Wednesday, April 30, 2008


Recently, Dexter, our Rhodesian Ridgeback and elder son, started turning his nose up at the Pedigree food he was being served. Dexter is not picky. He’ll wolf down anything and seems as happy with a fresh bone as old scraps excavated from under a rock. Yet somehow Pedigree, the only dog food we’ve seen on shelves in Dar es Salaam, didn’t meet his exceedingly liberal standards. So we decided to make (rather, have made) real homemade food for Dexter. Hillary went online and found a trove of dog food recipes, a count even surpassing the number of vegetarian Passover recipes I had scoured a few weeks ago. (No comparison of, say, gefilte fish and dog food even remotely intended.)

We learned that the food should be 40% meat, 30% vegetables and 30% starch. Being the wimpy vegetarian that I am, I asked Judith, our wonderful housekeeper, to accompany me to a butcher. We went to Namanga, a part of town near us crowded with small stores where locals shop. Namanga is far less expensive than the mzungu-serving shops in our neighborhood.

Hillary tried to make the case that buying meat would be less expensive than manufactured dog food. Her assertion sounded familiar, and I somehow remembered her logical argument that “expensive Italian shoes” that would last were also a sound investment.

At the butcher, rather than the myriad choices that I expected to be bewildered by – shoulder or flank, sirloin or ribs, chuck or brisket -- two options were presented. Judith pointed to one window, with hunks of carcass speared on huge hooks, and said “cow”, and pointed to another window with smaller red glistening carcasses, and said “goat”. There seemed to be more flies swarming the cow window, so I took that as some sort of Zagat’s guide and picked beef.

The butcher pulled a carcass chunk off a hook, put it on a tree stump in the corner of the store, and cleaved a chunk off. He put it on the scale and it tipped 2 kilos, the amount Judith had specified. As he tried to charge us more, Judith, fully in command, directed him to cut a bit off and made sure it was from the less desirable end.

I, as have many friends living in a nice urban Whole Foods-served region, have railed against the separation in our daily life from our basic food sources. Our food is typically shrink wrapped and prettified so we have no idea of what it once was. As the cleaver was hammering down, with three dull thuds, through the side of beef, I truly appreciated the beauty of the shrink-wrap machine.

Judith roasted the meat with potatoes and carrots. Dexter, always eternally loyal just to me, now won’t leave her side.

Friday, April 25, 2008


After a phone conversation with the Executive Director and head of programs at Solar Aid, Nick and John, they were eager to engage me initially as a volunteer to help them get a program up and going in Tanzania. The timing seems fortuitous as they have a sizable proposal pending for a project here. They forwarded a number of documents for me to review – a strategic plan, a proposal, a consultant’s report on their work in Malawi, a budget, and list of things they thought I could help with immediately, mostly administrative set-up - identifying costs of office space, understanding legal registration in the country, etc…

I spent a few days reviewing all the documents and, rather than dig into what they wanted, I couldn’t overcome my inner-consultant. I drafted a four-page memo challenging some of the key tenants in the their business model and offered some alternative models to consider. I asked them to clarify their aspirations, and laid out a few implications of how that could drive their business model. Needless to say, I couldn’t help myself and included a Venn diagram to show my consulting credentials (I always imagine my 9th grade geometry teacher saying “pay attention, if, and only if, you ever want to be a consultant, you’ll need to understand overlapping circles.”) Previously, with any client at CWV, I was generally delicate, but aspired to be direct. In this case, I was a little less delicate and very direct.

I expected a strong negative reaction, a “you don’t understand what we’re doing at all.” Instead, they wrote and said their model is evolving and that my thinking was very much in line with where they were interested in taking the organization. I even got a “spot on”.

The challenge they face, as does anyone in renewable energy, is not the need, which is clear and present here, but figuring out a business model to sell, service and support what is, initially, an expensive product to a market without money.

I’ll help them get registered and see if I can work with them to refine their model. The opportunity to scale renewable energy here may be most appropriate for an NGO. Most research and investment on solar is focused on a utility-based approach, so designed for large systems that already cover and service a population (i.e. U.S. and Europe). Current technology – photovoltaic - is applicable to people who can pay up front and wait for a 10 year return-on-investment. The subsidy that an NGO can provide may be the only way to make it possible reach to the poor, rural market in a country like Tanzania.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Seder Success

Seder One required a few crucial elements:

1) A foray to the Dar Fish Market – The market is teeming with every imaginable type of swimming creature. It is overwhelming – fish-covered men chase you waving silver glinting fish, prawns, and squid at you. Stall after stall, stacked with with large mahi mahi to small bait fish, stretch for fifty yards. Hundreds of people bustle about, carrying fish, cleaning fish, filleting fish, washing fish guts down the sidewalks, walking barefoot through the fish guts washing down the sidewalks…. The only thing we knew to do was check for non-cloudy eyes as a sign of freshness. We emerged with a fresh snapper and a type of salmon, which we had cleaned out of site of a newly-squeamish Hillary.

