Saturday, November 22, 2008

Thanksgiving!!! (sort of)

A few days early, granted, but we're having our feast tonight. Lacking an oven in the SIC office, turkey is out of the question, but we ordered chicken to compensate. We're having mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, and many other delicious dishes! Not quite the American holiday we're used to, but very festive anyway!

Miss all of you!
Happy Holidays!!!


So the two Tanzanian teaching partners in my village both speak 3 languages fluently - their respective tribal language, Kiswahili, and English. The American volunteers speak English and dabble in Kiswahili and French or Spanish. Our teaching partners have decided they want to learn their 4th and 5th languages, and have designated my roommate Anne as their French tutor and me as their Spanish tutor. This is rather pathetic, given that my 3 years of Spanish lessons ended over 5 years ago and I wasn't fluent then, but they're learning quickly nonetheless. It's sooo embarrasing, really, when you think about it. If I were in charge of the American educational system (a job I never want!!!) the first thing I would do would be to make foreign language lessons mandatory in every elementary school. It's now common to hear us forming sentences containing Kiswahili, English, and Spanish - KiswaSpanglish, if you will - which is a quick recipe for a headache but very entertaining!!!

Friday, November 21, 2008


Maweni is the name of my new village and literally means "place of stones". The population is about 800, compared to 1400 in our last village. We absolutely love it! The community is SO welcoming and supportive! Everyday when we walk through "town", one of the village leaders makes a point to ask us what problems we're facing that they can help us solve - so far, we haven't had any! Maweni has strong community groups - one is a microfinance organization run by the villagers to support small businesses in the community. We went to one of their mtgs and were very impressed by their organization. They put their agenda aside though, to sing a song to welcome us! The other organization was started by a European NGO, and its aim is to help villagers plant banana trees in the most efficient way possible. Maweni is also home to the best chai in all of Africa, we're convinced!

We love teaching primary school - I have the standard 4 class, which is like 4th grade. We have 25 students in standard 4 and 50 students in the combined standard 5 and 6 classroom. These classes are so much smaller than the last village and we have 2 hours a day instead of one, which we love. Learning students' names is suddenly a reasonable goal! The energy of 9 year olds is wonderful, and we love breaking up the lessons with games and songs. One of our songs teaches the kids the fluids and "doors" (entry points to the body) that can transmit HIV - I'm fairly certain we'd be kicked out of any elementary school in the States if we attempted it there) but a lot of what we teach them is more about general life skills and staying healthy, including setting goals, decision making, communication skills, nutrition, etc.

The community is also very interested in our work. One evening we walked toward the soccer field with a ball and within half an hour had a crowd of 80 people - 10% of the village population!! We alternated playing games and teaching, and have been out on the field most evenings since with soccer balls and a frisbee. (thanks again, Brandts!)

We've also been invited for chai at many of the houses in the village - and are convinced that everyone is related! We're so involved in the village life that we were even invited to a wedding party thrown by the bride's family a few days before the wedding. (We were invited to the wedding, but were scheduled to be in Arusha that day). It was a lot of fun and we were thrilled to be included, but the other two American volunteers and I were mortified when the photographer decided we were more interesting than the bride and started taking tons of pictures of us instead, shouting "Europa" into the microphone, believing we were Europeans. As much as I would have loved to be at the wedding, I'm relieved to know that the focus will be on the bride on her day.

We did patient visits in the village this week. We visited a single mom with 3 kids, none of whom know her status. Looking at a picture of her holding her youngest child, who died of AIDS, was heartbreaking. She said that the first time she learned about HIV was when our organization was in her village 3 years ago, which prompted her to get tested. She's now on ARV's and her CD4 cell count has more than doubled, which is great news. She said she's teaching her kids about prevention without disclosing her status.

The community health worker (CHW) in Maweni is an amazing, very hard-working, caring man who has been a huge asset to the village and to the volunteers. He has several patients that he visits several times a week, helping them access whatever services they need. A woman approached him recently saying that she suspected her husband was HIV positive and taking ARV's, but that he was insisting he'd never been tested and was taking medication for something else. She asked us to come over and teach about living and caring and stigma, pretending we were doing house-to-house teaching and had never met her. The CHW set it up, and we were thrilled to do so. He told us he wanted to get tested, but not in public, so we set up a special private testing day at his home for him and his wife. He is positive, and already on ARV's, but said he didn't trust the clinic that had tested him and only now believed it. His wife is negative, and they received counseling about living with HIV and preventing transmission. He also agreed to register as one of our clients, meaning he'll get regular visits from a CHW and travel stipends to doctor's appointments. We may not be changing the national prevalence rate, but we are making a difference in a few communities.

