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!
I have a hazy memory from my childhood of sitting with my family in the living room of our old farmhouse watching TV. Nestled under my dad’s arm in my “spot” on the couch, we watched a PBS episode on the Masai culture. I don’t remember anything from this show except learning that the Masai would gauge their ears until the holes were big enough to put disks in and that they used rings to stretch their necks because they thought long necks were beautiful. I also thought all Africans did this. I was totally disturbed by the images I saw on the screen. I thought it was so weird to do that to your body, so bad, so different from anything I knew.
Fast forward almost twenty years and here I am calling Tanzania home. When I pass Masai people walking down the street or see them herding their cattle through the fields, I think nothing of it. I greet them the same as I do any person in Tanzania. It is normal now. It’s just life, and they’re just people. Their customs and adornment were never bad. I just had to learn it was different, accept that difference, and then fully appreciate it.
Today my counterpart came to my house. After months of her asking me to cook her “chakula cha Marekani” or American food, I invited her over and prepared to make banana and peanut butter stuffed French toast. What is American food anyways? I prepared all morning, walking around town to get all the necessary ingredients, lighting up my charcoal stove, and preparing some French press coffee. You can imagine her shock when I began mixing sugar, eggs, and milk together. When I dipped the bread in the mixture, her eyebrows shot up. “It’s not bad,” I said, and she had no fear that it would be. She was so excited, and had solid faith in my cooking abilities.
We chatted over the hot stove and she took extremely detailed notes on how to prepare this food that she was just learning to pronounce. Once finished, we said grace, poured a couple of cups of coffee, and I turned on the movie “Baraka.”
I chose Baraka for a reason, and if you haven’t seen it I urge you to go out and find it. The movie covers many countries from all over the world and shows people in all walks of life. The best part about it is that there are no words, so no matter what language you speak you can enjoy all of the beauty and chaos that makes up our incredibly large world. This was why it was perfect for Neema and I. Most people in my village have never had the chance to leave the surrounding villages, and this is the only life they know. A lot of people think I can drive to America and aren’t sure what makes me different from someone from China. This is why it’s so special to me when I get to share scenes from all over the world.
As the images on the screen unfolded, Neema kept widened eyes as she asked questions and guffawed in disbelief. We saw many different religions, ways to pray, landscapes, and rituals. There were many scenes where she would turn and say “this is bad.” “No.”I said. “It’s not bad, it’s different.” I shared my story about seeing the Masai as a young girl and thinking it was bad, yet the Masai culture is beautiful. She understood, and watched the rest of the movie with wonder. We learned about the Holocaust, about cremation, and about homeless people. She couldn’t believe how many cars are in New York, and she really couldn’t believe that people live “stacked” on top of each other in apartment buildings. “Where are their farms?” She asked. So then we learned about urban gardening.
We’re living in a time when there is so much hate. A lot of this hate is politically driven, or maybe the hate is driving the politics. I have come to see that we usually hate or think things are bad when we don’t understand them. I’ve had so many ignorant and rude comments made to me as I’ve travelled over the years by friends and family at home. These comments usually involve hatred towards Muslims, immigrants, and the “poor” people in Africa. I want to urge everyone to challenge this ignorance and see different cultures and customs for what they are: beauty. Without this diversity, the world would not be so complex and beautiful. Open your minds and hearts. We have so much we can learn from each other. It’s not bad, it’s just different.
Last week rapist Brock Turner was released from jail for good behavior. A man who raped an unconscious 23 year old woman, and then shamed her for over a year in a legal battle, causing her entire personal life to be investigated, and ruined her life forever, was released on account of good behavior. A man who decided to put himself where he never had permission to go, inside of a woman who did not know him, while she was unconscious, was released from jail for good behavior.
As I sat in Mbeya, Tanzania and read the news, I felt my chest tighten. I do not know this woman, I am not even in America, yet I felt physically ill. I felt so outraged I was scared if I talked about it to my friends I might have a screaming outburst.
As a woman, my mind has always been focused on gender. I have worked extensively in the field of women’s and girls’ empowerment, and I know I will for the rest of my life. I have always been hyper-aware of the fact that I am a woman because I have needed to be. Because that is a loaded statement.
I am woman.
Do you know what that means? It means everything and it means nothing.
It means that at 5 years old, my father sat me on the couch and taught me that if a man ever puts his hand on my knee, or anywhere farther up, and I don’t want him to, I am supposed to hit his hand away as hard as I can and say “no.” It means that as a young man with a daughter, my father already knew I would need some sort of protection out in the world, for the rest of my life. And I’m sure he knew that sometimes saying “no” isn’t enough to stop a man from doing whatever he wants with me. But as a father, that was his best chance at protecting me, because I am woman.
It means that at 12 years old in middle school, the boys made fun of me for dressing so conservatively, for liking my horses more than I liked them, and for praying to a God I believed so deeply in. They made me feel worthless because at 12, I wasn’t sexy enough, I wasn’t appealing enough, and holy shit wasn’t it so hilarious that I had never kissed a boy and didn’t even want to? What kind of 12 year old girl doesn’t know what masturbation is? What kind of 12 year old girl doesn’t wear mascara? Are you even a woman? And when I started wearing more revealing clothes, when I started caring about makeup, when I started caring a little more about boys because I was sick of the other girls having something to talk about and I was always left out of the conversation, I was shamed because now I was a slut. Now I was too revealing. Now I was easy. I WAS 12 YEARS OLD. I was woman.
