Thursday, April 29, 2010

The stories.

Teachers, eh. How awesome can they be? I was lucky enough to meet a wonderful old professor of African politics during my undergrad, who had come to Tanganyika in the 1960s as a fresh young political scientist. He came to observe the first elections of a newly independent African state. Met Julius Nyerere and everything. Told me a couple of stories during office hours as I was struggling to understand enough to be able to pass his class. About the sixties, about Nyerere, about the sheer hope that floated this continent of ours in the halcyon days before it all went to shit. Oh, those stories. I was hooked.

I have a "friend" who came by today. Our discussion was a typical one for Bongolanders- what started as a rant about the weather, the floods and the state of our infrastructure evolved into a discussion about politics, leadership and the elections. Nothing new there, but she did share this exceedingly interesting anecdote:

Her local councillor had dropped by the neighborhood sometime before Easter to encourage voters to sign up for a rather novel program. Basically, anyone who wrote down their name and voter registration number on his sign-up sheet would get a t-shirt and other freebies 'when the time comes.' And to hear her tell it, the other folks in the gathering were only too happy to hand over their names and voters' cards in anticipation of said t-shirts and future freebies. They like their councillor, he comes by to hang out from time to time. Prince of a guy. When my "friend" politely declined to take part in this, uh, 'program', she got called a few names.

Ah. So that's how it's done.

Firstly, can I just express my admiration for beautiful simplicity of the scheme. A low-cost, effective and non-coercive method of gathering, uh, 'support' long before the big day itself. Gorgeous piece of work, that. Still, there is a part of me that wonders what my old professor would say about this if he were to come by and observe our 2010 general elections. Nothing like the sixties, I imagine. I Imagine that we'd sit down for a cup of coffee as he breaks things down for me and helps me look underneath the hood, so to speak. I imagine that this time around I might have a couple of stories to tell him too about the lived realities of Tanzanian politics. Like the one about how a "friend" of mine unwittingly taught me a sweet method for purchasing votes several months ahead of the elections...

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Odds and Ends.

I was going to blog about the Union this weekend since we got Monday off and it seemed an opportune time.* So of course Tanesco cut off my power during the crucial hours of the national Union celebrations and my ISP has tanked because Seacom checked out sometime on Friday and who knows when they'll fix it. Ah, the little joys of depending on one flimsy little undersea cable. Which means that I'll have to share my rather pungent opinions about the Union, and the looming specter of the East African Federation, another day.

On the burger front, the quietly competent Palm Beach Hotel does a pretty mean sandwich accompanied by fries. It might just be the best commercial burger in The City, and is certainly a good reason to skip the traffic madness out of town on a weekday evening. Very fresh, generous portions, totally palatable the next day. The only gripe is they could leave the onions out of the patty- but I'm a purist that way.

I gotta pay my dues to the Mutual Appreciation Society and create a link loop of love right here. Isn't that artwork fantastic?

Speaking of underground fantastic, if you are on Twitter and a TZ politics junkie you need to follow this account.

And one last bit of shameless self-promotion. Watch this space.

*Don't you just love diplomatic missives? Such pretty language to remind Tanzania precisely how generous the US has been to her lately, lest she forget.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Two Years...

...One hundred and twenty seven posts. One makeover. The ability to hyperlink in my sleep, and an addiction to ellipses.

Blogging has been a revelation- you never know what's going to come of putting cursor to screen and pressing 'publish post.' Thanks for reading, commenting, lurking, feeding back, teaching, encouraging and challenging. The communion, the catharsis and most especially the laughs make it all worthwhile.

Sadly, the perfect steak continues to be elusive, as does the uninterrupted power supply and the political party of choice. Which just means I'll have to keep on truckin'.

Blog Tanzania!

Friday, April 16, 2010

A Fine Romance, Part Two: Now That We've Caught Him...

