A Day in the Life

img_3664Last Sunday I had the treat of being able to talk on the phone with my mom, my two cousins, and my aunt. As I settled into the one corner of my house that gets enough service to call America, my younger cousin Shayelagh answered the phone with a bright, “Tell us about your life!” My response was “I wake up and poop in a hole, boil my drinking water, sweep my concrete floors…” It’s hard for me to know what to say when I have my eyes closed, imagining myself in their cozy living room in front of a wood stove, laying on the comfortable couch, surrounded by the love of my family. In those moments when I’m on the phone with home, I struggle to remain positive because I miss the comforts of America so much.

I write all of this not to dwell on what I’m missing, but because today I’ve had a great day. Not that everyday isn’t great- I am thoroughly enjoying my Peace Corps experience, and after a year in country have figured out how to be happy with my new pace of life and content in my village. I am grateful for my situation. But today was a really great day, and so I would like to use it as an example of what my Peace Corps life is actually like.

7:00 AM- I wake up naturally to the sound of rain sprinkling on the tin roof. Through the crack in my curtain I can see it’s foggy and drizzling outside, so I decide to pull the blankets up over my shoulders and let myself sleep until 8.

7:30 AM- I can’t fall back asleep, so I get out of bed (carefully so as not to disturb the princess I sleep with every night…AKA my cat), walk into the main room of my house, grab my broom and give each of the 3 rooms a quick sweep. I then fill up my water bottle with some water that has been filtering overnight, and put on a pot of new water to boil for today’s supply of drinking water. I need to do laundry, but it doesn’t look like the sun is going to come out, so I won’t be able to. I check the tubs I’ve laid out to see how much water I have collected from the rain during the night, as my spigot is broken and the collected water will be all I have for the day. I see I have 3 full buckets, enough to wash dishes, boil drinking water, mop my floor (with my hands of course), and even take a bath later!

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8 AM: Morning workout

9 AM: I boil water for tea and make some oats. I turn on my computer and sit down with the itemized budget my Village Executive Officer (similar to a mayor or town clerk) has written out for the grant I am writing to build girls’ bathrooms at the school. I fill out the excel sheets and organize the paper work.

11 AM: I wash dishes, sweep and mop my house, reorganize my bedroom, fold laundry, etc.

12 PM: I scrub some potatoes, cut them, and begin boiling them. Unfortunately you can’t buy a small amount of potatoes in my banking town, you have to buy them by huge bucketfuls. Consequently, I have been eating mashed potatoes for the past week at least two times per day. Today might have been the last day for a while.

12:45 PM: I lay down for a nap. It’s a rough life, I know.

1:30 PM: I wake up and get ready for my meeting with my counterpart, Neema, and the Village Executive Officer. As previously mentioned, I am writing a grant to build bathrooms for the girls at the primary school. Many girls are currently missing 4 days- 1 week of school because they have started their periods and the bathrooms have no doors, are next to the boys’ bathrooms, do not have water inside, and are unsanitary (literally a hole in the  middle of a dirt floor). The girls skip school because they do not have privacy to keep themselves clean when menstruating, and are falling behind in their studies. Part of Peace Corps’ grant policy is that the village has to contribute at least 25% of the project cost, this way it makes them responsible for the project as well as shows that Peace Corps’ development approach isn’t to just hand over money; we work together to create change. So, today’s meeting is about what the village will be contributing in the construction of these bathrooms.

The walk to the village office takes me about 20 minutes. I walk on tiny dirt paths through cornfields, past mud and brick homes, I share the path with many children who are excited to talk with me, and I pass pigs and goats grazing on the sides of the path. When I arrive at the office, I am 10 minutes late (early by Tanzanian standards) but my counterpart had feared I wasn’t coming because “Americans are always on time.”

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3 PM: I return back to my house. I eat some almonds and read a few pages of a book.

4 PM: I leave my house and meet my 2 counterparts at the primary school to begin “Maua Mazuri” class. We are currently working with 6th grade girls, aged 12 & 13, to teach them life skills through the use of art. Today we are focusing on dealing with emotions by practicing dance. The girls have never been exposed to dance forms aside from the line-type dance moves Tanzanians do at church. These dance moves are hilarious and don’t have too much variation, but Tanzanians do them well. If you ever want to experience second-hand awkwardness, you should watch a Tanzanian gospel music video.

