Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas and a convoy...

So, we made it on the convoy to Burundi earlier this week. It was a much longer day than I had expected - not to mention tiring, even though all we did was sit in a vehicle for most of the day. We received a much needed stamp in our passport from the Burundian government, without having to pay for a visa though (score!). So, IF our work permits continue to be delayed we will at least have a cushion of time on our tourist visas.

It was quite a bumpy ride once we crossed into Burundi, which may explain our fatigue at the end of the day. We were jostled all over the place, with no operational seat belts to speak of, in the UNHCR Burundi vehicle we took from the Tanzanian border to the reception center in Mabanda - just a few miles away. The roads almost immediately took a turn for the worse as we crossed into Burundi. There were deep crevices in the dirt road, puddles that had yet to dry up from the rains, and a few scary steep cliffs we were driving on the edge of to avoid more bumps. We tried to focus on the view up and out over the misty green landscape, instead of down in the deep ravines. The view was a amazing, but the bumps and dips were a bit heart racing at points anyway though...

I was again surprised at the appearance of wealth in Tanzania, even after a short trip inside the Burundian border. Tanzania has always seemed to be so much wealthier than Mali. From the time I arrived in Dar, the difference between the two major cities in each country (Bamako and Dar es Salaam) was pretty stark - even aside from the obvious differences in landscape (Mali is land-locked and Tanzania has a huge ocean border, plus the island of Zanzibar).

However, I thought that coming out to a western, more rural area of TZ, I would see more people living like people in rural areas in Mali. I thought I would see a lot of decaying or collapsing mud houses with thatched roofs throughout the area, particularly during rainy season. Instead, I have seen a lot of construction of brick houses and preparation for paved roads. I saw more of what I anticipated I would see here in TZ in Burundi though. This could be because of the status that Kasulu has received because of its hosting of international relief organizations though. A lot of money has been poured into this area because of the ex-pat "traffic" here, which will most likely dry up as soon as the refugee camps are officially closed.

Even though Tanzania, thus far, has appeared infinitely wealthier than Mali - or even the sliver of Burundi that I saw this week, its per capita income is actually less than Mali ($442 in TZ compared with $470 in Mali Anyone have any thoughts on that?

In other news, Christmas has arrived and it is a lot wetter and louder than I had anticipated. There is a rather raucous thunderstorm that appears to be passing now, but it just might be laying low for a bit before gearing up for another round. We'll see...

Christmas Eve was spent here in Kasulu with an American, an Iraqi, and a 1/2 Iranian 1/2 Dutch colleague. We were laughing at how unlikely it would be for our countries to be sharing a meal together, never mind by choice - especially with Aljazeera English and CNN in the background. : )

It seems that prayer call from the mosque downtown has called the rain and thunder back...I just hope the roads (and runway) dry up enough before Kelly's arrival in Kigoma.

The rains continue, unabated, on Christmas Day in Kasulu. Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Christmas in Kasulu

I can't believe it is December 21st. Time seems to fly even when one day sometimes seems like three - i.e. yesterday. We went for a short hike in the AM, back along a road out of town, up a makeshift trail to the top of a hill where we could look over Kasulu. I once again had to stop myself from taking 100 more landscape shots of the same group of rolling green hills that I see here everyday. It is just really gorgeous. I have obviously been nature-deprived for a long while. After the hike, we all did our own thing - napped, listened to music, headed to the office to check email - or packed, in the case of my co-workers headed off today for two weeks to Burundi/Rwanda. There was so much downtime yesterday, it seemed like it was two days later by the time we ate dinner last night. Even still, I am amazed at how quickly time has passed overall. It will be 2010 next week - crazy.

It will be Christmas in Kasulu this year. Though luckily Kelly will be flying out from Dar to join me, and most of the rest of the international UNHCR staff, for Christmas. It will be an eclectic Christmas for sure, with staff from Iraq, Ethiopia, the Netherlands, and other places around the globe - can't wait for the food either. yum.

If all goes as planned, Kel and I will be heading off to see some chimps in Gombe National Park - where I believe Jane Goodall did most of her research on them back in the day - after Christmas and before New Year's. Though sadly I have heard their numbers have seriously dwindled, we are hoping that we might catch a glimpse of them. The journey should be interesting, as the only way that you can access the park - I believe - is by boat from Lake Tanganyika.

My colleague Lisa and I are still hoping to get on a Burundian convoy tomorrow as well. Will let you know if that pans out...

