08 August 2010

more notes from a magical island

Swahili time. No, it's not a euphemism for "chronic lateness," but if you've spent much time in developing countries you'd be forgiven for making that assumption. ("Filipino time," "African time," and other such expressions all carry that connotation.) Swahili speakers really do have their own timekeeping system, which is simply Western time offset by six hours. So saa moja asubuhi, one o'clock in the morning, is 7:00 am; conversely, saa saba mchana, seven in the afternoon, is 1:00 pm. The photo above is of the most prominent clock tower in Zanzibar's Stone Town, and it was taken just after 3 pm. Most Tanzanians are equally conversant in both, and I've noticed that they seem to use Western time exclusively when speaking in English and Swahili time exclusively when speaking Swahili.

Why this crazy dual system, you ask? As I mentioned before, Tanzania has the typical equatorial schedule of sunrise at 6 am and sunset at 6 pm year-round, so Swahili time is like a running total of the hours in the day (or night). I've noticed that when I think in Swahili time, particularly in the morning, I feel a bit more urgency. (Saa mbili- two hours of daylight gone already and I haven't done anything yet!) It certainly makes sense for a preindustrial society, where daylight is all-important for doing almost anything.

Zanzibar's referendum. I just returned from another week of fieldwork in Zanzibar, and Stone Town was plastered with posters urging people to vote "yes" on a referendum that occurred last Saturday. In a previous post I mentioned Zanzibar's troubled electoral history; in recent times, the ruling party has eked out narrow wins over the main opposition party in elections marred by violence and allegations of tampering. The referendum was on a proposal for a Government of National Unity, in which the party that wins October's elections would get the Presidency and the Second Vice-Presidency the runner-up party would capture the First Vice-Presidency. Almost all of the posters I saw were for the "yes" side. The poster above says "Zanzibar Referendum 31 July 2010 / Choose Yes / A Yes Vote is a Vote for Zanzibar." The bottom of the poster below says "They all said yes! What about you?"

The referendum passed handily, with (not surprisingly) the most fervent support in areas dominated by the main opposition party. The Zanzibaris with whom I felt at liberty to discuss the referendum seemed pleased and guardedly optimistic about the result. However, a newspaper article I read back on the mainland expressed concern that voters were poorly informed about the referendum and that many had been intimidated into voting "yes" by discourse suggesting that voting otherwise was wishing chaos and instability on Zanzibar. I don't know how true that is, but gee, underinformed voters and demagogues questioning the patriotism of dissenters... good thing that doesn't happen in America!

[By the way, if any Zanzibaris happen to find my blog, I want to stress that I have no opinion about this referendum, the CCM or CUF, other than wishing a fair, peaceful and democratic process for Zanzibar. And that last comment about the U.S. is sarcasm- our politics are in a very sorry state indeed.]

But wait, isn't Zanzibar part of Tanzania? I haven't gone into detail about this before, but for those who are interested, here's a quick primer. The modern nation of Tanzania was formed by the union of the former colonies of Tanganyika and Zanzibar during the wave of African independence in the 1960s. That union has persisted to the present day, and it gives Zanzibar a status somewhere between a semiautonomous region and a nation-within-a-nation. The best analogy I've come up with so far is Scotland's position in the UK since 1999, when the Scottish parliament came onto the scene. Zanzibar's government has jurisdiction over "non-Union matters," while the national parliament (with a more-than-proportional share of Zanzibaris) controls defense, monetary policy, and the other usual suspects.

There are perennial rumblings about independence for Zanzibar, but I think the islands are too entwined with the mainland for that to be a realistic possibility in the near future. As different a place as this may be, I find a lot of uncanny parallels with American politics. There is an ongoing debate over how big a share of the national pie Zanzibar receives, with one side shouting "Zanzibar only has 3% of the population!" and the other shouting "it doesn't matter, we're equal in the Union!" Americans have been struggling with that one since the Constitutional Convention. The mainland is also a favorite whipping boy for Zanzibaris and a frequent target of blame for the archipelago's woes, in a way that will sound vaguely familiar to anyone who's heard someone rail against the evils of Washington, DC. I will readily admit that I don't have data to back this up, but I suspect that the relationship, far from being exploitative, redounds to Zanzibar's benefit. But even if that is the case, the question is always whether nationalist dreams trump material benefits. To quote our own President, that's a question far above my pay grade.

