The Human Fund reaches Tanzania

Here in Tanzany, people prefer sports utility vehicles. This makes sense as even the roads inside the major cities can get out of hand very quickly. Mostly Toyotas and Nissans, the typical car has the spare tire mounted on the outside. Sometimes the tire is exposed to the elements, but more often it has a cover made of tough weather resistant fabric.

People here just love to decorate that wheel cover. You see all sorts of messages from the artsy to the commercial (particularly air conditioners) to the political and even sexually suggestive.

But the ones that really crack me up are wheel covers promoting the governmental and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Every organization has all their cars fitted in a wheel cover that includes their logo, project description, mission statement and whatever else they can fit on there. Seriously, some of those things seem like they have whole essays printed on them.

Even the really small NGOs with like no people and very little funding run around town with big important wheel covers talking about how they are out to save Tanzania. If you were an alien who teleported down to Dar es Salaam, you’d probably find yourself thinking, “God damn. With all these organizations doing all this good work, surely this country will be developed in no time!” If only.

We, however, didn’t have one. Even though the COPOTUS’ project is a year old, they are still fighting the government and the auto dealerships to get their project vehicle approved and delivered. So, we decided to have some fun with the whole wheel cover thing.

Fans of the Seinfeld TV series from the 1990s probably remember George Costanza’s creation of The Human Fund. Before Christmas George gets a gift from a friend that a donation was made in his name to a charity.

George makes up cards from “The Human Fund” and as office Christmas presents gives out fake “donations” made on his co-workers’ behalf to the Human fund. The motto of The Human Fund: “Money for people.”

We kicked the idea around for several months. What project should the Human Fund support here? Would the Human Fund use Kiswahili on its wheel cover? In the end, Colleen went out and made it happen with a simple design and the motto.

So I’ve been driving around Dar for several weeks now with my new wheel cover. One lady in traffic asked me for the Human Fund website address and my name. I guess she thought that she was a person and could use some money. I told her I was “George” and she should just Google The Human Fund and she’d find it. Another British couple asked me if The Human Fund had a big operation here. No, I told her. We’re still pretty small.

I haven’t run into as many Seinfeld fans as I expected – maybe the joke is too subtle or dated. But it amuses me and our friends now have an easier time distinguishing our car from the hundreds of other 10-year-old silver Prados driving around town.  

And I have several more Human Fund wheel covers printed up and ready to go. So if you live in Dar and would like to be a supporter of The Human Fund, contact me via the blog and we’ll see if you too can help get the word out there.

How to Tell if Your New Land Cruiser is a Diesel … in 10 Easy Steps

We had an exciting excursion in our new car last weekend. Along the way we learned some valuable lessons that I want to pass along to other expats looking to buy cars here.

Step 1: Purchase used Toyota Land Cruiser Prado from departing expat diplomat. If you’re an expat in Tanzania, you’re going to buy a Land Cruiser because that’s what Expat Aid Workers like. You will need to purchase it in advance of any paperwork, because the sellers are leaving the country and need to settle up. You might be nervous about driving on the other side of the road, but don’t worry about that.  You will have plenty of time to adjust because you won’t be driving it anytime soon. The Tanzany bureaucracy will make sure that you have months and months before you actually register and title it. In our case, we bought the car in February but did not actually get the license plates until mid-September.

2001 Toyota Land Cruiser Prado

2001 Toyota Land Cruiser Prado, Photo by

Step 2: Register Prado with TRA (Tanzania Revenue Authority). In Tanzany, the department of motor vehicle (DMV) functions handled by the tax collection agency. If that sounds to you like it combines all the fun of a traditional DMV with a tax audit, well, I have to agree.

In our case we decided to hire someone to help us with the paperwork. Although it seemed like a good idea, we did not “Have a Guy for That” and chose the wrong person. That set us back a month-and-a-half. It wasn’t until Colleen started going down to the TRA with our agent that things started happening.