It means that at 17 years old I am headed to my high school’s Halloween party. I bought a last minute costume at Target and the only one I could find in the junior’s section was some sort of gothic fairy dress with wings. I got dressed up with my boyfriend of four years and was so excited for the night. As I stepped into my heels, and was about to leave his house, his grandmother comes into the living room, sees me, and says “What are you dressed as? A slut?” Even though my boyfriend, in his “humorous” costume, was actually showing more skin than me. But I am woman.
It means that at 21 years old, I am traveling alone from Burundi to Johannesburg, South Africa. My friends are supposed to pick me up at the airport, but after 6 hours of waiting, I pick up my phone that has 2% battery to find out that they are at a rugby game and cannot come to get me. I need to take a taxi in Johannesburg and it is almost dark. An incessant taxi driver gives me a good price and even lets me use his phone to call my other friend whose house I will go to that night. As I get in the car, it becomes apparent that he does not know where he’s going and I become concerned. I am tired after almost 12 hours of travel, and as he locks the car doors, I realize I’ve made a mistake. As he drives, he begins rubbing my thighs and telling me he’s been praying to God for an American wife. The more I move his hand and say “No,” as my amazing father taught me almost 20 years before, the angrier he gets and the more I begin fearing for my life. As we go 70 miles per hour down the freeway, I begin to wonder if I would die if I jumped out of the car. He is still rubbing me. I look at my phone beeping and saying 1%. I wonder if I should call my friend who is waiting for me, or call my mom and brother to say goodbye. I call my friend, and keep her on the line as long as possible so that he knows someone is waiting for me. As we near her street, he takes a turn down a dark alley. I see a woman coming towards the taxi and claim it’s my friend. As I shove money at him and go to walk away, he pushes me up against the car and forces his lips against mine, hand tight against the back of my head. Instinctively, my hand punches him in the throat and I walk towards the woman as I hear him gasp behind me. He circles us in his car four times before finally leaving, like a predator who can’t let his prey escape. I was lucky to make it out of that situation. I was lucky because I am woman.
It means that at 22 in the Dominican Republic, I go out dancing with my two friends on the beach just a few minutes away from my apartment. As I dance around laughing and having an amazing night, a man from Las Vegas introduces himself to me. Excited to meet someone who speaks English, I chat with him. He offers to buy me a drink so I accept. After a bit of time, he continually tries to steer me away from my friends, and I continually refuse. I feel guilty that he bought me a drink yet I won’t dance with him, because I am woman, so I try to give the drink back to him, yet he refuses. I explain I have a boyfriend, and he forcefully asks if my male friend is my boyfriend, to which I say “no.” I explain I just don’t want to dance with him. This answer clearly won’t suffice because I am woman. He grabs my shoulders, looks me in the eyes, and says “I will pay you $8,000 to come home with me tonight.” After my drink goes in his face and I am screaming in a fit of hysterics, he raises his hand at me and screams in my ear “CUNT!” I begin crying, because I am woman. I am hurt, because I am woman. I feel guilty, because I am woman. And my friend tells me I should be flattered because he thought I was worth so much. When I tell my boyfriend at the time, in tears, unable to process what had happened, he says “Well what did you expect dancing at 2 AM in that little dress?” I don’t know what I expected, because I am woman.
It means that I am 24. I am at a training for animal husbandry in Tanzania. I am here for professional development. I am here to better my service to the Tanzanian people. At an afternoon snack break, a fellow volunteer’s counterpart says to me “ladies first.” “Thank you!” I say, and move in line ahead of him. I feel him press himself in back of me. I inch forward towards my best friend who is in front of me. Again, he steps forward and presses the entirety of his body ahead of me. I shuffle forward. Again, he presses himself into me. I can feel all of him. I cringe. I feel disgusting. I’m not hungry anymore. I move out of line, and all I can do is tell my friend about how skeezy that old man was. That’s all I can do. Because I am woman.
It means that my male friends often get to speak up for me. It means that I have to just ignore the cat calls on the street, no matter what continent I’m on. It means that I have to run with only one ear bud in, because I need to be able to hear if a man approaches me from behind. It means I don’t go anywhere by myself after dark. It means that I need to wear clothes that accentuate my features, but are not too scandalous. It means that I have to take up less space than the man beside me on the bus. It means that I need to have a good reason for not giving a man my phone number because “I don’t want you to contact me” isn’t good enough. It means that when I’m out at the club dancing, I can expect that a man will come up behind me and begin grinding with me before I’ve seen his face or know his name, when all I want to do is dance on my own. It means that if a man hits on me, and it makes me feel disgusted and small, I still feel guilty because I know it would upset my boyfriend, even though I played no part in it. It means that liking craft beer and whiskey can tell a man all he needs to know about me, based on his own opinions. It means that I sleep with a machete under my bed just in case. It means that while working on a farm, a male coworker tells me it’s better when I wear a hat because I look more modest, my blonde hair is just too flashy for a farm. It means that it’s impressive that I can talk about politics, but I can’t know too much or else it might intimidate the male I’m speaking to. It means that when I speak up about social justice issues I am ranting, but a male doing the same is advocating. It means I am woman.
