Sunday, 16 January 2011

An Under-qualified Idiot's Guide to Development Consultancy

For a while my CV (as well as claiming I speak French and Swahili) also claimed that I was a Development Consultant working in Tanzania. After meeting an actual Development Consultant on her way to South Sudan (brave gal, place makes Tanzania look like Centre Parks) and learning what they actually do, I have decided to drop the claim from my resume and have pumped for a more modest ‘Project Supervisor’ tag (which is still rather generous). This, the penultimate post of my short-lived writing career (it’ll probably end up on the CV as well, next to my ‘languages’), will be dedicated to trying to explain just what we have been doing cocking about in Afrika for the past four months and prove that we have not just been hitting up social events and hassling the local wildlife.

(Not many laughs to be had in this blog I’m afraid, arguably there has been few laughs in any of the posts but that’s personal preference and if you don’t like it I’m sure Bryson is still churning out something about walking to ASDA or something. Development Consultancy is a rather sober issue, so please bear with me.)

We arrived in Tanzania at the beginning of October bright eyed and bushy tailed (much like Bambi before his mum got shot), ready to conduct some sort of research into education opportunities for children afflicted with AIDS for a local charity; Community Economic Development Empowerment (CEDE). Much like Bambi, we have had to change tactic to become king of the development forest, it is the end of January and the only ‘education’ we have provided was the dubious material given to the Catholic kids at the end of 2010. We decided within a week of arriving at CEDE’s office (Office is a generous term), that rather than conducting research into a topic which we knew little about and would serve little practical use to the charity itself, our talents (another generous term) would be better served working as full-time employees of the charity and focused towards expanding and developing it.

Our time with the charity (the days are 8:30-4ish, though my productivity after lunch is notoriously low and usually evenly split between games of Chess Titans and Hearts), is divided between working in the ‘office’ (which I will come to in a bit) and visiting the charity’s current projects up in the foothills of Kilimanjaro and the surrounding area. The groups with which we work (Farmers Groups, People Living with AIDS/HIV counselling groups etc.) are amongst the poorest in the region (average incomes can be as low as £400 a year, and they always seem to have loads of kids, rarely a good idea in England let alone Afrika), and it is our aim to work with them to create projects and initiatives through which they can diversify their incomes and thereby no longer rely on the charity or other agencies for monetary support. Our role in this is to come up with new projects (turns out the farmers aren’t good at thinking outside the horticultural box, and my degree in History has proved to be incredibly relevant here), and in the practical workshops the charity runs we help explain new techniques to the farmers. (This is where the under qualified bit comes in, we of course deal in the Queen’s English and our efforts at practical farming usually leaves the group rolling in the aisles, and despite knowing the techniques, I’ve never worked on a farm before, I’ve been on my Granddads, but I was chasing sheep, so don’t think that counts).

With these ideas, we get to work in the empty room we call our office, and get down and dirty writing project proposals and letters to various international donor agencies found on our limited time on the internet, (Nearest Internet is 25minutes away, as are the nearest Snickers). Productivity is hindered first and foremost by this chronic lack of internet (also by the lack of Snickers, but that didn’t arouse the same amount of sympathy), but also, and more annoyingly, the rolling power cuts which affect the region with daily regularity (just about the only thing in Njiapanda which arrives on time). According to local sources, power cuts in the Njiapanda region are more frequent because our little town voted for the opposition Tanzanian Labour Party (TLP) in October’s election, (ironic as ‘labour’ and Njiapanda are rarely found in the same sentence), but the upshot is that Tuesdays and Fridays are ‘power-free’ days, which hits productivity harder than my Chess Titans obsession ever could.

We write the project proposals (for development projects; basket-weaving initiative for HIV sufferers, a bee keeping project with a view to sell the honey commercially etc) either from scratch or heavily edit ones written by the charities directors. As, though well-intentioned, they have been known to create fanciful budgets and outrageous ‘facts and figures’ sections, (it doesn’t matter how good your intentions are, you can’t lie to the UN when asking for money, they aren’t the Students Loans Company, or your parents). After being a trio of killjoys and telling the directors we can’t spend £3,000 on a tree nursery, or more on the food and drink at a training session than we are paying for the trainer,  comes the most frustrating part of our role, securing funding. There are hundreds and hundreds of charities in the West gagging to throw money at Afrika, unfortunately there are thousands of charities in Afrika asking for the money to be thrown in their direction (and a fair amount of Presidents just waiting for the next lot of aid to put a new leather trim on their Merc), and we are just another name on a long list of NGO’s who want to save Afrika and stop climate change at the same time. (CEDE’s manifesto claims that ‘Eradication of Poverty’ is its sole aim. Optimistic, we suggested maybe electricity for the office and a better sign would be a better place to start.) But there is little we can do apart from search and apply to various donor agencies asking them to fund our wonderfully organised (and budgeted) projects, (turns out the Scandinavians are a generous bunch, the French are thrifty bastards, and the Americans insist on having a slightly off-putting religious edge to their charities)
One such project we have been running is entering a business plan run by the EU, with the top prize being $10,000. Excited, and never having done anything vaguely resembling a business plan before, we whipped up a twenty page epic proposal on bee-keeping, honey manufacturing and the distribution of the product about the country, (a terrific work of fiction). Ironic, and possibly flawed as none of us are experts in honey production, or development, or indeed business for that matter. We await the judges response with expectation.

