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


sugarmar said...

Hi Jess, praying you have safe journey home, just wanted to let you know I loved reading your blog. Your experience there must have been wonderful, you are blessed with such a beautiful spirit, wish there were more like you. I miss having you at Burnt Hills, when you are home and starting to get bored come visit us at Burnt Hills? I would love to see you or you can contact me via my email we could meet for a drink??? I am hungry to hear more of your adventure, not sure why but it is totally fascinating to me.

Love you, Mary Podesva

Heather said...

Woo hoo! My Jess is home. Thanks for the shout out. Very sweet of you and I love the book list. It's so nice to have a computer, I'm going to have to go back read all the blog posts that I've missed now that I have both internet and a computer that works but I can't to hear it from your lips too. Love you!

Kat Deardorff said...

Hi! I am going to be leaving for Tanzania in October to be a health extension volunteer. Do you have any advice on what to pack or how to prepare for working as a health educator in Tanzania? Also, I saw your reading list. Is the PC book-borrowing system accessible and plentiful, or is there a lack of reading material? Thanks!