In a recent conversation with my dad, he told me not to become a man hater. I am not, nor do I plan on ever becoming one. There are so many incredible men in my life, such as my brother, who is one of the best people I’ve ever met on this earth, my boyfriend, all of my amazing male friends, both home, abroad, and in Tanzania, my countless male role-models and teachers, and of course my dad. I could never be a man hater because we need men. We need good men to be able to look at women and say “I will never understand what you go through on a daily basis, but I am your ally. How can I support you in ending (white heterosexual) male privilege and empowering all women?” We need men to help us raise sons who will never lay a hand on a woman without her consent, who will never disrespect women because of their gender, and who will be future allies on the road to empowerment. We need men to look at their friends and say “I noticed that how you just treated that woman is not ok. I cannot support your actions.” We need men who are good hearted, open minded, and supportive. Those men exist. We all know them. But we need them to really understand why it is so easy to be upset about gender inequality. I am not a man hater. I would never tell a female friend to be a man hater. But if she said to me, “I hate men” I could not blame her either.
As I read the news about rapist Brock Turner, and my chest tightened, I wondered “Why? Why do I feel so strongly about this? Why do I want to scream right now?” I know it’s because I could’ve been the woman he raped. And I know it’s because if I ever were raped, the first question I would be asked is “What were you wearing?” I know that, because I am woman.
“Twende shambani.” Neema said to me with a hopeful expression.
I had been sitting in my counterparts’ house for a couple of hours. I was ready to go home and take a nap, letting the bright African sun dim a bit before going about my day. But I knew better. I love invitations to her farm. It is about a 30 minute walk downhill towards the river. There, she grows huge fields of sugarcane, greens, tomatoes, and sweet potatoes. We began the walk down, chatting away in Swahili. On the way, we stopped at a neighbors’ house. The girl there was about my age. “Do you have any vegetables?” Neema asked. The girl replied “No.” Neema invited her to come harvest greens with us so that she could eat well that night.
As we approached the many plots of full and lush greens, we all bent over and began harvesting. Neema told me to pick more, pick more. She could not possibly know how appreciative I was. I have been running every morning, and I know my iron is low, especially since I do not have access to meat in my village. This would be a great source of iron for me for the next few days, and it was free.
As the three of us started back up the hill to the village, I thought about how generous my village is with food. If you have food that you know you will not eat, you give it away as a gift to someone. If you grow food and you have some to spare, you give it away. If you think a friend is in need, you feed them. If someone comes to your house, you feed them, even if you only have one andaazi left and a bit of chai, it is theirs. Most of the food I eat at site has been gifted to me. I receive bags of rice, sweet potatoes, beans, onions, garlic, greens, tomatoes, and if I’m really lucky, eggs.
As Neema and I walked back, she began asking me what I will do once I return to America. I decided to take a shot at explaining my passion: food security.
In the US we have people who are hungry. We have people who are diabetic. We have people who are overweight. We have people who are underweight. We have people with body image issues. We have people who do not know where eggs come from. We have people who don’t know how to grow a carrot. And I feel sad knowing that if the apocalypse were to come today, most Americans would die. If all of the grocery stores crumbled, most Americans would not know where to turn for food.
How would you process your chicken? How would you cut your beef? How would you grow your veggies? Where would you plant fruit trees? How do you harvest honey? How would you make cheese? How would you sprout and grind wheat for bread? How would you cast a fishing line? How would you milk a cow?
The sad truth of our culture is that most of us do not know. And the part that really, really fires me up, is those who know do not teach others, and sell their produce at prices that the vast majority of Americans cannot afford. Why is good, organic produce, free of harmful pesticides, chemicals, and additives, accessible only to our elite? Why is it so cheap to eat a packet of pasta sides but a bunch of Organic kale is upwards of $5, more if you’re living around a city? Why do those of us who grow food rarely share it with our neighbors? How can those of us with money walk past a homeless man on the street and not even give him an apple, but we can spend $5 on an organic dark chocolate bar, because we think we need the antioxidants to lift our mood? When did our culture become so individualistic that we cannot share, provide for our neighbors, look out for those we call friends?
I explained this to Neema, and the more I talked, the more sure my Swahili became and the larger her eyes became. People don’t know how to milk a cow? They can’t plant a tomato? Not everyone grows food? But where do they get their food…?
That’s when we determined, maybe Peace Corps should also start a program where volunteers from other countries come to teach Americans. Because in the realm of food security, America needs help. We are currently importing chicken breast from China. It is loaded with a saline solution to keep it somewhat fresh. We don’t know how long this chicken has been dead. We don’t know how it was killed. We don’t know how it was raised, what it ate, if it was infused with hormones. We don’t know. We are removed.
