Faces of Mambegu: Mama Kaliyakoo

IMG_5080If you take a left onto the main path by my house, follow the path to the end, and take another left, the first house you see, next to the pit where they make bricks, is Mama Kaliyakoo’s house, my favorite hangout spot in the village. I first met Mama Kaliyakoo during my second day in my village. My counterpart Neema took me to her house, where she operates a little “duka,” and told me that’s where I could go if I wanted maandazi or whatever fruits were in season, which were bananas and avocados at the time. I was overwhelmed when I walked into the duka, because there were eight women crowded in the small room, all staring at the foreigner who landed in their village for two years. But Mama Kaliyakoo was so warm and welcoming, always smiling, and I instantly knew I had a safe haven in her house.

The next time I went to her house, I was in search of eggs to buy. She only had two left for her family, and no extras to sell, but she cooked those two eggs for me and sat with me sipping tea. That’s very characteristic of her: always giving. It was one of the first times I had gone to someone’s house just to chat, without my dictionaries or a work-related agenda, and I was nervous. But she simply sat with me and talked the entire time. She talked so fast and switched from Kiswahili to our tribal language, kibena, on and off frequently, so I was really intimidated. But she is a talker, which I soon learned about her, which is one of the reasons I love spending time with her. She can talk at me for hours, and never expect me to respond.

Now that my language is better, I understand that she’s usually giving me her life story or all of the village gossip, which is always amusing. But I never get nervous about not understanding something around her because she has the world’s friendliest faces.

Mama Kaliyakoo isn’t only smiles and chit-chat, she’s also an incredible business woman. She operates a little shop out of her house and is currently building another at a different location in our village. Her house is the perfect location for a shop because it’s right next to the primary school. Every time I’m sitting in there, school children come by for various items: homemade maandazi (like an old fashioned doughnut), pens, notebooks, bananas, candy, tomatoes to bring home to mom, soda…you name it she has it. She loves to help the kids out, always letting them have an extra piece of candy and telling them to say hi to their mom for her. Sometimes I find the school cook sitting in Mama Kaliyakoo’s house, cooking the evening meal for the boarding students over Mama Kaliyakoo’s fire, chatting with her 23 year old daughter.

In order to operate her shop, she has people importing things from various towns for her. Today, I went to her house to share some cookies I had baked, but she wasn’t there. I went to another part of the village where men usually hang out and the bus stops, and there she was, hovering by the road, cell phone in hand. She immediately greeted me and started telling me that she’s waiting for things from a town called “Chimala” but the bus is late and the man who’s moving the bags for her won’t answer her calls. She apologized, and said she would deal with it later, and we walked back to her house together. She raises her prices just enough to make a profit after paying for the items she imports from town and transport, but not too much that people won’t go to her shop. And every time I visit her, her house is full of people. It’s not only where people go to buy what they need, but where women can go to take a break from the household chores and just gossip together; Mama Kaliyakoo is always cooking something for all of her visitors. Today, in a span of three hours, she fed me three bowls of “Kande” which is a stew-like mix of corn and beans, half of a pumpkin, an ear of grilled corn, and half of an avocado. Everyone in the shop was eating. Her hang-out atmosphere of her shop is what makes it work so well, and actually helps her build a profit.

As I left today, she walked me partway to my house before having to turn back to help children who were just getting out of school. She told me she loves when I come and that the other mamas love it too. “Tunaongea, tunacheka, tumefurahi sana.” We talk, we laugh, we’re all happy. That just about sums up every visit with Mama Kaliyakoo.

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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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In A Month’s Time

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It’s hard to believe that it has been a month since I moved to Mambegu. So much has happened yet the month seems to have flown by. The first two weeks felt like they were dragging, like the homesickness and loneliness would never dissipate. I threw myself into village life hoping to make connections and friends that would keep these feelings at bay.

When I first moved into my village, it was difficult for me mentally to leave my house because I consistently felt like a zoo animal. People would come outside just to see the “Mzungu.” Children wouldn’t greet me with the respectful “Shikamoo” greeting because they were terrified of me. I wondered if I looked like a horrifying ghost. Young women looked at me with suspicion. The “Vijana” beckoned me and laughed at me. But I pushed myself to leave my house everyday because I knew eventually they will get used to me. Though this was difficult at first, I tried to be understanding. Their understanding of someone with white skin is extremely limited. Most villagers only have a TV to watch Tanzanian gospel music videos. There’s not a lot of information coming across about other countries, other races, etc. This is why Peace Corps’ goal to educate Host-Country Nationals on behalf of the United States is so important. Although difficult, it is my job to show that I am a human being as well, with feelings, with a need for connection and relationships, and with passions and opinions.