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Refugees

So, the week has been winding down a bit. We (the Asylum Access team) have almost wrapped up the RSDs and RRFs that we needed to get out this week. Though we are trying to get some more info from the refugees, along with COI (Country of Origin Information) in order to appeal one or two decisions already referred to Dar. We are also trying to hopefully avoid RSD denials on the other two pending referrals, but there are some major issues with the referrals that may not be possible to resolve. Though out of nine referrals, six have been approved so far. So, we are doing pretty well. : )

Unfortunately, we (my colleague Lisa and I) are still looking for permanent housing (we are currently staying with our project director and his wife), as Kasulu is filling up fast with ex-pats working on refugee issues here. There are only two remaining camps left open in Tanzania and one Burundian settlement. So, everyone has been moving here to facilitate the repatriation (sending refugees back to their home country), resettlement (getting them accepted to a third country - i.e. the U.S.), or in certain cases, Tanzanian naturalization, of the remaining refugees before the government tries to kick them all out next year. In Tanzania's defense, they had an extremely liberal refugee policy until about ten years ago or so. Also, I believe (feel free to fact check me here) they have taken in the largest number of refugees on the African continent to date. It still may leave refugees with few options but to return to places that they fled from in the first place, which is a rather petrifying thought - even when I have only read what these people have actually experienced first-hand.

In other news, we are trying to get on a convoy headed to Burundi to repatriate refugees there next week. We all are hoping to get on the convoy (just a day trip) to see what this process looks like, to see more of TZ by land, and hopefully to get our passports stamped so that we can avoid having to leave the country at the end of January, if our work permits don't come through before that time. Fingers crossed...

As for the weather, the rain continues to pelt the red earth and tin roofs here. It is loud and angry, with the thunder increasing and lightning flashing like cameras in an amphitheatre. It is amazing how much rain this earth can absorb, though it does make the roads treacherous for drivers. If the earth doesn't have enough time to fully dry on the surface before sunrise or sunset, the mud becomes like ice. Even the Land Cruisers operate at a snail's pace, if they can operate at all on the slick surface. Walking isn't so easy either, especially if you are wearing flip flops like a lot of the locals do here.

Help 120 Women in Dio, Mali build a better shea butter facility

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Welcome to the Jungle

It has been a busy two weeks, but I finally got out of Dar and back into the African bush. The last week in Dar was a bit hectic (and expensive - yikes!), but the training was really good. I learned a lot and got to see most people that I had met there before heading out.

It took about 12 hours from the time Lisa and I got up until we arrived in Kasulu, but we were glad to get it done in just one day. Our flight left out of Dar at about 8:30 AM and we touched down first in Tabora, on our way to Kigoma. When they opened the plane door to let some folks off and let some others on, we were bracing ourselves for the heat that we thought would be blasting into the plane from outside. To our delight, it was a cool breeze and just lush greenery all around. Of course the runway is only sort of paved, but Tanzanian drivers (of any vehicle) are pretty formidable and seemingly can handle anything. It is pretty amazing.

So, after enjoying about 20 minutes of a welcomed change of climate, we headed on to Kigoma. We were again greeted by calm, cool weather and CLOUDS upon arrival. It was pretty awesome to be comfortable walking outside around midday - after broiling in the hot sun and dust of Dar. It was just green, green, green, with this deep red earth that ran through the landscape - creating a gorgeous view.

We were greeted by the UNHCR driver at the airport, along with some other UNHCR employees headed to Kasulu with us. We were in a LandCruiser heading out of Kigoma. The paved road ends pretty soon after getting out of town and that is where the real "fun" begins. Thank god we were in a UN vehicle. I can't even imagine what the trip would be like in an old, beat up bus on its last leg. though I may find out soon enough, if my plan to head to Burundi/Rwandan pans out...

To say the ride was "bumpy" would be an understatement, but the view more than made up for it. I have had to stop taking pictures of the green mountains and red earth because they surely will get boring after looking at 10 pictures or so, nevermind a few hundred - which is where I still may be headed at this point. It is just TOTALLY. COMPLETELY. GORGEOUS. I am HOPING to post some of them, but since the only access we have to internet is using UN computers, it might be an issue, unfortunately. Will keep you posted...