The volunteers in another village were frustrated to learn that one of their schools is closing 2 weeks early due to a teachers' strike, meaning they had to teach the entire curriculum in 2 days and then use the 3rd and final day to offer HIV testing to the students. They did a great job though, and 100 of the 140 students chose to get tested. Sadly, one 15 year old girl was positive, but we're glad that she's now has the knowledge she needs and access to whatever assistance she'll need. And, none of us can blame the teachers for striking - the public school teachers have received only a fraction of their paychecks for the last 6 months for no reason - and we're told this is fairly common. The teachers gave the final exams 2 weeks early and then closed the school for the year (their school system operates from January to November rather than September to May). The private schools, including the one my host brother teaches at, always pay their staff on time and offer higher salaries than public schools.

Small farms are key to village life, and Maweni is no exception. We enjoy getting up early to go to the shamba (farm) of one of the volunteer's host mom. As a single woman, she maintains a 6 acres of land and a small herd of livestock! Her fields border the river, meaning that monkeys often eat her corn plants, so she's set up scarecrows and in the mornings throws rocks at the monkeys!

Some of the volunteers have said that if agriculture was practiced in the U.S. the way it is here, they would never have become vegetarians. It's an interesting topic - there are certainly no growth hormones used here, and antibiotics are rarely used. All chickens are "free-range" (ours think they ought to live in our house since the doors are always open!) and there's certainly no need for a law stating that animals must have room to stand, lie down, and turn around in their pens! For the families in Maweni, farming is done without the use of much modern technology, including plowing fields using steers yoked together pulling a plow rather than tractors. It's difficult work!

Cooking is done in a small building over a wood fire. The room is usually very hot and filled with smoke. I have so much respect for the women here! We attempt to cook, but we're usually not much help.

Village Tours

I was thrilled last week to see Chuck & Judi pull up to my house in their safari truck with the guide they'd hired for an extra day to come visit me and tour the villages I work in. You two are rockstars - who else would pull that off?!? We're not exactly on the main road or close to any safari parks! The bag of "essentials" they brought from the U.S. was a bit like Christmas morning and all 18 volunteers were very grateful! Thanks, Jessica for your contribution! Happy birthday, Chuck! You guys are the only people I know who will have pictures of farm animals in your safari album! I loved being able to show Karangai and Maweni (homestays, schools, dukas) to friends from home, and appreciated the ride to my mtg in Kikwe. They were even polite enough to break their "no village food" rule to try chapatti and makonde, two of our staples. Chapatti is a lot like the frybread you'd eat if lucky enough to be on an Indian reservation (it's one of our favorites!!) and makonde is a mixture of beans and corn, cooked in vegetable oil. We love it with hot sauce, which we now buy in bulk.

Maweni is an amazing village and already feels more like "home" than our first village did. Will write more tomorrow.

I hope all is well with you!

Sunday, November 9, 2008


For our long weekend, a few of us decided to visit Zanzibar, which is an island best described as schizophrenic. Beautiful beaches are a haven for tourists and are covered with great resorts, night clubs, shops, etc - your basic bikini-clad crowd. It's also home to a conservative Muslim community, where women are walk the streets completely covered. Mosques and Sunni madrassas line the narrow streets. Zanzibar has many museums, which tell the history of the spice and ivory trades, the exploitation by Oman, England, and many others, and the eventual union with mainland Tanzania. We visited a cathedral, built on the exact location of the last open market for the slave trade. The cathedral wasn't nearly as old as we'd like to imagine, and we were painfully reminded of our own nation's very large role in the horrific events that took place there.

On our first night we went to a restaurant, where a Tanzanian man invited us to join his table, already full of an interesting group of locals and Europeans. The conversation flowed for hours, with an awkward pause when I inquired about his line of work. He'd said earlier that he'd lived in Zanzibar his whole life. Those who knew him well laughed; he dodged the question for awhile, eventually admitting that he owned the restaurant. The next morning we were touring a former sultan's palace when another Tanzanian man who'd been at the restaurant, but not our table, approached us. He immediately started gushing about how lucky we'd been to hang out with the other guy, which confused us (the place was great but meeting the owner of a restaurant isn't the kind of thing we go crazy over). He looked at us like we were idiots and then clued us in -- the guy does own the restaurant, but he also happens to be the son of the president of Zanzibar!!! We had no idea. (Side note - Zanzibar has been part of Tanzania since the 1960's, but still has their own president - perhaps more like a governor???)

