Wednesday, February 27, 2008

My New Uniform

I own a uniform. This uniform, of the upmost utilitarian composition, consists of the following:

  • ONE green beach hat- to protect my sensitive mzungu skin from the harsh rays

  • ONE red (tuesdays and thursdays)/ green (monday wednesdays and fridays) light synthetic long-sleeve shirt- same purpose, dark colors hide coat of dirt well

  • ONE pair of green zipper cargo pants/shorts- light material with many pockets to hide play-things from naughty children or phone/money from pick pockets

  • MISMATCHED socks- self evident

  • ONE pair brown all-purpose (walking/running/football) sambas- dirt colored to, you guessed it, hide their innate dirtyness.

This uniform is light but protecting, durable but easy to wash. If you see me out on the street (or in a photograph), chances are good that I'm sporting my new home/away jersey. And since I do my own wash, by hand, it's usually preferred to the unnecessarily large number of collared shirts in my dresser.

Of course by the end of the week (actually more like Tuesday) these clothes could be deemed biohazards with the amount of kid-snot, dirt, meat juice (from the weekly butcher donation to the orphanage), dirt, sweat, glue, glitter, dirt, food, and more dirt that accumulates on them. Luckily I now live at a place with a running (unheated) shower.

In other news, Sarah and I are alternating writing for the local weekly newspaper, the Arusha Times. Check it out (not sure if this link will stay current).

UPDATE: This is the permanent link:

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Postcolonial Modernity and the Washing Machine

Out of the many experiences I've had in the last three months that have exemplified aspects of modernity in contemporary Africa, perhaps one of the best occurred yesterday when I went to do my laundry. Allow me to set the scene:

Having recently arrived in Arusha, Tanzania, I begin my three month "voluntourism" stint with a local orphanage. Among my many tasks at said orphanage is to convince the teachers/cleaners/cooks/washers (they are more or less all the same people) to utilize the washing machine instead of washing the kids' clothes by hand. The volunteer who orients me tells me that she believes they have tried to use the machine before, but have abandoned it either because they are afraid of the sounds it makes or because they are operating it incorrectly (due to language barriers she's not sure which, it may be a combination).

As I have many times before here, I mistakenly assume that a) I know what I am doing b) I know more than they do, and c) things operate the same as they do back home. I believe I can operate a washing machine easily enough. I have of course done so many times before: put clothes in, pour detergent into some crevice, punch buttons and twist dials until something happens. I believe that these washer ladies have simply never seen a properly functioning washing machine and, despite the fact that it will save them both time and effort, are afraid of changing their routines. Finally, I fail to consider that a contraption that necessitates both electricity and plumbing may not work the same way in Africa as it would in the States (such contraptions inevitably do not).

On Saturday I set out with my own sack of laundry to teach/show these simple folk through example how great their lives could be if only they embraced the trappings of modernity, reified through technological innovation. After much hand gesturing and miming one of the helpers at the orphanage helps me find the detergent and clears the space around the machine (this space is currently being used as an extra classroom). She does her best first to warn me of my stupidity in attempting to use the machine, and then to convince me that she can do my wash by hand. Once its determined that I will not be deterred, she sets about trying to help me as best she can. I check all the requisite attachments, knobs and dials: water intake, water discharge, electricity connection, washing settings. There are no words, just pictures on the machine, but I guess at the appropriate picture. When everything is ready, I press power. ... nothing happens. I twist and turn more dials. The machine starts to rumble, so I content myself with sitting down and reading my novel. Everything should be ready in 45-50 minutes.

Twenty minutes later I realize that the machine is no longer making any noise. I go over to it and look through the window. Hmmm, doesn't look like much is wet in there. I twist the dial back to the setting it was originally on and go back to reading. Maybe the first time didn't take. Twenty minutes later, again silence. I try to open the door to the load space but it seems that there is some locking mechanism to it. I see through the hole that my laundry is a little bit wet, but obviously not enough. I check the detergent: half of it has been used. I decide to try another setting.

Another half hour has gone by. I am actively avoiding eye contact with the washing lady, who has commenced washing clothes by hand in the main courtyard in front of the "laundry" room. My clothes still do not look especially wet or clean, though I still can't fully tell because they are imprisoned in their tumbling cell. I realize that actually washing my clothes will probably not happen today, and instead decide to try and rescue my clothes to fight another day. I surmise that the load door must be locked because there is still some water trapped in there, a guess that is confirmed by checking the emergency water release (found on the front of the washer, which when opened unleashes a flow of grubby smelling water at me). I spend some twenty minutes changing the settings dial back and forth between the STOP setting and what I assume is the drain setting. Eventually something clicks and the door lock releases. I drag out my clothes, which although being somewhat damp have also acquired a foul bile-like smell. I gather my load up and quickly and quietly make my exit. I sign to the smiling washer lady that I will try again tomorrow, but I already know that my confidence in the thing has been far too battered to attempt another go this weekend.

Why is it so often here that Western conventions and technology are forced to fit the situation here in a half-baked sort of way? Nothing works as it should, though it is made to work somehow. Things attempt to emulate how they ideally would work in the correct setting (i.e. where they were designed: US, Europe, Japan), but inevitably it is exactly that attempt that dooms them to failure. To me it seems that many of the great ideas thought up for Africa follow this pattern: since it works here, it will also work over there. Usually its just not the case.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Both Kabila and Odinga With Blood On Their Hands

Last week I found myself in a conversation with one of the many local Safari hawkers here in Arusha (actually, it was a ploy to get him off the subject of selling me a safari trip). His contention was that Kabila was to be faulted for the violence in Kenya because it was he who rigged the December elections. I agreed with him, but urged him to consider that by not choosing non-violent tactics Odinga was guilty as well. Is it clear that Odinga has any direct link to the perpetrators of the ethnic violence between the two leaders' tribes? No, but the fact that he uses this violence to pressure Kabila means that he might as well be directly involved. Perhaps instead of pretending that such things are out of his control he should speak out forcefully against violence on both sides. Until he does that in a meaningful way he is just as bad as the man he is trying to replace.

On an entirely different topic, and as a fitting means of waving farewell to Uganda, the following is a conversation I had with an airline official at the baggage check-in at Entebbe Airport.

Official: "Your bags are eight kilograms too heavy. You will have to pay $40."

Me: "Dollars!?!?!"

Official: "...yes, dollars.'

Me: "That's outrageous, let me try to fit more into my carry-on bag."

Official: "ok, $20."

Me: "... (confused by the fact that this has become a negotiation)... um, no let me try..."

Official: "ok fine, you can go"

Me: "..."