Ramblings on a day's work as Program Analyst for Touch Foundation in Tanzania

I show up to work at 8:45 or 9:15, never 9:00 am. This is not company policy of course but rather what seems to be my keen unpunctuality; something ingrained in my character during 4 years of Davidson where “international students arrive to class late”. In 2001, the USAID head of the time proclaimed that

[Many Africans] don’t know what Western time is. You have to take these [AIDS] drugs a certain number of hours each day, or they don’t work. Many people in Africa have never seen a clock or a watch their entire lives. And if you say, one o’clock in the afternoon, they do not know what you are talking about.

I’ve learned though, in East Africa you’re never late, just delayed. My colleagues come from just about anywhere around the world, and feel much the same way about 15 minutes. Thankfully, the above sentiment is long since gone (in Tanzania, not Davidson), USAID is Touch Foundation’s biggest funder, and the patients who we work to benefit now receive AIDS medication.

To show up to work at 8:45 or 9:15, I have a) slept through my alarm (9:15), b) fallen asleep like a baby at 7pm when there was no electricity (8:45), c) met one of Touch’s local partners on the street on my way to work (9:15), d) ran from sudden rain on my way to work (8:45), e) bought shoes from a guy on the street selling shoes at 8:45 (9:15), f) thought I had time to iron my clothes (9:15), g) given up on ironing clothes (9:15), h) walked downstairs from my room (8:45), i) walked downhill (8:45), j) walked uphill (it’s a big hill) (9:15), k) walked across town (9:15), l) ridden a motorcycle across town (even though I’m supposed to only take car taxis, I, rebel) (8:45), m) looked for a café with wireless internet around town (9:15), n) ridden for 2 hours on a dirt road full of bumps and holes (8:45), o) taken a leaking ferry across a cove in lake Victoria to ride for 2 more hours on a dirt road full of bumps and holes (9:15), p) flown to South Africa (8:45), q), r), s)

There is no typical day working for Touch in Tanzania. I can’t even finish describing arriving to work in under 500 words, to try to do so for my workday would do it a great injustice. It’s really cool though.

Quis custodiet ipsos excelum

I’m trying to navigate through the bureaucracy of obtaining a work permit with an immigration officer, and my progress is interrupted by the officer’s ringtone. It reminds me of the ringtone I had on the phone I was given during my semester in Uganda almost a year ago. Moments later, someone else’s cell phone brings up the same memory, then again. Welcome to East Africa, pronounces the immigration officer as he stamps approval in my passport. Where all ringtones are identical.

If everyone’s ringtones are identical, how can people distinguish whether it’s their phone ringing in a 20-person dala dala (read: a most common form of public transportation here; a little, chubby, falling apart Toyota van with anywhere between 20 and infinite number of passengers)? Would they even care to check whether they should pick it up on the off chance that it is theirs ringing? What if it’s an urgent call, say, a medical emergency? So it is I begin my work with the Touch Foundation thinking about the management inefficiencies of the Tanzanian healthcare system as suggested by people’s ringtones.

Hypothetical exaggerations aside, the provincial East African environment here in Mwanza does make you appreciate the impact that minute details may have on quite important aspects of life or, for that matter, lack thereof. During my first couple of weeks here, I have learned, for example, that, much like a bug big enough to drive you mad by flying and buzzing into your eardrum is the single most prominent vector of death south of the Sahara, a couple of minor, easy-to-overlook errors in an excel spreadsheet may result in dramatically inadequate staffing of healthcare facilities throughout a country north of 50 million people.

It’s not bad to have an opportunity to affect 50 million people after 4 years of liberal arts intellectualism, especially while being merely one more health-related NGO worker in the developing world. Like a mosquito. Only, hopefully, with a positive impact. A nice mosquito. (?)

Until my next post, I will be assuming the duties of keen vigilante of mosquito-sized details. An excel guardian.