"We are prone to judge success by the index of our salaries or the size of our automobiles, rather than by the quality of our service relationship to humanity." - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Setting sail for home...

One last night in Africa.  I spent the day reading on the beach and watching local women harvest seaweed in the shallows.  This evening, after a champion grade packing session (in which I gave away most of the possessions with which I arrived), and one final and slightly successful attempt at sink laundry, I took a walk on the beach.

I'm ready to leave Africa, for now.  I'm ready to see friends and family, to sleep in my own bed and be woken, not by the call to prayer, but by Harper's wet nose.  I'm ready for the joys of western toilets and refrigeration.  I'm ready to get back to my "old" life and see how - or if - it's different now as a result of being here.

I've met many incredible people - Tanzanian and not.  I've watched fishermen sail hand-carved dhows to shore with the day's catch.  I've watched children play in the sand with the simplest of handmade toys.  I've seen the sun set over Mt. Kilimanjaro and over the plains of safari.  I've danced with the Chagga tribe in Moshi and celebrated the Full Moon with travelers in Kendwa.  I've walked the streets of former slave traders and shed tears in the cells of slaves.  I've taught orphans to swim in the Indian Ocean and students to write in a school of crumbling walls.  I've heard elephants trumpet a warning call to their young and seen a lion lunch on an unfortunate buffalo.  I've wondered at the constellations of the southern hemisphere and marveled at the waterfalls of the Udzungwa Mountains.  I've cried with frustration and exhaustion...and I've laughed with spontaneous and overwhelming joy.

I'm leaving this place with so much more than I could ever have imagined.  I came here with few expectations - only a hope to be a drop in a bucket.  And, while I'm not certain just how large my "drop" has been, I am certain that a drop was made.  The largest impact, it seems, has been on me.

Who will I be as a result of having been here?  Time will tell.  I have found strength in myself that I didn't know I had; found joy that I thought had been lost; felt more lonely than I knew to be possible; and will grow from it all.  I have a renewed faith in my own capabilities and in the inherent goodness of others.  I believe in the indomitable power that is the human spirit.  I believe in the universal languages of laughter, peace, and love...I also believe that, to have experienced it all, I am truly one of the luckiest people I know.

Lessons from Africa:

  • Refrigeration is for sissies
  • All rejected tee-shirts end up in Africa - and often on people completely oblivious to their often crude or inappropriate meaning
  • If you can't ride a bike with at least one live chicken, a door, or two other people, you can't really ride a bike
  • If the only thing that you can balance on your head is a hat, you're wasting precious space
  • Besides food - all one really needs is a bucket and a kanga
  • Speed limits are merely suggestions
  • "Clean" is a relative term
  • If you really want chocolate, but it has ants on it, one quick blow will clear that right up
  • Consistent, reliable electricity is for ninnies
  • If you're not sharing your room (and maybe your bed) with at least one critter, you're not in Africa
  • Three marriage proposals by complete strangers in the span of an hour simply means that it's Tuesday
  • Goats and chickens have right-of-way in the road.  Humans?  Not so much.
  • A steady diet of carbs with a side of carbs is completely sustainable.
  • It's normal for children to run out of houses and down the road toward you at full speed...then fling their arms around you - even if you've never seen that kid before in your life.
  • Shower curtains just get in the way...a shower not only cleans you, but the rest of the bathroom, as well.
  • Toilet paper should be stretchy 

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Two Arabian Nights

Traveling alone is a situation that vacillates between quite lonely and quite empowering.  It's growing on me!  While it would be great to have someone to turn to when a thought or a new sight enters the picture, it's also great to be able to follow my own agenda.  I've met some very nice people from all over the world and have very much enjoyed that aspect of my situation.

In Arusha, I met Susanne, a German woman also traveling solo.  We spent the day together wandering the frenetic and far from attractive streets of Arusha with Daniel from Ireland.  After dinner that night, Susanne and I made plans to meet when we she arrived in Zanzibar, one day after myself.  I can't say that I wasn't thrilled to leave the relative freezing cold north and fly south to the tropical island on Saturday.

Zanzibar is so very unique.  It has been used as a strategic port along East African trade routes for a thousand years and has seen its share of invasion, occupation, and rebirth.  The largest city on the largest island of the archipelago is Stone Town, which comprises of narrow labyrinthine streets around centuries-old buildings, churches, temples, and mosques.  The culture is a blend of African and of the Middle East, with a dash of Indian. The place simply oozes with romance, intrigue, and seems like it stepped out of 1,001 Arabian Nights. The population is 95% muslim, and I'm here during the month of Ramadan.  Because it's a sought-after tourist destination and the place is crawling with Europeans, locals welcome our presence and even tolerate the cultural insensitivity of some barely-clad visitors.  It is strange, though.  Most restaurants are closed during the day and, at my hotel, if I want anything after breakfast, I have to take it in my room.  I've become adjusted to the frequent calls to prayer from nearby mosques.  After sunset and a brief quiet time when locals pray and then break their fast, the street food market and restaurants come alive again.

I have spent the last two days wandering through the streets and seeing some of the historical sites.  I went to the Anglican Church, a place built over an old slave market.  Zanzibar was the final African stop after leaving the coastal stop of Bagamoyo.  From here, slaves were shipped to French-controlled Mauritius and other islands to work on sugar and spice plantations, or to Southeastern Europe.  Inside the Anglican Church are markers where the well of the market, as well as the post to which human beings were chained before being sold once stood.  It's beautifully done without being ostentatious and is moving to see.  Underneath the church's neighboring building are dark stone rooms where, it is said, that slaves were kept prior to sale.  The rooms are small with a raised stone floor.  Being in them, one can only imagine the anguish and fear  the walls once contained.  Outside, there now stands a monument to remind visitors of Zanzibar's dark past.  Stone statues of slaves are chained together with actual chain and neck manacles that were found in Bagamoyo.  The place is silent, as it should be.

Zanzibar was also one of the first spice islands and a trip to a spice farm is another tourist highlight.  I was able to see nearly every spice imaginable, including an iodine tree (I had no idea that the stuff is the sap of a tree), and ylang ylang (the stuff used in perfume), and ate fruits that I'd never heard of, let alone eaten!  I had met a former volunteer for the tour and we stopped at the market on the way to buy a fish, which then was prepared for us for lunch after the tour.  Incredible.

When I returned to Stone Town, I spent hours shopping down tiny streets, most too narrow for a car.  I watched the sunset for the second time from the famous Sunset Bar, only seven kilometers as the crow flies from Bagamoyo, but entirely a world away with its luxurious middle-eastern fabrics draped on the walls and hookah pipes at every table.  Last night, after Susanne had arrived, we decided to walk through the night market for dinner.  Hundreds of stalls, all lit up by gas lamps and laden with fresh fish, fruits, breads, and meat skewers beckoned.  Probably the best meal I've eaten so far in Africa...and all at a cost of about 4,000 shillings...or about $2.60.

My hotel in Stone Town, the Dhow Palace, is a former mansion and is ornate in every sense of the world.  While not a luxurious hotel, the carved furniture and antiques in the room and the open-air courtyard help to complete the experience.  I'll be spending a few more hours here this morning before heading north to Matemwe, a quiet fishing village on the eastern coast of the island for my last nights in Tanzania.  I'm hoping to hone my "do nothing" skills and finish my African adventure on a quiet note.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Winter in August...

Monday, August 9, 2010 – Bagamoyo and Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

On my last night in Bagamoyo, after a typical power outage, a group of us went down to one of our favorite local watering holes, Hill Side. The sign once must have said “Hill Side Bar” but the owner, wanting it to be of a higher caliber must have decided that, rather than buying a new sign, it would be easier to simply cut a hole in the sign where “Bar” once was. Below the entrance hangs another sign that reads, “The ultimate dinning experience.” It’s one of the nicest places in Baga and has its own generator, so is a likely spot when the power decides to take a break. After feeling our way down the street and finding a table, I enjoyed my last beer in Baga. Major came with his guitar and sang me a song. It was a perfect way to end my time there.

Monday morning, after packing, breakfast, and one last trip to the internet café, I said goodbye to the staff and friends at CCS. As Kennedy drove me away from Bagamoyo south towards Dar, I felt a mix of sadness and accomplishment, knowing that the true goal of my trip had been accomplished.

We neared Dar and traffic sped to a frenetic pace and Kennedy began to receive calls from the airport. My scheduled flight was about to leave without me, even though it was only 3:30 and it was supposed to depart at 4:20. Apparently schedules are more of an estimation when it comes to air travel in Tanzania, as well. So, after what sounded like a very heated conversation, Kennedy took a sharp turn off of the main road and said simply, “Shortcut.”

