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.

1 comment:

Dan said...

Congratulations, Alfred! This sounds like a wonderful match between person and organization. Glad to hear the Tanzanian version of "turn off your computers and follow me to Panache" is as effective of a team-building technique as the American one. :)

I'm very happy for you and will look forward to reading about your about the successes and setbacks (though hopefully more of the former than the latter). All the best to you, Hillary, Bodie and Dexter!