Category Archives: Tanzania

The Shocking Story of the Snatched Socks


On a free Saturday in Mbeya, Tanzania I contracted with a guide to take me off the beaten path to Ngosi Crater Lake, second largest in Africa – – if you are interested.  And if you are still interested, the largest is in Ethiopia.  My guide’s name was James Bond.  I am pretty sure he was not the real James Bond…unless 007 hails from Africa.  Also, he did not look at all like Sean Connery.  Nor Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, not even Daniel Craig.  However we should never rule out anything with 007. In fact, I hear the next movie will feature a black female as the new 007.  So perhaps my James Bond guide was the real deal.

Anyway, his first name was really James but he had selected the notable surname to attract foreign visitors like me.  A very good marketing ploy.  Perhaps he should have come to my marketing class as a guest lecturer.  But I digress.

I have returned to Tanzania to reprise the business assistance I provided in two locations last year.  This time my NGO selected two different locations: Morogoro in the center of the country and Mbeya in the southern highlands.

In each location I conducted a series of one on one meetings with small professional service businesses (e.g. software providers and food distributors) and then led a two-day training program designed to give these professionals more business tools with which they could better serve their own clients. They were particularly taken with a four step classroom exercise we introduced to generate new business:

  • Brainstorm a list of prospective clients
  • Schedule a meeting with one of the prospects (via a role playing exercise)
  • Hold a mock visit to the prospect to determine his needs
  • Deliver an elevator pitch to introduce the prospect to the service company and its offerings

They learned so quickly I took the rest of the day off.

That afternoon while walking in the countryside outside of my work city I came across a group of women mixing clay earth with a bit of water. They rolled the damp clay into the size and shape of a cigar.  Since earth does not burn well I assumed they were not actually making cigars despite the shape.  Nearby was a group of high school boys.  I inquired as to the purpose of the clay cigars.  From one of the boys I learned that a pregnant woman will take bites of the clay in order to provide necessary minerals for her developing unborn.  This seemed unlikely to me, eating dirt to help the fetus?  Besides the boy, while extremely friendly, was a bit unworldly.

He asked me if, when on an airplane, day would click instantaneously into night. (We tend to assume that knowledge or experiences we have are recognized by everyone. They are not.)  The high schooler said he wanted to become a businessman.  I asked, “What sort of businessman?”  He replied, “a doctor.”  Hmm, not usually considered a businessman, but okay.  Since he wanted to become a doctor, perhaps the clay eating, mineral supplying explanation was correct.  I later checked with a knowledgeable grown-up female.  She confirmed the use of the clay cigars but said modern hospitals discourage their consumption.  Undesirable worms and other biota may be swallowed as well.

These high school boys, like many Tanzanians who speak English, have a charming habit of appending an “i” to the end of words.  Food becomes foodi.  The guy who assists the groom at a wedding is the besti mani.  Even my university educated client, Rashid, told me his name was Rashidi.


I have refined packing for an assignment into a fine art.  I developed a comprehensive check list of clothes, electronics, business documents – – absolutely everything I will need to dress and to conduct my work.  Despite this preparation I always, always manage to forget something essential.  This time it was my socks.  I wore a pair to the airport but failed to pack additional socks.  And since I did not want to wear the same pair for 30 consecutive days, on my first day in country, I visited a mall where I purchased multiple pairs, enough for a robust sock rotation program.

Walking back to my hotel I got a bit geographically disoriented, so I consulted Google Maps on my iPhone.  In doing so I violated several common sense rules of walking in a poor country…or a rich country too, for that matter.

  • Never walk in public with your head buried in your phone. (Be aware of your surroundings)
  • Do not walk with your back to the flow of traffic (Always face the traffic)
  • Do not carry your newly purchased bag of socks on the street-side of your body (Better away from the street)

So, as I was consulting the map on my phone, back to traffic, oblivious to my surroundings, a motorcycle sped past me and the driver snatched the bag of socks from my street-side hand and sped away.  Fortunately, the much more valuable phone was in my opposite hand away from the road and out of his larcenous reach.

Oh well, lesson learned, and I figured he needed the socks more that I did.  Or perhaps not, he already could afford a motorcycle.

On a related note, I met a woman in a restaurant who suggested I purchase new tires for her car.  I declined.  I had previously donated socks to a motorcycle driver.


