iSTEP Tanzania

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So, this week I’ve been working on scheduling a bunch of different visits to observe the work our community partners do on a typical day, and several meetings to demo initial prototypes of the technology to them. Observations were very helpful to us in understanding the extent of the problems they face day-to-day. Interviews help us gain some insight, but seeing things first hand gave us a better perspective. Also, the two demos we’ve given so far went very well and our partners seem excited about the work.

Anyway, back to the subject of this blog entry…

So, while attempting to schedule one of these visits, I encountered a pretty interesting cultural miscommunication. One of the teachers whose class we wanted to sit in on sent me a text message (SMS) saying her class was at 2:40. Of course, I took this to mean 2:40pm. Since this was only one of many visits I was scheduling, it did not occur to me until the day of our visit that that time could not be correct since schools are only in session until 2:00pm everyday. By the time I realized this it was already 8:30am or so, and shortly after my realization the teacher called me to ask if I was going to be there that day. When I asked her to clarify the time she said “Oh, I am in the class right now!” Turns out that when she said 2:40, she meant class was at 8:40am – i.e. six hours past the time she told me. This was really puzzling to me, but apparently there is a separate “Swahili” time and “English” time. While I and most of the world functions on “English” time, in some Swahili speaking nations they consider 1:00am to be one hour after the sun rises, which would correspond to what most people consider 7:00am, and 1:00pm to be one hour after the sun sets, which would correspond to what most people consider 7:00pm ( So, the time they provide you might be six hours off, as was the case with the teacher I communicated with. Now that I know this, I try to clarify whether they mean “Swahili time” or “English time” time when I try to schedule meetings so that I won’t be six hours late or early!


Saba Saba

Posted on: July 8, 2009

Yesterday we checked out the International Trade Fair in downtown Dar. It is an annual event held in Tanzania every July 7th – known as “Saba Saba”, which translates to “seven-seven”, referring to the date. Read about it here:

At the fair there are different booths for various groups, organizations, companies and businesses. There is also an animal exhibit, which was my favorite. I’m including some pictures of the animals here.

Lion Sleeps...

The lion sleeps… This was the first time we saw a simba (lion) in Tanzania – very exciting!

These are the biggest tortoises I’ve ever seen! This guy got a ride from one of them – looks like fun :-D

These are the biggest tortoises I’ve ever seen! This guy got a ride from one of them – looks like fun 😀

This was Hatem’s big moment – holding a python!

This was Hatem’s big moment – holding a python!

So, during my time here, I’ve met with many different people and interviewed a variety of folks in the community with Timi. Meetings are necessary to get things moving, but they’re also pretty draining and sometimes amusing. Since it’s past 2 a.m., I thought I’d just highlight some of my more memorable interactions in this blog entry.

  • During a meeting with one city official, she let out a loud and long burp and then continued talking without even flinching. It was hilarious. Business as usual…
  • Another government employee proceeded to pick his nose while I spoke to him – gross! Needless to say, I had a hard time focusing on what I was saying.
  • One of our interviewees went off on a tangent to talk about how he “saw the light” and now has healing powers. Must be nice.
  • Another interviewee just stopped talking mid-sentence and proceeded to fiddle with his cell phone. I guess we really bored him.
  • During one of our translator assisted interviews, the interviewee talked for about 2 minutes when asked a relatively simple question. Our translator relayed what she said to us in 5 seconds. Talk about information “lost in translation”!

On a more serious note, the process of meeting with people and talking with them has really taught me a lot as far as how best to communicate with people when faced with cultural and language differences. Some useful insights I’ve picked up along the way include:

  • Speaking slowly and clearly is more important and difficult than you think. I have to consciously slow down.
  • Maintaining eye contact really helps you to keep your listener’s attention and appear sincere. Also, you will be able to quickly notice when the person you’re talking to has no idea what you’re saying or has stopped paying attention to you.
  • Some people love to talk about themselves. While it’s important to listen to what they have to say, it’s also necessary to make the most of your time with them. Redirecting interviewees back to the point (in a polite way, of course) is a must.
  • Never forget to thank people for their time.
  • When dealing with bureaucrats it’s usually best to humor their requests. You need to pick your battles carefully, because arguing with them can lead to even further delays.
  • Don’t overestimate your communication skills. Even if you are a great orator, when talking to people who aren’t native speakers of your language, your prior skills don’t really mean that much because they’re probably not going to appreciate your extensive vocabulary or eloquence. Keep it simple.

