Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A Life Well-Cobbled

I’m trying to learn lessons from our night guard, Sebastian, who I’ve referred to as the happiest man on the planet. He doesn’t seem to let work stress get him down. His job is to be on alert through the night. That is pretty much it. Yet he rides his bike to work each evening with a pillow strapped behind his seat. After he gets here, does a round of checking things out, he settles down, pillow wedged against the wall, into a pretty comfortable fetal-like position. He may be the only askari who is often barefoot. For a better night’s rest no doubt. (We do sleep soundly though as Dexter is on vigilant alert.)

Tonight, at 9 pm, Hillary was reading to Bodie before putting him to sleep, and I prepared and brought out tea for Sebastian. I walked quietly so I wouldn’t wake him. I knew it was absurd as I was doing it, but I still tiptoed. Meanwhile, Bodie is running up and down the hall, screaming, “I’m an airplane, I’m an airplane. Vroooooooooom.” Sebastian snored lightly.

Which raises the question of satisfaction in work. I’ve been motivated for a while to try to create social good, to help others who are improving lives. Here, two months in in Tanzania, where the social need far surpasses anything I’ve ever seen or imagined, I am struggling with where to put my time and energy. Here is my struggle: there is so much need that my experience in social enterprise work, or NGO or project management could be put to good use, and I might even see real, tangible results.

At the same time, if one more person mentions to me that “there is so much opportunity here, it is like the wild west” for business, I’ll wrap my pacifist little fingers around his neck. The implication is that if you're a notch up from comatose, you can just trip on a gillion dollar business opportunity.

I’ve been touting entrepreneurial values for a long time, and this may be the time to truly take a risk and try to start something. I want to contribute and make a difference, but this might also be a time try start a venture that can generate some real revenue (Bodie might top out, stretched on a rack like his dad, at 5’ 8”, so I’m guessing will have limited athletic scholarship options.) It is not a purely black and white decision – the trick is figuring out a business with a sound model that can also do good.

And now – in between things (the expression comes to mind, “when one door closes, another opens, but sometimes there is a long hallway in the middle”) or being in the hallway, I’m wrestling with work/life balance. Rather imbalance. It is all life at this point. And life doesn’t allow you to do work plans, and chart progress against milestones. I have no idea of whether I’m tracking against plan.

I’ve long respected people that assemble certain elements into a cohesive life. This is more of a West Coast approach and decidedly anti-DC career pathing. I’m thinking of those old guys with hairy ears and a straw Fedora, with a business card that says “magician, chess player, trout fisherman”.

So in the immediate future I have a few projects:
  • An assessment project with KickStart, an innovative NGO that focuses on bringing micro-irrigation to small farmers. This has shown to quadruple crop yield and, thereby, household income. 80% of Tanzania is comprised of small farmers, so the need is significant.
  • Working with SolarAid to help them get set up and get going in Tanzania, bringing micro-solar products to off-the-grid rural households.
  • Building a boat. My friend, Mason (pictured with his son, Arlo, who should probably be wearing safety glasses, ready to do some cutting), shipped over a workshop full of tools, and we’re going to build a 15’ sloop. We purchased plans from Devlin Boatbuilding for a boat called a Nancy’s China, and had them shipped over. Now we just need to source some marine grade plywood (well, and then build it.) The thinking goes, if I get to set my own agenda, why not set an agenda that I would have set at age 14, but this time under the auspices of building a “family” sailboat.
Throw in Bodie-time at the beach, and Dexter walks, and squeeze in evenings for Hillary, and an interesting life in Tanzania feels like it is being cobbled together.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Comeuppance in Africa

Comeuppance… I looked it up and it is defined as “just deserts, just punishment, due, retribution, requital, what's coming to one.” It might as well be redefined as “smart suburban American, thinking he can outsmart deeply rooted African culture, learns that he is but a piece of flotsam or jetsam floating in a sea of “I’ll call you back”” or even, “wife earns Academy Award in category of feigned empathy as husband battles the bureaucracy of Tanzania…”

I did think I was savvy and street smart -- whelped on the rocky, rugged north shore of Boston, schooled in the hard suburban streets of Bethesda, jostled on the pre-Giuliani rough and tumble roads of New York City, I thought I was a match for the smiling, tell you what would-make-you-happy-and-get-you-out-of-the-office-quickly rutted roads of Dar es Salaam.

Our cute Nissan X-trail imported from Japan, which trusted agent Paul promised as ours in a mere three to four days, is still at the port. Idiot that I am, I never asked “three or four days from when?”. From a certain rare Tanzanian holiday celebration? From when Paul’s daughter in South Africa finely marries her boyfriend? From Bodie’s valedictory speech at Harvard?