We begin the class by doing a dance warm-up to a Beyonce song. Within seconds the girls are in giggles, all smiles as we dance together. This is the first time in class they are really coming out of their shells. We then gather around to watch videos of various dance forms around the world: ballet, latin, cheer, tap, East African, and even musical theater. The girls are wide-eyed. They cannot believe what they are seeing. They especially loved the tap dancing because it made them laugh, and they liked the ballet and cheer as well. They told me they had never seen dance like that before, and asked if I could get more dance videos.

They then were instructed to choreograph their own dances based on an emotion they were given. The four emotions were happiness, anger, love, and sadness. They all did the same step dances you might see in church, but they changed their faces based on the emotions they were given, which I found incredibly hilarious and cute. Critical thinking and creativity are skills we are raised with in the United States. We are taught to be unique and creative as early as Pre-School, and even our toys (think: Linkin Logs, Legos, Puzzles, etc.) teach us how to construct, build, and think critically about things. These skills do not exist here. So Tanzanians are taught in school to copy what the teacher does, to memorize answers for a test, and to not necessarily ask why something is the way it is. This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, and has been frustrating to me. However, I am so happy to be doing a project utilizing the arts and teaching creativity, even if it is sometimes a painful process. I couldn’t be frustrated watching these dances, though, even though they were not creative to this culture, because the girls were just too cute. And they really did put all of their effort into turning the few dance moves they knew into dance moves showcasing their given emotion.

We had a dance circle to end class. As you might expect, the girls did whatever dance move I did. But, we had a lot of fun, and it means a lot to be silly with girls who rarely get to see adult teachers acting funny with them. I was so happy that they finally let loose. I foresee more fun and valuable moments in our class together.

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6 PM: I return home, make dinner, heat some water for a bucket bath, and call some friends from home.

9 PM: I draw and write on some flip charts in preparation for Sunday’s Grassroot Soccer class. On Sunday we will be utilizing soccer to talk about the differences in sex and gender with grade 7 girls.

10 PM: I am finishing this blog post, and think I’m going to get into bed. Tomorrow I’ll travel to town where I can get internet and upload this blog. The bus comes at 6:30 AM, so I will have to be up a little earlier than normal. I’m so excited to be able to eat meat and yogurt, which I can’t get in my village, and replenish my diet for the next week or two.

This is one of my better days in Mambegu, a day in my Peace Corps life

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Let’s Make Like Tanzanians: Food Security

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“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.

That’s scary.

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.

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The Beautiful Things

P1040812.JPGI 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.

 

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Neema working in the field.

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.

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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.

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Neema’s son, Harry, keep me laughing on my hardest days.

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.

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When you’re too fly for the rest of the wedding guests.
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My ginormous and amazing plate of food: Pilau, spaghetti, beef, chicken (including neck), and potatoes.
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The bride cutting her cake.

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.

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 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.

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Six days into the world.

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.

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Where the Sugarcane Grows

P10404451On 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.

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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.

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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.

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Chapati Cha Bliss & Awesomeness

Today marks one month since I left for Tanzania. I can’t believe it’s been a month! I have learned so much since coming. Training has been a blur so far, with more ups than downs. For that I’m grateful, because I know the downs will come. That being said, my time in Tanzania has naturally presented me with many challenges, some of which I expected and some of which are totally unexpected. Through the process of responding and reacting to these challenges, I’ve learned a lot about myself. So what is an example of a challenge I’m currently dealing with, you might ask.

As most of my friends know, from August 2015-January 2016 I made huge progress with most of my goals regarding fitness and nutrition. I dropped below 18% body fat for the first time in my life, maintained an all-time low weight, and became faster, stronger, and had more endurance than I ever had before. I also ran my first Spartan and accomplished many smaller goals, such as being able to do rope climbs, pull ups, and handstands. I knew coming into TZ that my diet and exercise would drastically change. I told myself I was prepared for this, but I was actually totally unprepared for how my drastic change in diet would affect my all-around daily performance, ability to learn, and how I feel about myself.

