Anatomy of the Patronizing Smile

I spent a lot of time in our project area last week. This means that I was spending a lot of

time talking to our local partners (officers in the local government) determining how to move forward with the project. On about day three, I realized that I was frequently wearing a Patronizing Smile when I talked to them. Yes, the dreaded Patronizing Smile (I’m just going to assume this is a thing and that it is to be dreaded.)

Patronizing our local partners sounds bad, right? Well, let’s take a closer look at the anatomy of the Patronizing Smile with today’s lesson:

Communicating with Local Partners 101:

Step 1 – Convey a positive, can-do attitude. This is why we’re smiling in the first place. It’s not so much because we love speaking in really slow English or really bad Swahili or that we just adore wondering how many weeks it will actually take to accomplish the small task we’re discussing. It’s that we want to convey confidence. We can do this! You can do this! Please help me do this!

Step 2 – Here’s where your average fake encouraging smile starts to become patronizing. This is a complex step, so feel free to read slowly to really take it in. After you’ve slowly said, ‘So now we just need to do xxx to complete this extremely important step in the project’ you pause, still smiling, to assess comprehension.

But oh no! Unfortunately, while you remain frozen in your fake and now increasingly patronizing smile, the local partners just look at you blankly. You’re going to have to make a big decision now. Make the right decision, and you’ve successfully navigated the linguistic and cultural communication difficulties associated with your bad-ass field job. Make the wrong decision, and the patronization will increase.

Did they:

a.) Not understand your English?

b.) Understand your words but not the content of what you said?

c.) Understand perfectly but not feel the need to convey that through any words or facial expression or body language?

d.) Understand but not want to do what you just said needs to be done (even though they are the ones who said that’s how it should be done).

At this point, you need to quickly decide which one of these is likeliest and act (all the while maintaining your positive, can-do smile.) Should you:

a.) Repeat in bad Swahili, risking revealing that you think they didn’t understand even though maybe they did?

b.) Assume they understood and just move on, risking the possibility that they didn’t understand and you’ll have to start all over?

c.) Or, worst of all, and as a last resort, increase the patronizing exponentially and ask, ‘Do you understand?’ Yikes! Obviously, this cuts to the chase, but good god, do you really want to ask people thirty years older than you if they understood a simple point like this?!

Step 3 – Live with the Consequences of Your Decision. Frankly, at this point, you’re probably just happy that the action you were discussing has a 90% chance of being done. Did they ultimately understand? You think so. Will they do it? Boy, you hope so. Will you have to ask more patronizing questions to find out? Definitely.

Post script: as you can probably tell, this was written on a stressful day. I can now report that, as usual, my local colleagues have come through completely-ish

and all is well.


The poverty we live near

15 July 2012

My brother sent me the following email last week:

“I just caught up on your blog. As you may or may not know, I’ve had trouble dealing with poverty emotionally from a young age (like the day trip we took to NYC back in the day.. as we were arriving back at the car I was crying because I didn’t know how to make sense of all the homeless people we had seen that day). Of course I’ve had some time to make sense of it since then, and had a little more exposure to poverty in our culture and maybe one or two others. I felt some of those issues resurface as I was reading your post ‘The hand-out dilemma.’ I think your analysis of it, and your ability to separate yourself enough from it to make a rational analysis of it is very valuable. I was reading your posts from most recent to less, so a few posts later I read ‘Family, connected.’ The contrast between these two posts is noticeable: one is, as you define it, begging. The other is a gift to good people. I’m glad that’s a part of your experience over there, to balance the other out. Red Sox just scored a run. Now we’re only down 7-3.”

I was struck by his statement that, “your ability to separate yourself enough from [witnessing poverty] to make a rational analysis of it is very valuable.” Here is my response to him:

Hello Little Weasel,

That was a very thoughtful and unexpected email. I’m glad you enjoyed the posts and that they made you think, feel etc. It’s sort of weird, the issue of living somewhere with so much poverty. For starters, this part of TZ is the most affluent part – people have better houses, eat better, have more access to services (via Moshi and Arusha), etc. So to be honest I still don’t feel like I’ve been exposed to the truly grinding poverty that many people in this country suffer. When I visited an HIV support group with KEDA, then I felt like I had experienced some. But I’m not as exposed to it as I could be.

