February 23, 2011

The Remains.

Photo Credit: Andrei Sinioukov

Last One Across is...

Photo Credits: Andrei Sinioukov

This Aint No Place for a Siesta.

Photo Credits: #1,2,3,4 Andrei Sinioukov

February 19, 2011

Piracy on the High Seas.

We see it, hear about it, and feel it in our daily lives. The reach of the Somali pirates is hitting closer and closer to home, as they grow more and more powerful.

Recently, a BBC international news headline read: Greek oil supertanker Irene hijacked off Oman. Frankly, you do not need too wild of an imagination to guess that it is the Somali pirates behind this ship seizure. Carrying 266,000 tons of crude oil with an estimated value of $200 million, it is believed this is the largest vessels ever seized by Somalis.

Today, four Americans sailing on a yacht off the coast of Oman were taken hostage by Somali pirates. While pirates usually attack cargo ships, in more recent years it has become increasingly common that they now seize yachts as well. The yacht's owners had been sailing around the world since 2002, apparently on a Bible hand out mission.

Overstretched international anti-piracy forces operating in the Indian Ocean give priority to protecting cargo ships over private yachts. We have an acquaintance here who runs an anti-pirate private security firm. Basically, if you have something you want to transport, he hires mercenary types to board your boat and help keep you safe from the pirates. Right now - business is booming. When I pointed out his rather perverse implications behind this business model, he demurely agreed.

But the story hitting closest to home began four months ago now and is still unfolding. Two people whom we know from the Dar es Salaam were kidnapped off of Mtwara in South Tanzania. They were sailing home to South Africa to spend the holidays with their families; they had volunteered to work as crew on someone else's yacht. The stories about the circumstances under which their yacht was seized are murky, but either way, the result is tragic. Two South Africans from very humble backgrounds are now being held for ransom by Somali pirates. The initial ransom price was set at $10,000,000, an astronomical sum by all accounts. Apparently, their families are bargaining for their release, while at the same time begging for contact to make sure that the person they are dealing with can assure that their loved ones are safe, hell, even alive for that matter.

We recently learned that negotiation proceedings were beginning to reach a formative end, and to help ensure that these negotiations were brought to a positive end we were asked to contribute a rather modest amount, approximately $10US to support the fund being raised to ensure their release. It was assured that all donations would remain anonymous, it certainly doesn't bode well for assuring future safety when pirates know who is willing to fork over cash for someone's release. We unflinchingly were willing to contribute to this fund, in fact we made an extra donation on behalf of our friend who met this couple and has been actively following the story of their release stateside. But the reactions within the community were mixed, and I can see both sides.

Somalia has had no functioning central government since 1991, which allows piracy to flourish off its coast. Somali pirates have made millions of dollars in recent years by capturing cargo vessels in the shipping lanes around the Horn of Africa and holding the ships and crew for ransom. A ransom payment perpetuates and further fuels this practice. This is probably the biggest and most compelling reason to not give money, and it also just so happens that this really goes against the grain of my belief in the importance of "development." I suspect most Somalis themselves would share this opinion.

But seriously, how can we NOT give?! If I were in their position I would certainly want to be rest assured that everyone who was able, was doing everything they could to help secure my release. Moreover, while I don't want me money going to fund piracy on the high seas, where is my small little protest in not funding them going to get me? This is a pretty well established system, with extremely sophisticated leadership and money management, I alone do not have the power to change that.

So I am curious to hear your thoughts. To give or not to give, that is the question.

February 18, 2011

Foreign Aid Spared. So Far Anyway.

I spend so much time analyzing budget processes, allocations and expenditures here, that I sometimes forget what an interesting, if not extremely tumultuous and anxiety ridden, political era we are facing in the US in terms of political infighting over budget allocations, etc.

Good news for those of us in the foreign assistance and international development world came through this week in the form of Obama's budget proposal for 2012 foreign aid spending. In the face of limited fiscal resources, there were some "hard choices" made and the result is "a lean budget for lean times." Although what Congress makes of this remains to be seen... Read on, if you are interested.
Obama’s 2012 Budget Proposal Spares Foreign Aid from Deep Spending Cuts

U.S. President Barack Obama is requesting USD47 billion for the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development as part of the fiscal 2012 budget proposal his administration released Feb. 14. The request covers USD32.9 billion for core foreign assistance and food aid and USD14.2 billion for core State Department operations.

The proposed state and foreign operations budget represents a 1 percent increase from 2010 and a smaller annual increase than in past years. Obama is also requesting a separate USD8.7 billion for overseas contingency operations in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and other countries where counterinsurgency efforts and initiatives are increasingly managed by the State Department instead of the Department of Defense.

