What’s Up, America?

First of all, I’d like to say I’m sorry for dropping off of the face of the earth. I thought about blogging almost every day since leaving the village, and life just got away from me. I used to roll my eyes when I was in Tanzania and Americans said that, yet here I am.

As you might have guessed, I left Mambegu and completed my service. My last week was incredible, but also exhausting and stressful. I was replaced by a male volunteer named Steve who is just an amazing human being. I introduced him to people, he was my paparazzi at my going away parties, he kept asking me if I needed to cry and strangely I didn’t, and we had the world’s weirdest 3 person dance party with my 60 year old neighbor. Then I boarded a bus with two bags and headed to Dar Es Salaam to close out my service. I had three days of medical and dental examinations as well as administrative things to take care of, and it was nothing short of exciting: I acquired an amoeba during the last year of my service!

So that little guy was living with me for a while, and I actually took him on my trip with me through Europe and back home since Peace Corps couldn’t offer me the medication I needed. I got attached of course, but eventually it was time for him to go.

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So here I am, back in Vermont. I traveled through the Balkans and Eastern Europe for three weeks before coming home, and have been home now for about a month and a half and let me tell you…it is WEIRD. Coming back to the US has been the second hardest part of Peace Corps for me, preceded only by the first three months at site in 2016. It is a bit difficult for me to even understand, but it has been challenging to process the ways in which those back home have moved on. It definitely felt like there was no longer room for me in the lives of those I cared the most about, because their lives had changed so much, they had developed new relationships while I was away, and their daily lives look different. Because of this, my idea that my life would look exactly the same as soon as I moved back home was shattered, and I found myself just as lonely as I had in Tanzania. Luckily Peace Corps taught me to be good at being lonely. I also had to recognize that as much as I want to be, I am not the same person I was before I left for Tanzania. I have grown in many ways, my interests are different, and how I perceive the world around me has drastically changed. Another challenge has been with cultural differences and false realities that I am still holding onto. For example, I still get nervous when I am alone with a man that I don’t know, such as in a grocery store aisle or if I see a man coming toward me on the sidewalk. I have trouble making eye contact with men I don’t know, and I’m hyper aware of this and trying to change my behavior. I also still continue to curtsy when I shake someone’s hand, and I definitely still quickly raise my eyebrows to answer someone affirmatively rather than just saying “yes.” I am socially awkward, I maybe come off as an unhappy snob to those who don’t know what I’m going through, but I am trying to work through these things, and laugh at myself in the mean time.

Before signing off completely from this blog, I want to answer the questions you all asked me back in March.

“Have you come across any of the stone circles I read about?”- Trevor P

No, I didn’t. I unfortunately didn’t get to explore Tanzania as much as I had hoped, due to the work I was doing in the village and also finances.

“Will you ever go back to visit, and can I come with???”- Neal P

Oh hey, Dad! I would love to go back to visit. When I look at pictures I get emotional, and I miss my village much more than I expected to. I would like to go back before my swahili completely disappears, and if life works that way, yes you can come with me 🙂

“What’s the short term future look like?”- Ali W

Tomorrow I begin the season at Shelburne Farms working as a farm based educator. I did this four years ago and loved it so much, so figured it was the perfect post-PC job. Following that, I will be moving to a permanent position as Assistant Farm Director with Wardensville Garden Market, an incredible nonprofit serving Appalachian youth in West Virginia. I am beyond excited and feel great about where life is taking me, even though WV wasn’t necessarily in the plan.

“What are the biggest pieces of village life/Tanzania life that you hope to take with you?”- Rebekah P

Conversation, connection, and kindness. I learned to love sitting with someone and talking to them for hours, and I now constantly crave that connection. Most Americans can’t indulge me, but for the few that can, I also want to be a strong, kind, and attentive communicator for them. We need human connection, and no one does it better than Tanzanians. So if anyone wants to sit and chat with me for hours on end, hit me up.

