Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Palace Life

July 14th, 2007

So we moved out of our four start hotel today and into our apartment for the next three months. Originally we were suppose to move into a house donated to AKF-Tanzania in Old Stone Town (Shangani district), immediately after the orientation week ended, but it wasn’t ready. So our fearless coordinator, Mr. Said, hit the streets to hunt for temporary apartments instead and found four that were vacant. One was a rough and rugged space located in a stone building next to the Tanzanian Red Cross office at the entrance of one of Stone Town’s ubiquitous alleyways. Hidden from the main streets, its discreet location would allow us to come and go without being noticed by half the city – a definite advantage for any foreigner deciding to bunk down in a place like Tanzania, where wazungu - those filthy rich white people who come from a land of milk and honey – end up servicing the needs of local thieves. The interior was rather medieval, being dark, damp and cold, but it was a stone building, so what should be expected? But there were only two rooms, and the girls were not interested in having roommates, let alone living in a cave, so we decided to keep looking.

The second place was a youth hostel that at ten Canadian dollars a night would be a rip-off for the long haul, given what we could get for the same money elsewhere. The third place was located twenty minutes outside of town in an area called “Mombassa”, named after the port city in Kenya. Like its name sake, the area was rough, rugged and relatively poor. Mr. Said told us we’d be the only wazungu in the neighbourhood – a novelty again worth avoiding. Also, there was no electricity because the fuse had just blown, there was no running water, and a colony of hungry ants had just taken up residence in the kitchen cupboards. We decided to keep looking.

Finally we were shown a palace like home in an upscale area of Stone Town, where local community business leaders and other notable officials lived. Identified by one of Zanzibar’s infamous stylized doors characterized by iron pike heads lining the frames, the fourth option was in an enclave hidden from the main street and within 20 meters from a police station. Double points! Inside were three rooms, one with an ensuite bathroom, with a kitchen and living room each twice the size of my residence room at the University of Dar es Salaam (I was a visiting student there in 2004), which fit two people. High ceilings, marble floors and dark oak-coloured doors and bedroom cabinets topped off the look. Who wouldn’t like that? The price was a bit high but still within our budgeted stipends for rent. Besides, we’d save heaps later after moving into the AKF-Tanzania house that is not as posh and hidden (there’s a motorbike taxi stand right out front). Triple points! So we took it.

Now we’re living in what I have officially called a palace, especially in comparison to the run-down stone homes on the other side of the enclave, and the tin shacks in the neighbourhood behind our pearly-white compound wall. I somehow think us IDMers in Zanzibar are cheating. We were given tips during the training month in Ottawa to prepare to live for eight months in conditions below our norms – in mud huts and tin shacks located in isolated rural areas. Instead, perched upon a queen-sized bed under my mosquito net canopy in a bedroom chamber with all the amenities, including an in-suite bathroom, I am living something beyond my expectations. The fact that it’s all situated within a few minutes walk from a beautiful white sand beach where you can lounge in the sun while eating fresh mangos and coconuts sliced for you by a fruit boy for a few pennies makes it more bizarre.

I’ve becoming what I’ve always criticized – a development worker living a life of luxury while surrounded by poverty. How does that make me feel? Confused and conflicted (development work has a tendency to do that to morally conscious people) I suppose. The way I see it is this. I was damned lucky to have won the birth lottery by being born into a financially, mentally and socially sound family in Canada. Others weren’t so lucky to have been born into a country brimming with opportunities and strong social welfare systems, yes where shameful cases of poverty exists, especially amongst Canada’s Aboriginal communities, but not in the same severity and magnitude one finds in the most desolate of places in the Global South. Thus I feel like I have an obligation to do something about such great inequalities, and so I have decided to build a career in international development. How does eating fruit on the beach help anyone? Well it’s a revenue earner for the fruit vendors for starters. But I came to the beaches of Zanzibar for other reasons as well. This is where AKFC best thought my skills could be used to support the AKF-Tanzania office. This is where I could learn about the challenges local NGOs face in their daily operations in a developing country. This is where I could deepen my understanding of NGO management and development issues so to become more effective labourer in this field. Living in a palace home will not prevent that from happening. Blowing off my internship by not going to the office every day to ask questions and visit project sites will!

Some people argue: "How can you truly understand development issues if you are not living them - if you’re not spending your nights in a tick-infested hovel, and your days on the street begging for change so you won’t have to go to bed hungry that night?" Granted, there’s a degree of truth behind such statements. The great and late polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski lived with his stories for many months so he could carry his writing beyond the mere reportage of facts and deliver insightful observations that considered the cultural context in which they occurred. And quite arguably the same technique could be extremely useful in drafting documents analysing the grass roots level in the development policy world. The importance of gaining a full, three dimensional understanding of the issues is paramount, especially in a field full of them! In this sense living in a palace home will definitely not bring as much personal understanding understanding towards the necessity of clean water and shelter as living in a tin shack in one of Africa’s slum villages. But on the flip side, just because you have not been personally affected by it does not mean you lack the capacity to realize its hardship. Do you need to experience war to realize it creates hell a hell on earth for everyone involved (except the drug smugglers and arms dealers)?

Ok, perhaps you don’t have to go to the same extremes as Kapuscinski to understand what’s going on at the grass roots level, but segregating yourself from the community you’re meant to serve risks making your even more foreign than is the case already. This means acceptance and respect may be hard to win over, and result in your work having very little impact or benefit to the community being served. However, this ‘disconnect theory’ is probably less true the higher up the bureaucratic chain one climbs, especially in the world of executive management, where expectations of you in some cultures to act and live in a pompous manner (read in a palace home) may be required so to win the confidence and respect of your local colleagues. It's just a muse but a possibility.

