Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Seven Years

So, today is the seven year anniversary of my father's death from cancer. That's really hard to wrap my head around; sometimes it seems that it was just the blink of an eye, but today it's the opposite. I can't believe it's ONLY been seven years. I've done a lot of livin' in these last few years, and that time- the stress, the sadness, the laughter, and tears- it just seems like a lifetime ago.

For several days now, I've been mulling over what I was going to write on this anniversary. This is THE day. It's a day to remember a life-changing event in the life of the Reid family. I tried to think of something profound to say.

But I got nuthin.' No profound wisdom to impart or wise words to share. But you know what I DO have?

A ton of dirty dishes to wash.

Mundane? Yep. Boring? Yes, indeed. Necessary? Sadly, yes. I must do the dishes. Life goes on. As it should. As it must.

Sometimes life is amazing, like when I visited with Watatulu people up in the rock hills around Lake Eyasi in Tanzania. Sometime life is miserable, like when I struggled with anger and depression last year. It's fun when I watch Guardians of the Galaxy with friends. And it's plain old boring when I have to do the dishes.

I miss my dad. I would love to talk to him about all of the above (though maybe not the dishes). I think of him every single day. And I hope I always will. I wish he were here with us, yet he is not; but his example still lives on with me, guiding me.

Life goes on, and I think he'd be very happy to hear it.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Small Talk, Tanzania Style

So I have written in the past about language issues here in Tanzania. Indeed, the struggle to communicate is one of the most salient issue here for an ex-pat. Deeper issues of cultural understanding manifest themselves in conversations, but you can’t even approach that level of communication if you’re standing there looking like an idiot trying to remember the word for “pineapple.” Katie can actually have conversations in Swahili. I can sound like a relatively functional 4-year-old.

Beyond simply learning, remembering, and using new vocabulary and then understanding the nuance that may be underneath the words themselves, you also must deal with the fact that people talk differently, and I don't mean accents or simple grammar. I mean the way they think and form sentences is different. In your own culture, you have a basic assumption of how people will speak to you. But here, someone may say something to you that makes sense to them and everyone around you but makes no sense at all to you. What I mean is, beyond idioms, beyond new words, the things that people choose to say and choose NOT to say are often just as baffling, if not moreso.

Let’s take simple small talk, for example.

Small talk here often makes no sense to an American ear. It’s confusing. Even after almost 3 years here, its confusing. But maybe "confusing" isn't the right word...maybe "pointless" is better. It circles around and around and makes no sense. Now, I know there’s very little depth to “Hot today, huh?” or “How ‘bout them Mets?” but you at least know you’re talking about the weather of a football team. (Ha HA just kidding, people).

Small talk here- at least small talk with a Westerner- tends to consist of just stating some random comment about something remotely related to you, but with the crucial point of not clearly stating what that thing may be. Here’s a typical example. Keep in mind that this is often in a mix of English and Swahili.

Me: Habari za leo? (How are you?)

Them: Nzuri. Habari za kwako? (How’s your home?)

Me: Good.


Me: …What?

Them: How is it?

Me: How is what? America?

Them: YES...UGALI. (a local food staple)

Me: …What?

Them: UGALI. Have you tried it?

Me: …Yes. Why?

Them: Sema? (Verb for “say”)

Me: Say what?

Them: MABATINI. (Our neighborhood)

Me:…What about Mabatini?

Them: How is it?

Me: Mabatini? It’s good.


This can pretty much go on ad infinitum until I just smile and walk away (or look very confused and walk away). There will often be thumbs up, high fives, and laughter on their part.

So there’s no real moral to this story. It’s just fascinating (and honestly, often annoying) to see this happen. I feel that a certain amount of their local interaction is on this surface level with minimal information. But I also think this is particular relevant to when locals interact with Westerners. I know that most people here know a little bit of English- often just a few random words they’ve picked up- but in the same way that I felt good when I had my first simple exchanges in Swahili, they are likely proud of themselves for engaging the mzungu in English. Even if it made no sense to the English-speaker. And I can’t really judge them on that, because I see that same confused look staring at me when I open my mouth and use Swahili.


Monday, August 18, 2014

Am I Missing Something?...

 ...or is the massage therapist missing something in this picture?

Recently, several of us here were going through books to donate, and I flipped open a book on massage and found the following pictures.


There were many more like these two.

Look, I've had some really strange massages before, but only ONE of us stripped down for the session.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Kids Draw the Darndest Things

...and that "Darndest Thing" is ME.

