and Nobel Peace Prize winner for his amazing efforts at eradicating poverty through micro-finance efforts was the main presenter. I would highly encourage you to check out some of his talks or his books if you are interested. Needless to say, it was an inspiring speech – a kick in the arse if you will – to get up and out and do something a little different.  And so I looked at what my options were and decided that I could probably put my “skills” to use by getting into the business end of the international development field. After all, profit or non-profit, the need for business aptitudes and good people is all the same so applied to a posting with MEDA which was looking for someone for an 8 month assignment in Tanzania in the area of business development and communications. Yada, yada, yada and a few weeks later I had myself a serious “should I stay or should I go” decision on my hands.

Some ramblings on apparently “doing good things” over here in Africa

When I accepted the position here with MEDA Tanzania and began to tell friends and family that I would be taking off to work in Africa for the next year and received a wide range of responses but often a common theme involved a “good for you”/”you are doing something good in this world” kind of line of thinking. Every time someone would make a comment like that I felt a twinge of guilt. What if I am just doing this for purely selfish reasons? I want to travel, I want to try some new work, I want to see the world, I want to get the hell as far away as possible from a mortgage and its locked in responsibility in Toronto before its too late to just pick up and take off like this.

The view from the balcony of 35 High Park...A hundred thousand mortgages twinkle in the Toronto night

I mean, I assure you there was much more to the decision – I have always been interested in international development and wanted to gain some experience in the field, I was a member and involved with MEDA for several years prior and always admired their work, and I did also have a legitimate desire to put some of my efforts towards some kind of a greater purpose than the pleasing Board of Directors and shareholders. (Not that there is anything wrong with working for private sector – I know countless people who give much more to greater causes through other efforts than most people working in non-profit sector). But despite these more legitimate reasons – I definitely felt quite uncomfortable with this line of thinking. Maybe it adds a bit more pressure on you or maybe I just don’t like these kind of conversations but the uneasiness certainly existed.

And what have you learned?

As I mentioned earlier, this post was supposed to be at the beginning of my time here and talk a bit about some of my thoughts and concerns around this topic before I started. But now I have been here working away and my contract is coming to an end  - so what have you learned Dan?

Well, for one thing I haven’t exactly had to make a lot of sacrifices in my life living in Africa. It wasn’t what we expected at all, but life in Dar es Salaam is not always so different than back home for us so the level of personal sacrifice is definitely not that high.  I mean, if you’ve seen some of the photos from my many travels around this beautiful country – you know that it hasn’t always been so rough. We also happened to end up living near our work offices in what we would end up naming ‘Mzungu Paradise’ – not exactly an accurate sample of the average Tanzanian standard of living. (p.s. Stay tuned for the exclusive publication here on the Another dusty foot philosopher blog of the lyrics of the soon to be hit single “Mzungu Paradise” based off of Coolio’s Gangsta’s Paradise (which itself was a re-working of a Stevie Wonder song- (i just learned that now. (If you haven’t noticed yet, I love tangents)))). I do very much have mixed feelings about this side of the experience and how we have often really not had to make those sacrifices and experience a bit more of the real life over here but that’s really a whole new topic for discussion and debate so I’ll just leave it at that and move on.

Life is a sometimes literally a beach...weekend trip to Mafia Island, Tanzania

The day-to-day and the bigger picture

Another thing that I suppose has surprised me a bit but working in development isn’t really all that different than my work before in a lot of ways. It’s very much like every other business I have worked in and that’s likely because international development is very much a business. There’s no shortage of work, of late nights in the office, of stress, and of waking up in the morning and not wanting to leave your bed for work. It’s bloody competitive to win new tenders and you have targets being set and projects to execute or your organization will fail – just like in the private sector. I regularly go days without my mind even thinking of the “greater goal” of these projects, of how it will help Tanzania meet the Millennium Development Goals, or of the beneficiaries who will sleep protected under these mosquito nets. Probably a bit too often, it seems to all just be purely numbers.