Where I once started my day with eggs, beef, and vegetables, followed by a day full of protein shakes, plenty of animal-sourced protein, fruits, and veggies, I now eat starches on my starches. Staples of the Tanzanian diet include ugali, rice, maandazi (literally an old-fashioned donut of Heaven), potatoes, white bread, and….CHAPATI!!! I’m going to whine a bit more about the starches and then get to the fun stuff…how to make chapati so that every person back home in good ol’ Marekani can experience the amazingness that is chapati. It’s so simple and amazing, try it, and comment about how it came out. I want to know! I have so many chapati ideas…well, we’ll get to those later.

So to stay somewhat healthy in TZ, I’ve been trying to ease up on the starches and take large servings of veggies, fruits, and since meat is scarce and expensive, beans and lentils for my protein. My host family is a bit apprehensive about eating raw vegetables, and it seems that most Tanzanians boil all the possible nutrients right out of veggies, but I did hit a milestone by preparing for them guacamole full of tomatoes, peppers, garlic, and lime juice. Surprisingly it was a big hit! So, baby steps…we’ll try banana egg pancakes soon. It’s not that Tanzanians want to be or are unhealthy, it’s that food security is a real issue here. In fact, according to a recent reading we were assigned in training, 44% of Tanzanians are food insecure, and malnutrition is a huge issue here. Because of poor soil quality, drought caused by climate change, and many other factors, this is the reality of Tanzanian life, and inevitably my life. This has also contributed to a love of starchy carbohydrates here, and it’s hard to convince people to change their behavior or habits. Anyone who works in the realm of fitness, nutrition, or health and medicine can attest to that. Finally, starches are cheap. An egg here is roughly 40 cents per egg, whereas rice can be bought for half the price for a much larger quantity. So, something I’m really interested in here is how to build on the Tanzanian staples so that families have access to nutritious foods that they still like to prepare and eat. But I do have to say, my family does a great job in eating vegetables and fruits at every meal! So I’m very grateful for that.

Anyways, chapati has been the one delicious amazing starch that I have no willpower over, and which I will happily add in as my own staple during my training. No shame. It’s all about nutrient timing…right? Right…So here it is!

P1040108 Chapati, hot off the pan, in all its glory. Just…oh my yes. It is flaky, oily, heavenly.You have to try this in your home kitchen. So what do you need?

  • Flour (preferably whole wheat, or you can play around with almond/coconut and let me know how it goes!)
  • Water
  • Oil

That’s it! Ready to get started?

  1. Add a small amount of oil and enough water to the flour until it creates a dough. The dough consistency will be similar to that of crescents. We eyeball it here in TZ but I’m sure you can google exact measurements if you’re so inclined. As you’re preparing the dough, heat up a frying pan (cast iron would be best I think) with a small amount of hot oil, just enough to coat the pan so that the dough doesn’t stick.
  2. On a floured surface, roll out smaller balls of the dough until it is thin and circular. Add a small amount of oil all over the top.

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3. After rolled out, cut one slice from the center of the dough to the edge. You’ll then pick up the corner and roll it inwards, until it’s rolled into a cone, or something like a rose bud. Here’s me after rolling my first chapati dough!

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4) Tuck the edge of the roll into the center of the top of the “cone.” Then smoosh it all down into a flat roll. It will look like a crescent pinwheel. Set aside.

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5) Once all your chapatis are rolled, flour the surface again, and roll out flat. Add a small amount of oil to the top of each dough after rolling out.

6) Add your chapati to the pan! This will happen fast on a hot pan. The chapati will want to bubble. Use a spoon to smooth out bubbles, and flip often (about every 10-30 seconds). You’ll flip the chapati several times before it’s done. Before flipping, always spread a thin layer of oil over the top of the dough. Once it’s brown and looking delicious on both sides, it’s done!