Three weeks later, it is still only three to four days away. I think I saw someone with a blue “Dar Port Authority” baseball cap, windows down, music blaring, peeling out in our X-Trail yesterday. The gods, clearly sitting on Mt. Kilimanjaro, unhindered by any sort of longbearded, jarring wrath from, say, an Old Testament deity looking out for one of his own, are having a good ol’ time.

As recognition of my comeuppance, I am starting on my 12-Step plan:
• I admit that I am powerless…
• I recognize that a greater power, the Dar es Salaam Port Authority, has strength…
• I should have listened to experienced, wiser locals, who laughed at my aspirations of three days…

Being carless, I have gained great learning and humility in walking, walking, walking to buy diapers and wipes. I’ve met people on the road. “Hello, diaper and wipe man,” they call out. My arms, wrapped around plasticized Pampers, wave a feeble hello.

Deep deep inside, I know I’ll find this to be a beautiful lesson some day.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Friday Night Adventures

I doubt it is healthy to have this perspective, but as I was racing down a road near our house at 1:30 am Friday night, a green frog sippy cup clenched in one hand, a tall prostitute in 3” stiletto heels chasing close behind, yelling, “Friend, Friend!”, I thought, this one may be worth writing about.

The evening began normally enough – Bodie and I picked up Hillary at work. Bodie, as he does most nights, raced around Hillary’s office doling out paperclips one at a time to her colleagues. When we got home, he seemed hot, but it could have been from the frenetic paperclip relay race just completed. We realized he was running a bit of a fever, so dosed him with some liquid ibuprofen.

While not listed on the bottle, I would testify in court that the medicine contained significant amounts of methamphetamines. Bodie revved to a hyped-up, limbs flailing, Barney in minutes – “come run with me sing this song I am a dog I am a dog woof woof woof the wheels on the bus go round and round…”

At around 1 am, he started coughing and gagging. As first time parents, any deeply held common sense approach vanishes in a flash. We pulled the lever for the ambulance, a service provided by our security company, convinced something serious was wrong.

A security car, siren wailing, was here within minutes. We raced into it and sped away to intercept the ambulance. When Bodie was pointing at the security guards and counting “one, two, three policeman. Look papa, three!” Hillary and I looked at each other wondering if we should just go home. But we were in it too deeply at this point.

We intercepted the ambulance a few blocks away and transferred over. Bodie was marveling at being in the ambulance and talking with the ambulance driver. Hillary and I looked at each other again – maybe he’ll have another real fit so we don’t look like we’re starting to feel right now…

En route to the clinic, they dropped me off a few blocks from our house so I could run home and get our car. For some reason, Ghuba Road, the street leading to our road, is a red light zone at night. Every night, especially on weekends, a dozen hookers stand by the side of the road wearing skimpy clothing and sashaying whenever a car goes down the street.

I hopped out of the ambulance – lights flashing, siren going, Bodie in awe – and jogged up Ghuba Road. Not many mzungus are out jogging with a sippy cup at 1:30 am, so I got a few looks as I passed by the posing women. One, tall in a red mini dress and 3” heels, seemed to think I was testing them to see who could keep up with me. She shouted “rafiki, rafiki…” and started racing after me at a pretty good clip. I picked up the pace and lost her.

I opened the gate to our yard and ran up. Sebastian our night guard, who had been awakened earlier by the arrival of the siren-blaring security car, was still up and ran over to see if everything was ok. Dexter was barking furiously inside the house.

A quick aside – Dexter doesn’t like Sebastian. He barks at him ferociously every night. Thursday, the previous night, as Dexter, growling with ridge raised, positioned himself between Sebastian and us to protect us, Sebastian kept approaching. Dexter lunged and bit him in the leg. Not badly, but drawing a little blood.

So Dexter is barking inside the house, when he somehow noses open the screen and starts racing around barking. Sebastian screams in fear and cowers behind me, which I knew Dexter would view as more of a threat. I imagine Dexter looking at Sebastian as a menacing shish kabob. I race down the driveway to intercept our lunging Ridgeback, thinking that since I am going to the clinic, I might get a two-fer.

Dog safely ensconced in the house, Sebastian safely back at his guard post, I head off to the clinic.

The IST Clinic is open around the clock, but is only marginally staffed after hours. The nurse told us that they had two serious cases in the exam rooms – evidenced by low moaning and wailing – so asked us to stay in the waiting area. By this point, Bodie is warm, but if he knew how to tap dance, he probably would have. Our instinct was to exaggerate the story somewhat so as not to look like exactly what we were – over-reacting, nervous, new Africa parents.