As with all third world charities, the ultimate aim of CEDE is to get an international donor and a sustained period of funding whereby the projects I mentioned can gain momentum and begin to make a real change in the lives of the people we have been meeting every week. Whilst we have begun small scale funding projects in about Njiapanda, it is unlikely that we will have achieved international funding for the charity by the time we leave Tanzania. Hopefully, future volunteers will use what we have done over the past four months and have more success in that respect than we have had.

Apologies for the rather sober nature of the post, in one of my earliest posts I was keen to point out that our 100 day jaunt in the sun was not a holiday (If I go on holiday and end up shitting down a hole I’d be having words with Thomas Cook), and the work has been both greatly enjoyable and hugely nackering at the same time. We have left CEDE in a better state than we found it, and will be arranging for future volunteers to come out when we return in the UK (hoping to tear up the Sheffield Grad fair, slap bang between the British Airways and Sainsburys stalls). And you never know, the next lot of volunteers might be actual ‘development consultants’ instead of these fake ones who have been running around Tanzania with dodgy visas and irrelevant degrees for the past 4 months.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

A Jumped up Ex-Pat's Guide to Kenya

Apparently the Brits used to have some business in Kenya, back when Marmalade was racist and everyone wore top hats, so with our visas fast running out and Njiapanda offering very little in the way of New Year’s entertainment we made a sprint for the border and to Tanzania’s northern cousin of Kenya.
Our first stop was the beautiful Diani Beach just south of Mombasa, popular with European tourists and rich Kenyan youths from Nairobi, (think Newquay but with more sun and less Essex). The beach front was lined with massive all-inclusive hotels with their palm trees and their pool bars, they took one look at me and Ben and sent us to the campsite down the road. A place where the showers only produced salty sea-water, the ‘restaurant’ took hours to make a sandwich and the wake-up call was provided by stray cats and cocky monkeys wandering into the tent, (the monkeys also seemed to help out with the laundry, but they might have just been stealing clothes, difficult to say).

One thing we learnt whilst smelling of salt and monkey was that apparently the language of Kiswahili is dying out in Kenya (good for us as we are still shit), and we saw evidence of this as we boozed (repeatedly and heavily) with the local rich-kids from Nairobi. It seems these white/British Kenyans are about as racially and culturally confused as Jan Molby after he picked up his ridiculous Scandanvian-Scouse accent or Wes Brown with his bizarre ginger bonnet. Being the children/grandchildren of British colonial families, they were born and raised in Nairobi but sent to the UK for secondary school (leaving their accents a lot better than mine) and often returned to Kenya afterwards, leaving them with two nationalities but a somewhat confused cultural identity, and less Swahili than the trio of Sheffield graduates propping up the bar in the corner. (Embarrassing for them, but a proud moment for us and also the reason why these cultural insights should be taken with a heavy pinch of salt).

Having spent New Year’s on the beach irritating tourists and locals alike we headed to Mombasa proper, Kenya’s second largest city (after Nairobi) and a place with a peculiar smell due to the rubbish dumps about town placed directly in front of the ‘No Dumping’ signs, the sense of irony must be a hangover from when our lot were still making trouble over there. We stayed in a Somalian-run hotel which had a big ‘No prostitution’ sign on the corridor (killjoys) and were many of the staff didn’t speak Swahili either, preferring to natter in Arabic instead. So conversation was limited to broken English, broken Swahili and the names of Arsneal footballers, silly Somalians.

Mombasa town itself offered some cracking highlights including its Old Town, which is a bit like a more exciting York with it winding streets and historic buildings, a pair of giant elephant tusks arching over the road on the way into the city, a gift from Queen Liz in nineteen fifty-something (I’m not a tour guide), and a amazingly colourful and decorative Sikh (or Hindu maybe) temple, though I thought it looked a little like Legoland. After staying in what was essentially a squatters house and spending yet more time on a beach (which we shared with some Kenyan convicts doing community service, couldn’t see the guards, which was worrying) we decided it was high time we left Mombasa and got the train inland to the capital Nairobi.

The Mombasa-Nairobi train journey was described by Lonely planet Guide to Kenya as ‘an ultimate colonial experience’, I’m not sure whether this is a politically correct piece of travel journalism as colonialism went out of fashion a while ago, and isn’t showing any signs of a resurgence despite Prince Phillip’s commendable efforts. Regardless of this we decided to check it out and hopped on the (supposedly) 12-odd hour trek across the country, we decided to hit up second class, (too colonial for third class apparently, though Burley and me are from the north so not colonial enough for first class), and sure enough as soon as we got to the station there was a man offering to take our bags to the station for a small fee, all we needed was a copy of the times and a handle-bar moustache and we could have been something out of a Carry On film. Like everything else in on this continent, the train was running on Afrikan time, so despite being advertised as leaving at 7pm (we were told to get there no later than 6:30, or else they’d run out of Gin or cigars or something), we rolled at a pedestrian pace out of Mombasa at well past 9:30pm, (pretty sure the driver didn’t turn up until past 8, the Fat Controller ran a tighter ship than this down on Sodor Island).
Despite the bad rep Afrikan trains have acquired, it was a enjoyable (if long) trip, (preferable to the Knutsford-Piccadilly train marathon), we had our little cabin and there was a restaurant carriage (Northern Line trains take note), I got to sleep on top bunk which was more like a child’s cot after the porter put up a barrier to stop me falling out. We even got to see a ‘zebra’ (though was more likely a donkey, or a cow) as the train cut through a national park on its way north, no one else seemed to be as excited about this though, so it was probably a donkey. Or a cow. More exciting than this however was that nearly 16 hours after leaving Mombasa, the train struggled into Nairobi and the first proper city we had been in since leaving London almost three months previously. (We don’t count Dar es Salaam, because it remains, as ever, shit.)