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So what could you do with chapati if you were in America and had access to every food on the planet ever? ADD CHEESE. Always add cheese. I would make a chapati bruschetta, a chapati pizza, a chapati quesadilla, chapati burritos, chapati with nutella, peanut butter, and banana, or chapati with baked apple and cinnamon topped with ice cream, to name a few ideas. What will you do with your chapati? Give it a shot! I will be eating plain chapati in the mean time, and loving every second of it. Until next time! Asante kwa kusoma. ❤

 

 

Choo-ing with Cockroaches

IMG_9911Night 1:

It was an 8 hour bus ride from Dar es Salaam to Dodoma, where our 9 week Peace Corps training would be held. As we left the lush green fields and endless, towering mountains behind us, we rolled into dusty Dodoma city. Already heavy with fatigue from the previous week, I could barely lift my eyelids to take in what would be my home for the next 9 weeks. Soon enough, nerves started to wake me; in only a matter of hours, I would be sitting alone with a completely new family, with only a few Kiswahili phrases to pass the time.

 

Would they like me? How many family members would there be? What if I forget to properly greet the elders and they think I’m disrespectful? What if they try to feed me something I don’t like? What if it’s awkward? It’s going to be awkward…How do I shower? Wash laundry? Do I help cook dinner?

 

All of a sudden I found myself separated from my American friends, walking down a dusty dirt path with only a suitcase and a backpack. There was only one mama to greet me. She showed me to my room and then went outside. I didn’t know what to do. I went outside and greeted an elderly woman, who is my bibi (grandmother). Then I sat in silence with these two women.

 

I tried to get comfortable in this silence. There were two teenage girls cooking on a charcoal stove who were too shy to greet me. Children stared at the new mzungu (white person) who was sitting outside their house. There was a baby who cried when my mama told him to shikamoo (greeting of respect) me. He bawled his eyes out. He was scared of my whiteness. I can’t blame him…sometimes I am too.

 

We ate dinner in silence; it was long and awkward. After, I was brought out to the shower, which is an outdoor tin roofed stall. I was handed one bucket of warm water. As I stood there naked, running a small cup of water over my body, I had flashbacks of my daily long, hot showers in Vermont. What have I done? Can I really do this for two years? I don’t know if I can. Why did I want to do this again? I thought way too much about the fun stuff and didn’t understand how difficult daily life would be. I wonder what my friends and family are doing in America right now? What would I be doing? Probably taking a long hot shower…I just don’t know why I signed up for this.

 

I know that these feelings are normal and that this will likely be one of the hardest nights of my service. They prepped us for this in training. I know I can do it. I know I’ll be ok. I just have to make it to morning.

 

Night 2:

I can feel the homesickness setting in. After 9 hours of intensive Kiswahili classes, I feel the loneliness crush me like a thousand bricks on my chest. I know I’m going to cry. I know I have nothing but time before bed to think about my homesickness. There is nothing to distract me. I have no way of getting in touch with home. No phone, no internet, not even a post office. I stare up at the late afternoon sun and know it is hovering over my home in the US. I let myself go in my room and cry. After five minutes, I get up off my bed, and push myself to go sit under a mango tree with Bibi. Soon, my dada Joy (sister) hands me a hoe and we begin to weed the entire compound together in silence. I’m happy for the distraction, but totally exhausted. I try to pet my Mbuzi (baby goat) but even he doesn’t want to play. I go nap instead.

 

Feeling a little refreshed, I decide to bathe.

 

Stepping into the dark, damp wash stall, I hang my kanga (piece of fabric we wrap around our waists/bodies while in the house) in the doorway and spot a cream-colored lizard on the wall. Without thinking, I whip my kanga at it, causing it to scurry over the wall. Again, I daydream about a time in America when my showers didn’t include peeping lizards. Not wanting to lose myself in a cloud of negativity in focusing on what luxuries I left at home, I turn my attention towards the black African rainclouds rolling in across the mountains. Individual lightning bolts electrify each cloud in bright flashes. I’m happy to watch the storm approach.

 

After, I help my sisters with dinner. They are reluctant to let me help, either because I’m a guest in their home or they think I’m incapable because Americans are really bad at using charcoal stoves and doing all of the practical things of daily Tanzanian life. Eventually they hand me a bowl of tomatoes, onions, and peppers to chop. My sisters have their teenage friends over. Everyone has a working cell phone. I can’t stop thinking about calling home. The more I think about the feeling of isolation, the more I feel tears brimming on top of my lower lashes. I bite it back.