It’s also interesting how ex-pats deal with living here. Most of us are here to help the poor people. But our lives are so separate from theirs – we will never ever know what it’s like to be them, truly, even if we get the challenges they face. Obviously, throughout the developing world, foreigners live in varying degrees of comfort and integration, from Peace Corps volunteers who are very integrated to UN staff who have a very cushy lifestyle of comfort. Everyone has a different way of dealing with being here, and it’s fascinating. But everyone has a way out; everyone has access to things that locals don’t. And of course, this is something that gives a person pause. We have to reconcile ourselves to that fact. To accept (or not) that we have a lot more comforts than the Tanzanians around us, regardless of what strata of the ex-pat community we occupy. It’s tricky. Should we feel bad that we live such a comfortable lifestyle here (to clarify – compared to living in the US, not especially comfortable and definitely not easy. Compared to a typical Tanzanian, pretty darn comfortable and easy)? And yet to be in such a different place, we do need some things that are familiar to us. And I don’t think Tanzanians begrudge us our nice things; I think that for the most part they just accept that that’s how it is for ex-pats. We just plain old come from richer countries.

Also, the poverty isn’t the only thing you notice about society here – you also notice the patience, the different way people interact with fellow bus passengers, the very different, and much less cuddly style of parenting, the aspiration to leave the country because that’s the only way to get money, the view of white people as walking ATMs, etc etc. There’s a lot more to notice and experience than just the poverty, and I think because of that, it’s not like you’re constantly thinking, oh these people are so poor – you’re thinking all sorts of things!

And when you arrive, I think you’re expecting people to be poor, so it doesn’t come as a shock. Not to say that it doesn’t affect you, but that you were at least expecting it. Rather than having to deal with an initial shock, you can get on with dealing with all the things I’ve mentioned above. Maybe that’s just me, but I bet that’s the case with a lot of people. I mean, we’re all people who have thought about poverty and Africa, or we wouldn’t be here doing aid work.

And however I personally have dealt with these things, I still read the news about people who are suffering, refugees, war victims, and so on, and it still makes me cry sometimes. Because I just don’t understand how we can live in a world where these things are possible.

Daladalas go on strike – Jamie takes pikipiki

8 July 2012

When I first got here, I thought that daladalas, the private minibuses used for public transport, were governed by some mysterious informal network of drivers, conductors, and cranky-looking guys with clipboards. How wrong I was! Due to the current daladala strike, I now know better.

On Friday, I needed to go to town for a meeting and for groceries, preceded by lunch with a friend. I went to the road and waited. And waited.  I knew the daladalas were striking because the previous day there was chaos at the central bus station in town – it appeared that no one was leaving, and the buses were all just stuck inside the station – and when I finally was able to get home and ask Mama Dora (whose husband is a driver) about it, she explained that the price of oil, insurance and registration have gone up, but because the government won’t let the drivers raise fares, their profits are falling. In this article, it describes the problem as being the parking fees buses pay, which would explain the issue at the station two days ago.

But on Friday, I thought maybe someone would give me a lift to town; this is a normal thing here. Now, I know my mom reads this, and I seriously debated providing the following information, but in the interest of painting the full picture of the transportation situation I will divulge. Mom, please stay calm. After waiting for an hour (yay, my patience is becoming more Tanzanian!), I finally gave in and took a motorcycle, called a pikipiki here. One of the drivers approached me and gave me a price that was so surprisingly reasonable that I said, ok. I asked him if he had a helmet; he said yes. And I told him to be safe and go slowly, not fast. We crossed the street to his bike, where he put on the aforementioned helmet (yeah – bit of a misunderstanding there…). And we proceeded to town.