I get excited by cities, they have big buildings, museums and smell like McDonalds. London is bloody exciting cuz they’ve got Big Ben and loads of other crap, imagine my excitement then, after being stuck out in rural Njiapanda (no buildings over two storeys and smells of petrol) when we rolled up in Nairobi, biggest city in East Afrika, and, if our taxi driver is to be believed, bigger than London as well, (he was chatting all sorts though, so you might have to check that one for yourselves). Nairobi had skyscrapers, government offices, parks, and, most shockingly unlike Njiapanda and many other Tanz towns we’ve stumbled through, the people of Nairobi (Nairobians?) looked like they had stuff to do, important stuff, city stuff. We only had one afternoon in the city so went firstly to the park, where loads of people appeared to be having a nap, even people in suits, wouldn’t happen in Knutsford and certainly not in Sheffield, and then decided to go to the National Museum and Botanical Gardens. After trying and failing to get in using our expired student cards (if they didn’t work in Didsbury Cinema I don’t know why we thought they’d work here), we tried another tactic and just walked in. Saw a crocodile getting fed, then saw a hole in its cage, we left soon after.

Nairobi had more in common with western cities than it did to anywhere in the Njiapanda region, the attitude of the general populace towards us was one of ambivalence, unlike in Tanzania, the fact that we are white (so very white) made no difference, and it was the fact that I was wearing sand-stained shorts and hadn’t shaved in about a month which seemed to cause most offense. It was an afternoon of almost western-culture in four months of rural Afrikan culture. Instead of sticking about to see if the crocodile escaped or if the city could live up to its nickname of ‘Nairobbery’ due to its legendary crime rate (the only robbery we saw was of the daylight variety with the amount they wanted to charge us for the museum. I don’t pay to visit Gardens on a point of principle, I got one at home), we got the 12 hour bus back to Njiapanda and back to work (exactly what we do at ‘work’ will be explained in the next post). Upon re-arrival at Casa del Panda, we were greeted by a power cut and an unfortunate lack of water, Nairobi it is not.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

An Idiot's Guide to an Afrikan Christmas

I never liked Bono’s patronising lyric ‘Do they know its Christmas time?’ not just because he’s a self-serving egotist, but because I wasn’t sure whether they actually celebrated Christmas in Afrika, (I was a lot younger when harbouring such thoughts, a similar age to when I assumed there was no food out here and when I thought The Edge was a cool name for a guitarist). But fortunately for us and Bono, they do know it’s Christmas time, and as this is only my second Christmas on foreign soil and the first riding solo without the rest of the Ford-Stroop clan, I figured I’d lay down some exotic festive truths to chew on whilst nursing an inevitable festive hangover.

Getting into the festive spirit has been a struggle, unlike England there was never any chance of a white Christmas out here, temperatures have not dropped below 20C and it’s been hard to imagine its December at all when we remain by far the whitest thing on the landscape. The purchase of the Pogues Fairytale of New York therefore has been the best purchase since a Massai spear we bought from a local blacksmith (smuggling it through customs however will be a bloody nightmare), and between Kirsty McCall’s sultry tones and licking a spoonful of nutella every morning we successfully got past the disappointment of not being able to find a Cadbury’s advent calendar anyway of the continent. (The only other Christmas song we had was Chris de Burgh’s Spaceman Came Travelling, played a good deal less, cuz the song makes no sense, and de Burghs an oddball).

Despite knowing its Christmas time, the general populace of Tanzania don’t seem to love Christmas half as much as the Brits and the rest of the Santa-worshipping West do. The country is a 50/50 Christian/Muslim split (plus some other funny religions too), which would go some way to explain some of the indifference to the big day (Eid was a while ago, we got the day off for that too, being the good Muslim boys that we are), but the whole Christmas culture is different to England. There doesn’t seem to be a tradition of giving presents, or of tinsel and Christmas trees, (we bought a fake one for our house, much to the amusement of everyone else), it doesn’t matter if you have been naughty or nice, presents seem rare and lumps of coal are only seen the the local home-brew banana beer mbegya, (we don’t know why they are there, but it makes it taste very strange). We discussed our disappointment at the apparent lack of festive cheer with our bosses at the charity, and they just seemed to accept the day as a public holiday (as is Eid, Independence Day and the ex-President/Communist dictators birthday) and a chance to meet up with family, no snow, no stockings or shepards or wise men, no fat bloke at the Trafford Centre dressed up as Santa with a worried looking child on his lap, thank god for the Pogues and Nutella for keeping us festive.         

