Friday, October 22, 2010

I Get a Haircut - Insignificant Moments of Life Abroad

It’s time for me to get a haircut. I know because I now have to choose between gelling my hair to a concrete-like consistency, or sporting an Afro (which is nowhere near as appropriate in Africa as the name would claim). You’d think that after seven years abroad I’d be used to navigating the various pitfalls of foreign barbers, but I still hate it, and always put it off as long as I can find any excuse to do so. I’ve often thought that my “Bohemian look” in Czech Republic could be attributed less to my desire to “fit in” than my need for a reason to avoid barbers for several years. Sadly, that look didn’t make the cut, and unless I want to go down that slippery slope again it’s time to surrender to The African Haircut. Yes, “The.” If God is merciful there will only be one. What’s the big deal? I don’t think I’m the only one who gets a little nervous about going for a haircut, even in one’s home country. Just assume that it’s your first time visiting a new hairdresser, you have no information about the hairdresser’s ability, and more importantly imagine that the only communication you can manage is handing him the scissors and saying “go!” Also, to simulate the fact that in many countries there’s absolutely no guarantee or regulation of the skill of any would be “professional,” imagine that he’s blind; for all you know about his skill, he might as well be. Nervous now? “GO!” I remembered a likely looking barber’s shop on the other side of town, and walked about 45 minutes to find it. You learn to notice certain things and pin them onto your mental map long before you’ll ever need it; there are no yellow pages or services listed online to speak of, and if the need becomes urgent and you don’t know where to look you could wander futilely for hours. In the case of a haircut, for example, you have to spot a place that will cut your hair (many places are gender specific), won’t try to charge you 10 times the proper amount AND will be able to communicate somewhat (which means outside the expensive town center, but not so far that they only speak Ma or some other tribal language). I’d noticed a likely looking place a month ago and it was worth walking across town for it. It was closed. At 1:00 on a Tuesday. I started to develop theories, and then I remembered that my theories didn’t mean a fig. Time to wander! About 15 minutes later I find another, in a similar area, staffed by a young man, all good signs. “Habari!” He looks up from his newspaper and goes through the necessary triple-take at the tall white foreigner who’s materialized in his tiny shop. “Mzuri.” Silence. “Can you cut my hair?” Pantomiming accompanies. “Ndeyo, ok.” “How much?” I’m not going to elaborate on this for the pages and pages of anecdotal, cultural, and historical evidence that supports this advice, just trust me that you must always Always ALWAYS ask the price first for EVERYTHING. Always. “Hmm…” He’s going to overcharge me. Whenever someone who sells one thing all day long has to pause for 30 seconds to remember the price, he’s considering how much he can get from you. Sometimes the thing to remember is that that IS the price. The “real price” is not how much the thing costs, it’s how much you’re willing to pay for it. Still, it irks me and most travelers, and a pause like this can often be reason enough to just walk out. I shift my feet. “1,000 shilling.” $0.70. Or, maybe he was just trying to remember how to say “thousand” in English. “Ok.” I start to sit down, and remember. There are always unexpected idiosyncrasies to every element of life in every new place. It doesn’t matter how much experience you have, how many times you’ve gone through it already, or how carefully you try to make no assumptions; some things you will just have to learn the hard way. However, experience and observation CAN teach you what to watch out for. I’d noticed that the local men had two hairstyles: short and none. Neither were my cup of tea. “Cut, yes? Haircut?” Scissor motions. “Bzzzzzz no.” Sheering motions. “Ah, um…” He holds up an electric razor and points to his own well-sheered head. “Scissors? Snip snip?” “Ah.…” I still have to remind myself every day that in many cultures across the world it is rude to say “no.” Ever. Sometimes the best you can hope for is someone who won’t say “yes,” meaning “no.” It’s much more common than you might think. “Oh, ok. Hapana, asanti!” Exit. Wander. Amazing that just a year ago, in the same situation, I would have walked out of that shop 5 minutes later as bald as Bob Hope and glowing like a ball dropped on Time Square. About 30 minutes later I see a “Hair Cutting Salon.” “Habari!” “ah, mzuri!” “Haircut? No bzzzz, ok?” “Yes yes, ok.” “How much?” Always always always ask the price first. “Two thousand shillings.” “Ok.” I show him my desired length, of about 2 centimeters. “Yes, ok.” I settle back, then wince slightly when he pulls out a well-loved electric razor. Fortunately, he also has attachments. The three attachments are “short,” “shorter,” and “hair-no-more.” There’s something I’ve had to learn the hard way, over and over and over again: you must assert yourself, constantly, and the moment that you start being passive about anything you will be taken down a road you don’t want to be on - sometimes literally! I’m passive by nature, and inevitably have relapses every day, which is the main reason I have anything to write about (hey now, I didn‘t say anything GOOD to write about)! The appearance of the razor, the limited size