Tuesday, November 23, 2010

TIA (This Is Africa)

It has been almost a year and half since Alfred wrote on the blog. It is a testament to how busy our lives became once Alfred starting working full time. Since May 2009, Bodie turned 4...and then 5. He moved from Little Scholars to the French School and can count to 20 in French but thinks his teacher is bossy. TechnoServe Tanzania has grown from seven employees in 2008 to 65 employees today. Cleo topped out at 100 lbs. and her bite is worse than her bark. Hillary’s bark is on par with her bite and Alfred is working on his bark.

We have returned to the blog for several reasons. First, it proved to be a great way to keep friends and family connected. Ok, really it kept Alfred’s mother connected, who was the most faithful reader. Secondly, we are embarking on a new journey and we thought the blog would be a good way to engage with friends along the way.

As many of you know, we have started the process of adopting a baby girl from Ethiopia. Today was a milestone in that process. A high point for entertainment but a low point for the future of Tanzania. The adoption process requires tons of paperwork. References and clearances and background checks. Nevermind that we are already parents and no one asked us for a single qualification the first time around.

One of the many documents that is required is a police background check. This is a document that says we have not been convicted of anything in Tanzania. To attain such a document, we naturally had to request it from the Tanzanian police. For those of you unfamiliar with Africa, the police of just about any African country are, generally speaking, not known for their integrity.

Case in point:

I asked the driver at our office to find out what was required to secure such a document from the police. He returned the next day to say that the fee was $50. Sounds reasonable. But then he tells me that there is an 'additional fee' of $350. Right. Duly incensed and filled with righteous indignation but cognizant of the way things work in Africa, I asked how low he thought the police would go.

Here is the point in the story where I need to pause and remind those who have never lived in Africa that, while we are in complete agreement that paying such a 'fee' is morally reprehensible and simply wrong, if you are white and you are standing in front of a Tanzanian police officer asking him for something, you will need to pay for it. Or you will not get it. It’s that simple.

So I get the policeman on the phone.

“The $50 fee is no problem,” I tell him. “But what’s the other fee for?” I figured I would at least test to see if the guy had a conscience at all.

“I am sorry, madam, but you are breaking up. I can’t hear you.” Yes, indeed. He tried the old “I am going through a tunnel” trick.

Thirty minutes and 3 counter-offers later, we had a deal.

On Monday morning, we show up at the police station with our documentation and were met by the police officer. It was 8:30 and he was drunk. Not stumbling around drunk but reeking of cheap gin drunk. He ushered us in to various rooms of the dingy police station where, it turns out, each person had received their cut in order to turn the wheels of justice. By 3 p.m. that afternoon, we had the papers.

As people say here, TIA. This is Africa.

Friday, May 22, 2009

On Sturdiness and Death

“Is she sturdy?” I asked Hillary. Not a question one asks generally about someone else, but this has been a time where sturdiness is critical. Hillary reported that she is, indeed, sturdy. She said that Boerboels, mastiffs from South Africa that start as a cute little round puppies, shaped not unlike a baking potato with short straw legs, will grow up to 150 pounds. “Then let’s get her.”

This was a bizarre and expensive decision. It follows a time of inordinate sadness in our house surrounding puppies. Cleo is not our first puppy this year, or our second. Cleo better stay around and grow up with Bodie and be the formative pup that he remembers and talks about when he is an adult. Just like Kiba was supposed to be, and then Ruby was supposed to be.

The passing of two sweet pups is incalculably sad. Kiba was a Ridgeback, like Dexter, but smarter. At 10 weeks, she could open doors by jumping up and grabbing the door handles with her paws. She would curl up in Bodie’s bed with him and sleep. And until she ran under the car in the driveway as I was pulling in from work, I thought she was the smartest dog I knew.

We buried Kiba in the garden and Hillary and Bodie decorated a stone with her name and placed it there.

Ruby, another Ridgeback, would curl up on your feet as you washed dishes, or snuggle into your neck as you were sleeping. She was only 8 weeks old and got too close to Dexter when they were each gnawing on bones. He grabbed her and shook her off to the side, breaking her neck. We buried her in the garden and everyone in the house sunk into a deep funk.