...we can ask ourselves: what kind of Head of State have we subjected ourselves to? In the first musing about Jay Kay's presidential persona, I spent most of the post wondering at the reasons why we voted him into power so overwhelmingly five years ago. Whatever they were, we've had a decent period of time to observe him as an individual and test the mettle of his leadership.

There are probably as many opinions about the President as there are citizens. Certainly in the course of informally surveying folks the statements range from complete dismissal through to fierce loyalty. Not that he's a polarizing figure mind you, its just that if three Tanzanians are arguing a political issue you'll get at least five opinions out of them. I myself am a sympathizer: many little boys- and a couple of little girls- imagine that they will one day be President but very few have what it takes to make it happen, ergo Jay Kay is closer to Obama than George Bush on the individual agency/intellect scale.

Since CCM is going to be launching its marketing... I mean election campaign soon enough with a detailed enumeration of their 'successes' in the past five years, I'll just focus on the broader things that I think this President and his administration have done well:

- Fired people in high places. Prime Ministers, Bank Governors, Ministers, hapless District Commissioners and the rest of the smug untouchables: that was the sound of your impunity flying out the window. There is something to be said for setting such a Deeply. Satisfying. Precedent. Hell, one day we might even find someone guilty of corruption, but let me not get ahead of myself.

- Hired some good folks: The current Prime Minister, the Chief Justice, the head of TBC, the coach of the national football team to name a few of the easily visible ones. There is a something going on here. Considering his vast powers of appointment Jay Kay seems to be aiming for good recruits rather than simply rewarding his puppets, campaign funders, political allies and other presidential hangers-on, although naturally he must do that too.

- Done his bit for democracy. Vain he might be, but Jay Kay is not driven by the egotistical Bigmanism that continues to plague African heads of state. His occasional tantrums seem to be reserved for incompetence, as he generally faces vocal opposition and criticism with equanimity. This has served to set a tone: within boundaries, one can cast aspersions all over The Establishment which we obviously take advantage of, especially in the blogosphere. Since so much of democratic discourse relies on intelligently vocal malcontents, things are slowly looking up especially for local civil society. At heart, I suspect he genuinely believes in this whole public service, will-of-the-people stuff.* So long as you don't photoshop his face into a pornographic picture.

But on the flip side...

-Jay Kay and his crew of flyboys have glamorized politics. In keeping with our image-conscious, popular media-driven age, I know. Fleets of Beemers, billboards with His Grinning Beauteousness, performance politics...where is the decorum? I can't help but feel nostalgic for the stodgier times of yore when Tanzanian politicians had to keep it simple. We are going to feel the bite when CCM reaches deeply into the pocket of government to help along its bling-blinging election campaign.

- The money problem. Jay Kay was in Mkapa's cabinet for a decade before he became President, so all those fishy deals and grand corruption cases that we are grappling with now happened when he was around. There are all kinds of implications in that. Naturally, this diminishes the credibility of his anti-corruption campaign.

- That incredible travel schedule. International Community: stop sending him invitations to get honorary degrees, visit obscure Tanzanians Abroad societies, have a chat about securing more aid, toodle around factories, examine the charms of jamaican treetop tours or whatever else you have in mind. He can't resist. The man has itchy feet but it is costing us money and we need him at home. Besides, our Minister of Foreign Affairs is languishing in relative obscurity. Throw the man a real trip or three.

Sure, there's more issues to wade through but I am tired of hyperlinking and isn't this post long enough already? To summarize, IMHO Jay Kay is a pretty good fit for this moment in our political journey: a free-marketeer with a redistributive philosophy, a technophilic democrat, a canny executive and a patient, dedicated, opportunistic man of ambition who lacks the predatory instincts that make the Putins of this world so frightening. While I don't doubt that there are smarter, tougher, cannier men out there who would make 'better leaders,' all in all Jay Kay is at worst inoffensive and at best very useful, which is not a bad range within which to work with for a young African democracy.

