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.

And Then There Was The Time I Peed On A Praying Mantis…

Like most people, before I came to Tanzania, I really didn’t have a clear picture of what life here was really like for most people. I understood that Africa had some large cities, like Johannesburg and Nairobi, but I think I pictured the majority of the continent as something straight out of an old copy of National Geographic: lots of dry, hot desert areas, people living in grass huts, etc. Some of that really does exist here but Tanzania in particular is tremendously diverse in terms of environment. The middle of the country is hot and dry, the coast is hot and humid, there are deserts and rainforests and cold, rainy mountains like the one I live on. There are modern cities and small villages that lack all modern conveniences. As a general rule, the farther away from a paved road you lived, the harder your life is.

The majority of ex-pats (foreign residents) live in towns. I’m sure their life sounds terribly foreign and difficult to their friends and family back home but the reality is most of them live in houses that have electricity, running (hot) water, Western flush toilets, modern appliances and reliable internet access and, perhaps most importantly, they can drive cars. Many of them work in villages, but they travel to and from them in the relative comfort of private automobiles. This is a developing country so even in towns, the electricity can be unreliable and the roads can be bad so there are definitely adjustments that have to be made but compared to the average Peace Corps Volunteer (and volunteers from other, similar international groups such as KOICA and VSO), their life is a picnic.

Most Peace Corps Volunteers life in villages for two years, so we get to experience what life is like for some of the poorest host country nationals (HCNS = the people native to the country you are serving in; in my case, Tanzanians) on a daily basis. A lot of Education volunteers have electricity in their villages, but certainly not all. I am lucky that Ilembo got electricity last year, but it is still incredibly unreliable and goes out for days, even a week or more, at a time. PCVs have varying degrees of access to water – very few have running water in their homes, some have access to bombas (shared pipes with running, sometimes unreliably, water) or, like me, they have to carry water from some type of well or water source (or have students do it for them). Most cooking is done on jikos (charcoal stoves) although many have propane stove-tops – I just inherited a single propane burner when my site mate left, and it has changed my life. I have to haul the (relatively small) propane tank to and from my village when it needs to be refilled, but it is absolutely worth all of the effort involved. I’m still too lazy and untalented to do any complex cooking, but boiling water now takes 5-10 minutes instead of an hour or longer. And I can actually turn down the flame when I am making pasta or soup, rather than having to lift the pot higher off the flame and hold it there. (Yes, I know I could just remove some of the charcoal but those suckers are hot and I like to limit the likelihood of starting a fire outside of the stove whenever possible.) Also, PCVs are not allowed to drive so we have to rely on whatever local transportation is available. The only other wazungu I’ve ever seen on a daladala have all been other PCVs.

In my more reflective moments, I know I am very lucky to be having the unique experience of living in a village for this long. But the reality is life in a village is really hard and unpleasant. And I’m only doing it for two years – I’m a dilettante in comparison to the people who spend their entire lives here. In the spirit of remembering to appreciate all of the luxuries we have in the U.S., here are some of the more challenging aspects of village life:

Laundry
When I lived in Los Angeles, my apartment building did not have a laundry room so I had to use a laundromat that was a block away. At the time, I considered this a huge inconvenience and dreaded my weekly trips to wash clothes. To say that I would now happily walk that block on broken glass to use an actual washer and dryer again is only a slight exaggeration. All of my laundry here is done by hand (the only exceptions are if I am staying at a hotel or guestie that has laundry service, which happens about once every 6 months or so). This includes underwear, clothes, towels, sheets, blankets and anything else that needs washing. Underwear and most clothing are relatively easy, but jeans, sweatshirts, and anything made from heavier material are a pain. Sheets are awkward because of their size, towels can take a while to dry and blankets (especially the heavy wool ones they sell here) are a nightmare.

The laundry process begins with getting lots of water. During rainy season this is easy (it rains so much I usually have at least a full 40 liter bucket of water on hand), but during the dry season it is much more difficult. I either have to haul water back to my house (assuming the hand pump wells are in working order working and/or there is enough water that it doesn’t take an hour to fill a small bucket) or bring all my laundry and basins down to the water source, which I tend not to do because there is no place to put the recently clean laundry where it will stay clean. On the flip side, drying clothes is much easier during the dry season (when there is plenty of sunshine) but is a long, drawn out process that is never really completely successful in the rainy season.

I start with 2 large basins and 1 smaller one. I add soap to basin #1 and use it as for the actual washing. Once an item has soaked for a few minutes, I get to scrubbing out any stains by rubbing the fabric together between my knuckles until the stain is gone or my hands are raw. Then I try to squeeze out all of the soap and water (which is particularly difficult with heavy or large items – I swear I’ve sprained my arm trying to wring out wool blankets) and transport it into basin #2, which is the initial rinsing station. After rinsing, I again have to wring out all of the excess water (and there’s almost always more soap that comes out at this point) and if I’m satisfied it’s clean and soap-free at this point, I’ll hang it on the line. Otherwise, I put it into basin #3 for a final rinse cycle, which is followed by more wringing and squeezing. After finishing a few items, a lot of the soap has transferred to basin #2 so I add more soap and make it the new washing station. The dirty water from basin #1 goes down the choo (or in a bucket for later choo flushing) and I put the used rinsing water from basin #3 into basin #1 and add a little more water, before refilling basin #3 with clean water. This process continues again and again until I’m done with all my laundry and/or out of space to hang things for drying. I don’t think clothes ever really get totally clean via this method but I resigned myself a while ago to just be happy if my clothes end up smelling more like soap than sweat and dirt when I’m done. (I should say, stuff doesn’t get totally clean when I’m doing it but the Tanzanians who use this method manage to get things spotless, either because they have had years of practice and/or because they use tons of soap and never really worry about rinsing all of it out. Rinsing in general doesn’t seem to be a priority here – the prevailing attitude seems to be “a little soap never hurt anyone”.)

My 3 basin system in action.  The large beige thing in the blue bucket are a set of sheets that I was washing.  After I rinsed them and hung them on the line, the line fell into the dirt and I had to start the whole process over again.  Good times.

My 3 basin system in action. The large beige thing in the blue bucket are a set of sheets that I was washing. After I rinsed them and hung them on the line, the line fell into the dirt and I had to start the whole process over again. Good times.

As I said, during the dry season there is plenty of sunshine and, if I start my laundry first thing in the morning, most everything is dry by the time it gets dark. But in the rainy season, it’s a whole different story. On most days in the rainy season, we get some sun (or at least fewer clouds) for an hour or two in the morning. I put the clothes out on the three clotheslines in my courtyard to get them as dry as possible before the rain starts. Once the rain begins in the late morning/early afternoon, I have to put up the two clotheslines in my living room (and by “put up”, I mean tie the other end of the line to the nail on the other side of the room) and them hurry to get all of the clothes from outside before the torrential downpour begins. There’s also a smaller, permanent line in Nulty’s litter room, so I usually have the same amount of space inside that I do outside. Generally, I have to leave everything hanging up for a day or two before it gets dry-ish (nothing is every completely dry during the rainy season because the air is so damp all of the time) and, hopefully, before anything starts to get moldy. Usually, I don’t wash any of my blankets in the rainy season but this year Nulty tracked a whole bunch of mud on the blanket I cover the bed with so I had to figure out a way to clean it. It was raining even harder and steadier than usual that week so, in the interest of laziness, I just left it outside for a few days and let the rain wash everything off. It took about a week to dry, but it was way easier than trying to wash it in a basin and wring all the water out of it. Score one for laziness!

Nulty watches over my sloooooooowly drying clothes.  (This is an old photo, before she was attacked by the dogs and permanently banned from wall jumping.)

Nulty watches over my sloooooooowly drying clothes. (This is an old photo, before she was attacked by the dogs and permanently banned from wall jumping.)

A typical afternoon downpour in Ilembo (this was taken at the school).  Not exactly optimal jeans-drying weather but great for "washing" blankets!

A typical afternoon downpour in Ilembo (this was taken at the school). Not exactly optimal jeans-drying weather but great for “washing” blankets!

