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!