Bikes and Back Taxes


The last time I worked in Tanzania was five years ago. When recently offered another volunteer assignment in the country I gladly accepted.  I have spent nearly four weeks here working in two very different locations: Iringa, in the southern highlands near two big game parks, and Zanzibar, the country’s famous island just off the mainland in the Indian Ocean.  Zanzibar is a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania.

Starting in 1698 Zanzibar fell under control of the Sultan of Oman.  He eventually moved his capital to the island. But by 1890 the British had wrested control from the Omanis. For those of you who specialize in African place names, you will know that Zanzibar joined with Tanganyika shortly after the latter gained independence from Britain, its colonial overlord.  The amalgam of the current name, Tanzania, is derived from the two previously separate entities, Tanganyika and Zanzibar.  But more interesting than a blend of the names is the blend of cultures. Zanzibar is where Africa meets Arabia and India – – by sea, of course.  I would describe Zanzibar as a sort of poorer and more run-down Marrakech.  But fascinating.  Anyone visiting East Africa would be remiss to neglect Zanzibar.

The “Enabling Growth Through Investment and Enterprise” program or ENGINE is run jointly by an American and a Canadian NGO. I am here to offer training in basic marketing, promotion, marketing plans, and digital communication.  That last topic, digital communications, is better suited to my children’s generation than to mine.  But my children weren’t available for the assignment so I had to bone up on my knowledge and stay one day ahead of the class.

A local taxi driver asked the name of my (temporary) employer. When I answered, ENGINE, he thought I was an engineer.  Although years ago I did study civil engineering, I explained I was not an engineer, so he focused on the acronym, ENGINE.  He told me he was a great mechanic, and could I get him a job repairing engines? Communication across cultures and languages is often entertaining.

So is riding a bicycle in a poor country.  I had a free Sunday in Zanzibar and I signed on for a bike ride in a rural area complete with a visit to a spice farm.  Note: Zanzibar and nearby islands are sometimes called the Spice Islands…but, more commonly, so are the Molucca Islands in Indonesia.  But I digress.

My guide arrived at my hotel pedalling one bike while controlling a second bike by the handlebars.  Upon mounting the second bike I discovered the handlebars to be in good shape.  Not so, the height of the seat.  My knees were in my teeth and the seat frozen in the lowest position. Osman, the guide, said, “Don’t worry. We’ll get the engineer to look at it.” It turned out that he meant following the ride, after I no longer cared about the seat.  Two hours of up and downhill riding with knees in my teeth was really fatiguing.  My multi-hour ride turned out to be an extended extreme workout instead of an efficient way to tour the countryside – – and to visit a spice farm. Many other bicyclists passed me, especially on the uphill.  I actually overtook a few going downhill.  Reason: the average American, such as I, weighs about 20 pounds more than the average Zanzibari.  Gravity is a big assist on the down slope. I even passed a few donkey carts guided by drivers standing Ben Hur style.  I really hope you recall Charlton Heston in the Oscar winning 1959 movie.  But I digress again.

Eventually, covered in sweat, we reached the spice farm. The proprietors there gave me different leaves, roots, and barks and asked me to identify each by scent. But I do not have a strong sense of smell.  I had no idea what was held under my nose.  So I just kept guessing cumin.  Eventually I got one right.

Who knew cumin and curcumin were non-related spices?  Cumin comes from the ground seed of the cumin plant – – a parsley relative – – and curcumin from the dried root of the turmeric plant. Or that rubbing fresh lemon grass on your skin will repel mosquitos? Sort of. Another digression, sorry.

In addition to riding a bike and sniffing spices, I conducted a volunteer business assignment. My task: assist small professional services providers (accountants, auditors, tax consultants, financial planners) to develop more robust marketing programs to attract new customers and to better communicate with existing customers.

I learned that many of the professional services providers relied only on passive word of mouth to attract new customers. Passive word of mouth is not really marketing, it is hoping that a satisfied client will refer the provider to another prospect.  I suggested as a minimum to use active word of mouth:  Identify a target prospect, ask a satisfied client to introduce you to that target.

In both Zanzibar and Iringa, my other training site, I delivered a week-long program of classroom training, small focus groups, and one-on-one consultations.

