Wednesday, March 24, 2010

So, that's what Em Pees get up to.

When I was studying how to exorcise the demon Underdevelopment, I had a veteran of a classmate who (over a pint) told me that two of the most useful assets in the field of development work were a sturdy liver and some conversational skill. I suspect this applies to politics too, at least the way we practice them here. Recently some friends and I found ourselves at a local bar in the company of a real live Em Pee. So we politely allowed Mheshimiwa to buy the refreshments and we got to chatting about stuff, like what his salary breakdown is, his plans for re-election, taxation, the cost of building roads, the work ethic of civil servants, voter registration. You know, a little light conversation.

I have to confess, I really like politicians. Not as much as sociologists, or artists, but I do like them quite well. Living in Dar, the center of the known universe, it always surprises and delights me how easily accessed they are, especially if you know how and where to drink. The only other places with such high concentrations of politicos are Dodoma- our mythical capital city in the middle of the Tanganyikan wilderness- and the National Stadium on Independence Day.

I got to ask our captive Em Pee about the activities that absorb the bulk of a garden-variety parliamentarian's time. Apparently there's a lot of time spent legislatin': roughly seven months out of the year if you attend every bunge session from start to finish including the pre-bunge sessions in Dar. Which, we all know, they don't. Then, there is the 'real work': procuring development for their constituencies. He told me that an MP's job is to compete with other MPs for the scarce resources allocated by the government through determination, networking and lobbying. With some creativity, opportunism and savoir-faire an MP can also access resources that are hidden in the musty financial plans of expiring bi-lateral projects, in the pockets of companies and wealthy individuals, in NGO bank accounts and... well, you get the drift. Somewhere in there they also have to stick in their duties to their party, hang out in their constituency so that voters remember them come voting day, and make time to argue politics with new friends over a whiskey or three.

So, going back to the Uwazi report on MP performance, and the urge to find out how political sausage is made: MP contributions in Bunge does not seem to be a robust measure of their effectiveness. It would be more instructive to follow these guys around for a couple of months- there's only 300 of them. Creating a record of their activities would shed light on what they actually get up to, how they apportion their time, what they prioritize and why, etc. And then, we can have that argument with them about why the hell they are snoozing on the job when it comes to the legislatin' part of business. But at least we'd know a hell of a lot more about what flavor of politics we have going on in Tanzania.

One last thing that I got: the constituency splitting issue is a mess. Between the government's "commitment" to increase the number of women legislators, the concern that MPs shouldn't have to serve constituencies of over 300,000 people and the Parliament that the Chinese built for us which can only accommodate a couple more snoozing bodies, there are 40+ applications for constituency split and six slots available. May the best lobbyists win. Bottoms up!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

A Night in Film: A Presentation of Three East African Films

Last Thursday, I watched three Tanzanian movies. In some, I could recognize the buildings, people I had spoken to. I could feel the quality of the light, appreciate the compromises forced onto the stories. It was as revealing as watching a home video. Is this what some lucky Americans feel when they go to a Hollywood movie? The appeal of foreign movies frankly pales against the self-interest and satisfaction of watching local film. It is a great feeling.

First up was 'Weakness,': written and produced by Abdu Simba and directed by Wanjiru Kairu. Originally meant for a BBC radio competition, Abdu had a chance to get his script made during the sadly short lived MNet show 'The Agency' and he took it. Thank goodness. Now listen: this film's biggest flaw is that you can tell it was hastily shot. As good as the actors and cobbled together crew was, the seams are visible. The characters are sometimes forced and dialogue is left hanging uncertainly, the soundtrack is way bizarre in its boominosity, and the lighting doesn't do justice to the set or the actors' complexions.

So what? The script soared and dipped with dramatic tension. It was unexpectedly angular at times, uncomfortable. The casting turned out to be slyly effective. How fine it would be to see this again with a real budget, some time, and an editor with the sensitivity to caress all the pieces into place, because there is something going on here. I really believe it could be made beautiful in the city of its conception, maybe even using some local talent. Better yet, it has a static quality and simplicity that would make for an excellent stage production. What about the women, you ask? 'Weakness' had peripheral female characters inserted into its Cain and Abel plot, a bit chattel-like. Bit parts.