01 August 2010

thievery in tanzania

Last weekend I made my first trip to Dar es Salaam's sprawling Kariakoo market, the largest in Tanzania. For block after block, merchants line the streets selling fruit and vegetables, cheap Chinese-made manufactured goods, kitchen utensils of dubious quality, suitcases, shoes, underwear, and all other necessities of life. A surprising, perhaps disconcerting, number specialize in long-bladed knives, which are usually presented in a haphazard pile on a mat by the side of the road. Kariakoo's crowded streets and passageways make it a perfect environment for pickpockets, so I came prepared. I left all plastic cards at home, stashed my phone at the bottom of my backpack (which was secured to my torso with a sternum strap), and brought a modest sum of cash under my clothes in a money belt, with less than $10 worth of Tanzanian shillings left in my wallet.

It didn't take long for my presence to be noticed. Within minutes of stepping off the daladala, and still on the outskirts of Kariakoo, I felt my leg briefly make contact with another pedestrian as we walked past each other in opposite directions. He called out for my attention and pointed to his leg, and I immediately thought, with some annoyance, that I was in for some bullshit claim that I had hurt him. As I watched with bafflement, he proceeded to scuff his foot on the ground, as if to suggest that I had just stepped in something and needed to wipe my foot off. I knew I hadn't stepped in anything, and it flashed through my mind that this was probably some bogus helpfulness intended to serve as a distraction--enhanced by the kinetic distraction of scuffing imaginary dog crap from my shoe. While this was happening, I sensed someone else at close range in my peripheral vision and felt something brush my right leg. Instinctively I clamped my hand over my right pocket and my wallet inside, and I whirled around in the direction of the second guy. As they both melted into the crowd, I hustled on my way, my wallet still safely inside my pocket. The whole thing probably went down in about two or three seconds.

The rest of my visit to Kariakoo passed without incident, and I returned home with all of my money, having been neither successfully robbed nor enticed to buy anything. Although the apparent pickpocketing attempt was unsuccessful, and although the sum of money I stood to lose was trivial, the experience left a bad taste in my mouth, and I made little effort to interact with anyone at the market.

Tanzania's U.S. government-assigned crime rating is "critical." I've been told by a knowledgeable person that the "critical" rating usually belongs to countries where gangs of armed bandits roam the streets with impunity. As my dear readers should know by now, Tanzania has no such gangs of armed bandits; in fact, violent crime against foreigners is extremely rare. But petty theft against Westerners is so overwhelmingly common here that, according to whatever grim calculus our government uses to decide these things, it adds up to roughly the equivalent of armed bandits in the streets. I see two related reasons for this, the first an indisputable fact and the second a little more speculative: (1) Tanzania is very poor, with a per capita GDP of just $1,416 per year. (2) Tanzania, I suspect, has more mainstream tourist appeal than most similarly impoverished countries. Few countries in Tanzania's income bracket can boast a roster of attractions comparable to the Serengeti, Mount Kilimanjaro, and Zanzibar, which draw backpacking college students and rich celebrities and everyone in between. Egypt is one African country with more blockbuster attractions than Tanzania, and it has staggering numbers of tourists to match, but the average Egyptian is over four times wealthier than the average Tanzanian. So I would hypothesize that it's the combination of severe poverty and abundant opportunities for theft that contribute to Tanzania's crime problem.