Real tragedy occurs on a daily basis here in Tanzania, making it unseemly to feel wrought over the loss of a puppy. Families are ravaged by malaria, AIDS, and malnutrition across the country. Basic illnesses are not diagnosed or treated.

But losing Kiba, and then Ruby, felt devastating. Somehow puppies embody simple innocence. They prance and play and grab and chew anything remotely within reach. They provide simple, uncomplicated love. Chewy and omni-pissing, but uncomplicated. Our simple job, in taking a puppy, is to safeguard them. Their not reaching adult doghood is damning of our caretaking.

A house with a puppy has a certain frenetic energy. Hairbrushes from the bathroom get dragged off shelves and appear in other rooms, stuffed animals from Bodie’s bed end up in the living room, wet with chewing, shoes end up missing insoles, and there are puddles everywhere. It was clear to us though, after Ruby’s passing, that this chaos was warm and comfortable and you just have to wear flip-flops more often. The house, even with a rambunctious three-year-old, felt morgue-quiet without a puppy.

Bodie has been mulling over the passing of these pups and raises questions about death now much sooner than were prepared to deal with. Bodie asks repeatedly if Ruby is still dead. He tells people, random people in the market or at the beach, that his puppy is dead. Recently he said that he is a good boy because he doesn’t kill anyone. (vs. Dexter, canis non-grata for a while). “You’re alive, and mama is alive and my friends are alive, so I’m a good boy, right?”

Despite the fact that Hillary and I are uncertain about any sort of heaven, we quickly relied on this safe and happy place as the easiest and most comprehensible notion for a three-year- old to grasp. Bodie now knows that Kiba and Ruby are in dog heaven, where they can run and play and chew expensive Italian shoes to their hearts’ content.

The sense of loss is not just about the pups. There is no way to go through this bizarre set of happenings that has at turned our garden into a puppy graveyard without thinking about the fragility of those I love. Perhaps because both instances were a simple breaking of bodies, both sudden and instant, it is too easy to picture tragedy around every corner. The simple assemblage of bones and blood and organs pumping now seem so fragile. I know that Bodie is indestructible -- he tells me so with a dishtowel clothes-pinned on as his cape. My imagining every moving car, swaying tree limb, or animal as imminent disaster will only speed Bodie’s inevitable journey to the therapist’s office.

With a renewed appreciation of the fragility of life, I am almost, not quite, but almost appreciative every time I step in a warm puddle of pee in the hallway.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Piercing the Veil

A definite aspiration I had when coming to Tanzania a year ago was to get to know Tanzanians, to make friends, to be able to return in years and visit my dear friends so and so, in the village, who showed me such kindness when I first arrived. Yet the simple act of befriending people from here has proven very difficult. We have built a warm community of ex-pats – Americans, Australians, French, Swedish, Dutch, German. Tanzanians at shops that know us and are friendly. But still, we have no real Tanzanian friends.

This makes one consider what components are needed in a friendship. It is easy to reel off excuses here: You don’t need socio-economic parity, but it can help. You don’t need educational equity, but that too can help. You need some level of common interest, or life philosophy, and that implies some shared knowledge. But when all these miss – when there is a vast economic divide as there is next to no middle class here, when there is little educational overlap as the system here doesn’t produce many ex-lit majors much less majors… Couple that with the fact that I can’t speak Swahili for the life of me, and finally, maybe I’m not the outgoing bon vivant that I once aspired to be….and there you are.

So despite taking Bodie to school every day, buying petrol or bananas or Luku or dining in the neighborhood, part of me still feels very much outsider looking in while real Tanzania is happening.

I was recently asked to serve as acting Country Director for KickStart, an NGO that I had been doing some work with. It is an exciting organization which focuses on selling micro-irrigation or treadle type pumps. With 80% of the country involved in agriculture – most subsistence – bringing basic irrigation to bear can triple a farmer’s crop yield. Families can quickly move from subsistence farming to selling produce. It’s a simple and logical approach and an exciting organization to be working with.

Importantly, this could be one way for me to break through the Tanzania-friend barrier. And there is a good number of people there to try to find some common ground. On the application for a work visa (I am still classified as the emasculated “dependant spouse”, so can’t work legally), I answered the question that the organization has 85 Tanzanian citizens, and 1 non-citizen, me.