The second film, 'Mwamba Ngoma' did not know whether it was a documentary about Tanzanian music history or a promotional documentary about Wahapahapa. So let me disclaim right here: thank you kindly for your good work, Wahapahapa, this was by far the most glossy and professionally shot film and it shows. Now onto the critical: this documentary started out being satisfying, and deliciously engrossing- Ngoma za Jadi, Muziki wa Ala, Muziki wa Dansi, through to Bongo Flava. The film had a good ear, humor, heart, and a light insightful touch- marks of being made by people who know and love the subject. Mwamba Ngoma was on its way to greatness. Then, the Wahapahapa agenda intruded and made it about the message (HIV/Aids and Aid) instead of the people and art. So now, it is what it is not quite one thing, not quite the other.

I would have been quite crazy about this movie if it had been made sans agenda-driven patronage. Let me not mince words: some forms of compromise can really suck the soul out of a project. Mwamba Ngoma has been nominated in the documentary category of the African Movie Awards and I hope it wins, just to put Tanzanian musicians on the map and maybe encourage the director and producers to make the movie it could have been: something to give the Buena Vista Social Club documentary a run for its money. The woman angle? High marks. Mwamba Ngoma featured female artists and performers centrally.

Finally, James Gayo's 'The Trip' was an unexpected bit of fun. What worked: the sly situational humor and sparse dialogue that is reminiscent of Gayo's cartoon work in Kingo. The charming actors, who could have overplayed this into the outer reaches of farce but instead infused it with restraint and credibility that paid off. Note to TZ actors: you don't have to roll your eyes to show disbelief. Also, the matter-of-factness of the plot. This was some very competent comedy, really fun stuff that would probably have a similar appeal as Stephen Chow's work (he did the awesome Kung Fu Hustle). The Trip has a similar oddly timeless quality- contemporary with a strong element of myth. And 'The Trip' specialized in saucy village wenches who were smart and knew how to have a little fun. Heh.

What didn't work: another example of opportunistic compromise, Mr. Gayo's movie was made in Uganda. This lead to some cognitive dissonances: one of the actors slips quite comfortably into Luganda on occasion, confusing the hell out of the dialogue. And the subtitles are in French, which may be a little challenging for an East African audience. Then, there is the notion of a couple of guys traveling by bus from an unnamed (though visually very Lake Zone) rural area to Tanga on the east coast of Tanzania for a job. Dude, what?! And finally: Baganda men playing on a Bao board made out of Mpingo so that a suitor can win himself a wife. Erm. I don't think so. Artistic license.

As it was, the theatre was filled with movie makers whose work hasn't been Big Screened for paying audiences in-country. Which is, like, beyond criminal. And that is how this evening ended: with the hanging question of how to make this kind of thing happen on a regular basis, even if its something as small as two-week annual movie festival in Dar es Salaam.

Real Ambition

Fun as it is to stand outside of The Establishment and toss barbed commentary their way, today I came across a fantastic position, one of the few government jobs that I would sell my left kidney for. What kind of CV do I need to get all up in there?

Mister Pinda, I know you are a busy man. But if you ever get a minute, I have a couple of ideas. We can start by infusing this year's Independence Day Celebrations with real character: I see dancing military troops, Blue Green and Gold fireworks and VIP tents serving The Spirit of the Nation and Ilala Yellow Spring Waters for those who like to party hearty. And, you know, mountain water or something for those who don't. And after Easter? A national drum-and-dance festival held at Oysterbay Beach. You know, arts, culture, a little local brew-off. Could be fun. As you can see, I am ready to serve my nation, sir.

Women's Work: The Nanny

So, let's talk women's work here. More and more of us are joining the formal labour force: how do we pull off the multiple demands of being wife, mother, housekeeper, cook, cleaning service, stellar employee, supportive friend, occasional party girl in a very brief dress and all-round paragon of feminine virtues? By outsourcing! It is my pleasure to introduce my first guest blogger, the fabulous multi-tasking yummy mummy Sarah Majengo who has this to say about the women who stand behind the successful working mom:

They say everything changes once you have a child. It does indeed, and not in the ways one would take into consideration pre-baby delivery. I was dragged kicking and screaming into the world of nannies and housegirls soon after the birth of my daughter. In a span of 15 months, I've been through 4 housegirls and 4 nannies. In between however, I had a slew of temporary replacements on loan from my mother to fill whatever gap was required in the housegirl or nanny department.

The separation of duties in our household has the housegirl taking care of all matters domestic and culinary. The nanny concerns herself with the baby- diapers, feeding, entertaining, and so forth. The one in charge of the house comes and goes while the nanny lives with us. Being an HR practitioner by profession, I realized that the two roles- housekeeper and nanny- had to be separated. One person would be overwhelmed, and while having two people is slight overkill, it does ward off any friction in the house. Naturally, I pay over minimum wage to both. Of the 4 nannies I have employed, two ran away and one was fired. The latest addition to the statistics is only a week old.