Our own Christmas was spent with Burley’s family in the nearby city of Moshi (Lord knows how Njiapanda celebrates Christmas, and we sure as hell didn’t want to find out), though due to the muppets Kenya employs on her borders they got here a day late, which meant that Christmas Eve was spent almost exclusively eating the massive meals which the charity’s directors prepared for us. No turkey obviously (I’ve kept my eyes peeled for one, but all I’ve seen is heavy-bollocked goats and mangy looking chickens), but roast potatoes and goat curry went down an absolute treat regardless. We had originally planned to tear up Midnight Mass at the local Catholic Church on Christmas Eve (much to my mother’s delight), but come early evening we had ploughed through a fair few beers and our own limited experience of Afrikan church services (a wedding and a christening) is that services are long and in Swahili (a proper Catholic service should be in Latin, but I’ve kept quiet on that for now), and unlikely to look favourably on snoring foreigners, so decided to give the Catholics a wide berth for the evening.
Christmas day began at half 6 but some joker blaring out Christmas carols over the needlessly loud hostel sound system, (by seven they had ran out of Christmas carols and were playing some sort of Shaggy compilation instead). After exchanging gifts (I got a few books to add to our wide literary collection which includes super-geek Tom Clancy, the idiot Jeffrey Archer and the genius L. Ron Hubbard, as well as some Dutch chocolates relating to the hilariously racist Dutch tradition of Zwarte Piet, type it into Wikipedia and find out for yourselves) we headed to a waterfall just outside Kilimanjaro National Park to spend Christmas morning cutting very pale figures swimming in the splash-pool. The locals were not impressed, but they rarely are when the white folks go splashing about ruining the natural beauty of any place.

Whereas Christmas dinner is usually spent in Cheshire or Shropshire, this year we went to a bizarre little Austrian restaurant back in Moshi. I’d never paid Austria much thought before, they usually put in a decent shift at Eurovision and a pretty poor one at sporting events, I didn’t realise they had cuisine, and definitely didn’t realise they had enough of it to claim an entire restaurant. Turns out nothing on the menu was Austrian (except schnitzel, but I don’t know what that is, possibly something to do with an egg), so we all had a fat steak and chips for Christmas dinner, (blasphemy for Christmas purists, but there are literally no turkeys on this continent, and they wouldn’t take any Brussels Sprouts chat out here either). Beautiful.

After finally managing to organise a Skype call with the family (I replaced the Queen’s speech apparently, the one time a year she gets to go on TV and she gets replaced by some bearded tourist, honoured), they proceeded to show me both the snow in England and the remnants of their own traditional Christmas dinner, which did not go down well. (You know who you are, and you should be ashamed). The result of all this has been Christmas in Afrika has been a rather surreal experience, enjoyable, but surreal none the less. Nobody was anywhere near as excited about it as we were, and even our own excitement was dampened by the climate and the distinct lack of Santa’s hats at the market (Gin and spears easy to find, but not a hat nor an elf costume in sight. Scrooges). It sounds odd, but I’m looking forward to Christmas next year already, last minute Christmas shopping, throwing rocks at kids singing carols and watching Steve McQueen and the gang give the Jerrys a damn good hiding in some sort of war-related flick. Tanzania does know it’s Christmas time, they just don’t seem to care about it as much as we do. Sorry Bono.