Two weeks ago, I was part of a three-day training for the nine regional sales officers. They came from across Tanzania to Dar for this training and see each other infrequently. Having worked with sales people, I expected loud banter, bragging, and bravado. Instead, everyone was reserved and polite, unnervingly quiet for sales people.

We had a dinner at the culmination for the team. The restaurant was well off any main road and served mishkaki – Swahili-style barbeque of grilled beef, goat, fish and bananas. This was not a place that mzungus might frequent.

The sales team rallied after a few drinks and became loud, boisterous, back slapping, well… salesman. Paul, who is Masai, was asked, solely for my benefit I think, how many siblings he had. He shrugged and laughed. Deo, sitting next to me, explained that Paul’s father had 28 wives. Paul added that each wife generally had at least 9 children, so he wasn’t sure how many brothers and sisters he had, but at least several hundred.

At the other end of the table, a group was laughing loudly and telling stories. Anthony asked me if I had tried locally brewed liquor. He explained that it could be so strong that it quickly loosened every muscle in the body so that it was best to tie your pants legs first.

Finally I had a glimpse on the other side of the curtain. The team was loud and crude and telling stories and acting just like sales people all over the world behaved. I finally felt on familiar territory.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Welcome Deebadaba

Our gardener and his wife, Tom and Martha, either foolhardy or clever at delegating, had told Hillary and me that they’d be honored if we would name their baby. A week before we returned from our trip, Martha had the baby in a typical African style, with an ease that infuriated Hillary.

I remember when we were ready, practicing the drive from our house to the hospital, our parents calling every hour or two to check in on how we were doing. We had rehearsed and practiced every step. We had taken classes and had a bag packed by the door with clothes, snacks and toiletries like we were voyaging on the QE2. We had carefully honed our “birth plan” on how every detail should unfold. Hillary was in labor for 12 hours, and everything in our world, rather the whole world, came to a grinding halt, as well it should, so Hillary could give birth. We spent two nights in the hospital, carefully attended by around-the-clock nurses who saw to our every need, with doctors continuously checking in.

Martha and Tom, on the other hand, grabbed a cab to Muhimbili Hospital last Friday morning. She had three hours of labor, a new son, and was home that afternoon. Nothing to it. And then they sat around for a week taking care of “baby”, since we hadn’t offered up a name.

Tom presented the hospital bill to me afterwards. It was a grand total of $115 and included $50 for delivery and $50 for doctors’ fees. Just like going out for a nice dinner in the U.S. No big deal.

We had decided that rather than just name the kid, since that had the potential to create all sorts of negotiating havoc in our marriage, we would offer a short list from which they could choose. Bodie also wanted to offer up a few names. We prepared our list and Bodie offered up his: Cee-cee, Deebadaba, Sno Sna, Max and Diego. (Which reminded me that our nephew, Noah, was more rightfully named Rocket Boy Weinstein by his brothers.)

We presented the names – the real list and Bodie’s list – to Tom and Martha. Tom read each option to Martha. Minutes passed. Tom poured over the list and was quiet. Martha was quiet. We realized they thought they had to choose one of each. They finally smiled, clearly with relief, when we explained that Bodie’s names were to be funny. I could imagine their wondering how they would explain to their relatives in Malawi why their beautiful son had a name fabricated by a three-year-old.

Of the names on the list, the OT names offered up (Isaac and Jacob) had already been taken by one of their brothers or sisters. Neither Henry nor Edward was picked. Welcome to the world, Christian. To us, you will always be Deebadaba.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Ethiopia Trip 3 – Gondar and Bahir Dar

Our first stop on the trip north would be Gondar, known as the “Camelot of Africa”. There is a tourist circuit which covers the some of the biggest cultural sites in Ethiopia – Gondar, Bahir Dar, Axum and Lalibella – and, as it was Christmas, I was worried that we had better have airline tickets and hotel rooms secured in advance. I had spent a few hours in the Ethiopian Air ticket office in Dar es Salaam to arrange our flights, and had been on the phone for hours trying to call hotels from Tanzania. Even though traveling in Ethiopia is supposed to be challenging, our flights and rooms were lined up, and all in all, I felt pretty proud of myself for my advance planning. My wife and child will not suffer hours in a squalid rip off travel agency or wander the streets of Ethiopia homeless. I am a good provider after all.

