Friday, October 1, 2010

Maendeleo Yangu

I know I promised another blog in no time, but I’m late, as always. Pole Sana. (I’m very sorry). It seems almost silly that I’m writing another looooooooooong blog just before coming home, but hopefully if I can explain a few things now it’ll be easier to talk once we’re all together (it’s not long now!!!). Basically, I want to give a brief run down of what’s happened in the past three months or so.

Girls' Conference

I have to start by going all the way back to June. In June the Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) in the Mbeya Region (my neighbors, basically) put on a Girls' Empowerment Conference. I just happened to be visiting Mbeya the weekend they started planning so I finagled my girls a spot at the conference as well. I felt a bit bad because it was not always possible for me to be at all the planning sessions, but in the end I was glad that I volunteered at the conference and even more glad that I was able to get a few spots for “my girls.”

My girls came from the three schools where I taught for the past two years: Mahaulu Primary School, Kipagalo Secondary School, and Bulongwa Secondary School. I picked the girls by first asking the teachers who they recommended for the conference. Then while teaching I observed these girls and their participation. In the end I went to the Head of School (Principal) with a short list of girls and together we chose two to represent the school. In the end I was thrilled with the girls who would be accompanying me to Mbeya.

Basically the conference was a 5-day conference in which the girls were “empowered” to live better lives. I’ve always scoffed at the use of that word. Who says that these girls need us to “empower” them anyway? They’re amazing, smart, insightful girls with bright futures. Why do they need a bunch of white kids to “empower” them? But then I think back to my time as a high schooler going to leadership conferences. I probably didn’t need someone to empower me, but the boost of confidence in itself was empowering. Those FBLA and HOBY conferences taught me a lot of things, but I think the most empowering part of those conferences was being told that I was special. That I had something to offer my school and the world. I think that my girls were really touched but that very same realization.

Well, I’m getting ahead of myself a bit. Picking the girls was the easy part. Getting them to the conference was a bit harder. While it’s easy for me to get transportation to a main town on any given day doing so with 6 extra people (Students! Who I’m responsible for…) was a bit more of a task. I tried to book a car ahead of time, but then the car turned out to be in Mbeya instead of my village the day I wanted to go. I managed to get another car, but on the morning of our departure when he didn’t arrive at the planned time I knew we had a problem. Turns out I offended him with something I said in a text (God knows what) and he left without us. Eventually I got another car, and only about five hours late. Once the girls were stuffed into the car (one sat the entire trip on my lap), I started to relax a bit. But then after a few hours on the windy roads my girls started to get car sick. The cookies Bret bought to share turned out to be not such a hit. The girls were too busy tossing their cookies to enjoy eating any.

Once the girls took a nap and recovered a bit though the rest of the week went really well. A lot of the sessions were taught by us PCVs and our counterparts. For this project my counterpart was a primary school teacher named Gloria. Gloria has been my neighbor for the past two years and she’s been a Life Skills teacher herself since going to a training seminar by SUMASESU (the NGO I now work with, more on that later). Together the two of us taught lessons on self esteem and healthy relationships. It was interesting our very different teaching styles and life experiences melded so well. I think the sessions were really very helpful for the girls.

When teaching about self esteem we explained to the girls that while self esteem may not seem like a very important topic it’s critical in their (and our) lives. I explained that you can know everything about HIV/AIDS, but maybe if someone comes and seduces you, you’ll agree even though you know it’s dangerous because you don’t have enough self esteem. We also talked about how self esteem can help you reach your goals in life. Without believing in yourself it can be very hard to get through the challenges and roadblocks of life. (Interesting side note, by the way, there is no Kiswahili word for self esteem it can be translated kujiamini or kujiheshimu which mean to believe in yourself or to respect yourself. I think those words each have a lot more meaning than our stuffy, self-help sounding words.) So, in order to help our girls raise their self esteem in a healthy way we had each girl, teacher, and PCV tape a piece of paper to their backs. Then we took turns writing a compliment or strong character trait about each other on those pieces of paper. When we were done with the exercise each girl had a piece of paper full of special things about themselves. While they didn’t all know each other very well some of the insights they had were deep and very edifying. I was proud of them and as they read their various comments I could tell that they too were proud of themselves.

When we taught about healthy relationships it was a more relaxed setting. We met with several small groups of girls in order to make the conversation more intimate. It was interesting how open the girls were with us (especially with Gloria who is an adult with daughters old enough to be at the conference), but we had really interesting talks with the girls and their teachers about what a healthy relationship looks like. We talked about having standards for a relationship and for how to stick to those standards. We also discussed openly about how to deal with relationship difficulties. For example the old line “I’ll dump you if you don’t have sex with me” is used in Tanzania as well. Interestingly though, sometimes girls were honest and said they would agree even if they had initially said they wouldn’t, and then it wasn’t me or any of the teachers who intervened to offer guidance or advise but the others girls who were at the seminar. It was wonderful to see girls talking about these difficult topics openly and honestly and counseling each other with good advise.

Throughout the whole week there were many lessons on various Life Skills. The girls learned about many topics including: HIV/AIDS, STIs, goal setting, role models, condom use, self defense, assertive communication, delaying sex, income generation, reproductive health, and how to make menstrual pads and cycle beads. They also were trained in how to teach their peers about these topics and they had a practice teaching session. We PCVs were present to offer guidance, but it was awesome to see how some of the girls really shone while teaching.

Speaking of having a time to shine…the girls had lots of opportunity to “strut their stuff” so to speak. They had a pre and post test about HIV/AIDS and there was also a talent show at the end of the week. I’m proud to announce one of my girls was a top scorer on the test and my girls as a whole took second place in the talent show! My girls (some of whom had never left our village) beat out the city girls of Mbeya. Needless to say, I was one proud Mama.

It was an emotional week too. One of the most fascinating sessions featured prominent women who work in various fields. One of the guests was a doctor and she encouraged the girls to study math and science (topics that girls do traditionally poorly in here in Tanzania). There was also a female law enforcement officer who works in a special field to prevent crimes against women. It was invigorating and sad to see the girls’ reactions to this speaker. She mostly just explained laws and women’s rights, but she was often interrupted by thunderous applause like the President during the State of the Union Address. The last speaker was probably the least impressive in terms of salary or credentials, but she brought me to tears. The last speaker was a student at the University that was hosting our conference. This young woman actually came from one of the villages that was represented at the conference. She explained how she had loved math and science as a student and always wanted to be an engineer, but her family was poor and it seemed like an impossible dream. She managed to finished Ordinary Level of school (equivalent to our high school) but was unable to afford Advanced Level (kind of like junior college, but required before University studies) so instead she went to teachers college. After that she worked for many years as an elementary teacher and she worked hard to save up in order to put herself through University. Eventually, through her small savings and governmental loans she made it to University. As she explained to our girls, “Never give up.” It was breath-taking to watch this young woman start her speech with a nervous, quiet voice and turn into a passionate preacher. By the time she finished I was in tears. I could see one of my own students standing in her shoes in just a few short years. This student is incredibly bright and beautiful and especially talented in the fields of math and science, but she recently has gotten involved with a not-so-studious crowd. I decided to give her a bit of a pep talk. Unfortunately, my Kiswahili pep talks need a bit of work, but I think she got the message. And I was excited to get an unsolicited report after returning to school that even the other teachers at her school have seen a difference in her behavior and attitude in the past few months since the conference. Hallelujah!

I’ve gotten many such positive reports about my girls, but unfortunately not all the updates are sunshine and roses. One of my brightest students has recently dropped out of school for still unclear reasons. I cried when I got the news. This girl is bright beyond understanding and could really go far. I hope to get the bottom of all the crazy stories I’m hearing and really help her get back on track. We’ll see what happens.

Independence Day

Right after the girls’ conference Bret and I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro and then immediately upon returning to the village we hosted a huge 4th of July party. It was really fun hosting all our friends! The weather cooperated and it wasn’t too cold. We ate TONS of good ol’ American dishes: chili, hamburgers, hotdogs, potato salad, macaroni salad, tacos, brownies, no bakes, chocolate cake, coffee cake, and s’mores! Might not sound like much to you guys at home, but to us it was quite the feast. We even had CHEESE!! It was pretty fun to celebrate American Independence Day with German drinking games in Tanzania!


In July I was promised by the Head of the Building Committee that the choos would be done by August, but unfortunately there has been yet another unexpected advancement. The school had decided to cut down one of its forests and to sell the lumber to get the money to finish the building project. Kwa bahati mbaya (By bad luck) someone else started cutting down the school’s trees and claimed them as their own. Now the school is trapped in a legal battle over the trees. And, again, unfortunately, the bureaucracy in Tanzania isn’t much easier to pass through than it is at home in the States. Hopefully in the next few weeks will have some news. You can bet I pester any and all school and village leaders I meet. J

Upendo Chicken Project

On a more positive note my chicken project was finished just in time! All my PLWHAs now have a beautiful chicken coop stocked with healthy young chickens. It has been really rewarding to go back and check out the progress of each individual family. Some of the men have added additions onto their coops and some of the women have an obvious talent for poultry raising. Needless to say progress looks and tastes great! I’ve been blessed with a few thank you gifts of eggs! Fresh Tanzanian chicken eggs are the best. They’re a bit small, but the yolks are bright orange and are delicious and very healthy. I’m so proud to have gotten to play a role in helping these people improve their nutrition and financial situation. It’s neat to be able to go to the market and put money in the hands of some of the group members that’s not a loan or a hand-out. It’s money they’ve earned. Another great side effect of this project is that the main constructor of the coops (a member himself) is now highly esteemed as an expert in our village. He’s been hired to make several coops for other prominent villagers and has made a pretty penny doing so! I always felt bad that he was working so hard, but I guess his efforts have paid off. Even the vender who sold us building materials at no profit to himself has been getting extra orders due to all the publicity he received through out project! I actually made a video to show a bit about the project (I’m an amateur, sorry). Hopefully when I get home to quick internet I’ll be able to post it on my blog or I’ll post a uTube link or something. J

So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Good Night…

The first week in August was my last in my village. Earlier in the year I had to decide if I wanted to extend or not. I decided that I did indeed want to extend, but not for another full year. Thus I decided to stay for an extra three months. I really wanted to stay and continue working in my village—my home, but I knew if I stayed for only a few more months I would be preventing my village from getting another volunteer and they’d have to wait for another 9 months or so. I wanted to stay so badly, but it seemed more important that my village have a consistent volunteer to support projects and progress. So, with that in mind I set off to find a site that would take me for only a few months. I was starting to get stressed as the extension deadline loomed, but eventually I remembered that there’s an excellent NGO that works right in my district of Makete. The NGO is called SUMASESU. Over the past two years we’ve had a bit of contact because they’re goals and my goals as a health volunteer really overlapped. I decided to approach them and ask if they’d be interested in having a volunteer and they immediately agreed. So….with that in mind I begged PC to let me stay a little longer and begun to prepare to leave my home of the last two years.

