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)!

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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!

The Importance of Art: Maua Mazuri

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Last week, I finished my very first project in the village, of the projects that can be finished (agriculture and health projects tend to be an ongoing thing, hence the sustainability portion of Peace Corps). Maua Mazuri, which I’ve blogged about before, came to a close. 11 of the 15 girls who originally began the program, ages 12-13, graduated.

In our village, there is little to no art, and this entire program was a roller coaster for me. The program is designed to teach life skills through various art forms such as music, dance, watercolor, drawing, acting, and poetry. It touches on topics including HIV/AIDS education, self-awareness, creativity, confidence, gender roles, and individuality. For many of the classes, I left after the two hour sessions feeling happy that the girls had a great time, yet frustrated because I was trying to teach a program that relied on Western-teaching styles and required critical thinking and creativity, which are just not taught or used here in the village, and as I found out, cannot be taught in a 12 week time period. Eventually, I accepted that the life skills that I was trying to teach would probably not be absorbed by the girls, but that introducing them to art would be a success in itself. Their smiles always made the classes worth it, anyways. So I continued on.

In April I visited Zanzibar, probably the most well-known part of Tanzania aside from Kilimanjaro. There were tourists all throughout Stonetown, and because of this, there were many artists selling their art. I couldn’t believe that there was so much art to be found on this island, yet the farther inland you go on mainland Tanzania, art becomes a rare find. I decided to duck into a random art shop and chat with the artist about his background. I met Ramadhan Awesu Saleh, who told me he began learning art in primary school and fell in love. He eventually went on to study at an art college in Dar es Salaam. His walls were lined with oil, acrylic, and watercolor paintings of various sizes, all depicting life on Zanzibar, and of course Tanzania’s wildlife which many tourists come to see on safari. As we were chatting, he was working carefully on a watercolor showing the small Arab Medina style streets of Zanzibar. I told him that I was teaching art in a village in Njombe to young girls, and he continually emphasized how important this work is. He told me that young Tanzanians have little opportunity for self-expression in the way that art allows. His words jazzed me up to finish the Maua Mazuri program. As I was leaving, he called me back and handed me one of his matted watercolors, a gift for our village. On the back, he wrote his name and a note to the girls. “Art is a privilege but also a way to a good life. Keep creating.”

I left not only refreshed to continue the last few weeks of Maua, but also reflecting on the privilege of art. All forms of art are a privilege, but they are also so powerful. As a child, I was very lucky to go to a public elementary school that valued art and gave every student art classes once per week as well as music classes. Not every child in the US is afforded this privilege, let alone the world. Beginning in the fourth grade, my parents invested in a flute for me, and later a slide trombone, allowing me to grow up with music and learning to read both clefs, and I was able to continue playing into college. My parents also encouraged my drawing, buying me books on how to draw horses. My artwork could be found hanging on the fridge, portraits of our horses hanging in frames in the barn, and they would drive me to and from poetry slams in high school. I am incredibly lucky to have had my creativity supported in this way. And now that I’ve discovered how important of an outlet art can be, especially through the difficult preteen and teenage years, I am happy to share any knowledge and art supplies I can with any child, no matter their background. I truly believe every child who wants to explore the arts should have that opportunity.

After this reflection, I realized that Maua Mazuri, even if life skills were not being picked up as they were intended, could only be a positive experience for me and for the girls I was working with. So we continued with classes and eventually reached graduation day. Before the girls received their certificates, we did a post-test which assessed all the life skills taught throughout the course. The girls had taken the exact same test twelve weeks before, scoring fairly low in areas such as HIV knowledge and comfort in interacting with people who have HIV, ideas of challenging gender roles, confidence in speaking in front of others, and ease in expressing emotions. After the post-test, I gave out the certificates, we had a little celebration, we danced, and the girls raced back to their dorms to chat before dinner. I returned to my house, sat down with their post-tests, and started reading their responses and comparing them to the pre-test.

Almost every girl scored significantly higher than her pre-test, and reported higher self-esteem, self-confidence, feeling that it’s ok to express individuality, and an increase in feeling it’s ok to show emotion. They now have learned that men can also care for and raise babies, that women can affect change in Tanzania, and that art can help them in expressing their emotions and dealing with life struggles. I couldn’t believe the results I was reading. Through art, they actually learned all of the intended life skills. With that, I am so proud to say my first project was a success, not because of me, but because of the girls’ eagerness to try new things and participate in a new style of education. I am so grateful to have observed the change that art can make, and to have worked with the girls that I did. They are young, bright agents for change in rural Tanzania, and now, they are artists.

 

 

Faces of Mambegu: Mama Kaliyakoo

IMG_5080If you take a left onto the main path by my house, follow the path to the end, and take another left, the first house you see, next to the pit where they make bricks, is Mama Kaliyakoo’s house, my favorite hangout spot in the village. I first met Mama Kaliyakoo during my second day in my village. My counterpart Neema took me to her house, where she operates a little “duka,” and told me that’s where I could go if I wanted maandazi or whatever fruits were in season, which were bananas and avocados at the time. I was overwhelmed when I walked into the duka, because there were eight women crowded in the small room, all staring at the foreigner who landed in their village for two years. But Mama Kaliyakoo was so warm and welcoming, always smiling, and I instantly knew I had a safe haven in her house.

The next time I went to her house, I was in search of eggs to buy. She only had two left for her family, and no extras to sell, but she cooked those two eggs for me and sat with me sipping tea. That’s very characteristic of her: always giving. It was one of the first times I had gone to someone’s house just to chat, without my dictionaries or a work-related agenda, and I was nervous. But she simply sat with me and talked the entire time. She talked so fast and switched from Kiswahili to our tribal language, kibena, on and off frequently, so I was really intimidated. But she is a talker, which I soon learned about her, which is one of the reasons I love spending time with her. She can talk at me for hours, and never expect me to respond.

