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!

I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant- TZ Edition

A couple of weeks ago I invited my friend Dennis hiking. He replied, “Maybe,” and explained that his weekly bee meeting will be on Sunday morning, and he could only skip it to come hiking if his counterpart would be able to lead the meeting.

Most of us have met each other’s counterparts. Dennis’s counterpart is named Aulelio Kalili, and is one of my favorite Tanzanians I’ve met. He has a big Cheshire cat grin and is always happy to see me. When I first met Kalili, I thought he was insane or that something was just a little off. I soon realized that his big smile simply never leaves his face, even if something is wrong. This is one of his charms.

Knowing that Kalili is completely capable of leading the Sunday bee meeting, I asked Dennis why he had to check in with him. Dennis said that one of Kalili’s wives had to go to the hospital for surgery on her stomach. Before I get to the surgery part of that sentence, I’d like to talk about Kalili’s marriage situation. In Tanzania it is not uncommon for a man to have two wives. There are only two rules to this: both wives have to agree to the second marriage, and the man has to have enough money to provide for both families. In Tanzania you do not have to be Muslim to have more than one wife, in fact many Christians, such as Kalili, practice polygamy as well.

After hearing about Kalili’s wife’s stomach issues, I understood why Dennis was on the fence about hiking, and I asked him to keep me updated about her health.

In the end, Dennis came hiking. On our way back to site, we were walking through our banking town, about to get on our respective buses back to our villages. As we walked down the dusty dirt paths of Makambako under the gray sky, backs sore with the weight of our hiking packs, Dennis exclaimed “That looks like Kalili’s wife!” As we got closer, the woman had stopped walking and was smiling at Dennis.

We greeted her, and she pointed us in the direction of a woman sitting on the ground: Kalili’s younger wife. We all walked over together and greeted each other in the local language, Kibena. Standing next to the younger wife was another woman with a baby wrapped up in a kanga and suspended tightly at her chest. Kalili’s younger wife said to Dennis “We have a guest” and pointed at the infant. Dennis and I looked at the baby, then each other in confusion. Yes, the baby was indeed the younger wife’s newborn. After living in the village almost a year and working closely with Kalili and his family, Dennis had no idea that Kalili’s younger wife was pregnant. The mother explained that the baby did not yet have a name (another Tanzanian custom is to wait a couple of weeks before naming the baby), and that she would wait to talk with the baba (Kalili) to see what the name will be. Dennis and I later discussed what we usually come around to in our conversations: What a strange place we are living in.

Baffled, I was immediately brought back to September when I was working side-by-side with my counterpart, Neema, and she casually told me my close friend Evelina, who I had spent almost every day with for the past 5 months, had just had a baby. I had no idea that Evelina was pregnant, and Neema said she didn’t either. How could I miss it? Evelina had never stopped doing farm work, walking around like normal, doing all of the house chores. She even carried me out of church when I fainted in between the pews. How could that woman have a baby? How could I not notice she was 9 months pregnant?

I recently went to Neema’s house to tell her about Kalili’s wife and ask about pregnancy here in the Wabena tribe. She told me that people do not acknowledge pregnancies. It stays like a secret within the family. Even if others know, they do not say anything. The expectant mothers swaddle themselves in many layers of fabric, or “kitenge” to hide their swelling bellies. Neema said that the elders do not like the look of a pregnant belly, and that people are disturbed by the sight of the baby moving in the womb, so it is best to remain modest and it is crucial for a woman to cover up her body (one of the few things that I can’t come to terms with in this culture). Once the baby is born, they must wait for some time to be named. There is no celebration of pregnancy, no baby showers, no congratulations in order for the expectant parents until after delivery, and especially no photo shoots of mothers with big bellies.

As I told Neema about our customs for expectant mothers in America, she could not believe it. She couldn’t believe we would have parties just for expectant mothers where we shower them with gifts. Of course, there are fewer women getting pregnant in America than in my Tanzanian village, where the average family has 4 children and women begin giving birth around 20 years old. It was really fun to compare the two different cultures and how we welcome new life into the world. Each of us finds the others’ custom equally as strange and fascinating. But at least now I know, this isn’t a real-life Tanzanian episode of “I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant.”

World AIDS Day

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In July of this year, I sat on my friend Jehnet’s couch and waited as she began pulling papers out of a binder. As she handed over a paper containing the names of 16 people in my village who had tested positive for HIV this year alone, my heart sank. That was in July. I know more names have been added to that list.

16 may not seem like such a huge number, especially out of a village of 1800 people. But I know that this was 16 people out of the small number who actually go to the hospital for testing; the majority of people will not get tested. There are many reasons for this, but the most common is fear of stigma. As Westerners, I think we too often think of Africa as this one entity full of war and famine and disease, and we don’t even know where to begin to help so we skim over the entire continent.  It can seem like a lost cause. Where do you even begin when it comes to HIV in Africa?

I’ve been living in my village for almost eight months now and I have become a part of this incredibly loving community. They have fed me, comforted me, and been my friends when I’ve felt lonely and homesick. They are people, just like those in the Western world are people, and I can assure you that testing positive for HIV is just as devastating whether you’re from the U.S., Tanzania, or the effin’ North Pole. IT IS DEVASTATING. It affects your future, your family, your ability to work, how people view you, and every aspect of your life.

I live close to my primary school, where there are about 70 orphaned children. They sleep in dormitories and eat meals at the school. I asked the doctor in the neighboring village why there were so many orphans. He explained that the majority of them were orphaned because of HIV. As they grow up, they have few resources, so many girls will sleep with truck drivers who stay overnight to export our village’s crops to larger cities, and the cycle of HIV starts all over again. Maybe this seems like just another “African story,” but these are my community members. These are the kids I post pictures of. These are the young women who come over to my house when their babies are napping to learn to paint because they’ve never put a paintbrush to paper before. These are the people who are teaching me how to live in this completely foreign place. These are my friends.

Every month I go to the “People living with HIV group” meetings where I do sessions on improving nutrition and explanations of how HIV affects the immune system. I also just like hanging out with them. They’re mostly older mamas and babas, and they always smile so brightly when they see me. These are my friends in the village. They haven’t let HIV slow them down, but it has affected their life. I hope that in five or ten years my village won’t even have an HIV group because there won’t be enough people with HIV to form a group.

On World AIDS Day, please take a moment to think about all of those worldwide who are affected with this disease. Teach young adults how to properly put on a condom. Stress the importance of safe sex. Educate yourself about the modes of transmission. Know your local testing centers, get tested yourself. This is not a virus that afflicts only certain people. This is a worldwide epidemic. Let’s work to end AIDS.

Statistics from UNAIDS:

Tanzania prevalence of HIV (15-49 year olds):  4.7%

Number of Tanzanians living with HIV: 1,400,000

Tanzanian children aged 1-14 living with HIV: 91,000

Orphans due to AIDS aged 0-17: 790,000

Njombe (my region) prevalence rate:  14.8%- The highest prevalence in TZ!