So, a few days turned into 11 but I finally have time to sit down and write this. Time is flying by the closer I get to the end of my service. As of today, I’ve only got 36 days left in country, which seems unbelievable to me. I vividly remember arriving in Mbeya over two years ago and meeting the volunteers who were finishing their service then and thinking I would never make it to that point, but here I am.
It’s been a busy and exciting past few months. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to meet the first PCV that was in Ilembo, a Health volunteer named Michelle (AKA Meesh). When Meesh was here, she started an NGO called the Mary Ryan Foundation that helps the orphaned and vulnerable children of Ilembo. The HIV infection rate used to be quite high here (the number I heard was 50% of the villagers were HIV+) and a lot of children lost one or both of their parents to AIDS. Fortunately, educating people about the disease and how to prevent its spread has brought the infection rate down significantly and more people are living longer because health services and medicines are widely available now. But that still leaves a lot of parentless children who live with other family members (who take varying degrees of responsibility for looking after them) or who have to try to get by on their own from a very young age. MRF runs a school for fundi nguo (dressmakers/tailors) and fundi seremala (carpenters), as well as provides secondary school scholarships for many students.
Health volunteers tend to work more closely with their villagers. As an Education volunteer, I view the school as my primary community and the village is more of a secondary community. In places like Ilembo, where secondary education is generally regarded with suspicion, there is a distinct division between my school and the village. Teachers are viewed as wealthy outsiders and are often treated differently from villagers. For example, I purchased some rope for my house in the village and was charged a much higher price than I usually pay in town. I mentioned to some of the Tanzanian teachers that I thought I had been charged the mzungu price and they told me, “It’s actually the teacher price, they charge us a different price too.” Which actually made me feel some what better; being treated as one of a larger group of “others” feels better than being treated as the only one of my kind, as I often am as the sole remaining mzungu on the mountain.
There are legitimate reasons for this- the secondary school only opened about 12 or so years ago, so many of the parents of our students only attended primary school. If students did exceptionally well in primary school and they could afford it, they might attend one of the secondary schools in one of the larger towns but very few secondary schools existed in rural areas at that time. Then, the government decided that secondary education was mandatory and parents suddenly were required to pay school fees, buy uniforms and school supplies and pay various other school fees throughout the year. When the school first opened, only the most motivated students attended and there was a lower student-to-teacher ratio that resulted in tests scores being relatively high. Then, as the government cracked down on attendance and threatened to fine parents whose children did not attend, class sizes ballooned, there was a shortage of trained teachers for all of the new students and test scores started falling steadily. These problems caused low morale amongst both students and teachers, which still exists today. So parents are paying money for something that very rarely yields any positive results. Very few students move up to A-level (Advanced) studies. Some of them never make it past Form II and the ones that finish Form IV often have very few practical skills to show for their years of education. When we have parent meetings at the school, attendance is low and most of the questions are about eliminating portions of school fees. I once heard a parent ask the question, “Do you really need to buy paper?” I thought I misunderstood but my neighbor told me, “Nope, they really don’t understand why a school needs paper.” I used to be less understanding of this attitude, but after seeing the quality of education that most students get and knowing that the people in the government who are telling parents that they have to pay school fees are usually very wealthy and probably corrupt to varying degrees, I get it. I don’t like it, but I get it.
This is a long-winded way of saying that my relationship with the villagers is very different from what Meesh’s was. Health volunteers do a lot of work, but they have a flexible schedule: one day they might weigh babies at the health center, the next day they are giving out supplies to new mothers, and the next they might be working with a widow’s group, helping them with an income-generating project, etc. As a teacher, I have an actual 9 to 5 (really 7/8 to 6 most days) job that I have to be at Monday through Friday. When I interact with the villagers, it is usually because I’m buying something from them or just greeting them in passing. Therefore, my Kimelila (tribal language) is limited to about 5 words, all greeting related. My Kiswahili has improved a lot since I arrived at site, but it’s still not great. Meesh not only spoke excellent Kiswahili but her Kimelila was also very good. I know this because for the past two years, villagers have been telling me that Shali (Meesh’s tribal name) spoke very well and asking me why I didn’t speak as well as she did. This was, of course, when they weren’t actually confusing me with her, calling me Shali and launching into long monologues in Kimelila, none of which I actually understood. Eventually, I learned to just start nodding and saying, “Ninza” (“Good”) while slowly backing away from them.