We went through what looked a lot like the poorer parts of Bagamoyo on a bumpy dirt road. Soon, I noticed an overpowering stench. This was the slums of Dar. What I had smelled was the dump. All around, huts and tiny stores were built on and around the refuse of the city's more than 1 million denizens. Children walked around barefoot and people went about their daily business as if it were normal because, well…to them it is. I was grateful when Kennedy’s reckless and fast driving bumped us through that area and back onto a tarmac road. We pulled up to the airport, I hopped out and shook his hand while another man grabbed my bag and motioned for me to follow him. It was at this point that I realized: Wait a minute. Kennedy just booked a 10 day trip for me, including airfare and he doesn’t even know my last name!

Foolish, foolish Amber…this is Africa! After following the man through a rather haphazard looking metal detector, we arrived at a tiny waiting area and a small desk. A clerk shoved a piece of paper in front of me and instructed me to write my name. Ah yes…my boarding pass. The man disappeared through a set of double doors toward about five planes, all smaller than anything I'd been on in recent memory, with my bag. He returned a moment later, empty handed and motioned for me to sit. A few minutes later, the desk clerk shouted to the waiting area, “504 to Kili!” (504 is the airline name) and pointed toward an orange prop plane across the tarmac. I was too tired to care much that the 14 seater was rather old, and that I could see right into the cockpit. Nothing seemed to be duct-taped together and I wasn’t sharing the plane with livestock. That’s luxury.

An hour later, I could see Kili rising above the clouds. We landed without incident and I was met by George and Phillip, owner of Mt. Kilimanjaro View Lodge. On our way from the airport, through Moshi town, and 9500 feet up the side of Kilimanjaro, Phillip kept me entertained stories of the lodge, the land, and of his tribe, the Chagga. He informed me that I was currently the lodge’s only guest. So, we climbed for about an hour before reaching the lodge’s gate, passing villages, maize fields, and banana trees. (The Chagga tribe numbers about one million people and, unlike the Masai tribe of the plains, its members are adept farmers; coffee, maize and bananas being their largest crops.) The staff greeted me like family and pointed out the glittering lights of Moshi, now far below.

Being the only guest of a hotel is slightly awkward, especially when communicating with the staff, who speak Chagga language and Swahili, but very little English. So, with my limited Swahili and their limited English, our conversation was basic and marginally effective.

“I make you food.”
“Yes, thank you”
“You are eating….food.”
“Yes. It is good.”
“You are teacher.”
“Yes. It is good.”
“You are eating. I make you food.”
“Yes. It is very good. I appreciate your hospitality.”
“I do not understand. You want more food?”
“No. It is good.”

There I sat, around a small fire with six Chagga tribespeople, communicating with a limited set of words, smiles, and laughter. They pulled out small drums and we sang until my tired eyes betrayed me. Three of them escorted me to my tiny dark hut where I wore about three layers of clothing to keep away the cold, and went to sleep.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010 – Mt. Kilimanjaro View Lodge

Waking up on Kili is cold, damp, and cloudy. All the same, it’s waking up on Kili. And, since I slept in nearly all of my clothes, getting dressed was relatively easy! After another conversation that established the making of food and my eating of the same, I met with my local guides for the day, Remi and John. We left the lodge and started downhill on the red clay road, passing Chagga people bent over, working in their fields. We walked through small groups of houses and a primary school before turning down one road and then another, to a narrow path that led over rickety log bridges and under avocado and banana trees. Eventually, we came to a beautiful waterfall, Mnembe Falls. At this point I, of course, was covered in the red clay mud while my guide, in leather dress shoes, was unscathed. After a few photos and a short break, we returned the way we had come, passing villagers who spoke quickly to me in Chagga language. John then took a hard right off of the path up a hill so steep that we had to inch our way along while ducking underneath the leaves of banana trees. Finally, we stepped up into the middle of a group of houses.

An old woman came to greet us with a smile. She was Phillip’s mother. At age 101, she is frail but very strong. I was ushered into a small sitting area where coffee was served. I learned about the history of coffee growing in this region before they walked me through all of the steps of the coffee-making process, from picking the beans to finished coffee.

I was still looking at my newly ground coffee (no push-button electric grinders here…instead, they use a large wooden pestle and mortar) when I heard drums. I looked up to see a group of women and one elderly man dance toward me. They formed a circle and invited me in. Soon, they were laughing at my attempt to sing and dance along…just another unforgettable African moment.

We left the village and began the ascent back up the mountain to the lodge, passing other villages as we walked. We stopped once to try the local brew, a millet and fermented banana concoction. Through a dark doorway into a darker room lined with cardboard, the process was explained before a man appeared with a large plastic tub about the size of a large yogurt container. In the tub was a liquid about the consistency of thin Cream of Wheat. Banana brew. The tub was passed to me. I took one teeny, tiny sip and made it official: Banana beer is NOT my thing. John took the tub from my hands and downed the entire thing in about ten seconds. So much for not drinking on the job!

After dinner, we repeated the songs around the fire. This time, the women dressed me in a kanga and renamed me “Amber Dada (sister), Queen of Kili”. I could get used to this.

Thursday, August 12, 2010 - Kili View Lodge to Arusha - A decidedly TIA day

I awoke to yet another cold and damp morning on Kili…this time, cold rain fell. Packing to spend a month in the hot coastal region of Africa fell dramatically short when it came to preparing me for the chilly weather up here. After an enormous breakfast, I packed my bags and waited for Phillip to take me down the mountain. When I went back up to the main lodge, I met Walter, the cook.

“Are you ready?”
“Yes. Is the car here?”
“No. The car cannot drive up the road because of the rain. We walk down the hill to meet the car.”
“Alrighty then. T.I.A.”

So, as Walter struggled with my heavy backpack down the slimy red clay road and onto a narrow path in his leather loafers, I baby stepped behind him in my hiking shoes, still slipping my way down. Twice he took a tumble in his purple LA Lakers pants and black leather loafers with my bag on his back. Twice, I said, “Pole sana”, feeling like a complete tool that this poor guy insisted on lugging my bag down a steep wet hill. We passed some of the other lodge employees on their way up the path, laden with boxes of supplies and food. I said goodbye to each of them and stood there awkwardly on the hill while they all argued in Swahili or Chagga over what I guessed was the distribution of my tip. Then, we continued our descent, passing waving children and women carrying wooden chairs or large bunches of bananas on their heads before finally meeting up with our car. This carried me down into Moshi, where we switched to another vehicle that drove me to Arusha, down another rutted dirt road past chickens and goats and busy people, to my next stop.

So…here I sit at the L’Oasis Lodge in Arusha. I have taken a hot-ish shower under a real lightbulb (not a strategically placed headlamp) and am thrilled to be in a place where there is electricity all day long, rather than for only a few hours in the evening. I’m still freezing, missing the heat of Baga, and looking forward to the hot beaches of Zanzibar in a few days and my own bed, house, and hot shower beyond... It’s been a decidedly T.I.A. day.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

A note to my sponsors...

As I prepare to leave Bagamoyo and the volunteer portion of my trip, I wanted to take a moment to let my sponsors know where their generous donations to my program fee have gone...

Your support has:
* Created and supports 16 full-time jobs for local citizens in a town where full-time, consistent work is difficult to come by.  They are the office staff, cooks, housekeepers, drivers, and gate security for CCS.  They have also been like family to myself and countless others who come to Baga. After working up to a 24 hour shift, they smile and greet us as if we've known them for years.  Many are working on their secondary education and are able to get help from volunteers so that they, in turn, can better their own lives and support their families.

* Provided support materials for CCS's partner programs in Bagamoyo.  While I was volunteering at Mwasama and Imuma, other volunteers were giving of themselves in local hospitals, HIV/AIDS centers, Red Cross, women's empowerment groups, small business development, orphanages and daycares as a result of what you have given.

* Provided cultural exchange opportunities.  Not only am I learning a great deal about local culture, I am also sharing my own.  Through guest speakers, swahili lessons, and experiences with local artists, I will continue to be an ambassador of sorts long after my return home.

To all who have supported me with an email, a hug, or a donation to CCS: You are remembered and appreciated each day.  My experience here has been life-changing.  I hope that you can tell by my blog entries just how much I have seen and done.  Know that this experience, though, has been so much more deep, rich, and overwhelming than words can ever begin to express.  What you have read is simply a drop.  I will be forever grateful.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Last Days in Bagamoyo...