The main bus station in town was completely empty aside from, ominously, two large police vehicles. The stall where drivers pay their parking fee was on its side. Unused daladalas lines the streets. Crowds of people waited at all the bus stops, and many more people than usual were just walking.

As I sat down with my friend, cold and wild-haired but alive, the owner of the coffee shop came over to greet us. My friend mentioned the daladala strike, and told the owner that I had come into town on a pikipiki. And the owner gave me a free coffee for putting all that effort and risk into coming to his restaurant!

Daladalas seem to us Westerners to be very informal, what with the fact that most of them are barely running and that the conductors regularly fit up to twenty-six passengers into a minibus with seventeen seats. But I’ve slowly gotten the picture that they are much more organized than you would think. They all have set routes; deviation from the route requires special permission (from whom? I have no idea). Down the road from my village is a guy who sits there all day with a list and a clipboard looking cranky, and sometimes the daladala stops to give him a few thousand shillings. And now, it turns out that the government has the power to prevent them from raising fares! Who knew?

Apparently they’re back up and running today. And so ends the great daladala strike of July 2012. I hope…

The hand-out dilemma

There’s a girl named Violet who lives near me who’s in her first year of secondary school and is probably about 13. She abruptly started talking to me and telling me she likes me a couple of months ago.  And yes, I understood why. A few weeks ago, she told me she liked my bag (my daypack), and asked if she could have it. Slightly taken aback at her directness, though not surprised that she was asking for something, I said no, I’m using this bag. She said, well how about tomorrow then? I said  no, I use this bag a lot. The next time I saw her, she asked if I had any books. Specifically, she wanted a dictionary for English. I said I’d look for one in town (they have used books) because, uh, education is good (?). I haven’t found one yet. Since then she has continued to be nice to me, carrying my bag or showing me her school exams.

One night last week, though, she came to my house. When I told her I was working on my computer, she asked to see it. So I invited her in to see it – they don’t have computers at their school. After a few minutes she wanted to look around the house. Fine. I offered her a couple of oranges to take home. Then she said, my mother doesn’t have a job so she can’t afford bread. I said, ummm. There was a whole loaf of bread sitting right on the table. So I said, ok, you can have half this loaf. She took that and said, and she can’t afford shoes for me to wear to school. Uh-huh. I told her I can’t buy her everything. She accepted that and left.

At this point, I said to myself, what to do? It’s one thing when I see her out on the path and she asks for things. But now she’s coming to my house.

I think this is something all foreigners have to deal with at some point here. There’s so much need, and no matter how little money we have, it’s still more than most people here have. And things are so cheap – I could easily afford to buy Violet new shoes. But where does it end? What happens when someone else comes asking for shoes or whatever. It has to be all or none, and I can’t buy everyone everything! Plus, this is begging. And I don’t want to encourage begging. Yes, people are poor – but are they poor because they try and fail to make money or because they’re too lazy to make money and are looking for easy money from me, whose skin color means I must be a walking ATM?  You always have to ask yourself if someone is being especially friendly because they genuinely want to be friends or because they want something from you. It sucks, and unfortunately I think the case is often the latter.

Violet is in school. So they got money for that somewhere. Even more significantly, her older sister not only completed secondary school, but sixth form as well (Americans: this means she didn’t leave school at 16, when secondary school ends, but finished our 11th and 12th grades as well). That takes money too. So they must have some way of getting money, however little.

Today, she came by again. She said her mother sent her to greet me. Pause. I need money for a haircut. My teacher says I have to get one, but my mother doesn’t have the money. How much is it, I ask, out of curiosity. 500 shillings – about thirty cents. Also, can you help pay for school?

Now, her mother has obviously gotten the money for haircuts and school in the past. Her other daughter even completed sixth form. Why right now does she not have the money? Is it because something has changed in her financial situation? Or is what has changed is that an American has moved in next door, and it’s easier to play the ‘poor’ card and be handed money than to go work for it? I told Violet sorry, but no, I won’t give you the money. And please tell your mother I don’t like being asked for money.