of the attachments, and the compensating smile on the barber’s face all told me very clearly that it was time to walk away. But it was too late, I was stuck. And so, with a passionate Muslim sermon blasting out of the radio in Swahili and the barber nervously humming to himself, the haircut began. The first thing that was clear was that he had never encountered hair like mine. My hair is thick, thick like a Russian accent, and almost as unruly and unpredictable as the Russian himself. Remember what I said about gelling to a concrete consistency? Usually the prep work involves spraying on lots of water and combing, then scissor snipping through the bulk of the bush, but clearly that’s not the way things are done here. He switched on the razor, and dove in. But if he thought that he would just buzz through, he quickly had to abandon that idea. The next thing I noticed revealed a fascinating fact about globalization: although technology is becoming so universal that you can see the same modern items from New York City to an Indian mud hut, the creativity in using it is endless: I’d never seen anyone apply lubricant directly to the blades of an electric razor before! We all do the same things, but we’ll always find different ways to do it. We have to, the world will never be globalized enough to eliminate our need to assert our identity. And the key is that in so many places, there is and will always be only ONE way to skin a cat. Let an African see you doing laundry in the Indian style, or an Indian see you bathing in the Burmese way, and you will either be laughed out of sight or meticulous instructed in what you’ve done terribly wrong, how to do it right, and why the very fabric of time and space has been threatened by your foolishness. Evidently, the way to use an electric razor in Tanzania is to pour lubricant on the blade until it can glide through anything. It still wasn’t easy, for either of us, but this guy was determined and focused. He could have buzzed and lubricated his way through a brick wall if the price were right. As he charged onward and locks of hair fell around me like angel feathers in a lightning storm (hmm, there’s a new one), I squinted at the mirror trying desperately to assess the sway of the battle without the benefit of my glasses. After about 15 minutes I reach for my glasses and put them on, then look carefully at the mirror. Whatever face I made the guy thought it was the funniest thing he’d ever seen. I tried to be stoic, but I’d already whipped off my glasses so I don’t know if I managed it. In any case, I recognized that I was once again in that familiar situation: caught in a cultural current without a paddle, and I’d have to sit tight until the river took me wherever it wanted to go. When it seemed like my head couldn’t get any lighter, THEN the scissors came out. On the second snip he nicks me. It’s a good thing I didn’t insist on scissors from the beginning! I’d be sheered AND scarred! I began to get really nervous when he started some “detail work” on my brow, which I know from many disastrous years of cutting my own hair is like trying to defuse a bomb: one false snip and you blow it. Knowing there was really nothing I could do, I decided to not look until it was all over. Being the exhibitionist that I am, I consoled myself by thinking that the worse the haircut the better the story and accompanying picture would be... You can see how desperate my optimism was trying to grasp onto something. He continued with the detail work for quite a while, sometimes so detailed that it seemed he wasn’t actually cutting anything at all. Well, we’re all guilty of doing “filler work” to seem busy, or to convince a customer that the service is worth the price. After all if you just “get the job done” and it’s all over too quickly... But that’s a different story. Anyway, I’m pretty sure foreigners get this “filler work” stuff most, based on the hope that the silly outsider might not know that a haircut should take 15 minutes and if it takes 45 they’ll pay more. “Sorry, buddy,” I thought, “but my money’s waiting for the moment when I finally put on my glasses and see the face that my friends will have to live with for a month.” The electric razor comes out again, with a new attachment. It wasn’t a longer one. Either this elaborate process had been carefully and ritually developed over centuries of African hairdressing, or this guy was really bored. And then it got interesting again. I’ve never seen someone use baby powder with an electric razor before! Using a shaving brush he liberally doused the back of my neck with what smelled very much like baby powder and then went at it with the electric razor again. Douse, shave, repeat. I started to think about probable attrition rates of African electric razors. Might be something to invest in.. and baby powder. Who knows, maybe baby powder is the “fix-all” of Tanzania, like duct tape in America... Now THAT would be a fast haircut! Maybe baby powder is actually more useful, which my barber clearly considered to be obvious as he doused me again. I’ll bet he’d also use it for skinning a cat. Having been sheered, buzzed, lubricated, snipped nipped and powdered, THEN out came the spray bottle of water and the comb. I could feel there was very little left to comb. Finally he motions I should put my glasses on, and I look. “Safi?” he asks. “Ndiyo, safi sana,” I say. Yes, very good. And it was. Now I just need to find a place that can take about 50% off my ears... On the other hand, it’s now certain that this WILL be my only African Haircut.