Time has flown and my time in Bagamoyo is coming to a close. In four weeks, I've learned and seen so much. I've made new friends and terribly missed friends and family back home. I've seen things that break my heart and those that give me undeniable hope in the strength of the human spirit. I've learned that Africa is so much more than what western media leads us to believe. Africa isn't dying - it's perhaps more alive than anyplace on Earth.

At our rather emotional final feedback meeting at CCS, Zik told us, "Thank you for coming here and giving of yourselves to help our country." I smiled and thought to myself that what it is that I may have offered this place is so very miniscule in comparison to what it has given me. I feel somewhat selfish, knowing of all of my blessings, material and non, awaiting my return at home and yet I will arrive home even richer for the things I have seen and done here.

I'll leave here on Monday and catch a flight to the Kilimanjaro airport. There, I'll spend a few nights on the slopes of Kili at a lodge at about 9500 feet. I hope to hike a bit (no time, money, or gear to actually summit Kili - guess I'll have to come back!) and simply enjoy the view. Then, I'll spend a few nights outside of Arusha near some coffee plantations (I'm also hoping to sit in on a few of the Rwandan Genocide Trials) before flying back to Zanzibar. I'll be in Stone Town and do the historical and spice tours for two days before my final two nights on the northern part of the island at Matemwe beach. Then, I'll fly back to Dar in time to catch my flight back to the US. I'm looking forward to a new part of my adventure and time to reflect on all that the past weeks have meant, though leaving Bagamoyo and the people that I've grown to love here will not be easy.

Because students were beginning a month-long summer break at Mwasama, my last day at the school was early this week. When tea time rolled around, teachers all gathered and placed the tables under the jackfruit tree together into one long table. Soon, cold glass bottles of soda were passed, along with chapate, sausage, and sambosa. It was my farewell party.

While there had been times at Mwasama when I found myself frustrated at an education system so very different from my own and capable of so much, what I failed to realize was the impact that I was having through asking questions and sharing what I believe and how I teach. I don't pretend to assume that I've somehow changed the course of Tanzanian education in four short weeks, but I do know that I have done a tiny bit to share what I know with teachers and students here, as they have with me. So, as we sat beneath the tree and shared all that we've learned from one another, the teachers presented me with a kanga in thanks. I was so touched.Then, they all laughed at my inability to tie it correctly for some photos.

Later this week, I met two Mwasama teachers, Godfrey and Kasanga for a drink.

"You have helped us a lot, Madam Wembah. Many volunteers come and teach and then they go but they do not stop to learn. You stopped."

With my eyes full of tears (that seems to be a theme this week), I accepted a beautiful batik of a giraffe in front of a mountain and a wooden makonde carving of two fishermen in a boat. I feel so blessed to have made such friends so far from home.

During placement hours for the remainder of my days in Bagamoyo, I spent a little bit of time at AMAP (African Modern Arts Park), helping out in the preschool for street children there. I also spent a few days at Imuma, an orphanage and school for street children, orphans, and for those whose parents don't seem to notice. This was an altogether different experience than that at Mwasama. Down a rutted dirt road that shrank into a path between mud huts, the classrooms are tiny and across a small courtyard from a small dorm, office, and goat/chicken pen. Someone has accurately labeled the wood gate with chalk: "House of Goat"

Hannah, another volunteer who spent time here last summer and speaks somewhat fluent Swahili, explained to me how Imuma began. A local man had created a movie house of sorts and realized that the same kids came each day. Seeing the need for a place for these kids to go, to learn, and for some, to sleep, he created Imuma from his own funds. It's humble in the most accurate sense of the word, but is better than the streets.

When my final day of volunteering came, we took the children of Imuma to the beach. Elias, the driver for CCS, drove us and the CCS Toyota van up to the path to Imuma. Children, screaming with delight, raced toward the open doors and piled in. I tried to count, but those climbing onto my lap obscured my vision. By the time the door slid closed and we began the drive to the beach, the van that usually holds 10 adults comfortably was host to roughly 40 children and six adults. We were quite a sight, bumping down the roads of Bagamoyo, though not all that different from the packed daladalas that act as public transportation.

After a similar screaming exit from the van, kids ran to the beach, ripped off their clothes (bathing suits are non-existent for these kids, so most swim in their underwear or in, well, nothing) and ran to the water. One boy grabbed my hand, said, "Swim?" and pulled me in.

There I was, playing in the Indian Ocean with a group of children for whom clean clothes and a home are but a dream, yet they were so happy. I attempted to teach them how to float on their backs, taking each one in turn and supporting them while pushing them along. We cheered when they were successful and continued to try when not. Occasionally, a younger child would climb up into my arms and lay her head on my shoulder before being asked to be thrown into the water. As they grew tired, we worked our way up onto the beach where a group of kids had gathered under the palms. When I got closer I could see that Major, a musician and co-founder of Imuma, was singing and playing his guitar for the children. Kids sang along or watched from high in a tree. Some danced, some shouted requests for new songs. I turned, looked at the sun reflecting off of the water and watched kids laughing, swimming, playing in the sand, and singing.

There are moments in life when one has to stop and catch her breath, and there are those that simply take it away.

Monday, August 2, 2010

A safari, a hot shower, a vest, and one unforgettable smile

A year ago, had someone told me that I'd be sitting in an internet cafe, listening to swahili all around me, and watching a storm roll in while attempting to write a blog entry about going on safari, I'd have thought he was crazy.  But, here I am.  Now that I've been here three weeks and am somewhat adjusted to my surroundings, I have to stop and remind myself where I am and how incredibly unbelievable the entire thing is.  Going on safari was even more surreal.  After growing up seeing animals in zoos or on Wild Kingdom episodes, seeing them in their natural habitat was surreal to say the very least.

Thursday afternoon, Kennedy and our safari driver Sam, picked us up.  Sam, a large teddy bear of a man with a warm smile to match, stood next to an old tan Toyota Landcruiser that looked as if it had seen a charging elephant or two in its time.  Some of the black framework had been painted - with a brush, but it looked tough and rugged with its two spare tires on the back.  I remarked that it seemed a tad excessive... (more foreshadowing?  Yep.).  He wore khaki trousers and a plaid shirt.  Once the bags were in the car and all five of us loaded, he slipped on a khaki, multi-pocket khaki vest, gave us all a toothy grin and we were on our way.

We traveled six hours, most of it on bumpy dirt roads, toward the central part of the country.  Palms and coastal vegetation gave way to red soil and baobob trees.  We passed through villages of mud huts, under the Uluguru mountains and passed the sisal fields (you know, the straw-like rugs from Pottery Barn).  As the sun set, we traveled through Mikumi National Park and watched herds of impala, giraffes, and a few elephants from the highway.  After turning off the paved roads and traveling up an impossibly bumpy dirt road in pitch black for two hours, we arrived at our stop for the first night, lit only by an occasional flourescent bulb.

The Twiga Hotel, while in a beautiful setting, was anything but restful.  Knowing that it was one night, we all sucked it up, looked past the ants, tucked in our mosquito nets extra tight, and enjoyed our first look at television (albeit in swahili) in three weeks.

Needless to say, it wasn't the best night of sleep ever.  With the morning, we were excited to begin our hike through the Udzungwa mountains.  Along the 6.3 km hike, we saw a variety of monkeys and medicinal trees (including one that, according to our guide, "Is like Veee-agra.  So to give energy to your friend." After passing a large pile of dung, our guide nonchalantly informed us that there were elephants in these mountains, along with leopards and deadly mamba snakes.  Awesome.  Luckily, the fiercest thing we saw were the long and wide stripes of soldier ants, carrying eggs through the forest.

After passing two waterfalls, we came to a cliff that overlooked a lush green valley below.  This was the top of the highest waterfall in the park.  Sugar cane fields stretched as far as the eye could see, along with smoke from small villages and small bunches of trees.  We sat, at the top of the 590 foot waterfall and took in the magnificent view.  Pictures simply can't do it justice.

Once we descending the mountain, we had lunch in a small village, and drove back into Mikumi.  We arrived just after dark at our tented camp.  I wasn't sure it was possible to be darker than Bagamoyo, but the camp's generator was the only power for miles around.  Tiny lanterns dimly lit the walk and one could make out the thatched-roof main building.  A tiny woman, in her sixties and with a charming South African accent, called up to us and we went in to register.  She explained a few ins and outs, and sent us down a stone path to our tents.  The tents were actually hung on top of a wood-planked raised deck, under another thatched roof.  Each tent contained two beds, a full bathroom, and all of the accoutrements of a normal hotel room, minus the solid walls.  It was beautiful and a welcome treat.  Two words:  hot shower.  My first since arriving in Africa.  Heaven.

