Peace in the Valley

by zunguzungu

So, what is it about Tanzania? I asked John, the Kenyan headmaster at a neighboring school, why he had come to Tanzania and he said, with deep appreciation, simply “There is peace here.” He went on to tell me that everyone here was Christian, too, a fact of which I and the US state department might beg to differ (and, indeed, the Danish missionary who explained to Anton that nothing good could come from the Tanzania’s muslim president because nothing good could come from muslims), but that’s another matter.  The state department’s and the Danish guy’s heads are up their asses and I’d merely quibble with the demography: while there are certainly as many muslims here as there are Christians, or more, there is also, indisputably, peace. I asked Ben, the young man from Njiro who was so happy to talk to us (and, as he put it repeatedly, to exchange ideas) that he would not leave for hours, and he also proclaimed the great fellow feeling of Tanzanians, giving credit to the former president and intoning his full name with a lofty ceremonial grandeur: Mwalimu Julius Kambarage Nyerere, the architect of Tanzania’s rural socialism after independence. He pointed to the ideals of selfless “familyhood” that were at the heart of Nyerere’s government and the unity of the country that came from everyone being taught swahili in school instead of tribal languages or English.  And there’s probably something to that, since the kind of tribalism everyone points to in Kenya is pretty much absent here, as far as I can tell (and everyone pronounces its absence, which is not quite the same thing, but let it pass). Even the younger kids in the family I’m staying with haven’t learnt much Chagga; I was trying to work out the grounds of its grammar from the older brother (who knew it) only to discover that the younger kids did not, really. Hard to say what that signifies, but I wonder if such languages will pass quietly from the world like Pennsylvania Dutch did in my family: my grandparents were the first generation (I think?) who didn’t learn it well, and I and my father of course never learned it. Such family languages tend not to survive too well in competition with predatory languages like English, just like the local fish that have been forced out by invasive Nile Perch in Lake Victoria. Have you seen Darwin’s Nightmare, the film about the disastrous envoronmental consequences of unfetterd capitalist expansion of the fishing industry in Lake Victoria?  See it. But you won’t be able to in Tanzania, because its banned here.
My, I’m feeling digressive and expansively wordy today! The last anecdote I was going to parade before your eyes, gentle reader, was just yesterday when, as Anton and I were hiking back from town, we were accosted by a young, fairly drunk, guy speaking surprisingly good, if slurred, British accented English and loudly requesting our presence at his table to drink with him.  There is often something faintly hostile about such invitations, partly because if they don’t make themselves intrusive you’ll just walk on by (we Wazungu get greeted every ten feet, so you sort of have to ignore or briefly salute and move on past the vast majority of people that hail you) but also because you’re wazungu and paranoid: who is this guy?  Why is he harrassing us? What are his intentions? But this guy wouldn’t take “no, maybe later” for an answer. “We are just human beings!” he shouted “Don’t say ‘no, later’ because I am a black person!  Sit down!  Drink!  We are human beings exchanging ideas!”  So we did. And as it practically always does, this turned out to have been the right thing to do; though growing increasingly drunk, Swenky was an interesting and ebullient character, a Masaai guy (“deculturated” as the colonialists used to say) who was sent to town to get education and who not only knew the Shinda school but knew some of the teachers that had been there before I was there the first time, had known them quite well. So we talked and talked, and as it often does, the subject came to rest on the question of Tanzania and why it is so great (which I say without irony, postmodern though I be).  “Mazingira,” Shwenky proclaimed.  “And you should be drinking in local places like this. Not in fancy bars in the town.  In Mazingira! The environment! But not like Wazungu mean it. No. The places, the places people are stinking.”

To shift gears abruptly (such a postmodern be I), before I came to Arusha, I was in Lushoto.  Let’s set the scene:
I’m in Lushoto, staying in the house of a teacher who happens to be away at the moment. There is some uncertainty as to whether I’m supposed to be there or not, since (while Liz is welcomed) having a strange man in the house is something about which this married teacher whose husband lives elsewhere is apparently somewhat dubious (or, rather, it is a thing about which her husband is, in no uncertain terms, quite dubious).  We solve the problem by having me move out the day before she arrives; as it happens, I never meet her. The atmosphere in that house is a bit tense.
