Believe it or not, today’s my last day as a Kiva Fellow! I’ve found this experience mostly rewarding, sometimes frustrating, often surprising, and generally excellent.   I think it will take me some time to process my thoughts on microfinance.  I was lucky to work with 4 very different microfinance institutions:

Urwego Opportunity Bank of Rwanda, who recently posted their first loans on Kiva! Hekima DRC, Tujijenge Tanzania Ltd, and YOSEFO (Youth Self Employment Foundation).

These 4 MFIs represent:

  • 3 countries (Rwanda, Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo).
  • 2 large institutions, 2 small institutions.
  • 2  religiously motivated organizations.
  • 1 for-profit social enterprise.
  • 3 institutions run mainly by nationals; 1 institution run and directed almost entirely by foreigners.
  • 2 new Kiva partners. 2 long-term Kiva partners.
  • 4 institutions where group loans are the major product.  These loans are given to individuals with no collateral and guaranteed by the other group members.

Based on my limited sample, what do I think of Kiva and microfinance?

First Kiva – After several months, I still think Kiva is pretty cool.  It brings people together and is a great way to share stories from far-flung corners or this world.   And it benefits Kiva’s partners.  Kiva funding is provided interest free, which is a pretty unusual source of capital.  Microfinance institutions ‘pay’ Kiva in the form of stories and photos, which they need to collect and post to the website.  In my experience, it seems like a good trade.  Kiva  allows small and medium institutions to keep growing.  It also enables bigger ones to maintain their portfolios, and expand to riskier products or clients (read – poorer clients) that they otherwise might have avoided.

What do I think about microfinance?  Not sure – often the way things work seem fairly inefficient and I’d like to see macro-level studies on impact.   That said, of about 100 client interviews I have completed, all the recipients (even those whose businesses are in trouble and who are doing poorly on repayments) are grateful for the loans they receive and the opportunity to try to improve their economic condition, and the living conditions of their families.  Is microfinance the best way to do that?  I don’t know.  I think most of the 100 clients I visited would be thrilled to have a safe and stable job to earn income reliably.  But, in the absence of such positions, microfinance allows them another alternative.

Is it sustainable? Maybe.  I don’t know how many peanut sellers, small shop owners, second hand clothing shops or market stalls can exist and allow their owners to move out of poverty.  But at least they have a chance to try, and their kids can attend school with some of the income they generate.

Many things to ponder… perhaps in a few weeks or months I will have some more coherent thoughts on these topics.  Until then, I am looking forward to a couple of months of travel and relaxation before heading home.

This blog has helped me frame some of my ideas and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading.  I may or may not continue it in the coming weeks, but either way, thanks for all those readers and supporters these past months!

For now, I’ll leave you with my final blog, posted this afternoon to the Kiva Fellows Blog:

You know you are in Tanzania when…(Volume V)

Five months after boarding a plane to San Francisco, it’s time to wrap up my Kiva Fellowship.  For my last post, I’d like to honour a tradition set by past Tanzanian Kiva Fellows (see  posts by Alec Lovett KF4; Jara Small, KF5; and Jennifer Gong, KF9) and share a few of my observations from this crazy and charming country.  Hope you enjoy!

You know you are in Tanzania when…

  1. Handshakes can last several minutes –as long as it takes to get through daily greetings.
  2. If it takes under an hour to get a few kilometres by dallah-dallah (bus), you start to wonder why the traffic is so light.
    Dallah-dallahs.
  3. You hum along to the rhythm of clanging coins, the refrain of the bus conductor soliciting fares.
  4. You ask yourself: ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’ because you see that daily, along with processions of goats and cows.
    Cow crossing, as seen from a bajaj (motorized rickshaw)
  5. Hair salons feature cartoons of Obama, Eminem, Che Gueverra, and Julius Nyerere (Tanzania’s first and  most beloved President) for stylish inspirations.
    Jay-Z and the President have style!
  6. You know all the best spots for chapatti (flatbread) and maandazi (donuts).
  7. Your colleagues are wearing sweaters and complain that it is freezing outside. As usual, you are still sweating.
  8. Many toddlers look at you and then run towards you at full speed to give your knees a hug.  A few toddlers look at you and burst into tears.
  9. You try to work in Swahili time, which refers to hours since sunrise. Hour 0 is 6am, but you often forget, and this has caused you to miss events and reschedule meetings that should take place at 3:30 (9:30AM) because you think it will be too late to get started.
    A view from Msasani (Dar Es Salaam) at around 10 o’clock (4 pm).
  10. You are invited and encouraged to attend celebrations (weddings etc) of people you just recently met, and they genuinely hope you can take part.

