Thursday, February 19, 2009

National ID? No Thanks.

So, next year is election year. And this year the government will be issuing National ID cards to every Tanzanian who has reached their majority. Innocuous enough, I am sure.

Except Mkapa's second term, I believe the Government decided to change the vehicle registrations to their current format which meant that everybody had to queue up and pay the government for the pleasure of doing so. The sole company authorized to make the plates was owned by good old Uncle Ben.

Then there was the changing of passports circa 2005, another wonderful experience. Half of Tanzania's budget comes from donor aid, but we have modern biometric passports. More recently, rumors suggested that government was going to hit motorists again by modernizing our laughable driving licenses. We were thinking small. Why target a couple of thousand poor bastards when you can hit up roughly 50% of the population?

When the National ID project was announced, the Minister saddled with the scheme assured Tanzanians that we wouldn't have to pay for them. Fast forward to today's headline: "Tanzanians to pay for ID cards." We're a poor country, he says. The government can't afford to foot the bill, he says. As it is, we are going to have to do it in phases, he says. Next year is an election year, I says.

I don't want to be tagged. I don't trust my government with that kind of power. Like any sane Tanzanian, I try to minimize the state's direct interference in my life as much as possible. I can't imagine a more intimate embrace with the government than trying to get an ID card, except for prison maybe or the army. Though I understand some of the reasons they are doing this (security, blah, blah, blah, security) I am not sure that the outcome will justify the investment of 200 million dollars plus.

That's a chunk of change. Why not beef up community policing to address security concerns? Why not recruit and train teachers and increase their salaries so we're not overrun with angry unemployable youth? Why not stock women's clinics with latex gloves and surgical equipment for safer childbirth? Why not reduce the defense budget and sell off superfluous government luxury cars? Oh, yeah...because next year is an election year.

A Hunger for Taste

Since our group had decided not to leave the Busara Festival grounds to find dinner, we had some snacks to keep us going. Three paper plates later we were satisfied and left the litter on the ground next to us for later disposal- the festival organizers had forgotten to put bins out. I was zoning out mildly at that point, I think the Ugandan troupe was on (great drumming but seriously chaotic transitions) when a couple of young boys came and sat near us and to the front. I thought I was imagining things when a small hand darted out to grab a water bottle, quick as a snake. It was empty, although the paper plates were not: three quarters of a puffy naan, one and a half vegetable samosas, chilli sauce- the remains of our meal.

An older boy, this one alone, came and sat to our left. He had been carting a crate around collecting empty bottles but he set it down and sat on it, ostensibly to enjoy the music. This time I was ready. Sure enough, he casually reached over to appropriate the samosas but found himself blocked off by the boys who had come over earlier. They had a stiff staring contest, and I have to say that the young boys were infinitely more fearsome than the teenager. He backed down. All of this happened quietly, at the very periphery of our group, easily missed.

Just that afternoon we had had a discussion about the crappy food critics in the papers. As I declaimed from my soapbox about the fluctuating quality of food in Paradisan restaurants, someone brought me up short and said that maybe it wasn’t appropriate to worry about things like food criticism in a country where many people can’t afford one balanced and nourishing meal per day. Point taken: perhaps food criticism can be painted as self-indulgent bourgeois decadence. But then again, perhaps not. Ironically, we battled it out over a fantastic lunch at a spot overlooking the sea.

There is a deeper point to be made here. When is it appropriate to care about what we put in our mouths, to make that a mission? Food is one of the most democratic of sensory experiences, and is the stuff of life itself. I have only ever been truly, deeply hungry once to date, and I cannot recommend it. The twist, of course, is that at the time I was surrounded by relatives who deliberately let me starve. I suspect they enjoyed it, our little family iteration of class warfare. Sure, food is about meeting a basic need. But it is also about the politics of a clan, a society. When I ate again in friendlier surroundings, after my encounter with starvation, I shared three tiny fish over steamed bananas with two other women. Barely a fingertip of salt, and I don’t know if we even had cooking oil, but the love with which it was seasoned made it one of the unforgettable meals of my life.