By my second week at site, I was walking down a path with two mamas, and I heard a man behind me yelling “Mzungu! Eeehhhh, MZUNGU!!!” Before I could react, the mamas turned around  and simultaneously yelled “Anaitwa Mikaela!” That was one of the last times I’ve heard someone call me Mzungu.

I started off the third week at site in my local preschool. About fifty of the littlest, cutest, roundest faces peered at me shyly, with wonder, bashfulness playing at the corners of their mouths, tiny giggles rolling across the room. I didn’t know exactly what to do with them, but the teacher had sat me at the front of the room and then left to play on her phone. I decided to stand up and teach them “Head, Shoulders, Knees & Toes.” The first go around was just my voice with them gaping at me open-mouthed. The second go-around I heard one or two brave but quiet voices join in for every other word. By the fifth or sixth time I sang, the kids were standing, screaming the song, pointing at each body part, laughing and smiling and playing. After this, I decided to return home for lunch. As I stepped out of the classroom and walked a few steps, I heard a noise behind me. I turned around, and saw all fifty children following me at a slow distance. Two little girls stepped forward and said “Mikaela…can we walk with you?” And all of a sudden I had the cutest little friends in the world.

During my fourth week I held several meetings to gather information about my village. The first meeting was with a woman who works with HIV patients at the local Ilembula hospital. She happily talked to me for over two hours and showed me many records and their filing system. I learned that Testing and ART treatments are free for the people in my village, and there’s even a car funded by the US government in cooperation with the Tanzanian government that doctors and health professionals use to come to my village and treat people in their own homes. This eliminates the transportation issue, and ensures everyone can get the treatment they need despite income. There is also a meeting once a month for those who are sick, and she invited me to come and be a part of them. After answering all of my questions happily, she gifted me an entire bag of potatoes from her farm and walked me home. I am so excited to begin educational projects focused on HIV Prevention.

I had another meeting with my Village Officer about potential projects. He told me that in my two years they really need a health clinic built so that people don’t have to drive to the closest clinic which is a twenty minute drive away, and most people do not have cars. This is a huge project, most likely one I will look into in my second year, as it would entail grants and making sure all infrastructure is in place. They also asked me for smaller projects such as a chicken group for the Mamas. As I mentioned this to other women in the village, they became so excited and thankful. Since we all really love chickens, I think this could be a great place to start.

On my way home I stopped at my friends house to visit her and her children and gift them bananas that I had harvested that day from my banana tree. She was so excited that I had came, and her daughter was singing the song she learned from me at Preschool. After the visit, she insisted on walking me home, talking about how much she wants a chicken group the entire way. We shared jokes, laughed, and enjoyed each other’s company as we strolled slowly through the cornfields.

At the end of the week I had to travel for a superregional conference for Peace Corps. On my way to catch my 6:30 AM bus to Ilembula, I stepped foot onto the mainroad. There were three children, but instead of looking scared like they had just one month prior, one of them perked up and said “Mikaela!!! Shikamoo” and the other two bowed on their knees and said “Shikamoo” to show respect. My heart felt so full. Pole Pole (slowly), I am becoming a part of this village. And I have so much love for the people here.

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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I’m a Volunteer!

The past few weeks have been a crazy whirlwind of emotions that I never could have anticipated. I’ve read so many Peace Corps blogs and have friends currently serving, but I never could have imagined the emotional exhaustion that accompanies the final weeks of training, swearing-in, and installation. During my final week at homestay in Dodoma, I felt so many emotions. I could feel myself getting short with my fellow trainees, angry and upset with small situations, and I knew I wasn’t getting nearly enough sleep. Little things that my family did were beginning to become unbearably annoying, but I endured knowing it was my final week. On the flip side, I spent great quality time with my friends, passed all of my Swahili language assessments, and the workload lessened every day so that I had more time to rest and enjoy my homestay life. It was a strange rollercoaster of emotions, where my mood could change in five minutes.