It was incredibly difficult for me to leave my village because not only was I leaving a house and friends, but meaningful work and people who rely on me. I was incredibly busy in July trying to finish everything up (hence the lack of blog entries). I had to close all my grants and try and ensure all my projects were strong enough to sustain themselves even after I left. I prepared peer educators to take over my Life Skills periods. I prepared my counterpart, the new Ward Development Officer, and the leaders of Upendo to carry on with “my” PLWHAs group. I also wrote a 10-page single spaced letter to the volunteer who would replace me explaining about all the work I’ve done, who I’ve worked with, and projects I would recommend he or she take on. A part of me felt pretty confident leaving…although the other part of me was a mess. I’ve grown just as dependent on my friends, co-workers, students, and neighbors as they’ve grown on me. But as the days drew to a close I had a strange sense of peace. Even as they told me they wanted my going away party to be at my house on the day I was supposed to get picked up by SUMASESU I didn’t freak out (too much). I was mostly packed and cleaned up and ready to go. It was time.

Saying goodbye to folks turned out to be a bit more difficult than boxing up my stuff though. I cried as I said goodbye to my students. I tried to tell them that they’d never know how much I care about them and how much I want them to succeed. Some laughed a bit at me (can’t blame them), but I think a few took me to heart and I hope they’ll remember what I’ve taught them over the years when life catches them in a tight spot. I hope when they have no more hope that I’ll have enough for all of us. I hope that when no one else believes in them they’ll remember the crazy mzungu who always did. We’ll see…

My village as a whole and my PLWHAs group decided to each throw me a party. The village party was first. We made lots of food and eat and talked and laughed. There were short speeches and I had a chance to make peace with everyone before I left. Bret and Marie and Moritz (my mzungu friends) all happened to be out of town so it was one last chance for me to be with my villagers completely and to give them the goodbye they deserved.

The next day was the party being planned by Upendo. I knew this party would be a lot harder for me because I’m much closer to my PLWHAs and I know that they’re probably the most devastated by my departure. The day brought another added stress because the night before Bret informed me that one of his friend’s villages were expecting a volunteer, but the PCV discovered they had decided not to bring another and had to break this news to her village. I didn’t think this was possible in my village because PC seemed so interested in bringing another volunteer, but I decided to check in the next morning anyway. In the morning as I helped prepare the food for my party I got the worst response via text message imaginable—Sorry, we are not replacing your site. I cried. Again. I know, you’re probably sensing a pattern here. Tanzania has turned Jess into a cry-baby. The thing is Tanzanians don’t really cry outside of funerals and they tend to laugh at you if you do, so I think it’s a change inside me due not so much to latitudinal context. I think the difference is that in Tanzania I’ve learned that it’s ok to be passionate about people, ideas, and goals. And sometimes that makes me the happiest woman in the world and sometimes that makes me crumple into a big ol’ mess. The day of my going away party…I was a big ol’ mess.

Through a heated conversation with my APCD, I learned that several of the new year’s volunteers had already left the country and that their departure had created a void at my site. My entire district, the district in Tanzania with the highest HIV/AIDS rate, now has no health volunteer. My programs may die. My friends will not be as well taken care of. It was a rough day. I cried through grace. I cried through my goodbye. I cried through presents and pictures. You’d think my party was a funeral not a celebration, but I was happy to have the opportunity to say goodbye to my friends and tell them how much I love them and care about them and how hard it is to go. They returned the sentiment and at the end of the day, while I felt drained. I felt some sort of peace.

That peace was tentative that first day, but it’s grown stronger and stronger with time. I’ve come to the realization that my village was blessed to have a volunteer, even for a short time. And while I was able to help them, they can’t rely on me, or any other volunteer, forever. I’m now convinced that if people want to help themselves they’ll work to make my projects carry on by their own power. And if they don’t want to help themselves then it’s time the hand-outs stop anyway. I still hope to help individuals and maybe even my PLWHAs group in the future, but I want to see how things progress first.

So that brings me almost up to present day. J The day after my party I woke up early and cleaned my house (hoping if somehow my house was ready for a new volunteer, maybe one would magically appear) and said a few final goodbyes. When I got in the SUMASESU car my eyes were finally dry. It was an incredibly hard step to take, but I knew I wasn’t going far, so I tried to keep it together in front of my new co-workers. Luckily for me, my friends who came to see me off did the same. And even luckier for me, my babies were all away at school when I left so there was no tearful goodbye to them.


So…since August 3rd I’ve been at SUMASESU. “What’s SUMASESU?” you’re probably asking yourself. Good question. SUMASESU is an NGO. Its name stands for Support Makete to Self Support. The organization is about five years old, but in my humble opinion, it’s one of the most successful organizations in the district. It’s located in Tandala, about two hours from where I used to live.

SUMASESU has two main projects at this point in time: Food Security and Ujana (Youth). The food security program is sponsored by Bread for the World and works to help the poorest of the poor attain food security. Currently this project is working in 3 villages to help the handicapped, HIV positive individuals and their caretakers, the elderly, and orphans. They plan trainings about improved agricultural systems and livestock keeping.

The Ujana program, sponsored by FHI (Family Health International) is where I spend most of my time. Ujana is currently working in 30 villages and plans to be in 40 for their next fiscal year. They put on training of trainers for elementary school teachers, secondary school students, out of school youth, and religious leaders who then teach their peers or their students about Life Skills. They also have a community participatory theatre program and a radio program that teaches about gender equality and HIV/AIDS.

When I first arrived I was treated as a guest and I didn’t have much to do. But within a few weeks I was quite busy. I’ve traveled with the theatre group and gone village to village to check on the progress of our programs. I’ve also been helping with report and proposal writing which has taught me a lot. And finally I’ve helped plan and execute the various stakeholders meetings that have to occur now as it’s the end of the year. I’ve been working a bit on making a database (teaching myself Access in the process…yikes) and doing some tech support. Last week there was also a visitor from FHI who was doing some research for a new intervention for next year. I got to help her interview teachers, school leaders, and students as well as do some translating as she facilitated sessions. It was a lot of fun!

Part of the reason I wanted to extend with SUMASESU was to get some work experience and that I definitely have. I’ve started getting used to the 9-5 grind again (more accurately 8-7 grind) as well as having a boss, deadlines, etc. It’s been a strange adjustment from the work I did for the last two years, but I like it a lot. I also like that I get to have my hand in so many things. One morning I’m sitting in on a meeting about strategic planning for the fight against HIV/AIDS in Makete for the next 10 years and that afternoon I’m in a classroom checking up on the progress of some primary school students. I am disappointed to say that working with SUMASESU hasn’t helped me cross anything off my “potential jobs” list, but it has shown me that I like the facilitating and hands on just as much as the planning and organizing. Maybe when I get home I’ll be able to find another small NGO that will let me put my hand in every cookie jar.

Oh man, and speaking of eating they feed me even more here than they did in village…and I live a 1.5 minute walk away from work. Don’t be surprised if I come home a bit pudgier. J

I’ll Be Home for Christmas…

So, that’s a brief update on my life work-wise for the last few months. Sorry it was so long. Now I’ll be at SUMASESU until the end of October. After that I’ll head to Dar to “COS” (close of service). On November 3 I’ll no longer be a PCV. After that I’ll head home, but I plan on taking the long-route, so don’t get too excited. After some traveling I hope to be home in mid-December. Mungu akipenda (If God wishes) we’ll all be together for Christmas! Once I’m back I’ll share all my travel stories and pictures!

What’s Next?

I wish I had a really good answer for this topic, but I don’t really. Other than wanting to be home with friends and family for a while I don’t have much of a plan. So if anyone hears about any job openings that’ll take a girl just back from the third world, let me know! Who knows where I’ll end up…Hawaii? California? DC? NY? Minnesota? Chicago? Back to Africa? Or what I’ll be doing…teaching? Working at an NGO? Heading off to grad school? Working with the mentally handicapped? Doing some inspirational speaking? Who knows…I’m up for suggestions though!


Just want to say a few shout outs in this blog. First Congrats to my Aunt Nancy! I’m so sorry I won’t be at your wedding next month, but I love you lots and lots and lots. Can’t wait to look through all your (I’m sure) beautiful pictures when I get home. Don’t forget to tell your hubby to expect a visit from your favorite niece in the next few months!

Congrats also to Pete and Heather! I’m so excited you guys are getting married…and that’ll I’ll be there!!! YAY!!! I owe you for that one Pete!!!

And congratulations also to my best friend since sixth grade, Miss Rebecca Anne Gerlach. You can give congrats to Eric too if you want, but I think it’s best to hold out on him until I get a chance to give my approval. Can’t wait to start picking out dresses! You better not make any rash decisions (wardrobe wise) until I get home!!

Electricity-less Entertainment

Oh, and one last thing. I know some of you have enjoyed following what I’ve been reading. Since it’s been a while the list is quite long this time, but for those of you who care to read it…enjoy. For everyone else…thanks for working your way all the way through this blog. Mungu akubariki (God bless you).

- The Wolf at Twilight and Neither Wolf Nor Dog by Kent Nerburn
- Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
- The Magicians by Lev Grossman
- Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
- The Witch of Portobello by Paula Coelho
- Belong to Me
- Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stove
- The Post Birthday World by Lionel Shriver
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling
- Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
- Follow Me to Freedom by Shane Claiborne and John Perkins
- In a Sunburned Country and The Life and Times of the Thunderbold Kid by Bill Bryson
- The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
- What Uncle Sam Really Wants by Noam Chomsky
- The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon
- Mother Teresa: In My Own Words compiled by Jose Luis Gonzalez-Balado
- Dry by Augusten Burroughs
- People of the Book and March by Geraldine Brooks
- The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
- Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner
- Farm City by Novella Carpenter
- The Cardturner by Louis Sacchar
- Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
- The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
- Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
- Fly Girl by Sherri L. Smith
- Close Range and The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

Friday, July 23, 2010

A few pics...

