Eds. Note: This is the first in a series of dispatches from 3L A.J. Frey. A.J. is taking part in W&L Law’s International Human Rights practicum, which includes travel to Tanzania to research a human rights issue. This year, the students are researching labor and employment and workers’ rights, with a special focus on women in the workplace.
The air as we stepped off the plane smothered me like a warm, wet blanket. Compared to the taste of crisp mountain atmosphere we had experienced ten hours earlier during our layover in Zurich, this air was overpowering–heavy, damp, and hot. Within a minute my bag had left a strap-shaped sweat mark on my shoulder and across my chest. My sunglasses slipped down the bridge of my nose as the sweat beaded and then formed rivulets that followed their course from my forehead and down my nose, clinging to my chin before falling away. We had officially arrived in Dar es Salaam.
In preparing for our fact-finding trip to Tanzania, myself and the other members of Professor Johanna Bond’s International Human Rights practicum did plenty of research on Tanzanian and international law; we conducted mock fact-finding interviews, summarized our legal findings, composed interview outlines, learned about the culture and language, and talked endlessly about packing lists, visas, required vaccinations, and the other minutiae of international travel. Nothing, however, prepared me for the visceral feeling of setting foot in Tanzania for the first time.
Along with the suffocating heat, the sounds, smells, and feel of the place were alien. The smell of smoke and sweet spices drifted through the airport as I waited to exchange my American dollars for Tanzanian shillings (at 1600 shillings to $1, not an easy exchange rate to calculate on the fly). As the car took us from the airport through the darkened streets of Dar, my classmates and I marveled in silence at everything around us: both the familiar–an ad for Goodyear tires–and the unfamiliar: people lining the highway to wait for buses, palm trees covering the median, a man pulling a heaping cart of scrap metal passing us as we waited for the lights to change, motorcycles weaving in and out of the congested traffic with women in hijabs sitting side-saddle behind the drivers. Awed and jet-lagged, I took it all in and marveled at the newness of everything around me.
Now, at the end of our first day of fact-finding interviews, I am feeling much more at home here. After a weekend spent acclimating and exploring, we all feel more confident, comfortable, and able to focus on the work ahead of us. Our task during this week is to work with our partner organization, the Women’s Legal Aid Center (WLAC) to interview as many people as possible about issues involving labor and employment in Tanzania. Specifically, we’re here to find out how Tanzanian and international labor law are being applied in the workplace and to investigate areas where workers’ rights, and especially women workers’ rights, might be improved and expanded.
Our hosts, the WLAC staff, have been incredibly welcoming and generous with their time. It is no exaggeration to say that we would be utterly lost without them. They are crtitical in coordinating our contacts within different industries here and providing us with leads for workers to talk to about employment conditions. They accompany us to our interviews, serving as co-interviewers with us and, crucially, translators as well. They are wonderful, knowledgeable, and kind, and it is humbling to see the work they are doing here day-in and day-out, while our contribution to their effort lasts only for the semester. Still, it does feel like we are of use here, and our efforts–at the end of one day–are producing results.
Today, my interview partners and I spoke with the manager of a small, local company about his business, his employment practices, and his understanding of the labor laws. As with any interview, it was a balancing act between following the outline for the interview that we had prepared beforehand and being flexible enough to go in other directions based on our interviewee’s responses. Likewise, there was a balance between doggedly pursuing aswers to the questions we have and being respectful of our interviewees. Today, despite our best efforts, our manager-interviewee was unwilling to let us talk to any of his employees–a much better source of ground-level information on employment conditions.
Tomorrow, we meet with new people and representatives from new companies, and we hope for the best. I feel incredibly lucky to have the chance to use the skills I’ve learned in my three years of law school to do such meaningful work. Each day here brings new surprises and challenges, so stay tuned for more updates.