dirty rag

International - A Tale of Two Presidents - Ethan Field


So, I was on my way to a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer's site in early August, and feeling a bit adventurous, so I decided to try hitching a ride. I got a ride as far as Mwanga, which was only a quarter of the way there. So I was standing on the edge of the road in Mwanga for about a half an hour and starting to lose hope, when this police car comes screaming by, followed by an Army truck with a bunch of soldiers.

Usually when this happens, it means somebody important (like a member of Parliament) is coming through. Though my chances were slim, I figured, "What the heck!" and stuck out my thumb. Very soon I was watching Benjamin Mkapa, the president of Tanzania staring out his window at me and laughing incredulously. Some people just think they're better than others. Turned me down for a lift; no way I'm voting for him in October.


Well, I might not be voting for him, but everyone else in Monduli will. Just a week or two later, Mkapa pulled through Monduli for an 'unofficial' political rally. The occasion was that he was already in town to confer officers at the nearby military academy.

So, he zipped through Monduli to promote the ruling party, the CCM (far and away the dominant party). With elections here in October, it is *really* interesting to listen to the party politics I hear discussed here, and then go home and hear the shortwave radio news stories about the Democratic and Republican conventions back in the states.


I'd like to think about how the outcome of the election here is completely a foregone conclusion, and 'how much better it is back home...' However, I realize that regardless of a Bush/Gore choice, that the real 'outcome' of the American election will be the same: Big business will continue to own Washington, government will continue to get bigger, education will continue to be cut so that Congress can spend more money on the military and putting people in jail for victimless crimes, without having to raise taxes. Not that I'm cynical.

Crambo the frog lives in the author's bathroom drain...

Anyway, it *is* interesting to watch the political processes here. It's very similar, in an odd sort of way... you know how when the U.S. presidential candidate goes stumping in Maine, he gets treated to lobster by the party bosses; he goes to Boston and has baked beans and goes to a Red Sox game; and then to Kansas City for some BBQ ribs. Well, here it means when the President comes to Maasai land, all the village folk dress up in traditional Maasai tribal gear (which many of them wear every day anyway) and do traditional songs, dances, etc. The theme is the same: in a diverse country, when an important figure comes through, we want to show him/her what we're proud of in our own little corner of the world.


While Mkapa was in Monduli, he officially 'inaugurated' the new asphalt road that now runs all the the way into Monduli and in various places around the town (previously it stopped about 5k out of town.) The paved road is one of many great unnecessary projects happening in the run-up to next month's election (October 29th). It will be interesting to watch the number of projects that stop halfway finished on November 1st because suddenly they 'ran out of funding'.

Anyway, as I mentioned in my last letter, there is a severe drought here, and people are starving. To death. I guess the lesson to be learned here is that people with cars vote, and people who are starving don't. Or at least, the starving people can be 'encouraged' through other means to vote a certain way. Also, since people have always been starving in one way or another, we can forget about them. What we really need is a paved road in a town that only has a dozen cars so that we can feel like we're a big town that has really developed since the last election.

Perhaps I'm cynical -- but don't think me ethnocentric. I suffer no illusions that the same thing isn't happening around the USA right now as Bush and Gore have their $1000 a plate fundraising luncheons in the major cities while the homeless folks watch the limousines and Lincolns roll by. It's easy to 'look down' on the fledgling democracies here in the developing world without examining our own political system. We've just had over 200 years to develop an extremely sophisticated system of obfuscation so that the unpleasant truth is never seen.

On the other hand, I don't live in Yugoslavia. There's always a silver lining.


If I thought Tanzanian politics left an unpleasant taste in my mouth, I had no idea what was in store for me at the end of August.

The story is this: When Bill Clinton came to Africa in 1997, he initiated a large grant for girls' education in Africa. The money was to be used for scholarships for girls who would not otherwise be able to continue with their education. In Tanzania, the money has been distributed to Peace Corps schools so that volunteers can supervise the appropriate awarding of scholarships. I'm leaving a lot out here, but that's the gist of it.

Anyway, I guess when he came through Tz for the signing of the Burundi Peace Accords, he was interested in meeting one of the girls who is benefiting from this scholarship. He asked the ambassador, the ambassador asked my Peace Corps country directors... who chose my school because of my work in Girls' Education through the past year (the fact that I live right next to Arusha didn't hurt, either.)

So we (the scholarship committee) chose one of the four students who were getting scholarships, Janet Jacob. She was the first girl on our list when deciding scholarships. Her description, which I wrote for the press release, is as follows:


"Janet Jacob is a Form One student at Moringe Sokoine Secondary School. Her mother is deceased and her father is not present in her life. She lives in the home of a distant relative of her clan, one who is indefinitely hospitalized and has difficulty paying her hospital bills, let alone Janet's school fees. The 16-year-old girl lives in the home of this relative, with her younger brother for whom she must care. Nevertheless, she walks for 45 minutes to school every day, and has maintained a passing mark.