The other oddity about crime in Tanzania is that those who make their living from petty theft do so at great physical risk. For reasons I don't know and wouldn't care to guess, Tanzania has developed a culture of vigilante justice against thieves. If someone is caught in the act, witnesses will often yell out "mwizi!" (thief) and a crowd will converge to beat the criminal to a pulp. There is a story in circulation on the Peninsula about an American man who was tackled by a mugger while jogging and relieved of his wedding band. (As is almost always the case in these incidents, like the attempted carjacking I mentioned in the nightswimming post, he was acting against official advice by running alone in an area known to be unsafe.) When he recovered from the initial shock, he started to chase the assailant, drawing the attention of onlookers. The thief was beaten within an inch of his life and then hauled off to jail. The story goes that the American felt so bad for the thief that he located the jail and bailed him out.

The whole thing raises some interesting ethical quandaries. I could imagine presenting this scenario to an ethics class. The thief has full knowledge of the risks, and he initiates the first act of violence, if only violence against property. The victim of the theft could recover her property by making a ruckus, which will result in a high probability of serious physical violence against the thief and, let's say, some small but non-negligible probability of death. The victim knows she would be seriously inconvenienced, but not irreparably harmed, by the loss of her assets. The thief could be a polished professional or some guy desperate to feed his kids, the victim doesn't know. What, if any, ethical obligations does the victim have toward the thief? Discuss.


And what better blog post could I choose than this one to announce that my parents are coming to Tanzania! The clock is running down on my internship, and I have two weeks of fun planned for afterward. For week 1 I will be joined by the lovely Kate, of Cameroon Peace Corps fame, and for week 2 Mom and Dad will join the traveling posse. As usual, you can expect a preview before the trip, followed by little to no posting during my actual travels, followed by lots of pent-up posts afterward. As Kate would say, yewaaaaaa!

26 July 2010

the food blog

There are some people who can take pictures of food and make it look appetizing, and who enjoy posting those pictures on the internet. My friend Lindsey - to this day the only person whose friendship I owe completely to blogging - puts up pictures on facebook that I occasionally feel tempted to use as recipes. Suffice it to say that I'm not one of these food-picture-taking people. I feel about as comfortable taking a picture of my plate at a restaurant as I would feel, say, attending the Republican National Convention. But my faithful readers deserve to know about what I've been eating in Tanzania, so with apologies for my food photography skills, I present, for possibly the only time, Shawn's food blog.

Ugali. We begin our tour with the shapeless blob of starch you see on the plate above. Shapeless blobs of starch are common as staple foods in Africa, and Tanzania's version is known as ugali. Largely flavorless but undeniably filling, ugali serves as a sort of gustatory canvas for sauces, vegetables, and for the fortunate, meat. It comes in two main types, corn and cassava. Both are nutritionally marginal and are what an economist would call "inferior goods," but the cassava-based stuff, pictured above, is especially looked down upon. Which is really too bad, because I find it tastier than its maize-based sibling. If you were at a roadside restaurant in Dar es Salaam and craved the repast pictured above, you'd want to order ugali dagaa, ugali and sardines. The usual formula for a meal name is the name of the starch followed by the name of the protein, with no conjunction in between; thus wali samaki is "rice and fish" and chipsi kuku is "chips [fries] and chicken."

Instant coffee. Coffee lovers, weep. East Africa may produce delicious coffee beans, but from what I can tell, most of them are exported elsewhere. Instead in our office we have the product pictured above, which I drink out of desperation. In my normal life I take my coffee black, just like Dad taught me, but this stuff requires a hefty dose of powdered milk and sugar before I will consider drinking it.

Chipsi mayai. I don't know if there's a term for comfort food in Swahili, but chipsi mayai (the latter word is pronounced like "my eye!") certainly fits that bill. The name means "chips and eggs," and it's really just a mass of precooked french fries glued together with eggs. It reminds me a little of the omelette spaghetti I enjoyed in Cameroon. The specimen above is topped with shredded vegetables, and on the side of the plate you can see a pile of salt and a some pilipili (chili peppers) in case you want a little kick. It's also good with ketchup, though be warned that the Tanzanian stuff is watery compared to good ol' Heinz.