But alas, we learned that “reserved” is a very relative term. Trying to get on the flight to Gondar provided lesson one. The desk agent, who puzzled over our tickets while tapping at the computer for ten minutes, answered reassuringly, when we asked if there was anything wrong with our tickets. “Your tickets? No, they are fine. The problem is with the booking, which has been cancelled completely.” Well, as long as the tickets are good.

Even though the plane to Gondar was completely full, the agent somehow managed to find three seats for us. We arrived at the Quera Hotel to check in. Our name was the second noted on a handwritten reservation list that the receptionist showed us; however, no rooms were available. After first saying that it was our fault for coming so late (at 4 in the afternoon), a manager then came out to help us find other accommodation. Luckily, we were told, there was room at the beautiful Atse Bekaffa Hotel, which is newer and just 50 yards up the street.

Since the Quera lobby was dark, with a large TV playing to a room full of locals lazing in old brown lazyboy-type chairs with stuffing coming out, we didn’t mind the idea of moving to another hotel.

We trooped up the street and climbed narrow stairs leading to a small worn desk against the wall, which served as the reception. A few locals sat in a cramped waiting room on more run down, smaller, brown chairs watching a small TV suspended from the ceiling. Welcome to the Atse Bekaffa.

Our room had peeling. yellowed linoleum flooring, ragged red curtains and one dangling light bulb. Hillary’s immediate nuanced comment, “I hate it here”, erased a few of the Good Provider Points (GPPs) I’d awarded myself.

It wasn’t until the beating bass from the disco downstairs started later that night that it became clear how many GPPs were being lost. At 2 pm, Hillary glared at me, unable to sleep, and politely asked, “have I told you how much I hate it here?” The question was made an emphatic, if less polite, statement two hours later.

That morning, we moved to the Goha Hotel, a hotel perched on the cliff overlooking the city, and harmony, but no Good Provider Points, was restored.

Gondar, founded by Emperor Fasilidas around 1635, is famous for its many medieval castles. The battlements and towers feel European, evoking images of chivalrous knights on horseback and of ceremonies laden with pageantry. Our guide told us stories of Machiavellian plots and intrigues, tortures and poisonings, but overall caring and beneficence towards the people as successive emperors between the mid 17th and mid-18th centuries built castles. There were royal saunas, royal swimming pools and royal secret rooms. And to be true to the European model, there is recent damage as a result of the British bombing during WWII in order to hit the Italians, who had used the castles during their invasion.

The next day, a 1970’s-era Nissan taxi showed up to take us the 200 kilometers to our next stop on the shores of Lake Tana, Bahir Dar. The drive was through a beautiful landscape with mountains and vast fields dotted by small villages of round huts with thatched roofs. Everywhere people were walking. People walked with donkeys piled high with goods. People walked with goats. People walked with oxen pulling carts. Man walked holding hands as they talked. It was a Sunday, so we saw crowds of people, all wrapped with white shawls, streaming out of small Christian Orthodox churches.

Men had turban-type wrappings against the sun and shawls. Whether walking down paths, across fields, or on the road, every male over the age of five carried a long stick. Useful apparently as a walking stick, cattle prod or cudgel, sticks were leaned against in conversation, used to tap wayward burros, and shouldered as props to help carry large bundles on one’s head. It felt like an ancient and wild place. We saw a few men toting their Kalashnikovs while out for a Sunday stroll, and bombed out tank cadavers, remains from Mengistu’s rein thirty years ago.

While I imagined that if our little Nissan taxi broke down, I might not fare extremely well in these harsh lands, I also knew that if someone were to transport some of these people to the rough streets of Bethesda, they might not fare so well either. Perhaps they’d order an espresso in the morning, or not know how to properly line up at Barnes and Noble, or how to order a bagel with a schmear. We all have our own street smarts.