“What were your biggest challenges with the culture and which food were the easiest to get used to?” -Noni M

My biggest challenge with the culture was sexism. It infiltrated every aspect of life in Tanzania, and really affected my personal experience. There were simple things, like not being able to wear pants in the village and having to wrap myself in a kanga every time I went for a run or left my house, to more complex things, like harassment, sexual assaults, and men telling me to my face that I can’t do certain agricultural work because I’m female. Sometimes men wouldn’t even look at me or have a conversation with me. People in my village would call my male friends doctors (they definitely are not doctors) yet question whether I could be teaching about reproductive health. So, gender issues and sexism were a very real and prominent part of my experience. But, it led me to do the majority of my work with women and girls, which are the memories I value the most from my experience. I also served on the USAWA gender committee so that I could be involved with creating programs and trainings that addressed these issues and taught volunteers how to engage with these issues in their villages.

As far as food goes, Tanzanian cuisine is bland. I ate more rice and beans than I ever imagined possible, and the main meal eaten, sometimes three times per day, is ugali (stiff corn porridge, similar to thick grits you can eat with your hands) and beans or greens. The most difficult part of Tanzanian food for me was lack of diversity. I would always crave something different but had no access to it. We are incredibly lucky in the US to have so many cuisines to choose from.

I want to thank you all so much for all of the support over the past two and a half years. It kept me going and meant more to me than you will ever know. It has been a wild ride, and I can’t believe it’s over. I’m going to head to the gym, because I can do that now, and I’ll take a hot shower after, because I can do that now, too. Don’t take this life for granted, friends.

Sending you all so much love.

 

two year

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Packing and Processing

This morning I had a fight with my backpack. I’ve told myself I’m only allowed to take one backpack home, nothing else. I found myself wrestling with the damn thing, tugging zippers, forcing the fabric to stretch, just so I could squeeze my favorite basket, which someone bought me at the church auction during my first week in the village, into the bottom. It took half an hour and a lot of muscle and willpower, but I got the basket into the pack, and then I sat on my bed and cried. It was partly a stress dream I had just woken up from, one of several I’ve been having for the past week, it was partly out of frustration that my bedroom looks like it’s exploding and I have less than a week to clean it for the new volunteer, it’s partly that I feel this last week is rushing and time is not my own, and it’s mostly that I’m not prepared for the transition ahead of me.

During this past week I’ve been carrying so much anger inside of me. I confided in a good friend today that I feel so guilty about it, but every little thing truly sets me off. I feel annoyed at the people around me, I have anger towards things that they do and say, and I am angry at myself for feeling this way. She explained to me that these feelings are normal, because for two years we have lived in a culture so vastly different from our own, had to learn a new language, had to hide parts of ourselves (from our knees and shoulders to our emotions and identities), had to fake a smile in uncomfortable situations when what we’re truly wanting is to go home and be treated like a human being while eating some freakin’ ice cream for crying out loud! Now, we see the end in sight (in a mere 6 days!), and we’re beginning to want to return to ourselves, and that disconnect makes us feel strange and confused.

Over the past two years I have let this experience change me, and it hasn’t always changed me for the better. I have hurt people, spent too much time dwelling on my own faults, pushed people away, and at times lost sight of who I am. But I have to believe that I will see how it also changed me for the better once I return home and process the past two years of my life. I have to believe that there’s some good left within me, and that I still possess the ability to love life and the people around me with a fierce passion. That’s the Mikaela I once was, and I was able to drop my angry attitude enough to experience it again tonight.

Someone recently asked what part of Tanzanian culture I will take home with me and the question honestly left me speechless. I did not fall in love with Tanzanian culture, as much as I wanted to. I love the people, but there’s not much about the culture that would make me want to return. I’m not connected to the food, the customs, and especially not the gospel music that plays nonstop on my 6 AM bus at full volume. I decided the answer would best be answered when I have been home for a while, had space to process, and can give the beautiful answer this country, my village, and the Peace Corps experience deserve. But then I got a phone call.

