Thursday, July 19, 2007

A New Beginning

Tengeru, Tanzania

Mambo zenu?

Just a little Swahili for anyone interested. It basically means “What’s up y’all?” The next time someone back home asks you how things are going, just surprise them with a response from East Africa: poa (cool), safi (clean/fit) or boring old nzuri (good) for those of you who prefer vanilla and don’t like Tabasco.

Our plane took off from Chicago two weeks ago, en route for London and onto Nairobi, and it’s crazy to think that we’ve only actually been in Tanzania for about ten days now. It already feels like home, which is a good thing, because while Meghann leaves Tuesday, Hunter and I have got about 50 weeks to go.

But even if we had 100 weeks left on the continent, I doubt the one bag I entrusted to British Airways would ever arrive on my doorstep. Not seeing it emerge on the Nairobi airport conveyor belt after a 24-hour journey generated an annoyance which slowly transformed into rage, but which has now dissolved into a resigned acceptance of fate, as at least I know I’m not the only one – two people have emailed me in the past few days to say that Regis Philbin has been railing against BA every day for weeks with the same complaint. If only the TFFT blog was a bully pulpit with as much media coverage as the Regis & Kelly Live show; I could shame BA into making the recovery of my bag its No. 1 priority … and be reunited with a fresh pair of boxers, five books on Africa and a new shirt within days.

I believe that things happen for a reason, though. Our living situation is a perfect example.

Before Meghann even booked our flights over, she had lined up a nice three-bedroom house to rent in Arusha, replete with security guard/cook/gardener (who must have been a very dynamic individual). That was to be where The Foundation For Tomorrow was to get off the ground in Tanzania, and judging by the photos Meghann emailed us, our home base was looking pretty sweet.

The only problem, it turned out, was the price. The realtor saw that none of us were black, and she naturally charged a “mzungu rate,” which was astronomical in relative terms. Mzungu literally means “European” in Swahili, but its de facto translation is “white person.” If I didn’t know any better, I’d think it meant “hello,” we hear it so often when we walk down the road.

A basic fact of life here that we have to accept is that most people who see that you’re mzungu are going to think they can take advantage of you if they so choose. However, I have done a lot of traveling in the past year – Western Europe, the Balkans, Turkey, East Asia – and nowhere have I encountered people as warm and hospitable as the Tanzanian people. Here, everyone smiles, everyone greets you, and hitch hiking is merely a matter of waiting 45 seconds to a minute with your hand out.

“People see this, and they see money,” our dreadlocked friend Frank told us the other day, when he pinched a flap of dark skin on his wrist and motioned towards our arms with his eyes. Another dreadlocked friend, Kapanya, conveyed the same message last week when explaining why it was so expensive for us to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro.

The better we get with the language, and the more people in our village come to recognize that we know our way around, the less we’ll have to deal with mzungu nonsense. But back in the days when TFFT’s Tanzanian project was in the planning phases, that crafty realtor thought she could pull one over on poor Meghann. It almost worked, too, except for one thing. That realtor failed to realize that this fledgling 501(c)(3) is run by a woman you don’t want to mess with.

Around these parts, Meghann Hessert Gunderman is known colloquially as “The Businesswoman.”

Meghann could bargain a Coke machine into only charging a quarter. She’s relentless. You should see her negotiating with the tax collectors on the low-cost, public transport vans known as dala dala’s, which unlike a bucket of water, can never truly be filled. Her basic knowledge of Swahili and steadfast refusal to be taken advantage of as a mzungu woman in a black man’s world means she can nickel-and-dime dala dala workers into submission almost every time.

Our first day riding one, when the three of us went from Arusha to the village we’re now living in, Tengeru, Meghann failed to realize that dala dala prices had changed somewhat in her absence. It was my first day, and all I knew of Swahili was how to count to three, so I remember only the word mbili (“two”) being thrown back and forth between her and the angry dala dala employees who were demanding more money after we hopped off.

“Hapana, hapana,” Meghann kept saying, shaking her head, not caving into the con that a ride from Arusha to Tengeru could cost anything more than 200 shillings. “Mia mbili.”

“Nne! Mia nne!” they kept yelling, the man with the money jingling the coins in front of her face. They wanted 400 shillings per person.

“Hapana!” Meghann yelled.

“Petrol! Petrol!” they explained. Gas prices have skyrocketed here, too.

“Let’s go,” she said, walking away. Hunter and I fell into line behind our leader. As we marched off, Meghann stubbornly refusing to pay a nickel more than the legitimate total of 600 shillings, or about 50 cents, all we heard were a pair of voices grumbling in Swahili and the dala dala tires screeching away towards the next stop. Victory was ours.

It was only later that we asked our Tanzanian friend what the rate for a dala dala ride from Arusha to Tengeru really was.

“Oh, it’s 400,” Ajit said. We all shot a glance at one another. “It has gone up.”

Turns out that Meghann was the one doing the hustling. She had saved TFFT almost half a dollar.

Losing my bag happened for a reason. It forced me to find “new” clothes at Tengeru’s outdoor market the other day, which led me to an item I have wanted for about three years now: an amazingly tacky/amazingly awesome, gold New Orleans Saints Ricky Williams jersey. Likewise, losing the house we were supposed to have gotten in Arusha happened for a reason. It forced us to go hunting for a cheaper place, which led us into the village real estate market.

I’ve said we live in Tengeru. The truth is we live in a village even smaller than Tengeru, Patandi. It’s about 12 km from Arusha, and that’s 12 less kilometers Hunter and I will have to traverse every day on the way to work in Usa River. Not just the location, but the vibe of the place we rented lets me know that this is exactly where The Foundation For Tomorrow needs to be.

Oh, and by the way, it’s about $200 less per month than the original place in Arusha. So Meghann has now saved TFFT $2,400.48 on the year with her pit bull like bargaining skills.

Our next door neighbor, a Muslim man named Baba Juma, gives us all the protection we need, simply by association. No one in Patandi messes with Baba Juma, and so no one is going to mess with his wazungu friends, Mwindiji (“Hunter” translated into Swahili) and Hakuna Pwani (“Without Bay” translated into Swahili).

Meghann has no cool name translation.

So far, we’ve been going through a long orientation process. Our work as assistant English teachers at the Fikiria Kwanza Academy doesn’t start until September, at the beginning of the new school term. Construction on the library we are building for Fikiria Kwanza will start next month. At this point, it’s been all about getting our living situation sorted, introducing ourselves to all of the friends Meghann has already made for TFFT during previous visits, assembling a Tanzanian Board, and learning a little bit of the language so we can get people to stop looking at us as wazungu and start looking at us as true neighbors.

And in case anyone is wondering, yes, hakuna matata is Swahili. What a wonderful phrase, I must say. It means “no worries,” but I doubt I’ll hear it said fooooor the rest of my daaaaaaaaays in Tanzania, because no one actually says that anymore than we would say “gee golly” in America.