Friday, February 29, 2008

Sports Man

I was having a conversation with Sebastian, our night guard who sings to Bodie every night (although its funny, as until we came to Tanzania, a night guard was what I had to jam in my mouth when I was grinding my teeth from work stress). (Actually, to call it a conversation might be a bit of a stretch. Sebastian’s English is pretty rudimentary, so a conversation is comprised of a small game of charades, assorted animal sounds, him pounding his head to make the English word appear, and pausing to look up every other word in our Swahili/English phrase book). Suddenly his eyes narrowed and he looked at me with intense purpose, “are you a sports man?” he asked. I did a quick assessment of my obviously limited physical prowess and wondered if I could be considered a sports man in any realm whatsoever, then realized he was asking a more metaphysical question. I knew I had to answer in the positive. He followed with his next question, “what team?” I figured we must be talking soccer, but started thinking there must be thousands of soccer teams in the world. I had no idea if I should answer “Tanzania” or if there were local regional teams. I sensed that a misstep would define our relationship from here on in.

Somehow, dredged from the recesses of my brain, out popped “Arsenal”, which is funny, as I don’t know anything about them or who plays for them. I’ll never know if Sebastien is exceedingly clever and was looking for a way to bond and would have responded the way he did no matter what I said, or if I happened to happen upon the one needle in the haystack. Sebastian’s face lit up, he started pounding his chest, saying, “me too, Arsenal. I am Arsenal too! You are my brother.” Hillary is called “mama”, which is the respectful term for the woman of the house, and he now always calls me “my brother.”

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Little Scholars Pre-school - Day 1

Having an extroverted kid is a blessing and a curse as a parent. Never was that lesson clearer than it was today when we took Bodie to his first day of school.

For a few days before the “big day”, Alfred and I very deliberately talked about school in those overly excited tones that parents use when the kid is about to get a shot in the leg. We talked about how much fun it would be and how many new toys he could play with. Wasted breath, really, because the kid didn’t need a pep talk. His parents did.

Before leaving the house, we filled his Thomas the Tank Engine backpack that Mirtha gave him with diapers, wipes, a bottle of water and snacks – cheese, crackers and an apple. We then experienced the rite of passage of all parents and labeled everything with his name. Unfortunately, we have very little provisions in the house so I had to get creative. I raided the First Aid kit in the kitchen and tore off bits of white medical tape to use as labels. Hopefully, there won’t be any major bleeding incidents before I can replenish our supply. While my instinct was to write his full name so there would be no mistaking the rightful owner, “Boden Tenzing Miller Wise” was more than I could fit on a strip of tape.

The registration form called for parents to send their children to school every day with a “hat or a pet”. Alfred and I thought this was an odd choice – surely they didn’t intend for us to send Bodie to school with a 145-pound Rhodesian Ridgeback – but we were hoping that it meant we could send Dexter to school a few days a week as well. We then decided that a “pet” must be a British or South African word for “baseball hat”. Begrudgingly, we grabbed Bodie’s orange sun hat and left Dexter at home.

Little Scholars Pre-School is on the corner of Haile Selassie, a main road that cuts the Msasani peninsula in half lengthwise, and Chole Road, which leads to Coco Beach and the Indian Ocean about half a mile away. In the morning, the intersection is pulsing with Landcruisers and Range Rovers with various logos of NGOs – and the donors who footed the bill for the vehicle – plastered on the side. On the corner, there is duka la dawa, which is a cross between a pharmacy, an African 7-11 and a witches market, where merchants hawk everything from Coca-Cola to magic potions.

We pulled up to gate in front of the school, which is painted bright yellow and blue. The “parking lot” is just a grassy area in front of the school with cars wedged between flame trees with their red buds in full bloom. The place was buzzing with parents dropping off their kids. Clearly, we were the only parents that day who were bringing their only child for the first day of school because all the other parents dropped their kids off and rushed off to work or home. Alfred and I walked Bodie in together slowly. He was immediately greeted warmly by the two Indian teachers that teach the 1.5 to 3-year-olds. Upon passing through the gate, Bodie saw a garden filled with bikes, sand boxes, swings and jungle gyms and he let go of our hands. Alfred and I hung around taking tons of pictures as Bodie bounced from toy to toy.

