Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Blip.

Oh, Hello! And Happy New Year! What's that? Criminal negligence of a weblog? Now now, let's not get dramatic here. I missed you too, babe.

Be back in March (I think). Don't pull the plug yet, y'hear? Take care, now.

e.


Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Weekly Sneak: ... Seriously?!

Mandela's funeral was always going to be difficult, it is true. But right around the sign-language guy debacle, I just gave up. Just. Gave. Up.

So this week's article is a bit of illosophy about social media and politics, and commentary on selfies by people who should have known better though I am glad they didn't. Aided in no small part by the Dar es Salaam summer heat that riseth every morning to punish us like the wrath of Ra. Tried to keep it clean, folks.
"Since the seating is alphabetical, it so happens that President Cristina Fernandez de Kirshner is sitting next to Presidents Khama and Kabila. Taking advantage of such a cordial opportunity, these three Leaders of the South totally tell Joseph to pull out his phone and take that selfie because 'when shall we three meet again?' LOL, YOLO, hashtag awesome, short URL, instagram! Just having a human moment.

How, oh how, would that be received?"
Just sayin'. Blame it on the heatstroke.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Goodbye, Madiba.

When Madiba's health started to fail for real in the middle of the year and we all realized that the inevitable was going to happen sooner than anyone was ready to admit, I tried to prepare. This article was written for The East African a few months ago:
"The Age of African Heroes is Ending

Friday 17th May, 2013

This past week we have been forced to grapple with Nelson Mandela's frailty, his mortality. For all that I make the argument that it is dangerous to revere individual politicians, in reality everyone needs to believe in tangible manifestations of goodness. The thought of a world in which Madiba is not present to shower everyone- young, old, rich, poor, African or not- with his warmth and grandfatherly affection is quite sad. In the face of this, how does one confront the legend that is Madiba and reconcile him with the reality of his humanity? What is the nature of his legacy?

During my last stint in South Africa I was surprised on two counts with regards to Madiba's reputation. Listening to the radio one day I stumbled across a poll where South African teenagers where being asked what they thought of Mandela and how he had impacted on their lives. I couldn't believe my ears as one respondent in particular assured the presenter that Nelson Mandela was old and irrelevant and that he couldn't possibly see the point in even discussing him.

Blessed are the young, privileged enough to grow up so unfettered as to discard the memory of those who made sacrifices for their survival. In a perverse way this person was a sign of the success of the new and improved South Africa. One where the youth could, but don't have to lug around their predecessors traumas, their prejudices... and in some instances not even their wisdom. They can- and do- create their own universe of problems and advantages. How many of us have stood on the shoulders of giants and taken it for granted that the wide-open vistas before us are our birthright? Then again, how many youth on the continent have been crushed underfoot by war-mongerers?

The second surprise came during a discussion of South Africa's current inequality problems- Madiba was served a rather large portion of the blame. After all, he didn't forcibly redistribute wealth when he ascended to power, perhaps betraying the dreams of millions of what the new South Africa would be like. This is not an unfamiliar argument. Had his fence-mending ways done more harm than good, in the end? Was that his big mistake? Should he have taken his cues from the likes of Robert Mugabe?

The South African grilled chicken franchise Nando's has built a solid reputation for fearless social messaging through its controversial advertizing campaigns. During the worst of the xenophobic attacks in South Africa a few years ago, they put out an ad that essentially said that if South Africans were to kick out everyone who doesn't belong there, the only people left would be the San- the only folk with a claim to being indigenous. It challenged the prevailing message that rendered South Africa in a rigid dichotomy of 'Black' versus everyone else and touched upon- obliquely- the truth that even Black history isn't entirely saintly.

Some of the conspiracy theories about how Mandela was bought off by vested interests and installed in order to protect them from retribution made me wonder. Politicians are, after all, people. There is a universality to the profession, no matter what the motivations of the individuals within it. And power is not a force that lends itself to gentleness. Wealth? Yes, as every tediously predictable kleptocrat has proven repeatedly. Wisdom? On occasion. But gentleness?

