Sunday, January 29, 2012

Frenzy and Purpose

"There is no one person who organizes such things in an acephalous society, no one person with the power and authority to impose his will. Matters of major public concern are allowed to drift until action is forced upon all by press of circumstance or until the moment for action is past so that nothing is ever done. It is comforting that this works so well, a proof that much of the frenzy and purpose of the world is otiose."  
From Ceremony: An Anthropologist's Misadventures in the African Bush, by Nigel Barley.
acephalous: "lacking a head or a clearly defined head"
otiose: "serving no useful purpose"

The author was waiting for a certain ceremony to occur that he was keen to observe and which was held only every few years.

Coming from a society that is tightly organized and highly focused on producing results, being efficient, and defining lines of decision-making, I had a good chuckle as I was reminded that the life and the continuity of a people can be sustained in a loose, distributed way that does not require the hierarchies and control that we may presume as "normal".

The author is saying that much does not get done but that it doesn't matter since life manages to go on anyway.

Here in southern Tanzania there is maybe a similar tendency to let things slide. But that tendency is butting up against the desire for the material goodies and comforts of the developed world. I don't know that Tanzanians understand that you cannot have it both ways, not really, not on a national scale.

On the other hand, in the U.S. we value busyness as an end in itself. We often confuse it with being productive, thinking that activity implies effectiveness. Sometimes the activity is nothing but distraction, restlessness, and avoidance of boredom.

Myself, I don't pretend that playing Spider Solitaire on a PC is anything other than goofing off. -Earl

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Zap 'em!

I love this gadget. It's a hand-held electrical bug zapper that we use all the time to kill mosquitoes. I have gotten pretty good at swatting them with just bare hands, but this device makes it much easier, and it's more effective.

As someone who readily attracts mosquitoes — I seem to be the hot spot on their sensors for warm-blooded animals — and gets really large itchy welts from the bites, I don't hesitate to kill these little buggers. Some time in my late teens I stopped getting pleasure from killing animals, from the sport of it. But I have to admit to an enjoyment of the sound and the smell of fried mosquito.

The one drawback to the model of zapper that is available here is that the rechargeable batteries inside them are of mediocre quality. The first zapper we got only lasted six months before the batteries stopped holding a charge. The second we stretched out to a year by only recharging when the batteries were completely depleted. The third had a slightly different and poorly designed on/off switch which broke almost immediately. What you see is the fourth, still working. But then what can you expect from something that only costs about five dollars? -Earl

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Are We There Yet?

Diane and I have had really good luck with our travels in Tanzania. There have been delays, changes in vehicles, and, African time being what it is, an open-ended sense of when one will actually arrive. But there have been no major problems. That is, until recently when we took a bus from the city of Dar es Salaam to the historic Kilwa area.

As recommended, we got to the bus terminal on the outskirts of Dar very early to buy tickets for that day's run. However, the bus with the suggested company was already full. No problem — there were buses with other companies that also left from the same terminal.

Around seven we got moving. The main highway south out of the city is paved for about the first three hours. After that there is a lengthy stretch of maybe twenty miles that is dirt. We had already traversed this three days earlier on our way going into Dar. There had been mud and shallow flooding but nothing that our bus could not get through with careful driving. It had been just the usual ten hours of tedium. I figured we would get to Kilwa around three in the afternoon.

This day turned out differently. It started to rain steadily, not really  heavily but enough to accumulate. Somewhere into the dirt stretch the bus stuck in a low spot. The driver was able to back up, then go forward again. A bit later this happened again — back up, then use enough momentum to get through the sticky spot. Third time, stuck again. But he couldn't get out. We had to wait for a large enough truck to come along who was willing to help with a pull. Someone did stop. We got going again.

Then a ways down the road traffic was completely stopped in both directions. There was only space for a single "lane" — and it was blocked by a good-sized truck whose left rear wheel was in a very deep hole indeed. Hmm, would they be able to get it out today? Would Diane and I be spending the night here? I got off to pee in the bush, buy a bottle of orange-colored sugar water, watch the rain, and consider the possibility of being eaten alive by mosquitoes while trying to sleep without a net. To my pleasant surprise traffic started up again after fifteen or twenty minutes.

We slowly made our way. Then, a flooded dip. The rear wheels, which were the drive wheels, spun uselessly when they hit bottom. The driver turned off the engine. I got out to take a look. I realized that our vehicle was a low-riding intracity-type bus with little clearance off the ground. The engine compartment, at the rear, was partly under water. I thought about the bus that had been full in the morning which we had not been able to get tickets for. It was probably full-sized, like a Greyhound bus, and would have gotten through. Sigh.

Two or three very large trucks were successively flagged down to pull us out. A steel cable did not work. A steel chain kept slipping off. None of the trucks got enough traction to even budge the bus. The last trucker to stop to help gave up and decided to continue on. As he pulled alongside the bus to pass, the truck got totally stuck. And it looked a lot bigger and heavier than the bus. Now both lanes of the road were blocked. Nobody could get through. Oh crap.

Well, after some waiting (I don't know how long, I had stopped looking at my watch) a Caterpillar tractor showed up, the kind with tires as tall as a man. It effortlessly dislodged the truck and dragged it forward. Then it did the same for our bus. That's almost the end of the highway of mud story except we got similarly stuck one more time and had to wait for the tractor to rescue us again.

Around nine o'clock that night we finally arrived at Kilwa, checked into our hotel, and had a nice dinner of fish fillet and french fries.

N.B. This was just a normal day in Tanzania. Nothing out of the ordinary. -Earl