This last Saturday, the kids of our Chanua group met for their regular Saturday morning meeting. We vary on what we do at these meetings. Sometimes we teach them lessons to help with their school work, sometimes we sing and/or draw pictures, and sometimes we just have game days. This last Saturday, because we were also handing out items of clothing for the kids, we decided it was a good day to draw.

Now, these kids tend to draw the same things over and over, which is fine. It goes like this:

Girls: flowers, princesses, houses, their school teachers

Boys: soccer players, airplanes, cars, the Tanzanian flag

In light of the repetitive nature of their pictures, we often give them a topic to draw to inspire them to think outside the box a little more. And this week I told them that they should draw either ME or my coworker Mary.

My friends, you are in for a treat. Before we delve into these drawings, I want to say one thing: I LOVE these drawings. I love the way kids draw. I love everything about these drawings and I am super proud of them.

Now, with that said, I'm gonna kinda make fun of these drawings because they are of ME and I look INSANE in all of them. They are wonderful.

I think I look pretty burly here. Like a lumberjack or someone who's ready for
some blue collar work. I'll see you mofos down at the DOCKS.

Looks like I'm wearing clown shoes. Symbolism, perhaps? 
Trying to make a statement about my soul. I like the artistic license.

In this one, I'm clearly angry about my botched plastic surgery. Which is TRUE.
I'm STILL pissed about it. Also, I'm angry about my clubfeet.

This one just works. I think I have a grill in this one.

The slightly stunned, vacant look? LIKE A PHOTOGRAPH, this one.

This one clearly got the proportions correct. Also, I need some red pants.

This was a child's take on me if I were a serial killing version of Ed Grimley.

I do wear a lot of greens and blues.

Katie and I laughed really hard at the red shoes. Then I remembered I own a pair of red shoes.


I did not realize my arms were that hairy. YOU LEARN SOMETHING NEW EVERY DAY.

Excuse me, sir. Have you seen my feet? And the other half of right arm?
Otherwise, this one is pretty accurate.

"Vacant Eyes and Tiny Slippers: The Story of Chris Reid." Monday, 11pm, Lifetime Network.

I like the sass in this one. I feel a little like Beyonce.

OK, I look like an angry monkey in this one. Which is cool.

I need to take a minute to talk about spelling. The Sukuma people do not
differentiate between R's and L's, so they spell my name is many creative
ways based on how they hear my name. So "Chris" becomes some variant of "Kilis."
Based on the above drawing, I'm obviously battling for the Iron Throne of Westeros.

I WISH I LOOKED THIS COOL IN REAL LIFE. Seriously. I look like a member of The Clash.

I look kinda like Ice Cube here. VALID.
Also, I'm handing out clothing here, hence the shirt in my hand. Or I'm Edward Wardrobehands.

This one makes me giggle to no end. I adore it. Also, Bruce Willis kills me in Sin City.

I shore am glad Aunt Mommy and Uncle Cousin picked me up after I got my lobotomy.

I think I need to consider going sleeveless more.


I'm not sure if you have ever seen Eraserhead, but THIS kid certainly has.

I'm kinda like Cthulhu, but with beard tentacles.


Bonus Drawing: Here's one of Mary, my Coworker.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

In Memory of Thomas

Earlier today, I received a phone call with some bad news. Thomas, a boy I knew up in Musoma, had succumbed to illness and died earlier this morning.

I met Thomas in early 2012, shortly after we arrived in Tanzania. The town of Musoma is where we went to language school, and it’s also the town where fellow missioner Liz Mach and Maryknoll Sister Marion Hughes live. Every two weeks, a group of HIV+ children (called Lisa’s Pride) gather at Sr. Marion’s house to play games, to do a weigh-in, and to receive basic food stuffs that helps keep their immune systems strong. While we lived in Musoma, we would try to make it out to as many sessions as we could, and that’s where we met Thomas.

First of all, Thomas was charming. He had a great smile. He was smart and quick to laugh. And he was a little dude. I thought he was 9 or 10 at first, but when you spoke with him, he seemed older. That’s because he was; his health issues had stunted his growth and kept him at a size very small relative to his age. He was a teenager and must have been 15 or 16 by now.

As should be obvious by his membership in Lisa’s Pride, Thomas was HIV+. I don’t know the story of how he was infected. He was also deaf, but he wasn’t born that way. When he was younger, he got malaria and received an overdose of his medication and lost his hearing as a result. Yet, he could still hear a little so he could hold a conversation with you- in Swahili or in English. And he could read lips- in Swahili or in English. I told you, he was smart.