So, when you put Meesh’s language skills together with the fact that she also started an organization that is still actively helping the village and contrast that with me, speaking Kiswahili like an 8 year old and working for an organization that villagers are extremely suspicious of, if not outright hostile towards, it’s not hard to imagine who is going to win a popularity contest: it’s going to be Meesh in a landslide. I accept this and have no problem with it, but I still managed to be surprised when we walked around the village together. First of all, since there are quite a few villagers who think there is only one mzungu who has been living in Ilembo for the past 6+ years (there’s actually been 3 of us: Meesh, Anna, and now me), I thought some of their minds might be blown seeing us together. Instead, the normal reaction was something like this:
Villager: Shali! Shali! Welcome! I am so happy to see you! (etc., etc.)
Meesh: Thank you! How are you? How is the family? (etc., etc.)
Villager: (turning to me) And who is this?
REALLY, PEOPLE? I’ve been here for over two years! TWO YEARS! Now I know how Rodney Dangerfield felt.
But I had a great time with Meesh. She stayed with me for about a week and was my first real visitor since I’ve been here. Apparently all the talking I’ve done about temperatures in the 30s, shoveling poop and bats flying around my house hasn’t prompted people to come experience Ilembo for themselves. Strange. I also learned a lot from her about the village and the villagers that I have been wondering about since I arrived. She introduced me to what I now refer to as “the pombe mall”. Pombe means alcohol in general but it usually is referring to home brewed alcohol which is made from crazy amounts of yeast, smells god awful (I’ve never actually tasted it, the smell alone makes me retch), comes in large yellow jugs that are also sometimes used to hold gasoline and apparently packs quite a punch. I don’t think it’s inaccurate to call it Tanzanian moonshine. (Two kids in a neighboring village apparently went blind from a particularly strong/bad batch of it.) Now, most villages have a pombe hut or two. Ilembo has a whole labyrinth of them, hidden away from the main business district of the village. Meesh went in to look for a villager and I followed her, marveling at the sheer number of places that served pombe, as well as the wide range of customers. There were men and women of all ages (with the exception of young children, thank God). I saw several bibis, which shocked me, but kind of explains some of the more confusing conversations I’ve had with them in the past. Actually, seeing the whole pombe mall explains a lot of things I’ve seen in the village over the past two years. Especially that old guy yelling and then passing out in the middle of the street at 2:30 in the afternoon.
In addition to meeting a former volunteer, I also met a group of new volunteers that will be coming to Mbeya in a matter of weeks. The new Education class (many of whom will be replacing volunteers that were in my class) is currently finishing up training and they had their shadow visits last week. The number of PCVs in Mbeya has been declining for the past couple of years, for a few different reasons, but the Peace Corps is trying to rectify that by sending 15 new volunteers to the region! I’m super happy to know that there will be so many new people who will get to enjoy all the great things with have in Mbeya. It’s a little cold for me but, all in all, I’ve really enjoyed living here and I was happy to be one of the older PCVs who showed them around Mbeya Town and introduced them to some of our favorite haunts.
Because there are so many new volunteers and so few current PCVs in Mbeya, I had 3 people shadowing me. One of them, Gabe, will be replacing me in Ilembo, which I am thrilled about! He is young and super enthusiastic and plays soccer, which all of the male teachers at my school are thrilled about. I think he’ll do well here. He’s going to be teaching Biology, not English, but that’s a good thing because the school has a real shortage of Math and Science teachers. The two other volunteers, Sharon and John, had sites that were much closer to town and have quite a few more amenities than mine does so I made sure to bring them to Ilembo first. That way, Gabe wouldn’t have any other, fancier sites to compare it to and Sharon and John would really appreciate how good they had it when they finally got to see their sites. I think it worked but I could definitely tell that Gabe was starting the question the fairness of the Peace Corps placement process when we saw that John had a shower with actual HOT WATER in his house. (Which, fair enough. I’ve been doing the same every time I visit another Ed volunteer’s site and see that they have electricity or a bomba in their courtyard or find out that they don’t have to shovel their own poop. Lucky bastards.)
The trainees stayed in Ilembo with me for 2 nights and, unfortunately, had to endure some unusually cold, windy and wet weather for this time of year. But, we got to walk all around the village, spend some time at my school (I think I have successfully recruited Gabe into taking over the library duties for me, which I’m very happy about) and they basically got to see how I live as a volunteer. I also forced them to watch “Beavis and Butthead Do America” when I realized none of them had ever actually watched Beavis and Butthead. (Kids today!) They kind of enjoyed it but I think I may have oversold it a little when I referred to it as “the Citizen Kane of my generation”. But seriously people, it’s a classic for the ages.