Wishing England a merry belated Christmas and a happy new Year

Saturday, 18 December 2010

An Idiot's Guide to Afrikan Eats

This, the latest in this sorry series of error-strewn and increasingly politically incorrect blogs, has been commissioned by my Auntie, who wanted to know what the eats are like out here, and will go some way to dismiss my previous outrageous claim that ‘there aint no food in Afrika.’ My Gran in particular will be delighted to learn that we have been eating three meals a day with startling regularity, which is a marked improvement on University dining where I considered a cheese toastie and a protein shake as a good and wholesome meal.
I may be better looking than Jamie Oliver but the lad knows a good deal more about scran than I do so if you are looking for recipe tips and flavoursome dishes please refer back to the podgy-faced bloke on the Sainsbury adverts, for I will be offering none of that. But I figured if Bryson can turn a walk in his garden into an readable piece of prose, than it should be a piece of piss to cobble together an informative number on the ins and outs of Afrikan munch.
 Obviously the taste, price and quantity of Afrikan cuisine is drastically different throughout the country, and our culinary tour will begin where we started off on the island of Zanzibar (we ignore Dar es Salaam, because its shit). Its an island, so sea-food is the mainstay of the menu (I saw their cows, not a patch on our Jersey beauties) and in our week there we munched through an aquariums-worth of barracuda, octopus, tuna, shark and lobster, each one freshly caught and barbequed on the spot, (If Grimsby could offer a similar service, it would improve the town no end). Our hostel reluctantly allowed us to use their kitchen to cook some of our own food in, so, feeling Afrikan we waltzed down to the fish market (which reeked) and attempted (badly) to haggle with the local fishermen for some of their mornings catch. The locals inevitably found this hilarious, but we soon left with three shark steaks so everyone’s a winner really. After we nearly blew up the hotel with an unfortunate incident involving a leaky gas canister and a fair amount of flame you’d think we would have left matters there. But no, we went back to the market the next day, bought a whole freshly caught tuna (to the sound of yet more laughter, the novelty of white boys trying to haggle hadn’t worn off apparently), and spent the following afternoon butchering the poor creature with blunt knives in a vain attempt to gut it. A sorry sight, no dignity in death for the unfortunate tuna, and I’m pretty sure the hotel still reeks of fish.
Its taken quite a while for our untrained British stomachs to get used to the food, spent far too long of Zanzibar jaunt on the toilet and we still have to put chlorine in the water (from the well, none of this running water extravagance) here in Njiapanda to ensure we aren’t running to the hole in the ground all night. Lovely. On a more culinary note, we have a cook who prepares our dinner for us (sounds lazy, but cooking takes an age out here, and we’ve got poverty to eradicate and whatnot so cant be doing with that), so we have sampled the delights of ‘authentic’ Afrikan cusine, as well as the stuff they dish out to tourists and those wadded westerners who get to go on safari (no time for them). The majority of meals contains maharagwe/beans (solid start, better than kidney, not as good as magic), cabbage (don’t know the Swahili for cabbage, and don’t want to know, I’m sick of it), and ugali (the local staple made from maize, not sure how to describe it except that its really, really dense and that Afrikans bloody love it). In fairness, our cook (great lady) makes it all taste damn good, and it ticks all the boxes vitamin-wise, then its fruit for dessert (yes mother, I’m eating fruit, terrific news); mangoes, papaya, pineapples, bananas (for Burley and Ben, i cant stand the things) depending on the season, not eaten this healthily since a ill-conceived and short-lived second year drive to get my ‘five a day’. Other local favourites include roasted banana and beef stew (I eat this one, savoury banana innit, not like that sweet crap) and mbuzi/nyama choma (barbecued beef/goat) always served in man-sized quantities (unlike the restaurants in Knutsford, these boys don’t skimp on portion sizes you order by the kilo or you go home hungry), and with a side of rice, chilli sauce and an unhealthy amount of gristle (I’m not sure whether the butchers seek out the gristle on the carcass or its some sort of practical joke, but either way it ends up on my plate), gristle aside though, its pretty good nosh and would recommend it to anyone passing through Njiapanda provided your not afraid to pick through the less edible bits. At the mess of a wedding we attended last month, they had a barbequed goat as part of the buffet (a buffet in Afrika, who’d have thought), the poor beast was rolled out through the guests, apple in its mouth and herbs up its, well elsewhere, so we could all see some bloke hack chunks out of its back and onto our plates. We are planning to do a similar thing at our ‘Goodbye Njiapanda’ party in February, which means we have to buy another goat, and after the tribal unrest we triggered buying the last one, I’m not sure that that is something that rural Tanzania wants or needs to see again.
I rumoured in a previous post that I suspected Njiapanda might have a drinking problem, and indeed Rough Guide: Tanzania claims that the entire has an ‘extravagant drinking culture’, a label I’ve heard given to a University sports team or two better never a nation-state before. When the local tipple, Konyagi Gin, claims to be the ‘Spirit of the Nation’ you know you’re in trouble, add this to the fact that almost every beer is above 5% and you get the feeling that this lot like to get drunk, fast. Njiapanda is almost certainly a bad example and I’m sure the rest of the country is a lot more respectable than our little rural retreat, but a lot of people seem to hit the bars early because there is a lack of anything else to do, (Hobbies are in short-supply here). As an amusing addition, Konyagi is served in one of two ways; firstly, as a bottle, you don’t buy singles or doubles, or in a plastic sachet which you suckle in a way not too dissimilar to the way you would drink a Capri-Sun, a genius idea which can’t hit British shores soon enough.
We barley drink out here (gotta be in the office at 8:30am) but on a rare excursion to the Njiapanda Strip we bumped into some parents of pupils from our school and they demanded to join us for a couple. What happened next was the equivalent of a bi-lingual, very drunken PTA Meeting, which concluded with a parent (a school governor) ringing his home and getting his children (our students) out of bed and down to the bar to say hi to their boozed up teachers. A deeply regrettable and unsavoury incident all round (I do hope the same thing never happened at Manor Park Primary School), but something that sums up Njiapanda’s terrific attitude towards drink and its ‘extravagant drinking culture’.
So don’t worry Granwin, Auntie Anne, and anyone else who was worried about our nutritional needs whilst we were away. We are eating (and drinking) very well, and shouldn’t come back looking too dishevelled. Saying that I do miss English food, having a fridge, downing a pint of milk whenever I want or popping into Tesco’s and getting one of their shitty 99p sandwiches. Upon our return to London in February I plan to go to McDonalds and order everything (including Fillet-o-fish, and they are terrible). I’ve got a lot of time for Afrikan food, its proved my preconceptions of their diet wholly wrong, some genuinely enjoyable dishes and plenty of food provided you have the money to buy it lines the market stalls of every town and city. Any Englishman who says they prefer it to western eats however, is wrong, if you are one of said people, please make yourselves known and I will slap you with one of New Cod on the Block’s beautifully battered fish.

Friday, 10 December 2010

An Idiot's Guide to an Afrikan Wedding

What do you call an ex-arms smuggler, a self-proclaimed Prophet, a former Soviet-trained Tanzanian Communist and three constantly bemused Brits? The guest list to an Afrikan wedding, thats what.
When the weekend began with a ‘Tusker Party’, getting kicked out of a bar and a German throwing up in our house, we should have guessed things were going to slide into the farcical. We had two pressing engagements on the following Saturday, firstly a meeting with a local Pastor (called a Prophet by his following), and then a wedding of a couple of young things we had never met. I’ll deal with the Prophet first.
Dreadfully hungover and smelling like a Konyagi bottle we headed off to the Pastor’s church up in the hills, as we arrived we were greeted by the entirety of his congregation (over sixty) singing, dancing and chanting local Chagga dances, we returned a mixture of confused smiles and a fair amount of head scratching. After a meeting with the Pastor/Prophet and a few other religious blokes, we made it quite clear that we had no money to give them (which dampened the mood somewhat) but that we would help them draw up project proposals to get international donors, (which triggered more hangover-unfriendly chanting). It was around this point when I saw the stage.