There’s a difference between needing money because you genuinely can’t come up with it and needing it because you’re too lazy to go out and get it yourself.

The tragic thing in this case isn’t so much the poverty specifically, it’s the fact that Violet is being manipulated, used by her mother to try and get close to me and ask for money. If I see her mother, I’m going to tell her that if she wants to ask for money, she should come do it herself, not send her daughter. Thirteen years old, and your mother won’t give you thirty cents for a haircut but instead asks you to go pretend to be nice to the mzungu and ask for the money? That has to mess a kid up somehow. Her older sister has a job, but also won’t give her thirty cents? What kind of messed up is that? And if I gave her the money, the problem is that I would be encouraging the mother.

So will Violet get a haircut? I’m guessing yes – like I said, they’ve obviously come up with the money in the past. But if not? Will she go to school and be beaten because her hair is too long because her mother won’t give her 30 cents? Chilren get beaten for not being able to provide all the things they’re required to bring to school (firewood, etc).

And if so, whose fault will it be? Her mother’s, certainly.

And mine too?

Strange and sad

2 May 2012

I have seen two naked women this week, which seems statistically odd, as I had previously not seen any naked women here and then I saw two in one week. One was on Sunday morning. She had on a kanga, but was naked from the waist up. She was standing in the median of the main road into town. She was dirty and unkempt. The other one was a couple days ago. She was completely, fully naked, also dirty and unkempt, standing in the middle of the road outside town. The bus had to swerve to miss her.


1 May 2012

Sometimes there are things that happen that cannot be described in words. Things that defy the wide range of spoken language, of body language, of facial expressions. The incident speaks for itself, and trying to describe the emotions it invoked only demeans it. You just have to store it away in a jeweled box inside yourself and hope that others will catch a glimpse of the un-expressable emotions through a video of the thing that happened, if there is one.

Jo, with whom I’m doing some work for her organization, Shukuru, knows a girl from her volunteering days who we went to visit today. Linnah looks younger than she is; she is petite and confident. We met her at her sister’s rented house, where she’s staying. It’s in a beautiful area outside town that on clear days must have a stunning view of Kilimanjaro. She served us tea and chapatis in their 10x6ft living room while her two young nieces looked on. She told us her story while we filmed it for the organization’s website. Several years ago, one of Jo’s fellow volunteers had offered to pay for Linnah’s secondary schooling, but then reneged when he lost his job. Since then, this girl has dropped out of school, had a baby, gone to an informal school where she completed two years of secondary in one and passed the national exam while working at an orphanage where she was abused. She’s now waiting to do her next two years of secondary, also in one year, and has hopes to go on to university eventually. She’s seventeen.

Not only is her story and the fact that she’s so determined impressive, but she also talked about how strongly she believes that girls and women in Tanzania can do anything they want if they just have determination. All their lives they’re told they can’t do things because they’re women and they’re just going to be housewives but she knows they can do great things and furthermore, she knows that she will do great things. She wants to study international relations so she can go abroad and represent Tanzania to the world and by doing so, help lift her country up. Where did she get this stuff? Where did this belief and determination come from? This desire to go and show the world how great Tanzania could be is something I’ve heard before, but generally from men.  And not only is she a girl, she’s a girl who has faced some serious obstacles and gone through some seriously rough times.

Do you understand now why there are no words to express what it was like to witness this?

