Thursday, August 18, 2011

"Watch This Space"

I wanted to write a post on the democratic phenomenon happening on Twitter and the segue into a musing on social media and politics. There is a group of tech-savvy politicians on Twitter who regularly engage in very candid conversation with civilian tweeps on a variety of topics... but then Rakesh got there first, and says it better :) Especially the part about technology serving people and not the other way around. This an obvious point, and I am always amazed by how it can get lost in the noise of techlove around social media.

I would probably raise one or two other issues, such as the fact that the political dialogue in question is an actual dialogue: ie. not too much PR/managed prepackaged messaging going on here. This fosters an environment of fragile trust in which any question can be asked and any topic raised within the limits of propriety. It makes for a special relationship with leaders and provides an excellent platform for extremely vigorous discussion. I would seriously encourage other TZ politicians to explore that method of connecting with their peeps.

Between us: it is the worst time- politically speaking- to say anything nice about Jay Kay. I just watched a fellow blogger get slaughtered on Jamii Forums and Michuzi for doing exactly that. And Lord knows I give the man grief on a regular basis. But I do it only because Jay Kay has encouraged, through his personal style of presidency, an unprecedented level of free expression. Is it a perfect situation? Not by a long shot. Will it survive his presidency? Who knows? Whatever failures of leadership he might suffer from, Jay Kay isn't a fake populist. The man genuinely appears to have some love for all 45+ million of his unpredictable, occasionally bad-tempered people. It is inexplicable, but admirable. As admirable as his taste in ankle boots.

Anywho, there might be an article lurking in there somewhere. ePolitics. Watch This Space ;)

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Weekly Sneak: African Social Intelligence

The UK riots, eh? Who could have predicted that? Well, most social scientists, actually. Here's a great post that gives a brief breakdown of the circumstances leading up to the explosion we just saw. I imagine this is just the beginning- like Columbine spawned a series of copycat crimes, this youth-anger-slash-and-burn method of social protest might just gain legitimacy as a form of "revolution." Look what happened after the Arab spring: a global obsession with reproducing the phenomenon.

Well (expletive deleted) that. While I am all for cultural exchange, I am decidedly a cultural relativist, and in many ways a total Afrocentric conservative. And this ka-"youth culture" that is emanating from the American mediatainment industrial complex has created a global fetishization of youth that I often find completely abhorrent. Women's magazines horrify me with their sexualized emaciated prepubescent children passing as supermodels, hip hop terrifies me with its vastly unchecked misogyny, violence and consumerism... anorexia, bulimia, self-hatred, botox, cutting, rioting, plastic surgery, preserved Hollywood celebrities who pervert our notions of what a forty- or fifty- year old looks like in real life... young Tanzanian women with perfectly beautiful pear shapes worrying about whether they are skinny enough or not...

Some aspects of what passes for "modernity" can just go straight to hell as far as I am concerned.

Too long it has been desirable (expected, frankly), for Africans to look Westward and Northward and take our cues from there. We have internalized this message, unfortunately. I can see it in the Facebook updates of people demanding that we bring violent means of conflict resolution to Tanzania to change our internal relations of power. That this is said with no irony whatsoever (violence in the service of... peace? in Tanzania of all places?) makes me wonder how self-aware we are as Tanzanian youth. Also, just how much world history we understand...

Anyways, I do think we've got something precious that apparently the UK could use more of. I call it Utu, although it goes a little bit beyond that. So this week, I took the UK riots as a jumping-off point to say to my peers: yeah, we got problems. But let's step away from all the cultural and political copycatting and handle our business like some well-raised, intelligent, self-aware Tanzanians. If we don't, we'll only end up in the same tight spots when its our turn to be called Elder. And won't that be a bitch to explain? The UK riots are the horrible lesson we don't have to live through to learn.
"Which leads me to the notion of respect for elders. This one is a double-edged sword: anyone who has spent five minutes watching Bunge TV will know that age does not automatically confer good sense, wisdom or even good manners. Sometimes drastic measures are needed to discipline our elders when they misbehave, since the worst of them believe complacently that age will protect them indefinitely from critical scrutiny. However, even as angry youth we cannot afford to ignore the ways in which our society provides for inter-generational conversation and mutual support in the things that matter. Those who have walked before us do know one or two lessons about life that are worth learning, wisdom does have its place in life."
Besides, we have a legacy to respect here. Mwalimu was barely in his thirties when he took command of a new country and foxed his way through the Cold War to protect a fledgeling country from predation. Most of his cadres were hardly old enough to shave. I can bet you that the previous generation didn't earn us the international reputation we enjoy by being hot-headed dingbats. Yeah, youth is cool, but maybe we can learn a thing or two from the old revolutionaries. They actually earned their stripes.