One-on-one topics were selected by the service providers and generally covered subjects related to the marketing lessons I had presented. Some examples:

  • How to better promote the Zanzibari Chamber of Commerce to local businesses.
  • How to attract funders for a micro-loan program.
  • How to improve upon brochure design. – – I am not a designer, but when I saw three different renditions of logo and type face in the same brochure, I knew enough to tout the need for consistency.
  • How to solve a $10,000 back tax problem. – – This is not a marketing topic and certainly not my area of expertise and I most assuredly don’t know Tanzanian tax law. However, I led the worried debtor through a brainstorm of his options.
    • Borrow from the bank to pay off tax debt.
    • Negotiate with the tax authorities for a reduced debt.
    • Declare bankruptcy.
    • And of course, talk to a local tax advisor instead of an American volunteer.

I think that last bit of advice was the best I gave all week.


Tower of Babel – Swahili Version

Two years ago I conducted an assignment in Tanzania’s commercial capital, Dar es Salaam. I have returned to continue work with my former client, Tandale Wholesale Grain Market. My previous advice to them was to upgrade the physical aspects of their (very dilapidated) market. Upon my arrival I saw that they had widened and graded the dirt approach road. Some holes in the market roof had been patched. A water line was being installed. So, some noticeable progress; still, much remained untouched, like the labyrinthine, uneven, dirt internal passageways that porters carrying 220 pound bags of grain had to navigate. And the noticeably unclean conditions in the dining area.

This time my NGO thought the time was ripe to deliver marketing lessons to the market members. These are small businesspeople who operate market stalls selling large bags of rice, corn, beans, lentils, etc. to hotels, schools, shops – – anyone seeking more than a small retail quantity of product. We felt the stall operators would benefit from a bit of Western business technique. We went to great lengths to prepare the training, organize the venue, order water and soft drinks for the participants. But no one showed up.

On previous assignments in Africa I have delivered marketing training to farmers. And they always show up…hungry for knowledge. But when a farmer leaves his fields for a few hours in the classroom he suffers no adverse effects, the crops continue to grow. When a market stall operator leaves his stall for a few hours, sales cease. In these mostly one person stalls, there is no one left behind to tend to the customer. And every day these stall operators must take home the proceeds of the day to feed their families. So short term revenue trumped long term knowledge. They stayed in their stalls and out of my classroom.

Once my NGO realized that I had a marketing curriculum to deliver, but no students to receive it at Tandale Market, they asked that I take my show on the road. So for the past ten days I have been based in Morogoro, a small regional city 120 miles west of Dar, from where I have traveled to Mvomero and Kiroka villages to train farmers about marketing. And they do show up and their crops continue to grow.

Yesterday in class, I taught the farmers the benefit of good communication with their customers. I am always gratified when a student applies my somewhat Western lesson to his local situation. One farmer reinforced the value of good communication. He said communicating with your customer keeps the customer faithful to you. Just like communicating with your wife. This is not an analogy I would have selected, but by the response of the class it appeared to resonate. So, on my next assignment I will play up the benefit of marital fidelity.

The first day in town my hotel chambermaid asked me for lunch money, the next day for transport money. Generally it is not a good idea to badger the hotel guest for cash. I did not cough up the requested funds, but I will not mention this transgression to her supervisor even though she shouldn’t be doing it. Steady jobs for poor people are precious in Tanzania.

I have received many requests for money in this poor country. One lady asked me for a $1500 loan so she could start up a cash transfer business using cell phones. East Africa (particularly Kenya) is a world leader in money transfer via cell phone. Simply give a mobile carrier’s authorized rep $100 cash, he will place credit on your phone, and then you can text that credit to, say, your mother back in your home village. She will find one of the ubiquitous authorized reps in her village; the rep will deduct the credit and give her $100 cash. In a country where few people have bank accounts, mobile transfer is a godsend.

This morning, as most mornings, I ate breakfast at my hotel. The waiter approached my table and said, as waiters do every morning, “Room?” I replied with my room number, three-one-three. He looked at me and said, “Spanish?” I thought it strange that he wanted my room number is Spanish, nevertheless I replied, tres-uno-tres. He cocked his head and asked again, “Spanish?” Oh, so he thinks I am from Spain? Now I decided to proudly use my newest memorized Swahili phrase, Hapana, mimi ninatoka Merikani, meaning, No, I come from America. He cocked his head the other way and asked in perfect English, “Sir, would you like a Spanish omlette?”