My counterpart and friend, Neema, invited me to dinner tonight. I have a crazy to-do list this week so I wasn’t very excited, but I know this is my last chance to have these beautiful experiences, so I got dressed up and wrapped myself in a kanga and headed out my door. I assumed this was a normal dinner of rice and beans with Neema’s family. When I arrived, waiting for me were three families who I have been close with over the past two years, and others in the room who were just acquaintances. They welcomed me into the room and told me to sit. They explained to me that they had spent all day cooking a meal for me, and that this was a little party (the big village party will be Monday) to say thank you for all that I’ve done for them and the village.

As each person stood up and gave a speech to me about how thankful they are I lived with them and the way in which I’ve touched their lives, I was incredibly humbled. I don’t know if I can ever be so humbled again. My jaw dropped as every single person in the room spoke, even the people who were just acquaintances. I was overwhelmed with love. After the speeches, photos of my time in Mambegu were passed around the room, and memories swapped. Then the meal was served; huge pots of rice, tomato sauces, French fries, pork, and bananas were served. As the guest, they insisted I was served first, and that no one could eat until I took my first bite. We ate, we laughed, I even drank a soda, and all my anger and stress and worries were completely gone. It is laughable even that I have been feeling so stressed. I am overwhelmed with the transition ahead of me, and I am scared and have questions and doubts about what American life will bring, but everything will be okay. And it’s best to just relax and enjoy the love which surrounds me.

So to answer the question, what part of Tanzanian culture will I bring back with me, I say this: I want to bring back the love. In Mambegu, every person matters. Every life is celebrated. People with disabilities are given homes. People from all socioeconomic backgrounds are included to participate in various community groups. Even when someone shows up to a village meeting midday completely drunk, they are quietly escorted out with love and understanding. It is a culture of respect. Tonight, I was made to feel completely special. There was a dinner to celebrate my two short years here. These people are not my family, I was born on the other side of the world and have a completely different background, and truthfully they have done more for me than I have done for them, yet they made me feel as if I will always belong sitting in their house with them, eating rice, and laughing together. I live in a village where as I walk down the road, people stop me to ask when I’m leaving, and tell me to my face that they love me. I live in a village where, when I gave my neighbor pictures from the past two years, she cried (rare in this culture) and told me I’ve been like a daughter to her. I live in a village of love.

This is what I will take home. I want to love people this way. I want to celebrate my friends’ and family members’ transitions in life, their successes, and tell them often that they are loved. I want be so full of love from this experience that I can never forget how to truly love, appreciate, and celebrate those in our life on a daily basis. So often I think Americans are missing this. We get wrapped up in our own lives and our own worries that we forget to build up those around us. I think this is the greatest lesson the people of Mambegu have taught me.

After dinner, 8 people walked me home, a 30 minute walk, under the stars and the crescent moon. They asked me some questions about the U.S., we talked about the next volunteer and what he might be like, and they asked me to just build a house here and live with them. How blessed am I, to know that no matter what happens in my life, I’ll always have a home to return to?

I doubt I’ll be having stress dreams tonight, and I won’t be letting myself walk around in anger tomorrow. Instead, I choose to spend the next few days loving those around me, because they have given me nothing less. Ninawashukuru sana wamambegu

The Trouble With Aid

Throughout my service I have gotten very comfortable with failure. I came into the country with grand ideas about what I would accomplish in my village, and almost nothing worked out the way I expected. There were constant challenges and obstacles to overcome, and the projects that I did accomplish took months and months of pushing due to funerals, the corn growing seasons, the harvest seasons, and people just not showing up. This sounds more pessimistic than it was. We still accomplished so much, and we all did the best we could, but it took a lot of flexibility and empathy on my end to get over my American work ethic, relax, and build connections.

I don’t consider that my service was a failure in any way. When I reflect on the “failures” I also remember the successes that we as a community were able to find after each “failure.” We were able to accomplish so much and I am forever grateful. Despite it all, there is one regret I have in my Peace Corps service, and it was possibly one of my greatest professional mistakes in my life.

I applied for and received a grant to build a bathroom for girls in my village. First and foremost, I want to say the bathroom is built, it is beautiful, and people are really grateful for it. I want to thank the people who donated to the project from the bottom of my heart. Despite it being a finished project, I wish I never went through with it.