2) A visit from our friend Laura Frederick from Kampala. In typical Laura fashion, she came directly here from having been on the road all week, bearing wine, food from Kenya and remarkable cheer.

3) Amazing new friends. One family, Cory, Julia and Alia, have access to the regular embassy pouch. With matzah farfel – a key ingredient for matzah ball soup – being unavailable in Tanzania, they had some pouched over. They showed up with a huge pot of matzah ball soup to serve fourteen. It may well have been the only matzah ball soup being served in Tanzania.

4) A supportive and innovative wife who can source things like no one else. We don’t have the accoutrements to entertain yet, so Hillary ran out on Saturday. in a matter of a few hours, she had a tablecloth made, found a long sea-shell embroidered runner, some carved serving dishes, Shabbat candlesticks, a long candle holder carved from old dhow wood, and a Masai water gourd, to use for the ritual hand-washing.

Bodie found the hidden afikomen, wrapped in a blue and white khanga, under the sofa cushion. The next day, Hillary was wearing that khanga on her head and Bodie asked if she had the afikomen on her head.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Preparing for a Tanzanian Sedar – Part Two

Thinking of the weeks of preparation that go into my mom’s seder, I’m very nervous about actually cooking. I envision her kitchen – pots boiling, pans baking in the oven, dishes put in the freezer weeks ahead of time -- and I feel paralyzed. To try to break through this culinary version of writer’s block, I knew I needed to take it slowly. Today I hardboiled an egg. We need one egg for the sedar plate, and I thought this was an effective start.

Egg? Check!

Tomorrow, I’ll really cook some things.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Preparing for a Tanzanian Seder

Passover is approaching, and I now realize that holding a Seder is something I’ve delegated for my entire life. I have wonderful memories of Seders growing up at my parents. (I can’t forget my youngest sister, Deborah at 2-years-old, shouting Dayanu two beats after everyone else at the table. For reasons she can’t fathom, I need to remind her of this every year. I think Bodie is now about that age, and, next year, Deborah’s son will the late shouter.) I then found friends, namely Monica, who sedered like it was nobody’s business. But now, it is time for Hillary and I to prepare our first Seder. And running to the local Judaica store in Dar for a quick training doesn’t seem to be an option.

So I’ve spent a few days surfing Jewish websites, a dilettante’s approach to Talmudic study. First I learned that the word Seder means “order”, so that, while there are over 3,000 Haggadahs in print, they all follow the same table of contents. I also learned that we Jews are very internet focused, with a fair number of haggadot available for download, some free, some via Paypal purchase.

I recall reading, many years ago, a book called The Jew in the Lotus. In it, Buddhism meets Judaism when eight rabbis travel to Dharamsala, India for a meeting with the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama asks the rabbis why Judaism has thrived for over 5,000 years. They respond that one of the primary reasons is the tradition of the Seder being held for thousands of years in households across the world. The service is designed to repeat the story of Exodus as a lesson for children. It is a bittersweet holiday – on one hand, Jews recall enslavement in a foreign land, but there is also the celebration of liberation and freedom.

It is also multi-layered. The story of Exodus from Egypt is on a basic level, but there is also a call to social action and tikkun-olam, making the world whole; one element holds a mirror for us to think of our own roles as oppressors as well; and there is a self-reflective element to understand one’s personally imposed limitations. At the first level, the service is very kid-focused with singing, and, until this year at our house, notable for wonderful food.

We are hosting 11 adults and five kids. The criteria for coming is not overly exclusive: everyone has attested to either being Jewish, knowing someone who is Jewish, having tried out an old Jewish person accent, or seen a Woody Allen movie. With four of the kids under age three, we are not anticipating it to be either a long Seder or one with a tremendous theological debate.

To prepare, I’ve been assembling a Haggadah. Online options range from the Orthodox to Liberal to Reconstructionist to Pure Kitsch (a Chocolate-focused haggadah). I am realizing how little I knew about the structure and all the rituals. The process of creating a Haggadah is enjoyable – after this trial run, it should be something we use for many years.

