Communities on a Human Scale

I have to give some credit to my old roommate Mr. Jesse Hugo, Masters in Urban Planning, for being the first person to explain many of these ideas to me. If you want him to plan your urban area just send him an email.

There is something much more satisfying about the scale communities in Tanzania are built to. Because most people don’t own cars everything is built to a “human scale”. In other words, everything you might need on a given day is within walking distance – friends, food, medicine, beer, school, privacy, church, etc. People can – and do – quite easily live their whole lives without using motorized transportation.

Houses are close enough together that neighbors are in shouting distance, but have enough space that everyone can have a small farm and some animals. Streets are wide enough for single lane traffic but are primarily used for foot traffic. There is no “zoning” dictating land use. You are free to use land as you wish. Thus, if a market opportunity comes up people can pursue it from their front lawn or their living room. Many people will set up small vegetable stands on the side of the road or will turn an extra room of their house into a bar or a small shop. Other than meat, fruits, and vegetables most supplies are still shipped in from outside, but the community is much more self-contained than what we find in America.

Look outside your window right now. Any people out there? If you live in a typical American neighborhood there probably aren’t many people who aren’t inside cars or plugged into MP3 players. If you feel like talking to someone or being social what will you do? You probably have a relatively small group of friends you feel comfortable calling and asking to hang out and even then something probably needs to be scheduled – you don’t want to interfere with their lives. When was the last time someone just stopped by and rang your doorbell? Perhaps this is why so many Americans suffer from feelings of depression, loneliness, and isolation. Perhaps this also contributes to a general disregard for the notion of “community” once we leave colleges and other places built on a human scale.

Maybe the best way to explain this is to imagine a Wednesday evening where you’ve gotten off work early and are home at 5pm. What to do? It’s too early for dinner and you’re not sure which of your friends will also be off work already. You could just go to a bar but the likelihood of happening to see someone you know is small and you don’t want to sit and drink alone. Maybe you can go for a walk. That’s nice but if you’re feeling social you probably won’t run into anyone. Television is always tempting.

In Mkyashi you could just walk down the street. You would see plenty of people doing this and that whom you could stop and talk to briefly. Eventually you would walk by some of the usual meeting spots and you would easily be able to see who was hanging out there and was also done with work for the day. You certainly wouldn’t feel isolated.

I could go on giving examples like this. How well do you know your neighbor’s children? What would the effect be on the community if we all knew and cared about our neighbor’s kids more?

I certainly don’t want to be one of those people who travels around the world and talks about how much better everywhere else is than USA. I love the USA and miss it every day. I’m excited to get back home! But there are definitely some pieces of life that just make more sense in other countries. Our preoccupation with large homes, large lawns, large shopping centers, and large cars separates us from our shared humanity and isolates us.

While I wax poetic about the virtues of human scale, many Tanzanians are working hard to achieve the higher status homes and isolation of the United States. New communities are being built based on and American model of development. Jesse explained to me the same thing is happening in Brazil. Many people around the world see America as a dream to achieve and they work towards an “American luxury lifestyle” regardless of whether those status symbols will actually improve their happiness. I like to imagine what a wealthy community in the United States would look like if it was built on a human scale. I think I’d like it. It might look similar to East Nashville or Park Avenue in Winter Park minus the snobbery.


The Rainy Season is Here!

The rainy season is finally here! We may not like rain so much in the United States, but in Tanzania they say “Mvua ni Chakula” – Rain is Food. Rain is also cool nights, no more dust, and no more walking to get water – now it falls off the roof in buckets.

Everyone is hard at work now planting their crops and preparing everything for cultivation. If it’s a good rainy season then in a few months everyone should have good crops to sell and consume. Hopefully it will be a good season for everyone and we will be celebrating the harvest in a few months, Mungu akipenda – if God wishes.

A Rambling and Possibly Inaccurate Analysis of Dar es Salaam

Kipepeo Beach off the coast of Dar. A quiet escape from the city.

Kipepeo Beach off the coast of Dar. A quiet escape from the city.

Tanzania is a fascinating place to travel. The landscape changes quickly from dramatic mountains to flat desert to fertile rolling farmlands to savannahs spotted with kopjis and finally to beautiful beaches. With over 150 tribes speaking 120 distinct languages, the people change even faster. Watching the world go by out the window of a bus is a treat, and you never know what will be greeting you at a new destination.

In truth, Dar es Salaam was not a new destination for me. I had been there before and I had hated it. My first time in Dar was with Alli. We had arrived en route to Zanzibar and had to stay overnight because we missed the ferry out to the island. Our experience started when we got off our bus at dusk and were converged upon by taxi drivers hoping to get one more good fare before the end of the day. The drivers were aggressive. The pushed and grabbed and shouted. We ended up “choosing” to go with the taxi driver who snatched our bags and ran to his car with them. We said we wanted to go to the ferry terminal and he proceeded to drive us to the wrong ferry terminal and sped away.