Last January, when desperately applying for space at our school, she told the Headmaster about her situation. His heart breaking, he asked her, "How are you going to pay for school?" "...I don't know," was her response. The Headmaster took pity on her and decided to see if she could manage to pass her classes in her first term, which she did. The Ambassador's Scholarship may be the only hope, not only for this girl, but for the family she supports."


So this Janet Jacob, who speaks almost no English, and who has only been outside of Arusha region once before, got to be in the receiving line on the red carpet at the bottom of the steps of Air Force One. She was standing with the Ambassador's wife, who personally introduced her to the Bill and Chelsea. I was standing some distance away, off the tarmac, close to the terminal. I got some mediocre pictures (no zoom lens). Fortunately, the Arusha Times had the zoom lens, and on the front page of the paper that week was Janet Jacob's face clearly visible in the same shot as Bill Clinton's. I bought four copies.


While still at the airport, Clinton signed a previously-agreed-upon Open Skies agreement with Tanzania. What it means is that commercial airlines have free, unrestricted, and minimally regulated permission to fly directly from the USA to Tanzania. It's actually the very first African country to sign such an agreement with the US, so it's a pretty big deal for Tz. It should boost the American tourism industry a lot, since the prices will be much lower than they are now for flying through Europe.

I actually witnessed the signing of the agreement out on the airport tarmac. Janet witnessed it up close, because she was sitting with the Ambassador and the congressional delegation. I was far away because I was put in charge of seeing that nobody went into the room in which the congressional delegation put their luggage. A glamorous job. However, I could see the signing from a ways off.


In the congressional delegation, most of the members were from the Black Caucus. Jesse Jackson also came with the president, but he went to the VIP room with Clinton so I didn't get to meet him. I did, however, meet the first black woman elected to congress from Ohio -- elected only two years ago. It just so happens that I used to be registered in her district (East Cleveland, Louis Stokes' old district) when I went to school in Cleveland. She, like me, is a graduate of CWRU (although she went to the Social Sciences School) and her official residence is a block away from the fraternity house in which I lived for three years in college.

While we were waiting with them, I also got to meet a charming woman named Betty Currie who noticed my Peace Corps lapel pin. While I searched my mind for why that name sounded familiar, she said she had worked for Peace Corps for twelve years in Washington before her current job... as Bill Clinton's personal secretary at the Oval Office. ("Oh yeah," I thought, "All those Ken Starr reports...") I guess she would be the big celebrity I met. She was certainly the nicest.


As Clinton was on his way out of the airport on the way to his presidential limo, he walked by an area of the airport where the secret service had corralled all the airport employees for security purposes. He went by the crowd for a handshaking session, and there was one lone white hand sticking out of the crowd... mine. So I did get to shake the hand of a sitting President of the United States of America. What was my impression? He's tall. Tall, with big hands. He looks a lot older than he did eight years ago. And he was in desperate need of a haircut.


Well, though this message has been rather cynical thus far, it's about to get a lot worse. I apologize, here in the middle of the message, because life has in general been quite positive. However, I know that some of the details here will be of interest... but as you will see, it's hard not to be a little discouraged by them.

For a 4 hour visit, there was a 250 person advance team from Washington D.C., plus massive security and communications details from embassies in Tz, Kenya, and Mozambique. There were at least 100 secret service agents, some of whom apparently came out to Monduli district to 'verify their firearms' (read: target practice).

When the actual planes arrived (not counting the above mentioned people, who were already there), in addition to Air Force One, there was a press plane, a presidential security plane, and (get this) an entire hospital plane, complete with a fully stocked operating room and trauma center, and every type of surgeon, just on the off chance that the President has a heart attack or gets shot.

They built a pager system in Arusha for one week and then tore it down. Three HUNDRED new mobile phones were purchased, and then sold back. The most expensive hotel in town was converted into a "control center" for the visit, housing the above mentioned folks, and staffed by embassy and military personnel round-the-clock. All the other most expensive hotels were also booked solid, such that by the time the secret service arrived, they had to be sent out to some of the hotels at the game parks two hours away from town. The most expensive safari company in Arusha rented out all their cars to the people who needed to get around in that time.

There were many large groups of people working long days and spending money like sweepstakes winners for things that never happened. Example: They thought the Congressional Delegation might want to go to a game park while they were in Tz. So they had folks go to Arusha National Park and pay the ($25/person for 20 people) park fees in advance, and also pay the park a whopping sum to make sure nobody else would be in the park at the same time. There was an entire secret service detail dispatched around the park to secure the area.

