Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Karibu, Rais Kikwete

Yesterday was a siku kubwa (big day) for Peace House School. President Kikwete visited and toured the school and met the students. It's a huge honor, of course to be visited by a President. We (Mark and I) were introduced and had the opportunity to chat with him for a couple minutes. Scott Augustine also had the chance to talk to him personally about PHF. But the true honors, I think, go to Theo, our headmistress. She gave a speech about the mission and work of Peace House Secondary with our students and was the one who took him through the administration building and the classrooms to meet the students. No matter what my political views are, let's face it--it'd be completely cool to be touring your president around!

It was a tremendous honor for the students, too. Imagine, the most margainalized group of people having the opportunity to greet the President, sing for him, and stand up to represent their new school. They lined the road in, presented flowers and gifts, sang, and answered questions in class when he talked to them. Several were very disappointed because they had worked on a play that they weren't able to present because of the time constraints.

They have been pestering for uniforms from the very first day--even though they have PHS t-shirts, they have felt very shabby in their old skirts and pants and having the uniforms is very important to them in terms of feeling proud and belonging. Our friend Margaret set her tailors into overtime work to finish skirts and trousers so that the students could put their uniforms on for the first time for the special day.

Watching everyone I was reminded yet again how much credit should go to the people of Tanzania that are working so hard to make Peace House Secondary School a great place. Yes, it does take a tremendous amount of money that needs to come from generous donors outside of Tanzania. Yes, there is a place for us to facilitate and guide the integration of Western ideas into Tanzanian culture and practice. We all get plenty of positive feedback about the work we're doing. But today we were honored to see Tanzanian citizens being proud of their work, their school, and themselves. They met their president and shook his hand. They talked to the First Lady. How many of us can say we've had that honor? Our staff and students did a tremendous job representing PHS on a very special day. I always think Tanzanians have a great sense of respect and dignity for serious occasions. We were so proud to have President Kikwete come and see the students and their teachers!

You can see from their faces how great the day was. Mama Kikwete does a lot of work and visits to schools and both of them spoke personally to several students in each of the classrooms. They both have a very friendly and easygoing manner and the students responded to that. The students and teachers are anxiously waiting to have their own copies of the pics with them and the President/First Lady!

President Kikwete has a reputation for being very "hands-on" when he meets people. He has a great smile and is very easy to talk to. He ran very late in arriving (we lucky we were first on his list--the next group waited over 4 1/2 hours) and we were told that he would listen to a speech and have a very quick tour, possibly in his car. Once he arrived, however, he stayed for the whole program, including classroom visits and making a speech to everyone.

It was a great day!

Monday, October 08, 2007

This is a RANT, so BEWARE.

This is not the place to read about the wonders of Tanzania today, so consider yourself warned. If you want to read about that sort of stuff, I'm sure there's some website somewhere that'll have it. Maybe a travel guide or something.

This is about how INSANE things can be here. Particularly Precision Air. Because they are COMPLETELY INSANE.

I booked 7 tickets to Egypt back in March. Precision Air does not take credit cards and won't accept shillings for international flights, only US dollars. That in and of itself is annoying...a Tanzanian company refusing to take its own currency. Getting access to that much money at one time is almost impossible for us, so dear friend Karen brought $6,000 in June to pay for the tickets and trip costs. At the time I made the reservation I asked about the costs, double-checked to make sure it was the TOTAL cost (taxes, etc.) and then waited for the money.

Today, the day in HELL, I got up and toted all my money down to the office to finally pay for the ticket. Except that I can't. Why? No reason that I can understand, but after an hour, they said I needed to come back. So I did. At 11:00. And 12:00. And 1:00. And 2:00. Because in that true Tanzanian fashion, no one else but that one person could possibly help me and of course she's gone to lunch and will be back soon. When? Soon. In 30 minutes? Soon. In one hour? Soon. This is a seriously true conversation.

At 3:00 I turned all ugly American and demanded that one of the 6 other people in the office let me pay for the ticket. Turns out the price went up almost $1000. Now I don't have enough cash to pay for the tickets and I'll have to go buy a bunch of USD. Wait, wait, let us see if we can help. At 4:00 the price is down $800. Now I have enough money. I cheerfully hand over $5,000 perfectly beautiful crispy American dollars, Ben Franklin smiling up from each and every one.

And then they give $3000 back. They won't take them. Because they were printed in 1996 and they are too old. They're not usable. They question whether businesses in America would take them. They certainly can't be taking such old money. And could I just go and get some different ones and bring them back? I said, who do you think I am? I live here, I have no US dollars, do you think I have money just laying around? I won't even go into the fact that you won't accept YOUR OWN CURRENCY. I pointed out that the bills aren't even creased. The manager assures me that they can get the old money exchanged for new money tomorrow and then everything will be fine and I can just leave all my money with him. I said, fine--just issue me the tickets and keep the money and change it tomorrow.