We ate a wonderful dinner involving the absolute luxuries of real butter, dairy, and chocolate mousse, before moving to an open deck where we could hear the call of a bushbaby (a small, large-eyed primate) and the shine of a flashlight revealed one in a nearby tree.  Charles, one of the proprietors, explained that they would eat out of your hand.  He grabbed some dinner rolls, called them over, and we watched as they fed just a few feet away.  The generator would be turned off at 10:30, so we left the dining area and were escorted to our rooms by a masai in full costume carrying a lantern.

While the bed was comfortable, the night was cold and full of very strange noises.  We were staying inside the park, so this was to be expected if not comical.  Early Saturday morning, after a breakfast including another first in three weeks, real (not from powder) coffee with real cream, we met Sam and his vest, piled in the Landcruiser (now with the roof raised for viewing) and bumped down the hill toward the plains of the park.

After seeing giraffes, elephants, ridgebacks, impala, buffalo, wildebeast, and warthogs, we had still not seen the elusive lion.  We called out "Simama tafadhali!" when we needed to stop and take a photo, followed by "Tunaweza kwenda!" when we were ready to continue. Each time we passed another safari vehicle, Sam would stop and discuss progress.  It sounded something like, "swahili swahili swahili hapana (no) swahili swahili swahili simba (lion)."  Thinking that we wouldn't be able to find one, we moved toward the main gate to take a break for lunch.

Sam stopped the truck near a beautiful tamarind tree.  Thinking that it was a rather nice looking tree, I pulled out my camera to take a picture.

"Lion." Sam whispered.

Now, I looked and looked and looked, and I was pretty sure that I saw no lion, but Sam insisted, backed up the truck and turned off of the road toward the tree.  The two females lounging in the shade under the tree came into focus as we drove the truck around them, not ten feet away.  In no time, other vehicles arrived.  We returned to the road and watched as some people, completely oblivious to the obvious danger, got out of their vehicle and allowed their young child to walk around before the drivers yelled at them to get back in their car.  Sam was the hero of the day, receiving grateful slaps on the back from other drivers, knowing that their tips had just risen dramatically.  We cheered him on as we left for lunch, him smiling in his safari vest.

We took another sunset game drive that afternoon, this time viewing hippos, crocodiles, birds, and baboons before dinner.  On Sunday morning before heading back to Bagamoyo, we took one last game drive and saw all of the animals we had the day before.  Again, the lion was elusive.  So, we went back to the main gate, took some final pictures and were about to load into the car.

"Tunaweza kwenda, Sam!"
"There is male lion.  Eating lunch."
"Yes.  A buffalo was killed by a truck this morning.  I saw it.  Drivers had already cut off its legs for steak.  Now, a male lion is eating."
"Well, what are we standing around, taking pictures for??? Let's go!"

Once we arrived at the rather gruesome sight, we saw him.  He was resting in the shade of a nearby tree a few feet away from the unfortunate water buffalo, more majestic than anything I've ever seen.  The king of the jungle.  Words simply aren't enough.  Vultures circled overhead and landed in nearby trees.  He wasn't too active, however, and we watched him for about 30 minutes before heading back toward Bagamoyo.  Sam slowed at one point to warn some drivers near a broken down truck that there were lions nearby.  He entertained us with stories of how many truck drivers are attacked and killed by lions in the park each year. 

The trip home was rather eventful.  We needed both of those spare tires.  The first was replaced in a tiny village.  While we stood near the truck, the villagers all came out to watch Sam change the tire and to stare at us.  I was able to talk a little bit with a few children.  Most were shy, but one little girl and her stunning shy smile took my heart.  When Sam was finished and we went to load into the car, I gave each of the kids a fist pound or a high five and took my seat.  The little girl ran up to my half-open window, stood on her tip toes and reached her hand toward mine, saying no words.  I gave her another high five, said "Baadaye!" and watched as she smiled from ear to ear and returned to her friends.  It was one of those moments, miniscule and larger than life at the same time.

After returning back to Baga to the open arms of the CCS staff and to a new group of volunteers, I fell into bed exhausted and reviewed the weekend with another of my bulleted journal entries so that I could remember it all.  And, while I'll always remember the beauty of the animals and of the savannah, stretched out as far as the eye could see and dotted with the silhouette of giraffes, elephants, and others, I'll never forget driving through the bush.  Smiling at children, running from their mud huts and waving excitedly at us, watching kids playing soccer with a homemade, lopsided fabric ball, seeing the bicycles laden with rice or containers of water or the women, carrying children and rice and water all at once...but most of all, the children and those heart-stopping smiles.  That's the stuff of Africa.

Someone once told me that Africa has a way of hooking you when you least expect it and, once hooked, it never leaves you.  I think I'm there.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Mwalimu watoto mzungu?!

The great thing about standing out in a small town is that running into someone familiar everywhere that you go is inevitable.  The not-so-great thing about standing out in a small town is that running into someone familiar everywhere that you go is inevitable.  It all depends on the mood of the day.

Yesterday was fantastic.  While bumping down the dirt road to Mwasama, I noticed a large group of my students walking down the road.  I had Elias pull over, hopped out of the van and joined them.  They were on their way to visit the under-construction new site of Mwasama, about two miles outside of Bagamoyo.  So, we walked, and walked, and walked.  I thought about just how much my students in the states would complain about the walk - kids here are built tough and know how to live without mobile phones, or TV, or iPods.  It's refreshing.  After a rather hair-raising moment getting all of them across the treacherous Dar Highway (see previous post for details), we walked in a single file line down the side of the road, teachers posted at the beginning, middle, and end of the line.  I brought up the rear.  It was a perfect post, as I was able to watch the reactions of drivers by, seeing the normal sight of schoolkids walking down the road, followed by the somewhat befuddled expression as they saw me (again, I don't blend well).  A man rode his bicycle past, with another man sitting sidesaddle on the back of the bike (seeing two or more people on a bike is normal, as is seeing people on said bike carrying multiple large bottles of water, bags of rice, lumber, or live chickens - often a combination of the afore mentioned items).  The man on the back of the bike surveyed the situation with a puzzled expression.

"Mwalima watoto mzungu!?"  He didn't intend it to be heard by us, but by the driver of the bike...but it carried.  The teacher of the students is a mzungu?!

Students turned to see my reaction.  Once they saw that I was laughing, they busted up, too.  I'd like to think that it was a bonding moment, but am pretty sure they were just laughing at me.

When we arrived at the "new" Mwasama, the school's owner, Mama Mwajuma was there to meet us.  Students ran all over the new space, chattering excitedly about it.  I spoke with Mama, about a correspondence program between my classes and some at Mwasama.  I also started a discussion of incorporating more literature into the students' time.  She seemed open to the idea and said that she'd welcome a meeting to continue a discussion.  She's a benevolent woman, the students obviously appreciate her presence, as they all greet her with, "Good Morning, Bibi." (grandma)

We walked back toward town, students fighting over who got to carry my bag.  I was able to talk with many of them and learn more about their lives.  Kids are very much the same here as anywhere.  They want approval, to succeed, and to feel like they matter.  After we returned to town and dropped the students at the soccer fields, I left them, feeling somewhat inspired and excited about the possibility of making a lasting connection and contribution between myself and Bagamoyo. I stopped by the town's only ATM and, by some rare stroke of luck, it both worked AND had money in it!  I started a circle through town, stopping in at some shops and other volunteer placements to say hello or pick up items.  After a rather thorough tour through town, down to the beach by the fish market, back by Rasti's to discuss some artwork, with a quick stop at AMAP to say hello to the kids and pick up a shirt she'd made plus a birthday gift for another volunteer, I worked my way through Baga, stopping to say hello to new friends.  Walking with a spring in my step, I passed two wazungu, said hello, and about fell over when their reply was with an American accent.  Most other foreigners, while rare, are from Europe.  I stopped and talked to them a bit - two Peace Corps volunteers stationed in South Africa, just up in Bagamoyo for a few days.  Later, I learned that another volunteer from our group had met them last weekend at the Full Moon party on Zanzibar!  All the way in Africa, it really is a small world.  I turned the corner to head up the hill to the internet cafe just as a group of about 25 nursery school kids crossed the highway.  They immediately surrounded me, some wanting to hold my hand, others a fist pound, others just skipped in front, shouting, "Mzungu! Mzungu!"  Somehow, when it's little kids saying it, it's cute.  I must admit, the use of it by adults is growing old.