Well, they decided not to go to the parks, and instead, just to hang out at the airport. But the thing is, there were five or six different options like this planned out for these guys, for Chelsea, for the President himself, for the press, etc. There was a *guarantee* that no matter what these folks chose at the last minute, that the hours of hard work and thousands of dollars spent on each of the *other* options would be just grist for the mill.

The estimates I heard were saying that the total cost of this four-hour trip were on the order of tens of millions of (American taxpayer) dollars. That's enough to double the number of PCVs in this country for ten years. A four-hour visit.

Did I mention that there is a drought here, and that people are starving? That money could not only feed all the starving people here adequately, but could also pay for the more expensive distribution of that food or food money.

I won't go into much detail about what the Tanzanian government did to prepare for the visit, but let's just say that all the trash in the street disappeared, along with the homeless leprosy sufferers. The streetlights were also all working suddenly.

And yet... and yet. Bill Clinton is the most popular US president ever here in Africa. Why? Because he came by to visit. He said good things about Tanzania. And they'll never know...


One of the amusing things was the complete lack of preparedness on the part of the local media for what was going on. I was not surprised to be frisked and scanned with a metal detector before heading out to the tarmac. The media were totally surprised that their equipment was being examined so thoroughly. They were indignant that their movements were so tightly controlled. For instance, the standard practice here is for a newspaper or TV station to send many reporters to a big event so that when everyone is fighting to get in (with absolutely no formal lists or registration) they have a higher likelihood of actually getting in. They did not understand that they had to be on a certain list, and that they should have registered for that list two weeks beforehand.

The front-page article in the newspaper I mentioned above was not about Burundi, or about Clinton's visit per se, but about how the Arusha media was pushed aside by the US media and the White House press corps. Close reading of the article revealed that they were not specifically or deliberately excluded, but that they had just more or less showed up at the event and were turned away because all of the available spots had been taken weeks before by people who knew the drill.

BACK TO MORINGE FOR MORE COMPLAINING So I was back from this craziness for some frustration at my school. The most recent thing is our computer building. We have a building in the process of being built, to house the almost TWENTY computers that have been donated through the Lutheran Volunteers here. I wish I could say I had something to do with the donation, but... I didn't. However, I may be the one who teaches everyone how to use them.

To me, this issue stresses all of what the Peace Corps is all about and what it is *not* all about. There have been Lutheran Volunteers at this school for a long time. Some more recent ones arranged this big computer donation, and part of the money to have the building built... but of course, they haven't made any allocation at all to make sure that there is someone here who can *teach* the people how to use them! It might be possible that the computers would sit in that building, locked up, so that the staff could occasionally come by and play solitaire.

But here I am. I will likely take on computer courses in addition to all my other responsibilities (which I think will be fun, even if it is time-consuming). But what will my school remember? How I taught them? No, they'll remember the Lutherans who brought them the computers. And the Lutherans will look at the situation ten years from now and think, "We did a great thing by sending those computers." They will be right in that sense, in that it is a fantastic gift which is greatly appreciated. However, they seem to be content to rest on their laurels on that issue, without considering that lack of foresight and sustainablity could potentially make the whole thing a colossal waste.

The latest frustration of mine on this topic came after I examined the power and voltage requirements of the computers and printers donated. It appears that if we run the whole computer room (all computers, monitors, printers, lights and ventilation) for only *one hour* a month, it may potentially double our monthly electric bill.

Did we think about this carefully before we rushed into it? I was reminded of my Peace Corps mantra: Rather than coming into a community and deciding what they need and providing it for them, it is better to learn what the community already does well, and capitalize on that.


Not all mixtures of Tz and American culture are so depressing. Some are actually quite fabulous. I will take as an example the wedding I attended two weeks ago between Joseph Kubisiak, a PCV from Wisconsin, and his Tanzanian fiancee Kiliofa Kilamba. This was probably the most fun I've had doing something Tz-style in my entire time here.

It was held up in the Usambara mountains near the town of Lushoto, a lovely little mountain town, nestled in valleys between rolling mountains. It actually reminded me quite a bit of any little town in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. Perhaps it was the 'colonial' style architecture (ha ha ha). Anyway, it was held in this area because it is the tribal home of Kiliofa's family.


Thursday night, two days before the wedding, a lot of folks had come into town, so there *had* to be some kind of get-together! So we all piled into a car and ended up going over the river and through the woods to some grandmother's house or other. I think it was Kiliofa's godparents' place, or something like that. Anyway, we all had a fantastic meal (despite the power outage) and met the families of both bride and groom.

