The Occurrence: Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love Bono

A terrifying tale of blood, brains, and nerdy development jokes!


Mark sighed and rubbed his eyes. He had been working on this proposal since 7am and it was now 9 at night. The damn thing just didn’t want to be written. What did they mean by ‘hidden indicators’, anyway? Wasn’t that a contradiction in terms?

He got up and stretched. The rest can wait till tomorrow, he thought. He picked up his keys and stepped out the office door. The night was quiet, the dust of the day settled. A single motorcycle taxi flew by, carrying a young woman with long blond hair. She wore puffy pants made of local fabric and a loose, almost see-through top.

Damn volunteers, Mark thought and rolled his eyes. He shivered, even though the air was close and sultry. Hope I’m not coming down with malaria, he thought as he unlocked his 4×4 and stepped in. Or food poisoning – that fish last night did seem a bit sketchy. Where did his gardener say it had come from? Some river he’d never heard of. Put the key in the ignition. His mouth was dry. Maybe just one beer, he thought. He put the car in gear. Nah, I don’t feel like a beer. I’m pretty hungry; I did skip dinner. Chips? Nah. Pizza? Nah. Mark put the car back into park. Nothing was appealing to him. He sighed and put the car back in gear and backed out, heading down the road in the same direction as the motorcycle. After only a few seconds, he came upon the motorcycle, the girl and the driver standing beside it. Breakdown. He slowed to a stop and rolled his window down.

“Mambo, bwana,” he called to the driver. “Need help?”

“Poa, poa. Problem of tire,” the driver responded. “Maybe give this mzungu lift?”

Mark looked at the girl. Yup, typical volunteer, he thought. She looks excited to be having such an adventure. Alone with this man in the middle of the night in Arusha – some adventure, Mark thought. He looked at her more closely, swallowing against his dry mouth. Man, did he despise them sometimes, their naivete and earnestness. And boy was he hungry…

He opened the door of the car, stepped out, and walked towards the girl. Hungry, so hungry…

Nearby, an old woman was throwing her dinner scraps to the chickens when she heard a blood-curdling scream, followed by a man’s terrified yell. She stood, alert. A man in a motorcycle helmet came crashing through the banana trees and ran past her, his eyes rolling in fear. She watched him go past, then went inside and firmly locked the door.


          The package of crisps shone in the afternoon sun. Sparkled. Its promise of salty goodness twinkled like a beacon. I crouched behind the counter of the hollowed-out coffee shop, weighing the odds. Was it worth it? They might be bacon-flavored…

“Get down, you idiot!” Jacob hissed.

My stomach growled. It had been weeks since the coffee shop had been ransacked by hungry victims. We still didn’t know if the Occurrence had happened anywhere beyond Arusha, but there was no way to find out. The EPs were too hungry and too many for us to venture out safely.

“I heard there were people gathering at the clinic. Trying to organize some sort of resistance,” I told Jacob.


“No, I bet it’s true. Some of the guys from that hostel are leading it.”

“Where’d you hear that?”

“Melissa told me,” I looked at my sandals, trying not to think about Melissa.

“Melissa. So what, you want to try to get to the clinic? In broad daylight?”

“Beats hiding behind a coffee counter!”

Jacob was quiet. He never made decisions quickly.

“Fine. But we have to be extra careful!”

We peeked up from behind the counter. There was no one in sight. The locals had long since fled the city, shocked at the gritty carnage the EPs had wrought. Quietly, we crept out from behind the counter. Nothing moved outside. We both carried hefty laptops as weapons, hoisted high, ready to strike. Jacob opened the door and we stepped outside. An old newspaper blew down the street. I picked the bag of crisps out of the gutter and carefully deposited it in my kanga bag to eat later, when we were somewhere safer.

We moved down the street slowly, not saying a word, trying not to attract any attention. You never knew where they might be – the supermarket, the petrol station, a bar. They never went into the really local places, of course, a reminder of the people they used to be, but the local places still weren’t safe. Sometimes their hunger overrode their inhibitions.

The clinic was less than a kilometer, but I’ve never sweated so much in my life. It was so quiet. When we arrived at the clinic, the door was unlocked. We walked in but heard nothing. Melissa had told me people were coming here moments before they got her. The sound of her screams had stayed with me for what seemed like miles as I ran away from the EPs gorging…

“Hello?” Jacob whispered. I would have sworn that if anyone was here they would know about us just from the thudding of my heart.

“Hello?” I joined in, a little louder.


But then, a shuffle, like someone walking in slippers. Just for a moment, and then it stopped. We looked at each other, laptops raised. From around a corner peered a terror-distorted face. Seeing us, the face came around the corner and become a whole person, dressed in a hospital gown, thin and pale.