This is a view on my walk to school. I really can't do it justice in any way shape or's just breathtakingly beautiful.
I'm not sure I ever put up pictures of my Christmas decorations, but here's the little bit that I did for Easter. The "Easter basket" is actually a special basket here used for flour. Thanks to friends and family for the candy!! I died Easter eggs for the first time in a long time....pretty sure I got the proportions wrong, but they were fun!
These black and white pics were taken by Bret on our way home from Matema Beach. Women carrying loads like this is quite normal here, but I thought you'd all be a bit surprised. Imagine walking an hour to work like that!
Another view of the gorgeous hills of Makete.
I stopped for a quick snack on our way back from Matema...
This is one of the six students I brought to a Girls Empowerment Conference in Mbeya. It was her first time ever using a computer. The first day when they mentioned computer class she was so scared to go, because she was worried people would call her a "mshamba" (Tanzania's version of a hick...). She did great though!
This is Bret and my counterpart Mama Elia. She was showing us how they make local "pombe" (alcohol). The locals like to translate it for us as "bamboo juice." Bret did have a little taste. :-)
This is my God son! Isn't he precious?
This is a hand-made boat. Tanzanians still use them to fish and to get a few extra bucks off the tourists. Bret took this picture at Matema Beach (on Lake Nyasa).
I started a girls soccer team with another teacher at my primary school. (He's like a Tanzanian Coach Meigel). These girls are the most active. They're at my door daily to ask to use the ball.

Matthew 5:32

“Give to him who asks of you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away.”—Matthew 5:32.

This one little verse of the Bible has been giving me an awful lot of trouble lately. Maybe that isn’t fair to say since this one verse from the Sermon on the Mount seems to summarize a lot of Jesus’s teachings. Remember these ones?

· If a man wants your tunic give him your coat as well…

· You cannot serve God and mammon.

· Do not worry, saying ‘What shall we eat, what shall we drink, what shall we wear?’

· If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.

These were always very beautiful verses to me. Full of love. Full of compassion. I thought I took them to heart, but the truth is…I did no such thing. I think the problem is that we as Americans feel like we’re so good at living out these verses because we’re so rarely challenged to do so. Because really, the gospel according to our forefathers says something along the lines of “Blessed is he who helps himself. Blessed is she who suffers in silence and dignity. Blessed is he who cherishes freedom. Blessed is she who gives out of her abundance.” And so what have we created? A world of dignified suffers and aloof agents of compassion. It was never hard for me to “give my cloak as well” in America because no one ever asked me for my shirt. They were too proud. Oh sure…I’ve given away lots of clothes and money, but never so that it hurt. Never to a point has that caused me stress, pain, or worry.

Now, after living in Tanzania for two years, I’m seeing the gospel for what Jesus meant it to be—hard as hell. Why is the gospel so different to me here? I’ll tell you this much…it’s not because the need is necessarily greater. Anyone who’s worked three minimum wage jobs to support their kids can tell you that. Anyone of the millions of kids in America who live without health insurance or nutritious meals can tell you that. Anyone who has a mental illness of who lives alone can tell you that. The difference in Tanzania is not the need. It’s the culture.

Tanzanian culture is traditionally a more communalistic one (although that is slowly changing in the name of “progress”). This is a place where a student can ask his friends and relatives for help with school fees without shame. This is a place where you can eat dinner anywhere. This is a place where you can leave your kids at home all day while you go to work and know that they’ll be taken care of. This is a place where friends help each other farm and cut firewood. This is a place here when I have something you want it’s fair game.

So…herein lies the difficulty. I make approximately $200 a month—which in the US would make me a pauper, but here it makes me on the same level as say—an investment banker at home. I’m rich. So it only makes senses that people come to me in their time of need. And usually I’m ok with that. Money for school fees, the hospital, funerals, food—all ok in my mind. I’m usually more than happy to help. (Even now when I know about 9% of people who are “borrowing” from me will ever pay me back).

The part that’s still hard for me is the whole “give to him that asks of you.” If I did that I’d have significantly less clothes, jewelry, shoes, and hair, for that matter. And here is where I start to get testy. Who are they to ask me for stuff they don’t NEED?! Have they no dignity? Why should I give them one of my bracelets just because I have two? So….wanna know what I did?

I stopped wearing bracelets.

And it’s not just that I’m materialistic. That’s not the only problem. The problem is that I like the power. I don’t just want to give when I’m asked. I want to give when I feel like it. One of my friends was recently in the hospital awaiting the birth of her second child. I decided to go and visit her and buy her a soda. She saw me on the path though and from afar yelled to me to buy her some bananas. I was so annoyed, I said no and left without even visiting her. Other times I’ve had people who really helped me with my work badger me to buy them a soda or beer. I always say no. Recently, a friend of mine, a village leader herself asked me about this. “Didn’t you hear him, Jessica?” I explained to her that I was sick of people demanding things of me and that I’d give when I felt like it.

And that’s what it comes down to, isn’t it? No matter how I try to rationalize things in my mind….the truth of it is that I give when I feel like it. When I deem someone as worthy. When I deem their cause as worthy. When it’s convenient for me.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the gospel isn’t so easy after all and I’m not as generous as I’ve always wanted to believe. I can’t say I have an easy moral for y’all to take away from this blog, because I’m not sure I have even really learned something tangible yet. I guess if I give anyone (including myself) a lesson on generosity, I’d take a break from the gospel and look at Aristotle. Wasn’t it he who said if you wanna be virtuous practice the virtues? Maybe I won’t really be generous until I start buying people some sodas when it actually pisses me off or giving away some of my bracelets. Maybe if I actually start taking Jesus at his word I’ll see the beauty he anticipated. Maybe the freedom that I think I’m clinging to so tightly will actually be revealed when I let go.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Climbing Kili

I think I've been on a total of 5 hikes in my entire what made me think I could climb the tallest free-standing mountain in the world...I'm not really sure. Maybe it was Bret's enthusiasm, excitement, and confidence. Maybe it was my fear of regretting not trying it later. Or maybe I just wanted to prove to myself that I could do it.

When I first arrived in Tanzania I had no intention of climbing Mountain Kilimanjaro. Too tall. Too cold. Too expensive. Too scary. Four very good reasons to stick to the beach and safaris. But when Bret suggested we climb Kili during his last vacation, I couldn't let the idea drop. I realized that the parts of me that were anti-Kili (aka the cheap and chicken parts) weren't necessarily beasts I wanted to feed. So with a little prodding from my mom--I agreed.

After a bit of research and a whole lot of discussion, Bret and I chose a route (Machame, 6-day) and a trekking company (Gladys Adventures). We only had about a month to prepare mentally and physically. We took one hike to Matema Beach and did a bit of strength training whenever we could find the time. Soon I was doing wall-sits so often I thought I was back on modified basketball (Yes, yes...I played basketball. I believe I accrued more fouls than points...). Before I knew it we were on a 16-hour bus ride from Mbeya to Moshi.

The next day we went in to see Gladys and rent some equipment. When we were there we met a nice Dutch couple who agreed to climb with us the next day. I found I was shockingly not nervous. I would either make it to the top or I'd get a damn-good story trying. So Bret and I stuffed ourselves with mzungu food (hamburgers, ice cream, and Italian food) and watched the World Cup practically forgetting what was coming next.

On Monday morning we began our climb. The first few days were pretty easy and breathtakingly beautiful. Everyday boasted a completely different ecosystem. They split the climb into short pieces to aid acclimatization so that you don't get altitude sickness. Not to say these days weren't hard. I got sick the second day (probably from all the junk food I ate) and had horrible cramps the third day, but I survived. Bret and my Dutch friends and guides were all very encouraging. Plus it didn't hurt to be puking up papaya while enjoying of the most breath-taking views in the world. Perspective, right?

On the night of day four we woke up at 11:30 pm to prepare to summit. After a nice breakfast of lemon-infused oatmeal, tea, and sugar cookies in our tent, I piled on the layers (2 thermal shirts, a wool sweater, a fleece jacket, a down coat, 2 thermal pants, a hat, fleece pajama bottoms, snow pants, 2 pairs of gloves, and 2 pairs of socks) and headed out (I, of course, am not a fan of the cold so I may have gone a bit overboard. The porters laughed hysterically as I gave them a very sweaty strip tease upon returning to camp...).

I've once heard summit Kili described as "the worst night of my life plus four hours." This turned out to be somewhat accurate. The night of the hike was a huge jump in elevation on a difficult trail done in the dark and the cold. But there was something in me that kept me going. Maybe it was the stars over Mwenyezi peak of the glow of head lamps ahead. Maybe it was the Snickers in Bret's bag that he'd been denying me for the last four days. Maybe it was pride. Or maybe it was all the people I was carrying with me in my The Northface backpack. As I climbed in the dark I thought of all the people who had given or lent me something for the climb.

  • Sam--my sunglasses
  • Hillary--my sports bra and CamelPak
  • Sarah--my fleece pants
  • Marie--my raincoat and sweater
  • Mom and Dad--my packs, socks, hat, boots, sleeping bag, and nearly all my clothes
  • My friends at St. Paul's--my sleeping bag lines and bandanna
  • Anita--my poles
I wanted to summit with all these people. I wanted to do it for them. And I heard the voices of my friends and relatives encouraging me. Not that I really told anyone we were climbing Kili, but when you've been supported and encouraged your whole life it's not hard to summon those voices. I heard Mrs. Westervelt me to "never say can't" and my PTs and my brother and telling me "you can do it." And they were right.

I made it to the top.

At 6:22 am I had arrived at the highest point in Africa: 5,895 meters...just in time to watch on of the most amazing sunrises of my life. After Bret, my Dutch friends and I had frolicked about and taken ample pictures we headed back down.

The way back down the mountain was no where near as inspirational and exciting. Matter of fact, for me and my bad knees it was tiring and scary. But I made it down. And once I reached the bottom I realized how thankful I was that Bret had encouraged me to climb that mountain. Not only did I get to see what we could do together (and it must have been quite the feat for Bret to point up with my complaints during those cold, windy nights), but I was reminded of what I could do, not on my own, but with 25 years of friendships, relationships, and experiences under my belt. I don't think I've taken nearly enough opportunities to thank my family, friends, teachers, doctors, youth workers, etc. for all the support you've given me over the years. You might think you only played a small role at some random point in my life, but that's not true. I carry you with me. And that's baggage that doesn't weigh down my pack. You helped me climb Kili, move to Africa, graduate from college, win soccer games, walk again, sing in front of hundreds, and accomplish countless other victories throughout my life. I'm eternally grateful to you. And I beg you to stay with me on all of the other treks I have to look forward to in life--no matter how much I might whine on the way. :-)


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Hello Hello

Well, once again it’s been a bit since I last wrote. I’ll try and recall the highlights of the past few months, just to give you an idea of what I’ve been up to.

