Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Weekly Sneak: Cooking Men

Here is the theory: four weeks in a month, four columns. Makes it ideal for a rotation across three or four focus areas: one political piece a month, one social commentary, one feminist and one for whatever burning issue has been hitting the headlines that month. The reality goes more like this: staring at the screen, sifting through half-finished word documents hoping for inspiration, and a lot of hand-wringing. Last night in the wee hours I was staring at a document that had the word "tanesco" on it only to realize that writing that piece would rob me of the will to live. So I gave myself permission to have fun. Coming soon to an East African near you:

... on the opposite end of the spectrum the forces of African conservative fundamentalism are horrified by this creeping trend: a man, a self-respecting African man, in the kitchen? Good grief. What will these insufferable liberals ask for next! Equal opportunities and basic human rights for all? The world is going straight to hell in a kikapu. They are right to be scared, I am afraid. The world as we have known it for generations is going to hell in a finely handcrafted vessel made of sustainable organic local materials. And I, for one, am happily waving it on its journey to oblivion.

I have been neglecting the feminist discussion on the blog, as someone pointed out recently. Time to go back to my roots. Also, I might have been listening to James Brown's "This Is a Man's World" on high rotation for a couple of hours. It is a man's world, yes it is. But it wouldn't be nothing, nothing, without...

Monday, June 27, 2011

Tanzania Blog Awards 2011: Voting Has Started

Voting for your favorite blogs for The Tanzania Blog Awards 2011 has started. Be sure to show some love to the folks who you read and make some bloggers very happy. Voting closes on the 9th of July.

The King's Diary: Allowances Rock.

Dear Me:

With great bemusement do I follow the debate about allowances in Parliament. So much ado about nothing!

Widespread reliance on allowances is a cornerstone of the TKP’s rule. The ability to hand out allowances at will creates loyalty. Lower cadres are motivated to follow their bosses in the expectation of being ‘rewarded’ with the opportunity to attend a lucrative workshop. Bosses, in turn, are loyal to their superiors for fear of losing attractive benefits associated with foreign trips and positions on the boards of parastatals or high level working groups. Allowances thus create obedience and allow dissent to be easily spotted and punished.

The downside of the TKPs reliance on allowances is that a culture has emerged where work evolves around creating opportunities for yet another workshop, training or trip. Delivering services has become of secondary concern. Loyalty clearly comes at a price. A price the TKP is happy to pay by the way.

The culture of allowances is so widespread that these days even university students demand allowances to ‘sit’ for lectures. The benefits are so lucrative that civil society –those who constantly moan and groan about the TKP, remain silent on this issue. They prefer to benefit from its spoils rather than to address it.

The power of allowances in forging loyalty to the TKP is well illustrated by the inability of opposition MPs to make any real progress on the issue. They make a lot of noise, certainly, but that is about it. This is what makes the current debate so amusing. Only one extravert youngster has dared to state publicly that he prefers not receive the allowances due to him since he is already paid! No other person has joined him. No MP, no journalist and no NGO employee!

Another great thing about allowances is that most expenses are covered by our foreign friends: the donors. In their mistaken belief that services are not delivered because our civil servants lack ‘capacity’ they organize a never-ending stream of workshops and training events. And in their zeal to show ‘results’ they pay civil servants to attend, so that their events are well visited. In this way service delivery continuous to be undermined creating even more need for ‘capacity building’. I love it. It allows the TKP stays in power while spending huge amounts of other people’s money.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Dar Sketches Is Now Available

Good morning! At the Green Room at Slipway on the inside of the Msasani Bay of the Peninsula in Dar es Salaam city, Tanzania, you will find this here book:

Please: go out and buy it. It is a labor of love, a love letter to the city of Dar es Salaam, and a coffee table book that will impress everyone who glimpses it with your cultural savvy. It will make you richer, slimmer and smarter and irresistibly charismatic. This book will give you mojo, along with a dose of that laid-back Bongo Cool you've always wanted. Go get your copy and support your Bongo creatives! And then pass by Sarah's to let her know how lovely you think the final product is :)

If/when we throw the party, I'll let you know.