“Who are you? Where is everybody?” The girl was young, like us, with ratty dreds and a pierced nose.

“What the hell? What do you mean?” Jacob asked.

“I’ve been locked in the kitchen for three weeks,” the be-dredded girl said. “A nurse, she was really nice, came and got me and brought me to the kitchen and locked me in. I don’t know where she went. There was so much screaming outside. And now I’m so hungry I had to see who you were, even though I was scared.”

How could we explain? We weren’t even sure what had happened ourselves.

Suddenly, Dred Girl’s eyes got wide and she pointed behind us. Wheeling around, we saw three EPs come through the front door of the clinic, hunger in their eyes, maniacal smiles on their faces.

“Run!” Jacob shouted.

“The kitchen!” Dred Girl shouted. We ran, our legs pumping, the EPs right behind us. “Unngghh” they moaned. “Unghhh…”

We slammed the kitchen closed behind us just as the largest EP reached out towards me. Dred Girl bolted the door and threw herself across the room, away from the frenzied banging at the door.

“Seriously, guys, what is going on?!” she cried.

Jacob and I looked at each other.

“You really missed it all?”

“Yes. I had really bad malaria. Please tell me what’s happening.”

“Ok. Here’s what we know.”


          “It started a few weeks ago” said Jacob. “I had just gotten home from the orphanage when Finn texted me and asked if I had heard from Julie. She was supposed to meet him for a drink, but hadn’t shown up. I told him that the last I had heard of her she was going to an interview at IceSkates4Africa, you know, that NGO that brings used ice skates over here to create self-reliant innovation amongst vulnerable youth? He said she had called him before going, but hadn’t been heard of since. I was like, whatever, she’s probably with Robert, that Tanzanian guy from Via Via she likes. Anyway, that was a Tuesday. By Thursday, two more of our friends had disappeared. Plus, I was walking home on Thursday and saw this guy get out of a vehicle with blue plates, you know, UN, and he was moaning weirdly and walking all, like, crazy. And he saw this girl with those turquoise Zanzibar trousers walking along and he sort of lurched towards her going, ‘uuurrgghhh’. But she got into a taxi. The UN dude got all worked up then, moaning even louder and running around, and I sort of ducked into a shop till he went away. It was super weird. Did you see any of that shit then?” he asked me.

I shook my head. “No, but my roommate Becky said she saw a couple that she knows works…worked…for that NGO, I think it’s called Tambourines4Tots, and they were acting all crazy, moaning and walking funny like you’re saying, and she swore she heard them say, ‘Brains. Brains!’”

Dred Girl’s eyes were wide and her hand was over her mouth, either in disbelief or to smother a scream. “So what was it?”

Jacob put his hand up. “Wait. So I guess it had started then. But it all blew up that Friday, at happy hour. You know, out at The Growling Tortoise, that mzungu  place?”

Dred Girl rolled her eyes. “Yeah, that place is, like, so colonial.”

Jacob nodded. “Anyway, whatever was going on, it spread like wildfire. All those EPs in one place? It was crazy.”

“EPs?” Dred Girl asked.

“Ex-pats. We just call them ‘EPs’ now. Those…things.”

“We’re ex-pats. We live here. I’ve been here two months!”

“No, see, we’re just volunteers. That’s the thing.” Jacob glanced at me. “We didn’t turn into those… things.”

“I don’t get it.”

“We didn’t become all crazy.” Jacob suddenly focused a stare on Dred Girl. “You see…we’re what they want to eat!”

Dred Girl just stared back.

“Ok, so just listen,” Jacob went on, leaning back against the fridge. “That Friday, all those EPs at happy hour turned into those crazy things. Like, it was contagious, I guess. They banded together, went on a rampage, moving east through the city. At first they didn’t find many volunteers, but then they arrived at Mango Tree. So that’s where things got really bad. There were all these volunteers there. The EPs came right in, ate all of their brains. They didn’t distinguish between anyone, like, volunteers who were doing sustainable work, volunteers who were innovating, volunteers who knew the local customs and rode daladalas.”

“Oh my god!” gasped Dred Girl.

“I know, right?! They just ate all the brains, regardless. I heard the first ones to go were people with kanga bags. The EPs went crazy when they saw them.”

I looked down at my bag, made of red and blue fabric. My mouth watered at the thought of those bacon crisps.

“But, so, what is this? How come they turned into those things?” Dred Girl leaned forward.

“Hope knows,” Jacob said.