The environment, however, is not, nor are we as we arrive. Lushoto is breathtaking, absolutely gorgeous, and after the dusty sweltering cesspool that is Dar, both Liz and feel giddy as we laboriously climb into the foothills of the Tanga region.  The Wasambaa who are returning home from Bongo with us in the bus put on traditional Usambaa drumming as the bus’ tires clutch precariously at the dirt roads carved into the hills of their home region, winding first up and then down into the valley at the bottom of which sits Lushoto. We buy plums from a woman selling at the roadside–Tanga is reknowned for its fruit–and once we’ve disembarked, we rediscover the charm of village life for the visiting wazungu: children who giggle at the sight of you, suspicious frowns that turn incredulous and then delighted when you address them, and the complete absence of the city’s heavy, ominous predatoriness. No one is waiting for you, but everyone welcomes you; after Dar, where everyone is ready to profit from your lapses, it is a different world. There are soaring hills (and while I understand that hills don’t generally soar, these hills have perfected the trick), terraced gardens on the sheerest of slope faces, cool breezes, blue skies, the works. The valley at the bottom of the hill I’m staying on top of has even been landscaped into a series of rice paddy-esque fish ponds that one crosses through to get to the town, and there is a certain relaxed, spread-out-ness to the landscape that slows everything down.  Mazingira mazuri!
That is, nice environment (the derivation being that to “zingira” is to go around and surround). And here in Lushoto, which is three parts village and one part NGO gold rush, they take protecting their environment very seriously. Liz has found a tree planting seminar to study (she is here to study NGO education programs), and after hearing about how the first day goes, I invite myself along for the second. For many of these people, this is their first “seminah” and you can easily tell which those people are; some have fashionable hair and stylish dresses, and then some have retained their nametags from the first day, treating their names written on masking tape with the same kind of care that school children take with school uniforms that have to last the whole year.  We call them the miji people (city) and kijiji people (village), and they clearly differentiate themselves, taking different routes to and from the seminar, standing in separate groups, and in general staying the heck out of each others’ way. And their actions are different too, while the miji’s are taking cell phone calls, passing notes, passing in and out of the meeting at will, the kijiji’s tend to hold their questions out of respect (Liz later asked one of them why he hadn’t asked a question that he was, after the meeting, trying to find the answer to: he responded that since the teacher was reading the lecture from a book, maybe he wouldn’t be able to answer it and woulld have been in an embarassed position). They have each been given a notebook on the first day, and though I would dearly like to see what some of the kijiji’s are writing (those who proudly tell you they can read and write quite well because they completed the fourth grade), you also notice that none of the stylishly dressed women seem to have their notebooks anymore, perhaps having shed them like modern children shed their Chagga. The meeting moves very slowly; one often can’t hear what the speaker is saying, not because people are talking (they are) but because she isn’t really making an effort to be heard or to move things along. She doesn’t seem that interested. Adam, Liz’s research assistant, is msambara and can explain certain things to local people in their own language and also use the sambara names for trees and things,  increasingly seems to be more of a facilitator than she is and as things progressed, more and more of the kijiji’s questions were actually being directed at him.
Liz is studying the way these kinds of educational projects actually work, what kinds of things people are actually learning, what they understand, and how they are being urged to change. Adam is an old friend of hers who should, quite frankly, be supplied with an office, a staff, and perhaps a cabinet ministry. Liz is quite frank in admitting that Adam should be the star of the show, but he’s delighted to be along and is, in any case, much more interested in the subject of the seminar than Liz is. He’s willing to observe the “meta” stuff she’s studying, but I suspect he finds the mechanics of tree grafting and the process of planting much more interesting than abstract questions about political indoctrination.  It is, one must concede, much more relevent to his life. Even I learn a few interesting things.  Eucalyptus trees suck up water like no one’s business (Liz mentions that widespread planting of Euc trees is how they got rid of malaria in Israel) and we see a plant that apparently has great potential for cancer treatments, among tree after tree after interesting tree.
Under normal circumstances I might have been interested by the trees, but while you’re here, frankly, the standard for what is interesting enough for you to pay attention to (too much interesting!  Too little time!) gets pretty steep. In this situation, the people are much more interesting. An elderly woman, when asked about her age, gingerly offers (as the person before her has) that she is thirty, provoking strident complaint from a miji who believes her own claim to that age to be based in fact and takes offense. And, early on in the seminar, the participants are told that they are all partners and are to address each other as such.  I only notice the kijiji’s actually doing so, and when Liz asks one what “partner” means, the young woman suggests that it means sexual relationships. This is not a problem, however, explains the woman, since her husband is present. And in general, the purpose of a tree planting seminar seems somewhat specious anyway: while, when inquiries are made, the kijiji and miji alike both repeat what they’ve been told (Cut a tree, plant a tree), it seems clear that the kijiji are cheerfully optimistic that they will learn something useful, something they can plant and get some kind of monetary or other benefit from, while it’s not apparent that the miji are interested at all. And, as I look around the landscape, I find myself wondering where these trees are even going to be planted. Waangari Maathai got a nobel prize for planting trees in Kenya, but Lushoto is not suffering from deforestation in the same way that Siberia is not suffering from heat waves or tourists.
