Friday, August 24, 2007

Land of Milk and Honey

So I’m having lunch one day at my favourite dive, the Passing Show (think greasy-spoon Montreal deli without the deli and waiters sporting black bow-ties) and this man comes over and sits at my table. It’s common to share tables during the busy lunch time hours, when seating is scarce. He is reasonably dressed and, with his many bags, looks like he’s travelling. So I ask if he’s going somewhere and discover he is planning to catch the afternoon ferry to Dar in a few hours time. Silence then falls over our conversation despite the noise of the bustling diner around us.

It is a mixed crowd, filled with foreigners who have disrespectfully dressed as if they by the pool at a Club Med, and local laymen and business people whose appearance is more conservative: collar shirts and loose fitting pants for men, and long skirts and shawls for women, with some also wearing the traditional bui bui, or black cloth that covers everything from the head to the ankle but has an opening for the face. They have all come to enjoy what Passing Show is known best for: excellent local food at cheap prices that are pre-determined by a menu instead of being calculated according to your skin colour – a common practice of one local restaurant that has a chicken and rice dish to literally die for but overcharges foreigners for the priveledge. To avoid this scam, myself and the other interns will either give money to our Tanzanian colleague who we'll accompany to the restaurant and then wait behind the wall of the restaurant compound so the owner can't see us, or ask the office assistant to go on our behalf.

Not wanting to eat in silence, I attempt to start a conversation by telling him I’ve come from Toronto to do an internship with the Aga Khan Foundation.

He scrunches his face as if I pinched a nerve.

I brace for a potentially critical response to the Foundation similar to ones I've heard in the past.

One time I was talking to a night wathman while waiting for a friend and upon hearing of my association with His Highness, made sure I knew that the Foundation only serves the interests of the Ismaili community and no one else, despite the global evidence of AKF programming in Africa and Asia benefiting people of all faiths. He occasionally worked at the Ismaili mosque in town and not being an Ismaili himself, let alone a Muslim, probably felt excluded from the communal love. Therefore anything related to the Aga Khan was not right.

Another time was in conversation with a religious zealot over tea, chipati and fish one morning at a sea-side eatery. I stopped there on my way to work to get a quick bite, but ended up staying longer than anticipated after he launched into conversation about the immorality of the Bush regime, to which I gladly contributed. The topic eventually shifted focus to the Foundation, which he believed was too “modern” and therefore was losing touch with the fundamental morals and tenants of Islam. He asked for my number and I gave him my e-mail instead, not wanting to get too chummy after having second thoughts.

* * *

It turns out my lunch time companion at the Passing Show has no beef with the Aga Khan. Instead it is with Toronto.

“I use to live there once” he says, “in Scarborough, where all the aliens live.”

Ah, a Toronto basher who lived in Scarborough. Can he really be blamed? I disagree with the alien comment though. Although Scarborians are rather rough around the edges, they look more like humans than Martians.

The man talks of his wife and children, who currently live in Toronto. I ask him if he plans to return “home” and see them. He tells me bluntly that “home” is here in Zanzibar, where he was born and raised. Besides, he has no money to do that anyway, and it is this thought that triggers a statement I have never heard anyway say during all of my travels throughout the Global South:

"I left Canada to find work in Tanzania."

Tanzania, a country where the life expectancy at birth is 50 some-odd years, where those 64 per cent of the population who are not living below the poverty line of USD 1 per day make a average income equivalent to USD 800 per year (or like the teacher I just met in Pemba, USD 400), where 80 percent of the labour force works in the rural sector to eek out a living selling commodities for pennies (go rich world trade tariffs and climate change!), where national unemployment is not publicly recorded because of a largely informal and untaxed economy that makes defining such term rather difficult, or because the government is too embarrassed in admitting it is high. Although Tanzania’s a very beautiful country with a rich culture and (colonialist) history (of exploitation), it’s not generally known as a go-to country for jobs and opportunity. Those places are either elsewhere on the continent, like in South Africa or Nigeria, or overseas, like in Europe or North America.

But North America always ranked the number one for the place to be for a 'better life' in my numerous conversations with residents and students during my year at UDSM and month and a half as an intern here in Stone Town.

It is seen as a land of milk and honey.

After all, how could the streets not be lined with gold when the North Americans my conversants saw had laptops, iPods, fancy shoes, digital cameras, silver watches and spent the equivalent to an average monthly income on fancy meals not once, but many times a week? Surely anyone who can afford all that plus a plane ticket to travel halfway around the world must come from a magical place where money grows on trees and silk is used as bathroom tissue (apparently the women here are easy too and make excellent housewives)?

But for my lunch time companion headed to Dar, the reality of Canada was far from sugar coated. Instead his experience in this perfect land crushed his high expectations and led him down a path of depression, not happiness. It was something he regretted doing:

“Moving to Canada was the biggest mistake of my life.”

Fourteen years of mopping floors and scrubbing toilets is apparently a dream smasher. It also throws your sense of self worth out the window, especially if you have qualifications to do something more stimulating that interests you. For him, it is supplying shops and government departments with IT equipment. But to Canadian employers in this field, he was nothing more than an unskilled labourer from the Third World who lacked Canadian credentials. So toilet and taxi duty it was.

As he tells me over a colourful plate of chicken biriyani, his dreams of a happy life filled with riches therefore never materialized. Constantly rejected by employers outside of the custodial industry had its toll on his physical and emotional health, and soon reached the point where he decided to return home and start over once again, only this time feeling defeated. And adding to his misery, he would have to go back single because he couldn't afford to bring along his Canadian wife. But hey, looking on the brighter side of things, she never appreciated his “Swahili style of communication” anyways (if it resembles anything like the words he used to order his meal, it is solely based on imperatives).

So now he’s back home in Tanzania, where, as he tells me while washing down his meal with a soda, he belongs; working the daily grind in a culture and environment most compatible with his personality and skill set; making a living that allows him to support his family, who still live with the “aliens” in a dream country that refused him, and probably many other newcomers like him, the luxury of emotional stability and peace.


Caitlin said...

Great post, Kent. Canada's unwillingness to recognize the skills and qualifications of immigrants, who are often highly skilled and educated, it a huge problem, particularly when we're experiencing such a shortage of people like doctors, nurses, and teachers. I know that in Quebec steps have been taken to make it easier for immigrants who are trained in medicine to practise in a limited way, so hopefully it's changing gradually...

As a side note, I'm very interested to know what exactly the man's wife objected to in his "Swahili way of talking" :P

Kent Anjo said...

The Canadian government has recently taken steps to recognize the credentials of foreign trained professionals by launching a "Foreign Credentials Referral Office". Only the future will tell if this actually helps qualified foreigners find meaningful work.

The man's wife objected to his constant use of imperatives and overall bossy nature. He called his style a "Swahili way of talking" but it could just be him. Who knows.

meganskye said...

Hey Kent!
Long time, but holy cow haven't you done a lot since grade 12! (How does one get your email addy?)
On the topic at hand, I had a friend from South America. He moved to Canada in his 20s and stayed for eight years (4 in Winnipeg) before returning from whence he came. He had a habit of saying "Ah, there goes another successful immigrant!" every time he saw a taxi. He was Argentinian and even being caucasian and fluent in English he had an impossible time of breaking out of minimum wage jobs. Milk and honey indeed...

Kent Anjo said...

I assume this is Megan from BVG? If so, how's it going? You can reach me at

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