When things are good, they're really good! My baby thrives while the household seems to run on automatic pilot. The first threat to domestic utopia is the neighborhood in which you reside. Domestic workers need to be able to gossip with their counterparts. Failure to provide that outlet shortens the employment span of the domestic worker in your home. The second threat is the day off. Like I said, I am an HR practitioner and know all too well the downside of having an employee that hasn’t taken a break. The day off exposes your employee to events she may be missing out on in your household: advances from men, a chance to flaunt her attire, coiffing appointments and just generally being ‘in the mix’- the hustle and bustle of everyday life. The third issue that can throw the harmony in your house off is the employee who misses home, usually the village. Enough said.

Both of my nannies that ran away were really good with my baby girl. One wanted to return to her home while the other fell into the trappings of the 'day off'. Being a working mother, I can’t begin to tell you how the heaven on earth that is your household quickly becomes a hell on earth. Naturally, the responsibility to restore the balance falls on the mother. I tell you, “mother” is “multi-tasking” by definition. When a nanny leaves, the euphoric days of a thriving baby with well-adjusted parents quickly come to a halt as the scales threatens to tip over. Here, I have to give props to my husband for pulling his weight and then some during these times. He's been stellar and hasn’t succumbed to frustration in the same way that I have been known to do.

As a working mother, when all matters related to the baby aren't as they should be, the 8-to-5 job also suffers. I almost want to add a clause in the nanny pre-employment screening interview: 'I also have a job, therefore I'd appreciate it if you would give me notice when you want to leave.' And why not? We always complain that the girls don't know better, maybe what we need to do is manage them better in order to make our own lives a little less complicated.

How did our parents manage to keep the same house help for years on end? Why is the same not happening for us? More importantly, how can I blame the media for this turn of events? Clouds FM? Local tabloids? I kid. A little bit. Perhaps there is a high demand for nannies and housegirls, hence the huge turnover. Have our housekeepers picked up their own version of Generation Y-ism? You can give them a great salary, show them the respect they deserve for taking care of your house and loved ones but in the end, the decision to stay or go is theirs and we are entirely at their mercy. Their departure from our lives has a domino effect: everything suffers until the balance is restored. Lord, and the process for hiring a new one!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Food for thought from some fellow bloggers.

Yeah, so- is it just me or does our government behave a lot like one of Hand Relief International's affiliates? Start at the beginning, by the way, or you might get lost around the time the Flying Spaghetti Monster and His Noodly Appendage show up.

Speaking of looking for the underlying motivations, Swahili Street offers this interesting challenge:

"What would be the one factor that a future historian of Tanzania might choose, and for which she would have records, to examine similar [cosanguine] political and business relationships of today?"

What an awesome question. I guess that would have to start with a candid description of the ruling class in Tanzania, a horribly fraught issue...

Mambo ya Beijing.

Happy belated International Women's Day. How did you celebrate? I watched the Oscars... after Tanesco ensured we missed the opening extravaganza. It seemed to be a good day for women in the industry: Bigelow, Bullock, Sidibe, Mo'Nique, Gyllenhaal, a handful of grand dames. And an average time was had by all.

In the papers today, a couple of media houses picked up on Jay Kay's speech at the national celebration of Women's Day held in Tabora. I tell you, CCM will 'celebrate' anything that can put the leadership on a podium with a thematic t-shirt and cap*. The president was basically reiterating his desire to see more women achieve positions of power and leadership in his administration. This is 'mambo ya beijing' in action: lots of pomp, iffy content. I wish he would think things through a little bit. Nothing said there challenged the status quo.

Beijing has become our code word for all issues pertaining to women and their rights. Mambo ya Beijing- literally Beijing Issues- and not feminism, because we still haven't recovered from the discovery and import of this new political front at the Fourth World Conference on Women held in 1995. How are we faring 15 years later?

A few days ago, I asked My Lady of the Weary Smiles what she thought of Umoja wa Wanawake Tanzania (the horribly misnamed CCM Women's League). Let's just say she wasn't in the least bit impressed, on the premise that the Women's League has been useless at representing women and remained an organ for co-opting the women's vote during elections. She was slightly kinder towards the feminist NGOs because if nothing else, at least they were not draining public monies. Some have even been known to bring women's issues to the political arena.

I figure that her summary is quite valid: what our women politicians say and what they practice has little or nothing to do with improving the lives of other women. Feminist organizations are struggling to perform any better. These things take time. When my generation of feminists of all stripes chooses to organize politically, it will be infinitely more interesting than all the 'gender mainstreaming' that's been going on. Until then...mambo ya beijing.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Julius Malema, Film in Tanzania and That Damn Question.