One day, the “bigger picture” did indeed hit home during a particular taskforce meeting last year. It was a bit of a tense meeting as all of the malaria partner organizations met and dealt with one issue or another which was popping up and effectively laying waste to well made plans. As things became more heated one of the head people just stopped the discussion and reminded all of those in attendance that…yes, we will have our challenges such as this but what we cannot do is lose sight of the bigger picture. What we are all a part of here in the malaria sector in Tanzania is something unique. The world is watching what we are doing here in Tanzania and it is by and large a massive success story that will be used as a blueprint in many other countries to fight this endemic.

It was one of those moments that helps put it all in perspective and yeah, it does feel good to know that whatever tiny, tiny part that I have managed to play while over here has contributed to some small part of that success story in the making.

One friend told me before leaving (jokingly..but true enough) - you are just what Africa needs, another white guy going over to help. This picture is for you Mark.

And where do we go from here?

So what’s next? Well, that is something that I need figure out. I’ve been looking seriously at both options – staying abroad and working in the international development field  and also returning home and likely heading back to some unknown private sector job. Some of us over here have been doing lots of reading and talking about the development sector itself and whats done wrong and what is going right. If it’s part of the problem as some people seem to be arguing -than that is something more to consider, especially joining the ranks of the many expatriates working here in Dar and being paid with the aid money. But that’s a whole different discussion once again so I’ll just leave that be. I do honestly think I would be at peace with either path – sometimes you can’t always try to answer or tackle these bigger questions and need to figure out whats best for yourself too.

Okay, so this has been a decently long ramble now and perhaps I should wrap-up but I hope it’s been interesting to you. I know just writing some of this out has been somehow useful to me as well. So, are we all cool?

Thanks for listening,

Dan

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Never say you’ll never end up in Mwanza rock city

It’s not as though at the time, sitting in my 4th year Business Policy class at Wilfrid Laurier University, I actually had the exact thought cross my mind, but I certainly didn’t think the opposite either.

I don’t imagine I will ever end up there…

We are watching a clip from the Oscar nominated documentary, Darwin’s Nightmare, and the clip is being shown in this particular class as we have been discussing some of the issues and problems that result from international trade and globalization. Hell, we all know our business schools could use a little more of this well rounded perspective so kudos to the prof on that point. On the screen, although I don’t know much about it at the time, is the city of Mwanza on the shores of Lake Victoria in Tanzania.

The symbol of Mwanza...the rock city

The movie isn’t exactly showing a flattering portrait of Mwanza or Tanzania (in fact, the documentary caused quite a bit of outrage here in Tanzania and even caused personal rebuttals from the president of Tanzania). It’s an examination of the introduction of the Nile Perch species to Lake Victoria and theorizes that the local population has benefited little from the globalization and has largely experienced only some negative affects such as imported of conflict arms and the continued spread of HIV while the expensive fish fillets are flown off to Europe. I think in the end both sides of the controversy are a bit correct – the Lake Region is a beautiful area and in the end the film did not do justice to the people, the natural beauty and likely hurt it even more through lower fish sales and tourism. That said, I have no doubt that many of the points the Director makes about how the effects of the global fish and arms trade have also negatively affected the local population. All this said, I only watched a piece of the documentary that year and still haven’t seen the whole thing so I will leave it up to you dear reader to watch the documentary and make your own judgement.

Caught the culprit in question

Just about 4 years after this I found myself arriving in Mwanza. It was this past Janaury and I was coming to the rural areas just outside of Mwanza urban to run a pilot of MEDA Tanzania’s new program the Universal Coverage Campaign (UCC). Sometime this spring, the Government of Tanzania’s Ministry of Health will launch this Global Fund to Fight Malaria, AIDS, and Tuberculosis funded campaign which will aim to provide a free Long Lasting Insecticide Treated bed net to cover every sleeping space across Tanzania. It’s a daunting task, to accurately coordinate the logistics of registering every household in the country and then procuring and distributing the bed nets in every single one of Tanzania’s estimated 12,500+ villages. Something like running an entire national census combined with organizing a distribution network in every village, hamlet and metropolis back home. Phew.