Monday, October 11, 2010

My Thoughts on Travel, Thus Far...

- People don’t understand travel, it’s just like walking around your house... Only it’s someone else's house. - I remember when I used to believe that travel eliminates prejudices. It turns out the truth can be really ugly! - When traveling, you are one side of a great game, and every negotiation or exchange of money, thoughts, directions, ideas are one round of it... Only you never know the rules, hold any cards, or learn anything that is valid for more than a few minutes. Those rare times you manage to win, you only know it if the other players decide to tell you, and it’s very hard to believe it was anything but blind luck. We’re the outsiders, like Cubans playing hockey, we’re just going to lose. That is part of the price of travel. - Travel murders mystery. - Anywhere you go, no matter how exotic, exciting, or intimidating, you find there people for whom it is daily life, mundane, uninteresting, normal in every sense. The true value of travel it not to adopt to and accept every exotic lifestyle as normal, but to learn that every “normal” is exotic and exciting from the right perspective. - A famous war-correspondent was asked “which stamp in your passport are you most proud of?” “None, what’s there to be proud of?” Travel is so glamorized: it’s just a matter of going! - If it’s more important for you to be comfortable than to be stimulated (whether you like it or not!), don’t travel. -The ideal traveling: Think, go, see, think again, do! Miss a step, and you’re a tourist. - I used to think travel was about becoming a different person: In Japan you learn to BE Japanese, in India you learn to live like an Indian... Ha! Travel only to enrich who you fundamentally are. If you travel to change who you are, you will smack into the immovable facts of your self like a brick wall. That is, however, probably the fastest way to determine who you really are.. - Real travel is not a break from life, it is life. Do it long enough, and you’ll never stop traveling, even when you stop moving. - Travel is following: somehow, everywhere, someone already lives there. - The world never stops moving. Travel is learning to follow its rhythm.

What I'm Doing in Tanzania -- or -- Sometimes Things Work Out

I remember my carefully detailed plan before going to India: go there, wander around for a month, fall into an interesting project and volunteer for another five months. After all, how hard can it be to find someone to help in India? My lesson from India: It’s hard to help a person. My lesson so far from Tanzania: Sometimes, things work out. My level of proactivity has increased only be the smallest degree, and while comparing India and Tanzania is like comparing mangoes and bananas (trust me on this!), a little proactivism evidently goes a long way. My miniscule change in approach amounted to contacting a number of NGOs (Non Government Organization) and asking to talk to them about their projects when I was in their area. Telling people you’re writing a book about international involvement has a way of opening doors! The first project I visited was Pamoja Ministries: Discipleship through Media (, based a little outside Arusha in Tengeru. Pamoja is a Christian ministry made up of several professional graphic designers, film makers, musicians, etc., and their goal is to provide positive role-models, values, and a psychological infrastructure of hope for the much-ignored children of Tanzania. On the other side they aspire to “bring to best of Africa to Africans” to combat the pattern of successful African musicians and actors signing contracts with western countries and never been heard by their countrymen, which propagated the mentality of “success is found outside my country.” Pamoja creates records and music videos of up-and-coming African artists and tries to demonstrate the possibility of high aspirations without leaving the continent. They also want to address the complete lack of quality TV programs for children that present anything like positive values and ethics (at this point it seems most children get their role models and values from Rappers, corrupt politicians (no joke! They’re successful!), and adult soap-operas). Within a few minutes of walking onto the compound I was met by Sig Feser, the founder of Pamoja, who’s been in East Africa for decades. “What’s your background?” he asked almost immediately. “Well, my degree is in Social Science, and -” “I think I have a project for you. For a long time we’ve talked about doing a psychological survey of the children of the area. You’re here, you’re trained in social science, God has sent you here for a reason.” I later remarked to Honza, my traveling companion, that I get a kick how long-term missionaries everywhere talk with the same “God dialect.” His certainty of God’s will certainly surpasses my own, but in any case the idea appealed to me immensely. It sounded like exactly the kind of work I would choose in every country I’d lived in if I had the resources for it, and with the staff and experience of Pamoja to support me... In the discussions during the weeks that followed the scope of the project consistently sprinted past anything I’d conceived of. I remember the brain-numbing meeting with Jeremy Feser (directing Pamoja while his father Sig is back in Canada), where he said matter-of-factly “So how many children do you think you could interview? How about 5000, could you do that?” “Ubbbllllbbbb?” The details have been mostly ironed out by now (for the official Project Goals and Timeline click here ( ), but it’s still huge. The topics of the survey will be Heroes/Role-models, Hopes, Fears, and Media Access. The ultimate goal is to give Pamoja a solid sense of how children will relate to the characters and messages they put up on screen. “If we someday want to create the Tanzanian “Sesame