Sauti Za Busara

In February I went to beautiful Zanzibar for the annual music festival called Sauti Za Busara. Sauti Za Busara means Voices of Wisdom. It’s a five day festival that boasts acts from all over Africa and the Swahili world (thus including everything from Israel to South Africa). The main type of music presented was taarib music which is uniquely Swahili. It uses percussion, guitars, keys and/or pitched percussion and some unique instruments as well. It’s very bright and cheery—great for dancing! But there was also reggae, traditional (including a bibi singing who’s in her nineties), hip-hop, and Tanzania pop. I would say my favorites were a girl from South Africa and a fellow foreigner who goes by Mzungu Kichaa.

The festival was held in a beautiful old fort. It was a smaller venue, but it made it really intimate. We sat out on the grass or danced in front of the stage. It was like being at a lawn concert at SPAC without as many crazy drunks and about one tenth or less of the people. The concert started around 4 pm and lasted into the middle of the night. We often went out to the street where they sell seafood skewers, Zanzibari pizza, Tanzanian snacks, and freshly-made sugar cane juice (with ginger and lime).

It was one of the best vacations of my life. How can you beat all day at the beach, delicious Swahili cuisine, and a lawn concert every night? It was also amazing since a bunch of my fellow PCVs went to the festival. It was like a mini reunion!

Since I couldn’t really understand most of the words sung during the concert, I’ve been trying to think about all the sounds and wisdom I hear here in village on an average day. I thought maybe relaying some of the typical sounds I hear might give you a new glimpse into my life here in Tanzania. So here goes....On any given day out my window I can hear the sound of:

Ø Firewood cracking as its being prepared for use in the kitchen.
Ø Very loud music on the radio (It’s communal...not as in respecting that others might not want to hear, but assuming that they do and thus spreading the wealth)
Ø Pikipikis (motorcycles), cars, and lorries....and yes they sound distinctly different
Ø School children running/marching up and down the road and singing (gym class)—usually around 8 am.
Ø Greetings in 3 languages
Ø Squeeking bicycle brakes
Ø Kondas screaming (Teenage boys that advertise where various cars are going to recruit customers)
Ø School bell (the inside of a wheel hit with a metal stick) between each period
Ø Church bell letting me know I’m late for church (or a steady ringing every 30 seconds or so for 10 minutes signifying someone has died or there’s another problem and we should go to church)
Ø Chickens, goats, cows, and guinea pigs (You’d be surprised how loud a cow munching on grass outside your window is)
Ø Children singing and playing
Ø People yelling “Hodi” outside me door asking to come in
Ø Heady singing without shame or shyness
Ø Lumber mills sawing away providing income for the families in my village

I can’t say any of these sounds are necessarily the voices of wisdom, but maybe the fact that I can hear this symphony of sound on any given day has a meaning in and of itself. The thing is that when I think back to home, the first sense that’s shocked with memory is site. America is about images. A constant barrage of them. Sound is white-washed. In the country we value peace and quiet and in the city we simply here the sound of anonymity. The sounds of Tanzania are sounds of belonging. I imagine when I return to America and close my eyes and think of Tanzania the first thing that’ll come back to are the sounds.


One of my favorite parts of living in Tanzania is seeing how other countries celebrate holidays. St. Patty’s Day (and Marj’s bday) aren’t celebrated in Tanzania, for obvious reasons. But that didn’t stop Bret, Moritz, Sarah, and I from having a green beer or two to celebrate the occasion.

And since I was at Matema last year for Easter, this year was the first year I experienced a Tanzanian Easter. One interesting thing about Easter here is that Pasaka meaning Easter isn’t simply the Sunday that Christ rose from the dead, it’s the entire long weekend—Thursday to Monday.

On Thursday students are let out of school early (around lunchtime). Starting at 2 p.m. the church bell rings. Then again at 3. Then again at 4. After these 3 rings (representing Peter’s three denials of Christ) we go to church. On this evening we partake together of the Lord’s Supper as Christ and his disciples did on the night before he was crucified. On Friday morning after 3 rings on the hour we return to church again. This time to reflect on Christ’s torture and death. Saturday is a day or rest and preparation, but then we return to church once again on Sunday to celebrate Christ’s resurrection from the grave. Jesu Christo amefufuka leo! Amefufuka kweli kweli! All throughout the holiday that refrain can be heard. “Jesus Christ has risen today! Truly, truly he has risen!” Finally, on Monday we return again to church to reflect on the time Christ communed with his disciples after returning from the dead. It’s our time to “walk with Christ.”

Easter in Tanzania, unlike Easter in America, is void of pomp. There is no Easter bunny. There are no Easter baskets. There are no Easter eggs and therefore no Easter egg hunts. There’s church (and lots of it, as you can see). What does that mean? Can Americans not simply indulge in a purely religious celebration? Or do we just love lore and traditions. I’ll admit, unlike many of our Christmas traditions, I have no clue what the Easter ones mean or where in the world they came from. Although, that isn’t to say that I didn’t remember or miss our American traditions, because I did. I actually dyed eggs and made myself an Easter basket in a basket a Tanzanian would usually use to hold her ugali flour. I guess this just makes me I sentimental? Is that bad? Is it wrong to want a card on Valentine’s day? Or to kiss someone special on the dawn of the New Year? Is it silly to crave funny colored eggs on the day Christ rose from the dead? Are my traditions beautiful because they’re full of meaning? Or beautiful because they’re full of memories? I think it’s more often the latter. And I’m not really ashamed of that, even if that makes me a machine-driven consumer monster.

Fairy Godmother?

Growing up in non-dom and Assemblies churches the idea of sprinkling babies and confirming angsty pre-teens is a bit new to me. But I’ve been observing and learning a lot as part of a very Lutheran community. This Easter I got a very hands-on lesson. I became the godmother of a Tanzania boy.

I now have a child named Innocent Jonathan (Ino, pronounced E-no, for short). The ceremony itself was pretty easy (thanks to stealing Bret’s liturgy book). I simply read a few words. I’ll be honest though. I was shaking. A lot. Standing up in front of a congregation is hard at home, imagine having to do it in another country and using another language. And add to it that my kid is no baby...he’s gonna be three this month. I thought my arm was gonna fall off when I gave him back to his mom. Good Lord, mom’s have some magic trick to carrying babies and not getting tired, I think

Anyway, a part of me is glad the hard part is over. I got through the ceremony. But now I’m worried. How in the world am I going to be a godmother to a child in Tanzania? I may never see him again. How will I be there for him when he needs me? Maybe I’ll be like his fairy godmother who just shows up at his most desperate hour to make his wildest dream come true. Who knows? I guess a part of me is wondering why his parents didn’t ask themselves this, but I think it’s better to take the compliment without question. Maybe they (as members of my PLWHAs group) are trying to show me that I’ve made a difference in their lives and they want me as a permanent part of their family history. Ino probably won’t even remember who I am in a few years. He won’t remember what I look like. But my legend will live. ;-) And I’ll never forget him. Or my connection to him. Can a foreigner living abroad ask for anything more?

Jimmy Eat World’s not the only one with Work

So, there’s nothing too new and exciting as far as work goes. The building the choos will be housed in is done. Now we’re waiting for the school to get the money to continue and for the rain to slow down so we can build the septic tank, put the sinks in each stall, and connect them. As always, I’m a bit worried. But I trust they’ll be done by the time I head out.

The chicken project I’m doing with my PLWHAs group, Upendo, is going really well. All the members have received training and we’re nearly done with building each family’s chicken coop. The roosters have already been purchased and now my counterparts and I are busy finding 90 hens to disburse among my group members! It’s a bit of a task to find ones of the right age and caliber, but I’m faithfully believing it’ll along come together in the next month (or maybe two). J

School continues to go well. This term I finished doing communication skills with my secondary school students and I’m looking forward to beginning decision making skills this coming week. My elementary school students have already done a chapter on bullying and are about to finish a chapter on disabilities.

Fun, Fun, Fun

But I continue to have fun as well. I’m still making lots of exciting foods. I think the best are:

Ø Homemade hummus and pita bread
Ø Pork Enchaladas
Ø Corn chowder

And of course reading lots of books, including:

Ø The Black Hermit by Ngugi wa Thiong’o
Ø Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J. K. Rowling
Ø Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott
Ø My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult
Ø The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King The Return of the King by J. R. R. Tolkien
Ø Empire Falls by Richard Russo
Ø The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner
Ø Invictus by John Carlin
Ø Running With Scissors by Augusten Burrougs
Ø The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Amy Tan

Guess that’s about it for new and exciting in these parts. Hope this blog finds you all well and enjoy the start of warm weather and baseball season! Much love from Tanzania!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

A Late Post and an Early Valentine :-)

Roses are red….violets are blue. Spring always comes late to New York….and Jess’s blogs do too.

Haha. I couldn’t bear to start another blog apologizing for my blog being so late in coming. It’s a good thing I have dad to remind me every month or so when my last blog was written and Mrs. Zaccos to remind him! I personally can’t figure out why blogs are all the rage. They lack the privacy of a dairy and the response of a letter. Is my generation really so cut off from the world that we need to pour our thoughts into cyber space to feel like someone’s listening? Do we crave so much to be heard that we don’t even care if there’s a response. A relationship? I don’t know. Maybe I shouldn’t knock blogs. I mean, in what other way would mom’s co-workers know about my time here? In what other way would my high school teachers and extended relatives get a peak into my life here? It takes a lot of time to write letters (and then I have to worry about them surviving all the way to America). And it takes just as much effort to get on a computer and write emails (and God only knows when the electricity and the internet will be cooperating with me on the same day). Back in the old days of Peace Corps volunteers were pretty much cut off from the world. Mom and dad couldn’t call on holidays—because there were no cell phones. Friends couldn’t write emails or post on Facebook—because there was no internet. In college Dr. Stewart always reminded us to reflect on whether or not technological advancement is good. There seems to always be an assumption that it is. I wonder in this case if it’s true. I mean, if I were cut off completely from the US, I would be able to dive completely into my life here. I’d focus on the relationships here. I’d work through the issues of life with my friends here. I’d care about the news of here. I would be fully and utterly here. In all likelihood, that kind of focus and dedication would probably make me a better volunteer. A better member of this community. But is that the only goal of Peace Corps?
For those of you who don’t know much about Peace Corps. This is an organization with three main goals. They are roughly, 1) To provide education and human capital to help aid development. 2) To help promote a better understanding of the American people on the part of the peoples served. 3) To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of the American people. Part of my aim in writing this blog is to help my friends and family back home have a better understanding of the amazing culture I am experiencing here in Tanzania. I hope that I’m somehow reaching that goal and if there is anything you ever want to know more about, please…PLEASE let me know!