I believe Peace Corps has one of the greatest development models of any international development organization. Peace Corps focuses on providing education and sustainability. It’s like the old proverb, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for his life.” Peace Corps allows us the opportunity to apply for grants to supplement our projects, but not necessarily building projects. Why? There’s virtually no education in (most) building projects. I am a white American, I came into a village, I paid for a construction project that may or may not fall apart in a few years. If and when it does fall apart, the people might not have enough money to fix it. They told me they would, and maybe that is true, but there is no way for me to know for sure.

The African continent is littered with failed construction projects. My village has broken UNICEF wells and water spigots around every turn. At one time these were great resources providing water, but now they are forgotten concrete masses that aren’t serving anyone. Can we really call that water security? Maybe it would have been better to teach about how to conserve water, why it’s important, and teach to catch rainwater. That’s what Peace Corps does.

So I built something in my village, and everyone is happy. So happy, that they have forgotten all of my educational projects. People have mentioned to me that they are thankful for the bathroom, and when I ask about all of the hours of education, the school projects, etc, they can’t seem to remember that I ever did those things. The construction overshadowed it. That is not their fault. If a foreigner came to my town in the US and built a beautiful cafe but also taught me how to sew your own menstrual pads, I’d probably be more excited about the cafe. I now feel guilty because the volunteers who follow me might have to deal with the village pushing them to do construction projects as well, because that is the expectation of foreigners. We “have money” so we build things and leave. I have not only failed my village in some ways, but I have failed the volunteers who will follow me.

Of course the project will be great for the coming years, and possibly thereafter. The girls are happy, finally have doors on the bathroom stalls and privacy, and have told me they feel more comfortable managing their periods. This is incredible, and certainly something to be proud of. I write this only to point out that at some point we need to stop building things in an unsustainable manner. We need to focus more on education. And we constantly need to reevaluate if aid is actually necessary. Is it doing more harm than good? This is what Peace Corps already teaches us to evaluate. I am so grateful and proud that I was a part of Peace Corps, learned this lesson, developed these views on development work, and gained insights into past development projects and why they have failed. If ever you feel that you want to donate to a development organization, I strongly recommend supporting Peace Corps and other organizations that value education over construction. There’s so many orphanages, wells, and churches being built. Frankly, the government should provide this infrastructure. If you want to provide something to the developing world, teach them skills they may not have the opportunity to develop otherwise. That is the value of development.

These views are my own, do not reflect Peace Corps, or the views of the US government or Tanzania.

Life Changing Experiences

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Wow, it’s 2018! This is the year I finish my Peace Corps service and move home, onto exciting unknowns. It seems I’ve waited for this year forever and now I’m not really sure how it snuck up on me. Two years ago, in between snowboarding, going to the gym, waitressing, and saying goodbye to friends and family, I spent a lot of time pouring through the blogs of people who were serving in Tanzania, trying to catch a glimpse into their lives to gain some sort of understanding of what the near future held for me. I don’t know if anyone who is arriving here next month in the new cohort of volunteers has stumbled across my blog, but just in case there’s a few, I’m really writing this post for you.

I know you’re feeling a wide range of emotions about beginning Peace Corps and those emotions probably change fairly frequently. (On the hour for me!) First I’d like to say that there’s a big Peace Corps family here, waiting for you, preparing for you, and they will support you. It will be hard. Tanzanian culture is not an easy one to live in. Your days will be long and frustrating and you’ll cry and you’ll feel down and your projects will fail and you’ll pick yourself back up again in order to serve the people of your village because that’s what Peace Corps volunteers do. But you’ll also make friends that become family, experience beauty on the other side of the world, grow, learn, and be changed by this experience. It’s beautiful. Let it be all that it will be. But that’s not really the point of this post. I recently went on my favorite vacation in Tanzania, and it was amazing. I realized that this blog has focused solely on life in my village, but that there’s also so many other amazing parts to my experience here, and exploring this diverse country is one of them! So, if you’re coming in February, or thinking of applying to serve in Tanzania, let this post excite you. If you’re reading but you’re not coming to Tanzania, I’d love to share my recent vacation with you anyways.