After 3 months, we moved down to Mwanza, but for our first Christmas in Tanzania, we went back up to Musoma to spend a few days with Liz and Sr. Marion. We also went to assist with a big shopping trip where the kids from Lisa’s Pride got to pick out clothes for themselves. It was a lot of fun, and Thomas was around, of course. The day of the shopping trip was also my 36th birthday, so Katie baked me a cake. Thomas helped her light the candles, and then he brought the cake out to me as everyone sang “Happy Birthday.”

Sadly, that was the last time I saw him. We haven’t been up to Musoma in a year and a half. But I always asked about him, and I hear that he would still ask about me from time to time. I know Thomas liked me a lot, but I won’t say I had a particularly special relationship with him, because he liked everybody. But clearly, Thomas had a special place in my heart.

I’m not sure what happened, but he had evidently been sick for a while and had been in and out of the hospital. He was recently released because he was doing really well…and then he died. That’s what HIV/AIDS does: weakens your immune system until some secondary infection gets you.

I feel like I should take this opportunity to rally support for AIDS research and funding for ARVs, but I’m not sure what to say at this moment. We should take a “big picture” approach to tackling the HIV/AIDS epidemic, but today I’m taking the “small view.” I’m just mourning the death of a child…my friend, Thomas. 

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Day of the African Child

Every year, on June 16th, the world celebrates the Day of the African Child.

Today, I had a sobering experience to mark the day. I visited the office of Friends of Children with Cancer (FOCC) at Bugando Medical Centre here in Mwanza, Tanzania. The director, Walter Miya, is a friend of mine. At the end of our two hour meeting, he gave me a tour of the oncology ward. He took me to the bedside of each of the little kids there receiving treatment for cancer. It was a sad experience to be sure, but it's also a blessing that these children are getting treatment and assistance.

Let's be real: a lot of these kids won't make it. But at least they have the chance to try. And a lot of these kids WILL make it, and that's a reason to celebrate right there.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

A Shout Out to a Friend

I want to brag for a minute, but not about myself. I want to take a moment and talk about Aden Mabruk, my Somali Bantu friend from Columbia. I’ve written about him numerous times over the years, as he was a big part of my years living in Columbia, SC.

I first met him back in 2005 when I volunteered to tutor him once a week while he was a student at Dent Middle School. He was a quiet, intense, kinda surly 14-year-old refugee kid who was so focused on his school work that he would hardly look me in the eye or make any semblance of small talk. Over time, that facade slowly but surely dropped and we began to spend hours together each week discussing school work and any other questions he had on his mind. Eventually, due to numerous factors, my involvement within the Columbia Somali Bantu community expanded to include some degree of connection to almost every Somali Bantu family in the city. But Aden always remained my core connection, along with his friends Hassan, Abdi, Mohammed, and Omar (AKA “Motormouth, who's done quite well for himself, as well!)

Eventually, once Aden and his crew made it to high school, our time spent with each other dwindled. Aden got involved with sports, made a bunch of friends (and got very popular), and got involved with extracurricular activities. By his junior year, he was super busy, and he eventually ended our tutoring sessions. It was bittersweet to me; I was super proud of how far he and his friends had come, but I felt a real loss. He didn’t need me anymore! 
But once he graduated high school, he got a car and come over to just hang out at my house, and that was a fun new aspect to our friendship. He and his crew spent many nights sitting around a fire in my backyard chatting up my friends and neighbors (and trying to teach them the most bullshit card game I’ve ever witnessed, a game that I thought was totally made up by the Somalis solely to mess with Americans until my friend Fiona managed to actually sorta learn it one night and I had to concede there may actually be rules). He also took some ESL classes at USC in the building where I worked and he joined the PANASA group I helped start, so I would see him around campus.

Anyway, the kid meant a lot to me, and still does, though since we moved to Tanzania our communication has really dropped off. Despite our best efforts, I didn’t even manage to see him when I was in the States this February. I wasn’t really sure what he was up to these days. And then THIS showed up on his facebook wall the other day:

“To friends in the U.S and outside of U.S I'm really sorry that i have been difficult to reach these few months. I and my brother Tariq Sabreer have been working big project starting our own business. Allhumalallah finally we did it. I'm honored to be a partner with such talent person. We are the owners of the new restaurant in town and its name is Feel Goods Restaurant & Grill, previously know as Nick and Gyro. Yesterday was our first day and we started great. This year has been very successful year indeed. I have been accepted USC Engineering school, its education school and start my our business. I’m happy. I would like Thank my Mother Hawa Haji Mohamed, My bother Hussein Mabruk and my American family (Vickie Westbrook and Spears Westbrook) for their support. So friends come out support us.”
Wha??! He's starting a restaurant while simultaneously starting Engineering school?!! I’ll be honest, I have a hard time wrapping my head around this! I’m not SURPRISED, because he’s one of the most driven, motivated people I’ve ever met. But where did that surly little kid who only wanted to do math problems and would never smile go? Where’d this twenty-something entrepreneur come from? And where'd that beard come from?!

