March 16, 2009

Taratibu ya 'Chai'

Waiting in Addis Abbaba airport for my flight in DC, and there is much to reflect on these past few days. However, my mind is very cloudy--I feel angry and worried for no reason at all, and I think my mind is trying to digest something which I can't get my head around yet. This afternoon Dotto and his cousin Elyya took me to the airport where I expected some delay because of the change in my flight plan. (I was originally scheduled to leave from Zanzibar) However, I was treated very rudely by the woman at the counter, who then started talking to her colleague about me, not realizing I understood Swahili. She was frusturated because at first my ticket would not issue. Then after she had checked in with all the passengers, she, along with her supervisor, issued me the ticket with much grumbling. Then they asked me for the 'airport tax', which I thought was odd, since no one else in front of me in line had been asked to pay such a 'tax'. After they threatened to take my name off the flight register I finally relented and went outside to withdraw money. Everyone was very suspicious (including Dotto and his cousin) of this 'airport tax' but when I asked for a receipt that's when the 'shit hit the fan'. They brought me a hand-printed markup on a blank Ethiopian Airlines boarding pass. I lost my temper, which in retrospect was a bad idea. More threats were exchanged, but finally I went my way.

Other than this minor argument, I had a very good trip. I got to see Dotto and Mama Rose again, and I finally got beneath the surface of the tourist industry to see another side of life in Zanzibar. It started with a conversation with Musa and his friend Nasr at Marine Restaraunt where I had stopped to eat. Musa found out I had converted to Islam and he invited me to his house where I met his wife, father-in-law, brothers-in-law, and one-year-old daughter. We walked around past huts of concrete block and corrugated tin, a maulidi performance group singing for a village wedding, small garden plots, and then an open field where goats grazed along with boys playing soccer. Musa talked of how he could come to the USA, and his young-brother-in-law, 16 year old Hussein, talked with me in his flawless Classical Arabic. These scenes of village life could have been many places in Africa, and I had seen them before, in various permutations. Something visceral struck me about the material poverty around me, as I remembered a visit a few days earlier to the palatial beach resorts at Nungwi. Here I was among the solid and silent backbone of Zanzibar's history, the sons and daughters of ivory porters and copra farmers, recipients of a revolution whose idealism--still proclaimed in government office posters emblazoned with 'serikali ya mapinduzi'--was flickering.

My letter from the Ministry never arrived to the archives. Instead, on my last day there, the secretary sent her colleagues out to pray (it was Friday), and we sat alone in the study room. After a few minutes, she began to say she would probably close up earlier than usual. She hoped I had found everything to my liking, after all it was she who had allowed me access to the archives. "How will you help us, now that we have helped you?" she asked. I inquired as to what she thought was appropriate. "Mimi mwenyewe sijui," she answered. (Me myself I don't know)

I looked in my wallet, pulled out $20, and gave it to her. She was very grateful, and then instructed me, "not to tell the others." She had nothing to worry about. I considered myself fortunate given that 1) I was able to get into the archives and 2) The regular research fee is $70-$100. My Swahili teacher calls this 'chai.'

Inasemakana kwa Watanzania maisha ni mgumu, kweli. (It is said by Tanzanians, "Truly, life is difficult.") Some reading this might take affront to this obvious example of official corruption. All I can do is relate a conversation Dotto and I had driving through the streets of Dar. We were talking about albino murders in Tanzania and the shadowy deals of a certain international entrepeneur who was arranging exclusive deals to sell used power plants to TANESCO, the Tanzanian public utility. Somehow we started talking about the economy and the challenges of boarding a dalla dalla. Dotto said, quoting his father, "When you wait four hours for one bus to come and when it comes its full, then you wait another four hours, and the next one gets filled before you can board, no matter how polite you are, you ARE gonna push and shove to get on that next bus."

I thought about this alot in relation to my experiences in Zanzibar. Any annoyance I had at the petty corruption of the official bureaucracy, paled before the visceral nature of poverty, especially if and when you KNOW you are poor; the country's best real estate gets built on for tourists and you depend on these people to survive. Uhuru? Bado. (Not yet)


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