The stuff that passes for movies made in Bongo? Kill. me. now. It hurts to see so much energy and raw talent go to waste because of a laissez-faire attitude. So it was with incredible pleasure that I stumbled across this critical and informative piece on Doc. Faustine's blog. More, please?

You know, my imaginary South Africa (the one with a non-existent crime rate and a Nandos at every street corner and Kiswahili is an official language too) is my Happy Place. So I like to imagine that the real South Africa will keep its shit together. But, you know: The violent xenophobia. Then, Jacob Zuma. And now, Julius Malema . What is really creepy is that the ANC has Zuma and Malema in crucial leadership positions. The ANC! Wait... is that the sound of yet another revolutionary party without a revolution going down the drain?

And finally, an exciting new blog by a bloggeress! And she's a sociologist too! Cherry on top. I like sociologists. A lot. Love them, really. Okay. Here is the caveat: I did spot That Damn Question about midway through my perusal. This is going to be an interesting ride. Most of all because Rasmus Hundbaek's (hope I got that right...) chosen topic is such a great one. And, you know, she's going to look at it with her sociologist eyes.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Trash Talk: smelling sweet again.

Woke up this morning to the whistle that signals the garbage truck's arrival. When I asked the guys whether trash day was now Wednesday, they mumbled and shot a look behind them. Today, they had turned up with their boss, the money-collection lady.

We like each other: our household always pays her fee on time, no fuss, and provides a glass of water if she requires it. I figured we could have a civil conversation about this business of delaying the trash collection. We couldn't. Unlike the Municipal people, she tried to dismiss my concern. Then she cooked up an excuse for why they were late. And then she completely stonewalled when I asked for a number that works in order to keep in touch with them. The kicker: she subtly warned me to abandon this train of active customership by letting me know that the number does, in fact, work and it belongs to The Manager Himself, and that He Is Overseas On Business. And since our fees for March were due... where is Dada, who she usually deals with?

Obviously she wasn't about to let some little housegirl-looking person get in her face about the quality of their service. Heh. I could have threatened her back by mentioning that I had called the Municipal Office about this, but it is a cool morning, and the street smells like dust again, and who hasn't had to cover for their company's mistakes. I paid the fee. I can afford to lie in wait for now.

What has changed? Nothing outwardly measurable, that's for sure. Ofisa Usafishaji hasn't gotten back to me yet, for the record. Here is what I do have: the number of my Ofisa Usafishaji, increased trust in my Municipal Office, a few helpful things to say to The Manager when he gets back. One day the customer will be right, even with Lyoto and Co.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Talking trash.

The household rubbish has been sitting at the corner of our gate since Monday morning... just like everyone else on the street. Lyoto and Company Ltd, who hold the contract for garbage collection in our area, are nowhere to be sniffed. In this heat, things are going to get very ugly in the neighborhood if someone doesn't come by soon.

You see, last November, Lyoto and Co. sent us a nice letter informing us that the Regional Government of Dar es Salaam has shut down the Kigogo waste disposal site because it is full. Instead, trash will have to be taken to the new Pugu Kinyamwezi site, which is roughly a 100 kilometer round trip for the garbage trucks. In the fine tradition of passing on the cost to the consumer, Lyoto and Co. were very sad to inform us that we would be paying TShs 10,000 a month for their services instead of the TShs 4000 we had been accustomed to. Furthermore, instead of collecting three times a week, they would be collecting one day a week.

In the sweltering heat of a Dar summer, this had implications, so off we went to buy industrial-strength plastic bags in which our trash could brew over the course of seven days instead of two or three. January was mostly uneventful. In February, things got a little smelly- the truck might come a little late on Monday, but it would come. This week? Not a whiff of them, and it is Tuesday evening. The number on the receipts given out by Lyoto and Co., which is the same one that appears on their letterhead, is a mobile number that no longer exists. What's an urbanite with a sensitive nose to do?

Well, she could go to her local government rep. at the ten-cell level (who she has never met before) and ask him to handle it. And maybe he would, because doubtless his trash is out there brewing in the sun too. Or she could, to save time, merrily skip the somewhat hazy chain of command and take her chances with the Municipal Offices of Kinondoni.