Street,” we need to know how they’ll respond to the main character being a 14 year old girl, or a business man, or a teacher, for example? Who’s the everyman? Who’s a clear hero character? If they see a snake on the screen will it automatically give a sinister vibe like it would for American kids? Is the father figure a symbol of security or of fear? What’s the picture of an ideal world? Should the “treasure quest” be about a pot of candy or a new school uniform? If we don’t know these things, we are just taking shots in the dark with huge amounts of resources, and we can’t afford to do that. We always have to make certain assumptions in this work; I want to make those assumptions based on as much concrete data as you can possibly generate.” The other main reason this is a huge project is that nothing of this type has been done on any significant scale in Tanzania, hardly in Africa. Children are almost entirely ignored and not acknowledged as members of society. I’ve been able to find a small handful of studies the survey the views of children, and all but two of them are completely focused on HIV/AIDS or concrete educational issues. Studies of how children here think about the world, what they want, who they aspire to be, what they worry about, has not been touched. No one has done a study like this, period. “I just want us to realize that when this study is finished no one in the world will know more about these issues than the three of us in this room. No one. We will be the foremost experts on the topic, after only a few months of study” said Jacob Mills, another Pamoja member who will be overseeing my work and who (coincidentally?) worked as a professional pollster in the USA. The plan is to take two (and a half) phases. In the first phase we’ll create a wide variety of questions in a wide variety of styles and ask a number of children around the urban and rural area of Arusha. This is a “test” survey, and we’ll use the data to decide what styles and approaches work, and what specific interesting content we want to pursue. The students will be speaking Swahili, so one of Pamoja’s main commitments is to hire a translator to accompany me. The next phase will involve an extensive refining of the questions and surveying ideally 1000-1200 students from the ages 7-14. Again, huge, because many of these children will be functionally illiterate or will produce gibberish on a paper survey, so it will all have to verbal, one student at a time, over a wide range of urban/rural, economic, and ethnic locations. This part of the process will probably take about three weeks. We’ll then process and analyze the data, and return to a small number of students with very representative or atypical answers and ask “why” to get one step deeper into the factors behind the values and to glean some useful quotations straight from the children’s mouths. “In the end,” said Jacob, “if we’re willing to share our data - and we are - people are going to want to know about this, because they are desperate for this kind of information... And practically anything you write about the results will be publishable simply by merit of what you’ve done and what you’re talking about.” So the end result will be a paper on the findings for Pamoja to distribute to a wide range of NGOs that could benefit from knowing more about the values of children (hundreds if not thousands of people in the Arusha area alone), and to send for publication to a number of African-issues journals. All very exciting stuff for me! Beyond that there’s the constant sense from everyone I talk to that this is important work and so applicable and valuable for so many areas of developmental work here. I’ve bumped into people in AIDS education, wildlife conservation, agricultural development, poverty alleviation, education improvement, orphanages, hospitals, and churches, and practically every single person has heard what I’m doing and started talking about how they could apply the information in their field of work. Children are the next generation in Tanzania, but no one really knows how they’re motivated, what they want, how they see their place in the world, how they expect the future to be, what role they aspire to play in society when they grow up, etc. I think the significance of thousands of westerners trying to make a sustainable improvement in the lives of the people here without really knowing how those people are thinking and acting is clear. I’m left baffled that nothing like this has been done before, but everyone’s time and resources are taken up by more “immediate” concerns. During this process I’ve constantly had the feeling that I’m ever so slightly over my head here, but just enough that I’ll barely manage to drink up all the extra water before I drown.. Just where I like to be! A few days after the first visit to Pamoja I sat down with Lara Warren from Adopt a School, Tanzania. ( Adopt a School is another NGO that uses government statistics to find the worst-performing public schools in the greater Arusha area and then “Adopts” that school, recruiting financers from the West and instituting a five-year process that aims to make the school one of the best performing in the district. It starts with construction (often a school of 250 students has a single dilapidated school room), moves on to creating water supplies on the school grounds (many of these locations are 10 km from the nearest water supply, and students spend several periods carrying the day’s water to school), supplies schoolroom material (pens and notebooks are often non-existent, and one ancient textbook might be shared with an entire class), then tries to address personnel shortages (one school I visited had 250 students in six grades, and four teachers) and teacher-training, etc. There are three elements I most admire about Adopt a School process. First, they carefully screen potential sites