Updates from the Field

9 May

6.5 hours from JFK to AMS, and another 11 from there to DAR. Woobly from hours on planes, binging on movies, and clandestine email response; I stood in a pen full of anxious people waiting to regain their passports. I watched the processing, detecting patterns but not defined process – most passports and paperwork went in one window, in a pile, often added to the bottom of a stack but not always. Person there did something, often interrupted, passed on passports in single or in aggregate, not in the same order received. Then passed on to one of 3 other people, who did… something else. Of the two windows which kicked the passports back out, one would use a mic and announce your name, the other just held up the passport and people would see their image (or not). Those unclaimed, plus.. other ones? to be distributed were carried through the pen of passport-plebes1 with names shouted or mumbled. Finally escaped, Mark and Rav met me past customs, and we crammed into a car with a misfit axel, grinding gears though city streets. Traffic lights were blatantly disregarded, motorcycles passed on either side, and we attempted conversation over the loud and the heat. We got to the hotel, one of the few that’s approved for World Bank staff2 to stay at in Dar es Salaam. I showered the 20+ hours of travel time off, well aware that many people in Dar don’t have access to water3.

Monday I headed out to meet Mark at COSTECH’s innovation space4. Could I walk? Ha ha, no. Was there public transit? Not worth mentioning. So another cab ride, the driver and I talking about corruption, and family, and why he loves living in Tanzania. There’s no war, it’s peaceful, he doesn’t worry regularly about being killed. “How long has it been peaceful?” I ask. “Seems like from independence.” “50 years?” “Our independence was in 1961, so 53.” “Congratulations.” “Thank you.” He rolls up the windows when we come to lights, pointing out people on the side of the road, says they will try to take my watch or bag or phone, because I am mzungu. Do I know what that means? “White bread?” He laughs. “Your hair, though, it is blue.”

At COSTECH, Mark and I chat with other people. The local developers who worked on Taarifa a few years ago, have continued to develop and map. A Fin from TANZANICT joined us, and Mark talked through the ecosystem of water projects5, my drawing furiously to keep up. From there, we hopped in a bajaj speak to a large NGO which has been in the area for a few decades. During the ride over, Mark points out license plate colors – blue for diplomat, yellow for private cars, white for public – my dark humor latching onto the hierarchies embedded in such a visibly manifest way. It makes me want to actively avoid the shortcut of institutional credentialing.. but we don’t have time to not take them. At the NGO, we sit for awhile doing email, the African-pacing of time reminding me of Rob’s laptop sticker and conversation I went to Kenya – There is no Hurry in Africa. I drink sweet coffee we chat about Swahili having at least 3 ways of saying “I’m sorry,” my suggesting that and the side of the road driven on as main indicators of English colonization.

We finally chat with the folk at the NGO – for hours. Both groups circling the other, Mark being performative in his role with World Bank, Rav as backup in stitching things together, myself trying to pick up on social cues and attempting to not speak too quickly. We talk about accountability, transparency, scaling, and survey fatigue. If we ask people, again, to provide information, what do they get in return? So many maps have been built, so many initiatives have blown through, and life still sucks. What we possibly do that is any different? Can we work with the local municipalities and national water ministry to enforce the fixing of the points? We’re working on it. Can we make the information visible to the people who live somewhere, provide material and structure to advocate for themselves? That’s a long and difficult journey, but possible. We circle each other for awhile, uncertain of if the other party “gets it,” from the social responsibility or the data possibility sides. Finally seeing that we do, we agree to send a draft MOU, and we head out in another bajaj. This time with Mark, Rav, and myself.

Now, these things are tiny, just big enough for two people plus some wiggle room. Here we have 3 of us, of whom one is over 6’6”. In the strange layering of apologizing, stubbornness (from all parties), and negotiation of money, we make our way back into town to have dinner and pile through emails. We walk home (hooray!), Mark stating time and time again “not a tourist” in Swahili. We get freshened up and head out to see a friend. As it’s rush hour, we pile onto a bodaboda, or a motorcycle taxi. Both of us. Making three people. We ride like this for awhile, Mark asking passing motos if they are also bodabodas, offloading onto an available one, us easing between lanes of traffic and narrowly avoiding potholes. Sometimes we ride on the sidewalk. When we arrive, we drink beer on a balcony, talking about teaching coding and entrepreneurship, discovering what patterns work across places and what must be thrown out. I find a difficult conflict in myself, between a growing awareness of levels of corruption, and my deep need to defer to people who live the reality of this place. I think back to conversations I had with Lorraine over lunch at Theorizing the Web, about how people are able to use any system to still do good, and you disrupt them as well when you shift systems. And then a car ride to dinner with assessors of programs. Amazing Indian food, and conversations around baselines and statistically predictable incongruities, and how to learn from things even as you fail from them. And beer in a place called Cuba, which we joked I couldn’t get into. And then finally back to the hotel to sleep.

The people in the local offices seeing people like me, who are just coming in for a short period of time, like some sort of Starship Troopers, shouting about how someone else fucked up while things they don’t understand happen. I try, as always, to provide scaffolding for others to see things in new ways, rather than complete deferment or frustrated attempted mandates. The local groups here are doing incredible work, and it reminds me of spanning mutual aid and specialized response. Here, in practice, are many things I spend brain cycles on – philanthropy as unsustainable, colonialism and aid, organic discovery and institutionalized knowledge, and digital divides.

1. Done more for alliteration than social commentary. Yes, I realize how self-referential and socially (un)aware this comment seems to be.
2. Not the IMF. The World Bank. Mark does good work there, and it’s who has contracted me for this trip as well.
3. Cognitive dissonance jazz hands.
4. Which I needed to get to, on my own, without data, in a place I’d never been. I sat with my anxiety over loss of control, of the possibility of getting lost, and hugged that part of myself to acknowledge it.
5. As always, a mirror for my own reflection as well. The pace at which Mark moves, trying to loop people into the understanding of a complex system of technology, people, and politics in his head made me think about what I expect of people and how I express those expectations. It’s like when I speak about either of my friends called “case” – one of which is spelled that way, the other of which is spelled “qais,” and the difference between them is so clear in my self that I don’t think to differentiate them for the person I’m speaking to.


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