Part 3: Upcycling the Tanzanian Way

July 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

Tanzania has some really creative ways to reuse garbage! Here are my favorite examples:

1. Bicycle spokes = grilling skewers for the barbecue

Those are bicycle spokes, yo.

Mishkaki is a very popular Tanzanian street food involving teeny, tiny cubes of meat stuck on a skewer and then cooked over a charcoal grill. For skewers, they clip the spokes off of bicycle wheels. Innovation!

Read the full post about mishkaki here.

2. Old plastic bags = baby diapers

Babies poop. Lots. Peeps need a way to contain all that baby doo without it constantly getting all over cloth and fabric, because hellooo handwashing. Disposable diapers are decidedly not a thing here. What is a person to do? Wrap that baby butt is one of the hundreds of free plastic bags lying around! Rinse it off, cut it up, make strips, keep them on hand at your changing station. Easy! Then the only cloth you need is a small square of fabric for the baby’s comfort.

Hippies that are reading this (you know who you are), please don’t get any ideas about cutting up your Safeway bags and wielding them on your baby. This approach works in Africa. In the States, it’s taking things too far.

3. Busted office chairs + busted bicycles + scrap wood = dope as hell homemade wheelchair

There are a lot of handicapped people in Tanzania. Malnutrition, lack of access to medicine, poverty, disease – all these things contribute. Vitamin D deficiency has a lot to do with it, so does polio, poor natal care, etc. The point is a lot of people need wheelchairs and there aren’t any wheelchairs to be had, especially not the kind that can withstand East African road conditions and allow the person to do anything useful.

So, what’s a physically handicapped person to do? Mobility is a necessity and crawling down the street really sucks, although people do it. The answer? Build your own mode of transportation out of whatever’s available. More than once, I’ve seen people truckin’ around on these awesome contraptions that are all a variation on this theme: part bicycle up front – handlebars, a wheel, chain and pedals rigged to be propelled by hands instead of feet; part desk chair – a comfortable and secure place for the person to sit where they won’t fall out; part wagon in the back for transporting goods. They get work and do business by transporting goods in the back of their wheelchair. It’s awesome.

Often, the best and most creative innovation comes from necessity. In a place where poverty is the standard and goods are not readily available, people have to make the most of what they have and stretch every resource available to the maximum. It leads to some really strange, some really cool, some really hilarious creations and situations.


Part 2: Tanzanian Approach to “Reduce”

July 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

If you ever find your old clunker of a car on the verge of breaking down and you want to stretch the life out a few more years, find yourself a Tanzanian mechanic. The vehicles I have seen… I cannot believe that some of this stuff still runs or fathom how! There are daladalas, see the post on them here, that are driven all day, every day and are so run down you have to step carefully to avoid putting your foot through the giant open hole in the floor. Cars with doors from at least two other types of car stuck on in replacement and mismatched tires. Sad, tired trucks that cry and groan the whole way down the street – you can practically hear them crying, “Why won’t you just let me dieeee? I’m so tired! Just leave me here to rest!” – as they stutter and stumble down the street one jarring meter at a time. Really, some of these vehicles are so beyond what a drivable car should be that it’s almost painful to watch them. They’re not even cars anymore, they’re the pathetic, exhausted, reanimated corpses of cars.

In general, Tanzanians reuse everything wherever possible, and we’ll talk about that in Part 3. They also excel at reducing what they need. Examples!

My nemesis

  • Toilet paper (sweet, sweet toilet paper) is considered a luxury item here. Most households, even those not Muslim, just use water for cleanup. If they’re lucky they have a hose next to the toilet. The sprayer is fine. You can control the water and it’s both easy to use and effective.

Those less fortunate just have a bucket and a cup. I refuse to attempt the bucket-and-cup method but I can only assume that trying to pour a cup       full of bucket water over your nethers while precariously squatting over a reeking hole in the ground is both messy and disappointing.