Lake Tana, the largest lake in Ethiopia, is the source from where the famous Blue Nile starts its long journey to Khartoum and on to the Mediterranean. It has thirty-seven islands that house twenty monasteries - surviving remnants of an old, contemplative tradition. Because of their isolation, the monasteries were used to store art treasures and religious relics from all parts of Ethiopia. Tradition says the Ark of the Covenant was kept on one of these islands when Axum was endangered.

We spent most of our two days in Bahir Dar taking a small boat to visit monasteries. The ones we visited were built in the 11th and 13th centuries. Our guide, John, said he shouldn’t go in as he had had milk that morning, so had not kept his fast.

Monks, bearded and barefoot, still inhabit these monasteries as they have for 900 years. They showed us books with goatskin pages illustrated by the monks that dated to the founding of the monasteries. There were crosses – Axumite crosses, Gondorian crosses and others – incense holders and other religious relics that went back between 500 and 900 years.

Bodie, less interested in the history (even though we told him that these books were older than Pop pop and Grammy), liked steering the outboard and dragging a stick through the water.

On our last day in Bahir Dar, we wandered the market stalls. Kuta, or woven clothes, white with colored fringe, dresses, and scarves lined stall after stall in one area of the market. A row away, stalls had burlap sacks of pungent spices, from deep red to orange, toasted seeds of brown and beige, tef and other grains, and knee high pyramids of onions and garlic. There were houseware stalls with enormous ceramic plates to cook injira, ladles, spoons, bowls, pots, and giant pans to roast coffee beans. There was a tool section and a religious items section with candles, bibles, incense burners and rosary beads. Everything that one might throw away had been repurposed. Long bits of rebar had been bent into shapes useful for holding a pot over a fire; jewelry was fashioned from found objects; old tires were turned into shoes and inner tubes into large water bags to be mounted on donkeys.

Bodie’s approach to the market was not to try to blend, but to be a noticed fixture, a loud, attention-grabbing fixture. He had a brass horn and walked through the market, tooting loudly and waving at people. He attracted a crowd and started shaking hands like a seasoned politician. He introduced himself to people and, for some reason, started explaining who all his cousins were. He finally wearied, found a stall he liked, crawled onto a pile of woven throws, and lay down to rest.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Ethiopia Trip 2– Lake Langano

The Bishangari Lodge, on Lake Langano, an eco-lodge that Hillary had found on the internet sounded good. The website had nice pictures and the word “eco”, so we decided to go. Not a whole lot more research went into it. It wasn’t until we were about three hours into our drive, and heading onto a rough dirt road for another hour or so with Bodie bouncing around with an irritable I-should-be-napping whine, that we realized that we should have asked how far it was.

The car, an old Toyota minibus with bordello red cotton curtains and a red velvet dashboard cover with fringe, creaked on half-bald tires over rutted dirt roads. We drove for over an hour past small villages of round mud huts and thatch roofs. Children ran out at us, waving, smiling. Only occasionally the idyllic image was punctuated by a few kids shouting, “give me money”.

Lake Langano is large with milky tea-brown water as a result of mineral deposits. We arrived as the sun was setting over the lake, and hopped into a horse drawn cart to go to our cabin. Bishangari Lodge truly is eco. It has 10 cabins, all with hot water and power from solar, and is on a preserve, so is lush with wildlife. It also has a tree bar, literally a two-level bar built into a 500 year old tree.

It is remote and beautiful. We woke on Tuesday morning as a baboon jumped on the cabin door handle to climb up to the Christmas wreath and snatch the shiny gold ornament. Four baboons, sitting on the porch studied the ornament, testing it and finally biting it. One pushed his face against the window looking in, like a kid making a squishy face.

After breakfast, we went on a trek with a guide. The birds are incredible, with over 450 species identified. We saw silver cheeked hornbills, looking like they carried large fuselages strapped to their heads, white-headed African eagles, herons, egrets, pelicans and more. We learned to identify the sounds of the African bubu versus that of the plover or the red-eyed dove. We saw warthogs and black and white colubus monkeys swinging in the branches high above.