Bugs
I’ve mentioned the mice/rats and bats that have come into the house in previous posts but I don’t know if I’ve ever talked about the menagerie of insects that are a part of village life. First of all, my house has huge gaps under the doors, there isn’t any sealant around the windows and there are plain old holes in my roof and on the bottom of some of my walls, so the bugs are getting in no matter what I do. Some of the bugs are year round visitors, but others are only around in the rainy season (this horrible, flying termites that come out after a rain and drop their wings all over the place) or the dry season (big, flying roaches that come out at dusk and insist on dive-bombing into my hair). But year round, there is always a wide variety of creepy-crawly, flying, buzzing and/or glowing creatures that invade my home every day. For the smaller ones, I’ve just taken to killing them with my bare hands but for some of the larger, squishier ones I rely on a pair of Andrew’s old shoes to do my wet work. When people ask me what the biggest difference is between here and the U.S., I usually tell them that in the U.S., if you feel something tickling your arm or leg or another body part it almost always ends up being a piece of hair but in Tanzania it’s ALWAYS a bug. Sometimes you don’t even feel it, you just look down and there’s a roach or a big old spider hanging out on your shirt or skirt. They provide Nulty with hours of entertainment (she loves to chase them, especially the flying ones) but I am in a state of constant fear and unease, never knowing when I will find one nestled in the bun in my hair or under my bed sheets. The worst part is getting up in the middle of the night to use the choo and finding a bug in there. Let’s be clear, there are always bugs in the room that holds the choo (there is a family of spiders hanging out in there now) but I’m talking about in the choo itself. Currently, there are little black fly type things that fly up as soon as you start doing your business, which always makes me worry that I’m going to get bitten in a particularly vulnerable location. One night, I had to pee pretty badly so I went out to the choo and found a giant, green praying mantis hanging out in there. I tried to shush it away but it didn’t want to move and time was of the essence so I now have a story about the time I peed on a praying mantis to share at future social events. If that doesn’t start the invitations rolling in, I don’t know what will.

This dude was hanging out waiting for me when I got home one day.  I found out after I killed it that it was a completely harmless stick bug.  I felt bad but I wasn't going to take the chance that something that large might bite and/or poison me.

This dude was hanging out waiting for me when I got home one day. I found out after I killed it that it was a completely harmless stick bug. I felt bad but I wasn’t going to take the chance that something that large might bite and/or poison me.

Booze
As a teacher, I try to set a good example for my students so I don’t drink in public in my village. I always keep some emergency vodka on hand (just in case I have to operate on someone and don’t have anything to sterilize the scalpel; or when I have to settle my nerves while grading student tests) and I regularly smuggle a bottle of wine back from town and have a glass inside my house after all of the sticker seeking children have gone home for the night. At one point, a new duka opened up in the village and started selling some higher end items (they have since realized the error of that thinking and now sell the same selection of bar soap and biskuti that every other duka stocks) and actually sold wine. As a teacher and as a woman (woman who drinks alcohol in the village= prostitute, another example of the patriarchal bullshit I deal with here), I don’t feel comfortable being seen buying alcohol in the village so I used Andrew, who was still living in Mbawi at the time, as my front. Andrew, bless his heart, does not have to worry about writing his Academy Award acceptance speech just yet because the transaction usually went like this:

Shopkeeper: Habari Mwile? Habari Auntie? (I’m not a mama, which is the generic greeting used for most women so I’m “auntie”) What can I do for you?

Andrew: Uhhhh… I want wine, right? Do I want wine, Siobhan?

Me: Yes, Andrew, you said you wanted to buy a bottle of wine.

Shopkeeper: What kind? The white? The red?

Andrew: Uhhhh… I don’t know. What kind of wine do I want, Siobhan?

Me: You want the red wine. The stuff from South Africa.

Andrew: Yeah, give me that one.

Shopkeeper: The price is 15,000 shillings.

Andrew: Can I borrow some money, Siobhan?

Me: I already loaned you 20,000 shillings, remember? It’s in your pocket.

Andrew: Oh, right. Here you go. (Gives the money to the shopkeeper, takes the wine.) Hey, Siobhan, can you hold this in your bag for me?

Me: Seriously? You can’t wait until we’re outside?

Needless to say, I’m pretty sure the shopkeeper saw through our little ruse because when I would go into the duka without Andrew, he’d always say, “Do you want to buy some wine today?” And I would have to fake being totally offended and say, “Of course not! I don’t drink alcohol!” And they would respond with the Kiswahili equivalent of “Riiiiiiiight….”

Last month, I finally got my act together and whipped up a batch of bucket wine, which is something of a Peace Corps tradition. It involves fruit, sugar, yeast, water and (duh) a couple of large buckets. I made some pineapple wine, which is pretty easy but I still managed to mess it up because I tossed in the yeast before I read the part where it said you had to activate bread yeast before you add it. So I just activated it and added more, which may or may not turn it into pineapple moonshine. After 3 weeks of fermenting, you have to scoop out all of the fruit and gunk out and ladle the wine into a clean, yeast-free bucket. After that, it takes a minimum of 3 weeks to age. I’ve been aging mine for almost 4 weeks now and will do a taste test this weekend. Fingers crossed I get something that is actually drinkable….

This is the sludge that you have to remove after the fermenting process is complete.  (Most of it is chunks of pineapple.)

This is the sludge that you have to remove after the fermenting process is complete. (Most of it is chunks of pineapple.)

After the sludge was removed, I had to ladle the contents of the blue bucket into another bucket.  I used a kanga (the purple fabric) to strain out any left over bits of sludge.

After the sludge was removed, I had to ladle the contents of the blue bucket into another bucket. I used a kanga (the purple fabric) to strain out any left over bits of sludge.

An action shot of me ladling the wine into the new bucket.  You can see some of the bits of fruit, etc. that were strained out by the kanga.

An action shot of me ladling the wine into the new bucket. You can see some of the bits of fruit, etc. that were strained out by the kanga.

And here is all of the strained wine, ready to start the aging process.  It's actually more than it looks like- I ended up filling a 10 liter bucket more than half way.  (That's me you see in the reflection, taking the picture.)

And here is all of the strained wine, ready to start the aging process. It’s actually more than it looks like- I ended up filling a 10 liter bucket more than half way. (That’s me you see in the reflection, taking the picture.)

Pet Supplies
As you can probably imagine, the pet care industry here is not quite as big as it is in the U.S., so there’s not a PetCo in every village. Most Tanzanians tell me I shouldn’t feed Nulty because that will keep her hungry so she continues to chase panya (mice/rats). They do have a point- these days, if a mouse does get in the house, Nulty will just torture it for a while, keeping it alive so she can play with it for as long as possible. When she does finally kill it, she chews on it a bit, and then leaves the carcass on the floor next to my bed so I’ll be able to see it (or step on it) first thing in the morning. Thanks, Nulty!

Last year, Nulty started refusing to eat the dagaa (tiny, dried fish) that I fed her so I switched her to actual cat food. The problem is that it is very difficult to find cat food in Mbeya. There is one store in town that will occasionally sell dry food, but they don’t have a steady supply of it so they’ll have it one month and then it’s gone for the next six months. So, whenever I travel to Dar, I make a trip to one of the large grocery stores there and stock up. Normally when I fly, I bring one bag of clothing and bring another bag to fill up with cat food and bring back. I am aware how ridiculous this is but I have spoiled Nulty way too much so there’s no going back now. And I also have to thank all of you who have sent food and treats and toys for her- she loves everything and whenever I return home from town with a care package, she always sticks her nose in to check for her gifts.

The other big challenge is litter. There is no litter available in Mbeya, ever. You can buy this silica-based litter in Dar that is supposed to last for one month but I tried it once and Nulty went through a bag in about a week and a half, which made it too expensive and impossible to keep an adequate supply on hand. There is not enough newspaper available in the village to try to make my own, I don’t have access to grass clippings and sawdust is bad for cats so I have to use dirt. Nulty is happy to use the dirt, but dirt doesn’t have any of the odor-absorbing qualities that regular litter does so it doesn’t exactly smell great. Also, Nulty is quite prolific in her litter box use and if I don’t clean it out fast enough for her, she’ll just go ahead and poop on the floor. Which really helps with the odor problem, let me tell you. The other big problem is finding enough dry dirt to use during the long rainy season. Fortunately, my school had a bunch of sand they were using for a construction project (more on that later) that they store under a shelter to keep it out of the rain, so I’ve been able to “borrow” some from their stash. This still involves me filling up a small bucket full of dirt every week or so and carrying it from the school to my house. It’s only a 5 liter bucket, but 5 liters of dirt is HEAVY, let me tell you. I’m just waiting for my students to do something really bad so I can punish them by making them carry dirt for me.

With a face like this, how can I resist flying suitcases full of cat food back to her?

With a face like this, how can I resist flying suitcases full of cat food back to her?

Garbage
It’s not as if garbage is fun in the U.S., but at least there you can bag it, drop it in a can or a dumpster and pretty much forget about it. But here, I have a much more intimate relationship with my garbage. I keep one small plastic bag in the kitchen where I dump everything and then take it out to the pit once a week. But if I leave food scraps in there it is not unusual to come home to an army of ants invading the bag. Now, there are ants in the U.S. but the ants here are more what you would expect to see on an episode of Hoarders (RIP). There are never just one or two ants– if you see one ant, there is usually a line of thousands trailing behind it. I have seen an unbroken line of ants, four or five deep, starting from the bottom of my back door, going up the door, across the hall wall and three-quarters of the way around the kitchen, terminating in my garbage bag. And just a couple of weeks ago, I discovered that they had built some sort of colony type structure in my kitchen, behind the bookcase. I only found it because I dropped a pot lid there. Even the largest mass of them can usually be eliminated with a few liberal sprays from a can of HIT!, a product which is only slightly less potent than DDT and I seriously doubt would pass muster with the EPA.

