April 30, 2010

Spiky with Crabs.

The excitement was palatable.

“It's the best news in 10 years.”
--Ann Pesiri Swanson, Executive Director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission

“For something completely different -- good news about the Chesapeake Bay.”
--The Washington Post

“Scientists claim this is a success story, standing out in the Chesapeake’s grim history of over-fishing and pollution.”
--The Washington Post

“There are a few days when you can actually stand up in front of your neighbors and say, ‘this part of the Chesapeake Bay is getting better,’ this is one of those days.”
--MD Gov. Martin O'Malley

“This is great news for everyone who makes their living by crabbing and for everyone who enjoys genuine Chesapeake Bay crab cakes.”
--VA Gov. Robert F. McDonnell

The news was good indeed. Officials in Maryland and Virginia recently reported that after being in decline for a decade – the Chesapeake’s blue crabs are making an extraordinary comeback. The Chesapeake crab population has more than doubled in the past two years, reaching its highest level since 1997, as determined by a winter dredge survey where researchers dragged a metal scoop through the muddy bay bottom to count the number of crabs found in hibernation.

Even from Tanzania, where the taste and smell of the Chesapeake crab remains all but a distant memory, I have received this news very warmly. Any time I have lived overseas, one of the things I have most missed from home is the messy, laid back summertime tradition of lining up with friends at a picnic table to attack a pile of steaming, Old Bay-spiced crabs, and washing them down with a cold pitcher of draft beer.
Here in Tanzania, the abounding presence of crabs on the beaches and shorelines have served as a nice reminder of home. When the tide goes out on the beaches, so do we, seeking to uncover those buggers tucked into every nook and cranny along the jagged edges of the coral reef. The crabs provide much entertainment between their sideways crawl and their beady eyes surveying the landscape. When we sit on beachfront bars in the evenings, we can hear the telltale pitter patter of panicky crabs scurrying about.
The chief reason for this recent victory within the Chesapeake Bay is a set of limits placed on crab harvests in 2008, aimed at protecting female crabs. If spared from being turned into a popular regional dish – she-crab soup – female crabs can produce millions of baby crabs apiece. The new rules allowed many more female crabs to survive. Yet, as with the introduction of most regulations, short-term losses were absorbed by some to achieve the longer-term victory for many. In this case, the regulations seeking to protect female crabs cut deeply in the income of some watermen and seafood dealers along the Chesapeake. Luckily these short term sacrifices will allow the watermen who make their living off of Chesapeake Bay crab harvests to potentially recoup some of their losses in the coming years.

While I welcome good news from home about the positive effects of visionary public policies, this news also forces me to admit that Tanzania is trailing in terms of effective regulation of their fishing industry. Here, dynamite and other illegal fishing practices continue to pose major environmental threats. While they may be few in numbers, the dynamite fishers have far reaching consequences. Such illegal practices cause widespread negative impacts, including threatening the existence of various ocean populations, damaging Tanzanian reefs and their long-term productivity, deterring tourism investors, and eroding the coastal environment, reducing fish catches and affecting the economic livelihoods of coastal residents. Despite engaging in highly illegal practices, dynamite fishers act above the law, an attitude reinforced by the fact that the government continues to fail to take any action against them, largely because they are members of influential families or are otherwise well-connected in Tanzania’s leading political circles.

In an ironic twist, sometimes successful conservation practices here only serve to further induce illegal fishing practices, including dynamite fishing, as conservation efforts increase the fish stock in an area. Researchers on this practice recommend a major initiative is needed to develop a zero-tolerance approach to dynamite fishing on the part of fishers and local and national leaders. One that will shame the dynamiters through peer pressure, by fully implementing appropriate sanctions and penalties, and garnering public recognition and support for the work of the enforcement agencies.

Below is a clandestine footage of dynamite fishermen in action that I found on youtube. This video  demonstrates the boldness with which dynamite fishermen flout the law given the proximity to Dar es Salaam's shoreline where these illegal activities are taking place.

Photo Credit:
1) http://www.chesapeake-bay.org/index.php/photo-galleries/chesapeake-bay-seafood/
2) source unknown
3) source unknown
5) Andrei Sinioukov






Who's the Leader of the Pack?

April 28, 2010

Competing Visions of White.