We're on the north shore now, enjoying the beaches. Our hostel is called Paradise and we're not complaining. No clue who we'll meet tonight but I'll keep you posted.

Start of Rainy Season

On our last afternoon in the village, I decided to enjoy the afternoon by walking (20min) to river to get some photos of the monkeys living in the trees there. Most of the village looks like the Mohave Desert so the strip of land around the river is a wonderful spot to relax. Knowing how quickly the monkeys flee when large groups show up, I decided to go alone, since walking during the day in the village is completely safe. I spent about an hour watching the dozen or so monkeys in very close proximity. Then it started to rain. In the weeks we've been in the village, it had rained twice, each time lasting less than half an hour. Since there is no tree cover on the way to my house, I decided to wait it out by the river. By 5pm, it was an absolute downpour with no end in sight. An elderly man happened by with his small herd of goats and cattle (why he was moving them at this time I have no idea.) He waited with me until the rain let up a bit, then insisted I use his walking stick, left his livestock by the river and waded with me through the now running washes toward the main road, staying with me until we met another man who agreed to walk with me until I reached the center of town. I was soaking wet when I reached my house, and it was still raining when we moved out of the village at 10 the next morning. The raint season has arrived!! The kindness of these two men, neither of whom I'd met before, was absolutely amazing and I am incredibly grateful. (The camera, thankfully, wasn't damaged.)

Saturday, November 8, 2008

village frustrations and joys

Planning events in villages here is a unique experience. To hold a testing day or community teaching in the farthest subvillage from the center, one must walk 30min to that subvillage, start asking people to help you find the subvillage leader- at his house, the duka, wherever he happens to be - because he doesn't own a cell phone. (When the mayor wants to reach him, he calls the next door neighbor who relays messages). Then we discuss w/ subvillage leader the best day and time for event, agree, and spend several days promoting it and preparing for it. In Swahili-speaking countries, time is measured from sunrise to sunset, meaning that what we would call 7am is referred to as 1 since the sun always rises at 6. the clocks however look just like they would at home, so when the hour hand points to 7 you say it's one o'clock and so on. no one here understands why this is confusing for us initially but we've learned to add or subtract 6 hours to tell time. so we agree w/ subvillage leader that we'll teach at noon, and decided to write 6 on our poster. he then tells us that people in his subvillage are in the habit of showing up exactly 2 hours later for any given event and instead asks us to falsely advertise the time to account for this. (i know a few couples who employ this trick...) so in order to teach at noon we make posters, in Swahili, asking people to please show up at 4am!!! imagine our frustration then, when on that day, we have a poor turn out due to 2 conflicting meetings scheduled for earlier that day - one is required for nearly everyone, the other is about irrigation schedules and therefore essential to anyone who farms, which is basically everyone. How the subvillage leader didn't foresee this is lost on us, but by 12:30 we have a fairly good crowd and teach for several hours. this is not an unusual experience, which for the workaholic, multi-tasking, control freak, type A Americans (guilty as charged, as are most drawn to this NGO) this presents a bit of frustration. We're all getting a lifetime's worth of lessons in patience! :) It will be interesting to try to integrate back into working in the US!

I love teaching in the secondary school! We initially rec'd a lot of support from the headmaster but several misunderstandings and unfortunate timing in relation to national exams combined to slowly deteriorate our relationship with him. First the time per day we were allowed to teach was reduced, then the number of days. We took this in stride, re-arranged lesson plans and made it work. On our school testing day, however, we were told our testing team could only be on campus a brief portion of the day, meaning that only 1/3 of the students would be able to be tested. There are very few things I hate more than breaking a promise to a kid, and it seemed I was being forced to repeatedly do so to many, many kids without being able to offer any explanation. It also didn't help that this was the day after the subvillage teaching described above. I excused myself and walked around the perimeter of the school grounds, finally unable to stop the tears of frustration that had been building up for weeks. I regained composure quickly, but not before being spotted by a few of my students who immediately told me not to cry because they loved me, had missed me in class the day before, and couldn't stand to see me sad! I love my students so much.