Mandela is reassuringly human. His life is well-documented so his mistakes and his triumphs are available for all to consider. I think the single greatest service he has tried to render to his country was his work towards promoting the idea of a single, united and peaceful South Africa. And he made it work by transforming himself into a beacon of gentleness, forgiveness, conciliation. An amazing feat for a man who is, at the end of the day, just a man.

Certain ideals are not destinations that one arrives at when everything else is in place. Freedom, peace- paradoxically they have to fought for, but after the storm passes they have to be transformed into practices rather than vague notions. Mandela devoted his post-prison career to embodying pacifism. In this hard world, this is not a quality that leaders embrace openly- unless they happen to be clerics. Which has led to this- a modern world of unprecedented 'democracy' in which peace and good sense are in startlingly short supply.

We struggle with the notion of a greater good, none more so than those in positions of leadership. Nelson Mandela, I think, was pretty clear on this front. Whether he was correct in the manner that he pursued his vision of a better South Africa and by extension a better world may be a matter of debate. But at the end of the day, I think that Madiba is beloved not for being right per se, but for trying his best to do the right thing. An everyday, solid, and true heroism- that might just be the very core of his legacy."
It turns out that you can't really prepare your heart for the passing of a hero, after all. It hurts to say goodbye to you, Madiba. Thank you. Rest well.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Because Cynicism is Too Easy: In Praise of Kikwete's Speech.

The last time President Kikwete* addressed the Parliament was in 2010 apparently, according to the announcers who were covering the event. What brought the President to the House was the current turbulence in the EAC.   

One of the aspects of international relations that fascinates me, especially in our inter-African dialogues, is an overhyped spirit of competition, sometimes even paranoia. Sure, it is inbuilt into the modern nation-state model. But you can imagine how this can make regionalist and pan-African rhetoric confusing. One minute we're cosy friends, united in our 'common African identity' and interests. Next thing you know, chaos. This behavior constitutes about 75% of why I am at best lukewarm about ye olde Pan African Dream. 

So, we were all curious to see what President Kikwete would say on the matter since Tanzania is currently both victim and villain in the EAC travelling road show. The message: Tanzania is committed to the EAC, there shall be no quitting. And, for the record, Tanzania is also not going to be forced to accelerate towards a Political Federation without building a strong foundation of economic integration.

Ah, but it was a pretty piece of oration. Kiswahili lilts well and lends itself to good, strong, gentlemanly speech, and the President brought his decades of diplomatic experience to bear. A sprinkling of levity here and there, the odd add-lib, some charming informality- hey, there's the guy from the 2005 Presidential campaigns. Charisma, anyone?

This gave way to very firm statements, the recollection of EAC The First's demise in 1977 and Tanzania's comittment to the AU and to all forms of regional integration. According to what has been formally agreed betwixt equal partners, and not by any other means. The President implied patience in the face of frustrations, the importance of adhering to his citizens' wishes** on the matter of the pace of Federation, and finished by asking god to Bless Africa and Tanzania and all her peoples- a reference to the national anthem. 

My favorite bit of the speech, of course, was the part where the President pointed out that it would probably take another fifty or so years for the Federation to become a viable option.

The brutal and beautiful truth? He'll be dead, his contemporaries will be dead, I'll be dead and the kids will be in charge. Our job is to make it possible for them to achieve, maybe even excel at what didn't take the first time, or the second time. This is about a viable future, and positive legacy. And it requires an acceptance of our own limitations. Where we are now in our relationship, if we move too fast we are likely to irritate each other into a dangerous state of aggravation. Oh, look- it's already happening.