By the time we arrived at the right ferry terminal the last ferry’s had left (we watched it leave from the wrong terminal) so we had to purchase a ticket for the next morning. The ferry terminal itself was another nightmare. There were only three ferries running from Dar to Zanzibar, but there were dozens of “offices” along the terminal. “Agents” hustled and grabbed to bring you into their office and collect a commission. We were followed by five or six men representing different offices who would not leave us alone no matter how many times we told them we didn’t need help and wanted them to leave.

Eventually we settled on the most respectable looking ticket office – they even gave us milk, cereal, and juice – and then set off to find an ATM. Alli stayed in the ticket office with our bags and once again I led a trail of men to the ATM. The ATM is not a place you want a trail of people following you, so I took some unexpected turns and tried to use traffic to my advantage to lose my followers. Somehow it worked and I got the money and made it back safely to the ticket office. We purchased our tickets and were all set for the next day. The agent helped us get a cab to take us to our hotel and negotiated a reasonable fare for us. Unfortunately, once we arrived our cab driver insisted we had agreed on a higher fare and need to pay him more. He followed us all the way into the hotel until the hotel security guard had to escort him out.

Needless to say, since then I never had much of a yearning to return to Dar. Then, I got invited to Dar for TPM. Of course I wanted to accept the meeting, and I figured I might as well give the city another try. I’m glad I did.

Dar es Salaam is a unique coastal city that takes Tanzanian, Indian, and Western culture and grinds them together until it all feels natural. Office towers of shiny glass rise above traffic jams and hustling people with motorbikes weaving in and out of everywhere. You can find shops with window displays selling iPhones, Nikes, and flat-screen TVs and sitting in front of them will be women selling homemade chapattis and tea out of buckets. Flashy hotels for diplomats and businesspeople are side by side with churches, mosques, temples, and used good dealers. One of my favorite parts of the city is the ubiquity of used book dealers. I bought a pair of books by John Steinbeck – “Of Mice and Men” and “The Short Reign of Pippin IV” – for a couple dollars.

After spending a few enjoyable hours in Dar I started telling people about my previous experiences. Nobody was surprised to hear about them. It turns out that the bus stand and the ferry terminal are known for being some of the most hellish places in the city. Even locals told me they would go out of their way to avoid these places.

The relationship between Tanzanian, Indian, and Western cultures is fascinating. On the surface it can seem like a beautiful coexistence and mix of cultures; an up and coming postmodern city. However, closer inspection necessitates a more critical account. First, a very unofficial and unverified history.

Tanzania is possibly the “birthplace of man.” We’ll never know for sure but, in any case, humans have been living here for millennia. So for thousands of years various tribes spread out across Tanzania including what is now Dar and lived as subsistent farmers, fishermen, cattle herders, and nomads. There is very little evidence of the great civilizations of the Nile ever reaching as far south as Tanzania, so the first “outsiders” would have started reaching the coast of Tanzania starting around 1000 AD. Explorers came to Tanzania from Persia, India, and the kingdoms of modern day China to trade – exploit – in spices, ivory, minerals, and people. A massive Arab trading empire was set up that stretched up the coast of much of East Africa.

This went on until around the 17th or 18th century when European colonists arrived with very much the same intentions. The area that is now mainland Tanzania become “Tanganyika” under German colonization and then “British East Africa” under British rule until Tanzania’s independence in the second half of the 20th century. During British rule colonists undertook a variety of major infrastructure projects to make exploitation easier. The British found the Africans difficult to work with so they brought in Indians – they had a lot of experience controlling Indians at this point – to act as middle men between themselves and the laborers. So there would have been a few British colonists living very comfortably and giving orders to Indians who were “above” Africans on account of their slightly lighter skin color who would then pass on and enforce orders to the Africans.

When the British left and Tanzanian gained independence, much of the wealth and power stayed in the hands of Indians. Years of brutal labor and British class distinctions had built up significant distrust and tension between Indian Africans and Black Africans. That tension remains today and is made worse because Indians continue to live more prosperously than most local people.

This colonial era distribution of power remains today behind a thin veil. Most of the big businesses putting up skyscrapers and fancy hotels in Dar and extracting millions of dollars in gold, tanzanite, and diamonds are owned by Western firms. The middle class in Dar is mostly Indians. They own most of the formal restaurants and shops and import most of the new and used goods which they sell to Black Africans to distribute at lower margins and volumes. Take the example of used books.

Those books were originally printed by major publishing houses in Europe and USA. Eventually they found their way into Tanzania where Indians buy them in bulk and then sell them to Black Tanzanians to peddle on street corners.