Beyond that, I’m personally thankful to have a blog to write in. I feel like I’m only really exposing the very tip of the iceberg of what I’m experiencing here, but it seems that if I can share that tip of the iceberg with people even while I’m still here there will be a greater common ground to stand on when I get home. A place to start the conversation. Because let’s be honest, if I get home and have to answer questions like, “So…how was it?” I’m gonna be stumped.

Ha. I’m not really sure where this rant came from. I didn’t have it in mind when I planned this blog, but I suppose it sheds some light on why my blog entries are always so late. I guess what it boils down to is this: it’s hard to hold a one-way conversation, but in this circumstance I have hope that the occasional effort I put in will help you gain a small insight into another fascinating place in this big world, but will also help me when I come home to be a place to start talking and to pick up long-unattended to relationships. So I guess I’ll move on now, but I guess I should also quickly say thank you. Thank you for taking the time to learn about someplace so far and remote from you while you’re in the midst of your busy life. And thank you for caring enough about me to take the time to read my hideously long entries. I look forward to seeing ya’ll in person again and having a good chat.

Now….on to the meat. I bet your asking yourself what in the world I’ve been up to the last few months. Here’s a bit of a rundown.

For those of you who initially thought I sounded “bored” in Tanzania (Aunt Martha, Uncle Bill!), you’ll be happy to know that work is keeping me quite busy these days! November was an incredibly busy month for me. Since the Tanzanian school year runs from January-December (unlike our September-June set up) I was very busy trying to finish the HIV/AIDS portion of the secondary school life skills curriculum with my students before they finished began their finals and headed home. I did manage to finish the entire HIV/AIDS portion of the curriculum (including facts and myths about HIV/AIDS, the immune system, HIV transmission, the relationship between STDs and HIV, women and HIV, HIV prevention methods, disease progression and positive behaviors, HIV treatment, human rights, and behavior change), so that was really exciting! Next we’ll be moving on to communication skills. Since I studied communication in college and well….since I love to talk….I’m really looking forward to starting that chapter this month! My fifth graders (the only students I taught on the primary level) have no covered chapters on bullies, handicaps, HIV/AIDS, sexual abuse, and general safety. I’m not sure yet if the school principal wants me to move on with these students to sixth grade and finish the chapters on puberty, life changes (good and bad—a very important topic here with the amount of HIV/AIDS), and human rights and responsibilities. I’m very much in love with these students so I’d love to move on with them, but I also think it would be fun to have a new class. I guess I’ll just let the principal make the call.

The choos (rhymes with toes not too) are coming along well. We’ve hit the occasional roadblocks, but I’m trying to remain positive. The rainy season has indeed started, but the teachers, the school building committee, the craftsman, and the parents, all seem eager to continue. I hope they will be done soon! I’ll keep you all updated. In the meantime here are some pictures to let you see the process. As you can see the walls are finished and the roof is on. They have begun applying cement to the inside of the walls and inserting the window frames as well. The plan is that the entire building will be done this week minus the floor because the school committee is considering buying ceramic sinks for each stall instead of making them out of cement as originally planned. Ones the floors are done we’ll just be waiting on the village to dig the hole for the tank! It’s been a pretty stressful under-taking thus far, but it’s also amazing to see something go from the abstract planning stage to physical manifestation before your eyes. I think especially here where so much of my work’s benefits are invisible, I take a lot of pride and happiness in seeing something tangible come to be thanks to the combined efforts of my family and friends at home and here in my village.

My PLWHAs group, Upendo, is continuing to progress really well. I’m really proud of all they’ve accomplished since we began just over six months ago. Our garden is looking GREAT as you can see from the pictures! It’s pretty amazing that we get fresh greens and tomatoes enough for everyone in our group every two weeks! They are also really hoping to extend the garden and add more crops. In December we started giving microloans to group members. I made them wait until the monthly contributions were in and they had all sat through educational seminars and planning meetings. It was a pretty joyous day when I finally put the money in their hands! It will be very interesting to see what they are able to do with these small loans (all under $20). Last week group members also participated in a workshop on how to properly raise chickens. There’s a lot of chicken farming here, but because people do not know how to properly care for their chickens many get sick, die, or don’t produce a lot of eggs. This workshop was the first step in a PEPFAR grant I wrote to benefit the members of Upendo. Currently we are buying the supplies and making plans to build a banda ya kuku or chicken coop for every household in the group! The members are absolutely ready to move forward, but due to the rise of prices of building supplies during the rainy season, I’m a bit hesitant to get started. My supervisor Stewart Lupembe is a livestock expert and is helping me tremendously with this project. I’m sure as soon as we work out the kinks due to the price fluctuations we’ll be good to go! I think the thing that is exciting me most about Upendo now is that the members are now really starting to take responsibility for the group. They sometimes come with ideas or lessons to share or encouragement for the group. I can honestly say that the members of Upendo help get me through the occasional frustrations that I deal with here. They are an amazing group of people.
That being said, we as a group just went through a great loss as we lost our first group member to AIDS. Somedays I am able to harden and do my work more clinically here, but as I sat in Yuvilati’s kitchen and cried with her mom and sister whom she left behind, my work suddenly became very personal again. As I sat in that funeral I had a hard time focusing on the words I was singing. I was thinking more about what I could have done differently. Could I have visited her more in the hospital? Could I have spent more time at her home? Was there something I should have taught about? Was there something I was too scared to say? To busy? It’s funny how self-centered I get at a funeral. Is that human nature in general or just me? I either find myself thinking about what I would do if I lost a loved one or what I could have done differently in my relationship with that person. Maybe that’s selfish, but maybe it’s good. Maybe that keeps life in perspective for us. Maybe it helps push us forward. Maybe it helps us keep our minds on what really matters. I’ll be honest, while I was thinking about what really mattered I started to wonder if there is really any other work that I’ll have in my life that is more important than this. I began to look around the room and see my friends, many HIV positive, many a part of Upendo. I wondered if I could ever have a job in the US that could touch lives like mine does here. I wondered if I should leave them in a few months. I wondered if I would bother to mourn for their deaths when I live across an ocean. I wondered if they would ever really know how much I care about them. But at the same time I started to think about home. About my parents, family members, friends. For the first time I felt the ache of the pull between my two homes. And since that day, the feeling hasn’t really gone away. “Should I stay or should I go now….” Are no longer cute words to a song, it’s a truly pressing question in my heart.
November was also an incredibly busy month because I was preparing my village’s World AIDS Day celebration on December 1. I really wanted to chose a powerful theme for the event and after brainstorming with students, teachers, my counterpart and friends I got the idea from an unlikely place…my mom! J While talking on the phone with my parents my mom mentioned that since Tanzanian Independence Day was the week just after World AIDS Day maybe I could do something related to freedom. I decided on “Uhuru ni Uwezo” or “Freedom is Power.” I wanted to stress to my community—especially the young people that their personal freedom is powerful. They’re free to make healthy choices. They’re free to protect themselves. They’re free to test. They’re free to speak out. They’re free to know the truth. They’re free to live openly. They’re free to live with hope. They’re free to change the world. It turned out to be a pretty powerful theme….and it also was great for decorating purposes! Ha….guess I’ll always love a theme party.

I worked really hard to especially include my students in the event. I started by preparing a poster contest for the fifth and sixth grade students at the primary school. The idea of the poster contest was to get my life skills students thinking about World AIDS Day, but also to promote the event around the ward (Tanzania’s rough equivalent to a county). I bought flip chart paper and used the markers and pens that were provided by the members of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church for the kids to use. The teachers at the school were very cooperative and gave me plenty of time to prepare. First, we discussed the goals of World AIDS Day. We talked about how World AIDS Day is a day when people can learn more about HIV/AIDS and available resources in our community and villagers can have the opportunity to educate their neighbors, friends, and relatives. We talked about the need to reduce stigma. Finally we talked about the need to promote a higher sense of responsibility among the community as a whole to attack the problem of HIV/AIDS. While the students seemed to understand all the goals of World AIDS Day and the theme, they had a hard time understanding the concept of a poster contest. I’ll admit I was personally really frazzled and frustrated as I tried to explain the concept over and over again. No matter what I said or what examples I used, almost every child in the classroom would create an identical poster. My students are so used to copying EXACTLY what’s on the blackboard that an assignment that required visual creativity was incredibly difficult. At first I found myself criticizing the lack of creativity my students seemed to be displaying, but then I remembered that my students are amazingly creative writers and many have gifts in music that would be unfathomable in the US. The resources to support the visual arts, however, are not available or seen as a priority here. Eventually my students did get the idea and excelled at the project, which seems to be an illustration for how these kids will continue to overcome challenges in their lives. All in all, I was very pleased with my students. They did a great job making the posters and drawing a lot of attention to the event.

I also tried to create a special exercise for my secondary students. I decided that in lieu of a final exam I would give them something more practical. I created an HIV/AIDS Scavenger hunt. Again, this was a very new idea for my students. I asked them to find stores that sold condoms, get free condoms, visit local free clinics to test for HIV/AIDS, talk to church and government leaders about the HIV/AIDS crisis, talk to friends and family about their personal experiences with HIV and finally to give feedback on all the HIV/AIDS information they’d learned throughout the year. To be honest, the scavenger hunt was a near failure. Most students didn’t participate in the event and the few who did (less than 5%) did a very poor job. They fabricated answers and a few even downright lied (I’m tricky and gave all the places they were supposed to go special pens for the signature so I would know when they just were filling it in). I have come up a lot of answers to why this exercise was such a failure. 1) They’d never heard of a scavenger hunt before and the idea just didn’t make sense. 2) They were busy with finals and/or were already home after national exams. 3) They’re lazy. 4) The things I asked them to do were just too embarrassing. Excuse one and two are sort of understandable. Choice three just makes me down right mad. But it’s choice four that has me concerned. My students live in a community that is devastated by HIV/AIDS, but they can’t talk about it. My students know what condoms are and how to use them, but despite the fact that they can save their lives the stigma involved keeps them from obtaining them. My students can test for free at two places within walking distance, but again….I believe the stigma keeps them away. I remember when I first got here I asked if there was a lot of stigma around here. The resounding answer from everyone was, “No.” But I think they were only referring to one kind of stigma—the one directed at people living with HIV/AIDS. Sure, that’s still around, but my community generally accepts and treats people living with HIV/AIDS with respect. On the other hand though, there is great stigma related to positive health behaviors, such as using condoms or going to test. People see both of these gestures as admittance that a person has “bad behavior.” And no one (especially students) wants to risk that. Personally, some of the answers I received back to my life skills sessions were so incoherent I was afraid I had taught my students nothing. Although on the flipside there were also students who’s answers were so accurate and detailed I suspected they may have stolen my manual. Maybe that’s a good place for me to be in as an educator. The worst answers make me want to strive to do better and the best answers give me the confidence to know that I’m reaching some kids and maybe, possibly….actually making a difference in their lives.