I swallowed. “I don’t know for sure. But I heard rumors that it all started at the UN Fund for Building Local Capacity-Building Locally (UNFBLCBL). They were creating some sort of innovative programming serum and it backfired. Let loose their pent-up scorn for volunteers, somehow. They were trying to do something good, you know? But now…now, they’re these things…”

“You mean,” Dred Girl gasped, “HUMANITARIAN ZOMBIES?!”

We sat, silent.

The humanitarian zombies at the door continued their moaning. “Brains…brains…”


          The late afternoon sunshine came through the windows. The zombies outside the door kept up their moaning for our brains. Their stamina was remarkable considering it was clear they couldn’t reach us inside. “Must be NGO zombies,” Jacob said. “So much work for so little payoff…”

I sat on the floor with my head cradled in my arms. What hope was there for a world like this? Couldn’t we all just get along?

Beep beep.

“What was that?” Dred Girl asked.

Beep beep.

“Is that a text?!”  Jacob demanded.

I pulled my phone out of my bag. I had almost forgotten I had it; it had been so long since there was anyone to call. It was a text:

any1 there? ppl R gathering @ Mango Tree. Time 2 fight back!

       Jacob leaned over my shoulder to read the text. “O…M…G” he said, eyes wide.

“Fight back?” I asked. “With what?”

Jacob stood up. “You know, maybe we can. Maybe we can end this scourge forever!”

Dred Girl stood up too. “How?”

Jacob gazed out the window. “We need…”

Dred Girl and I leaned forward eagerly.

“…a logframe.”

Finally, we had hope.


          “No, no, that’s the not the way to do this!”

We had reached Mango Tree. Getting past the zombies at the hospital kitchen door had been surprisingly easy. Because they were NGO zombies, we had been able to distract them by writing the word ‘innovative’ on a napkin and throwing it out the door. While the EPs were grasping at the napkin, we snuck past and out of the clinic. Now, at Mango Tree, a heated debate was raging over Jacob’s logframe.

“Look,” said one skinny German girl, “These things are stuck in a ‘Zombie Trap’. The only way for them to escape this trap is for us to allocate them more brains.”

“More brains? Are you crazy?” shouted a guy whose accent placed him as a Texan. “Where are we going to get brains to give them?”

The German girl said, “Look, we each have lots of brains. Don’t be stingy. We should all agree to donate a certain percent of our brains to the EPs so they can pull themselves out of the Zombie Trap.”

“I don’t like this. Won’t this nurture a dependency culture among the EPs? I think we should consult the EPs themselves to find out what they need to stop being zombies. What we need is a targeted, participatory alternative to brains.”

“Yeah! It makes no sense to devise a strategy without consulting the primary stakeholders.”

“They’re zombies!”

“Geez, Lacey, don’t be so elitist.”

There were about a dozen of them, volunteers banding together to take a final stand against the zombie scourge of Arusha. Whatever strategy we decided on, it would be our last – one way or another.

At last, a vote was taken. It was decided that an alternative to brains must be found. It was the only sustainable way. After all, if we gave them a percentage of our brains, wouldn’t they just want more when they were done? What are we, walking brain restaurants?

“Ok, so what, then?” asked Jacob. “We have to get away from here, past all them. How do we do it?”

“Why can’t we just drive away? All these cars just lying around?” Dred Girl looks nervously out the window at the abandoned cars littering the streets.

“None of them have petrol. They were all siphoned off when everything was going to shit,” an Australian boy informed her.

“I know,” I said. “I know how we can get out of here.”

Everyone stared at me. “I don’t know why we didn’t think of this before. It’s so easy. All we have to do is…”

The back door burst open and dozens of hungry EPs poured in.

The volunteers screamed and ran to the front door, pushing and crowding their way through. I felt someone try to pull me out of the way, but I fought back and made it through. On the front lawn, more EPs were lurching their way towards us. They were coming from every side. We stood there, looking around frantically as they closed in on us. So it would end like this after all. All those weeks on the run for nothing. The zombies drew closer. One reached out his hand towards Jacob, ready to grab him and begin the final feast. I opened my mouth to scream, when suddenly they all stopped. Just stopped in their tracks. The zombie by Jacob put his arm down. A pregnant silence fell over the lawn. As though the world had stopped.

I think I was the first to see him. He just walked onto the lawn from the street, strolling as if nothing strange and cannibalistic were happening. The EPs just stood where they were, and as the man got closer, they turned to stare. The other volunteers had followed my gaze and were now also looking on, mouths hanging open. In fact, I suspect that a fly on the wall would have thought we were all zombies, they way we stared.

Underneath a bright blue sky, the man walked up to us and extended his hand. “Come with me. You’re safe now.” He turned and started back towards the road, where we could now see a large bus. We must not have heard it over the sounds of our screams.

