Tanzanian infrastructure…a long way to go!

On my way to Tanzania a little over a month ago, I stopped for three days in Zurich. I was so impressed with the public transportation (smooth and silent trolleys and frequent trains) and the restaurants (tasty food served and paid for in new ways not yet found in the US), I concluded that if Europe is the “first world” and Africa is the “third world,” the US must be the “second world” – as much as we’d like to think otherwise.

Then, once I arrived in Tanzania, I was immediately struck by the incredibly poor state of the infrastructure. I have traveled a lot before but I haven’t ever lived and worked in a less developed country over a period of time so it hadn’t REALLY sunk in until now. For those of you who may think things have progressed further than they actually have, let me enumerate what it’s like to deal with poor infrastructure on a daily basis.

The one and only exception that I’ve been able to find is the cell phone network which is fairly good and is priced using prepaid vouchers such that cell phones are widespread, although most people send texts instead of calling in order to save money.

Ruts and Roads
Most roads are truly awful with few exceptions (one is the road from here to Iringa which was donated by the Danish government, apparently). Driving from Dar es Salaam to Morogoro, where I live, is 180 kilometers or 110 miles. Because of the roads and the slowness of the trucks, it is a 4-hour trip or longer, and not a pleasant one.

A typical Tanzanian road.

Almost every home, school, or business is along a bad dirt road so it’s necessary, on a daily basis, to navigate rutted, difficult dirt tracks. Bumping around, head banging on the window or the roof, is a normal occurrence and is fondly and euphemistically referred to as an “African massage.”  And to think I used to like massages.

The Tank Ran Dry

I just came back from a 5-day trip to a conference. On the way there, what was to be a 7-hour bus trip became a 16-hour fiasco as we searched unsuccessfully for diesel fuel.  Our charter bus ran out of fuel, stranding us by the side of the road in the middle of the night for over two hours, and meaning we had to look for accommodation at 1am since we couldn’t make it to our destination as planned.

The reason for the fuel shortage is complex and includes ships docking at Dar for the purpose of unloading goods and fuel for trucks headed to surrounding countries like Congo or Rwanda but not for TZ. In addition, the TZ government is trying to keep the price of fuel down so gas stations are refusing to sell for the price that the government is fixing. It’s the free market against government regulation and the result is gridlock. While not nice for travelers, I also know that the US “free market at all costs” approach has led to fuel companies raking in the profits at the expense of consumers so there’s never an easy answer.

There is a huge range of housing here. At the low end are huts with sticks and mud as the primary materials. This is much of what we saw on our bus trip West.

House viewed on bus trip from Morogoro to Njombe.

A cut above this are houses made of bricks and these vary in their quality, color, and how good the mortar or mud is at holding them together. Roofs can be thatch or corrugated metal. The better homes are made of concrete or a higher quality brick and can sport conveniences such as glass windows, appliances, and perimeter walls for security. There’s a big range but the fact is that even if someone has a nicer house, they are still subject to the rest of the infrastructure woes such as water, roads, and power.

Electricity Anyone?
Here at Sega where I live on the school grounds, electricity is usually not a problem because we are on a fairly substantial solar system. However, some days if there is little or no sun (like today), some portions of the school go dark for lack of energy. The main town of Morogoro, however, is on the national electrical grid so they are not as lucky since it can and does go down at any time.

40 years ago, there was plenty of electricity for the then 10 million or so Tanzanians. Most of the electricity came and still comes from two hydroelectric plants. However, in the past several decades, the population has exploded, now approaching 50 million, and the government has neglected to prioritize power, choosing to build bank buildings instead of dredging the silt that is reducing the output of the all-important hydroelectric plants. The result is frequent outages.

Water Water Nowhere
There ain’t much!  Many people in their homes and those staying in all but the best hotels, use a bucket of often brackish water to brush their teeth, bathe, and other necessities.

Water jugs lined up to get water from local well near dirt road that turns into Sega School.

Many folks walk to a watering hole or well with a plastic container, fill it up, and walk or cycle home with it. Of course, if we behaved this way in California, we wouldn’t have a “water shortage!”  On the other hand, it’s hard to get used to there being so many taps but nothing coming out of them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to wash my hands or shower off only to find a dry tap.  And even if there is water, it’s almost never heated which is the least of my worries at this point.

The fire that heated the water for my first African shower. Heaven!

On Thursday evening, my one-month anniversary here in TZ, I stayed at an upscale farm guest-house near Iringa and had my first shower of any type since my arrival. A wood fire heated the water and boy did it feel fantastic. Both heating water and cooking is done largely through the burning of wood so deforestation and climate change continue unabated.

