North to Lower Latitudes

The Spanish word for border, la frontera, always evokes in me the possibility of an unexpected, Davy Crocket kind of experience.  Admittedly, this image requires a bit of imagination when traveling northward across la frontera from Dar es Salaam to Mombasa,

Only 500 km from Dar to Mombasa and pavement the entire way, but it takes the usual 2 hours to get the first 50 km out of Dar. Maybe the same at the Mombasa end, but I baled and took a tuck-tuck to the beach before we encountered metro traffic.

since Kenya seems less frontiery than Tanzania, boasting a 50 percent larger economy (w/ fewer people), super highways with flyovers, a history of nearly 100 Olympic medals, a worthy competitor to Kahlua, a hyper-convenient eVisa system, and, of course, the DNA claim to a U.S. President.  Still, the usual pre-adventure travel tingle struck me before my 1st out-of-country trip last week.

While I’ve a mundane reason for my journey—the need to reset my year-long-but-only-90-days-at-a-time Tanzania visa—bus travel always offers the opportunity for weird, on any continent.  Long, cheap, and long seems the norm in Tanzania motorcoach travel plus, as I’ve blogged before, a bit dodgy on safety if you believe what everyone says.

The relentless bus safety cautions can hype themselves into irrelevance, but then I read about this bus that recently caught fire and burned to the ground. It hit home since it was from the company that I was traveling with, and on the same Dar-Mombasa route. No one got hurt in this torching, but that’s because a passenger who had asked the driver to stop so that she could pick some medicinal herbs saw the flames starting and got everybody out in time. Kind of a “piss off” moment, since “picking medicinal herbs” is a euphemism here for taking a pee in the wilds.

However, with Mdemu, a similar-aged, born-again, Pentecostal businessman as my seat mate—Pentecostals make up 10 percent of Tanzania’s Christians, by some estimates—rather than chickens or pregnant goats, the first 6 hours of my Dar to Mombasa run go by tamely.  Along the way, Mdemu volunteers a different take on the recent clamp-down on corruption in Tanzania that I’ve praised, claiming that the government has sucked up money from free-spending individuals and squeezed the economy, sort of a supply-sider’s argument for graft and misconduct.

We travel through lots of nondescript, nonblinkable villages, but I can tell la frontera nears when we reach the town of Tanga.  I get off to pee, and a couple 20-something guys speaking good English and carrying giant wads of currency—and quoting numbers to the 2nd decimal—meet me at the bottom of the bus steps.

In addition to boosting the local economy of Tanga by selling TSh to buy KSh at a ridiculously bad rate, I almost bought a toilet seat in town. Long story but we’re down 1 toilet seat in our apartment in Dar, and apparently our city of 5 million plus doesn’t sell spares. Sadly, our bus driver announced our departure from Tanga just before I worked out my negotiation strategy for one of these beauties. I left empty-handded.

Walking Wechsels!  Caminando Cambiadores!  Money Merchants!  First time ever I’ve paid shillings to buy shillings, TSh for KSh.

Back on the bus, we continue north, reaching a gate across the road at the scraggly Lunga-Lunga border outpost an hour after leaving Tanga, maybe 7 hours after departing Dar.  I’d last entered Kenya in 1985—when over 2/3 of its current residents hadn’t yet been born!—and never by land, so don’t know what to expect with border control.  Tanzania and Kenya’s citizens belong to a common East African Community, so need few papers other than passport identification and an international yellow fever vaccination certificate to cross the line.  Americans need a visa (eVisa rocks!), plus the passport and yellow fever certificate.  Fortunately I knew that Tanzania takes its yellow fever certs seriously, and got re-vaccinated before I left the States, bringing an up-to-date international immunization certificate with me when I entered the country in August.  And knowing from experiences that these cards are easy to lose, I stowed it in a locked suitcase in a locked room in our locked apartment when we first moved into our place in Dar.

Stupid, stupid Kris . . . .

So, I arrive at the frontier outpost with one of the required documents to enter Kenya secure back in Apartment #11, Dar es Salaam.  The Kenyan border police guys tell me to turn around and go back and get it.  But in addition to not wanting to spend the night in Scragglyville and wait until tomorrow’s return bus can take me back to Dar, my Tanzanian visa only has 9 hours before it expires, or maybe 33, depending on how immigration officials count to 90.  I’d get back to Dar either a few hours before or a few hours after the law required me to exist elsewhere.  My Lunga-Lunga dilemma thus puts me in a rights-less zone between two nation states—a little like living in DC, the capital of Free World democracy, where living between two states means you have no right to select representation in Congress.

A spark ignites when I see a little clinic for getting a convenient, on-the-spot, $50 yellow fever vaccination only 2 meters to the right of the immigration portal.  But the door sits closed tight, and the clinic appears as if a medical person hasn’t visited it in months.  It also looks a bit sketchy.  While I fret about travel risks less than the average American, asking an immigration police kind of guy to stick a needle into my arm in the middle of nowhere in a country with an HIV prevalence rate exceeding 5 percent strikes me as imbecilic.

As my hope evaporates at la frontera, a miracle arrives in the form of a traveling medical professional from Médecins Sans Frontières.  She just happens to have some yellow fever vaccine with her, and it inexplicably works quickly, shortening the usual 10-day waiting period for my body to develop protection to mere minutes.  $50, and Voila!  My problem amazingly squared away without physical pain (if you catch my drift), I get a new official yellow immunization card with an official yellow fever stamp on page 1.