As do most Americans these days, we've turned many things that were never meant to be into verbs.  We have contests to see how many times a person can be "mzungu-ed" or "shikamoo-ed" each day.

What I appreciate most is when I'm greeted in the way that anyone would greet a local, especially by the traditional women.  Men usually try out their english skills with thoughtful and creative statements, often shouted from a distance, such as "Heeeellllooo, girlfreeeend," or "I loooove you!"  But, when a women, dressed head to toe in kanga (more on that later) greets with "Hijambo, dada!" it's an honor.

The kanga, a cloth rectangle about six by four feet, often colorful and including a border and swahili proverb, is right up there with the bucket when it comes to an ultimate multitasker.  Women wear them as shirts, skirts, belts, head coverings, and all in about a thousand different ways.  Babies are tied to their mothers using kanga, and a rolled up kanga, coiled on top of the head provides a cushion for a heavy water bucket.  They're beautiful, come in many colors and patterns (there's even a Barack Obama kanga) and I've already bought four...though one needs to be careful, as the proverbs aren't always nice and salesmen looking for a sale will always tell you that it says something sweet.  I had one of mine translated after I bought it (the man said that it meant, "Thank you, Mama").  Its real meaning? "If you don't like me anymore, get rid of me."  Close.

We're off on safari tomorrow!  We'll leave after placement in the afternoon and drive six hours on dusty roads to the Udzungwa Mountains, a rainforest mountain range in the center of the country.  We'll stay one night there, then hike through the forest on Friday.  After lunch, we'll drive to Mikumi Park, where we'll stay at a tented camp (permanent tents with full furnishings inside - no Coleman camp tents here).  The previous visitors awoke to an elephant outside their tent!  The tents are suspended on a raised platform, with plumbing and an electric generator, so it's safe.  We'll do a few game drives on Friday afternoon, Saturday, and Sunday morning before returning to Bagamoyo.  I'm so looking forward to seeing more of the country and, with any luck, elephants, giraffes, and lions!

Wonder if they have a "My friend went on safari and all I got was this lousy kanga" kanga...

Monday, July 26, 2010

Zanzibar, Speed bumps, and Home for now

I’m not really sure if it was incredibly fortuitous that I met Kennedy the way that I did upon my arrival, or if I’ll end up having to sacrifice a goat to repay him for the benefit of his connections. Either way, the guy pulls some serious strings. On Friday afternoon, we all piled into a van and headed toward the Dar ferry. Along the way, Kennedy and his rather imposing breath, gave me instructions and details about this trip and our safari, which we will do this weekend.

The highway (again, use the term loosely) to Dar is a paved, two lane road. In theory, Tanzanians drive on the left side of the road, though many apparently get bored with that arrangement and simply drive down the wrong side of the road until a large truck forces the driver into the correct lane. There is a speed limit, though I think that most regard it as a minimum speed requirement. The government’s response? Speed bumps. In the middle of a highway. Usually there are sets of smallish speed bumps, a bit of a warning speed bump, followed by a “speed mountain” – a speed bump about three feet high and ten feet wide. We all joke about the number of people who’ve launched themselves into the future over such bumps. Sense a little foreshadowing here? Read on.

As we enter the outskirts of Dar, it is suggested to stop at ShopRite, a supermarket where some of the western foods that we all crave can be found. We enter the store and are welcomed by a blast of air conditioning and fluorescent lighting. I look around at what, for the most part, looks like any supermarket back home (aside from the armed guard stationed at the door). I really, truly wanted to hug something. So, we wander and grab a few things while whistling along to the piped-in overhead music: Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler”.

After fighting typical Dar traffic, we arrive at an incredibly frenetic ferry terminal. Kennedy collects all of our passports and payment and disappears. In hindsight, not the best choice, but we went with it. He returns to the car, hands us each our passports and a ferry ticket and me two stapled envelopes: one for the driver that would meet us in Zanzibar and the other for the hotel. He directs us out of the car. As he had on that first day through the airport, Kennedy leads us in a way that seems anything but the conventional method. We pass the huge line of people waiting to board. Another direct to “stay here”. Another disappearance and reappearance. We are escorted to an empty platform, passing all of those already in line, and receiving more than a few glares for it. When the gate is opened and the massive crowd begins to push its way onto the dock, Kennedy says something to each of the dock workers as we pass and move quickly to the front of the crowd. We walk as fast as we can to follow him as he talks us past each checkpoint. Finally, he stops, waves, and we are on the boat to Zanzibar, wondering how much he pays off each of those workers to allow us to get by so quickly.

Upon arrival in Stone Town, we are greeted by our driver, Juma (and his ear-piercing ringtone – a screeching cat) and escorted to another van. We drive, much in the same manner as on the mainland (drive fast, honk often, and utilize the “special imaginary center lane” when needed) for about an hour north to the tip of the island, Pemba.

We check into our hotel, hand over the envelopes, and split into our rooms before meeting for dinner. As seems to always be the case in Tanzania, our hotel looks much better in the dark, but is relatively clean and has hot – well, lukewarm – showers. The group is kind enough to buy me dinner for being the “cruise director” and we enjoy a meal of pizza (yes, with CHEESE) while watching the dance floor heat up. It was strange, to see other wazungu (plural for mzungu). The music, an interesting mix of Celine Dion, Journey, Madonna, and Shakira, along with the collection of Europeans and Americans, make us all suddenly feel as though we could be on any generic island, anywhere in the world. We all sort of miss Africa. As the dance party heats up, we grab a drink, leave the bar and walk down to the water where it’s quiet, talk a bit, and – one by one – trickle off to our rooms to sleep.

A little R & R
Saturday consists of breakfast and lounging on the beach. After dinner, some of us walk over to Kendwa Rocks (a nearby hotel) to experience their famous Full Moon party. It is quite possibly the largest collection of people from all over the world, packed in a small area, dancing and celebrating that I’ve ever seen. Men, dressed as Masai in their red garments and facial piercings, dance along side us and quite resemble the creepy guys that slink up next to women in any club in the states. We wonder though, if they’re authentic Masai, or just local guys who like the attention that they get from tourists and only put on the outfit to get the ladies. So…we rename them “Fasai”.

Stone Town street
Sunday, we ride back down to Stone Town. Along the way, we pass through small villages and can see and smell long strips of cloth laid out, with piles of cloves, cardamom, and cinnamon spread on them to dry. When I come back to Zanzibar, I’d love to do a spice tour. It was the original Spice Island, with spices being a major export, along with the slaves brought from the mainland port of Bagamoyo.
We split up and wander through the labyrinthine streets, most wide enough only for three people to walk side by side and certainly not wide enough for a car. We photograph the intricately carved doors and balconies before finding a rooftop terrace restaurant to relax for a bit and see the city from above. The call to prayer is heard, from one mosque and then a few more, like an echo from all sides. It’s haunting and beautiful.

After a quick lunch and a bit of a race to the ferry terminal, (this is where those expensive “temporary resident permits” come in handy, as it allows us to simply tell the guy that we have them and skip immigration) we make it back on the ferry and take our Dramamine just in time. I fall asleep, listening to my iPod and take no notice of the many around me turning green due to the rough waters. After arrival and the crush of people pushing off of the boat, we are greeted again by Kennedy, who hands us off to our driver before telling me he’ll be back in Baga tomorrow to collect money for our safari. With a “Let’s a-wock and woll!” from our driver, we fight Dar traffic before speeding up on the open road.

The van is quiet until Brooke, sitting in the front seat, asks the driver, “Does it sound like there’s something under the car?”

“Yes. I shall stop and look.”

After lifting up the front seat to expose the engine and pulling out a shredded belt of some sort, he proclaims, “I think it might be of importance,” shrugs, gets back in the car, and we continue down the road….until he slams on the brakes just in time to hit a “speed mountain” at roughly 45 mph. Imagine a Toyota passenger van in the Dukes of Hazzard with a driver who giggles at all of our screams and says, “I sorry I shake you.” I’m still convinced that the front bumper of the van is imbedded in the asphalt where we touched down.

Alas, we arrive “home” safely, recap our weekend over tea while applying aloe vera to our sunburns and stumble to bed, ready for another week.

Famous carved doors of Zanzibar
This morning Sheila, another volunteer, summed it up for me – she said, “I think that you have to leave here and return before it feels like home.” It’s true. Women that I know, at CCS, Mwasama, and the internet cafe greet me with dada (sister). Walking to and from placement today and seeing familiar faces made me feel as if Baga is a bit of a home – for now.

