Hi folks, I’m working on my email list…
Writing does not come easily to me, as you know; but things are made even more complicated than before, due to the number of friends I have who can speak only one of French or English. I intend to mostly write in French, and translate in English as much as I can, such as now; but I do not want to exclude the possibility that some posts will be in only one language.
Be aware that, initially at least, this will seem like a lot of work for nothing: I am still struggling to finish my M.Sc. before the end of the year. This means that I will mostly not be in touch, and not writing many emails, until early 2006… But keep hope, I do intend to write some time after that.

Those technical aspects of the message behind us, here is a short summary of the situation for those to whom I have not given news for really way too long: Veena having found it somewhat difficult finding a third job in Ottawa, after South Asia Partnership started really scaling down, she chose to apply for a volunteer posting in Tanzania through CUSO. The upside of this posting is that it provides her with her first position as a communication director, which is the most logical next step in her career. So she’s been working for the past three months for Haki Elimu, a NGO which works on citizen involvement in education policy, and I myself have accepted to follow her for the greatest part of these two years in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, from where I am now writing. CUSO makes it possible for me to follow her as a common-law spouse, and takes care of my plane ticket and a basic allowance, which will give me leisure to finally finish my MSc thesis (this year, final deadline) after which I may finally be able to start appreciating the country, learn Swahili, maybe look for some volunteer work myself, and start developing some research projects that I’ve been thinking about for some time for the future. As it is, it’s a wonderful opportunity to make new contacts in a new context.

So… After having spent those first three months without Veena back in Montreal to get some more serious work done on the MSc, about which you may get to hear more some other day, (thesis and celibacy apart, it was otherwise a very nice stay in a beautiful apartment in Verdun, which belongs to my friend Sangeeta, who I thanks again for her hospitality!) I made my baggage (in a very chaotic fashion, as too usual) to make a mostly uneventful trip on British Airways, unless you count as events the slightly unusual occurrences of actually sleeping on the plane, competent service, and plane food that… well.. tried hard to live “up” to the reputation of british cuisine. I met a charming couple at departure in Dorval, and the man traveled with me, though I could not always leave my seat to talk with him and my immediate seat neighbour had nothing to say to me, which also suited me, as I also did need that sleep. Managed to chat to Rob on the first leg of the flight. On the way, I had the pleasure of an almost full day in London; Sorry I did not call any of my London friends, but it was working hours, and since I did not know what state I would be in I did not dare ask you to get out of your way. Finally, I was in a good enough state to rush through selected rooms of the British Museum, Tate Gallery, _and_ National Gallery! (OK, I mostly saw the Turner room there, breathtaking indeed.) I would not even have reached that last museum if I had not come (barely) too late to visit the Westminster chapel, which I had to simply view from the outside. The Tate was impressive, though my strongest impression will remain of its neighbourhood, an old working class neighbourhood whose architecture reminded me of many a movie (most recently Cronenberg’s troubling Spider, which for all I know was not even set there.) That said, if the London architecture was well worth seeing, I could not establish a contact with the Londonians, who seemed to me as reserved as they are made out to be, though I admit I could have tried harder to meet people instead of running after painting and old stones. Of course, if I had budgeted time (and pounds! argh!) to hang out in a pub, I am sure I could have had more of a chat; but usually I manage to do it one way or another. Well, it did finally happen, in quite telling a fashion: in the tube that was to bring me back to the airport, while trying to make sure the next train was going in the right direction, I received directions from an enthusiastic… indo-tanzanian(!) with whom I shared a great chat along the way. (Hello, Aash! How did that dinner go?) Well, I think it was high time for me to actually get to Tanzania….

My arrival was equally uneventful: customs were a breeze (no, nothing to declare. Thank you.) and Veena took a day off to come and get me at the airport, I was not completely dead from the trip (though my body did complain later) and I could appreciate the wonderful apartment she got right downtown. As I arrived Friday morning, we had a long weekend ahead of us, of which a goodly part (besides our reunion of course) was taken by logistics: De main reason being that, in Dar es Salaam, the shop hours are still intended with families with at least one member staying at home in the day for shopping, be it the wife, in richer families the maid, or in our case the common-law husband. Veena is working long hours, and until my arrival had to do all her shopping on Saturday mornings exclusively. So she had to indicate to me the main markets and department stores so I would know where to go. Moreover, the apartment (incidentally quite spacious… Yes, there is space for visitors) must still be furnished in parts, though Veena already did a lot on her own; we should in particular still buy a solid (thief-proof) filing cabinet for our laptops and a writing desk for me (I am currently writing this on the living room low table, sitting on the ground as is my wont), and we started exploring furniture shops. Alas, being downtown, most of the furniture we could buy is imported and upscale; but I think we found an OK place finally. Finally, we had to find a phone for me, or rather connect my cell phone to a local provider. So: you can call me at 011-255-787-228-393. SMS is most welcome (and much cheaper for both sides!), though I think in that case you would use a “+” instead of the initial “011″. I know SMS usage is still rare among you; at least I sent a few and had few responses! But if you want to contact me, it is much more efficient than email, which I will check two or three times per week. Of course, my SMS answers are bound to be more laconic than these emails. Yes, I could, and intend to get home internet access… once the thesis is done! (you must be hearing the Leitmotiv…)