Every week, when I take my trash out to the garbage pit I have to burn it immediately, or the locals (I’m assuming they are kids, but I’m not sure) will go through it and fling it all over the back of my house and over a half mile perimeter area. This includes the bags of used dirt from Nulty’s litter box, which is just gross all the way around. When I first got here, I would just throw my trash in the pit and I thought I could burn it all at a later date. I realized my mistake when I came back from town one day and found my personal, embarrassing garbage strewn all over the path in front of the mkuu’s house. Living in a village is not all that different from being a celebrity – everyone knows you, they shout your name (or, in my case, “Mzungu!”) at you wherever you go and they go through your trash. Plus, we kind of have a backwards paparazzi system here – most villagers don’t have cameras so if they see you with a camera, they start yelling, “Piga picha! Piga picha!” (“Take a picture! Take a picture!”) and will not leave you alone until you comply. I’ve never actually printed any of these pictures for anyone, but they just like to look at them on my camera. I may print some pictures in town give them to people as parting gifts towards the end of my service here but that’s just one item on my long list of things to do in the next 7-8 months.

I was taking pictures outside my courtyard one day when these ladies wandered by and "Piga Picha!"-ed me.  The baby was a cutie pie!

I was taking pictures outside my courtyard one day when these ladies wandered by and “Piga Picha!”-ed me. The baby was a cutie pie!

In other news, I am giving you all a heads up that at some point in the next couple of months, I will be hitting you up for cash. I just completed a grant application that will allow me to raise funds from friends and family in order to help the school complete construction on an assembly hall. The school doesn’t have an indoor space large enough to hold all of the students, so often they are not able to hold morning and afternoon assemblies during the rainy season. In addition, they need a space where an entire Form of students can take the regional and national examinations at the same time. The school started building the hall last year with funds raised from selling lumber from all of the trees they chopped down, but they ran out of money before it was completed. I want to raise approximately $2300 to pay for construction materials (concrete, plaster) and the school will pay for labor and other incidental materials (sand to mix with the concrete, stones to level the floor) so they can finish construction before the NECTA tests start in October. I will be posting more information and sending out a mass email if/when my grant application is approved with all of the details.

The assembly hall in its current state of mid-construction.  They still have to finish the exterior walls, finish/plaster the interior walls and level the floor and pour the cement for the floor.

The assembly hall in its current state of mid-construction. They still have to finish the exterior walls, finish/plaster the interior walls and level the floor and pour the cement for the floor.

As usual, I will close with some more Nulty photos in a shameless ploy to drive up page hits:

Nulty keeps a watch on the outside world by peering through the sizable gap under my front door.  Sometimes I'll come home and see her arm/paw sticking out from under there, trying to grab at something in the outside world.  I think she really believes she'll be able to grab one of my neighbor's chickens that way.

Nulty keeps a watch on the outside world by peering through the sizable gap under my front door. Sometimes I’ll come home and see her arm/paw sticking out from under there, trying to grab at something in the outside world. I think she really believes she’ll be able to grab one of my neighbor’s chickens that way.

Nulty models her new kitty holster/harness.  We've already taken a few walks near my house with great success.  I took her near the school once but my timing was off because all of the students were leaving for the day and Nulty was freaked out by the crowd.  The students (and teachers) thought it was the most hilarious thing they had ever seen.  They will be talking about the crazy mzungu who thought a cat was her baby for years after I return to America.

Nulty models her new kitty holster/harness. We’ve already taken a few walks near my house with great success. I took her near the school once but my timing was off because all of the students were leaving for the day and Nulty was freaked out by the crowd. The students (and teachers) thought it was the most hilarious thing they had ever seen. They will be talking about the crazy mzungu who thought a cat was her baby for years after I return to America.

Nulty snoozes in the courtyard, wearing her fabulous new kitty harness.  I think she actually likes wearing it.  I should knit her a sweater to wear because it's going to get super cold here in about 3 months.

Nulty snoozes in the courtyard, wearing her fabulous new kitty harness. I think she actually likes wearing it. I should knit her a sweater to wear because it’s going to get super cold here in about 3 months.

I hope everyone is happy and healthy and staying warm and dry, with the exception of the Californians who desperately need rain now. Have a great month!

A Chicken In Every Pot And A Passing NECTA Score For Every Student

(I have been battling a cold for the past few days so I’m not sure how long this will be, but I’m determined to stick to my one post a month schedule so I’m going to give it my best shot….)

It’s hard to believe that I celebrated my second New Year’s Eve here in Tanzania. I have been in country for 20 months now, which means I will be finishing up my service and returning home later this year. Officially, our COS (Close of Service) date is some time in August, but I am teaching Form II English this year so I am going to try to stay until my students have to take their NECTA exams in October. Nothing will be official until later this Spring (probably May) but I am the only Form II English teacher at my school and I’d only be extending for two months so I don’t think there will be a problem with my staying until then.

Speaking of the NECTA exam, our school got our Form II results last week and over 200 students passed. It sounds like this would be good news but, unfortunately, it’s more a reflection of the fact that they lowered the passing score to a 20 and, on top of that, I think they were very liberal in their marking. (There are some contingencies – students who score a 20-29 have to take remedial classes but the students in my school are already taking remedial classes, so I don’t really think they’re going to be taking additional remedial classes on top of those – there are only so many hours in the day.) Students have to take a regional exam every year before they take the NECTA and at my school the results of the regional exam and the NECTA are usually very similar. But last year, only 25 Form II students passed the regional exam, which is quite a disparity with the 200 who passed the NECTA. Also, the students who took the NECTA for the second time and still did not pass will move up to Form III, regardless. The teachers at my school are not happy with this as, once again, they will be held responsible for teaching students that are not qualified to be at the level they are. This is especially strange because the past couple of years, the Ministry of Education has been making an effort to not move up students who can’t pass their NECTA exams. I could not figure out what was going on until one of my fellow teachers pointed out that it is an election year here in Tanzania and parents who are forced to pay school fees for their children, only to see them fail their exams repeatedly, would probably not feel inclined to re-elect the people that are currently in power. Obviously, I can’t know this is true for sure but I’ve been here long enough to suspect that it probably is. But the elections will be over by the time my Form II students have to take the exam, so they’re going to need all the help they can get until then.

Other than that frustration, the school year is going pretty well so far. I’m teaching the same students that I taught last year so they already know what to expect from me and vice versa. They have not divided up the streams by ability level yet (there is still the possibility that it may happen, but I’m not counting on it) but at least they are divided into 4 separate streams (rather than the 3 they were in last year) so the class sizes are much more manageable, which is something. I have less time to teach this year (because the school year really ends in early October, rather than late November) but I have fewer topics to cover so I think it is manageable.

My Kiswahili has definitely improved in the past 6 months or so. Part of this is because I’ve been trying to study on my own and part of it is because my students are helping me. The Peace Corps discourages us from using Kiswahili in the classroom, but most of my students’ English is below where it should be so I use Kiswahili frequently to make sure my students understand what I’m asking them to do, etc. Also, when I’m teaching English vocabulary words, it’s much easier for the students to understand if I give them the Kiswahili translation rather than trying to cobble together a definition from the simple English words they know. Usually, when I look for translations in the dictionary there are several words listed, but my students will let me know which of those is used most often or which ones mean something completely different. I still have difficulties with pronunciation, but they help me with those too. I remember when I first got to Tanzania and was staying with my host family, I was trying to tell my host brother that there were lots of mosquitoes in my room that were biting me but I couldn’t figure out why he was reacting so strangely. When I asked my LCF (my language teacher during Pre-Service Training) about it, he thought it was hilarious and explained to me that the Kiswahili word for mosquito is “mbu” and the word for penis is “mboo”, but they sound pretty similar (especially when spoken by someone who is just learning the language). So basically, I had been telling my 15-year-old host brother that there were a lot of penises in my bedroom last night. Whoops. Now, I just say “mdudu” (insect) to avoid any future embarrassment, especially with my students.

Before school started in early January, I was able to enjoy an entire month off from teaching. I spent Christmas close to home, in a guestie that served grilled cheese that tasted exactly like American grilled cheese sandwiches. It was a real Christmas miracle! I think I ate four of them while I was there. In addition, I hung out with my fellow PCVs, Tracy and Kristine, and we got into the Christmas season by buying furry animal hats:

Me, Kristine and Tracy modeling our "wolf in sheep's clothing" hats that we bought in Mwanjelwa. (Where else?)

Me, Kristine and Tracy modeling our “wolf in sheep’s clothing” hats that we bought in Mwanjelwa. (Where else?)

