Okay, so it's not the Royal York...

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September 30th 2005
Published: September 30th 2005
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So today I have to start on a sad note. Yesterday would have been my grandpa's 80th birthday had he not died this past January. I miss him so much and not a day goes by that I don't think of him. He would have loved what I'm doing here. He had such a sense of fun and adventure himself, and he loved to know what was going on. He would have thought this was a hoot.

So...it's not exactly the Royal York...the Msimbazi Centre, where I am staying, I mean. We have been without internet access for the better part of the week, and for two nights we were without water. That has happened a couple of times since I've been here and it never fails to break my heart at the end of a sweaty, dirty day. I try to maintain perspective, after all, I have drinking water (because I can afford to buy it -- another issue entirely but I won't get started, I promise), and there's not really anything to do but accept it. Strangely, banging my head against the tap and howling in frustration doesn't change anything. In addition, I am getting used to the birds and the occasional lizard in the hallway, but this week I encoutered something new. I was sitting in the canteen (where we eat) one evening having a cup of tea. You can see the kitchen clearly from where we eat, it is only separated from the tables by a counter. I heard a ruckus and looked up to see the kitchen workers all beating the wall with mops and brooms. I couldn't figure out why until I looked up in time to see a large rat finish running the length of the shelf, then make a dive out the window. He was followed by a buddy who streaked across the rafters overhead a few seconds later. Tough one. I sat there laughing to myself and shaking my head, and thinking, oh man, I did SO not need to see that! It left with me with the overwhelming desire to lift my feet off the floor for the rest of the night.

I guess the moral of all this is that I may be getting comfortable here, but I am constantly reminded that we're not in Kansas anymore. As I have mentioned before with water, it's such a huge and ongoing issue here. (Thomas said to me one day, in total amazement, that they can drink the water that comes out of the tap in Switzerland. Yes, I said sadly, I know.) One day this week I was at work and I went into the main building (the SwissAid building, FOGOTA's mentor and up until lately major funder -- we are in a sort of trailer right beside them) to use the bathroom. (On a related note, there is a "regular" bathroom in the building, and a hole in the ground bathroom in a separate little shed outside. I find it a real sign of progress and adaptation in myself that most times I use the hole in the ground bathroom because it's closer.) As I was washing my hands I looked down and noticed that what was coming out of the tap was not so much water, as thick brown sludge. Ah, right. So I carefully turned the tap off, wiped my soapy hands with toilet paper, and sauntered down the hallway to share my discovery with the receptionist, Angela. Turns out Angela was already aware that this was a problem, and in fact there were people working on it as we spoke. Okay then. Maybe a sign on the door would be in order? Just a suggestion. But I think in reality brown sludge coming out of the tap is not such a novelty here, and I'm sure nobody else really batted an eye.

All this water stuff is really hitting home for me because I am reading a book by Maude Barlow (my hero, for those of you who don't know, head of Council of Canadians, www.councilofcanadians.org, a sort of citizens' social movement group that works to counter the many negative effects of globalization and the mega trade agreements like NAFTA), called Blue Gold. It's about the fight to privatize water so that the huge multinational corporations of the world can exploit it for money. COC wants water declared a basic human right so that governments have to supply it to their citizens, and can't give or sell their country's water rights away. It's a great book but very disturbing because it explains how we have polluted our fresh water so badly that we are basically screwed. The environment is so damaged that nature cannot renew her water supply as she was meant to do. Catastrophic things are in the works because of it. Big corporations and cities are now drilling into the earth for underground sources of water, which of course were never meant to be removed and which will ultimately only add to the destruction. A very heavy and disturbing book, and even moreso as I look around and see what life is like when you can't take your ability to obtain water for granted.

Anyhow, enough of the heaviness. Not everything has been doom and gloom and I don't mean to give that impression. Yesterday we went to Dorcas' graduation -- the woman who works in the office with Ali and me, and who is officially my supervisor. She graduated with her MSW from the Open University of Tanzania, in conjunction with the University of Southern New Hampshire in the States. A very great day. Now let me say, I support the idea of a graduation ceremony in principle. I think it is so important to have a ritual that marks the end of a long and concentrated period of hard work, and that celebrates a really great achievement. But in practice I find them excruciating, even my own. They are hot and boring, and you sit there for hours when all you really care about is seeing whoever you're there for cross the stage. But your person doesn't appear for a long long time and in the meantime you have to sit through everybody else, starting with A. In case you were wondering, it doesn't add to the enjoyment when everything is being carried out in a language you don't speak.

Also it was raining yesterday, it rained all day, for the first time since I've been here, and so of course the dirt roads were all a sea of mud. Red mud as it turned out where we were, which sort of looked like rust coloured paint all over my shoes and clothes. But I digress. The rain and mud also pooled into where we were, a sort of hall with a roof but walls that were more open than enclosed. So like most of the experiences I have here, it was hot and sweaty and dirty. But that didn't take away from it, if that makes sense. The ceremony was very much like what we have at home, except the don't play Pomp and Circumstance, and there are no programs, so everybody's name gets read out whether they're there to accept their degree or not. But everybody is all gowned up, and of course all excited, and everybody's family is all dolled up and has flowers and presents and cards for their graduate. They also put funny sorts of garlands around their necks, very informally, as part of the celebration.