As soon as I saw it I knew they would want us on it. White folks are rare round these parts so when they do arrive, there tends to be a big hoo-haa about it (can’t imagine why, we’ve caused nothing but trouble since we’ve got here). Sure enough as more of the congregation filed into the ‘church’ (about 100 or so plastic chairs under a piece of tarpaulin), we were ushered like the prize goats at auction up onto the stage and provided with a microphone to address our waiting public. They spoke very little English, I wasn’t ordering a beer, so was fresh out of Swahili, so our three separate (but very similar) speeches comprised of rudimentary Swahili, slow-pronounced English and a lot of smiling and waving. To be honest I don’t think it would’ve mattered if we had been reading from Mein Kampf, we went down a storm regardless. The Pastor/Prophet loved it, the crowd chanted (again) and we were pretty much sober, we thanked them for their hospitality (we got fed, like the racial novelty we are) and proceeded down the mountain to the wedding.
I should point out we had a legitimate invite to the wedding. This isn’t Wedding Crashes, my nose is more normal than Owen Wilson’s and none of us are as fat as Vince Vaughen. The groom (mr Shein I think, Mr Shen possibly, defiantly not Martin Sheen) is the brother of the headmistress/head nun at our school, so we managed to weasel an invite out of her, but unlike Wedding Crashers our aim was to keep things civil, get into no family disputes and go nowhere near the bridesmaids. We were told it was traditional to give the married couple a gift, being three thoughtful and selfless guys we were all over this like a Njiapanda trucker. We knew a guy who wanted to sell a goat, and we were willing to lay down some serious dollar to get that goat. Our original plan was to present the goat (named Matty) to the couple at the reception, sobriety and the logistical nightmare of transporting the beast to the church put paid to this plan, so we had to limit ourselves to handing Matty over a couple of days later. Much to our disappointment and the relief of whichever bloke who cleans the church.

We arrived at the church at ten past two. The wedding was due to start at two. The wedding didn’t start until about four, the excuse given was ‘Afrika Time’ which apparently allows three hours leeway when it comes to the starting of social events.  I will refrain from voicing my opinions on ‘Afrika time’ at this point as they might land me in trouble, but lets just say they are not complimentary but might explain why some things in Afrika are like they are. Moving swiftly on, as soon as we arrived we were introduced to all the heavy hitters of the ceremony (father of the groom, rest of the grooms extended family etc), again conversation was limited but (as always) there was an active interest in what a gaggle of white boys were doing there.
The ceremony was subdued (it was catholic after all, they are a subdued bunch), neither bride nor groom looked happy to be there, which was surprising as the bride looked pretty fit. There was the obligatory chanting and a kick-ass brass band, but the main talking point was the fact that we (and our German friends) had mistakenly taken the front rows of seats clearly meant for someone slightly more related to the affected parties, and were oblivious to everything Swahili-related going on around us. My own highlight of the ceremony was one of the teachers stumbling into the church about two-thirds through the ceremony, and then slumping into the seat next to us stinking of gin, his motorbike was parked outside, apparently drink driving is not an issue out here.

After communion (I got my bread, long ceremony and wanted a snack) we trotted over to a local bar/restaurant/venue for the reception and was introduced to Mr British, an ex-arms and ivory smuggler, but now apparently a decent car mechanic. I asked him why he was called ‘British’ and we replied ‘Because I like the British.’ Fine answer. We have commissioned him to make a bbq for us, but I’m secretly hoping for a couple of AK’s and a chunk of elephant. As with the ceremony, we occupied the front seats for the reception as well, right in front of the quite frankly miserable looking bride and groom. Apparently, (according to a very unreliable source) a length of rope should be presented to the couple as a symbol that a goat is in the offing as a gift, and apparently (this source was frightfully unreliable) it is traditional (terrible word, lets them get away with anything) for the givers of the gift to dance up to the couple to present it. So there we were, three bemused Brits dancing through an African wedding giving a length of rope to a couple who we’d never met, needless to say, the crowd loved it and even the bride cracked a smile. After that incident we kept a pretty low profile eat our free food and drank our free booze, had a little dance (during which I managed to exchange numbers with the hammered MC, not sure what he had in mind, but I am yet to answer his calls), and went home in the back of a converted ambulance.

I apologise for the length of this post, I wasn’t intending to give you a blow by blow account of our weekend, but I am currently sat in our house in the dark (electricity’s gone) its pissing it down outside, and as I’ve mentioned before our house is less than waterproof so unfortunately my bed is soaked through. Obviously I’m delighted its raining because it means that stuff will grow for the farmers and reminds me of home, but what isn’t so delightful is the fact that I’m having to wait for my bed to dry before I can go to sleep. What a farce. On a separate note, we have been invited to a Christening just before Christmas, will keep you posted about that social event.