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On the final night of my homestay, my mama threw me a going-away party. People who I had never met came to say thank you for coming into the family. My family was all there, even the members who lived away, and it made me so happy to see some of them, especially my friend and sister Rachel and her daughter, Emmy. That happiness made me realize just how close I had grown to my family. When my sister Dina stood to say a speech to me, I got more emotional than I expected. I really grew to love this family during my limited time with them. My mama even had a “photographer” there, who took bad pictures of people eating mid-bite with his finger in the corner, but they’re pictures I will cherish forever. There was lots of praying and bible reading, both in Swahili and English, and many people gave passionate speeches about the importance of me going to church once at my site. I am really grateful my family did this for me, as it was a loving gesture for my send-off. The next morning, I woke with my family at 3:30 AM to depart for Dar es Salaam.

The bus ride took all day. We boarded around 5 AM and didn’t reach Dar until about 7 PM. My ankles were so swollen from sitting. I couldn’t wait to shower. My time in Dar is a blur, and I didn’t get more than 4 hours of sleep each night. We had so much fun, though. Since it was all of the trainees’ last week together, we did paper plate awards (I was voted most likely to survive a zombie apocalypse!), we sat around and read off “remember when” moments, and we just enjoyed each other’s presence one last time until early service training in August. I will really miss my friends.

Wednesday was an incredible day, the day I had been waiting for for so long: the swearing-in ceremony at the U.S. Embassy! We had to leave our center at 6:30 AM, even though the ceremony didn’t start until 11 AM, because Dar traffic is so bad and because it can take a while to pass through the U.S. customs security. I had a dress made specifically for the ceremony with fabric that matched everyone in my CBT group. We all looked so “safi” in our outfits, even our teacher was wearing a dress that matched ours! The ceremony included a tree planting, many speeches, a performance that we did where we sang songs and danced (and that made the local news and newspaper!), and the final oath to service. As we repeated the oath, I got chills. I can’t believe I’m finally a volunteer. I have been waiting for this for so long, and I have never been more ready to serve. I am excited to serve the people of Tanzania, friendly, gracious, welcoming people who are eager to learn and teach as well, and I can’t wait to find out what projects I will begin once installed in my community. I also feel scared. I don’t even have bed in my house. I feel so disorganized and unsure. But I know so many people have done this before me. I know they wouldn’t send me to live alone if they didn’t think I was capable. There’s just so much to do to make my house livable.

On Thursday, I boarded a bus at 3:45 AM and traveled to Njombe with more bags than I could carry by myself. We didn’t arrive to Njombe until 7 PM! It was the longest bus ride of my life and I am not looking forward to ever doing it again. However, we did have an amazing part of the ride where we drove through a national park and drove through fields and fields of grazing giraffes, zebras, baboons, monkeys, antelopes, and even elephants!!! I became so giddy. I never even thought to take out my camera because I was so excited about what I was seeing. When I screamed from seeing a huge herd of zebras, they all pricked their ears and turned towards the bus to look at me. They were just as close as horses in a pasture as you drive through Vermont. It was incredible. I couldn’t be more excited to serve in this beautiful and diverse country.

On my first day in Njombe, I traveled around to four district offices with my district supervisor. We met local officials and they welcomed us into the community as volunteers. This will help us become more integrated and also serve as a resource for us when we want to begin projects. Afterwards, exhaustion hit me, and I went back to the hotel, leaving the huge shopping I needed to do for the following day.

Today I shopped for seven hours. It was crazy, and I feel so exhausted but excited. I bought a small gas stove, hot pots, a frying pan, a pot, plates and bowls, a broom, spoons, a water thermos, I splurged on a handcrank juicer, and other necessities for the first few days. Hopefully this week I’ll be able to get small tables made and some small racks or shelves for storing food in my kitchen. I also bought buckets for my baths and for storing safe drinking water. It’s the rainy season now, so I will want to set up a water catchment system so that I don’t need to pay for water or lug it from a nearby well.

Now that I feel I have all of the necessities to live for a few days at my house, I’m feeling so excited. I can’t wait to set myself up and start exploring my village. I can’t wait to create a schedule for myself, get some quality sleep and recover from training, start exercising and eating well again, and especially meeting my community members and thinking about potential projects. I’m sure the next three months will be challenging, but I have been faced with many challenges over the past three months, and have overcome all of them. To date, the biggest challenge I’ve faced was stepping on the plane to come here, and leaving behind my friends and family whom I miss so much. I know if I could make it through that, I can make it through anything. Everyone from home keeps me going. Tomorrow I’ll travel to my site with my village executive officer. I couldn’t be more excited. More updates to come. As always, thanks for reading!