A UCC village healthworker registers sleeping spaces during the Mwanza pilot

Anyways, I am getting off track. Zach, Jer, and I were tasked with planning, organizing, and executing a small scale  launch of this UCC program to test out a number of our proposed policies, procedures, materials, and technologies. Very cool stuff and so after a month or so of planning we find ourselves arriving in Mwanza to go live with the pilot.

Mock volunteer training exercise tests the variables

I won’t bore you with too many of the details, but I think everyone felt it was a success all around and we learned lots of things which are now going to be implemented when the full program launches in the months ahead. It may be stating the obvious but…don’t try and launch a project of this magnitude without taking all of your ideas (which seemed to make complete sense sitting in the office) and trying them out in practice in the real world.

Not sure why this is here....just liked the photo I guess

In the end, it was a work trip and although we got to see some of Mwanza, take a little dip in Lake Victoria, and even eat some of those controversially delicious Nile Perch – I didn’t really get the opportunity to see if the side of Mwanza portrayed in Darwin’s Nightmare is out there as well.  Another time perhaps…

Colourful boats tied up but waiting to go on the Lake Victoria shoreline

I guess it’s not really that outrageous of a connection finding myself on the same shores that film depicted 4 years later.  But all I am trying to say is…. never say you’ll never end up in Mwanza rock city because one day, if you’re lucky, you might just find yourself there.

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“We all squeezed the stick and we all pulled the trigger”… an account of the 2010 golden goal from Tanzania.

Canada, never in my life before have I so badly wanted to your lukewarm Molson Canadian beer spilled all over me while in the midst of the hugs and chaos of a rowdy national celebration. I had a different experience with the golden goal here in Dar es Salaam, but it had the same effect…going to bed that night feeling so proud. Let me tell you how it went down in Dar…

There's no place like home, there's no place like home

Gord Downie of the unapologetically Canadian band Tragically Hip perfectly captured the “where where you when Paul Henderson scored the goal…” moment that defined a generation of hockey fans and Canadians who were old enough to witness the 1972 Summit Series. The song Fireworks by the Tragically Hip from which the lyrics of this blog post title are taken is a bit more of a love song than a hockey song but it’s the way those time period references capture Henderson’s series winning goal that I always loved.  Now we have our new golden goal moment thanks to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics but I think the hockey verses above still ring true for what went down Sunday afternoon. Pamoja Canada.

In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania we three Canadians roommates gathered and even invited some American friends to come along just because a little competitive rivalry makes any game a bit more fun to watch. With the 11 hour time difference to Vancouver it made it difficult to see any of the 2010 Games live so we weren’t guaranteed we could find it but I’d seen some Olympic highlights on the satellite feeds in Dar es Salaam’s Irish Pub so that was our best bet. At 11:15pm local time (no need to arrive at the pub 4 hours early like the stories I hear from Canada) we rushed into the Irish Pub and searched in vain through the channels for the game. Alas, DST satellite here in Africa didn’t get the NBC feed (desperate times call for desperate measures… you can always watch the game on mute I suppose). We stuck around awhile watching when some highlights came on in hopes they would show updates from the game but no luck. Phone calls home and text messages provided the updates…1-0 Canada!, 2-0 Canada, USA scores..2-1 Canada….at 1am the highlights show is done and we decide to head home to try to follow score updates online.

An expletive laden SMS comes through informing us of the USA’s tying goal in the final minute. It’s going to overtime in the Olympic gold medal game and here we are hitting the refresh button on a website. There are the people and things that I miss very much over here, but I’m not generally someone who gets homesick easily. That said, I really, really wished I was back home to be a part of this. Our internet connection via a USB stick is slow and can’t handle a lot of the crazy graphics, advertisements, game trackers, and videos on the official site so we use some other website but the updates still come through slow and the screen doesn’t tell us what is happening…only 2-2 in overtime every refresh.