Ndizi nyama. This may be my favorite Tanzanian dish so far. Ndizi nyama means "bananas and meat," and it consists of beef cooked in a tomato-based sauce with bananas. Not plaintains, mind you, but real, honest-to-goodness bananas. I haven't tried making it myself, and I can only assume that they use slightly underripe bananas to prevent the finished product from becoming chunks of beef floating in fruit puree. In the other segments of the plate you can see some greens and maharage (beans), which are common side dishes.

Machungwa. It's not my most photogenic moment, but I wanted to illustrate the proper Swahili technique for eating machungwa (oranges). The oranges here are absolutely delicious, and they're sold in abundance by the side of the road anywhere you go. They are delivered sliced in half, often with the rind partially peeled away in an artistic-looking fashion. Rather than peeling and eating--a procedure I personally don't much like owing to sticky hands and that bitter white layer--people squeeze and slurp the juice and pulp. You probably lose some fiber this way, but it can't possibly be worse than drinking it from a carton.

24 July 2010

night swimming

By now I’ve been through the process of moving to a new place and fitting together all the pieces of a new life many times. Sometimes those pieces come together easily and seamlessly, and other times the process is long and fraught with difficulty. For the most part, Tanzania has been easy. For about my first month, though, there was one serious conundrum: how to get my normal dosage of exercise.

Four factors conspire to make working out a challenge for me here. The first is my commute, which can take up to an hour depending on traffic. The second is the daily rhythm of light and dark: Tanzania is on the typical equatorial schedule of sunrise at 6, sundown at 6 all year round. The third is the abundance of crime on the Msasani Peninsula, where I live (more on that in a moment); combined with the first two factors it means that there is rarely a time during the week when I’m home and it’s safe for me to run or ride a bike. The fourth is a shortage of options. There is one gym that I know of on the peninsula, and it charges the equivalent of $15 per workout—not really a sustainable solution for an intern’s budget. I have splurged and gone a few times, and I discovered that access to the place is controlled by a fingerprint scanner, which may explain why it costs $15 to get in. It’s the first time I’ve ever used such a device, and it frequently malfunctions, requiring a staffer to override it. This high-tech absurdity is right at home on the Peninsula.

Just as I resigned myself to returning to the U.S. flabby and out of shape, I discovered Funky’s. I struggle a little to explain what the place is to my friends, but “multipurpose family fun center” is a serviceable description. Inside its floodlit interior of its walls, Funky’s has a basketball court, an inflatable castle, a skateboard park where the teenage children of U.S. government personnel hang out, and a fast food chain that bizarrely uses Native American imagery in its advertising. More to the point, it has a 25-meter pool with lap lanes that stays open until 10 pm every night. It’s not the world’s most pleasant pool, to be sure—the underwater lights combined with the paint job give it a sickening, metallic blue-green glow. The lights themselves remind me of the headlights of an 18-wheeler closing in. Usually I have the pool to myself. Occasionally I overlap with a British woman, and we’ve exchanged pleasantries a few times, but an activity that keeps your face in the water most of the time doesn’t really lend itself to socializing. Once in a while there are some teenagers of ambiguous nationality hanging out in the water too. (Not to worry, Mom, there is always a staffer watching the pool from the sidelines.)

The process of getting to Funky’s is not ideal either. Even though it’s within a 10-minute walking distance of where I live, a taxi is a must after dark, especially because the route passes a pair of abandoned apartment buildings that act as a base for muggers and carjackers. While I was in Zanzibar the first time, there was an incident where an expat woman and her 14-year-old son were (unwisely) driving with their windows down, and two carjackers sprang on them as they stopped at the intersection near the abandoned buildings. The attempt was foiled when the mom bit one would-be carjacker’s arm hard enough to draw blood as he reached for the keys, and the son kicked the other guy in the junk as he opened the passenger side door. Though the attempt was unsuccessful—kudos to mom and son for being total badasses— it was a good reminder to everyone not to let their guard down around here. I always keep the doors locked and windows up, and I usually ride to Funky’s with the American expat community’s favorite cabbie, a guy who goes by the name of Smoker.