At 8:30, the teacher rang the bell. I explained to Bodie that the bell meant it was time to go inside with the other kids. He paused, saw the other kids running toward the classrooms, and merged into the stream like a sailfish. Once inside, the kids in his age group sat on the floor and started singing a counting song. Bodie hung back a little and watched from the side, but was quietly counting along – with his mom continuing to snap photos like a paparazzo. Alfred and I finally decided it was time to go but we made it as far as the window outside the classroom, where we continued to peer in. Suffice it to say that, at that point, one of us cried and it wasn’t his mother. By the time we left, Bodie was singing loudly and clapping along and never looked back.

When Alfred went to pick Bodie up at 11:30, the teacher told him that it was the first time in her experience that a child didn’t cry on his first day, which either means Bodie is really well adjusted or so repressed that we better increase our monthly contributions to the therapy fund. Like Dexter after a day at doggy day care, Bodie came home, inhaled a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (ok, in Dexter’s case, it’s a rawhide but you get my point), and immediately fell asleep. First day of school and he stuck the landing.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Yatcht Club

In Swahili, there are no silent letters. Every letter written, using the same Roman alphabet as ours, is pronounced. So locals pronounce the Dar es Salaam Yacht Club as “Yatcht Club”. Which has some logic to it.

There are a few clubs or gathering spots that are primarily dominated by ex-pats of one sort or another, and the Yacht Club is one of them. It has a nice family beach, a little snack bar and bar, and it is where people keep all types of boats, from Lasers to motor yachts. Our friends Kindra and Kirk are “Phase 1 - Prospective members” – they’ve been sponsored, but not yet voted upon. The club was founded in 1933 (when Germany still controlled Tanganyika). Getting into the Yacht Club is very old school snooty, involving being sponsored and seconded by members, having a probation period (I can imagine everything falling apart if Bodie, running around naked on the little beach, pees in front of a commodore.), and being formally voted upon by the membership.

We went to the club beach with Kindra and Kirk and their baby, Marissa. The tide was out, creating a 40-yard stretch of knee deep, beautiful white sand slowly wending into clear warm Indian Ocean water, perfect for small kids to splash and explore tidal pools. It was really beautiful. I also want to teach Bodie to sail so we will aim to get in to the club.

We’ve met a few other families like us – attached to USAID, NGOs or the Embassy -- with small kids, that use the club for its Monday pizza nights, or for the beach. Everyone has been very welcoming, and somehow the shared dislocation makes creating community a little faster and easier.

The club, and trying to join, raises some of the issues Hillary and I had discussed and feared a bit. We want an experience of knowing Tanzanians, befriending locals, and getting to really know local culture and customs. We know it is far too easy to live a removed “ex-pat” life – to befriend only ex-pats, visit ex-pat clubs, and retreat behind walls. I think it will be easier to break these barriers through work, but it doesn’t seem easy. We stand out, and every mzungu (white person), generally drives a car and, by comparison, has money. Breaking through these barriers is an important objective for us.

Baby Group

Kirk, (who is married to Hillary’s colleague, Kindra) brought their 1 year old, Marissa, and joined Bodie and I attending a regular Friday baby group. I’ve taken the whole Hillary-is-working-and-I’m-not thing pretty much in stride, maintaining some slim notion of masculinity by fixing a few things and getting a lawn mower assembled. Kirk had assured me that other fathers regularly attended. But going to baby group, 6 women with babies, Kirk and me, perhaps stripped away the few remaining vestiges of masculinity. I had a beer, which was pretty much all I could do to exude any testosterone.

Everyone was incredibly welcoming and nice. The host, Juniper, works at USAID. She came to Tanzania a year ago with a 3-month old baby alone as her husband is a marine stationed in Iraq. She has started a new job the day after maternity leave, in a new country, with a new baby, with all new people to support her and her baby. I was in awe of what she’d done.

After talking to the women there, this is a letter I’ve been composing in my head:

Dear CEO’s of Proctor & Gamble and Kimberly Clark:

I know you can make great diapers. We’ve purchased the space-age technology of gels, and soft cloths and wicking fabrics in your Pampers and Huggies products for a few years. I’m writing to inquire why you think that in hot climates, say the equatorial heat of Tanzania, diapers should be made of plastic instead. With all the challenges faced in Africa, this may seem trivial. But everyone I’ve spoken to with a baby or toddler has remarked on the incredible diaper rash his or her kid experiences. It is hot here, always. It is humid here. Making a diaper out of plastic just doesn’t seem that smart. Kids are walking around in their own little terrarium. As CEOs, I challenge you to wrap your crotch in a plastic garbage bag for 24 hours in this heat and let me know how it feels.

We expect better diapers in Africa.

Yours truly,

Alfred, father of Bodie

This may not be one of the profound calls to actions that I was envisioning embarking on, but it’s a start. Bodie has spent a lot of time running around outside, tuchus catching the warm ocean breeze and sun.