In addition to the safari I blogged about earlier, I also went to Zanzibar for New Year’s Eve, which was incredible. There were a bunch of other PCVs there, so it was great to catch up with people from my class that I hadn’t seen in a while. And the beaches there are amazing:

This is a shot of the beach in front of the hotel where I stayed in Nungwi, on the North shore of Zanzibar.  It was gorgeous.

This is a shot of the beach in front of the hotel where I stayed in Nungwi, on the North shore of Zanzibar. It was gorgeous.

The water was so blue, it looked like a picture on a postcard.

The water was so blue, it looked like a picture on a postcard.

Unfortunately, Nulty’s stint with her new babysitters didn’t go too well as she was terribly behaved at Heather and Jason’s. She pooped on their floor repeatedly and then kept them up until all hours of the night howling at the top of her lungs. They graciously offered to keep her for the whole month, but I brought her back to Ilembo after I returned from safari and she stayed there alone (with lots of food, water and 3 litter boxes) while I was in Zanzibar. I think the trauma of the trip into town (and almost getting lost forever) might have stressed her out. She mellowed out a bit once she was back at my site, but didn’t really get back to normal until I was back in Ilembo and teaching every day again.

She had been escaping from the courtyard like crazy and after her second overnight escapade in one week, I figured out I could nail tarps to the inside of the courtyard wall, which would prevent her from being able to pull herself up the wall. It only took a year and a half for me to outsmart the cat.

Nulty is not pleased with the new tarps.  I'm sure she'll eventually figure out a way to climb the wall, but for now victory is mine!

Nulty is not pleased with the new tarps. I’m sure she’ll eventually figure out a way to climb the wall, but for now victory is mine!

And if the tarps don’t work, I also ordered her a little kitty harness from the U.S. This way I can keep her on a leash so she doesn’t escape when the doors are open. I can also take her on walks, which I’m sure the people of Ilembo will find hilarious. But she’s still getting used to the harness (when she has it on, she walks super close to the ground and moves very slowly), so the walks will have to wait a little while.

Nulty munches on some grass while modeling her new harness.  It's a little big - I think I'm going to have to take it in a little for her.

Nulty munches on some grass while modeling her new harness. It’s a little big – I think I’m going to have to take it in a little for her.

And I leave you with a glamour shot:

Nulty is the prettiest (and most delicious) cat in all of Ilembo!

Nulty is the prettiest (and most delicious) cat in all of Ilembo!

Happy 2014 everybody! I’ll see you all THIS YEAR!! (Woo hoo!)

Lions and Zebras and Monkeys, Oh My!

As I mentioned in my previous post, earlier this month I went on safari with one of my fellow Mbeya PCVs, Tracy, and her sister, Kaye, who was visiting from the United States. I met up with Tracy and Kaye in Moshi, a beautiful city in northern Tanzania that is home to Mount Kilimanjaro:

The view of Mount Kilimanjaro from downtown Moshi.

The view of Mount Kilimanjaro from downtown Moshi.

From Moshi, the safari company drove us to the Ngorongoro Crater. We did a tour of the Crater the afternoon we arrived and then spent the night in one of the camp sites. We were not exactly roughing it, as the safari company takes care of all of the work: the driver set up our tents, cots, mats and sleeping bags and the cook prepared and served our meals. While we were eating dinner, an elephant wandered up next to the dining hall (unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera with me). I’m convinced the safari guides slipped a little something to the Maasai locals to bring in the elephant to thrill the wazungu tourists and make sure they felt like they were getting their money’s worth.

The entrance to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.

The entrance to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.

NgoroNgoroSign

NgoroNgoroSign2

Posing at the Ngorongoro entrance.  Naturally, I assumed this sign was too small to fit "except for the monkeys", so I kept some bananas in my bag just in case we ran into one that was looking to be adopted and relocate to the Mbeya region with me.

Posing at the Ngorongoro entrance. Naturally, I assumed this sign was too small to fit “except for the monkeys”, so I kept some bananas in my bag just in case we ran into one that was looking to be adopted and relocate to the Mbeya region with me.

Overlooking the crater.  This is right before we drove down into it.

Overlooking the crater. This is right before we drove down into it.

A rainbow over Ngorongoro.  This photo really doesn't do it justice.

A rainbow over Ngorongoro. This photo really doesn’t do it justice.

On the second day, we drove through the Ngorongoro conservation area into Serengeti National Park. We stopped at the entrance to Serengeti, where I had an up close and personal encounter with an elephant. It was both amazing and scary to be so near to such a large animal – all of the animals were quite comfortable and used to being in such close proximity to humans and carried on with their daily business seemingly oblivious to the gawking humans all around them.

Entering Serengeti National Park.

Entering Serengeti National Park.

This guy was doing a floor show in the parking lot at the Serengeti entrance.  I think he is a Maribou Stork, but I'm not 100% sure.  He was huge, whatever he was.

This guy was doing a floor show in the parking lot at the Serengeti entrance. I think he is a Maribou Stork, but I’m not 100% sure. He was huge, whatever he was.

After the show, he was kind enough to pose for this portrait.

After the show, he was kind enough to pose for this portrait.

Notice the elephant munching away right behind me.  It was even closer to me than it appears in this photo.  You can probably pick up on the "hurry up and take this picture before this thing steps on me" in my eyes.

Notice the elephant munching away right behind me. It was even closer to me than it appears in this photo. You can probably pick up on the “hurry up and take this picture before this thing steps on me” in my eyes.

We camped for two nights in Serengeti and it was amazing. You really do get up close and personal with all of the animals (from the safety of a safari car). And the sunrise is amazing:

The sunset isn’t so bad either:

SunsetSerengeti

We saw lots of different birds:

There were tons of rabbits but this is the only guy who would pose for me:

BunBunNgoroNgoro

We saw cheetahs:

We saw these guys from a distance - they were stalking something but we couldn't figure out what it was.

We saw these guys from a distance – they were stalking something but we couldn’t figure out what it was.

And cape buffaloes:

CapeBuffaloNgoroNgoro

And hyenas:

And jackals:

JackalNgoroNgoro

We were lucky enough to see a serval cat, which our driver told us was a pretty rare sighting:

ServalCatNgoroNgoro

ServalCatNgoroNgoro2

There were all types of beests and deer and beest- and deer-like animals:

There were gazelles everywhere! I think they sort of serve as nature’s fast food as they are a frequent snack for bigger, fiercer animals. What I loved about the gazelles is that they looked totally surprised and confused every time they saw a safari car. They must have very faulty short-term memory because there are hundreds of safari cars traveling through the parks but each time they looked as if they were seeing one for the first time.

I feel like their tails could generate some serious wind power:

There were hippos:

And lots of elephants:

And zebras:

Warthogs:

And giraffes:

There were leopards, but all of them were in some state of napping:

And we saw tons of lions (literally, tons – those things are huge!):

Technically, we didn’t see any rhinos but I think this sort of counts:

RhinoSignSerengeti

And the signage continued at the choo:

MensChooSerengeti

LadiesChooSerengeti

There were remnants of former inhabitants present everywhere:

Horns

At least this guy went out smiling.

At least this guy went out smiling.

Of course, my favorites were the baboons and monkeys:

Baby on board!:

The safari company paired us up with a Swedish girl named Hanna who had just finished climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. Just thinking about that makes me tired.

Me, Hanna, Tracy & Kaye

Me, Hanna, Tracy & Kaye

Here’s a group shot with our driver, Kepha, and chef, Erasto:

Kepha, Tracy, Kaye, Erasto, Me & Hanna.

Kepha, Tracy, Kaye, Erasto, Me & Hanna.

All in all, it was an amazing trip even if I returned home sans monkey.

I hope you all had a wonderful holiday!

Happy New Year from Nulty & me!

Happy New Year from Nulty & me!

[If you have any trouble viewing any of the videos embedded on this page, you can see them here.]

I’m Mad As Kuzimu! (And I’m Probably Going To Take It For Another 8 to 10 Months)

One of the things they don’t tell you when you are applying to the Peace Corps is how mad you’re going to be after about a year in country. During our PST, one of the admin people made a joke, “Welcome to the Peace Corps, also known as the angriest two years of your life.” We were all still optimistic and naive at that point, so we all laughed and I’m sure I’m not the only person who thought to them self, “Well, that won’t be me!”

But last month I found myself standing outside one of the classrooms and yelling, “What is wrong with this country? Why should I care about teaching these kids if no one else does? What is the point of me even being here?”

Now, I’m not going to defend my behavior, because I’m sure there were a million better ways I could have dealt with the situation I found myself in but teaching (or, more accurately, trying to teach) in this country is an incredibly frustrating experience. And if teaching is that frustrating, I can’t even begin to imagine how difficult and confusing it must be for the students here. The question is not why don’t more students succeed in this system but rather, how any of them manage to succeed at all. There are so many factors working against these kids, it is truly a miracle if one actually makes it from a government school in a village to a university.