 

I remind myself that growth hurts when you’re in the middle of it, and that this pain and discomfort is temporary. Soon, I will be a much stronger person.

 

Before bed, I walk out into the darkness to use the toilet (choo) one last time. As I open the door, a cockroach scuttles across the foot placements and towards the hole of the choo. Disgust ripples down my spine. I take a cupful of water and flush the cockroach down the hole. As I turn and squat over the hole, I feel watched. I raise my head to find three more cockroaches staring back at me, their feelers twitching on their heads. I do nothing except the inevitable- choo with cockroaches.

 

Night 3:

I meet my host kaka’s (brother’s) wife and her little toddler, Emmy.

“Nipe Tano, Emmy!” (Give me 5!) I try.

Emmy giggles and pounds my fist, repeating “nipe tano!” She then invites me to sit next to her at the dinner table. As we both use our right hands to shovel ugali, beans, and cooked greens into our mouths, I am struck by what a child I am in this situation. I am literally relearning everything. I don’t even yet know how to eat properly without silverware, but this amazing family has taken me in for 9 weeks and offered to teach me everything. I’m feeling so grateful (and a little messy).

 

After, the family gathers to look at my photo album. It is passed around many times, and I use it as a chance to practice my Kiswahili. My dadas (sisters) think my brother is so cute, and my bibi and mama are very pleased with all of the pictures of my boyfriend. The whole family is blown away by how beautiful my mom is, the pictures of cows and horses, and they all absolutely love a picture of some alpacas I brought along.  After a great night of bonding, I crawl under my mosquito net into bed where I peacefully fall asleep so the sound of rain on the tin roof above me.

 

During the night, I awake to loud screeching noises. I lay silent, not even breathing, adrenaline coursing through my body. There are laughing-like utterances. I realize hyenas are outside my compound. I drift back to sleep, thinking that it feels the same as coyotes in America. As my American life drifts farther behind me, I am coming to find that everything is different, yet everything is the same. I am at peace.

 

Night 4:

I sit outside watching my dada shave fresh coconut. My mama is sharing blue grapes with me and we are lighting the charcoal stove. They are patient as I practice my Swahili and give them blank stares when I don’t understand them. I watch as Emmy’s father, my kaka, drives up on his motorcycle.

 

“Baba!!!” She screams, and runs towards him. He greets her with kisses, popcorn, and chocolate. As she runs to me to share her chocolate, he greets his wife and mother lovingly, and shakes my hand. I am surrounded by love. I am a part of this family. Everything is ok.

 

Kuwa huru. Be free.

I’m Moving to Africa

I thought about packing today. I really did. I was just giving a presentation to some high school students about my experiences in South Africa and got so pumped up about traveling in Africa again that I decided “Today is the day, Mikaela! Today, you will pack!” And then I made a cup of coffee and decided to blog instead. With only 19 days to go, I’m a chronic procrastinator. How do you fit everything you need for two years into two bags that weigh under 100 pounds? It’s hitting me that I’m moving to Africa.

In May 2015 I sat on my bed in Moorpark, California (where I was farming at the time) and finished what was my second PeaceCorps application. I had initially applied in 2014 while I was still at Middlebury College. After graduating, I moved to the Dominican Republic to serve with the Mariposa Foundation. My contract was from September-June. The PeaceCorps had asked me to serve in the health sector in Mozambique in April 2015, but because of my commitment to Mariposa (which ended up falling through unfortunately) I said no. So there I was again, filling out more PeaceCorps applications. I wasn’t even sure if I really wanted to do PeaceCorps anymore because I had experienced the volunteer life abroad already, and it was the most challenging experience of my life. After, I was living outside of Los Angeles in a cushy American life. Moving to a remote, dusty village far from home seemed less than ideal. But in my heart, I have known since high school that PeaceCorps is for me. And on July 27th, I was invited to serve as an agriculture volunteer in Tanzania, the perfect placement. It took me less than 24 hours to accept my decision and turn down another job offer in Northern California…I’m moving to Africa.