Now that my language is better, I understand that she’s usually giving me her life story or all of the village gossip, which is always amusing. But I never get nervous about not understanding something around her because she has the world’s friendliest faces.

Mama Kaliyakoo isn’t only smiles and chit-chat, she’s also an incredible business woman. She operates a little shop out of her house and is currently building another at a different location in our village. Her house is the perfect location for a shop because it’s right next to the primary school. Every time I’m sitting in there, school children come by for various items: homemade maandazi (like an old fashioned doughnut), pens, notebooks, bananas, candy, tomatoes to bring home to mom, soda…you name it she has it. She loves to help the kids out, always letting them have an extra piece of candy and telling them to say hi to their mom for her. Sometimes I find the school cook sitting in Mama Kaliyakoo’s house, cooking the evening meal for the boarding students over Mama Kaliyakoo’s fire, chatting with her 23 year old daughter.

In order to operate her shop, she has people importing things from various towns for her. Today, I went to her house to share some cookies I had baked, but she wasn’t there. I went to another part of the village where men usually hang out and the bus stops, and there she was, hovering by the road, cell phone in hand. She immediately greeted me and started telling me that she’s waiting for things from a town called “Chimala” but the bus is late and the man who’s moving the bags for her won’t answer her calls. She apologized, and said she would deal with it later, and we walked back to her house together. She raises her prices just enough to make a profit after paying for the items she imports from town and transport, but not too much that people won’t go to her shop. And every time I visit her, her house is full of people. It’s not only where people go to buy what they need, but where women can go to take a break from the household chores and just gossip together; Mama Kaliyakoo is always cooking something for all of her visitors. Today, in a span of three hours, she fed me three bowls of “Kande” which is a stew-like mix of corn and beans, half of a pumpkin, an ear of grilled corn, and half of an avocado. Everyone in the shop was eating. Her hang-out atmosphere of her shop is what makes it work so well, and actually helps her build a profit.

As I left today, she walked me partway to my house before having to turn back to help children who were just getting out of school. She told me she loves when I come and that the other mamas love it too. “Tunaongea, tunacheka, tumefurahi sana.” We talk, we laugh, we’re all happy. That just about sums up every visit with Mama Kaliyakoo.

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Coming Home

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This is my house!

After six weeks of travel, I climbed onto my village bus “Masia” with my huge backpack and two duffels in tow. As I climbed down the aisle, carefully navigating the huge sacks of corn, rice, and ugali flour that lay on the floor, I heard someone yell “Mikaela, umerudi!” (You have returned!). All of the anxiety I had been feeling about returning back to my village, about feeling alone, and the anticipation of loneliness and isolation I would feel, dissipated. I was caught off guard by my feelings of happiness and relief. After weeks of living out of bags, experiencing 30+ hours of bus time, and sharing hostel showers, I was finally going back to my own house. I was coming home.

I have officially been at my site for over a year, and I have under a year left of Peace Corps. That’s a weird feeling. All of a sudden, I have a deadline for my projects. I have to get them up and running. It’s now sinking in that, whereas before everything was new and I would experience it again, everything I experience for the next year will be the last time. One more sunflower harvest, one more corn harvest, one more dry season, one more rainy season, one more chance to watch the entire village turn into a quaint oxen-powered farming community, one more school year, etc. But this second year has brought a new and incredible feeling of home that I never expected to have here.

IMG_5127Exactly a year ago in my journal, I listed all of the things I missed about my home in the U.S. I remember writing the entry, sitting alone in my courtyard, the sun shining down, and tears pouring out of my eyes. Home couldn’t have felt more far away. I wrote that I missed “clean running water, showers, stoves and ovens, dish washers, washing machines, and most of all reliable electricity…” but it didn’t stop there. “I miss dressing however I want, the feeling of carpet under my feet, sleeping without a mosquito net and not worrying about strange bugs, lizards, rats, and bats…I especially miss my family and friends…I miss the gym…”  Somewhere along the way, I stopped focusing on what I missed so much about home, and I focused on building my life here in Mambegu. It was then that I realized how much I have here, and reevaluated everything I once thought was a necessity in my life. That’s when happiness came.

My first night back in my village after six weeks of travel, I slept soundly in my own bed with my cat curled up beside me. When I woke up, I was overwhelmed with happiness. The following day, I walked through my village, past all of the brick houses, surrounded by corn, smoke curling out of the fires where people were cooking. People seemed genuinely happy to see me, and that was an incredible feeling. One mama, who is a member of the HIV group I work with, stopped her work in the cornfield and came out to hug me, which is usually unheard of in this culture. As I continued down the winding dirt paths, lined with sisal, sunflowers, and grazing goats, people invited me into their homes and said they were afraid I left. I sat and helped one woman who is about to give birth write a list of possible names for her baby. I was gifted a lot of corn from another woman as a welcome home.

IMG_5040Sometimes I get really stressed out that I’m not doing enough projects, or that I’m not making enough effort to get them going. Any volunteer here knows how hard it can be to get a project started, let alone finished. Things come up, meetings get cancelled, and people show up three hours late or not at all. A great friend recently reminded me that a huge part of the Peace Corps experience is simply living here, in this community, talking with people, learning about them, and sharing my own culture with them. It is enough to be friends with the people in this wonderful community. It is a success to call this home, and to truly feel that it is my home. Coming home is enough.

Pictured Above: A year ago I moved into my house and it had nothing in it: no furniture, not even a stove. Now it is totally my own space!

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Of course coming home also means snuggling with this adorable little lady!