Every Child Left Behind

I’ve been making tons of mental notes about Tanzania these last three months, notes about daily life, about customs and culture, about little tricks of the local trade. But if I must name one remarkable difference between my new home country, Tanzania, and my old host country, China, it’s not the crazy traffic or the language or the pace of life or the lack of skyscrapers – although all that is pretty remarkable, too – but it’s simply the ratio of adults to children. China living gets you accustomed to many things, none of which is more apparent, in retrospect, as the effects of the One Child policy.

Walking along main streets of major cities in China are foreign couples with adopted Chinese babies in their strollers. Often baby girls, otherwise babies with disabilities, babies with cleft palates or odd growths or other facial deformities that make them, sadly, unwanted in a country where only one baby is allowed per couple. A scene all too familiar to me, especially living in Guangzhou where the paperwork for most Chinese adoptions for western countries take place.


Even within Chinese culture, the One Child Policy is deeply sowing its seed. There is the culture of what the Chinese are calling their “little emperors”. Sets of parents and double the sets of grandparents who dote over just one toddler. Spoiled rotten by their families, with no one else to share the spotlight. Given all the education, all the toys, all the attention in the world. In a culture where it is customary to take care of your parents and grandparents when you reach adulthood, young men and women are suddenly expected to handle the burden – financially and emotionally – of six elderly family members.

Of course the image of giving away girls, of a skewed population, of abortions, of a spoiled youth, of a disregarded geriatric population, it’s not exactly an image of China that authorities are necessarily trying to promote. So advertisements in the form of large painted murals are commissioned in rural areas, telling people not to abort girls, with sayings like ‘Girls are Good too’ – yet despite this warning, Elementary and Secondary School Classrooms still have male:female ratios of 2:1, sometimes even more skewed. And because taxes can penalties run high for those with more than one child, most families, especially in rural areas, adhere to the law.



In contrast, here in Dar, population control is the last thing on anyone’s mind, and as a result I find myself constantly surprised at the number of kids I see on an everyday basis. Children, heads shaved no matter boy or girl, playing in the streets, walking along roads, teeming out of schools, running in and out of city crevices. Families with three, four, five kids – something that simply didn’t exist in China. I think back to my trips to more impoverished areas in China, where in the dark stone buildings of villages, just one or two babies sat in the laps of groups of a dozens of elders.

The population in Tanzania has almost quintupled since the 1960’s, from just over 10 million to almost 50 million today. There are more mouths to feed, more water to source, more clothes to find. More space in already cramped neighborhoods, more housing needed in what is already shoddy construction. More garbage litters the streets. More plastic bottles clog up the sewars. More education, more competition, more consumption, more crime. In a culture where men often take more than one wife, and these wives in turn berth many more than the western average of two children, the country is experiencing a population boom that I’m not quite sure it’s ready for.


Elementary education is subsidized, but higher education – secondary education – is not. Even when kids are able to attend classrooms, if you don’t attend a private school, you’re pretty much out of a good education. Even in these esteemed (and expensive) private schools, the teachers are poor. I recently learned there are approximately 3 million orphans in this country, anywhere from aged 1 to age 20. And not enough orphanages to hold them all.



There’s a lot for me to learn, still, about the status of population growth and the future of these children in Tanzania. I’m only beginning to scratch the tip of the massive iceberg of this issue, obviously. The Chinese one-child policy has its detriments to both human rights and the Chinese culture, and by no means am I advocating such a policy for the world. But on the flip side, what good is a country if it is bulging at the seams and can’t provide for itself? I haven’t quite grappled with this issue enough to propose a solution, but when I do, I’ll let you know.


The Real Dar >> a letter of hope and a plea for acceptance

Dear Dar es Salaam,

I’ve been living here for 2 months now, and part of me feels like my life has been a make-believe world. I’m not going to lie, I’m struggling a bit coming to terms with this sudden lifestyle-of-the-rich-and-famous living of which has been served up on a silver platter. This lifestyle that includes hired help, roof deck soirées, barbed wire fences, and a yacht club membership. While it’s not completely unnatural to me (a point that scares me a bit), and of course it’s quite nice to have someone work our garden so we don’t always have to, it’s not real, not in the scope of where I’m living. But you know that.

Bagamoyo Beach

Side of the Road

So when friends from home ask, “how are you doing?”, it’s with a genuine smile but much hesitation when I say, “I like it here”. Sure I’m settling in, but I have a feeling that I might never really experience the real YOU, nowhere near as real as I experienced during my time in China. And that saddens me, that I can live in a place and call it my home, yet never really know its substance and its inner-workings.

I’m learning, though, and seeing, and observing. It’s taking awhile to see, but I’m seeing little things. For example, the fist that you hold in the air. A fist wound tight and held palm forward, in place of a wave sometimes, or simply as a gesture of recognition. To allow me to pass in traffic. I can’t yet hold my fist up in the same way, with the same amount of effortless finesse, but I’m sure after two years I’ll be throwing my knuckles up with the best of ’em.

It’s an American fascination, perhaps, to immediately expect to understand and acclimate to a culture, to blend in, and to be recognized as “one of them”. One of you, actually. While I’m starting to come to terms that this won’t be fully possible in my two short years in Dar es Salaam, I hope to at least gain a more than just a glimpse into this city and this country, much more than a kind, yet distanced, fist in the air will tell me.



This weekend, on my first trip out of your city, I drove along 75 kilometers of the real Dar es Salaam. The Africa that scholars, novelists, economists, and peace corps volunteers describe so much better than I am able to. It’s the real Africa, the Africa that Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Blood Diamond so often mutters, so succinctly, with the three letter acronym: T.I.A.; This, Is, Africa. I kept saying it to myself in the car as I drove down the long stretch of highway. This Is Africa. This Is Africa that keeps passing me at 100 km per hour while I’m driving at no more than 80. Pole pole!, or, slow down!, please!!!


All traffic critiques aside, This Is Africa, that lives in poverty, surrounded by community, plagued with disease, swathed in fabrics, rich with history. It’s an Africa that has separated us from them, me from you – out of obvious wealth differential, cultural disparity, and a more subtle yet deeply subversive historical context. Damn you, colonial expansion!

Anyhow, I drove past a vast valley of shacks and shanties along that long stretch of Bagamoyo Road, where many of your residents call home. The topography was not unlike my home state of California – a stretch of highway road, dropping down to a barren valley of homes speckled with dry greenery, dusty footpaths, and a view further out extending and dropping into a blue and expansive ocean.

dar highway views

And while I arrived home Sunday afternoon thankful to be connected to wifi once more, thankful to have access to my filtered water and icebox and collection of too much stuff, I thought of the scenic likeless between my home state and that strip of highway that I witnessed. And wondered what other likenesses there are between myself and my new home. Hopefully, really, it is with GREAT hope that I have, I’ll be able to recount other likenesses, more personal likenesses. It’ll be a challenge – between the crime and the how-many-different-levels of how I simply don’t fit in here. But hopefully, I’ll see the real Dar in these next two years.

Respectfully yours, with a fist in the air,