Tag Archives: culture shock

Urban legend

Keep walkingNairobi, Nairobbery, they say. One of those places you’d never want to visit.

Except that you do, because there’s a buzz about this place and stuff happening like nowhere else on the continent: the developers and innovators building ‘silicon savannah’; the newspapers and corporations making this the bolshy media and business capital of East Africa; the donor money settling in offices here, trailing the idealistic and the cunning behind.

This is no hilly Kampala with her jovial motorbike-taxi drivers, or Dar es Salaam with her Indian bingo clubs and beach bars. This beast of a city has everything in more extreme measures: more choking traffic, more crime, more high-rise buildings and more low-rise shanty towns and all the problems they bring. Continue reading

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No to nostalgia

RainWe finished the film, even with 4+ days without power; our main actor walking off set mid-scene; and people never turning up when they said they would. We screened it on my laptop in a dark classroom on my last evening in Kazo, to about 20 people, and it was kind of special to feel proud of something that I had not done: the guys had done virtually all the actual shooting, acting, editing.

But there’d been too little time (or energy, or electricity) to do all that I could/should have done. I could have done a camera class with the teachers and P2 class, could have helped Eliab with his CV, could have helped Godfrey with his dance website and Joseph with his exam prep, could have helped Shakul and Baker create flickr accounts, could have given Poul more time on my computer to play with Photoshop, could have done more editing with Daniel, could have taught Juliette how to use Excel and Word, could have made that brochure for Ronald, could have done more photo sessions with everyone, especially the latecomers, could have pushed further on the AIDS issue that was always sort of there but never properly discussed. I could have done more for so many good-hearted, courageous people. Maybe I need to come back.

Before the nostalgia sets in, I’d better remember the worst bits. Continue reading

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Who’s in?

Photo by Shakul

Photo by Shakul

I’ve almost adapted to African timekeeping, but I still don’t get the agreeing to come the next day and then you find out that person had something else on (like school), that everyone else in the group knew about and just didn’t tell you in the first place. Is it that they want to please the figure of authority, the foreigner – and they just tell us what they think we want to hear?

In the meantime, one of the guys who does turn up should actually be in school, but isn’t going – as far as I can work out, because he hasn’t been able to pay school fees. My first reaction was to send him away to avoid encouraging skipping school, but if he really has been sent home, isn’t it better he’s here, maybe learning something? Continue reading

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The good, the bad, and the ugly list-making habit

In Mama Dar, a book of short stories about Dar es Salaam, one writer recalls her first few weeks here as being not positive, not negative – just experiencing a numbness as she tries to figure out how things work. Another friend who’s just arrived says the same: trying to answer the question of whether she likes it here or not just doesn’t work.

I had the same feeling – I still do. Living here is still just a mish-mash of the wonderful and intriguing, the infuriating and depressing. My answer ends up involving listing a few examples of the good and bad stuff. Maybe for wherever one lives, whatever one does, it’s like that. But being somewhere new, I guess, makes you a bit more receptive to the everyday experience. The unfamiliarity makes for deeper impressions.

So – now that I’ve accepted that I’m never going to break my list-making habit – here it is, in no particular order. Now stop asking us if we like it here. 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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Still in the dark

Window-shopping from your bus seat

What makes you feel lost, unsure – a foreigner – in Dar?

It’s a fairly safe city. But there are no street lights, and those that exist are long broken, so travelling after 7pm always feels eerie, and nothing like being in a big city; there are few street names or house numbers (people laugh when I ask the address), so you can’t find your way round with a map; bus stops aren’t marked and your “taxi” might just be a man with a car; and there aren’t many traffic rules that people actually obey, so the roads are chaotic and dangerous; and when your bus slows down the boys hawking cold drinks or pineapples are frantic in their insistence on selling you something; and elbows and arms of your fellow passengers thrust into your face on the daladala, people are even climbing in through the back window to get a seat; and people don’t understand my broken Kiswahili because all the words are so easy to mix up; and opening times might be given in Swahili time; and cafés don’t have menus, or if they do they don’t actually have what’s on the menu; and men ask you personal questions before they even know your name (Do you have a husband? How old are you? Can I have your phone number?). Continue reading

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“Watch out for the seven-month dip”, warned my Canadian colleague, a seasoned expat who’s lived in French Guiana and Malawi before coming to Tanzania a few years ago. It’s just enough time, he says, to have got over the shock of the new, but not long enough to have made real friends (though I disagree with that) or to have achieved enough at work to make you see the value of sticking around.

We’d been told something similar during training back in Europe: things go great for the first few weeks or months, until the novelty wears off – expect it to go something like this, they said: Continue reading

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12 hours in (not that we’re counting)

Man, was I naïve.

I thought it’d take me more than a matter of hours in Africa before that thought popped into my head. Suddenly I get what people meant when they said I was brave to come here.

It’s really not that bad, kicks in my rational mind, hurriedly thinking back to first impressions of other places I’ve ultimately grown to like or love. A whole year??, protests my gut. A whole year in this heavy heat, in this sad backwater that calls itself a major city, with these people I just don’t get? I’m wondering why I didn’t think of any of the above before.  My only conclusion is that wanderlust works something like the urge to procreate – the pain of childbirth just doesn’t figure when the impulse tells you to go for it. I’m hoping that it also holds true that, like childbirth, I’ll be able to black out the trauma at the start and ultimately focus on what’s come out of it. Continue reading


The thrill of the countdown

A well-travelled friend wrote to me today to wish me luck, ending with the words “culture shock can be truly lovely”.

I like that. And I like that even in this age of instant contact and easy continent-hopping, the thrill of travels to come – of the shock that lies on the other side of the journey – can still make your stomach leap and lurch, can still keep you up all night waiting for the alarm clock to ring.