When I say I don't want Federation, it's not out of dislike for any of the neighbors. In fact, quite the opposite. Competitive nationalism is, how to put this politely... basically insane. I can't sing the 'my country is better than yours, neener neener neener!' song in public and retain any self-respect as an adult. I would love to go back to Buja, experience Kigali, revisit Kampala- this time with a lot more time to explore the nightlife- and drink coffee and get energized in Nairobi and venture beyond Nairobi too because whoeee there is some beautiful country up there and so on and so forth, Cairo to Cape Town. All within the comfort of knowing that my being a proud Tanzanian removes nothing from my compatriots, and perhaps enhances something of their own pride in identity as well, whichever identity it may be.

We were supposed to be growing a nice young generation of East Africans who would be eased into considering all East African nationals as friends, compatriots, partners in every sense of the word. Let the kids and teachers cross borders so we can attend each others' schools, intermarry with great and enthusiastic abandon, work in each others' countries, start to forget that there is a 'we' and 'them' and let the 'us' come naturally. The EAC Secretariat should have, years ago, indoctrinated the heck out of us by inserting EAC positive material in our curricula. It should have a communications department that does so much more intricate work to sell the idea into acceptability across the region. Our governments should have had us all panting for a glorious and united region by now, grasping for the dream.

You know who gets this? The radio stations, the mobile phone companies, the banks, the businesses. Having a beef is bad for business so it's all gloriously positive messaging. Yes, of course I want to sign up with the company that lets me use my simcard wherever I roam when visiting old and yet-to be made friends!

And, so. (pausing to breathe). These big words- politics, sijui economic indicators of success, sijui cooperation and development and all that, they boil down to such crucial human details. Like, maybe, attitude, behavior, intent. We can't always hide behind the official reports from this or that body, hide behind the statistics and pretend that they render the truth of our endeavors. We can't claim to aspire to a glorious vision of African Unity and prosperity, then enact it by devolving into impatience, jingoism, egotism and spite. Not even on Twitter.

I am glad that Tanzania is not leaving the EAC without a fight for the AU vision, perhaps just as much as I am glad that the threat of premature Federation has been laid to rest- for now. President Kikwete's speech soothed the local pique at recent events and introduced a much-needed note of conciliation into the story of EAC in 2013. It was also straight up retro-fabulous statesmanship, redolent of the golden era of inspirational African orators.

In five, ten, fifteen, fifty years from now when the landscape has changed and there is a different group of men or women in power this speech will be part of what gives context to our modern history. What, indeed, will we be saying about regional integration and Pan Africanism and each other then?

*thought I'd give a man his due respect today. 
** funny how that happens only in certain international arenas. we could do with more of that in our domestic policy. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Weekly Sneak: Division Five.

So, the Ministry of Education is having an interesting week of it. The Standard VII National Exam results improved dramatically this year, which looks good in numbers because official statistics are the ultimate measure of education success, right? 

The Ministry then announced the new Form VI grading system and it took all of, oh, three seconds for the rain of pain to begin. Their old friend HakiElimu released a statement that pretty much says it all in official language. And this piece by Niwa Elisante is a great read as well. Insert your own joke about Division Five here :)

Funny, is it? 

"... the crop of potential candidates that will emerge in the various races leading up to 2015 are going to be the product of the past 20 to 100 years of public education in Tanzania. Yes, I know, there is always a soupcon of private education involved but let’s just suspend the disbelief for a moment.

Now. Doesn’t that thought put the Division Five issue into sharp focus? Does the quality of our public education matter, after all, in the shaping of a country’s trajectory?"

Discuss. Don't worry, the pass mark is set at 20% or you could just, you know, Division Five it. :) 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Weekly Sneak: For Real, Mwalimu.

This week's offering in the EA is a stream of consciousness thing. When you write for an important paper like the EA, there is some expectation that you'll bring your Alpha Male game to the table. Certainty, expertise, statistics, journalistic authority, yadda yadda. I'm not complaining by the way: my inner Alpha Male loves this job to death and plays with it like a cat on catnip. 

But. 