There is of course the idea that food criticism belongs to those who obsess about the thickness of a home-made mayonnaise, or slurping down perfect Kobe beef burgers stuffed with blue cheese and truffles. There is a time and place for that, just as there is a time and place for hand-tooled Italian leather shoes and precision Swiss watches with kinetic mechanisms. But a true gourmand is omni-voracious and can tell you that there is as much pleasure to be found a simple soup as there is in foamed sauces.

Those boys who were scavenging our leftovers don’t have the time to give a shit about whether the pastry on the samosas they filched was crisp or soggy. That much is undeniable. In a perfect world, they would have someone to make sure they ate right. Someone should care about whether their bowl of beans had enough coconut milk, if it was too thin. Someone should remember to slip them their favorite treats whenever possible: grilled shrimp from Forodhani perhaps, or a square of halwa. Someone should love them through their palate*.

Tasting love and celebrating life through the palate- this is, in the end, what an obsession with good food is really about. I believe that even the meanest slum, the meanest village has a natural gourmet, someone who will take the time to make her ugali smoother perhaps, or his brewed beer particularly satisfying, or his stew deliciously fatty. It is a talent, like an eye for color or perfect pitch. Perhaps the real bourgeois sin is to think that that They, Those Others, are too damn Poor to appreciate the fundamental pleasure of food the way that We the Rich can apparently afford to do. Really?

* I have to plug this book: Delicious by Sherry Thomas is probably the ultimate gift for the gourmande slash romance reader in your life. Her characters’ relationships to food are poetry and philosophy all at once.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Voices of Wisdom 2009

I am ashamed to say that this is the first year that I bothered to attend the Sauti Za Busara Music Festival in Zanzibar. Typical of course- I am usually the one yakking on endlessly about how we should have festivals of all kinds that celebrate our art and give us a chance to appreciate it. Busara has been running for three years now. Paradisans- this one is worth it. At the prices that locals pay, it is hardly more expensive than a weekend at Kigamboni and infinitely more interesting. So, the recount:

1. Book Salaam was stellar, considering it was the first of its kind in Bongo. Patrick Neate made for an excellent host, and can I say the man has some seriously good poetry? I was amazed at the difference that hearing people's writing spoken out loud can make to how you relate to the text. I have struggled to find a way to describe the evening, but it was one where you kind of had to be there to appreciate the atmosphere, the mood, the writers' works and the music, the festivities...A number of people have some ideas about doing something in the same vein in Paradise every so often and I think we are about due. What would interest me most is confluence: if we could get the Anglo-oriented intellectuals (us) to link up with the Swahili intellectuals and some of the more proficient Bongo Flava artists we might have something very exciting on our hands.

2. The Music! I make for a particularly bad music critic because my reactions tend to be less than nuanced: I like it. I don't like it. That's it. In my defence though, music is primarily a physical experience isn't it? The piercing of clear, sweet singing, the rhythmic pulse of a good beat, goosebumps, submersion. Got all of that and more during the festival. Acts that stood out for me: Omega Bugembe Okello, the faculty of the Dhow Countries Music Academy, Ty. The first is a fusion group led by a Ugandan earth goddess type singer- can we get an Amen for neosoul?The second was simply gorgeous, the sound of veteran musicians making beautiful sounds with ease and confidence and familiarity. The last is a UK hip hop artist whose music is quite good- and you know how I'm so immune to the hippidy hop. One of his back-up singers, Andrea, is doing things with her voice and a music box that have to be seen to be believed. That's her on the left, sitting next to Baby Soul who can scat like Ella reborn.

3. Unguja. The last time I was on the island was maybe four years ago. This jewel of the Indian Ocean is changing. Modern life is rolling over it and in another decade will probably have scoured clean the unique and interesting flavors that took centuries of cultural encounters to build. There are a lot more young men on the streets than before, a lot more strung-out people too. You can sniff the edges of the drug addiction epidemic. I love going to the island for the heavy weight of history I feel there- not all of it comfortable. A few generations ago walking around in Stone Town, a dark-skinned kaffir girl like me from the deepest interior, I imagine I may have been caught, collared and stuck in a cargo hold bound for Arabian shores. Watching my fellow tourists meander by in cargo shorts lugging telephoto lenses it seems silly to feel melancholy and displaced. But I like going to Zenj to get the historical blues before dipping into the ocean at one of the perfect beaches, it keeps things in bittersweet perspective for me. Now I have to make sure I go as often as I can before this ancient, complicated place becomes less challenging.