What’s even scarier is that those who have organic chicken breast, at $15/pound, can’t give some to their neighbors who can only afford a 5 piece nugget from Wendy’s for their children.
So I ask this of those reading: Think about sharing. We learned about it in kindergarten. But somewhere along the way we became too focused on money, profit, consumerism, making something of ourselves, that we left our neighbors and community behind to do so. If you are a food producer, even if you have a small garden, share. Share some extra produce. Cook a harvest dinner for someone who you think maybe has never had food that fresh. Show a child the difference in the taste of a cherry tomato fresh off the vine from one in a store. Teach them to put their hands in the soil, to love life, to appreciate growth, to feel gratitude for all that grows and nourishes us. Better yet, teach a neighbor a skill. If you have a cow, show someone how to milk it. Buy someone a book about cheese making. Share some basil seeds. Spread the knowledge. Share some food. Be a part of a larger community.
As soon as we begin to share like the amazing, giving, wonderful Tanzanians I work with on a daily basis, the sooner our food security issues will diminish, and all the problems in health that are caused by these issues.
The irony is that I’m here to teach about food security. But all I’ve done is learn.
Maybe we all have something to learn from Tanzanians.
I have to apologize because it has now been two months since I’ve written a blog post, and my goal is always to write every two weeks. This will be a longer post because there is a lot to catch up on, but hopefully in the future I can write more frequently and cut down my word count for those of you who don’t want to sit through a novel (Hi Mom!)
June knocked me flat on my ass. It was like I was crawling, adjusting to life in my village, and I finally stood up, and someone pulled a rug out from under me, then kicked me in the back every time I tried to get back up. For a month. Peace Corps does a great job at preparing us for the “Resiliency cycle” or the bouts of depression most volunteers will face. I also came into this experience being told it will be the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But to be honest, if I had known how I personally would react to the feelings of isolation, loneliness, frustration, and guilt that are inevitable when placed by one’s self in a rural African village, I’m not sure I would’ve gotten on the plane. I also struggled with the beginning of summer at home, knowing my friends are all at the beach and doing fun summer activities, while it’s winter here in Tanzania and my village dips down into the 30s at night. The day I found frost under some trees during one of my morning runs, my friends then posted pictures of lying on the beach at home, and I pathetically crawled back into my bed to sulk.
I had thought about my coping mechanisms beforehand. Running, working out, hiking, writing in my journal, reading, and painting were all on my list. Although I’ve used all of these coping mechanisms, they were not sufficient to keep me from experiencing depression. I also discovered a new coping mechanism: Snuggling with my kitten and binging on Game of Thrones episodes. Probably not the healthiest decision. I would like to give a shoutout to those that were my lifeline in June, helping me through my saddest moments and encouraging me: First & foremost Jay and my mom, and my closest volunteers here- Cori, David (Hi Janet!), and Dennis.
Peace Corps expects that during months 4-6 volunteers will struggle with “lows” or depression, but that by month 8 we will find our stride and cultural appropriation will be complete. By this point we will be more comfortable in our villages, beginning projects, and feeling more confident in the language. Not everyone fits this model, but I certainly seem to be and I know many of my friends are as well. There is no structure for Health & Agriculture volunteers here in Tanzania unless we create one for ourselves. For three months, we’re dropped off at our villages and told that our only job is to build relationships and learn about our community. As someone who is a doer, I struggled with this. My wonderful boyfriend created an incredible workout schedule for me, so I have workouts to follow 2 times per day, 6 days per week. The rest of the time I have to really search for something to do in the village. The happiest news is that my Early Service Training begins in two weeks, and after this training I can finally begin projects! I feel blessed to have an extremely motivated village. The villagers have provided me with many project ideas and they seem very eager to work with me. No one has asked me for money, and generally people are very accepting of me. So for this I feel fortunate.
Despite these lows, I have experienced some really beautiful moments in the village. Some of these moments were big, and some small, but surprisingly it was the small moments that were the most meaningful.
A Beautiful Thing #1
My best friend in the village, Neema, and also my future counterpart, came over to visit me. I welcomed her into my house and she sat in a chair next to me at the kitchen table. I had been reading a National Geographic that my mom had recently mailed me. I handed it to Neema and she began flipping through the pages. We spent about two hours looking through together, her asking questions about pictures and various countries shown, and me answering as best as I could in Swahili. She saw the island of Seychelles, which is off the coast of Tanzania, but she had no idea what the ocean looked like. She saw pictures of giant crabs that roam the shores of Zanzibar, yet she had no idea those existed in her own country. We looked through pictures of Iranians, both of soldiers and civilians. We talked about how some women cover their heads but not all, and that it is personal preference, just like in Tanzania. She saw a picture of a young black boy sitting at a school desk in Washington, DC, and we had a long discussion about the diversity of Americans, and that they don’t all look like me. In short, we learned about the world around us together. We looked at maps, we learned about new cultures, and we expanded our minds beyond the parameters of Mambegu, Tanzania. This was an especially special bonding moment for us, and a very special moment for me.