It took a while for me to figure out how an underpaid mzungu can get exercise in Dar es Salaam, but Funky’s is now a treasured part of my routine. I'll be glad to return to the U.S. in something better than awful shape, and my night sessions at Funky's are a useful reminder that when there's a will, there's always a way.

20 July 2010

fun (?) with swahili

Warning: this is going to be one of the dorkiest blog entries that I write all summer, so if you don't fancy hearing my armchair linguistical musings, you have my full permission to skip this one. Now, for whoever's left, on with the dorkfest!

The Lion King. Now’s as good a time as any to share that many of the African-sounding words in Disney’s The Lion King come from Swahili. A few of the characters’ names are Swahili words, including Simba (lion), Rafiki (friend), and Pumbaa (the root of a verb meaning “to be foolish”). Hakuna Matata is a real Swahili phrase, and it means something pretty close to “no worries,” though most Swahili speakers seem to prefer the equivalent expression hamna shida. Word about the movie has apparently gotten out among the street peddlers in Zanzibar, because hakuna matata usually one of the first things they trot out to tourists. The movie is not consistent throughout, though. While studying Swahili back in the States, I was a bit disappointed to learn that the opening call and chant in “The Circle of Life” is not in Swahili—it’s Zulu.

Onomatopoeia. One of my favorite Swahili words is pikipiki (motorcycle) and I loved it even more when I learned of its onomatopoeic origins. Apparently pikipiki is an imitation of the sound that old-school motorcycles used to make when people revved up the engine. Similarly, the village of Bububu on Zanzibar draws its name from the sound of old steam locomotives on the island’s first railway. Some Swahili words of older vintage that I suspect of being onomatopoeic are mbwa (dog), chafya (sneeze), and miayo (yawn).

Loanwords. Like many languages, Swahili is loaded with words from other languages. The big sources of loanwords that I’m aware of are (in decreasing order of importance) Arabic, English, and Portuguese. But as tends to happen with loanwords, many have gotten mangled to suit local pronunciation, with frequently charming results. This happens because while we’re all born with a lot of linguistic flexibility, our ability to form certain types of sounds atrophies quickly in childhood if those sounds aren’t present in our native tongue. This is why so many Filipinos struggle with the “f” sound, why many native Spanish speakers have to throw in a vowel before an English word beginning with “s,” and why it’s so difficult for many English speakers to master the rolled r’s and guttural sounds in other languages.

Swahili speakers really don’t enjoy ending words with consonants, so most English loanwords have an extra vowel—most frequently “i”—tacked onto the end. Therefore, a taxi driver will give you a lifti to your destination, and if you pay with a large bill you’ll collect your chenji. While traveling you will surely stay at a hoteli, but hopefully you’ll avoid the hospitali and the kituo cha polisi (police station). I and many of the Americans I know have started using some of these words even in conversation with each other, and it’s a running joke that if you’re at a loss for a Swahili word, adding “i” to an English word is a reasonable guess. I even hear lots of Tanzanians throwing in some extra i’s when speaking English—the word “just” seems to be tricky because it frequently becomes “justi.” Sometimes the letter “u” serves this function as well: you can call your friends on a simu (from SIM card) and indulge in some cold aiskrimu. Occasionally, Swahili goes the other way and deletes a final consonant; “r” is a frequent victim, giving the language a Bostonian touch whenever one plays soka or enlists the services of a dereva (driver).

Placenames. I always enjoy learning placenames in a new language because I think it provides some clues to a culture’s sense of geography. I was especially intrigued by the Swahili names for countries and continents. This is pure speculation on my part, but I imagine that one can get a sense of people’s evolving mental map of the world based on how Swahilified different placenames are. The name for Europe, Ulaya, seems pretty much unintelligible in terms of any European term for the continent, so I would guess that Swahili people had some awareness of a large land mass to the north before European infiltration took place. Portugal was the first arrival on the scene, and its name looks similarly obscure: Ureno. I learned from the Swahili wikipedia that the name comes from the Portuguese word for “king,” and it originated when Vasco de Gama and other explorers announced that the King of Portugal had sent them. By the time we get to England, Uingereza, we have a name that’s clearly derived from the real European name but still a bit garbled. The real johnny-come-latelies, like Marekani and Kanada, have names that sound pretty much like their English name with a Swahili accent- and once in a while, an extra vowel at the end.