And finally, Karibu (welcome) is the word you hear most often, which is fitting because since you first arrived, you’ve felt nothing but warmth and caring from all the wonderful people you’ve met!

Want to add to the list for Tanzania or start a new one from a different country?  Consider becoming a Kiva Fellow and check out program details here.

Sara Strawczynski is finishing up her time as a Kiva Fellow where she served with four different Field Partners in Rwanda and Tanzania.

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This is my latest peice for the Kiva Fellows’ Blog:

By Sara Strawczynski, Tanzania

That’s a question I’d never considered before serving as a Kiva Fellow.  I figured that charcoal is a dirty and unsustainable source of fuel, and not one that I want to support.  Charcoal production causes massive deforestation and produces considerable emissions of carbon dioxide.  So when presented with the option of lending to a charcoal seller on Kiva’s website, I always selected an entrepreneur in a different sector to support.

Flash forward a few months – I have now enjoyed hundreds of meals cooked on charcoal stoves and grills, first in Rwanda and now in Tanzania.  I’ve also met about a dozen Kiva clients who make their living producing and selling charcoal.   These experiences certainly haven’t made me a full advocate for continued use of charcoal fuel.  They have, however, made me realize that the issues surrounding sustainable energy are not white and black, but closer to charcoal grey.  So here’s why I would now consider lending to a charcoal seller through Kiva:

Everybody needs fuel to survive – for cooking, cleaning, and heating.   Here in Dar Es Salaam, gas and electricity are available in some neighbourhoods, but they are expensive and unreliable.   About three-quarters of households in Dar Es Salaam rely on charcoal as their primary cooking fuel.  Charcoal is a step up from firewood because it burns slower, is easier to transport, and produces less smoke, which is dangerous to inhale.   Though charcoal is not the cleanest energy source, it is the best source of fuel that is available and affordable to many of the urban poor, allowing them to cook and survive.

People involved in producing and selling charcoal are providing a product that is needed.  Like all the other  microentrepreneurs that you see on Kiva’s website, they are trying to support themselves and their families, and deserve the chance to make that happen through microfinance.

That said, Tanzania’s current charcoal sector is not driven by a few microentrepreneurs.  It is operating on a macro scale, with massive environmental implications.  Tanzanians consumes a million tons of charcoal a year, making charcoal the third largest sector in this country, after mining and tourism.  Dar Es Salaam is one of the fastest growing cities in Africa, and charcoal demand is increasing even faster.   More and more hectares of forests in the rural areas surrounding Dar Es Salaam are being logged to supply charcoal to the city.  Some projections suggest that Tanzania’s forests will be gone within 50 years, while the demand for charcoal will only keep growing.  In light of such dire possibilities, the government is trying to expand the electrical grid and encourage some of Dar Es Salaam’s 3 million inhabitants to switch to other energy sources; however, changes don’t come overnight.  The fact is that charcoal will remain an important source of fuel in East Africa for decades or longer.

Given this reality, Tujijenge Africa (a local microfinance institution, and Kiva Field Partner Tujijenge Tanzania’s sister organization) is actively working for change through the Dar Charcoal Project.  The project is a collaboration between the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), Camco Advisory Services of Tanzania (an energy company), Barclays Bank and other partners.  The project will engage rural communities  where most of Tanzania’s charcoal production and associated deforestation take place.  Communities are encouraged and supported to adopt sustainable forestry practices to help make sure that there is an ongoing supply of charcoal.  Like other forestry industries, careful management including land use planning, seedling development, tree planting and scheduled harvesting can help lead to sustainable charcoal production, and reduced carbon dioxide emissions.  Tujijenge Africa is working to develop a voluntary carbon market where private and public sectors can buy carbon credits to offset their own emissions.   Communities involved in the Dar Charcoal Project will receive the revenue from the credits, encouraging them to continue sustainable charcoal production practices.  Other components of the Dar Charcoal Project include improvements to charcoal-production kilns, promoting more efficient charcoal stoves, and championing charcoal alternatives such as biomass bricks that are made from agricultural waste.

