I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant- TZ Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Rain Down in Africa

oxenWhen I first learned about rain dances I was just a young girl, but I remember marveling at how people could possibly think that dancing would make the rain come. I imagined many Africans in loin cloths dancing in a circle and chanting up towards the sky. I haven’t seen anyone in my village do any rain dances (nor have I seen anyone in a loin cloth) but this year, as we waited for the rains to come in the Southern Highlands, I was so desperate for rain I was ready to teach the villagers about rain dances.

I’ll never forget the first day the rains poured down over Mambegu in December. Our village had not seen any rain since I moved there in April, and things were bone dry. Usually the rain begins in November, and people can begin planting their crops in December. This year Mambegu saw only 2 days of heavy rain in December, and villagers were beginning to get worried. The soil was too hard and dry to work, but the villagers depend on their corn supply for both food (ugali is a Tanzanian staple at almost every meal, and made with corn flour) and to sell to the government for money in September. Everyone’s livelihoods are dependent on the rain.

With the onset of rain, the village awoke as if from a long hibernation. It approached the village slowly. Dark, ominous storm clouds gathered over the vast farm land between our village and the neighboring villages Korintho and Durham. Although taking their time, the clouds were surely headed in our direction. The sun faded away in the haze, and sheets of slate grey rain were moving visibly over the mountains. I heard the sprinkle on my tin roof for only minutes before the sky opened and a downpour let loose. I couldn’t hear anything above the deafening roar. Standing in my doorway, enjoying the fresh breeze of the storm, I watched as the rain pelted down and filled within only minutes huge tubs and buckets that I had laid out. I was so grateful for the water, as my spigot had run dry in the rain’s absence.

In a spur-of-the-moment decision, I realized it had been a week since my hair had been washed. I grabbed my shampoo and conditioner, stripped down, and stepped out under the roof gutter, where the rain was angrily spilling down into the dirt below my feet. I showered in the frigid water, teeth chattering, moving as quickly as possible, before feeling cleaner than I had in months and running back into the safety of my house for my towel and warm clothes. I was giddy. Everything felt different once the rain came, and that change was evident throughout the village in the following week.

Immediately following the rains, the soils were finally workable. As I walked through the village, I saw every field filled with teams of oxen trailed by plows and male teamsters. It was so quaint: mud brick homes with thatched roofs, oxen working the fields, and women following, pressing corn seeds into the soil with their bare feet, skirts and kitenge billowing in the wind, all in front of a gorgeous mountain backdrop. Everything in the village had come to a grinding halt, yet everything had come alive at the same time. All of the little “dukas” or stores were closed during the day, as every villager helped with the tilling and planting of corn and beans. It was impossible to not feel the energy the rain had brought on. Everywhere in the village, chatter and laughing echoed. People were uplifted. After spending so much time wondering when the rains would come, there was finally promise of another year of food.

For the first time in my life, I not only knew that water is life, but fully understood the extent of that statement. And rain is something to dance for.

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It’s Not Bad, It’s Just Different

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.

Oh and by the way, Neema loved the French Toast.

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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. ❤