In a letter included in budget summary documents, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the request is “a lean budget for lean times.” The budget was scrubbed for every dollar of savings and the resources outlined in it are “smart investments” that would save money and lives abroad and in the United States, she explained.

The administration said it made several “hard choices” in drafting the 2012 request, including slowing down the hiring of new staff at USAID and the State Department – a move that could set back the Obama administration’s efforts to reduce its reliance on external contractors.

As part of the 2012 proposal, Obama is asking for funding to support 349 new foreign service and civil service staff members at USAID and the State Department. The total is notably lower than the 410 new officers Obama proposed to hire under his 2011 budget request.

The Obama administration also plans to reduce international spending in 2012 by eliminating bilateral security assistance for several countries, reducing aid and bilateral programs for Europe, Eurasia and Central Asia and cutting funding for the Inter-American Foundation and African Development Foundation.

Despite these reductions, the 2012 budget proposal will likely face significant opposition in the in the Republican-led House of Representatives.

The U.S. Congress has yet to tackle the 2012 budget request. Current debates surrounding appropriations for the 2011 fiscal year gives a glimpse of the tough battle Obama, Clinton and USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah would be facing in defending the state and foreign operations budget.

The House Appropriations committee has recently introduced a continuing budget resolution that cuts Obama’s fiscal 2011 request by more than USD100 billion. The White House has warned that Obama would veto the spending bill for the remainder of fiscal 2011 if it undermines U.S. national security interests.

A Now Annual Event?

Tanzania made BBC front page headlines today showcasing what now seems to be an annual event.

Around 9pm last night in Dar Es Salaam, the arms depot of the Gongola Mboto Tanzanian army base caught fire. The explosions could be seen, heard and felt for miles around, and they continued for hours. Each blast felt like an earthquake in its effect, shaking buildings, rattling windows, and causing one's heart to lodge itself squarely in the back of one's throat. The smouldering fire caused the sky to turn a dusklike shade of pink, providing apt background lighting for ammunition and bomb shrapnel hurdling through the air.

Of course accurate information about what was happening was slow to emerge. The BBC's Josphat Mwanzi in Dar es Salaam reported, "the blasts caused panic among city residents overnight because there was no clear information about what was happening." That seems a cute understatement for the state of alarm these explosions, which seemed to hit all too close to home, inspired in us.

At least 32 people were reported to have been killed, many more were injured, and with an estimated 4000 people being sheltered at the National Assembly, the death toll is sure to increase. Area blood banks have sent out an urgent request for donations. Beyond the gratuitous loss of lives, 23 munitions depots were destroyed, along with two residential houses and a secondary school, and the airport was even closed for several hours to ensure clear skyways from exploding ammunitions.

The directives issued in the aftermath were rather straightforward -- if you see or come across a bomb do not touch it but instead alert appropriate authorities. 

The explosions are said to have been accidental, but coming so close on the heels of recent explosions at an army ammunition depot in Dar es Salaam in the spring of 2009 which killed more than 20 people, this seems to reflect a more systemic breech of ammunition storage safety that feels a far cry from "accidental".
This picture, courtesy of AP, shows the smoke that continued to drift over the site of the fire into the morning.

February 17, 2011

A Hundred Year Event.

It was a big one alright, some say it only happens every 100 years. Perhaps that is just an expression, or perhaps those folks are just alarmist by nature. But either way, there is no denying the severity and magnitude of the recent storm that passed through Dar.

I spent the better part of this week seeking refuge anywhere with electricity, as ours had been out for days on end without any indication of when we could expect it back. While mooching power for my computer and phone at our new favorite hangout, the atmosphere suddenly grew ominous. The sky darkened, the wind picked up, and huge rain drops began to fall with a deafening clatter on the rooftop. And eventually the power went out. Now even my go to electricity refuge had failed me. With approximately 2.5 hours of power left on my lap top, I decided to wait out the storm, in fact, it was kind of nice in an oddly romantic sort of way. Neighboring chatter about "adopting" babies out of rural Tanzanian villages (read: kidnapping them without proper paperwork) eventually prompted me to make a break for it. As I drove home the leading thought on my mind was where and how I would continue work without a reliable power source.

I returned home and it appeared as though our house had been looted by a band of pirates. Branches were down everywhere. Huge trees had fallen. Our gate lighting was knocked down and there was broken glass everywhere. Our guard/gardener greeted me at the door, obviously very energized by this rare storm, I, in turn, joked saying, "this will be a big job for you to clean up." He grinned and hopped to it, despite my rather flippant statement of the obvious.