The bride was notably absent -- we were told that, in accordance with tradition, she had been shut up in a room in the back of the house. Apparently it is taboo for her to be present for that part of the festivities. However, I did get to meet both sets of parents. Joe's parents and his oldest brother (the best man) were there; the rest of his family was the half-dozen or so Peace Corps Volunteers representing his 'tribe'.

Joe's parents were an absolute trip. They were perfect for the whole thing. At every step of the way, they were into the singing, dancing, and other celebration. They both seemed to enjoy themselves more than they would have at a traditional American wedding. They weren't bothered too much by the fact that they understood little of what was being said, or never knowing what was going to happen next. Part of their encouragement could have been the fact that the wedding cost them a tenth of what it might have in the States.


The next night was the Send-Off party, a very big tradition all over Tanzania. Even in traditional American weddings, there's still a tip of the hat to the old idea that the bride is being 'given away', that she is leaving her family and joining her husband's family. In fact, most women in the States still continue to take their husband's family name. However, here it is a much more significant event: The bride is physically leaving her house, village, and tribe to join her husband's house, village, and tribe. And in this case, that village (in eastern Wisconsin) happens to be 10,000 miles away.

So what happens is the send-off party. A party in honor of the bride, given to her by the whole village. And I mean the WHOLE village! Everybody was there as different members of both families spoke. A translator had been hired to make sure that everybody on both sides of the aisle knew what was going on. So we had a big outdoor party, where everybody presented their going-away gifts to Kiliofa.

There was a catered reception afterwards for the families and other invitees... but the all the rest of Kongei (the family's village outside of Lushoto) ate on the family's behalf back at the site of the party. The fifty or so folks on the guest list had more fantastic food at the reception hall. But again, the folks back in the village basically had a big sack of rice cooked for them and a whole cow was slaughtered, feeding the whole village for an afternoon.


After doing some hiking around the mountains the morning of the wedding, we went to the church (Catholic) at about 3PM. The actual wedding ceremony was the only unpleasant part of the whole experience for me. The Tanzanian minister made sure to include the biblical verses that reaffirmed that the wife should submit to and obey her husband's every command, and the she should serve him and fear him the way Christians serve and fear their God.

He made multiple off-the-cuff remarks directed at the couple, reminding Joe pointedly that he is the head of the household, and reminding Kiliofa that women are the weaker sex. He also said, in two different languages so everyone could understand, how lucky Kiliofa was to be marrying this American boy (the underlying idea: not because they had fallen in love, but because she had been skilled enough as a woman to con this American guy into marrying her and taking her back to the US)


Fortunately, as you might guess from what I've said so far, the actual church ceremony was probably the least important part of the whole weekend (or at least, it was a formality to be gotten through quickly). Much more important were all the different parties, and songs, and celebrations.

The reception was one more of these celebrations. They did have the traditional cutting of the cake with which we're familiar, and a dance for the newly-wedded couple. However, more important was this idea that was apparent: The send-off party is for the bride's village to say good-bye to the bride; the wedding reception is for the groom's family to welcome the bride into their family. This way, both families share the cost of the wedding.


A few of you who know a little about African culture may want to ask: So did Joe give her family cows in exchange for their daughter? The answer is, yes and no. Her family is both traditional and modern, so they accepted a compromise. Joe's official gift was in accordance with tradition for a woman of her age and status: Two buckets of honey, a goat, and three cows (big, medium-sized, and calf). However, in reality, he gave them some crates of soda equivalent to the cost of the honey, and an amount of money equal to the cost of the cows. He did actually buy the goat and present it to them, though. :)


Shifting gears completely: I do have a job back in Monduli, too. A few weeks ago, we met with the girls' club (the demise of which I had been thinking was near) and had a pretty heavy debate. The motion was "A pregnant girl student should be allowed to continue with her studies." There were good points on both sides, but the proposing side eventually beat the opposing, 11 to 8. A full spectrum of issues, some universal, some specific to Tz, and the two sides managed to muddle through them with little help, and the audience came up with some hard-hitting questions and comments as well. The following Saturday, we had something a little more lighthearted: A fashion show!


And with that, I'm off once again on vacation -- I have a particularly long mid-term break this term, immediately followed by a conference in Dar. All told, I'll be away from Monduli for more than three weeks. I'm not too happy about that, but I am excited to visit one of the major parts of the country that I have not yet seen: The deep south. I will be going to Mtwara, Newala, Masasi, and other towns within a stone's throw of Mozambique. I will also be visiting some of the most remote bush sites in Tanzania. It will be an adventure, as always, and I will share it with you.