This is the first week to tackle the isolation issues. Hillary has given me her cell phone and she has gotten a new one through her office, so I now have phone contact (but no one yet to call, except Hillary, and I suspect her receptionist is growing weary of my check ins). I’ve been to an Internet cafĂ© and feel connected to the world again. I have never before been pleased to get spam, but it means that someone out there is thinking I need enhancement or that I could be an important and trustworthy partner in transferring 18 million dollars from a Nigerian mining company. My existence is reaffirmed.

And I drove – on the wrong side of the road, with the stick shift on the left, and cars and trucks coming at me on the right, in a 4 x 4 truck that is so Africa. And I didn’t hit anything. I did turn on the windshield wipers every time I was planning a turn as this lever is likewise reversed with the turn signal. But I got where I needed to go and had a clean windshield to boot. Driving here is more like a video game than anything in the U.S. The Newcomer’s Guide published by a local women’s group warns, “ Beware of pedestrians, carts, cyclists, goats, cows, chickens and wild animals when driving…”

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Thinking of Business Ideas

It feels like there are tremendous opportunities here – labor is incredibly cheap, people seem to work hard, and in general are honest. Three business ideas that have cropped up:

1) Market/work bikes – transportation is crazy here, with people walking everywhere. The costs of cars are prohibitive as there is no credit, so anyone who wants a vehicle has to pay 100% up front, and cars are all imported, so more expensive than in the U.S. Bikes are used to move all sorts of goods, stacked high with produce, wood, insulation. Thinking of a bike designed to carry things, so low gearing, mountain built design, with three wheels. I could see getting pieces sourced in China or Taiwan, and doing assembly here. It would support small farmers and other small businesses providing access to markets. The trick is building them so that they are affordable and solid. There is a tinga tinga artists market nearby – a bright style of painting with lots of animals. Would be great to make the bikes beautiful.

2) Car financing – again transportation is a big issue and an aspiring middle class can’t purchase cars unless they come up with 100% up front. A car financing company would empower thousands of people to get vehicles to go to work, move goods, etc. The trick is securitizing the asset in case of default, and checking credit – there are no credit scores or records here.

3) Cafes – creating a KilicafĂ© retail outlet that serves the tourist market in Zanzibar, Arusha or Nairobi airport.


I’m sitting outside our small cabin at the Fox Lodge, overlooking what can only be described as a perfect image from a movie. We are in Mufindi, which is in the southern highlands of Tanzania. We are 6,700 feet high, and the weather is cool compared to Dar. It is home to rolling hills and mountains, all verdant green, dotted with tea plantations, and small lakes. This lodge was started by an Englishman, Geoff Fox, who came to the area in 1959 to run tea estates for Unilever. The drive from Dar is a good 8 hours, and when you leave the paved road you assume that you are almost there. You assume wrongly. It is another 20 K over a rocky dirt road.

Hillary persuaded Alex, the deputy country director, that Bodie and I should join them on this trip. Alex is incredibly smart and insightful, but for some reason didn’t doubt the wisdom of two 10-hour drives with a two-year old.

The drive up from Dar crossed through the Mikumi National Park, and we saw gazelles, had to slow as an elephant crossed the road in front of our truck, and saw giraffes grazing from trees. Baboons lined the road, waiting for any trash that might be tossed. This should be reread – we drove on the highway and saw elephants, giraffes, baboons… absolutely incredible.

Ten hours later, like seeing an oasis emerge, we arrived at this amazing lodge with 7 little cabins. Beautifully manicured lawns dotted with extraordinary flowers wind between house-sized boulders to a stone lodge. A perfect croquet lawn was carved out of a hill, perfectly level, lawn clipped and immaculate, with the wickets set up and ready for people wearing their whites to play. We went into the lodge for wine, Bodie grabbed the bowl of freshly made popcorn, and we dined. One of the few times I can say that we dined versus ate and be certain of the difference. Delicious food overlooking horses grazing well below and cows off on the hillside and the sun setting over the tea fields. This little taste of colonialism was not a bad thing after the long trip.

Hillary and Alex left to go meet with a tea processor they work with and farmers. Bodie and I wandered up to the farm where we saw horses, ducks and a new baby sheep. Bodie got to bottle feed the sheep, which stood just shy of Bodie’s waist. The little sheep kept following Bodie, and Bodie kept baahing. Clearly there was a shared understanding of being dependent on others for food and too small to step over the puddles in the yard.