You will have to fill out new paperwork on the car, even though all the information already in the system on the car is the same except the owner’s details. Notice that the previous car registration says “Diesel” for the fuel type. Since the car was imported from Japan, has no manuals or other information, no stickers on the gas tank, the previous owner didn’t mention anything about the gas type, and most Prados in Tanzany are diesels, it seemed safe to assume that it’s a diesel.

If you really want to double check, you could look at the fuel type information on the original import documentation. We didn’t – hence this step-by-step guide.

Step 3: Figure out how to get the license plates onto the car. Strangely, license plates in Tanzany do not come with pre-drilled holes for mounting on the car. You have to make those yourself. We asked our friend Jaco for help since he is a total gear head with tools for pretty much everything. After some careful measuring and drilling, he had the plates mounted on the car.

Step 4: Get a babysitter so you can have a shopping excursion. This was our “date night” for the week and we were looking forward to actually being able to spend time in the store without our kids pestering us for stuff.

Step 5: Drive to Mlimani city, the only real mall in town. Make sure to leave plenty of time in case traffic is bad. Even though it is only 9 km. away from our house, we once spent two-and-a-half hours driving home. (And it would have taken even more time if I hadn’t followed Colleen’s advice to drive on the shoulder of the road for about a mile to bypass traffic.)

Step 6: When gas station attendant asks, tell her you need diesel. Repeat this when she asks you a second time to be sure if you really want diesel. Of course you want diesel. That’s what the TRA documentation said, right?

Step 7: Pull out of gas station, see if the engine dies. If the car does not die, congratulations, you have a diesel. Proceed to step 10.

If it does die (as ours did) … well, then it’s not a diesel.

Tip: It’s best not to go too far from the gas station in the case it is not a diesel car. In our case, we went around the perimeter of the gas station before the car sputtered to a halt.

Step 8 (optional): If it’s not a diesel, find a mechanic to fix it. Even though you are at a gas station, there probably won’t be a garage associated with it. And even if there is a garage, it probably won’t be open. We were at a Total station that has a Nissan dealership on the premise with a repair facility. But of course it was closed – after all it WAS 2:30pm on a Saturday afternoon. Fortunately for us, there was a small garage down the street and three friendly mechanics came down to fix the car for us.

Step 9 (optional): Drain the gas tank. The mechanics probably won’t have any kind of pump or siphoning equipment. In our case, the three guys ended up detaching the gas tank from the bottom of the car and emptying the diesel into a series of buckets. They then rinsed out the tank with petrol, reattached the gas tank, replaced the spark plugs, and ran gas through the engine lines to clear it out. It took the three guys about two-and-a-half hours of work to complete the process. The damage: TSH 100,000 (US $63) for the diesel, TSH 60,000 (US $38) for new spark plugs, TSH 40,000 (US$25) for the labor. (And I probably could have negotiated the labor cost down a bit more if I tried.)

Tip: If you can find some jerry cans, you can take the diesel home to use in the generator. (Which is nice because you’re probably still spending a lot of money for generator fuel since the power is still off every other day.) We spent a half hour looking for some affordable jerry cans, but the only ones I could find cost more than the value of the gas. I ended up leaving the fuel with the gas station guard who helped translate for us with the mechanics. I hope he was able to re-sell it and make some decent money.

Step 10: Return home. If you did step 9, you’ll probably wonder if they really attached the gas tank well. We haven’t lost ours yet … but I’m still waiting for the other, er, shoe to drop.

So voila! Now you know if your new Land Cruiser is a diesel. And we’ve learned a valuable lesson about the accuracy and trustworthiness of official paperwork in Tanzany.

The Odd Gas Crisis of 2011

Sorry I haven’t posted in a while.  I’ve been stuck in line trying to buy gas.


Photo from The Citizen

We had an abrupt and perplexing public policy cluster fuck that consumed the first part of August.  Here are the sequence events, as I understand it based on news reports and conversations with friends who have governmental connections.