Yeah. I am not sure how much wisdom per se was included in the Busara festival, which I had always assumed had a much more pronounced music history feel to it than it does in reality. Still, it is a unique and excellent event. The old fort is a very evocative setting, the free entry makes for a great mix in the audience and really, does one actually need any convincing to attend a music festival in Stone Town?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Writer? Uh...maybe?

Oh Lord. The hellish gap between my blogging intentions and my blogging output is staring me in the face again. I knew I should never have made that resolution about posting more often: last year when I had no such lofty ideals I was much more productive. And as I keep telling Ink Head, blogging is a muscle that has to be exercised...I just got a little lazy.

Anywho, I am off to stock up on culture and clove perfume in Zanzibar over the next two days. Book Salaam is making its debut as a fringe event of the Sauti za Busara annual music festival. African Bambataa is a fan of the dude of honor, one Patrick Neate, who is coming down from the UK to support the Tanzanian iteration of his critically acclaimed London Book Slam. Just about everyone I know from the Paradisan writing scene is heading there en mass, all thirty or forty odd of us. I don't know what to expect but I know that whatever happens, it will be good.

As I started running down my list of preparations this evening- camera battery plugged in, where are the moleskine notebook and black ink pens, don't forget to pack clean underwear and a phone charger- I realized that this year I might be in imminent danger of aspiring to become a Writer, thanks to the overwhelming temptations of a collegial atmosphere. The other day under the influence of alcohol and warm enthusiasm from a nearly-published author, I let it slip that I would love to write biographies. And I would. But what posessed me to admit it?

What's the problem, you ask? This is a matter of self-definition, and determination, and choices- all that good stuff. I remember an article by a new author- I think it may have been Alexandra Robbins/Abby Wilner, or maybe someone completely different- who basically said that calling herself a writer and then trying to live it was one of the most terrifying things she had ever done. I could relate to that. I suppose anyone who has ever enforced a clear distinction between their artistic and pragmatic sides can relate to that.

As a writer with a small double-you, I can comfortably pursue my more lucrative and socially-approved ambitions. I can dedicate myself to my job. Admittedly it consists largely of reading and writing, but it comes with a salary and perhaps even health insurance in the future. As a writer in small caps I can fantasize about making enough money to buy a Fahm in Africah while nursing my other plans for world domination. But if I were to allow myself to capitalize that double-you, things would have to change.

Writers write. It is their raison d'etre, whether or not they succeed at it in the public eye. Writers write at the expense of ambitions to own a farm, at the expense of jobs with health insurance, sometimes at the expense of healthy relationships. In college I took a class for African Studies that brought me into contact with the work of a brilliant short story writer from Zimbabwe. His work was devastating, I can still recall some of it by memory (and my memory is a Swiss Cheese, evidently, since I cannot retain his name). But the man is/was also struggling with some pretty serious mental health issues in his civilian life. And I get it, I get him. Aspiring to Be a Writer and let the artistic side make the decisions is a rather unattractive ambition for anyone who likes the idea of a neatly ordered and logically progressive life.

I recently came across a potential ally in the quest for a literary magazine, an ambition I had been secretly nurturing for a couple of years. As it turns out, this year marks the beginning of a literary revolution in Paradise. This social idea is coming to fruition in many minds all at the same time: SOMA magazine, rumors of a writers' workshop, Book Salaam...we're all negotiating our alliances and rivalries in the area of innovation and collective effort. I have no idea how this will turn out, it could go either way: a small but critically-acclaimed journal someday, and the chance to do some interesting work, or complete loss of momentum. In an effort to guard the latter somewhat, this is the first entry in the This Writing Life section of the blog. With some luck, it will not go the way of the food blogging entries. Let me end here since tonight I have some homework to do: who is Patrick Neate?

A little birdie told me...

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