The Weekly Sneak: Education

Why not? I like invented traditions and honestly it allows me to look like I'm blogging when really I'm getting two pieces for the price of one. Dodgy, but fun. So here is this week's preview paragraph for next week's East African article:

"Still, the underlying point is a poignant one: what they are really asking is how can they hope to get out into the big bad world and earn a living without poverty rolling over them like a runaway upcountry bus. I do have an answer for those of us who are unemployed by our anorexic formal labor market: your creativity is your labor market advantage. Most of us are going to have to invent our jobs and ride our own brains on the journey from subsistence farming with a hand-hoe, to the bright lights and city smarts of the middle class lifestyle."

The idea came about during a conversation about jobs and youth and what Tanzanians could expect to happen in the next few years when we look at the combined effects of a population boom, a crapulent public education system and a future that rewards intellectual work and innovation rather than labor that can be mechanized. Somewhere along the line we agreed that individual creativity would provide the labour market, so to speak, that young Tanzanians are looking for. My twin then casually told me that there's no way I could present that argument in an article and make it work. And here I am, genetically programmed not to resist a dare...

Also, I wanted to expose an interesting behavior: I'm getting asked for money by strangers. Sigh. Look: I don't believe in hand-outs. Charity for good causes? Yes. Constructive help? Yes. Mentorship? Any time. Collaboration? Sure, as time and inclination permits. Hand-outs just because? Not so much. I hope we're clear on that. If you don't like it, you can always report me to the socialists ;)

And then there was Vodacom or Vodanet or Vodacell or whatever the hell they call themselves these days. When they rebranded this year, their campaign translated the English slogan of "Power to You" to "Kazi ni Kwako" for the local populace. Which doesn't mean remotely the same thing, and has been quietly grating on my nerves for months now. Typically Tanzanian of me, being intolerant of the cultural faux-pas. Their local staff must hate the corporation if they neglected to inform the (obviously clueless) marketing team about this one little thing. In comparison to the ads that Zantel is putting out there, Vodacom is only showing itself to be out of touch with their consumers and frankly uninterested in their customers. You'd think that Big Telecoms would have a clue. Apparently, not these guys.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Tell It Like It Is

One of the outcomes of blogging that has been an unexpected perk is the correspondence. Although the comments section on the blog remains quite modest, a number of readers have found gmail much more to their liking :) The one drawback is that between the power rationing and my own writing habits, there tends to be a bit of a time-lag between getting emails and responding to them. I'm working on shortening the response time, but at least I can pretty much guarantee that I do respond to all emails- that's the advantage of having a small blog.

In the meantime I thought I would give you a little info on what kinds of responses I get from readers, since that is the first thing that people ask me. With regards to the East African articles: don't worry, Big Brother hasn't come a-raiding Mikocheni looking for me. And He won't: Tanzania actually is a society in which free speech is tolerated if not necessarily encouraged. Don't take my word for it, try it yourself and see. Besides, the Kiswahili media is far more dangerous, and critical, than English media.

Responders profile: most of you who write in are liberals. Hello, tribe :) Always good to meet you. Some of you are decidedly ujamaa socialists. I'm sorry for your ailment, I hope you get better soon but in the meantime thanks for visiting. Gender dynamics: you are all of you male, except for that one lady who got in touch last week about blogging tips. In fact, you are all male and either in your twenties or fifty and above. It is such an intriguing phenomenon that I have to comment on it.

I am of course obsessed by female voice in public debate. While in Nairobi, someone pointed out that when "disempowered" "minorities" such as women are given an opportunity to express their opinions publicly, they tend to decline. I have no problem with that since the flip side of freedom of speech is the freedom not to speak. Enforced participation is so Ujamaa, you know? Not my cup of tea. And yet... this gendered silence is making me wonder what the situation is. Even the anonymous commentators who reveal themselves in face-to-face meetings are male. You're killing me, here, ladies. Tell me- is there anything I can do to make you more comfortable? A feminist blogger without female online companionship is a sad and pathetic thing to be.