Superstitions in Tanzania are plentiful, some more consequential than others. But one superstition in particular is outright deadly. Many people in Tanzania, as across Africa, believe albinos have magical powers. Recently this belief has morphed into a morbid practice. Since 2008, more than 26 albinos, including children, have been mutilated and killed; victims to the belief promoted by witch doctors that albino body parts including skin, bones, and hair are key ingredients in potions that will make people rich. Under this same guise, some fishermen weave albino hairs into their nets believing they will catch more fish in this way. These superstitions have resulted in a gruesome and growing criminal trade in albino body parts.

It is not clear why these practices have flared up in recent years, and police officials are at a loss to explain this recent wave of albino killings. Some claim an influx of Nigerian movies, which hail witchcraft practices, explain this recent wave of killings, especially as people who follow witch doctors tend to do so in an unquestioning manner. Of course, rising food prices and the desperation this causes might be more basic explanations, as people seek easier, "fail-proof" paths to riches. The below youtube video provides some interesting insights into the historical and contextual circumstances that have given rise to these practices and beliefs.

South East Asia provides a starkly different set of beliefs around albinism. In fact, the kings of Thailand, Laos, and Burma have given a sacred status to albino elephants. This tradition derives from a story in which the Buddha's mother is said to have dreamt of a white elephant presenting her with a lotus flower -- a symbol of purity and wisdom -- just before she gave birth. This story has imparted a cultural legacy that survives today -- a monarch possessing a white elephant is regarded as a just and benign ruler. Across the region, any genuinely albino elephant automatically became royal property (of course, first meeting the physical characteristics used to rank elephants as outlined in the Royal Elephant Musuem). Laws were even developed to prevent these sacred white elephants from engaging in work, so ironically despite being venerated they served no practical use while costing a fortune to keep.

Today in Thailand, the white elephant retains its sacred status. A white elephant is still kept on the grounds of the current Thai King's home, Chitralada Palace. A museum in Bangkok houses a sculptural representation of that elephant, which is draped in royal vestments, and is essentially treated as a shrine by the visiting Thai public.

Dually inspired by this more positive legacy and cultural set of beliefs, I share the below photos I have gathered from various home design blogs. Also, keep in mind, if you are in the Chicago-area the Children's Hospital White Elephant shop is always fun to pass through and supports a great cause.





Lonely Planet: Bangkok City Guide

April 27, 2010

The Soul of Corsica in the Heart of Tanzania.

The word is out. It is good. Different. And the Mzungu four wheel drive vehicles have come in droves to check it out.

“It,” of course, refers to the brand new restaurant, Le Corsica, that has opened next door to our apartment building here in Dar es Salaam. Not just any restaurant, but a Corsican Restaurant, not to be confused with a French restaurant.

It is a joint father-son venture. They came here seeking adventure. A likely story with an unlikely twist. Let’s be honest boredom and restlessness are often the basic ingredients for adventure-seeking, but to Tanzania?! They tended bar under someone else’s dime for a combined 33 years, give or take a few. The owner wanted out, but the price tag he offered to formally appropriate the bar as their own proved steep. Too steep. So instead they packed up, and braved the shores beyond Corsica for the first time in their lives. Their schemes to make money and support themselves upon arrival in Tanzania were many and varied. Finally, they decided their most fitting course of action would be to offer the best of Corsican cuisine to hungry, wanting, and eager customers, read: ex-pats with a couple of Tanzanian Indians thrown in here and there for good measure.

The music is atmospheric. The food quickly shames any self-pronounced “good cook,” or anyone foolish enough to claim they put to best use local food stuffs available here. The flavors are simple and delicate. There is no fuss about it.

So what’s with all of the ex-pat fuss about it? The other night, we met a friend and her husband, parents to two young children, at Le Corsica. By the time we arrived she was on her second cocktail and had breezed through half a pack of cigarettes. “I don’t smoke usually," she said, “only when I socialize – we are just so excited to try a new place.” Another friend, who we introduced to the place, stopped conversation mid-stream to ask, “Wait a minute, are we even in Dar es Salaam anymore?” Over gmail chat, I was asked, “Have you heard of the new place?” Some other friends reported, we will certainly be back. Admittedly, we are the first among them, gushing with excitement over a new, different place. They opened the bar first. The bartender knew our drink of choice and counted us among his established regulars before food was even introduced into the restaurant.

