Thursday, June 26, 2008

A day in the life of a chemist in Africa

I realize that I have a tendency to get rather introspective with my posts, so I've decided to lighten things up a bit with a snapshot of my life here in Tanzania.

06:30 - Wake up and shower so that I can get into the computer lab right when it's unlocked at 07:00. The traffic on the connection is slowest early in the morning and late at night, so I can use Skype to call Kiana. It's 21:00 the previous evening in Seattle, so I give her a heads up about how the next day is shaping up.

08:00 - Breakfast: two eggs, sunny-side-up. The first night I was here, my host mom asked me what I like to eat. I mentioned that I like eggs for breakfast, sunny-side-up. The next day, she actually came home from work to show the nanny how to make the eggs for me, and that's been my breakfast every morning since. They have this red pepper sauce here that I really like to put on my eggs. It's called Crystal, and all the writing on the label is in Arabic, except where it says "Made in Louisiana, product of U.S.A."

08:30 to 12:30 - Mimi ninajifunza kiswahili (I learn Swahili). They developed an intensive Swahili course for us that focuses on the basic grammar and vocabulary that we'll need to function at our hospital assignments. I can now say things like "I don't like siafu. Siafu like to eat me. I am going home now for the meal of the afternoon." The language course is very effective, and I occasionally give myself a headache trying to conjugate. Fortunately, we get 30 minutes for tea and peanuts at 10:00.

12:30 to 13:30 - Lunch. I stay at the home of MS-TCDC's marketing director, who lives on the compound, so I get to come home and have re-heated leftovers for lunch. The students who live off-campus have lunches packed for them, usually a boiled egg, PB&J, and a banana. They tell me that next month I'll be living with a bachelor and eating in the hospital cafeteria. I'm going to miss this place.

13:30 to 17:00 - Engineering. For the last week we've been learning how to build power supplies. We built our own full-wave bridge rectifiers (a device to convert the AC from the wall to the DC required for most electronic equipment) and added capacitors to filter out the noise, as well as a voltage regulator to allow adjustment of the output from 1.2V - 24V DC. Today, we took each other's power supplies, broke them, and gave them back to each other to fix. It was a lot of fun. If that sounds like fun to you, you might consider a career in science. If that sounds like something that only a nerd would enjoy, you would be correct.

17:00 - Beer and guitar. There's a little room off to the side of the cantine where they sell beverages and snacks. 500 mL of beer sets me back 1200 Tanzanian shillings, or about US$1. I can choose from among 7 different types of lager. Or I can have a Coke. I choose Castle. Phil, another EWH student, usually joins me for a drink and a jam session. He plays guitar but didn't bring his. He did bring a harmonica, so we play every song in C major.

18:00 - Band practice. There is a band made up of MS-TCDC staff members that practices on the lawn outside the gym several days a week. I've made friends with them, and I often hang out at practice and attempt to learn African music. The rhythms are complex, and a bit hard for a Norwegian like me to grasp, but I have fun. Today they let Phil and I pick up some guitars and play with the band. We were in the middle of teaching them to play the blues when some siafu started crawling up my pants. Everyone thought I was just dancing until I started screaming. They all got a kick out of that. "Did you get a 'good morning?' " they wanted to know. Apparently, that's local slang for a visitor in one's drawers. I was more fortunate than little Ben was in the same situation, and the visitors did not make it past my knee.

19:00 - Dinner. The best part of the day. Beans, rice, meat spiced with garam masala, chapati, and, of course, bananas. They have an avocado tree outside that's producing more fruit than they know what to do with, so we've been having avocado and (insert fruit here) juice with every meal. It looks funny, but tastes good.

20:00 to 23:00 - Chill. The TV and radio are always on (at the same time), and I sit in the living room working on homework, blogging, and absorbing Swahili. The one-story, three-bedroom house is currently home to 8 people, so there's never a quiet moment.

23:00 - Sleep. I have crazy dreams. I don't know if it's the malaria meds or what, but my dreams lately have been like surrealist epic films. My favorite so far was about the tiger who became an Old West sheriff and kicked all the British Colonials off the beaches. On good nights I dream of Kiana (sometimes she's a pirate).

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Settling In

At dinner tonight, I noticed that my bottle of Malarone is about 3/4 full, which means I've been here for a bit, but I'll be here a bit longer. Yesterday, June 24th, marked 2 weeks since I left Seattle. Yesterday also marked 2 years of marriage to my amazing wife Kiana, who is still in Seattle. (I missed her birthday this year, too, thanks to a chemistry conference, which means I'm 0-for-2.) I'm starting to get used to being here, which is good in that it means that I'm learning the language and culture (See the list of useful info at the right of the screen). Unfortunately, being used to being here also means that the thrill has worn off a bit. The Swahili classes make my brain hurt, the engineering is difficult, the engineers can be difficult, and I have homework. Yesterday was particularly hard as I tried to talk to Kiana over internet telephone and a 10 hour time difference.