Sometimes as a writer you have to show up. Showing up is the most important aspect of the calling. Of any calling. 
"In this era of conclusive statements, statistics and oft-undeserved confidence, please allow me to do like Nyerere did and admit to humanity. This was supposed to be an article about the discussion on President the Fifth and the ICC and the new constitution and other terribly important matters.
 Instead I found myself winding through thoughts about the effects of legacies, social trauma, Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, all the countries that I care for so much without the ability to explain why. And ended up remembering Nyerere. There is something about the importance of character, isn’t there? Perhaps even something more tender, worthwhile and important and lasting than success."
Thomas Sankara, Patrice Lumuba, so many others- I really wish I had met you too.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Paper Trials

I've been playing dodge with Dawasco for the past two months which I don't recommend, by the way, for reasons of it sucks to get your water disconnected. Nope, it's not what you're thinking: I love paying bills. Love it. Makes me feel like a useful piece of meat on this planet, besides which what the hell else is there to do with those colorful bits of paper we call money. Bits of paper for super-clean water that I don't have to go fetch at the well and carry in buckets on my head seems like a fair exchange to me. Mine was an administrative problem. 

So anyways, I had to sort it out today and dammit now I have to confess that there might be truth to the idea that privatization can have a positive impact on service provision. Although there was a fair amount of luck involved, I got my connection back within about an hour and a half of wading into said administrative problem. I walked into a public service provider's offices expecting the worst and what I got instead was excellent service, compassion and documentation. What the hell?  

I remember sitting in a class about development and the effects of privatizing on access to basic services and making some rather grandiose, socialist statements about that. At the time Dar was in a fiasco, DAWASCO had really dropped the ball and things were not looking good. This helped to fuel my justification, smugness and idealism. 

Fast-forward to today, I'm chatting with the engineer who is reconnecting me. Turns out that DAWASCO no longer receives government subsidies. If employees want to get paid they actually have to do the work, collect the revenue, be efficient. They have performance targets, uniforms, and internet connections that work. 

Now don't get me wrong here: there is the usual dose of nefariousness involved. DAWASCO rarely actually bills me, they just sort of charge me fines for not paying a bill that I never received. Turns out the trick is to go and pay your bill unasked. Keep One Step Ahead of Extortion is a familiar game for Bongolanders, all you have to do is learn the particularities of each institution. Tanesco doesn't behave like Dawasco, which doesn't behave like TRA and so on and so forth. Oh lord, the fricking migraine of trying to keep documented and on top of the game is monstrous. 

Anyways, back to the issue: good things happened today at DAWASCO. The folks there are motivated, efficient, personable and every other adjective I thought I would never use to describe service provision in TZ. Apart from the TANESCO Mikocheni hotline, who are superb... wait... what? Is something happening? Are things actually getting a little bit...better in some departments? I have to go lie down, optimism is too confusing to me right now*.

*Jokes aside: if you've been treated right by a public service provider lately, share your story. Positive reinforcement works. 

The Weekly Sneak: Medium Alert.

Ben Taylor's post on the recent banning of Mtanzania and Mwananchi newspapers gives an excellent analysis on what's happening to our media industry. Of course this week I had to address the issue in the EA because as civilians we're having a fight with the powers that be about the shape and limitations of our freedom of expression and information. This most recent banning? Might be the precursor to further actions as the government continues to react poorly to the effects of having liberalized the press. 

In writing the piece, however, I got distracted by the government blog. I commend the government for trying to keep up with these times, but the execution could do with a lot of work. I understand- this is a generational issue. The median age of the government's management level must be hovering around the upper fifties, perhaps not the most tech-savvy group there is. All that youth unemployment, all those poorly-designed, outdated websites... can't we do something about this?

"Since we’re pretending to hold each other to account about our general use of media, I really must protest the decrepitude of the government’s online efforts. To begin with, that blog is a crime against design and the very idea of blogging. And things only gets worse with every website. Seriously? In 2013? Sometimes I think it’s the government that needs to be put in the naughty corner for a time-out with such behavior. Quality, old boys, standards. Ban things if you must (it doesn’t really work) but at least hire a twenty-something to handle you online, sweet befuddled political dinosaurs."
 

A little birdie told me...

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