Oh, yeah. So this is for the EA. Which is owned by the Aga Khan, a mzee poa if there ever was one (and he started out pretty young). I expect to be thoroughly caned for my conservatism this time around :)

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Ugali Na Dagaa: A Contemplation.

Who knew that something as docile as ugali could be a cultural conversation? While I don't really pay it much mind, I am vaguely aware that folks who haven't grown up on the continent find it difficult to embrace. Ugali is not a taste that is easily acquired as an adult :) Apparently adding dagaa as the relish makes it particularly heinous. I have heard quite a number of people express their puzzlement over this apparent delicacy.

I can kind of understand how a sub-par lump of ugali made from over-refined flour that has been sitting in a silo half the year coupled with a watery mishandled dagaa stew might fail to convert a newbie to the delights of the ugali-and-preserved-fish combination. I hope this essay goes some way to convincing you to try again.

Ugali na dagaa is definitely one of my very favorite comfort foods. I love it in almost all of its iterations: strong, stiff Sukuma ugali with larger Lake Tanganyika dagaa, Zanzibari Ugali wa Mhogo with Dagaa "wabichi", sauce on the side, Ghanaian Kenkey with a tin of sardines and fresh tomato-onion-chili relish, flaky pap with pilchards in spicy chakalaka... I would even go so far as admitting that my favorite version is rough-grained cornmeal crispy-skin ugali with a side of steam/fried cabbage and crispy fried mackerel, for sentimental reasons, although that might be stretching the "dagaa" criteria a little. But then I would have to consider the magical combination of oversized Lake Tanganyike fried sato so fresh that their eyes (the best part) drip with unctuous richness over ugali steamed so long that it separates softly without leaving sticky residue on your fingers...

If you want to adventure down the road of ugali-na-dagaa cuisine, here is a list of tips and opinions that I have accrued over many years spent in pursuit of the ultimate ugali experience:

1. Know your ugali: there are lots of different grains and roots that ugali can be made from. The concept is simple: flour, water, mix, cook until desired consistency is reached and starch is cooked through. This simple formula hides a complex world of ingredient selection and techniques that can turn an unpromising ugly sister of a dish into a real cinderella for the palate. For the more adventurous, I would recommend trying cassava flour ugali with a bit of cornmeal (dona) thrown in for textural integrity. Also good: wholemeal corn ugali, sorghum ugali, millet ugali and combinations thereof with cornmeal. I have yet to try mixing in groundnuts with the starch but it is on the To Try list. Some South African restaurants offer interesting mixes where the pap is flavored with things like cheese or chilli or whatever. Lovely innovation, I am sure, but as a purist I am admittedly skeptical.

2. Know your texture: all the ugali I have eaten in Zanzibar has been cooked to a soft consistency, while the ugali I have eaten in the lake zone is usually stiff enough to be used as a weapon. There are regional variations in preferences for texture, and it is generally wise to know what works for you. For example, I can't really abide the southern African flaky ugali technique, and definitely have a great respect for cooks who can put a crust on their (medium-stiff) ugali. crunchy crust is always good in my books!

3. Know your cook: Ugali-making is a skill that not every cook has mastered. First up: ugali served in local restaurants in Dar have to balance the expectations of clients who come from all over the country, so it is generally the blandest version there is: medium, white flour, nothing interesting going on. However, if you are lucky enough to travel around, then you have to try the regional variations at the local 'hoteli'. Tips on where to find truly good stuff: find where the men hang out to eat and drink (i.e. where they go to escape from their domestic arrangements). Usually that's where the local brew is the nicest, and the cook has mastered the art of serving an ugali that meets the local critics' approval.

Of course, the ultimate ugali is the homecook's ugali. It is like the curry test: you can eat them in restaurants, sure, but if you eat a homecooked curry the improvement in quality is dramatic. The 'home table' is where an eater can truly experience pinnacles of ugali cookery. My best ugali experience in Zanzibar was the result of asking a rather indulgent waiter at my hotel to personally cook me some ugali wa muhogo and dagaa wabichi with a side of greens for my evening meal. Zanzibari hospitality can really be quite fantastic. Which brings me to another tip: for some reason, I have generally been served better ugali by male cooks than female cooks although this is not always the case. I suspect it has to do with the muscle-power required to stir an ugali into consistent smoothness and cookedness. So beware: if the cook looks a little runty and underfed you might be gambling on his or her ability to produce an ugali that has been properly subdued.

