Monthly Archives: March 2012

Telling stories

I think I can smell chocolate

My childhood hero, the writer Roald Dahl, lived in Dar es Salaam just as the Second World War broke out. That was the first time I’d heard of this city: reading his autobiographical Going Solo as a spindly-legged primary schoolchild. Dar es Salaam, Tanganyika – what strange-sounding names they were.

I read about Roald’s eccentric fellow passengers on the boat to Dar, about his houseboy who beheaded a man with a sword, about encounters with deadly snakes – black and green mambas – and man-eating lions, about witnessing a German shot in the face as war breaks out. Continue reading


Little by little

Thanks to a chance encounter in Bukoba’s tiny airport, I got invited to the launch of a new BBC programme, “Haba na Haba” on Friday evening. What I didn’t know was that BBC World Service Swahili would be broadcasting live from the soiree, hence a moment of panic when the presenter started mingling through the crowds to ask their views – my Kiswahili isn’t quite ready for the international airwaves.

Anyway, the project is run by the BBC’s media training organisation – recently renamed Media Action, and previously known as World Service Trust (apparently, before that it was named “Marshall Plan of the Mind” – who on earth thought that one up??). Continue reading

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Safe as houses

Heading out this morning, I found a circle of elders-style meeting going on just outside the house. A few neighbours, my landlord and others had brought chairs out and were deep in discussion for several hours; it seemed to be important. It turns out that poor old Ali, our rather decrepit security guard, slept through a break-in last week (can’t really blame him – so did I). One neighbour’s car was stripped of lights, mirrors etc., but luckily, they didn’t bother coming into the building itself.

It’s entirely unsurprising: any time I’ve come home late I spend about 10 minutes cursing the rusty front gate that won’t open and noisily trying to untangle the chains that make it look like its locked till Ali or Peter finally stumble over grumpily to let me in. Continue reading


Bottom of the class

Buying water at a cost from private vendors

Tanzania takes World Water Day – today, 22 March – to heart, and even celebrates a whole Maji (water) Week. Ironically, Dar es Salaam has been suffering from water shortages for two weeks now; for the last few days it has affected the wealthy neighbourhoods too. And for all the talk about doing something, this country is still in a bad, bad way.

There are statistics aplenty that I could quote – like the fact that 45%  of Tanzanians have no access to safe drinking water, that 26m people use unsanitary latrines and 5.4 million have no latrines at all. Continue reading

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Insect Wars, stage three: Acceptance

I have new kinds of ants now, not just the tiny tiny black ones. But having gone through Anger and Denial, I’m coming to accept them as part of my family. I don’t even get that upset when they get into my tupperwares. I’ve decided that if people these days are eating insects for lunch, a few ant corpses won’t kill me.

The new phase of calm might have something to do with the Giant Cockroach I found hanging out in my bed the other evening, who has helpfully put the ant population into perspective. After somehow shooing him off the bed I managed to fatally wound him with insect repellent, and off he limped down the hall, while I took the instructions on the can (“spray in all directions”) to heart, to make sure none of his friends were lurking around. Then I spent the night wondering if cockroach-eggs would be hatching all over the apartment, and how long it would take for insect-killing fumes to suffocate a sleeping human. Continue reading


Excuse me?

Just don't expect him to know where he's going

It took me a while to realise this but when Tanzanians say “Yes?”, they don’t mean yes. Obviously. They actually mean “pardon”, as in, they haven’t understood what you said.

Considering I work in communications I’m finding actually communicating mighty hard. A big part of that is the language, especially outside the capital where few people speak English. But even with the educated ones who do – like my colleagues, or like the secondary school teacher I met yesterday – it takes me about three times as long to get an answer and even then I’m not totally sure we’ve really understood each other or that they’ve told me what they really think. Continue reading

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On St Paddy’s Day

It’s nice to be part of the expat community renowned for throwing the best diplomatic parties. Last night I lived out that image people always seem to have of expat life: rubbing shoulders with ministers, CEOs, and ambassadors’ wives in a leafy suburban garden with a pool, fed by dozens of local staff with endless rounds of smoked salmon appetisers.

There were lots of other ordinary folk there too, of all nationalities: the NGO manager, the Toyota sales manager, the teacher, the consultant-turned-author – and, this being an Irish event, a few missionaries too.

Being Irish in Tanzania has its drawbacks though, like the 100 USD tourists pay to enter the country (for some reason, many other European nationals pay less). Continue reading

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Through her eyes

International Women’s Day, and all the donors (or “Development Partners”, if you please) and NGOs and media are jumping on the bandwagon to frame their cause through a woman’s eyes. (More on “piggy-backing” your issue onto the topic of the day in this beautifully written piece on famine.)

Well, I’m doing it too. As part of my job here I’m supposed to contribute to another blog. We don’t do anything specifically aimed at women though. Instead, I wondered what issues face women in general, and the one that grabbed me was this: they are often forbidden from inheriting land. Continue reading

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Keep in touch – or don’t?

No excuse to lose touch

Last time I lived really far from home – in Peru – I didn’t speak to anyone, not even my family, till I came home again four months later. A weekly update by e-mail, sent from the only internet café in the village, was enough for me, and for them. So it was that the big events (from a new puppy in the family, to the nationwide foot-and-mouth outbreak) simply passed me by.

Ten years later, and though three time zones and thousands of kilometres away, I’m only too well informed of the in-laws’ latest strop, the effect of the heavy rain on the vegetable garden,  and the exact discussion surrounding which colour we’re repainting the kitchen. With slow but more or less constantly available internet I can regularly e-mail or skype not only my extended family, but also my close friends – and even people I’ve never actually spent much time with. Continue reading

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