Packing and Processing

This morning I had a fight with my backpack. I’ve told myself I’m only allowed to take one backpack home, nothing else. I found myself wrestling with the damn thing, tugging zippers, forcing the fabric to stretch, just so I could squeeze my favorite basket, which someone bought me at the church auction during my first week in the village, into the bottom. It took half an hour and a lot of muscle and willpower, but I got the basket into the pack, and then I sat on my bed and cried. It was partly a stress dream I had just woken up from, one of several I’ve been having for the past week, it was partly out of frustration that my bedroom looks like it’s exploding and I have less than a week to clean it for the new volunteer, it’s partly that I feel this last week is rushing and time is not my own, and it’s mostly that I’m not prepared for the transition ahead of me.

During this past week I’ve been carrying so much anger inside of me. I confided in a good friend today that I feel so guilty about it, but every little thing truly sets me off. I feel annoyed at the people around me, I have anger towards things that they do and say, and I am angry at myself for feeling this way. She explained to me that these feelings are normal, because for two years we have lived in a culture so vastly different from our own, had to learn a new language, had to hide parts of ourselves (from our knees and shoulders to our emotions and identities), had to fake a smile in uncomfortable situations when what we’re truly wanting is to go home and be treated like a human being while eating some freakin’ ice cream for crying out loud! Now, we see the end in sight (in a mere 6 days!), and we’re beginning to want to return to ourselves, and that disconnect makes us feel strange and confused.

Over the past two years I have let this experience change me, and it hasn’t always changed me for the better. I have hurt people, spent too much time dwelling on my own faults, pushed people away, and at times lost sight of who I am. But I have to believe that I will see how it also changed me for the better once I return home and process the past two years of my life. I have to believe that there’s some good left within me, and that I still possess the ability to love life and the people around me with a fierce passion. That’s the Mikaela I once was, and I was able to drop my angry attitude enough to experience it again tonight.

Someone recently asked what part of Tanzanian culture I will take home with me and the question honestly left me speechless. I did not fall in love with Tanzanian culture, as much as I wanted to. I love the people, but there’s not much about the culture that would make me want to return. I’m not connected to the food, the customs, and especially not the gospel music that plays nonstop on my 6 AM bus at full volume. I decided the answer would best be answered when I have been home for a while, had space to process, and can give the beautiful answer this country, my village, and the Peace Corps experience deserve. But then I got a phone call.

My counterpart and friend, Neema, invited me to dinner tonight. I have a crazy to-do list this week so I wasn’t very excited, but I know this is my last chance to have these beautiful experiences, so I got dressed up and wrapped myself in a kanga and headed out my door. I assumed this was a normal dinner of rice and beans with Neema’s family. When I arrived, waiting for me were three families who I have been close with over the past two years, and others in the room who were just acquaintances. They welcomed me into the room and told me to sit. They explained to me that they had spent all day cooking a meal for me, and that this was a little party (the big village party will be Monday) to say thank you for all that I’ve done for them and the village.

As each person stood up and gave a speech to me about how thankful they are I lived with them and the way in which I’ve touched their lives, I was incredibly humbled. I don’t know if I can ever be so humbled again. My jaw dropped as every single person in the room spoke, even the people who were just acquaintances. I was overwhelmed with love. After the speeches, photos of my time in Mambegu were passed around the room, and memories swapped. Then the meal was served; huge pots of rice, tomato sauces, French fries, pork, and bananas were served. As the guest, they insisted I was served first, and that no one could eat until I took my first bite. We ate, we laughed, I even drank a soda, and all my anger and stress and worries were completely gone. It is laughable even that I have been feeling so stressed. I am overwhelmed with the transition ahead of me, and I am scared and have questions and doubts about what American life will bring, but everything will be okay. And it’s best to just relax and enjoy the love which surrounds me.

So to answer the question, what part of Tanzanian culture will I bring back with me, I say this: I want to bring back the love. In Mambegu, every person matters. Every life is celebrated. People with disabilities are given homes. People from all socioeconomic backgrounds are included to participate in various community groups. Even when someone shows up to a village meeting midday completely drunk, they are quietly escorted out with love and understanding. It is a culture of respect. Tonight, I was made to feel completely special. There was a dinner to celebrate my two short years here. These people are not my family, I was born on the other side of the world and have a completely different background, and truthfully they have done more for me than I have done for them, yet they made me feel as if I will always belong sitting in their house with them, eating rice, and laughing together. I live in a village where as I walk down the road, people stop me to ask when I’m leaving, and tell me to my face that they love me. I live in a village where, when I gave my neighbor pictures from the past two years, she cried (rare in this culture) and told me I’ve been like a daughter to her. I live in a village of love.

