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.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Perhaps Pertinent

This headline caught my attention: 600 Catholic School Girl with Mass Hysteria

Cerebral Malaria

Everyone here has had malaria. It's profoundly common. I am told that in most cases, it is just a fact of life, not to be worried about. For children, it can be quite serious, so the anti-malarial medication is given at the first sign.

And it turns out that there is a type of malarial which affects the brain: cerebral malaria. Looks to me like the first identification of this may have been in the early sixties and there still is no diagnostic for it although new research suggests that there is a certain antibody reaction with a brain protein which might predispose one to this form of malaria.

From Bio Discovery Toronto:
Plasmodium falciparum malaria is one of the world's most deadly diseases, infecting an estimated 300 million to 500 million people and causing 1.5 million to 2.7 million deaths annually. A novel approach to preventing and treating severe and cerebral malaria has recently been developed. Studies demonstrated that stimulating the expression of the CD36 receptor (the major receptor mediating clearance of malaria in non-immune individuals) increases clearance of malaria and decreased the excessive pro-inflammatory responses that have been linked to severe and cerebral malaria.

My local guide, Raymond, tells me that some people recover from cerebral malaria and show no signs of damage. Tomorrow, I have an appointment with a doctor at the Government Hospital who can tell me more.

Monday, June 11, 2007

A Few Observations from the Road

It has felt like interplanetary travel to come to Bukoba. I can mostly make sense of things -- ahh, those two people must be selling something, those people are having some sort of political rally, he's sending SMS messages on his cellphone -- yet there is so much that I can't begin to comprehend. I wish I had some sort of cultural key that would help me translate the world around me!

The interviews have gone very well...I can't say too much since I'm going to come back to New York and go into the studio with Jad and/or Robert and tell them what I discovered about Omunepo and we like to preserve the surprise and discovery in that moment (and Jad may be reading this.) But, I can tell you about what I did yesterday.

The Lutheran church in Bukoba is connected to a church in New York City and happens to have a volunteer from Hell's Kitchen in Manhattan who is teaching at Kibeta middle school. Her name is Gayle and she proudly furnished her WNYC umbrella for me yesterday. I wanted to go to the school where this outbreak occured, so she contacted the pastor of the Lutheran church up there and arranged for us to go to church with him.

I hired a car to take us an hour up the windy, bumpy, rocky red dirt road to Kashasha Village. It was pouring rain and we arrived a little late. When the two white women entered the church -- one fully decked out with a shotgun mic and headphones -- you could have heard a ant crawl across the concrete floor. Every eye was trained on my microphone. The service lasted over 2 hours and included a rather hilarious performance by the vocational secondary school students of the story from the gospel of Luke about Lazarus and the Rich Man. I thought it particularly funny that the rich man spoke english while all the other actors spoke kiswahili and the local tribal language, Haya.

The conclusion of the church proceedings is for all the congregants to file out and conduct an auction of fruit and goods to benefit the church. Someone bought for Gayle and me a bag of passionfruit and a bag of oranges. It feels quite strange to be given gifts from people who have so little, but of course we could not refuse them.

Then, after the final prayer, the pastor made an announcement that I was here to talk about the epidemic of Omunepo with the elders and he invited them to join me inside the church. We sat in a circle, about 16 elders and me, and it was something of a group disussion on the topic - with the pastor translating for me. Many were in their late 60s and 70s and remembered the events quite well. At one point, one began singing a song -- the laughing song -- and soon the entire circle was singing and I was laughing and laughing. But, it's ok, we were all able to stop laughing without any trouble at all.

Then, the pastor took us around the site where this Omunepo is reported to have begun. It's now a vocational school where he is the headmaster. Another epidemic, AIDS, has ravished this region and much of his difficulties as a school headmaster are compounded by the masses of orphans which are here and unable to pay school fees.

On Saturday night, I went to the beach with a group of European aid workers...some of whom are volunteers at an orphanage here. They told me that it is quite common for rural children to be told, after their parents have died of HIV, to walk to Bukoba and look for work. These are children of 8,9 years old. They come to town with bloody feet from DAYS of walking and have no money, no family. A crazy older woman takes them in -- she has over a hundred -- but she is crazy and she beats them and is sometimes quite awful to them. "But she does take them in" a canadian said with resignation. "How do I get Angelina Jolie to come here?" I asked, jokingly to lighten the mood. I was told that the Tanzanian state forbids foreign adoption, but provides no assistance at all for orphans.

Today, I'll visit the HIV ward of the government hospital here, where there is an elderly doctor who knows all about Omunepo. It's a nice thing to talk with these people about such a bizarre and humorous occurance...but I can't help but feel like it is a distraction, a tangent, from the real story of this region.

Travel Trouble

So...I thought I was protecting myself. I thought, if I bring a lot of cash, that's a lot of cash which can be stolen. I thought, I'll use travellers checks and credit cards. And I'll get to an ATM there -- all my guidebook say there are atms. (They didn't however, say that the ATMs actually WORK.)

Well, no one takes travellers checks or credit cards. And this weekend I got so low on cash that I literally didn't have any money for food or clean water. But, thank goodness, I had iodine tablets and and empty water bottle to make something to brush my teeth with! And fortunately I was an invited guest for lunch and dinner yesterday - by pure chance.

