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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Perfect Storm: No Water, Some Electricity, and a National Election

I have a firm policy when traveling to avoid demonstrations, rallies, riots, or any hint of political involvement. I'm a foreigner and I don't know what's going on. I don't understand the politics in enough depth to make any meaningful judgments about candidates or issues, and it's none of my business anyway. Nor do I understand the dynamics of a local crowd, be they happy or angry or making a transition from one to the other. And that can be dangerous.

So how did I find myself after dark inching a Suzuki full of six passengers and an 8-foot ladder through crowds of Tanzanians waving flags, screaming the name of a political party, throwing firecrackers, and slapping my car?  It had to do with the water going out, the electric company switching up some circuits, and Tanzania's most hotly-contested Presidential election in decades.

 Tanzania has a history of peaceful elections and transfers of power. The party in power now, CCM, has been in power for years, with no strong challengers among the other parties. Until this year, when Tanzanians are thinking that the Chadema party has a fighting chance. I haven't found much news coverage in English, but what I've read predicts that President Kikwete of CCM will be handily re-elected to a second 5-year term. Tanzanians have been charged up about this election for several weeks. I see people arguing politics at lots of the places where they spend time during the day. My Swahili being what it is, I don't understand most of what they say. A lot of people avoid the discussions, and quietly say they hope everything will be peaceful, as it always has before, but that this could be the year that something happens because people are so excited. 

A utility pole near my house with the lately-ubiquitous campaign posters.

There are five presidential candidates. This guy's not one of the top two.

Here's the incumbent, President Kikwete of CCM framed in the bright green and yellow party colors. I saw a CCM commerative khanga in a shop the other day and was sorely tempted to buy it for the souvenir value. But it was ugly, and I didn't want to make any political statement. Hey, maybe it'll be discounted after the election.

But, back to the water and electricity. I've been quite smug about my reliable water supply here at Nymba Sita. The water goes out often in Arusha. The key to having a good water supply in your house is to have a good system of tanks that can store enough to bridge any outages. We've had steady water for six months now, with a two-tank system with electric pump. When the water stops, I run outside and flip an electric switch, which pumps water from a big tank at ground level to a smaller elevated tank. Each of the six houses (nyumba sita) in our compound has its own two tanks.

 The two-tank water system.

Popular with African Pied Crows and Pigeons

Several days ago, I stopped being so smug. The water went out. I ran outside and flipped the switch. I didn't hear the pump turn on. The water did not resume its flow to the house. The askari (security guard) told us that the last time this happened, the water was out for a month. Several of my acquaintances told me that our area, Njiro, has lots of water problems. So, relying on K2's expertise in living with bad or no water supply, we dug in for the long haul.

Let's call this the eight-oil-can water system.

K2 bought eight of these used plastic cooking oil cans, then cleaned them with boiling water. These are popular as water containers in Arusha, and he had to search around to find some, eventually buying them in two different markets.

Water collection and delivery.

He called a friend who gave him the number of a neighborhood man who is selling water. He must have a great tank system. K2 taught me a Swahili proverb (translated into English): "Even in death, there is a profit." Meaning that when something bad happens, someone will find a way to make money from it. We loaded our jerry cans into the back of the Suzuki and drove to Said's house. Said pulled a hose under his gate and filled the cans. He charged 1000 T shillings for eight cans, about 85 cents U.S. As we drove back over the rough road, water cans sloshing in the back of the Suzuki, K2 said, "If we didn't have this nice car, you'd carry one jerry can at a time on your head from here to the house." Many Tanzanian women could do it, but not me!

Water storage.

We emptied the jerry cans into this 180-liter plastic trash can in the kitchen. Then we scooped water out to fill buckets and carry them around the house. The soda bottles are not part of the water system, per se, but more of a supplement.

Water for the bathroom.

Water for laundry and cleaning. 

Water for a giant slug.

It's workable, but it's a big hassle. I tried not to feel too whiney, because many people in Arusha manage their water just like this, but without the car. I failed, and felt quite whiney.

As you might imagine, the house quickly became filthy. But now that we had water to clean with, I called my friend Warda. She manages a small hotel, and brings over Jacque and Flora, two of her hotel maids to clean and do laundry for me (while she and I drink soda and cruise the internet). She said they could come on Monday, the day after election day. When they come, I drive across town to pick them up at the Aden Hotel, then drive them home when they've finished. This has already resulted in some exciting rush-hour and after-dark driving that I would have avoided, given the choice. (Click here to read more about that.)

