Monday, February 15, 2010


Almost exactly a month after leaving Cambridge for Arusha, I find myself back in Cambridge again. It's funny how different life is in different parts of the world. In some places, people walk, in others the cycle or ride or drive. In Arusha, people smile and call out to you and jest about your haircut, and in Boston and Singapore, you move too fast or are too far away from people to have almost any interaction at all.

Today, I sit here on my bed and feel like I have all the things I'll ever need in my life around me, tucked away in the attic of a Cambridgeport house and built into a quiet little Cambridge life I'm really getting used to. But! Is it so? Let's examine this issue.

A good friend of mine Chris told me as we cut across Jamaica Plain on our bikes about some thinking that was solidifying in his head. This theory isn't universal, but rings eerily close to my experience.

So, imagine you had my parents, and think for a moment about what it's like to be home. Life has a sort of fundamental certainty to it. Your parents (might) have lived in the place for a long time, decades perhaps. Their social network is huge. With a roguish sort of economist grin, I'd pin a name on this that sounds something like "personable capital".

Life is easy when you're home and you can hop on this network, and use this capital built up over years. There is no uncertainty about who to look for if you need something, and there is great certainty that if you need something, you can find it. You have the same family doctor and dentist you've had for years, maybe generations, and a dozen different cousins and aunts and uncles, and then friends, who are accountants, travel agents, stock brokers and everything in between.

Chris describes it as being "failure proof", how options abound. Even if you were completely out of luck striking into the world on your own, you could always find something to fall back onto. The network is powerful. Indeed, we build networks of our own everyday, and Chris is absolutely sure (and I quite convinced) that the world doesn't work through the "normal channels" but rather through the tapping -nay, milking- of networks.

But networks today are different, just as people are. One might think, I haven't stayed in the same place for two years- sure, my parents have, but I haven't had time (and perhaps physical constraints in space and travel) to build the same things they had. Now moving is cheap, and people move around a lot. We keep in touch with cell phones and emails and spread networks across the world. Chances are, if I drop into some city tomorrow, I might find someone I know nearby in the same province or state. We still hang on to people, just in different ways. Eh?

Thursday, February 4, 2010

safi sana

Back in Cambridge, it's all reverse culture shock again.

In Arusha, hot on the heels of 2010 (which we celebrated with a second goat)-

I think this will be a ramble...
Let me take a couple of seconds to recount history. We celebrated Christmas with a goat. Now, I very much believe in living lightly on the world, and as such I choose to consume next-to-no animals and animal derived products (I also cycle everywhere, althought I must say this is as much out of convenience as concern, and showering is another story entirely-) although I am not opposed to the consumption of animals on any kind of moral grounds. I would be super excited keep chickens for their eggs (it's a beautiful, if an essentially weird relationship if you ask me). They would eat worms and crap and kitchen scraps, and eating them would affirm the ancient adage that we are what we eat: at the end of the day, poop.

And the great Tom Waits did say, "most of the things you absorb you will ultimately secrete."

I would hunt animals for food, if I had to. If I was in the jungle and had to eat an animal to survive, I would, easy. So whilst I did not eat this goat, I did watch its slaughter and subsequent parting out into various cuts and edible bits with great interest. After all, in America, goats come in parts from the supermarket. This was a real goat, it had to die and be parted.

It was the most visceral experience of my life thus far, I must admit I felt a little strange watching blood run and hearing air hiss from lungs. I don't think death had ever been this close, apparent, or bloody to me before. Watching the goat be cut up was easier. It reminded me of a time in Boston before I attended a sustainability fair and watched an artisan butcher skilfully cut up a (happy?) organic free range hog.

This brings us now to the second goat (this one seemed to come conveniently already in parts -- the skin was nowhere in sight), roasted in a grill made out of an oil drum at Shaibu's swanky bachelor pad, where we celebrated the new year. Shaibu is a dude. He manages the bike programs at Tumaini, the workshop at Global Alliance for Africa's Vijana (youth) centre. Many people have overheard conversations about the centre (mostly in America) and thought we were talking about something else altogether.

"Damn! The meat won't fit on the stove! Good thing we have this nifty oil barrel grill!"

Our stay in Arusha was punctuated by visits to the nearby village of Nadosoito to demonstrate and gather views and feedback about GCS products. The first ended up being mostly a long, scenic walk through the village, which is absolutely beautiful: mountains on the horizon, and filled with beautiful people working hard in fields. The second was accompanied by business and management guru Javier, who taught us so so many lessons about how to characterise a market (besides talking to people and finding out how much land they had and how their harvests were- which we did), how to find demands for a product and willingnesses to pay, and also neat tricks on finding information about customers. The trick is, quite unintuitively, to try lots and lots of different ways to sell your product to different people. And we sold one, and sat in the shade of a mud brick house drinking tea and talking to John the farmer about his harvests, his family. Bernard's father did mechanical work for John, and John knew Bernard since he was but a child. Small world.


We passed our following days building up documentation and fiddling with corn shellers (did you know the majority of maize eating people worldwide shell their maze by hand?), learning to build dynamo-cellphone chargers by hand on our daily trips to Mwamba's house.

We had two last adventures before we departed this magnificent city. The first of these was the Mama Afrika circus, with acrobats who jumped and twisted through the air, climbed poles upside down and swung from trapeze and silk (which was announced by the circusmaster as "aerial tissue"). There were young boys who could bend their bodies in half the wrong way, and squeeze through squash rackets. There were also three young men who:

-juggled clubs
-juggled little straw hats (their routine was amazing)

I was also unwittingly recruited by a clown to be part of his four piece rock band. I was lead vocal.

The second adventure was a leisurehike with the D-lab Tanzania team through the lush green foothills of Mount Meru to a waterfall. Rain mid-hike made the going treacherous and slow, and I began to get frustrated with what began as an fresh, exciting hike on a beautiful day. We walked our way down a winding stream in a jungle river valley, hopping over slippery rocks, and ducking under outcroppings of rock worn down by years of water. Finally, we arrived in a huge clearing I can't seem to find a good object to compare in size to. It was completely overgrown with lush green vines and gigantic ferns, a wispy stream of water rushing from some high place to crash down two hundred feet below. It felt like I was in the land of the dinosaurs.

Alas, great things must come to an end, and a few days later, I passed through Nairobi, got on a plane and went "home" to Singapore for a few days. It had been a long time, my parents had moved into a new house, and Singapore was as weird as ever. Nevertheless, it was a pleasant week spent at home.

Life goal: only own so much stuff that I can carry on my back. It's slow progress, but I've stopped checking bags on airplanes, and learning my goal one month at a time.