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Published: October 21st 2011
I am now in Mwanza, a small city in the northern part of the country on Lake Victoria. We are collecting data for my latest study on malaria prevention programs that our Tanzania office has been running for a while, particularly a program where they trained “community change agents” (CCAs) to teach people in the high malaria incidence areas about prevention and treatment. The CCAs are given a bicycle and $6 per day for expenses to travel around the local villages, give group presentations, and visit people in their homes to answer questions about malaria. I’ve met a couple of them this week. They seem to take their positions very seriously and are well respected by the communities.
The weather is mostly pleasant here, the water beautiful, and the fish plenty. White people are scarce, so I tend to draw a lot of attention when I walk the streets, to the point where people will literally stop what they are doing and watch me. But the funniest part is being in the rural areas outside of the city where many people, especially children, have never seen a white person. Yesterday we drove to a rural area about an hour outside
the city called Misungwi. I walked the dirt roads while my interviewers did their thing. Children would watch me curiously from behind trees, and then scamper away if I got too close or called out a greeting to them. Against my better judgment, I finally pulled out some candy, and that made them come closer to grab it and get a better look at me. One toddler, whose mouth was completely white inside—obviously some sort of infection or disease, cried when his slightly older sister who was carrying him on her back got too close to me. But when I brought out my phone and showed them how they could make movies of themselves, suddenly I had children leaning on my arms and crawling into my lap, laughing hysterically while they watched themselves on the small screen. Their mothers laughed out loud whenever I tried to speak to them in my broken Swahili.
Many children here die before the age of 5, whether it is from an infection of some sort, AIDS, or as we are focusing on right now, malaria. Those who survive and are strong are put to work early to help the family. I saw 2
young girls around 8 years old carrying heavy bundles of wood on their heads, and boys no more than 12 doing back-breaking work in a field. Women are tasked with keeping up with household duties (cooking, caring for the multiple children, washing all clothes by hand), while the men go out to find work. The wealthier families have lots of livestock, which they usher through the streets or dirt roads to go to different areas for grazing.
The research is going along well for the most part. We have a team here in Mwanza, one in Lindi, and another in Rukwa. We are doing 1300 household surveys, surveys with 60 CCAs, 30 in-depth interviews, and 6 focus groups. I’m here to make sure everyone stays on task and that all of the moving parts are executed as they should be.
The bad cell service, limited roads, power and water outages, and the slower pace of life here makes the work difficult. And even though I have been doing work in the developing world for years now, I still have moments of frustration. Development, eliminating major health issues, and empowering those with few resources is really difficult when the
basic infrastructure is not there. But luckily I have been here enough times and know enough people to know how to get things done a little more quickly. But when your phone calls will not go through and texts are not received, it’s difficult not to want to break down crying.
And the more time I spend in this country and really get to know the locals, the more I realize how desperate people are for jobs, even short-term ones. I get calls and emails constantly from people and friends of friends who want a position. But what bothers me even more is the exploitation that I have been seeing of those who already have positions. Especially in organizations or businesses that are owned by foreigners, it is very easy to take advantage of a Tanzanian for several reasons. First, they are so desperate for work they will do almost anything not to lose their jobs. Second, the respect elders receive in this culture is so intense that those who are younger and/or less experienced will often not speak up to an elder/boss even if they are being treated unfairly.
I had a long conversation with a good
friend the other night. “Shikamoo, shikamoo! I hate this shikamoo!” he said. That is the greeting used for someone older than you, and in the rural areas it is often accompanied by a bow when said by a female. As I have been walking through the villages, children will greet me in such a way, and the girls will bend at the knee and avert their eyes.
But with this “shikamoo” is also the idea that you never go against an elder. I’m not debating the fact that elders deserve respect. But when an elder/supervisor exploits someone in the workplace, a government official sexually harasses his staff, or a teacher requires female students to perform sexual favors in exchange for grades, the “shikamoo” idea leaves little to be desired.
Anyway, I’ve spoken with several people during my trip this time about their experiences of being exploited by bosses and elders, and it breaks my heart. I hear it or see it day after day on these trips. Just today I saw a server at my hotel being yelled at by her manager. This is in addition to the poverty, the desperation, the poor treatment of women, the lack
of medical care, and sick children. It’s no wonder I feel depressed when I go home.
I never thought when going into this line of work that I would spend so much time crying. But with each country I work in—South Africa, Nepal, Tanzania—the more I become close with locals and am exposed to the way life is really lived, the more unhappy I become. A friend I made during my travels told me recently that I am a very sensitive person, that I feel the pain that others feel and this makes me very serious. Sometimes I wish I could be more numb….
At the same time, I know for certain that I am doing the work I was destined to do. I hate the fact that I can’t hire everyone I want to or help more people with financial emergencies. But the little moments—when my research manager introduced me as his mentor, or a friend I have had for the year I have been working here said I was his best friend—those are the moments I need to hold on to when having a down day.
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