Time for Healing

I held my final marketing training class last Friday. The dilemma: start on time, 8 AM, or wait until the late comers arrive. We had 25 farmers in their seats by 8:05 so I commenced. Some stragglers wandered in around 8:30, even more by 9. The class had doubled in size and they continued to file in. I suspect word had gotten around the village that my jokes were spot on that morning, notwithstanding the translation filter that they had to pass through. The class was scheduled to end at 10 and even after 9:30 they still came. I have discovered that punctuality is not a cultural imperative in rural Tanzania. The locals mostly all have cell phones (with clocks) but farming and family chores often take priority over attendance at marketing class. By the time I wrapped up the day’s lesson, 60 eager farmers were packed into the small community hall turned classroom.

All of these farmers were members of an irrigation program that channels rainwater from the nearby mountains to their fields: Due to the success of their irrigation scheme many in the village have graduated from the traditional home of mud brick with thatched roof to kiln fired brick with metal roof. They still don’t have electricity and running water. Once the benefit of my marketing lessons kick in I expect to see them upgrading to McMansions. I’ll check on my next visit to Tanzania.

The final marketing training class covered the fourth P of the marketing mix, Promotion – how to make your target market aware of your product. Modern marketing communication calls for a sophisticated mix of TV, radio, print, direct mail, Internet, trade shows, and so on. In Mlali village the farmers can really apply only the most basic marketing communication tools. Phone calls and text messages to prospective customers figure prominently. Emails are out because computer ownership is close to nil. And besides, you already know that there is no electricity in their homes.

After class I treated my Tanzanian colleagues to lunch. They suggested I try the fresh blended fruit juice. But an unusual blend: passion fruit and avocado. The sweetness of passion fruit juice is tempered by the avocado and in turn, the density of mashed avocado is cut by the passion juice. You can drink it through a straw and it tastes really delicious. Dust off that old juicer you’ve been keeping under the sink. I guarantee you’ll like it.

After finishing my work in Tanzania, I decided to visit the next door neighbor.

Rwanda burst into our conscious and our conscience in 1994 as a result of its horrendous genocide. Actually, horrendous always precedes the word genocide. In Rwanda extremist Hutu murdered Tutsi and moderate Hutu.

I flew into the capital, Kigali, to find a modern, efficient airport: off the plane and through customs inside of 5 minutes. Really. Only Singapore can beat that. A taxi ride through Kigali’s rolling hills (Rwanda is nicknamed the land of a thousand hills) revealed paved roads, working traffic lights, modest but solid homes, well kept yards and gardens, no beggars in sight…clearly a step or two up from most other African countries I have visited.

During my walk the next day I suspected that most of those thousand hills were in Kigali. My first stop was the Hotel des Mille Collines – – known more familiarly to us as the Hotel Rwanda, the setting of the memorable film of the same name. Today it is a $200 per night high end lodging and yields little clue of its troubled past and its heroic manager.

In fact today the casual visitor would not suspect Rwanda’s troubled past. At least until you chat with the people. I asked a taxi driver, are you from Kigali? He answered, “No, I was born in northern Rwanda but had to live in Uganda during the genocide. I don’t have a wife.” A worker in my hotel responded, “My parents fled to Burundi where I was born. After they were killed I was raised in an orphanage.”

In a country of 8 million, one million were killed. Another two million fled to other countries, perhaps two million more were internally displaced. Everyone has a story to tell: as a victim, as a perpetrator, a collaborator, or a bystander.

In the hills of Kigali stands the Genocide Memorial – – the most moving memorial I have ever visited. And I have seen Anne Frank’s house, Dachau, Auschwitz, and the Armenian Genocide Museum in Armenia. My emotions ran from incensed, to angry, to sobbing, and finally to inspired. This was so moving for me due to the recentness of the genocide. It transpired during my recent adult memory. It reflected on other genocides: the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, contemporary atrocities in the Balkans. And the flow of the memorial displays is remarkably powerful. They begin with pre-genocide peace and then proceed through the planning of the atrocities to the actual events – – interspersed with video recollections of survivors telling of the violence they or their families suffered: torture, rape, mutilation, execution. Then there was the children’s room (this was the sobbing part) with brief life stories and photographs of twenty or so of the hundreds of thousands of children murdered. Final stop was the memorial gardens surrounded by the mass graves of 250,000 victims.