Needless to say that I am super proud of this guy, and I’m proud of the role I’ve had in his life. I’m certainly not the only person that played a role in his time in the States; he’s had tremendous support over the years from a variety of people that could all see his potential. I think we can all pat ourselves on the back for what we’ve done for him, but the true accolades go to Aden himself for all his hard work that’s gotten him to where he is today. I wish him the best of luck and look forward to seeing where he’ll end up next.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Big Pain One Two Three! Adventures in Massage

It all started with a birthday present.

Katie’s birthday is April 1st, and this year I purchased Katie a gift certificate for a 1-hour back and neck massage, which cost $50 at a nice hotel here in Mwanza. Because it is a bit pricy for our missionary incomes, we’d never been to this spa, but it was her birthday and I wanted her to have a treat.

Well, even fancy hotels in Tanzania, no matter how nice, still manage to skew the best-laid plans. Katie found some time when she wasn’t busy with her work, and called and made an appointment, as per the manager’s instructions. She arrived at the appointed time, only to be told that they had two walk-ins and that she should just wait an hour or two until they were done.

Not cool.

Long story short: Katie couldn’t wait that long, and she got the manager to agree to give her ANOTHER $50 massage for her troubles! So yesterday morning, Katie called and arranged for her to get her massage at 4pm, and that I could get the free massage at 5pm. Pretty sweet!

We arrived at the hotel right on time, and all the appointments were on the books as scheduled. Katie goes first, I work on my laptop for the hour, looking out over the lake and watching kingfishers dive into the water. Lovely.

At 5pm, I am waiting outside the spa entrance and I see Katie come out with a strange look on her face. She says “I feel fine, but I’m glad that's over.”


Now, we’d heard that this masseuse used a lot of pressure when she worked. Our friend Kristle had been there recently and had told us as much. I was prepared for it, but Katie’s face had me worried a little bit. She said it was good but it hurt. Also, the masseuse didn’t really know any English.

Well, I walk in and am greeted by a little Asain lady in REALLY broken English. She is from Thailand and has been in Mwanza a year. She shows me to the bathroom and tells me to change, basically by pointing to the rack of towels and yelling “CHANGE.” No problem. I strip down, leaving my underwear on, wrap a towel around me, and walk out into the room.

The masseuse immediately laughs at me. Not sure why. It’s not cruel, it’s just odd. I smile and ask if I wasn’t supposed to have take my clothes off. She smiles and points to the massage table. I climb up, keeping the towel around me as I lay down on my stomach.

She immediately rips the towel off, and there we are, staring at each other, her smiling, me in my underwear. I just laugh. We laugh together, in fact. Then she puts the towel over me and the massage begins.

The massage is not bad at all. She clearly knows what she is doing. But she gets to my neck and starts saying “NO GOOD. BAD. BIG PAIN. BIG PAIN.”

I would like to point out that I am not making fun of the way Asians speak. But I am trying to convey how bizarre and nonsensical this lady was sounding to me and she was talking with me.

NO GOOD. BIG PAIN.” I assume she has seen that a week ago I got a very bad sunburn on my neck because I am dumb and live by the Equator and forget to use sunscreen. My neck was peeling a bit. She stops massaging me and reaches under the table and brings up a wooden spoon.

THIS GOOD. YES? VIY KG K VGV G KGV” because I honestly couldn’t understand what she was saying.

“Sure. OK.” I say, and she starts rubbing my neck with the spoon. HARD. REPEATEDLY. And it HURT. She is just going to town on my neck. I tell her I need less pressure, that it was hurting too much (especially on the sunburn!). She says “BIG PAIN ONE TWO THREE IT GOOD!!! NO BAD! BIG PAIN ONE TWO THREE!!” And then she starts working down the back. I assume she is just exfoliating the hell out of my skin. She starts on the other side, first with the neck, then down my back again.

She finishes, and says “VERY BAD! VERY BAD. IT’S GOOD! COME COME!” She motions me to a mirror, but as she walks off, she pulls off the towel, so there I am in my underwear, walking across the room. She hands me the towel again, I cover myself up, then she points to my back and says “VERY BAD. BIG PAIN ONE TWO THREE DAY. THEN GOOD.” And this is what I see:

Holy hell! WTF DID SHE DO TO ME?! All I could do was laugh. Kinda maniacally. And she laughed with me! So there I am I’m all blistered and bruised standing in my underwear laughing with a little Thai lady.