Bodie, who has become increasingly talkative, chose this quiet nature walk to talk and talk and talk. “Why is he making that sound?” “Why are the ants doing that?” To our guide, “Hakim, what bird is that?” and on and on. I finally suggested that we all be quiet to listen to the birds and he quickly upbraided me, “papa, I need to talk.” I have no doubt that Hakim went home to his six quiet children gladly.

Bodie and I took our swimming show on the road and braved the tea brown waters of the lake. Bodie waded in first and taunted me, without even knowing how to taunt, me to swim with him in the cold waters.

The afternoon ended as we sat in a round hut for a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony. Coffee originated in Ethiopia, and it is still prepared probably much as it has been for a thousand years. The cherries are dried in the sun, and then the beans are roasted in a small pan over a fire, then ground with a large wooden mortar and pestle. Incense is burned and accompanies the aroma of the coffee.

Then time for hippo spotting. We walked a mile along the lake to where a rocky peninsula shelters a small bay. Apparently hippos come out in the evening and don’t like wind, so this was a prime spot. We perched on the rocks as the sun set. Just in front of us a baby hippo started turning summersaults with its mother lumbering right behind chomping grass. All in all, it was an amazing Christmas Eve.

We woke for Christmas morning and Santa had miraculously set up a small tree in our room. Or I had gone out at night and pulled a branch from a tree – certainly a fine thing to do in an eco-preserve - and wedged it into one of my shoes. Hillary decorated the tree with ornaments she’d brought from Dar and arranged gifts underneath.

Bodie was thrilled that Santa had come to our cabin and opened his presents with true joy. He was beaming and marveling at his new wooden airplane.

Later that morning, after we had gone for a walk in the forest, Hillary was testing changing the format of her Nikon, not realizing that the word “format” on a digital camera is used as it would be on a computer. More than 900 pictures were quickly erased. A slightly tearful but resolute Hillary marched us back to the cabin to recreate Christmas.

We have pictures of Bodie, tears just wiped from his cheeks as he didn’t want to get back into his jammies, opening his presents with encouragement from us, “show real surprise. Look happy. Pretend that you’ve never seen the plane before.” In the end, Bodie valiantly re-opened each gift and gave an Oscar-winning performance.

Our Christmas has been re-chronicled and, in the future, Bodie will never know the difference.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Ethiopia Trip 1 – Addis Ababa

Nestled between Sudan, Somalia, and Eretria, Ethiopia is not a destination most people think of visiting for the holidays. But time spent in the hot December ovens of Dar es Salaam (which translates to “bake at 350 degrees for three months per year), and Ethiopia, with its balmy days in the 70’s and cool nights in the 40s becomes appealing. We had heard that it is stunning, with amazing landscapes, and incredibly warm people. A few friends described it as going back thousands of years.

Yes and no. After Tanzania, Addis Ababa, at first view, looks downright thriving. Addis is a big city, bustling with traffic, businesses, and buildings under construction. In fact, Addis boasts 128 buildings over 4 stories tall currently under construction. Hillary said she felt like a country bumpkin when we walked through the airport and we were remarking on how the building is big and clean with long marble hallways, shiny steel and glass, and immigration booths that didn’t look like they were picked up at a soviet salvage sale.

Streets have curbs (nonexistent in Tanzania), which means there are sewers. This sounds minor, but is significant. Not only are they paving, they are planning for rain and runoff and water flow. Yes, planning!

And above ground, coffee bars and cafes! While there is significant poverty here, in Addis, unlike in Dar, there appears to be a burgeoning middle class that can support the frivolous things we’ve grown accustomed to, like coffee bars.

Our first few days were spent at the New Flower, a small guesthouse that mostly caters to European and American couples aiming to adopt a child. Ethiopia boasts a combination of significant poverty, stunning people, and liberal adoption laws, making it the top country in Africa from which westerners can adopt. Sassu, who runs the guest house, advises the families on where to go with their new babies, as not all Ethiopians are happy about these children being ‘exported’. The government, heavily involved in all affairs in the country, gets a sizable fee for each baby, so many Ethiopians view the adoption process as the selling of their babies. However, while we were at the guest house, a Danish couple had just adopted their baby, a boy who had been left on the street and found by a policeman. Clearly, the story is complicated.