Nulty enjoyed having visitors in the house. She seemed to be on her best behavior the entire time and was super friendly with everyone. However, when the school came to pick up one of beds I had borrowed for the guys to sleep in, I discovered she had apparently been pooping on the floor underneath it the entire time. There was a lot of cat poop. A lot. She’s like some kind of pooping ninja, that one. (Sorry about the smell, John.)
At school, the days are racing by. I can’t believe I have less than a month of teaching left. I still have so many topics I want/need to cover with my students before their big NECTA exam! Of course, in keeping with Tanzanians’ loose relationship with time and schedules, the Ministry of Education has not announced the date of the Form II NECTA yet, so I don’t actually know how much time there actually is before the exam. At the beginning of the school year, they said that the exam would be at some point in October, exact date TBD. I assumed we’d hear about the date at some point in June or July but there was no news and I had to pick an official COS date so I went with October 15th, thinking the NECTA would have to start the first or second Monday of the month. (There are a variety of different subjects the exams cover, some of which are only taught at certain schools, so the whole testing process takes about 3 weeks total.) The date for the Form IV NECTA exam, which is supposed to be after the Form II exam, was announced in late July/early August and it is scheduled to begin in early November. By the end of August, when the Form II date still had not been announced, I was starting to get concerned because I wanted to make sure I had budgeted enough time to cover all the topics I need to teach. Plus, my Type A personality just wanted there to be an official date so there was at least one thing settled that I didn’t have to keep thinking about. And by the first week of September, I was pretty much a raving lunatic. The worst part is, I seem to be the only person that is concerned about it. The Tanzanian teachers just assume they’ll set a date at some point and there’s nothing they can do about it so why worry about it? And, okay, that’s the healthy and normal way of approaching it BUT I STILL WANT TO KNOW THE DAMN DATE!
I’ve heard rumblings that if they haven’t scheduled it by now, the Form II test might take place AFTER the Form IV exam in late November or even possibly in December. This would irritate me greatly, to put it mildly. If I leave the country before the NECTAs begin, I am not only losing additional time for teaching and review with my students but also I am seriously worried that they will forget a lot of the material that we’ve covered so far. This is not an unreasonable concern: long-term retention is a huge problem with students here (I blame it, at least partially, on poor nutrition). Unless I constantly review previous material and link new material to previous topics, my students have a tendency to completely forget entire topics. Of course, at this point, it is out of my control because I’ve already purchased my plane ticket to return to the U.S. so my Plan B is, if they delay the Form II NECTA, I’m going to have Gabe, the new PCV, to take over my English classes for me after I leave. I’m going to provide him with lesson plans and just have him review old NECTA questions with the students over and over and over and over again until they can’t possibly forget them. I have my fingers crossed that things will work out one way or the other but I can’t help by curse the Ministry of Education even more than I usually do (which is quite a lot).
In happier news, my neighbor’s goat had a baby! Mwanaidi had 2 goats, both female, and I started to realize one of them was pregnant in early August. Female goats get HUGE when they are pregnant. There bodies bulge out on both sides and it almost looks like they are carrying another fully grown adult goat inside them. Every morning, I greeted Mwanaidi’s goats on the way to school (she usually puts them out to graze by the path between our houses and the school) and I watched the pregnant goat get larger and larger. I have no idea how long goats are pregnant for, so I was just hoping she’d deliver before I left Ilembo. One day in mid-August, I saw the pregnant goat laying down one morning, which is extremely unusual, so I knew the big day had to be close. Sure enough, one Friday afternoon after I finished teaching, I was walking back to my house and I saw that the baby had arrived. I think I missed the actual birth by just a few minutes, as the baby was still wet with amniotic fluid and the mother had what appeared to be a placenta still hanging off of her. They were with the other female goat, in the partially built house next to mine. The baby goat was so cute! And mama was making it a priority to lick her baby clean, much to the baby’s apparent consternation. It was an adorable scene that was only ruined by the barking of dogs in the distance.
Given Nulty’s past run-in with a pack of dogs, I immediately became concerned that the dogs would go after the baby goat. Mama Goat looked worried to, and she’d look up every time she heard barking and would try to figure out how far away the dogs were. I wanted to keep the baby safe, so I knocked on Mwanaidi’s door to let her know the baby had arrived and to tell her to open her courtyard door so the goats could come inside and be safe. Unfortunately, no one was home at her house so I opened my courtyard door and tried to herd all three of the goats into my courtyard. Herding goats is way harder than it looks, especially when one of them is a new born, another is an anxious mama and the third is a very concerned and involved auntie. I saw a couple of the dogs in the field in front of my house and they were starting to move closer so, in desperation, I picked up the baby goat and urged the mama and auntie to follow me.
