Friday, June 22, 2007

I'm Back!

I'm still feeling quite spun around from the experience of reporting in Tanzania. It was a tremendous challenge. You can almost see my jaw on the floor in this picture of me at Kashasha Village with the community elders. You can see more photos here, including some shots of my last day in Zanzibar -- that was vacation. From Dar Es Salaam (where I caught my flight back home)it was just too tempting to miss.

I'm going to try to post a few more pictures and things well as keep tabs on the development of this story. I've returned with about15 minidiscs containing 80 min each of audio. That's almost 1200 minutes of tape to cull through.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Chakula! (That's Swahili for 'food')

The clerk in this internet stand just translated this comic for me. It says something like "The shop has lots of things in it, but my pockets don't!" A fitting entry, I think, for my blog, given that I'd sort of, errrr, miscalculated my cash requirements (and the availability of an ATM which would work for my debit card). A foodie by nature, it was a real drag to be unable to afford much sampling of the local cuisine.

I was very lucky to be a guest in the home of two different Tanzanians for meals, and two Americans, as well. A few highlights, then, the local cuisine:

These green, starchy bananas were served stewed with fresh beans (almost like pintos). A staple in the Kagera region, where matoke grows well.

Sort of like grits or polenta, this very finely ground cornmeal is a common side to meat or even just served with sauce. It's beyond bland.

-Chipsi Mayai-
A potato omelet which reminded me of the spanish 'tortilla' or the afgan 'kuku'.

In Zanzibar, this rice dish is flavored with cardamom, black peppercorns, cumin seed, ginger, and cinnamon bark. It's like a spicy fragrant rice pilaf.

Friday, June 15, 2007


A very sharp email turned up in my inbox today. My brother is getting a PhD in anthropology from the University of Chicago and he points out a rather profound blunder of mine:

Hey Ellen,

Just read your blog from Tanzania. Fascinating stuff. I was kind of struck by one entry, though. The bit about Kiswahili lacking adjectives to describe frustration and confusion seems like the kind of statement that could use additional explanation and context.

For one thing, you'll note that English also lacks adjectives for the very emotions you named: confusion and frustration are nouns. (And "confused" and "frustrated" are, arguably, participles rather than pure adjectives.) But more importantly, according to an online Kiswahili dictionary, there are at least ten words that can be used to denote confusion with various nuances.

Most of all, though, the idea that any language lacks the capacity to express particular emotional states that can be expressed by another language is a really, really controversial topic, and one that people take pretty seriously as you can probably imagine. It's kind of like the legend about how that Inuits have hundreds of words for snow (rather than the 4 to 7 or so that they actually have), except even more problematic and tense because it calls into question whether some
languages are deficient for describing universal human emotions, or whether some emotions aren't actually universal at all.

Suppose, for instance, that I were to tell you that there are no words in English for the words Russians use to describe common emotional states. How could such a claim ever be proven or disproven? Russians use the word "gordost'", and English speakers use the word "pride", but since we're talking about emotional states rather than external objects in the world that you can point to, how could you ever conclusively
demonstrate that the two words mean the same thing? We'd be left arguing about whether or not this is a failure of language or a failure of emotion... and either way, one language-community claims that the other is failing at something deeply personal and subjective: the experience and expression of emotion.

So ultimately these sorts of claims tell you more about the claim-maker than the languages in question. So I would want to know: who told you this and under what contexts?


Well, as a matter of fact, it was told to me by a Peace Corps volunteer who has been living in Bukoba for almost 2 years. I accepted it without question as it excused some of my failings as a reporter. To believe it means I'm off the hook. It's ok that I don't understand, because it's not *my* failure, but rather it is a failure of the language, I would have liked to believe. It was a convienance to believe it and I am sure it speaks to the confusion and frustration that both I and this Peace Corps volunteer felt.

Brian is good to so articulately express why this is likely to be a totally bogus I thought I'd pass it on.

A Big, Grateful Shout Out to Raymond


It was pure luck to run into Raymond. And really, really good luck. Raymond is the co-founder of two local charities The Bukoba Kids Sports Club, a youth education and sports group trainings kids to play soccer and BUDAP - Bukoba Disabled Assistance Project where people with polio are trained in traditional handicrafts -- making drums and bags. Here's my plug: go give these organizations some money. Sure, your bank will take some fees for the wire transfer (Citibank, I happen to know takes $30) but let's say you were planning on sending the March of Dimes $50. I'd say give $20 to BUDAP instead. The net effect will be much higher impact. Or, let's say you were going to buy some magazine subscriptions to support your nephews' soccer team. Skip it. It'll only burn paper and don't worry, little Billy isn't in risk of not playing this year. But, sending a $20 wire to Bukoba Kids might just give kids living with some of the world's most intense poverty and health care issues the leg up he needs to improve himself and his community. Ok, enough plugging. This isn't an on-air fund drive afterall.

Watch the Bukoba Kids practice.

More shout outs to come, though....there were lots of amazing people in Bukoba.

The Subtleties of Kiswahili

It turns out there are no words in kiswahili for the adjestives of many common emotions. Beyond good/bad, happy/sad, the vocubulary sort of peters out. No words for confusion. No words for frustration. No words for what it would feel like to suffer from Omunepo.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

71-Year Old Witchdoctor Pays Radio Reporter a Visit via Motorcycle Taxi

The headline pretty much says it all. That was, without a doubt the highlight of my day yesterday.

I made the trip down to Nshamba on Tuesday. Nshamba was the site of the worst part of the reported epidemic: more than 217 people were affected there. By the miracle of the small-world-game style of reporting I'd adopted I'd actually located a woman who'd been affected with Omunepo when she was 6 in 1962.

My local guide/fixer/translator/former TZ national team soccer star Raymond and his dutch friend and our driver Arianne took the car in to get some oil in the morning and hours upon hours later we finally hit the road to Nshamba. It was a 2+ hour journey on really rough roads past small subsistence farms (coffee, bananas, pineapple).

When we arrived, Gertrude, the interview subject, told us that she'd planned to take us 1 hour further down the road to see the man who helped treat her. He was 22 at the time and was the assistant to the witch doctor. Looking at the low position of the sun in the sky, and consulting my traveling companions, we told her it was impossible, we'd never make it there and back to Bukoba before dark. (Raymond was in a pretty severe car accident about 2 weeks ago -- his face and head still show the evidence pretty graphically -- which infused a healthy measure of caution into our driving plans.) Raymond hatched up an excellent back up plan, though: let's send a motorcycle taxi to go get the witch doctor. this way, we can interview Gertrude while he makes the trip and we'd still have time to make it home before dark. Perfect!

The interview was exactly what I'd hoped for: a very detailed and specific story and entirely new information, unlike anything I'd heard in Kashasha Village or Bukoba.

After waiting an hour after finishing with Gertrude we finally get a call: the motorcycle taxi has broken down on his way to reach the witchdoctor. But Raymond has an idea. He tells gertrude: "I think it would be possible for you to send him to Bukoba tomorrow by dala dala." (Dala dala is a minivan which acts as a local bus). Gertrude says "no, I don't think so." And that's when Raymond pulls out the Jedi mind trick. He keeps repeating "I think it is possible."

Low and behold, Gertrude calls me 4 hours later: the motorcycle brought this 71 man to her home and he's just arrived and she will send him by daladala to Bukoba in the morning. "He will be there at 7 am" she tells me. Yes, I think it is possible.

And THIS is what a daladala looks like:

He made the trip...and then...oh, I'm out of time...I am writing this from a tiny grass-roofed hut on beach on the island of Zanzibar. Yes, literally.