Ali and I went outside after a while and sat under a thatched roof shelter where some chairs had been set up. There was a nice breeze and the ceremony was being played over a loudspeaker, so Ali could let us know when the MSWs were up. It was quite pleasant. When it was Dorcas' turn we went in to see, and also because I had the only camera so I was taking pictures for her. When the time came I couldn't get to the front. There was an incredible crush of people (apparently the fire code is not an issue here) blocking the aisle. But Ali was a bit closer so I handed the camera off to him. He made it to the front, but I realized that my camera turns off automatically if it isn't used in a few minutes and he wouldn't know that. So I tried to get his attention. Which would be sort of like trying to get the attention of somebody sitting in the stands on the other side of the field from you at the SkyDome. So finally in desperation I took our two bags, his and mine, and fought my way to the back of the room, then across the back, then up the other aisle, then across the front. Where I wasn't really supposed to be. But I thought, what the hell, I don't live here and I'll never see these people again. Unfortunately, I sort of ended up in with the brass band. Finally a woman came over and said, um, are you taking a picture? I said, well I'm looking for my friend who has my camera. She was basically like, yeah, get out. Ooooooooookay then. Sadly, that was not my worst faux pas of the day. Before things were starting, I was taking pictures of the stage and the sign for Dorcas, and the band was playing. Now I will say that I was NOT the only person doing this. But as I made my way back down the aisle, past the graduates, a guy grabbed me and hissed, it's the national anthem! He was clearly appalled at my crass behaviour. Oh sheesh. So I stood respectfully until the band was done, whispered pole sana to the guy (which means I'm so sorry) and carried on back to my seat.

After all that I didn't see Ali at the front, so he missed Dorcas actually getting her degree, but recovered in time to get some good shots of her leaving the stage so I'm sure it will all be fine. He was in a bit of a panic because I wasn't where he left me. I keep forgetting they all get really worried when they can't find me. He tried my phone but I had turned it off for the ceremony. He was very relieved to see me. I'm not sure what he thought was going to happen in a building the size of a high school gym. But then I keep forgetting that for them I'm their first student and I think they feel like a lot is riding on this. Which I guess it is on one hand, but I don't think they're responsible for every single thing that happens until I get on the plane back to Canada. I will have to remember to be a bit more considerate.

One funny thing Ali told me as we were leaving was that a woman he didn't know stopped him as he was looking for me and said, I want to have my picture taken with your Mzungu. Too funny. It's like I want to have my picture taken with your talking dog, or your trained bear. I don't take offense but it's just so strange for me. Ali said he thought it was because she had seen something in me that showed me as friendly as we were just mingling. I totally would have taken the picture, but in the chaos at the end we never saw her.

So my placement is still really slow in terms of actual work, although I have done a few things for them. Dorcas assures me that next week we will get things on track. Ali I think is really stressed about it and worries that I am upset, but I think it's all going the way it needs to go. I am learning tons and getting so much out of this, and even just seeing FOGOTA in action has been eye opening. However, having said that, I do need something concrete to show the university, although they understand that these placements don't run as smoothly as the ones at home, where the supervisors have all had quite a bit of training. Anyhow, one neat thing that has come out of it is I am going to start taking a Swahili language course on Monday. I have really wanted to since I got here, and I found a place that offers them for a very reasonable rate. Which is great because usually stuff that caters to Mzungu costs about the same as it would at home, which in terms of a language course would be a fortune. But this one was only about $100. It's an hour and a half, five days a week, for four weeks. It's 3:30 to 5:00. I mentioned it to Ali this week, but I was lamenting the fact that the only thing they had available outside of regular business hours was at 7:00 in the morning. I think we all recognize that that wasn't going to happen. I wondered if he knew of anything anywhere in the evenings? He said, do they have something in the late afternoon, and if so, why didn't I take it then? I said, whose permission would I have to get to do that, meaning to leave work early for a month. He said, very sweetly and shyly, um, mine. He is really a gentle spirit. I said, right, you're the boss! Yay! So I am signed up and paid and the location is very convenient by daladala. I'm really happy and excited about it. I do love languages and I have been dying to learn something concrete of this one since I got here.

What else, let's see. A few days ago I went to the Village Museum, which has reconstructions of the different types of houses that the different tribes of Tanzania have lived in. Which, as Ali pointed out, are still the houses that people in the villages live in today. We were only there for a short time and I am planning to go back, to take some pictures, and also to buy a painting I saw. There is a style of painting unique to Tanzania called tingatinga, and I have to bring one home. They're incredible. I talked to the artists working there and I can buy just the finished canvas, off the frame, which means that it can be rolled up neatly to fit into my luggage. I was thinking should I do it, because there is so much beautiful stuff here, then I remembered what you said, Per, about buying artwork here and how I will always have it in years to come. That convinced me, so I am definitely going to.

The other thing I did that day was to scope out an art exhibit sponsored by the UN, of pictures done by children and elders in refugee camps. It took a while to find the right place, but I was so glad I did. Really beautiful, really incredible, and really moving. It made me cry and I was so glad I went.

So I think that's about it. In the man-I-love-the-happy-optimism-of-these-people category, I saw a woman sweeping the dust away from the front of her little kiosk, creating a relatively clear space in an otherwise sea of dirt and litter. The other day I passed an elderly couple on the street (which is very unusual, because the average lifespan here is around 50 years), and they both stared at me, then turned around to keep staring at me as they were walking, after they had actually passed me. I smiled politely, and they just stared and stared. Okay then. I saw a guy with a huge basket of chickens on a sort of cart on wheels, and a bunch of chickens sitting on top of the basket as well. I have seen him before so I might have mentioned him already. The chickens don't jump down or try to get away, they just go along for the ride. On their way for a lovely day at a chicken spa no doubt...or at least that's where I tell myself they're going. And in the interesting t-shirt realm, I saw one for Phantom of the Opera, one that said University of Guelph, and one that said Smithers, British Columbia, Canada. It really is a small small world. As I am finding out in so many ways.


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