Fast internet, on my phone

March 29, 2012

Eds. Note: This is the fourth and final 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. 

With no one around to talk to my hand automatically, reflexively really, reaches for my phone. I check Twitter. “@LaurenConrad: I love all the colors in Dar es Salaam. Perfect for inspiration for my spring color story.”* Before I have time to ponder the fortuitousness of the fact that LC and I may have been (were?) in Tanzania at the same time, I hear, “Tall latte for A.J. at the bar.” I put my phone away. I have to go get my coffee.

Yes, I am officially back in America.

The striking thing about being back here is not how different it is from Tanzania, where I have been for the past two weeks. It’s how easily and immediately I re-acclimate to the comforts of home. I have welcomed with open arms all the things I told myself, while in Africa, were the unnecessary trappings of a coddled first-world life; things I should try to do without when I returned home. Well, I have news. I am possibly less idealistic than I initially anticipated. I like fast internet, and I like it on my phone.

All this is not to say that I wasn’t profoundly impacted by my time in Tanzania. I was. My experience in the city of Dar es Salaam is a lingering memory, latched to my brain with sharp little hooks of sight, smell, sound, and taste. I learned so much there and was so affected by what I saw that I have a nagging feeling I benefitted much more from my time there than the people we were actually there to help.

I truly hope that the time that we spent in Tanzania, as brief as it was, will be worthwhile to our hosts at WLAC and the community they serve. With the recent buzz surrounding the Kony 2012 movie, there has been a lot of skepticism in the press about the role of Western NGOs in places like Africa. As a part of a student group, we were not playing exactly the same role as a typical humanitarian mission in a developing country, but there’s no doubt that our goal when we arrived in Tanzania was to contribute what skills and knowledge we could to aid our local partners in their work.

In the end, for myself at least, I felt as though the learning experience was worth more than we could ever hope to repay. Our goal now, as we return home, is to make sure that the things we learned are put to good use and that we are able to turn our observations into a solid, factual, well-written report that will be used by local and international advocates for labor rights in Tanzania and elsewhere. Our travels have come to an end, but the real work is just starting. Now we have the chance to put the things we learned there into practice and use them to benefit those who were willing to share so much with us. It’s a challenging task, but one I think all of us are committed to doing well.

So long from Lexington, and thanks for reading.

*No, for the record, I don’t follow @LaurenConrad, and I’m @avalonjfrey on Twitter if you’re wondering.


March 22, 2012

Eds. Note: This is the third 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. 

Dar es Salaam is a city of many cultures, ethnicities, and traditions. On one Friday evening, as we catch a taxi to explore a new corner of the city, the sound of imams calling people to prayer mixes with the rumble of buses idling in endless rivers of traffic and the country music blaring from our driver’s radio. It’s a strange and wonderful combination.

In all things, Dar is a patchwork. Its city center is all Western-style glass and steel construction. There is a Holiday Inn (the nicest I’ve ever seen) with a swanky rooftop bar. A few blocks away, though, down a quiet side street under a glowing red sign is a place called the Alcove, which feels far removed from the Holiday Inn but much more inviting in its own way. Serving a full menu of both Indian and Chinese cuisine (take note, Lexington), and doing both very well, the Alcove encapsulates the hybrid culture of Dar for me.

On the night we visit, the clientele is as eclectic as the cuisine, and the tables are packed with families enjoying a night out together. The owner, who spent some years working on cruise ships and speaks English, remembers one of our group from a visit earlier in the week and greats us at the door as we arrive. We feast on as much deliciously spiced tikka masala and cashew chicken as we can manage and eventually spill out onto the deserted street and into the balmy Tanzanian night. And yet, at night, the city center is oddly dark and quiet. For all the hidden charm of places like the Alcove, the city center is not where the true heart of Dar es Salaam lies.