That said, most of your correspondence is about politics and governance and what it does to your individual lives. We're all in this mess of a national project together, aren't we, and talk is therapy. Once in a blue moon someone gets in touch to feed me info about a cause close to their hearts: don't take it personally if I don't put your suggestion on the blog. Sometimes it is off-topic, sometimes I simply don't know enough, sometimes the information is compromized and sometimes it involves a fight that I have decided not to join. But I do try to respond anyways. So, you know, if you have something you want to say feel free to holler. If you use a female name you'll really make my day :)

So to conclude, I have to agree publicly here with fellow Mikocheni resident Kato Lukaija who has been emailing me his campaign to get the issue of male circumcision discussed in the print media. There is something a little bit coercive about the current drive to get men to circumcise so as to minimize the risk of HIV infection, although massive public health drives tend to have that approach. Still, you have a point sir: men are just as entitled as women to defend their bodily integrity and no one should chop anything off you that you intend to keep. Good luck with your endeavors, although you know that the papers will not print such well-researched, explicitly detailed argumentation about the advantages of the foreskin. Sadly, neither can I. Maybe you should start a blog...

Friday, June 17, 2011

Tanzania Blog Awards 2011: TMR Is a Contender

A couple of days ago I got an email telling me that The Mikocheni Report has been nominated for a 2011 Tanzania Blog Award in possibly two categories: best personal blog and best political blog. Excellent news to wake up to :)

I did ask a few questions when I got the email, just to get a feel of who is behind the initiative. Turns out that it is a reader-led project by a group of people who love the medium and want to boost blogging in Tanzania. A people's choice award, basically. Quite apart from the nomination, do check out the award website for the most comprehensive current blogroll I have seen in a long time, and please do look at the nominees in the various categories. There are a quite a few decent blogs out there and it will make your day better.

And sincerely: thank you to whoever nominated The Mikocheni Report. You have reminded me that just because the comments section is not on fire, it does not mean we aren't in the middle of a long conversation. I'll be putting the vote badges up later today, Tanesco permitting. High Five.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Sneak Preview, Again

I kind of had fun with the article preview last time, and My Lady of the Anticipating Smiles said she enjoyed it. So here is another sneak preview. Coming next weekend to an East African near you, some more budget talk and a little nostalgia:
"Ten years ago this would have been impossible to imagine: few of us under the previous regimes had a clue about what these parliamentarians of ours did with themselves. They were like exotic birds who migrated to roost in a mythical capital far, far away from Dar called Dodoma several times a year, where they would coo at each other in a language we weren’t likely to understand. The national budget was an even more obscure undertaking than Bunge, and something that we were happy to leave to the ones in charge. After all they supposedly knew exactly what they were doing. That must have been such a fantastic time to be a politician. Sure, you were likely poor but then you commanded respect."
Ah. Those single-party days must have been like some kind of golden past for the old cadres, eh? People bowing and scraping and "Mheshimiwa"-ring you to death everywhere you went. Nothing like these days when uncouth youth say silly things about you on the intertubes and nip at your heels in the newspapers. Damn those liberal democrats!

Sunday, June 12, 2011


I have a lonely ticket sitting in my room, for the Hugh Masekela concert that was supposed to take place on Saturday. Took the folks out to celebrate the fact that they have now been married almost as long as this country is old. Besides, it was Hugh: only the man that God had in mind when She invented the trumpet. All around, I was poised for a stellar night of serious jazzical entertainment. I had my bourgeoise on, knowwhati'msayin?

But I only got a third of a night of excellent jazzical entertainment. Props to Sauda Simba who frontlined for Hugh- nice selection of standards, and I would be interested to hear her personal take on a few more of the classic tracks. But by 9:30 the songstress was done and the concert that was supposed to start at 8:00 was beginning to look a little flaky. Then the rep from the main sponsors strolled up to the microphone and told us that the concert was cancelled. Haha, we responded. So funny, joke yes?

Not so much, no.