Bringing this monologue back to my reality as an intern in Zanzibar, I feel every effort should be made to maximize the time I have here by popping the palace bubble and living with the issues. But to what extent have I already done that? After all, I did live pretty locally in Northern India, Ethiopia and even Australia (which has its own problems), where I felt very much connected to the local beats and experienced many of the local issues first hand relating to sanitation, education, conflict and disease. I think now it is time to focus more on the professional development side of things and not follow the Kapuscinski path. There is a time and a place for that, and now is not that time. So the palace it is.

Post script – just returned from visiting our Tanzanian intern counterparts and they are living in a house of similar dimensions, only slightly bigger, in the outskirts of town. I feel slightly better.


Paul said...

Hello my fellow fellow. Hahaha...that was a very lame pun! I'm glad to see you're wrestling with many of the same things that I am and that you have also reached few, if any, conclusions. Your post reads like a beach volleyball game - back and forth, from pro to con. Keep up the struggle.

For what it's worth, I'd like to suggest that there is a difference between realizing something and truly understanding it. Thus, you must, in fact, live through war to truly understand that it's hell on earth. That's why at the TRC proceedings people told their entire stories, not cleaned up, courtroom abridged versions. Because knowing that war is happening doesn't mean knowing real horror.

But that's just my unsolicited opinion.

Good luck my friend!


Adam Hooper said...

In Uganda at one point I had a very expensive cell phone (read: computer which also places phone calls). Frustrated by the complication of just dialing a phone number, I went and bought the cheapest cell phone I could find. When my colleagues saw me with the cheap phone, they were stunned that I would give up an expensive phone for a cheap one.

I think I lost some respect.

Oh, and as Paul points out, living it is different from seeing it. I have friends who have been ambushed by rebels, but I have never been ambushed by rebels. When it comes to being ambushed by rebels, I can only say I have heard stories but you should ask those guys for the real feeling.

A clear retort to that is that not being ambushed by rebels helps you keep an open mind about rebel ambushes. Certainly no two ambushes are alike, yet living through an ambush will severely bias your opinions of all ambushes you hear about.

I believe both facets scale down to living conditions. No two households are alike, right? Living in an "authentic" one will give you many unique experiences you could not get elsewhere, and it would bias your view of "authentic" households.

All that to say, experiencing things first-hand has its good points, and being a more stand-off-ish observer has its good points. Personally, I aim for whatever makes me happiest.

Ernesto said...

Kent enjoy your house and stop thinking about the bed you are sleeping in. You spent 10 paragraphs from what I can tell trying to a) justify to yourself where you are living and b) have your fellow development friends not judge your accommodations. People on Zanzibar are not stupid…you are a development worker and not the first and probably not the last person to feel guilty about their luxurious “palace” when they first arrive (as compared to the local population). But the people on the street know that this is the power hierarchy of the world. And probably do not care if you live in a shack or in palace, you are still rich, white and powerful. And if not you living there then maybe some CCM party member would have their vacation condo there and not be writing on his blog about his deeper reflection of his living space.

Kent let me ask you how many locals are you going to have into your home anyways. “Juma” or “Simba” off the street will not be joining you for an evening gin and tonic on a regular basis will they? and if so they would be happy for the free drink (as I would be if I was invited into your home). So what does it matter if you live in a clean, relatively safe home. At least you will able to do your work in peace and security. Next thing you are going to tell that you refused the houseboy and cook that came included in the price of the rent. Well Kent those are my thoughts. But lets recall that I had satellite TV in my Arusha shack.

Your friend,


PS. I would not count living by a police station as a positive point. If anyone is going to break in it is them, paying off the Askari and grabbing your lap top. Lest we not forget the 2001 riots on Pemba and the role of the police there.

Kent Anjo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kent Anjo said...

Some interesting points. My responses are as follows:

Paul and Adam - On experiencing wars, I agree to an extent. However just because it is experienced doesn't mean it is necessarily understood. A causes of war prof, who had never experienced armed conflict in his life,was able to explain the intricacies and dynamics of the Bosnian conflict to a student who had lived through it with her family but didn't know what exactly happened (probably because she cared to forget about it!) We can always do our research and experience the trauma through other people. You get the goods without the PTSD or leg amputation. But for other, less traumatic things, I agree. Experience is crucial because it adds a deeper level/ additional dimension of understanding.

Ernesto - some valid points. But I don't agree with flaunting the stereotype of the rich mzungu in the faces of lower income families living across the street. From my personal experiences, I've been more respected as a foreigner in developing countries if I avoided wiping my ass with silk on a daily basis. Living "like the locals do" shows people you're making an effort to see the world through their eyes, whether that's fully achievable or not. And when your career is built around trying to understand other people so to best assist their needs in the context of poverty reduction, living segregated from them in luxury, is counterproductive. The power hierarchies will not change if we don't challenge them and become complacent.

As per inviting locals into the home, i've already had four guests already, being close friends. Your right, I wouldn't invite random people in off the street - who would? I plan to have more over in the future.

As per your satellite TV in Arusha, you weren't there with a mandate to help reduce poverty amongst the poorest of the poor. You were there to protect witnesses and capture bad people. Unless you participating in the killings yourself, I don't see how living a luxurious lifestyle could bring about moral contradictions.

p.s. the police can surprisingly be trusted in certain places, like Stone Town. This is especially the case if you're associated with a well respected organization like AKF-T.

Anonymous said...

Kent I agree one should not fluant their wealth, I also agree that without challenging the power hierarchy of the world they will never change.

However I do not think living in a safe clean place is something to get too conflicted over. Once can express solidarity in a variety of ways and it does not have to be all encompassing.

I am happy you have had people over...Hopefully in the near future I will be one of them.

Take care,