Also, I have no idea how people can keep talking about agriculture as the basis of the economy when there is so little water. I suppose it’s possible that smart scientists will come up with crops that can grow with only dirt and air but, if not, it seems like a fairly desperate situation.

Burn Baby Burn!
Since there is no garbage collection in Morogoro, or in most of the country as far as I can tell, trash is burned.  Folks just take their garbage outside and set it on fire.  Since some of it is plastic and who knows what else, I’m not thrilled about breathing in the fumes but I don’t have much choice.  Here at Sega, we do compost but that still leaves plenty of trash for burning.

What Exactly Is a “Dongle” and Why Do I Have One?
I saw an article a month or two ago about the Chinese laying fiber optic cabling in Tanzania to bring internet to the masses. While this is apparently happening, it hasn’t reached us. Sega is 10km from the center of Morogoro and there is no internet out here. We use “dongles” (an unfortunate name, don’t you think?) that plug into the USB port of a laptop and convert the cell signal into an internet connection. Some days, I reconnect to the internet 15 or 20 times as the connection always deteriorates and so I have to disconnect and reconnect. Sometimes it’s not available at all.

My Macbook with dongle attached.

It’s very frustrating and slows down productivity for anyone relying on the worldwide web (remember that term?). And it doesn’t help with technology adoption either, that and the fact the most people don’t have a computer, of course. It also means Skype hasn’t turned out to be much help to me as the connection is rarely good enough to make a decent call possible.  So much for staying in contact easily.

A Cash Economy
Tanzania has a large tourism business but nobody takes credit cards! It’s necessary to pay for everything in cash, either Tanzanian shillings if you are in a place like Morogoro, or US dollars if you are in a touristy area like Zanzibar. This is rather inconvenient and, given that property crimes are common, it also poses safety issues as one is forced to carry cash around. Honestly, I don’t see how this can still be the case in 2012 but it really is true.

So, who cares?
While it’s true that the incredibly inadequate infrastructure in almost every department makes getting anything done here very slow and very difficult, the Tanzanians take a relaxed and philosophical approach to it. Partly, it doesn’t bother them nearly as much as it does me since they are used to it so they tend to laugh about these difficulties rather than letting it get them down.

If I can learn to approach problems I encounter in my life in this way, that will be an incredible benefit of this experience. I can tell you it isn’t going to happen overnight but I will keep you posted on my progress

Some Compensation
In an effort to balance out this sorry tale of infrastructure hardship, I must share the amazing experience I had driving back through Mikumi wildlife park on Friday evening, returning from the conference. We were in a car this time (again running low on gas and none available) and we could see zebras, giraffe, elephant, impala, bufallo, and gazelle in the low light of dusk as we drove along.  Suddenly, we noticed something lying on the road just ahead of us.  We slowed down and saw that it was a female lion enjoying the warmth of the asphalt.

Lion calmly enjoying her side of the road.

We stopped right by her and took a few photos before continuing on. We were worried another vehicle coming the other way might hit and kill her. Apparently, the fine for doing so is US $25,000 (each animal has a different price) and the park is talking about putting in cameras at both entrances so they can catch the cars and trucks that do hit the wildlife.

She was amazing to see and, happily, we had enough gas to keep going instead of getting stuck hanging out with a mama lion.  Despite its shocking lack of infrastructure, Africa remains an incredible place!


5 thoughts on “Tanzanian infrastructure…a long way to go!

  1. Wow, what an incredible trip. I can bet that this is life changing to be in a society where so many things we are used to here become an adventure there. It really does force you to slow down and reprioritize. and then you get to have the experience of a Mama Lion on the road. I hope all the difficulties do not get you down and that you are able to help in some way.

  2. I continue to be amazed and proud that you are doing all this and able to share it with us so eloquently through your blog! It humbles me to realize what you are going through and that you chose to do this and make a difference in the lives of girls halfway across the world from your home. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences with us- it is hard to realize how different things are there!

  3. Thank you for sharing these fascinating and instructive experiences and views. I was in Tanzania during July, and all of this rings true. I am the Mother of one of your college classmates, and a founder of the Girls Education Collaborative, whose mission is to support efforts to provide education to girls in developing countries, and whose initial project is in Kitenga in the
    Mara Region. I believe you are in contact with our Exec Director, Anne Wadsworth.

    All good wishes,
    Carole Smith Petro (Margarethe Laurenzi’s mother)

  4. Love this post, April. An eye-opening description of what it’s really like. I’m sure you will pick up some of the local’s relaxed attitude. Then I hope you’ll bring it back here and sprinkle some on us hyped-up northern Californians! Incredible photo of the lioness, too. Thanks for sharing.

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