I WENT CHIMP TRACKING IN GOMBE!!!

It was so amazing and words and pictures won’t do it justice but I can try. To get to Gombe, you have to travel to Kigoma, a little town on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. The lake itself is gorgeous. Crystal clear waters can have you fooled that you’re in the Caribbean. It is the second deepest lake in the world, as well as the second oldest, and second largest by volume. As I swam in the gorgeous water, looking out across I could faintly see the mountains of the DR Congo, and every now and then a Congolese pirate ship (I am NOT joking). There’s also zebras roaming free, it was such a dream. To get to Gombe Park, you have to then take a private boat, which is about a two hour ride up the coast. There are no roads leading to the park, it is very secluded.

So why go to Gombe? For those of you who don’t know, this is where Dr. Jane Goodall did her groundbreaking research on chimpanzees, which not only changed our knowledge of chimps but also our understanding of human beings. Jane is a total badass. If you haven’t watched any of her documentaries or read about her, get out there now and do that. A few months ago National Geographic featured her on their cover and wrote an amazing article of her. Of course I brought it to the park in the hopes that she would be there to sign it (some volunteers have gotten to meet her before) but no such luck. What impresses me so much about Dr. Goodall is that she had just a secretary degree and a dream to be a scientist in a time when women were discouraged, and laughed at, for working in the sciences. She saved up money to go to Nairobi from England and marched into a scientists’ office and boldly stated she wanted to work for him. She impressed him enough to finally secure funding to study the chimps in Gombe, where she lived in solitude for some time. At one point the chimps accepted her into their family as the lowest ranking member.

As we tracked the chimps in the rainy jungle forest, I couldn’t help but imagine what her life was like in those early days. Wasn’t she scared studying animals alone that were wild and, as wild animals are, unpredictable? There were other wild animals in the forest as well, and our guide told us she once had to run from her life as she was attacked by a herd of buffaloes! She is so inspirational and bold…chimps

Ok fan rant over. The chimps were amazing. Upon our first siting, I teared up a little (only a little!) but it was so incredible to be only feet away from wild chimps. The babies were so cute, and it was amazing to watch the families interact with each other. I could’ve spent days in the park (although my wallet wouldn’t agree). I wont say anymore other than if you ever find yourself in Tanzania, make the effort to go here. So many people climb Kilimanjaro, go on safari in the Serengeti, or vacation on Zanzibar. But to walk with these chimps, to spend time with them under the canopy of the lush forest, is an experience unlike any other, and certainly one that I will remember for all of my life.

If you’d like to see more pictures and videos, please feel free to check out my instagram @mzungu_mikaekae

Now I’m on my way to my close-of-service conference (I really have made it to the end!) where I’ll celebrate the accomplishment of finishing Peace Corps and find out the date I leave Tanzania, so you can expect some reflection posts in the near future. Thank you to all of my readers for sticking with me this long (Mom, that’s you)!

Faces of Mambegu: Madame Mwanga Nuru

NuruI’ve never had need to use the phrase “Good things come in small Packages” until I met my good friend Nuru. Standing at about 5 feet tall, Nuru is a ball of fire and energy, commanding any room she walks into, never afraid to go after what she wants, and always getting things done. I first met Nuru during my first week in the village. I had gotten lost looking for my counterpart’s house (the houses all look the same!) and so continuously walked up and down the main road as people stared at me. Just as I finally admitted defeat and turned to go home, I heard someone say “Mikaela!” After four days in the village, I couldn’t believe someone knew my name, so I greeted the woman that boldly came up to me when no one else would, grabbed my hand, and assertively engaged me in the local handshake of two middle finger snaps.

