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.