I certainly don’t have any easy solution to propose on how to balance the fuel requirements of growing populations and developing economies with environmental sustainability; however,  I have come to realized that microentrepreneurs (including those featured on Kiva) and microfinance institutions are one part of a complicated matrix of players, and will be part of any sustainable (or unsustainable) fuel industries that emerge in the future. Choosing to ignore or avoid loans to charcoal sellers on Kiva does not promote more sustainable fuel production or consumption.   It does, however, penalize microentrepreneurs trying to fill a demand and support themselves and their families, which is why from now on I will consider lending to charcoal vendors like  Juan and Margaret through Kiva.

Sara Strawczynski is a Kiva Fellow in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania.

Perhaps the best things about my time in Tanzania have been passing through Dar life with Rita as my guide.   Rita, the Kiva Coordinator at Tujijenge Tanzania microfinance institution where I’ve been working, has been educating me in the ways of Tanzanian weddings (among other things) since I got here.

One of my first weekends in town was a special one for Rita- it was her daughter’s introduction party. An introduction is the first of four major wedding parties for most Tanzanians. And it’s a time to set and pay a wedding dowry. Rita’s daughter is 29 years old. She has a master’s degree and works as a marketing consultant. Her groom (whom she met at university) and his family will pay 10 cows for her hand in marriage. That’s worth a bit over $1000. They will also buy a kitenge (traditional dress) for Rita, a blanket for the father, and a bedsheet for the bride’s paternal grandmother. Apparently the negotiations went well, and Rita said that the family offered ‘a fair price’. The negotiations were very formal – until the price was settled and paid, the groom’s delegation would not accept so much as a glass of water from Rita’s family. But after the business was done and a wedding date was set for next year, Tanzanian hospitality prevailed. The groom’s gang brought out gifts for Rita and her family: sugar, salt, spices, oils, 3 cases of beer, 3 cases of soda, crackers, rice and bread. Then both sides of the family enjoyed a reception where 2 goats were slaughtered. Rita apologized profusely for not inviting me to attend, as “it’s a very small gathering, only 50 or 60 people, all family. And all the introductory celebrations last just 3 days.” I think hearing her enthusiastic play-by-play of the event might have been better than the real thing!

Interestingly and sadly on the topic of dowry in East Africa, in Kenya now there is a fierce debate about whether to pass a law against marital rape. The opposition claims that since they paid a price for a wife, the husband owns her so they should be able to do whatever they want with her. Yikes.

Moving on to other happy wedding celebrations… A week before the wedding is the Tanzanian version of a wedding shower and bachelorette party: a kitchen party.  I met Rita last Sunday and after 2 hours on the bus, we arrived at a reception hall with about 200 other women. We were celebrating Christina, a loan officer at Tujijenge, whose wedding is approaching. She was beaming at the front in a beautiful gown, posing before festive and traditional kitchen utensils.

Christina (right) and her matron (maid of honour)

Everybody brings the bride items for her new kitchen. Christina received a fridge, microwave, kangas (dozens of them), plates, cups, a display case and cutlery. Various groups dance up to Christina to present her gifts. Then there is advice given to the bride from her mom, friends, family, colleagues etc. The advice can get a little X-rated. I missed most of what was going on, but there was definitely a pantomime of a bedroom scene and demonstration of a striptease. Pieces of advice that people translated for me include: try to make sure you have something cooking for your man when he comes home, like frying some onions; learn to cook lots of different stuff; pray to god lots. Etc. Advice was followed by some off-key karaoke and dancing. The bride’s church choir were especially enthusiastic singing, whistling and laughing (especially at me when I joined the congo line). Food was finally served around 10:30pm, and after eating, the hall clears and everyone heads home.

