Postcard from… Dar es Salaam

I’ve been in Dar es Salaam for just two months of a three-year posting.  It’s the fifth African country I’ve lived and worked in since I left the City and commercial litigation in 1998.  Chancery Lane seems a long time ago now and a lot has happened since I volunteered for MEDAIR, a Swiss-based aid agency, and went to work in Southern Sudan during its recently ended civil war. 

After nine months managing a food relief operation I was transferred to Uganda to set up aid programmes in the north of the country.  And it was here that I joined the UK Government’s Department for International Development (DFID) as a legal adviser. DFID manages Britain’s aid to poor countries. It was the perfect job, enabling me to link my legal experience with my desire to remain in development work.  For four years I worked with Uganda’s senior judiciary as they developed a new Commercial Court.   Uganda was a country of firsts for us – our first child, the first time I’d job-shared with my wife (great fun actually), the first time I have worked out of a converted broom cupboard for an office (not linked with working with my wife), a first for various tropical nasties including bilharzia and the first time doing something more adventurous than jumping off a moving Number 11 bus.  White water rafting down the Nile would count as a highlight as well as travelling around the country in light aircraft that felt worryingly like motorised kites.

Malawi came next.  I led DFID’s large justice programme and worked on institutional and legal reform, elections and tackling issues such as corruption.  But during any free time we were often on the road.  Malawi is still incredibly poor but through various small-scale development projects we’ve been involved in personally we’ve been humbled by the resilience of many of the people we met.  Malawi is also an amazingly beautiful country and we were lucky enough to travel widely.  We trekked the highest mountain in Southern Africa (with kids in tow) and spent many long days on the shores and in the water of Lake Malawi.  Just as well we enjoyed the outdoor life – back then the nearest cinema was a four-hour drive away!

Malawi was momentous for us as a family.  We adopted Sam, our second child during my posting and ended up being in illustrious company with a certain ‘material girl’ doing likewise in Malawi soon afterwards.  In fact, my wife Rachel was mistaken for Madonna on one occasion (perhaps it was because I looked like Guy Ritchie?).  And just when I thought I had finished with nappies, Ed came along, born in Cape Town in January this year.   So we arrived in Malawi with one child and left with three.

Fast forward to August 2009, and we’ve moved to Tanzania, another very poor country.  I suspect the heat and humidity will be a challenge as will the traffic and regular water and electricity cuts (we’ve just been told we are about to get electricity cuts of 14 hours at a time).  But our experience will be nothing compared to what the vast majority of Tanzanians have to endure every day and that helps to keep everything in perspective.  It’s great to be here after weeks of packing and unpacking and having been land-locked for the past 11 years it’s a novelty for the children to be on the coast and for us to be able to eat seafood again without a high risk of food poisoning. The family are settling in well and we’ve found the local and expatriate communities very welcoming.  

Continuing as a DFID governance adviser I am overseeing a range of programmes tackling areas such as corruption and providing support to democratic reform and elections. We’ve all seen the negative impact bad elections can have on countries in Africa.  So the UK will be giving £11m of funding to support Tanzania’s elections in 2010 and I’ll been on the election trail once again.  Meanwhile, I’m starting to pick up Kiswahili and making plans to travel as soon as I have some spare time. 

But back to my trip to the office.  Today I pass a flock of flamingos, navigate some horrendous driving and shoot down a beach road that gives me fantastic views of the ships coming into the busy harbour. Watching out for peacocks (escapees from the President’s gardens), parking and getting through the tight security takes a few minutes.  Once up on the fifth floor of the building we share with the British High Commission and other embassies I greet my team, a great bunch of Tanzanian governance specialists and grab the first coffee of the morning whilst logging on to see what the day will bring.  And it’s still only 7.30…… 

Stuart Forster is a senior governance adviser at the Department For International Development in Tanzania