There is a balance of adventure I want to have with Bodie in tow. I want to explore new things, see things neither of us have seen before, yet know that I can return to safety quickly if I need to. The challenge is knowing where the boundary lies before crossing it. We went walking this morning based on a poorly hand-drawn map to a lake nearby. Everything now is framed as something Dora the Explorer would do. This means that it is always in three steps, that we dance and celebrate with each step, and then sing the “we did it” song afterwards. So this trip started by having to 1) pet the sheep 2) travel down the path 3) go to the lake. After the celebration of petting the sheep, we started down the path. I hadn’t built in what to do upon losing the path. So we improvised, yelling “path, where are you?” for a good 30 minutes. I was thinking that I might have crossed the line – lost in the remote highlands of Tanzania, singing Dora songs, and having no real idea where I was or where a path might be. We crashed through some brush onto a dirt road and traced it to a beautiful mountain lake with lily pads and blossoming red flowers. We were within the bounds.

Driving back through the tea fields, we saw people with woven baskets strapped on their backs, hand picking the tea. Tea can be mechanically picked, but the quality of good pickers finding the right leaves exceeds what a machine can do. The cost of labor here is cheap as well, making the choice for quality one that most tea estates opt for.

Unlike other crops that can be transported for processing, tea must be processed within 6 to 8 hours of being picked. So tea processing plants are set up in remote growing regions to be close to the fields. We stopped at the Mufindi Tea Company and saw vast troughs the size of croquet pitches (in deference to Geoff Fox) with large fans blowing warm air to dry tea. It is then put on conveyer belts to be macerated, fermented and processed. The factory is a combination of low and high-tech – people bagging vast trucks of tea by hand, and hanging sacks overhead flying hooks, and conveyer belts and machines chopping, fermenting and processing. Tea was invented in China thousands of years ago, and I noticed that all the machinery was also Chinese made.

On the way back, we stopped at the side of the road. Buckets of vegetables and fruits are piled for sale outside small shacks. Each bucket of onions, peppers, and tomatoes looks Whole Foods perfect, stacked to a perfect pyramid. Alex showed us that you need to get them to pour out the bucket and look in the middle as only the perfect ones end up on top, and the middle holds the old or damaged fruit. We came back with giant bags of onions, peppers and tomatoes.

The Neighborhood

Hillary’s back at work, so Bodie and I take off for a neighborhood walk. A 10-miinute stroll and we’re at the beach, the Indian Ocean stretching off with incredible azure water. We walk by Coco beach, which has a few rickety rides clearly offloaded from someplace else where there are safety guidelines. Bodie raced over to a sort of carrousel comprised of airplanes. The rides were all closed, maybe even permanently. A young man started running circles, pushing this contraption around and around with Bodie shouting with glee “I’m on an airplane” and “faster”.

Walking home, we passed a cow and a duck-like bird that seemed to be hanging out. I subsequently learned that these birds feed on the flies that accompany the cow, but it certainly seemed like they were just pals talking the latest news. When you read enough children’s books, it’s nice when life hands you real world duck/cow friendships.

Apparently February is when rains start in Dar. This is one of those things that I knew I knew, but only once the rain started. Bodie and I were a good few miles from the house when we got deluged. We were fruitlessly racing from tree cover to tree cover when a car pulled up, and asked if we wanted a ride. Lesson learned: if you’re going to get stuck in the rain, bring along a small child with you.

There have been bouts of wondering about the wisdom of this move. Sitting in a completely empty house, no phone, no internet, no car and a whining toddler can make one question one’s decision-making ability.

We are living in Oyster Bay, which is a peninsula just off of Dar. There seems to be almost no middle class in Tanzania, so most people are very poor, with per capita incomes of under $300/year. Yet the area we live in has tall walled off houses with guards, gardeners, housekeepers and nanny’s tending to the running of the house. It is a strange feeling to drive into these beautiful paradises that signal how clearly we, and everyone else on the peninsula, is guarding our material things.

I think we all have a sense of “other” built into our nature, the seed of racism, or tribalism, or religious intolerance. Some vestigial evolutionary mechanism that we use to define ourselves in opposition to others. It is still early for Bodie, but I’m hoping he grows up with a different framework. So far, he quickly takes Tom’s hand, or hops into Sebastian’s arms, and I’m hoping that this experience creates a very different view of himself in connection to others than most of us experience.


A blur of trying to get adjusted to the eight hour time difference, get Bodie on a schedule and driving around, trying to get acclimated. We had met Tom, our gardener, Judith, the housekeeper, and Sebastian, the night guard. Bodie took immediately to them, started following Tom around to help him with the wheelbarrow and watering, and laughing at Sebastian’s cow sounds and songs.

