Sunday, July 08, 2007

Just Another Day at the Afisi

The town slogan for Bukoba – painted on all the signs into and out of town – is “Let’s be safe, speed and AIDs kill.”

I wish that I had some exciting stories about the last three weeks in East Africa, but I really don’t. Just another day at the office. Albeit at the office where geckos nest under computers, two-inch wasps size up the printer for hive feasibility and the occasional bat drowns in the bathroom. Electricity was sometimes intermittent in the mornings, so some days we just worked until the laptop battery died, then went outside to play ping-pong.

I was in the office six days a week, so that cuts down on adventure time. On Sundays, my roommate Angel and I went hiking down to Lake Victoria or just hung around and watched the previous tenants collection of pirated Chinese DVDs. Highlights of my time there included playing Taboo where all the Tanzanians cheat and use Swahili, but no one cares as long as the Kilimanjaro beer is flowing; celebrating the fourth of July as a work day when we came home, drank Kili and watched a pirated copy of the feel-good American classic – Easy Rider; and running low on booze for the last night and deciding to drink Konyagi (the local moonshine that is hyper-distilled banana wine) and grape Fanta, which combined for the smooth flavor of Robatussin.

I only got out into the real field one day to do pilot testing of the survey I am helping to develop. We went to a village about 40 minutes outside of town. It was different that the small villages that I was used to in West Africa. Here there is water everywhere, so the houses don’t need to be centralized around a well. There are sprinkled among the hills and banana trees, with clay dirt paths connecting them. The houses are made out of mud and reeds, with thatched roofs. Because most people are too poor for furniture, the dirt floor is covered with dried grass to sit on. You have to take your shoes off to walk on the grass.

It was, however, an interesting slice of life into rural northwestern Tanzania. All the surveys we conducted were in Swahili, so I could only guess what was going on most of the time. My favorite survey was in a huge compound of a relatively affluent farmer. The white lady and her survey team was apparently the big happening for that day, and friends and children drifted by to listen in. We asked the household head how many children he had. When he replied six, a spirited discussion broke out between the father and the eight year old sitting on the floor. After fierce debate, the man changed his answer, actually, there were seven. Oops, better not tell Mom.

Another household was the Tanzania version of that idiot neighbor we’ve all had at some point in our lives. He has bicycle parts strewn around his yard (the East African equivalent of a Pinto up on cinderblocks). There was a chicken in his living room. He had no furniture at all, but a shiny Chinese boom box that was belting out the Snoop and Tupac to a mud-rattling-roar. His wall was decorated with 20-30 photos of him in his younger days, with someone that I have to assume was his idiot cousin – because guys like this always seem to have an idiot cousin to fill this role – dressed in their gangster finest, posing hip-hop style and flashing what might have been poorly impersonated gang signs – or early onset arthritis brought on by vitamin deficiency – one can’t really be sure. Another testament to the universality of mankind.

So I am writing this from my hotel room in Kampala. Tomorrow, I fly out to London and then, barring any flaming doctor attacks, on to Washington. I will be there for five whole days before heading to a wedding in New York (congratulations Kristin and Bobby) and then uncharted waters – Tajikistan.

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