So, we are staying with our colleagues at the moment in a 3 bedroom house, that has electricity about 4 hours a day (from roughly 7pm to 11pm), running water about half the time, toilets and showers. It is pretty posh compared with Sofara, Mali though. Plus the town has SO much stuff! They have all kinds of fruits (i.e. pineapple, passion fruit, bananas, etc...). Also, bread (sliced even), canned goods, loads of spices, and beer, liquor, and even some wine here. It is pretty sweet.

The rain and mud are a bit insane though. There is an amazing amount of rainfall during rainy season, which began last month and will stretch into May I think. It makes for some beautiful scenery, but it is no good for keeping clothes presentable for the office...

Our co-workers apparently are totally partiers...they headed out after a work party last night to the "disco" in town, until the wee hours apparently...after beers, gin, and Amarula (South Africa's version of Bailey's). We may end up there with them next weekend after the end of the year party. Could be interesting...

Our office, which is just down the road (hallelujiah we don't have to take taxis or bajajs everywhere), has electricity 24-7 and internet access. This is where I am now, actually. This week we spent getting RSDs (refugee status determination briefs) together for a committee at UNHCR. So far 5 of the 10 we have submitted have been approved, which is sweet. We will be working on RRFs (resettlement registration forms) this week on those asylum seekers who have been given refugee status based on our RSD submissions.

The work has been great so far - and I haven't even been to the camps yet. We are hoping our work permits will be approved next week and that we can start interviewing refugees (the people in the camp where we will be working have already been granted refugee status) in two weeks. So, we will hopefully be on track by Christmas. The COI (Country of Origin Information) has been so interesting to read, even though it is atrocious what people are doing to each other in the Great Lakes region. It has been awesome to actually get to do this full-time. Enjoying your day at work, even when it is hard, is pretty amazing - and I am so thankful for it.

So, hopefully it will not be another 2 weeks before I can update you all again - and hopefully there will be photos too.

Friday, November 27, 2009


This year's Thanksgiving showed me once again just what a small world it is, especially in Dar.

Thanksgiving day I headed out to meet with the director of Ezra Ministries of Tanzania, an organization working on urban refugee issues. I knew the office would be rather far, as the director had mentioned it was on the road to the airport. I knew the airport was about 1/2 an hour outside the city center, depending on traffic. What I didn't realize was that he meant it was on the road PAST the airport. It was almost twice as far as I had anticipated at the beginning of the journey.

Thankfully, Kelly had given me the name of a fabulous Rastafarian taxi driver named Moshi. He was great and I am pretty sure he will be unlikely to answer my call for a taxi again anytime soon. He battled traffic for almost an hour on our way out there, waited for me for over an hour, and then drove me back to the city center. I surely would have been stuck there for the day, if not for Moshi.

When we rolled into this tiny little place, on the outskirts of Dar, off the main road, I wondered what I had gotten myself into this time. However, I was almost immediately distracted by the fact that I saw another Mazungu (literally "European," but now used as a term for any foreigner from the west - as far as I can tell) and wondered how we had both managed to find this little tiny place - seeming in the middle of nowhere. She was also from the U.S. and was there as a volunteer for a few months - having just arrived a month or so prior to our meeting. She explained to me a bit about how she found her way there and introduced me to the director.

He and I conducted our meeting, exchanged information, and I was on my way. [I am happy to give you details on that some other time if you like, but the substance of the meeting relates little to the small world scenario. : )] On my way out, I exchanged info with the American I had met when I arrived - and thought that we might communicate via email, but that I probably wouldn't see her again.

So, that night I took off from the hostel with my colleagues to meet the IRC (International Rescue Committee) country director and his wife for drinks at their apartment. Then we headed to their friends' apartment for Thanksgiving dinner.

One of the first people I see as I enter the apartment for dinner is the American from earlier that day, who I met about 20k away at this little NGO that no one in Dar seems to have heard of before. It turns out that she went to grad school at American and used to live in Mt. Pleasant, just up the road from me in DC. Dar + DC = small world.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Race and deodorant in America

At dinner last night, a few Tanzanians, one German and two of us Americans talked about how people view and discuss race differently in Africa and in the U.S. Then somehow the conversation shifted to America's obsession with deodorant use and daily showers. These American social standards somehow created much more of a cultural disconnect than our race discussion...

Running Man

My colleague noticed on our taxi ride home today that the street signal indicating that it was safe to cross the street had a person running, not walking, across the street. It was pretty amusing to see, especially since this signal is totally appropriate in Dar - where you take your life in your hands any time you attempt to cross (or walk along) almost any street.