After attending a community theater workshop in June, I was really excited to help my students prepare skits for World AIDS Day. The Fema Club from Bulongwa Secondary School prepared a play about the danger of alcohol use. Their drama showed that even well-educated, strong individuals can make poor and dangerous choices when under the influence of alcohol. Several of my life skills students from Mahulu Primary School also performed a play about the issue of fatakis. A fataki is a grown-up [man] who preys on young girls, usually students, for sexual companionship. This is a huge problem in Tanzania because these young girls often are living on the edge of poverty, so they enter into dangerous situations for basic needs and sometimes, even more upsetting, luxury items like shoes, clothes, phones, or money. The students performed a drama that empowered young girls to say no to easy money and also put responsibility into the hands of parents and community members to protect their children. The final play was performed by the women of the Miss Uhuru pageant (more on that to come). These women performed a skit that showed that educated and empowered women can and must make a stand to protect themselves against HIV/AIDS through abstinence, being faithful/testing, and/or using condoms. The skits were all really well-down, but not exactly in the “participatory” manner that we learned at the workshop. I hope that as I continue to work with my students they will be more prepared to use skits to start discussions that can cause real change in this community.

The Miss Uhuru pageant was an idea I got from a video I saw in college about Botswana’s Miss HIV Stigma Free Competition. This was a real beauty pageant in which all the contestants had to be HIV positive themselves or have a direct relative infected with the disease. I heard both criticism and praise about this event. Some people said the event was excellent. It showed that if you used ARVs you could live a positive and healthy life. It gave people courage to test and also helped reduce the stigma directed at PLWHAs. Others saw it as a bad thing. They said it glamorized HIV and made it into “no big deal.” They also feared that the lavish prizes given to the winners gave the message to people that if you need money or stuff—get AIDS. As I prepared this event, I tried to keep both sides of the coin in mind. I really believed that if I focused more on what the women SAID than on how they LOOKED it could be a really positive event. I can teach until I’m blue in the face, but these women who live the already difficult lives of women in a developing country gave first-hand accounts that not only encouraged people to test and live positively, but also to protect themselves and remain healthy. In my village I feel like the idea of HIV as no big deal, isn’t too much of a problem since people are sick and dying here daily, but I did have some serious concern about the idea of being rewarded for being HIV positive. This brings up a very difficult issue with my work. A lot of times I do provide “leg-up” type assistance for PLWHAs. Is this fair? Some of my villagers seem to think not, but I’ve seen the difficult lives these people lead. I’ve seen there children, and I have a hard to thinking that it isn’t crucial to sustaining families and in the long-term potentially the community at large. That being said, maybe the fancy gifts I gave to the participants weren’t necessary, but I felt like these women also deserved a reward for their bravery. No matter what anyone says, getting up and declaring your HIV status in front of 500 people isn’t easy. I have literally nothing but praise for the five women who were chosen for the competition and the 4 others who applied. All are amazing women who are caring well for themselves and their families. They spoke eloquently and with bravery. Not just to get a prize, but to be heard. Do fight AIDS. To help their communities, relatives, and friends. We only chose one Miss Uhuru, but they are all winners in my book. Pardon the colloquialism.

The afternoon hours on World AIDS Day were filled with soccer, free magazines and prizes, and testing! I got the help of PIUMA a local HIV/AIDS NGO and the local hospital in order to set up a testing booth in my village. In one afternoon 44 people got tested, many being referred to the hospital for treatment and PIUMA and Upendo for assistance. It has been difficult in the past few weeks talking to my friends and neighbors who tested positive on World AIDS Day. I am sad to hear that a friend is sick, but I’m encouraged that they tested and are now getting help. It was even more exciting to hear that some people who were afraid to test did so because they knew they had the support of Upendo group if they did test positive.

In the evening everyone headed to the neighboring church. The pastor and church elders agreed to help me prepare a candle light vigil. Parishioners came to remember those who lost their lives to HIV/AIDS, but also to pray for those who are infected and affected by HIV, including widows, orphans, PLWHAs, and their caretakers. It was a very emotional service, but it was incredibly powerful to hear the needs related to HIV/AIDS lifted up in prayer. It seems that since HIV has become such a huge part of life here, sometimes it’s taken for granted or ignored in a lot of ways. I really hope that by getting the church involved on World AIDS Day that they’ll continue to keep HIV/AIDS related issues in mind throughout the year.
Overall, I was really happy with the way World AIDS Day turned out. I was incredibly stressed out and sometimes not always kind, but despite myself, the event was really successful. My students learned a lot through attending but also by preparing and teaching themselves. My PLWHAs not only spoke well but proved to themselves what they’re capable of. The village and church leaderships learned what was possible when they worked together. And the HIV/AIDS organizations were brought together to really help the community.

That being said, after World AIDS Day was over, I was exhausted and went on vacation! I also used quite a bit of December relaxing and rejuvenating for the coming year! I enjoyed decorating my house with Bret and my neighbors as well as making a ridiculous amount of Christmas cookies! It was fun sharing my traditions with my friends here. In turn they took care of me on Christmas day. Christmas here isn’t a day filled with presents and Santa. Here we go to church in the morning to celebrate the real meaning of Christmas. Again this year I participated in the church Christmas play…this year as a wise man! After church Bret and I went around to our friends houses where we ate ridiculous amounts of food and danced to Tanzanian gospel music. I was so grateful for the love while away from friends and family. Bret and I tried to show our appreciation with words, but I think the gift bags filled with Christmas cookies did the trick a bit better!

The holidays did indeed give me a bit more time for “extracurriculars” while here. Bret, Marie and I made some pretty amazing food and treats! On Thanksgiving we made chicken, gravy, homemade stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, carrots, cobbler, and pie! It was quite a feast and it was topped off by a can of cranberry sauce I got in a care package (thanks mom and dad!). Bret and I made mouth-watering Christmas cookies over the charcoal stove: red and green Amish cookies, peanut butter jam print, chocolate fudge, no bakes, oatmeal butter squares, and toffee bars. Apart from special holiday foods, I also have recently made lasagna, mom’s mac and cheese, and corndogs!

I’ve had a bit more time for reading too since school let out. If you’re interested here are the books I’ve read:
· Magical Thinking by Augusten Burroughs
· A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn
· Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear by Katharine Weber
· The Nine by Jeffrey Toobin
· The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
· Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder
· Cowboys Are My Weakness by Pam Houston
· Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
· Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling
· Wicked by Gregory Maguire
· Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom
· Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver
· Green Hills of Africa by Ernest Hemmingway

That’s it for now. I don’t have too much else to say other than Happy New Year! Hope this finds you all happy and healthy! I don’t really have a New Year’s resolution other than to stop missing things from the US that can’t come in a care package….So here’s the list and I promise it’s the last time I mention them til I get home.
· Canned soup
· Dairy!
· Mom and grandma’s cooking
· Christmas shopping with dad
· Cereal
· The library
· The news (readily available)
· Prime-time tv dramas (I know…)
· My friends and family
· The freedom of having a car
· Seeing my brother’s latest hairdos
· Weddings

And no….I’m not ashamed that 1/3 of that list has to do with food. Hahaha….Happy New Year!

PS....I know I said I'd post pictures but the computer isn't exactly cooperating. I'll try and get on that ASAP!

Friday, October 30, 2009

A Chapter a Day?

Think this is going to be one of those blogs that needs to be divided into chapters…sorry everyone!

Chapter 1 Work:

Currently my PLWHAs group, Upendo, is doing really well. We have close to 30 members and we meet twice a month. The taarafa (kind like a county) Development Officer has been helping us preparing an official constitution as well as begin to prepare our credit group. Members have now almost all paid their “membership fee” as decided in the constitution (just less than $2) and most are putting 500 shillings (40 cents) monthly into our “bank” to use in our rotating credit scheme. We also have been lucky enough to receive contributions from some government leaders and from some short-term missionaries who came last month. Our “pot” is now over $200! The members can hardly wait to start getting loans, but I am insisting that we wait until everyone understands the process and the consequences of not paying back a loan on time.

This group also continues to care for a communal garden. We used the PC “permaculture” (short for permanent agriculture, which focuses on double digging, companion planting, and compost) technique which has gotten some positive and negative feedback. People are annoyed that I won’t use pesticides, which harm the good flora and fauna often along with the bad AND which deteriorate the soil. Although in some ways, I can now see why. Our beans were completely destroyed by bugs. L Some of our other seeds were from America and didn’t agree well with the very cold season we planted them in. Although, despite our difficulties. We had an amazing crop of spinach (which people have already begun to eat to improve their nutrition), our tomatoes (which are a bit expensive for the average Tanzanian to cook with on a regular basis) are progressing well, and our corn is higher than anyone else’s in the village! The garden does pose some problems of its own though. With such a big group it’s hard to keep track of who is doing their share of the work. I know some members are getting incredibly overworked while others get to reap the benefits. I know they are looking to me to step in, but other than a good talking to about teamwork….I’m trying to make sure they solve the problem together as a group.

While writing the group Constitution members agreed to support each other financially when one member has to go to the hospital. We also recently received the gift of a prayer shawl from the members of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church. The missionaries explained to the group treasurer that the shawl was made by an elderly member of the church and that while she made it she prayed for the recipient. After speaking with the group’s treasurer the missionaries also agreed to continue to pray and support the group even now after they’ve returned to Pennsylvania. I know the group appreciated the gifts (clothes, prayer shawl, money, and a water can), but I think the symbol of the shawl was almost more powerful for me. I know often as I work with PLWHAs I begin to feel anxiety for them, and the reminder that these strangers would intercede for them was such a huge comfort and blessing to me. It gave me a renewed hope I didn’t think I really noticed was missing.