The concert, which was full to capacity with people who had forked over between 50,000 TShs and 100,000 TShs (that's real money, folks), had been summarily cancelled. Just like that, my lifelong dream to see Hugh perform live, my deep pleasure at the thought of listening to him riff while enjoying the cool breeze off the Indian Ocean, the anticipation of treasuring that memory forever- pouf. Up in smoke.

Yeah, I was disappointed. Even worked up a modicum of anger. Some more cynical friends had held off their excitement with the argument that they would believe it when they saw Hugh on the stage. I spent weeks in a fever of anticipation. Guess who had it right? But I wasn't nearly as disappointed as I thought I would be, and finally figured out why: this is Bongo. Everyone expects to get swindled at some point by a service provider. Because it happens. All the time. With this particular producer, I believe I still have a ticket for Freshly Ground hanging about that I did not get a refund for... knowwhati'msayin'?

Anyways, listened yesterday to the EA drivetime show where the DJ was explaining what happened and sort of asking the audience whether it was Hugh's fault or the producer's fault. First up: DJ couldn't pronounce the man's name. How can any working African DJ in East Africa not know who Hugh is?! Second, half the callers thought that Hugh came from Zambia or Uganda or some such nonsense. Made me want to kill myself.

But most importantly: Soweto String Quartet: mishandled. Freshly Ground: mishandled. Hugh Masekela: manhandled. We seem to be earning a reputation here, knowwhati'msayin'? Mh hm.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

For The Record

I got this link off Bottom Up Thinking, and it is a good one. If you ever wondered about the gender dynamics of development work, you have to read Shotgun Shack's piece. Although it talks about the work experience of women in the NGO sector, in Bongo at least the private sector isn't all that different- the women there just have to experience all this (expletive deleted) while wearing less comfortable shoes.

Actually it is a good thing that I came across that piece of writing. A recent story from a friend about being physically threatened by a subordinate in her own office made me see red, and I have been building up a head of steam about structural sexism. The "post" I was composing about my beef with workplace gender politics is way over 2000 words long now, and I haven't even really started... sigh. So just read Shotgun Shack's piece, again.

The King's Diary: Why We Teach in English

Dear Me

The other day I visited a secondary school. Expanding access to secondary education has been one of my favourite policies. It has made me popular with parents because many pupils who complete primary school can now continue their studies. At the same time my supporters benefit from the construction required.

Having pushed this policy for so long, I was curious how successful the project really was. While inspecting the building I decided to do a small investigation. I asked a Form 3 student: “How will your secondary education be of use to you and to Tanzania?”

His answer left me with little doubt: “In my secondary education used to find the political in swahili. I dont know why dont you find all subjects in secondary in Swahili others in English. I think if the subjects we can find in swahili the secondary it is their happy to enjoyed the subject except eny reason”. The answer was clearly incomprehensible.

Then I switched language and asked the same question in Kiswahili. This time I got a sensible answer: “Elimu yangu nitakayopata katika shule ya sekondari itaninufaisha mimi pamoja na taifa langu. Nitashiriki kikamilifu katika kazi ya kujitolea nafsi yangu kuondoa ujinga, magonjwa, nitashiriki kikamilifu kuwafundisha wazee ambao hawakupata nafasi ya kusoma” (The secondary education that I will get will benefit my country and me. I will participate fully in volunteering in person to eradicate ignorance, disease, I will participate fully in teaching the old who did not get the chance to study).

I was very pleased with the results of my research. More than 1.4 million students are enrolled in secondary schools. As a consequence there are at least 1 million families who are proud of the achievements of their offspring. By implication these families are grateful to me, the King, the one who has created this opportunity. At the same time these students do not learn much because they do not understand the language of instruction. And that’s wonderful too.

Parents are happy because their offspring made it into secondary school. Teachers are happy because they have jobs. My inner circle is happy because the children educated by the public education system will never form a threat to themselves or their positions. Even their children (who go to private schools) will never be outcompeted by these uneducated ignoramuses.