I was able to see the library today. Up a questionable staircase into an attic with squeaking floorboards, past some defunct old computer parts, and a few tables, I found one bookshelf with a few books on it. There are literally less than twenty books for a school of almost four hundred. Zik is in Arusha until tomorrow. I’m hoping to meet with him and the owner of Mwasama by early next week to discuss a literacy program or simply a way to incorporate literature into some of the free time of kids at Mwasama. I’m not sure how it will look, but think that it’s feasible.

Me and a few kids from Mwasama
Students at Mwasama had a lot of free time today, as teachers are busy scoring the exams from last week. So, I wander from group to group, playing and talking with them. One group of boys turn practicing math facts into a game, all squatting in a circle and writing out math problems in the sand, looking to me for approval after each problem. The younger kids race to give me a high five – “Nipe Tano!!” After a while, we walk with the kids over to the “stadium” – really a large, open field that includes three makeshift soccer fields. At one point, I sit under a large coconut tree until another teacher points up to the coconut, hits the top of his head with his hand to imitate a coconut falling on me, and suggests that I move.

Tips to survival in Tanzania – most learned the hard way:
* Never assume that a vehicle will stop for you.
* If it doesn’t look familiar, don’t eat it.
* When possible, avoid using your left hand, especially to greet someone of honor.
* Don’t sit under a coconut tree.
* When walking down the street, don’t be surprised if you step on a tooth – a human tooth.
* When asked “How are you? (Habari),” don’t reply with “Have a nice sleep! (Lala salama).” It doesn’t go over well.
* Laugh. At yourself. A lot.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Finding my rhythm

Yesterday, as I left the gate of summer house, I ran into a teacher from Mwasama.  He called me over to a small mud hut.  Inside, was an elderly toothless woman with a small fire, over which was a pot with a boiling liquid.  Offering me a chipped tea cup full of a brownish liquid, Saif explained that it was a ginger drink and that he had it every morning.  Turning down food is not polite, so I had a teeny tiny sip.  It wasn't that bad...and I'm still standing.  The morning had begun. Later, while riding through town in the van on my way to Mwasama, I realized that I’ve fallen into a bit of a routine and feel much more settled.   I hardly flinched when we had to stop because of a donkey, sleeping in the middle of the road.  Yes, there are things that I’m working on getting used to, as well as some that I doubt I ever will, but all in all I’m adjusting well.  I never doubted that this journey would have its difficult moments; I just never anticipated exactly how and why those moments would occur.   The days have begun to meld, one into another, and I realize that two weeks have passed. 

The past few days at Mwasama have been exam days for the students.  All desks, tables, and chairs are spread throughout the grounds, anywhere but inside a classroom.  Tests are handed out, and students quietly get to work.  Yesterday, I was able to sit down with a few of the teachers and discuss strategies and ideas.  It was wonderful, feeling as though we were able to share what works best with kids, regardless of where they are.  Marianna, a teacher originally from Bulgaria but who has been living in Tanzania for thirteen years, was able to become a bit of a bridge of sorts for me.  We discussed at length the curriculum and plans for teaching students english.  Most primary schools are taught in Swahili, while secondary schools are taught in English, as are the tests required to enter secondary school.  A major problem in Tanzania is the English fluency required to pass the secondary school exams.  Mwasama is one of very few primary schools where English is the language used, so most of its students go on to secondary education. 

In chatting with Marianna, I learned that there is no literature instruction, in either Swahili or English, at any primary level school.  Can you imagine elementary school without stories?  Part of the problem is a lack of books, part is the understanding of the effects that reading for pleasure has on fluent literacy development.  At lunch today, I asked Zik (the CCS coordinator) to schedule a meeting with Mwasama’s owner so that we can discuss some sort of literature/literacy exchange program.  So, I’m hoping to brainstorm this weekend some ideas to present that are feasible and sustainable. 

Anyone who’s spent time in a third world country knows that it’s considered decidedly uncouth to do anything of significance with one’s left hand.  Eating, shaking hands, or handing someone something with the left hand is not a good way to make friends.  I’m working on being more conscious of this.  So, when I was offered a handful of peanuts today, I was proud to remember to receive them in my right hand.  I was left, sitting there faced with a bit of a conundrum…
Is it worse to keep the pile in my right hand and eat with my “bad” hand, or to keep the pile in my “bad” hand and eat with my right?

I finally decided on a bit of a combo – switching as needed.  So, whether they think I’m filthy or not, I’m pretty certain that they think I’m a little off.  My peanut problem was interrupted, however when Mzee, pontificating in Swahili as usual, broke away from his stern, macho demeanor.

“Who let zee doogs out?” he yelled out across the courtyard, as I nearly spit a peanut through my nose.

The small first graders ran toward him, yelling “Who? Who? Who?” in response.  Priceless.

We’re off to Zanzibar this afternoon.  It should be quite a marathon.  Remember my new best friend Kennedy from my arrival?  He showed up a few days after I got here and handed me quotes for a Zanzibar trip and a safari.  Since I was the connection, I accidentally became official cruise director for our group.  He’ll pick us up in a bit, drive us to Dar (with a quick stop at the ATM, as the only one in Baga has been out of money for a week…TIA), and drop us on the ferry.  Assuming we arrive in one piece (the Dramamine’s already packed), there will hopefully be a driver there to pick us up and take us to the northern tip of the island to our hotel.  We’ll have all day Saturday to relax in the sun.  Sunday, we’ll spend the day in Stone Town before getting back on the ferry and returning to Baga, exhausted but full of stories, I’m sure.  I know that I’ve been terrible about posting pics, but it drastically increases the cost of internet time, so I’ll try to get some up next week.

One thing that I adore about Africa is a sort of matter-of-fact innocence of its people.  As I left Mwasama yesterday, Shegren and I chatted.  I watched the chickens wander through the courtyard and realized how strange it will be to return home where chickens don’t wander freely.

“You sure have a lot of chickens here.”
“Don’t you have zee cheecken in America, Wembah?”
“Not walking around like this.”
“What do you do for dinner?  Does your neighbor have chicken?”

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Jitihada haishindi kudura

Another cool, sunny morning.  I slept well - couldn't keep my eyes open much past ten pm.  Before bed, some other volunteers who've been here for seven or more weeks and I chatted - about the inevitable frustration we've all experienced, about comical "mzungu" moments, about life in general.  We talked about the inevitable frustration of cultural assimilation and of the true meaning and impact of this exposure, to all parties concerned.  It was nice to learn that my feelings have been echoed by many and that it passes, to an extent.  The multi-faceted issues of volunteering in a new culture, especially one for which the concept of volunteering is both foreign and misunderstood, make feeling useful somewhat elusive.  At the same time, I must understand that, for a people used to tradition and focused mainly on day-to-day survival, seeing foreigners who already, by their very presence are wealthy beyond comprehension, walk around working for free is cause for consternation.

As always seems to be the case, a message of inspiration and rejuvenated sense of purpose came to me this morning, when it was most needed and from a most surprising source.  Saif, an older, quiet sage of a teacher at Mwsama who seemed rather annoyed with me yesterday, approached me and greeted me.  After talking about our families and his children, he is 52 with three grown children and a few grandchildren, he asked about my family and hopes for my own future.  Then, he asked to borrow my notebook and pen.  He squinted his eyes in concentration as he wrote, very carefully.  When finished, he placed the notebook back into my lap and said, "Swahili wise saying."

Jitihada haishindi kudura.

He helped me pronounce the words and encouraged me to repeat them until my pronunciation was satisfactory.  Under the swahili words was the translation:

"Whatever the efforts you are doing - God's ability is the last."

He smiled as he repeated the meaning in english, again and again.

"You see, you try as much as you can.  Then, you must let go. Hakuna matata."

He grabbed my hand.  I looked into his eyes with my own, now somewhat watery.

"Asante sana. I needed that."

Monday, July 19, 2010

From the mind of a blundering idiot...

Sunday in Africa.  The bright blue sky of Saturday has become overcast and the temperature lower, a relief.  The pace of life slows as it does in the states.  Walking through the streets, I see people on the way to church, or gathering water, or burning trash.  I'm continually amazed at the strength of women's necks.  A girl, no older than thirteen or fourteen, strains over the weight of buckets of water, one in hand and one on her head.  The basic way of life is both beautiful and complicated to my western eyes.

After breakfast and an unexpected rain shower, a few of us meander through town.  I stop in at AMAP.  Pili has my dress almost done, I try it on and am amazed at how a few suggestions of style and length were interpreted so beautifully.  We continue down the cobblestone street near the beach and see two teachers from Mwasama before saying hello to Rasti at his art shop. 