On our first day, a Sunday with much of the city closed, we walked around the Bole area. There were cafes with the scent of Ethiopian coffee wafting out, and real, flakey buttery croissants.

For dinner, we strolled for 40 minutes to a “cultural restaurant” that had been recommended to us. We realized we were lost and hailed a taxi which drove us the final one block to Yod Abyssinia, a restaurant that features amazing Ethiopian food, and a show with traditional music and dancing. The dancing here is unlike anything else in Africa that we’ve seen. While most African dancing is all about gyrating hips, here it is all shoulders. Shoulders and heads move in ways that one wouldn’t think they could move – vibrating up and down, left shoulder and right bouncing separately, shimmying and popping.

Bodie met two other toddlers. While they couldn’t communicate, Bodie’s English and their Amharic not finding common ground, all three stood below the stage, dancing, spinning and hugging, and imitating the dancers’ moves for an hour. I think most people there found this to be cute, but there were definitely some clear glances in our direction that parents should get their children under control. As we were the only farangi there, it was clear that Bodie was ours, so we’d make a show of going over every song or two and bending down to talk to him, hoping it looked like we were parenting. It was halfhearted as we both liked his dancing and had calculated that another few dances and we’d be sure to get a solid night’s sleep.

Monday morning found us at the National Museum. The history of Ethiopian kingdoms – bronze work and weapons from 400 BC from the kingdom of Aksum, which extended into Arabia – shows a vibrant civilization that had broad trade with Persia, India and Arabia.

More mindboggling are the paleological testaments to this truly being the birthplace of mankind. From the findings of Lucy, the 3.5 million year old fossils of a woman hominid slightly bigger then Bodie, to a video showing how all mankind evolved from people here – a film of early man morphing into an Ethiopian face, then a Scandanavian face, an Indian one, Asian..-- it is astounding and forces recognition of the vast majority of commonalities we all share far outnumbering the differences.

We wandered the Piazza, an area that I had thought, based on nothing but its name and the slight knowledge I had that the Italians had invaded here 50 years ago, that it would be filled with Italian architecture and cafes. Instead, it was jammed with a hundred jewelry stores. Hillary mumbled something about justice being served as we walked from one window to the next.

Our dinner was at the family of Hillary’s sort-of half-brother. Twenty-three years ago, when Hillary was 15, her father visited Ethiopia as a journalist. He befriended a family who had a 17-year-old son, and feared his entry into the army. Edward managed to secure a visa for Siele and brought him back to live with the family in Princeton. This was certainly generous, but more importantly, very prescient as we got the opportunity to have dinner at Siela’s family’s house. His sister, Kide, and their mother, Amelework, threw a feast fit for a dozen. The table, laden with injira and a dozen bowls of lentils, chickpeas, shiro wat, beets, and other delicious food, was an amazing feast. After dinner, they drove us around Addis, giving a tour of the neighborhoods, small tin shacks built on plots next to large mansions, panoramic views of the city, and a quick tour of the resplendent Sheraton, where Siela had one of the three ceremonies celebrating his marriage.

We also learned that in Orthodox Christianity, as practiced here, one “fasts” every Wednesday and Friday. This means a vegan diet for those two days per week. In addition, all the holidays are fasting days. In total, there are more than 200 fasting days per year, so more fasting than meat days. This makes Ethiopia perfect for travelling vegetarians who simply need to request fasting food.

On Tuesday morning, Hillary had to wrestle with a proposal due before Christmas, so Bodie and I went to the Sheraton to swim. The Sheraton is not a regular Sheraton – it is huge and 5 star and one of Africa’s most elite hotels. The pool is not so much a pool as a tiled lake. There are peninsulas and tiled beaches and well-heeled people lolling about in shallow water having drinks brought to them. This was not anything that we had expected in Ethiopia.