We followed him and the EPs didn’t move an inch. They stood there, swaying a little. One started towards us half-heartedly, but a growl from the man leading us checked his advance.

We boarded the bus. The man got into the driver’s seat and drove us away, through the ravaged city and into the countryside.


          Somewhere near Nairobi, Dred Girl was finally the first one to speak. She stood up and walked to the front of the bus.

“Thanks, Bono. Thanks for saving us from the humanitarian zombies.”

“No problem, love,” Bono smiled. “No problem…”

The End


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.

UN Abolishes Foreign Aid: some express ambivalence

(AFakeP) In a move that surprised industry leaders,  the United Nations announced on Sunday that they were abolishing all non-UN foreign aid. UN Senior Official Juan von Bonbon made the announcement from the UN headquarters in New York.

Source: United Nations Association

“Foreign aid is completely ineffective,” said von Bonbon, “and we’re the best at being ineffective. So we’ve decided to streamline the process by trimming away the excess fat from the system.”

Actors throughout the aid world expressed surprise, shock, and anger as well as bewilderment at the fact that such a move was within the UN’s mandate. “Most of us are not related to a UN staff member and are therefore out of jobs, at least in the aid sector,” said one NGO director. “We will be forced to take jobs that normal people do. How humiliating.” Sven de Menn, of UP!Yrs, a small NGO based in West Africa, noted angrily that his staff would now have no way to change the world. “They all have master’s degrees,” he fumed, “And there aren’t enough Starbucks in America and Europe to absorb the influx of qualified workers resulting from this decision.”

Officials from USAID, who requested anonymity in order to protect themselves from ridicule, expressed indignation that they were not consulted. “It’s just unconscionable,” said one senior official. “The UN does not have a monopoly on self-righteous jargonification, despite what they may claim. In fact, studies have shown that we are actually best at that.” Another official complained, “How will people know which countries the US is afraid of now?”

Not everyone was critical of the decision, though. Prominent aid advocate Jeffrey Sachs remained positive, suggesting that now no one would be able to oppose his proposal for a system of helicopter delivery of aid. “Previously, there were many in the sector who objected to helicopters flying over poverty-stricken countries releasing giant bales of money. Now, however, the five-year plan for propeller-driven aid can be implemented.”

Marcia Mwonge, a landlady in Dar es Salaam, told reporters that this move would be “a boon for property owners throughout Africa. Now there will be no more NGOs depressing housing prices.” She was then interrupted by a phone call from the local UN office, which had called to request that she expand the garage on one of her properties to accommodate the new Land Rover they had just purchased for the Chief of Party’s 16-year-old son.

However, William Easterly, author and professional aid-hater, released a statement saying, “The Untied Nations has only ever had a deleterious effect on development. This new move is just another example of MDG skullduggery ”.

Sachs responded to the statement, claiming that Easterly had “purposely misspelled ‘United Nations’ in a weak last-ditch effort” to delegitimize the Millennium Development Goals. “Some people say that universal primary education isn’t attainable in the next three years. Well, just wait till Operation School-a-Day starts. They’re using dollar bills to build the schools, literally,  so the US will continue to benefit from aid distribution.”

Unofficial reports suggest that the UN’s first move as sole provider of development aid will be to implement their Project to Increase Gender Equality and Sustainable Agricultural and Health Development Through Community-based Participatory Planning and Results Framework Action within Possibly Well Governed and Definitely Very Poor Countries with Exotic Sounding Names.

(Note: Views purportedly expressed by real people may have been made up by the author for the purpose of being funny; they are not officially endorsed by these people.)

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.


20 Feb 2012

Epic rainstorm today! Lately, there has been more and more very localized rain in the area. But this was the first really significant rain, and significant it was! It poured. There was thunder. There was wind. It was a good soaking rain, and you could just feel the plants’ gratitude as the dry season starts to wane. And for me, the best thing was that the wind, which usually just blows hot hair at you, was quite chilly! Huge temperature drop – it was wonderful. Walking to town after that, the path that crosses the gully near here was washed away, and it will be interesting to see how the rainy season affects mobility. With so few paved roads, and such poor quality dirt ones, I imagine there are many people who are just rained in during the rainy season.

On the way home from town, I saw something that just made my day. There was a bus parked off the road that had a big wrap-around ‘ARSENAL’ (the English soccer team, you non-Brits). It started at the back and wrapped around to the side. I could only see the back, though, and knew it said ‘Arsenal’ from the color and style, but because only the back was facing the road, and the word disappeared around the side, the only part that was visible was ‘ARSE’.  Top Gear style!! It was all I could do to now burst out laughing like a crazy person on the daladala.