I’ll next go searching for some basics for the Seder plate. While you could probably trip over a shank bone in Dar, I’m worried about finding horseradish, apples for charoset, much less Matzah (although part of me imagines standing outside with Judith, our housekeeper, trying to use Exodus as a cookbook and pound and bake matzahs in the sun.)

We have a Haggadah ready – it has been plagiarized, pirated, portions appropriated and bowdlerized, and is ready to go (and emailable if anyone would like it.)

I realize that I’m becoming my mother, but I only have five days now to plan the meal….

Monday, April 14, 2008


We need to open a bank account here. Try as we might, electronic life doesn’t cover that much in a cash-based society. Trying to be a loyal Citibank customer, I inquired about a local account. They responded:
Thank you for your recent message regarding Financial Centers located in your area. The branches we have in Africa are located in Egypt in several different areas. Theses locations are Azarita, Dokki, Garden City, Giza, Heliopolis, Maadi, Mohandessin, and Zamalek. You would need to go to theses branches to further discuss opening an account with them…

While indeed on the same continent, Tanzania to Egypt is about 2,600 miles. Citibank must not incorporate geography in its customer service training.

To open an account at Barclays, we needed a letter of reference attesting to our character and residency visas. I wrote a glowing character reference (something like “uniquely gifted and outstandingly honest”), emailed it to Hillary, who had one of her subordinates sign it, attesting to her boss’s character.

We just received the residency visas. A quick aside – Hillary is treading lightly on asking me to do any shopping or errands during the day as she knows that my ego is a little housewifely-precarious right now. I took Hillary’s work visa and my visa to the bank. The Ministry, however, cares nothing for my ego. My visa has handwritten across the bottom in big block letters, “DEPENDENT HUSBAND”.

Even though it is Barclays, the branch here is a very old fashioned operation. One needs to see the teller for virtually all transactions. We go to Angela to deposit checks. We go to Angela to pay our water bill, to put money into our bar tab at the Yacht Club, and to move money from the dollars account to the shillings account. Angela is often busy talking to her colleagues and I feel badly having to interrupt, sometimes clearing my throat five or six times, before she acknowledges me. Sometimes she’ll get up in the middle of a transaction, suddenly seeming to remember an urgent matter in the back of the office.

I’ll admit my ego is indeed fragile right now. One saving grace is that I don’t have to worry about troubling Angela with yet another task, something burdensome like having to deal with a second monthly paycheck for us.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Rainy Season

It started raining as I was on my way to Swahili class. (Actually, the course had ended, but the director of the school was so perturbed by the lack of progress of my classmate and I, she held remedial Swahili class. She called it a “review” so it wouldn’t sound like we were in the “special” class, but we knew where we stood.)

When it rains here, somehow, it rains in far more biblical ways than it does in the States. Gallons of water fall, overwhelming roads, creating instant lakes, drenching pedestrians.

En route I stopped at Shoppers Plaza, a new modern mall with a supermarket. A half-dozen men were squeegying water off the tiled promenade. They couldn’t keep up with the downpour. I thought to myself – why don’t we see squeegee men keeping promenades clear in the U.S.?, and then realized that in the U.S, walkways are built with a slight slope so that rain water runs off. I thought that this was an insight worth sharing with someone involved with the Ministry of the Approval of Architectural Plans or some such, even if it meant reducing the squeegying economy.

The roads quickly become rivers. Not just remote rural roads, but the main roads in Dar have no sewers, no place for water to run off, no drainage system whatsoever. So water simply piles up. (Hillary’s colleague Alex corrected me and said that a drainage system does in fact exist, it just doesn’t work.)

Driving back from class, people were wading from storefront to storefront, water above knee level. Cars drove leaving a wake of water from mid-wheel. Road boundaries become somewhat moot at this point, so the two-lane road had turned into a five-lane free-for-all. Cars were angling on the sidewalk sides of telephone poles, crisscrossing to drive on the opposite shoulder, so traffic comes at you from both sides, drivers steeled to forge across rivers like Washington crossing the Delaware. It was complete and utter chaos. It took me an hour and twenty minutes to drive the five miles back from class. And this happens every time it rains, which is almost every day for a few months in rainy season.

The rains continued through the night. The next day, there were deep new trenches and car length potholes in the roads. Many parts of Dar, of course the poorer parts, end up below water. A story in the local newspaper reported that four people in Dar had died as a result of walls collapsing.

We are often told that the key to happiness is to learn to appreciate the little things. I am starting with a profound appreciation of sewers and drainage systems.