From this large bustling city, filled with the sounds of horns, goats, cows and music, and the smells of too many cars, injira and spices and the pungent musks of animals, we were launching our trip. First, south to see nature, and then north, to tour historical and cultural sites.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Hot for the Holidays

Nothing tugs at all the senses like the holidays. Smells of certain foods cooking, or the touch of pine needles or cold crisp air, or the sounds of holiday music…

And not having those can create a real longing. So the ex-pats in Dar dig into celebrating holidays in ways they might not as fully at home. Yes it is 90 degrees, and yes, your shirt is plastered to you and the frames on your glasses can leave little red burn marks on your temples. And if you are three years old, you can have an ongoing heat rash that makes you look like a pimply adolescent. But damnit, it’s Christmas and we’re gonna do it right. Sort of like the old Avis commercial, ”we are sweaty, so we try harder.”

Our friend Marion, who is German, invited us to celebrate Martinstag with her. St. Martin’s is a big day in Germany. Apparently, Martin was in the Roman army in 300 A.D. One snowy winter evening, Martin and the other soldiers were returning on horseback to Amiens. A beggar sat at the city gate, so cold in his ragged clothing that he could not even ask for help. Martin did not have any money or food to give him, so he cut in half his heavy red soldier’s cloak and gave him half.

That’s the story. He got to be a saint for giving half a coat. Half! I imagine him, with a New York Jewish accent, “what, a little bit of the lining will keep you warm. Ok, for you my friend…”

The Germans traditionally celebrate with Gluewein, meatballs, and other foods, lots of carol singing, and a lantern parade.

Marion had about eight families over to celebrate. Some families were more clued in than others on the lantern front. I had plopped a candle into a tin cup and tied a wire to it for Bodie to carry. Other families showed up with elaborately decorated paper lanterns. I was heartened a little when Clare showed up with two tea candles tied to string hanging from a stick. Although both of ours efforts completely missed the point, at least I wasn’t going to send my kid up in flames.

Marion anticipated the fact that a few of us didn’t quite get it and had paper, glue, candles, and art supplies ready. Quickly fashioning more appropriate lanterns, we set out after dusk to march the dusty streets of Dar for our lantern parade.

Lanterns bobbed in the dark as we paraded down the dirt streets, singing Christmas songs. It must have been a sight as people stopped to watch a bunch of mzungus walking with lanterns singing Jingle Bells. It was quite beautiful. Each kid treated his or her lantern with reverence. Which is to say, Bodie didn’t immediately turn his into a flying “bopper”, as seems to be his instinct now.

On Saturday, the Yacht Club held a kids holiday party. The party had clowns (I guess no elf outfits exist in Tanzania.) organized games, crafts and music.

The big event was of course Santa. Parents who wanted to could drop off a present ahead of time and Santa would pass them out.

After a few hours of games, music, and organizers wearing thin in the 90-degree heat. A signal was given for Santa. The entrance was dramatic. And slow. Santa was apparently at sea and would be arriving via boat, so all the kids lined the stone wall over the harbor and flocked down to the pier.

Choruses of Santa Santa Santa rang out. Organizers were on their walkie-talkies behind us yelling, “I don’t care. Get Santa here NOW!” Families waited. Each boat that came into sight elicited cheers. Women in bathing suits, out for an afternoon sail had never felt so appreciated.

An interminable half hour later, Santa appeared in the distance on a large catamaran, which slowly approached the pier. The tide was low and the catamaran drew too much water to get to shore, so a dingy was dispatched for the final leg.

Santa finally made a glorious entrance. Wearing the full red suit, belt, hat and beard in the late afternoon heat, Santa tried to plow through the gift giving. Over 100 wrapped presents were piled by his chair. With the fans going, the beard in his mouth, and the combination of accents – Tanzanian, South African, English, American -- kids would tune out or not recognize their names, torturing the wilting Santa.

On Sunday, Hillary, inspired by local crafts, woke Bodie and I early to make ornaments. We walked around the yard, gathering sticks, large fallen pods, and interesting leaves. We crafted ornaments, painting sticks, tying together small twigs, and fashioning pods to wires. And then we baked ginger cookies. Really. We mixed and kneaded cookie dough with cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger. I couldn’t find real cookie cutters, so we used Bodie’s Play-Dough cutters and have a wonderful assortment of duck, tree, car, bunny, and dog holiday cookies.

We still have two Hanukah parties to attend and two more Christmas parties.

We, like other ex-pats here, are masterfully channeling the longing to be home with family into some over the top holiday-making.