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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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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