Saturday, April 12, 2008


Hillary is working on a project with cashew farmers in Mtwara, southern Tanzania just above the Mozambique border. Bodie and I accompanied her for a two-day trip there. I am truly becoming like a kvetchy old man who expects any trip to be problematic, but was assured that this was a quick 45-minute plane trip from Dar to Mtwara. When we arrived at the airport, the ticket agent for Air Tanzania tried to tell us that we had a wrong ticket for Bodie. We had an infant ticket and he’d need a child’s ticket. They told us that the Ministry of Aviation was very strict about this. He said we needed to go to the office to get this “sorted out.” I’m starting to learn that it is developing country protocol that to get issue resolved, you have to go to “the office”. He informed us that it would be an additional $100 for Bodie’s ticket (flights within Africa seem to cost double what any similar flight in the U.S. would cost). Hillary said that we didn’t have money to pay more, whereupon the officious manager then asked what we proposed to do. Hillary said we’d be back in a few days and we expected the man to take good care of Bodie. Somehow he managed to avoid the busybodies at the Ministry and let Bodie on, even though, as he let us know, he really shouldn’t and was doing us a big favor.

Hillary has often told me (and her friends, and my parents, and my friends…) that I need to work on my communication. Now I can confidently say, I communicate better than an airline in Tanzania. The plane, scheduled to depart at 11 am, somehow was moved to 1:30. They didn’t actually tell us this, it was just printed on the boarding pass. The other thing that was never mentioned, prior to boarding our 45-minute flight, was that Air Tanzania changed the flight pattern. Rather than a quick hop direct to Mtwara, we were to go first to the Comoros – an island nation off the coast of Mozambique -- then to Mtwara. We traveled out of Tanzania, sat on the runway at Comoros (which I’d only heard of as the BBC news recently talked about an attempted coup there), before heading back to Tanzania.

Onboard the aircraft, I glanced through the standard glossy airline magazine which had a bizarrely candid conversation with the CEO. I learned that Air Tanzania boasts a fleet of two aircraft, and has been losing money for a long time, often going to the government to be bolstered. I’m not sure CEO’s should be this candid, certainly not in promotional literature. Somehow, I found it encouraging that a good fifty percent of their attention would be focused on servicing the plane we were on. We arrived close to 5 pm, a mere 5 hours later than planned. This time I had no trouble expressing to Hillary exactly how I was “feeling”.

We are staying in a small town called Mikindani in a hotel called The Old Boma. Built in 1895 by the Germans, it is a large colonial building with a tower, used to house German administrative offices to oversee all of their colonies in East Africa. Germany was kicked out in 1916 by the British, who then used the building for administrative offices. The building fell into disrepair, but was rebuilt as a hotel in 2001 by an NGO called Trade Aid. It operates as a social enterprise – owned and operated by Trade Aid, with profits going back to the community. It is a beautiful building with pool and gardens overlooking the ocean.

The day started inauspiciously. Hillary left early for meetings. Bodie and I got up to have breakfast by the pool. Bodie, still unaware of proper colonial pool etiquette, promptly threw up. I wiped him down and he wanted a banana. Good, I thought, that is now over with. A banana and some pineapple juice down. And quickly, a banana and pineapple juice back up again.

People sometime talk about having super strength in a life-or-death situation; I am proof that you get super speed, like the Flash, in a good vomit situation. He was whisked into a standing, bent over avoid-papa-and-clothes-trajectory position in a millisecond.

I was glad that Hillary wasn’t there for this. While we have relaxed beyond all norms of what we were a scant two months ago in terms of what Bodie can do – suck on the big rocks in the garden if there are no visible insects, hang from his hands over a river with alligators provided they’re little ones, ok – but a sick Bodie still freaks her out.

As they say, the third heave is the charm. Bodie then downed bread and half a pancake. Other diners around the pool studiously peered at the food on their table, as if examining eggs and toast like they’d never seen the combination before. We left quickly and walked into town, me holding him in a watchful ready-to-aim position.

The town is like the hotel – late 19th century German colonial buildings, a slave market turned into a fruit market, a prison, large houses of various VIPs – but nothing has been touched since the Germans were here. Roofs are missing. Walls are crumbling. Goats and chickens wander the dirt roads, walking in and out of these abandoned, formerly majestic buildings.

Bodie had a toy digger clenched firmly in one hand as we left. A four-year-old boy came over, entranced by it. Bodie and the boy sat in the dirt road, digging, making piles of dirt, and passing it back and forth. This is universal – all boys know what to do with a truck from the age of two, and can spend countless hours with a combination of truck and dirt.