Red Colobus Monkey

This is the red Colobus monkey, unique to Zanzibar. They are awesome to watch jumping from tree to tree and aren’t afraid to be near people.

The "Pizza"

This is a picture of delicious “street food” in Zanzibar. They call this dish “Pizza” It’s thin dough filled with tomato, onion, ground beef, peppers, egg, a little mayo and sometimes a little cheese; wrapped up and pan fried. It was amazing!

I am going to try to describe my travels to the city center or town of Dar es Salaam. The hostel we stay at is away from the city center, but I spent a lot of time going to town and back this week and part of last week to deal with paperwork issues – not fun! Turns out, bureaucracy is a headache no matter where you are.

Dar es Salaam, Tanzania seems oddly familiar to me because I think it resembles Colombo, Sri Lanka (where I am from) in many ways. The heat, traffic, masses of pedestrians, crazy driving (breaking the rules is the norm) and packed buses – all very characteristic of both cities. I’ve been spoiled though – I didn’t take the bus very often in Sri Lanka. So, taking the dala dalas (buses) here has taken some, um, getting used to. Besides, after living in the U.S. for the past 8 or 9 years and being on huge buses in comparison, squeezing into the dala dala van-buses is quite a change. I should add that even Sri Lankan buses seem big compared to most dala dalas here.

I had my first “swooped into the bus by the crowd” moment on Monday. I think at one point I was stuck under an arm-pit. That was most certainly unpleasant. But I made it onto the bus with little effort of my own – the crowd pouring into the bus pretty much pushes you in – it was definitely a “wtf” moment. Heh… While on that bus, I also had the pleasure of having some dude’s rear on my shoulder – “at least it was a nice one”, as one of my team members pointed out – ha! Personal space is a luxury here… Yesterday I jumped onto a moving bus, which was kind of dangerous but also a little exhilarating – sometimes dala dalas don’t come to a complete stop, although they do slow down quite a bit. Some dudes get on the bus while it’s moving kind of fast – pretty skillful. I like the fact that bus fare is the same no matter where you go – 250 Tanzanian shillings per trip. I am not sure how they decided on that amount, but it is very convenient for travelers. All in all, traveling by bus here is usually an adventure – especially if you want to go into town (the city center).

The town itself is pretty chaotic, but it seemed to me that everyone except me knew where they were going, which was probably true. Pedestrians clearly take second place to vehicles. Driving here must be a nightmare though. If you obey road rules, you’ll probably get hit! I think it’s pretty amazing that I have not seen a single accident here – not that I want to, but it just seems so probable the way people drive here. Even sidewalks aren’t entirely safe, because there will be bicycles with cargo racing through them and occasional vehicles driving up onto them to park. Of course, pedestrian crossings don’t mean a thing – vehicles always have the right of way by virtue of them being much bigger and moving a lot faster! Still, it is obvious that people who drive here are very accurate because I would have seen many accidents if it were otherwise. The city just moves to its own beat and has some kind of code that people seem to know in terms of how to survive the stress, frustration and danger associated with traveling here. I think it will take me the whole time I am here and then some to crack that code! Although, I must say I am now a little less shocked when I all of a sudden notice there is a vehicle behind me about an arms-length away… Good times!

The city is sadly pretty dirty with lots of vehicle fumes, dust from the sandy roadsides and the massive amounts of litter strewn across the sides of the roads, under bridges and around (not in) trash cans. People just throw stuff out of vehicles or while walking. It doesn’t help that there aren’t too many trash cans around, but I also wonder if that would help very much.

One of the most impressive aspects of the city is its street vendors. I’ve seen my share of street vendors, but these guys are something else. They don’t just do business with stopped vehicles they actually sell to people on moving buses and other vehicles that have begun to drive away. All in all, I’d say they have about 10 seconds before the vehicle speeds off, but in that time they manage to take the order, collect the money, count change and pass both the product and change back to their customer – oh, and they also need to make sure another vehicle doesn’t hit them! To them this feat is business as usual…

So far what has impressed me the most, however, is the fact that while I’m looking exhausted and frustrated by the journey to town and back, people here appear to be pretty unfazed in spite of the madness around them. To them I guess it’s just another day on the road.


~Bea (

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