On Thursday a Kiswahili daily published a photograph showing, among other passengers, US Ambassador to Tanzania, Alfonso E. Lenhardt, who had been stuck in an elevator at the Ministry of Energy and Minerals for 20 minutes. Pole sana, Ambassador.
According to press reports, Ambassador Lenhardt (a retired Major General in the US Army) was going to the ministry to meet with the newly appointed minister for Energy and Minerals, renowned and acclaimed international scholar in geological sciences, Prof. Sospeter Muhongo.
The Kiswahili paper, whose reporter witnessed the envoy’s ordeal, reported that following a successful rescue mission from the trapped elevator, the minister finally met with his visitor and apologized for the mishap. However, the press report charged that the minister also pointed out – in a light touch though – that what the ambassador had encountered in the lift was simply a stark reminder of the severity of energy problems in Tanzania.
Ironically, while the US ambassador was getting stuck in our local elevator, President Jakaya Kikwete was probably flying smoothly to the United States of America to join ‘privileged’ three other African heads of state invited by President Barack Obama to attend the G8 Summit at Camp David over the weekend. The topic? Food security in Africa!
Sadly, while we, as a country, had failed to assure the ambassador of the world’s super power a smooth and secure ride to just about five levels of a building, the US has in the last six decades been working hard to ensure a smooth and secure ride of man (and woman) to the moon, outer space and other unthinkable places.
Yet what General Lenhardt encountered in this country on Wednesday is just a tip of the iceberg. There are many buildings in this part of the world with elevators that function by the grace of God. Before passengers embark on an upward or downward flight using an elevator in most buildings they have to say their prayers first.
The last time I checked, a politician who later became a Member of Parliament for a constituency in Kigoma, David Kafulila, survived a ten-storey plunge into a black hole of an elevator that had miraculously vanished. Kafulila lived to tell his story which, unfortunately in this part of the world, gets forgotten within 24 hours - hence promoting conditions for the recurrence of the same tragedies.
In fact, a clearly thought-out advice to Ambassador Lenhardt and others who would care to listen is that next time they have a choice between an elevator and a stairway they should choose the latter. The reporter who witnessed the elevator incident on Wednesday wrote that after the rescue the ambassador and the other passengers preferred to walk up the stairs.
And this brings this column to some soul-searching questions. The visit of the ambassador to the Ministry of Energy and Minerals was, reportedly, meant to provide an opportunity for some rapport between the envoy and the new minister. It was further reported that even in the discussions between the two parties emphasis was on future cooperation in addressing chronic energy problems.
It is not a secret that the US has been one of the leading donors to Tanzania and its bilateral aid has increased considerably in recent years. It is reported that this year alone President Obama has requested even more aid for Tanzania than the country has received in the past.
Yet there appears to be a problem with aid in general, not only from Dambisa Moyo’s perspective – that aid doesn’t work - but also from Albert Einstein’s perspective that ‘doing the same thing, the same way, over and over again and expecting different results, is insanity’.
To use the elevator metaphor; when the US ambassador and the other passengers got rescued from a trapped lift, they tried an alternative: they walked up the stairs. That, to me, appears to be common sense. Going back into the same elevator could not have made sense for passengers who had been stuck there for 20 minutes.
Again, although Ambassador Leinhardt and his fellow passengers were stuck in the fateful lift for only 20 minutes, Tanzania – and its fellow passengers on the continent – have been stuck in the elevator of underdevelopment and aid dependency for over 20 decades. It is only natural, logical and intelligent for this country, and fellow passengers in the trapped elevator of underdevelopment, to try an alternative way up.
It is the hope of every patriotic citizen that the new strategy for addressing the energy crisis in Tanzania, which Ambassador Leinhardt presented to Professor Muhongo on Wednesday, is an alternative stairway to conditions which continue to hold this country, and its fellow passengers, in a trapped elevator forever.