But by the end I felt purified. Indeed the goal of this Genocide Memorial is to ensure the victims will never be forgotten and to contribute to the country’s healing. And based on my scratching of the surface in Rwanda the healing has begun. Hutus and Tutsis are pulling together. Come see for yourself, this is an amazingly upbeat country – – all one thousand hills of it.

Tanzania Redux

Last July I experienced a very satisfying assignment in Dar es Salaam. I enjoyed the country and the people so much, that when CNFA (my most frequent NGO partner) offered another Tanzanian assignment, I accepted. This time I am working in a small rural village in central Tanzania with a group of tomato farmers. The farmers of Mlali village – – and yes, that initial consonant blend is a tough one. Say it again with just a hint of “M” – – are good farmer but they lack nearly all marketing skills. My task is to provide basic marketing training to 80 or so of them.

By the way Mlali is not the only tongue twister. A few kilometers away is Mgeta. So are Mbesegera, Mzimba, and Mzegeni.

I began by meeting with small groups of the farmers to discern their marketing training needs. Marketing is proving to be an amorphous concept here. One guy told me his marketing need was to learn better soil conservation. Another wanted to discover improved crop growing techniques. With such input I was able to design marketing seminars covering an Introduction to Marketing, and the four Ps of the marketing mix: Product, Price, Place, and Promotion.

In addition to producing a large tomato crop once a year, the farmers use their two additional growing seasons to cultivate rice, which they refer to as paddy – – it only becomes rice after the husk is milled off – – and corn (called maize here.) Different crop names are the least of my challenge. I work with an interpreter since most of the farmers speak only Swahili. Of course working with an interpreter slows my pace considerably. And most of my jokes fall a bit flat. Somewhat like my jokes back in at home.

I teach a morning and afternoon session every other day. The off day I use to prepare for the next day’s class. We meet in a bare bones community hall: Mud plastered brick, concrete floor, metal roof, open windows, no lights nor electricity. A slick PowerPoint presentation would be out of the question. One flip chart allows me to record key points, then tape the recorded sheets onto the mud wall where they sort of stick.

Nearly half the class are women farmers. They show up in multi-colorful wrap-around dresses. Several come with an exceptionally well behaved infant secured with a clashing large print wrap tightly to the back. If they weren’t in my marketing class they would be working their fields with their baby still on their back. I love to look out across the assembled students, so gaudy it looks like an exploding rainbow.

I was free this past weekend. On Saturday I climbed the very steep Uluguru Mountains just outside town to reach a refreshing waterfall. I got slightly lost as the steep road turned to a steeper trail then to even steeper irregular rock steps. The forest closed in on me. Fortunately, a couple of children, despite our lack of a common language, realized my situation (lost) and assumed my goal (waterfall.) As they led me towards an ever louder cascade hidden in the trees, they shouted to their friends that they had captured a lost white guy. I think. Soon I was led by a small platoon of six-year olds down a slick muddy path to the base of the waterfall. They scampered ahead barefoot like mountain goats while I slid my way downhill in my expensive Adidas with high tech non-slip soles.

On Sunday I took advantage of my rural location by visiting Mikumi National Park, one of this country’s lesser visited game reserves, just 90 minutes down the road. Mikumi does not offer the spectacular large herds that one can see in the Serengeti, but it did offer a highly interesting break from the classroom. In alphabetical order I enjoyed wildlife views of baboon, cape buffalo, elephant, giraffe, hippo, impala, lion, polar bear, wildebeest, and zebra. Now compare, also in alphabetical order,to the animals I see in my Newton neighborhood: cat, dog, squirrel.

When I finish my work one week from now I will visit Rwanda to ensure that the genocide has really ended. By all reports it is now very peaceful place. I’ll try to report from there.

Gorillas in the Mist

Tanzanian Update – August 23, 2011

I woke at sunrise to begin preparation for my rainforest trek to encounter my (and your) distant cousins, the mountain gorillas, a critically endangered species with only 700 or so left on earth.  They are found only in a small region of Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  But I am getting way ahead of myself.  Before going in search of gorillas I had to finish my assignment with Tandale (wholesale grain) Market in Dar es Salaam.  I spent nearly three weeks in Tanzania evaluating the market, visiting suppliers of crops in the countryside, and formulating a set of recommendations designed to improve the operations and business of the market.