Jacque and Warda at the reception desk of the Aden Hotel.

Halloween rolled around, and with it, election day. I was a bit nervous, but the voting was peaceful. K2 went to vote early in the morning, hoping to avoid long lines. He said everyone was relaxed and friendly, telling jokes and helping each other figure out where to go. But then began the tricky part, waiting for the results to be announced, which will take a few days.

Just as K2 left for the polls, I discovered that the one electrical outlet in the kitchen had stopped working. So I couldn't use the microwave, electric kettle, or toaster. Also, it controls the oven and one electric burner on the stove,which I also couldn't use.  About two hours later, I tried to turn on the electric water heater and the lights in the master bathroom. Nothing. Bedroom lights, also nothing. But the lights were on in the rest of the house.  And I felt quite whiney again. But K2 called Amua, his go-to guy, and asked him to find a fundi (electrician) and bring him to the house. (Click here to read more about Amua and how helpful he's been to K2 and me.) I scheduled both the cleaning and the electrical work for Monday. I figured Warda could help me translate if it was necessary for communicating with the fundi

My friend Anna and I can't vote anyway, not being Tanzanian citizens, so we sequestered ourselves at Kigongoni Lodge, a few miles outside of town, and had lunch and lounged by the pool. I really enjoyed the bonus of flushing toilets in the restroom.

Foreigners' Polling Station.

On Monday, Warda and the girls and I and a ladder borrowed from Aden Hotel were all at the house in early afternoon. Amua promised to bring the fundi at 2:00. During the afternoon's internet cruising, one of the bigger private security companies sent an email to a popular expatriate mailing list advising people to avoid the town center due to a "situation of unrest." Anna texted me from her job, telling me that people were saying something was going on downtown. I was anxious to take Warda and the girls back and finish driving through town early, but I was waiting for the fundi. 

Amua arrived with the fundi and an assistant at 4:00. He was very good, figured it all out, and took about 90 minutes to fix everything. He told me the problem was that Tanesco (the electric agency) rerouted some circuits, resulting in parts of the house's wiring no longer working. So he rewired the fuse box. That sounded bizarre to me, but whatever, everything's working now. When I asked the price, Amua and Warda both barraged the guy in Swahili with pleas to give me the real price, not the mzungu price, because I'm practically family. He gave me such a low price that I actually paid him more than he asked. Which disgusted Amua and Warda just a bit.

So at 5:30, Amua and his crew left on foot to catch the dala-dala. Warda and the girls and I loaded the Suzuki. We folded down one back seat and positioned the ladder from tailgate to dashboard. Warda took the front passenger seat. Jacque and Flora crowded into 2/3 of the back seat and the ladder occupied the other third. As we started off, Warda informed me that we needed to stop at a nearby pub to meet two of her old friends who had returned to ESAMI, a training college that offers month-long courses to students from various East African countries. I demurred, saying for about the thirteenth time that I was anxious about driving through town, especially now as it would be rush hour and dark soon and what-the-hell-could-be-going-on-in-town-already and I didn't want to lose any more time. She insisted, saying "only five minutes" (which I've already learned not to believe when either K2 or Warda says it). She kept assuring me the "situation of unrest" in town was a celebration and that people were happy and it would not be dangerous.

While she was still persuading me, we happened to pass her two friends walking along the road on their way to the pub. I pulled over and she introduced two nice young men, Fernando from Mozambique and Ezron from Malawi. She invited them to ride with us. I demurred again, saying we didn't have room. She said they should ride with us, because after I dropped her and the girls on the other side of town, these two men would provide company for me on the ride back through town in the dark. This was my first evidence that Warda was downplaying the situation so I wouldn't be scared. (I'd already suspected this, because it's a common dynamic among Tanzanians.) So Flora, being the smallest, climbed into the cargo area, Jacque shoved over, and two big African men crowded into the back seat. Later, I was really happy to have them in the car with me.