On down the beach to Millenium (a hotel), we grab a drink and relax to chat about social or cultural faux pas we've all committed since arriving.  I've never adequately understood how difficult it is to integrate into a new society.  The inevitable lag time between a greeting given, my comprehension and retrieval of an appropriate response, and delivery of said response, is maddening.  I often respond with an inappropriate phrase...

"Very good, thank you."


"You are welcome here."
"Hello. You are welcome."

We're all pretty certain that most locals think of us as blundering idiots at this point.  Many of the people who greet me along the route from the summer house to the main house are accustomed to following their greeting with the appropriate response, which I then repeat with a grateful nod and resigned smile before continuing on. 

This morning, I entered the gates of Mwasama to begin my second week.  All students were gathered in the center courtyard for a morning chant of some sort, followed by the beautiful sounds of the Tanzanian national anthem.  I greeted each of the teachers and began to teach my class.  As I strained to understand the english of the students and attempted to keep my skirt dry (the concrete floor had been overtaken by a large puddle), I realized how exhausting it can be to be constantly comprehending and making sense of a world and a language unfamiliar.  I know that I will never again be imaptient when I encounter someone who is learning the english language.  I know how they feel.

During tea time, Mzee, a teacher and self-proclaimed Tanzanian patriot, stood and spoke to other teachers with force and conviction.  Others replied, all in words unknown to me.  It's lonely, in a world where the familiar is so very far away.  I never thought that this process would be easy, but I didn't anticipate the shear exhaustion and frustration - with myself, with the way of communications, with the complexity of simple tasks. 

Needles to say, I'm looking forward to our trip to Zanzibar this weekend.  There's word of hot showers.  Say it ain't so...

Saturday, July 17, 2010

This is Africa

Every moment I see something that would make a wonderful story if only I could take a picture.  I'm wishing that I had a camera installed in my retina at this point... I wish that it was more accepted to take pictures of adults here, so you could see what I'm seeing.  Some sights make me want to cry, while others (and there are more of these) have me laughing constantly at the ridiculousness of it all.

An average day starts at sunrise.  We walk to the main house for breakfast at 6:30am (all meals are eaten outside under a covered area).  Breakfast is consistently an egg of some sort, crepes (minus real butter or powdered sugar), fresh fruit, juice, and beans.  We usually sit around and talk a great deal about food that we miss.  It's official:  We all miss cheese terribly.

After breakfast, we are piled into a CCS van and driven through Baga to our placement sites, which vary from HIV/AIDS clinics, to schools and orphanages, to adult learning centers.  After arriving at Mwasama and greeting the other teachers, I head to my classes.  The group I spend the most time with are the Grade Three children.  They're a bit of a challenge, but we're making great strides.  They all seem to have learned my name:  Madam Wembah (Amber's a tad difficult for many).  I'm grateful when the wind cooperates and the room's not full of smoke from the kitchen.  When a student from another, higher grade needs a chair, he or she simply walks in and takes one, regardless of its current occupation.  So, I'm left with a few students standing until they ask me if they can go down to the Grade Two class and unseat - quite literally - someone else.  Pencils are an absolute rarity and the acquisition of one is often accomplished with a bite or a slap.  My new favorite swahili word:  Acha! (stop).

After tea time, I'm usually finished, so I walk back toward town and stop in on other placements.  Next week, I'll likely do some assisting at AMAP (African Modern Arts Project) with other volunteers.  The purpose:  to provide day care and art education to street children.  The art that results is stunning.  Pili, the wife of Saidi and the mother of baby Barack (yep, after the Prez), is an incredible seamstress.  Most volunteers have clothing or other items made by her while here.

Eventually, we head back to the main house for lunch, followed by swahili lessons and a lecture or other cultural excursion or activity.  Dinner is at 6:30 and we're free for the rest of the evening.  The food here is excellent, though very carb rich.  We all joke about thinking that we'd lose weight in Africa...

On Thursday afternoon, we had our first feedback session as volunteers.  We were encouraged to share our thoughts and frustrations about placements.  It seems that many are struggling to comprehend and process all that we are seeing and doing.  I knew coming into this that I'd be merely a drop in the bucket but that it is the continuous supply of a volunteer chain of which I'm only one link that does the most good.  What I wasn't prepared for were the cultural differences in philosophy, thinking, and simply getting things done.

Example:  Because Baga is 70km from Dar and has no fire department, when something starts on fire, it burns down.  A fire truck is often dispatched from Dar but never gets here in time.  Last year, the District Commissioner bought a fire truck.  It's shiny, it's new, it's useless.  Why?  No one knows how to drive it.  So, it sits, under a carport in the center of town.  When we asked, during our visit to the district commissioners office, we were told, "It's a very long process.  We are selecting."

The same general philosophy applies to everything, thus the saying, "This is Africa", or TIA.  I'm learning to say it early and often, for things both frustrating and sublime.

After a mini-meltdown over my frustrations, we were off for a game of soccer with the CCS staff...

I don't play soccer.  I never have played soccer.  I think one of the reasons I was swept up in the recent World Cup fever was more about the sudden acceptance of being in a bar at 7:30am than it was about the intricacies of the game.  But, when in Africa (and attempting to burn off the roughly 12.2 pounds of rice I've eaten in the past week)...

There I was, ME, playing soccer with a bunch of people born with a ball attached.  Even Mama Thea played...the woman's got her own cleats!  The field was a mix of hills, sand, and scrub, not the most desirable playing field.  On one side of the field, a school was let out for the afternoon.  On the other, a Masai herded his cattle.  I stopped and thought and smiled to myself, "Ridiculous." 

So, after a rather hilarious attempt at the game, we took a water break.  I heard a strange noise coming from inside the van.  Tuma (one of the night guards), emerged carrying a live chicken.

"Is anyone else noticing Tuma and that chicken?"
"Eet is a game, Wembah.  We will catch zee chicken."
"Er, what?"

The chicken was released, and chased, and caught.  I've not laughed so hard in, well, ever.

After becoming extremely sweaty and dusty, we walked back to the summer house.  I made my first, and feeble attempt at laundry in a bucket.  It didn't go well.  After placing all of my items in said bucket, filling it with water and soap.  I stared.  What next?  Do I just stir it around?  It was bad.  I'll be paying the neighbor lady to do it from now on.  Dinner that night was at the Hillside Bar, a buffet with, yep...chicken.

So you see, it all seems a bit ridiculous here.  I've started paying attention to the t-shirts that I see along the road, many quite obviously started their existence on a frat boy or a kid in the states.  Some of my favorites:

* Support our Troops (with a Canadian flag)
* Virginia is for Lovers
* WWE Smackdown
* Puerto Vallarta
* Vote for Pedro

And my personal fave...  "My Nana is a biker".

More and more often, I see my students out and about.  Yesterday after lunch, a group of us walked through town.  I bought some fabric, then took it to Pili and ordered some things made.  She has three other seamstresses working with her, all bent over old-fashioned pedal-run sewing machines.  They can make anything!  We wandered down past the fish market.  The boats had just come in and a crowd assembled on the beach to buy their fish.  I heard a faint, "Madam...Madam Wembah" before I turned and saw shy smiles.  It felt good...like I'm becoming a small part of the community.

We continued down the beach, stopping at a small hotel for a pineapple Fanta before heading back for dinner.  There's a music festival at the arts college (and they use the term "college" loosely) this weekend.  Some of our group are off on safari or to Zanzibar, so those of us who remain went to Baga Point for a Tusker beer before going to see the music.  After ordering from a window, we found some plastic chairs around a table.  The stars were brilliant and the talk mostly surrounded the oddities of our day, our lives back home, or what we'll eat for our first meal back.  We had to talk loud due to the deafening croak of nearby bullfrogs.  Eventually, we continued on toward the theater.

While crossing the field in anticipation of authentic african music and dance, I heard the first thump of bass coming toward us from the theater...  followed by the scream of an electric guitar.  Something was familiar here.  A female voice, flowed across the field, in english, "I love rock and roll, put another dime in the jukebox, baby!"


Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Welllllcome Teeeeee-cha!

Finally, a decent night's sleep.  I woke this morning and listened - roosters crowed, the Islamic call to prayer, to the sounds of our neighbor building her morning fire so she could cook breakfast.  The air here is always heavy with the smoke of cooking fires, or worse, fires used to burn trash and plastic.  I'm already planning one fire when I get home, to burn my clothes.