The recommendations that my colleagues and I put together seemed to be sound.  Our various stakeholders – – market leadership, related trade association members, municipal government, and officials at the Ministry of Industry and Trade – – tended to agree with us that Tandale needed fulltime paid professionals to run the market.  At present an elected committee of six unpaid volunteers oversees market operations.   We also suggested that the market be run by private owners instead of by the local municipal government.  Private business generally operates more efficiently than a government-owned business does.  We also weighed in with a list of physical improvements that would benefit the market…such things as laying a concrete floor over the existing dirt floor, patching the holes in the roof, providing water in the very unsanitary toilets.

So, the business counsel we gave was embraced.  The only real snag was political: the local municipal owner did not want to give up control because the municipality was keeping 85% of all market revenues.  Think of this as an 85% tax rate.  Not even Sweden has that rate any longer.  I am decent at making the business analyses and recommendations.  I am substantially weaker at resolving entrenched political positions in a country and culture where I am an outsider.  Consequently, I made a wise move.  I delivered the business ideas then skipped town and left my Tanzanian colleague, Bahati, to fight the political battle.  Results to be announce someday.

And when I skipped town I flew to Kampala, the capital of Uganda.  There I linked up with a driver/guide to drive me ten hours west to Uganda’s very accurately named, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.  But, I was feeling rather macho so I anticipated no difficulty in achieving penetration.   Oh, how wrong I was.

On the long drive there we passed papyrus swamps – probably known to you as the source of paper in ancient Egypt, but used today to weave baskets and to make thatched roofs, flooring pads, and even walls for rural homes.  We crossed the Equator near Jandira where I briefly stood with one foot in the northern hemisphere and one in the southern.  Wahoo.

We passed along the edge of a game park where encroaching farmers’ cattle were grazing alongside zebras.  The two were relatively easy to distinguish.  Zebras have no horns and cows have no stripes.  We arrived at our eco-lodge (solar lighting, solar heated water, and local materials used in construction) at sunset.  After dinner, I was given a short pamphlet, Gorilla Rules, and sent to bed.  My favorite was rule #5:

“Sometimes the gorillas charge.  Follow the guide’s example – – crouch down slowly, DO NOT look the gorilla in the eye, wait for the animals to pass.  DO NOT attempt to run away.  Running away will increase the risk of attack.”  Early the next morning our lead trekker reemphasized this.  He said an angry gorilla would jump up and down, tear branches off trees, charge, and pound the ground near us.  That is the sign that we should employ rule #5.

Our group of eight curious tourists (five Czechs, one German, one French, and I) began the trek.  A local lead trekker led us out of base camp into the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.  His mission was to find the Nshongi group of 23 gorillas who were somewhere in the forest.   The search itself was a major challenge.  We hiked up and down incredibly steep mountains; it felt as if we walked up one side of the Washington Monument only to walk down the other side, then we scaled another.  In all we ascended and descended six steep monuments on our search.  The rainforest smelled particularly fecund and fertile with all stages of plant decomposition evident – – certainly enough decomposition to sustain the 15 inch earthworm that squirmed across our path.  At first I thought it was a baby snake.

Attached to our trekking party was a soldier with a semi-automatic AK-47 and a 30 round ammo clip. They never told us the purpose of an armed escort.  I am pretty sure he was not there to shoot gorillas, after all, they are endangered; and we already knew the defensive measures to take if we angered one.  I suspect that the soldier served as a deterrent to crazy militia crossing the border from turbulent and lawless eastern Congo, just 10 miles away.  In the end he shot no gorillas and the deterrent worked.

After nearly four hours of really challenging hiking – – this was no Sunday stroll around the block – – we struck gold: the Nshongi group of gorillas dining on leaves that they were stripping from the jungle trees.  We were required to keep 20 feet from them to reduce the likelihood of agitation and of human-to-gorilla disease transmission.  But in actually we were sometimes closer.  Like the time we were single filing down the trail and a 300 pound silverback overtook us.  Our guide immediately said, “Quickly sit off the side of the trail in the bushes, do not make eye contact.  Our big relative knuckle-walked right past us, so close we could have touched him.  In fact, I reached out and whacked him on the butt.  When he wheeled around to confront his tormentor, I shrugged my shoulders, gave an innocent smile, and then pointed at the tourist next to me.

