You mean, Swahili time or English time?

July 17, 2009

So, this week I’ve been working on scheduling a bunch of different visits to observe the work our community partners do on a typical day, and several meetings to demo initial prototypes of the technology to them. Observations were very helpful to us in understanding the extent of the problems they face day-to-day. Interviews help us gain some insight, but seeing things first hand gave us a better perspective. Also, the two demos we’ve given so far went very well and our partners seem excited about the work.

Anyway, back to the subject of this blog entry…

So, while attempting to schedule one of these visits, I encountered a pretty interesting cultural miscommunication. One of the teachers whose class we wanted to sit in on sent me a text message (SMS) saying her class was at 2:40. Of course, I took this to mean 2:40pm. Since this was only one of many visits I was scheduling, it did not occur to me until the day of our visit that that time could not be correct since schools are only in session until 2pm everyday. By the time I realized this it was already 8:30am or so, and shortly after my realization the teacher called me to ask if I was going to be there that day. When I asked her to clarify the time she said “Oh, I am in the class right now!” Turns out that when she said 2:40, she meant class was at 8:40am – i.e. six hours past the time she told me. This was really puzzling to me, but apparently there is a separate “Swahili” time and “English” time. While I and most of the world functions on “English” time, in some Swahili speaking nations they consider 1am to be one hour after the sun rises, which would correspond to what most people consider 7am, and 1pm to be one hour after the sun sets, which would correspond to what most people consider 7pm ( So, the time they provide you might be six hours off, as was the case with the teacher I communicated with. Now that I know this, I try to clarify whether they mean “Swahili time” or “English time” time when I try to schedule meetings so that I won’t be six hours late or early!


Saba Saba

July 8, 2009

Yesterday we checked out the International Trade Fair in downtown Dar. It is an annual event held in Tanzania every July 7th – known as “Saba Saba”, which translates to “seven-seven”, referring to the date.

At the fair there are different booths for various groups, organizations, companies and businesses. There is also an animal exhibit, which was my favorite. I’m including some pictures of the animals here.

The lion sleeps… This was the first time we saw a simba (lion) in Tanzania – very exciting!

The lion sleeps… This was the first time we saw a simba (lion) in Tanzania – very exciting!

These are the biggest tortoises I’ve ever seen! This guy got a ride from one of them – looks like fun :-D

These are the biggest tortoises I’ve ever seen! This guy got a ride from one of them – looks like fun 😀

This was Hatem’s big moment – holding a python!

This was Hatem’s big moment – holding a python!

Memorable Interactions

July 6, 2009

So, during my time here, I’ve met with many different people and interviewed a variety of folks in the community with Timi. Meetings are necessary to get things moving, but they’re also pretty draining and sometimes amusing. Since it’s past 2am, I thought I’d just highlight some of my more memorable interactions in this blog entry. 

  • During a meeting with one city official, she let out a loud and long burp and then continued talking without even flinching. It was hilarious. Business as usual…
  • Another government employee proceeded to pick his nose while I spoke to him – gross! Needless to say, I had a hard time focusing on what I was saying.
  • One of our interviewees went off on a tangent to talk about how he “saw the light” and now has healing powers. Must be nice.
  • Another interviewee just stopped talking mid-sentence and proceeded to fiddle with his cell phone. I guess we really bored him.
  • During one of our translator assisted interviews, the interviewee talked for about 2 minutes when asked a relatively simple question. Our translator relayed what she said to us in 5 seconds. Talk about information “lost in translation”!

On a more serious note, the process of meeting with people and talking with them has really taught me a lot as far as how best to communicate with people when faced with cultural and language differences. Some useful insights I’ve picked up along the way include:

  • Speaking slowly and clearly is more important and difficult than you think. I have to consciously slow down.
  • Maintaining eye contact really helps you to keep people’s attention and appear sincere. Also, you will be able to quickly notice when the person you’re talking to has no idea what you’re saying or has stopped paying attention to you.
  • Some people love to talk about themselves. While it’s important to listen to what they have to say, it’s also necessary to make the most of your time with them. Redirecting interviewees back to the point (in a polite way, of course) is a must.
  • Never forget to thank people for their time.
  • When dealing with bureaucrats it’s usually best to humor their requests. You need to pick your battles carefully, because arguing with them can lead to even further delays…
  • Don’t overestimate your communication skills. Even if you are a great orator, when talking to people who aren’t native speakers of your language, your prior skills don’t really mean that much because they’re probably not going to appreciate your extensive vocabulary or eloquence. Keep it simple.