The primary school group finished their mural and our secondary school group has formed an enthusiastic group of peer educators. the students got to elect officers and choose the teacher to lead it and he readily agreed, even insisting on making the biology teacher a co-sponsor to make sure the information was always accurate. The kids gave up many hours of their weekend to attend trainings. they know the material well so we were more concerned with getting them comfortable teaching and in leadership roles. First they had to tell us why they were there and what they wanted to accomplish which was a great framework. We had them debate statements like "men are better leaders than women" and "teaching about condoms promotes promiscuity" - debate was heated but I bit my tongue and remained the neutral moderator. (Someday i hope to live in a world where the Bible isn't used as a weapon against women - or at least one in which people are well versed on the story of Deborah...) The next day the kids had to teach us something - some taught us how to make their favorite foods, others retaught part of the curriculum. We were thrilled when one of the guys announced he'd written a song about HIV - his rapping skills are amazing! A teacher later asked us what incentive the kids had for continuing the club since we weren't paying them - I wish I could have shown him a videotape of those sessions. These kids are amazing and I was very sad to leave them. I promised not to adopt them all and bring them home with me but it will be difficult.

Our village experience was supposed to end with a large community day involving lots of teaching and free VCT. This was planned on the day of a mandatory meeting for all 3 subvillages to guarantee a huge crowd and the mayor graciously agreed to give us 30min the official agenda as well. after weeks of planning, we were informed the morning of that the entire meeting was canceled and no one was coming into the center subvillage. We were disappointed to say the least. An hour later, in a meeting with the mayor and other leaders, we were trying to find a way to scrape together some form of the event when we learned the reason that the meeting was canceled: a 9 month old baby had died and the mayor saw no reason to require the grieving community to attend a town council meeting. Tears welled in my eyes, even more so when our field officer later explained to me that the family was well known by our staff and in the preceding weeks they'd visited the house twice begging the mother of the obviously sick child to allow them to pay for a hospital visit. For reasons I don't pretend to understand, she refused with tragic results. (I've heard stories, unconfirmed, of some clinics forcing people to tested for HIV, which of course is illegal. This same woman has also repeatedly declined to be tested, but whether this is related is unclear.) Suddenly our frustrations seemed very very petty. Perspective gained instantly. If anything positive is to be said of this, and I think something must, it is that this was an illustration of just how completely communal life is in villages. It's hard to imagine that even a small town in the U.S. would cancel an event to show support for a grieving family. We did offer VCT that day and tested 67 people not directly affected by the tragedy, which was somewhat miraculously given the size of village and chaos of the day. We also managed to do a few teachings with small groups of people for short periods of the time throughout the day.
A testing day in the other village was also canceled. We were heartbroken to hear that the grandmother of one of the homestay families there had passed away. Both of our groups plan to return to the first 2 villages to hold testing days while we work in the new villages, which hopefully will work out. We do have full time staff in the area though, so our work won't end when we leave.

My roommate, Anna, is one of our Tanzanian teaching partners. At the end of the community day, she pulled me aside to ask if I cried this often in the U.S. or if I was really hating my time in Tanzania. (She was at the school testing day as well) Just to be clear, I love it here and have never regretted coming. Despite everything I really believe our work is effective and I will be sad to leave. I can't believe we're already half way through! If I ever reach a point where I am apathetic about my work, where I can listen to news of death of a child due to neglect without be deeply upset THEN you all should be concerned.

Next village will be Maweni, where I'll be teaching in the primary school. It's supposed to be cooler there, which will be nice.

In other news - the president of France called me. We're going to kill a few elephants while we discuss my career ambitions. Apparently the ivory market is the only one still intact at the moment.

Miss you all! Take care!

Friday, November 7, 2008

End of First Village Experience

I can't believe it, but we're done with our work in the first two villages. Leaving the homestay this morning was very strange. We have a long weekend off then will move into 3 villages for the final weeks in Tanzania.
The final weeks there we spent doing a lot of community teachings. On Sunday our group split up and taught during 4 services at 3 churches in the village! The Friday before, a few of us were allowed to teach after a service at the local mosque. We were forgiven for showing up with our heads uncovered (oops!! - an oversight I realized halfway there, a 30min walk w/ no way to correct at that point.) Anyway, the men and women were split up and we taught the men outside while other volunteers taught the women in a nursery school building - we weren't disrespectful enough to attempt to enter the mosque. We taught for the better part of 2 hours answering many questions. The sher and other leaders wanted me to pass on the message that Muslims love peace, aren't terrorists, don't hate America, and want the Democrats to have a chance in power for awhile, since they believe this will hopefully lead to greater world peace. Yes We Can.
All of Tanzania was thrilled with election results. After listening to morning news broadcasts on radio, we were delivered copies of Obama's and McCain's speeches by our staff. We all especially loved the line about people in forgotten corners of the world huddled around radios - Yes We Were!

Running out of time but promise to get back on (maybe Tues) and give lots of details about joys and frustrations with testing, teaching, peer educators.
miss you all!