The whole thing is a complete racket, it turns out, as Liz pretty much told me it would be from the beginning. The Ubiri women’s group has received some USAID rural development grant which was contingent on putting on these kinds of seminars, and to prove that they’ve held the seminars they need names on sign up sheets, which they get by paying participants to the tune of five thousand shillings a day, plus an excellent meal. This may not be much–about four dollars–but Adam, for example, has left his wife and children to be Liz’s research assistant for three thousand shillings plus expenses a day, and is quite happy to do it. Indeed, one of the problems that Liz keeps running into is the fact that all such seminars seem to pay their participants, making it very difficult to ascertain that people are actually interested in the substance of the education at all. And the Ubiri women’s group? Well, Adam, who is from Ubiri and who can’t walk down the street in Lushoto without running into people he knows, knew none of the women in the Ubiri women’s group, which is probably just a name that a bunch of citified business people adopted to seem more like villagers in the eyes of funders who would never know the difference.
It apparently got more interesting the next day, but I couldn’t take the potent mixture of botany and corruption and spent the day reading and drinking coffee. From Liz and Adam, I learned that the kijijis had been sent home (in a very disrespectful way, Adam noted placidly) and that the substance of the third day’s meeting was a tent revival style discourse on the coming new economic order, the free market reforms that are steadily eroding the last vestiges of Nyerere’s socialism. Some people were going to fit into the new economy, it was stressed, and some were not. And apparently, little was left to the imagination as to what kind of a breakdown that would turn out to be, even grammatically: while economic activities associated with the village were described in passive terms (as in, people whose work makes them) and it was emphasized with great gusto that such people were going to be swept away or left behind, the new city entrepreneurs were accorded a different kind of grammatical structure, one which emphasized that they were people who had control and mastery of their business, and were given a sort of higher grammatical status as actual people. The revivalist language, as I said, was quite evident too; I don’t know if they used the one about the sheep and goats, but I bet it wouldn’t have been innappropriate. It sounded quite disturbing, but hardly anything that wasn’t already sickeningly familiar, and I didn’t feel like I had missed much. Better Liz than me!
One of the new economic practices that are being propogated is the idea that, when a neighbor wants to borrow some bananas, you can give him some from your private stash, but not your “business” stash.  This distinction is quite important because African traditional cultures tend to be rife with rules and guidelines on how one disposes of personal property, such that, for example, having an excess of food implies a social obligation to give food to neighbors who are without. In West Africa, the praise singer’s social role is (though often shallowly interpreted as a kind of sycophant to the wealthy) as a kind of regulator of such people: if you are hungry or in need, and the rich neighbor won’t help you out, you call in a praise singer, who (for a cut, most likely) will praise the neighbor’s generosity (or even condemn his hard-heartedness) until he’s so embarrassed that he relents. And in Tanzania, the heart of Nyerere’s brand of socialism was the claim to an African form of familial government; in swahili, he never uses the word socialism but calls his policy “Ujamaa,” a kind of neologism for “familyness.” So it was clear that was being aimed at in this seminar was a new set of rules and guidelines that would keep such traditional morality away from people’s right to dispose of their property; this being the clarion call of economic neo-liberalism anyway, it has a particular potency in a place where the claims of family and community are so central and unavoidable. If one is being hit up for money, and one actual has that money, in a way that is objectively apparent, saying no for any reason is quite difficult.
For example, Adam told us the story of a distant relative who, having died, needed to be given a certain kind of burial ritual (involving feasting and many guests) for many days after his actual death, and Adam had been hit up for money to help put on the show. Being a very devout Christian (and not particularly affluent), Adam resisted; what’s the point, he asked, the man is dead. Then followed long consultations, long arguments, and long struggle before he was eventually compelled to donate his share. But he did donate (and was still a bit bitter about it), and the point was, to Liz’s mind, that despite whatever personal feelings he had, he had been compelled, and had eventually given the money.  And so she was wondering what difference these kinds of seminars would make anyway, given this fact.