On Wednesday, two teachers from my volunteer placement, Godfrey and Shegren from Mwasama came to CCS for lunch.  After a few questions about my education experience came questions about my marital status.  I'd been warned that this is often a question asked of new friends.  When I told them a bit about my life and my house, the two men looked at one another, chattered something in swahili, looked back at me in disbelief, and asked, "You have your own house?  By yourself? Did you build it?"

Today, I decided to walk to the main house by myself for breakfast.  After leaving the gate and stepping out into the dirt pathway, saying good morning to the toddlers running toward me in bare feet, yelling, "Mambo!  Goot mo-ahh-neeeeng!" I was on my way with a smile on my face.

I followed a young girl on her way to school, her navy blue skirt bouncing with each step, her red shirt wrinkled up behind her tiny green plastic backpack.  She turned off at the next street.  Another young girl passed, looked at me and said, "Shikamoo" - the swahili greeting for someone in a position of respect.  I smiled and chided myself for not recalling the obligatory response of "Marahaba" (I accept).  I won't forget that one again.  I grabbed my greetings cheat sheet out of my backpack and continued on my way, dodging a rooster after a rather unhappy hen, and nearly got run over by a motorcycle. With the extremely narrow streets, bordered closely by extremely deep ditches and lack of ANY pedestrian right-of-way plus the insane motorcycle drivers, I take my life in my own hands every time I walk anywhere.

This morning, Chief (the head of Mwsama Primary School) asked me about how we get our water in America (Ah-mer-eee-ka). This led to the discussion of sanitation. I attempted, rather poorly, to explain trash collection (you try explaining a robotic arm that picks up a large bucket from the side of the road) while keeping one eye on a roach the size of a rat (which I saw yesterday) crawling along the wall. I've become rather used to the interesting bugs here, all of which are much larger than your run-of-the-mill American insect. Spiders don't seem to enjoy being inside much, which is fantastic, considering that most have a body about the size of my thumb, legs that stretch out to well over the size of my entire hand, and webs that cover distances of six to seven feet across. They seem to prefer trees. Thank God.

When Maddy and I arrived for my first day at Mwasama yesterday, we entered a dirt courtyard about 20 yards by 20 yards.  Under a few trees sat three small tables.  At each table, one to two teachers checked piles of makeshift notebooks.  After a few introductions, I met Manuel, aka Chief Casanga.  He led me into a room containing a few old wooden wardrobes, a table holding a few notebooks and a box of chalk, and a large easel with a handwritten schedule on it.  This, I determined was the teachers' office.  At least that's what was written, in chalk, on the door.  This room, like all other classrooms at Mwasama, has crumbling painted walls, concrete floors, windows that contain metal grates instead of glass, and no overhead lights.  After figuring out what I'll be teaching and/or assisting, we were off for a tour.

Chief and I entered each classroom. Students immediately stood and began a synchronized chant in swahili that ended in english with, "Welllcome teeeecha!"  Classrooms are small, some little more than oversized closets, chalkboards are literally slabs of what looks like raised concrete painted green on the wall, walls crumble, students share chairs, tables, benches.  The primary students, of course, were eager to give me a fist bump a la Obama.  Older students pretty much gave me the same once-over I'd probably receive from adolescents in the states.  It's a pretty small school, with one classroom for each grade, nursery (kindergarten) through 7th.  As such, it's easy to find my way around, especially considering that the third grade classroom is in the room clearly and conveniently labeled, "Grade Five," the fifth grade classroom in the room labeled, “Grade One”, and so on.  Upon leaving the fifth grade room, Chief Casanga asked the teacher, "What happened to your door?" as he noticed it, completely off of its hinges and leaning against the wall.  No one knew, so he shrugged and we continued out the door, around some roosters, and on with our tour. The outdoor kitchen is off to one side, under a thatch roof, awith smoke constantly pouring from it. The perimeter of the school is lined with clotheslines and (of course) stacks of buckets.

Students stay in the same classroom all day long, with teachers rotating through. At ten o'clock, a hand bell rings and students pour out into the center courtyard for break. Teachers congregate under the tree, around the tables in the sand. On one table, a tray of tea cups, a thermos, and a container of rolls.  Another passdown from colonial times - tea time - which, by the way, I’m considering instituting at my school this fall. We sit with the other teachers and discuss the American and Tanzanian education systems, joke, and generally chat.  They ask about salary, schedule, working conditions, and students...and of course, my marital status.

“Madame Ahmbah, are you married?”
“No. Not yet.”
“Why not?”
“I guess I talk too much.”
“You talk too much? Ohhhh, that's bad.”

This, followed by questions regarding how I view children and how many I'd like to have, is a rather typical conversation with the majority male teachers. The few female teachers are a little more quiet, but seem to be slowly warming up to me. As the conversation fades, I watch. Children play soccer with an empty plastic bottle instead of a ball. Most don't wear shoes, but none seem to mind. Their uniforms are ripped and stained, though that doesn't bother them, either. Other, older students stay in their classroom and dance. I'm sweating like a pig, and they're wearing sweaters! Another bell.  Students run toward the makeshift kitchen under a thatch roof each carrying a plastic mug.  Porridge time. As tea time ends and I walk over to the spigot to rinse my cup, I hear a voice. “Madam.” I look around, not sure where the voice comes from. I hear it again and look through the screen of the grade seven window. A large smile and eyes look at me... A smile and a wave are returned before I head back to the teachers' office to grab my chalk and walk to the grade three room to teach some English.

After Mwasama, we walk to downtown Baga and visit other volunteers at their placements. I meet dreadlocked Rasti (I’m pretty sure that his real name is Matthew) at his tiny hut where he paints incredible pieces of art. We continue down through the fish market after a stop at a small art school where street children are taught and wander onto the beach. The tide is out, so the large fishing dhows list to their sides on the sand. Fishermen are hard at work, repairing and loading boats. It’s clear that this scene has changed little for hundreds of years. Because of the gradual slope of the beach, we can walk out quite far, turn around, and see the ships, German ruins (evidence of former occupation), fishermen, and a few hotels. On the way back in, I ask a few fishermen standing on the side of a listed boat if I can take their picture. They say no. Most locals aren't too fond of having their picture taken, the belief being that I'll sell it and make money. I can respect it, but wish I could show you the beauty of this entire culture. We continue through Stone Town, the older part of Baga. I see a Maasai in traditional costume, passing time as so many Tanzanians do, sitting on a doorstep, greeting and watching passersby.

Baga is a very arts-oriented community. It is home to a well-known center for African arts and dance, so many artisans call it home. Yesterday afternoon, we were able to visit some of the most famous Bagamoyo residents. The Zawosi family consists of children, cousins, and grandchildren of Dr. Zawosi, a tribal polygamist from the Dodoma region of Tanzania. He began performing traditional dance and music with his family many years ago. Today, the family all lives together in a sort of compound where they make their own instruments and perform all over the world. Watching them perform was incredible. All family members took part and many different instruments were used. Women drummed and danced, children even had their moment in the spotlight. Each took a turn flipping and shaking. After one boy got a huge response with a few hip thrusts, the boys pushed one another aside to repeat the thrust in hopes of gaining our approval. Kids truly are the same everywhere on Earth.

This afternoon, we had a speaker from the local secondary school come to chat with us about education.  Only about twenty percent of the population completes secondary school.  She wants me to come to meet with her and her teachers next week to discuss teaching strategies and reading achievement.  I'm excited.  A doctor (one of only three MD's in Bagamoyo district, population 290,000) also came to share about local health issues.  Fifteen percent of local residents are afflicted with HIV/AIDS.  A child dies every five minutes from malaria.  Both are easily avoided with simple, inexpensive (and often offered free-of-charge by NGOs and the Tanzanian government).  I find that the unseen or unconsidered cultural issues blocking advancement run deep.  It's maddening and somewhat disheartening...but at least I'm trying.  Or something like that.

So, while I found myself tired and somewhat frustrated with myself and the obvious cultural roadblocks in education and healthcare today, I know that I'm here for a reason. Each day has been full of experience, both amazing, and difficult. When I'm tired, I miss home. I'd kill for a cheeseburger right about now. But, when children approach me with a smile or a greeting, or I laugh with new friends, I know that this time will begin to speed up and will someday be but a memory. Getting used to a new culture is shocking and overwhelming. What is normally simple becomes complicated and what seems complicated becomes superfluous. I know that I'm learning and can't ever look at my life and my world the same way.

Don't worry, Mom...I've no plans to start doing my laundry in a bucket on the front steps.