I'm really glad I'm here.

I guess the purpose of this post is to remind myself and anyone else who is considering this particular brand of adventure that good work is not always easy work, and that there's a level of sacrifice that differentiates a vacation from...whatever this is. The EWH organizers told us right from the beginning that every single one of us would experience culture shock and homesickness. I didn't believe them then. I do now.

In a funny way, though, it's sort of a relief to be tired and homesick. It means I'm ready to get down to business. I've been here two weeks, which is longer than most people spend here on vacation. The honeymoon is over, but as Kiana and I can tell you, the end of the honeymoon is the beginning of the good stuff.

Tutaonana baadaye (We'll see each other later)

Saturday, June 21, 2008

I finally fix something

If you've been following my blog, you've read stories of airplanes, ants, orphanages, and farms. You might be wondering at what point I would actually do some engineering of the world health variety (ostensibly the reason I'm here). Yesterday (Friday) we finally got our hands dirty with our first visit to a Tanzanian hospital. Mt. Meru hospital is in the heart of Arusha, Tanzania's second largest city after Dar Es Salaam. I admit that I didn't really expect that a large hospital in a large town (population ~300,000) would really have need of the sort of services a bunch of barely-trained students would be capable of offering. I was wrong.

Upon arriving at Mt. Meru we were led to a small workshop next to the hospital's equally small supply room. The room and the veranda in front of it were littered with non-functional equipment in various states of disrepair. Zev, Jason and I first tackled a blood pressure cuff that wouldn't hold pressure. By submerging the hose in a bucket of water we discovered the leak to be coming from a small crack in the tubing right at the hand bulb. 30 seconds' work with a pair of scissors returned the BP cuff to full working order. Other projects were repaired with equal speed: several other BP cuffs, a scale, some foot-powered vacuum pumps, and a centrifuge were repaired with a quick adjustment, reattachment, or other such simple maneuver. I learned that Mt. Meru, despite its size, has not a single technician on staff. We have no idea how long some of this equipment has been sitting (or how long it might have continued to languish) just waiting for someone to take the time to attempt a repair. Time is one of the many luxuries staff at this hospital lack.

Not all the repair attempts had such a happy ending. Two autoclaves (high pressure steam sterilizers) befuddled us and were relegated to the scrap heap. One particular victory, though, was the high point of my day: a scooter for the mobility impaired such as you see at a grocery store. The batteries were fully charged, the horn worked, but the motor would not go. Ben, Ian, Phil and I set about removing every bolt, screw, and coupling we could find. More than one on-looker reminded us that we'd have to put it all back together. I replied that the day fear of reassembly prevents me from attempting a repair will be the day I go home. Some of the plastic cowling proved especially difficult to remove. When it seemed we could go no further, I remembered some wisdom passed down to me by my father, an electrician: "There is no obstacle that cannot be overcome with brute strength and ignorance"; and "Beat to fit, paint to match". After much beating, cranking, and a bit of breaking, we finally uncovered the problem: a small wire had broken off from the potentiometer dial that controlled the motor speed. Ian and I re-soldered the wires, reattached the batteries, and...success! We reattached the wheels and batteries, and, with wires and straps and parts still hanging loose, proceeded to drive victory laps around the veranda.

If only successes came this easily in chemistry research.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Kristian visits an orphanage

Just next door to the MS-TCDC there is an orphanage called Cradle of Love ( The children there have been orphaned by parents who are dying or have died of HIV/AIDS. Some of the children are themselves infected. Several of the students of the EWH program have made a habit of going to visit the children after our afternoon classes. Today I decided to join them.

The visiting policy at CoL is pretty relaxed – come in any time during normal hours and the kids take care of the rest. I hadn’t been inside the gate 5 seconds before a little kid ran up and hugged my legs. I leaned down to say hello. He pulled on my beard, informed me that his name was Ben, and then called over his buddies Simon and Cory to share his new friend. These boys were all 3 years old, (or so they told me). Ben and Cory both speak English very well. I couldn’t tell if they speak Kiswahili, as they always responded to my questions with quizzical looks and kept on talking in English. Simon speaks only Kiswahili, but wasn’t too interested in my attempts to speak in his tongue. All three were quite intent that we needed to get out of the sun and off to someplace more interesting.