While I’m at it: I am happy to notice that the prepaid phone provider here even provides a voicemail box (though, typically, it was a mess to set up: neither their pamphlets nor the computerized information line provide the correct number for voicemail service. Sigh.) The voicemail is especially welcome since I often use the cell phone as a home phone, and do not bring it with me all the time. On the second day of my arrival, someone whom I had indeed brushed with my backpack started pointing to his feet, and complaining (in Swahili) that I had stepped on them (sure) while his partner was searching my pockets. They were so unskilled and obvious that I felt it at once, while Veena yelled at him to stop. So, the amateur pickpocket took his hand from my pocket without my cell phone, and just acted innocent by the sidewalk without even bothering to run away. And then why? I was obviously not going to pick a fight with a group (more than these two were colluding) and there were no police nearby. We decided against attempting a scandal and just walked away. And frankly, once past the shock, we felt they were mostly pathetic. Their incompetence and attitude might suggest junkies. According to the neighbours, also indo-tanzanians, there is quite an upsurge of crime these days (mostly, according to them, by Kenyan immigrants, who are reputed to be more aggressive than Tanzanians. How justified is that prejudice? Hard for me to know at this point, but it is widespread.) due to the fact that the police is mostly busy overseeing the elections, coming this October 30th. At least until that is over, we are advised to avoid Zanzibar altogether, and I will especially avoid carrying valuables.

Whether or not those thieves were indeed Kenyans, I must specify that this episode is most definitely not the main picture I get from most Tanzanians: People are indeed welcoming, and I am often greeted in the street, people asking me where I am from and welcoming me to Tanzania, often enough without even (!) a follow-up commercial proposition (safari touts, black market money changers, etc. abound here as elsewhere.) However, my near-total ignorance of Swahili, though not crippling in downtown Dar es Salaam, is a definite social handicap with most Tanzanians, with the conspicuous exception of indo-tanzanians, who are for the most part of Gujarati origins (that’s the province immediately north of Mumbai’s) and trilingual. The indo-tanzanian community is large, economically important, has been here for generations, has established its temples, etc. In many ways, I feel I could be in India: the british colonial architecture of Dar es Salaam inevitably reminds one of the british colonial architecture of Mumbai; especially downtown, many shops belong to indo-tanzanians, and for the linguistic reasons above it is still easiest for me to interact with them; and of course at home we both find it easier to cook indian than western, if only because of the availability of appropriate ingredients. Well, we also eat african food sometimes, esp. when the maid cooks. Yes, Veena got us a maid. I have to admit, though I’ve always be reluctant, I cannot protest too hard: as it is quite warm here, we absolutely need the draft, and leave the windows open, which entails very regular dustings; we do not have a washing machine, nor space for one, nor a nearby laundromat; and other constraints which technology alleviates in the west, but which here, demand hired help, or for most people a lot of work from the wife and eldest children. If not her, it would be me, and I could certainly do more than I do now for the house, but I will not pretend I have the wherewithal do laundry by hand for more than a few days. (Have you tried? Yes, maybe while camping but for two years?) Let me recall an anecdote from a CUSO worker, who himself comes from Sierra Leone, and is clearly very strong: he came to Dar es Salaam, many years ago, and got an apartment on a fourth floor, as I recall it. There was no running water, so he started hauling water up in buckets, as most people were doing. He gave up after a few days. Too darn demanding. He managed to convince his (male) neighbours to contribute to buy money for a pump for the building. None of them had thought it worth doing before him, since hauling water was, again, done by the wife and older children. So. Yes, the invisible work is often the hardest. So we do have a maid, who comes every weekday morning. (Maybe a lot as far as I am concerned, but it seems less than that would not suit her either.) Her name is Mary, and Veena manages to give her instructions in Swahili, which quite impresses me. Also, Mary seems quite smart herself; it is quite clear she could have another type of work in another context. As for me… Well, in a few months I will start Swahili, and maybe I will be able to talk to her, as well as to most other Tanzanians.

Let’s admit it, I do not have so much to tell yet because I am a bit home-bound right now: Mornings I stay home, since Mary is here, and her presence also allows me to get work done. After lunch I walk around a bit, but though I do appreciate the convenience of being downtown, I will not pretend it is the most scenic neighbourhood to walk about. Evenings, Veena comes quite late, we eat, we spend some time together, and occasionally we go a bit further. Last week-end, she brought me to a nice beach further north in the city: from downtown, I was almost forgetting we were living on the coast! The beach was very nice, especially for a city beach: I’ve seen much more polluted in north america. Nice sand and shoals, I had not brought my trunks as we were just looking around but it did help me get out of my shell. At the same time, and (again) until that year is done, I am not yet truly here, heart and soul; not at all that I regret coming, but my focus is elsewhere. Let us see what 2006 brings me. I am quite convinced that there is a lot to do and to feel here, though even then I will likely need some time to adapt. Life here can be sweet, but I will have to find my place, and I feel that the type of issues that I care about are quite foreign here. And Veena finds it somewhat difficult to re-form a social network, even though she has the advantage of being in a work environment; I will have no such access to this society for a while. Many say that India is a difficult country, and it is true in many ways; but having a common language makes a world of difference, for one thing; and the second time, I could get access to the insider’s view thanks to Veena’s family, and the first time I was mostly approaching the Tibetan culture, which being exiled was more vulnerable, and more open to talking with another stranger. I suspect that, if I am to find some way to get access to Tanzanian society, it might be through its (thankfully many) more marginal cultures. Tanzania is a very plural society, and that is something that does speak to me. Anyway, one thing at a time. (Pole, pole, as we say here, which means something like the italian’s piano, piano…)

Enjoy,
Marc-Antoine

This note is also available in: French