We got a ride home with a colleague, but her car broke down on the way. So we pulled into a closed gas station, and there my two coworkers, in matching polka-dot cocktail dresses, popped the hood and worked to get the engine cooled down a bit by cold water all over it. Amazingly their technique sort of worked and the engine started. Unfortunately as we got driving, the steering conked out we hit the massive curb, and a stone hit the windshield cracking it badly. Amazingly I did get home okay despite the drama.

A few days before the wedding is a send-off party. Apparently it’s somewhat like the kitchen party (though men are invited) and wedding, with dancing, singing, gift-giving and speeches from the families giving away the bride and groom, and sharing marital advice with them. Typically several hundred people attend, and sometimes the couple choose one side to attend the send-off, and the other side comes to the wedding.

Finally, the wedding day comes. I attended my colleague Emmanuel’s wedding a few weeks ago. He was marrying his long-time girlfriend Tikla. Rita and I arrived at the Church together about half an hour late. We were dismayed to see a wedding in progress and worried we’d missed things. Of course, nothing has ever happened on-time here, and when we looked closer, the groom was not Emmanuel but a man in a military uniform. We got to see him and his new wife walk beneath a military sword-bridge on their way to their waiting car, all decorated with streamers.

A few minutes later, Emmanuel’s car (similarly decorated in the peach and silver wedding colours) pulled up, and out came the happy groom. Then his bride arrived, the wedding party assembled, and they marched into church. Thinking it was time to get seated, we started making our way in, only to see another car pull up with a bride, and then another and another. Confused at first, we soon learned that no fewer than 7 couples would be sharing this Catholic wedding mass (coincidentally, 3 of the grooms were named Emmanuel). Each couple comes with its own entourage including photographers, videographers, marching band, wedding party, and guests. Everyone finally got seated in church, and a fairly standard mass in Kiswahili followed. The only unusual part was the paparazzi swarm of photographers and videographers, since each wedding party has their own.

Perhaps my favourite part of the wedding was after the service, where one by one the newlywed couples leave church and looked very serious, leading their troupes out of the chapel. Coming down the church steps, the couples finally seemed to relax and smile. Before climbing into decorated convoys, the marching bands start playing, and the guests surround the couple’s car and dance for them. Imagine this scene where 7 couples are staggering out of church, just a few minutes apart. Total joy and mayhem altogether. I loved it!

Car dance - imagine this scene, complete with brass band, x7!

A few hours later we attended a nice reception with a few hundred others. Again, plenty of hora-like dancing, a very late diner, and many born again Christians (including Rita and some of my other colleagues) ordering me far too many beers. A cake in the shape of a goat was served which is traditional, though no amount of asking could get me an answer about this tradition or its significance. So I just settled back and enjoyed my first taste of goat-cake (very sweet, lots of icing sugar).

Being invited to take part in celebrations here has been an honour and a joy. Karibu (welcome) is the word heard the most around here, and in my experience, the welcome has been more than just talk but a reflection of the prevailing attitude which is a pleasure.

How to Carry a Baby

June 15, 2010

Except for a brief visit back to North America, I haven’t seen a stroller since September.   One thing I’ve learned this year is that there are so many other ways to move around with a baby – the sidesling, the backstrap, frontfold, arms and feet in/out/together/apart etc.

1.  In Todos Santos, Guatemala:

2.  In Muhanga, Rwanda

3.  In Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania

Riding chicken buses in Guatemala, I was often startled when the pack slung across my seatmate’s back would start squirming or crying.  On one sad ride, the woman next to me was travelling with two young kids and a baby  She had 5 more kids at home (and 2 that had passed away), and was headed to the market trying to sell a bit of corn.  Terrified because this year’s crop was failing, she didn’t think she could continue to feed the family. She was really surprised that I didn’t have babies.  In our broken Spanish (her first language is  Mam), she asked me if there was some way she could stop having babies, since she was sure another baby in the house would die, and possibly kill her too. Heartbreaking.