The lovely lady on the other end of the Kinondoni Municipal Office general landline (which works, by the way) listened to me all the way through to the end of my story, and promptly gave me the mobile number of their Ofisa Usafishaji. He's the guy who oversees the waste collection contractors. This nice gentleman listened politely to my plea for a number for Lyoto and Co. He was candid- he has the same number as I do, the Tigo one- but he promised to get back to me as soon as soon as he has any information. By text message, even, if necessary. It always surprises me how therapeutic it is to have someone take the time to listen to a complaint, even if they can't provide an immediate solution*.

So many of us believe that chasing down some public service using only a telephone and some manners is a foolish waste of time. But I live in Kinondoni Municipality, where Tanesco has been known to pick up calls on its complaints hotline even at 3:00 am*. And this is 2010 when officers have mobile phones, not 1990 when urban waste management was a mythical creature only found in foreign climes. I'm betting that my gamble will pay off a fine dividend in the form of a contact for Lyoto and Co. Ltd. And all this done without disturbing my ten-cell leader from his coma, because that's the kind of considerate person I am.

* I once spent roughly an hour unloading several years' worth of backed up frustration on the guy who picked up one of those late "I have no power!" calls. Turns out I had caught myself a manager. He spent that hour saying "mh-hm" and"I understand" and "I'm so sorry to hear that" and "You're right, we can do better" and "I am so glad when we get detailed customer feedback like this m'am, it makes our jobs so much easier." I still get intermittent power cuts, and the odd sullen Tanesco brush-off on the phone. But because of that guy, I am and will remain for a long time, a major fan of the Mikocheni office.


Shhhhhh...I really shouldn't do this because at this point, it is all just rumor and hearsay masquerading as journalism... but Mwananchi wrote an article today suggesting that James Mbatia, Chairman of NCCR-Mageuzi, might be gunning for the Hon. Rita Mlaki's constituency...It might be a good year to live in Kawe, after all :)

Monday, March 1, 2010

Lighter Fare.

I'm taking break from that political stuff today. Exhaling, if you will. So instead I offer a discussion on burgers. I have been reading a lot of American food blogs (don't ask, its a long story) and the burger has been undergoing a major Renaissance for the past couple of years. It is one of my favorite junk foods, and the best thing about it is that it tastes better made at home than it ever can from a shop. Trust me on this.

If you are going to buy a half-way decent burger in Bongo, where is the place to go? The truth is, there are not that many places. What the South African chains do to burgers should be criminalized. Steers in South Africa= bliss. Steers in Dar es Salaam= torture. And I don't buy that crap about inferior Tanzanian beef being the problem- if you don't know how to source good ingredients you have no business being a restaurateur.

There is a home-grown solution that some folks swear by: Hot Box, at the Morocco junction opposite the new Zain Starship. The origin story, as I heard it, is exactly the kind of origin story that makes for good fast food: Mama Hotbox had a great recipe for burgers that she served her family. As a result, when they moved out of home the Hotbox Kids couldn't find anything decent under the moniker 'burger' that they wanted to put in their mouths. And a business idea was born: how about a food-truck style operation that served Mama Hotbox-style burgers?

I have no idea how accurate this story is, but it is cute. And the burgers: not too shabby. The secret of a Hot Box burger is that crazy relish/coleslaw/ketchup mess of a topping that they put on it. It is sloppy and delicious... and it means that if you let your hotbox burger grow cold, it becomes revolting. Still, a far better burger than you can get at any of the chain restaurants in town, and cheaper too. Price matters: a burger, like beer, is democratic food- plebeian food. You can fancy it up all you want, and that can be fun, but in essence it remains stubbornly unpretentious.

Which brings me to the other two burgers that have given Hot Box a run for their money according to my taste-buds. I once had a fat, juice take-away from Captain Ali's at Slipway which came with really good fries and- the real prize- a pickle spear. The bun was toasted but still moist. The cheese was real cheddar. The tomato and onion were on the side so they didn't wilt into a disgusting mess by the time I got home. I could have married the cook that night from sheer enchantment. Been trying to recreate the experience ever since, with no luck. I think that, like all chefs in Tanzania, my faceless burger angel moved on to greener pastures. Wherefore art thou, o grill chef? I pine.

The other, more recent experience, was another take-away. It came from D.B.s in Mlimani city: the beef was decent (i.e. it didn't taste defrosted), the toppings included pickle slices (there is a theme here) and they slathered the thing with ketchup...and mustard! Next time you are up there with a craving for something satisfyingly unhealthy, do yourself a favor: by-pass Marry Brown. Your mouth will thank you.

Oh. Yeah. I suppose I could attach some pictures. I'll put that on my blogging to-do list.

A little birdie told me...

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