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Tanzanian Travels: Why Flexibility Matters

‘When heading off to Africa in these cash-strapped times, the expectation is that you will return with more than just a few stories. A daily radio show is a hungry beast to feed.’

By Jeb Sharp

Mason Huffine of SolarAid gives an impromptu demonstration of solar power on the way to Iringa, Tanzania. Photo by Jeb Sharp/Public Radio International’s “The World.”



I’m not sure there is any longer a typical reporting trip, and the trip I took recently to Africa was certainly not typical for me. When I’d gone to Africa before—to Rwanda, Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo—the stories I brought home were about the legacy of genocide. When I went to Tanzania in May, such brutalities were not central to my assignment.

The impetus for my trip was a handful of radio stories that our health editor at “The World” was keen to see done from Tanzania. I volunteered to go; I was eager to get back to Africa and intrigued to work on what sounded like good news. That, by itself, would be a welcome change.

When heading off to Africa in these cash-strapped times, the expectation is that you will return with more than just a few stories. A daily radio show is a hungry beast to feed. By the time I left for Tanzania, some of the stories we’d wanted to pursue didn’t hold up, but other compelling ones emerged. There was the promise and challenge of bringing solar power to rural Tanzania and the difficulty of combating road traffic injuries in Dar es Salaam. I would also take a look at clinical trials for a malaria vaccine and the recurring attacks against Tanzanian albinos. And I’d fit in the time I needed to profile performance artist Mrisho Mpoto.

If the stories weren’t typical for me, the way I went about preparing for my trip certainly was. After some preliminary research I set up interviews, found a translator, secured a Tanzanian visa and journalist’s permit, and booked flights and a place to stay. I’ve done this often enough to know that even the best-laid plans won’t hold, so as I prepared to head off, I kept reminding myself that flexibility is the key to success.

It’s a lesson I remember often along the way.

Then there’s the packing, always more stressful and time-consuming than it should be. I put my work gear in a backpack: audio recorder and microphone, cords and headphones, camera, flash cards, batteries, laptop, cell phone, chargers and adapters, notebook, pens, press ID. I also add my valuables (passport, money, e-tickets). Then I fill a small suitcase with clothes and other sundries, including mosquito net, bed sheet, towel, toiletries and first aid. The backpack travels with me; the suitcase gets checked, but not without qualms about what happens if the bag goes astray. This time, volcanic ash forced a stopover in Amsterdam, and when I arrived in Dar es Salaam 36 hours behind schedule, my suitcase didn’t. (Let’s just say I’m extremely grateful for the extra T-shirts and underwear I bought in Amsterdam just in case.)

On the ground, my first call is to Mason Huffine, an American who works with the British nongovernmental organization SolarAid. Our plan is to go to Idodi in Iringa District where SolarAid has two projects, one at a health center, the other at a boarding school. Idodi is a day’s drive away so Mason and his Tanzanian colleague Stephen Chimallo and driver Bino Khan scoop me up at the airport and we’re on our way. The drive is interminable but the company is delightful. As we pass through Mikumi National Park, we make a game of spotting elephants, giraffes and zebras. We spend the night at a cheap guesthouse in Iringa and reach Idodi village the next morning.

Our first stop is Idodi Secondary School, where 12 students perished in a fire in a dormitory last year. A student was studying late by candlelight. A mattress caught fire and the building was engulfed in flames. Since then, candles and kerosene lamps have been banned; only solar-powered lights are allowed. The tragedy was also the catalyst for a renewed push for safe lighting in all of Tanzania’s schools.

Reporting Begins

Here is where I hit my first reporting snag. It’s Thursday morning—a day later than I thought we’d get there—and the headmaster with whom we’ve made arrangements has left town for a funeral. His deputy doesn’t feel that he has the authority to give me permission to interview students and teachers. Phone calls are made to try to locate the headmaster on his travels. No luck. Our cajoling, pleading and reasoning fall on deaf ears.

So we move on to the village’s health clinic where solar panels are being installed. Once in place, they will power all of its lights. I record the contractors installing the panels on the roof; I take photographs of the clinic; I interview staff about the difficulties of working without electricity. Health worker Tarchisya Kipangula shows me how she holds her cellphone flashlight in her mouth when she delivers a baby in the dark.