But everyone recognized the ideas being propogated as quite a revolutionary change: Adam recounted one exchange where a man asked “So, it’s like one has to be born again?” and the seminar leader indicated that this was precisely what was necessary.  As we were discussing this over passionfruit juice, I got all meta and postmodern, insisting that the man must have been joking or at least registering what a perilous leap was being made on some level, even if he wasn’t aware of it; how ludicrous, I proclaimed, the idea that one could seriously apply such a basic religious and spiritual concept to the mindset one needs to be able to tell people that, yes, I have extra food, but no, you can’t have any of it, which seemed to me to be about as opposite the Christianity I know as I can think of. How could this man, I insisted, possibly be saying without irony what he seemed to be saying?  Adam, however, insisted that he was. And after some reflection, I would glumly agree, both given the depressing facility with which evangelical religion seems to express itself in the rhetoric of economic individualism (get Jesus so you can get money!) and the fact that an economic revolution is precisely what the business class want.  The people at that seminar are tired of Ujamaa, tired of not being any better than their rural neighbors, tired of the previous governments’ emphais on rural development of the majority of the country, and delighted at the prospect of emulating the free market policies of Tanzania’s neighbor to the north. And, if there’s not peace in Kenya, there’s certainly wealth and development. Which do you want?
Anton pointed out to me that they are probably also tired of being a third world country, tired of being inundated with images from abroad of wealth and easy living while they struggle, and there is certainly plenty to that, but the truly vile odor that eminates from such seminars comes not from them as attempts at development, per se, but from the completely unveiled sense of class elitism through which it is expressed. When explaining how the country would develop itself, my sense of it was that the language of “catching up” to the rest of the world was not nearly as prevalent as the language of sweeping aside those who could not keep up.  This was a revival for those who weren’t so much struggling to overtake the rest of the world as it was for those who had, relatively, already made it and were struggling to keep others from chipping away at the fruit of their accomplishment. After all, if the seminar was about the philosophy of correct business, without which one could not compete in today’s marketplace, why was it that the people who the very rhetoric of the meeting claimed most needed this new philosophy were precisely those who were not invited? Instead of “teaching” the kijiji’s about how they should be conducting themselves economically, instead, the seminar taght the city folk about why they didn’t need to worry about those who were falling behind.  It was their own fault; the laws of economics demanded it.
I could talk a great deal more on this subject, but as Anton put it, on charitably reading this entry, “You’ve certainly written a lot,” and so I’ll try to cut it short. I take cheer from the fact that, as disgustingly clear as the elitist orientation of such seminars seems to be, they are also pathetically corrupt and inept, and, if omnipresent, seem only a vast echo chamber for money and sermons directed at the already converted.  Maybe Liz can make a better judgement than me.  But I’m not interested in thinking about it too much now, not when there’s so many more interesting things to pay attention to.  In Lushoto, there’s too much wonderful human environment to be enriched by to want to be in a seminar listening to those people’s stink. So let me return to what Shwenky said.  Did he say “stink?”  Perhaps not.  His point was that Wazungu think “Mazingira” is things like trees, that the environment is something outside yourself that you look at and enjoy, but separate yourself from.  But maybe he was saying not stink, but the places people stay, the human environment.  I’m really not sure; as I said, he was slurring quite a bit. In any case, there’s a coincidental kind of double meaning there anyway that I’ll grab onto for a metaphor, since the places people stay tends to stink in away.  The kijiji tend to stink.  Its the city folk who wear perfumes, who wear deoderant, who tend not to spend long hours sweating in the hot sun. And the places we tourists go tend not to stink either, because we go to the places regular people aren’t staying.  We go to fancy bars in town and game parks and climb mountains above all the stink and detritus that this wrecking ball of a tourist economy leaves in its wake. And if, in the city, one learns to constantly be on guard from the people who are trying to get your money, one learns to trust no one, and one learns to assume that every profession of “my friend” is a calculated lie, I’ve been told by a woman living in a mud house speaking no English that if I ever need the money to take the daladala into town, I should come to her.  “Nipe nauli, dada” she repeated, over and over again, until finally I calmed her by repeating it after her. And when I took the daladala with her to visit her family, she did indeed pay my fare.  The fare was 20 cents. So which environment, which Mazingira is USAID trying to alter?  Which kind of environment do they value? What kind of peace are they bringing? Let Liz study and answer that, because my mind is already made up. Let her study those seminars. I’m glad she’s doing it but I don’t have the stomach for it. I think it stinks.