The Cradle of Love orphanage is situated in a large, lush, well-kept and fenced-in compound. The boys took turns holding my hand and riding my shoulders and led me to a house that they wanted to show me. The door was locked. I told them that it was okay. Simon decided that that was a good place to relieve himself. Ben followed suit. Cory was riding my shoulders, so I decided to let him down and to suspend shoulder rides for the rest of the afternoon in case of further urinary spontaneity.

The boys took me to several other places that they liked: an empty swimming pool (with a fence around it), generators, a workshop. One of the boys decided that I should have a lemon, and after a bit of arguing over the best way to get there, we found our way to a tall lemon tree in the middle of a well-manicured lawn. The boys each found ripe lemons that had fallen to the ground and proceeded to tear into them, laughing and making faces at the sourness.

Then everything went to hell. I noticed a tickling on my leg, then a sharp pain. I pulled up my pant leg to see what I had been most afraid of since leaving the paved path: siafu. Siafu are horrible, horrible army ants. They are not poisonous, but they have been known to kill children due to their unrelenting attacks and sheer numbers. The bite on my leg had drawn blood. I turned to grab the boys and run, but it was too late. Ben screamed. I picked him up and pulled off his shoes, but he kept screaming. We ran to a safer place and I put him down, but now his screams had turned blood-curdling. He was gripping his crotch while tears streamed down his face. There were no staff people anywhere in sight. If it had been my little brother, of course I would have helped him get rid of the painful invader. But what would it look like if the orphanage staff had come running to the sound of a screaming child to see a mzungu taking his pants off? I led Ben and the other boys back toward the gate where the orphanage staff as well as the other children and EWH students were. A staff member came and took Ben and helped him out of his clothes. I explained to her as well as I could (she didn’t speak English) what had happened. She seemed to believe me. She just gave me that look that all the orphanage staff gave us: slightly worried, slightly annoyed.

Ben and Cory didn’t talk to me or smile at me the rest of the afternoon. They hung out with me a bit more, but soon found other, less painful people to talk to. Simon didn’t care. He hadn’t been bitten at all, so he still thought I was alright. He was the only one of us who hadn’t been wearing shoes.

We soon took all the kids inside for their dinner. The three-year-olds fed themselves, but all the toddlers were seated in a line in front of a long bench. The EWH students each grabbed a bowl of hot porridge and sat down in front of a kid to feed them. Hoping to redeem myself, I grabbed a bowl and sat down in front of a little girl. She took one look at me and started screaming. A staff member scooted her away from me and put another little girl in her place. The previously happy child soon took up the same tune. I got the look again.

I sat down on the floor across the room and watched as the rest of the clean shaven, short-haired, non-pierced students fed the happy children who hadn’t been attacked by ants. I wondered what I was even doing there. Then Simon came up, wiped his dirty hands on my face, laughed, and leaned on my back. His little friend Joshua, a toddler with a face that makes you believe he’s thinking very deep thoughts, walked over, poked my nose, and sat down on my lap.

Maybe I’ll have another go at this tomorrow. I’ll just stay off the grass.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Masai of the Mountains

Today we loaded up into the MS-TCDC Land Cruisers for a bumpy drive on muddy, washed-out roads up the slopes of Mt. Meru. We were served coffee and tea at a small farm house that is a success story of development aid. The waste generated by the handful of cows and goats kept there is collected into an underground container so that the methane can be collected and used for cooking. The mountain sides had previously been clear-cut for monoculture, making them susceptible to heavy erosion from wind and rain. With help from U.S. and European NGO's, the fields have now been terraced, the edges supported by banana trees and spruce trees whose roots hold the soil in place. Various crops are grown on the different small patches: potatoes, maize, coffee, and more. Some is kept for the family, and some is sold down the mountain. This practice has been implemented all over the mountain. The farm we visited today is part of a tour program that has been started, the proceeds of which are used for community projects such as school buildings.

We walked for several miles over the lush green mountain side. One stop on our trek was a traditional home compound of a Masai family. We in the west usually hear about the nomadic cattle herders of the plains. Today we learned that some Masai long ago found their way up into the mountains and took up agriculture. They live in large, round, thatched-roof huts with walls made of a mixture of manure and clay. At night, the cows and goats are brought inside to help keep the family warm. The mother shares the bed with the youngest child; the father sleeps at the door. Young boys will sleep at the door with the father, but when they are too old the parents build them another hut next door. Every seven years, the adolescent boys who have been deemed ready make a temporary hut and stay there for a month or more, receiving training and wisdom from their elders in the way of the Masai warrior. Then they are circumcised and welcomed back into the community as men, the caretakers of their society. (Female circumcision was practiced in the past, but is now illegal in Tanzania and quite rare).