Frankly, I did not give the storm a second thought, until I joined some friends for dinner last night and our conversation turned to the storm. Apparently, one of the largest boats at the yacht club became unmoored during the storm and crashed into three other boats, causing damage of untold proportions, the repair costs alone would surely surpass our combined income last year.

Then someone mentioned the fishermen. The very fishermen I recently blogged about. It is beyond doubt that many of them died in this storm, between huge swells overturning their tiny boats (if you can even call them that) and winds and rip tides pushing them far beyond paddling reach of Dar's shorelines. The storm came out of the blue, its not like any forward thinking fisherman could have known this or even planned their work day around it. So here again, a reality check that these guys literally risk life and limb braving the Indian Ocean waters to fetch about $3/day. And here I was worried about a power connection for my MacBook lap top.

February 16, 2011

Did you know?

In Tanzania, the catches of an estimated 55,000 small-scale fishers are not reflected in the government’s official statistics, representing approximately 40 percent of the total catch off of Tanzania's shoreline.

Every time we are out on the open water, we see these small-scale fishers hard at work. Sometimes on surf boards. Very far from the coast. Braving open water. They are dependent on these waters for economic livelihoods in much the same way we are dependent on these waters for weekend outings. Sure helps put things in perspective.

So why does this matter? The lack of accurate catch data puts management authorities at risk of over-licensing commercial foreign fleets to fish in their waters, while at the same time, stressing coastal communities that depend on these fishery resources for their survival.


Source: WWF, Coastal East Africa Brochure

United Victory Banner.

United Fish Flag.

February 14, 2011

This One Goes Out to the One I Love.

For those looking to indulge a sweet tooth today in celebration of love, here is a divine chocolate cupcake recipe via lanalou.

Chocolate Cupcakes

100g cake flour
20g cocoa powder
140g caster sugar
1½ tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
40g softened butter
120ml milk
1 egg
½ tsp vanilla essence

* Mix flour, cocoa, sugar, baking powder, salt and butter together with electric mixer till it forms a fine granule-like consistency.
* Add milk, egg and vanilla essence to the dry mixture and beat till smooth.
* Spoon mixture into cupcake cases until ⅔ full. Mixture makes about 12 cupcakes.
* Bake in pre-heated oven at 180˚C for about 20 minutes or until sponge bounces back when touched.
* When cool, either dust with icing sugar or ice with chocolate frosting.

This One Goes Out to the One I Left Behind.

Valentine's Day Poems. Tanzanain Style.

Sweating through my shirt
Smell of Deet and burning trash
She will be impressed.

I thought it was love
Hot!  Sweaty!  Delirious!
Nope: malaria.

Q-Bar prostitute
Spirit of love and romance
Half hour, Room 6.

Drank warm red box wine
Moon-lit stroll on CoCo Beach
Now we're getting mugged

Would have bought flowers
But we're in Dar es Salaam
Will Konyagi do?

Una pendeza
I will make love to you now
Ignore the heat rash

Peace Corps volunteer
Room with power and water
Easy to impress

Kempinski was full
Street meat at Posta instead
Can I still get laid?

I had a great night
It's too hot to walk you home
Please take a bajaj

Forwarded by Christen Mullen via Roman Kotovych.

February 2, 2011

Overheard at the Coffee Shop.

I am stupider for having heard this conversation between Girl #1 and Girl #2, and you too will be stupider for reading it - consider yourself forewarned.

Girl #1: you are SUCH a good wriiiiiiter.
Girl #2: [uncomfortably loud laughter] I just reaaaaalllly like a gooood story.
Girl #1: I mean, you should write a book.
Girl #2: I like looking at the blogs that are out there, there are just so many good stories, and pictures. I mean everybody loves pictures.
Girl #2: We should team up and write a book. Not that I think I could get published or anything. But thats how people get discovered - blogs!
Girl #1: I know a girl who is a writer.
Girl #2: What does she write about?
Girl #1: Its just amazing. and stuff.
Girl #2: I want to be a writer. It just takes so MUCH time. I dont know. It just takes so much time to do what you want to do and to do it well. It just needs to happen in an organic way, rather than being the center of my life.

[Both suddenly look busy, sip coffee (sugar and milk free) twirl their hair to fill the awkward silence.]

Girl #2: I mean, you dont even have to go to school for this stuff, you just have to have passion.
Girl #1: yea, passion...
Girl #2: I mean you dont even have to write anything, you know, like the Sartorialist guy, he is really famous and stuff, and he doesnt even write that much, you dont even have to write much, its just like street style, with a creative license. you could be famous.

note to self: need. to. get. out. of here.

Photo Credit: