Monday, July 28, 2008

Starting to reflect...

Sunday, July 27th

I can’t believe that I’ll be home in 10 days. This summer has absolutely flown by. Now don’t get me wrong… I can’t wait to see my family and friends and I’ve just about had it with eastern toilets. Every now and then I crave something like sushi or a quesadilla. There’s a long list of things I’m looking forward to doing when I get home. But regardless, it’s going to be very hard to leave this place.

Every day has been different and there have been more adventures and surprises than I can count, but somehow it has started to feel like home. The waiter at Changbay Restaurant knows that I like my barbequed bananas extra crispy; the guy who sells oranges from his wheelbarrow outside KASI knows that I don’t like the ones with lots of seeds; instead of calling me “mzungu” which means “white person” people who recognize me on the street call me “dada” which means “sister.” I know that five bananas should cost 200 shillings (10 cents) and that there are at least five different varieties of green bananas that the women here cook with.

I’m going to miss the women walking through town in beautiful, bright clothing. I’ll miss the huge baskets full of fruits and vegetables that they carry on their heads with such ease and grace. I might even miss the group of guys that blatantly check me out while I’m going for my morning walk. Okay, so I probably won’t miss those guys. But I will definitely miss the children who call out “good morning madam” even when it’s not really morning, and the little babies who always seem fascinated with my hair.

People here are just genuinely friendly. I’m sure I’ve written about it before, but I love that I can’t walk more than 10 or 20 yards without somebody striking up a conversation with me. And although the lack of space on the daladala can be a little intimidating at times, it’s an experience you never forget.

So if I pass you in the hallway at school, I just might give you a jambo. And if I get on a bus that is mostly empty, I might sit down right next to you and strike up a conversation. Imagine how different the hallways at MIT would be if people all said hello each other as they passed, instead of keeping their ears stuffed with iPod headphones and their eyes turned to the ground. What if the people on the subway chatted with each other instead of trying to keep as far apart as possible?

10 days is still 10 days. And I’m certainly going to make the most of them. I have lots of loose ends to tie up with each of the new small-business owners, and I want to leave a solid framework for the GlobalGiving project with KASI before I go. And on top of that Daniel and I have about three small projects going on at MobilityCare that all need to be finished. It might be a bit of a scramble, but at least I’ll be busy!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

A day with Richard

Wednesday, July 23rd

By the time I got back to Moshi last night I was so tired that I just crashed. For the past two weeks I’ve been waking up before work to go walking which is great, but this morning I was just way too tired. There wasn’t a lot of food in my apartment because I had been gone for the past few days, so I packed up all my stuff and went out for breakfast. It was kind of chilly so I decided to follow everybody else and have chicken soup. It was pretty much like chicken soup that you would get at home, except there are no noodles or anything, and instead of little pieces of chicken you get one big piece that is still on the bone. So it takes a little more work to actually eat, but it’s quite tasty.

Then I met up with Richard, one of the new small-business owners, and we headed over to Exim Bank to open his account. He was really excited and the people at the bank were very helpful with everything which was great. He made his first deposit of 10,000 T. Shillings and his ATM card will be ready in two weeks! Walking/rolling back from the bank he informed me (through my translator) that having a bank account is a really good idea because if he keeps all his money in his house it will be too easy to spend it without thinking about it. I couldn’t agree more!

Last week I spent a day with Peter, getting to know his business and daily life better. It was really eye-opening, so I took the rest of the afternoon to hang with Richard and get an insider perspective on his business. We drove to his house which is about 12 km down a crazy road. He said during the rainy season some parts of the road are impassable. Luckily we made it through safely, and his wife was happy to greet us when we arrived. In the three weeks since Richard received his small-business wheelchair and start-up loan, he built a huge chicken coop and stocked it with 40 chickens! His original business was shining and repairing shoes, and although he is still doing that, he thought the chickens would be easy to take care of and would help him to earn more money for his family. If you remember how rapidly Peter’s business expanded, this seems to be a general trend.

Me and Richard infront of his chicken coop

Richard’s property is really bustling because along with his 40 chickens, he also owns pigs (which he had before the start of this project). He has about 6 little pigs that are in one pen, and then he has about 10 giant pigs each in their own pens. And when I say giant I really mean it. These pigs are huge! There are about 5 feet long now (no joke) and he said he will sell them when they get to be 6 feet long. Based on current market prices he expects to fetch about 3,000 shillings per kilo, and the big pigs will be about 180 kilos when he sells them. Next time I meet with Richard we’re going to do some calculations to see how much money he should be making, but it seems like it will be a lot!

Of course I wasn’t allowed to leave his house without eating something. His wife cooked up a big pot of rice and chicken with a special sauce. I had to work hard to chew the chicken, and it was a little awkward eating it when I knew the chicken coop was right outside, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. Inside his house Richard had a bunch of posters of people playing wheelchair tennis. Apparently some guy had visited a few years ago and taught a group of them how to play, but at the end of his visit he took the special sports wheelchairs that he had brought back with him. Maybe one of the projects in this wheelchair design class should be to design a simple, cheap sports wheelchair that can be manufactured locally. Hmm…
Tuesday, July 22nd

I woke up this morning and it was raining. Raining. During the dry season! The weather has been so strange this summer. Last summer it seriously did not rain a drop the entire time I was there. But this summer it has been raining quite a bit, especially around dinner time and in the morning when I wake up (how convenient). The rain wouldn’t have been so bad, but it’s been so cold in Arusha. Last night I wore two sweatshirts to dinner and I was just comfortable. I know the cold doesn’t even begin to compare to Boston, but I guess I just expect it to be warm.

Despite the rain (and the cold) we got back to work on the backpack. Yesterday we bent the tubes and sewed the main section, which basically completes the “table” portion of the design. And today we came up with a cool design for the side pockets, and a special compartment to store a stiff piece of wood that will make the table more sturdy. We went to MobilityCare’s special tailor in town who was really quite amazing. She seemed skeptical when I explained that after sewing all these small pieces together the final product would be a backpack, but she was happy to give it a try. And I think it turned out pretty well! It’s not quite finished yet but we made pretty impressive progress in the short time that we had. We still have to attach the backpack straps and add some zippers or Velcro to close the pockets. And there are a few structural changes that I want to make, but it’s so close.

Yesterday I learned how to use the bender. Today I learned how to weld. For some reason everybody seemed to think that I already knew how to weld. So when I asked if I could weld something they just handed me the welding gun and said have fun! After a short lesson I was ready to go. It was so fun! I was absolutely terrified that I was going to light my hands on fire, but what a thrill! I definitely need a lot more practice, but I think I’ll get the hang of it eventually.
Monday, July 21st

It felt good to be back at MobilityCare today. I met up with Daniel early in the morning to catch the daladala. I don’t know what criteria he uses to choose the best bus but at least four or five passed by before he was happy. The two passengers in the front seat got out and Daniel hopped in. I was about to hop in next to him but I guess I was too slow because somebody else slid in before me! So I went behind into the main section of the daladala and found the only remaining seat, which was really just a sliver of space in the last row. I didn’t really mind being squished in the back and the other passengers were very chatty which kept me entertained. The only problem was that I was so packed in there that I couldn’t see out any of the windows. I’ve taken the daladala to MobilityCare so many times that I know where the stop is, but not being able to see made it a little difficult.

I love that workshop. It’s absolutely beautiful and the people that work there are just so genuine and kind. We spent some time catching up (the typical lengthy Tanzanian greetings) and then got right to work. One of the teams from this year’s Wheelchair Design class created this table that can be turned into a backpack. They thought it would be useful for a small business, but it seems perfect for a student who needs to carry around books and pencils, but also needs a flat desk for writing. Seems like the students at UDSM would be the perfect candidates to test this out when it’s finished.

One of the team members sent some photographs of their prototype (thank you April!) and Daniel and I were busy trying to reverse engineer it all together. The prototype small business wheelchair I made last summer was still in the workshop so I hacked a few pieces off that were no longer necessary and we used it as our base for sizing the backpack-table.

Daniel taught me how to use the bender (which he made himself) to bend the tubes that will support the table. He made it look easy with his giant biceps but it was a little bit harder for me!

Back to Arusha

Saturday and Sunday, July 19th and 20th

I was excited to head back to Arusha this weekend. Between my trip to Dar/Zanzibar and the laundry list of things that I’m trying to finish up in Moshi, it had been a while since I had been there (which everybody happily reminded me). On Saturday I went out to dinner at the G&T Hotel with Jodie, Daniel, and Joseph. The boys exchanged stories in Swahili while Jodie and I chatted about almost everything else, in English of course. We’ve gone to this restaurant quite a few times now because the guys are obsessed with their pork, and their chicken is really good too. Usually it takes at least an hour for the food to be prepared—I know, good food takes time. But I guess the combination of the good conversation and the steaming pot of fresh tea made the time fly by. I’m definitely going to miss these Tanzanian meals. Back at MIT I rarely spend more than 15 minutes eating lunch, and then I’m probably racing off to class or a meeting or a study session. I forgot how nice it is to sit down and simply enjoy a meal with good company.

On Sunday I met up with Jodie again to do some souvenir shopping. We went to this crazy craft market which is just stall after stall of people selling wood carvings, paintings, earrings, and everything under the sun made from beads. It’s absolutely crazy and you have to be prepared for some serious bargaining. And although I’m not the best bargainer, I did make a few good purchases. I’d tell you what I bought but most of them are gifts and I don’t want to ruin any surprises.

In the afternoon I went over to Daniel’s house because I had a little gift for his son (little Joseph) who is about 2 and a half. People are always selling these crazy DVDs in town that have like 80 different movies on a single disc. I have a few of them so I’ll try to bring them home, but I heard sometimes customs confiscates them. In any case, I found this awesome DVD with The Lion King, Madagascar, Over the Hedge, Ice Age, Robots, and a dozen other great cartoons. The Lion King even has some Swahili in it (the main character’s name “simba” simply means lion). Little Joseph was really excited, although I think he may have been more interested in the DVD case than what was actually inside.

Daniel and I started chatting about my project and the new MIT Mobility Lab and the future donation network that some of my classmates are currently working on. And before I knew it almost 3 hours had passed. Seriously. Daniel is extremely knowledgeable about everything I’m working on and it was great to get his perspective on everything.

Friday, July 18, 2008

A business of small businesses

Tuesday, July 15th

I spent most of the day (and even part of the night) with Peter, a KASI member and one of the wheelchair users who is trialing the small-business wheelchair. Remember “Peter’s Mobile Workshop?” Well let me tell you, mobile is an understatement! This guy is all over the place. His original business was repairing umbrellas, radios, and other small electronics. And while he is still doing that, he has rapidly expanded his business to include several other small endeavors. He built a small chicken coop next to his house and now has 10 chickens, with plans to sell the eggs and the chickens themselves after they reproduce. He lives pretty far from town (about 15 km) but he frequently pushes himself to and from town for meetings and appointments, and now to pick up things for his business! Along with the chickens, he is also selling small vegetables and as of today, kerosene. He realized that instead of putting all his eggs in one basket, he could have several tiny businesses that would all add up to one small business. Okay that didn’t make much sense but I think you get what I mean. In any case, I could not be more impressed with how well he is doing. He’s really taking advantage of every opportunity he finds, and I’m expecting lots of good things from him in the upcoming months.

Even though it was already quite dark, Peter insisted on making me some tea before I left.

I really wish I knew more Swahili. I’m going to make it a point to learn more before I come back to Tanzania next. MIT doesn’t offer it, but we have cross-registration with Harvard, and I’m determined to fit it into my schedule. Not that my Swahili is terrible. I’ve got the greetings down pat, and I can actually understand a lot more than I can speak. But I want to be able to chat with the ladies at the market; I want to learn more about whoever I’m sitting next to on the daladala; I want to tell Peter what a rockstar he is without a translator. I’ve still got about 3 weeks here so I’m going to make the most of it and practice as much as I can.

Visa or Mastercard?

Monday, July 14th

Four out of the five wheelchair users that are participating in my trial of the small-business wheelchair do not have their own bank accounts. They probably never needed them. But now that they are getting their businesses going and are starting to earn money back on the loans that I provided them, we came to a unanimous decision that they all needed to have their own bank accounts.

There are a number of banks in town, and although I have used the ATM services at many, I needed more information than that to figure out which one would be most suitable for our purposes. I talked to Abdullah and some other guys at KASI to find out their favorites, and then set out into town to visit each one. My first stop was Exim Bank which was almost too good to be true. The staff was friendly and knowledgeable, and the office was calm and not too crowded (something I wouldn’t find anywhere else). The minimum deposit is only 10,00 Tanzanian Shillings (about $8) and the monthly charges and ATM service charges are both very low. And as an added bonus, there are no steps to get into the office or outside ATM making it super wheelchair accessible. Even though I basically fell in love with Exim, I thought it was only fair to check out the other banks in town.

NBC (the National Bank of Commerce) was overwhelmingly crowded. To start an account you have to get a form signed by the equivalent of the local mayor and deposit 50,000 TSh (about $40). Despite all this, I give them major props for having a wheelchair ramp.

CRDB was my next stop and it was even more crowded than NBC. The staff were nice but you had to push your way through a crowd to get their attention. Bonus here was the TemboCard (tembo means elephant in Swahili) which is their ATM card with an adorable picture of an elephant on it!

Last, I checked out NMB (National Bank of Microfinance) which is actually across the street from where I’m staying, but I struck it off my list pretty quickly. You have to climb up 6 or 7 really steep stairs to get into both the office and the outside ATMs, and line for the ATM has at least 30 people in it at all times of day. Seriously. It seemed like a nice place but it’s simply not accessible, so it has to go.

We have to do some paperwork and get a whole bunch of passport size photos to open each of the new accounts, but hopefully by next week it should all be settled.