The Tanzany government decided that it wanted to lower the retail price of gasoline.  I think their idea was to help out consumers here who have been hit by a high-ish rate of inflation (~13%) over the past year.  I guess we can give them credit for good intentions, as long as we aside the problem that artificially suppressing gas prices will cost the government money, which will require more tax revenue, and that will end up in the pockets of OPEC.  Even more than they are doing today, actually, as I read one estimate that the current gas subsidy is around 34% off what the market rate would otherwise be.

Now in the US, I guess you would have to do this by giving people a tax break or voucher and it would have to pass Congress and it would be a huge pain in the ass.  But here in Tanzany, they figured it would be easier.  The government controls the wholesale supply and retail pricing of petroleum (hello, socialist hangover).  So on July 3 the Energy and Water Utilities Regulatory Authority (Ewura) invited comments on a change to the retail price.   On August 2, Ewura ignored all the comments they had gotten from the gas retailers and simply told them to lower the price from TSH 2,080 to TSH 2,004 per liter (about $1.25). 

The gas stations balked.  They pointed out that they had paid the higher wholesale rate for their existing inventory of gasoline.  Now any businessman is going to complain when a government unilaterally raises prices on him, but this seemed like a reasonable point to me.

I won’t go into the details, but the dialogue from this point on essentially boiled down to:

Government:                          Raise your prices.

Gas Station Owners:              Will not.

Government:                          Will too.

Gas Station Owners:              Will not.

Government:                          Will too, or I’ll make you.

Gas Station Owners:              Screw you, I’m going home.

                                                (Takes ball and leaves.)

All the sudden, most of the gas stations around Dar were suddenly “out of gas.”  The few that did have gas only had it sometimes.  And any open station had lines twenty cars long.  It was like the 70s all over again except without Jimmy Carter and the cardigans. 

Jimmy Carter Cardigans 

 It was also all the Mzungos talked about at social gatherings:

“I got an email from someone at the UN that the Total in Mlimani City is going to have gas tomorrow.”

“Really? I heard the BP downtown had it yesterday but they’re out now.  Will they have diesel?”

And there’s the rub, because even though the power situation has improved, we still have 8-10 hour power outages.  And no diesel means no backup generator.  My friend Mark showed up to one happy hour with 10 twenty-gallon jerry cans full of diesel in the back of his Landcruiser.  It was the Tanzany equivalent of showing up to a party in Minnesota with a 12-point buck strapped to the top of your car.  That guy scored big!

Of course, this started a mini black market for petrol.  The going rate for a liter of petrol was TSH 3,000 per liter, a 36% increase, but at least you could get it.

Oddly, BP Tanzania became the biggest scapegoat in the whole fiasco.  Blaming foreigners for causing all the countries problems is not unusual here, but the weird thing is that the government of Tanzania has a 50% ownership stake in BP Tanzania.  The regulator suspended BP’s wholesale license for three months and even sought a judicial order to arrest the BP Tanzania managing director.

Things got back to normal in shortly after August 14 when the government decided to review it’s pricing formula again.  At that point, Euwra was shocked (Shocked!) to discover that prices needed revising (due to market changes, of course).  They  raised the gas price to 2,114 per liter.  So rather than the TSH 76 price cut, we ended up with a TSH 34 price increase.

I haven’t seen the government spin on the whole fiasco since it raised prices, but the whole thing reminds me of an episode that I read about in Mexico City some time ago.  The Mexico City government wanted to increase the capacity of the Periferico ring road but didn’t want to spend any money to do it.  So they sent out the painting unit and repainted the four lanes into six.  They then released the news to the press – Periferico capacity expanded by 50%!

As you would imagine the number of traffic accidents skyrocketed.  About a month later they gave it up and repainted the number of lanes back to four.  But, they told the media, it was ok because the capacity had only decreased by 33%.   The project still had a net capacity increase of 17%.

I’m waiting for something similar to come out of the government here any day.