She asked where I was going and I told her I was looking for Neema’s house. She said in slow and clear Swahili, purely for my benefit, that Neema was her neighbor but that she wasn’t home. If I wanted, I could go to her house and wait for Neema to return. Peace Corps had drilled into us to never turn down an invitation into someone’s house (a far cry from the “stranger danger” lesson we’re all taught as children), so I enthusiastically said yes and began following her down the street. As we were walking, panic started to set in that I was going to be with this woman with an indefinite period of time, and my Swahili was incredibly limited. That worry was quelled as she told me to grab a seat, and started teaching me words for everything in both Swahili and the local language Kibena. She also taught me how to cook ugali (stiff corn porridge), and fed it to me with boiled greens and beans. I knew I had found a good friend in Nuru, then 26, but because we lived so far apart and I became busy with work, I didn’t make an effort to continue the friendship.

In February I began to hear rumors that Nuru had started a chekechea, or a preschool. In June, the rumors were confirmed when I received a “Hodi!” (what people say when they show up at your house, rather than knocking.) I opened my courtyard door to find Nuru, all five feet of her. I greeted her and the first question she asked me was “Do you know who I am?” I said “yes, you’re Nuru, you taught me to cook ugali. You are Neema’s neighbor.” She smiled at the recognition and we began talking about the chekechea she opened in January. One thing led to another, and I was showing up to my first day of school in September with art supplies in tow. As I walked into her house (where she holds classes), I was greeted by her standing tall and proud in a perfectly tailored pant suit (it is really frowned upon for women to wear pants in the village). She asked the children if they knew who I was and in a chorus they all said “Mzungu!” meaning a foreigner. She quickly shut that down and told them I was “Mikaela.” Hilariously, they all think all foreigners are called “Mikaela” now, no matter the gender.

Every week I continue to go to the chekechea, and I get to know Nuru better. It is refreshing to have a friend around my own age (not a common opportunity for me in the village as most women my age are busy with at least two children), as well as someone who understands that women do not need to wear skirts and bear children to be valued; there is value in our intelligence and ability as well. Finding Nuru, as progressive as she is for a Tanzanian woman, has been like finding gold in my village. We can talk about anything from relationship issues to the best teaching strategies for children. She is a fabulous teacher, compassionate with children but also not afraid to teach them right from wrong. She teaches them in three languages: Swahili, English, and they already know Kibena. They are far ahead of their peers at other chekecheas, knowing more English and already able to read and write full sentences at 3-5 years old.

Nuru decided to open a school all on her own. She only has a high school education, but she went through all the necessary steps to open the school with the help of her younger sister, Grace. She currently has forty students attending and has big dreams to expand the school. I have no doubt that she will be able to accomplish all she wants to because of her drive. She truly is an exemplary person, and a fabulous friend. The name “Nuru” means light, and it is so fitting for her. Never have I met someone who truly resembles the sun as much as Nuru.

What Have I Even Been Doing?!

octoberI have been on a ridiculously long blog hiatus and I apologize! In August I took a trip back home to Vermont to visit friends and family and came back refreshed for the last stretch of my service. Here I sit with five months left and I have no idea where the time has gone! I feel that I just began Peace Corps, yet my class is the next to leave in March and April 2018. I look back at pictures from my training in early 2016 and it feels like yesterday. I think I must be the same exact person who walked into Tanzania, but then I realize two years has passed: I came in at 23 and will be leaving just before my 26th birthday with a life-changing experience packed into those two short years. It would be impossible to stay the same, yet I also have trouble pinpointing exactly how I have changed. All I know is so far, I feel that I have gained a deeper understanding of myself and international development, and that chances are I won’t know how this experience has changed me until months or even years after I have returned home.

But enough introspection! Why has it been months since I’ve written and what have I even been up to? Here’s a brief glance at that:

  • It’s wedding season, so I’ve been dancing it up at some sharehes (celebrations)! I feel even closer to my village when I celebrate with them. Dancing always brings people together, and I’m grateful to experience this piece of the Wabena culture. Weddings this year feel a lot different for me than last year for a couple of reasons: I now understand everything that is said and happening, whereas last year I was really limited in my Swahili skills, and people in my village know me on a deeper level now, so I feel included in the celebration, not just that “mzungu” who no one really knows.october3
  • There’s been a lot of funerals in my village lately. Mostly these have been for elders. When there’s a funeral, it is announced by someone who walks up the main road in the village and beats a drum at 6:30 AM. Everyone in the village is expected to attend, so no matter what I have planned that day, I wrap myself up in two pieces of kitenge and stay anywhere from 4-6 hours at the funeral. All projects and plans must always be cancelled if there is a funeral. About a week ago, my neighbor Kaliyakoo who I wrote an earlier blog post about, lost her grandchild due to some sort of issue with his head (based off of what she described in Swahili, possibly hydrocephalus or some issue with the skull, and based off of my observations in the village, possibly caused by malnutrition or dehydration). He was just over one year old. I was unable to attend the funeral due to traveling, but the news hit me hard, as she has really accepted me into her family. Please keep her in your thoughts as she and her family are grieving.
  • We’re in the process of building a girls’ bathroom at the primary school. The building is taking a lot longer than expected, but it looks like we just need the roof now. This has been a painstaking grant project that I will discuss in a later post, but for now the thought of it just makes my blood pressure rise, so onto happier things.
  • I’ve been teaching at the “chekechea” or preschool once per week! The kids are 3-5 years old and incredibly cute. I run an “art” class which is really just time spent coloring with them, but it is one of the only times they get to make decisions in their lives (children here are often told what is right and wrong in a school setting, so they’re still getting used to the idea of choosing colors for their pictures). The teachers have taken to leaving me alone with the 31 students which is exhausting and often frustrating, so I also stay busy teaching them songs and games as well as working on math and learning letters. My Wednesday routine is to teach from 8 AM-12 PM, eat lunch with the teacher and then return home where I pass out into dreamless sleep for about three hours. These kids are equal parts fun and exhausting!
  • Graduations! This is the end of the school year, and the students will be on break until January. I gave a speech at the primary school graduation and was the “megeni rasmi” or guest of honor at the chekechea graduation. Much like weddings, it has been so fun to celebrate the success of students alongside the village. Plus, I get to eat rice and meat with my hands, all for free!october2
  • Interior decorating: My Dad comes to visit soon! I’ve used this as motivation to paint my house as well as finally buy some furniture. I’m in love with my new couch, and having a place to sit and relax could possibly affect the productivity of the rest of my service (just kidding! Maybe…)
  • Project Planning: Many projects have gotten cancelled or had unforeseen circumstances affect them. I’ve spent time planning upcoming projects such as a baking group (income generating project) which begins in November and a world map mural painted at the school in November and a subsequent world geography club which will begin in January. I’ve also had to focus on rescheduling and redesigning projects such as a menstrual pad sewing project with a mama’s group, the HIV group’s garden, and continuing work with the dairy project we began in June. I am worried I will regret not doing enough in my service, and so really want to make these last five months count.

I will be much better about updating the blog regularly, so stay tuned! We are at the end of the dry season now, and once the rains come, I anticipate having much more time to sit on my new couch and write blog posts for you all. Until next time!october4

Faces of Mambegu: Christina

IMG_3929Living alone in a small village in rural Tanzania is no easy feat. This is probably the greatest challenge of Peace Corps: for two years, you face isolation, loneliness, and the never-ending questions from “Host Country Nationals” (HCNs) about why you’re just so weird and is everyone in America just like you? It’s overwhelming! Not a day goes by that I am not lonely or homesick in some way. A year ago, my naïve self thought those feelings would eventually fade. Now I realize they’re just a part of the process, and I appreciate them for helping me realize how valuable my family and friends at home are. On the days when I’m really lonely and needing a friend to chat with, I head over to my friend Christina’s shop in the center of the village.

Christina is one of our two village seamstresses. She custom makes 90% of my clothes and does an amazing job, all for a very small price (skirts: $4, shirts: $3, Dresses: $6). Every morning and evening she can be found in the shop, sewing all the women’s clothes, repairing school uniforms for children, and sharing village gossip and laughs with many of the young women in the village. She originally learned to sew as a child so that she could make some extra money and help her parents. Then she fell in love with the work and wanted to continue. On top of sewing clothes, she is also a mother of an adorable two year old, and she runs a 3 acre farm with her husband, where they plant corn, beans, sunflowers, and squash every year. She’s also just the coolest person around.