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My Flight Route: Burlington>Philadelphia>NYC>Johannesburg>Dar Es Salaam

I love that line. “I’m moving to Africa.” I’ve tested it out in almost every situation imaginable and I love the different reactions I get. Every now and then, I encounter someone who knows their African geography and is able to ask “where?” This makes my heart sing. But the majority of the time, I get a wide-eyed, gaping mouthed stare, followed by a question, which can range from intrigued, to humorous, to downright offensive. This is my favorite part. One of PeaceCorps’ missions is to educate fellow Americans about other cultures. I had no idea my job would start as soon as I accepted my invitation. So in response to all of these questions…here’s what I think about “moving to Africa.”

I first and foremost want to remind everyone that Africa is a continent. In fact, it is the second largest continent in the world! It is extremely diverse. There are thousands of languages, cultures, ethnicities, and religions. Remember the images in your mind that you got when you had to read “The Heart of Darkness” in high school? Throw those out the window! Africa is not one big dark jungle full of savages. It is a continent full of varied climates, including savannah, desert, snow, and yes, most of the countries in Africa have urban landscapes! Cities just like we know them in the US! I know it is hard to redefine your image of “Africa,” but the reality is that most countries are more “modern” and “developed” than the average American expects them to be. Just to show how large Africa actually is…

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Yes, it’s huge. So now that we have that covered…

Another common response I get when I say “I’m moving to Africa” is “Don’t get Ebola!” I cringe when I hear this because I know this is a direct response from Western media, who usually only focuses on the bad things that happen in Africa and ignores all of the amazing things that are happening across the continent. The Ebola epidemic occurred in 2014 and was a very serious outbreak; however, this occurred in West Africa, almost 5,000 miles from where I’ll be. In fact, those in Spain are closer to where the outbreak occurred than where I’ll be. I don’t anticipate encountering Ebola while there, or any other deadly diseases, in fact. I am more likely to encounter a typical flu virus or get food poisoning than I am of contracting a deadly disease.

“I’m moving to Africa.” “Oh, will you have to eat dog/chimpanzee/bugs/snake/etc. etc.?!” Probably not. I have never traveled to Tanzania, but I have been in South Africa, Burundi, and Morocco, and I have never had an African friend or host family let me leave their house without enjoying at least some tea or a very delicious meal. In Morocco I enjoyed couscous Fridays with roasted vegetables and chicken, in South Africa I was often treated to braai which featured amazing sausages and chakalaka (my favorite!), and in Burundi I was constantly treated with fresh fruits, fried plantains, delicious chicken, and amazing vegetables, topped off with beer at every meal. I know that I will be living on a volunteer stipend in Tanzania and will not be eating gourmet meals for my two year stay, but I also know that the food will probably be delicious.

“I’m moving to Africa.” “Are you scared of ISIS/Al-Shabab/Terrorists/Getting raped/Crime?” No. I’m not scared. In terms of ISIS, I feel safer going to Tanzania than I would if I was moving to a major American city. Bad things can happen anywhere in the world. Life can be taken from us at any instant. It is fragile. I am following my dream, and would rather know that than stay in the Northeast Kingdom out of fear of all the bad things occurring in the world. As a PeaceCorps volunteer, I know that my safety is a priority. I will work hard to be integrated into my community so that I will be even safer. Life is too short to worry about stuff like that. So what do I worry about? How many lizards I’ll be sharing my house with, what I will do if I get food poisoning and can’t make it to my outdoor pit latrine, if my clothes will be nice enough for the PeaceCorps dress code, whether my host family will like me, if I’ll still remember my Spanish after learning Swahili, if I’ll even pick up Swahili fast enough…the petty stuff. And I know in a couple months I’ll be laughing at these worries, and I’ll have different worries.

So…I’m moving to Africa! A place of sunshine, laughter, and love. I cannot wait. I am a bundle of mixed emotions, but I am certain this will be one of the best experiences of my life. I have never been so mentally or emotionally prepared for something. If only I was actually prepared…which reminds me, I should get packing. Karibu (welcome) to my blog. If you care to learn more about Tanzania, follow along. Asante Sana.

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With love, Mzungu Mikaela ❤