A Beautiful Thing #2
One day I had made plans with Neema to go harvest food from her “chamba” or farm at 10 AM. When I returned from my run, I had a text message from her with many words I didn’t recognize. Upon opening my dictionary, I realized that there had been a death in my village and that there was a funeral. In Tanzania, the culture is extremely community-based. Even though I did not know the man who passed away, I was expected to attend because I’m a part of my village and therefore I’m a part of a huge family. Neema helped me dress in white and purple kanga and wrap my head. We discussed the differences in dressing for a funeral in Tanzania versus the United States. I told her that in the US, we wear black because we are mourning. Here in Tanzania, they wear bright colors. She said they are sad, but they are also celebrating his life and showing happiness to God for allowing him into Heaven. As we walked up to where the funeral was held, I was shocked to see that there were at least 700 people in attendance. It is customary to greet everyone, so I spent well over an hour shaking everyone’s hand, bending my knees into a curtsy, and saying the local Kibena greeting “Komwene.” The funeral lasted over seven hours and included the burial. There were no speeches, but people just sat together on the ground and talked. Before the burial, there was a procession line where we walked one by one past the open casket to say our goodbyes. It is not viewed as appropriate in Tanzanian culture to cry, but there were several Mamas wailing near the open casket, and I felt their grief. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, what language you’re speaking, the color of your skin, your education level, or your religion: love is love and family is family. A death is always a tragedy. My heart hurt for my mamas and my community. After the burial, we all ate ugali, rice, beans, potatoes, and beef together. How five mamas cooked for over seven hundred people I have no idea. I was grateful for the food because I was very hungry and dehydrated at that point. After the funeral, I went home with a greater understanding of the people in my village, and for a new appreciation for the health of all my loved ones back home.
A Beautiful Thing #3
I finally experienced a Tanzanian wedding! Tanzania is now the fourth country I’ve experienced a wedding at and I can say it was completely different than any I’ve ever been to. I (embarrassingly) was asked to sit up front next to the bridal party. This did allow for a front-row view of the festivities. Affection is not outwardly shown in Tanzania, it is rare even to see two Tanzanians of the same gender hug. So, the bride and groom did not smile or look at each other the entire time. There was presenting of cakes to both the parents of the bride and the parents of the groom, and finally to the bride and groom. Then the gift giving lasted for over an hour, beginning with gifts for each family, then gifts for the bride and groom. Common gifts included dishes, kitenge (Tanzanian fabric), and money. I gave some sand colored kitenge with a seashell design, and I had to hold one corner and dance while three other mamas held corners and danced with me. There was a speech given in English thanking me for attending. The man who gave the speech had gone to University in Japan and felt the need to express his love for the USA and Obama to me, which of course made me laugh. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed knowing that in the eyes of these villagers, I represent the US as a whole, and so I do my best to not only give our country a good image to promote peace and understanding between the two cultures, but also to educate about the diversity and complexities of the US. There was also lots of singing and dancing at the wedding. After, there was some amazing food, and I was so grateful because I was very hungry. They served my favorite Tanzanian dish of pilau (spiced rice), potatoes, beef, chicken, and beans. I was also the only person given a spoon to eat with, while everyone else ate with their hands, which embarrassed me as well but I felt grateful.
A Beautiful Thing #4
During a beautiful sunset on a Thursday night, I was visiting with some mamas near the village office. They told me to come to their house at 9 AM the following day to cook some sweet potatoes. It is not uncommon in Tanzania to eat potatoes for breakfast, so I was excited to think of spending the morning just getting to know these women better over cooking chai. The next morning I woke up, got dressed for the bone-chilling first step out of my courtyard door, and walked to their house. Not all of the mamas were there yet, so I sat down with one older mama in the grass and interviewed her for my “Community Entry Passport” assignment Peace Corps has given us. Halfway through the interview some men approached us and began speaking to me in very good English. Knowing that people do not know English in my village well enough to carry a conversation, I felt an overwhelming feeling of joy, and I also recognized that these men were from another part of Tanzania. It was the first time in a long time I could express myself, especially in terms of humor and emotions, which I cannot express in Swahili, to a Tanzanian. They understood how difficult it was to be away from home, from my family, and to be 8000 miles away from everything I love and hold dear. People in my village cannot grasp this because they haven’t traveled very much outside of the village, so to be on another continent is almost incomprehensible. I soon found out what the Mamas had meant by “cooking sweet potatoes.”
The English speaking men were hired by USAID to conduct a project through an agricultural institute in Mbeya. Several villages, chosen by their fertile soil and motivated villagers (two definite strengths of Mambegu), were asked to grow fifteen different sweet potato varieties to cook and test for taste, vitamin A levels, texture, fiber, starch, and overall deliciousness. I first went with Neema and a couple mamas to different plots to harvest the potatoes. The men watched the women do all of the hard labor, while they talked in English so that the people from my village wouldn’t understand them. This really bothered me, and it was the first time I realized how in love with my villagers I am, how defensive I feel for them, how I want to protect them because they protect and take care of me, and how they have become my family. It was profound. I worked side by side with the mamas in the hot sun. Finally, we had harvested the potatoes, and I got to hang out with about fifteen mamas and do taste tests of all fifteen varieties. They were very scientific about it. We each had charts to fill out rating each potato based on different categories, and after each testing we were instructed to drink water to cleanse our palettes. These mamas knew what they were doing. I was shocked to find that each potato really did have a different taste and some were significantly better than others. I had the best afternoon laughing and learning with the mamas, and I really felt a part of my village. It was an amazing day of bonding and relationship building, and I was also gifted a huge rice sack of sweet potatoes that I’m still working on.