(While we’re on the subject, the smell of a Tanzanian squat toilet – I say Tanzanian because I don’t know what they smell like in Republic of Georgia, Brazil or China – is probably the worst smell I have ever smelled ever. Worse than a port-a-potty. Worse than rotten eggs, sewage, the open air meat markets, or anything else. Okay, I’m being slightly dramatic because I can think of smells that would be worse – dead body is probably a lot worse – but it’s horrible. I would rather just do my thing outside. Horrible!)

  • They buy food in big bulk bags. Giant bags of beans, rice, flour, sugar. Milk is delivered door-to-door by a guy carrying a bucket. He brings his big tub o’ milk – warm, unpasteurized, straight-from-the-udder milk – pours some into a bowl or container for the recipient and is on his way. No packaging necessary.
  • Sodas are sold in glass bottles. You drink the soda at the point of purchase (shop, restaurant or soda stand) or you must bring an empty bottle to trade in order to leave with the bottle. The empty bottles are kept in crates and sent back to the soda plant to be refilled and redistributed. Other beverages – like sugar cane juice sold by street vendors in Zanzibar – are served in glasses. You drink it on the spot and hand the glass back when you’re done.
  • Rather than take car taxis everywhere, people here often take motorbike or bicycle taxis because they use less gas and are cheaper. That or the daladala.
  • Food is rarely wasted and if you don’t finish your plate you’ll definitely get some serious side-eye looks. Here I clean every speck of food off my plate, even if I’m so full I think I might vomit. Tanzanians even suck and chew the bones to clean every bit of meat and cartilage from them.
  • Money, it goes without saying, is also carefully preserved and guarded. Haggling is expected and people are cheap. They won’t buy something unless they really have to and if they do they will try to get the lowest price possible. This is definitely not a consumption culture the way the US is.
  • Old-timey tools that don’t require electricity such as this iron heated by hot coals or foot-powered sewing machines. 

The motto in Tanzania is, “Avoid buying anything whenever possible, but if you do have to buy something, make it last.”

Part 1: Trash Troubles in Tanzania*

July 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

Garbage in Tanzania is out of control. There’s not a lot of quality infrastructure in general – roads, government personnel, electricity, water, etc – but the lack of interest in waste management still shocks me after three months.

Littering is not taboo at all in Tanzania. People throw plastic, paper, food cartons, old clothes, metal, any kind of old, unwanted trash wherever they want. On the street, out the window, over the side of the boat, in the Serengeti where the animals roam, anywhere.

Residential trash management is pick a spot in your yard, make a big pile of all your garbage, including plastic, and set it on fire every once in a while. We’re not talking compost heap, we’re talking garbage pile. It’s not burned properly or evenly either, so the trash piles are in a constant state of charred, stinky, eyesore bummer.

Then there are the fields of garbage. In Moshi, for example, there was a field of garbage I walked through every day on the way from my home to the orphanage. A literal garbage field. Goats and chickens liked to hang out there and pick through the trash for food. It was huge and nobody seemed to mind it or feel any pressing need to do anything about it. Rather, it seemed to be the local place for waste disposal and people just kept adding to it. I swear it expanded by 20% just during the month I was there.

In Dar es Salaam, the trash is even worse. It’s a huge city and it’s littered with garbage and sewage everywhere. The street sewage drains are open and line both sides of the street and are filled with rotting waste. Dar has a major rat infestation problem. When I’m in Dar I see a rat almost every day on the street or in the apartment or at the restaurant or wherever. The streets are also in such a state of deep disrepair that there are massive potholes, chunks of street missing, dirt sections, mud, rocks, broken down vehicles, and dilapidated buildings to navigate. Walking around in Dar is like navigating a disheartening obstacle course of sad.

Dar es Salaam does have trash collection every few days, in Kariakoo at least, but all it is is an open dump truck with six guys riding on the top. They pick up some of the trash and throw it in the truck. The trash is sitting on the side of the street.

I would love to see some sort of organization pop up in Tanzania that paid people to bring trash to waste processing facilities as an incentive for people to start properly disposing of their garbage. Tanzania has enough hygiene and health problems without trudging through a garbage field twice a day adding to the “pile.”

