So I just returned to Dar es Salaam after a week offline and roaming around the country for the final pilot tests before my fieldwork training starts next week. It was one of those throwback to Peace Corps weeks, with little villages, dusty roads, flat tires, dirty hair, and bucket baths. But successful – project is progressing and we haven’t missed a single deadline (which in African statistical equivalent of drawing an inside straight).
One of the villages we worked in is a former sisal (a jute-like plant used to make sacks that was Tanzania’s number one export earner at independence before collapsing after the removal of government subsidies to the industry) plantation that the government nationalized a few decades back. I immediately noticed something was a little off about this place… The houses had chimneys. African homes don’t have chimneys. Ever. People cook outside. They were also made of “colonial stone” (a chalky yellow-white cement mixture that was very much the de rigeur of late colonial construction). The sisal plants still grew in the fields, but were now inter planted with maize and cassava, the main local food crops. The houses were still in their neat rows, but mud brick extensions and patchwork came off at crazy angles. The multi-story processing plant is quietly rusting into the ground. It was a weird place.
That night I stayed at a gas station hotel at the midpoint between two of our work sites. It was a very modern hotel for a gas station. Electricity, running water, restaurant, the works… It was even modern enough to have one of those “insert key card for power” gizmos on the wall by the door. Which would have been more impressive had the actual door locks not been key based. I looked all over that room for a light switch. I asked my colleague staying across the hall – his room had regular lights. Eventually we solved the problem by sticking my driver’s license into the slot. Lights came on. I am not sure I get it.