for commitment, lack of corruption (it’s rare that a school doesn’t have at least one teacher who uses government school-supplies money to support his alcoholism, and in “biggest problems” surveys students often list “teacher attendance” in the top three) and schools are only adopted when it’s clear that the staff is committed to the needs of the children. A rare thing already; teachers are paid 100,000 Tanzanian Shillings (= $66, or $2 a day), and are often moved to a new school anywhere else in the country every few years. Teachers are not trained in how to teach a class, and most teaching seems to consist of reading out of a textbook while students repeat each sentence or copying it on the blackboard. Little thought is given to effective transfer of information, it’s the students’ responsibility to memorize and the regurgitate the information. Desire to do more than the (very demanding!) bare minimum is very rare. Second, once a school has been selected for adoption, Adopt a School staff meet with the school and village council and ask “what do you need?” “What do we know about what they need,” says Lara, an Oxford Law graduate who is directing the organization in the absence of her Father, Brad Warren, who founded it. “They know what they need. If they say the need water, you can be pretty sure that they need water! If they say chalk, they need chalk. It cuts out a lot of guesswork and cross-cultural misunderstanding that way.” Third, the process of funding and development ruthlessly adheres to the philosophy of “bega kwa bega” (Swahili for “Shoulder to Shoulder”). At the very beginning of the process agreements are made about what the local community can provide, and what Adopt a School will supply. Usually the local community volunteers labor and local resources, Adopt a school funds the more expensive materials. “It’s all clear from the beginning: they do this, we do that. If they stop, we stop... It’s hard, and sometimes we’ve had to completely walk away from projects and lose everything we put into it, but you give too much; it destroys people. That’s what creates nations of beggars and lay-abouts. They’ll have no motivation to maintain and value the facilities and material, and three years later it will be like you were never there. If you can’t get the community to be involved in the project then there’s no point in anyone else being involved either.” These principles line up with everything I’ve witnessed about how and how not to do development work. The focus on education and the improvement of opportunities for the younger generation also seems like where I’d put my proverbial money. “Brad has always focused on the education of a person. Being a good person is more important than being smart.” Adopt a School seems to be going everything right in the effort to facilitate both better educated students, and simply good and hopeful people. After meeting six different NGOs I asked Honza which one he would fund if he could only choose one, and after much thought he chose Adopt a School, saying that it seems to be making the most difference out of the least resources. After a couple of hours of chatting about Adopt a School Lara was eager to find a way for me to be involved. Over the next weeks I visited several of their adopted schools with her, and saw first hand the transformation taking place. In the end it was decided that I will live for at least one month in one of these schools, where I would have several goals. The headmaster of the school (where 250 students have four teachers) was desperate for me to stay on immediately. “come, you stay for only two days now, teaching English and sports, it can help up very much!” I took this as a warm welcome and managed to leave, saying I would come back for a longer time if I could. He suggested I take over the English teaching for the entire school, teach basic math (ha!) and lead sports. He also wants me to oversee the construction of new buildings (I’ve already seen several examples of the fact that if you don’t watch laborers carefully, within hours you can guarantee hollow walls, watery cement, and crooked ceilings, and the “extra” material will “disappear”). Lara wants to help the school with their teaching needs, but has other motivations for my involvement: “First of all, I’d like you to keep an eye on everything for me. This is the first school we adopted, it’s pretty far along the process and we’d like it to be a model school, but I need someone inside to tell me what’s really going on. Then I’d like you to observe the teachers. Our newest project is to develop teacher-training programs to improve the awful teaching, but no one with Adopt a School has any teaching experience, so it would be really helpful for you to get a sense of the needs and then help us figure out how to improve it. And also, you’re the first volunteer in this area, so if you could keep a record of your experience and afterward write up a kind of introduction to the culture-shock and experience for now volunteers that would be great!” Again, all right up my alley! And again, just a bit over my head. The school is extremely rural. Really rural. And for anyone who’s seen the pictures of my Indian village you know that really means something. It’s at the end of about 30km of a spider web of jarring dirt “roads,” and has no electricity, running water, or shops anywhere near. The “no electricity” part worries mean, since it pretty much cuts me off from my computer, music, cell phone, camera, etc. But I suppose for a month I’ll survive. The house where I’ll live is pretty nice! It actually has rooms, concrete walls, and a real door! So there you have it! Man, I thought it would be easier to summarize this! Thanks for your interest, feel free to ask any questions and you can be sure that I’ll update you on significant mile-stones! For pictures of my Adopt a School visit: