I Don’t Get No Heshima

So, a few days turned into 11 but I finally have time to sit down and write this. Time is flying by the closer I get to the end of my service. As of today, I’ve only got 36 days left in country, which seems unbelievable to me. I vividly remember arriving in Mbeya over two years ago and meeting the volunteers who were finishing their service then and thinking I would never make it to that point, but here I am.

It’s been a busy and exciting past few months. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to meet the first PCV that was in Ilembo, a Health volunteer named Michelle (AKA Meesh). When Meesh was here, she started an NGO called the Mary Ryan Foundation that helps the orphaned and vulnerable children of Ilembo. The HIV infection rate used to be quite high here (the number I heard was 50% of the villagers were HIV+) and a lot of children lost one or both of their parents to AIDS. Fortunately, educating people about the disease and how to prevent its spread has brought the infection rate down significantly and more people are living longer because health services and medicines are widely available now. But that still leaves a lot of parentless children who live with other family members (who take varying degrees of responsibility for looking after them) or who have to try to get by on their own from a very young age. MRF runs a school for fundi nguo (dressmakers/tailors) and fundi seremala (carpenters), as well as provides secondary school scholarships for many students.

Health volunteers tend to work more closely with their villagers. As an Education volunteer, I view the school as my primary community and the village is more of a secondary community. In places like Ilembo, where secondary education is generally regarded with suspicion, there is a distinct division between my school and the village. Teachers are viewed as wealthy outsiders and are often treated differently from villagers. For example, I purchased some rope for my house in the village and was charged a much higher price than I usually pay in town. I mentioned to some of the Tanzanian teachers that I thought I had been charged the mzungu price and they told me, “It’s actually the teacher price, they charge us a different price too.” Which actually made me feel some what better; being treated as one of a larger group of “others” feels better than being treated as the only one of my kind, as I often am as the sole remaining mzungu on the mountain.

There are legitimate reasons for this- the secondary school only opened about 12 or so years ago, so many of the parents of our students only attended primary school. If students did exceptionally well in primary school and they could afford it, they might attend one of the secondary schools in one of the larger towns but very few secondary schools existed in rural areas at that time. Then, the government decided that secondary education was mandatory and parents suddenly were required to pay school fees, buy uniforms and school supplies and pay various other school fees throughout the year. When the school first opened, only the most motivated students attended and there was a lower student-to-teacher ratio that resulted in tests scores being relatively high. Then, as the government cracked down on attendance and threatened to fine parents whose children did not attend, class sizes ballooned, there was a shortage of trained teachers for all of the new students and test scores started falling steadily. These problems caused low morale amongst both students and teachers, which still exists today. So parents are paying money for something that very rarely yields any positive results. Very few students move up to A-level (Advanced) studies. Some of them never make it past Form II and the ones that finish Form IV often have very few practical skills to show for their years of education. When we have parent meetings at the school, attendance is low and most of the questions are about eliminating portions of school fees. I once heard a parent ask the question, “Do you really need to buy paper?” I thought I misunderstood but my neighbor told me, “Nope, they really don’t understand why a school needs paper.” I used to be less understanding of this attitude, but after seeing the quality of education that most students get and knowing that the people in the government who are telling parents that they have to pay school fees are usually very wealthy and probably corrupt to varying degrees, I get it. I don’t like it, but I get it.

This is a long-winded way of saying that my relationship with the villagers is very different from what Meesh’s was. Health volunteers do a lot of work, but they have a flexible schedule: one day they might weigh babies at the health center, the next day they are giving out supplies to new mothers, and the next they might be working with a widow’s group, helping them with an income-generating project, etc. As a teacher, I have an actual 9 to 5 (really 7/8 to 6 most days) job that I have to be at Monday through Friday. When I interact with the villagers, it is usually because I’m buying something from them or just greeting them in passing. Therefore, my Kimelila (tribal language) is limited to about 5 words, all greeting related. My Kiswahili has improved a lot since I arrived at site, but it’s still not great. Meesh not only spoke excellent Kiswahili but her Kimelila was also very good. I know this because for the past two years, villagers have been telling me that Shali (Meesh’s tribal name) spoke very well and asking me why I didn’t speak as well as she did. This was, of course, when they weren’t actually confusing me with her, calling me Shali and launching into long monologues in Kimelila, none of which I actually understood. Eventually, I learned to just start nodding and saying, “Ninza” (“Good”) while slowly backing away from them.

So, when you put Meesh’s language skills together with the fact that she also started an organization that is still actively helping the village and contrast that with me, speaking Kiswahili like an 8 year old and working for an organization that villagers are extremely suspicious of, if not outright hostile towards, it’s not hard to imagine who is going to win a popularity contest: it’s going to be Meesh in a landslide. I accept this and have no problem with it, but I still managed to be surprised when we walked around the village together. First of all, since there are quite a few villagers who think there is only one mzungu who has been living in Ilembo for the past 6+ years (there’s actually been 3 of us: Meesh, Anna, and now me), I thought some of their minds might be blown seeing us together. Instead, the normal reaction was something like this:

Villager: Shali! Shali! Welcome! I am so happy to see you! (etc., etc.)

Meesh: Thank you! How are you? How is the family? (etc., etc.)

Villager: (turning to me) And who is this?

REALLY, PEOPLE? I’ve been here for over two years! TWO YEARS! Now I know how Rodney Dangerfield felt.

But I had a great time with Meesh. She stayed with me for about a week and was my first real visitor since I’ve been here. Apparently all the talking I’ve done about temperatures in the 30s, shoveling poop and bats flying around my house hasn’t prompted people to come experience Ilembo for themselves. Strange. I also learned a lot from her about the village and the villagers that I have been wondering about since I arrived. She introduced me to what I now refer to as “the pombe mall”. Pombe means alcohol in general but it usually is referring to home brewed alcohol which is made from crazy amounts of yeast, smells god awful (I’ve never actually tasted it, the smell alone makes me retch), comes in large yellow jugs that are also sometimes used to hold gasoline and apparently packs quite a punch. I don’t think it’s inaccurate to call it Tanzanian moonshine. (Two kids in a neighboring village apparently went blind from a particularly strong/bad batch of it.) Now, most villages have a pombe hut or two. Ilembo has a whole labyrinth of them, hidden away from the main business district of the village. Meesh went in to look for a villager and I followed her, marveling at the sheer number of places that served pombe, as well as the wide range of customers. There were men and women of all ages (with the exception of young children, thank God). I saw several bibis, which shocked me, but kind of explains some of the more confusing conversations I’ve had with them in the past. Actually, seeing the whole pombe mall explains a lot of things I’ve seen in the village over the past two years. Especially that old guy yelling and then passing out in the middle of the street at 2:30 in the afternoon.

Meesh at the ceremony they held for her.  My mkuu, Mr. Babuleghe, is on the far left (half cut off) and the village diwani (basically like a councilman) is to Meesh's immediate left.

Meesh at the ceremony they held for her. My mkuu, Mr. Babuleghe, is on the far left (half cut off) and the village diwani (basically like a councilman) is to Meesh’s immediate left.

Michael, who works with the Mary Ryan Foundation (and is one of the villagers who has helped me out the most while I've been here), and his mini-me son.  So adorable!

Michael, who works with the Mary Ryan Foundation (and is one of the villagers who has helped me out the most while I’ve been here), and his mini-me son. So adorable!

Some of the village mamas in the audience at Meesh's ceremony.

Some of the village mamas in the audience at Meesh’s ceremony.

A view of the mamas' head scarves.  One of my favorite things about Tanzania is that everyone wears bright colors and they mix and match patterns.  It's such a boost on a blah day during the rainy season in the village.

A view of the mamas’ head scarves. One of my favorite things about Tanzania is that everyone wears bright colors and they mix and match patterns. It’s such a boost on a blah day during the rainy season in the village.

Meesh with Laurence, one of the village kids she worked with during her service.

Meesh with Laurence, one of the village kids she worked with during her service.

Meesh poses with some of the village mamas and students.

Meesh poses with some of the village mamas and students.

Meesh & I after her ceremony.  You can see why the villagers confuse us: we're practically twins!  Twins born 15 years apart.  With different coloring and facial features.  But, other than that, separated at birth!

Meesh & I after her ceremony. You can see why the villagers confuse us: we’re practically twins! Twins born 15 years apart. With different coloring and facial features. But, other than that, separated at birth!

Some of the Mary Ryan Foundation girls carrying water.  I can carry a basket with a few things in it on my head but I haven't yet mastered the bucket full of water.

Some of the Mary Ryan Foundation girls carrying water. I can carry a basket with a few things in it on my head but I haven’t yet mastered the bucket full of water.

In addition to meeting a former volunteer, I also met a group of new volunteers that will be coming to Mbeya in a matter of weeks. The new Education class (many of whom will be replacing volunteers that were in my class) is currently finishing up training and they had their shadow visits last week. The number of PCVs in Mbeya has been declining for the past couple of years, for a few different reasons, but the Peace Corps is trying to rectify that by sending 15 new volunteers to the region! I’m super happy to know that there will be so many new people who will get to enjoy all the great things with have in Mbeya. It’s a little cold for me but, all in all, I’ve really enjoyed living here and I was happy to be one of the older PCVs who showed them around Mbeya Town and introduced them to some of our favorite haunts.

Because there are so many new volunteers and so few current PCVs in Mbeya, I had 3 people shadowing me. One of them, Gabe, will be replacing me in Ilembo, which I am thrilled about! He is young and super enthusiastic and plays soccer, which all of the male teachers at my school are thrilled about. I think he’ll do well here. He’s going to be teaching Biology, not English, but that’s a good thing because the school has a real shortage of Math and Science teachers. The two other volunteers, Sharon and John, had sites that were much closer to town and have quite a few more amenities than mine does so I made sure to bring them to Ilembo first. That way, Gabe wouldn’t have any other, fancier sites to compare it to and Sharon and John would really appreciate how good they had it when they finally got to see their sites. I think it worked but I could definitely tell that Gabe was starting the question the fairness of the Peace Corps placement process when we saw that John had a shower with actual HOT WATER in his house. (Which, fair enough. I’ve been doing the same every time I visit another Ed volunteer’s site and see that they have electricity or a bomba in their courtyard or find out that they don’t have to shovel their own poop. Lucky bastards.)

The trainees stayed in Ilembo with me for 2 nights and, unfortunately, had to endure some unusually cold, windy and wet weather for this time of year. But, we got to walk all around the village, spend some time at my school (I think I have successfully recruited Gabe into taking over the library duties for me, which I’m very happy about) and they basically got to see how I live as a volunteer. I also forced them to watch “Beavis and Butthead Do America” when I realized none of them had ever actually watched Beavis and Butthead. (Kids today!) They kind of enjoyed it but I think I may have oversold it a little when I referred to it as “the Citizen Kane of my generation”. But seriously people, it’s a classic for the ages.

Nulty enjoyed having visitors in the house. She seemed to be on her best behavior the entire time and was super friendly with everyone. However, when the school came to pick up one of beds I had borrowed for the guys to sleep in, I discovered she had apparently been pooping on the floor underneath it the entire time. There was a lot of cat poop. A lot. She’s like some kind of pooping ninja, that one. (Sorry about the smell, John.)

The trainees who shadowed me pose with my mkuu. (From left: Gabe, Mr. Babuleghe, Sharon and John.)

The trainees who shadowed me pose with my mkuu. (From left: Gabe, Mr. Babuleghe, Sharon and John.)

At school, the days are racing by. I can’t believe I have less than a month of teaching left. I still have so many topics I want/need to cover with my students before their big NECTA exam! Of course, in keeping with Tanzanians’ loose relationship with time and schedules, the Ministry of Education has not announced the date of the Form II NECTA yet, so I don’t actually know how much time there actually is before the exam. At the beginning of the school year, they said that the exam would be at some point in October, exact date TBD. I assumed we’d hear about the date at some point in June or July but there was no news and I had to pick an official COS date so I went with October 15th, thinking the NECTA would have to start the first or second Monday of the month. (There are a variety of different subjects the exams cover, some of which are only taught at certain schools, so the whole testing process takes about 3 weeks total.) The date for the Form IV NECTA exam, which is supposed to be after the Form II exam, was announced in late July/early August and it is scheduled to begin in early November. By the end of August, when the Form II date still had not been announced, I was starting to get concerned because I wanted to make sure I had budgeted enough time to cover all the topics I need to teach. Plus, my Type A personality just wanted there to be an official date so there was at least one thing settled that I didn’t have to keep thinking about. And by the first week of September, I was pretty much a raving lunatic. The worst part is, I seem to be the only person that is concerned about it. The Tanzanian teachers just assume they’ll set a date at some point and there’s nothing they can do about it so why worry about it? And, okay, that’s the healthy and normal way of approaching it BUT I STILL WANT TO KNOW THE DAMN DATE!

I’ve heard rumblings that if they haven’t scheduled it by now, the Form II test might take place AFTER the Form IV exam in late November or even possibly in December. This would irritate me greatly, to put it mildly. If I leave the country before the NECTAs begin, I am not only losing additional time for teaching and review with my students but also I am seriously worried that they will forget a lot of the material that we’ve covered so far. This is not an unreasonable concern: long-term retention is a huge problem with students here (I blame it, at least partially, on poor nutrition). Unless I constantly review previous material and link new material to previous topics, my students have a tendency to completely forget entire topics. Of course, at this point, it is out of my control because I’ve already purchased my plane ticket to return to the U.S. so my Plan B is, if they delay the Form II NECTA, I’m going to have Gabe, the new PCV, to take over my English classes for me after I leave. I’m going to provide him with lesson plans and just have him review old NECTA questions with the students over and over and over and over again until they can’t possibly forget them. I have my fingers crossed that things will work out one way or the other but I can’t help by curse the Ministry of Education even more than I usually do (which is quite a lot).

In happier news, my neighbor’s goat had a baby! Mwanaidi had 2 goats, both female, and I started to realize one of them was pregnant in early August. Female goats get HUGE when they are pregnant. There bodies bulge out on both sides and it almost looks like they are carrying another fully grown adult goat inside them. Every morning, I greeted Mwanaidi’s goats on the way to school (she usually puts them out to graze by the path between our houses and the school) and I watched the pregnant goat get larger and larger. I have no idea how long goats are pregnant for, so I was just hoping she’d deliver before I left Ilembo. One day in mid-August, I saw the pregnant goat laying down one morning, which is extremely unusual, so I knew the big day had to be close. Sure enough, one Friday afternoon after I finished teaching, I was walking back to my house and I saw that the baby had arrived. I think I missed the actual birth by just a few minutes, as the baby was still wet with amniotic fluid and the mother had what appeared to be a placenta still hanging off of her. They were with the other female goat, in the partially built house next to mine. The baby goat was so cute! And mama was making it a priority to lick her baby clean, much to the baby’s apparent consternation. It was an adorable scene that was only ruined by the barking of dogs in the distance.

Given Nulty’s past run-in with a pack of dogs, I immediately became concerned that the dogs would go after the baby goat. Mama Goat looked worried to, and she’d look up every time she heard barking and would try to figure out how far away the dogs were. I wanted to keep the baby safe, so I knocked on Mwanaidi’s door to let her know the baby had arrived and to tell her to open her courtyard door so the goats could come inside and be safe. Unfortunately, no one was home at her house so I opened my courtyard door and tried to herd all three of the goats into my courtyard. Herding goats is way harder than it looks, especially when one of them is a new born, another is an anxious mama and the third is a very concerned and involved auntie. I saw a couple of the dogs in the field in front of my house and they were starting to move closer so, in desperation, I picked up the baby goat and urged the mama and auntie to follow me.

Well, things didn’t work out quite as I thought they would. Mama FREAKED OUT as soon as the baby goat was off the ground. I kept holding up the baby to show it to her and tried to get her and the auntie to follow me but they were completely discombobulated by the whole course of events. I ran the baby goat into my courtyard, put it safely on some grass, closed the courtyard door and went back to get the other two. They had completely lost it by this point and were just running all over the surrounding area at top speed. At one point, I was sure Mama was charging at me and I was sure I was going to be impaled by a couple of goat horns. Instead, she whirled around at the last second and headed off in the opposite direction.

I went back, got the baby goat and took it back out to show it to Mama, in an attempt to get her to follow us into the courtyard. I kept running around yelling “Njoo!” (“Come!”) and trying to get the goat on board with my great plan. Some of the village mamas who were doing laundry at the hand pump well near my house were watching the whole thing and laughing hysterically. Now, I don’t know if the Mama goat was blind or was just undone by hormones but she could not get it. She would see the baby in my hands, run towards me and then, just as she was getting close, she’d turn and run in another direction. I must have tried 10 times to get her to follow me in the courtyard with no luck. She was getting more and more agitated and I was feeling worse and worse, so I just put the baby goat back in the unfinished house, told some of the little kids to chase away the dogs if they got close and headed back to the school to find Mwanaidi.

When I got to the school, a few of the teachers were sitting outside of the teacher’s lounge and enjoying the sun. I ran up to them, probably looking like a lunatic and smelling very strongly of goat and announced loudly in Kiswahili, “I have very important news!” Now that I’ve been here for two years, the teachers have realized that the mzungu’s idea of “important news” and their idea of “important news” are pretty far apart. Still, they almost all managed not to roll their eyes as they asked me what was going on.

“Mwanaidi’s baby goat has arrived!” I said, thinking they might actually be as excited about it as I was. They weren’t. But they did tell me Mwanaidi was up at the big market and told me where I could find her. I’m happy to say her reaction was way more enthusiastic than the other teachers. She was also worried about the dogs so she went back to her house and put the goats in her courtyard. Mission accomplished!

I was sorry I missed the actual birth (only by a few minutes).  By the time I arrived, Mama had already started on the important work of cleaning her little one.

I was sorry I missed the actual birth (only by a few minutes). By the time I arrived, Mama had already started on the important work of cleaning her little one.

The baby was still trying to get used to standing up and walking.  It was adorable!

The baby was still trying to get used to standing up and walking. It was adorable!

More Mama clean up.

More Mama clean up.

Aw, come on Ma!  I'm clean already!

Aw, come on Ma! I’m clean already!

As usual, I’ll close with a Nulty update. I got Nulty fixed over a year ago but unfortunately, they apparently didn’t remove all of her ladyparts (this also happens in the U.S. sometimes, too) because I realized a few months ago that all the caterwauling she had been doing at night was actually because she was still going into heat. (Unfortunately, she was in heat when Meesh was staying with me, which made for some sleepless nights.) Finally, she managed to escape and, as worried as I was when she didn’t come back for a couple of days, she was a whole new cat when she returned. I don’t know what kind of bender she went on, but she wasn’t in heat anymore and life has been relatively peaceful (and quiet) since then. She can’t get pregnant, thankfully, and I’m going to get her all fixed up when we arrive in the U.S. Fingers crossed that she doesn’t go into heat again in the next 36-37 days…

The one challenge that I’m facing is trying to get her up to Dar when it’s time for me to COS. My original plan was to fly up with her on Fastjet, which is the only airline that currently flies from Mbeya to Dar. However, when I read the fine print on their web site, I realized that they do not allow animals (except for seeing eye dogs) on their planes. They won’t even allow them in the hold. The bus ride to Dar is about 14 hours and neither of us want to deal with that so, as I mentioned in a previous Facebook post, my current plan is to slip her a little Valium, put a knit hat on her and wrap her up in kangas and blankets like all mamas do with their babies here. Usually, you only see the top of the hat and a big roll of blankets when a mama is carrying a baby so I’m thinking I can pass Nulty off as my baby, breeze right through security and be in Dar in an hour and a half. I’m not sure if I just think this is doable because I’ve been here too long or if it’s actually a realistic plan. I’m still looking for a better Plan B (the current one involves a car jacking – the less you know, the better) so I’ll let you all know how it develops.

Nulty was quite excited to have a visitor.  Here she is checking Meesh's suitcase (I was worried she would pee on it or spray it but she managed to control herself.)

Nulty was quite excited to have a visitor. Here she is checking Meesh’s suitcase (I was worried she would pee on it or spray it but she managed to control herself.)

Nulty snoozes in the sun.

Nulty snoozes in the sun.

Nulty's eyes are pleading for someone to rescue her from my clutches.

Nulty’s eyes are pleading for someone to rescue her from my clutches.

Nulty barely tolerates a smooch from me.

Nulty barely tolerates a smooch from me.

I’m going to try to do a couple more blog posts before I leave (and perhaps one or two once I’m back in the U.S.) but I thought I’d try something different now that I’m nearing the end of my time here. If there are any questions you have about things I haven’t covered in any of my posts, or if there’s anything you are curious about, please put your questions/requests in the comments below (those of you that are blog shy can email them to me at my yahoo account) and I’ll do a post where I answer your questions and/or try to fulfill any requests for photos, etc. that you all might have.

I hope you are all having a great September!

The Cute Kids of Ilembo

The last month or so has been full of exciting thing (visits from old PCVs, intros to new PCVs, baby goats!) and I am working on a longer update that I’ll post later this week, but in keeping with my goal of one post a month, I am going to do a quick photo entry featuring some of the cute kids of Ilembo. I hope you enjoy!

CuteKids2

CuteKids3CuteKids7

CuteBaby

CuteKids1

CuteKids5

CuteKids4

CuteKids6

These Kids Put the “Fun” in “Wanafunzi”*

(*”Wanafunzi” is Swahili for “students”)

First and foremost I want to thank everyone who contributed to my fundraising project for the school assembly hall. I was thrilled to reach my goal and I’m confident that the school will be able to finish the project before the students start their NECTA exams in October. I just received the official list of donors last week and I am working on putting together personal emails to thank everyone who donated. Asante sana! (That’s Kiswahili for “Thank you very much!”)

Second, I want to apologize for not posting more regularly lately. It’s been a whirlwind couple of months and I’ve been dropping the ball a bit here. This will be kind of a long-ish update but I may start posting shorter, more frequent updates, technology permitting. It’s also tough because I’ve been here for over 2 years now and a lot of the things that were new and different for me when I got here now seem commonplace and don’t feel like they are compelling enough as a topic for a blog post. I remember taking my first bus trip for the shadow visit at my site and thinking it was absolutely crazy that a man boarded our bus with a giant bag of bread to sell. Now if I’m on a bus and there’s no bread guy I say, “What do you mean there’s no bread guy? How am I supposed to get a bread if someone doesn’t sell it on the bus?” It’s times like that when I realize the readjustment to American life might actually be as difficult as people say it is.

The big event of the past couple of months was my COS (Close of Service) conference. COS is the last time our entire volunteer class comes together and the Peace Corps provides us with information about finishing our service, leaving Tanzania and readjusting to our personal and professional lives in the U.S. It was a bittersweet experience: it was lovely to see my fellow PCVs again and we stayed at a really nice hotel and ate great food, but it was also sad to realize that it was the last time we’d all be together as a group, as there are already a few volunteers in our class who are back in the U.S. as I write this and several more will be leaving in the next few weeks.

In addition to all of the information sessions we had at the conference, the volunteers also put together some fun events, including a PCV “awards” ceremony, where the categories included “Most Likely To Be Seen Naked” and “Most Likely To Interrupt During Conferences” (which I thought I was a shoo-in for, but lost to my friend, Alice). My mom won “Most Well Known Before Coming To Country” aka the “Most Active On Facebook” award. It is well deserved, as almost every American I meet here in country, whether they are volunteers in other classes or friends and/or family visiting from the U.S. always say to me, “Oh, you’re the one whose mom is always on Facebook!” I’m just waiting for the day when a Tanzanian tells me they friended my Mom on Facebook. I know it’s coming.

Here is our entire class at COS conference, wearing our shirts that were designed by super talented artist & PCV, Kristine (she's the one in the middle, holding the shirt up).  She drew a cartoon of everyone in our class, even the folks who had to leave before the end of service.  Mine is me in a bus going down a mountain, with Nulty clinging to the top.  At my urging, Kristine added "@*#$!" coming out of my mouth to really make things realistic.

Here is our entire class at COS conference, wearing our shirts that were designed by super talented artist & PCV, Kristine (she’s the one in the middle, holding the shirt up). She drew a cartoon of everyone in our class, even the folks who had to leave before the end of service. Mine is me in a bus going down a mountain, with Nulty clinging to the top. At my urging, Kristine added “@*#$!” coming out of my mouth to really make things realistic.

One last group shot of the Education 2012 Mbeya PCVs (from left, Rachel, Tracy, me, Willie, Emily, Mandy, Stephanie and Belle).  Some of these folks have already left Mbeya and more are leaving in the next few weeks.  I will miss them all!

One last group shot of the Education 2012 Mbeya PCVs (from left, Rachel, Tracy, me, Willie, Emily, Mandy, Stephanie and Belle). Some of these folks have already left Mbeya and more are leaving in the next few weeks. I will miss them all!

The nominees for "Most Well Known Before Coming to Tanzania" (aka the Facebook award) are announced.  And the winner is...my mom!

The nominees for “Most Well Known Before Coming to Tanzania” (aka the Facebook award) are announced. And the winner is…my mom!

All in all, COS was a great time, which was only slightly dampened (literally) by the fact that when I returned to site, I discovered that Nulty had peed on almost everything in my house, including all of my shoes. She was apparently not pleased about having been left alone for so long. I am still trying to figure out how she contorted herself to pee on some of the more difficult to reach items. She managed to hit every single pair of my shoes, including a bunch of flip flops that were in a basket- she was definitely fully committed to her shoe peeing project, bless her heart.

Also, at the end of April I finally got my act together and did a movie event in the library. I have been meaning to do one since I brought my projector from the U.S. last summer, but things kept getting in the way. I used the movie as a reward for students that got a 50 or higher (or really close to a 50) on their midterm exam. Students came to the library during remedial class time (which is 4-6pm most weekdays) and I gave them lollipops and we watched a schoolhouse Rock video (“A noun is a person, place or thing”) and The Lion King. I think the language of SR was above their level, but I’m hoping they’ll remember some of the chorus. They thought some of the animation was hilarious. (The very current line “playing Chubby Checker on the record machine” and accompanying dancing was a big hit.) And they seemed to love The Lion King. These are my best students, so they understood a good portion of the dialogue but we did have to stop a few times to make sure they understood some of the important plot points. I think it was a big hit. They loved “Hakuna Matata” – I think it was exciting for them to hear Kiswahili in an American movie. I heard a couple of them singing it on the way out.

I showed another movie in May and extended it to students that make an effort in class (it’s really hard to get some of my shyer students to even try to answer a question) or that help me or their fellow students and not just limit it to good grades. For that one, I showed the The Princess and The Frog and handed out bags of popcorn, which they were really excited about. It was a little more challenging because a lot of the students had more difficulty understanding English, I had to repeatedly pause the movie and translate what was happening in Kiswahili, but I still think most of them enjoyed it. I welcome any suggestions for movies that I can show next term that are suitable for kids and have simple English or not a lot of dialogue.

The library, all set up for the movie screening.  I tried a variety of screen options (sheets, paper, etc.) before finding a white board that the school had tucked away somewhere.

The library, all set up for the movie screening. I tried a variety of screen options (sheets, paper, etc.) before finding a white board that the school had tucked away somewhere.

Some of my Form II students wait for the movie to begin.  The bags of popcorn were a bit hit.

Some of my Form II students wait for the movie to begin. The bags of popcorn were a bit hit.

June is usually a month off for students here but my school announced that the first 3 weeks of June would be mandatory classes. On one hand, it was a good thing because my students need all the class time they can get before their NECTA exams in October. On the other hand, no one actually informed me of this until the Tuesday before break was supposed to start and I was already in pre-vacation mode in my mind. Also, there was no class schedule prepared until late on Friday (and only then because I couldn’t take it anymore and got the handwritten draft of the schedule, typed it up and posted it) so I had no idea when I had to teach or how many periods I would have to make lesson plans for. One of the more frustrating aspects of life here is that there is not a lot of planning or organization before things happen. As someone who loves to create a spreadsheet and/or project timeline before even the most minor of events, this drives me crazy. During exams, copies of tests are made beforehand but no one bothers to collate or staple or even proofread anything and there is always at least 20 minutes of test time wasted trying to sort everything out, run around and make additional copies and during the test, students have tons of questions about typos or words that didn’t print clearly, etc. I try to made a big show of proofreading, collating and stapling my exam in the teacher’s lounge at least a day or two before I give a test, but I don’t think any of the other teachers are getting the hint.

In the end, the summer session ended up being quite painless. I had to teach 6 days a week but we spent the time reading a book called Hawa the Bus Driver, which is a story about a strong woman who is one of the few female bus drivers in Dar es Salaam. It was a good excuse for me to talk to the kids about gender roles and feminism and try to present a different perspective from the standard “women make babies and obey their husbands and only do work that doesn’t threaten men and never complain about any of this” view that is so prevalent here in the village. It wasn’t only for the girls; I also tried to stress to the boys the idea that a man who is truly strong does not hurt women or children or animals and isn’t threatened by his wife or any other woman’s success. I don’t know how much of this they are actually buying, but I hope that the idea is at least planted in their mind somewhere.

The worst part of the whole 3 weeks was that one evening when I was carrying a bucket of water out to the choo, Nulty ran between my legs and, before I could stop her, somehow jumped/climbed up the one spot on the courtyard wall that didn’t have a tarp covering it and jumped over. By the time I got the key and opened the courtyard door, she had already run into my neighbor’s courtyard, attempted to abscond with a chicken (“attempt” being the key word – the chickens are bigger than her) and then ran into a giant patch of pricker bushes behind my neighbor’s house. She knows when she runs into the bushes, I can’t get to her so she hides out there and does her best Nelson Muntz impression. Usually she will come back inside when she gets hungry or if she hears a dog or kids in the area but sometimes she will just stay out all night and come back in the morning looking sheepish and wanting to climb under the covers and sleep it off. She used to do the staying out all night thing more frequently but I’ve better figured out how to thwart her escapes recently (hanging tarps on the walls, making her put on her vest, which inhibits her jumping ability, before she goes out in the courtyard, etc.) so they don’t happen as much these days. I made several attempts to call her inside and went out looking for her that night with no success and I heard some dogs fighting in the distance, which panicked me a little, but I assumed she would return in the morning as usual and went to bed. When she wasn’t waiting in the courtyard when I got up the next morning, I was concerned but went to school and taught my morning classes, assuming she’d be there when I returned. When she wasn’t back that afternoon, I really started to worry. I walked all around the surrounding area of my house, checking out her usual hiding places with no luck. By the time the sun went down, I was in a total panic. When she still wasn’t back the next morning, I went to school to tell them I wouldn’t be able to teach and proceeded to walk all over my village, asking people if they’d seen her and basically acting like a hysterical lunatic.

One man that lives on the hill across from my house told me that he’d seen a man hit her with a stick and that she ran away. Well, I thought he said she ran away, when I told my counterpart what he’d said and used the same Kiswahili term he had, my counterpart said, “Ah, when we say that, it means fell down, not ran away.” And I could tell he didn’t think that was a good sign. When the Tanzanians were starting to get worried, I knew things were bad. Usually, they tell me “don’t worry, the cat will come back on her own” but by the second day they were just saying, “Ahh…” and avoiding my gaze. One of the brand new part-time teachers told me, “Your cat, it is dead” before one of the other teachers shushed him. My neighbor, Mwanaidi, was preparing to leave for her wedding in Tanga and had a million things to do but even she stopped to ask if Nulty had returned when she saw me. A few of the children who come by my house to ask for stickers stopped by and said they had seen here hiding in a bush behind the school, or near the little stream by the water pipe where people fill their buckets. I wasn’t sure if they were telling the truth or just saying what they thought I wanted to hear to make me feel better. When I told some of the other teachers this, they said that the man who told me about her getting hit with a stick might be lying but that the little children would absolutely tell the truth, which was both sweet and made me feel better.

Later that day, I went back to the school and spoke to all of the students at the afternoon assembly, telling them I would give a reward to anyone who helped me find Nulty or had information about what happened to her. I said that if someone hurt her or eaten by dogs, that I needed to know and that her collar would still be somewhere even if the rest of her wasn’t. Some of the students thought it was funny when I said that she was like a child to me, but my mkuu helped me out and explained that I was planning to take the cat back to America with me and that she was very important to me. A little later, a group of students came by my house and said they’d look for her and one of the older students who I don’t teach but who is a regular in the library said he was going to go talk to all of the people who lived in the houses near me and try to find out everything he could. I was really touched by everyone pitching in and helping me but at that point I had almost lost hope. I was sure she’d been beaten to death by a villager or eaten by dogs.

I was sitting in my living room, trying to figure out what, if anything, else I could do when I heard a noise coming from the courtyard. I went outside and saw something sitting on the other side of the courtyard door. I didn’t think it was Nulty as first because all I saw was a mound of dark hair but when I walked closer, she turned around and meowed at me. She was nervously looking around and was very eager to get inside, which makes me think that the man might have been telling the truth about her having been hit by someone. She looked a little skinny and her fur was a little messy, but she seemed to be healthy and unhurt (although she didn’t like me touching her back at first). She ran to the kitchen to gobble down some food and I was so happy, I just ran to my front door and yelled out, “She has returned!” in Kiswahili. There were a few students down at one of the the hand pump wells, filling buckets and they said, “Hongera!” (basically, “Congratulations!”) and seemed genuinely happy for me so I ran down and gave them all lollipops to celebrate. The next morning, I told all of the students that Nulty had returned and was alive and healthy and they all cheered. Like the time I lost Nulty on the way to town and all of the people in another village helped me find her, I was really touched that everyone cared and supported me, even if they didn’t quite understand why I was so upset over losing a cat. And just a couple of weeks ago, when my neighbor Mwanaidi returned from her wedding, I went over to congratulate her and her new husband and before I could get a “Hongera” out, she was like, “Did the cat come back? Is she all right?” which was both hilarious and extremely sweet.

This is a pre-big escape photo, but shows how she managed to find the one small bit of wall that wasn't covered with tarp and climb up it.  I grabbed her before she made it to the top this time.

This is a pre-big escape photo, but shows how she managed to find the one small bit of wall that wasn’t covered with tarp and climb up it. I grabbed her before she made it to the top this time.

Nulty in the courtyard, contemplating life on the other side of the wall.

Nulty in the courtyard, contemplating life on the other side of the wall.

Nulty snoozing in some baskets (that are outside in the sun because she peed on them).  Notice she is wearing her kitty harness/vest.  She know has to wear the vest whenever she's outside or when I'm going in and out of the house because it makes it difficult for her to jump and/or climb the walls.  I also put a tarp up over the one spot on the wall that wasn't covered before that she used for her big escape.  If she gets a running start, she can still make it over the tarps so I had to rub soap on them to make them more slippery.  I think my courtyard is equivalent to a maximum security prison at this point.

Nulty snoozing in some baskets (that are outside in the sun because she peed on them). Notice she is wearing her kitty harness/vest. She know has to wear the vest whenever she’s outside or when I’m going in and out of the house because it makes it difficult for her to jump and/or climb the walls. I also put a tarp up over the one spot on the wall that wasn’t covered before that she used for her big escape. If she gets a running start, she can still make it over the tarps so I had to rub soap on them to make them more slippery. I think my courtyard is equivalent to a maximum security prison at this point.

Nulty on the couch with her favorite toy, which was sent to her by the Nelson family.  (Thank you, Harold, Beth, Benjamin & Noah!)

Nulty on the couch with her favorite toy, which was sent to her by the Nelson family. (Thank you, Harold, Beth, Benjamin & Noah!)

A few months ago, I mentioned that I was going to take some pictures of some of my students so you could all get to know them a little. I have over 200 students and I don’t know all of their names, but I know most of them (the ones that come regularly) by their faces and personalities. Here are some of the kids that are standouts, in one way or another, and that make all the hard stuff here worthwhile:

This is Christabel, who is my best student.  She always gets A's (real A's, over 90 points) and clearly comes from a family that values education and supports her, which is a huge advantage for any kid here.  Last year, she started to ask to leave class and be gone for long stretches of time, which worried me.  I asked my counterpart to speak to her with me (for translation help) and we figured out that she was getting bored in class because she understood the material quickly but I'd have to spend lots of time explaining it to the other students so she was going into other classes to visit her friends.  "Are these friends boys?" I asked, worried.  "No, they are girls," she answered.  "Good!  No boys for you until you're done with college!" I told her, which she thought was hilarious.  I was not joking.

This is Christabel, who is my best student. She always gets A’s (real A’s, over 90 points) and clearly comes from a family that values education and supports her, which is a huge advantage for any kid here. Last year, she started to ask to leave class and be gone for long stretches of time, which worried me. I asked my counterpart to speak to her with me (for translation help) and we figured out that she was getting bored in class because she understood the material quickly but I’d have to spend lots of time explaining it to the other students so she was going into other classes to visit her friends. “Are these friends boys?” I asked, worried. “No, they are girls,” she answered. “Good! No boys for you until you’re done with college!” I told her, which she thought was hilarious. I was not joking.

Here's a picture of Christabel telling the other kids what's what.  She's a really sweet kid and not conceited at all, but she's not afraid to correct another student when they translate a word for me incorrectly or tell them to be quiet if they start acting up in class.  On some of my darker days here, she was the student that got me out of bed and into the classroom in the morning.  When I'm marking tests, I save hers for last so I know I'll end on a high note.

Here’s a picture of Christabel telling the other kids what’s what. She’s a really sweet kid and not conceited at all, but she’s not afraid to correct another student when they translate a word for me incorrectly or tell them to be quiet if they start acting up in class. On some of my darker days here, she was the student that got me out of bed and into the classroom in the morning. When I’m marking tests, I save hers for last so I know I’ll end on a high note.

A couple of my Form IIA girls.  The girl who is laughing is another really good student.

A couple of my Form IIA girls. The girl who is laughing is another really good student.

One of my IIA students, who is a sweet kid who always tries hard.  It's so frustrating to know that these kids would be able to do so much better if they had received a better primary school education and/or had a family who valued and supported their education.

One of my IIA students, who is a sweet kid who always tries hard. It’s so frustrating to know that these kids would be able to do so much better if they had received a better primary school education and/or had a family who valued and supported their education.

Some of my IIA boys.  The student on the right has a soft spot in my heart because he doesn't always get the highest grades but he works really hard, always tries to answer questions and helps me erase the board, which students are expected to do for a teacher but only a handful ever actually offer to do.

Some of my IIA boys. The student on the right has a soft spot in my heart because he doesn’t always get the highest grades but he works really hard, always tries to answer questions and helps me erase the board, which students are expected to do for a teacher but only a handful ever actually offer to do.

These are a couple of my IIB (I think) students. The kid on top is a total class clown, but always does pretty well on tests.

These are a couple of my IIB (I think) students. The kid on top is a total class clown, but always does pretty well on tests.

A couple of my IIB girls.  Some of these kids are so beautiful and sweet, it kills me.

A couple of my IIB girls. Some of these kids are so beautiful and sweet, it kills me.

This is Ibrahim, who is the best student in my IIB class. He's a really smart kid, but he definitely thinks he's too cool for school.  He is always correcting my Kiswahili, so it felt particularly good last term when he told me I was saying something wrong and I said it was correct because I was using the past tense, not the present tense.  He was completely shocked when he realized that I was right.  I only feel a little bad that I thought myself, "In your face, kid!"

This is Ibrahim, who is the best student in my IIB class. He’s a really smart kid, but he definitely thinks he’s too cool for school. He is always correcting my Kiswahili, so it felt particularly good last term when he told me I was saying something wrong and I said it was correct because I was using the past tense, not the present tense. He was completely shocked when he realized that I was right. I only feel a little bad that I thought myself, “In your face, kid!”

More of my IIB students.  The boy on the right always sits up front and raises his hand and volunteers to answer questions, which is a huge deal.  So many of my students will only speak if I call on them and even then, it's like pulling teeth to get them to repeat something in English.

More of my IIB students. The boy on the right always sits up front and raises his hand and volunteers to answer questions, which is a huge deal. So many of my students will only speak if I call on them and even then, it’s like pulling teeth to get them to repeat something in English.

This is my IIC class.  They can be a handful but they are definitely the most fun to teach.  There are some big personalities in that room!

This is my IIC class. They can be a handful but they are definitely the most fun to teach. There are some big personalities in that room!

A group of IIC students. They are having a ball, as usual.

A group of IIC students. They are having a ball, as usual.

Some of the IIC girls.  The boys tend to dominate the conversations in IIC and it can be frustrating because I know the girls are just as smart and do just as well on the tests but they don't like to speak up in class.  I try to balance things as much as possible by going girl/boy/girl/boy when having students write on the board or give answers, but it can be difficult to get the girls to volunteer.

Some of the IIC girls. The boys tend to dominate the conversations in IIC and it can be frustrating because I know the girls are just as smart and do just as well on the tests but they don’t like to speak up in class. I try to balance things as much as possible by going girl/boy/girl/boy when having students write on the board or give answers, but it can be difficult to get the girls to volunteer.

One of my IIC boys.  He's super quiet and sits in the back of the room, but always has the answer when I call on him.  I love the light in this picture.

One of my IIC boys. He’s super quiet and sits in the back of the room, but always has the answer when I call on him. I love the light in this picture.

This is Jackobu, one of my IIC students.  Jackobu is the universe's revenge for all of my former teachers because he asks a million questions, just like I did, which makes it hard to get through a complete lesson plan in a period.   He loves to correct me, but always does it in a respectful way ("Madam, I don't think you mean to use that word.")  He's a super smart kid, asks really good questions (tons of them), loves to do word puzzles and games and comes to the library for help outside of class.  In addition, he is one of the biggest class clowns and has a pretty good sense of humor (and its a little weird, which I appreciate). He drives me absolutely crazy, but he is definitely one of my very favorite students and is fun to teach because I can see the moment when something clicks for him and he gets it.

This is Jackobu, one of my IIC students. Jackobu is the universe’s revenge for all of my former teachers because he asks a million questions, just like I did, which makes it hard to get through a complete lesson plan in a period. He loves to correct me, but always does it in a respectful way (“Madam, I don’t think you mean to use that word.”) He’s a super smart kid, asks really good questions (tons of them), loves to do word puzzles and games and comes to the library for help outside of class. In addition, he is one of the biggest class clowns and has a pretty good sense of humor (and its a little weird, which I appreciate). He drives me absolutely crazy, but he is definitely one of my very favorite students and is fun to teach because I can see the moment when something clicks for him and he gets it.

The guy on the left is Matatizo, who is the Dean Martin to Jackobu's Jerry Lewis (on the right) in IIC.  Matatizo means "problems" in Kiswahili which, on one hand, is a terrible and sad name for a kid but, on the other hand, can be quite apt and has not hurt his self esteem at all, as he is definitely the Big Man on Campus for Form II.  He's a class leader and the other kids love him, but he has a tendency to look for short cuts and doesn't always apply himself to school as much as he could.  Last term, he skipped the final exam to play in a soccer tournament. (Why the school allowed students to attend a soccer tournament during exams is still a mystery to me, never mind the fact that they gave the other teachers no heads up about this at all.)  But, he's a good enough student that he passed the term even getting a zero on the final, so I'm not sure if he actually learned his lesson.  He has lots of charisma and would make a great politician some day, and I mean that in both the best and worst way.  He's one of the kids that I worry about the most because he has the potential to do great things but I could easily see him wasting that potential, which I think would be a huge loss for everyone.

The guy on the left is Matatizo, who is the Dean Martin to Jackobu’s Jerry Lewis (on the right) in IIC. Matatizo means “problems” in Kiswahili which, on one hand, is a terrible and sad name for a kid but, on the other hand, can be quite apt and has not hurt his self esteem at all, as he is definitely the Big Man on Campus for Form II. He’s a class leader and the other kids love him, but he has a tendency to look for short cuts and doesn’t always apply himself to school as much as he could. Last term, he skipped the final exam to play in a soccer tournament. (Why the school allowed students to attend a soccer tournament during exams is still a mystery to me, never mind the fact that they gave the other teachers no heads up about this at all.) But, he’s a good enough student that he passed the term even getting a zero on the final, so I’m not sure if he actually learned his lesson. He has lots of charisma and would make a great politician some day, and I mean that in both the best and worst way. He’s one of the kids that I worry about the most because he has the potential to do great things but I could easily see him wasting that potential, which I think would be a huge loss for everyone.

This is Joshua, another IIC student.  He hangs out with Matatizo and Jackobu, but is much mellower and is a really good student.  He usually gets overshadowed by his friends but he got the highest score on one of my tests once and couldn't stop grinning the whole class.

This is Joshua, another IIC student. He hangs out with Matatizo and Jackobu, but is much mellower and is a really good student. He usually gets overshadowed by his friends but he got the highest score on one of my tests once and couldn’t stop grinning the whole class.

Some of my IID students.  This is my most challenging class, because a lot of the students don't seem committed to learning and there is a lot of truancy.  Their attitude improves greatly when they do well on an exercise so I'm trying to tailor more and more questions to their ability level (which is, unfortunately, below the rest of my Form II students), which seems to be working better.  (The girl on the left cracks me up - she makes the best faces!)

Some of my IID students. This is my most challenging class, because a lot of the students don’t seem committed to learning and there is a lot of truancy. Their attitude improves greatly when they do well on an exercise so I’m trying to tailor more and more questions to their ability level (which is, unfortunately, below the rest of my Form II students), which seems to be working better. (The girl on the left cracks me up – she makes the best faces!)

A couple of my IID boys.  The kid on the right totally cracks me up - he looks like he's posing for GQ here.

A couple of my IID boys. The kid on the right totally cracks me up – he looks like he’s posing for GQ here.

More IID students.  I'm pretty sure the boy on the left is named Osward - he sits in the back (until I make him move to the front) and definitely has a "too cool for school" attitude, which drives me nuts, but he's not a bad kid.  The girl on the right is Vaselisa, who is one of the student leaders for Form II.  She is a really good student, but doesn't always work as hard as she could. I told her she needed to spend as much time on her school work as she did on boys, which I think actually meant something to her because she's been really stepping up in class lately.

More IID students. I’m pretty sure the boy on the left is named Osward – he sits in the back (until I make him move to the front) and definitely has a “too cool for school” attitude, which drives me nuts, but he’s not a bad kid. The girl on the right is Vaselisa, who is one of the student leaders for Form II. She is a really good student, but doesn’t always work as hard as she could. I told her she needed to spend as much time on her school work as she did on boys, which I think actually meant something to her because she’s been really stepping up in class lately.

This is Safari, another of my IID students.  He is such a bright kid and asks really good, smart questions and tries so hard but his English skills are below where they should be, again due to him receiving a substandard education in primary school.  He's a real sweetheart and sensitive and I think he got really frustrated last term because he started skipping school for weeks at a time.  I asked Vaselisa about him and she told me he would just go and sit in the forest instead of coming to school.  I thought I was misunderstanding her because of my Kiswahili but she laughed and said, "Nope, he just goes and hangs out in the forest all day because he doesn't like to come to school."  That made me sad so I told her to tell him that I thought he was a really smart kid and that he needed to come to school every day.  I think it worked because he started showing up regularly again (although it might not have been entirely my words that did it - Vaselisa's pretty tough so she might have just strong-armed him into coming).  He did well on the terminal exam so I'm optimistic but I worry he might slip between the cracks after I'm gone.  He's the classic example of the way the Tanzanian education system wastes intelligent minds because of their whole "let's pretend that things are the way we want them to be and not actually deal with the reality of the way things are" approach .  It is so frustrating.

This is Safari, another of my IID students. He is such a bright kid and asks really good, smart questions and tries so hard but his English skills are below where they should be, again due to him receiving a substandard education in primary school. He’s a real sweetheart and sensitive and I think he got really frustrated last term because he started skipping school for weeks at a time. I asked Vaselisa about him and she told me he would just go and sit in the forest instead of coming to school. I thought I was misunderstanding her because of my Kiswahili but she laughed and said, “Nope, he just goes and hangs out in the forest all day because he doesn’t like to come to school.” That made me sad so I told her to tell him that I thought he was a really smart kid and that he needed to come to school every day. I think it worked because he started showing up regularly again (although it might not have been entirely my words that did it – Vaselisa’s pretty tough so she might have just strong-armed him into coming). He did well on the terminal exam so I’m optimistic but I worry he might slip between the cracks after I’m gone. He’s the classic example of the way the Tanzanian education system wastes intelligent minds because of their whole “let’s pretend that things are the way we want them to be and not actually deal with the reality of the way things are” approach . It is so frustrating.

This is Raphael, who vies with Christabel for the highest grades in the Form.  He's very stealth smart, because he doesn't talk a lot in class and sits in the back and then, out of no where, gets a 98 on the midterm.  He's super humble too because when I was returning the midterms, before I handed his back I was kidding around and asked him if he thought he did well. I felt bad because he just shrugged his shoulders and honestly looked like he had no idea if he failed or passed, so I made a big deal of the fact that he got the highest grade in the whole form.  He works hard but I also think he is just blessed with a high level of intelligence that he doesn't always know what to do with.  He's in my IID class, which makes me nuts because there are only 1 or 2 students in there that come anywhere close to his level and I've tried and tried to get the school to switch him to one of the more competitive forms with no luck.  Yet.

This is Raphael, who vies with Christabel for the highest grades in the Form. He’s very stealth smart, because he doesn’t talk a lot in class and sits in the back and then, out of no where, gets a 98 on the midterm. He’s super humble too because when I was returning the midterms, before I handed his back I was kidding around and asked him if he thought he did well. I felt bad because he just shrugged his shoulders and honestly looked like he had no idea if he failed or passed, so I made a big deal of the fact that he got the highest grade in the whole form. He works hard but I also think he is just blessed with a high level of intelligence that he doesn’t always know what to do with. He’s in my IID class, which makes me nuts because there are only 1 or 2 students in there that come anywhere close to his level and I’ve tried and tried to get the school to switch him to one of the more competitive forms with no luck. Yet.

This is Samson, another one of my IID students.  Samson is not just the smallest kid in Form II, he's the smallest kid in the whole school.  (I'm guessing there are medical issues there but no one has told me about them and I don't feel like it's my place to pry.)  He has some problems with truancy but when he comes to school, he is just the sweetest, most respectful kid in the world.  He looks like a little boy but he has the voice and demeanor of an old man, which just kills me.  I just love this kid.

This is Samson, another one of my IID students. Samson is not just the smallest kid in Form II, he’s the smallest kid in the whole school. (I’m guessing there are medical issues there but no one has told me about them and I don’t feel like it’s my place to pry.) He has some problems with truancy but when he comes to school, he is just the sweetest, most respectful kid in the world. He looks like a little boy but he has the voice and demeanor of an old man, which just kills me. I just love this kid.

I'm still not completely used to seeing teenage boys walking around holding hands in school but I think it's kind of wonderful that they can do that and it's completely acceptable culturally.  (For the sake of keeping the mood upbeat, I'm conveniently ignoring the staggering amount of homophobia in this culture which makes the whole thing bitterly ironic.)

I’m still not completely used to seeing teenage boys walking around holding hands in school but I think it’s kind of wonderful that they can do that and it’s completely acceptable culturally. (For the sake of keeping the mood upbeat, I’m conveniently ignoring the staggering amount of homophobia in this culture which makes the whole thing bitterly ironic.)

There is always a mass exodus of students in the mid-afternoon, as they head home for their lunch break.  They are supposed to return for remedial classes later in the day, but it's hard to get them all back once they've broken free from the school grounds.

There is always a mass exodus of students in the mid-afternoon, as they head home for their lunch break. They are supposed to return for remedial classes later in the day, but it’s hard to get them all back once they’ve broken free from the school grounds.

I did have two weeks off in late June/early July and was able to do a little traveling and meet up with some of my fellow PCVs. I’ll post more on that next time. Until then, I hope everyone is having a great summer! I’ll be back in the U.S. in less than 100 days! (Not that I’m counting or anything…)

This One’s For You, Noah!

When I posted the tour of my house last June, I had a request from my friend’s son, Noah, to do a similar tour of my village. It took me a while, but I finally managed to pull it off. I hope you all enjoy!

Also, a HUGE thank you to everyone who has donated to my assembly hall project. I have not received a list of donors from the Peace Corps yet so I apologize for not thanking you all individually- as soon as I get a list, I will contact you all directly. As of today, I’m only $900 away from my goal so I’m extending the deadline until all the funds are raised. I really appreciate everyone’s contributions and help publicizing my fund raising effort. As they say here in Tanzania, asante sana!

This is the part where I ask you for money…

As I mentioned a few months ago, my school is trying to complete construction on a new assembly hall. Currently, the school does not have a space large enough to hold all of the students, so it is difficult to have school assemblies and events during the long rainy season here. In addition, the school needs a room that can hold an entire form of students while they take their national examinations. The assembly hall would fulfill both of these needs.

Last year, the school started construction on an assembly hall by expanding one of the larger classrooms. They cut down trees and sold the lumber from them to raise funds to start construction, but they ran out of money before they could complete the project. So a few months ago, I submitted a grant application to Peace Corps that would allow me to raise funds from family and friends to pay for the materials (concrete, lime, etc.) necessary to complete construction. The school will pay for the remaining labor costs and other incidental materials. My goal is to raise approximately $2300.00 by June 1st so that the hall can be finished in time for my Form II students to take their NECTA exams in October.

This is the current, mid-construction state of the assembly hall.  This is from the front of the hall, looking towards the back.

This is the current, mid-construction state of the assembly hall. This is from the front of the hall, looking towards the back.

Looking towards the front of the assembly hall.

Looking towards the front of the assembly hall.

They have dug a trench for a channel that will allow water to flow underneath the hall.  This will prevent flooding during the rainy season.

They have dug a trench for a channel that will allow water to flow underneath the hall. This will prevent flooding during the rainy season.

Any help you can provide would be greatly appreciated by not only me, but the teachers, students and staff of Ilembo Secondary School. You can go here to make your tax-deductible contribution.

Thank you for your support!

P.S.: I’m finally on Facebook! Send me a friend request if I haven’t friend-ed you yet (I’m still trying to figure out how the whole thing works- it’s going to take a while.)

Woman On The Verge of Kurukwa Na Akili

Sorry for the delay in posting this month*, but I’m not going to lie to you, folks – March was a tough month for me. There was the usual, daily torrential rains and the subsequent discovery of several new leaks in my roof- small ones, but there is one over my bed and a part of my mattress got all soggy one weekend which I only discovered when I sat on it and my pants got all wet. In addition, the electricity was particularly unreliable last month and was out for several long (4-5 days) stretches. Not having electricity (and daily rains that seriously limit the school’s solar system) makes it hard to keep my phone charged, which makes it hard to keep up with email and news from the outside world, which makes me feel more isolated than usual. Add to that a series of colds, a bout with food poisoning and a stomach bug and it’s fair to say that I was not at my best in March.

With all that going on, it’s been hard to stay motivated and remain patient with my students. The majority of the Form II students – 3 of the 4 streams/classes that I teach- are great. They can act up and get a little crazy sometimes but, generally speaking, they are all good kids and they are making their best effort to learn. My fourth stream is another story. There are a few motivated and well behaved students but I also have several students who are repeating Form II because they did not pass the NECTA last year. (Please bear in mind that they lowered the passing score to 20 points and made the test really easy last year. And these kids still didn’t pass, either because they were not at all prepared to enter secondary school to begin with and/or chronic truancy- I’m talking they didn’t come for months at a time truancy.) I taught many of the repeating students for a few months when I first got to site in 2012, when they were still in Form I. You may remember my tales of them misbehaving, disrespecting me and generally acting like the spawn of Satan. These are kids that would probably best be served by some form of vocational education but, thanks to politicians (rather than actual educators), they are now taking a host of subjects they are not prepared for in a language they have no real knowledge of. Clearly a recipe for success!

But, instead of turning this post into another diatribe against the Tanzanian education system, for a change I’m going to follow the advice of the Peace Corps administration and focus on the things I am thankful for. These are the things that make life not just bearable here but enjoyable, and are the things that I will miss the most when I return to the U.S.:

My courtyard

Having a courtyard definitely is a huge bonus for Tanzania PCVs. It’s lovely to have a place where I can sit outside and enjoy the occasional sunny day in Ilembo. And when I’m not feeling sociable, it’s nice to enjoy fresh air without being bombarded by requests for stickers, questions about why I talk to goats and the always charming greeting, “Give me my money”. (Possessive pronouns, and pronouns in general, are something Tanzanians seem to have difficultly with.) It also gives me a place to do my laundry and dry it (or try to dry it). One of my fellow PCVs that does not have a courtyard has had 3 pairs of jeans stolen off of her clothes line since she’s been here. And, of course, Nulty loves to hang out in the courtyard, eating grass, chasing lizards and lying in the sun. I think it’s fair to say that I would have ET’d a long time ago if I was at a site without a courtyard.

A shot of the courtyard from not long after I got to site (when Nulty was still free to wall sit at her leisure.)

A shot of the courtyard from not long after I got to site (when Nulty was still free to wall sit at her leisure.)

Nulty snoozing in the courtyard, enjoying the sun on her belly.  I don't know how that was a comfortable position for her, but she stayed that way for about an hour, the kook.

Nulty snoozing in the courtyard, enjoying the sun on her belly. I don’t know how that was a comfortable position for her, but she stayed that way for about an hour, the kook.

The library

I am happy to say the school library has become quite a hit with the students. It’s gotten to the point where some days I have to put a time limit on the amount of time students can stay so others can come in and study too. In hindsight, it might have been a good idea to go with the school’s idea of switching it to a larger room but I was very suspect of their talk about a “storage room for the books”. It’s not uncommon for Tanzanian schools to lock the books away in a store room and never let them see the light of day. Our school used to do this, but they at least let the students borrow the books occasionally. Even so, students had to know to ask for the book they wanted, without seeing what the options were. I’m a big believer in browsing. I can still spend hours in a library or book store, just exploring what’s on the shelves. I’ve noticed that having everything out in the open encourages the students to check out books they might not normally look at. The school had a whole bunch of donated fiction and non-fiction books locked away that I’ve put out and the kids love to look through them. Before I arrived in Tanzania, I read online that there is was a library crisis here but it’s really more about low literacy rates (in English for sure but also in Kiswahili- there are lots of students that are only really comfortable speaking their tribal languages) and little or no access to books outside of schools (it’s apparently unusual for public libraries here- which are only in the large towns- to loan out books). I’m always happy to see students come in to read some of the storybooks, rather than just to copy notes out of the textbooks.

A typical day in the library- I wish I could spend more time in there so students had more study time but I'm trying to recruit some other teachers to come in and supervise during their free periods.

A typical day in the library- I wish I could spend more time in there so students had more study time but I’m trying to recruit some other teachers to come in and supervise during their free periods.

A couple of my Form II girls study in the library.  I love my Form II students- maybe I'm biased, but I think they're the best behaved kids in the school.

A couple of my Form II girls study in the library. I love my Form II students- maybe I’m biased, but I think they’re the best behaved kids in the school.

My students

They drive me crazy sometimes (most of the time) but I’ve become really attached to the students here, especially my Form IIs that I’ve been teaching for the past two years. They definitely feel more comfortable with me this year and I have seen more of their personalities come out. I’m currently trying to take photos of my students so I can introduce you to some of the standouts.

The students gather for afternoon assembly after a(nother) rainstorm.

The students gather for afternoon assembly after a(nother) rainstorm.

Kids start carrying stuff on their heads early here, (I regularly see little children with smaller buckets of water on their head.)  I've tried it and it's hard on your neck muscles if they're not in shape!

Kids start carrying stuff on their heads early here, (I regularly see little children with smaller buckets of water on their head.) I’ve tried it and it’s hard on your neck muscles if they’re not in shape!

My counterpart

When I first got to site, I was determined to have a female counterpart because I didn’t really want to have to deal with the whole male/female dynamic here and I wanted to give a female teacher an opportunity to travel and learn that they might not normally get. (Peace Corps counterparts travel with volunteers to their In Service Training Conference, get paid a stipend and get to participate in training sessions with PC staff.) But, from when I first arrived at site, one of the most helpful people has been the head of the English department, Mr. Komba. He made sure I knew what was going on, translated for me at staff meetings and school events and was happy to answer any questions I had. But there were also a couple of female teachers that were also helpful so I was a bit torn. When I talked to my former mkuu about it, he said it was my choice but that he thought Mr. Komba was the most qualified and would be the best fit and I agreed. I really couldn’t have made a better choice. I’m lucky that my school has some really good teachers who care about the students and do the best they can despite all of the challenges of teaching here but Mr. Komba (his first name is Bert, but all of the teachers call each other by their last name) is definitely one of the best, if not the best. He always comes to school, he teaches all of his classes, he’s getting a Master’s degree but never lets that get in the way of his teaching responsibilities and he is always available and willing to help the crazy mzungu. And even when he’s trying to help me with something that might seem somewhat trivial to a typical Tanzanian (i.e., bats in my house) he always makes an effort to be empathetic and understanding. Also, he’s a devout Catholic and has never been anything but respectful and appropriate in his behavior so I feel totally comfortable with him, which is huge here (or anywhere really, am I right ladies?)

Mr. Komba outside the teacher's lounge at school.

Mr. Komba outside the teacher’s lounge at school.

My little neighbor

My closest neighbor (jarani), Mwanaidi, is a teacher at my school but she also has a family living with her. The wife works as a housekeeper and the husband helps her with her chickens and her new goats. They also have a son, who is adorable and sweet. He comes over every day after I’m done with school and, if I’m in the middle of something and don’t get to the door right away, he has no problem piga hodi-ing (the Tanzanian equivalent of “Hello? Anybody home?”) loudly. But as soon as I open the door, he gets shy and turns into a man of few words. I can’t even get his name out of him. It’s become our usual routine for him to request a sticker by saying, “Bandika” and then I’ll rattle off a bunch of questions at him, to which he just nods solemnly in return. Whenever Nulty escapes, he’ll help me out by pointing in the direction she went but there’s not a peep out of him. Once after a rainstorm, I was fixing the plastic I have jammed into the corner of my roof to keep out the bats out and we had the following “conversation”:

Me: I think the bats are back! I keep hearing them trying to get in at night! Do you think they’re already inside?

Jarani: (Nods)

Me: Really? Do you think they’ll come after me when I’m sleeping?

Jarani: (Nods)

Me: Oh no! So you’re saying the bats are going to attack me? And there’s nothing I can do?

Jarani: (Nods)

Me: Maybe I should try stuffing more plastic inside? Do you think that will help?

Jarani: (Nods)

This usually goes on for a while, until his mom calls him inside or he just gets bored with me. In any case, there’s something about his little nod that always cracks me up. He’s the perfect straight man.

My neighbor comes by for his daily sticker fix.

My neighbor comes by for his daily sticker fix.

Rozy

And, of course, my day always gets better when Rozy comes to visit her mother after the primary school has finished for the day. Some days, she’ll come hang out in the library with me and work on her penmanship or addition and subtraction (she’s a really good student and loves to learn, which I credit to her parents who are both really dedicated teachers) or she’ll ask to watch “cartooni” on my laptop, her favorite of which is still The Lion King. I think we’ve watched it at least 100 times together by now. She’s a really smart and special kid and I’m sure she’s going to be an excellent secondary school student one day.

Rozy, the assistant librarian, mans the circulation desk in my absence.

Rozy, the assistant librarian, mans the circulation desk in my absence.

Sometimes Rozy and I visit the current inmates in the school's "animal jail".  This time, it was a very friendly goat.

Sometimes Rozy and I visit the current inmates in the school’s “animal jail”. This time, it was a very friendly goat.

I love this picture!  That goat was a total ham.

I love this picture! That goat was a total ham.

Rozy drew this picture of me.  Or at least I think she said it was of me.  It was either me or her baby brother.  I'm still trying to figure out what the spots on the sleeve are - if it's me, it's probably coffee stains.  I bring a cup from home most mornings and invariably spill some on myself.

Rozy drew this picture of me. Or at least I think she said it was of me. It was either me or her baby brother. I’m still trying to figure out what the spots on the sleeve are – if it’s me, it’s probably coffee stains. I bring a cup from home most mornings and invariably spill some on myself.

Bajaji

For all my complaining about the transportation situation here, there is one area in which Tanzania totally beats the U.S. and that is the bajaj! Not unlike a Thai tuk-tuk, the bajaj is basically the best form of transportation ever created. We are lucky in Mbeya because there are tons of bajaji, but some towns only have 1 or 2, which is just sad. There is nothing that can turn around a long day of shopping and trudging around Mbeya Town like a bajaj ride. They’re usually painted in bright colors – greens, reds, blues and yellows- and they are often accessorized with fake flowers on the dashboard, stickers on the sides and poor translated and/or anachronistic English expressions written across the top of the windshield (such as the classic “No Jealous Mama”). There’s something about riding in a bajaj that makes you feel like you’re in a parade. Sure, they’re basically a tin can stuck on a motorcycle and there’s some kind of Peace Corps policy about not using them in certain areas of Dar es Salaam because of almost certain death, but everything has it’s drawbacks! I’m still trying to figure out how I can stuff one in my luggage so I can tool around my neighborhood in L.A. in one.

A bajaj, outfitted for the rainy season.  Usually the back, where the passengers sit, is open like the front.

A bajaj, outfitted for the rainy season. Usually the back, where the passengers sit, is open like the front.

A Serpico  themed bajaj.  Believe it or not, I've seen more than one.  I love Tanzania!

A Serpico themed bajaj. Believe it or not, I’ve seen more than one. I love Tanzania!

Goats!

The animal version of a bajaj is a goat. No matter how grumpy I am, if I see a goat munching on grass and giving me one of their classic blank stares, I can’t help but laugh. The cutest thing to watch is the Mama Goat/Baby Goat paging system, which kicks in when they are farther apart than either of their comfort zones allows. One of them will just start baa-ing non stop until they hear a response from their beloved. Supposedly, mothers and babies can identify each other by their unique sound. I can’t really hear the difference but I believe it because I’ve seen it in action so many times. I’m also trying to figure out how to get one of them into my luggage. Maybe it can sit in the bajaj?

I love the look this guy is giving me.  And I'm concerned that he might have swallowed a big rock- or is that a goiter on his neck?

I love the look this guy is giving me. And I’m concerned that he might have swallowed a big rock- or is that a goiter on his neck?

This is one of the better known goat citizens of Ilembo.  Andrew and I used to call him Stampy because he had something wrong with his hoof (it looked more like a flipper) and he had a very distinctive gait.

This is one of the better known goat citizens of Ilembo. Andrew and I used to call him Stampy because he had something wrong with his hoof (it looked more like a flipper) and he had a very distinctive gait.

A mother and baby goat.  As I was taking this photo, I could hear some of the mamas in the village saying that they could not understand why I would want to piga picha a goat.  I think they think there's something wrong with me.

A mother and baby goat. As I was taking this photo, I could hear some of the mamas in the village saying that they could not understand why I would want to piga picha a goat. I think they think there’s something wrong with me.

The generosity of friends & family back home

I have been so surprised, delighted and touched by how many people (some of whom I haven’t even met) have sent me cards, letters and care packages here. I’m something of a “the glass is half empty and has a small crack in the bottom” kind of person so it has been a real eye opener for me to see how kind and generous people have been. Everyone at the Mbeya post office knows me and I’ve developed a lovely relationship with the lady who handles the packages there. My old site mate Andrew guessed that I had already surpassed the record for number of packages received by PCV in country, and that was only after about a year. (I don’t actually think that’s true but I’ve got to be up in the top 10 somewhere.) I have appreciated every single thing people have sent, every good thought and kind word that has been extended to me. I know I may never be able repay all of your kindness so I say a very sincere and hearty thank you.

And, of course, Nulty!

I'm not the only one who's tired of rainy season.  Nulty waits all day for me to come home so she can spend some time in the courtyard, only to realize there's no sunshine out there, either.  Pole Nulty.

I’m not the only one who’s tired of rainy season. Nulty waits all day for me to come home so she can spend some time in the courtyard, only to realize there’s no sunshine out there, either. Pole Nulty.

Nulty grooming herself on my bed.  I don't think she's ever going to get those feet totally clean.  I can't wait until we get to the U.S. so I can see what color her feet really are under all that dirt.

Nulty grooming herself on my bed. I don’t think she’s ever going to get those feet totally clean. I can’t wait until we get to the U.S. so I can see what color her feet really are under all that dirt.

Something- I'm guessing it's one of the many lizard residents of Ilembo- captures Nulty's attention in the courtyard.  She doesn't like the taste of them, but she loves chasing lizards.

Something- I’m guessing it’s one of the many lizard residents of Ilembo- captures Nulty’s attention in the courtyard. She doesn’t like the taste of them, but she loves chasing lizards.

Even when it's raining, she likes to run out into the courtyard and sit under the eaves so she doesn't get wet.

Even when it’s raining, she likes to run out into the courtyard and sit under the eaves so she doesn’t get wet.

Mdudu's eye view of Nulty.

Mdudu’s eye view of Nulty.

A belated Happy Easter to everyone!

*I have been trying to get this post up for the past several weeks but I was super busy writing, and then marking, midterms. That was followed by a small catastrophe- the hard drive on my laptop died. By some miracle, I was actually able to find a place that could repair Macs and they were able to replace the hard drive for me but it took me a few days to load all of my data back onto it and get up and running again. Pole for my tardiness!

A Message From Nulty

AMessagefromNulty

I know you are expecting a real post here, but Siobhan is sick (a cold plus a stomach bug) and there’s no electricity in Ilembo (something about a transformer being down) so we are operating on minimal battery life. Siobhan will do her best to post an update in the next few days, depending on power availability. Pole sana.

PS – Siobhan keeps making me wear that damn pink vest. Any ideas on how I can get her to ditch that thing? I have my dignity, you know.