My yellow-fever-free feet eventually look out over the Indian Ocean south of Mombasa.

No worse for the encounter, I get back on the bus with my Pentecostal friend and enter Kenya.  Mdemu quickly points out the obvious, the road narrows and turns bumpy.  In addition, my sensitive Fulbright antennae for household solid waste immediately pick up a marked increase in nasty looking trash along the road.  Kenya doesn’t work as well as Tanzania, Mdemu claims, with poorer roads and other infrastructure, more violent crime, sharp inter-tribal tensions even within government offices and private business, and more lame Kiswahili (English more ubiquitous, Kiswahili less so).  Gross generalizations, biased, and unfair to Kenya to be sure—the Kenyans I’ve met suggest that others often have unfairly caricatured them this way—but the post-independence history of the two countries invites such comparisons.

The Tanzania students in my Public Policy Analysis class come from scattered parts of Tanzania and different tribes. And they have different degrees of enthusiasm for the country’s current president and varying support for privatization of the economy over the last 20 years. But they genuinely seem to think of themselves as Tanzanians first, united with their other 50 million countrywomen (and men) in a Lincolnesque sense of keeping together the Union. Not sure Zanzibarians (none in my class) would say the same, but that’s a different story.

More to come on this theme in the future, perhaps, but suffice to say now that Tanzania’s founding president, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, seems to have concocted the right potion to catalyze the “united” aspect of the United Republic of Tanzania.  While that name literally refers to the joining of mainland Tanganyika and the Zanzibar archipelago in 1964, the more profound unification has occurred across tribes, regions, and ideology.  Zanzibarians may differ with this characterization, but regardless, the Tanzanians that I have talked to exude a one-nationness.

On a related, sort of, concluding note, we sure could use some of Nyerere’s unity elixir after January 20th’s Inauguration Day back in DC.  Likely too much to hope more, however, as the contrast between President Obama and his successor on this virtue defies comprehension, equivalent to dividing 100 by 0.  Our new Divisor in Chief.

Silent Running at GMT+3

My university teaching here in Dar es Salaam has sucked up all my hours for the last month, turning this already intermittent blogging rivulet completely dry.  My instruction ended last week, however, meaning time this week to write up tales of my mwalimu experience.  But then I woke up on November 9th to watch the November 8th election returns roll in, and the bottom dropped out of the America I thought I lived in.

Enough (better-crafted and more insightful) polemics and hand-wringing accounts appear elsewhere, so I’ll not add my talking-head account to this page.  And the Fulbright program has cautioned all of us not to get too political in any case (yes, Mr. and Ms. Fulbright Coordinator, I’ve added the disclaimer that you want us to post).  Still, being here while you’re voting there—and then watching states turn red while many of you sleep through the night hoping for a miracle—whacked me out as totally weird.

Remember Silent Running, the Bruce Dern movie from the ‘70s?  Bruce pilots a big ass cargo spaceship that carries around the solar system the last living plants from a post-apocalyptic Earth.  At some point his bosses tell him to destroy the plants, and he (or everybody else?) goes crazy.  He turns confused rebel, drifting alone, unmoored to anyone, anything, or even the plant-less Earth outside his spaceship window.  I felt unmoored as well today, watching from Africa a blight spread in the darkness of North America and wanting to shake everybody awake to stop it.  A really lonely feeling.

The other strong emotion?  Embarrassment.  I couldn’t go into the University this morning.  I’ve a wonderful group of people at the Institute of Human Settlements Studies that hosts me, always curious about my life and what’s going on in the US, particularly this election season. Some of them even got out of bed at 4 AM for each of the three Presidential debates, and watched them from beginning to end, plus all of the post-debate commentaries.  And while almost all criticize America on some accounts—most of it justified in my opinion—all volunteer how much they appreciate and envy our rule of law, civil society, transparency, and diversity.  No joke, I couldn’t face my Tanzanian colleagues today.

Fakejina, one of the PhD students in the class I just taught, emailed me this morning (stay away NSA snoopers, I changed the name to protect anonymity):electionemail1I couldn’t bear to write back right away, but eventually . . . . electionemail2which prompted the followingelectionemail3The response intrigues me.  Tanzania’s President Magufuli  (and maybe his CCM party) now appear to have huge support from wide swaths of society—out of 100 Tanzanians I’ve talked to, I’d say 80 enthusiastically applaud the changes he has made, mainly because (they claim) he has thrown out a lot of bad actors and finally made public officials accountable after decades of the opposite.  But it doesn’t sound like it started that way at all.  Unfortunately, I can’t imagine a more ill-suited person for such a turn-around in the US than the guy we just selected.

To end on a metaphorical note, Frank, the three-wheel bajaj driver who gets me to and from  my university, works magic to move quickly through the nasty traffic every morning.  Look below at a typical route.  We come in from the upper right on Rose Garden Rd. and exit to the upper left on Bagamoyo Rd.  Putting America in the bajaj’s passenger bench, as it approaches the intersection of Rose Garden and Bagamoyo, the bajaj veers right in a post-primary bounce, before doubling back to the left in mid-summer and turning sharply right as irrelevant emails continue to fester.  Then, as tales of widespread groping appear, it goes left on a clear trajectory headed for downtown, before inexplicably reversing course against all odds and exiting on a long dark run to the right.