A Beautiful Thing #5
Getting myself out for my morning runs has become increasingly difficult. People stare at me less and laugh less, but I still feel odd running past the villagers as they begin their morning farm work. In this culture, you don’t run unless you need to, or unless you’re a young man playing soccer. It’s very odd for a woman to run. Usually women are up at 5 AM to begin household chores, and by 8 AM they are headed to their chambas to begin their daily harvest. Why would they expend their energy on a run? For this reason, I am constantly having to acknowledge my privilege whenever I step out in my running shoes, and acknowledging my privilege is good, but it can also easily lead to feelings of guilt.
However this run was different. During my second mile, a mama ran up beside me. We greeted each other, and then she said “Are you doing exercise?” and I responded “Ndiyo.” She ran by my side for almost a mile. As we parted ways she looked at me and said “Asante. Nimefurahi sana. Sasa najua wanawake wanaweza kufanya mazoezi.”
“Thank you. I am so happy. Now I know women can do exercise.”
My heart swelled as I thanked her.
A Beautiful Thing #6
I purposefully got lost on miles and miles of cow paths headed towards the mountains in my village. The sun was shining, the mountains were standing tall and bold and turning all hues of blue and purple, while the sun was outlining their ridges in gold. I was walking down sand paths following cow hoof prints and marveling at the magnificent twists in the trees. I was completely alone and it was amazing. In the distance I could hear cowbells coming toward me. I always feel so happy at the sound of the cowbells. A herd of about fifteen cows and one lone donkey rounded the corner and trotted toward me, with their cowboy and a dog herding them from behind, taking them out to graze. I stood aside and let them pass, letting myself feel the happiness that I always feel when I’m in the presence of animals. What a simple and beautiful farming community I’ve found myself in, not too different from the one I left behind in Vermont.
All of the loneliness and isolation hurts, and it exists because there are people and hobbies and moments I left behind in the US to serve this community, and I miss those people and I miss my life. I think of it nostalgically and often. Sometimes I just want a green mountain special from Parker Pie and I just want to sit with my mom on the couch and watch bridesmaids and laugh. I want to go on a hike with my boyfriend and our beautiful, energetic dog. I want to drive my car with my brother in the passenger seat headed to Red Sky Trading Co to get red velvet cake and their amazing cookies. I want to build sheep fence with my dad and gallop through the fields on my horse Dandi.
But here I am and here these beautiful moments are happening. I am growing. I am learning to be happy. I am grateful. I am changing. I am at peace.
It’s hard to believe that it has been a month since I moved to Mambegu. So much has happened yet the month seems to have flown by. The first two weeks felt like they were dragging, like the homesickness and loneliness would never dissipate. I threw myself into village life hoping to make connections and friends that would keep these feelings at bay.
When I first moved into my village, it was difficult for me mentally to leave my house because I consistently felt like a zoo animal. People would come outside just to see the “Mzungu.” Children wouldn’t greet me with the respectful “Shikamoo” greeting because they were terrified of me. I wondered if I looked like a horrifying ghost. Young women looked at me with suspicion. The “Vijana” beckoned me and laughed at me. But I pushed myself to leave my house everyday because I knew eventually they will get used to me. Though this was difficult at first, I tried to be understanding. Their understanding of someone with white skin is extremely limited. Most villagers only have a TV to watch Tanzanian gospel music videos. There’s not a lot of information coming across about other countries, other races, etc. This is why Peace Corps’ goal to educate Host-Country Nationals on behalf of the United States is so important. Although difficult, it is my job to show that I am a human being as well, with feelings, with a need for connection and relationships, and with passions and opinions.
By my second week at site, I was walking down a path with two mamas, and I heard a man behind me yelling “Mzungu! Eeehhhh, MZUNGU!!!” Before I could react, the mamas turned around and simultaneously yelled “Anaitwa Mikaela!” That was one of the last times I’ve heard someone call me Mzungu.
I started off the third week at site in my local preschool. About fifty of the littlest, cutest, roundest faces peered at me shyly, with wonder, bashfulness playing at the corners of their mouths, tiny giggles rolling across the room. I didn’t know exactly what to do with them, but the teacher had sat me at the front of the room and then left to play on her phone. I decided to stand up and teach them “Head, Shoulders, Knees & Toes.” The first go around was just my voice with them gaping at me open-mouthed. The second go-around I heard one or two brave but quiet voices join in for every other word. By the fifth or sixth time I sang, the kids were standing, screaming the song, pointing at each body part, laughing and smiling and playing. After this, I decided to return home for lunch. As I stepped out of the classroom and walked a few steps, I heard a noise behind me. I turned around, and saw all fifty children following me at a slow distance. Two little girls stepped forward and said “Mikaela…can we walk with you?” And all of a sudden I had the cutest little friends in the world.