A group of seven young schoolgirls dressed in blue skirts and white shirts, came over to Bodie. They all said their names and then touched Bodie’s curly hair and pale arms. Bodie threw his best “jambo” at them, and they giggled and followed us for a while.

There is an odd tension with kids here. On one hand, they are genuinely curious to try to talk English, to play with Bodie, to engage. But almost every encounter with a kid also ends with a request for money. I struggle with this – the kids are either barefoot or in torn clothes and clearly need money. I don’t want to teach them that this is how to get money though. On the other hand, I could give a little and make their day. I wish I had some task so they could “earn” it. But, I’ve spent enough time working with effective nonprofits to know that money put into a good program can go much farther to alleviate underlying causes. But again, what the heck, a buck here or there… back and forth. I don’t have an easy answer.

The afternoon ended with Bodie and I watching monkeys hop through the acacia trees by the pool. We climbed up to a balcony to check them out, and two monkeys came down, sat on branches not five feet from us and likewise watched us.

Hillary came back from her meetings in the evening and we found out that it was the night that all the ex-pats working in NGOs in the village gathered at the hotel. We joined the thirteen of them for dinner and learned about the education projects, the work to advance beekeeping, crafts projects, and the challenges of the Old Bomo Hotel. It is a social enterprise that has relied fully on volunteers, so has gone through five managers in two years and was operating at a 35% occupancy rate, losing money each month. Unfortunately, it was a story that is all too familiar.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Energy - Continued

Tanesco, the electricity utility, has local “Luku” locations, offices where one pays for electricity. You hand over cash and, in return, receive a code number that you punch into your meter to load a set amount of Kilowatt-hours.

Yesterday afternoon, I went to the closest Luku office. I couldn't help but notice that there was a portable generator running, powering the office so that it could sell electricity.

This morning, I drove up to the BP station to fill a Gerry can with diesel for our back-up generator. The station had no power, so couldn’t operate any of its pumps. Since they had no power, I couldn’t get ready for the inevitability of our having no power.

There are a few things at play. Tanesco is 100% owned by the state and is responsible for 98% of the country’s electricity supply. Make something a state-owned monopoly and you’re asking for inefficiency. Two-thirds of Tanzania’s power comes from hydroelectric. A few years ago when there were draughts across East Africa, low water levels in the hydro dams forced Tanesco to ration and schedule blackouts across the country (as opposed to the current unpredictable, random black-outs). Climate change predictions do not bode well for hydro-based equatorial countries either.

In the U.S. the constant supply of power allows the average consumer to generally think of it in small, incremental terms – turning off a light switch, changing to more energy efficient bulbs, getting an energy star appliance. When power is as random as it is here, you learn to both adapt (hence the back-up generator business), and try to think differently. I’ve been starting to look at solar energy as a potential avenue to invest my own energy. Partly because of the constant burning equatorial sun, partly from limited experience of being here not quite two months and seeing firsthand the inconsistent supply of electricity, and partly from a little research-- 80% of the population lives in rural areas without access to the electrical grid.

Solar, based on the websites touting it, seems promising. There is rampant supply: the earth receives more energy from the sun in just one hour than the world uses in a whole year. There are two primary means of generating solar energy: photovoltaic – using silicon to directly translate solar energy into electricity, or solar thermal, using panels to heat up either water or a liquid that can then turn a generator to make electricity, or just uses the hot water.

There is a great deal of research and investment in solar technology to find a means to produce power as cost effectively as coal or nuclear. The trick is finding the right technology that is appropriate from a cost standpoint, from an ease of implementation standpoint, and ongoing maintenance and support for a developing region.

Given the lack of grid access across Africa, there are a number of efforts that are being piloted. Solar cookers (which are basically reflectors and a black pot) are simple devices that reduce the need for fires and reduce deforestation. Solar lanterns can replace kerosene, which is costly and toxic. In terms of power generation, small PV panels can power a refrigerator, a TV, and recharge a cell phone.

I haven’t seen the perfect solution for solar generation that provides enough power for schools, hospitals, and businesses in an affordable manner. Most deeply funded research appears to be going into utility-sized solutions to serve the U.S. and European markets, that is, markets where there would be a sizable financial return for success, not ‘micro” approaches that would be more suitable for rural developing countries.

I am talking with an organization called Solar Aid ( a relatively new UK-based NGO that is planning on launching an initiative in East Africa. I look forward to learning about their approach and seeing if there may be a role for me.

In the meantime, I have to go to the Luku to buy some more dependable Tanzanian electricity.