In a world of limited options, the introduction of something new appears to drive people into a frenzy-like state, and everyone is quick to claim ownership of its discovery. By comparison, Dar es Salaam makes Washington, DC feel like New York City. Yet, interestingly, in our former DC-based world where we were bombarded with options, we often opted to circle through the same handful of places, and never really felt at a loss about not trying the newest, latest scene. And now of course, we find ourselves craving the multitude of options we once had access to. Go figure.

April 23, 2010

Jekyll and Hyde.

Andrei has teased me endlessly since his arrival into Dar es Salaam that I convinced him to join me here on a juxtaposition of “sales pitches”. One moment I was claiming this was a tropical paradise and he would be a fool to miss out on the opportunity to join me here, the next this was a hell hole from which he needed to save me.

Admittedly, these competing insights into the new place I was learning to call home reflected an incomplete and unsubstantiated understanding of the city. But, the truth is, as we continue to experience it, Dar es Salaam seems to offer a split personality. An evening of drinks at our favorite bar overlooking the sea with a perfectly shaped crescent moon hanging in the background precedes our exit that will surely include a heated, ugly argument with a taxi cab driver to secure a fair price home. Tropical rainstorms that ease the burden of equatorial sun and heat are followed by an onslaught of hungry, swarming mosquitos coming in to feast. An afternoon diving into the Indian Ocean and snorkeling with tropical fish around a sunken ship allows us to forget the frustrations of work and the intensity of our commute come Monday. A fridge full of the fresh catch of the day brings great excitement and introduces welcome variety to the otherwise mundane line-up of food options only to be spoiled by prolonged power outages the next afternoon.

And so it seems, my original assessments may have not been so far removed from the truth. I believe we are privileged to experience, or at least have insights into, some of the best of what Dar es Salaam has to offer, and we are certainly shielded from some of its very worst. We live in a neighborhood deemed “unworthy” and “uninhabitable” by some ex-pats that reside in $4500/month expansive houses on the peninsula (of course, largely subsidized by their employers according to safety concerns). Yet, our apartment is home to running water, modern sanitation services, a (sometimes functional) back-up power generator, and 24 hour security guards, luxuries unthinkable to most of our Tanzanian counterparts.

We once received poignant advice from our friend’s 17 year old daughter, she said, “You have to look around and be appreciative, you have so much more than most Tanzanians.” She is right of course, but there was something surreal about receiving such advice from a surly teenager who lives off the full support of her parents. Andrei was also keen to later point out that most of our “peers” are not Tanzanian, they are instead the very ex-pats along the likes of her parents, here on fully supported packages, who by comparison appear to have much, much more than us here.

At the end of the day, whenever we feel trapped or stifled, we need only remind ourselves that we are a mere few clicks of a mouse away from an escape route out of here. We have options, and above all, we have the ability to choose the lens through which we decide to make sense of our surroundings.

April 22, 2010

R&R Thai Style.

From 1964 to 1973, the peak years of the prolonged IndoChina War (1962-1975), two Thai army officers ruled Thailand and allowed the US to establish several army bases within Thai borders to support the US campaign in IndoChina. During this time, Bangkok was host to many American GIs on Rest and Recreation (R&R) stationed throughout Southeast Asia.

Interestingly, Thailand continues to be a go-to R&R spot for the likes of development and foreign assistance workers today. It seems everyone in the foreign assistance community has an Thai adventure or story to share. Some of our friends who were stationed in Bangladesh for several years reported heading straight to Thailand for R&R every chance they got - they ended up visiting Thailand 9 times over a two year period. The idyllic settings seem to pull people back time and time again.


References: Lonely Planet: Bangkok City Guide

April 21, 2010

Light my Fire.

Inspirational lights and fixtures from Tanzania to Thailand.

Classic in Zanzibar
Elegant in Zanzibar
Playful in Bangkok
Modern in Bangkok
Creative in Bangkok
Natural in Koh Samet

April 20, 2010

The World Beyond White.

After spending six months staring at the stark white walls of our under-inspired apartment in Dar es Salaam, one of the things that I found myself most drawn to in Thailand was the wide array of rich and colorful wall papers as seen in Bangkok's many wats, or temples, home to famed Buddha images and statues.

East meets West, and Back Again.

I was utterly blown away by Thailand's thriving fashion industry. Dress in Bangkok was like a feast for the eyes, representing a dizzying array of the latest, hippest styles, materials, cuts, patterns, and colors. Lonely Planet describes Bangkok's fashion scene, "modern, not traditional, costumes rule the streetside runways that would make even Milan feel under dressed." Bangkok's many mega-malls not only boast European and Western fashion labels, but equally Thai designers and local labels garner a much-deserved place within mega-shopping complexes and street side vendors.