Well, things didn’t work out quite as I thought they would. Mama FREAKED OUT as soon as the baby goat was off the ground. I kept holding up the baby to show it to her and tried to get her and the auntie to follow me but they were completely discombobulated by the whole course of events. I ran the baby goat into my courtyard, put it safely on some grass, closed the courtyard door and went back to get the other two. They had completely lost it by this point and were just running all over the surrounding area at top speed. At one point, I was sure Mama was charging at me and I was sure I was going to be impaled by a couple of goat horns. Instead, she whirled around at the last second and headed off in the opposite direction.
I went back, got the baby goat and took it back out to show it to Mama, in an attempt to get her to follow us into the courtyard. I kept running around yelling “Njoo!” (“Come!”) and trying to get the goat on board with my great plan. Some of the village mamas who were doing laundry at the hand pump well near my house were watching the whole thing and laughing hysterically. Now, I don’t know if the Mama goat was blind or was just undone by hormones but she could not get it. She would see the baby in my hands, run towards me and then, just as she was getting close, she’d turn and run in another direction. I must have tried 10 times to get her to follow me in the courtyard with no luck. She was getting more and more agitated and I was feeling worse and worse, so I just put the baby goat back in the unfinished house, told some of the little kids to chase away the dogs if they got close and headed back to the school to find Mwanaidi.
When I got to the school, a few of the teachers were sitting outside of the teacher’s lounge and enjoying the sun. I ran up to them, probably looking like a lunatic and smelling very strongly of goat and announced loudly in Kiswahili, “I have very important news!” Now that I’ve been here for two years, the teachers have realized that the mzungu’s idea of “important news” and their idea of “important news” are pretty far apart. Still, they almost all managed not to roll their eyes as they asked me what was going on.
“Mwanaidi’s baby goat has arrived!” I said, thinking they might actually be as excited about it as I was. They weren’t. But they did tell me Mwanaidi was up at the big market and told me where I could find her. I’m happy to say her reaction was way more enthusiastic than the other teachers. She was also worried about the dogs so she went back to her house and put the goats in her courtyard. Mission accomplished!
As usual, I’ll close with a Nulty update. I got Nulty fixed over a year ago but unfortunately, they apparently didn’t remove all of her ladyparts (this also happens in the U.S. sometimes, too) because I realized a few months ago that all the caterwauling she had been doing at night was actually because she was still going into heat. (Unfortunately, she was in heat when Meesh was staying with me, which made for some sleepless nights.) Finally, she managed to escape and, as worried as I was when she didn’t come back for a couple of days, she was a whole new cat when she returned. I don’t know what kind of bender she went on, but she wasn’t in heat anymore and life has been relatively peaceful (and quiet) since then. She can’t get pregnant, thankfully, and I’m going to get her all fixed up when we arrive in the U.S. Fingers crossed that she doesn’t go into heat again in the next 36-37 days…
The one challenge that I’m facing is trying to get her up to Dar when it’s time for me to COS. My original plan was to fly up with her on Fastjet, which is the only airline that currently flies from Mbeya to Dar. However, when I read the fine print on their web site, I realized that they do not allow animals (except for seeing eye dogs) on their planes. They won’t even allow them in the hold. The bus ride to Dar is about 14 hours and neither of us want to deal with that so, as I mentioned in a previous Facebook post, my current plan is to slip her a little Valium, put a knit hat on her and wrap her up in kangas and blankets like all mamas do with their babies here. Usually, you only see the top of the hat and a big roll of blankets when a mama is carrying a baby so I’m thinking I can pass Nulty off as my baby, breeze right through security and be in Dar in an hour and a half. I’m not sure if I just think this is doable because I’ve been here too long or if it’s actually a realistic plan. I’m still looking for a better Plan B (the current one involves a car jacking – the less you know, the better) so I’ll let you all know how it develops.
I’m going to try to do a couple more blog posts before I leave (and perhaps one or two once I’m back in the U.S.) but I thought I’d try something different now that I’m nearing the end of my time here. If there are any questions you have about things I haven’t covered in any of my posts, or if there’s anything you are curious about, please put your questions/requests in the comments below (those of you that are blog shy can email them to me at my yahoo account) and I’ll do a post where I answer your questions and/or try to fulfill any requests for photos, etc. that you all might have.
I hope you are all having a great September!