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!
(*”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.
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.
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.
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:
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…)
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!
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.
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.)
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.:
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.
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.
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.
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?)
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?
Me: Really? Do you think they’ll come after me when I’m sleeping?
Me: Oh no! So you’re saying the bats are going to attack me? And there’s nothing I can do?
Me: Maybe I should try stuffing more plastic inside? Do you think that will help?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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!
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!
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.
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:
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”.)
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!
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.
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….
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.
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.
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.
As usual, I will close with some more Nulty photos in a shameless ploy to drive up page hits:
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!