As we learned about and saw this way of life, a few of us began to wonder if our own culture is missing something by not having such an obvious rite of passage into adulthood. Not that I'm advocating adult circumcision without the benefits of anesthesia. But I do wonder if a lack of a real and meaningful mark of adulthood doesn't have something to do with my generation's inability or unwillingness to confidently assert the title and responsibility of adulthood.

Another question, quite unrelated: what is it that we (EWH students, Americans, NGOs) hope to accomplish here in Tanzania? The West calls places like this "developing nations" or even "under-developed nations", implying that we feel Tanzania ought to develop. Into what, I wonder? Will a developed Tanzania have room for the Masai of the mountains? Already their culture is disappearing, their religion being replaced by Christianity, there round mud huts by square brick shanties. Will Mt. Meru one day look like the terraformed neighborhoods of Seattle? I came here to fix medical equipment. I'm sure the residents of this neighborhood would appreciate that, as they do visit the hospital when very sick or injured. The society that builds ECGs also builds high rises. Given the opportunity, I wonder if the Masai would prefer to live in a mud hut or a house or a condominium. I suppose my work here will help to give them that choice to make. They certainly don't have it now.

Lala Salama (peaceful sleep).

Friday, June 13, 2008

How to be beautiful in Tanzania

This afternoon I was watching TV with my EWH roommate, Nicholas, our host mom, Khadija (she goes by Mama Tunu), and her 2-and-a-half-year-old grand-niece Kamila. They get a lot of American programs here, and today we were watching a bit of the Tyra Banks show. The topic of the day was body weight. Mama Tunu was disgusted. "These American girls, I don't understand them. They all think they need to be so skinny! Why? In Tanzania, it is a compliment to be called fat. It means you are healthy!" This is the second time I've heard this from a woman since I've been here. Nicholas and I told her that it wouldn't be a very good idea to tell an American woman that she's gained weight. "It's starting to be a problem here now" Mama said "because they see it on the TV. Now they think they have to be thin. Not my daughter, though." Her 13-year-old daughter is away at boarding school. "She's staring to put on weight, and some of her friends say she should try to be skinny. She says 'Not a chance! I want to be a doctor, and how would that look, if I were as skinny as the sick people I am treating? I want them to hear my coming down the hall way, boom boom boom!' Now this one, I don't know what we'll do with her." She points to Kamila, who is sitting on my lap coloring on my class notes. "She is so skinny. If she doesn't put on some weight, who will want to marry her?" She sighs. "We'll have to find her a European husband."

Eat up, ladies.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

A "hakuna matata" approach to travel

(I wrote this last night, but couldn't publish it until this morning)

Tonight I spend my first night in Tanzania. This has been the longest journey I’ve ever taken in one go. After more than 24 hours moving across time zones and spending nearly an entire Tuesday (that, depending on how you calculate the time change, may never have existed) 30,000 feet in the air, where it is impossible to see the ground (or water) being covered, I’m almost as far away from Seattle as I can get on this globe while still being on land.

The trip had a few hiccups. One of my checked items was a used electrocardiogram (EKG) wrapped in blankets and stuffed in a duffel bag. It weighed in at 52 pounds, 2 pounds over the limit, which should have set me back $50, but when I explained to the lady at the Northwest/KLM desk that it was for a hospital in Tanzania, she waived that fee and my $25 second bag fee. (Yes, Northwest now charges $25 for you to check an extra bag.) I spent a few hours in the labyrinthine London Heathrow awaiting my Virgin Atlantic flight to Nairobi. Several wi-fi networks are available (I ended up going with boingo), but it cost me 4 pounds for 60 minutes. I ended up waiting in the crowded main passenger lounge much longer than I thought I’d have to because Virgin has this odd practice of waiting to announce the gate you’ll be boarding from until a time of their choosing. I was supposed to have boarded at 1915, but 1915 found me sitting and staring at the flight status sign (which said it would announce my gate at 1920). At 1935, the sign finally updated to tell me that my flight was boarding at a gate 10 minutes’ walk away. Virgin is also quite strict about you getting to your gate on time (gates close 30 minutes prior to departure), so I rushed to my gate only to discover that I needn’t have worried – they were running behind. We left an hour late, which meant I emerged in the hot and crowded Nairobi airport just in time to hear that my final leg, Nairobi to Kilimanjaro, was boarding right then. I made the flight. My bags didn’t.