Friday, 3 December 2010

An Idiot's Guide to Child Protection

This may or may not surprise some of you (given the drivel you’ve been treated to over the past few weeks, it will probably surprise you), but I am a fully qualified English Language Teacher. Shocking considering I have the grammar of a disabled seven year old and have think that anyone with a southern accent is trying to sell me some sort of second hand car. Despite this, for our first month in Afrika, we have been teaching at an amusingly named local primary school; The Holy Childhood Primary School (Ridiculous), shaping young minds, moulding the leaders of tomorrow etc etc. They don’t fanny around with CRB checks, ohhh no, one look at our pasty skin and Ben’s Oxford twang got us thrown to the front of the class faster than you could say ‘Child Protection’.

Holy Childhood (you don’t get used to the name, its one their books and everything, preposterous!) is not like Manor Park Primary School, Knutsford. Partly because it forms part of a Catholic Nunnery, which means about a third of the teaching staff are Nuns, which has led to some terribly awkward chats about religion in the staff room, (none of us go to church, and Burley and myself have been baptised and still don’t go to church, heathen bastards) but at least it takes office romance well and truly off the table. Added to this, the kids are unnervingly obedient (think Damien from the first Omen film, except without, you know, the devil bit), the day begins with an 8 assembly which sees the children (about 200 of the little nippers) line up in military-esque precision, do a spot of chanting (At ease, attention, at ease, so forth and so forth) before marching to class in a manner which Manor Park’s teachers could only dream of.

Keeping a class of 40 kids interested in education and the English language is a tough task, and one which I gave up on within 30 seconds of starting my first lesson. The English ability of the kids isn’t really good enough for extensive conversation; they still say ‘Good Morning’ in the afternoon, and claim that they drive to school every day, I’m getting sick of their lies. I’ve never taught a class of more than 15 before, and as a result my lessons are chaotic, often unplanned and usually end up with at least one kid in tears, (which inevitably means someone else is pissing themselves laughing). I got my favourites of course, little Felix has got free reign over my lessons, purely because he pulls fantastic facial expressions and slaps himself in the face when I ask him a question, I caught him stealing watches the other day but he got away with it cuz all he had to do was throw his arms and pull a mongish expression about and I was putty in his hands. My former English Language Tutor would be horrified to discover that lesson plans are usually cobbled together on the school bus on the way to school at the very earliest, or occasionally in the twenty minutes before lessons kick off at 8 20. The result of this is a hell of a lot of hangman, charades and other such games used excessively to fill those awkward moments (well minutes) were I have forgotten to plan anything. These kids are so lucky to have us.

Fridays at Holy Childhood are a completely different kettle of catholic, Fridays are Sports Days, and sports days are bloody mental. Because we are neither nuns nor elderly alcoholics (as another third of the teaching staff appear to be), we are also default PE teachers, and therefore took charge of the most brutal football match I have ever seen. The ball was rock hard. The tackles were harder. In the two-hour battle, stoppages were exclusively for goals, even a five minute goal mouth scramble which featured a number of red card offenses and conclude with the goalkeeping face-planting the post so hard it fell over did not warrant a whistle, though the ‘keeper did get a warm round of applause and a healthy dose of concussion for his contribution. It aint Fifa 2010, I’ll tell you that for free, most of the kids twat the ball in whatever direction they happen to be facing, but the effort they put in is enough to put certain premiership footballers to shame (Dimitar ‘Half-time Fags’ Berbatov to name but one)*. The schools attitude to sport is one I appreciate however, the girls don’t play sport, they watch the boys play their football and occasionally do some bizarre aerobics routine when God lets the nuns have the afternoon off, if you mention the idea of Women’s Football round here you’d get a frown and a slap.

This last week has marked the end of the school term and with that the end of our time at Holy Childhood, the children sat their exams (my boys in Class 3 did pretty well considering that neither hangman nor charades featured in the English exam), and we had a whole day Parent’s Day to mark the end of term. During the whole-day festivities, the classes took it in turns to ‘entertain’ an increasingly confused audience, the highlight was a 15minute play which tackled such child-friendly issues as domestic abuse, under-performing students and drunkenness in the workplace, the laughs were few and far between, but fortunately the mood was lightened by the reciting of dozens of Swahili one-liners by some other children, which only added to my confusion at the whole affair.

Despite my constant mocking and belittling of the children the five weeks we have spent at the Holy Childhood Primary School have been great fun and I will miss the kids and their constant fascination with my facial hair. (I will not miss, however, the fact that all the teachers consistently got me and Ben confused, all white boys do not look the same.) We do plan to go back for a day after the Christmas holidays (and maybe a couple of sports days, there’s something oddly hilarious about a kid kicking another kid in the head), but I am sad to report that our teaching days in Tanzania are over, whether or not the kids learnt anything it is hard to say, judging by the chorus of ‘good mornings’ we still receive at all hours I’d say they have learnt bugger all. But what they have learnt they are saying in a delightful north Cheshire accent, which will stand them in great stead of course.