This is what I will take home. I want to love people this way. I want to celebrate my friends’ and family members’ transitions in life, their successes, and tell them often that they are loved. I want be so full of love from this experience that I can never forget how to truly love, appreciate, and celebrate those in our life on a daily basis. So often I think Americans are missing this. We get wrapped up in our own lives and our own worries that we forget to build up those around us. I think this is the greatest lesson the people of Mambegu have taught me.

After dinner, 8 people walked me home, a 30 minute walk, under the stars and the crescent moon. They asked me some questions about the U.S., we talked about the next volunteer and what he might be like, and they asked me to just build a house here and live with them. How blessed am I, to know that no matter what happens in my life, I’ll always have a home to return to?

I doubt I’ll be having stress dreams tonight, and I won’t be letting myself walk around in anger tomorrow. Instead, I choose to spend the next few days loving those around me, because they have given me nothing less. Ninawashukuru sana wamambegu

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The Trouble With Aid

Throughout my service I have gotten very comfortable with failure. I came into the country with grand ideas about what I would accomplish in my village, and almost nothing worked out the way I expected. There were constant challenges and obstacles to overcome, and the projects that I did accomplish took months and months of pushing due to funerals, the corn growing seasons, the harvest seasons, and people just not showing up. This sounds more pessimistic than it was. We still accomplished so much, and we all did the best we could, but it took a lot of flexibility and empathy on my end to get over my American work ethic, relax, and build connections.

I don’t consider that my service was a failure in any way. When I reflect on the “failures” I also remember the successes that we as a community were able to find after each “failure.” We were able to accomplish so much and I am forever grateful. Despite it all, there is one regret I have in my Peace Corps service, and it was possibly one of my greatest professional mistakes in my life.

I applied for and received a grant to build a bathroom for girls in my village. First and foremost, I want to say the bathroom is built, it is beautiful, and people are really grateful for it. I want to thank the people who donated to the project from the bottom of my heart. Despite it being a finished project, I wish I never went through with it.

I believe Peace Corps has one of the greatest development models of any international development organization. Peace Corps focuses on providing education and sustainability. It’s like the old proverb, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for his life.” Peace Corps allows us the opportunity to apply for grants to supplement our projects, but not necessarily building projects. Why? There’s virtually no education in (most) building projects. I am a white American, I came into a village, I paid for a construction project that may or may not fall apart in a few years. If and when it does fall apart, the people might not have enough money to fix it. They told me they would, and maybe that is true, but there is no way for me to know for sure.

The African continent is littered with failed construction projects. My village has broken UNICEF wells and water spigots around every turn. At one time these were great resources providing water, but now they are forgotten concrete masses that aren’t serving anyone. Can we really call that water security? Maybe it would have been better to teach about how to conserve water, why it’s important, and teach to catch rainwater. That’s what Peace Corps does.

So I built something in my village, and everyone is happy. So happy, that they have forgotten all of my educational projects. People have mentioned to me that they are thankful for the bathroom, and when I ask about all of the hours of education, the school projects, etc, they can’t seem to remember that I ever did those things. The construction overshadowed it. That is not their fault. If a foreigner came to my town in the US and built a beautiful cafe but also taught me how to sew your own menstrual pads, I’d probably be more excited about the cafe. I now feel guilty because the volunteers who follow me might have to deal with the village pushing them to do construction projects as well, because that is the expectation of foreigners. We “have money” so we build things and leave. I have not only failed my village in some ways, but I have failed the volunteers who will follow me.

Of course the project will be great for the coming years, and possibly thereafter. The girls are happy, finally have doors on the bathroom stalls and privacy, and have told me they feel more comfortable managing their periods. This is incredible, and certainly something to be proud of. I write this only to point out that at some point we need to stop building things in an unsustainable manner. We need to focus more on education. And we constantly need to reevaluate if aid is actually necessary. Is it doing more harm than good? This is what Peace Corps already teaches us to evaluate. I am so grateful and proud that I was a part of Peace Corps, learned this lesson, developed these views on development work, and gained insights into past development projects and why they have failed. If ever you feel that you want to donate to a development organization, I strongly recommend supporting Peace Corps and other organizations that value education over construction. There’s so many orphanages, wells, and churches being built. Frankly, the government should provide this infrastructure. If you want to provide something to the developing world, teach them skills they may not have the opportunity to develop otherwise. That is the value of development.