Obama is huge in Tanzania. There are even rumors that his father's mother was actually born in Tanzania and then moved to Kenya. It doesn't matter who you are talking to, whether it is the bajaj (like a "tuk tuk" in Thailand, apparently) driver, the priest running our hostel, or the performers at last week's concert, everyone LOVES Obama. If Tanzanians here in Dar know how to say anything in English, it seems to be "Obama, yes we can!"

Friday, November 20, 2009

Speed bumps

Speed bumps. Lots of speed bumps. Everywhere. The best is when you find speed bumps on UNpaved roads - roads that might pop your tires. Roads that are most certainly are not designed for speed, but apparently ARE designed for speed bumps. I wonder if people think that there is actually a necessity for the speed bumps on the unpaved roads? Or are they just jealous of those people living on the paved roads - and add the speed bumps just to make their street more like them? Then maybe no one would notice their street was unpaved?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Listen to the Music

A group of us went to hear some bands at the Alliance Francaise last night. I had forgotten that not only are there no lines when queuing on the road, there are no lines between performer and spectator either. Members of the audience literally took the mic to rap in Swahili, harmonize with the band, or just dance with the performers on stage - with varying degrees of success.

It was difficult to tell who was part of the act and who was just looking for some attention. One group of teenage boys seemed to have just decided to take over the stage to rap, along with a middle aged Indian man (complete with a fanny pack slung over his shoulders) playing harmonica. Unfortunately, they had no talent to back up their bravado - and their middle-aged band member on the harmonica didn't help. Luckily, they didn't stay long.

There was a fabulous band from Arusha (in the north of Tanzania) that followed them, thankfully. They got much of the crowd dancing. Interestingly, though we were at the Alliance Francaise, the performers seemed to be mostly from Tanzania, along with a few Americans - including the main act Mama C and the MC. No french was spoken there though, other than a shout out to the AF for hosting the event.

The audience was mostly Tanzanian, with many ex-pats of various ages and nationalities in the mix. A good crowd, and a great time.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Tanzania - settling in

I arrived in Tanzania two weeks ago. I stayed with my friend Kelly from DC for the first week I was here. She graciously offered me accommodation, a cell phone, and free Swahili translation (she was in Peace Corps TZ and speaks it fluently). Thanks Kel!

A week ago, I moved to the Passionist Fathers hostel/hotel in Mikocheni B outside the city center. I am sharing a room with my colleague, Lisa, who is working with me here in Dar. The Passionist Fathers staff and guests have been fabulously hospitable. Our breakfast is included in the price of our stay and we also are able to get lunch and dinner served almost every day for about $10 a day. The food is really good, but pretty much everything is fried, dipped in oil, or both. Vegetables tend to be scarce, though at least one fruit is generally available at most meals.

However, they have AMAZING coffee and really good wine - which are both included in our meal price. We also never know what we will eat, or with whom. There are new guests almost every night. Most come from Europe, but we have also had an American ex-pat who has been living in Congo for decades, a Tanzanian ex-pat now living in Uganda, and a few European students doing their thesis here in Tanzania as well.

So, almost every day we learn something new at lunch or dinner. We have gotten info on Tanzanian history and geography, life as an ex-pat in rural Congo, and even some info on Finnish politics and life in Helsinki.

The Tanzanians have been very friendly, and like Malians see greetings as very important. You should always ask how they are, about their health, and any other questions you can think to inquire about upon meeting them. However, they will always tell you "karibu" (welcome) in return. They are always smiling, even when telling you they are not going to lower their taxi price, there is no more red snapper, or that they do not have any change. It is extremely difficult to get - or keep - change in Tanzania. No one wants to part with it, sometimes even if it means foregoing a profit.

Oh, and even by African standards, the bureaucracy is out of control here. To get anything done, you must speak with several people, fill out many forms, and inevitably come back another day - because whatever you want cannot be done now, if ever.

Also, don't expect to stand in line here. There are instances where it seems as if people are waiting in line for something, but the line is really irrelevant. If there is an opportunity to get what you need, just go around the person in front of you. If you don't, you will always find that everyone behind you has already conducted their business and left before you have gotten a chance to get anything done.

There is so much to tell and some entertaining stories to come, I promise. However, I thought I would at least give you all some information about life here so far. Thanks for reading.
: )