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s addition of Parts 2 & 3 – Upcycling and Reducing!

*Alliteration is fun!

Quirks in Infant Care in Tanzania

July 23, 2012 § 1 Comment

What is a mother to do when a baby needs to suck on something to be soothed and there are no pacifiers to be had?

Well, she lets her baby suck on her tongue!

The first time Khadija did this with Sabra(Khadija is a matron at one of our orphanages and Sabra is her three month old biological baby), my thought process was something like, “Why is Khadija licking Sabrah’s mouth? Ohhh.. whaaaaa?? Hmm.”

Usually babies don’t get anything to suck on, a move I think is very wise in sometimes unhygienic east Africa. Since the babies aren’t used to self-soothing with a pacifier, they don’t need it or seem to miss it. But sometimes, babies just need to suck to be soothed.

In these cases, at least with Khadija and Sabra, there’s some tongue sucking involved. It shouldn’t shock me, I suppose, since her mouth is a lot cleaner than her fingers were at the moment and there’s nothing actually strange or wrong about what she’s doing. I bet it’s actually some pretty awesome bonding for mother and baby. Still, as a Westerner, it’s a bizarre sight to see a mother hold her crying, upset baby up to her face and start flicking her tongue against the baby’s lips. But hey, it works!

Perfect Day

July 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

Today was an idyllic day. I lived the kind of day so often described in novels as part of some author’s picturesque childhood. “Hurr, in 1925, when I was a boy, we swam in the swimming hole and picked huckleberries right off the bush.” Until now, I’m not sure I ever completely understood that kind of day and the pure, simple satisfaction that it brings.

Yesterday, me, a bunch of the kids from Dar Ul Muslimeen Orphanage – a Muslim all-boys orphanage in Morogoro – and their keepers went for a hike in the large mountain range right behind the orphanage. The mountains are beautiful, really beautiful, and since I’ve been here I often find myself getting distracted and staring at them with pleasure.

Can you see the waterfall all the way down at the bottom left of the picture?

To even get to the mountains and start our hike, we had to walk two or three miles. Once the climb started it was a steeeep incline for almost thirty minutes. Pretty much just straight up to the top – no gentle winding trails slowly leading you up to the peak like normal hikes. It was hard and everybody was huffing and puffing by the end. Well, everybody except Ma’alim the guy who runs the day-to-day of the orphanage. That weirdo was jogging up to the top. It was so steep that I could barely keep my shoes from losing their purchase and kids were slipping and sliding everywhere, yet somehow he was jogging.

He kept coming up to me and being like, “C’mon, run! It’s fun!” Dude. Do you know what I think is fun? Yoga, a nice glass of wine while contemplating the universe and a massage after. Trying to run up an incline so steep I can’t stand up normally and tripping over a bunch of wheezing 8 years olds on the way up is not on my list of party ideas. You do you, though, bro! I’ll see you up there!

Once we got past the initial shot up to the top, the rest was easy. We strolled along the mountain top for a while – the view was incredible – before beginning another insanely steep descent back down the mountain on the other side. That was fun because most of the little ones just gave up and slid the whole way down on their butts.

In the valley between two mountains in Morogoro, there’s a waterfall. It’s really beautiful and the smooth rocks form pools of cold, clear, fresh water perfect for swimming and cooling hot, tired feet. There are also plenty of smooth rocks to lie on and bake in the sun. We had fun splashing each other and looking at the tadpoles.

After resting in the valley, we climbed back up out the other side. We walked for a while, picking honeysuckle flowers and sucking the sweetness from them, and we also found mangos and passion fruit trees. Everybody was really happy just to be walking and enjoying the sunshine. After a while, maybe another couple miles, we came to this place called the “Rock Garden.” We paid about $1 for admission and entered the most beautiful place – a series of swimming holes made by a calm river flowing through a boulder field.

It’s lush with trees and hanging vines and is completely shady. The water is fresh, clear, clean and cold. Immediately, the kids stripped off their clothes (some got naked, which was hilarious), and jumped in the water. The swimming hole is their favorite place and, after seeing it, I completely understand why. It’s awesome.