I have since learned that this is a technique called Gua Sha, a Chinese traditional method of alleviating pains and illnesses. And no point was this explained to me, nor was it listed as part of the deal. I’m not much into these types of traditional healing methods (I’m skeptical) and I likely would have passed on it had I known. But you can’t unring a bell, so there it is. Gua Sha.

The rest of the massage was quite nice, although she was very rough. Lots of pressure on her part, lots of grinding of teeth and holding of breathe on my part. We made small talk (VERY small talk) and she kept smacking me and telling me to relax, then laughing. Honestly, she laughed the whole time, which COULD have been creepy, but actually kept the mood just light enough to where it was amusing and not so uncomfortable.

And then she laughed at my penis.

OK, this is purely speculation, but I’m pretty sure she laughed at my manhood, like, THREE TIMES. So, the whole massage was surreal, and I had a bit of a smirk on my face the whole time. She kept saying “WHY YOU SMILE? SMILE?” and laughing. She was working on my right arm, when suddenly she pointed to my crotch and said something like “HA HA YOU HAPPY. SMILE!

Let me be clear, there was nothing to laugh at at that moment, and I wasn’t actually “happy” at all. I just smiled and sort of laughed and then she kept going.

Did she just laugh at my penis?” I lay there thinking. “Did she just make a boner comment? Surely she didn’t.

Then a few minutes later, she say “YOU SMILE. YOU HAPPY!” and pointed in the general direction of my crotch again, and then started lifting her arm up, up, up like... well, you know.

At this point, I thought, “Is she propositioning me?” But nothing in her behavior indicated this. I think she just thought I was, I don’t know, giving her a sincere compliment. But I was not. NOTHING DOING DOWN THERE. For real, y’all.

Finally, she finished the massage, I get dressed, she serves me tea, I sign her book, and I’m done. I walked out to find Katie with the same strange look on her face.

“How was it?” she asks.

“Strange...wait until you see my back!” I say.

“Oh, I know. I just didn’t want to scare you off...” And then she showed me hers.

Needless, to say, we both had an unexpected adventure today.

But only one of us had their junk laughed at.

UPDATE: A friend of mine who works as a massage therapist and specializes in more traditional methods told me that this technique shouldn't have hurt like it did. More importantly, she confirmed my suspicions that I was indeed being offered the infamous "happy ending." Hence, the crotch pointing and repetition of "Happy?" Needless to say, no special services were received that day, but regardless of her offer, she could have given me no happier ending than when she stopped dragging that damn spoon across my back.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Customs vs. Contracts

One of the more interesting (and often frustrating) aspects of living in Mwanza, Tanzania, is that we are often firsthand witnesses to the clash of cultures between African norms and Western norms. Mwanza is the second largest city in Tanzania (by population) but in many ways it is still a big village. The vibe of the city isn’t really “urban” at all. The city has grown tremendously over the last few years, so you very often see people interacting in “traditional” ways that are at odds with the more formalized, often Western-influenced, ways of doing things.

Please note that I am not breaking this down into “traditional” vs. “modern” because it isn’t that simple. If there are certain cultural practices happening at this time, regardless of whether they are new or based on traditions hundreds of years old, they’re modern, ie, of the present time. 

The following is an anecdote that happened just this last week that perfectly illustrates this issue of conflicting systems. In Tanzania, in general, when a Westerner rents a house, they are expected to pay an entire year’s rent upfront. This likely doesn’t apply to Tanzanians who rent a single room, but for those who have the means to do it, that is the typical request. Having property is a way of making money quickly, so folks want to get as much as they can to pay off debts and finance projects, weddings, funerals, etc. This is fine, but that means we are expected to pay out a good chunk of cash in one pop. In general, that means paying the equivalent of around $2000 - $2500 for the year (which is cheap compare do the US but still a good chunk of cash for a missionary stipend).

Here in our neighborhood of Mabatini, there are three of us that rent adjacent property from the same landlord. David and Caitlin rent a house, Brother Mark Huntington rents an office space for a local health clinic, and we rent our house right next door. Brother Mark has rented for several years, the Rossers have rented for two, and we just finished a year here. Other than minor issues here and there, there have been no major issues.

And then our landlord died. One month before all of our leases were up for renewal.

In the mix with us Maryknollers that rent the property are the three sons of the deceased landlord. The Rossers live next door to one, we share a duplex with another, and there’s a third that lives somewhere nearby.

When the landlord died, we expressed our condolences, we went to visit the family, we gave a small financial contribution as is expected in this culture, especially since the landlord was a well-known figure in the region (he was a former big-wig in local government).