Not much farther along, still way out on the outskirts of town, traffic heading out of town became heavy. That's normal for this time of day with people heading home from work in the town center. But many people in cars and dala-dalas waved small red, white, and blue Chadema party flags and honked horns in a rhythm of three evenly-spaced beeps, pause, three more beeps (usually heard in wedding processions). We decided on a route right through the town center, because it would usually be the least congested at rush hour. As we drove slowly into town, traffic got heavier. Crowds of pedestrians materialized along both shoulders. The crowds were jubilant, flashing the two-fingered "v" for victory and yelling, "Chadema! Chadema!" Most of the walkers were young men. They were celebrating Chadema's just-announced win for parliament seats from Arusha.

We made our way to the first big round-about. Police directed traffic here and stood in a group. The crowd was thick, but not impeding traffic. We proceeded to the next round-about. First, a quieter stretch. Then, a big police van, with several officers standing nearby. That explained the "quieter" stretch.

Then, to a major intersection in a busy business area. No police presence. Wild crowds, spilling into the traffic lanes. Cars inching along in both directions, beep-beep-beeping and waving flags. One man playing the beep-beep-beep on a vuvuzela. Jacque and Warda were laughing and calling out, "Chadema!" Warda kept assuring me everybody was happy and there was no problem. I just inched the car along so slowly, pushing through the crowds, brushing by people, trying hard not to hurt anyone, but determined not to stop here. The American, the Malawian, and the Mozambican all were nervous, in spite of Warda's continued efforts to placate us. People slapped the car as we passed. Occasionally someone called out, "Mzungu!" (white person), which made me even more nervous. Two young guys on a motorcycle kept zipping between the cars and throwing firecrackers, each one of which made me twitch. Twenty minutes of this brought us at last to the Aden Hotel, where Warda and the girls and the ladder disembarked.

At this point, Warda dropped the pretense and advised me not to drive back the way we came. We settled on an alternate route. I nosed the car back out into the street and felt really happy to have two big African men in the car with me. As we inched through the crowds near the hotel, a man pounded on the car and shouted, "Wewe!" (you). I didn't stop, just kept inching away from him. Ezron assured me I hadn't injured him, just poked him with the side mirror as he stepped backward into traffic. We merged onto a highway that bypasses the town center and were able to drive a bit faster. Still huge crowds, but staying more to the shoulders. We were caught behind, then were able to pass a few jeeps and dala-dalas with people hanging off of them waving flags and shouting. As we moved away from town, the crowds and traffic thinned. I turned off the highway, heading back to Njiro and we found ourselves on a quiet, empty stretch of road. My sigh of relief must have been loud, because Ezron and Fernando laughed.

I reached home at 8:00, well after dark. I locked my gate and all the doors to my house and sat on the sofa with my nerves buzzing for an hour. Then I laughed a little. Then I offered up a prayer of thanks for making it home safely and another that no one would be hurt in town that night.

Ezron and Fernando are both African, but they were as foreign as I was in this situation. None of us were buying Warda's assurances. All of us agreed that a happy crowd can turn dangerous with little provocation. Although, as it turns out, Warda was right and it was a celebration and did not turn violent.

The next morning (yesterday), I heard a trickling noise from somewhere in the house. Yes! Water was running from the tap again! And since electricity had been restored to the water heater, I celebrated with a hot shower. Then I ventured out to fill the Suzuki with petrol and stock up on food and drinking water and phone credits, just in case. Oh, yeah, and toilet paper.

I hear there was more celebrating and marching in town yesterday afternoon, and heard a bit of commotion from the market area near here in early evening. But all appears peaceful now. We're still waiting for election results, so the excitement will continue for a few more days. As of now, Tanzania continues its history of peaceful elections. And I'm not driving after dark for awhile.

A final, unrelated note for my worried relatives and friends back home: my pneumonia has cleared up now and I'm healthy again.

A peaceful morning in Njiro.


  1. OK, so there are times that I'm jealous of your adventures, but this isn't one of them. I would have been scared to death, and frozen with fear driving in that situation. Between that and going without water and not having electricity, I would have probably done more than just whine. You just find a way to deal with everything. Nothing stops you. YOU GO GIRL!!!

  2. Sheesh, Barb - I think you are working your guardian angels overtime - make sure they are taking a break when you do, like at the foreigner's polling station!! Love your writing, it's like watching a movie!! Take Care, Betsy

  3. Shanna, I cried twice during the week and I was really, really scared driving through the crowd.

  4. I always appreciate your honesty about your travels, even if I am holding my breath! Carol