Friday, September 4, 2015


I am at the tail end of my current long trip through Afghanistan, India and Tanzania; can’t wait to see and hug Maaha Zainab once more. It has been a tough physical trip, yes, as usual, but more emotional. Afghanistan is always emotive, for me. The poverty and helplessness of the people we serve grates on my nerves after a while, out of sheer frustration of not being able to do more. My heart shreds into a million pieces when BBC reports a suicide nut blew him and seven others at the entrance of Kabul airport in an apparent suicide fireball, about the same spot I was two days ago, at almost the same time. What is life then? Auspicious timing? BBC then reports, in headline news, that Malala Yusufzai has passed her college exams with flying colors. Am I supposed to dance and whoop in delight like a blissful Chinook Indian then? I dig further into internal mourning. The only reason for some optimism is that all five major CAI Afghan projects are coming to fruition soon insha’Allah.

India is in mourning of her own; the monsoon rains have disappointed; more farmers, unable to repay their ballooning loans, will commit suicides, grain prices will drift up like a cheap burning agarbatti, more water rationing… Prices of the humble onion have gone through the roof – Rs.90 a kilo, out of range for so many, even if they can be coxed out of a reluctant vendor in the first place. Restaurants serve the pickled version of the bulb sparingly; the waiter at Delhi Darbar looks at me in shock and horror when I request for an extra helping. Imagine the mood of over a billion people denied the principal base of the most basic curry. Politicians are rightly worried; the humble onion has the power to change the most powerful in authority. There is a joke going around Mumbai; onions will replace gold as dowry soon. Not funny really, for a poor harassed housewife on a shoestring budget.

Dar es Sallam seems to have grown some more; it is teeming with unruly traffic. I fret over the City of Peace; the UN says Dar is the fastest growing city in Africa and her population will double in the next ten years. How will the already inapt and heavily burdened infrastructure cope? From Dar to Zanzibar and Tanga, there is only one dominant subject of discussion and debate; the upcoming elections, its aftermath and the political, economical and security ramifications if CCM loses.

Yahya, the taxi driver I usually use when in Dar has some insight. Don’t you guys take these taxi drivers lightly; they are a wealth of information and can be very perceptive. I say, he says, stroking his shaven pate, the opposition will not be able to win, even with their recent impressive rallies. CCM is much too powerful and they have the state resources at their disposal. Yes, they may not continue to rule with the impunity as in the past, but rule they will.

Yahya laments the rising cost of living; the inflation is unbearable. You guys pay your shop or domestic helpers about Ts.150,000 (US$75) a month and you expect them not to steal? How naïve! Of course they’ll steal. It’s natural. They have to make ends meet and if the pay is not going to do that, hustling and stealing is the only other alternative. And I don’t care how pious the guy is.

Yahya blames it on Kikwete, the current president on his way out. Kikwete travels a lot, especially to you guys. I say, he is in Washington almost every other month! And the clothes he wears! Salaaaleh! Another Donald Trump? When Mkapa (Tanzanian president before Kikwete) left office basic bread was Ts.300; Kikwete is leaving at Ts.1,800. Beans were Ts.600, they are Ts.3,200 now. The list is endless…

A day trip to help the local Bilal school in Zanzibar get modern science labs and a library is vexing. The government mandated educational system is so dysfunctional helping them is a challenge. The entire school’s students have flunked math exams, not a single student passed. Where do I go from here? CAI will pay for extra coaching insha’Allah and things will eventually turn around with the newer generation – that is my prayer and hope.

A private 2-day road trip to Tanga, the sleepy coastal town I grew up in, is a bittersweet treat. Accompanied by friends Murtaza Bhimani and Zulfiqar Hemani, in a comfortable van gifted by our good man Roshan Jessa, we eat our way through the town that has not changed a bit, except for the rot and decay in every structure I see. It is painful to see a once bustling town full of promise slowly but surely slip away. The Khoja mosque is deserted, worshippers kept away by internal dissent and squabbling of a once united and promising community.

Returning home today, the airport in Mumbai is in utter hullabaloo. Shahrukh and Kajol are checking in with an entourage and hoards of people wanting to click away are making the harassed check-in counter staff task even more difficult. I manage to break away from the piled luggage and ruckus and get to the counter, only to be upgraded to first class Mumbai to Dubai sector; am I a lucky dog or what?  The hubbub continues after immigration and security, crowds of people, kept at bay by a struggling security corridor, surround SRK and Kajol, desperately drawing their attention for a photo shot. It is not only immature teenagers who do this, but elderly men as well, men with flowing white beards who shamelessly fist fight to get ahead of the crowds. Disgusted with this display of adoration for mere mortals, I almost run to the aircraft, wanting to put distance between the fracas and me. Our flight is delayed for ten minutes, as the ‘stars’ can’t reach the gate on time.

I sit behind SRK’s seat and try to ignore all the fuss going on but it’s difficult. Across the aisle, Kajol is apparently pacifying a disgruntled child on the phone; man, the mama is loud. Several people have breached space from business class and hover around our space like agitated moths attracted to a lit candle. The Kenyan stewardess with whom I converse in Kiswahili looks bewildered and asks me ‘Ajaabu! Kwani huyu mtu Mungu? Yes, I nod sadly; this man may well be God for his Indian fans. Bcheeeee, she responds in typical African show of contempt.

Thankfully, everybody falls asleep after takeoff; it is a 4:30 AM flight. I wake up with a start; it is fajr time. I grab a blanket after wudhoo and quickly offer fajr right outside the open space of the washrooms. As I complete my salaat, a husky female voice whispers ‘excuse me’ and I jump through my skin, my heart thumping. It is Kajol, respectfully waiting for me to finish my salaat so she can pass in front towards the washrooms. I smile an apology and let her through. I fall into immediate sajda and offer thanks. Even ‘superstars’ have to pee and poop.

The rest of the flight is uneventful and I return home to Sanford heavily jetlagged but in one piece. Alhamd’Allah. Now, the challenge is shedding the nundu, mishkaki and gajjar kuku pounds I have put on before my next trip in two weeks.

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