My original plan wasn’t to swim, so I took off my shoes and waded out to a rock to sit. Adam – my new friend who’s twelve, intelligent and shy – decided to start a splash war. It began with just little flicks of water back and forth, and soon we were both heaving water with both hands and legs at each other. At a certain point, you’re already so wet you don’t care anymore and go for it completely. Our water fight expanded to involve about ten people, including Mama Matron, and things got pretty crazy. Other boys swam in the swimming hole, laid out on the rocks or practiced climbing the huge, hanging vines over the water.

Results of the water fight

We spent about an hour at the rock garden before we started the walk home. It was a long day and we were all soaking wet, tired and very happy. After getting back to the orphanage, we ate lunch, showered and laid down for a nap.

After I woke up, some of the boys and I went to buy fruit. I wanted to get everybody a treat and I don’t believe in giving candy to children without access to dental care – really to children in general – so we got fruit. Just to give you some perspective, I bought 16 bananas, 15 mangos and 4 oranges for 5,000 Tanzanian shillings or about $3.25 US.

Hassani, my little six year old friend, is so sweet. He looks like an adorable alien and loves to hold hands or walk right up against my side so my arm is around him and resting on his shoulder. While we were walking, my hand was on his shoulder by his face, and he very discreetly took my hand and kissed it. He didn’t do it so I would notice – he was trying to be sneaky since he’s shy. I wouldn’t have felt it if I hadn’t been watching, but it was the sweetest gesture of affection and love. He wanted to express himself but felt shy or embarrassed to do it outright, so he snuck a kiss on my hand. So achingly sweet. But again, the kids here are just like that. Sweet, polite, loving, affectionate, sensitive and usually a little shy at first.

Hassani is the little one with his hand on my shoulder

Waterfalls, swimming, sunshine, fruit picked right off the trees and lots and lots of kids. Today was a perfect day.


July 21, 2012 § 1 Comment

Daladalas are the Tanzanian answer to affordable public transportation.

Daladalas (derived from “dollars dollars”) are the main form of transportation in Tanzania. They are essentially old vans that have been converted into buses. Each van technically seats between 10 to 15 people, but I’ve seen daladalas packed with at least 25 people. People sit on each other, stand, hang halfway out the window – sometimes the daladalas are so packed in that the if a person needs to exit it’s easier to just jump out the window.

Culture here dictates less personal space than Westerners are used to, so don’t expect people to move out of the way. You have to overcome your conditioned reluctance to bump or touch people and use your determination to will yourself towards wherever you need to go, even if it means sitting in a few laps.

The same is true for standing in line – cutting is common and getting service, wherever it may be, is more of a battle of the fittest thing than anything else. Politely standing back will keep you in line for literally hours. As much as it may contradict your instincts, the way to behave here is to adopt an attitude of, “I’m going here,” and then make it happen.

Daladalas are very inexpensive, costing only 300 Tanzanian shillings one way. One US dollar equals 1570 shillings, so a daladala ride costs about $0.20 cents.

Daladalas – jam packed, competitive, exciting and a rather convenient way to travel!

Dining Out in Tanzania: The Mishkaki Experience

July 19, 2012 § 1 Comment

Ah, mishkaki. Anybody who visits Tanzania should be able to tell you all about it.


“Mishkaki” is three very tiny cubes of beef, each smaller than a single die cube, skewered on an old bicycle spoke and seared over hot coals. Mishkaki comes with a sweet, mildly spicy, chili sauce for dipping. Mishkaki vendors also often offer bread, similar to naan, and roasted plantains. The plantains are my least favorite since they are dry and hard to eat. The beverage choices are either a glass bottle of soda – Sprite, Cola, Orange Fanta – or bottled water.

All the food is prepared on the street curb on old, homemade-looking charcoal grills. We sit at a table next to it and eat with our hands, pulling the beef off the skewers with our teeth.

After the meal, the street vendor helps us wash our hands by pouring a cupful of hot water from a pot sitting over the coals over our outstretched hands. It feels wonderful.

Street food of champions!