Then there’s a ping of a new SMS message and we know something has happened. The screen refreshes and we see 3-2 Canada but I don’t really react until Jer reads out the text seconds later…CROSBY IS GOLDEN. CANADA WINS.

...I think this means we just won gold

The beer spilled in the up and down jumping at the moment of joy was missing as was the sounds of car horns erupting in the streets around us. There were no random strangers to hug in joy and no crazy costumes or flags to run out into the street waving. Just some fist pumps and sighs of relief before heading off to bed. All in all, it was still cool to be a part of it, although not the way I would have wanted, but in our own forced and unique way.

I read this article the next day on TSN saying that the game was the most watched television event in Canadian history. No real surprise there, but it was estimated that 80% of the country watched some part of the gold medal game! That is a pretty mind boggling percentage, I mean we can’t manage to get a 60% turnout our federal elections; to pull 80% of a nations population together for one event speaks volumes about how Canadians rallied together around these Olympic games and around this hockey team. I would be interested to find out if there has been any other sporting event in the world that has ever garnered such a high national participation rate…(I know it was a game that people watched on tv, so perhaps participation is a strong word, but I have no doubt that everyone who was there watching felt a part of that game and so the passive watched or viewed is perhaps an equally inadequate way to describe it).

“If there’s a goal that everyone remembers, it was back in ol’ 72

We all squeezed the stick and we all pulled the trigger

and all I remember is sitting beside you”


When Sidney Crosby yelled for the puck and took that give and go pass from Iginla out of the corner, he had a whole nation that was calling for the puck with him. When he felt it hit his stick, we all squeezed the stick and when he released the shot, he had 26.5 million Canadians pulling that trigger. I read afterwards that Crosby said he just shot the puck before he had a chance to even look up. It doesn’t surprise me that it went in. He had the whole country watching and willing that puck into the net.

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How BIG is your Africa?

Alright, so I realized writing the posts for this blog in the past 4 months that I have a serious problem…with keeping thing concise. (what? you thought I was going to say Konyagi?)

The fact that my next and still unpublished post is still sitting in the Draft mode after about two months is a testament to that fact. As such, in an effort to make more more regular and brief posts – here is a shiny NEW post under 453 words!

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How BIG is your Africa?

I was lucky enough to have my parents and sister come to Tanzania to visit me in the month of January (and they were lucky to have a son/brother who ended up working near the beautiful beaches and tropical weather of Tanzania to escape the Canadian winter). We toured a good portion of the countries world-famous sights that roll off the tongue…Zanzibar, Serengeti Plains, Ngorogoro Crater, Kilimanjaro (from a distance) and had a great time.

Near the end of the trip, my sister (sorry if I make you look dumb, but that’s what big brothers do best) made a comment to the effect that Tanzania wasn’t really that big, it was probably comparable to Southern Ontario.. as it took only a few hours to fly between our destinations.

Eager to prove her wrong, I hit up my trusty Wikipedia for the facts and will report them here for all to see;

Southern Ontario: 139,931 km2

Ontario:     1,076,395 km2

Tanzania: 945,203 km2


Turns out, Tanzania is pretty close to the size of the whole province of Ontario and it’s endless expanses of lakes, woods and granite up north.

Part of the problem is that many of us in the West grew up using Mercator and other seriously flawed map projections that distort the North and South poles to make them fit nicely into aesthetically pleasing globe form. It shrunk Africa and other continents/countries along the equator to fit the projection and our minds have always just made the automatic connection since.

I’ve seen this trick done now a few times so I though I would share. It’s  where the African continent’s true size is put in perspective by putting all other countries inside it  (not literally, I don’t think China would agree to that. Just through new-age techno-graphic wizardry).

Check it out!

It's a party inside the African continent and your invited

Interesting stuff. This place is huge! I just calculated it and at the end of May I have a 2,500 km journey (“as the crow flies”) from Dar es Salaam down to Johannesburg for the opening of the FIFA World Cup. I guess I had best find some good walking shoes.

Well, I hope you enjoyed your geography lesson today kids. And remember, being blonde just doesn’t pay, respectability is just a hair-dye box away :)

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