*This is an interesting swing of the pendulum: Nyerere was a benevolent despot and intolerant of criticism (populist tendencies), Mwinyi was frankly far too phlegmatic (democratic tendencies), Mkapa was irascible and intolerant of criticism (misanthropic populist tendencies) and Kikwete really, really likes people in general and Tanzanians in particular (democratic tendencies). By this calculation, our next president will be an arrogant intellectual Christian autocrat from the Tanganyikan interior who does not suffer fools gladly... oh yay.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Independent candidates again, and a free earworm.

I have been finding the political news a bit snoozy these past few weeks, just can't bring myself to care much about Mpendazoe's defection to CCJ. Can't bring myself to take CCJ seriously, for that matter. The closer we get to elections, the more confused and impotent the opposition becomes- an amazing feat of sprinting towards the bottom before the race has even begun.

This week, however, has been pleasant: first we got a minor update on the impenetrable Zanzibar situation. I don't know how Zanzibar manages to be so byzantine, but they are going to put together a Government of National Unity soon without any of us political outsiders ever getting the real story. While I wish them the best, I am itching with curiosity about the whole thing: what does it mean for CCM? Who will be the next President? What did Karume and Hamad say to each other behind closed doors? The last time two Tanzanian leaders (one of them a Karume) whispered and shook hands in secret we ended up in a Union, referendum be damned. So yeah, I am a little intrigued.

Another issue close to my heart got an airing: the question of independent candidates. We all know that it is The Establishment's Banana Republic behavior that is holding everything up, but I have faith in Chief Justice Ramadhani and his crew and I don't expect them to drop the ball on this one.

Speaking about the health of our democracy, apparently the idea of following Em Pees around and asking them intrusive questions is not a bad one. Pity these kindsa studies are so costly. As Abba said: Aaaaaah, aaaaaaah! All the things I could do! If I had a little money!... (enjoy the earworm).

Tuesday, April 6, 2010


It is a big old gorgeous country: with the help of an intrepid driver and a real 4-by-4 one can affordably see a lot of rural beauty. So, I took a break from The Big City and headed into the coastal hinterlands for a bit of R&R this weekend. I had planned to provide some deep musings on the beautiful historic town of Kilwa, the destination of this year's internal tourism weekend (aka Easter) jaunt. Sadly, the only thing we plumbed with any depth was potholes on The Notorious Sixty Kilometer Stretch of the Kilwa road. Oh, and some gin-and-tonics. Because it rained all day on day two, and there was no way we were going to get on some rickety dhow to sail across the treacherous sea to look at beautiful, if moldy, remains of civilizations past.

So what is there to be done in this ancient coastal town, aside from absorb the startling fact that little about the place has really changed since the 1600s? The sea. This is a seafarer's paradise, as the folks who snorkelled and sailed and fished (unsuccessfully) could attest. If you love water, Kilwa is a place for you. If you are like me, it is an excellent place to get a tan on the beach while contemplating the thick smell of history that overlies the place. No one with a writers' soul will be able to resist Kilwa, with its aura of melancholy- all glories lie in the past- and the whitewashed structures trying futilely not to decay in the fecund coastal air. And the air! So thick and fresh it is practically liquid oxygen (with a soupcon of dead sea things for flavor). Kilwa is the kind of place that makes you want to believe in, and maybe even talk to, the ghosts of travellers past.

Other stuff I picked up on while there: The Notorious Sixty Kilometer Stretch of unpaved 'road' can, and regularly does, kick the stuffing out of city slickers. If you think that conquering Mikocheni potholes is a skill worth mentioning you are out of your depth, wait until the dry season to go. Kilwa traffic cops are on the lookout for bribes, but they are not quite tough enough to bully Dar residents. If you get stuck, the going rate is about 2000 Shillings per Dude Who Unstucks Your Car, unless you can get a big strapping shushushu lad named Chilli to drive you out of trouble. When stuck, try to look as small and helpless and female as possible (attracts do-gooders, brings the price down).

And next time you see a trucker, be kind: only by the grace of God do they keep Tanganyika supplied with soap and cigarettes.

A little birdie told me...

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