Our Precision Air Service (an ironic name, if you ask me) turboprop let us out right in front of the rather tiny Kilimanjaro (JRO) airport and we entered through the door labeled “foreign arrivals”. Customs consisted of one man who looked at my passport, took my $USD100 cash, and gave me my tourist visa without asking for my proof of vaccination or any sort of declaration of goods. I had though myself quite the savvy traveler for having procured and brought with me two very nice passport photos for my visa, but the man just looked at me tiredly and told me to put them away and look into the webcam he had set up on the desk. I walked past his desk into the next room, which is where my bags should have been. There were no other customs agents; all one has to do is collect one's luggage (uninspected) and walk out onto the sidewalk.

Then again, I didn't have my luggage. The lost luggage people were as helpful as they could be, but they had no way of directly communicating with the other airlines or airports, so they couldn’t tell us where our bags were. They used some archaic-looking computer program to send a request for our bags to Nairobi, but they couldn't tell me if the request had been received or what good it had done. I had met up with another EWH student in London who’d been on the same Virgin flight, and as his bags hadn’t made it to JRO either, we decided to sit and wait another hour for the next flight from Nairobi to arrive, hoping it would have our bags. A nice breeze was coming into the baggage claim room through a doorway which opened right on to the tarmac. I stepped outside to enjoy the perfect weather and saw that the door, which was labeled “domestic arrivals”, was about 30 feet from the “international arrivals” door that I had originally entered through, with no fences or guards in between. Apparently, customs at Kilimanjaro airport are optional.

Our bags didn’t make it on the next flight. We filled out the necessary paperwork and left the airport (again, no security or further customs) and our driver, who had been there for more than two hours waiting for us, took us to the MS-TCDC, where we passed a long, indolent day wandering around the compound (more about this place later) with the only two other EWH students to have arrived that morning. We rode back to the airport in the evening when the driver went to pick up the remaining 16 students, all of whom came in on the KLM flight direct from Amsterdam. Unlike my disjointed, three-carrier route which practically guaranteed that my luggage would be lost, they had arrived on a large jet packed with all the tourists I had found conspicuously absent on the tiny turboprop that had dropped me off. I was relieved to find that my bags had finally made it in a bit earlier that evening, so now I’m in my pajamas about to go to sleep under a mosquito net in the home of the family whom I’ll be staying with for the next month, and all of you are probably about to have your afternoon coffee break. All's well that ends well. Hakuna matata (yes, they really say that here).

Monday, June 9, 2008

I leave today!

I leave tonight. Crazy! I'm all packed, I think, though I may re-pack a few more times for good measure. Kiana made a foam-lined case for my Airliner guitar, and right now she's putting the finishing touches on a foam-lined case for my old HP Pavilion that I'll be bringing (which I just upgraded to 512 MB of blistering-fast RAM. Yes, that's sarcasm.) She's managed to prick her fingers and bleed a little on both cases, so I'll be bringing a bit of her with me to the other side of the world. She's so romantic.

Here's the itinerary they cooked up for me at Passport Travel
Dep. Seattle 20:05 6/9/08, Arr. London 16:15 6/10/08 (Northwest/KLM)
Dep. London 19:15 6/10/08, Arr. Nairobi 6:06 6/11/08 (Virgin Atlantic)
Dep. Nairobi 8:00 6/11/08, Arr. Kilimanjaro 8:50 6/11/08 (Precision Air)
Total travel time: Just over 24 hours. And I don't get a Tuesday this week. The whole trip rang in at just over USD$2000, which isn't bad. I think I got the cheap ticket because I'm routed through Nairobi. There are direct flights from London to Dar Es Salaam, but those itineraries run about $1000 more from what I've seen. I'm glad I got a travel agent this time (thanks, Kathy).

For the trip, I'm bringing two books and a can of wasabi peas. That should keep me entertained for a few hours. Right?

Happy trails...

Monday, June 2, 2008

One week and counting...

Seven days from now I'll get on a plane bound for Kilimanjaro Airport in Tanzania. I'm going to leave behind my wife, my comfortable apartment in the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle, my research as a PhD student in Chemistry at the University of Washington, and my band ( to spend 2 months in East Africa. Details of the program can be found here: Briefly, I'll spend the first month receiving training in Swahili (the primary language of Tanzania) and a crash course in repair of medical equipment. The second month, I and another volunteer will be full-time technical staff at a hospital in a rural town at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro.

That's about the extent of what I know at the moment. I feel excited, a bit nervous (though probably not as much as I ought to be), and totally unprepared (I'm not even packed yet). They tell me that I'll have regular access to internet, so I'm bringing an old laptop equipped with wi-fi and a digital computer, and with any luck I'll be posting here regularly with stories and pictures.

'Till then...