For example, in the incident I mentioned earlier, I showed up to school that morning pleased with my students’ marks on a recent quiz and excited to wrap up the final two weeks of the term by covering a few important syllabus topics. I worked in the library for a few hours and when it was time to teach my Form 1B class, I walked into an empty room. I eventually found out that the school had moved the Form 1 students to different classrooms because the Form 4 students were starting their NECTA exams that day and apparently no classes can be held anywhere else in the building during the weeks the exam is going on. (No, this makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. I understand moving students from the classrooms directly surrounding the testing rooms to eliminate noise, etc. but the whole school? Really?) When I finally located my Form 1B students, they were in a classroom with no windows or doors (but with holes where windows and doors should be) – this is never an ideal teaching situation but being in the middle of the dry season when the winds are blowing like crazy, it is even worse. In addition, the blackboards in these rooms are not really black anymore; they have all faded to a light grey color that makes it very difficult to read any notes I write on it in chalk.

The floor was covered with dirt and there was a large pile of debris (parts of broken chairs, etc.) directly in front of the board, which made it impossible for anyone to teach. As it was now more than half way through the school day, it was quite obvious no one had been teaching in that room all day. And of the 50 students in that stream, only about 10 or 15 of them were present and they had clumped their desks all together in the far back corner of the room (making it even MORE difficult for them to read the board). When I asked where the rest of the students were, I was told they had “left”. Apparently, when no teachers showed up, the students decided to either go home or go into some of the empty classrooms and hang out. They barricade the doors to the classrooms with desks and chairs and do God knows what inside them. I started looking through rooms, having to forcibly push open the blocked doors, trying to find my missing students. I managed to find a couple of them, but there was still far less than half of the students missing. And I had only encountered one other teacher during my hunt through all of the classrooms. It was then that I stood outside my classroom and started yelling and, realizing how angry I was, I did something I never do and that I hate to do: I left school and went home instead of teaching that day.

For a long time, I was convinced I was the worst Peace Corps volunteer ever and the only person that got this frustrated and angry in country. But, the more I started talking to my fellow PCVs, the more I started to realize this was more the norm than the exception. A few weeks ago, I had lunch with a couple of fellow Ed volunteers and they are two of the sweetest, calmest, loveliest young ladies I’ve met in country so I was quite surprised when I told them about my latest meltdown and they told me, “Oh yeah, I yell at people a lot” and “I’m just so angry all of the time!”” I only feel a little guilty to admit how happy that made me feel.

The Peace Corps doesn’t really address this issue. At one point during our mid-service conference, they told us “Remember, it’s the PEACE Corps. If you don’t feel you can be here and represent peace, maybe it’s time to think about your other options,” but that’s about all we get. And I completely understand what they’re saying and as much as I agree with that statement at a theoretical level, it can be hard to live up to it on a daily basis here. I think it’s especially challenging for Education volunteers because we deal with the bureaucracy of the government school system.

The reality is that a lot of Tanzanian teachers don’t actually teach all that much. Some of them are gone for long stretches of time, supposedly because they are studying to get a Master’s degree (which seems to be equivalent to a U.S. Bachelor’s degree). I have come to doubt whether this is actually true, but the Tanzanians seem to accept that as a valid excuse to not show up at your job for months at a time. Then, there are teachers that come to school almost every day but never seem to leave the staff room. They either never enter a classroom or enter for 10 minutes, copy directly from a textbook onto the board and then tell the students to spend the rest of the class time copying and “studying” the notes. They seem to think that the stronger students can answer any questions other students have, although I can’t figure out who they think is teaching the stronger students. There are, of course, also teachers that show up every day and teach every period they are assigned but, sadly, they are the minority. I am very lucky that my counterpart, Mr. Komba, is one of these teachers. Interestingly, he is also pursuing a Master’s degree at a university in Dodoma but, except for the odd week or two a year he has to travel to Dodoma, this never prevents him from being present and actually teaching his students on a daily basis. Hmmmm….

The teachers I work with are not bad people – they are smart, funny and nice. But teaching seems to be a profession that people default into. A teacher’s salary is not bad by Tanzanian standards, but they are often paid late, which doesn’t help morale. They are often assigned to work in villages far from their homes that don’t have running water or electricity (or, like Ilembo, very unreliable electricity). Because of these factors and others, a teacher never (or rarely) actually teaching seems to be an accepted behavior here. It seems to be almost impossible to fire a teacher from a government school, so the mkuus don’t have any real ability to enforce rules for teachers. It seems like a no brainer that students wouldn’t exactly thrive under these conditions, but I can’t tell you how many really long meetings I have sat through where teachers and staff debate why test scores are so low. During one meeting where the teachers blamed the failure of the students on a variety of other factors, it took all I had not to say, “Maybe part of the problem is that we’re having a FOUR HOUR meeting DURING class time instead of actually TEACHING! Do you think MAYBE that could have something to do with it?”

But, honestly, it’s easy for me to say that as a relative outsider. I’m only here for two years; I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a teacher in that system for 10 or 20 or more years. And there are many other factors that contribute to the failure of the education system here – it’s too easy just to blame it all on the teachers. There aren’t any easy answers. At this point, I’m just focusing on getting my students ready to take their NECTA exams next year and doing whatever I have to do to get as many of them as possible to score above a 30 (a passing grade for Form 2). I do have a handful of students that have a good shot at doing very well, but it’s challenging when I’m teaching large streams that are not grouped by ability levels. The prevailing wisdom at my school is that you should put a few of the really good students in each of the streams so that they can help the lower achieving students. In my opinion, this only hurts the stronger students – they are capable of doing much more but the reality is that teachers end up teaching to the level of their lowest achieving students. I’m hoping I’ll be able to convince the administration to group them by ability levels next year. They’ve been doing it the other way for so long with very little success, they really have very little to lose by trying something new.

Another issue that has upset me recently is the treatment of animals in this country. I’m an animal lover and while I know Americans can go overboard spoiling their pets (Nulty, I’m looking at you), the way animals are neglected and even sometimes abused in this country makes me sick. This is always difficult to deal with, but I encountered a more troubling situation than usual last month. I was home on a Sunday afternoon, cleaning the house and getting ready for the school week when yet another group of sticker seeking kids knocked on my front door. I opened it to see four primary school aged boys, one of whom had a young goat on a rope. It took me a minute to realize that the goat was missing its ears.

“Why does that goat have no ears?” I asked in what is now semi-intelligible Kiswahili.

I’m still struggling with understanding Kiswahili, but I eventually was able to make out that the goat belonged to one of the older boys (he was probably in the 10-12 years old range). As goats tend to do, it got into the corn crop of one of the villagers and started eating it. Normally, villagers might chase the goat away or even strike it with a stick but this particular villager was drunk (surprise, surprise) and decided he was going to teach the goat a lesson by cutting its ears off with a knife. The boy said other villagers witnessed this (but apparently didn’t stop him from cutting off not just one, but both ears) and let him know what happened. There is a livestock “vet” in the village, although I have some serious doubts that he is an actual licensed veterinarian, and he cauterized the area where the ears had been cut and told the boy the goat would live. The area was not bandaged and no antibiotics or medicine were prescribed. I saw the goat a day or two after it happened, and it looked relatively okay but seemed to still be in shock. I told the boy he had to make sure the cut area was kept clean and that he should bring it back to the “vet” if he noticed the goat failing, but I don’t know how seriously he took my advice. He and his friends did laugh when I told them they should report the villager to the police. There is a law against harming livestock (in a village like ours, people invest the majority of their money into their animals so to lose on can be financially devastating) but it is not really enforced. A few days later, I ran into one of the other boys when I was getting water and he told me the goat had died.

I was angry and the whole thing made me really sad. I understand that a lot of Tanzanians are so poor that they don’t have the luxury of spending money on their animals but I don’t understand why animals have to be treated so brutally. Normally, I try not to editorialize too much when I’m teaching. In most situations, I don’t believe a teacher should impart their opinions and beliefs on students. I wouldn’t want a teacher doing that to me, so I try not to do that to my students. But in this situation, I made an exception. I had to teach a topic called “Describing people’s character” anyway, so I used it as an opportunity to talk about treating animals respectfully. One of my vocabulary terms was “cruel” and, as an example, I told the story of the goat’s ears being cut off. Some of the students thought it was hilarious (typical teenagers) but most of them got quiet when I told them the boy’s goat had died.

