Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Impressions from Tanzania, Part I

Warning:  I am writing about things that I really know very little about.  Anyone who has seen my political blog knows I do that all the time.  Well, believe it or not, I didn't come all the way over here so I could write about the weather, and about what I did all day.  My main objective is to get at least a superficial feel for the culture and the challenges that east Africans face.

One of the shocking things about being here is that you initially don't feel like you can just casually walk among some of the "poverty" that I've seen here.  Some of the dwellings that are here would not be out of place in the set of the movie "District 9".  Not only do we casually walk through these areas, nobody seems to care.  Its not like the music stops, the DJ screeches the record, and everyone stares at us (and this is Colleen and I without Said escorting us).  The people are usually indifferent, sometimes curious, but never shocked/insulted/hostile at our presence.  I wondered before coming here if I would feel unsafe at all, but I really haven't, except for when traveling in crazy packed buses.  By the way, I don't have any pictures from when walking through places like this because I don't want to offend anyone by blatantly taking pictures of them.

The reason I put the word poverty in quotes above is because these people are extremely poor by Western standards but they don't act like we are led to believe that poor people act.  I'm not sure why there is such a gulf between distant perception and reality in this regard.  I can't have been the only American with that impression, because I would confidently say that I am less easily influenced by others, and more skeptical in general, than most Americans. 

The image we have of the third world from American television sets is a bunch of people sitting around with blank looks on their faces.  In contrast, these people in Tanzania move like they are on a schedule.  Everyone has a livelihood.  Brick-making is a big one.  Younger boys are constantly filling wooden wheel barrels full of rocks and then pulling them to the brick makers.  Lots of people are working the fields.  Machine and mechanic work is common.  Carpentry and construction is too.  Maybe the most common are merchants; it seems like every other person has a shop of some sort, or is selling stuff at market.

So there is an extremely intensive economy here, and it is surprising how intensive it is, given my preconceived notions, which I feel foolish for even having at all.  It isn't a productive economy of course, at least not by our standards.  It takes investment in capital to increase productivity.  China only 30 years ago was a hugely unproductive economy, but now look where it is, thanks to investment and good government policies for business.  The real challenge is to figure out a way to get the technical know-how and the capital in so that the people can take off.  Obviously.

Colleen's friend Mary, who runs the school for special needs children, is a perfect example.  She was an entrepreneur who had a vision and a dream of a school, but no money to buy land or build it.  Colleen provided the initial catalytic boost and Mary has ran with the project, taking it beyond the level that any one person, whether it be the richest Westerner or the most motivated Tanzanian, could have on their own.  When it comes down to it, Colleen didn't buy land or build a school.  Anyone with money can do that.  Colleen invested in a Tanzanian, and Mary turned that investment into something great for her people.  This is an incredibly important distinction that must frequently be lost on people, especially western philanthropists.

Anyway, there is lots more to write about, but I'll stop there.  The concluding theme to this post is that the people of Tanzania are far more wealthy than I ever imagined; as an American it is easy to forget that wealth means more than assets and cash on hand minus liabilities.

By the way, the rest of my travel posts can be found here.

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