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.

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