"No, that we cannot do."
"Because we can't accept this money."
"But you'll change it for me tomorrow."
"And you're absolutely sure that it will get changed."
"And you won't cancel the ticket."
"But you won't issue me the ticket and change the money for yourself."
"Because we can't take the money. You come tomorrow at 10:00."
"I can't come tomorrow at 10:00."
"Yes, this is important."
"No, I am meeting the President tomorrow and that is very important."
"No, you're not. Why are you saying this?"
"Because it's true and I want to meet the President."
"If you come afternoon, the money will be gone from the forex the tickets will be cancelled."
"So give me the tickets today and change the money yourself tomorrow."
"No, we can't do this thing."
"Because we cannot take this money."

And that took until 5:00. And, for the record, I really am going to have a chance to meet the President of Tanzania tomorrow. It's not like I was throwing that around trying to impress anyone. I was merely trying to show that the reason I wasn't going to be in their office tomorrow was a little more important than just not wanting to.

So...a Tanzanian business won't accept their own currency. And won't accept a currency that (correct me if I'm wrong) is quite popular and generally preferred in much of the world. I won't even mention that the forex that will potentially be giving me newer $100 bills for my current ones is going to charge 2 cents on the dollar. And as much as I'm working not to lose my temper, I wanted to SMACK the guy for his general assumption that I just have lots of more of these laying around and have easy access to this amount of American cash. Or for his insistence that Precision Air prides itself on its customer service and that they really really want to help and how much they value my business. See if they get my 3 tickets to Dar es Salaam I need to buy next week.

AND I didn't get my water bill paid. Or get any grocery shopping done. Or get any other errands done. It's so TYPICAL of how easy things get completely SCREWED UP with some sort of inefficiency and rules that don't make sense.

AND, lest I heap it all on this one company, let me just say that when I went to Tanesco to pay my electric bill (you bring in the old bill and they use the numbers to print the new one) they refused because it was wrinkled on the numbers and they couldn't be sure. When I suggested they have a go at it because the name of the house owner is clearly readable and can be verified that way, they said, "no." So I had to go home and rummage around for a less wrinkled bill. This was over an hour of standing in line, not including the trip back to the house.

DHL refused to take a package consisting of two photocopies and two passport photos because I didn't have the specific number for the person at the Embassy. I tried to make one up, not having one (and getting one would require me to email the Embassy and wait for a response). She caught that one. Finally, SHE thought to pull out the good ol' PHONE BOOK and look it up. OK, I didn't even know they had a phone book here, but I do have serious doubts as to how accurate it is. But even that simple act took over 30 minutes.

What a rotten day.

Rant update: Spent another hour at 3 high-end hotels trying to convince their forex booths to switch me some dollars. No go. Why? No reason, just no. 8:00 am found me at our bank (we have a PHF account, but not a personal one and it's shillings only). They have a machine that runs the bills to see if they are conterfeit. I begged and pleaded with them to run them through the machine. No go. I need to deposit the money (thereby switching to shillings), then write a check and withdraw it, and THEN convert it back to dollars. The double exchange, of course, would lose me money. FINALLY, I found a forex bureau that would do it...for $30 per $1,000. So I did get it done, and the cost wasn't astronomical. It's the principal of the whole thing. Funny that it's the first time I've felt offended as an American that they considered my money unusable!

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

P640 Rides Again!

What can I say about Project 640? They have been some of our biggest supporters and they turned out last week to kick off PHS with a bang. The group first came in February, 2006, just at the time we showed up, so admittedly, my mind is a bit fuzzy from that time! When they showed up Tanzania was at the end of a long drought--the site was nothing but a bare patch of dirt. No buildings, nothing but sun and dust! Thanks to them, we have a great banda to keep us cool when we take a break from work.

They showed up again February, 2007. This time there were buildings started and trees planted. The sun was still hot and the dust still flew, but when they left we had a beautiful herb garden and firepit.

Well, they keep coming back! And for some strange reason, they just didn't seem to be so interested in building. Maybe that's because they were just having too much fun meeting the students! The volunteers got their first taste of what PHS will have to offer the students. The students (and staff) got their very first glimpse of some of what Americans do best--give, love, and have a great time! They came toting ENORMOUS bags full of art supplies, games, and sports equipment. They came to experience what we've all waited for for so long--to meet the 120 reasons Peace House Foundation exists!
On the way, they managed to have some fun hiking and dancing. They played competetive Uno. They dug into glitter and stickers and markers and beads and showed off their artistic sides. They played frisbee in the wind. They played that great game, baseball. And all the way, the expectation that the students would join in and have fun was exceeded a hundredfold. The students have had almost a month of visitors doing things they've never had a chance to do. I think school will be seem a little dull this week when they finally settle into a "normal" routine.

Learning to work with volunteers and interacting with Americans will be a very new experience for students and staff. Most of them have never really had any contact with "us" and most of their experiences have been watching tourists roll through town in their safari wagons. I would imagine they have formed a whole host of impressions and ideas based on what they see and hear. Now they have the same opportunities (and, I suppose, challenges) in learning about us in a direct and personal way. I can speak from experience saying that learning about a new culture isn't always easy. It challenges your assumptions about what's "right" or "polite" or "acceptable". It forces to examine your own beliefs and attitudes about life and decide how these new ways and ideas fit in. For us, the end result has been overwhelmingly positive. Life is much richer interacting with people that experience life differently. The blessing of PHS is that we are brought together as a family for a united cause.