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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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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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. ❤

 

 

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 ❤