3. Know your fishy relish: okay, so obviously dagaa are a traditional accompaniment because they keep well and so can travel the huge distances between oceans and lakes across the region without the aid of refrigeration. Same with the smoked and dried larger fish that are now hard to source as tastes change. While it is easy to get Mwanza contacts to source you a bucketful of fresh sato that arrive dripping with condensation off the Precision Air flights, getting a proper-good butterflied smoked fish isn't so simple. But I digress. There are many different dagaa to be had: Lake Tanganyika produces premium large ones that are sweet-fleshed and easy to clean before cooking and also don't remain impossibly hard when cooked. Then there is the range of products you get from Lake Victoria in a variety of sizes and quality. Finally there is the ocean fished dagaa where they dry those little fishies that you can spot jumping with joy, usually at sunset, if you are having a sundowner anywhere along the bay in Dar. In-between might be local variations of dagaa fished from ponds and lakes dotting the countryside.

Generally speaking, the larger the dagaa, the better. This is because it is easier to get the guts off the fish which prevents the bitter taste. It is virtually impossible to gut a small dagaa and have anything left over worth keeping which makes for bitter stews. Also, the bigger ones don't dry as hard as the smaller fish, so they absorb liquids better when cooked and soften up considerably. On the coast, the dagaa 'wabichi' are only sundried for a short time before being sold to prevent the overdrying that results in tough fishlets.

4. How do you feel about fermented animal proteins? Part of the flavor profile of ugali and dagaa is whatever bacterial and yeast action happens during the preservation process. This means that dagaa is a strong taste. It packs an umami punch complete with its fermented funk, and that's is part of it's status as a delicacy. If you like things like cheese, kimchi, caviar, canned mackerel, greek yogurt, liver/kidneys, soy sauce, pickled herring etc. then dagaa might just work for you. If most of the above items make you recoil in fear and loathing, skip the dagaa and go for another side dish.

5. The cook angle, again: listen, don't eat ugali and dagaa in certain parts of the country. Like, say, if you are on retreat on some gorgeous hill in the Kilimanjaro region. Or doing fieldwork deep in Mpwapwa in Dodoma. Dagaa make sense in regions surrounding freshwater lakes, in areas with lots of estuaries, places that border the ocean. So naturally that is where the best dagaa handling is likely to happen. With a bit of research and savoir-faire, it is entirely possible to wangle invitations from the right kind of home tables in pursuit of a good ugali-na-dagaa.

6. The devil is in the details: When that steaming hot ugali comes, there are a number of things to consider. First is the accompaniments- I strongly recommend using whatever variation of pilipili is offered to highlight the flavor profile of the dagaa. Also, as this is fish, a squeeze of lemon somewhere in the process brings a little pep to the party. Finally, a side of greens is a good mediator between the intensity of the dagaa and the subtleties of the ugali. Cabbage works, but really some bitter greens cooked simply really pop- chards, kales, mchicha, kisamvu, sweet potato leaves... the options are endless.

If you are new to the game, one final caution: only ever the right hand can be used to eat ugali truly authentically, and yes this does affect how you taste the dish. Especially in shared plate situations. Knowing how to pinch off a piece of steaming ugali, scoop up the sauce/greens/pili pili and pop that in your mouth, chew, swallow without burning your tongue is part of the experience. This requires as much practice as learning how to use chopsticks correctly, or any other utensil. In some areas it is alright to roll the ball of ugali in your palm first, put in a dimple with your thumb and use that to scoop up the relishes. In others, using anything more than the first two knuckles of your fingers is a sign of complete heathenness, and uncouth scooping is especially horrifying. Learning how to navigate the variations in style is a huge part of the fun of ugali cuisine.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to tell you that I simply do not cook my own ugali and dagaa. I have learned through years of kitchen disasters that I lack the touch with flour-based cookery. Can't bake, can't make chapatis worth eating, can't cook an ugali worth serving. I suspect this will have a depressing effect on my brideprice ;) I am quite content to outsource the preparation to experts, which is how I know a good ugali when I eat one.

Since it is Saturday and I am home, The World's Best Housekeeper is currently preparing the treat that we both enjoy immensely. She has just ground some dried muhogo in the coffee mill fixture of the blender, special stock that she brings me from the family farm in Mtwara every year from her annual holiday. I hoard those little dry sticks like the finest beluga, and only ever share them with My Lady of the Refined Smiles.