They send us home with some more ibuprofen. They also gave us a valium-suppository, ostensibly in case he had another set of convulsions, but I think they might have intended it for us.

Friday, May 9, 2008

A Small Victory

The world of work offers innumerable moments of small victories – a milestone achieved, a pat on the back, a deal brought in... Not having these little victories, albeit meaningless, can be difficult. But today there was a small victory.

Like many people, rather than pay twice U.S. costs for a new car, or buy a used vehicle that has been flogged over local rutted roads for years, we chose to import a car from Japan. We’ve seen that 10-year old cars regularly sell here for their original pre-drive-off-the-lot price. Since there are so few new cars here, used cars depreciate little if at all.

We were advised to use Yoshi, who has sold cars to at least five other ex-pats we know here who raved about his service. In an Internet posting-board-deprived world, good service makes the ex-pat word-of-mouth rounds quickly.

Purchasing the car is easy (pictures emailed, money wired to Japan); actually getting the car is the challenge. It was placed on a carrier from Japan a month ago. Again, easy. But getting through the maze of import customs, regulations, tariffs, wharfage fees, etc. requires a clearing agent, specifically, someone who knows how to navigate the rules and which outstretched palms need the most attention.

The agent we started with – me, typically compulsive one month before the car arrived -- took it upon himself to educate the new guy to how things are done here. In short: in business transactions, you are told what you want to hear to make you happy. So a, “I’ll pick that up by the end of the day” gets you off the phone feeling like you’re communicating well, have established good rapport, are moving forward together with a shared understanding, and both of you understand the timeliness involved. That good feeling of being able to manage your affairs in Africa can carry you through the day. Until the end of the day passes. And the end of the next day. And so on. There is not necessarily any correlation between words and action.

It is a business equivalent of the common question, “does this make me look fat?” Words and promises are like little droplets of happiness doled out that dissipate by the end of the day.

After a week of Agent X (I’ll call him) failing to pick up the documents as promised (tomorrow… tomorrow) as numerous unexpected things kept coming up, I was told there was nothing to do until a letter of exemption was signed by the High Secretary of the Department of Agriculture. An equivalent scenario is getting Condoleezza Rice to sign papers so you can bring your car in. Hillary managed to arrange a meeting with the High Secretary of Agriculture to “introduce herself” on behalf of TechnoServe, and oh, incidentally, here are some papers that she’d appreciate having signed. Agent X was working for a colleague of Hillary’s in parallel, so both sets of paperwork should have been ready to be signed. Except that our paperwork wasn’t prepared ahead of time.

With the meeting in a few hours, I asked Agent X to meet me at the TechnoServe offices to try to have the paperwork ready. He indicated that the forms (which are standard blank forms photocopied over and over again since 1964), had to be picked up from an office at the Bureau of Taxation and that would take some time. When we did finally meet, I asked why my paperwork hadn’t been prepared and Hillary’s colleague’s had. He said that it was my responsibility and they did it for her for “good will.” I certainly felt good that there was some good will going on somewhere, because he then sat and just watched as I tried to fill in the paperwork in time for the meeting.

I told Hillary that night that I wanted to switch agents. She rolled her eyes, supportively. Later, she told me that she had told her office administrator that I was in for a little lesson on living in Africa.

I called four agents in the Tanzanian Yellow Pages. I was told by two that I would have a quote by the end of the day (how that made me happy), and by another that the manager would get right back to me (more happy). As the sun set and we finished dinner, I sat at the table, hitting the refresh button on my computer over and over, disbelieving.

A friend offered a recommendation for her agent, who I called. He spoke in a language I could understand: PowerPoint -- using bullet points! We needed:
• 3 bills of lading, signed on the reverse
• Supplier’s invoice
• Export Inspection from Trading Country
• Letter of Exemption
• Authorization letter for clearing agent

Costs were likewise detailed! Yea - costs known in advance!!

We arranged to meet the next day. He showed up! (Normally you wouldn’t need a sentence indicating that– but he did it; he showed up!) Our little X-Trail (this is a picture from Japan) is in capable hands with Agent Paul and I have no doubt he’ll navigate the labyrinth of clearance customs within a few days.

More importantly, I got to gloat that I didn’t receive my comeuppance a la Africa (at least, not yet).

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Imagination Blast Off!