Tanzanians are, for the most part, very religious people. They don’t particularly care what your religion is (which is one of the reason that Muslims and Christians coexist, for the most part, very peacefully here) as long as you have one. When I arrived in Ilembo, one of the first questions people asked (after asking how many children I had) was what religion was I? At the time, I told them I was a Buddhist, which is not technically true but it’s probably the one that comes closest to my beliefs. (Also, Tanzanians don’t know much about Buddhism so I can always blame not wanting to do things – especially eating certain things- on being a Buddhist. The people of Ilembo probably now think all Buddhists are vegetarians who can’t wake up before 9:00AM on weekends, drink wine and have abnormally close relationships with cats.) I told my students that there are many people all over the world who believe that animals are also children of God and should be treated with respect and kindness. I told them that even people that kill animals for food do so quickly and try to limit the amount of pain they feel. Then I may have mentioned something about how I would be tempted to cut off the ears of the cruel man if I ever ran into him in the village. (I didn’t mention his name to my students, but you better believe I got the name of that guy.) I don’t know how much, if any, of this my students actually absorbed but I hope I got through in some of them.

Lately, I think I’ve been dealing with my anger and frustration better. A big part of that is my having less than a year of service left. It seems easier to let some of the smaller things go when I can see the finish line in sight. As one of my PCV friends told me, the mantra for your final year should be “It doesn’t matter, it just doesn’t matter.” I don’t know if that’s the best outlook, but it’s the one that’s been working for me lately.

Another coping strategy is getting away from site every other weekend. My fellow PCVs Rachel and Mandy and I did a girl’s weekend getaway to Matema Beach a few weekends ago. Even though I am almost 20 years older than some of these kids, we are all encountering the same challenges teaching and living here, so it’s nice to have friends to talk to during the more challenging times.

One of the best things about living in the Mbeya region is that Matema Beach.  It is a literal paradise and completely undeveloped.

One of the best things about living in the Mbeya region is that Matema Beach. It is a literal paradise and completely undeveloped.

My fellow PCVs (and good friends) Mandy and Rachel.  We all help to keep each other sane here!

My fellow PCVs (and good friends) Mandy and Rachel. We all help to keep each other sane here!

Rachel, Mandy and I demonstrate the Oxford Dictionary's 2013 Word of The Year.

Rachel, Mandy and I demonstrate the Oxford Dictionary’s 2013 Word of The Year.

And when I’m at site and need a pick me up, I can always play Super Jewel Quest on my phone. I think I’ve completed that game at least 200 times since arriving in Tanzania, but I never fail to be amused by the message you get at the end.

Congratulation to Me!

Congratulation to Me!

The good news is that the rain has finally arrived in Mbeya. It was super late this year, which made getting water extra challenging. I’m sure I’ll complain about the mud and the rain in a few months, but for now I’m just happy to be able to say goodbye to my dry season feet.

This is what my feet look like after a typical day during the dry season.  I don't even think I had to carry water the day I took this - that's when things get really gross.

This is what my feet look like after a typical day during the dry season. I don’t even think I had to carry water the day I took this- that’s when things get really gross.

And the really good news is that my friend Rozy has returned to Ilembo! Her mother had her baby (a big, beautiful boy named Baraka), her maternity leave is over and she is teaching again. Rozy hangs out in the library with me when I’m working there- there is a little desk next to mine where she sits at and practices writing letters. It’s adorable.

Rozy and I hanging out at school.

Rozy and I hanging out at school.

As for Nulty, we had quite an adventure on our way into town the day before Thanksgiving. As I will be traveling in the beginning and end of December, Heather and Jason, a married couple who are part of the newest PC Education class, have kindly agreed to look after Nulty in my absence. Their site is at MUST (Mbeya University of Science and Technology), which is where Nulty lived with her former owner and where she stayed with Beth while I was in the U.S. in June. I had Nulty in her carrier and we managed to get a ride into town in an actual car, driving with a pastor from the village on the other side of my mountain. Things were going really well until we got a flat tire and ended up sitting by the side of the road in one of the smaller villagers on my mountain. Nulty was not happy to be cooped up for so long and started meowing loudly. And, due to temporary insanity/utter stupidity, I thought I could just take her out of the bag and hold her for a while. Some of the women in the village were by the side of the road, selling fruits and vegetables. They saw me holding Nulty like a baby and apparently thought it was hilarious because they all started laughing. Of course, this freaked Nulty out (she gets a little nervous around Tanzanians) and she jumped out of my arms and took off running into a cornfield. I chased after her, but lost her when she jumped into some bushes. I crashed into them after her, only to find that they were hiding a drainage ditch. I looked all around, but couldn’t find Nulty anywhere. I immediately started to panic and ran around the cornfield and surrounding areas calling her name and getting progressively more hysterical with each passing minute. The villagers at first found this all very funny, but as I got more and more upset, they started to help me look. Eventually, the flat tire was fixed, the pastor was ready to continue on with his journey and I went into full Betty Mahmoody mode.

The pastor kindly arranged for one of the duka owners to watch my bags for me before he left. Then the village really mobilized to help me out. One of the men went to get his dog (“The dog will find the cat. Don’t worry,” he told me) and at least 30 people started walking through the fields with me, searching for Nulty. Every time I turned a corner, I ran into another villager searching for her. The kids climbed around in the places I couldn’t squeeze myself into, the adults fanned out over the entire surrounding area. Tanzanians tend to think I’m totally crazy for treating Nulty like an actual human baby so I was really touched that, once they realized how distressed I was over losing her, they went above and beyond to help me.

About an hour and a half after Nulty rocketed through those bushes, I heard someone shout in Kiswahili, “They found it!” A bunch of villagers waved for me to follow them and we took off running through the cornfields. Apparently, I didn’t give Nulty nearly enough credit for the amount of distance she could cover because she was way beyond the area I had been searching, which was pretty big to begin with. Eventually we came to a small clearing with a house and a small thicket of trees. There, a bunch of villagers were gathered around a tree, and a dog was barking crazily. Sure enough, there was Nulty, way up in the tree and completely freaked out by all the activity. She was not interested in making nice and coming down voluntarily, so one of the villagers ran and got a (home made) ladder and held it while I climbed, in a long skirt, up to the very top rung. Nulty kept scooting farther away from me but by this point, I’d had enough so I just said, “Pole” and grabbed her by her tail. The villagers cheered and everyone followed me as I carried Nulty to the main road and back to the center of the village. I thanked them profusely, and when I got the duka where Nulty’s carrier and my bags were, the duka owner suggested I do something to show my appreciation. I gave 10,000 shillings to the dog owner (the dog was the real hero in this story), 10,000 shillings to the duka owner and then I bought sodas for the other 30 or 40 people that had helped me search. It was a bit costly, but it was money well spent. Nulty was so overwhelmed by everything, she was happy to crawl back into her carrier and curl up into a ball. As an added bonus, the villagers flagged down a Land Cruiser (the popular vehicle for all government groups and NGOs that work on my mountain or anywhere in Tanzania, for that matter) and Nulty and I got another car ride into town. By the time we reached Heather and Jason’s, we were both dirty and tired and ready for some time apart.

This was taken just before the great escape.  The crazy eyes should have been the tip-off something bad was going to happen.

This was taken just before the great escape. The crazy eyes should have been the tip-off something bad was going to happen.

Some of the kind villagers that helped me find Nulty.  I believe the village is called Itizi, but things aren't exactly clearly marked on my mountain.  One person will tell you the name of a place but you'll hear a totally different name from someone else.

Some of the kind villagers that helped me find Nulty. I believe the village is called Itizi, but things aren’t exactly clearly marked on my mountain. One person will tell you the name of a place but you’ll hear a totally different name from someone else.

As usual, I will close with some Nulty glamour shots:

Nulty close up.  Again, note the crazy eyes.

Nulty close up. Again, note the crazy eyes.

Here she is, chillaxing in the courtyard.  (Note the solar light behind her, to the left.  I bought a bunch of these at Target when I was in the U.S. in June and they work great!)

Here she is, chillaxing in the courtyard. (Note the solar light behind her, to the left. I bought a bunch of these at Target when I was in the U.S. in June and they work great!)

Half Nulty.

Half Nulty.

Nulty poses on one of my new chairs.  These are the ones that I ordered back in August 2012, when I first got to site.  They were finally delivered to me last month.  They are different sizes and neither of them are large enough to use my cushions with.  This is one of those times the "It doesn't matter" mantra comes in handy.

Nulty poses on one of my new chairs. These are the ones that I ordered back in August 2012, when I first got to site. They were finally delivered to me last month. They are different sizes and neither of them are large enough to use my cushions with. This is one of those times the “It doesn’t matter” mantra comes in handy.

I mentioned previously that I would try to record Nulty making her escape over the courtyard wall. Here she is in action:

I apologize it took me a while to get this up- between technical issues (apparently the entire country’s electricity was being worked on during the last couple of weeks of November, so things were even more unreliable than usual) and traveling, it has been a challenge. I will do another post in the next week or so with photos from the amazing safari I just got back from!

Happy Saturday after Thanksgiving Everybody!

In my continuing effort to post at least once per month, today I am going to share some photos from our PCV Thanksgiving celebration in Mbeya and I’ll post a longer update in a couple of days. (I mean it this time!) This year’s gathering was hosted by Willie and was extra special because his parents were visiting from Washington. There was great food, great company and lots of game play.