Most of the Black Tanzanians I talk to will say very negative things about the Indians. They are greedy, they are cruel bosses, they care only about money. Most of the Indians I talk to will say very negative things about Black Tanzanians. They are lazy, they can’t be trusted, they are dangerous. It’s a delicate situation. Black Tanzanians often explained to me that Indians don’t like to mix with them and will send their kids to separate schools out of fear. One Indian shop owner I talked to explained to me that many Indian Tanzanians struggle with their identity. Tanzania is not “home” to them because they are not accepted, have no representation in government, and feel a cultural divide. India is not home to them because they were not born there, don’t have citizenship, and often don’t speak the language. Hovering above all of this are Western businessmen, diplomats, and tourists – often blissfully naïve of the entire system. I’m sure everyone has words to say about them (me)!

As Dar continues to grow it will have a number of problems – from traffic jams to race relations – that it will have to deal with. But I believe the future is bright for the city. It has beautiful beaches, industrious people, and a central location on the coast of East Africa. I am happy I got to return and explore this city one more time!

3/12 Update

It’s been a while since our last blog update. Blame it on the rolling power and network outages as well as a very busy schedule as of late. In any case, a lot has happened so I’ll try to give a brief run-down of recent progress.

First, on Thursday I returned from a trip to Dar es Salaam. It was a whirlwind trip. I left Mkyashi early Tuesday morning and arrived in Dar some thirteen hours later. The Dutch Embassy had invited a member of TPM to come and share about our work. The meeting was at 9:30am on Wednesday so I went to the meeting first thing in the morning, spent a few hours afterwards taking advantage of internet access in Dar, and then spent the afternoon and evening exploring what turned out to be one of the most unique cities I’ve ever been to. More on the city in another post, for now I’ll focus on the meeting.

It turns out that the Netherlands is pulling its funding from Tanzania. Budget cuts and other austerity measures have forced it to narrow its focus in Africa significantly. It will maintain a small team at the embassy focused on economic policy and foreign affairs but will no longer provide foreign aid. But all was not lost.

As it turns out one of the embassy’s Policy Officers, Theresia, is actually from Mkyashi. Mkyashi is a tiny village. Even a few miles away people won’t know what you’re talking about if you say Mkyashi. As such, she was very surprised to see a project focused on economic development in Mkyashi come across her desk. We talked for a couple of hours and she shared with me that she knows a number of people who have family roots in Mkyashi but have moved away to pursue opportunity. Theresia believes there is an enormous opportunity to engage the knowledge and expertise of these people who have gone on to become doctors, business people, and development experts.

This was an exciting connection and one that could truly get to the ideal of “Tuko Pamoja” – “We Are Together.” Theresia and I plan on keeping in touch and starting a serious dialogue about how we might be able to get people who have left Mkyashi to come back and assist with projects related to their areas of expertise.

Second, the FAITH Garden program is set to go for this tomorrow (Wednesday).  We have secured a plot of land in the village for a training garden and a small shop from which to sell garden supplies. Today I went down to Kahe alone to meet with Deo, who runs the garden program in Kahe. It was exciting to see the program and to begin thinking how we can adapt Mkyashi. Mary and Lyimo are excited to come down tomorrow and begin learning. Our first step will be  making high quality compost. Should be fun, right?!

The future home of our garden shop! Hoping to post some good before and after pictures.

The future home of our garden shop! Hoping to post some good before and after pictures.

The future garden site! Again, it will be more impressive in the before and after pictures.

The future garden site! Again, it will be more impressive in the before and after pictures.

Third, our entrepreneur program continues to make progress. On Thursday Emmanual finally purchased his pigs! We had spent a long time building a business plan and learning about best practices for raising pigs and he was so excited to finally be getting started. This marks the second entrepreneur in just over a month we have helped to start a business. We will continue to monitor the success of Mama Regan’s chapatti business and Emmanual’s pig project as well as working with a number of other entrepreneurs to work towards their goals. Emmanual is hoping to expand to chickens next.

Emmanual's pigs! He got give in total. Two females and one male. Don't worry, these little guys are for breeding, not bacon.

Emmanual’s pigs! He got give in total. Two females and one male. Don’t worry, these little guys are for breeding, not bacon.

We have also been exploring other ways to help expand the local economy. VICOBAs (Village Community Banks) may end up being a key partner in this mission. For those who have kept up with this blog, you will be familiar with VICOBAs. We have been trying to find the best way to partner with these locally initiated projects for a while now.

We’re still discussing options but one idea that has come up is for TPM to help VICOBAs implement profit generating projects as a group. These projects would be looked after by members of the VICOBAs (each VICOBA has about 30 members) and profits from the projects would be deposited into the bank to help increase capital and enable group members to take out larger loans. By the end of the month we hope to have determined exactly how TPM can help these projects get started.

It’s hard to believe it’s only been a month and a half since we got started on the ground! Much has happened and even more has been planned. The next month or so should be very exciting as plans start to be implemented and projects take shape.