Our special flour will be carefully mixed with a robo or nusu of the duka's freshest cornmeal since we are out of dona, and then transformed into a medium stiff ugali. Which we will have with dagaa, naturally, of which we keep a stock of various types and sizes in the freezer. The hard part is going to be deciding: should we cook the dagaa with okra, or with nyanya chungu? And which green this time? I think I am leaning towards steamed mchicha with a hint of onion, but it depends on what TWBH is feeling. I forgot to ask her to bring some morning-tapped Mnazi to wash it all down and give a pleasant buzz to the afternoon as we gossip and nap. To properly respect the ugali is to know that sometimes a little lie-down after the meal is a natural outcome of the process.

If you consider yourself a connoiseur of things ugali, I would love to hear from you about any lessons, techniques etc. that I should investigate. And if you have ever wondered what the heck there might be to appreciate about the unpromising lump that has just landed on your plate with a side of sauce and some smelly little fish, I hope I have convinced you not to run off screaming. As for me, I am waiting for the day I make it over to West Africa to sample their iterations although to be honest I am just jonesing for some Kenkey. Ghanaian in Dar es Salaam? Hello! We could be friends... ;)

Happy eating.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Development Aid

There is apparently a paradigm shift happening in the development aid sector. As donor governments reduce the amount of aid that they are giving, private philanthropy is gaining prominence in the development sector. If you are in the business of development or if this kind of discussion is your thing, check out the Bellagio Initiative.

I have to confess that I am seriously conflicted about the development aid thing. I "get" the point, sure, but you can't live on this continent without become deeply, deeply, deeply cynical about the geopolitics of the development industry. But to get back to the point, we pay a lot of lip-service to reducing our dependency on aid, and it will be enriching to watch the thinkers figure out how this new dynamic is going to impact the business.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Weekly Sneak: Elephants, Lemonade and Arm Chair Economics

The East African's deadline regularly sneaks up on me unannounced so that it can breathe down my neck, which can be a good thing. I am a last-minute thinker, sometimes my most creative or interesting writing comes from the combination of fear and desperation that a looming deadline inspires. And since I don't want to give The Men In Nairobi any reason to call me in for a "friendly little chat" about delivering on time...

This week's article was written on the fly, and in reaction to the fact that one or two of you have subjected me to that Tanzanian question/command thing. You know, the one where you ask a negative question: "I am surprised to see that you haven't written anything about the fuel crisis..." when what you really mean is "Get off your big African heritage, slacker, while this topic is still relevant." Okay, here goes:
"Is there a dirtier business in the world than that of petroleum? As an end consumer, I am always amazed by the reasons fuel retailers come up with not to ever reflect a drop in the price of petrol at the pump. The most common one is that they have bought the fuel at high prices and so must keep selling the more expensive stock at high prices so as to recoup their costs at the very least. Add in there the vagaries of the world market and currency exchange rate shenanigans amongst other sophisticated tools of modern capitalism, and retailers can effectively confuse the argument in their favor. It seems that no matter what else is going on, fuel prices will always increase, taxi drivers will always have a reason to extort higher fares and public transportation operators can also squeeze a few more vijisenti from the citizens. I am not sure, but I think this is the kind of thing that economists refer to as “growth.”
So this ka-fuel crisis? Sijui. I am not picking any sides except mine, as an exasperated citizen. The fuel shortage is practically over and by the time the article prints it will be yesterday's news. It has been an interesting political case study, though, hasn't it? Happy motoring.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Petrol and Crocodiles.

Just yesterday I was reading Habari Leo, with an article about how the fuel retailers had apparently ceased their strike or go slow or whatever Face/Off they are having with the government. Only to head out and be told by the friendly, if bored, staff of at least three petrol stations that I was more likely to win the lottery than find sustenance for my car. Maggie is an efficient little Japanese work of vehicular art, but traffic coming in today consumed at least an eighth of the tank and with the drive back I am looking at the possible abdication of personal transportation in the next 24 hours.

Then today, Habari Leo tells me that British Petroleum is being targeted by EWURA? I don't know about these institutions of ours. Seriously, BP? We have quite the number of petrol retailers, none of whom are selling fuel under the pretext that they have run out, and EWURA has decided to pick a fight with one seller? One?!

As the screaming in my head threatened to manifest itself physically, I remembered something I have had to learn time and time again living in Bongo: Let. It. Go. You have to get very Zen sometimes to make it through a year here without committing homicide, because tough as life is already someone will find a way of introducing a problem that will take things to the level of the absurd. Appreciating that is the core of the Bongolandian sense of humor. If we didn't mock the scurrilous villains who derail our daily lives, we might be in the midst of a civil war with no particular destination.