In Tanzania so far, my experience has been lighter.  As I’ve noted before, riding the bus is always an adventure.   The other day Mama Rita (the Kiva Coordinator at Tujijenge who has been patiently accompanying me on endless trips around the city to do Kiva borrower verifications), described my contorted position on an overly crowded dallah-dallah: “You were squished flatter than a chapati and folded so much that I almost couldn’t see you”.   In such an environment, passengers lucky enough to have a seat will never give them up for anybody.  Moms understand this, and resort to thrusting their babies on other people’s laps, for safe-keeping during rocky rides.  People get around however they can, and this is a world away from Westboro where 4 wheel drive strollers cruise smooth sidewalks!

Let the Games Begin!

June 11, 2010

The World Cup starts this evening, and there’s a palpable excitement in the air.  Yesterday while wandering a far-out neighbourhood in Dar Es Salaam searching for a client, I passed a fabric shop selling this kanga (a colourul fabric worn by women as a skirt, shawl, headscarf etc.):

I thought that was pretty awesome.  I can’t wait to spot somebody wearing it soon.   After all, men here are often sporting soccer jerseys, so it’s only fair that women can maintain their traditional dress but get involved in some of the excitement too.

Although Tanzania isn’t playing, there’s a genuine feeling of pride for Africa’s tournament.  Since they were already in the neighborhood, the Tanzanian Footbal Federation invited Brazil to play a warm-up friendly match here on Moday.   Of course I tried to get tickets, but was thwarted, getting the same message as thousands of others hopeful to see the world’s #1 team – the game is sold out.  On game day, the organized realized there had been a system glitch, and fewer than half the tickets had been sold.  They frantically released the rest of the tickets, but it was too late.  I didn’t get the message on time, and neither did most people.  At game time, the stadium was only a third full and the crowd watched Brazil clobber their host (5-1). The estimated loss for the event is somewhere around  $3 million US, about half the fee Brazil charged to come by.  A sad day for football here.

Anyhow, I’m doing my part for football fever. I started playing soccer once a week on a tiny dirt field, with a group of Tanzanian and expat women – we are close to as good as the teams competing in South Africa.  I also drink lots of Coke here because it tastes so delicious (served cold in a glass bottle when it’s super hot outside).  I am hopeful that one of these days I will find a winner notice under the cap, and receive a free trip to the World Cup finals.  If not, I’ll have to enjoy the tournament like everybody else here – crammed around a TV at the local bar, watching people performing amazing athletics while enjoying chips and beer myself.   Can’t wait!

Sugar Daddy Syndrome

June 4, 2010

Below is my latest post on the Kiva Fellows Blog.   There’s a few loans from Tujijenge Tanzania Limited, the Kiva partner I’m working with, that are fundraising on Kiva’s website today.  If you’re interested in supporting some microentrepreneurs who are working super hard to get by and support their families, check them out here.

By Sara Strawczynski, Tanzania

Yesterday I spent about 12 hours on hot, crowded and bumpy buses in Dar Es Salaam.   At least half of that time was spent idling in traffic jams, an inevitable experience whenever one travels to the far-flung corners of this sprawling city. I was trying to reach a couple of Tujijenge Tanzania clients and interview them as part of Kiva’s borrower verification process (learn more about that by reading some excellent blogs on the topic).  I found one of the two clients I was hoping to meet, so the day was partially successful.

The end of the bus line. From here, it was a 15 minute piki-piki (motorbike) ride to reach the client.

By the time I got home it was close to 9pm, and after cleaning up and a quick meal (rice and beans in coconut sauce – delightful!), I was ready to relax. Allowing myself a short reprieve from noisy, dusty Dar, a movie was in order. Figuring a British film set in 1960s London should do the trick, I settled on the film An Education; however, as the story of a schoolgirl’s doomed relationship with an older man unfolded, I couldn’t help but recognize that the movie holds significant parallels with modern Tanzania.

Listening to morning radio on the commute to work in Tanzania, you’re going to hear a message from the Fataki campaign. Fataki, which means explosion in Kiswahili, is a fictional ‘big man’. He preys on girls and young women, offering them money, food, and gifts for sex. Exemplifying Sugar Daddy Syndrome, the radio spots present Fataki in everyday situations – trying to buy a meal for a schoolgirl, taking her to the supermarket or a traditional dance show, or offering to pay for a school uniform. Fataki’s efforts are thwarted each time by the girl, her family, school staff and strangers.