More pictures from Zanzibar

June 24, 2009

Red Colobus Monkey

This is the red colobus monkey, unique to Zanzibar. They are awesome to watch jumping from tree to tree and aren’t afraid to be near people.
The "Pizza"
This is a picture of delicious “street food” in Zanzibar. They call this dish “Pizza” 😀 It’s thin dough filled with tomato, onion, ground beef, peppers, egg, a little mayo and sometimes a little cheese; wrapped up and pan fried. It was amazing!

First Picture… :)

June 23, 2009

Me on a boat

This is a picture of me on the ferry back to Dar from Zanzibar – I was sad to leave Zanzibar. I had a great time there this past weekend; it’s a really wonderful island!

These are a few of my favorite things that I miss…

June 17, 2009

I know I’ve been MIA for a bit – apologies! Work has picked up so I’ve been busy and tired most days.

Just wanted to make a quick blog about things I miss over here in Dar (in no particular oder):

–          Warm showers

–          TV (although books have been an ok substitute so far)

–          Washer and dryer (hand washing is rough!)

–          Vegetables (Tanzanians in Dar seem to eat very few)

–          A kitchen

–          A clean bathroom (minus insects galore, gecko poop and what have you)

–          Family and friends

And of course what I miss most is being with Matt… (aww, I know 🙂

Promise to have a longer blog entry this week.

Dar es Salaam City Centre: Going to Town…

June 3, 2009

Sorry I’ve not been blogging the past couple of days. Was busy going to town and back – exhausting!

I’ve been deliberating what to blog about today and I thought I’d just try to describe my travels to the city center or town of Dar es Salaam. The hostel we stay at is away from the city center, but I spent a lot of time going to town and back this week and part of last week to deal with paperwork issues – not fun! Turns out, bureaucracy is a headache no matter where you are.

Dar es Salaam, Tanzania seems oddly familiar to me because I think it resembles Colombo, Sri Lanka (where I am from) in many ways. The heat, traffic, masses of pedestrians, crazy driving (breaking the rules is the norm) and packed buses – all very characteristic of both cities. I’ve been spoiled though – I didn’t take the bus very often in Sri Lanka. So, taking the dala dalas (buses) here has taken some, um, getting used to. Besides, after living in the U.S. for the past 8 or 9 years and being on huge buses in comparison, squeezing into the dala dala van-buses is quite a change. I should add that even Sri Lankan buses seem big compared to most dala dalas here.

I had my first “swooped into the bus by the crowd” moment on Monday. I think at one point I was stuck under an arm-pit. That was most certainly unpleasant. But I made it onto the bus with little effort of my own – the crowd pouring into the bus pretty much pushes you in – it was definitely a “wtf” moment. Heh… While on that bus, I also had the pleasure of having some dude’s rear on my shoulder – “at least it was a nice one”, as one of my team members pointed out – ha! Personal space is a luxury here… Yesterday I jumped onto a moving bus, which was kind of dangerous but also a little exhilarating – sometimes dala dalas don’t come to a complete stop, although they do slow down quite a bit. Some dudes get on the bus while it’s moving kind of fast – pretty skillful. I like the fact that bus fare is the same no matter where you go – 250 Tanzanian shillings per trip. I am not sure how they decided on that amount, but it is very convenient for travelers. All in all, traveling by bus here is usually an adventure – especially if you want to go into town (the city center).

The town itself is pretty chaotic, but it seemed to me that everyone except me knew where they were going, which was probably true. Pedestrians clearly take second place to vehicles. Driving here must be a nightmare though. If you obey road rules, you’ll probably get hit! I think it’s pretty amazing that I have not seen a single accident here – not that I want to, but it just seems so probable the way people drive here. Even sidewalks aren’t entirely safe, because there will be bicycles with cargo racing through them and occasional vehicles driving up onto them to park. Of course, pedestrian crossings don’t mean a thing – vehicles always have the right of way by virtue of them being much bigger and moving a lot faster! Still, it is obvious that people who drive here are very accurate because I would have seen many accidents if it were otherwise. The city just moves to its own beat and has some kind of code that people seem to know in terms of how to survive the stress, frustration and danger associated with traveling here. I think it will take me the whole time I am here and then some to crack that code! Although, I must say I am now a little less shocked when I all of a sudden notice there is a vehicle behind me about an arms-length away… Good times!

The city is sadly pretty dirty with lots of vehicle fumes, dust from the sandy roadsides and the massive amounts of litter strewn across the sides of the roads, under bridges and around (not in) trash cans. People just throw stuff out of vehicles or while walking. It doesn’t help that there aren’t too many trash cans around, but I also wonder if that would help very much.