15 July 2010

how i learned to love world cup soccer

The story goes that when I was a little sprout, my parents brought me down to the playing fields near my future high school on the opening day of the local youth soccer league to see if I wanted to play. I'm told that I watched the proceedings for a couple of minutes, turned to Mom and Dad and said, "no thanks."

My feelings about soccer changed little over the two decades and change that followed. I confess that before this summer's tournament started, I learned that the Philippines did not even try out for the Cup and took that as further proof that the Philippines and I were made for each other. I watched the Team USA's opening match, against England, with a rowdy group of Americans on a big outdoor screen here in expat-land. I could barely pay attention during the game, and I expressed incredulity when it ended in a draw and everyone went home. What kind of game is fine with not even having a winner?

Yet being in Africa for the first World Cup ever on African soil made a convert even out of me, as I secretly hoped it might. Tanzanians are passionate about The Beautiful Game, and even though the national team did not make the Cup, it was still the talk of the country for the last month. Since watching soccer was the only way to have a social life here for most of June and the first part of July, I resolved to make the most of it. I watched Cameroon play Denmark - two disparate countries I visited a span of 19 days last year - from a roadside dive bar packed with Tanzanians. The atmosphere was raucous, the Konyagi (a gin-like Tanzanian liquor) freely flowing. A smattering of vuvuzelas, uhhhh, enlivened the festivities. (You think they're annoying on TV?) In spite of myself, I started enjoying it. I also had the honor of providing real-time updates by text message to a bunch of Peace Corps volunteers in Cameroon, who were stuck without electricity when the demands of all those TVs blew out the grid in the extreme north province. Sadly, after Cameroon's opening goal I had no further good news to share with them.

I was on safari in Mikumi for the U.S. team's elimination at the hands of Ghana. I watched that match the way I imagine the majority of people on this continent watched it: standing, huddled around a 22" screen. The only TV at our resort was in the staff quarters, and they graciously accommodated our group of Americans. By that point, the continent's hopes for World Cup glory were pinned on Ghana, and the pan-African solidarity was palpable here. When the Ghanaians scored, the place erupted in jubilation while the Americans fretted. Well, all but one of the Americans. The prettier half of "Elawn" was rooting for Ghana, owing to her two years working there after college. Traitor.

After Team USA's elimination I pivoted quickly to rooting for Ghana as the sole remaining represenative of Africa. I witnessed their heartbreaking loss to Uruguay in a quieter setting: at home with my American host dad. It's hard to sustain the claim that soccer is not an exciting game after such a match. When Asamoah Gyan's late-game penalty shot deflected off the crossbar, my heart hit the floor. Somehow, in the span of just a few weeks, I'd come to care about soccer.

My conversion hasn't just been about the game itself, of course. Shakira's "Waka Waka" and K'naan's "Waving Flag" are now indelibly etched as part of the soundtrack of my Tanzanian summer. (Funny that it took Coca-Cola to bring forward a World Cup anthem that features, you know, an actual African.) I have also had the pleasure of reading How Soccer Explains the World, which certainly doesn't live up to the promise implied by its title but still offers a lot of great storytelling. Most of all, I have appreciated the way the World Cup has enabled me to interact with Tanzanians on - pardon the expression - a more level field than almost any other topic. There are a lot of things that can get in the way of mutual understanding across cultures, but not many of them apply to soccer. Nelson Mandela, whose country hosted the Cup so well, grasped the power of sport to unite and reconcile. I am starting to see what he was getting at.

11 July 2010

there's something about tanzania

Apologies, dear readers, for my long absence. I spent the last week doing another round of field work in Zanzibar, and both time and internet access were once again scarce. I have a little bit of a backlog of topics to write about, so look for posts in the coming days about how I learned to love the World Cup, some more musings about Swahili, and what I do for exercise in Dar es Salaam. Surely they will all be as fascinating as always.