During my fourth week I held several meetings to gather information about my village. The first meeting was with a woman who works with HIV patients at the local Ilembula hospital. She happily talked to me for over two hours and showed me many records and their filing system. I learned that Testing and ART treatments are free for the people in my village, and there’s even a car funded by the US government in cooperation with the Tanzanian government that doctors and health professionals use to come to my village and treat people in their own homes. This eliminates the transportation issue, and ensures everyone can get the treatment they need despite income. There is also a meeting once a month for those who are sick, and she invited me to come and be a part of them. After answering all of my questions happily, she gifted me an entire bag of potatoes from her farm and walked me home. I am so excited to begin educational projects focused on HIV Prevention.
I had another meeting with my Village Officer about potential projects. He told me that in my two years they really need a health clinic built so that people don’t have to drive to the closest clinic which is a twenty minute drive away, and most people do not have cars. This is a huge project, most likely one I will look into in my second year, as it would entail grants and making sure all infrastructure is in place. They also asked me for smaller projects such as a chicken group for the Mamas. As I mentioned this to other women in the village, they became so excited and thankful. Since we all really love chickens, I think this could be a great place to start.
On my way home I stopped at my friends house to visit her and her children and gift them bananas that I had harvested that day from my banana tree. She was so excited that I had came, and her daughter was singing the song she learned from me at Preschool. After the visit, she insisted on walking me home, talking about how much she wants a chicken group the entire way. We shared jokes, laughed, and enjoyed each other’s company as we strolled slowly through the cornfields.
At the end of the week I had to travel for a superregional conference for Peace Corps. On my way to catch my 6:30 AM bus to Ilembula, I stepped foot onto the mainroad. There were three children, but instead of looking scared like they had just one month prior, one of them perked up and said “Mikaela!!! Shikamoo” and the other two bowed on their knees and said “Shikamoo” to show respect. My heart felt so full. Pole Pole (slowly), I am becoming a part of this village. And I have so much love for the people here.
On April 24, 2016, I was a jumble of nerves. I woke up at the Chani in Njombe and began packing up my belongings into eight (Yes, eight!), large bags. I couldn’t even comprehend how I was going to move this huge pile of things to my house out in rural Mambegu via public transportation. Luckily, my VEO (Village Executive Officer), was coming to help me move, and I had been assured that Tanzanians move all the time via buses, and that it wouldn’t be a problem. I frantically shopped for last minute fruits and vegetables at the local sokoni (market), and returned to the Chani. My VEO was waiting, ready to take me by taxi to the bus stand.
I just wanted it to be over. I had been traveling and hauling bags for far too long. I was ready to just have my own space, to unpack, to settle in. I knew I was so close, but I was also terrified to leave my American friends and to begin life in a village who had never had a Peace Corps volunteer before. I had so many questions and worries, but I dismissed them, knowing that every step of service so far has seemed too great of a challenge, and I’ve already come this far. Sometimes the only way out is not actually out, but through.
I waited on the bus for a couple of hours before we actually began moving. Plenty of people had helped me load all of my belongings onto the small bus, and I was seated and ready to go. As we rolled out of Njombe, I felt so anxious. It had been raining heavily the past few days, and so as we turned onto a dirt road and were greeted with what seemed to be miles of mud pits, we had to backtrack onto a smaller road through a cornfield. Of course, we became stuck. After two hours of waiting for another bus, we had to unload all of my stuff again, and reload it. Finally, as the sun was setting over the horizon of the Southern Highlands, I rolled into Mambegu. My VEO turned to me with a friendly and enthused toothless smile and said, “Mikaela, karibu Mambegu.”
Several people helped me carry all of my belongings to my house. It was easier than I had expected. We reached my house as the dark was setting in, and I could see a small solar light lighting up my small, concrete greeting room, and dinner on the table. They had prepared rice and chicken. Overwhelmed, I moved bags into my room, hung up my mosquito net, and not wanting to be left alone in the dark, looked frantically for my headlamp to no avail. They encouraged me to sit down and relax. I ate a small amount, telling them I was tired. Finally, they left my house and told me they would see me in the morning. I was happy to be alone, but also terrified. Since I couldn’t see anything, and I had no electricity, I just crawled under my mosquito net. There were no latches or locks on my doors, even the door to my courtyard gate, so all night I could hear the tin door slamming in the wind. Birds and leaves would land on my tin roof throughout the night and jolt me from my uneasy sleep. (I have since had locks put on my doors) I knew I just needed to make it until morning.