Mzungu Mikaela Goes to Mambegu!

site announcementYesterday was one of the most memorable and exciting days of my life. The anticipation has been building throughout my Pre-Service Training to find out where my site is. This past week seemed so long as every day I counted down until Wednesday, March 16, the day I would finally find out which village would be my home for two years. On Wednesday morning, I was in such a great mood. I couldn’t wait to find out! It was consuming my thoughts. I was hoping to be placed in the Tanga or Kilimanjaro regions, but I didn’t want to say that out loud because there was a small chance I would get placed there.

After a long buildup, all of the trainees were finally led outside, where we set up our chairs in front of a huge board covered by a kanga. Under that kanga was a map which had all of our faces on our regions. I could barely sit still as I waited for the announcements to begin, which was of course prolonged. Special gifts started to appear: sodas, samosas, snickers bars, and then I nearly fell out of my seat when they brought out apples (This is only the second apple I have come in contact with since I was in the US). As these goodies were brought out, I heard faint drumming growing louder. Looking down the dirt road, I saw that there was a group of mamas marching towards us playing traditional drums and singing. My excitement level became SKY HIGH. I hadn’t felt the heartbeat of East Africa so clearly since I was in Burundi. Surrounded by all of my PCT friends, some current volunteers, and all of our language teachers and Peace Corps staff, I was one hundred percent on cloud 9.

 

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My love for this apple is so real…

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Then it happened. Our friend Dennis got to choose which region to uncover first because it was his birthday! (Happy birthday, Dennis!) He uncovered Denyse, who was the only person placed in Dodoma, where we’re currently training. She then decided to uncover the Njombe region. She uncovered Dennis’s face, so he went back up. As I sat back to wait, Dennis called my name! That was it. A wave of many different emotions hit me. I felt disappointed for a split second, because I didn’t think I would get placed in Njombe, even though the majority of volunteers are placed there. As I stood up, I became so excited. I grabbed my manila envelope from Vicky, my APCD, who then began talking about my new home, Mambegu. Here you can see my emotions changing from happiness:

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Then I found out that my site is new, meaning this village has never had a volunteer before, and I will totally be breaking this site in, so I need to set the precedence and show them what Peace Corps is all about. So then I panicked:

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But then she told me I was neighbors with Dennis, who is such a great friend! And then I decided, this was going to be a great region. Then I went to uncover the next person, my amazing friend, Taylor.

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I will be living in this region with many volunteers, which makes me happy knowing that I’ll have a support system not too far away. One of my closest friends, Cori, is also in my region, and so when her name was called I felt even more excited than when my own was called.

The projects that I might be involved in are very broad, and I really could go in any direction. I live near a primary school, so involvement with education is highly likely. I love working with kids, and I see education, agriculture, and health as three interdependent sectors, and would be happy to work on projects which bridge all three. I hope especially to be involved in nutrition projects, as nutrition and food security are topics I’m extremely passionate about. And I was so excited to find out that it is possible I can start a ZINDUKA group, which utilizes soccer to teach students about HIV/AIDS!

Njombe has one of the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rates in all of Tanzania, so my work will inevitably be connected to this issue in some way. And of course, there is always room for agriculture, whether it’s as simple as planting my own garden, or working with farmers in my community. And you can’t have good nutrition without agriculture, so I’m happy to focus on the two together.

I also learned that I am near a lake, and a new beach just opened close to my site! I also am not far from Lake Nyasa, which borders Malawi. My region is extremely mountainous and cool. This is perfect for me, as I’m not doing so well with my morning runs in the dusty heat of Dodoma, and I absolutely love hiking, camping, and stunning mountainous views. From what I hear, Njombe is extremely beautiful, nestled right in the Southern Highlands of Tanzania. We also have a national park which protects a certain type of wildflower, as well as beautiful hidden waterfalls that are very worth the trek. I cannot wait to begin exploring, and I cannot wait to see my new house and meet my village. For sure, March 16, 2016 is a day I’ll remember for the rest of my life, and the heightened emotions I felt are unlike any other I’ve ever felt in my life.

Site announcement made my Peace Corps service seem so real. It’s all hitting me now. I’ve been dreaming about Peace Corps for so long, about what it could look like, what my village will look like, but never had a clear image because it is so variable. Now I finally have an idea of how my two years will look! On Saturday I will travel to my site and shadow a volunteer living nearby. I will see my house, meet my community, and plan what I will need to live there for the next two years. I will stay for a week and then return to Dodoma for the rest of my training. I am so excited, and will be blogging again from site to show where I’ll be living! Stay tuned!

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The Njombe Crew!