The real action is found in the maze of low-slung, sprawling, semi-urban developments that stretches out for miles in every direction from the center of the city. On our last night of work, our ever-accommodating hosts from WLAC take us on a taxi ride out to the outskirts of the city, past neighborhood after neighborhood, until we turn down a bumpy dirt lane and creep slowly through what appears to be a very residential area. After a few wrong turns and some careful backtracking we come to Brajec Pub (named after a prominent Tanzanian-Croatian I assume?), an idyllic outdoor grill, where we sit in lawn chairs, watch soccer on a huge projector screen, eat crispy, juicy barbecued chicken, drink Tanzanian beer (my favorite was Safari; others preferred Kilimanjaro), and celebrate the work we’ve done and the end of our time in Tanzania. For a moment I feel totally at home in Dar, like I’ve lived here for ages.

It’s a fitting way to cap off a trip that has been equal parts education, exploration, and hard work. The next post will be my last. I’ll wrap up the blog and share a few closing reflections on our experiences in this incredible country.

Life on $48 a Month

March 12, 2012

Eds. Note: This is the second 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. 

Yesterday, we drove all around the city with our guide, Tesha, making appointments with Tanzanian industry representatives and visiting factories to see if we could talk to workers. The traffic in Dar is in a state of constant gridlock. Cars inch along on the dust-choked roads while mopeds, motorcycles, and bajajs–little two-seater moped taxis–whiz through the gaps. Countless brightly-painted city buses rumble along the main roads pulling into and out of traffic at random intervals to load and unload passengers.

Tesha drove us to one textile factory where we were able to talk to the HR Manager who told us to come back tomorrow to talk to workers. This was not unusual. At nearly every factory we go to we get the run-around from management. They are very rarely willing to let us talk to workers unsupervised, although we can sometimes get to the workers when they’re coming out of a factory during a shift change or lunch break.

Today, we tried that strategy in a neighborhood where many textile and plastics factories are located. We walked along a lane between two huge, walled factory complexes until we came upon a group of people sitting down to eat lunch from a street vendor. The vendor was a young girl serving beans, rice, and stew out of plastic buckets–the kind you might use to mix cement in–onto porcelain plates with little hand-painted flowers on them. Men in coveralls would come from the factories to where we were, order a plate of beans and rice from the girl, and sit on the logs and tires strewn along a wall shaded by trees. We walked up and introduced ourselves to the workers gathered there. We usually  introduce ourselves by saying that we are students, that we are doing research on labor conditions in Tanzania, that anyone can talk to us if they wish, and that our interviews are totally anonymous. Outside of the factories themselves, the workers are always eager to share their experiences. Within minutes of sitting down under the shade tree, we had about ten workers gathered around to talk with us.

The single most common thing we hear from workers is that their wages are too low. The minimum wage here for a factory worker is 80,000 shillings per month, which is about USD $48. Many workers don’t make enough in a day to cover the cost of food and transportation to and from work, not to mention the costs of supporting a family and educating children. Many workers, casual laborers as they are called here, come to the factory each day to see if there will be work and are turned away because there are more workers than available jobs to do that day. Workers worry that if they take time off of work to care for sick family members, there will be no job waiting for them when they return. Above all though, it’s the cost of living on meager wages in this surprisingly expensive city that causes them the most worry.

Like many cities in developing states, Dar es Salaam is a study in contrasts between extreme wealth and poverty. While one of the factory workers we talk to might pay 10,000 to 20,000 shillings (USD $6-$12) per month for housing, monthly rent for an apartment on the peninsula, where most of the expats and diplomats live, is USD $2000-$3000 per month. The income inequality is evident on the roads as well, where ancient, lumbering buses packed full of people sit snarled in traffic alongside mint-condition Range Rovers and the occasional H2. As an American coming here from a country where income inequality has been a topic of note lately, it’s arresting to see just how wide the gap between rich and poor can be.

Along with being economically diverse, Dar is a cultural mishmash, where Islamic, African, Indian, Chinese, and Portuguese cultures combine. Next time, I’ll talk a bit about the mix of religions, races, traditions, and cuisines that make this old port city unique.

Welcome to Dar es Salaam

March 7, 2012

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.

W&L Law Students in Tanzania

W&L law students traveling to Tanzania include (l. to r.) Hanna Jamar, A.J. Frey, Marcena Winterscheidt, and Christopher O'Connell

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.