Fataki and schoolgirl. Photo coutesy of: http://www.stradcomtanzania.org

The campaign aims to challenge toleration of cross-generational relationships, which contribute to Tanzania’s frightening rates of teenage pregnancies, school-drop outs and new HIV infections among young women. The campaign isn’t preachy, but tries to ridicule and stigmatize Sugar Daddy Syndrome. Of course radio ads alone aren’t going to empower young women or end gender inequalities in education, unplanned pregnancies and the spread of HIV/AIDS; however, opening the discussion is a step in the right direction.

Microfinance has a role to play as well. Microloans and the profits they generate help families cover school-fees and other educational expenses such as transportation and uniforms for their daughters and sons. Perhaps girls who are well fed and supported in school, and girls who see their moms in control of businesses and finances, won’t feel like they need a sugar daddy to buy them a soda and chipsi mayai (an omelette with fries inside), or give them a couple of bucks in exchange for sex.

Things turn out fine for the girl in An Education, and she goes on to study at university. Real life is much more complicated, but hopefully more girls and young women in Tanzania can avoid Fataki dynamite, and will at least get the chance to finish primary and secondary school, and start adulthood on their own terms. You can help support them by lending to young entrepreneurs and their moms and dads through Kiva.  Check out the latest opportunities from field partner Tujijenge Tanzania here.

Sara Strawczynski is serving as a Kiva Fellow in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania.

Ottawa Race Weekend is here!  For the last four years, I’ve run the Sunday half-marathon with several thousand of my closest friends.   Training for the run has become a bit of a seasonal marker for me – I start on a treadmill at the gym in the middle of winter, move outdoors at the first hints of spring (usually when it’s still way too cold, snowy, icy and windy but with promising sunshine), and gradually build up to running farther as the weather warms up.  This leads up to nervous excitement at the crowded start line and, finally, exhausted satisfaction at the finish.  Last year training and running with Dad was awesome, and it’s strange that I won’t be there again this year.  This has got me thinking about the last decade or so I’ve spent jogging (very slowly)…

I’ve done countless jogs along the bike paths of the Ottawa River and Rideau Canal, and couldn’t ask for nicer routes to stretch my legs each day.  My travels have also led me on some pretty wonderful jogs.  Somehow running in different places seems to imprint then in my memory differently than walking or driving, and I can clearly recall how I felt running in so many places:

  • the seashores in Victoria and Vancouver,
  • on the island of Bol in Croatia;
  • in Torrey Pines State Park of San Diego, followed by a plunge in the ocean;
  • past Shakespeare’s stomping grounds in Stratford-Upon-Avon;
  • along the Lachine canal and through the Town of Mount Royal in Montreal;
  • on trails surrounding Jasper Park Lodge in the Rocky Mountains;
  • past the baobab and eucalyptus trees in King’s Park of Perth, Australia; and,
  • through corn fields surrounded by volcanoes just outside of Xela in Guatemala -to name a few.

Just writing that list is a great reminder of how amazingly lucky I am, getting to live, travel and experience so many places (corny, but worth noting!).  And now that I’ve left Rwanda, I think it’s safe to share one of my stranger jogging experiences.

In Kigali, I had played Sunday morning pick-up soccer a few times with our house-helper Joseph and his friends.   The soccer field was about fifteen minutes away, tucked within Kigali’s urban farm-fields.  I decided to go for a jog one afternoon and headed through the fields of beans, maize and tomatoes.  I soon reached the soccer pitch, which is mostly mud, but with a great view of downtown Kigali on the next hill over.  To the amusement of the mamas, kids and goats hanging around, I starting running laps around the field.  This got kind of boring, so I continued through the red-dirt streets behind the field, past small homes with wide-eyed kids staring at me and sometime yelling muzungu at me.  When I saw a police station with big gates and barbed wire fencing, I turned around, jogged back to the field, did a few more laps, and started my route back home.  It was at this point that I noticed a policeman running towards me.