Among the countries in its East African neighborhood, Tanzania is something of a model citizen. As I mentioned in my first post, Tanzania has an enviable record of peace and stability. Its résumé of large-scale armed conflict is breathtakingly short. There was a short war with Uganda in the late 70s, and before that one would have to reach deep into the colonial era to the Maji Maji Rebellion in 1907. Contrast that with the troubled histories of many of its neighbors: Uganda (see Amin, Idi), Rwanda (self-explanatory), and the Democratic Republic of Congo (site of the bloodiest, most hellish and least-known war of the 21st century). Kenya, Tanzania's closest relative, teetered on the brink of mass electoral violence while a man of half-Kenyan ancestry was mounting a successful campaign for President of the United States. Tanzania has won plaudits in the international community for successfully absorbing refugees from its neighbors' conflicts. Tanzania's term-limited presidents have regularly left office voluntarily, and the current President, Jakaya Kikwete, is by all accounts sincere, competent, and well-liked.

Tanzania's record is all the more remarkable given that its boundaries are no less of a colonial fiction than those of any other African country. In most African countries, it is often said, people identify first and foremost with their tribe and ethnic group and little, if at all, with their country. Tanzanians, in contrast, really think of themselves first as Tanzanians. In fact, it is considered bad form here to make a fuss about or inquire too extensively into someone’s ethnic heritage. One of my coworkers, a Muslim from the north, is married to a Christian woman from the middle of the country. This fact obviously gives him pride, but he is also quick to emphasize how unremarkable such a pairing is in Tanzania.

Tanzania's cohesiveness is, more than anything else, a product of public policy. In that first entry I also briefly mentioned Julius Nyerere, the founder and first president of Tanzania, still known and loved as mwalimu (“teacher”). Nyerere launched a program of African socialism known as ujamaa (“familyhood”). In economic terms, ujamaa was an unqualified disaster, a fact that Nyerere ultimately recognized and that drove him from office. Still, Nyerere managed somehow to build a Tanzanian national identity, glued together with his promotion by word and policy of Swahili as a national language. “The policies didn’t last,” a senior official at the Embassy observed to me and some other interns, “but they were in place long enough for something to gel.”

There is one big caveat to everything I've said so far, and that is Zanzibar. I will save a discussion of the archipelago's complicated relationship with the mainland for another time. But its last two rounds of elections, in 2000 and 2005, were marred by violence, most notably a massacre of protestors in 2001. On political freedoms and human rights, the islands compare unfavorably to the mainland. Zanzibar's independence from the Sultanate was born of a bloody revolution in 1964, which killed and drove out many of the formerly powerful Arabs and South Asians. Among those who fled was the family of young Farouk Bulsara, whom the world would later come to know as Freddie Mercury.

There are two great ironies built into this contrast between Zanzibar and the mainland. The first is that Zanzibar, unlike the mainland, has significant competition between the two major political parties. Part of the mainland's political stability is, arguably, thanks to the overwhelming advantage of Kikwete's party in what we Americans call "party identification." Zanzibar, however, is close to evenly split, and "party ID" there has deep roots in historical power relationships and grievances. It's a useful counterexample if one is tempted to lazily equate liberal democracy with competitive elections.

The second irony is that in my experience, Zanzibar is a safer and gentler place than the mainland. In Stone Town, I regularly walk from place to place alone, after dark, with a laptop bag over my shoulder. I can do this without fear, while in Dar any two of those three things together would be inviting serious trouble. The welcoming spirit I have felt everywhere in Tanzania is especially strong in Zanzibar.

Both the mainland and Zanzibar are slated to have elections in October of this year, and Zanzibar's current president (again, explanation to come another time) is term-limited. Zanzibar's troubles are far from insoluble, and I sincerely hope that this will be the breakthrough election that sees a peaceful and untainted process. Zanzibaris have been waiting a long time for this, and they certainly deserve it.