The Cold War played out in the darndest ways. The competition between the West and the Soviet Bloc for hearts and souls of the developing world was intense and multi-faceted but did not necessarily garner headlines, except when real wars broke out. This tale is about one of the lesser-known consequences of that ideological struggle as it played out in Tanzania.

By the early 1960s there were dozens of newly independent countries around the globe, places that had formerly been administered by colonial powers. In most of these countries the population had been denied both quality education and access to skilled and managerial jobs. As a result, these new countries were short of the educated and experienced citizens they needed to implement their hard-won independence. The Soviet Bloc, Western countries, and the Chinese all jumped into the breach convinced that educating the emerging elites would buy influence, allegiance, and favoured access to resources and new markets. Scholarship programs flooded the market all over what was then called the “Third World”. The USSR went so far as to create a large university in Moscow which came to be known as Patrice Lumumba University after the Congo liberation leader assassinated on suspicion of leftist leanings. 

Tanzania was a particular darling for all sides of the ideological debate as Mwalimu Julius Nyerere was adept at walking a line which kept the suitors encouraged. A whole generation of Tanzanians studied around the world and brought home a lot of knowledge, ideas, and opinions. Those who studied in Canada might also have brought home a radio or some tools. Those who went to Britain, perhaps an electric stove or set of encyclopedias. This story hinges on what quite a few Tanzanian students brought home from Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow, which was wives. 

I never went to the USSR despite an ill-fated stint in the Soviet Studies faculty at Carleton University (turfed out after failing Russian language), but I was led to believe things were grey and gloomy there in the seventies and eighties. Maybe that made it easier to fall in love with bright dashing Tanzanian students. Or perhaps some of the marriages were cynical escape plans; not for me to know or to judge. 

But I do know that by the time I moved from my CUSO-sponsored teaching position in remote Iringa to bustling Dar es Salaam in 1984 there were at least a couple of dozen divorced and separated Russian women in town. Rumour was that some of the women had arrived as newlyweds only to discover that their groom already had a wife or two in hand. In other cases, the financial and social circumstances that greeted the happy couple varied wildly from what had been described back in Moscow, leading to buyer’s remorse. In the case of those possibly cynical unions, the groom risked being abandoned by the bride as soon as the Aeroflot flight landed. 

Vodka and hockey talk with Russian teachers near Iringa

Undoubtedly for all new arrivals, it was a tough time to start a life in Tanzania with its moribund economy and shortages of everything. But growing up in late-stage Soviet Union promoted resourcefulness and survival skills in its citizens. Some of these newly single citizens must have had second thoughts and flown home, but the balance of the women settled in, found work, opened small businesses, made friends and established new lives. 

Up in Iringa I had been oblivious to this peculiar sub-culture. There had been Soviets around; teachers and doctors – but they were official; sent there by their government and well supplied with vodka and canned goods from the Embassy commissary. These folks had no intention of staying in Tanzania but were enjoying their adventure and the rubles deposited for them back home. Kiswahili and ice hockey were our common language, this being the heyday of the Soviet-Canadian hockey rivalry. My new job in Dar es Salam was a local contract to take care of Canadians working on contract to the Canadian International Development Agency for the Tanzania Railway Corporation (TRC). The TRC’s rail network linked Dar es Salaam to Kigoma on Lake Tanganyika and Mwanza on Lake Victoria. The railway had been built by the Germans during their time as colonial occupiers of what was then known as German East Africa at about the same time as the more famous Kenya-Uganda railway portrayed in a Hollywood film called “The Lunatic Express”. The TRC was a full-service transport conception and I traveled on their buses which served where the railway itself did not, stayed in faded glory railway hotels where dreadful meals were still served on sterling silver plates, and sailed on passenger ships on Lake Tanganyika. 

For Tanzania, keeping this sprawling railway empire functioning was key to its unity and its economic future. Canada, maybe nostalgic for its own glorious railway project, decided it could help with that, and the experts arrived in droves. The General Manager and the Chief Financial Officer of the TRC were both Canadians. Canadians helped in the locomotive repair shops, with quarries producing the gravel for the railbed, and with the communications system. Bombardier locomotives pulled Canadian rolling stock over rails forged in Hamilton. It was kind of like the Wheat Project I would later join; the more you did, the more fun things you found needed to be done. Tanzania paid Canada for all that equipment, but they paid in shillings which could not legally be exported, even if someone outside of Tanzania would have wanted them. The bureaucrats dubbed these “counterpart funds” and they were used to fund all sorts of development programs like wells for villages and roofs for orphanages. It was all on an epic scale and a lot of Canadians spent a lot of time in Tanzania. 

German-built railway station in Kigoma on Lake Tanganyika. Kigoma is just north of where the Chicago Tribune reporter Stanley did that “Doctor Livingston, I presume” thing, and just south of Gombe Stream National Park, the site of a long-running study of chimpanzees

But our Canadian experts, unlike those Russian wives, had no experience with living in the land of empty shelves, electricity shortages, and a bureaucracy which needed rubber-stamped forms for everything; all of this in Kiswahili which none of the experts managed to learn. It was not going well, and the high-priced help was spending most of its time out of the office confounded by Dar es Salaam life. Ron Audette at the Canadian High Commission had passed through Iringa once while I was teaching, and he figured maybe my survival there had given me a leg up. Or more likely he could smell how badly I needed this as my teaching contract was expiring and I wanted to stay. In any case I was stunned when he offered me a contract to set up a small office to babysit all those experts. 

The culture shock moving from Canada to a developing country is supposed to be a big challenge. I can’t deny that, but the culture shock of moving from Iringa to Dar es Salaam was bigger. In Iringa I was growing or foraging my food, cooking on charcoal, drinking moonshine made from bamboo sap, and collecting rainwater off the roof to have a bath. Then my contract ended, and I was on a 12-hour overnight bus ride on unspeakable roads with only a backpack and a galvanized steel bucket to my name. The next day I had a job with a salary, the keys to a Peugeot 104 and was housesitting for the vacationing Ron in his air-conditioned house that had a back-up generator for his back-up generator as well as a pantry full of imported food and booze. My job was to take care of the Canadians’ housing, travel, banking, electrical generators, vehicles, spare parts, bread supply, food orders from Denmark, language training, cultural orientation, and dispute resolution. The theory was that my work would allow those experts to whip the TRC into shape and get those trains running on time. 

It was an intimidating challenge and a steep learning curve, but I was motivated and turned out to have the right experience for the work. Ron had been right; my years living in Iringa had given me a leg up. 

In 1985 I was replaced by a Canadian management company which took over the office I had set up and I moved on up to Arusha to work on the Tanzania-Canada Wheat Program. In Dar es Salaam my successor hired one of those ship-wrecked Russian women to handle logistical support to the Canadian families. Highly organized and efficient, she upped the office octane considerably. But in a plot worthy of Graham Greene, she turned the head of the otherwise pious Canadian Chief Financial Officer at the TRC. Or at least that was the belief of the CFO’s wife. High drama followed to the point where the issue was said to have been raised in the Canadian House of Commons by a backbencher accusing CIDA of employing a Soviet spy in Dar es Salaam. My amateur sleuthing in Hansard failed to turn up any reference to this minor skirmish in the Great Game but then again … it wouldn’t, would it?

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