After an exhausting night, I rubbed my eyes at 6:00 AM, waking to the sounds of school children singing and drumming. Not knowing what time my neighbors would come over, as Tanzanians are up and at the day much earlier than Americans, I crawled out of bed and got dressed. I got to cleaning my house. I boiled my drinking water, swept and mopped my floors, washed my dishes, made some fresh juice, swept my courtyard, and tried to unpack some things. As promised, at 9 AM two mamas, Evelina and Neema, came over. Having them in my house was both wonderful and stressful. They wanted to cook for me, but I just wanted to juice to cleanse my body of all the things I had been eating for the past three months. They wanted to clean but I had already started cleaning, and wanted them to know I could do it myself. They were shocked to find out that I could mop and sweep and wash my own clothes. Finally, at 12, I was so exhausted from trying to converse in swahili and settle in, I told them I needed to rest. They asked, “What do you want us to do for you?” I said, “I can cook and clean, but I would like if tomorrow you can show me around the village and introduce me to my neighbors.” That was the best move I could have made. For the rest of the day I washed my clothes by hand, hung them in the sun to dry, tanned in my courtyard, napped, and went for a walk. Upon realizing I only had two hours of daylight left, I became sad and lonely. The day had felt so incredibly long. I couldn’t even comprehend how I would make it through two years of long days. I sat down and cried. But of course, the next morning came.
At about 9 AM, Evelina met me at my house and led me to the school. I was able to charge my cell phone, meet the teachers, and introduce myself to all the students. We then went to the center of town where I met the seamstress who can make me dresses, met the local shop owners where I can buy things, and greeted various people who stared at me in shock. We met up with Neema, and walked to a house with many animals and gardens. I learned that this was the pastor’s house. The pastor is a woman with a big personality. She invited me in for chai, and I accepted. I know that just drinking chai with someone can forge a good relationship, so I wanted to make as good of an impression as possible. To escape any obligation to go to church, I said that I am Quaker and we worship in our home. Unfortunately for me, this only resulted in them trying to convince me to become Lutheran. We will see how that goes. We then met up with my VEO, who led me to his office to sign into the guest book. Finally, the three of us walked to Neema’s house, where she prepared chai and eggs. I sat and discussed, in my limited swahili, large scale dairy operations with Neema’s husband and my VEO. They thought that I had made a mistake when I told them some farms can have thousands of cows. They were in disbelief when I said that we use machines to milk the cows. Following this discussion, and many questions about farming in America, Neema’s husband showed me his cows, and asked how he can get them to produce more milk. This has been something commonly asked of me in my first week, so I think some dairy projects might be in order in my future here.
After eating, I bought some eggs from Neema, and told everyone that I love eggs. Neema disappeared for about five minutes, and then came back into the house holding an upside down chicken by the legs, legs bound together, wings splayed out to the side, head cocked. I didn’t know if it was dead or alive, I just knew I didn’t want it. She slapped it down on the chair next to me and I could see that it was alive, looking about wildly, struggling to free its legs. Neema smiled at me with her beautiful smile, and said “This is your chicken!” I named her Gracie, and carried her all the way back to my house. I guess this makes Mambegu my official home.
On Wednesday, I woke up and did my usual chores. Boiling and filtering drinking water is my most important morning activity, followed by sweeping and mopping the house. I really don’t want to have to deal with pests, and since my house is made of concrete, brick, and tin, I need to be diligent about that. Around 10 AM, Evelina came to my house and brought me to hers. She made me chai, and then we walked to meet Neema. We were going to work on Neema’s farm. We hiked for over an hour down some large hills, through fields, across rivers. This was truly a day I was upset at myself for not bringing a camera, but a day that I’ll never forget. As we approached Neema’s “shamba,” Evelina and I sat under the shade of a passionfruit tree, conversing in Swahili, while Neema took a machete and cut down stalks of the largest sugarcane I had ever seen. She handed pieces to Evelina and I, and as I sat under the tree gnawing on raw sugar cane, the sweet juice running down my throat, and looking up at the fluffy white clouds rolling across the blue sky, no cell phone or camera in my possession, just passing time with these women I had just met, all I could think was “Life is wild.” Neema and I built two garden beds and transplanted leafy greens called “cabichi.” I had no idea how many hours had passed before we walked back to my house. Time was irrelevant. I’m really living in rural Tanzania, having an experience that most only dream about. I’m the luckiest girl in the world.
Thursday was a big day. I had to give a speech to the entire village at their village meeting. I walked myself to the village office, and greeted some elderly women who were excited that I could greet them in their local Kibena language. “Komwene.” After waiting and greeting many officials, I was led outside in front of the villagers, who were looking up at me expectantly. I was directed to sit between the VEO and the Headmaster of the local school. After two speeches introducing me were given, I stood up and delivered my speech as best as I could in Swahili, which ultimately had to be translated to Kibena. Unfortunately, my ten weeks of Swahili training are feeling more and more irrelevant. The villagers laughed at my jokes, smiled at me, and cheered so loud when I finished. I felt so happy. As I sat back down, and looked out into the faces of the sweet, wise bibis and the excited, intrigued vijana (youth), I couldn’t stop thinking, this is going to be an amazing two years. I feel welcomed by an extremely accommodating and hospitable village, and I think they are willing to work with me, just as I am willing to serve them. I anticipate that there will be many challenges ahead, but that if I work on building solid relationships, we can do many amazing things together. The days will be slow, but the weeks will go fast. I know that I am in the right place at the very right time.