He was yelling at me, so I stopped and in broken English and French, he said that he needed my help back at the station.  I politely declined, explaining that as it was getting late and the sun was setting so it was really time for me to get home.   He persisted, and that’s when I noticed four or five other cops all coming towards us from all angles, some on their walkie talkies.  I only caught the word muzungu in their fast Kinyarwanda.  After a few more minutes of protesting, it became clear that I would need to go back to the station with them, where I’d turned around on my jog about 20 minutes earlier.   As we started walking I got pretty nervous, which my guards obviously noticed.  Luckily the first policeman I met was very sweet, reassuring me over and over that I shouldn’t be scared.  He explained that I had jogged through the staff housing of Rwanda’s National Police Headquarters.  The whole area is off-limits, so I was required to visit the station and explain myself.   I, of course, had no idea that this neighbourhood was any different from the others I wandered through daily.  It’s surprising because government buildings, businesses and homes in Rwanda all have guards who let you know if you’re getting too close; yet the police grounds were apparently lacking any…  in any event, we made it back to the station, slipped past the gate and into a small building with a single room.  There were a couple of guys sitting around in handcuffs, and a tiny desk with about eight cellphones plugged in.  The phones kept ringing, and random officers wearing tiny ties kept coming in to answer, screaming into the phones, fumbling with them, plugging and unplugging them.  They screamed even louder as one of Rwanda’s epic rainstorms swept in and the tin roof roared.

After what felt like forever given my nervous state (despite many comforting reassurances from the policeman that caught me), I was summoned forward by an officer.  In between answering the phones, he questioned about what I’d been doing.  I was wearing my baseball hat, dry fit T-shirt, iPod, shorts and sneakers – it was pretty obvious, and he didn’t seem overly concerned.  He explained that for any athletic training in Rwanda, one needs official authorization, and I should seek that immediately – I still have no idea what that means.  After apologizing profusely, the officer took my e-mail address and the name of the bank where I work (deciding on my contact info was a bit complicated, as there are no real addresses in Kigali and I could not remember my phone number) and let me go.  I was escorted to the road, flagged down a motorcycle, and made it home no worse for wear.  It was reassuring that there was no request for a bribe during my visit to the station – Rwanda is working hard on its reputation as a country free of corruption.  I do, however, have lasting evidence of my run-in with the law.  My new friend, the first cop I spoke with, has sent me a couple of very long and very hilarious emails requesting a date, or a wife.

After that incident my runs in Kigali were limited to a few main roads and my sidestreet, where the kids sometimes joined me.  Though I was decked all sorts of athletic gear and they wear rags and flip-flops, they would often get bored of my slow pace after a few minutes and leave me in their dust.  I also found that my lungs were hurting from running, and with all the exhaust and wood-fuel, figured that it would probably be healthier just to run indoors, which I did occasionally at a boring Western hotel.

I’ve started running outdoors again in Tanzania.  I’ve found a nice route along dirt road that is parallel to the ocean. It’s got lots of potholes but almost no traffic.   Unfortunately the mansions block the ocean view, but if I time my evening  run well and have a bit of luck, I end by running out to the end of a pier that juts into the Indian Ocean just as the sun is setting over my left shoulder.  It’s awesome.

Slipway's pier, moments after sunset

Last weekend, I headed out for an early morning run and was stopped by Henry, a Kenyan now based in Dar.  He runs marathons and ultramarathons for fun, between working as a gym teacher and hosting a reggae radio show.  The day before we met, Henry had run 35 km.  Since it was his ‘rest’ day, he offered to join me on my five click  saunter.   I was a bit hesitant at first, but when we got going, I felt fine, as Henry knew every single other runner and walker along the route by name!  He was super encouraging and just loves to run and share his passion.  We parted ways and I was huffing and puffing, but Henry hadn’t even broken a sweat when he turned around to jog the 8km back home… crazy!  Maybe I’ll jog with him (correction: I will run hard, he will amble peacefully) again next weekend.  If I do, I’ll be thinking about everyone running in the Ottawa Race Event – to Dad, my friends and everybody else participating, best of luck and enjoy your runs!