Feb. 6, 2008 - The Beginning

I headed to the airport accompanied by the absolute limit of what airlines allow a family of 14 to bring aboard, assuming I’d have my own transport plane towed closely behind. Apparently most airport personnel have seen lot of cute toddlers running around, crying parents hugging departing children, and men outweighed by their luggage by 6 to 1. But a big 140-pound Ridgeback approaching anyone to be petted was anomalous in the sleek vast halls of Dulles. I have never seen as many Northwest staff focused on one being as they were on Dexter. The lines snaked with traveling families 40 deep, yet three Northwest Airlines staff attended to make sure Dexter was cared for. Bodie was laughing and oblivious of what was in store, clinging to a tearful Grammy.

As we went through security, Bodie, Dex and I settled in for a nearly 24-hour journey that would take us to live in Dar-es-Salaam, on the coast of Tanzania.

Hillary had landed a position with a NGO called Technoserve, helping small farmers improve quality, get access to buyers, and move out of poverty. It was her dream job. I decided after 8 years of running a social enterprise consulting firm that my energy was flagging and a change was needed.

This sounded like the adventure we all needed.
But before adventure, a significant obstacle needed to be navigated. Never mind renting the house, selling cars, getting vaccinations, changing accounts, leaving family, friends and community. The prospect of 23 hours of one-on-one economy travel with a two-year old was beyond any feat I had yet attempted. As with training for a marathon or any significant physical feat, I trained. I loaded up a bag with books ranging from Thomas the Train to Richard Scary, Dora toys, a leapfrog computer, assorted diggers, bulldozers and cars, and of course, blankie. I practiced accessing the right thing with my eyes closed and one hand holding a dirty diaper. I knew that seconds counted.

Bodie has inherited his mother’s extroversion. Like Hillary, he absorbs energy from those about him. Which can be good, say, when going to a party, but not necessarily as helpful a trait on an overnight flight with several hundred other passengers. After a few hours, while everyone else was tucking in blankets and pillows, settling in for the overnight flight to Amsterdam, Bodie thought running up and down the aisle, poking dozing people to ask, “are you sleeping?” was the right approach.

The difficult part of the trip comes after Amsterdam (where with the depressed dollar, a coffee and a sandwich took most of Bodie’s college fund). The flight goes directly to Kilimanjaro, in the northern part of Tanzania. Most passengers depart there for safaris or hiking. Eight of us stayed onboard to continue to Dar. We sat for an hour and a half on the runway before our 50-minute flight, stretching landing in Dar to 24 hours from when we had taken off. I had met two board members of KickStart, an innovative NGO, traveling to a board meeting in Dar, who covered a few Bodie shifts during the flight. Dexter, who I had been assured would be walked and fed in Amsterdam, apparently wasn’t. We could hear his barking in the hold below.

At Dar, after negotiating customs and getting a visa, I went to let Dex out of his crate. He bounded out like, well, he hadn’t eaten, peed or pooped in 24 hours, which I guess he was entitled to. His initial jump somehow dislocated my left ring finger, which started swelling and waggling at a 45-degree angle from all the other neatly parallel fingers, porters scurried while I chased him around the small airport.

Bodie was riding on the baggage conveyer, overseen by porters, while Hillary helped me navigate customs. It was good to see Hillary, who had left 5 weeks earlier, both because I missed her, and I needed to pass Bodie on to someone quickly.

My hand out the window with my finger throbbing, we drove through the gate to our large 4-bedroom house, a sprawling garden with a huge tiki hut in the middle, and a separate guesthouse. Hillary had a small mattress on the floor inside, and an office conference table set up in the dining room (no chairs). While we didn’t have any things yet, she had made sure to supply a few crucial things to make it a home: a ball and some toys for Bodie, dark chocolate and wine for us. The house is really beautiful and will make a wonderful home and base for us. Currently, it is ideal for kicking Bodie’s soccer ball up and down the long hallway.

With my finger encased in frozen vegetable patties, the one American-style veggie food that Hillary could find to stock up on, she insisted we find a clinic to get my finger fixed. It was swelling up and I envisioned having to have my wedding ring cut off, an inauspicious beginning on the first night of our new life in east Africa. I thought, what do real men do? Men in Africa probably perform surgery on themselves, and certainly take care of their own dislocated limbs. If I succeed at nothing else, my epitaph can now read, he yanked and relocated his own finger.