Dear Tanzania Electric Supply Company (Limited)

16 April 2012

Dear Tanzania Electric Supply Company (Limited),

In future, kindly screen potential employees to determine whether or not they possess a minimum level of common sense. When my meter first started beeping (for 30 seconds each half hour, day and night) I thought perhaps some sort of external overload had happened, or possibly that it was about to detonate a nuclear bomb. As this started on Easter, I had to wait till Tuesday, when your office re-opened, to come talk to you. After an extensive, semi-guided tour of your complex, I was finally instructed to go outside to the ’emergency’ window. There, I told a crew of three of your employees what was going on. They said I should go with the fundi* right now to the house to have a look, because he is very busy. So I piled into your car with three fundis and a driver (perhaps you have an overly-eager hiring manager?) and went to the house. The head fundi, who by the way, didn’t realize that when I said, please speak slowly, I meant, please speak at a less rapid pace than you currently are, said there was no problem with the meter and it was probably an overload. I, catching the word ‘overload’, which thankfully they’ve borrowed directly from English, said, ‘but I use very little electricity; the fridge doesn’t even work’. He said, hmmm, well, sodfskfjdyiajf.  I’m not sure what he said, but I thought perhaps it was that someone would come have a look at a later time. Then this troup of fundis left.

On Friday, dear sirs, my power went out. At night. Only mine, not the neighbors, so it was clear even to me that it was not your usual rolling blackout (though if you care to explain those as well, that would be lovely). So, on Saturday, I returned to your emergency office and explained the new situation. A fundi called me shortly thereafter and said he would come today. First thing the next day, he came. Well, not he – they. Another committee. This intrepid team of fundis informed me that there was no credit left on the meter, and my power had thus been cut off. But, protested I, I just bought electricity two weeks ago, and I use very little. Bring us the receipt, said they. I did. The committee scrutinized and scrutinized, and another man even emerged from the car to come have a look as well. The problem, he explained after some time, was that you bought this electricity at a store, not at the Tanesco office. You will have to go to Tanesco and buy it again, but of course not today because it’s Sunday. Ok.

Today (Monday) I bought electricity directly from Tanesco, not one of your vendors. I came home, full of hope but low on expectations, and indeed, the power was still off. As it happened, the fridge fundi came by shortly after I arrived home, and inquired as to whether or not I still had electricity problems. Indeed I do, I told him. I bought electricity today but I still have no power. Bring me the receipt, he said. I did. Wordlessly, he went to the meter and entered the numbers from the receipt into the meter. Look, he said – my lights were on.

Now we come to the crux of the matter and the reason for my writing this letter. Why didn’t one of the roughly dozen Tanesco employees to whom I spoke over the course of four different trips to the office or my house, not say, did you enter the numbers into the meter? Why, when I repeatedly pointed out that I bought electricity, and at no point mentioned entering the numbers into the meter, did no one think, this area only recently got hooked up to the electricity and furthermore, this person is clearly a foreigner, perhaps, perhaps, she doesn’t know the process, maybe we should check and make sure that after buying the electricity she also entered the numbers into the meter before she spend another Tsh30,000 on electricity (all of which she probably doesn’t use anyway)?




A pissed-off white woman who just bought her monthly electricity twice – unnecessarily, it turns out – on the advice of your employees.

*fundi = skilled worker, like plumbers, electricians, etc.

Secondhand clothing market

7 April 2012

I went to the secondhand clothing market yesterday with Mama Dora. It’s huge! It just goes on and on, tables and tables of piles of clothes sent by Goodwill. Each stand sells a certain thing, so there will be ones with children’s clothes, ones with skirts, ones with men’s shirts, ones with bras, etc etc. It’s really fun – digging through a pile, never knowing what treasure you might unearth. And it’s cheap, which makes it more fun too.  I ended up getting three dresses for the equivalent of about $15 total – I kind of figured, why not, for that price? I wanted more dresses, and I had a genuine Tanzanian’s endorsement that they were appropriate (as far as length and amount of shoulder shown).