These views are my own, do not reflect Peace Corps, or the views of the US government or Tanzania.

What Have I Even Been Doing?!

octoberI have been on a ridiculously long blog hiatus and I apologize! In August I took a trip back home to Vermont to visit friends and family and came back refreshed for the last stretch of my service. Here I sit with five months left and I have no idea where the time has gone! I feel that I just began Peace Corps, yet my class is the next to leave in March and April 2018. I look back at pictures from my training in early 2016 and it feels like yesterday. I think I must be the same exact person who walked into Tanzania, but then I realize two years has passed: I came in at 23 and will be leaving just before my 26th birthday with a life-changing experience packed into those two short years. It would be impossible to stay the same, yet I also have trouble pinpointing exactly how I have changed. All I know is so far, I feel that I have gained a deeper understanding of myself and international development, and that chances are I won’t know how this experience has changed me until months or even years after I have returned home.

But enough introspection! Why has it been months since I’ve written and what have I even been up to? Here’s a brief glance at that:

  • It’s wedding season, so I’ve been dancing it up at some sharehes (celebrations)! I feel even closer to my village when I celebrate with them. Dancing always brings people together, and I’m grateful to experience this piece of the Wabena culture. Weddings this year feel a lot different for me than last year for a couple of reasons: I now understand everything that is said and happening, whereas last year I was really limited in my Swahili skills, and people in my village know me on a deeper level now, so I feel included in the celebration, not just that “mzungu” who no one really knows.october3
  • There’s been a lot of funerals in my village lately. Mostly these have been for elders. When there’s a funeral, it is announced by someone who walks up the main road in the village and beats a drum at 6:30 AM. Everyone in the village is expected to attend, so no matter what I have planned that day, I wrap myself up in two pieces of kitenge and stay anywhere from 4-6 hours at the funeral. All projects and plans must always be cancelled if there is a funeral. About a week ago, my neighbor Kaliyakoo who I wrote an earlier blog post about, lost her grandchild due to some sort of issue with his head (based off of what she described in Swahili, possibly hydrocephalus or some issue with the skull, and based off of my observations in the village, possibly caused by malnutrition or dehydration). He was just over one year old. I was unable to attend the funeral due to traveling, but the news hit me hard, as she has really accepted me into her family. Please keep her in your thoughts as she and her family are grieving.
  • We’re in the process of building a girls’ bathroom at the primary school. The building is taking a lot longer than expected, but it looks like we just need the roof now. This has been a painstaking grant project that I will discuss in a later post, but for now the thought of it just makes my blood pressure rise, so onto happier things.
  • I’ve been teaching at the “chekechea” or preschool once per week! The kids are 3-5 years old and incredibly cute. I run an “art” class which is really just time spent coloring with them, but it is one of the only times they get to make decisions in their lives (children here are often told what is right and wrong in a school setting, so they’re still getting used to the idea of choosing colors for their pictures). The teachers have taken to leaving me alone with the 31 students which is exhausting and often frustrating, so I also stay busy teaching them songs and games as well as working on math and learning letters. My Wednesday routine is to teach from 8 AM-12 PM, eat lunch with the teacher and then return home where I pass out into dreamless sleep for about three hours. These kids are equal parts fun and exhausting!
  • Graduations! This is the end of the school year, and the students will be on break until January. I gave a speech at the primary school graduation and was the “megeni rasmi” or guest of honor at the chekechea graduation. Much like weddings, it has been so fun to celebrate the success of students alongside the village. Plus, I get to eat rice and meat with my hands, all for free!october2
  • Interior decorating: My Dad comes to visit soon! I’ve used this as motivation to paint my house as well as finally buy some furniture. I’m in love with my new couch, and having a place to sit and relax could possibly affect the productivity of the rest of my service (just kidding! Maybe…)
  • Project Planning: Many projects have gotten cancelled or had unforeseen circumstances affect them. I’ve spent time planning upcoming projects such as a baking group (income generating project) which begins in November and a world map mural painted at the school in November and a subsequent world geography club which will begin in January. I’ve also had to focus on rescheduling and redesigning projects such as a menstrual pad sewing project with a mama’s group, the HIV group’s garden, and continuing work with the dairy project we began in June. I am worried I will regret not doing enough in my service, and so really want to make these last five months count.

I will be much better about updating the blog regularly, so stay tuned! We are at the end of the dry season now, and once the rains come, I anticipate having much more time to sit on my new couch and write blog posts for you all. Until next time!october4

The Importance of Art: Maua Mazuri

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Last week, I finished my very first project in the village, of the projects that can be finished (agriculture and health projects tend to be an ongoing thing, hence the sustainability portion of Peace Corps). Maua Mazuri, which I’ve blogged about before, came to a close. 11 of the 15 girls who originally began the program, ages 12-13, graduated.