Later we return to the school where officials now will allow me to talk to one teacher and some handpicked students. I am forbidden to ask about the fire. So I go through the exercise of interviewing some of the kids, and they tell me how wonderful it is since solar power came to the school, how they can study more, and how well they are doing as a result. Their answers sound like they’ve been rehearsed. While I appreciate the school’s apparent desire not to re-traumatize the kids, it’s frustrating not to be able to talk with them more freely.

As night falls, I get a taste of darkness in rural Tanzania. It comes on thick and fast and full, enveloping everything. But it doesn’t last long at the school. After dinner the lights—powered by solar energy stored in batteries—come back on in classrooms so students can study. I record the hubbub of their voices and footsteps and the scraping of wooden chairs on concrete floors as they gather there. Then, as these teenagers enjoy the light, I step outside into the darkness to take in the most dramatic night sky I’ve seen in years. The Milky Way is truly milky. The stars are sharp and bright.

Then, the irony hits me: This intense darkness is for me a novelty, yet for these students the novelty is the strong light they now study by.

Later, we drive around the village to do an inventory of light. Most houses have none, but in a few we see the yellow flickers of a kerosene lamp. A diesel generator lights up a phone-charging kiosk and a string of colored lights at the local tavern is presumably powered the same way. Otherwise it’s dark. What I now understand is how huge the potential market is for solar power—if the price is right. Later, we drop in at the home of the health clinic worker with whom I talked earlier that day. Mason conducts an impromptu focus group with her and her colleagues, prodding these relatively affluent women for information about what solar devices they might be willing to buy. Part of SolarAid’s mission is to figure out how to stimulate markets and distribution networks for micro solar products like desk lamps and phone chargers. I record the session to capture the feel of his sales pitch.

Tonight’s accommodation is sparse so Mason lends me a bed sheet since mine is somewhere in that suitcase between Amsterdam and Dar es Salaam. After a sponge bath with baby wipes, I collapse under the bed net. I’m too tired to realize it yet but it’s been a productive day.

The next morning we head back to Dar es Salaam. I retrieve my suitcase at the airport and at the hotel I enjoy the luxury of a hot shower and fresh clothes. On Saturday, I meet Robby Marwa, a colleague from the BBC office in Dar es Salaam, who will be my fixer (i.e., translator, driver, guide) for the remainder of my stay. During the next week, we move rapidly from place to place doing interviews, recording sound, and taking photos for my other stories.

Frustrations abound—logistical, linguistic and bureaucratic. But all in all, the days go well as I spend time talking with lawyers and politicians, doctors and merchants, and artists and teachers in apartments and hospitals, markets and schools, and on beaches. Steadily I gather what I need to deliver what I’d promised.

What I don’t do—and what I thought I would do before I got there—is blog or tweet. My good intentions never materialize as social media though I post a few photos to my Facebook page, if only to say “I’m here. I’m alive and all’s well.” It’s partly that I’m tired and pressed for time. But there’s another reason as well. After years of producing radio, that is what I am wired to do. It requires an intense focus, a certain relentlessness. If there’s down time, I’m not blogging. I’m preparing for the next interview or raking over my to-do lists in my mind. That discipline has always served me well, obsessive as it may seem. And when I’m in that mode, blogging or tweeting is the last thing on my mind. I could force myself to do these things, but I realize that on this trip, at this particular moment, I choose not to.  

Jeb Sharp, a 2006 Nieman Fellow, is a reporter for Public Radio International’s “The World” and host of the show’s history podcast, “How We Got Here.” She has twice won the Overseas Press Club’s top radio award. Her stories and photographs from Tanzania can be heard and seen at www.theworld.org.

1 Comment on Tanzanian Travels: Why Flexibility Matters
Miranda says:
October 8, 2012 at 1:08am
Jeb, even if you weren't blogging in real time, I very much appreciate this reflective article on the process of reporting. As an online video journalist, I actually agree that social media is the last thing on my mind when in production mode. Especially in a context like Tanzania where plans change - for better or worse - constantly.



I also particularly enjoy the way you explore the work of SolarAID through this post. Was it the most interesting aspect of your trip to Tanzania or was it simply an example of needing to be flexible?



And now time to organise my own visa for Tanzania! Thanks for the inspiration.
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