By the way, most of this report is true.  Disregard the butt slapping vignette.

Especially true is the emotional rush I got by seeing, watching, listening to these beautiful and massive animals.  They grow quite hefty, some over 400 pounds and all from eating leaves.  Don’t ever let anyone tell you that a vegetarian diet fights obesity.  Actually it does, but just not in gorillas. Several looked like NFL interior linemen.  In all we spent an hour of rapture watching and photographing the group, then we were required to leave so that the gorillas could get back to uninterrupted leaf dining.

Our hike out was nearly as long as our hike in, but felt much easier because we were all on an emotional high.  And even if we had not been able to see the gorillas the rainforest trek would have still been rewarding: we had penetrated the impenetrable forest and we saw a giant earthworm.

I will post photos in a few days. Probably of the gorillas, not the earthworm.

From Field to Table

Tanzanian update – August 10, 2011

I reported in my last post that my assignment is to help improve the operation of Tandale (wholesale grain) Market in Dar es Salaam. After one week in Dar, I moved to the Tanzanian countryside to meet with farmers and crop traders who supply the market and also to speak with management of other markets.

I did not book sufficient time on this trip to take advantage of Tanzania’s spectacular wildlife parks.  However, Tanzanians naturally want to show off their country.  So, on the way from one business meeting to another, my Tanzanian colleague suggested we take a 90 minute detour through a nearby national park.  While not a full-fledged safari experience, in this short time we were able to see giraffes, zebras, gazelle, wildebeest, elephants, baboons, savanna buffalo, hippos, and crocodile.  Sort of reminded me of the time on a business trip in the US when I saw cows, horses, and a farm dog all on the same day.

The land here is rich even if the people are not:  green fields of crops and trees laden with fruit.  The villages are vibrant and colorful, but there is no electricity or running water. The bicycle is the favored mode of transportation in the countryside and also serves as the beast of burden.  One would expect the poor country folk to dress in rather worn clothing, but the opposite is the case.  The rural poor men dress in business casual even though they spend their days walking and working along very dusty roads.  Slacks, neat collared shirts, and (dusty) dress shoes are the norm. Most were dressed more up-market than I, and that was embarrassing.  They generally look sharp even if they own only three sets of clothing. I saw very few ragamuffins about, even in the poor countryside.

A rural woman wears the iconic colorful (and loud) African print textile wrapped around her torso.  Those with babies, use a second textile to hold the baby close to her back, papoose style.

Near the country’s capital, Dodoma, are a cluster of farms that raise a rainbow of fruits and vegetables: eggplant, Chinese cabbage, tomatoes, peppers, mangos, papaya, spinach, and many, many others (quite a few of which I have never encountered in the U.S.)   The fields require irrigation in this relatively arid region of Tanzania.  And since there are few wells here (expensive to drill and maintain), the farmers have bunched their fields along 10 miles of river bank.  The river itself is seasonal, and in August when I visited, the dry season had turned the river bed into a long stretch of very dry sand.

But the crops still need water.  So the farmers dig wells by shovel and hoe in the soft sand in the river bottom.  A typical well is perhaps 10 feet deep and 20 feet in diameter.  Water seeps through the sand and collects in the bottom of the well.  To reach the water, the farmer will dig a sloping trench so that he or she – – there are many female farmers here – – can walk down the slope with buckets to fill and carry to nearby fields.  (To picture a well, imagine looking down on an uppercase Q ) Over the course of the months-long dry season, the farmer will have to enlarge his well, wider and deeper, multiple times; and of course, re-cut his ramp to reach the receding water.

The farmers seem to manage this bucket irrigation scheme relatively well.  Weak pun intended.  But they would benefit from mechanically drilled deep wells, pumps, and piping to increase their productivity.  However the greatest challenge they face is transporting their crops to market.  The largest market for their produce is Dar, 250 miles away.  The farmers own no trucks, so they send bags of produce in the baggage hold of large cross country busses that ply the highway between Dodoma and Dar.  These busses are notoriously unreliable.