Turkey before.  (Photo courtesy of Steph W.)

Turkey before. (Photo courtesy of Steph W.)

Turkey after.  Pole sana, turkey.

Turkey after. Pole sana, turkey.

The full spread.  Pretty impressive for being done on charcoal jikos, with no electricity.  (I did not contribute to the cooking part of the meal.  I opted to focus on my stronger skills- buying wine and doing dishes.)

The full spread. Pretty impressive for being done on charcoal jikos, with no electricity. (I did not contribute to the cooking part of the meal. I opted to focus on my stronger skills- buying wine and doing dishes.)

Mbeya PCVs Tracy, Belle and Rachel model some traditional Thanksgiving head gear.  They are joined by a somewhat confused looking  Joel, who is a new Education volunteer from the Iringa region.

Mbeya PCVs Tracy, Belle and Rachel model some traditional Thanksgiving head gear. They are joined by a somewhat confused looking Joel, who is a new Education volunteer from the Iringa region.

All the PCVs pose for a group shot.

All the PCVs pose for a group shot.

We also took one Tanzanian style.  (Tanzanians are famous for not smiling in photos and seem to enjoy awkward hand holding as well.)

We also took one Tanzanian style. (Tanzanians are famous for not smiling in photos and seem to enjoy awkward hand holding as well.)

And there were PUPPIES!!!!!!

And there were PUPPIES!!!!!!

Unfortunately, Nulty was not invited.  She was displeased about this.

Unfortunately, Nulty was not invited. She was displeased about this.

I hope you all had a great Turkey Day!

A Mwanamke Needs a Mwanamume Like a Samaki Needs a Baiskeli

It’s hard to believe another month has passed. I never got around to doing a written post last month, but I hope you all enjoyed the photos. October was not quite as busy as September was, but school is flying by – the last day of the term (and the school year) is November 29. The last two weeks are reserved for exams and grade submission, so I have less than three weeks of teaching to go. Unfortunately, I still have at least half of the syllabus to cover, but this year I’m concentrating more on making sure my students understand the few topics we’ve covered really well rather than just doing a quick glossing over of many topics. I will most likely be teaching the same students next year in Form 2, so I feel like I’ll have time to cover everything I need to before they take their NECTAs next year. At least I hope so. Given the fact that I had to spend a great deal of class time this year teaching students how to write their name correctly, I’m not focusing on topics like “Analyzing Information from the Media” just yet. Frankly, I’m not too worried that the student who answered the test question “What do you say when you want to enter a classroom?” with “Goat” will be perusing The Economist and misinterpret some key fact about the current crisis in Syria. Baby steps, people, baby steps.

The most important thing that happened this month is that the school fixed my choo! Hallelujah, Jesus! I had mentioned my issue to the Peace Corps when I was in Dar for our Mid-Service Conference and they contacted the school and let them know what the problem was. My second master and counterpart came over and took care of it right away. It turns out there was a pipe connecting the holding tank and the big septic tank, but it was just totally clogged so they figured out how to unclog it and things are working again. I have retired my homemade Haz-Mat suit and I’m flushing my choo like a real Tanzanian. There was, of course, the awkward moment when my second master asked me why I hadn’t told them my choo wasn’t working. I feel like I had told them that several times (I don’t think anyone who knows me would say I’m someone who is hesitant to complain) but apparently I did not express myself to them clearly enough. Also, they dumped my poop onto my backyard and I kind of thought that was a universal conversation-ender. Ah well, negotiating these cultural differences are what this experience is all about, I guess. The important thing is my poop shoveling days are (please, please, please) behind me!

Recently, the Peace Corps asked us to complete their annual volunteer survey, which asks questions about who we are, what we are doing at site, how we are adjusting to our new environments, etc. One of the questions on the survey was something to the effect of, “Do you think it has been difficult to adjust to the gender roles in your community?” to which I could only respond, “Being a woman in Tanzania sucks. Seriously.” I’m not sure that’s exactly what the folks in Washington were looking for, but there’s really no other way to say it. And I’m an mzungu and a teacher and (a little) older so I am definitely afforded more respect than your average Mama in the village. But it’s still really difficult to adjust to the fact that the majority of people here do not value what I have to say or what I can offer based strictly on the fact that I am a woman. I get super frustrated whenever I try to have a conversation with a man about something other than cooking or housekeeping (ironically subjects I am, admittedly, lacking skills in) and I see their eyes glaze over and they give me a condescending nod and a smile. This happens even when we are speaking about things that I clearly am more knowledgeable about. For example, when we were still setting up the library at school, I had spent the entire weekend setting up the shelves and organizing the books by subject and level. I was feeling quite proud of accomplishing so much when I came into school on Monday and then the second master and some of the other administrators informed that they were going to have to build new shelves to replace the ones that had just been built, therefore rendering all of my previous work useless.

When I asked why they felt they needed to do this, I was told, “Oh, Mr. Mwangoka [my library counterpart] said that there were too many books to fit on the shelves.”

Now, I like Mr. Mwangoka, but I was appointed to be the librarian and they should be asking me these questions, or at least including me in the conversation while it’s actually happening, not as an afterthought. Not to mention I was the one actually doing the actual shelving and I knew exactly what would fit where because I’m a librarian and that’s my job and I have those skills and whatnot. And I’m sure many of you think that they asked him because he’s a Tanzanian and I’m not or because I wasn’t around and he was, but let me assure you that is not the case. It’s happened to me enough, in enough different situations to know that they didn’t ask me because I’m a woman and he’s a dude and they just assume that men handle all of the business amongst themselves and the women will serve them chai while they take care of the important stuff. And, yes, I do have a little chip on my shoulder about this, why do you ask?

Now, someone else might have responded more gracefully and diplomatically in this situation but this is me we’re talking about so I said, “I thought I was the librarian? Why are you asking him about this and not me? Is Mr. Mwangoka the librarian now? I wasn’t aware he had his MLS. If you want him to be in charge of this, fine – that’s much less work for me….” (I can go on like this for a while.)

Of course, they gave me the “uh oh, we’ve got an angry mzungu lady on our hands” look (I get that one a lot) and said of course I was in charge, they should have asked me, it was just a miscommunication, etc. I don’t like having to be difficult in situations like these, but it is the only way I’ve found to get people to listen to what I’m saying. Now, granted they’re listening and thinking “what a pain in the ass” but they’re at least pretending to treat me as an equal. Again, baby steps people.

From my observation, woman here, particularly in the villages, are valued only for their domestic skills and the productivity of their wombs. Baby making is far and away the most important thing a woman can do here and they are expected to do it in Duggar-level volumes. Females are expected to give birth again and again and again until their bodies (never mind their minds and their spirits) are completely exhausted. When I am introduced to someone, one of the first questions is always, “How many children do you have?” Not if I have children, just how many. Because what else was I put on Earth to do? When people find out I have no children and no husband, they are perplexed, if not shocked. I’ve found the best answer to the question, “Why do you not have a husband?” is “Si hitaji” (“I do not need.”) This horrifies men, but the women (especially the older ones) are always like, “Mmmhmm. You got that right, sister.”

When I was first getting to know the teachers at my school, they of course asked if I had children. When I said no, they asked how old I was and when I said I was 42 things got really awkward, really fast. My teaching counterpart, Mr. Komba, tried to gently explain to me, “Here in Tanzania, we feel very bad for barren women. They are very sad because they do not have children.” To which I responded, “Not in America. We’re pretty happy about it over there.” Granted, that’s not always true but I want to at least present an alternate view. I realize that as a foreigner and especially as a mzungu I am, in many ways, a bit like an alien (I’m talking “E.T.” alien, not “Green Card” alien) but I hope my presence here allows my female students to see that there is another option in life, if they so desire. That’s not to say that there aren’t women in Tanzania who haven’t chose to remain unmarried and childless – there are – but the ones I have met tend to live in the large towns and cities. Villages, especially ones like Ilembo, where transportation to town is often seen as more trouble than it’s worth, does not offer a lot of different lifestyle examples for kids. You get married, have babies (although the order of these is by no means set in stone), work like crazy, have more babies, continue to work like crazy, have grandbabies, work like crazy some more, maybe have some great-grandbabies and then die.