This is something white women here struggle with – what’s appropriate clothing. Well, I should say some don’t appear to struggle with it at all, and just dress like this is Miami, but I think people who actually live here have to think about it. Skirts, dresses, and shorts above the knee are out, no question, but what about the shoulders? Very few Tanzanian women expose their shoulders. Almost all of them of any age wear at least short sleeves. There’s leeway for foreigners, but you don’t want to take is so far as to flaunt local standards of modesty – but where’s the line? I’ve had this discussion with other white women here, and it’s tough to figure out. And you have to take into account where you are. What I can wear in town is different than what I can wear in the village. And so when I wear my jeans, which are quite fitted, I wrap a folded in half kanga around my waist till I get to town. The dresses I bought all have thin straps. But they also have a straight neckline, no plunging between the breasts, and all are knee-length. I would have thought that more shoulder coverage would be appropriate, but perhaps this is where the overlap between cultural sensitivity and wiggle-room for foreigners lies. Only the occasional young single Tanzanian woman would wear these dresses, but it’s perfectly ok for me. So even though you don’t see many Tanzanian women wearing them, a Tanzanian woman (Mama Dora) says it’s ok for me to do so. Good to know.

A plumber? Surely not…

3 April 2012

You’ll never believe what happened today – the plumber came!  The water issues have been piling up. I know I’ve written some about it, but let’s review. It all started when the thing in the water storage tank that senses when the tank is full stopped worked. It was late at night and I was awakened to the sound of water gushing from the tank. Well, it took me a couple of days to figure out how to turn the water off, so it happened more than once. And then I figured it out, but that meant that I had to have the water off at night and whenever I wasn’t home so it wouldn’t happen. Yes, this is inconvenient. But then it went to a whole other level: because I had the water off so often, the tank ran empty one day after the trees had been watered! Ok, not cool. Now, let’s note at this point that was shortly after I moved in – two months ago. Ok. More recently, one the taps outside bit the dust and wouldn’t turn off unless you held the handle down, so I’ve been balancing a rock on it. Then the superfluous sink in the dining room leaks like crazy. And the drippy kitchen finally gave up the ghost entirely and stopped turning off. Even before these things happened, I was hit (and nearly fell over) with a $60 water bill.

So, after weeks of being told the plumber is coming, the plumber is coming, he came. We went to town together to buy the new parts he needed. $75 bucks later, we had them and he was installing them. Brilliant. Last thing he needed to do was put the new sensor in the tank. Here is my water tank:

What do you think happened? Here’s a hint: you need a tall ladder to get up there. Have you guessed it? If you said, there is no ladder that tall in the whole neighborhood, you guessed correctly. Gah!

How to use a squat toilet

2 April 2012

This is a squat toilet.

Here is the response from a certain former Tanzania Peace Corps volunteer regarding the confusion we white folk face when using a squat toilet, the type found in almost all homes and establishments aside from those in which white people reside or are the primary patrons:

“Anyway, for me, the question is more than the direction, but also, how to clean.  I am one of those who sees toilet paper as a relative novelty item, an added expense, and an environmental waste.  That said, I use it.

BUT, I honestly think it better not to (kind of like I think it would be better to eat bugs and the French imported snails in my garden, but generally I don’t (minus the 2 times I’ve eaten at a French restaurant)).

So, with a spigot, a dirty plastic cup, and soupy brown water, how does one take care of business and clean?  Facing the door is the intended direction, but doesn’t work for the female stream.  Facing the wall is stifling, but keeps the area cleaner.  However, if you are peeing AND pooping, it doesn’t make sense to turn around mid-stream!

I’ve tried all directions, and to save my nose hairs, just face outward toward the door for all operations, squat and tilt pelvis, use the water to slosh around the toilet to clean up any sprays or spills  AND when using for cleaning, its like this: you can’t avoid the hand.  (My Tanzanian husband) has ingrained a type of left-hand taboo that I learned was Arab specific, and I know it is because he grew up without toilet paper. The left-handed taboo for me was always just a sort of bigotry, but it actually is best, because… well… you never know!

All THAT said, it still is an art, like carrying a bucket on the head, or taking the chaf off the rice, something that looks so easy for the natives, but I am totally inept at.  How do I wash my bum or yoni without getting completely wet?  How do I hold my skirt/pants while pouring and wiping?

So, sad to say, after all of my purported “cultural fluency” truth be told: I am just another mzungu.

Hand sanitizer anyone?”