By comparison, I find the dress in Tanzania to be rather under-inspiring. Sure there are bright colors and unique patterns, but largely the style, materials, and cuts of clothing remain squarely uniform. Women in Tanzania rigidly adhere to a conservative ethos in their dress, reflecting a strong Muslim influence in the culture. Legs are taboo, as are shoulders. Wearing a skirt that falls to my knee is actively referred to as a "mini-skirt" and a "scandal" by most of my fellow co-workers. This conservatism has thwarted by usual eagerness and motivation to put together "outfits", now I simply get dressed in the morning. All things considered, as a "mzungu" (white foreigner) woman, I am given some leverage when it comes to dress, much to the consternation of my female work colleagues who comprise a young, up-and-coming, urban professional class in Dar eager to purge the conservative societal mores of generations past and are increasingly frustrated by the double standards afforded to western women.

The staple garment in the Tanzanian "wardrobe" is a piece of rectangular printed cloth referred to as a kanga. Each kanga has a unique printed border area and center design, as well as a distinct "jina" or proverbial saying. In theory, a kanga can be used in a variety of ways, however by the average Tanzanian woman the kanga is worn mostly as a wrap skirt or headscarf. In fact there is even a book called 101 Uses for a Kanga, which perhaps not so surprisingly is targeted to more "western" audiences. Beyond the kanga, there is the kitenge, a thicker, sturdier piece of cloth of a uniform pattern large enough to fashion both a skirt and matching blouse for even the most curvy of Tanzanian women. Incidentally, the kanga is attire deemed inappropriate for the office (considered to be household wear similar to a good-old-fashioned pair of pajama pants in the US), therefore clothes derived from the kitenge fill this void.

Although admittedly, perhaps these comparisons are a bit unfair. Thailand is afterall a "developed" country, Tanzania is not, and far from it. Over the years, Thailand has aggressively pursued a platform of economic growth and the average Thai has achieved leaps and bounds in their standard of living, while Tanzania seems to have all but stagnated. Thailand boldly claims a strong middle class, while Tanzania only offers extremes in wealth -- the haves and the have-nots.

There is in fact a burgeoning fashion industry in Tanzania, albeit in its infancy stages compared to the likes of Bangkok. A local fashion designer, Mustafa Hassanali, organizer of this year's second annual Swahili Fashion Week with ambitions to take East African fashion to the international market, remarks, “Just as India has saris and Japan has the kimono, we [Tanzania] have the kanga.”

Shortly following my arrival into Tanzania, I had the pleasure of seeing Mustafa's fashions firsthand on the runway during Naomi Campbell's Fashion for Relief Charity Fashion Show and Gala Dinner. At $200 a pop, the event served as a huge fundraiser and charity event for White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood, making the event guilt-free.
The charitable activities Naomi Campbell has involved herself in as a global ambassador for the White Ribbon Alliance are laudable, and she has done a commenable job of raising the profile and global level of awareness to a traditionally neglected development issue - maternal mortality. However, an event of this magnitude with the price tag to match is slightly out of sync with the day-to-day realities of most Tanzanians. High end fashions are beyond out of reach for the average Tanzanian, and this irony was lost on no one. The Daily Nation aptly described the similar feel of Swahili Fashion Week, "Tanzania’s glitterati exchanged air kisses under the moon by an outdoor catwalk [whilst] models strutted down the runway under bright lights wearing an array of vivid colours and traditional cloth sewn into figure-hugging mini-dresses".

The fashion industry in Tanzania offers a dream of what the country one day may hope to become - a seat of cosmopolitan inspiration, whereas Thailand has landed itself squarely on the map as a serious regional hub for fashion with well directed ambitions to expand the grips of their fashion industry beyond SouthEast Asia. By 2012, Bangkok aims to enjoy a worldwide fashion reputation thanks to the Government's promotional efforts through the Office of Bangkok Fashion City. Perhaps Tanzania could learn a thing or two from this example and capitalize on the creative energy of its own visionaries.


Photo credits:

Bangkok Fashion Images:
1: fashion.ae8.net
2: http://www.flickr.com/photos/boboniaa/378572755/in/set-72157600513816433/  
3: styleshine.ro