After a few weeks, the brothers showed up at David and Caitlin’s house with a new lease and asked that he sign it and pay the year’s rent. The lease still had the name of their deceased father on it, so David, as would anyone familiar with contracts, politely told them that he was not signing a new contract with a dead man. He asked them who the new landlord would be. One of the brothers assured him it would be him so it was OK to give him the money. David politely asked when the will would be read and when they could get him new documents to verify the new landlord. They replied “Oh, the will is going to be read in one year.”


Now, to interject a little. I have heard two versions of this cultural practice, and I’m not sure which is correct. The family are not from the Wasukuma people we generally live amongst; they are Wahaya. There are plenty of them around, but they are a minority around here. One version said that it’s customary to wait a year to read the will and divide the property (not sure why, though). The more detailed version is that the length of time needed to read the will is designated by the deceased.

Regardless, we were told there would be no new landlord until early 2015.

We told them that this could be a real problem.

So the brothers then went to Bro. Mark and evidently told him that David was refusing to pay his rent (while still on a lease that was not yet expired). Bro. Mark promptly set them straight and explained that he, too, wasn’t going to sign a lease with a dead man.

The brothers were flummoxed and seemed truly thrown for a loop that we were reluctant to pay.

Next, the firstborn son (a son that has done some sketchy things in the past) showed up with a handwritten document tamped by the local neighborhood leader verifying that it was OK to pay him the cash and that we should pay up promptly. Seeing that we had had issues with this son in particular in the past (minor issues, but shifty nonetheless) we explained that we weren’t willing to pay him based on a hand-written note when someone could show up in a month with ANOTHER hand-written note saying THEY were the rightful owners and that we should pay THEM. We weren’t willing to risk being caught having to pay twice. (If the one brother spent it all and the new landlord demanded money, we’d almost surely be expected to pay again; in matters of money, the “wazungu” will always be expected to come up with more money.) The brothers assured us this would not be the case.

A few weeks later, a new hand-written document arrived declaring someone else the executor of the estate. Exactly as we so wisely anticipated.

So next the executor, the three brothers, and David, Bro. Mark, and myself all met to hash things out. We go around the room explaining our issues and making our demands. We are willing to pay month-to-month. They won’t hear of it. They want a year’s lease. We tell them it is out of the question. Round and round it goes for over two hours.

Now, I want to say a few things about this meeting. Charles, the executor, is a cousin of the deceased, and he was really solid. He truly acted as an arbitrator and didn’t side only with his family. Secondly, I really feel for the brothers who found themselves in these circumstances. Their father evidently had a tremendous amount of assets (ie, property, cattle, etc) spread out across the country. Due to the custom of waiting a year to divide the assets, the assets were basically frozen. They couldn’t sell anything off to pay of debts, nor could they make any real changes to the estate. They basically have to keep things going as they were but without their father’s resources. Two of the three brothers don’t even have steady jobs. So they were honest when they said they wanted us to sign a year lease because they needed to get their hands on as much cash as possible. They were scrambling to find money.

All in all, after consulting with a lawyer, we agreed that the Rossers and Reids would sign six-month leases and Bro. Mark would sign a three-month lease.

We met at a lawyer’s office this week to formally sign the new contracts. When we explained the circumstances to the lawyer, he advised we only sign a month-to-month lease. This of course, set the brothers’ family off again as they said we gave our word (only partially true) and that this wasn’t the way estates were handled in their tribe and that they had a piece of paper signed by the family elders that showed that the executor could sign these documents etc… The family was stunned when the lawyer told them that that piece of paper they had was good, but it wasn’t ENOUGH and that it wouldn’t hold up in court. Anyway, after 3.5 hours (!) we had reached a good compromise and we had signed leases.

Anyway, while it was annoying and stressful for all parties involved, it was a fascinating event to see play out.

My Tanzanian boss sits on the Land Tribunal for the Mwanza region, meaning any disputes over inheritance or tenant issues comes before her court. She says probably 75% of the cases she sees involve a clash between traditional inheritance customs and legal contracts. She says that very often people with legitimate rights to land are thrown off the land or challenged by the family of the deceased (which is generally the family of a husband that has died and whose family now wants to split the estate between his family with no regard to her claims). And my boss says 100% of the time the court sides with the individual with a legal, contractual claim to the land- often to shock of the family making the traditional claim.

When I told my Tanzanian boss the details of the case and that it would take a year, she promptly said “Well, that custom is ridiculous. How can anyone insist on something like that these days. Our country doesn’t work like that anymore.” It’s an interesting conundrum: I assume most of the people making traditional claims are not at all familiar with the legal statutes of the formal system. They are not WRONG to make their claim. But Tanzania does have a legal framework, so WE were not wrong in our hesitancy to sign a contract under these circumstances (and the lawyer backed us up). Clearly more education is needed, even if it is at the expense of certain aspects of more traditional systems.

Not sure of the answers here, but the problems are clear enough.

What are your thoughts? Sociologists / Anthropologists / Lawyers, I’d welcome your thoughts on a case like this.

Saturday, April 26, 2014


Happy anniversary to my lovely wife, Katie! She still makes me jump for joy!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Happy Birthday to My Little Sister!

Reflections On Rwanda

[Trigger warning: there are some horrible things discussed in graphic detail below. If you are inclined to avoid that type of stuff, I suggest you stop reading here.

April 6th, 2014 was the 20th anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide, a 100-day campaign that saw the slaughter of 800,000+ people and was only halted when an invading militia successfully stopped the carnage. As anyone who has studied modern African history knows, or even anyone that has just watched Hotel Rwanda knows, the Rwandan genocide was fast, calculated, and unbelievably violent, the culmination of years of hateful vitriol spewed by the Hutu majority at the Tutsi minority. I’m not going to discuss the genocide in great detail in this post; it’s well-documented, and many people have discussed the events with more eloquence that I can. Ive included several links throughout this post for further reading by those with more expertise on the subject at hand. But I do feel compelled to share some thoughts and relate a few personal stories from my visit to the country.

Katie and I, along with Katie’s dad Garry and stepmother Holly, visited Rwanda in July 2013. Let me say first and foremost: Rwanda is a beautiful, welcoming country. The people are not monsters; they are just people, albeit people with a terrible history. I loved Rwanda, but it is a country of great paradox: astounding beauty intermixed with this tragic legacy. I posted pictures of the gorillas and the landscapes, but I kept mum on anything that dealt with the genocide. I needed to process it more. I just didn’t know what to say. It was a lot to process.

I have personally done a lot of research on the Rwandan genocide. But reading about the genocide pales in comparison to seeing the bones of the victims in front of you. Or to seeing picture after picture of the victims displayed in exhibits, the photos brought to be part of these memorials by the survivors so that their family members would not be forgotten. Or to hear the wails of a woman pierce the walls of the Genocide memorial in Kigali, full of a grief that two decades had yet to heal. It is hard to imagine, as we walked down the city streets of Kigali, greeted by friendly passersby, that less than two decades before the same streets were filled with the bodies of innocents slaughtered simply because of an ethnic rivalry that wasn’t even a salient difference a few decades before that, created and exacerbated by colonial meddling.

To Rwanda’s credit, they do not whitewash their painful history. There are genocide memorials in pretty much every town we visited, and these memorials drive home how wide-spread and far-reaching the genocide was. Katie and I were fortunate enough to visit four memorial sites during the week we were there. We visited the the Kigali Genocide Memorial in the capital city, the most formalized museum to address the event. It is one of the most potent and powerful museums I’ve ever seen. As I said earlier, I'm familiar with the events and the atrocities, but holy hell there were some images in that museum I hadn’t seen before, images and stories that I will never forget it.

In the days leading up to our being joined by Katie’s dad and step-mother, we had some time to sight-see, so we hopped on a bus and headed out to some memorial sites. We cruised about a half hour out of Kigali, then hopped on motorcycles to visit the two church sites where massacres occurred. These two churches are still filled with the items and belongings of those that were massacred. At the Nyamata site, a church where people sought refuge from the killings, it was 10,000 people killed as they huddled inside; at the Ntarama site, another church, 5000 people were killed. At these sites there are rooms displaying skulls and piles of bones, as well as glasses, old clothing, pots, pans, anything that people brought with them assuming they would return home in a few days time. The walls are full of bullet holes, one wall at one site had holes from grenades, and one site had a big black stain on the wall that we were told was made by brains and blood of children. All these things serve as physical reminders what happened. One day these items will wither up and be gone, but for now, they just sit there, unmoved. Photographs were not allowed in the buildings, but you could photograph the outsides.
A few days later, Katie and I and her parents visited a site called Murambi, a site where approximately 40,000 people were murdered as they sought refuge on the compound of a technical school. This site is one the country’s most shocking and powerful memorials: 24 rooms full of mummified bodies, preserved and bleached white by lime. There’s no glass case or velvet rope separating you from the dead; the rooms are just full of tables with the bodies spread out on top of them. You can tell what some of them looked like. Some still have hair. Some are babies. I went in 6 rooms and decided that was enough. At this site, our guide was a man who survived the genocide, though his father, mother, and several younger siblings did not. He calmly recounted his memories- I will not repeat them here- and we just listened in stunned silence. Katie’s stepmom, Holly, finally asked if he ever got angry about hat happened to him. He simply replied that his surviving younger brother now had a master’s degree, that he himself was married with children and was living on the land where his parents were murdered. “The best revenge is success,” he told us. “I’m alive and my life is good. There’s no reason to be angry.” Astounding.