It is glorious to see imagination take off and be untethered in 2 ½ year-old Bodie. He will happily spend an hour with a small rubber rhinoceros in one hand and his crocodile friend in the other inventing conversations (he always lowers his voice when doing the voices -- “how are you?” “fine” “where are you going” “to the barn over there” “can I come?” “ok”) and they’ll fly on a magazine-turned-rocket ship, or eat apples from a chair leg-turned-tree, or swim across yellow plastic table turned into a deep blue ocean.

The other day, he grabbed two curtain hooks – simple pieces of metal wire bent into a U-shape – and quickly named them each Boopie. The Boopies swam and flew and ate and played with animals. They became real enough that when getting in the car, and one Boopie was dropped, Bodie cried out to go rescue the Boopie. The Boopies played with Bodie for a few hours, were put in his pocket when he played a drum and then drew pictures, and came out to play some more.

As movies or work often serve as the fodder for dreams for adults, it is sometimes easy to see the building blocks of his imaginative games. A day at the beach invariably causes Boopies or animals to swim and splash. Yet some things just emerge seemingly from nowhere.

When Hillary comes home from work each evening, we sit on the floor in the living room, and follow Bodie’s lead as his imagination spins scenarios of talking whales, swimming lions, welcoming planets and adventuring Boopies. Bodie becomes a dog or fish or crocodile. The broom becomes a horse to ride; Play-Doh becomes an elaborate meal, and a chair becomes a full service restaurant with Bodie serving (“we don’t have hummus today”). I envy his ability to craft stories and worlds with such ease. Until I’m gainfully working, I’m trying to take a page from Bodie and imagine myself being essential and called into important meetings (“where are you going?” “over to the office to make an important decision…”)

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Year of Living Socially

Last weekend was aberrant, even bizarre for us. Used to weekends in Takoma Park filled with groceries to be shopped, clothes to be taken to the cleaners, broken house things to be fixed, dogs to be walked, assorted errands to be done and occasional exercise squeezed in, this weekend, in a new place where we knew no one two months ago, was socially active throughout.

There is a confluence of good people toting toddlers involved in social change work eager to welcome new people to their ranks. And the funny thing is, my basic misanthropic tendencies don’t seem to be a deterrent.

Bodie is now our little ticket into society here. All his life he has been a taker – wanting food, wailing for something to drink, wanting a diaper changed – but at two-and-half now, he is finally contributing and proving invaluable as our little social networker.

On Friday we hosted baby group/happy hour. The weekly meeting was launched as a baby group, but has morphed into more of an end-of-week happy hour, and oh by the way there are some little kids crawling around the garden. Ten people were over drinking wine and beer, snacking, cocktail partying with no kids reported injured or lost. Somehow the shared circumstances – being in Dar, usually one non-working spouse desperate for conversation, most people involved in some social change work – allows a sense of community to develop quickly.

Saturday evening was spent at a dinner party at Julia and Cory’s home. It was one of those unexpected evenings that everyone there gelled. Coincidentally one of the guys who worked at USAID had been on a conference call with Hillary earlier in the week. The other couple had lived in Mount Pleasant in D.C. All were completely irreverent, continually raising the bar on outrageous stories, bottle after bottle. Cory is a bit of a renaissance man – gourmet chef and collector of African antiquities – and created an amazing meal. Julia had spent her youth in Dar and promised herself she’d be back. It took her thirty years, but she is posted with USAID here. Their 12-year-old daughter is now at the International School, where Julia went at the same age.

On Sunday, we met Teal, Nat and their daughter, Clara, at the beach. Small world is everywhere here – Teal is from DC, they both had Maine connections, Nat’s family is from Princeton, NJ (where Hillary grew up) and Nat knows some friends at home from his work at the World Bank. They had picked up croissants and coffee at the French bakery for an utterly civilized breakfast.

At the next banda hut down the beach, a Canadian couple we know, Michael and Cam (who works at SIDA, Canada’s version of USAID) and their 2-year-old, Adler, showed up with Jenny, Trond (SAIS graduate) and their son, August. Mie and George (the Jane Goodall Institute) were there with their son, Kanto; and Mason and Marion (GTZ) and their 4-month-old son, Arlo.

Most everyone ended sitting in shallow Indian Ocean water, lifting kids as swells rolled in, lounging and chatting. It was like we had summer camp with kids, but without the cliques and counselors.

In the states, to pull together this many people would have required weeks of planning. Everyone’s schedule is so packed and planned. Here, with few places to go, gatherings happen automatically. We invariably run into someone at one of the three shopping centers that ex-pats frequent. Maybe we haven’t been here long enough to sense the undercurrents and dysfunctions that generally come with this sort of small group interaction. At this point, ignorance, and lounging in azure water, is bliss.