One of the most impressive aspects of the city is its street vendors. I’ve seen my share of street vendors, but these guys are something else. They don’t just do business with stopped vehicles they actually sell to people on moving buses and other vehicles that have begun to drive away. All in all, I’d say they have about 10 seconds before the vehicle speeds off, but in that time they manage to take the order, collect the money, count change and pass both the product and change back to their customer – oh, and they also need to make sure another vehicle doesn’t hit them! To them this feat is business as usual…

So far what has impressed me the most, however, is the fact that while I’m looking exhausted and frustrated by the journey to town and back, people here appear to be pretty unfazed in spite of the madness around them. To them I guess it’s just another day on the road.

On cold showers…

May 27, 2009

I used to take cold showers all the time growing up in Sri Lanka, but after having the pleasure of warm showers for the past 9 or so years, it’s been rough going back to cold showers – brrr…. I must say though, it is a good way to wake yourself up in the morning. Of course, it also helps that it’s pretty much always 80 degrees (Fahrenheit) here 🙂

I know that was a random post, but it’s been a long day and that’s what came to mind. The fact that I ate a very delicious yet heavy lunch, is probably contributing to my sleepiness. I ate eggs with fries (chips myai) and beef kebab – yum! I should have taken a picture. Will try to take more pictures now that I am settling into somewhat of a routine here.

Ciao for now.

In Tanzania

May 26, 2009

We arrived in Dar es Salaam at about 3pm (local time) on Sunday, May 24th. The flights were fine – the Emirates flight from JFK to Dubai was particularly enjoyable, even though it was loooong…

Immigration in Dar was quick, which was a relief since our paperwork was only approved the day before we left. Baggage grabbing was interesting with the mass of people gathered around the baggage belt. We had a system though – two people squeeze into the crowd and the two others stack the bags onto carts. The system worked fine, apart from one small glitch – we ended up loading someone else’s bag onto our cart! Unfortunately, we only realized once we got to our residence, so the poor person who owns that bag must have been pretty upset. Shame…  Anyway, once we were out of the airport, after some waiting and searching, we managed to find our host/partner here as well as our other team-member who flew in from Doha, and then headed to our residence.

The place we are staying at is decent – the loo is not so great, but we at least have running water – woo hoo. I think we are settling in ok. We had our first grocery shopping experience yesterday. It went pretty well – the bread here is exceptionally yummy. We had two loaves for dinner last night, with peanut butter, Nutella and some canned chicken that one of us had… It was good!

Our first bus ride (on a “Dala Dala”) went fine – it was a long ride from the city center (where we had a meeting) to the grocery store, but all of us slept for at least part of it. The second bus ride from the store to our residence was um…interesting. Let me explain a bit – the Dala Dala’s are pretty small (not like Pittsburgh buses). They are similar to a small van. Some are a little bigger with a middle aisle, but most are small with just three rows of seats. So, the five of us pile into the van (standing room only), all three boys had to bend down since they were too tall to stand (for once I was happy to be short!) and off we went. We thought the van was jam-packed, but no – the bus conductor actually managed to squeeze in another three or four people!!! We were so squashed that most of us just burst out laughing… 😀 It was quite an experience. I think the lady behind me got to know my rear a little more than she would have liked to – poor thing!

Now we are set up with Internet access at our work station here, which is nice. So, I can blog a little more frequently.

For those of you who don’t know what I am doing here, I thought I should provide some context…

I am a part of the iSTEP 2009 team. iSTEP ( is an internship program sponsored by TechBridgeWorld (TBW:, which is an organization dedicated to creating and implementing technological solutions relevant and accessible to developing communities. We will be working on three projects while in Tanzania:

  • Development of a cell phone application for use by social workers to track information on services provided to AIDS orphans and vulnerable children.
  • Creating and evaluating culturally-relevant educational technology and games for child literacy.
  • Enhancing and evaluating a low-cost braille writing tutor for visually-impaired students.

My role will be to monitor and evaluate these projects. So far we have met with a few social workers and social worker trainers who all seem very excited about the project we’ll be working on with them. We have yet to talk with teachers from the two schools, but we hope to do that this week as well. Getting things up and running might take a little longer than we expected, but we are moving along. Now that we have some connection (phones and internet), things may be a little smoother.

Ok, that’s it for now.



On the way to Tanzania

May 23, 2009

Hi all,

I am getting ready to fly off to Tanzania for the summer. We’ll be working there for 10 weeks. I will try to keep up with my blogging while I am there.

Thanks for reading along!


Ok, we’re almost there. Just one more flight to go. We are currently in the Dubai airport. I am sitting on the floor, conspicuously charging my laptop and blogging. The long flight from JFK to Dubai was made better by Emirates’ awesome entertainment (movies galore!) and decent food. We have about another hour here before boarding the plane to Dar es Salaam. I really need a shower, but am psyching myself up for the adventure ahead. Will keep you posted.

Cheers, Bea