That night I slept really well. Rarely perform projects as satisfactory as this one.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Leadership Question

Couple of nights ago, a group of thirty or so folks gathered in a meeting room at a hotel in Dar es Salaam, convened by YES Tanzania*. The organization had put together a discussion involving four panelists: three parliamentarians from three different political parties, and one free-range blogger/columnist who doesn't quite know how she ended up there. The discussion topics: Leadership, Energy (electricity, really), Constitution and Loliondo. Oh, and Chatham Rules applied which basically means that I can tell you what went down but I can't tell you who said what. Sorry.

As these things go, it was an intensely informative experience and I am still digesting. But I'll give you at least one impression per issue discussed:

1. Loliondo: I am so glad we talked about it. Everyone wanted to talk about it. We'd either been there, or knew someone who had been there, or were skeptics about the whole thing. What was really interesting about that topic was the fact that we were all more keen to share thoughts and experiences than to condemn each others' competing views. I think that maybe we needed the catharsis of free and open dialogue. Democracy in action: not contention, not consensus, but freedom of speech, in search of understanding.

2. Energy: uh, guys. This thing is one complicated ball of knotty problems that leads straight into the heart of our obsession with corruption, lack of accountability, reformist agendas in the current government and the ins and outs of professional politics. Not only did we meander back in history to 1992 when the first power shortage crisis hit the country, we got a glimpse into how things really get done in this country just by listening to one industrialist, one banker and three politicians recount the events of the past nearly twenty years while give some personal commentary. In a nutshell, don't get too excited about this problem being solved overnight. It's going to require some serious muscle.

3. The Constitution: Constitutional law is not for the faint-hearted. This topic was fielded by one particular politician who rapid-fired in Kiswahili over a broad range of issues about the Articles of Union, the Union itself, the legal soundness of our Constitution and a host of other things that I am not sure I can even begin to explain here. It's complicated? Doesn't even begin to cover the nuances of the multilayered cake that is our legal foundation. Wow.

4. The leadership question: well, this was my area of "expertise" actually. As the only civilian on the panel I was duty-bound to push the question of what leadership actually means for people in the public life. And what that, in turn, means for the people whom they have sworn to serve. What I hoped to convey in the discussion was that leaders need to be exceptional. They need to inspire us and make us confident of their principles and character. They need to rise above the demands of populism, of pettiness, of selfish desire in order to reach for the ultimate goal- real public service, and a legacy worth the sacrifices. I sort-of managed that (because public speaking is one of my seven circles of hell) but I didn't have to worry- between the moderators and the professional politicians things got taken care of.

I despair, sometimes, as maybe you do. It can be hard to believe that any of the political craziness is going to result in anything good. I mentioned that the other panelists were from three different political parties. Well, I wish you could have been there to see what collaboration looks like when politicians show that Tanzania matters more to them than differences in ideology. Socialist, conservative or liberal- in the end they all turned out to be Republicans. I found that reassuring, even if I am not naive enough to think that these magical moments of conviviality can be allowed to see the light of day in our current political environment.

Let me conclude with this sentiment: leadership isn't a superpower. Some people have it more than others, which is good because someone has to do the dirty work of governing. Awed as I might have been by the strong Alpha/Beta Male waves of political accomplishment in which I was smothered, I did get to glimpse one thing: they're just people. Unexpectedly sweet**, and subject to all the same vagaries of life that you are. If they can do it- heck, if I can dare to join them in a debate- then you can damn well believe that you can too.

Well, you can try anyways :)

*YES Tanzania is a registered non partisan and non profit organization that intends to bring together, network and provide positive - constructive platform for Tanzania young senior executives from public, private and civil society to discuss, connect, celebrate and showcasing their achievements on various leadership based issues for better Tanzania.

YES's Philosophy is "To enable young executives to stay connected and to become better leaders, as well as to promote thought leadership and constructive engagement”

** Yes, I am aware that I shouldn't get too fond of politicians. But I was literally in the middle of three vortexes of intense Tanzanian Charm Offensive of the political Super variety. I didn't stand a chance.

A little birdie told me...

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