Using Chinese cabbage as an example here is the drill: the farmer harvests and bags the cabbage on Day One, then carries it to his home by bicycle where he sprinkles water on it overnight.  (Dried, wilted cabbage commands no premium in the marketplace.)  On Day Two he or she re-bags the cabbage, surrounding it with protective and moisture trapping ferns, then bikes the re-bagged produce to the highway to wait for the bus.  If a bus arrives with space in the underside compartment the farmer will pay a fee to have the cabbage carried to Dar where it will be picked up by a broker and delivered to a local market.   By Day Three the cabbage will be displayed for sale in an open-air market.

However, busses don’t always stop along the highway where the farmer waits with his cabbage.  Some stop, but do not have sufficient cargo space to accept the cabbage.  If the farmer cannot send his cabbage to market the day he waits by the road, it will wilt, become unsalable and must be tossed out.  Estimates are that 40% of the cabbage is wasted before it can be put on the bus.  And of the 60% that makes it on the bus, 25% of this will be unsalable: too wilted from the hot cargo hold or perhaps crushed by the suitcases packed alongside.  Thus, over half of all cabbage harvested is wasted, it never reaches market.

So, the next time you are in Whole Foods buying Tanzanian crops, please appreciate what it took to get those crops to you.

Grit in the Grain

I am nine days into my current international assignment: this time in the east African country of Tanzania.  I spent the entire first week in the country’s commercial capital, Dar es Salaam, which means House of Peace.  And since I have been neither mugged nor molested I believe the name rings true.

There are 120 tribes in Tanzania and I guess nearly that many languages.  However one can get by in the cities with English – – thank you British colonialists.  In the countryside Swahili is spoken by most people as either their first or second language.  Consequently I have been pouring over my Speak Basic Swahili book.  I think I will do quite well: computer is kompyuta , television is televisheni .  Dining room and bedroom are nearly as simple:  sehemu ya kulia and chumba cha kulala respectively.  I should be fluent in no time.  Except that the grammar is tough for me.  And just in case my Swahili doesn’t improve quickly enough, I have been assigned a Swahili interpreter to accompany me to my meetings.

On this assignment I am again working with CNFA, the NGO that sent me to Malawi and Mozambique previously.   I have been tasked to evaluate and help improve the operation of Tandale, the country’s largest wholesale grain market, based in Dar es Salaam – – Dar for short.  Discovering shortcomings in the market has been simple.  I merely visited Tandale and walked around.  The roof has holes in it allowing rain to pour through onto the bags of rice, corn, and legumes.  Soggy grain loses value quite quickly.   The dirt floors are not conducive to keeping food clean for human consumption, especially when the dirt turns to mud.  Interior aisles are narrow, crowded, and labyrinthine, making navigation difficult for the porters carrying 220 pound grain sacks on their backs.  Surprisingly there are few reported injuries among porters, but there is high incidence of tuberculosis in that group.  On the bright side, Tandale Market management has set up several pool tables for the porters to enjoy between hoisting very heavy loads.

So I figure my essential task is to prioritize the needed improvements.  Someone else will have to figure out where the funding will come from.  And this is always the biggest challenge in poor countries.

I have met with officials high and low: senior staff in the Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Trade, the mayor’s office, leadership of the market, trade association leaders, produce vendors at the market, even the market’s two custodians, as well as the ladies who cook lunch for the vendors.  These ladies are referred to as the “Nutrition Mamas.”  All agree on the changes to be made.  However, none of them is quite sure where the money will come from.  Leaving this intractable problem aside for a while, I have headed into the Tanzanian countryside to meet with farmers and crop traders who supply the market and also with management of other markets to see if I can glean some beneficial ideas to transfer back to Tandale.  This stage of my journey will appear in later postings.

Just so you don’t go away ignorant of Tanzania, I offer the following:  To find Tanzania, locate the equator, follow it to Africa’s east coast (Indian Ocean coast) then look slightly south.  It is a big place, about 1.5 times the size of Texas; and at 43 million people, its population is comparable to Texas and New York combined.  But it is poor, GDP/capita rank is 202nd of the 228 countries in the CIA World Factbook.  (It seems I haven’t been invited to work in a wealthy country yet.)

As you know, Tanzania is famous for its herds of wildlife.  While I will not be going on a safari during my stay, in my next report I may tell you about the giraffes and zebras I saw beside the highway.  You’ll just have to stay tuned.