So I tuned into talk radio to get my dose of heart-healthy laughter. The Clouds FM crew were up to their usual mischief, making fun of the fact that there is a crocodile living quite happily in the middle of the city in a pond in Kinondoni Block 41. No one knows from whence it came, but it has been around for about five years eating fish and getting fatter. It avoids the humans, the humans avoid it, everyone seems content. Naturally the guys have started calling each other Mamba. And just like that I am reminded of why I love living in this impossible, contrary swamp of a town. Yaani, where else in the world?

I guess I'll just have to listen to them from home tomorrow. That is, if Tanesco doesn't switch off the electricity...

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Karibu Tanzania...

The Board of Tourism has been trying to brand Tanzania for a long time. While I think it is ridiculous in a third-world-shady way to brand an entire country, it is a necessary evil of the modern tourist industry. Since we do put a quarter of our landmass under protection so that we can pimp... I mean conserve nature, we might as well get some crispy fresh dollars out of the process. They have come up with a slogan and I have to admit to being pleasantly surprised.

Tanzania: Feel great with friends.

No references to Kilimanjaro, no tacky animal print, no saccharine Zanzibar myth-making. Just a focus on the people and the quality of your experience here. Another way of saying: Karibu. I could live with that. If you want to comment or suggest an alternative to the people in power, email them at:

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Weekly Sneak: Powered by Estrogen.

Due to an unexpected series of meetings and events, my feminist affront has just been shocked back to life again. I had been sitting on a piece about Voice for a long time, and I guess it was time for it to finish gestating and come out already. One of the reasons I tend to stay away from the F-word on the column is that it doesn't lend itself easily to humor. Feminists, like Ujamaa Socialists, are tediously serious about their causes and we just can't make the funny. And the column, it is supposed to bring the funny at least a little bit.

But it has been such a long time since I had a good rant, and I have been a little annoyed because I haven't emptied out the bin where I keep all the trash that casual chauvinism throws my way. In light of the fact that The East African edits my copy*, this week you are getting my two favorite paragraphs in the preview section:
"My President, Jakaya Kikwete, once said that it was his ambition to leave behind a parliament with a larger number of women in it than when he first came into office. Unfortunately we have tried parliamentary affirmative action, and the results are disappointing. Tanganyika turns fifty this year, yet all those decades of Special Seats Members of Parliament have failed to yield sufficient maternity wards in hospitals, prosecutions for rapists and child-molesters, equal pay for equal work... the list of grievances is long. Electricity rationing is tedious, yes, but let me tell you: giving birth on a concrete floor is an entirely different level of inconvenience."
And in conclusion, I have been looking for an excuse to sneak these James Brown lyrics into a 'serious' topic for a long time. What has 1960s Funk got to do with women in Tanzania?

"Feminism is an eight-letter word with a four-letter attitude. It is a cause that is familiar with extended guerrilla warfare in the rough wilderness of inflexible traditions. Social media is the AK47 of the present, at whose point many have demanded better treatment. To quote the King of Funk, James Brown (RIP) “I don't want nobody to give me nothing. Open up the door, and I'll get it myself.” Huh."

*Some writers like to be edited. I am not one of those blessed people. A couple of you regulars have told me that the style and tone of the EA articles is not quite in keeping with the style and tone of the blog. I appreciate the feedback, and I am working on the parts of that discrepancy that I can control.

Monday, August 1, 2011

An Integral Part of Your Life

I wrote a post a little while back about the internet, social media and security. After all, Africa and especially East Africa seems to be riding the crest of an ICT wave that's going to be affecting us all for decades to come. Exciting times, right? I guess this is as good a time as any to confess that I am now formally in the business of peddling social media to civil society organizations. Which means also having to consider the Bigger Picture issues that come with the job, such as the very real concern with social media's use as a surveillance tool.

If you are still thinking that social media and ICT is "pretty harmless stuff," check out this fascinating experiment carried out by Malte Spitz, a German politician, that my colleague passed on to me today. When George Orwell wrote 1984, who could possibly have known how prophetic his work would turn out to be? Science fiction wins again.

Pen & Mic III

Hi folks, it is that time of the quarter again when a handful of lyrically gifted folks are going to bless us with their talents for an evening's entertainment. If you are a culture vulture, or even a culture crow... heck maybe even just a culture pigeon, then come on. There will be lots of noise, perhaps some dancing, definitely some carousing, and a few nervous poets who will really appreciate your audience. Support your local artist!

@: Saffron Restaurant, Quality Plaza, Pugu/Nyerere Rd.
?-?: Wednesday 3rd of August, 7:30-11:30 pm

A little birdie told me...

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