I also wrote a grant for my group members to each start personally raising chickens so we are all eagerly awaiting the arrival of these funds so we can get going on building everyone’s coops, planning the training, and buying over a hundred chickens!

I continue to teach Life Skills in two secondary schools, but it is getting a bit harder. I am not a strict teacher like they are used to and my topic is not covered on national exams nor do I continue to hold the star-quality of the random mzungu who shows up to school. I am having to battle more and more with my students and constantly verbally demanding respect. While this struggle does occasionally make me just want to hide or find an excuse to stay home from school, I’m finding that their resistance is making me be honest and genuine with them in a way that wasn’t appropriate earlier. There are two more lessons revolving around HIV/AIDS before we move on to communication skills and I hope to finish these in November despite national exams and final prep (the school year ends here in December). Hopefully in the process I’ll be able to drive home my major points one more time. 1. You have the power to protect yourself from HIV. And you’re worth that effort. 2. HIV is not just a problem for those who are sick. We have a responsibility to help those who are infected and affected by HIV/AIDS live their lives to the fullest. 3. HIV/AIDS is a complicated issue and we have to be willing to take time to help neighbors, loved-ones, and family members make good choices. Sometimes I feel like I’m wasting my time teaching these young kids about HIV. The vast majority of them are healthy and strong and plan on staying that way, but the point I make is that HIV/AIDS education isn’t just for us. It’s about changing our society. It’s about showing us that we have the insight and power to make this world a better place. I hope that that message comes through as we pop condom balloons, debate, throwing popcorn seeds at each other, and play tug-o-war.

Teaching my primary school students life skills is a very different experience. The focus with them is very much on respecting oneself and others and taking basic precautions to keep safe. Through out the year we’ve covered the topics of: bullies, physical/mental disabilities, HIV/AIDS, and sexual abuse. We’re now starting the “Safety” chapter that talks about ways to protect oneself from accidents of various kinds and how to treat in the case accidents occur. I think it will be fun to put my First Aid classes to use with a very hands-on lesson! I am finally starting to know my kids names and their abilities as the year draws to an end. As of now, I don’t know if I will continue on with these students as the go to the sixth grade or if I will teach the in-coming 5th graders. We shall see!

I’m not sure if I’ve written on here yet about my bibi (grandma) group. A group of 7 elderly women caring for orphans approached me and informed me they would like to make a group. Currently we are attempting to officially start the group and make plans, but they have already begun a rotating credit group of their own!

And how could I forget? The choo building project continues to progress well. We are on an incredible time crunch due to the impending rainy season, but I have discovered if anyone can make the impossible possible…it’s Tanzanians. While the availability of a car to transport materials, the late arrival of grant money, and the fact that most villagers are now incredibly busy harvesting grain, we continue to progress well. I am faithful the kids will soon have a clean, safe place to go to the bathroom. To all of you who contributed I truly cannot thank you enough. I wish you could know the students that you are helping! I know that’s impossible, but I promise to do the next best thing and get some pictures of the students (and the progress) on here as soon as possible!

Finally, the icing on the cake work-wise are the preparations for World AIDS Day, December 1. We have a ton of activities planned and hopefully after World AIDS Day I’ll be able to give you a full run-down!

Chapter 2 When the Lights Go Out:

I once again have a list of books to share with you all. I know some people have mentioned wanting to “read books with me” so please feel free to pick a book from my list, read it, and send along your thoughts! It’ll be like cross-continental book club. The ones I’ve recently finished are:
The Importance of Being Ernest and Other Plays by Oscar Wilde
The Metamorphosis, the Penal Colony and Other Stories by Franz Kafka (that was for you, Dr. Mrs.)
Kanthapura by Raja Rao
The Princess Bride (not the original Morgenstern though, the abridged)
Summer Sisters by Judy Blume (yeah, I know…)
The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University by Kevin Roose
The Ghost in Love by Jonathan Carrol
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown
The Soloist by Steve Lopez

It’s so funny how different your life is when you don’t have electricity. In a lot of ways, I really love it (granted, I cheat and use Bret’s to charge my phone, iPOD, speakers, and flashlight batteries…). The thing is, I can work work work until dark, but when the lights go out…I’m done for the day. I’m free to sit next to my neighbors fire and talk and eat ugali. I’m free to close my door and be alone. I’m free to cook. I’m free to read (by headlamp or candlelight). I’m free to think. I’m sure electricity is one of the inventions that has most effected the development of the western world, but a part of me loves that I don’t have access to it here. When the “productive hours of the day” are less, that leaves time for doing the things that make me me. I always have time to invest in people and in myself. Sure, it’s inconvenient and sometimes scary, but in the dark I can’t hide from myself. And I can’t run myself ragged. I have to be still, careful. Internal. I have time to read books that I’d never make time for in America. Books that teach me more about me. Books that teach me more about my shameful history. Books that confuse me and remind me that I’m no where close to have it all figured out. Books that remind me of friends. Books that remind me of issues that are far off. Books that make me appreciate the beauty of the human experience and relish my share in it. Maybe the problem isn’t just that the lights are out. Maybe it’s also that the noise is cut-off. The images cease. There’s no tv. There are no cars. I’m alone beneath the stars. It’s cold. I’m tired. If am physically and mentally exhausted…I sleep…and wake up refreshed in the morning. I don’t sit for hours in front of a tv or computer while my body pushes itself to the limit only to wake up tired again the next day. Does this mean I’ll turn my electricity off when I go home? Probably not. I love writing emails. I love watching the news and the occasional trashy tv show, but I think maybe this experience will help me find some sort of happy medium in the future. We’ll see…

Chapter 3 Knobby Fingers:

Well, anyone who knows me really well knows that I crack my fingers like crazy and I’m gonna have gnarly, disgusting fingers when I’m old. Unfortunately, recently I feel like I’m already there. The problem is this. My clothes washing form is a bit off. I never remember to use solely the palms of my hand, in particularly the fleshy part under my thumbs. This leads to me always getting small cuts on my hands on laundry day. For some reason these little tiny cuts always turn into big nasty knobs with ugly scabs that stick out and scratch whoever I touch. It’s not really that big of a deal. But that combined with the fact that laundry takes a shit-load of time, water, and energy makes me less and less into the whole laundry thing. Plus recently, Mama Diana, my neighbor, mom, and one of my best friends here, asked me why I don’t pay her to do my laundry.

So….that leads to the question: Why don’t I just pay someone to do my laundry? Paying someone to do my laundry each week would cost less than $7 a month and would save me probably 6 hours of work (excluding fetching water). This would put money into the hands of a Tanzanian who could really use it and wouldn’t really put a dent in my wallet at all. But I still say no. Why?

Well, initially I wasn’t sure how my “living allowance,” of about $200 per month, would provide. I wanted to live frugally and simply. I also made a commitment to myself to try and live as much like a Tanzanian as I can. To live without running water, electricity, appliances, etc. To make us equals in the toils and labors of life and hopefully through shared experience to catch a glimpse of their worldview. But is that why I continually refuse to pay someone to do my laundry? I don’t run out to the farm with my neighbors every chance I get (that shit is HARD work) and I don’t cut and carry firewood like they do and I use the internet and read books from an endless supply. So who am I really kidding? Why won’t I bend on this issue?

I have to admit that there’s another factor at play. One the Tanzanians will never understand….and that’s my ingrained views, fears, and experiences with race in the United States. Now, don’t get me wrong. Race is definitely an issue in Tanzania. White people “wazungu” have long been a presence here…for good and evil. We represent effortless money without strings. Aid. We’re the barers of religion and education. There is power involved. There’s unequality involved. But it’s not like at home. I am forever scarred by my country’s history of race relations. It took a long time before I didn’t wince when I was called mzungu. Because I didn’t want to be labeled by my color or appearance. I wanted to be a person. A dada (sister) or mwalimu (teacher). I didn’t want to be categorized by my color because since I was a small child I learned that’s an unpardonable sin.

“Thou shalt not be a racist,” is not a part of the Tanzanian Ten Commandments. There’s no history here of slave ships filled with human cargo chained under the hold dying of starvation, disease, and madness. There’s no history here of people being branded with the initial of the European country claiming them as a tradable good. There’s no history here of slaves slowly beat to death as an example to keep the negros in line. There’s no history here of ripping families apart for profit, pacifying with religion, or raping without repercussion. There were never race lynchings or burning crosses. There’s no history here of poll tax or the civil rights struggle. There aren’t ghettos here divided by race. There’s no statistics here drawing ties between poor education, STDs, crime, single-parenthood and race. People aren’t referred to by their race or ethnicity—the closest you may here is that someone is really black or white (which actually means light brown).

If I’m going to be honest with you and with myself, I have to admit that a part of me won’t let Mama Diana or anyone else touch my laundry because I can’t stand the picture in my head. I can’t stand handing someone a bag full of my dirty laundry in exchange for a fist-full of dirty money and a condescending “thank you”—especially if that someone is black. Am I being over-sensitive? Am I being a bit impractical? Probably the answer is yes to both.

So now the question is this…is our country being helped by this over-sensitive, impractical mindset? Is my hyper-sensitivity to race relations helpful to anyone? Am I promoting race reconciliation? Am I reducing stereotypes, producing understanding, or bridging the gap in any way? This might be a better blog if I knew the answer to that question.

I was recently talking to a friend about where I want to live when I grow up. Where I imagine the best environment to raise a child to be, etc. I mentioned that I don’t want to raise a child in a place that lacks diversity. I don’t want any child of mine to cry hysterically when they see a person of another race (yes, that happens to me on a regular basis). I don’t want any child of mine to form their thoughts on race solely on the stereotypes they see on tv or what they read in books. But then again, I love my home-town, despite it’s incredible lack of racial diversity. Why should I run-away from such a place simply because I don’t see enough colors when I stand in line at the grocery store. And is it fair to look at someone of another race as a statistic? Is it fair to want black people or Asian people or Hispanic people around so I can raise a child with an open heart? What if my child only walks away with a sense of the necessity of inter-race relations and not the beauty of relationship. And worse yet, what if my friends of another races feel like their only filling my diversity quota? When will it be that these intersections aren’t a part of my thought process? When will it be that I’ll be able to revel in my friends and loved ones because of the diversity of their thoughts, experiences, sense of humor, talents, and philosophies?

I don’t know when that day will arrive. I don’t think a day will come when it’ll be ok to forget the injustices of the past and present, but I hope that someday guilt and fear won’t guide my thoughts and actions. I hope that my children will observe in me a spirit that seeks justice and a love that is available to all. I hope that they’ll observe a person that treats everyone with respect regardless of all the categories and labels we create. I want my children to be free to love the homeless, the handicapped, the mentally ill, just as I want them to love people of other races. Maybe I won’t be able to completely lose the fear and the guilt, but maybe the place of these emotions in the culture and heart of my children will slightly be replaced. Maybe they’ll be the ones to change the world. Maybe it’ll be their kids…or their grandkids. I guess all I can hope is that at the end of the day my screwed up emotions, thoughts, and tendencies will guide me in the direction of love and someday those stimuli won’t be necessary for love to abound.

Chapter 4 Happy Birthday, Mr. President:

This morning I had the distinct honor of seeing Tanzania’s President in the flesh. Now that I’ve seen Kikwete in the flesh I’ve now seen 25% of Tanzania’s presidents since independence. Not bad since I haven’t seen one of our many American Presidents. He happened to be passing through our town on business and so he stopped to give a short speech to an anxious crowd of singing students, bishops, drivers, farmers, foreigners, and drunkards. He appeared in an impressive parade of cars—literally more than I see in any given day (perhaps month). He stood in his car with his body sticking out of his sunroof from the belly button up and spoke into a microphone with a spongy yellow cover. His hair had the strange sheen of black with a slight coating of dust from the roads and his tinted glasses created an even greater distance between us than that of the shifting crowd.

He congratulated the recently elected Village Chairman and asked him to give a brief account of the village’s leading issues at this moment in time. As a Peace Corps volunteer I am not allowed to give my opinion about Tanzanian leaders, but I will say it was a very interesting experience. I can’t imagine being “the man” responsible for the development of an entire nation. While cries for access to running water, electricity, and fertilizer may seem reasonable to me, I can’t imagine the volume of such cries when combined with every village in vast Tanzania. Kikwete’s job isn’t easy. I’m not sure I would want to be in his place.

And with that said…maybe a word on our President. Obama is constantly on my mind here in Tanzania. Not necessarily because I have any idea what he’s actually doing (because I don’t) but because Obama-mania is still in full-swing in Tanzania. There’s Obama flashlights, umbrellas, shirts, jean jackets, khangas, bags, posters, calendars, etc. etc. Many of which, I’ll admit, I own myself. I imagined that these items would be accepted at home as valuable keepsakes, but it seems like many of the Americans I talk to see them simply as over-priced garbage. Maybe being away from home is only allowing me to see a certain piece of the American people’s perception of Obama, but the piece I’m seeing is somehow hostile.

Ok…so maybe the reasons given for his reception of the Nobel Peace Prize are weak. Maybe universal health care won’t work. Maybe we’re still in a recession. But are any of these things his fault? With all the Obama-mania that swirled around the election, was the bar set too high? Is our rock star, racial hero, and rhetorical wizard really doing that bad of a job? My goodness….I’m sure everyone would agree that Kikwete has a hard job here facilitating development. Is anyone considering the difficulty of the task facing Obama? He’s supposed to restore our “good” reputation abroad, soothe the fears and the debts of the long-time economic elite, end bipartisanship, fulfill the dream of a non-racist America, and provide a leg-up to America’s often forgotten lower class—all of course while maintaining a perfect home life and preserving the stratification of our country that made it rich, prosperous and stable since 1776. The truth is, despite what I wrote in my President’s notebook with Mrs. Collins in eighth grade, the job of the President is incredibly difficult. They often make decisions to oppress people at home and abroad for the “greater good.” With all the problems in the American economy now, is that what America as a whole is asking for? Are we asking Obama to make the tough decisions that in the end will profit “us.” Is it possible to be a loving, virtuous person in the White House? And really….is that what America wants?

Listen, this is no plea for Obama (even though I have loved him ever since I wrote my senior thesis on the issue of race in his speeches) I’m just saying maybe normal citizens all over the world should stop blaming their hardships on current leaders (or those of recent history, cough Bush cough) and take a look at our messy histories and personal responsibility and see where we can go from here. Easy for me to say from here, I know…I live on less than $7 a day, but maybe my own words will snap me back to responsibility as I bitch about the lack of jobs, health insurance, taxes, etc in a few months.

Chapter 5 Water Water Everywhere?

Well, since we’re nearing the end of the dry season, I thought I’d write a quick reflection about the water situation here. I have a tap near-by my house, but there’s never water in it. When I want water I have to go down (a mountain!) to a nearby spring! It’s kinda a pain the butt. In the beginning of the dry season I made a habit of doing a bucket everyday. As I traveled and got lazy…I got out of the habit. These days if I’m hard pressed I’ll run down, but usually I just conserve until a group of students are sent from the school to fetch me water. Thank Jesus.

So….this whole process has me thinking about conservation. Anyone remember when Kim and Reggie Harris used to come and sing to us at Radez Elementary School? I’m pretty sure they even visited our class since they were friends with Mrs. Petersen! Anyway, I remember these individuals, not just for the color of their skin, their extraordinary dress, and exuberant personality, but for the words they sang. My favorite song (complete with motions) went something like this, “Shut off the water, don’t let it run…leave a little water for everyone. Shut off the water when you are done. Shut off the water.”

Sometimes I catch myself humming this diddy as I’m at Bret’s house (he has running water) washing my hands or brushing my teeth. I even sing it (bitterly) to myself as I watch Tanzanians pour out the bottom of their drinking cup after getting enough to drink (they drink the entire cup at once and dump out the rest). I mean….REALLY! Don’t they remember how much work it was to get down to the spring for that water? But then again…they’re used to the process. Just like when I go to Dar and there’s an unlimited water supply I take a 20 minute shower. When I’m used to the process I use without thinking. Just like I did at home. Just like I do here.

I’m going to be honest with you here. I don’t think my water consumption will change when I get home. I love taking long, scalding hot showers. And when I can do that effortlessly, I’m pretty sure I will. Daily. So what have I learned here? Hard work sucks? I’m spoiled and ok with it? I don’t know. Maybe I won’t be able to give up my exorbitant water consumption, but maybe it’ll be a reminder as I consume other things. Maybe I didn’t have to work hard for my gas or clothes. But SOMEONE did.

Chapter 6 I am Woman, Hear Me Roar?

The word feminism in America is very often a devil term of sorts. We often think of feminist as militant, impractical, cold. While I’m so far away from home now, I think more than ever I’m aware of this stereotype in myself. Tanzania in general has a more “traditional” view of gender. There is an incredible split in the division of labor and people’s distinctions between women’s sexual, spiritual, and social needs and responsibilities are very definite. I often find that these conceptions are frankly, infuriating. While complaining to Bret recently he asked me, “So…why do you strive so hard to fit into the norm here.” He was referring to my outward appearances and gestures. And he’s right…in many ways, I strive to be the ideal Tanzanian woman.

I bend my knee when I greet anyone (man or woman)—men don’t do this. I wear a dress or skirt everyday. I try and prepare food for guests and fuss about the manner in which it’s presented. I sit on the women’s side at church. I eat after the men. I participate in “women’s work” and avoid hang-out areas for men. Why?

Well, first of all, because I’m a guest. I didn’t come to Tanzania just to teach about my culture and history. I came to learn about and appreciate Tanzanian culture. Yes, I piga magota when I greet, but the degree varies on age more than gender (I get right down on the floor for old ladies!) because I deeply respect the reverence Tanzanians have for the elderly. I wear dresses, even though I doubt anyone would mind in the least if I put on a pair of jeans or dress pants. Most of the wazungu here do! But if I dressed like a mzungu maybe I wouldn’t be able to garner mutual respect from the elders here. I wouldn’t be able to get clothes made like the women here. I wouldn’t be able to show them that I think they’re beautiful and stylish too. I strive to be a good hostess not just because it’s what’s expected of me as a woman, but because I want to return the hospitality that has been shown to me on countless occasions in my 17 months here in Tanzania. I sit with the women at church so I can worship without distraction and without being a distraction to others. I try and wait to eat…because, well, “the last shall be first,” right? I participate in “women’s work” to spend time with my friends and learn about their lives and I avoid hang-out areas for men, so I can keep the respect of the community at large. What would you think of the white girl from outta town that gets drunk with your husband?

So that bears the question? What am I doing to help women here? And really, do they need my help? The feminist revolution in the United States took place over an extended period of time and was led by American women. Prophets in their own land. That’s likely what will create change here in Tanzania too. In the meantime, I’m trying to do my part. I show indignation when the female teachers (who are equally educated and equally busy at school) are expected to serve chai. I get angry when men don’t take responsibility for the well-being of their families or speak condescendingly toward their wives. And furious when they are violent or abusive towards their wives or children. But my approach is to talk. To discuss. If men through Bible verses at me about wives submitting to their husbands I ask them in they love their wives like Christ loves the church (he died for it!!! He didn’t beat it). If a friend speaks down to his wife or tells her what to do, I call him on it. Not militantly, but not completely in jest. And I often try to make the female teachers wait with me until a male teacher serves us. I show my students that girls can play soccer. I let Bret show our neighbors that boys can cook and clean. Some of these strategies are direct, some are indirect. My hope is that by being an accepted part of this village (partly by fitting well into my gender roll) I’ll be able to gain a voice about this topic, and maybe inspire the Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, or the author of the African Feminine Mystic.

That all being said, I don’t completely hate the Tanzanian view of women. They treasure women as wives and mothers. Two things I hope to achieve and excel at some day. I also don’t completely praise the American definitions of gender, nor do I think we have at “gender equality.” Maybe my time here has made me more sensitive to society’s ability to define rolls. And maybe this sense will enable me to be the Sojourner Truth of my generation when I get home.

This is President Kikwete in my village!

This is how my neighbors cook. Fire wood on three stones. The pot is made out of white clay which turns black from the fire.

My village is beautiful this time of year. The grain is ready to harvest and it covers the gorgeous slopping hills with gold. The walk to work is great!

Dar es Salaam is pretty too...

This is how to finish bricks. Those fires burnt all night....I went home at like 1 a.m.

Bret and I...yeah, I'm short.

Some of the ladies in my PLWHAs group splitting up the vegetables from our garden.

My kids dancing in my living room. There's no better way to cheer up after a hard day at the office. :-)

This is the foundation of the choos. The walls are almost done now! They're about up to my chest! Maybe we will get at least the kids choos done before the rain...

The fundi hard at work.