So, next time I come to Africa, I'm bringing big buckets of cash. Or at least a more than a couple hundred dollars!

Friday, June 8, 2007

The Dark Internet Cafe on the Dark Continent

The sky is dumping down on the city of Mwanza. I've just arrived and the rain really puts a damper on my long layover.

So, I decide to hail a cab into town and try to find an Internet cafe. Well, that was the easy part. Then the Mwanza Marx brothers routine ensued and now, finally, after an hour, I'm online.

When I arrive, the cafe is dark, but there are about 25 or 30 people milling about in various stages of boredom and distress. The Indian proprietor greets me - clearly trying not to lose my business -- and says cheerfully: 'Karibu, mama. Just one moment -- the power is not working, but the internet is!' He escorts me to the waiting bench and, just as promised, the power comes on in a minute. Then, not 30 seconds later, it goes off again. This repeats about 5 times before the distances between the on and off being to swell. After 20 or so repetitions, I begin to notice the pattern: The owner turns on the circuit breaker, one of the teenage boys who works here turns on the air conditioning, and the power blows again. It takes the owner maybe 30 repetitions to catch on, but when he does, he's FURIOUS. The boy is reprimanded, but another turns up to take his place. As soon as that one is discovered and stopped, then a third employee grabs the remote and presses on.

There was much discussion in Arusha at the TED conference of the challenges Africa as a continent face in getting a working, modern economy which might lift the population out of such dramatic poverty and poor health. First of all, hardly anyone is on the grid and furthermore the grid doesn't work. And, it turns out that aside from South Africa, which is well-wired, there is only one fat internet line running across the top of the continent. When you look at a photo from space, it become obvious how wide the gap is.

My flight to Bukoba leaves in about 2 hours.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Reporter's Notebook

Tomorrow, I fly to Bukoba.

About a month ago, I sent an email out to about 200 people asking for help. I received hundreds of responses, ranging from "Are you kidding?" and "How strange!" comments to highly informative letters. 90+ of these were notes which contained useful information.

I have the names of 5 people who remember the incident, one woman who herself suffered from this epidemic, and the name of a doctor's assistant who treated people who suffered from this epidemic.

I have been told that it has a couple of names in the local language (Kihaya): Okuneepa or Omuneepo (or Omunepo).

I have a stack a names of people in the region - 15+ names - of people who are well connected and can help me to local folks.

A few other things I have discovered:

1. This region, Kagera, has a reputation for epidemics. It was where AIDS entered Tanzania -- as it contains a trucking route from Uganda. It was also ravaged by the Ebola virus.

2. It is a region which has endured floods of refuges from Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi.

3. Okuneepa is still happening today.

I have plans to travel around the area, visiting the locations of these outbreaks, and visiting my contacts. But I've also learned that in Africa, things do not always go as planned.

More soon.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Growth in Africa

The talks at TED have been fascinating. This conference is on fire with motivated people who see Africa as full of potential. One of the highlights so far was Bono heckling a Ugandan journalist from the audience yesterday. I've met dozens of fascinating people...many are business people who are grappling with the scope of the problems here and trying to see where they might find opportunities. I've learned some startling things: 3000 people will die today of Malaria. Corruption costs Africa 148 Billion dollars a year. 80% of all Africans are poor rural farmers. And, yet, there is unprecedented economic growth underway on the continent - some of the highest investment returns -- numbers for last year's stock exchange by specific country reached up to 140%, I believe.

Today, I sat down at lunch with three African men. One was a grad student from Cape Town, S.A., and the other two were ex-pats from Ghana - living abroad but very much engaged in a conversation about the reasons that Africans leave. The conversation turned to the topic of corruption. How to address the massive short-term incentives for supporting the 'big man' power system fueled by corruption. One quickly brainstormed talked about a public humiliation website where people could anonymously post photos of bribes being given. I asked innocently 'Why would someone exchange bribery cash in public?" He agreed -- sure you aren't going to get many -- but maybe the few would set a powerful example -- and hopefully not a unique one.

Powerful examples may be the best we can come up with in African development issues. One thing that keeps coming up, over and over, is the success of cell phones in Africa. Sim cards are cheap, coverage is widespread, and thousands upon thousands of entrepreneurs are selling phone access. Nearly every speaker has talked about this model. It's a powerful story. (Ironically, I haven't been able to get myself a working phone. I've tried 2 networks, 2 sim cards, and still, nothing.)

Sunday, June 3, 2007

From Arusha

I stepped off the plane at night. The first thing to hit me was the smell of burning wood. It reminded me of Amy Smith's talk at TED 06 in Monterey.

Amy Smith talks about the number one cause of child mortality.

When I woke up this morning, I looked out my hotel room window to be greeted enormous, human-sized birds. Storks, I was told. They have 12 foot wingspans and could very much pick up and deliver toddlers, if they cared to. It's cool here -- sort of like San Francisco temperatures -- and it's still very much rainy season.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

In transit

...writing from the cheerful Amsterdam airport. I'm on my way. Will arrive in Arusha after another 10 hours or so. The TED conference promises to be a very interesting experience. I remember the way my friend Amy Novogratz first described attending a TED conference to me "You simultaneously feel like a genius and totally insane." Seemed to me that was sort of the affect we were going for with Radio Lab also. So, we teamed up.

After TED it's off to Bukoba to investigate that epidemic. More on that later...