*My criticism of Dimiatar ‘Five-Goal’ Berbatov was written before he single-handedly destroyed Blackburn, I apologise to him and the Bulgarian nation as a whole. Though they are shifty.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

An Westener's Guide to Life in Rural Afrika

My mother has been pestering me for a while now about an address and phone number for our new bachelor pad in rural Afrika. I still have nothing to offer her, as far as I can tell the house doesn’t have anything constituting an address and I have still failed to secure a phone number. and it suddenly dawned on me that in all my posts so far, I have completely failed to mention anything about the place which has now served as our home for a month, and will continue to do so (foundations holding, by no means a guarantee) for a further two months. Therefore this latest post is to be put aside to describing our new surroundings including the assortment of Afrikan insects we now share our house with, and our seamless integration into rural Tanzanian life.
I was not overly concerned about the house we were due to live in. If anyone saw my house in Sheffield you will understand why, (after two years at 76 Heavygate Road, I figured Afrika would be a walk in a sub-Saharan park). Its owned by one of the charity directors, and we live here rent-free as payment for our work for the charity (which I will explain at a later date), so considering that is a whole £58 a week cheaper than Heavygate Road its one up to Casa del Afrika! There are subtle differences, the view from our concerete shack out here is of Kilimanjaro, largest mountain in Afrika, the view from my room at Heavygate Road was 78 Heavygate Road, a group of middle aged blokes from Barnsley...2-0 Afrika. Admittedly, this place is smaller, consisting of two rooms; one with a small table and a gas stove, (The living room), and the other with two rickety wooden beds and a mattress crammed between the beds and the wall affectionately known as ‘The Bitch Bed’. Toiletry matters are dealt with outside in a corrugated iron shack, where you do your business down a very small hole, never thought I’d write this sentence but dear lord I miss the feeling of porcelain when sitting on the crapper. (I’d say thats Sheffield 2-2 Afrika). Showering is done in the same shack, which is convenient and ultimately a tremendous time saver, if not particulary hygienic. A simple set up; a hole, a bucket, a reasonably clean white fellow, Sheffield 3-2 Afrika. Who’d have thought?
Our party pad is located in a bizarre little place called Njiapanda (meaning the junction in Swahili), and even amongst the locals it has a pretty bad reputation, to acquire a bad reputation out here a town really has to put the effort in and bless ‘em, Njiapanda really has. Our hosts at the charity told us that we should not be out after dark because at that point the entire clientele of the town are either truckers or hookers, (a shame as in my experience, truckers and hookers are amongst the most sociable and fun-loving demographic group). And it seems to be true that there are a disproportionate amount of drunks wandering the streets, heckiling and muttering at us, harmless for the most part, but saying that nobody wants to be shouted at by a local drunk at seven o’clock in the morning. This isn’t Glasgow. Despite the drawbacks on this destitute, wild west-esque town we have established ourselves as the laughing stock of the community; we have a couple of  local haunts (the regulars at both seem both bemused and suspicious every time we enter their bar), one of which is possibly the only place in town which doesn’t turn into a brothel after midnight, and has the good grace to show premiership football and provide us with cheap, cheap Afrikan beer. (80p a bottle).
We have become very popular with the neighbouring children, of which there are many, more seem to rock up at our house every day demanding all sorts of things. Partly because we give them pens, and paper and whatnot, let them use our cameras (not GameBoys though, any kid messes up my game of Pokemon and I’ll give Afrika a new problem), but mostly because we do funny western things such as put on sun cream, attempt to farm the local land, and, of course, try and speak Swahili. All the local mothers have an opinion on our attitudes to household chores and are not, it seems, afraid to voice them, its true our house is a mess, it does have a peculiar smell and we are terrible at washing our clothes using the local detergent/skin remover Toss. (Yeh, its a funny name). On the nights when we are not mixing it up with the truckers ‘n’ hockers in the local bars, theres very little to do apart from get through an decent amount of reading or watch pirate DVD’s (probably from China, you know what they are like), which are so fake you can actually see the other people in the cinema stand up and move around during the screening.
This brings me onto the shameful finale of this latest Idiots Guide, that of our integration into Tanzanian rural life. The main part of this has been our vain attempt to learn the local language, that of Kiswahili, (though with the amount of variations of it, I fear learning it from a western book is the equivalent of a non-Englishman learning cockney rhyming slang and then going to Newcastle telling the Geordies about ‘Apples and Pears’ and ‘Adam and Eve’). I have never been great with languages, I have been half-dutch for going on twenty-two years now and have spectacularly failed to learn my mother’s native language. I took French at GCSE and was heading towards a grade at the lower end of the alphabet before my dad decided that no son of his was going to fail a GCSE and promptly got me a private tutor to drag my grade into the more respectable letterings. So learning Swahili was an optimistic venture at best. We’ve learnt the basics, I can exchange pleasantries and casual greetings until the cows come home, I can order three beers and ask where the port is, (useful in Zanzibar, not so much now, 300 miles from the coast), but unfortunately the English language is still viewed with a certain amount of suspicion out here, with one drunk shouting at us for being in his country and not learning the language. We could do little about this about from thank him and wish him a good day. 
We have not perhaps, picked the best place to reside whilst out here. Our weekend excursions to nearby city of Moshi, or up into the much greener slopes of Kilimanjaro are greatly anticipated and usually result in us getting over excited and drunk when we do get there. Njiapanda will never be a tourist hotspot, it will, however, always be a drink-fuelled truckers paradise. Still, as long as our roof continues to keep out the majority of the rain, our bar continues to provide us with premiership football, and our neighbours continue to provide us with their opinions on the failings of white people, then we should just about, make it to 2011.