I found myself walking the streets in Kigali and the villages around some of the parks we visited and looking at each person I passed and thinking “They’re old enough to remember. I wonder how many loved ones they lost?” These thoughts continued for several days, until suddenly a switch was flipped in my mind and I realized with a chill that these people smiling at me as I passed might not be survivors, but perpetrators. Maybe they didn’t kill someone themselves (but maybe they did?) but perhaps they aided and abetted the “genocidaires” in the rampage. How do they rationalize what they did? How can they live with themselves? And how can survivors again become neighbors with those that treated them as enemies?

Well, that’s the big question, and one that is providing remarkable stories of forgiveness. As this is the 20th anniversary, there are a number for stories about how both victims and perpetrators come to terms with their shared histories. Here are a few articles that address the process of reconciliation and the enduring trauma from which many survivors still struggle. Obviously, the aftermath of an event a traumatic as this is difficult and takes time and energy to recover, to heal from wounds both physical and mental, to turn neighbors that became enemies back into neighbors. To even attempt this type of social recovery from trauma is impressive. Time will tell if the process can truly heal old wounds. Twenty years or not, these wounds are still fresh and deep. Below are several articles addressing this issue:

Portraits of Reconciliation, by Susan Dominus, New York Times Magazine, April 2014

How Rwandans Cope With The Horror of 1994, by Lauren Wolfe, The Atlantic, April 2014

Unreconciled Rwanda, by Katie Magiro, for Slate.com, April 2014

Regardless of what the future holds, the turnaround of Rwanda is an amazing story. When the genocide ended twenty years ago, around one million were dead, and several millions had fled to neighboring countries such as Zaire and Tanzania, meaning almost half the country’s population was either dead or in exile as refugees. The government was non-existent and had to be rebuilt from the ground up. Today, Rwanda has had steady growth in its GDP, Kigali is a safe city with excellent infrastructure, and many people will tell you that the past is behind them and that the future is promising. It’s an amazing reversal of fortune. And a lot of that has to do with the leadership of Paul Kagame, the current president. But that leadership is a complicated story.

Kagame has been described as a “benevolent dictator.” Make no mistake: Kagame has a tight grip on his country. And while his accomplishments are impressive, making him one of the West’s most favored African leaders, he is not without his critics who make some pretty serious charges against him ("benevolent" is not a word they would use). Below are two articles that critique his time as President as well as delve into his involvement in other regional conflicts. He’s a complex figure, and these articles are worth a read.

The Global Elite’s Favorite Strongman, by Jeffrey Gettleman, New York Times Magazine, September 2013

The Case Against Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, by Howard W. French, Newsweek, January 2013

A few final thoughts: One of the major criticisms that is (rightfully) lobbed at the major players on the world’s stage is that the United Nations (and especially the West) did not intervene when there was clear evidence of what was to come. Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire, the commander of the UN Peacekeepers on the ground in Rwanda in the momths prior to and during the genocide, repeatedly attempted to spur the UN and other nations into action because he had reliable information about a planned extermination; the United Nations took no real action based on the information Dallaire provided. (Again, the genocide was a long, calculated undertaking, starting years before the actual killing began with the training of the interahamwe, which were essentially murder militias).

Hindsight is 20/20 and numerous world leaders (from President Clinton to Kofi Annan at the UN) have stated their remorse at their lack of action. (And let’s not talk about France’s complicated role in the events; Rwanda  has a very bad relationship with France, as France armed and trained the Hutu military prior to the start of the killings). But I’m not really sure that major international intervention would have stopped the killings. It definitely could have saved hundreds or thousands of lives- of that I am sure- but I cannot imagine that simply putting peacekeepers on the ground would have erased the level of hatred that had been bred in the country. An intervention years before could have made a difference, but by the time outsiders realized what was happening, the damage was done. When I was visiting the genocide museum in Kigali, I was struck by just how deeply the “rot” had penetrated the entire culture of Rwanda by the early 90’s. It makes me wonder if there was any way to truly reverse the course that the country set for itself without the explosion of violence that happened, or if the only way the country could purge itself of its illness was to tear itself apart and then take a hard look at itself in the mirror and recognize the horror it sees in its reflection.

Luckily, with these genocide memorials in every town across the country, for better or not, there’s quite a lot of mirrors into which people- both victims and perpetrators, as well as the rest of us- can gaze.  

Monday, April 07, 2014