The first time I sat in Christina’s shop I found myself surrounded by 9 Tanzanian mamas firing off question after question at me. I loved the experience because I got to really tell these women what Americans are like, why I behave the way I do, and explain the differences in the U.S. and Tanzania. I enjoy chatting with women in Christina’s shop because I know whatever I say will get out to the rest of the village quickly, so if there are rumors or stereotypes flying around, this is my best bet at shooting them down and relaying accurate information about myself.

If you want to know what kinds of conversation we have in her little shop, here is a sample:

  • Why do Americans have more money than Africans?
    • This is such a tough question and it always comes up! If only I could tell them that I spent entire college semesters in classes trying to dissect this very question. Because I live here, and I have witnessed the expectation of wealth on behalf of a foreigner and the dependency that has developed in Tanzanian culture, I try to explain that Tanzanians think foreigners have a lot of money because they meet the ones that have enough money to travel here, but there are many without money, and even without homes. They cannot believe our country would just let people sleep on the street!!! This is so unheard of and sad to them, because in the village it is just unfathomable that you would ever let someone go without food or a house. Anyways, once I explain that Africans who can travel to the US also appear to have a lot of money, but that doesn’t mean all Africans have money, they seem to understand. I will write another blog post soon about aid-dependency, but for now these are the conversations we’ve been having.
  • Why do Americans only have two children?
    • It is unbelievable to these mamas that mothers would choose to only have two children! I haven’t told them yet about families who choose to have only one child or no children at all. I try to explain that many families try to plan for the number of children they can financially support and still give a great life: education, food, clothes, etc. are expensive in the U.S.! But here children are viewed as wealth, especially because families are so tight-knit here that children often help out with farm work and if they get good jobs as adults, financially support their parents.
  • What do you cook in your house?
    • NOT UGALI THAT’S FOR SURE!!! But I don’t tell them that J
  • Why don’t you have a family? Why do you like to live alone?
    • This is always a toughie. Mamas love to tell me “umechelewa” which means “you’re late!” in regards to having children. It is unfathomable that a 25 year old wouldn’t have children or a husband. I think most of the time they’re trying to figure out what’s wrong with me that no man wants to marry me. Trying to marry me off is also a common occurrence in Christina’s shop! I can usually expect one eligible bachelor per day that the mamas present to me. I also try to explain that I actually don’t enjoy living alone, and that’s why I travel to town every couple of weeks: so that I can visit my friends! Somehow I think they don’t believe me, and they probably assume that all Americans live alone.
  • Will birth control give us cancer?
    • No, no, no, and no. We have this conversation ALL THE TIME and I will never grow tired of it because this is a widely held belief by women of all ages in the village. I also feel really happy that women feel comfortable enough with me now to talk about such taboo topics.
  • Why won’t you stay for five years? We can give you land…
    • This always is so sweet and makes me feel really wanted and welcome here. It’s also heartbreaking to know my time is ending so soon and it’s going so fast. It’s not fair to them to get to take someone from another country in as their own, help them out, suffer through their awful Swahili, give them gifts, show them love, and have them leave two short years later. But I hope they’ll forgive me and remember the good times we had in Christina’s little shop!

So many uplifting conversations have happened in Christina’s shop, and I can always expect to feel happier after visiting her. She sits atop her ironing bench, smiling down at me and asking questions about my life. She always hands me a chair and wants me to stay just a little longer. She is always my in-person reminder about body positivity: She sits full-figured and strikingly beautiful, confident, happy, always smiling, and asking if I want some food. She lights up the room, and people always want to come sit around her while she’s working, just to soak up some of her conversation. I’m one of those people.

When I explained to Christina I would be writing a blog post about her, and asked if she had anything she wanted to say to Americans, she smiled bashfully, cast her eyes downward, and thought for a bit. When she raised her head she had this to say:

“I pray to God for peace and happiness for your parents. I am so thankful to them and all Americans who sent you here to live with us. I have so much happiness living with you here.”

The feeling is so mutual.

A couple of skirts Christina has sewn for me!