I definitely think gender roles in Tanzania are evolving, albeit slowly. There is a lot more education about HIV/AIDS prevention, life skills and family planning (the Peace Corps, as well as many health- and women-focused NGOs, are a big part of that) and hopefully that message is getting through. Unfortunately, there are so many dominant cultural and religious forces here that reinforce the patriarchal social structure, it all feels futile at times. For example, every morning before school starts, we have morning assembly. This consists of taking attendance, making announcements, disciplining students (usually for uniform issues), and then students make short speeches in English on a variety of topics. Due to the lack of English skills of most of our students, these speeches often involve them repeating the same sentence or two, in various forms and/or intonations, over and over again for 2-3 minutes. Every once and a while, a student will spend time and energy crafting an actual cohesive speech, which is usually wonderful. Emphasis on usually. During my Teacher on Duty stint a few months ago, one of the male students stood up in front of everyone and announced he was going to talk about “Computer Technology”. “Oh good,” I thought. “It will be interesting to see how much the students know about computers.” (Because the village only recently got electricity, there are only a few people that have actual computers or laptops – most rely on their phones for Facebook access, which is what many people here seem to think the entire internet consists of.)

What started about a speech about computers quickly devolved into a diatribe against modernity, delivered in a manner that would have made Mussolini proud. There was one sentence about computers helping people communicate better before he launched into a rant about things that were destroying traditional Tanzanian culture, first and foremost being “women wearing pants”. I stood behind him and bit my tongue and tried not to roll my eyes out of my head. I would have liked to point out that is was 40 damn degrees here some days and maybe women were more interested in not freezing to death than destroying the culture, but I was trying not to discourage students from speaking English. Students are so insecure and hesitant to use English, I thought that interrupting or challenging a student that was speaking so well (content aside) would discourage other kids from getting up and trying to speak in the future. I did well until he got to the part where he said, “Computers have caused the spread of HIV and AIDS in Tanzania!” At first, I thought he had just seriously misunderstood the concept of computer viruses but no, he was talking about the “fact” that people primarily use computers to view pornography (and, apparently, there was no pornography in any other form before computers were invented) and then that makes them want to go out and rape people and give them AIDS. At this point, just because of the astounding level of misinformation, I could not control myself any longer and I burst out laughing, which I tried to cover (unsuccessfully) with a cough. As he wrapped up his rant, I just stood behind him, trying to make eye contact with the other students and shaking my head. I am proud to say I stopped myself from twirling my finger next to my ear to mime “this dude is crazy”. That is what qualifies as restraint for me here.

Unfortunately, when he finished the students cheered him enthusiastically – they apparently found it quite entertaining. My only hope is most of them don’t understand enough English to actually absorb his message. I know teenagers tend to just parrot the views of their parents and other older people around them, but the thought that this message was being spread by a 15-year-old, not to mention the fact that it was presented so well, was frustrating and scary. All I could say was, “Enjoy it while it lasts, buddy.” I am pretty confident that Tanzanian women are looking around and realizing they do tons of work (in the home and outside of it – many of the women in my village seem to be the main breadwinners in their families) and that many of their husbands/partners are not pulling their weight. And I know they will eventually stand up and demand (and get) real equality, but it’s going to take a while.

In other news, this month also brought the departure of my site mate, Andrew. He finished up his 2 years of service and is extending for 1 more year but will be moving to Dodoma. It’s difficult to explain the Peace Corps site mate relationship but, especially in more remote locations like ours, your site mate becomes the person you rely on most to retain your sanity while in the village. They’re the person you turn to after you’ve witnessed something completely foreign and/or shocking and/or bizarre and say, “Am I crazy or did that just happen?” It would be difficult to find two people more different than Andrew and I (he’s 24, from Montana, likes hunting & killing small, defenseless animals and is proud to currently hold the unofficial Peace Corps record for pooping his pants the most times while in country) but he also is a card-carrying member of the “bitter and hilarious club” so we get along well. I think the following conversation sums up our relationship perfectly:

Time: Approximately November 2012

Location: Sitting in a lorry waiting to leave for town

Andrew: Hey, did you hear that Bette Midler died?

Me: What??!!?? When?

Andrew: Oh, a little while ago.

Me: Why didn’t I hear about this? I feel like this would have been in the news. Are you sure it was Bette Midler?

Andrew: Uhhh, I think so. She was on that show with all of the old ladies in Florida, right?

Me: The Golden Girls? Wait, BETTY WHITE DIED?!!!!?

Andrew: Uhhh, I think so. She was like super old and stuff, right?

Me: No! Betty White can’t be dead! I definitely would have heard if Betty White died. What did they say this person did?

Andrew: She was really old and a comedian and stuff. I think.

Me: Phyllis Diller? Are you talking about Phyllis Diller? She died like four months ago.

Andrew: Yeah, Phyllis Diller, that’s it!

Me: How could you confuse Bette Midler with Phyllis Diller? Phyllis Diller wasn’t on The Golden Girls! And Bette Midler wasn’t on The Golden Girls either! She’s so much younger than them – she could be their granddaughter!

Andrew: She’s like 50 or something. That’s old.

Me: I think she’s more like 60, but 50 is not that old! I’m 42!

Andrew: Yeah, you’re super old.

Me: Stop talking, Andrew.

And scene!

Despite the fact that we’ve had about 100 conversations like that over the past 14 months, I will really miss the guy.

Patrick, our diwani (which is roughly the equivalent of a city councilman, I believe), poses with Andrew.  Just like my villager name is Mwinga, Andrew's is/was Mwile, which means "Chief" (he picked it himself).

Patrick, our diwani (which is roughly the equivalent of a city councilman, I believe), poses with Andrew. Just like my villager name is Mwinga, Andrew’s is/was Mwile, which means “Chief” (he picked it himself).

This photo is from a Mwanjelwa party the PCVs had earlier this year.  We all spent less than 10,000 shillings in the Mwanjelwa clothes piles one afternoon and wore whatever we came up with to a party that night (hence, Andrew's fetching top).  I do not know why I am smiling like that.

This photo is from a Mwanjelwa party the PCVs had earlier this year. We all spent less than 10,000 shillings in the Mwanjelwa clothes piles one afternoon and wore whatever we came up with to a party that night (hence, Andrew’s fetching top). I do not know why I am smiling like that.

Andrew with Steph, another Mbeya region PCV.  I just love this picture because I think it looks like some kind of warped version of "American Gothic".

Andrew with Steph, another Mbeya region PCV. I just love this picture because I think it looks like some kind of warped version of “American Gothic”.

My monkey obsession may have been temporarily shelved due to geographical limitations but my baby goat obsession continues unfettered. The villagers continue to have no idea why I squeal loudly and whip out my camera whenever I see a baby goat. I continue to have no idea why they don’t believe baby goats are the cutest things in the world and fawn over them accordingly.

Seriously, if you don't think baby goats are adorable I don't know if there is any hope for you in this world.  Or for the world in general.

Seriously, if you don’t think baby goats are adorable I don’t know if there is any hope for you in this world. Or for the world in general.

Also, there are chickens in my garbage pit:

My neighbor's chickens hang out in my garbage pit like it's the community pool.  I don't get the appeal.

My neighbor’s chickens hang out in my garbage pit like it’s the community pool. I don’t get the appeal.

As usual, I will wrap things up with a Nulty update. She has apparently completely forgotten her near death incident with the dogs and is now as eager as she ever was to escape the house, jump over the courtyard wall and become the “wild” cat she thinks she was born to be. Being wild mostly involves chasing my neighbor’s chickens and hiding from me in the giant pricker bush behind my house, where she knows I can’t get to her. I continue to try to thwart her escape attempts, but she is one sneaky little feline.

Nulty pretends to eat grass but is really casing the courtyard, trying to find a means of escape.  Her preferred method is taking a flying jump at the wall, landing about 1/3rd of the way up and then Spiderman-ing herself to the top.  (I'll have to get video of this and post it at some point.)  Sometimes I can catch her mid-Spiderman, but it's not easy.

Nulty pretends to eat grass but is really casing the courtyard, trying to find a means of escape. Her preferred method is taking a flying jump at the wall, landing about 1/3rd of the way up and then Spiderman-ing herself to the top. (I’ll have to get video of this and post it at some point.) Sometimes I can catch her mid-Spiderman, but it’s not easy.

"Scram, lady.  I'm trying to work here!"  Nulty deludes herself into believing that I am the only thing that is standing between her and a tasty chicken dinner when, in reality, that rooster will peck her eyes out if she gets any closer.

“Scram, lady. I’m trying to work here!” Nulty deludes herself into believing that I am the only thing that is standing between her and a tasty chicken dinner when, in reality, that rooster will peck her eyes out if she gets any closer.

Nulty pumzikas (rests) in the courtyard after a long afternoon of evading recapture.  Usually she returns home only after I have given up all hope that she is still alive and/or am convinced she has been eaten by dogs.

Nulty pumzikas (rests) in the courtyard after a long afternoon of evading recapture. Usually she returns home only after I have given up all hope that she is still alive and/or am convinced she has been eaten by dogs.

And always remember folks, Avocado is Win:

I'm guessing they meant something like they have the best avocados, but I think "Avocado is Win" is a slogan we can all get behind.

I’m guessing they meant something like they have the best avocados, but I think “Avocado is Win” is a slogan we can all get behind.

Happy Halloween! I hope the Great Pumpkin is kind to you this year.