In our village, there is little to no art, and this entire program was a roller coaster for me. The program is designed to teach life skills through various art forms such as music, dance, watercolor, drawing, acting, and poetry. It touches on topics including HIV/AIDS education, self-awareness, creativity, confidence, gender roles, and individuality. For many of the classes, I left after the two hour sessions feeling happy that the girls had a great time, yet frustrated because I was trying to teach a program that relied on Western-teaching styles and required critical thinking and creativity, which are just not taught or used here in the village, and as I found out, cannot be taught in a 12 week time period. Eventually, I accepted that the life skills that I was trying to teach would probably not be absorbed by the girls, but that introducing them to art would be a success in itself. Their smiles always made the classes worth it, anyways. So I continued on.

In April I visited Zanzibar, probably the most well-known part of Tanzania aside from Kilimanjaro. There were tourists all throughout Stonetown, and because of this, there were many artists selling their art. I couldn’t believe that there was so much art to be found on this island, yet the farther inland you go on mainland Tanzania, art becomes a rare find. I decided to duck into a random art shop and chat with the artist about his background. I met Ramadhan Awesu Saleh, who told me he began learning art in primary school and fell in love. He eventually went on to study at an art college in Dar es Salaam. His walls were lined with oil, acrylic, and watercolor paintings of various sizes, all depicting life on Zanzibar, and of course Tanzania’s wildlife which many tourists come to see on safari. As we were chatting, he was working carefully on a watercolor showing the small Arab Medina style streets of Zanzibar. I told him that I was teaching art in a village in Njombe to young girls, and he continually emphasized how important this work is. He told me that young Tanzanians have little opportunity for self-expression in the way that art allows. His words jazzed me up to finish the Maua Mazuri program. As I was leaving, he called me back and handed me one of his matted watercolors, a gift for our village. On the back, he wrote his name and a note to the girls. “Art is a privilege but also a way to a good life. Keep creating.”

I left not only refreshed to continue the last few weeks of Maua, but also reflecting on the privilege of art. All forms of art are a privilege, but they are also so powerful. As a child, I was very lucky to go to a public elementary school that valued art and gave every student art classes once per week as well as music classes. Not every child in the US is afforded this privilege, let alone the world. Beginning in the fourth grade, my parents invested in a flute for me, and later a slide trombone, allowing me to grow up with music and learning to read both clefs, and I was able to continue playing into college. My parents also encouraged my drawing, buying me books on how to draw horses. My artwork could be found hanging on the fridge, portraits of our horses hanging in frames in the barn, and they would drive me to and from poetry slams in high school. I am incredibly lucky to have had my creativity supported in this way. And now that I’ve discovered how important of an outlet art can be, especially through the difficult preteen and teenage years, I am happy to share any knowledge and art supplies I can with any child, no matter their background. I truly believe every child who wants to explore the arts should have that opportunity.

After this reflection, I realized that Maua Mazuri, even if life skills were not being picked up as they were intended, could only be a positive experience for me and for the girls I was working with. So we continued with classes and eventually reached graduation day. Before the girls received their certificates, we did a post-test which assessed all the life skills taught throughout the course. The girls had taken the exact same test twelve weeks before, scoring fairly low in areas such as HIV knowledge and comfort in interacting with people who have HIV, ideas of challenging gender roles, confidence in speaking in front of others, and ease in expressing emotions. After the post-test, I gave out the certificates, we had a little celebration, we danced, and the girls raced back to their dorms to chat before dinner. I returned to my house, sat down with their post-tests, and started reading their responses and comparing them to the pre-test.

Almost every girl scored significantly higher than her pre-test, and reported higher self-esteem, self-confidence, feeling that it’s ok to express individuality, and an increase in feeling it’s ok to show emotion. They now have learned that men can also care for and raise babies, that women can affect change in Tanzania, and that art can help them in expressing their emotions and dealing with life struggles. I couldn’t believe the results I was reading. Through art, they actually learned all of the intended life skills. With that, I am so proud to say my first project was a success, not because of me, but because of the girls’ eagerness to try new things and participate in a new style of education. I am so grateful to have observed the change that art can make, and to have worked with the girls that I did. They are young, bright agents for change in rural Tanzania, and now, they are artists.

 

 

A Day in the Life

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

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

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

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

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8 AM: Morning workout

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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