This is the story of how I met the first lady of Tanzania….and then what happened next.

The setting of this story is during my field trip in the beginning of November to witness the Under 5 Catch-Up Campaign (U5CC) mosquito net issuing exercise in the Southern Highlands region of Tanzania. I had headed down to the Ruvuma region to get some field experience and see one of MEDA Tanzania’s major programs in action. I hoped to get a chance to see how some of the theory and policies I was working with on a day-to-day basis were really playing out in the field. I also aimed to get some good pictures of the program in action for future promotional material use and maybe even collect a few good stories from the beneficiaries and the program stakeholders to publish.


It started when we arrived in Songea town on the second day and spoke with another program partner who let us know that they just learned that the first lady of Tanzania, Mama Kikwete, would be coming to the district to officially launch the program in this region. I was excited to hear that a special launch event was being planned in a village about an hour north of us and that my colleague and I would be attending as the MEDA representatives but didn’t think much more of it.

Dancers greet Mama Kikwete at the clinic

The day arrived and we headed out in our trusty white Toyota truck for the village. Upon arrival, as the picture above suggests, we find out just how unoriginal we really were as the village was absolutely invaded by an army of white Land Cruisers/Land Rovers from all the government representatives and NGO’s there for the launch event.

A convoy of white SUV's make their way to the launch event.

After an uneventful lunch event with local dignitaries and the first lady, we all headed to the village health clinic where the launch event was to take place. As I understand it (and everything happened here in Kiswahili – so my understanding is likely a bit flawed…) the organizing group had planned for Mama Kikwete to give a speech and issue the first nets of the campaign inside a tiny room in the clinic which could only fit the invited dignitaries and partners but left out the crowd which had gathered to welcome Mama Kikwete.  After we all entered the clinic room and were seated to begin her speech  – she, in a  noble move, requested that the event be moved back outside so that the shut-out crowd can watch as well. So, all the people in the room file out ahead of Mama Kikwete but at this time yours truly was fiddling with his camera and not understanding the Swahili instructions so just stayed sitting. By the time I realize that everyone has left and I get to the aisle I run directly into Mama Kikwete herself who proceeds to give me a big smile and (in English) says “hello, how are you?” and we shake hands. Now, I wish that I had at least tried to break out some of my Swahili and give a nice response in her language. Greet her with “Shikamoo mama” (a proper greeting to your female elder) or at least say something funny that would have made a better story for my blog like “Poa kachize kama ndizi” (some Swahili street slang literally translated meaning Fresh like a crazy banana). Needless to say, I end up just replying in English “very good, thank you” and she was on her way. Boring.

Arrival of the guest of honour

Now, because of this late exit and meeting, I end up filing out of the clinic and right onto the new stage directly behind Mama Kikwete and her entourage and find myself facing out to a gathered crowd of around 500 or so people…I clearly am not supposed to be up here on the stage standing directly behind the first lady with all of the other regional politicians but there wasn’t exactly an easy way out except pushing my way past her and into the crowd so I just decide to stay put and try to look like I belong..

Why am I on stage right now?

As the official ceremony begins with the speeches in Kiswahili I try as usual for the first 5 or 10 minutes to pay attention and see what I can understand but I quickly begin to lose that focus. By the time Mama Kikwete takes the stage I have completely lost my ability to focus and have slipped more into the back of the stage with the security guards and am just taking photos of people in the crowd. It’s in the middle of playing around with the camera that I suddenly look up to see Mama Kikwete turned around at the podium looking right at me as she speaks in Kiswahili. Oh crap. The few people standing in front of me part to make a path to the podium and someone beside me tells me “It’s your turn, Mama Kikwete asked for you”. Oh crap, Oh crap. I tell them that it’s a mistake and that I am not supposed to say anything during the event but they all seem quite convinced I am wrong and start pushing me towards the podium.   At this point I am still about 75% fearing having to take those last few steps and embarrass myself and there is a smaller 25% that is already finding this pretty hilarious and thinking that this should make an entertaining story if nothing else. I continue to resist and tell them I am not supposed to be up there and I don’t speak Kiswahili but they tell me that everyone is waiting and I should just go up and wave and say a simple greeting. Oh crap, this can not turn out well.

Now we are at the point where a further delay starts to make things awkward and I have pretty much resigned myself to going with the flow so I slowly start towards the podium and try to decide on what I am going to say. The best I come up with (time and language being the major constraints) is “Mambo vipi Madaba? Malaria Haikubaliki! Asantini sana.”  Roughly translated “What’s up Madaba? (Name of the village we were in)? Malaria is not acceptable! (A campaign slogan) Thank you all very much.”  Wouldn’t that have just been special? Just in the nick of time another person pushes through the crowd to reach the stage and take the microphone to respond to whatever the heck is going on and I manage to slip back to my original place avoiding having to get on the microphone in response to a question I don’t know and in a language I am just learning. Phew, close call. Thankfully, the rest of the event goes without incident and we issue the first ceremonial nets of the campaign successfully.

Mama Kikwete giving the speech shortly before my moment of fame

As I later find out from my co-worker, Mama Kikwete asked a question in her speech directly to another one of the partner NGO’s, Engender Health, about whether they could provide solar power units for the village hospital since they were often without power. Apparently since I was standing there on stage and since I was a white person, the people beside me figured that I was there as the representative for Engender Health and hence the whole big misunderstanding. Good thing the real representative decided to step in when he did. It would have been pretty bad if I went up and said my piece above in response to the first lady’s challenge to the NGO to provide the solar power!

faces in the crowd

As we make the one and a half hour drive back to Songea through the rolling hills and the scrubby forests that blanket the Southern Highlands of Tanzania, our MEDA truck is about 5 minutes behind the first lady’s vehicle and her convoy. All along the road home school children have lined the road to greet the motorcade and they wave freshly cut tree branches and the colourful green and gold flags of their political party. When another big white truck appears on the road they begin to wave,  jump up and down, and cheer loudly as we honk our horn and wave back. The sun is setting in that most wonderful East African manner that lights up the whole sky in bright pastels of pink, purple, and orange and it’s giving the whole scene a bit of a surreal feeling to end yet another surreal day here in Tanzania.  I’m sitting in the back of the truck soaking it all in and I tell you that you couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. I’m wondering to myself how I manage to get myself into these crazy situations but then I realize that this just seems to happen more over here and the ordinary has just become extraordinary on a more regular basis.

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